The Summons (novel)/VII

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Just outside Senga to the north, in open country, stands a great walled zareba, and the space enclosed is the nearest approach to the Garden of Eden which this wicked world can produce. The Zoological Gardens of Cairo and Khartum replenish their cages from Senga. But there are no cages at Senga, and only the honey-badger lives in a tub with a chain round his neck, like a bull-dog. The buffalo and the elephant, the wart-hog and the reed-buck, roam and feed and sleep together. Nor do they trouble, after three days' residence in that pleasant sanctuary, about man—except that specimen of man who brings them food.

All day long you may see, towering above the wall close to the little wooden door, the long necks and slim heads of giraffes looking towards the city and wondering what in the world is the matter with the men to-day, and why they don't come along with the buns and sugar. Once within the zareba, once you have pushed your way between the giraffes and got their noses out of your jacket-pockets, you have really only to be wary of the ostrich. He, mincing delicately around you with his little wicked red eye blinking like a camera shutter, may try with an ill-assumed air of indifference to slip up unnoticed close behind you. If he succeeds he will land you one. And one is enough.

Into this zareba Harry Luttrell led Martin Hillyard on the next morning. Luttrell had an hour free, and the zareba was the one spectacle in Senga. He kicked the honey-badger's tub in his little reed-house and brought out that angry animal to the length of his strong chain and to within an inch of his own calves.

"Charming little beast, isn't he? See the buffalo in the middle? The little elephant came in a week ago from just south of the Khor Galagu. You had something private to say to me? Now's your time. Mind the ostrich, that's all. He looks a little ruffled."

They were quite alone in the zareba. The giraffes had fallen in behind and were following them, and level with them, on Hillyard's side, the ostrich stepped like a delicate lady in a muddy street. Hillyard found it a little difficult to concentrate his thoughts on Stella Croyle's message. But he would have delivered it awkwardly in any case. He had seen enough of Harry Luttrell last night to understand that an ocean now rolled between those two.

"On the first night of my play, 'The Dark Tower,'" he began, and suddenly faced around as the ostrich fell back.

"Yes!" said Luttrell, and he eyed the ostrich indifferently. "That animal's a brute, isn't he?"

He took a threatening step towards it, and the ostrich sidled away as if it really didn't matter to him where he took his morning walk.

"Yes?" Luttrell repeated.

"I went to a supper-party given by Sir Charles Hardiman."

"Oh?"

Luttrell's voice was careless enough. But his eyes went watchfully to Hillyard's face, and he seemed to shut suddenly all expression out of his own.

"Hardiman introduced me to a friend of yours."

Luttrell nodded.

"Mrs. Croyle?"

"Yes."

"She was well?"

"In health, yes!"

"I am very glad." Unexpectedly some feeling of relief had made itself audible in Luttrell's voice. "It would have troubled me if you had brought me any other news of her. Yes, that would have troubled me very much. I should not have been able to forget it," he said slowly.

"But she is unhappy."

Luttrell walked on in silence. His forehead contracted, a look of trouble came into his face. Yet he had an eye all the while for the movements of the animals in the zareba. At last he halted, struck out at the ostrich with his stick, and turned to Hillyard with a gesture of helplessness.

"But what can one do—except the single thing one can't do?"

"She gave me a message, if I should chance to meet you," answered Hillyard.

Luttrell's face hardened perceptibly.

"Let me hear it, Martin."

"She said that she would like you to have news of her, and that from time to time she would like to have a little line from you."

"That was all?"

"Yes."

Harry Luttrell nodded, but he made no reply. He walked back with Hillyard to the door of the zareba, and the ostrich bore them company, now on this side, now on that. The elephant was rolling in the grass like a dog, the giraffes crowded about the little door like beggars outside a restaurant. The two friends walked back towards the town in an air shimmering with heat. The Blue Nile glittered amongst its sand-banks like so many ribands of molten steel. They were close upon the house before Luttrell answered Stella Croyle's message.

"All that," he cried, with a sharp gesture as of a man sweeping something behind him, "all that happened in another age when I was another man."

The gesture was violent, but the words were pitiful. He was not a man exasperated by a woman's unseasonable importunity, but angry with the grim, hard, cruel facts of life.

"It's no good, Martin," he added, with a smile. "Not all the king's horses nor all the king's men——"

Hillyard was sure now that no little line would ever go from Senga to the house in the Bayswater Road. The traditions of his house and of his regiment had Harry Luttrell in their keeping. Messages? Martin Hillyard might expect them, might indeed respond to and obey them, and with advantage, just because they came out of the blue. But the men of tradition, no! The messenger had knocked upon the doors of their fathers' houses before ever they were born.

At the door of the Governor's house Harry Luttrell stopped.

"I expect you'll want to do some marketing, and I shall be busy, and to-night we shall have the others with us. So I'll say now," and his face brightened with a smile, as though here at all events were a matter where the bitter laws of change could work no cruelties, "it has been really good to see you again."

Certain excellent memories were busy with them both—Nuneham and Sanford Lasher and the Cherwell under its overhanging branches. Then Luttrell looked out across to the Blue Nile and those old wondrous days faded from his vision.

"I should like you to get away bukra, bukra, Martin," he said. "Half-past one at the latest, to-morrow morning. Can you manage it?"

"Why, of course," answered Hillyard in surprise.

"You see, I postponed that execution, whilst you were here. I think it'll go off all right, but since it's no concern of yours, I would just as soon you were out of the way. I have fixed it for eight. If you start at half-past one you will be a good many miles away by then."

He turned and went into the house and to his own work. Martin Hillyard walked down the road along the river bank to the town. Harry Luttrell had said his last word concerning Stella Croyle. Of that he was sure and was glad, though Stella's tear-stained face would rise up between his eyes and the water of the Nile. Sooner or later Harry Luttrell would come home, bearing his sheaves, and then he would marry amongst his own people; and a new generation of Luttrells would hold their commissions in the Clayfords. He had said his last word concerning Stella Croyle.

But Hillyard was wrong. For in the dark of the morning, when he had bestridden his donkey and given the order for his caravan to march, he was hailed by Luttrell's voice. He stopped, and Luttrell came down in his pyjamas from the door of the house to him.

"Good luck," he said, and he patted the donkey's neck. "Good luck, old man. We'll meet in England some time."

"Yes," said Hillyard.

It was not to speak these words that Harry Luttrell had risen, after wishing him good-bye the night before. So he waited.

Luttrell was still, his hand on the little donkey's neck.

"You'll remember me to our honorary member, won't you?"

"Yes."

"Don't forget."

"I won't."

Nor was it for this reminder, either. So Hillyard still waited, and at last the words came, jerkily.

"One thing you said yesterday.... I was very glad to hear it. That Stella was well—quite well. You meant that, didn't you? It's the truth?"

"Yes, it's the truth."

"Thank you ... I was a little afraid ... thank you!"

He took his hand from the donkey's neck, and Hillyard rode forward on the long and dreary stage to the one camping ground between Senga and Senaar.

For a little while he wondered at this insistence of Harry Luttrell upon the physical health of Stella Croyle, and why he had been afraid. But when the dawn came his thoughts reverted to his own affairs. The message delivered to him in the forest of the River Dinder! It might mean nothing. It was the part of prudence to make light of his hopes and conjectures. But the hopes would not be stilled, now that he was alone. This was the Summons, the great Summons for which, without his knowledge, the experiences of his life, detail by detail, had builded him.