It was Lady Despard’s boast that she could listen to three conversations at once; but even Tara was surprised when she casually put out a hand and patted her knee. “Wise child. Better keep quiet till we start home.”
The hand was not removed. Tara covered it with her own, and further maddened the discomfited Dyan by saying, with her very kindest smile: “I’m so sorry. Don’t be vexed.”
Vexed! The bloodless word was insult piled on injury. All the pride and passion of his race flamed in him. Without answering her smile or her plea, he drew abruptly away from her; stepped out of the punt and went for his stroll alone.
“Who knows what days I answer
Thoughts yet unripe in me, I bend one way....”
While Broome and Lady Despard were concerned over indications of a critical corner for Roy, there was none—save perhaps Aruna—to be concerned for the dilemma of Dyan Singh, Rajput—half savage, half chivalrous gentleman; idealist in the grain; lover of England and India; and now—fiercely, consumedly—lover of Tara Despard, with her Indian name and her pearl-white English skin and the benign sunshine of England in her hair.
It is the danger-point for the young Indian overseas, unused to free intercourse with women other than his own; saddled, very often, with a girl-wife in the background—the last by no means a matter of course in these enlightened days. In Dyan Singh’s case the safeguard was lacking. His mother being dead, he had held his own against a rigidly conventional grandmother, and insisted on delaying the inevitable till his education was complete. Waxing bolder still, he had demanded the same respite for Aruna; a far more serious affair. For months they had waged a battle of tongues and temper and tears, with Mataji—high-priestess of the Inside—with the family matchmaker and the family guru, whom to offend was the unforgiveable sin. Had he not power to call down upon an entire household the curse of the gods?
More than once Aruna had been goaded to the brink of surrender; till her brother grew impatient and spurned her as a weakling. Yet her ordeal had been sharper than his own. For him, mere moral suasion and threats of ostracism. For her, the immemorial methods of the Inside; forbidden by Sir Lakshman, but secretly applied, when flagrant obstinacy demanded drastic measures. So neither Dyan nor his grandfather had suspected that Aruna, for days together, had suffered the torment of Tantalus—food set before her so mercilessly peppered that a morsel would raise blisters on her lips and tongue; water steeped in salt; the touch of the ‘fire-stick’ applied where her skin was tenderest; not to mention the more subtle torment of jibes and threats and vile insinuations that suffused her with shame and rage. A word to the menfolk, threatened Mataji, and worse would befall. If men cared nothing for family honour, the women must vindicate it in their own fashion. For the two were doing their duty, up to their lights. Only the knowledge that Dyan was fighting her battle, as well as his own, had kept the girl unbroken in spirit, even when her body cried out for respite at any price....