THE ROAD from the ford and the Solanki city that the son of Akbar built, wound up through clumps of palm and tamarisk to the great pipal tree outside the cantonments of the Isulmeer Light Horse, beneath which every evening the native officers of the regiment gathered to smoke and chat. They stood about or squatted in the angles of the gnarled roots—tall, long-limbed men with heavy shoulders, spurred and booted, wearing the drab knee-length tunics with chain epaulettes and the rakish buflf-and-yellow turbans of their service. They had brown hawkish faces, jet black beards and amber eyes.
The heat of the day was done, and long lines of cawing crows beat homeward. Behind them their chargers’ hoofs rang on the stone, and now and then a trumpet blared. The traffic of the Thar, the great Indian desert, straggled down toward the caravanserai beside the ford—camels and packasses, gay-painted carts and Rajputs on their wiry horses— and the baked acrid smell of the Thar came on the parching wind.
Havildar Sawai Sing clanked up. unbuckled his sword and pitched it into the angle of a root with a vicious rattle. He was on duty. The grey-bearded quartermaster chided him:
“Petulance, my son. consumes the strength that should be saved to remedy the cause of it. What is it now-?’’ “What should it be, ivoordie sahib, but this wanton from Delhi?”
The brown eyes of Karan Sing betrayed distaste:
"So! Then it dot's not abate?”
“Alíate! He stayed with her till two hours past midnight, and then walked outside his quarters, up and down, up and down, for two hours more. And the ayah says he kissed her hand on leaving. That was all. When they play their game of love they kiss the lij*;, these sahibs, always they kiss the lips, their women having no modesty; but he stays with her from khana till two of the morning and then departs with a kiss of the hand. The ayah swears she watched them constantly. She plays no game, that woman; she is for marriage. She is modest! She would kiss no man lightly? Allah! If truth were in a kiss, her lijis would wilt the flesh they touched. And he lias asked for leave next month to go to the races in Bombay. That means. . .”
A ressaidar swore roundly at the news, and the man seated against the tree-trunk on a rug that glowed like jewel mosaic, said in a rich, unctuous voice, with meticulous pronunciation.
“And who may be this woman, who makes the best swordsman in the Thar forget restraint and a Rajput thakur fail to greet a friend?”
The speaker wore pantaloons of cream-colored satin, with over them a long sleeveless jacket of amethyst velvet with an inch-wide gold lace border. The shirt beneath was of emerald silk; red leather slippers shod his feet: his closewound turban was of rope twisted from silk in vivid apricot, from which his oiled black Claris depended, framing a face once seen, not to be forgotten. The flesh was as smooth as ivory, of a pale, almost translucent texture, resembling yellow wax. The nose, like an eagle’s beak, the high cheekbones, hollow cheeks and long curving jawbone were delicately sculptured. Yet it was not the face of an ascetic: the
thin, curved lips w’ere full and scarlet, the black eyes baleful as an adder’s. Its expression was cruel, proud and sensitive. The burly Sawai Sing turned:
“Salomon Aziz! Has a year passed so soon? Thou fox; thou w'ert never friend to any man who had not gold in his belt or goods to pledge for want of it. Was that thy string of bones and crow-meat I saw picketed by the serai gate?” Salomon Aziz—horse-, rug-, jeweland woman-dealer; usurer, spy, bearer of secret messages—replied:
“Some crow-meat for babus who are more English than the English and must ride behind a horse; some horses that look fit for kings but very cheap, for young sahibs who think they know better what a beast is worth than poor Salomon Aziz; and a young horse or two, not cheap but worth twice their price if, as I doubt, there be any men in these parts who can mouth and school them.” He flickered a sardonic eye at the dozen or so consummate horsemen who made up that gathering, and they answered him with appropriate profanity. “But you w’ere speaking of a woman. That is always interesting—next to a horse or a jewel.”
“It is because of Tarrant sahib, who commands here— the son of our colonel whom the cholera took two years ago. He is soft-hearted and young, and there is a woman here who lias made him think he loves her. We know all about her; she has a black Mahratta ayah whose tongue clacks like a sugar-mill. She is twice his age and must marry sw’iftly because she is outcast among her kind—her husband shot himself in Delhi and a young sahib was disgraced because of her. This our sahib knows—but she would plead it is no fault of hers if men go mad for love of her. But what we know and he does not, is that previously, when her husband was at duty on the plains, there were two other lovers. Her servants told us. And our sahib can neither sleep nor eat nor work because of her. She is old and wise and subtle, and Has him blind with desire.”
The merchant pursed his curved red lips and looked up at the six feet of angry Rajput towering above him :
“Art a bigger fool even than I thought, Sawai Sing. Canst thou do aught? Was ever a young man turned from folly by advice? Must he not sicken of his own accord?” Ä grizzled ressaidar took up the tale:
“It goes deeper far than that. It concerns the regiment. We are Tarrant’s rissalah! His grandsire raised our first squadron in the mutiny, and men of his family have always served with us. He belongs here. His life and happiness are here. It is his destiny and our prerogative that he should one day command us. The pukka mern-sahtb takes pride in the regiment and serves it through her husband, knowing always that first must be the regiment, second the wife. But this woman’s breed serve nothing. They take! Once they w'ere wed she would want to take him from us; and if he would not go, she would turn vixen. I tell you I know’ her kind —there are such in every race. He is happy and young and a man, but is thoughtless and without any guile, and if they go to Bombay to the races he will return married to one who is no more than a woman of the town. She will drain his youth as a bat drains blood from a camel’s ear, and there will be no more Tarrant sahibs in Tarrant’s rissalah.”
With a look of scorn Salomon Aziz said wdtheringly: “These feringhis. We do things better—such a woman can be taken into the zenana without fuss, and when she is wearied of, as men do of all such not slowiy, she can be driven to the back apartments to wait on her betters. But a sahib must chain himself for life. . .”
THE COMPANY had suddenly growm still, as round the bend by a clump of tamarisks trotted handsomely an open carriage. Except for journeys to the outside, cars are little used in Isulmeer. It is a land of horses and horsemen; roads are deep sand, horses are cheap and good, and time is of little consequence. The Rajputs scrambled to their feet and saluted as the barouche jingled past, the hoofbeats muffled in the deep white sand; Salomon Aziz rose with unhurried dignity and spread his hands in profound obeisance.
The blonde young man with his lean face tanned to leather color gravely returned their salute; and the dark, sleek woman with the creamy skin and eyes like big brown pansies
bowed an acknowledgment.
As the carriage
passed out of earshot
Sawai Sing growled
with an oath:
Seest thou, that, brothers? She takes our salute for herself, as though she owned it and him already.” Salomon Aziz, crosslegged apiin like a jewelled ivory on his iridescent rug, had an
evil smile on his red hPs-
, n°h;hoL ,he said softly‘‘That one! I know her-t weih I sold her a pair of Gilgit rugs in Delhi. She has tl heart of a rat and the temper of an old she-camel. That tx 1 i gOC, *-° belong to her. He is a horseman proper.
I™ uSt Jear as good a Kathiawari as ever look through a bridle—and he was at the serai within an hoi my arrival, asking had I a horse fit for a mem to ride o t wai ing exploded, "Allah! He buys her horses,” ar a .*°n °* his comment would have blistered any pap . • s " ea onBe squatted on the white sand, picked i , Wor ^ Piling it part way from the scabbard ar unhapiüy-1 10me Wlth 3 vicious snaPBy and by he sa
As boys we played together, even as did his father ar
WC WTaS brothers: and when he returned aft. twelve years in Bêlait we were brothers still.”
Salomon Aziz’ eyes were gleaming. Everything comes to him who waits and does not forget. She would beat him to his last rupee of profit on a pair of rugs, would she? He licked his lips quickly, like a cat, and said: Right arms are cheap, Sawai Sing. How much money would'st thou risk to have the scales pulled from the eyes of this love-drunk pup feringhi with the chicken’s fluff for hair?”
"All that I have I would give gladly, if such a thing could be, thou bloodsucker.”
"And how little is that, thou—soldier?”
"I—five hundred rupees, Salomon Aziz. But I will pledge
every anna of my revenue—”
“Five hundred rupees ! Oh-ho, brothers!” The merchant
called the havildars and ressaldars and they clustered round him, lanky like herons, with their big limbs and martial air. "Listen! I know this woman. I have seen much of her in Delhi. I have a scheme by which, with luck, thy precious sucking-sahib might be cured of his desire. Twenty thousand rupees I must have the use of, and ten per cent of that for my trouble; the rest will be returned when the play is over, save for one little risk which there would be of losing all. That you must take.”
The woordie-major muttered: "Twenty thousand . . . !” "Thou sayest he means everything to this regiment. Then
raise the money among yourselves and the sowars. Have I not said that the risk is small. Of course, there will be the ten per cent.”
Sawai Sing said wistfully:
“If the risk is so small, Salomon Aziz—thou art rich as is very well known; would’st thou not lend—” The merchant turned on him like a snake.
"Did I march dowm from Taskent to this naked land to risk my good money in woman business? Twenty-two thousand I must have. Two thousand comes to me, and for the rest the risk is small. I will tell you. Listen carefully. This woman...”
To the knot of intently listening Rajputs he outlined a deep, subtle scheme, brewed from the lore of a lifetime’s battening on human weaknesses; a crafty trap for a crafty quarry, baited with vanity, to be sprung by passion.
When he had done, a rumble of excited comment broke out and the venerable woordie-major exclaimed:
“Salomon Aziz, thou would’st trick Satan himself. Heaven send I never get into thy clutches. But this money shall be found, or I do not knowthe rissalah.”
The merchant nodded his orange-casqued head in satisfaction —two thousand rupees profit without risk, and a sweet revenge on one who once had driven him to a lean bargain. A day s work indeed. He rubbed his long hands, and his ringlets glistened as he nodded in the rich sunset light.
"Good. That is good. One thing —how long till they go to Bombay?"
"Five weeks till the races—all but."
"It is time enough."
VOUNG MARTIN TARRANT and Joanna Abbot were 1 returning from their evening drive along the road between the Ghaggar River and the glamorous labyrinth of Kuru -the old Solanki city, white, pink and blue, beneath its tamarisks and palms. Across the tranquil stream the desert lay, tawny and rolling: with, close to the river, swaths of tall grass and thorn scrub. Far to the east beyond it, the dark-purple rampart of the Aravallis Mountains rose in sharp silhouette against the evening sapphire with a few faint stars. The sun was down, the sky behind the city blazing gold and crimson. Cooking smokes rose everywhere wavering blue ribbons in the evening calm: women with brass water lotahs filed from the stream, and the reek of smoke, jasmine and camels bit the nostrils.
Joanna lay back on the cushions, feeling contented for the first time in months. She had passed through a trying period, she told herself: and before that life had been so satisfactory and amusing—till that fool, Sammy, had dramatized himself and set everyone against her by blowing his brains out, only because he caught her making love with Tom Carstairs. It had startled even her; and people had been ever so nasty. And there had been the problem of just what to do. She had been so alone. If it had not been for remembering young Tarrant and how last year at the races she’d halfpromised to come down and see the Solanki ruins, she didn’t know what she would have done.
But everything was going to be all right now. In fact, it. could not have been much better. After all, Sammy had been awfully old for her. And she liked Martin. 1 íe was good-looking and quite fascinating in his boyishness - • even if he were so unsophisticated. Yet but for all that he would not be so very easy for her to handle, so it was really all to the gxxi. An older and more worldly man might have asked pointed questions, instead of putting himself out all the time t save her feelings about Sammy and Carst airs. I le was so frank and earnest about everything and she had got him simply mad about her now; there was no doubt of that. Yes, everything had come right again. She would hold him off till Bombay and then they’d be married quietly in the first rush of his enthusiasm. If news of an engagement went out before, someone might get at him and things might happen. And then soon she’d make him get a staff job in some civilized place, out of this awful desert. Simla Ijerhaps—he had g.xxi connections. And he must have some money. Ixxjk at the gorgeous horses he kept; and so many. He said he used to spend his whole sixi re time with them before she came and he had her to entertain. Well, she would find a better use for the money they must cost. She said, moving lazily in the angle of the carriage.
"This time of day the country’s so fantastic. This queer, thick light, without any shadows. It’s a strange place, always: but just after sunset it gets absolutely unconvincing. It feels just like a scene at a play.”
In his smart white mufti, he looked young and clean and virile; and his eyes lit as he gazed at her silk-clad sleek body and her lovely face, like a white camellia against black lace among the.cushions.
“I love it. It’s home to me—and it’s ever so much nicer since you came. Joanna. Though I was away twelve years.
I had not been back a day before I knew that I belonged here. This evening light is one of the first things I remember; that and playing with Sawai Sing in the stables. We were like brothers then, and when I got back it was just the same.” “That awful man! He frightens me. He doesn’t like me. He’s so big and sleek and stealthy with that glossy beard, like a big tom cat, and watching me all the time with those* horrid yellow eyes.”
“Sawai Sing frighten you ! Why, he’s the best chap in
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the world. You’ll get to like him awfully. He can ride like anything. You must see him take on a green colt some time.”
“It isn’t only Sawai Sing. It’s the whole country. It’s—it’s life. I’m so alone, Martin, so utterly alone. And when a woman’s alone—”
“But you aren’t alone. I’m here, am I not? I’m with you all I can be. And if there’s anything at all that I can do, you’ve only to hint at it and I’d be so glad.”
“Oh, you’re wonderful to me, Martin. But it’s not that sort of loneliness. It’s— deep down; the loneliness of the spirit. Everyone blames me for that ghastly business.”
“Joanna you must forget that. Please. It’s past; forget it. Let people think what they like, so long as you know in your heart that you were not to blame. That’s all that matters. If you’re true to yourself, everything comes right in the end. And you must not be lonely, not in any way. I—I expect you’ll think it infernally presumptuous of me, but I—I’ve dared to hope—”
She put her hand on his lips.
“Martin, don’t! I know what you’re going to say. But you mustn’t. You mustn’t fall in love with me. It’s too dangerous for you. I seem to bring unhappiness to everyone. I think I must be one of those people doomed to be alone. Perhaps it’s my duty. If it is, I’ll try to do it. But it frightens me —I can’t help that, can I? To go on year after year—” She broke off and her eyes grew wide with anger.
'"PARRANT was not listening. He was not looking at her. He was watching with incredulous delight a superb goldenchestnut horse that was cantering abreast of them. It was the kind seen seldom in a lifetime—big, balanced, slender as a gazelle and yet magnificently built for power, with a coat like satin and a muzzle that could drink from a teacup. It put its feet down daintily as any girl and trifled with the bit as. with a flowing stride, it drew ahead of them.
Tarrant came out of his trance and hailed excitedly its rider—an ivory-skinned youth in yellow satin pantaloons, a long, tight coat of black brocade, and a sky-blue skull cap with a long gold tassel :
“Hi, there. Pull in alongside, will you?” The son of Salomon Aziz, who had brought that horse from Cutch, did not seem to hear, continuing to draw ahead, and Tarrant stood up protestingly—-“Excuseme, Joanna” —and leaned across in front of her with his hands on the carriage door.
“Hi! You on that horse! Can’t you hear me?”
The youth looked around, moved his hand on the chestnut and it shot ahead. Tarrant called to his driver, “Eyou, Sookan ! Keep after him. Shake ’em up now. Don’t let him get away,” and sank back to his seat reluctantly, with his eager eyes fixed on the horse.
The coachman put his pair to a canter, but the stranger kept his place ahead. The carriage went to a gallop and they tore along the river road till, without warning, the chestnut nipped into a narrow lane between two ancient houses and was lost.
As the coachman wrestled with his excited team, Tarrant cried:
“What horse was that, Sookan? Did you ever see it before?”
"No. sahib. Nor saw I ever its equal.” Tarrant turned to her with shining eyes. “I say! Did you get a proper look at it, Joanna? That was the best horse I ever saw. Doesn’t belong to this part of the Thar, I can swear that. Gad, what a beauty !” She bit on the sarcasm that sprang to her lips and smiled:
“You do love horses, don’t you, Martin?” “I suppose I do. After all. there’s nothing like them. My father used to say there was nothing on earth so fine as a gtxxl horse— except a good woman, Joanna.” When he
smiled as he did then, his face was very fine—strong, clear, frank as that of a boy of ten. He was only twenty-four. She was forty.
As the carriage pulled up before her bungalow she said:
“It’s early yet. Have a drink before you change, won’t you?”
“Why, thanks a lot, I believe I will.”
She slid her arm through his to go up the steps together, but he swung away.
“Half a mo’, will you, Joanna? Sookan, as soon as you get to the barracks, have them send my orderly to me here.”
The light was failing as they reclined in long chairs on either side of a table on the w'ide verandah, with jasmine on the pillars and the tree ferns in their baskets pendant from the eaves. The zig, zig, zig, of night things was beginning, fireflies jewelled the shrubbery; while the broad-leaved plantains at the road stood black against star-pricked sapphire, and the smell of moughra drenched the air.
“This is when I like it. Once I’m inside with you, that hostile feeling stops. I feel protected and sort of homey. You know—” A tall form with eye-whites gleaming in the dark, appeared at the steps and a deep voice said:
“Excuse me a minute please, Joanna, here’s my orderly. Hitherao, Rup Sing.” The sowar came up the steps and clanked to attention at his chairfoot.
“Do you know of a strange horse here, Rup Sing? A big, bright chestnut? A better horse than any in the regiment?”
Rup Sing shook his bearded head.
“ Nahin, nahin, huzoor. The best horse I have ever seen is thine own Tantia, and after him the ressaldar major’s mare. Padmini.”
“Well, we saw a better on the river road not fifteen minutes ago—a big bright chestnut, and a boy in a black kaftan and blue skull cap. They ran from us. Find out who they are and let me know at once.”
“It shall be done, huzoor.”
The man clanked down the steps, and they sat with their drinks while the soft night closed down—crickets and frogs, fireflies and drowsy perfume, and the faint distant noises of the serai and Kuru city. Tarrant was talkative and gay, but she responded little. Her idle hand was clenched beside her and her foot went lap, tap, tap against the table. Presently in a silence somewhat strained he got up and went to change for the evening.
A BATH, her most daring frock, dinner and a bottle of champagne which had been his present of a week ago, did much to smooth her ruffled amour propre. After all. he was very charming, and his eagerness to make life pleasant for her after the ordeal at Delhi gave a most gratifying sense of being cared for, of unpleasant responsibility happily evaded. After dinner they went inside, and she played and sang. Her powers as a pianist were limited, but she knew it and chose suitable material; and her voice, though small, had a most glamorous and captivating quality—of which also she was well aware. The feelings of few men failed to respond to it.
Tarrant lay back in his chair with his eyes closed, and when she came and sat beside him he leaned close and took her hand.
“Joanna, what you said this afternoon is on my mind—about being lonely, I mean. Loneliness is awful. I remember when I first went home from here to England. Really I didn’t know what to do, and I am sure it’s a thousand times worse for you just now than it was for me. But you mustn’t feel lonely. You’re not lonely at all; far from it. You know—I suppose every chap dreams that some day—”
Spurs jingled on the verandah.
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“Oh, dam! Excuse me please, Joanna. What is it?”
Rup Sing appeared in the doorway.
“ Huzoor, I have news of the horse.” Instantly Tarrant was all attention. “Yes. Whose is it?”
“In the serai they say it belongs to the Raja of a petty state north of the Rann of Cutch, who for some misdemeanor has been confined by the Sirkar to his own borders. But he has stolen away south for sport and women, and is encamped here on the Thar.” “He is? Well, where?”
“ Huzoor, no man knows. He hides his camp, they say, fearing he may be taken and sent back and further punished.”
“All right. Find out about it. D’you hear? Find out quickly. I’ll give fifty rupees for information that will lead me to that horse.”
The orderly clanked off, and Tarrant turned to her excitedly.
“I knew there was something queer, and that horse came from nowhere in Rajputana. Gad, what a beast it was! I wonder if this chap would sell at any price a man could pay?” His face was alight with eagerness at the thought.
Joanna said nothing. There were hard and not youthful lines in her face that had not been there before Rup Sing arrived. Her hand was clenched, and now and then she bit irritably on her thumb-nail.
Next day Tarrant went for a few days to Ratangarh on regimental business. Each morning there were flowers and a letter from him on her chota hazari tray. There was a swaggering sowar with her horse each morning, and an escort always with the barouche. On the fourth day he wrote that he would be back in time for a drive in the afternoon.
She took particular pains with her toilet, not having in the least enjoyed the period of his absence. She had been really lonely: her own company always bored her, as did any other that was not centred on herself. But at four o’clock, instead of Tarrant in the barouche came a mounted man with a note: "Tarrant sahib salaams mem-sahib.”
“Dear Joanna. I do hope you will forgive such very short notice, but I wish you’d excuse me this afternoon. I’ve just had news of that gorgeous horse, and my informant thinks that its discovery is known and the owner may bolt at once because of it. So Sawai Sing and I are going to ride out just as hard as we can go. I'll come to dinner if I may. I’ve missed you lots and I dare to hope that you’ve missed me. . .”
She sank down on the foot of the long chair, her breast heaving and her face bleak, worrying with her teeth at her thumbnail.
But when he arrived for dinner she had contrived to put down her anger and to greet i him with her usual charm. After all, it was only for this week or two.
“Well, did you get your precious horse?” “No. Nothing but the camp-site. The man had flown, as they said he would.” “Well, if you leave me in the lurch like that too often, you’ll find that I’ve flown when you come back.”
“Oh, now, now, Joanna. It wasn’t just as bad as that. Please let me off this time.” She reached out and pinched his ear.
EACH MORNING early they rode in the desert, starting when the sun had barely cleared the Aravallis peaks and passing the caravanserai beside the ford when the cooking smokes rose thick and blue, and the neigh and bray of horse and mule, the blatt of sheep and bubbling snarl of camels greeted feedtime. Joanna loathed early rising, but Tarrant set such store by his morning canter. And she was not so keen on riding either, only it was one of the things that everybody did. He had borrowed her a carefully chosen horse from one of the native officers— his own were all far too fiery. And he had bitted it down so that she could hold it without effort.
Well, anyway, it was almost over now. That w as a relief to realize. In a week they were to start for Bombay, and after that she would be able to breathe freely again.
It had been a strain. But she had had time to contemplate what life would be on the small income Sammy left her—enough to keep her in modest comfort—and had found the prospect most distasteful.
They splashed girth-deep through the ford that had been paved seven hundred years ago by Shah Jehan, walked up the deepcut approach and came out on the plain— heavy white sand with clumps of tall grass and wild brakes of thorn. The clean smell of morning met them, crows cawed overhead, and small green parrots swayed down on the tall plumes of the grass.
Tarrant struck a canter and laughed at her happily. He was on his best horse. Tantia—a fine grey cross between a Barb and an English steeplechaser that went well with her Arab—and they swept at an easy pace past brake and tussock, with glimpses of the steely river to the left and the stark brown mountains underneath the low sun to the eastward. Partridges exploded, startled, from the horses’ feet. Once a sounder of wild pig tore grunting for the thorn.
Suddenly Tarrant shouted:
“Hi! Look at that!”
“That” was a big chestnut horse that gleamed golden in the sunshine, with a boy in a black coat and blue skull cap riding it gracefully. Tarrant let Tantia out and shot after him, and the son of Salomon Aziz spoke to the chestnut and kept his distance. In half a minute they were at full gallop, with Joanna well behind and most annoyed and flustered.
“Martin, please,” she called. “It’s too hot for this.”
But he did not hear her in his eagerness to keep sight of his quarry as it swept in and out of openings in the thorn. He had not gained an inch.
Joanna was amateur enough to get in close behind Tantia and be pelted by the sand hurled backward by his driving heels. Half-blinded and stinging, she sawed at her horse which, eager to be in the fun, resented this but was unable to fight the stiff curb. So he slowed up in a series of stiff-legged crow-hops which jolted her out of the saddle on to his neck, where she clung without dignity and barely saved herself from an ignominious unhorsing. Boiling with irritation, wet with sweat and with sand in her mouth and hair, she scrambled back to her saddle, and held her thoroughly disgruntled Arab to a rackety jog which did nothing to smooth either of their tempers. The other two had passed from sight, and perforce she let him follow in their tracks.
Tarrant had sat down for the ride of his life. He knew every inch of the country, which was where the regiment came for its pigsticking, and he hoped that knowledge would offset the patent superiority of the chestnut, whose present line of travel would end soon in a deep dry river-bed and force him to turn sharply eastward. Tarrant angled in that direction so as to cut him off.
But when they reached the open ground preceding the ravine, though blue-cap must have seen what he was heading for, he kept on going at his sweeping gallop. “Good lord, he can’t be going to try it! No horse ever foaled. . .”
But the chestnut shot boltlike at the chasm and went up with a soaring leap, to land light as a bhi well clear and sweep on without a falter.
Tarrant swallowed and licked his lips. He was for it now. There was no man living who could lead where he would not try to follow—that was his horseman’s pride. He spoke to Tantia kindly, gathered him up and sent him at it. As soon as the grey saw the chasm he hated it, but he kept his pace for a stride or two. Then he changed his mind too late, balked and slid forward, stiff-legged, in a cloud of dust. At the brink he toppled over. They rolled dowrn the steep bank in a kicking heap, and landed solidly and both winded at the bottom of the gully. Presently Tarrant got clear, held the reins
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while the grey heaved up and then stood i spitting blood, cursing and sucking his skinned knuckles. He was uninjured, but much chipped and bruised. The grey seemed sound though blown.
By and by he led along the gully to a place where he could angle up the bank, mounted and jogged back on his tracks. He soon met Joanna, yawing and sidling on a horse white with lather that fought her every inch. Had she tried she could have smoothed him easily, but she preferred to use the bit. i Tarrant grinned at her sheepishly. He was plastered with yellow dust which smeared his sweat-greased face grotesquely.
“Hullo! Having your troubles with the mare, I see. Easy on the bit and talk to her, I would.”
Her face was hard and her breath came I short.
“You’re impossible, tearing off like that. This brute might have killed me. And I’m half blinded with the sand you kicked in my face.”
His expression changed with surprise at the venom in her tone.
“I say. P’raps it was a bit thoughtless of me—but I thought you were along. It was I that damed horse. I never saw anything like it. Please, do forgive me. But that ; mare you’re on couldn’t hurt a thing, Joanna; and—you really should know better than to ride in a fellow’s tracks and catch his dirt.”
She drew her breath for one of the outbursts which had always cowed poor Sammy Abbot. And then she saw the startled way in which he watched her face, and she remembered.
She swallowed. It was very hard but— only another week. So she said disconsolately with lips that shook a little:
“You might be sympathetic. The sand’s in my eyes and it hurts terribly. I’m filthy and miserably uncomfortable. And I was enjoying the morning so.”
He was disarmed and contrite at once.
“Oh, I say. I’m sorry. I was a thoughtless j pig. But we’ll go back and you can have a ! bath and you’ll be fine. Come on. A nice j gentle jog. Cool off all four of us just nicely by the time we’re in You really should have ! seen that horse, Joanna. He jumped a j nullah I would not have dreamed of trying,
! flew it in his stride and landed galloping. • .”
At the mention of the horse agam, a wave of impotent irritation swept over her.
ON THE NIGHT they were to start for Bombay they were sitting on the verandah after dinner. The mail-train passed through Ratangarh at the uncomfortable hour of two a. m., so that, with four hours drive to the station, they could linger with coffee and liqueurs and leave at ten o’clock.
Joanna’s inordinate conceit, always close to the surface, was still smarting. But to her ; intense satisfaction no further trace had been found of the chestnut horse, and she had been darkly pleased to note in the tone ¡of the native officers with whom he conI stantly discussed it a certain, scepticism that it could be as fine as he insisted that it was.
And she would not be compelled to dis! cipline herself much longer. This was his world, where she was at a disadvantage; yet she had captivated him in it. even though she had not been able to blind his eyes to a mere horse. Soon they would be in a world all hers. They would be married quickly and then her life would begin again—the life devoted solely to her entertainment, in which she bullied everyone whom she could bully and avoided everyone she could not.
She stole a look at Tarrant as he sipped his coffee, his profile sharp against the darkness in the yellow lamplight. It was a fine ¡face, the face of a gentleman; youthful.
I even sweet, but with no weakness in it. The sort of face that would grow firmer, wiser with the years, and whose boyish eagerness j would change to strong, kindly humor. But I she saw none of that. She saw only a splendid Í and distinguished blonde young man who j wore his clothes with an air and would ! grace any gathering. And she knew her beauty thrilled him, and that his naive
masculine protective instinct inevitably responded to a cry for help or sympathy.
Yes, he was a catch. She’d show those snooty cats in Delhi whether they could get her down.
He felt her regard, and turned and smiled at her. She was very lovely. The turbulence of her emotional conflict had made her doubly vivid—pille face, big. liquid eyes, and body sleek and graceful as a deer’s.
“Peach of a night for the drive,” he said. “Be hottish on the train, though.”
She smiled her best for him, and saw his eyes kindle in return. And she was surprised to realize that she, who had been cold toward so many men, was thrilled delectably at his admiration.
Spurs jingled on the lawn and two figures loomed into the lamplight at the foot of the steps.
“Yes? Hullo, Sawai Sing. Come up. Is anything wrong?”
The havildar came up, tall and swaggering, with his big black beard, white teeth and rakish turban. Two steps behind him, meek and self-effacing, came Salomon Aziz.
“Huzoor, we have found this horse.”
“No! Not the chestnut! I was told that before.”
“But verily, huzoor, and he is for sale. His owner has been heavily fined and needs money.”
Tarrant’s lips parted and his eyes were eager.
“My lord! What’s his price?”
“We do not know. We have not seen the owner, but found his man with the horse in the city and caught up with him in a blind street. He is here at the gate, being outside the law with his master and afraid to come into a sirkari sahib.”
Tarrant sprang up.
“Excuse me, please, just a minute, Joanna. This is interesting.”
He ran down the steps into the dark, followed by Sawai Sing. Salomon Aziz remained standing against a pillar wreathed in jasmine, with his talon hands crossed on the knob of his long staff and his pale face between the long curls above them. A long, gorgeous oval, absolutely motionless, he looked like some resplendent beetle upended fantastically in a fairy-tale. Only his eyes, black and intense, betrayed the vitality that burned in him.
Joanna lay in her chair, slowly turning her liqueur glass, while her foot went tap, tap, tap. Her face was not nice to see.
THE NIGHT was hot and still. From the serai came the throb of drums and a wailing song, heard faintly through the night-things, shrilling. The moughra wreathing the pillars poured down its heavy perfume.
Suddenly she caught her breath and set down her glass with a vicious snap.
Salomon Aziz said silkily, in the tone of the most intimate commiseration:
“Take it not bitterly, princess; it was ever thus. Women are cheap and many when a man is young, good horses few. And when a rare horse comes by, the loveliest woman must take second place.”
The blood rushed to her head and back again, leaving her pale. She sat up in her chair and drew her breath, but before she could release the invective that his insolence had spurred up in her, Tarrant came up the steps in two long strides and stood between them':
“Joanna, would you mind very much if we put off going until tomorrow? A most unexpected thing has happened. The owner wants to sell that chestnut—has only just decided—and the horse is sure to be snapped up by the first man who has the price. I’d give my eye-teeth to own him, and this fellow that Sawai Sing has caught will take me to his master’s camp on my promise to respect his confidence. It’s three days till the races yet, you know, so we won’t be late for them. Please let me go. I’ll make it up to you in Bombay, you’ll see.”
She sat as she had been sitting when he arrived so abruptly, started forward in her chair, her hands gripping the arms and her
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heart pounding in her ears, as she strove to i repress the words that fought for utterance.
And then beyond Tarrant’s form she was aware of Salomon Aziz again, and of a cur! ious motion of his shoulders. Salomon Aziz was laughing! He was laughing at her; he was convulsed with silent, evil mirth at her expense. Beside him stood Sawai Sing. She caught the gleam of the big Rajput’s eyes and looked up and met them, and as she did so he smiled—a large, superior and condescending smile.
And then it happened—the thing which she had known must never happen till after she was married; the thing which Sammy Abbot, who feared nothing else on earth, had feared; the thing whose insensate fury Salomon had heard not once but twice as he lurked outside her Delhi bungalow with his Gilgit rugs. She lost her temper. And with it she forgot the thin but hard veneer she had acquired.
“Who do you think you are?’’ she snarled at Tarrant. “Messing me about and making me a laughing-stock of every nigger in the country? Look at them. Look at those black devils laughing at me!”
Shocked and startled, Tarrant turned to the two natives behind him. The face of Sawai Sing was as expressionless as a wooden door. Salomon Aziz returned his hostile glare with bland and unaffected courtesy. Tarrant said:
“Really, Joanna, I—”
“Oh, shut up! I’m sick to death of you and your everlasting horses. Horses, horses, horses, horses. Blast you and your horses ! I’ll have you know' I’ve turned down a dozen better men than you. I’ve never been so insulted in my life. I wouldn’t—I’ll see you—Oh, you fool ...” She stopped perforce, inarticulate with rage, and then, looking into Tarrant’s eyes and seeing there a man whom she had never seen before, she realized what she had done.
He returned her stare with a most unboy ish look. He had seen the snarling lip; he had heard the hard, bitter ring, the lowbred stridency, in her unguarded voice; and his fastidiousness was affronted in a way that nothing could wipe out. He looked ten years older, and very much a man. He said:
"I’m sorry. The offense was mine. I did not realize that my request was such an imposition. But since it means so much to you to leave tonight, I am at your service.”
She tried to make a courteous and conciliatory reply, but what her mouth said for her was,“Oh, suit yourself. What do I care?” And she saw in his face distaste utter and final.
MORNING PARADE was over, stables done, and the Kuru detachment had gathered about their native officers and the ressaldar major from Ratangarh. They squatted on the hot stones on their haunches in the glaring sunshine, while the hoofs of the restless chargers rang on the stones behind them and the kites screamed overhead.
Sawai Sing addressed them:
“Brothers, that thing which we set out to do has been accomplished. It fell as Salomon Aziz foretold: the woman’s jealousy betrayed her jackal’s heart, and our lord’s eyes were opened. In ten days he will return—alone. But I am not easy. As he left he pressed on me rupees, saying: ‘Sawai Sing, here is every anna I can spare for the next year to come. As thou lovest me, get me that horse.’
“Eight thousand rupees he gave me, and thou knowest twenty thousand is the price we had to put into the hand of the man of Cutch in case the best stallion in the North should die while we had use of it. In ten days our lord will return, hurt in his pride and humbled because he gave of himself to an unworthy woman and she shamed him before me and before Salomon Aziz. He will say to me, ‘Where is the horse?’ And what am I to answer?
“Therefore I say, brothers, let us find the twelve thousand more than he could offer and buy it. Let the money be a gift to him and to this regiment which his grandsire founded and our fathers loved. No other regiment will have such a charger, and at the stud farm he will beget for us foals, so that presently we shall all be mounted as are kings. Six hundred rupees of mine were pledged for the loan of the horse, and this I give gladly if we may but contrive to achieve this thing. Let each man offer what he can, and the ressaldar major has said that he will raise the rest from the regiment at Ratangarh. Which of ye now will give of the money that was put up in pledge?” An eager chorus answered:
“I, Sawai Sing!”
“Twenty rupees will I give.”
“All that thou hast of mine for the horse now, keep.”