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

The delight and excitement which is felt by most travellers on a first introduction to the East was dimmed in Katrine’s case by the pressure of events past and to come.  The shadow of death had loomed too recently to be easily repelled.  The thought of what might have been pierced knife-like through the thankfulness for what was, and recovered life seemed a frail and dream-like treasure hardly as yet to be realised.

Katrine found some comfort in the fact that she was not alone in absent-mindedness and lack of appreciation, since Nancy Mannering also was far from her normal self.  She was restless, and on edge; at once excited and reserved, affectionate and chilling.  She would sit through a whole meal in silence, and leave the table chuckling with laughter.  She would drag Katrine out for drives through the hot, bright streets, play the part of show-woman with exaggerated fervour, and suddenly, for no apparent reason, stop short in the middle of a sentence, and refuse to speak again.  Excitement, reserve, tenderness, and sarcasm, followed each other in rapid sequence, and added not a little to the strain of the waiting days, but Katrine bore patiently with the varying moods, realising that to a woman of intensely practical nature the very fact of having opened her heart in the hour of danger would be enough to close it more tightly than ever when that danger was past.  “If we get out of this, your work is to forget!” Those had been Mrs Mannering’s own words, but, poor dear soul! she herself was evidently finding the task difficult, lashing herself for her ill-placed confidence!  Moreover, she also had a meeting in store...  Every time that Katrine’s reflections brought her round to this point, Mrs Mannering and her idiosyncrasies were forgotten in the whirl of her own thoughts.  So far as was possible she tried to shut her mind to what lay ahead, to encourage, rather than fight against, the languor of mind and body which gave a dream-like unreality to life.  As Jim Blair had said, this time was a rest by the way, a No-man’s land, when her chief duty was to rest and gather strength.

On the third day the two ladies started on their three days’ journey up country, under the most luxurious conditions which it was possible to attain.  Everything had been thought of, everything arranged; agent and officials waited upon them with an assiduity which the older traveller, at least, had no difficulty in tracing to its source.  Short of climatic exigencies the long journey was robbed of discomfort, but the length, the heat, above all the dust, made it nevertheless a trying experience to the English girl.

At first the novelty of the country arrested her attention, but long before the four days were over, interest had evaporated, and she was consumed by alternate longings to reach her destination, and a panic of dread at what awaited her when there.  How incomprehensible to be dreading a destination which meant Dorothea, and the fulfilment of a lifelong dream!  How still more incomprehensible to find it an effort to think of Dorothea at all!

After what seemed an eternity of waiting, the journey came to an end.  The train drew up before a little sun-baked station which was like a score of others that had been passed before, and on the platform stood a man in uniform, and a woman in white whose thin, sweet face was turned eagerly towards the windows of the train, and with a rush of pain and joy the traveller recognised the friend of her girlhood.  The two women kissed, and clung, and gazed, and fell back to gaze again.  On Dorothea’s face was written love and admiration, touched with the wistfulness of the exile.  This young, fresh girl was only a year her junior-how sweet, how pink, how English she appeared!  The sight of her was as a breath of green lanes sunk deep between flowering hedges.  Katrine’s eyes felt the smart of tears.  How thin, how old, how changed, but oh, how sweet! sweeter than ever, and with just the old, dear, loving ways.  As for Jack Middleton himself, he had improved in appearance, as men have a trying habit of doing, in contradistinction to their women kind.  He looked broader, more imposing, the loss of complexion was in his case little detriment.  When he had left England he had been but a lanky youth, now he was a man, and a handsome man at that.  Katrine looking on felt a pang of resentment.  This land of exile demanded many tolls of the women who followed their men-kind to its shores, not least among them the loss of youth and bloom!  Captain Middleton took charge of Mrs Mannering, and the two friends drove home together, hand in hand, but silent.  There was so much to be said that it seemed difficult to begin, and Katrine was subtly conscious that Dorothea shared her own feeling of shyness and strain.  Three days had passed since Bedford’s return, the story of the wreck had been told-how much, how little, had Dorothea divined?  Each moment Katrine braced herself to hear a name-two names; when time passed on without mention of either, the silence but added to her strain.

At each turn of the dusty path she glanced ahead with shrinking eyes, each bungalow held a possibility, a dread.  Did he live there?  Was he perhaps even now looking out from behind those shrouding-blinds?  And of what was Dorothea thinking as she sat so silently by her side?  The look in her sweet, tired eyes, the clinging touch of the thin hand were so eloquent of love that Katrine’s heart could not but be content with her welcome, but her thoughts were awhirl.

It was a relief to both women when the bungalow was reached, and the appearance of the small son set their tongues free.  Dorothea flushed with pride as she listened to her friend’s appreciation of her son’s beauty and charm, and the urchin, scenting the arrival of a new slave, put forth his best wiles.  He was a beautiful child, but in a colourless, fragile fashion which differentiated him sadly from the children at home.  As Katrine held his limp little hand and looked at the tracery of blue veins on the delicate forehead, her heart swelled with pity and tenderness.

“I held a child, a little boy like this, in my arms all the time in,-in the boat, Doll!” she said softly.  “He comforted me!  I realised then- what it might mean-”

“Yes!” Dorothea’s voice had an edge of pain.  Her own treasure was held by so frail a thread that the value of him could not be discussed.  Katrine divined as much, and switched the conversation to the safer subject of appearances.

“He’s adorable, Doll.  A gem!  Beyond all my dreams.  And such a discreet blend!  Your eyes, and Jack’s nose.  Jack’s hair, your complexion-”

“Ah, my dear, that’s a lost joy!  Don’t talk of complexions to me, and you so pink and white.  Katrine, you are so pretty!  I never thought you were going to be so pretty, though, of course, I’ve had photographs.”

Involuntarily Katrine’s eyes turned towards the mantelpiece, where a certain photograph had been wont to stand, a bold photograph which had made eyes at bachelor guests; had first pitied, and then decoyed.  “I give you my word it looked as if it wanted to come!” The blood rose in her cheeks; looking across the room at Dorothea, she perceived that she also had flushed.  Had she read the unspoken thought?

Once again the child’s garrulity came to the rescue, but while she played with him and drank her tea Katrine was conscious that Dorothea’s eyes were wandering towards the clock, and that she was summoning courage for an announcement which had to be made.

Presently it came.

“Shall I take you to your room, dear?  Your boxes have arrived and you must be longing to have a bath and change.  And it’s getting late.  Pour o’clock.  There is just an hour before-Jim comes!”

“Comes here?”

Dorothea nodded.

“He insisted.  I tried to make it later, but it was no use.  Five o’clock, not a moment later.”

Katrine rose hastily.  Suppose he came earlier, and found her unprepared!  She was eager to reach the stronghold of her own room.

“I think,” she announced haughtily, “it’s presumptuous!  One wants a little time...  Send word that I’m tired, and prefer to wait until to-morrow.”

Dorothea held out her hands with a gesture which signified that she might send as many messages as she pleased, but the result would be the same.

“I’ll stay in my room!” Katrine threatened.

Dorothea laughed.

“It would make no difference!  He’d interview you through the door, he’d say all that he had to say, only-we should all overhear!  It’s no use, Kitty, you might as well give in.  When Jim Blair makes up his mind it’s useless to fight.  He carries it through.”

Not this time!  Katrine said to herself.  Not this time.  Nevertheless it seemed impossible to avoid the meeting.  It had to come.  Perhaps the truest wisdom lay in getting it over.  She looked at Dorothea, a deep questioning glance, mutely imploring confidence, but Dorothea would speak of nothing but such practical matters as baths, the temperature of water, the opening and unpacking of trunks.  Not once had she mentioned Bedford’s name.  How much, how little, did Dorothea divine?