“LET US go out,” said Linforth.
It was after dinner on the same evening, and he was standing with Violet Oliver at the window of the drawing-room. Behind them an officer and his wife from the cantonment were playing “Bridge” with Ralston and his sister. Violet Oliver hesitated. The window opened upon the garden. Already Linforth’s hand was on the knob.
“Very well,” she said. But there was a note of reluctance in her voice.
“You will need a cloak,” he said.
“No,” said Violet Oliver. She had a scarf of lace in her hand, and she twisted it about her throat. Linforth opened the long window and they stepped out into the garden. It was a clear night of bright stars. The chill of sunset had passed, the air was warm. It was dark in spite of the stars. The path glimmered faintly in front of them.
“I was hoping very much that I should meet you somewhere in India,” said Dick. “Lately I had grown afraid that you would be going home before the chance came.”
“You left it to chance,” said Violet.
The reluctance had gone from her voice; but in its place there was audible a note of resentment. She had spoken abruptly and a little sharply, as though a grievance present in her mind had caught her unawares and forced her to give it utterance.
“No,” replied Linforth, turning to her earnestly. “That’s not fair. I did not know where you were. I asked all who might be likely to know. No one could tell me. I could not get away from my station. So that I had to leave it to chance.”
They walked down the drive, and then turned off past the croquet lawn towards a garden of roses and jasmine and chrysanthemums.
“And chance, after all, has been my friend,” he said with a smile.
Violet Oliver stopped suddenly. Linforth turned to her. They were walking along a narrow path between high bushes of rhododendrons. It was very dark, so that Linforth could only see dimly her face and eyes framed in the white scarf which she had draped over her hair. But even so he could see that she was very grave.
“I was wondering whether I should tell you,” she said quietly. “It was not chance which brought me here—which brought us together again.”
Dick came to her side.
“No?” he asked, looking down into her face. He spoke very gently, and with a graver voice than he had used before.
“No,” she answered. Her eyes were raised to his frankly and simply. “I heard that you were to be here. I came on that account. I wanted to see you again.”
As she finished she walked forward again, and again Linforth walked at her side. Dick, though his settled aim had given to him a manner and an aspect beyond his age, was for the same reason younger than his years in other ways. Very early in his youth he had come by a great and definite ambition, he had been inspired by it, he had welcomed and clung to it with the simplicity and whole-heartedness which are of the essence of youth. It was always new to him, however long he pondered over it; his joy in it was always fresh. He had never doubted either the true gold of the thing he desired, or his capacity ultimately to attain it. But he had ordered his life towards its attainment with the method of a far older man, examining each opportunity which came his way with always the one question in his mind—“Does it help?”—and leaving or using that opportunity according to the answer. Youth, however, was the truth of him. The inspiration, the freshness, the simplicity of outlook—these were the dominating elements in his character, and they were altogether compact of youth. He looked upon the world with expectant eyes and an unfaltering faith. Nor did he go about to detect intrigues in men or deceits in women. Violet’s words therefore moved him not merely to tenderness, but to self-reproach.
“It is very kind of you to say that,” he said, and he turned to her suddenly. “Because you mean it.”
“It is true,” said Violet simply; and the next moment she was aware that someone very young was standing before her in that Indian garden beneath the starlit sky and faltering out statements as to his unworthiness. The statements were familiar to her ears, but there was this which was unfamiliar: they stirred her to passion.
She stepped back, throwing out a hand as if to keep him from her.
“Don’t,” she whispered. “Don’t!”
She spoke like one who is hurt. Amongst the feelings which had waked in her, dim and for the most part hardly understood, two at all events were clear. One a vague longing for something different from the banal path she daily trod, the other a poignant regret that she was as she was.
But Linforth caught the hand which she held out to thrust him off, and, clasping it, drew her towards him.
“I love you,” he said; and she answered him in desperation:
“But you don’t know me.”
“I know that I want you. I know that I am not fit for you.” And Violet Oliver laughed harshly.
But Dick Linforth paid no attention to that laugh. His hesitation had gone. He found that for this occasion only he had the gift of tongues. There was nothing new and original in what he said. But, on the other hand, he said it over and over again, and the look upon his face and the tone of his voice were the things which mattered. At the opera it is the singer you listen to, and not the words of the song. So in this rose garden Violet Oliver listened to Dick Linforth rather than to what he said. There was audible in his voice from sentence to sentence, ringing through them, inspiring them, the reverence a young man’s heart holds for the woman whom he loves.
“You ought to marry, not me, but someone better,” she cried. “There is someone I know—in—England—who——”
But Linforth would not listen. He laughed to scorn the notion that there could be anyone better than Violet Oliver; and with each word he spoke he seemed to grow younger. It was as though a miracle had happened. He remained in her eyes what he really was, a man head and shoulders above her friends, and in fibre altogether different. Yet to her, and for her, he was young, and younger than the youngest. In spite of herself, the longing at her heart cried with a louder voice. She sought to stifle it.
“There is the Road,” she cried. “That is first with you. That is what you really care for.”
“No,” he replied quietly. She had hoped to take him at a disadvantage. But he replied at once:
“No. I have thought that out. I do not separate you from the Road. I put neither first. It is true that there was a time when the Road was everything to me. But that was before I met you—do you remember?—in the inn at La Grave.”
Violet Oliver looked curiously at Linforth—curiously, and rather quickly. But it seemed that he at all events did not remember that he had not come alone down to La Grave.
“It isn’t that I have come to care less for the Road,” he went on. “Not by one jot. Rather, indeed, I care more. But I can’t dissociate you from the Road. The Road’s my life-work; but it will be the better done if it’s done with your help. It will be done best of all if it’s done for you.”
Violet Oliver turned away quickly, and stood with her head averted. Ardently she longed to take him at his word. A glimpse of a great life was vouchsafed to her, such as she had not dreamt of. That some time she would marry again, she had not doubted. But always she had thought of her husband to be, as a man very rich, with no ambition but to please her, no work to do which would thwart her. And here was another life offered, a life upon a higher, a more difficult plane; but a life much more worth living. That she saw clearly enough. But out of her self-knowledge sprang the insistent question:
“Could I live it?”
There would be sacrifices to be made by her. Could she make them? Would not dissatisfaction with herself follow very quickly upon her marriage? Out of her dissatisfaction would there not grow disappointment in her husband? Would not bitterness spring up between them and both their lives be marred?
Dick was still holding her hand.
“Let me see you,” he said, drawing her towards him. “Let me see your face!”
She turned and showed it. There was a great trouble in her eyes, her voice was piteous as she spoke.
“Dick, I can’t answer you. When I told you that I came here on purpose to meet you, that I wanted to see you again, it was true, all true. But oh, Dick, did I mean more?”
“How should I know?” said Dick, with a quiet laugh—a laugh of happiness.
“I suppose that I did. I wanted you to say just what you have said to-night. Yet now that you have said it——” she broke off with a cry. “Dick, I have met no one like you in my life. And I am very proud. Oh, Dick, my boy!” And she gave him her other hand. Tears glistened in her eyes.
“But I am not sure,” she went on. “Now that you have spoken, I am not sure. It would be all so different from what my life has been, from what I thought it would be. Dick, you make me ashamed.”
“Hush!” he said gently, as one might chide a child for talking nonsense. He put an arm about her, and she hid her face in his coat.
“Yes, that’s the truth, Dick. You make me ashamed.”
So she remained for a little while, and then she drew herself away.
“I will think and tell you, Dick,” she said.
“Tell me now!”
“No, not yet. It’s all your life and my life, you know, Dick. Give me a little while.”
“I go away to-morrow.”
“To-morrow?” she cried.
“Yes, I go to Ajmere. I go to find my friend. I must go.”
Violet started. Into her eyes there crept a look of fear, and she was silent.
“The Prince?” she asked with a queer suspense in her voice.
“Yes—Shere Ali,” and Dick became perceptibly embarrassed. “He is not as friendly to us as he used to be. There is some trouble,” he said lamely.
Violet looked him frankly in the face. It was not her habit to flinch. She read and understood his embarrassment. Yet her eyes met his quite steadily.
“I am afraid that I am the trouble,” she said quietly.
Dick did not deny the truth of what she said. On the other hand, he had as yet no thought or word of blame for her. There was more for her to tell. He waited to hear it.
“I tried to avoid him here in India, as I told you I meant to do,” she said. “I thought he was safe in Chiltistan. I did not let him know that I was coming out. I did not write to him after I had landed. But he came down to Agra—and we met. There he asked me to marry him.”
“He asked you!” cried Linforth. “He must have been mad to think that such a thing was possible.”
“He was very unhappy,” Violet Oliver explained. “I told him that it was impossible. But he would not see. I am afraid that is the cause of his unfriendliness.”
“Yes,” said Dick. Then he was silent for a little while.
“But you are not to blame,” he added at length, in a quiet but decisive voice; and he turned as though the subject were now closed.
But Violet was not content. She stayed him with a gesture. She was driven that night to speak out all the truth. Certainly he deserved that she should make no concealment. Moreover, the truth would put him to the test, would show to her how deep his passion ran. It might change his thoughts towards her, and so she would escape by the easiest way the difficult problem she had to solve. And the easiest way was the way which Violet Oliver always chose to take.
“I am to blame,” she said. “I took jewels from him in London. Yes.” She saw Dick standing in front of her, silent and with a face quite inscrutable, and she lowered her head and spoke with the submission of a penitent to her judge. “He offered me jewels. I love them,” and she spread out her hands. “Yes, I cannot help it. I am a foolish lover of beautiful things. I took them. I made no promises, he asked for none. There were no conditions, he stipulated for none. He just offered me the pearls, and I took them. But very likely he thought that my taking them meant more than it did.”
“And where are they now?” asked Dick.
She was silent for a perceptible time. Then she said:
“I sent them back.” She heard Dick draw a breath of relief, and she went on quickly, as though she had been in doubt what she should say and now was sure. “The same night—after he had asked me to marry him—I packed them up and sent them to him.”
“He has them now, then?” asked Linforth.
“I don’t know. I sent them to Kohara. I did not know in what camp he was staying. I thought it likely he would go home at once.”
“Yes,” said Dick.
They turned and walked back towards the house. Dick did not speak. Violet was afraid. She walked by his side, stealing every now and then a look at his set face. It was dark; she could see little but the profile. But she imagined it very stern, and she was afraid. She regretted now that she had spoken. She felt now that she could not lose him.
“Dick,” she whispered timidly, laying a hand upon his arm; but he made no answer. The lighted windows of the house blazed upon the night. Would he reach the door, pass in and be gone the next morning without another word to her except a formal goodnight in front of the others?
“Oh, Dick,” she said again, entreatingly; and at that reiteration of his name he stopped.
“I am very sorry,” he said gently. “But I know quite well—others have taken presents from these princes. It is a pity. . . . One rather hates it. But you sent yours back,” and he turned to her with a smile. “The others have not always done as much. Yes, you sent yours back.”
Violet Oliver drew a breath of relief. She raised her face towards his. She spoke with pleading lips.
“I am forgiven then?”
And in a moment she was in his arms. Passion swept her away. It seemed to her that new worlds were opening before her eyes. There were heights to walk upon for her—even for her who had never dreamed that she would even see them near. Their lips touched.
“Oh, Dick,” she murmured. Her hands were clasped about his neck. She hid her face against his coat, and when he would raise it she would not suffer him. But in a little while she drew herself apart, and, holding his hands, looked at him with a great pride.
“My Dick,” she said, and she laughed—a low sweet laugh of happiness which thrilled to the heart of her lover.
“I’ll tell you something,” she said. “When I said good-bye to him—to the Prince—he asked me if I was going to marry you.”
“And you answered——?”
“That you hadn’t asked me.”
“Now I have. Violet!” he whispered.
But now she held him off, and suddenly her face grew serious.
“Dick, I will tell you something,” she said, “now, so that I may never tell you it again. Remember it, Dick! For both our sakes remember it!”
“Well?” he asked. “What is it?”
“Don’t forgive so easily,” she said very gravely, “when we both know that there is something real to be forgiven.” She let go of his hands before he could answer, and ran from him up the steps into the house. Linforth saw no more of her that night.