- CHAPTER XXIX AN EMPTY CHAIR
|<< chapter 28||< chapter 1||chapter 30 >|
AN EMPTY CHAIR
THE shooting party had now been some weeks in the jungle, and when Milly Trafford was alone in the seclusion of her own quarters, disinclined to read, work, or write, she had ample leisure for reflection. One thought stood out prominently; grim, dissatisfied, and persistent, it impressed on her that in turning a deaf ear to her brother's advice she had made one of the greatest mistakes in her life of twenty-one years! The heat, to her Western experience, was not merely astonishing but actually fierce, like the embodiment of some cruel vindictive animal. The brazen sun was pitiless, fiery winds came in scorching blasts, driving parched, eddying leaves against the canvas, and the very tent ropes were hot to her hand! She lay torpid in the thinnest of clothing, too languid to move; the light was too dim to read by, for the interior of her dwelling-place had been darkened by cuscus tatties, and her sole associate, Henry, exhausted with squirrel-hunting, lay extended on the floor--to judge by his low, half-suppressed yelps still dreaming of the chase! How the hours limped by! And without, in the yellow, palpitating glare, furious blasts roared round her retreat, and angrily shook the tent pole in their violence.
Milly felt compelled to confess that she had been foolish, and for a girl just out from home a plunge into the April jungles was an act akin to madness. Phil had been eloquent and urgent, but as he was in his heart a little overwhelmed by this unexpectedly brilliant and determined sister, he had not put his foot down with sufficient weight; nor was it altogether the heat and the discomfort, that distressed the young lady--the situation had some compensa- | | 278 tions. There was the dew-steeped early morning march, the delicious moonlight ride, and in moving from camp to camp, novelties of new surroundings, and above all the glamour and fascination of India!
No, it was not altogether the height of the thermometer, the long hours of idleness and languor, that caused the repentant explorer to look forward to a return to Chandi; it was because, figuratively speaking, she stood between two fires! Exceedingly sensitive to impressions, she realized that Colonel Tristram had slowly but surely developed into a would-be suitor! Certain subtle indications pointed to this most unwelcome truth; a glance, an infection in his voice, a lingering hand-clasp. Hitherto she had looked upon him as a mere kindly acquaintance a somewhat dull, middle-aged man, whose heart soul were abandoned to sport. Colonel Tristram took no interest in politics, literature, music, art, of any single one of the burning questions of the day. His game-book and the Field were his sole studies; the finding of a new planet, a new continent, or a new genius, left him cold and indifferent; but intelligence of a remarkable 'head' would bring him in hot haste from one end of a continent to the other!
Latterly, as they rode together or strolled about a camp, he had become alarmingly confidential respecting his family, his plans, and his old father--a man of eighty--his intention to settle soon, to entertain, to reset the family diamonds, and open the town house.
'Noblesse oblige,' he sighed; 'and of course my wife would like a bit of the London season. What do you say--eh?' addressing himself pointedly to his companion, and looking into her eyes with searching significance.
'Oh, you must not ask me!' she protested, with a nervous laugh. 'Personally I detest the London season; a treadmill of engagements that as a rule one hates!'
Immediately after this conversation she had | | 279 effected her escape--yes, for the present--but how was she to keep persistently aloof and fend off a threatening proposal? the reply to which would be the signal for a precipitate retreat to Chandi! And this was not the worst. There was yet another so-called 'friend,' Philip's beloved Jonathan. Of late he appeared to have changed, and become older and more serious; to have lost his boyish buoyancy and his delightfully infectious laugh. At times he was silent and even distrait. Was it possible that he cared for her? and beheld in Colonel Tristram a too formidable rival? Colonel Tristram was wealthy, and a notable parti, but oh, what a monotonous husband he would be! As to Eliot Scruby, he was full of surprises, and seemed to delight in exhibiting new characteristics; she liked his vitality, his energy, his caustic tongue, and his kind heart. But he was a mere nobody--a junior engineer, without interest or ambition; and yet he had attracted her from the first. His individuality was sharp-edged, and, alas! it was a painful truth, that his voice outside the big tent thrilled her; his entrance made a difference, and for all her outward self-possession, Miss Milly's heart beat faster when in his company.
'What would her mother say?' and Milly sat up on her couch, threw back her damp hair, leant her chin upon the palm of her hand, and gravely considered the question.
'They would be poor--he would be obliged to live in exile, and in out-of-the-way jungly corners of India, making roads and canals--and--and--' the colour crept into her face, 'they would be quite happy--oh, so deliciously happy!'
Ah yes--but--! But unfortunately the notoriously bold and irrepressible Mr. Scruby was too humble-minded and too diffident to speak!
Colonel Tristram's party had put in a strenuous week and were taking a day off; writing up diaries, answering letters, strolling about in the vicinity of | | 280 the camp, inspecting the ponies, and the fine sambur and tiger skins, pegged out under the tamarinds. The April moon rose late, the sun's red rim disappeared over the edge of the Western horizon--with that uncivil abruptness, which distinguishes its good-night to the Orient; it was dusk as the little company sat in long chairs outside the big tent, and watched the soft darkness of a tropical evening descend upon the landscape.
'How black it looks all round' remarked the lady.
'I do wish Phil had not been sent for. What did that wild-looking Gond say?' turning to Scruby.
'That Ambado--who had big news for him-had fever and could not come in, but was only three "kos" away, so Trafford will be back for dinner. There is a nice tender young peacock that he would not miss for anything.'
'How I hate these mysterious excursions!' said his sister; 'why could not Ambado wait?'
'I expect it had to do with those two elephants who were shot,' volunteered Colonel Tristram; 'that is a serious affair, and the sooner the trail is followed up the better.'
'Nothing is ever found out in the jungle,' grumbled Milly. 'I believe there is a conspiracy of silence. Phil thinks that, do what he will, there is some evil influence secretly working against him--and I live in quaking fear of this mysterious horror.'
'Then allow me to appease your fears, Miss. Trafford,' said Scruby. 'It's only evil-doers who don't like Traff; he is very popular in the district. They know he's as straight as a die, and puts nothing in his own pocket.'
'Mr. Scruby!' she exclaimed indignantly.
'Oh well, between you and me, such a thing has been done! The folk that clamour for all forest rights and wood and fodder are silly idiots. They know perfectly well that, thanks to the Sirkar and | | 281 forest laws, they get fuel and grazing for a mere song. I believe the yearly charge for a cow is only a couple of annas! Their rights are respected; but if there were no superintendent, the woods would be fired; and as to the game and grazing, every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost!--The stronger seizing the lion's share. There has been a lot of bad work in this reserve--wholesale thieving; but Trafford has put the brake on, and, as I tell you, he is well enough liked-except by just a few Budmashes.'
'Few but fit! I'm always afraid that some of these people who write letters--and worry--will do him harm.'
'Surely you are not nervous, are you, Miss Trafford?' inquired Colonel Tristram, bending over to look into her face with anxious solicitude.
'Not just yet, but if Phil is not here by say eight-thirty, I shall be a bundle of nerves!'
'It's a pitch black night; the moon does not rise till nine,' remarked Scruby, 'so give him a chance.'
'He has a lantern, or rather the Gond had,' observed Chapman. 'I expect he will turn up, as the Americans say, "on time."'
Dinner was delayed for a quarter of an hour, and when served the peacock proved tender as a spring chicken, the savoury and ices--yes, ices--and dessert were all excellent, but Trafford's place remained vacant; as to the reason why, the rest of the company exchanged many eager speculations.
Afterwards, sitting out in the open, the men smoked and invented excuses, and told yams, till the great yellow moon slid over the tree-tops, the night breeze began to sough through the leafless forests, and the village fell asleep. Miss Trafford appeared to be out of spirits, she talked but little, declined to sing, and soon after the coffee cups had been removed, rose to say good-night. Milly was conscious of a sense of disquietude, a penetrating conviction that, like a | | 282 beast of prey in the dark adjacent forest, some awful trouble was lying in ambush for her! She was in no mood to appreciate Mr. Chapman's chaff or Colonel Tristram's familiar stories, and craved to be alone--alone, if the truth were known, to cry. Before she withdrew, addressing her companions, she said--
'If you hear anything, I am sure you will let me know at once-won't you?'
As she stood there in her white gown in the silver lustre of the moonlight, looking from one to the other of the group with lovely tragic eyes, a more beautiful and appealing figure it would be impossible to imagine or behold.
Naturally her request met with a loud and energetic acquiescence, yet as soon as she had disappeared into her tent, there fell a curiously significant silence and Scruby's face was grave enough as he said in a low voice--
'Thank God she's gone! I say--of course you all know that Gehazi has come back?'
'Yes,' agreed Tristram; 'luckily Miss Trafford did not spot him in the lines; this begins to be serious.'
'Begins!' echoed Scruby; 'it is serious! I'm off now to have a look round,' standing up as he spoke.
'And I'll come with you,' said Chapman, springing to his feet.
'And I,' said Tristram; 'we will all search.'
'No, no,' protested the first volunteer. 'Excuse me, Colonel, but I'll start out alone with Janoo and some beaters. We will be back, say, at eight o'clock to-morrow. Then you will be fresh and ready to relieve me--always supposing I've no luck--it's best in these cases to husband our energies.'
'All right, Scruby, and you will have the best of it. I don't fancy we'll put in a pleasant time with Miss Trafford.'
'No, poor girl,' said Chapman; 'she looked pretty | | 283 sick this evening; but very likely Traff has only had a pip off Gehazi and is walking back.'
'If he can find his way,' supplemented Scruby.
'Oh, get along, you old Job's comforter!' cried Chapman--and Scruby went.
'Scruby is a tremendous pal of Trafford's--he is devoted to him.'
('And not the only one of the family to whom he is devoted,' said Colonel Tristram to himself.)
'I must confess I don't like the look of things.'
'Neither do I. I feel anxious too,' said Chapman. 'I'd have gone with Scruby--but although he does play the fool, he has lots of horse-sense, and we will work as the miners do in tides. I'll turn in now. Mind, not a word to Miss Trafford about the pony. I'll tell them to hide him behind the pipal tree--and cover him with a rug.'
As it happened, there was no occasion for these precautions to conceal Gehazi's white form from Milly. Indeed, she was barely in her tent before Mary, native fashion, imparted the news with outstretched hands, and breathless emotion.
'Oh, Miss Sahib, the white pony done come back, all dust and hot and broken bridle--and no master. Oh yea yo! oh yea yo! this very, very bad business. Poor Missy--what Missy going do?'
'I shall sit up all night,' she answered, after a moment's silence, 'and when it is light, will go out and search for my brother myself.'
'Scruby Sahib done gone, taking shikari and lights and coolies--very clever--always jildi, that sahib! Missy please lie down till morning--this sitting up no good.'
But Milly had a presentiment, and she could not rest, much less sleep. When, at eight o'clock in the morning, Scruby returned, tired, dusty, and completely baffled, he was met by a haggard girl in the doorway of the tent, a girl with hollow eyes, and a face of stony whiteness.| | 284
'I see you have not found him?' she began, in a hurried unsteady voice.
'No, not yet. Now, don't be uneasy, Miss Trafford, we are inclined to think he has gone in to Chandi.'
'But his pony is here' she protested, in a tone of bewildered despair.
'Ah--so you know?' dismounting as he spoke.
'Yes, it is no kindness to keep things back-indeed, I'd rather know. I'll not make a scene, or have hysterics, or bother you; but do please take me into your confidence, and tell me whatever there is to hear--as soon as strangers.'
This was another, an older Miss Trafford, haggard, and composed; who would have supposed the girl had such pluck and self-control? As she stood pouring out tea in the tent for Colonel Tristram, Chapman, and Scruby, she was as collected as any, listened gravely to their speculations, and offered her own ideas and suggestions.
'I am not asking to go with you,' she declared; 'I know I would only be in the way. I'll be here and have everything ready when--when--you bring him in.'
It was seven o'clock that evening when the party returned unsuccessful. They had no clue, except one; that Ambado was perfectly well--in fact, one of the most zealous searchers--and had sent no message. The jungle had been beaten all day--not for a tiger on this occasion, but a missing forest officer--and of the lost man there was not the faint trace. It was useless to try and conceal this from his sister. She was on the watch at the tent entrance, ever alert, with straining eyes and ears; each little wisp of dust on the road had raised her hopes. Alas! Sister Milly, it was only a bullock cart or a flock of goats! Nearly two days and no sign, no clue, to Trafford; it seemed as if the earth had actually opened and swallowed him up in Israelitish fashion.
The search party did not spare themselves; never | | 285 had that jungle experienced such a determined and vigorous beat! Scruby was unrelaxing and indefatigable; spurred by the haunting sorrow of a pair of haggard eyes, his exertions, considering the season, were extraordinary. Noonday sun, midnight darkness, still found him riding, questioning, conferring with woodmen and Gondi trackers, and even summoning to his assistance the services of their ojhäs or wise men.
It was late on the second night of his friend's disappearance, when, previous to making a fresh start, he entered the big tent to say a few encouraging words to Trafford's unhappy sister. He always professed to be hopeful--although it was extremely difficult to maintain that attitude in the presence of a girl whose wan, colourless face expressed the last extreme of anguish and suspense.
By the dim light of a swinging lamp he saw her sitting by the table, and as she rose and confronted him it seemed as if her wonderful beauty had entirely disappeared. She resembled a flower that had been seared and withered by the passing of some fiery blast. 'The Star of India' was now merely a girl with hollow eyes and sunken cheeks; her lips were cracked and pallid, her beautiful hair looked limp and damp.
'There is no hope!' she exclaimed; 'do not try to delude me. I shall never see Phil again--never. Oh, I don't think any one knows what he has been to me.' Her voice sank to a husky whisper as she added, 'He is all I have in the world.'
For a moment his friend remained silent, he could not muster any convincing rejoinder, and she continued with a world of misery in her voice--
'Something terrible has happened. I think he is dead, or he would have taken pity on my anxiety. It is thirty-four hours since he was here--nearly two days--and oh, what days!' raising her hands to her throbbing head.| | 286
'But I have not given up hope,' declared Scruby. 'This time I am going in another direction that seems unlikely, but yet may be the very place. Possibly, he has come to grief on Gehazi, and unable to move. Thank goodness he took a water bottle--'
As he paused to contrive another and more telling excuse, from the distance came the long-draw melancholy chorus of a pack of jackals bent on their nightly chase, and their weird cry, 'I smell white men! I smell dead white men!' seemed to the overstrung nerves of one listener, unusually emphatic and distinct!
'Oh yes, he is lost, lost, lost' she exclaimed; her self-control suddenly deserting her, and sit down, she buried her face in her arms, and burst into stifled, convulsive sobs.
For some moments her companion remained mute and irresolute, then he began to walk to and fro with his hands clasped behind his back. For once in his life Scruby found speech extremely difficult. At last he said in a firm, imperative tone--
'Listen to me, Miss Trafford.'
She raised her face slowly, and met his eyes.
'If Philip is to be found, I will bring him back to you--rely on me,' then, moving a step nearer and looking at her fixedly, he added, with intenser emphasis, and there was a thrill of passion in his voice, 'I vow to you here,' and he struck the table with his hand, 'that I will never rest--never return to Chandi--until I have recovered your brother--dead or alive.'
'Alive! Oh, if you find him alive!' and she caught her breath; 'if he could just speak to me again--I will do anything--anything in the world' for you, Mr. Scruby.'
'Then, in that case, I will take a little payment in advance,' he rejoined, with a touch of his everyday manner; 'you must eat and drink and rest. When | | 287 I bring in Phil, who is to nurse him? Why, you look as if you needed a nurse yourself. Now please drink some of this coffee they have brewed for me,' pouring it out as he spoke, 'yes, and a bit of toast.'
She sipped the coffee obediently, but waved away the toast with a gesture of disgust.
'You must go and rest; you know you can do no good sitting up all night; the whole camp is asleep, and shows its sense. 'Good-bye,' he stretched out his hand and held hers tightly in his for a moment, then picking up his cap went quickly out of the tent, and immediately afterwards there was a loud clattering of rampant hoofs which presently settled into a steady swinging gallop, echoing, and re-echoing, across the sun-baked plain.
Milly rose and went out into the moonlight, listening till the sounds became fainter and fainter, and gradually died away into silence. Since Phil had been missing, Mr. Scruby had scarcely rested or slept; a friend in need was a friend indeed--next to her brother he stood prominent in her thoughts. From the first, a curious magnetism had drawn her to him--why? Why As she stood motionless, vaguely attempting to analyse her feelings--
'Missy never coming?' inquired the drowsy voice of Mary Ayah, who, wrapped in a ghostly white cloth, was coiled up under the flap of the tent. 'Missy never sleeping--never eating--soon, soon die!'
On this occasion Scruby's quest proved successful; the following morning the missing man was brought in on a litter, alive, conscious, and not so badly injured as, considering his experiences, might have been expected.
After he had been refreshed by a bath, a meal, and a comfortable sleep, sitting out in a camp chair under the stars, Trafford related his desperate adventure, which had best be given in his own words.| | 288
|<< chapter 28||< chapter 1||chapter 30 >|