“Good-night!” he said, and walked away.
He went with his customary, sauntering gait, but there was absolute decision in his movements. It was quite obvious that he had no intention of returning.
And Noel made no attempt to call him back. He stood with his black brows drawn, and dumbly watched him go.
At the end of thirty seconds, he wheeled slowly round, and turned his sullen face towards Nick’s bungalow. As he did so, there was a slight movement near the gate as of someone stealthily retreating.
Instantly suspicion leaped, keen-edged with anxiety, into his brain. In a flash his former fears rushed back upon him. They were so horribly near the native city, so horribly undefended. He remembered the bomb on the parade-ground, and felt momentarily physically sick.
In another instant he was speeding to the open gate. He turned sharply in between the cypresses, and was met by a white-clad, cringing figure that bowed to the earth at his approach.
Noel stopped dead in sheer astonishment. So sudden had been the apparition that he scarcely restrained himself from running into it. Then, being in no pacific mood, his astonishment passed into a blaze of anger.
“What the devil are you sneaking about here for?” he demanded. “What are you doing?”
The muffled figure before him made another deep salaam. “Heaven-born, I am but a humble seller of moonstones. Will his gracious excellency be pleased to behold his servant’s wares?”
It was ingratiatingly spoken—the soft answer that should have turned away wrath; but Noel’s tolerance was a minus quantity that night. Moreover, he had had a severe fright, and his Irish blood was up.
“You may have moonstones,” he said, “but you didn’t come here to sell them. The city’s full of you infernal budmashes. It’s a pity you can’t be exterminated like the vermin you are. Be off with you, and if I ever catch you skulking round here again, I’ll give you a leathering that you’ll never forget for the rest of your rascally life!”
The moonstone-seller bowed again profoundly. “Yet even a rat has its bite,” he murmured in a deferential undertone into his beard.
He turned aside, still darkly muttering, and shuffled past Noel towards the road.
Noel swung round on his heel as he did so, and administered a flying kick by way of assisting his departure. Possibly it was somewhat more forcible than he intended; at least it was totally unexpected. The moonstone-seller stumbled forward with a grunt, barely saving himself from falling headlong.
A momentary compunction pricked Noel, for the man was obviously old, and, by the peculiar fashion in which he recovered his balance, he seemed to be crippled also. But the next moment he was laughing, though his mood was far from hilarious. For, with an agility as comical as it was surprising, the moonstone-seller gathered up his impeding garment and fled.