Each day seemed more intolerable than the last, each night a perceptible narrowing of the fiery circle in which they lived. They seemed to be drawing towards a culminating horror that grew hourly more palpable, more monstrously menacing—a horror that drained their strength even from afar.
“It’s going to kill us this time,” declared little Robey, the youngest subaltern, to whom the nights were a torment unspeakable. He had been within an ace of heat apoplexy more than once, and his nerves were stretched almost to breaking-point.
But Merryon went doggedly on, hewing his unswerving way through all. The monsoon was drawing near, and the whole tortured earth seemed to be waiting in dumb expectation.
Night after night a glassy moon came up, shining, immense and awful, through a thick haze of heat. Night after night Merryon lay on his veranda, smoking his pipe in stark endurance while the dreadful hours crept by. Sometimes he held a letter from his wife hard clenched in one powerful hand. She wrote to him frequently—short, airy epistles, wholly inconsequent, often provocatively meagre.
“There is a Captain Silvester here,” she wrote once; “such a bounder. But he is literally the only man who can dance in the station. So what would you? Poor Mrs. Paget is so shocked!”
Feathery hints of this description were by no means unusual, but though Merryon sometimes frowned over them, they did not make him uneasy. His will-o’-the-wisp might beckon, but she would never allow herself to be caught. She never spoke of love in her letters, always ending demurely, “Yours sincerely, Puck.” But now and then there was a small cross scratched impulsively underneath the name, and the letters that bore this token accompanied Merryon through his inferno whithersoever he went.
There came at last a night of terrible heat, when it seemed as if the world itself must burst into flames. A heavy storm rolled up, roared overhead for a space like a caged monster, and sullenly rolled away, without a single drop of rain to ease the awful tension of waiting that possessed all things.
Merryon left the mess early, tramping back over the dusty road, convinced that the downpour for which they all yearned was at hand. There was no moonlight that night, only a hot blackness, illumined now and then by a brilliant dart of lightning that shocked the senses and left behind a void indescribable, a darkness that could be felt. There was something savage in the atmosphere, something primitive and passionate that seemed to force itself upon him even against his will. His pulses were strung to a tropical intensity that made him aware of the man’s blood in him, racing at fever heat through veins that felt swollen to bursting.
He entered his bungalow and flung off his clothes, took a plunge in a bath of tepid water, from which he emerged with a pricking sensation all over him that made the lightest touch a torture, and finally, keyed up to a pitch of sensitiveness that excited his own contempt, he pulled on some pyjamas and went out to his charpoy on the veranda.