A chilly wind was blowing, and the dust swirled about his feet. The road gleamed white and deserted before him. He swung along it, erect and British, caring nothing for dust or cold. From far away, in the direction of the jungle, there came the desolate cry of a jackal; but near at hand there was no sound but the rush of the wind past his ears and the swish of the dust along the way.
He came at length within sight of the dak-bungalow and saw beyond it the lights of the native city. Nick’s bungalow, tucked away amongst its trees, was not visible.
“They’re horribly near that treacherous hound,” he murmured to himself, as he strode along. “I wonder if Nick realizes the risk. They might be murdered in their beds any night, and none of us down at the cantonments any the wiser. The Rajah and old Kobad Shikan would be horrified of course. It’s so easy to be horrified—afterwards.”
Unconsciously he quickened his steps. Somehow the danger had always seemed remote until that night. Had the day’s adventure unsettled his nerves, or had he hitherto always underrated it? How ghastly it would be if—His thoughts broke off short. A figure had detached itself from the vagueness in front of him, and a whiff of rank tobacco smoke came suddenly to his nostrils.
Noel straightened himself and quickened his stride. He had the soldier’s instinct for making the most of his height. The square, lounging figure that sauntered towards him looked almost short by comparison.
They met about fifty yards from the dak-bungalow. “Hullo!” said Max.
His tone was coolly fraternal, but his hand came out at the same time and Noel remembered the grip of it for some minutes after.
“What on earth have you come out here for?” he said.
Max smoked a pipe in one corner of his mouth and smiled with the other. “Like the girls,” he said, “I’ve come out to get married.”
“You’re not going to marry Olga!” said Noel quickly and fiercely.
“That’s just what I want to talk to you about,” said Max. “Shall we walk?” He took his brother by the arm and led him forward. “I thought a talk in the open would be preferable. My hutch in this beastly little inn is not precisely inviting. I go to Nick’s bungalow to-morrow.”
“The devil you do!” said Noel.
The hand on his arm was not removed. It closed very slowly and surely. “Look here, old chap,” Max said, “say what you like to me and welcome, if it does you any good. But there is no actual necessity for you to express your feelings. For I know what they are; and—I’m infernally sorry.”
The words were quietly uttered, but they sent a shock of amazement through Noel. He stood still and stared. He had never heard anything of the kind from Max before.