He was holding her closely now. His voice came softly, on a winning note of tenderness, into her ear. “And would you have cared—would you have cared—darling—if I had been?”
But she leaned against him quivering and speechless, unresisting, unresponding.
He held her for a space in silence, patting her shoulder reassuringly. But it was not in him to be silent for long. After a few seconds he was speaking again with cheery confidence.
“Let’s get out of this ghastly place! The rest of the party must be coming along now. It was a nasty experience, wasn’t it? But you’re getting better, eh? That chap with the gun came up just in time to save my bacon. You saw him, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” she whispered feebly.
His arms relaxed a little. He looked down into her face. “Better now?”
With an effort she answered him. “Yes,—getting better.”
“Can you walk?” he said. “Or shall I carry you?”
That roused her somewhat. “Oh, let me walk!” she said; and, after a moment: “Forgive me for being foolish! It—it was the shock. I shall be all right now. Just let me hold your arm.”
He gave it, still looking at her in a fashion which she was at no loss to understand. Instinctively she sought to divert his attention. “Tell me what happened! Who—who was the man with the gun?”
His expression changed a little. A momentary shadow crossed his face. He answered her with a touch of restraint. “Oh, he’s a fellow I’ve met before. You’ll see him again, I daresay. He has been chasing around after this infernal tiger since early morning. Had a shot at the brute once and wounded him. Been hunting for him ever since.”
“All alone?” asked Olga in amazement.
Noel nodded. “Cracked thing to do, but as he’s bagged his game I suppose he’ll do it again.”
“And what is he doing now?” asked Olga, as they descended the narrow path.
“Oh, he was going to clear out. He was awfully disgusted that the skin wasn’t worth having. And there wasn’t much of the head left.” Noel made a face. “I shouldn’t advise any of our picnic party to go near that beastly temple. It’s a deal too sacrificial just now. Hullo! Here come some of ’em at last! You’ll be glad to get back under Nick’s wing.”
He smiled at her quizzically, and Olga smiled back reassured. But reaching the lower ground, she detained him for an instant.
“Noel,” she said rather haltingly, “there are some things beyond words, and—and I think this is one of them. But I shall never forget what you did. It—it was—magnificent.”
“Great Scotland!” said Noel. He spoke banteringly, but she could not meet his eyes. “And you think I could have done anything else?”
She smiled rather wistfully. “Not you—perhaps,” she said. “But it was fine of you all the same.”
“And you’re—not sorry—I wasn’t eaten?” he suggested.