Suddenly a heavy bullet struck the tree a foot above his head, evidently fired from behind him. He instantly rolled over on his back and lay motionless with his eyes half-closed, looking in the direction from which the shot must have come. The bushes not ten yards away were parted quietly; and a head was thrust out. With a swift motion Dermot swung his rifle round until the muzzle pointed over his toes and, holding the weapon in one hand like a pistol, fired point-blank at the assailant who had crept up quietly behind him. Shot through the head the man pitched forward on his face, almost touching the soldier’s feet. Dermot saw that the corpse was that of a low-caste Hindu, clad only in a dirty cotton koorta and dhoti. A Tower musket lay beside him.
The wild firing died down again. The sun was setting; and the soldier judged that the attackers were probably waiting for darkness to rush him. Why they did not do so at once, since they were so numerous, surprised him; but he surmised that it was lack of courage. It was maddening to be obliged to await their pleasure. He was far more concerned about the girl than for himself. A feeling of dread pity filled his heart when he thought of what her fate would be when he was no longer alive to protect her. Should he kill her, he asked himself, and give her a swift and merciful death instead of the horrors of outrage and torture that would probably be her lot if she fell alive into the hands of these murderous scoundrels? In those moments of tension and terrible strain he realised that she was very dear to him, that she evoked in his heart a feeling that no other woman had ever aroused in him.
The sun was going down; and with it Dermot felt that his life was passing. He grudged losing it in an obscure and causeless scuffle, instead of on an honourable field of battle as a soldier should. He wished that he had a handful of his splendid sepoys with him. They would have made short work of a hundred of such ruffians as now threatened him. But it was useless to long for them. He drew his kukri and laid it on the ground beside him, ready for the last grim struggle. He had resolved to crawl to the girl when darkness settled on the forest, and, before the rush came, give her the chance of a swift and honourable death, shoot her if she chose it—as he was confident that she would—then close with his foes until death came.
The light grew fainter. Dermot nerved himself for the terrible task before him and was about to move, when with a light and unfaltering step Noreen came to him.
A STRANGE HOME-COMING
Dermot dragged the girl down to the ground beside him as a shot rang out.
“I suppose they will kill us, Major Dermot,” she said calmly. “But couldn’t you manage to get away in the darkness? You know the jungle so well. Please don’t hesitate to leave me, for I should only hamper you. Won’t you go?”