Read CHAPTER XXIII. of An Unknown Lover , free online book, by Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey, on ReadCentral.com.

The view on reaching the deck the next morning was strangely impressive to Katrine’s unaccustomed eyes.  The sun’s rays flooded the great waste of sand, a limitless expanse crossed by ridges of barren hill.  Not a tree or a blade of grass was in sight.  All that Katrine had read and imagined of desert places had not prepared her for such absolute dearth, and the thought of her own green, sweet-smelling land came back to her with the traveller’s first pang of home-sickness.  A clergyman father was discoursing to a young son and daughter on the probable cause which had transformed the once fertile Lower Egypt and Palestine into their present and poverty.  Katrine, listening with a wandering attention, gained an impression of camels versus horses.  The Egyptians, declared the cleric, were a race of horsemen, owning sheep and cattle, cultivating the soil.  Palm trees shaded the surface, and extracted dew from the air.  Later, following the dominion of the Pharaohs, bands of nomadic Arabs wandered over the land with herds of camels, which consumed young trees, in preference to grass.  The centuries passed, and as the old trees died, and no new ones survived to take their places, the exposed grass withered and died.  The clergyman proceeded to illustrate his theories by pointing out the results of cutting down the forests of Australia, and Katrine went down to breakfast, recalling the garden at The Glen, with the shining drops of water standing on every leaf and twig, the sweet, moist smell of the earth.  Already with this first sight of the East, England had become dearer, more beautiful.

Captain Bedford had not appeared.  Katrine knew a pang of disappointment at the sight of his empty place, but each moment which passed seemed to deepen a nervous shrinking at the thought of meeting.  Had she said too much last night, been too confiding, presumed too much on his help?  She must be careful to show that she exacted nothing.  It was pleasant, of course, to have some one on board to whom one could appeal in an emergency, but companionship was another matter.  She must keep out of his way.  She hurried through her breakfast, reached the deck with a gasp of relief, and ensconced her chair in the quietest corner of the shady side of the deck.  Gradually, as the next hour passed by, the chairs around her were filled, until she sat hedged in, and hidden from the passing glance.  A book served as a screen, behind which she could study her companions, and peer nervously at each newcomer.  An hour passed before Captain Bedford came in sight, looking taller, browner than ever, in a loose white suit.  Katrine spied him afar off, caught the quick turn of his head, searching the rows of chairs, and involuntarily bent lower to conceal her face from view.  She kept her head bent, the blood rising in her cheeks, until a child’s cry, followed by a general ripple of laughter from the surrounding throng, roused her curiosity.  She recognised the cry as coming from an urchin of three or four years, a noisy, obstreperous morsel, especially abhorred by elderly passengers, and raising her head beheld him swinging with clasped hand from the end of Bedford’s coat, his small fat feet kicking viciously at the white trousered legs.  The brilliant idea of annoying a new-comer had occurred to the imp just at the moment when the Captain happened to pass by, and for the moment the situation was his own.  Only for a moment; then a strong, lean hand detached his grasp, and lifting him as lightly as a giant would lift a pigmy brought him round face to face.  Then the lookers-on beheld an amusing scene, as regarding him the while with a calm, expressionless face, the big man taught the youngster a lesson out of his own book.  Gently, deliberately he swung him to and fro by the tails of his own short coat, reversed him slowly, so that for a breathless moment he dangled by his feet, balanced him by the chin, tucked him under one arm, brought him out beneath the other, and finally swung him over one shoulder, and dropped him lightly as a feather upon the deck.

The urchin staggered against the gunwale, and gaped bewilderment.  Up till now, frowns and threats had been his only punishment, and to these he was scornfully impervious.  “They” were always “going to,” but “they” never “did.”  To provoke a storm of invective was the deliberate object of his tricks; he pranced the deck during its delivery, rejoicing in his triumph, but now for the first time he had met his master.  He stood staring, his fat face blank with surprise, while the onlookers chuckled approval, seeing themselves avenged in this humiliation of a common enemy.

As Bedford straightened himself, his eyes met Katrine’s, and contracted in quick recognition.  The flushed, laughing face stood out in charming contrast among the pallid, elderly throng, but the laughter was replaced by embarrassment, as scattering apologies to right and left, Bedford made a bee line towards her through the serried chairs, and seated himself on the deck at her feet.

“Morning, Miss Beverley!  I was wondering where you had hidden yourself!”

“Good morning.  Thank you very much!  I’ve wondered several times how one would be able to endure the Red Sea, and Jackey at the same time, but he will have no spirit left in him, after that trouncing!  He deserved it, little wretch, but-are you always as drastic in your retaliations?”

Sitting on the deck, his hands clasped round his knees, looking up smiling into her face, he looked young, almost boyish, despite the crow’s-feet round his eyes, the powdering of grey above his ears.  Katrine felt young too, lapped with a delicious sense of well-being.  To one who had never before been out of England it was an excitement just to be able to wear dainty white clothes, to sit screened beneath double awnings, looking out on a blaze of light.  It added to her content that her companion looked so young, that his eyes twinkled when he smiled.  The night before his face had shown lines, which she had interpreted as signs of the suffering of the past months, but this morning he looked rested and refreshed.

“Oh, that nipper!  We shall be good pals after this.  He only needed a lesson.  I like kiddies,” he said easily.  The fingers which had swung the sturdy youngster with such ease, flicked daintily at a scattering of dust on his sleeve.  Katrine noticed the shape of the fingers, long, pointed, the nails filbert-shaped, and carefully manicured.  His toilette suggested a consideration of ease above fashion, but the hands were evidently tended with care.  The woman in her approved the distinction.

As Katrine looked round the deck she noticed more than one pair of eyes riveted upon her in curious scrutiny, but neither Mrs Mannering nor Vernon Keith were in sight.  She divined that the latter was deliberately keeping out of her way, and struggled after regret.  She was anxious to introduce him to Captain Bedford, at the same time there was no denying that a tete-a-tete was more agreeable than a triologue.

“Sister Anne, Sister Anne, is there anybody coming?” said the deep bass voice in her ear, and she turned towards him with a shrug.

“No!  But I was looking to see if there were!  I want to introduce you to Mr Keith and Mrs Mannering, the lady who shares my cabin.”

He did not reply, and Katrine looking down in surprise, caught a frowning of the forehead and pursing of the lips which betrayed obvious disapproval.  He met her glance, and smiled back with an attempt at alacrity which was far from convincing.

“Certainly.  If you wish-”

“You don’t want to know them?  You would rather not?”

He frowned again, hesitating over the words.

“Honestly, I don’t.  I am not in a sociable mood.  I look upon these few days at sea as a holiday, when there is no reason why I should exert myself against my will.  I was relieved to find that there are so few military people on board, and if a man joins a ship half-way, doesn’t play bridge, and abjures deck games, it’s an easy matter to be left alone.  I promised myself never to enter the smoke-room until we reach Bombay, or to make an unnecessary acquaintance, but naturally your friends must be the exception.  Only-there’s plenty of time!  Don’t drag me into a vortex of sociability.”

Katrine laughed at that, but the laugh turned into a grimace.

“There is no vortex around met It comes to this, that if you know me and my friends, you will know no one else!  Mr Keith is taboo.  I’ve explained why, and Mrs Mannering is-is-” The while she sought for words, the blood rose in her cheek.  She was embarrassingly conscious that Bedford noticed it, and that his interest was heightened thereby.

“Is?” he queried, urging the confidence.  “Is?”

“Very nice to me,” continued Katrine desperately, “but ?”

“But?”

Again there was the same impasse.  Their eyes met, they laughed together, while Bedford hitched himself a trifle nearer her seat.

“It’s-rather difficult to explain!”

“Obviously! which makes me all the more anxious to find out.  Very nice to you, but ?”

“Prom what she said; from what I’ve heard, not always very-nice, herself!”

“I see!” Bedford’s jaw lengthened with a gravity which was the obvious cloak of laughter.  Katrine flushed still deeper, feeling countrified and raw, but it was true that Mrs Mannering chummed with the fastest women on board, and that the stray fragments of their conversation which she had heard had been far from savoury.  She tilted her head with a gesture of offence.

“I am afraid you think me a prig!”

The grey eyes dwelt on her face with a thoughtful scrutiny.

“Prig!  Do I?  I am not versed in prigs, but I hardly imagine that they would be likely to make your somewhat unconventional selection of friends!” He swung himself gently to and fro, his lips curving in a humorous smile.  “So we are to be ostracised, are we,-you and I, and the Waster, and the woman who is not-nice!  Left to our own devices, by this very worthy, commonplace crowd?  That’s good!  Thank heaven for that.  I think we can contrive to have a fairly agreeable time.  Prom my own point of view it’s a gain, but you are young, and it’s your first voyage.  You may regret the crowd.”

Katrine considered.  Certainly the voyage so far had been strikingly different from her expectations on embarking.  In imagination she had seen herself the centre of merry parties on deck, dancing beneath the awnings, competing in deck sports, forming friendships with young people of her own age, but there were few young people on board, and so far there had been no dancing.  The men played cricket on the sunny side of the deck, leaving the more shady regions for the loungers who did nothing; quoits and bean bags had each their votaries, but a single refusal, prompted by shyness rather than disinclination, had shut her out from their ranks, and henceforth she had been left severely alone, labelled undesirable, and mentally coupled with two of the most unpopular people on board.  It had been a disappointment.  Always when looking forward to a visit to India, the voyage had loomed large as one of the most exciting portions of the whole, but the first days at sea had been far from exciting.  Suppose that Captain Bedford had not come on board, that she had been left to the tender mercies of Vernon Keith and Mrs Mannering, knowing full well that even while they talked with her, the one was longing for the smoke-room, and the other for bridge, and spicy recollections-how long, how drearily long would have seemed the days which were yet to come!  If Bedford had not come on board; but he had come; he was even now sitting at her feet, scanning her face with intent eyes.  In his presence disappointment became a problematical thing; she knew herself to be abundantly content.

“I am quite happy,” she said simply.  “I have plenty of gaiety ahead, and I can understand that you want to be quiet.  It must have been- hard, to be so ill, and to have been constantly thrown back as you were.  Feverish attacks are so exhausting.”

An indefinite murmur was the only response.  Katrine noted a sudden stiffening of the lines of the figure:  he ceased to swing to and fro, and sat grave, almost stern, avoiding her glance.

“Miss Beverley,” he said suddenly.  “May I ask you a favour?  I am grateful for your sympathy, but the subject is painful.-I had rather avoid it.  For the moment I am well, as you see-will you humour me by forgetting anything else?  It’s a holiday time, you know.  A few days stolen out of the year in which to laze, and be happy, and-drift!  Can’t we leave it at that?”

“Of course.  Of course.  I’m sorry!” cried Katrine eagerly.  Her eyes were soft with tenderness and remorse, for this man’s malady was of no ordinary type.  She knew him to have been threatened by a fate a hundred times worse than death, and reproached herself for having touched so sore a wound.  She nodded a glad agreement.

“Yes! we will.  We will just take up our friendship from now, and be like children living in the hour. I’ve had a bad time, too, and for the first time for years I’m free from responsibility.  It’s a heady feeling, and I feel capable of being as frivolous as you please.  Forward be our watchword!”

“Right oh!” he called cheerily, and stretching himself stumbled to his feet.  “Then let’s go for a walk!  One gets cramped sitting cooped in here, and there are,” he lowered his voice, “so many ears!  That looks like a Bedouin camp over there!  You are missing all the sights...  Come and look...”

Katrine followed eagerly to the prow of the vessel, and beheld a small ferry-boat crossing the canal, laden with a load of vague moving shapes, which on closer investigation proved to be donkeys.  On the shore a number of camels were already lying, their fore-legs tied together.  As the vessel approached a donkey was pushed from the boat into the water, it went down head first, and emerged a limp and sorry object, which was nevertheless unwilling to go ashore, and struggled feebly to rejoin its companions in the boat.  Next moment there was consternation on board the ferry, for the wash of the great steamboat made it rock until men and donkeys had much ado to retain their places.  One turbaned figure curled up suddenly at the bottom of the boat with a donkey seated on its lap; the onlookers caught the roll of dark round eyes as the ship sped past.  Even in that undignified attitude there was an air of composure about the figure, of placid acceptance of fate, while his companion cast never a glance at the towering ship with the throng of white faces leaning over the rail.  To the travellers they themselves might be an unusual sight, but to the Easterners this passing to and fro was an ordinary event, of infinitely less importance than the landing of donkeys!

Suez was an agreeable surprise, with its square white houses clustered among palm trees, the mountain in the background showing rosy red in the sunshine.  The vessel came to rest in the roads, and the passengers who were new to the scene welcomed the arrival of a raft of small boats with their various objects for sale.  Bedford pointed out the crates of fresh vegetables for consumption on the voyage, which had come by train from the valley of the Nile, but Katrine had no interest to spare for such mundane articles.  Her eyes had caught the gleam of shell and coral, and her eager gesture pointed her out as a probable prey.

“It’s no use saying they are rubbish.  I like rubbish!” she declared, brushing aside Bedford’s protest, and nodding her head eagerly in reply to an outstretched hand.  “I have some money in my pocket, and I’m pining to spend it.  I’ve lived all my life in an English village, remember, and finery goes to my head.  Coral suits me, too.  Do make him come!”

“Don’t worry.  He’ll come fast enough.  Do you think you could manage to stand still, and not-prance?  He has doubled his prices already, and every additional prance will send them flying still higher.  In pity to other buyers-”

“Prance?  Who’s prancing?” Katrine turned an indignant face, but suddenly discovering herself perched on the tops of her toes, abandoned the attempt at dignity, and laughed instead.  “Don’t preach!  This is my holiday.  I’m not accustomed to negroes walking up ropes with trays of mysterious gems.-I shall be as excited as ever I please!”

Meantime one of the negroes manning the small craft was deftly making his way towards the main deck.  The rope grasped firmly between his great toe and the next, he walked up the halyards bearing the tray of gewgaws with an easy balance, the while the Arab trader leaned his weight on the edge of the boat nearest the ship, making it keel over until the climber could step on board.  So swiftly, nimbly, and smilingly, was the feat accomplished that the onlookers had hardly time to realise the wonder of it, before the glittering trays were pushed forward, and, while the hardened traveller shook his head and made off in opposite directions, novices to the East gathered thick as flies round a honey pot.

Katrine fell in love with half a dozen baubles, but her companion noted that they were among the least costly on the tray, pretty, inexpensive bits of colour, such as would satisfy a girl in her teens; the more costly she fingered admiringly, but laid aside with the trained resignation of years.  Only one article seemed to exercise a definite temptation, a dainty model of a banjo, in ivory and tortoise-shell, to which her fingers returned once and again.

Bedford watching her smiled over the by-play, convinced that temptation would override prudence, but he discovered his mistake when, with a final sigh, she thrust the dainty morsel aside, and gathering together a few trifles took out her purse to settle the account.

“You are not going to have the banjo then?” he enquired, and she shrugged her shoulders in reply.

“No.  It’s absolutely useless, and unnecessary.  That’s why I want it, but it can’t be done.  These little brooches and chains will do to send home to girl friends, and the coral is for myself.  I can’t afford any more.”

Bedford lifted the tortoise-shell, and turned it over daintily with his long, brown fingers.

“But it is good:  well made?  You consider it worth having?”

“I like it, yes!  It’s so pretty.  I don’t know if it is too expensive...”

“I was not thinking about the price.”  He fixing a gold piece on the tray, and for a moment Katrine held her breath.  Was he about to offer her a gift of an article which she had confessed herself unable to buy?  She shrank from the disillusionment which the action would bring, but Bedford slid the tortoise-shell into a capacious pocket, without so much as a glance in her direction.  Evidently the purchase had been made without any thought of herself.  Katrine drew a sigh of relief, and than incontinently sighed again.  Of whom was he thinking?  Single men in barracks did not indulge in such trifles for themselves, and Bedford’s interest in this special trifle had been of the most detached order.  Obviously he had questioned her to find out the feminine point of view, so as to decide whether the offering were worthy of its future recipient!  “Whom could it be?  I’ll ask Dorothea!” Katrine decided, and dismissed the matter from her mind.  But it returned; a dozen times that day she found herself speculating on the personality of the fair unknown, on the exact relationship which existed between her and her own escort.  They could not be definitely engaged, or some of the Indian letters would have mentioned the fact.  Perhaps his health had prevented him from speaking...  Perhaps now that he was stronger...  She tried to recall all she had heard concerning the few girls in the station.  And of course there were the married women!  Bedford might wish to take back remembrances to some woman who had shown him hospitality-to Dorothea herself, for example.  Katrine mentally insisted on this point, but in her heart she did not believe it.  There was something in the manner in which Bedford had thrown down that coin, in the silence in which he had pocketed his purchase, which to her feminine sensibilities betrayed a deeper interest.

“I will ask Dorothea!” Katrine decided once more, but before an hour was over curiosity had mastered her, and she was questioning Bedford about every woman in the station.  The result was as illuminating as such enquiries usually are, and no more so, for Bedford had a good word to say of each.  When she had exhausted her list of questions, Katrine sat silent, staring before her, her face grave and set.  Bedford looked at her askance, and his eyes danced, but all traces of amusement were carefully banished from his voice.

“You look very serious.  What are you thinking about so deeply?”

“I was thinking of what you have said.  I had no idea, from my letters, that you had so many-girls in the station!  That will be very nice.”

“I’m glad you are pleased,” he said suavely, and Katrine incontinently blushed.

That night she lay awake once more, struggling with a depression which she assured herself was well grounded.  If there were already several agreeable and fascinating girls in the station, her own arrival could not be of such moment as she had expected.  Dorothea would have other friends; Bedford had apparently one in special.  They would not need her, but-Jim would!  Jim had declared himself to be impervious to the claims of every other woman.  Poor Jim!  Katrine checked herself angrily.  Why poor?  This was the first time she had applied the derogatory epithet to her unknown lover.  She made haste to atone for the slip by an unusual endearment. “Dear Jim!” She repeated to herself, “Dear Jim!” and with a rush of loyalty and gratitude her heart opened to the memory of her unknown lover’s tenderness and understanding.

“Nothing can matter to me while I have Jim!” she told herself thankfully, and fell asleep holding fast to the thought.