Henry Curwen

Lady Bluebeard

[The welcome given to my little venture, Zit and Xoe, when it was reprinted from Blackwood’s Magazine, has tempted me to try fortune again with a longer story, which recently appeared, in a slightly different form, in the columns of The Times of India. To the proprietor of that journal I now beg to tender my thanks for the right of republication.]

Chapter I

I came across her first in the oddest corner of the world you can possibly imagine—in the Garden of Eden, the veritable Garden of Eden, a dank desolate marsh, where the muddy waters of the Tigris and Euphrates meet together. She was the brightest, sunniest, most attractive woman I had ever seen. Four strong men in sheepskin were carrying her over the mud. She wore a Terai hat coquettishly draped with a pale pink veil, a white dress, and a white muslin fichu. She was fanning herself lazily with a big black fan. And had it not been for the fan and the fichu, there was something boyish as well as girlish in her, too, as she rebuked her men, after she had been gently set down, for attempting to help her over a puddle.

She was blithesome and lithesome, with the graceful easy gait of a goddess that only comes to beautiful women. Her hair, too, was honey-coloured, just as in the old Greek legends, and it had somehow slipped down from under her hat and hung all over her shoulders. I suddenly remembered where I was. She was Eve, of course, and by-and-by I should see the apple and the serpent. The situation began to be interesting. I said nothing till she came close up. Then, as she saw me, she started a little. A quick, faint glow passed over her pale cheeks, and died away again. But there was a glint in her soft, grey, melancholy eyes, as of flashing steel, when they first met mine.

“Are they sawing that tree down at your bidding?” she asked, almost rudely.

“I have paid for it, madam,” I replied, lifting my hat.

It was the Tree of Good and Evil.

A dear old fool of an uncle, to whom I am perhaps more indebted than I quite like to realise, was responsible for the absurd position I occupied at the moment. He believed that Englishmen and Scotchmen (he was Scotch himself) are direct descendants of the lost Ten Tribes, and he was a devout disciple of an extremely loud and vulgar gentleman who went about expounding this extraordinary theory to the working classes. When I told him that I was off again on my travels, this time to India and Tibetan Tartary viâ Asia Minor, he gave me the cheque which I am ashamed to say had been the primary object of my farewell call. And then he asked me to look in at Kurnah, so as to ascertain if the Tree of Good and Evil were still standing there, as his old friend Mr Inche, of the Tigris and Euphrates line of river-steamers, assured him it was.

“Send it home, my boy,” he said. “Let me show it, with your own certificate written on the spot, at the next meeting of the British Association, and I’ll think about doubling your allowance.”

Naturally I am a man of few and modest wants. But if my dear old uncle’s money-making habits had driven him half crazy, I could not yet afford to be altogether crazy myself. Some of my creditors had been absolutely rude during my last week in town, and as my journey had now, from no fault of my own, suddenly assumed the form of a pilgrimage, I got into a comfortable sleeping-carriage of the “Orient Express” at Paris, determined to go straight on whatever happened.

The old pilgrims, if history can be believed, which is more than doubtful, used to boil the peas they put in their shoes. With this thought in my mind, I had little or no difficulty in slipping a five-franc piece into the guard’s hand before starting. This secured me three times as much room as I needed in the sleeping-car, and the choice of all the dishes as they came into the dining-saloon. The cuisine and the wines were not at all bad. The cigarettes and French novels I had laid in at Paris were exceptionally pungent, and the climate, after a week in Bayswater, was absurdly exhilarating.

Vienna, the pleasantest, and Buda Pest the naughtiest, city in Europe, I passed without a second thought. At Varna I was just in time to catch the Austro-Hungarian steamer for Constantinople; and there again, without even a glimpse of the blue pathway of the Golden Horn, I hustled myself and my traps into the Messageries boat for Alexandretta. At Bagdad I stopped four days, thanks to a touch of fever and the bruises inflicted by a succession of the most self-opinionated camels it has ever been my bad luck to throw leg across. But I had originally meant to spend half a year there at least, painting a picture of Ctesiphon as it was.

“Professor Owen, madam” (and here I addressed my explanatory remarks more particularly to the lady beside me, the lady with the melancholy mesmeric eyes and impatient fan)—“Professor Owen had succeeded in reconstructing the Dinornis from the fossilised fragment of one rib. The great arch at Ctesiphon was, I knew, much bigger than that, and with the great arch before me, surely I could paint Ctesiphon in all its glory—a city more extensive perhaps than London and Paris rolled together, and infinitely more picturesque than either. When I had dreamt over this magnificent scheme in my compact little house-boat off Medenham a month before, I could almost see, in front of the great archway, the broad street of brass-roofed houses peopled once again with the vigorous life of sturdier times than ours. There they were, the white-robed priests of the Sun and of the Moon; men of war bearing their bows unstrung, but equipped, man and horse, in scaly armour of glittering steel; trimly bearded nobles in their flowing gowns of gold and purple; troops of saucy singing-girls and dancing-girls, crowned with flowers and diaphanously clad; importunate vendors of date-wine and unleavened cakes; long files of weary camels, laden with fragrant burdens, and slowly led by the impassible dwellers in the desert; traders from the farthest corners of the world; slaves and slave-girls of every hue, pale and swarthy, bronze and black, from every region that paid tribute to the mighty Parthian empire; and over all, the sound of the pipe and the sambuca, and the full rich light of an oriental sun. What a past! But you sigh?”

“No, I think I yawned,” she said; “go on.”

“I will. I could hear the Magi chanting at sunset and sunrise. I could hear the songs and laughter of the ladies in their harems behind their gold and silver panelled walls, and the loud shouts of revelry from their lords below as they broached another wine-skin or applauded some strange dancing-girl. And in the far distance I could hear the murmur of universal approval that greeted my first Academy picture.”

“Well?”

“Well! As it was, I passed Ctesiphon complacently, my two legs cocked up on the two arms of a long Indian chair, and my attention more than divided by a plateful of crushed pomegranate which Captain Croly’s boy just then brought out to me from the saloon.”

The Tree of Good and Evil fell with a crash, as I tried to explain to my irate but fascinating companion all the difficulties of a position in which Mammon had too obviously got the better of Art.

She had, as you have seen, said little. But she had shrugged her shoulders from time to time a trifle impatiently; and when the old harridan, half Arab, half Kurd, who lived in a hovel close to by selling twigs of the sacred tree at a couple of piastres each, came out to claim the exorbitant sum of two gold Mejideh, which I had been weak enough to promise, my lady with the bewitching fichu and flashing eyes coolly sat down on its trunk.

“Your uncle must be a fool,” she said; “and if you will permit me to be frank, it is not difficult to see that you are the nephew of your uncle. The tree is an ordinary ficus. That old hag, who, by the way she is biting them, seems to be suspicious of your coins or your uncle’s, will only have to move her squalid little shanty two or three hundred yards lower down to find herself planted in the midst of a regular thicket of ficuses.”

“There should be only one,” I answered, venturing, as the tree-trunk was really my own, to sit down beside her.

“That’s exactly it,” she said. “That’s just why I made the men carry me over the mud to have a look at it. That’s the worst of one’s illusions. I have lost many of mine”—and here she toyed for a moment with her rings. “But ever since I was a little girl I have believed in the Garden of Eden, and now you and I are sitting upon all that’s left of it.”

“Take the log,” I said, magniloquently. “It is yours.”

“And your uncle?” she asked, the fierce look in her eyes and the frown on her snowy forehead dying softly away as if by magic.

“Oh, I will send him one from the thicket.”

She smiled. “You really have something in you after all. Never mind the whistle,” she cried, as a steamer on the river began to whistle most vociferously. “It is my steamer, not yours. I meant to go to Europe via Bagdad. But the captain is a perfect brute; there’s not a soul on board to speak to; and I may as well return to India with you.”

This was, to put it mildly, rather more than I bargained for, and as the steamer gave what, from its intense shrillness, could only be a final screech, I played my trump card.

“Your luggage, madam,” I said—“your luggage and your things!”

“Oh, Priscilla will see to them! She’s used to me. I’ve no uncle, thank goodness! and I always do as I like. So, as soon as you are ready, have your tree taken off to the steamer.”

Captain Croly had very kindly lent me nearly half his ship’s crew of sturdy Armenians. They came from Mount Lebanon, and did credit to its altitude, averaging six foot six each in, or rather out of, their stockings. They had retired discreetly when the lady suddenly sat down. But now I signalled to them to advance, and the tree was on board almost as soon as we were, and a long time before her luggage.

Captain Croly, one of the most charming—albeit one of the most taciturn—of companions a few hours before, when he was good enough to take me over Ezra’s Tomb, was far from courteous now.

“You are late, sir,” he said. “You have kept the steamer back. It was lucky for you that I could not sail without my crew!”

So much for me. Then, as, without noticing his rebuke, I continued to help my fair companion up the ladder, I distinctly heard him say a bad word to the chief officer.

The lady in the fichu, however, promptly disengaging herself from my attentions, had Captain Croly’s hat in his hand in a minute.

She was so sorry, she said; but really it was no fault of hers if the captain of the other steamer had been boorish and stupid, and so evidently unused to ladies’ society that, no matter at what inconvenience, she had suddenly determined to break up all her plans—the plans of years—and throw herself upon the mercy of the captain of the returning steamer.

Here she smiled sweetly, and Captain Croly, in his way of it, gave a grim response. If there are two steamers, the two captains, as in other walks in life, are two rivals. Without a word to me, Captain Croly handed her up to the capacious quarter-deck, and before I could reach it myself, he sang out to the men below to send a boat ashore at once for the lady’s luggage.

The luggage came eventually, and with it a ferocious big black female who answered to the name of Priscilla. She obeyed her mistress’s signals like a sheep-dog. Once only did she look at me before she disappeared behind a pile of luggage; but that one quick curious look almost curdled my blood.

“Go ahead! Ease her! Stop her!” shouted Captain Croly, and with a few more energetic ejaculations we got safely out into the open stream.

Then we went down to dinner, everybody feeling a little strange at first. She did the talking for us. But when the well-kindled callian, all aglow with live coals, was handed round to us at dessert, I was surprised to find Captain Croly devoting less time than usual to its soothing and fragrant breath. He handed it over to me almost directly, and then, in reply to an adroit question or two, he was good enough to tell us about the four lions he had once shot in five minutes on the river’s banks, and about the whale that, having drifted into the Shet-el-Arab, forged ahead exactly like a steamer pressed for time. She was killed, poor thing, not far from Bagdad, giving a shriek that went sobbing over the desert. This was, as I knew to my cost, a painful and pathetic story; and when Captain Croly’s crew had fairly got the hawser round the whale’s tail, our fair visitor rose, and with an almost imperceptible shiver, bowed a courteous good night.

The moon was shining so brightly when we reached the quarter-deck, that Captain Croly stopped the steamer for the night and moored her alongside the bank. On dark starlit nights the navigation was easy enough; but the deep shadows cast by a bright moon made it dangerous. This struck me as being odd at the time, and I only mention it here for the benefit of such of my readers as may not happen to have been in those parts. As soon as the steamer was safely moored, we lay down in our long chairs, pulling away silently at our pipes.

“A curious lady that,” said the skipper, as we parted for the night. “Even my old woman would feel the spell of her beauty. But I think my old woman would say it was ‘uncanny.’ Did you ever see eyes like hers? She is going to India with you, I understand? Good night, sir—good night.”

Then he wrung me warmly by the hand.

This was a long speech for Captain Croly, and the sympathetic shake of the hand a novel experience altogether.

Chapter II

The night was so cold that one could not possibly sleep on deck, and my slumbers down below were rudely broken by that wretched Tree of Good and Evil. It filled one side of my cabin, and as the night wore on, it assumed the weirdest and most monstrous shapes. Now my lady of the fichu sat buoyantly upon it. Now it creaked and groaned beneath the herculean form of her ayah. The soft depths of the mistress’s beautiful grey eyes lulled me to sleep. The contemptuous warning in every look her servant gave aroused me to a condition of the most wakeful revolt. Unable to bear the contrast any longer, I threw my resai off in a rage, and was on deck again before the sun had risen.

A troop of little Arab girls from the encampment just opposite were already swimming round the ship, splashing each other merrily, and quite ready, so soon as they saw me, to duck their picturesque heads into the muddy river, that enveloped them almost as completely as their discarded burnouses could have done.

“Backsheesh! backsheesh!” they cried; “have a dive! have a dive!”

The same thing had happened at several of our halting-places, much to the disgust of one of our passengers, a venerable and well-born Sheik, with whom I had spent the pleasantest and most entertaining hours of this somewhat tedious voyage. He had explained to me, time after time, that an almost perfect system of equality obtains between the members of each individual Arab tribe—though here, as elsewhere, age and youth have their natural influence, and, as in any English circle, the oldest men and youngest women carry the day. But there are, he was careful to add, tribes and tribes. Penury and comfort live cheek by jowl, and in the silent stretches of desert sands, just as in the roar and bustle of London, St James’s and St Giles’s are side by side.

“Ah!” he said, advancing slowly along the deck, “you mustn’t judge us with a stranger’s eager eyes from what you see. Hearsay evidence, bad as it is, is never quite so bad as the evidence of first impressions. There is, of course, a great deal we regret, but it is mostly due to strangers like yourself, and your mistaken notions of generosity.”

I had got up so early that I felt inclined to argue the question.

“Begging for alms,” I retorted, my teeth still chattering, “is a very old and very common failing, and an almost international necessity.”

“Not in Arabia,” he answered, gravely. “You only see it on the river’s banks, and only amongst the more degraded tribes. It has annoyed me intensely all the way down to see how quick you were to notice how those wretched little beggars in the water cried out, ‘Backsheesh! backsheesh!’ whenever I happened to be explaining our republican system of perfect independence towards each other, and our hospitality to all strangers.”

I quite agreed with my white-bearded Sheik as to the demoralising effects of indiscriminating alms-giving, and at one time, indeed, I had myself been an active member of the Charity Organisation Society. But no sooner had the Sheik retired below in dudgeon than I began to pitch out small silver coins to the agile little divers, who contrived, somehow or other, to pick them up long before the bottom was reached. I had spent perhaps a quarter of an hour amusing myself in this way, when my money-bag was suddenly, but very gently, taken out of my hand. A much more formidable antagonist than the Sheik stood beside me.

“What would your uncle say,” said my fair companion of the day before, “if he saw you making ducks and drakes of his hard-earned money? And, indeed, even your uncle, with all his eccentricities, wouldn’t find that young person, with the coarse wet hair in her eyes and a coin between her glistering teeth, a very edifying spectacle.”

“Her hair,” I interposed, “is only in her eyes because all Arab girls and women wore their hair in a fringe a thousand years before you European women thought of it.”

“Indeed, sir!” she retorted, instinctively putting her hand to her head; “and perhaps you would like us to go about in a river with a coin between our teeth. I hold to what I said. Your uncle would not find that swarthy Lurline of yours a very edifying spectacle. I think I should like your Ctesiphon Revived much better than that. Don’t you?”

“It would have been grander,” I answered; “but would it have been so natural?”

“Ah!” she said, “if you belong to the Naturalistic school, I have done with you. But you don’t mean to say that you got up at this unearthly hour to see if you could make those miserable little savages flounder about for your two-anna pieces?”

“Not a bit of it,” I retorted, rather nettled. “Your eyes and your maid’s were at the bottom of my early

“My eyes and my maid’s! You really must be gifted with a most extraordinary imagination. What have my eyes and my maid’s, as you call her, got to do with you?”

“They gave me a nightmare last night, that was all—a nightmare strong enough to last till I ran away from it.”

“Oh, Priscilla must have frightened you,” she said.

“Priscilla?”

“Priscilla. Yes; she had some outlandish name when she came to me first, but if you had been as much amused as I was with the wonderful characters she brought me, you would have christened her Priscilla too. Priscilla, the Puritan Maiden. Poor Priscilla! She is a faithful creature; but she always had an ugly knack of frightening people. All my friends say she has a dour and diabolical look about her. But I keep such a tight hand on her that I never notice it myself. I could not sleep either, sir—not because your beaux yeux vexed my slumbers, but because I had changed my plans so suddenly that I regretted the change before the other steamer was well out of sight. So I came on deck to see the sun rise over the desert, and there it is!”

And there it was, just on the horizon, throwing out broad bands of bright golden rays across the immeasurable stretches of the dull yellow desert that lay below, and fringing, with every shade of amber and violet, pink and purple, the low castellated banks of pearly clouds and the cool grey sky above. At sunrise, at sunset, and at midnight, when nothing breaks its restful and intense monotony, the fascination of the desert is complete.

My companion sighed. “What a glimpse of Paradise it gives one! What a chance of solitude and forgetfulness and oblivion! I shall envy Lady Hester Stanhope every time I think of it.”

Her eyes had a wistful far-away look in them as she watched the rising sun. She leant her beautiful arms on the bulwark. The broad sleeves of her morning gown had fallen back. As I looked at her, I thought she had forgotten my presence completely.

“You are an artist,” she said abruptly, half turning towards me; “you are an artist, and for the moment I was a poet! But if we are to go to India together, we cannot possibly continue to be he and she to our servants and each other. Don’t you think that, even out of deference to Mrs Grundy, we ought to be formally introduced? Captain Croly is still in bed, so why shouldn’t we make that wonderful sun our god-papa? Mr Artist, Mrs Poet!”

I wish I could put down on paper the inimitable coquetry of her gracious little head as she raised it from her tiny hands for a moment to bow sedately. I entered into the spirit of her comedy at once.

“Mr Hector Hicks,” I said, trying to mimic her, “allow me to introduce you to, to, to——”

“I like the Hector,” she answered, quietly—“I don’t like the Hicks; and perhaps that may account for my mixed feelings towards you from the first. Mr Hector Hicks, Lydia Fonblanque—Lydia to her friends, and to you, sir, Mrs Fonblanque.”

“What! you are married!” I cried.

“Not now,” she answered, gravely. “I have been married. But stop! Look!”

The sleepy Arab encampment directly in front of us, from which the little truants had swam out, began to show signs of active life. The curtains of the low black tents were thrown aside as if by some preconcerted signal, and a swarm of little colts and little children streamed into the open. Long-robed men lounged about, giving brief orders, each with a spear or a matchlock in his hands, each turbaned with heavy wisps of camel’s hair, but one and all standing out against the clear morning sky like statuesque silhouettes. The tents were deftly struck by some of the women; others hurriedly dispensed the morning meal of camel’s milk and dates and unleavened bread. The boys, with shrill cries, drove the horses, mares, and camels into marching order; and before our ship was fairly awake, the bustling noisy encampment had become a silent caravan, just disappearing round one of the reaches of the river. With it the fantastic glamour over land and sky and river also died away. The steamer, summoned to her senses by a shrieking whistle, gave a quick throb of vitality; and, commonplace tourists once more, Mrs Fonblanque and I retired below to prepare ourselves for breakfast.

Chapter III

When I came up again after breakfast, the river scenery had completely changed, and I pushed my deck chair well forward, so as to have a good long look at it. The very sight of the densely wooded date-gardens coming down to the water’s edge on either bank was an immense relief to my eyes after the utter desolation of the desert. Green always is a beautiful and grateful colour, and here I had it in a hundred different tints.

“If I could,” thought I, “but paint this striking contrast, I should go far towards illustrating the true nature of all sudden transitions.”

And gradually, as I pulled at my pipe, I sketched out in the smoke-clouds wreathing about me a fantastic picture of Life and Death, the grandest transition of any. Landscape scenery, however, is not everything, and even to be properly felt, it must be judiciously typified. For a fortnight I had, by land and river, rushed breathlessly through a scorching desert, with not even a stone the size of one’s fist to break the monotony of the sky-line. Now all the date-gardens on the river’s banks were teeming with industrious life. The labourers sang—a trifle huskily, perhaps—at their work; dogs barked; women gossipped; the shady grass-plot in front of every little hamlet of cosy mud-huts was all alive with children, naked, brown, and sunburnt; cattle lowed, goats bleated, and mares whinnied to their colts; and in the far shadow of these dark date-groves, long camel-caravans passed silently, solemnly, and sedately to and fro.

“Oh, to find one type for this variety!” cried I to myself. And then, impatient at the narrow limit put on human ingenuity, I wheeled my chair fiercely round, and so came directly alongside of Mrs Fonblanque, who, without my suspecting it in the least, sat there looking most intensely bored. “What a contrast!” I said to her. “Only a few hundred yards away, and the desert impressive in its loneliness, and almost appalling—”

“Appalling, certainly,” she answered; “impressive, no! I know nothing of the desert—and may I add, Mr Hicks, that I care as little? I came up here to be amused. Let us talk rationally.”

“Certainly,” I said, “and if you don’t like the desert, turn your head a little this way, and look at that beautiful bit of green fertility to the left. The date-palm, according to the Arab proverb, must always have her head in fire and her feet in water. The blazing sun is the fire, of course; and as for the water, you see it in those labyrinths of canals and little water-courses, passing from garden to garden and from tree to tree. Honour the date-palm, for she is your mother, said Mahomet —”

“And you are really trying to amuse me with rational conversation?” asked Mrs Fonblanque.

“Yes, I am,” I answered. “And I am trying to show you that a tree, like a landscape, must be typified before you can appreciate it justly. You remember how Burke traced back the emotions most men feel, when a new mountain-range comes suddenly in view, to the childish recollections of a mother’s fostering bosom?”

“I remember nothing of the sort,” she said, curtly.

“No! Nevertheless his theory still has its followers, in spite of Sheridan’s ill-natured question as to the manly emotions of a child, brought up by hand, at the unexpected display of a wooden spoon.”

“That’s much better,” she replied. “Now that you are talking about wooden spoons, you are quite yourself again. But you really can’t expect me to sit listening to what you say Burke and Sheridan, and Mahomet and the Arab proverbs, have said already. Be a little original for a change, or, if you cannot be original just now, talk about yourself. You say you paint. Is there nothing else you do?”

“I write sometimes.”

“I am glad of that,” she answered. “I am fond of books, and the kind of men who write them are good fellows at heart, once you get over their shyness. Shyness or conceit, which is it? Or are they one and the same things as with girls?”

“Very likely they are,” I said; “for, judging from the little I know of them, very young girls often show much the same symptoms.”

“That,” she said, “means poetry. But no man should ever be allowed to write a novel before he is forty, and no woman before she is twenty-five.”

In this easy way she drew me out. From my own little ventures we came to talk of the grand names that mark an epoch. And I began to stare at her, almost too openly, when some shrewd fragment of suggestive criticism showed that she understood the spirit of our own classical authors better than I did myself, and was very much more at home than I was with the modern German and Russian schools of romance.

It was a trifle too much, though, to have all manner of outlandish names flun in the face of one’s own mediocrity, and I retorted with a catalogue raisonné of the great English writers of the day.

“Yes, yes,” she said, impatiently. “I am sufficiently patriotic to think they can hold their own against their contemporaries. But what is that, after all? What is it?”

Then, dismissing the pigmies of the present with an imperious wave of her black fan, she continued, “Wait till women take their proper place in criticism as well as in literature. Have you ever tried to consider even Rousseau or Goethe from a woman’s point of view? They are giants if you like. They have each a direct personal influence still upon every man in their own countries. So much I grant you. But it is we poor women who have had to pay the cost of all their grand social revolutions. Your very votes—”

“Were won in blood,” I interrupted, trying to utilise my uncle’s favourite electioneering speech.

“Not in blood,” she answered quietly, “but in tears, and often very girlish tears. Rousseau and Goethe, and Shelley too, for that matter, all played on the hearts of the silly women who loved them, till they struck the right key-note; and inspired by this, they were strong enough to go into the outer world and speak like prophets.”

“Stop, stop!” I cried. “Helvetius spent fifteen years in elaborating that dreadful theory, and Diderot destroyed it in an afternoon.”

“Never,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “It is a theory all my own—”

“You mean,” I explained, “that love, or something like love, is the source of all action; that, as Helvetius says, without passion there are no wants and no desires, and that without wants and desires there can be no action, because there is no need for any.”

“No, I don’t,” she answered, quickly. “I mean nothing of the kind. I only mean what I say,—that women are weak enough to sacrifice their lives, as on an altar, so as to fire and inspire the men they love; and not a woman now (more shame to us!) but longs to be loved by some Goethe or Rousseau. So far from hating your selfishness, we adore it. We can only feel. Some day we shall think; and then, Mr Hicks, beware of us!”

“Why, my dear Mrs Fonblanque,” I cried, “you speak for all the world like Mr Mallock in the ‘Nineteenth Century’!”

“Oh, don’t talk to me of Mr Mallock!” she exclaimed. “Nothing could be more detestable than his women—except, perhaps, his men. His heroes go about with portfolios of improper photographs in their capacious pockets, and his heroines look at them. Faugh! Every time I think of Mr Mallock as a literary personage at home, I am thankful I have never set foot in England.”

“What! you have never been in England!” I cried out in the most honest and profound amazement.

“Never,” she rejoined. “I was going there for the first time, when I met you and turned back.”

We were both silent for five minutes.

“I thought that would startle you,” she said at last, with a singularly expressive smile. “But I mustn’t make myself out too much of a barbarian. I have been in Europe. Ah! now you look relieved. Papa used to take me to Florence for singing, and to Vienna for dancing. But he never would take me to England. Poor papa! All I know of literature I learnt out here from an old Jesuit tutor, and I am never quite sure whether he did not do me more harm than good. I was, of course, a child in his hands, and sometimes I think—”

Here Captain Croly, who had been pacing the quarter-deck for the last half-hour, came to a dead halt beside us, as if his endurance could hold out no longer. Our erudition had evidently puzzled him, and he had gradually slackened his speed as he neared us. But now he put an unequivocal stopper on our tête-à-tête conversation by saying, “Bussorah, ma’am, Bussorah, where, I am sorry to say, you both change over into the British-India steamer.”

Chapter IV

The dinner at the Residency that evening was in its way a brilliant affair. I tried to shirk it, but Mrs Fonblanque put a summary end to all my lazy scruples by condescending to twit me about my ungallant indifference as to what she might possibly look like when she took the trouble to appear in full dress. “They have called me all manner of horrible names in my time,” she said, “but they have never called me an antique. If you really care for nothing but the antique revived, stop on board, and finish your sketch of Ezra’s Tomb from a steamboat.”

I dressed as quickly as I could, and as we were to stay the night at the Residency, I huddled all my things into a bag. Then we went together in a bellem. The full moon hanging like a clear-cut disc above the dark masses of palm-trees in front, seemed unusually large and supernaturally bright and beautiful. There was an unspeakable charm of sadness and content in the soft evening air. From the farther bank the lights from the windows of the Governor’s palace shone in a pale and tremulous pathway across the rippling river. The band on board the Turkish man-of-war struck up a barbaric Tartar air as we passed by, and fitful snatches of solemn Arabic minstrelsy came to us most musically over the waters from the veiled and unveiled revellers holding high festival in honour of the glorious moon above them, and drifting slowly down the stream in innumerable torch-lit boats. It was one of those still nights that often precede a storm, when the air is charged with what, for want of a better name, we call electricity, and when silence itself is the only fit expression of the subtle sympathies so suddenly and so mysteriously awakened. I would have given worlds to have touched Mrs Fonblanque’s hand for a moment. But both of us were spell-bound.

When the water was too shallow for their oars, the boatmen poled us through a long narrow water-way that meandered in the most romantic and eccentric fashion among the graceful date-groves. Eventually we came to a broad flight of chunam steps, brilliantly illuminated for the occasion. I am always emotional, as any man must be whose life is devoted to some vague shadowy ideal; and now, indeed, it seemed as if we had really touched the enchanted ground described so minutely and so truly a thousand and one times over in the ‘Arabian Nights.’

Mrs Fonblanque sprang lightly ashore. Before taking my arm, she threw off her opera cloak and told me to carry it. She was simply dressed in a faint primrose-coloured gown, fitting her so perfectly that it scarcely needed the support of the almost invisible sleeves which, by some ingenious stroke of fancy, she wore on the upper part of the arm instead of over the shoulder. The soft outline of her white neck was almost concealed, and, as I thought, spoilt by the glittering diamonds that fringed her frock, and she had one spray of great brilliants in her yellow hair. Even the boatmen, as they delayed their departure, seemed to think that she was well worth a king’s ransom. A little dazzled and abashed by her beauty, I was trying to put the same idea in an unobtrusive way, when the Resident with a courtly bow took her from me.

Owing to my obstinacy we happened to be a quarter of an hour late. Dinner was announced at once, and I had to be content with a view of her from the other side of the table.

This made me rather sulky at first, until I happily chanced to remember that the famous Marquis of Hertford had once gained much artistic éclat in Paris by purchasing, not the picturesque little gem of a house which had suddenly fascinated him in an evening stroll, but a hideous structure opposite. “I like a beautiful house,” he said, when all his friends kindly remonstrated; “but you can’t see your house if you live in it, and I choose to live opposite.” This ingenious legend has befriended me at many dinner-parties since then, when the lady I would like to have taken in has not been allotted to me; and I was so pleased with the conceit at the moment, that after the soup was served I repeated it to the plump little Armenian lady who had fallen to my lot.

This was, of course, stupid and unpardonably impertinent, and she answered me very properly by trying to turn her nose up. But Nature, who had cast that sensitive feature in a decidedly Jewish mould, was against her. She could only throw disdainful glances at Mrs Fonblanque, as she sat in radiant state between the Resident and a gentleman whose soft brown eyes sparkled with kindly humour, and whose closely-shaven jowl showed the power and tenacity of a bull-dog. To be fit for anything, my uncle used to say, you must either have a big back to your head or a big jowl. My neighbour opposite apparently had both. But my neighbour beside me allowed me no time to study him. It was, at all events, in common civility, my first duty to appease her.

“It was stupid of me,” I said, in my most affable manner. “I am often stupid. I can’t help it. And, of course, Mrs Fonblanque’s style of beauty may not strike you as it has, I own, struck me. But why are you looking so scornfully at the gentleman on the right? What is he? Who is he?”

“Mr Wylie,” she replied, abruptly; and amidst the ever-increasing current of her rippling conversation, I recognised Mr Wylie at once.

Everybody in the Gulf, and indeed almost every Englishman in the East, knows Mr Wylie by name. He is the last of a useful race, a thoroughly orientalised Anglo-Saxon. Without losing touch of his own countrymen, he has contrived to completely identify himself with the people among whom his lot was at first very unwillingly cast. He came to Bussorah before the Mutiny, and has remained there ever since. The little bungalow on the Bussorah river upon which he painted his name thirty years before, has, with the expansion of the date trade, become a perfect palace. Here, if rumour can be trusted, you will find stately halls, paved and lined with rare Italian marbles, and round each of them sets of smaller chambers, their walls and ceilings covered with an almost unbroken expanse of costly Venetian mirrors. There are (at least my companion said so) mysterious doorways, hung with heavy Indian purdahs, and opening on to noiseless corridors carpeted with Persian rags of inestimable value. In the midst of the central quadrangle blooms, she said, the loveliest garden in Asia, concealing in the very heart of its huge-leafed tropical foliage an enormous swimming-bath, open to the air; and behind that again there is a luxurious suite of Turkish baths. This is something, not all. Mr Wylie, as even my neighbour allowed, has the reputation of being a jovial and indefatigable companion among the snipe and wild-duck along the river marshes, and a genial and generous host in the comfortable apartments attached to his new office on the banks of the broad Shet-el-Arab. But though no guest has ever been allowed to break the seclusion of his home, the silence that reigns there is confined to his own compound. Outside these narrow limits he is the centre of a hundred myths. Here to-day and gone to-morrow, he is supposed to know the East as no European has ever known it. No country, if money can be made out of it, is too remote for his personal attention. No business venture, however daring, is too perilous for him to attempt. No pleasure, Sybarite as they call him, has ever jaded his keen sense of physical enjoyment.

Here my attention was for the moment attracted to the other side of the table, but I heard the Armenian lady say something I could not quite catch, about slave-dhows and slave-girls and slave-dealing, something about bow-strings, and datura-poisoning, and mysterious sacks, and stifled midnight shrieks, and of a cast-iron conscience that no black and hideous crime could ever quicken.

Engrossed very naturally by the extraordinary interest now shown by Mrs Fonblanque in Mr Wylie’s conversation, I unhappily lost the thread, such as it was, that bound my Armenian lady’s arguments together. She was shrewd enough to see this.

“You are not listening,” she said. “You don’t believe a word I say. Wait—wait till to-morrow morning only and test me. Your boatmen, if you fee them properly, will show you what a horrible man and what a cruel man your charming friend’s companion is. They call his palace the ‘Bussorah Jail.’ It is the one show-place here; and though you can only see it from a distance, all our boatmen make a little fortune from strange travellers like you by pointing out the stone-barred windows, from which the black eyes of his wretched jail-birds flash hopelessly through the palm-leaves. Go and look, please go and look, and then, like your other friend, the Marquis, settle down in the mud-hovel opposite. You will, at all events, find it cheap.”

This withering sarcasm evidently meant that my Armenian lady wished to be just a trifle rude. But rudeness was apparently the order of the day. Our little dispute, if such a one-sided battle deserve the name, had, spite of all my efforts, become sufficiently noticeable to produce an awful pause. In the midst of it Mr Wylie said in a very dulcet but terribly distinct voice —

“Oh no, Mrs Fonblanque, excuse me! That is not what I meant. Ladies are all very well in their place. But our new-fangled Western ideas are completely wrong. Women should never be brought into any sort of rivalry with men. They are much too good, too beautiful, and far too fantastic for that. They should be kept in a seclusion almost sacred. I have enjoyed your lively conversation and your brilliant powers of repartee immensely to-night. It is an intellectual treat one does not often enjoy in Bussorah.” Here the Resident’s lady frowned at Mr Wylie. “But allow me to put it boldly: if you were a wife of mine, I am selfish enough to think that I should wish to keep all these attractions to myself.”

“Well,” replied Mrs Fonblanque, “we will take an extreme case, if you like. Suppose yourself my husband, what would you do with me?”

“I should put you under lock and key,” answered Mr Wylie, without a moment’s hesitation.

“You would lock me up, sir! Why?”

“Because the experience of countless ages tells me that it would be the correct thing, the only thing, to do. Believe me, my dear madam, ladies were never meant to be exposed to every wind that blows, and to be buffeted about until they become as angular and as case-hardened as men should be. They simply ruin the romance of their nature by taking part in those sordid domestic cares which should in every well-regulated household be intrusted to negro servants. They miss the essential beauty of repose which, like poetry itself, is the refined product of solitude and seclusion. Female individuality, self-will, or selfishness, call it what you may, is not understood in the East; and, judging from a lifetime spent here, I certainly think the East is right. But right or wrong, you must allow that more than seven-eighths of all the intelligent men in the world are of my way of thinking, to say nothing of ninety-nine per cent of the women, whether intelligent or natural.”

Mrs Fonblanque’s soft grey eyes had the old ominous glint of cold steel in them just then. Her face, still serenely indifferent, was perhaps a little flushed. But she kept her temper most admirably.

“I can allow a good deal,” she answered quietly, “for the sake of an amusing argument. You are wrong about your women, and we will put them on one side, if you please, and talk about the other eighth of your men—the men of educated sentiment, of refined, chivalric, and perhaps I may venture to say, European feeling; are they not to be consulted?”

“Not for an instant!” he answered. “They have been led away into a temporary rebellion against the very first laws of nature, and they must in the natural course of things get the worst of it. It is for us, madam, to recall them to a sense of duty, and if need be, to protect them. Pray don’t think me personal. You have, if you will permit me to say so, the most charming individuality. But let me multiply you by a hundred or a thousand, and you would be a shrieking sisterhood. Surely, knowing, as I do, how men are led away by female beauty and petticoat influence, it would be better to lock you up at once in some lovely and secluded spot where you would only work for good.”

Then, with a smile and a whisper, he laid the Persian apple he had been carefully peeling all this time upon Mrs Fonblanque’s plate.

I waited breathlessly. In spite of the deference of his manner, he had been so abominably rude that I could scarcely keep my seat. I still thought she would annihilate him. To my astonishment Mrs Fonblanque answered his whispered confidence with a mechanical motion of dissent. Then she rose, a trifle paler perhaps than usual, and coolly bowed to her hostess, who, if English etiquette means anything, should have bowed to her. The Resident’s lady rose very stiffly in reply. The other ladies were too interested in this entertaining little passage of arms to think of moving. Mr Wylie cut his own way out of the difficulty by nodding a careless “good night.”

Chapter V

“Thank God!” said the Resident, when the ladies had, after a modest interval, followed Mr Wylie through the doorway. “Wylie always goes early. But I wish he had gone half an hour sooner.”

“Some one ought to shoot him!” I cried.

“Oh!” said a neighbour, drawing his chair up to mine. “The Turks here were always trying to shoot him once. But they gave that up as a bad job long ago. Their bullets—so they said—turned to water in the air; and anyhow, he had an uncommonly light finger on a revolver trigger. He’s not the kind of man to pistol. I wonder what upset him so to-night?”

“Wylie knows her,” said a little wiry old man to my right. “Wylie’s no fool. No Turk or Arab here is generally more chary of his words. I never heard him say so much before. Take my word for it, Wylie knows her, and had a motive for every syllable he uttered.”

“Come, now,” said my other neighbour persuasively,

“You know something too. You know everything. Who is she?”

The little wiry old man to my right was the very last person I should have credited with accurate information of any kind, much less with universal knowledge. Nature, who generally knows what she is about, had put his small eyes close together in the first instance, and then, as if to emphasise her meaning, had subsequently developed the mean scowl upon his narrow forehead into a distinct mark of interrogation.

He was pleased with the compliment. “We are all friends,” he said. “Of course I know something, but my information is confidential” (the scoundrel, for divulging it!) “and must not go beyond the table. I had a letter of credit, and a private letter as well, telling me to do anything Mrs Fonblanque wished, and to give her as much money as she wanted. My principals, as most of you know to your cost sometimes, are the most cautious of all cautious people; and when, three days ago, I heard casually that the lady was here, I telegraphed to Bombay. They wired back: ‘Follow instructions, father became millionaire in Bombay Share Mania, father dead.’”

“Whew!” said my neighbour to the right; “is that all? Half of us here to-night were millionaires then, or thought so.”

In a moment Mrs Fonblanque and Mr Wylie were completely forgotten, and so was I. The flood-gates of Pactolus were opened. The golden river swept everything away before it. The furrowed, wizzened faces round the board borrowed new life from its glamour, and eyes that had grown weary and faint in banishment, and colourless and pale through prolonged despair, were suddenly relit with a glimmer of their youthful past. To any one but an artist, always watching for a sudden rise and fall in the human barometer, the change would have been inexpressibly painful. To me it seemed to supply the precise missing link in a very interesting little social theory. Which, I would ask any of you, are the greater nuisances over their wine,—the red-faced, big-headed, bald gentlemen who had nothing thirty years ago and are now immensely rich? or the unfortunate devils who live on the memory of a magnificent past? This had always been a moot question; and to be frank, it is a moot question still, now that I have had time to recover from the effects of that entertaining but disastrous evening.

“You remember our poor old doctor,” said one. “He was king of Bombay, sir (the English king, I mean), for a twelvemonth. He dealt one his scrip as if he were a conjurer showing a trick; and so, by gad, he was! All his cards were trumps. His wife had a pretty Scotch maid, and after his wife was confined, he tossed her maid an allotment share in the Back Bay Company by way of a tip. The girl, like a canny Scot, waited till she could sell for a lakh of rupees. Then she cleared out—and so did he a month afterwards, when the crash came. They smuggled him on board the P. & O. steamer safe enough. But the steamer’s engines, as luck would have it, broke down. She had to put back, and then the natives nobbled him. His bones, though, poor old chap, were scarcely worth the picking. He had nothing they could seize but an umbrella and a rickety shigram. So they clapped him in jail for six months, and that broke his old woman’s heart. When they let him go he traced out his wife’s maid like a sleuth-hound. ‘I gave you ten thousand pounds,’ he said. ‘I am starving; give me half of it back.’ ‘Not I,’ she answered. ‘You gave me a bit of paper which would have ruined me if I had kept it. But I shall always be happy to see you, sir, when you call.’ So he married her off-hand, and bought a practice at Dulwich with her money; and there he is now, driving a roaring trade, worse luck to him!”

“Never mind the doctor,” cried another. “You’ve had your rap at him once a-week for the last sixteen or seventeen years. I don’t wonder at the men losing their heads; but the women—faugh! You couldn’t sit down at a dinner-table without the lady next you telling you how many thousand rupees she had made since she got out of bed, and what she hoped to be worth the day after to-morrow. How they haunted that good-looking young Hindu speculator who started all the new companies! You could scarcely get into his verandah in the morning for the troops of fine ladies begging for allotments, and katowing to him and doing poojah to him as he squatted there stolidly in oriental state. Pshaw! The smash served us all out properly. We deserved it.”

“Speak for yourself, Brown,” shouted a little grey-headed gentleman, in high dudgeon, from the other side of the table. “The natives had the ball at their feet then, and they didn’t often kick it the wrong way. Look what they offered Currie. The night before he sailed for Europe they waited on him in a body. They thanked him so warmly for his invariable courtesy, that all the Europeans there laughed out. Courtesy was scarcely Currie’s strong point. They hung a great pearl necklace round his wife’s throat, worth a lakh and a half of rupees if it were worth an anna. Then they salaamed and offered him a crore of rupees down on the nail for all his investments as they stood. ‘Thank you, my friends,’ he said, with a grim smile. ‘My wife is gratified, and so am I. But both our heads are screwed on the right way. Our little investments will be worth a couple of million sterling by the time we reach Suez.’ The smash came. He was a pauper at Aden.”

“A pretty pauper!” muttered my friend to the left—“a pretty pauper, with fifteen thousand pounds’ worth of pearls round his wife’s neck. He took them to Hancock’s; and now he keeps a snug little inn in the Trossachs, and puts a good sum past every year, which is more than we do, eh, Brown?”

“Sir,” I said to the Resident, taking the first opportunity of moving to a vacant chair beside him, “I am a poor man myself, and out of place among so many millionaires. What are they talking of?”

“Of the Share Mania, Mr Hicks,” he answered. “They always talk of it over their claret.”

“Why?”

“Most of them were bitten,” he continued, dropping his voice. “But it was a wonderful time. The American war sent up the price of Indian cotton until Bombay became almost fabulously wealthy. The native merchants there brought out English coachmen from London, if you please, to drive them and their bare feet and bare legs about the Esplanade and Bandstand. The ryots up-country shod their bullocks with silver, and bought silver tyres for their bullock-carts. Every Englishman in the Presidency, no matter how poor he might be, thought he was a millionaire for a moment. The High Court officials, and the very professors of the University, threw up their appointments, and took to speculation as a trade.”

“But how did they begin? Where did they get the money?” I ventured to inquire.

“Money!” said the Resident, almost scornfully; “it is not money makes the millionaire, but brains—brains and brass! There was as little hard cash among them then as there is now. But the natives reeked of money. The banks were full of it. You were looked upon as a curmudgeon if you would not borrow. You wanted to take up shares in a new company, and there were new companies twice a-day, hot and hot. You went to a friendly banker who had been pestering you to borrow, and, on a promise to deposit the shares, he gave you a cheque to pay for them. You waited two or three weeks. Your shares had gone up two or three hundred per cent by that time. Then, if you were abnormally wise, you realised.”

“And Mrs Fonblanque’s father was abnormally wise?” I asked, slowly.

“I know nothing of her or him. But I always fancy that Wylie, who left us just now, is a man of the same type. Everything he touches turns to gold, and apparently without the slightest trouble. Here, we only envy him for his intense enjoyment of animal life, and his wonderful success in business. But I can tell you, from my personal and official knowledge, that he is almost as well known in Zanzibar and the Mauritius, in Rangoon and Hong-Kong, as he is here. But here, as everywhere else, he is a puzzle to us all. I do not know where he was yesterday. I haven’t a suspicion where he will be to-morrow, or to-morrow week, say. But I do know, as a fact that is useful to me sometimes, that he can, whenever he pleases, twist the Caliph round his little finger; and yet—”

Here an Arab servant crept stealthily up, and on the small piece of paper he gave me I read—“Come at once. Please come at once. We must go off to the steamer. I am waiting for you on the steps.—L. F.”

Chapter VI

My cabin door was pushed violently open next morning just as the rising sun began to peep into the port-hole. I awoke with a start, to find that terrible creature Priscilla standing over me in a threatening attitude. At first she seemed part of some long-forgotten dream, my own voice sounding remote and strange as I implored her to speak. But I shivered in good earnest when she spoke, for her voice was as hard and fierce as her eyes. “The Mem Sahib gives salaams,” she said, “and the Mem Sahib sends this.” It was another note—that was all; but another note was a little too much just then, considering that Mrs Fonblanque had not yet condescended to explain her enigmatical note of the night before. A pretty fool I should have looked if, after bolting away without saying “good night,” I had had to return to the Residency to apologise before any of them were out of bed. However, I was spared that indignity. Mrs Fonblanque merely said that as it was a deliciously cool morning, she ventured to hope I would be good enough to escort her round the town in a bellem. I would find her preparing early breakfast on the quarter-deck in about ten minutes.

That did not sound very dreadful. But you must remember how completely, since leaving Charing Cross, I had subordinated my wishes to my uncle’s, that my work was really over when I had once secured the Tree of Good and Evil, and that I was naturally looking forward to a prolonged and very lazy holiday. Yet here I was, without any option of my own in the matter, bound hand and foot, last thing at night and first thing in the morning, to a perfect stranger. I went on deck fuming; but directly I saw Mrs Fonblanque I was absolutely compelled to acknowledge that her thraldom, suddenly as it had come upon me, might have pleasant possibilities about it. I felt, moreover, that it might perhaps give the artistic side of my nature the very bias that was still too obviously wanting.

Mrs Fonblanque, as she stood there on the quarter-deck cutting up a big melon, would have won the soul of any artist. She typified herself unconsciously. She reminded me, for the first time since I had seen her, of English home-life. Like the water-melon in her little hands, she was very cool and pleasant to look at in her fresh white morning-gown. She advanced a step or two and frankly gave me her hand.

“You forgive me, I know,” she said. “I was all nerves last night and terribly put out, I scarcely know why. And as I often say silly things when my temper is wrong, I try to hold my tongue then. When we reached the ship I was too much ashamed to say anything but good night. There! forgive and forget. I have your cup of tea all ready for you, just as you like it, without milk and sugar, and if you sit down I will slice the lemon into it myself; and then, if you care to help me, we will have a charming day.”

I thanked her, and, with my temper perfectly restored, sat down to chota hazree. When I looked up again, I saw a ghoul-like figure in long black robes, and with a funnel-shaped white veil tightly stretched across the face. Only the eyes were visible, but those tell-tale eyes were so lit up with fun and merriment that I knew them at once.

“This is my disguise,” said Mrs Fonblanque, half throwing it off, and quite unconscious of the artistic effect of half transitions. A lady’s costume, I take it, should only be a framework for her beauty, though M. Worth, I am credibly informed, can suggest such charms as no lady would ever think of revealing. Mrs Fonblanque just then, however, knew as little of M. Worth’s abilities as I did.

“We are all slaves of fashion, you know,” she said, smiling, “and an English lady has to wear these awful things in the bazaar here if she does not wish to be mobbed and insulted; and so for once I must go into a lovely and sacred seclusion, as that horrible man said last night. But there is a good thick curtain round our bellem. I need not make a guy of myself on the water, thank goodness! but I must take this hideous wrapper with us. Come along, sir, the bellem is ready, and the ship is getting unbearable.”

This was true enough. A band of hulking Arabs, dressed in what looked like grimy night-shirts, were coaling, and in another part of the ship the lascars were hammering away at the quarters destined for the Arab horses which were to form the bulk of our cargo to India.

Bussorah, though its architecture is not much to boast of, really is the Venice of the East, and the bellem is its gondola. The bellem, which had been placed at Mrs Fonblanque’s disposal by the agents, had a white canopy festooned with red, and ample white curtains, and was comfortably fitted with silk cushions and soft Persian rugs. The lazy motion, as we were poled up the main canal, was very easy and pleasant; and though we were ourselves invisible, even to the crew, we could see everything around us.

The date-gardens, intersected by small canals, came down to the banks on either side. The town itself lay some two or three miles farther up; but here below, the wealthy merchants had their country seats in the midst of immense but monotonous gardens. The houses, big and little—all built of huge half-dried mud bricks, and all on the same model—were gloomy enough, for their windows, as a rule, opened into an inner quadrangle; and a house without windows necessarily reminds one of a face without eyes. You shudder and go on. But each house, nevertheless, had its distinctive feature in the canal, passing under a bridged pathway and winding in and out of the palms until it washed a fine flight of glistening white steps, on which the gaudily-dressed negro-slaves thronged together to take a sun-bath like the lizards, and just as lazily watch the world go by.

Along the well-shaded pathway to our left, Turkish soldiers in a loose Zouave uniform lounged surlily about on guard, scolding the poorer sort of people as they plodded to and fro or drove their donkeys across the shaky little bridges. A couple of date-tree trunks, covered with a thick layer of sun-dried mud, is a bridge at Bussorah. But that does not much matter, for all but the very poorest class use the canal, and the canal at this early hour was alive with boats. The Bussorah Arabs are a singularly musical race, probably because they are sailors as well as nomads, and as much at home on the open sea as on the boundless desert. The bellems, as they were pushed forward with long poles, glided swiftly and silently through the water; but their crews, and often their passengers, joined together in some rhythmical refrain, and the boatmen in the great cargo-barges, as they passed by, added a few low notes by way of salutation.

Some of the bellems were completely tented over till they looked for all the world like funeral palls; and we met more than one bridal procession of half-a-dozen boats, gaily tricked out with flowers and glowing carpets, coming down the canal, with a band of Arab musicians in front of them, and with silvery peals of merry laughter from the women’s boat in their midst. Then there were broad market-boats laden with pumpkins and melons, peaches and grapes, pomegranates and all manner of outlandish fruit and vegetables; cargo-barges piled deftly up, after the haystack fashion, with date-boxes for the European steamers; great caravan-boats making for some distant haven, where the real journey would begin; battered old ferry-boats, as slow as veterans will be, bridging every here and there the two sides of the canal; and the gorgeous official boat, spick and span, with a very self-opinionated Turkish officer lolling in the stern, as he was rowed in the English fashion by a smartly dressed crew.

The hatred the Turks and Arabs have for each other on land seems, however, to die away upon the water. Here everybody was as good as his neighbour, who could run over you if he liked—and, as a consequence, everybody was courteous and good-natured. Every now and again the round white arm of some veiled Circassian beauty would thrust aside the heavy purdah for a minute, and all the ladies, until they were discovered and repressed, would join in the running fire of merry chaff.

Our bellem suddenly stopped. The tindal himself raised one of the curtains. “That is Wylie Sahib’s bungalow,” he explained in easy Arabic.

“Go on at once!” said Mrs Fonblanque, looking steadily at the other bank.

This enabled me to take an uninterrupted view of Mr Wylie’s house; and so far, my Armenian lady was perfectly accurate.

“We are passing Mr Wylie’s house,” I observed. “The Armenian lady I took in to dinner last night was quite right in her description. But what an extraordinary man he must be to vegetate here, if he can keep up a palace like that!”

“I detest him!” cried Mrs Fonblanque. “He was most abominably rude to me. Never mention his name to me again. And as for that little Armenian fright with whom you flirted all last night, I should perhaps detest her too, if I could bring myself to do it. Even the date trade has its drawbacks, when people like that find their way into date-trade society.”

“The date trade!” I exclaimed, motioning to the tindal to drop the curtain and proceed. “You speak of the date trade as if it were a branch of science or art.”

“So it is here,” she said. “The date trade, from what your fat little Armenian lady and her sister told me yesterday, is the most artistic science out. You buy dates at six months’ credit, sir, and you send them home. The banks in Kurrachee or Bombay advance you money on the bills of lading, as I think you call them, and before you pay for your dates they have been sold in London at a profit of fifty per cent—and it used to be a hundred. ‘You understand me?’ said your Armenian lady. ‘Perfectly,’ I replied. ‘My ayah, Priscilla, would like to trade on these terms. But if you can make such an enormous profit out of Arab credulity, why do you and your sister stop in this horrible place? Why not imagine, as Priscilla would, that your fictitious capital is ten lakhs, twenty lakhs, thirty lakhs—any figure you please? Why not realise on that and clear out?’ That was the beginning of my little fight last night, Mr Hicks. But never mind last night. Here is Bussorah-on-the-Mud. Please help me on with the disguise.”

Turkish ladies, no doubt, are used to the intricacies of the cloaks and veils with which they rather unnecessarily shroud their exuberant charms. I did what I could. Mrs Fonblanque laughed a little. I laughed a good deal. Then I called in the tindal, and being a handy man, and having, as he explained to her, three or four wives of his own, he helped us out of our difficulty in a trice.

A very tall, very black, and very burly negro was waiting on the steps to act as dragoman and to pioneer us through the crowd. One oriental bazaar is much like another. But the Bussorah bazaar was a fairly good specimen. The interminable brick archway above us was broad and lofty. Here and there the sun burst through a chink in the solid sort of ray that one often sees in old religious pictures. The recesses or little shops on either side were larger than usual, and, as usual, the merchants squatted or slept (even at this early hour) on the long clay slabs in front of them. Every trade had its own quarter. If you wanted a packet of screws or a yard or two of Manchester piece-goods, or even a handful of grain, you could wander for a hundred yards to right and left until you had ascertained, through much deliberate bargaining, the fair market-price. Here the air was so pungent with pepper and chillies and aromatic spices, that you literally sneezed. There the coppersmiths lazily plied their musical trade in front of pyramids of burnished pots and pans that glistened in the gloomy light like red gold. Cross-legged tailors stitched away merrily—some of them, I was shocked to see, with the aid of the sewing-machine. The costly tissues and fabrics and textile wares of the East itself were badly represented: for those, of course, you must go to the Baker Street bazaar. The very daggers and pistols, covered with barbaric silver-work, bore a Birmingham stamp; while the stuffs and calicoes and muslins, oriental as they were in design, came from Manchester or Switzerland. Even the red cloth out of which the fezes of the faithful were deftly hammered on wooden blocks, was only shoddy from Leeds. The process was a simple one, and many a passer-by stopped to have his old fez rejuvenated, just as an Englishman might stop in Piccadilly to have his hat done up.

Still the commonest things of all undoubtedly bore the local colour. There was a little bazaar of coarse earthen jars, in the largest of which any one of the forty thieves could have been comfortably drowned in boiling oil. Some of the huge open sacks in the grain-dealers’ stores were filled with cereals never seen in Europe. The bread in the bakers’ shops had a shape of its own. The fruit in the broad brass trays were decidedly uncouth. The cook-shops, with their huge caldrons of boiled flesh, their piled-up pillaus, their savoury morsels of toasted kabobs deftly skewered one on to the other, and their heaps of saffron-coloured rice, were really Eastern; and everywhere around them the barbers, the story-tellers, and the negro porters were hanging about waiting for custom. More Eastern still, if that be possible, were the spacious coffee-shops, where men of almost every oriental nationality met together to sedately smoke the callian of peace. Sedateness, indeed, was the one common feature of the motley crowd. Horses are only less rare at Bussorah than at Venice or Muscat. But as a stray Bedouin rode slowly through the crowded bazaar, his high-bred mare would quietly force her way between two earnest conversationalists, and so courteously that they thought as little of the interruption as her rider did. The Jews and Armenians, it is true, seemed to gesticulate a little; but as they were banished to one of the many entrances of the bazaar, we could not hear what they said. And it was much the same with the negro women clustering like bees round the butter shops and sweet-stuff stalls, tasting almost as eagerly as they talked; or, as we saw them a little farther on, inviting the verdict of the crowd whenever they cheapened a sham bracelet or tried on a gaudy head-dress. The Turkish ladies did their shopping much more seriously, sitting down opposite their shopkeepers and waiting apparently until fatigue should overwhelm one or other of the conflicting interests. It was a curious crowd. Jews, Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Greeks, Banians, Persians, Arabs, and negroes made up a sufficiently picturesque gathering. But still, as I told Mrs Fonblanque, the Bussorah we saw was certainly not the Bussorah of the good old days of Haroun-al-Raschid, when the city, the emporium of the Eastern world, held eight hundred thousand adventurous and turbulent souls, who spent their money like water in love and revelry and riot, when they were not making it out of murder and piracy on the high seas. Of course I do not suppose for a moment that there ever were eight hundred thousand, or four hundred thousand, or even three hundred thousand souls in Bussorah. But, as the faithful chronicler of an Eastern story, I am bound to quote Eastern figures as I found them. In the purchases Mrs Fonblanque made, the dealers, I could not help noticing, asked ten times more than they got. And perhaps those unchecked historians, their forebears, used the same decimal system of notation. At a rough guess, I should have put down the population as I saw it at twenty thousand, mostly beggars. The Bussorah bazaar is a paradise for beggars. They sleep there at night, and by day they wait about till Providence sends them their alms. Then they have their cook-shops and their fruit-shops and their cafés at hand, and whether you give them anything or not, they are courteous and very orderly. Even the care we bestowed on Mrs Fonblanque attracted little attention. The people who were good enough at first sight to think me an incongruous member of her party, were satisfied when they noticed our negro dragoman stalking on in front.

“Bussorah must be a dreadful place for fires,” said Mrs Fonblanque, stopping to look at a fine collection of Bactrian coins fresh from Birmingham. “Most of the people have their faces covered with scars.”

“Yes,” I answered. “But they are worse in Bagdad. That’s the ‘date boil.’ Almost every one who goes there gets it, and they say I shall very likely have it by-and-by. It lasts four months, and disfigures you for life if it happens to come on your face. You can’t entice European ladies to live there at all. They can’t face it.”

“I should think not!” said Mrs Fonblanque; “and I am really beginning to be glad I turned back.”

Suddenly the air grew fresh and sweet, and in a moment or two afterwards we emerged into a large square plot of open ground, with a ruined mosque on one side of it, a spick-and-span set of barracks on another, and on the third a row of mean-looking houses, from the doors and windows of which, bedizened and becrowned, flaunted a number of unveiled and over-painted Armenian women.

“Thank heaven!” said Mrs Fonblanque, clutching my coat. “I was almost stifled. That is what your Naturalistic friends, Mr Hicks, would make of your Ctesiphon Revived, and I have no doubt their picture would be much more lifelike than yours. Please give me your arm for a moment. You can’t tell how tired I am.”

“I am very, very sorry,” I answered. But a body of Turkish recruits doing goose-step grinned so impudently at the unusual spectacle of a Turkish lady clinging on to an Englishman’s arm, that she withdrew her hand until we gained cover.

“I am very sorry. Had we not better return before you are quite exhausted?”

“Oh dear, no! I am better now. These hobble-dehoys saved me. I thought I was going to faint, and if I had fainted, you could not possibly have revived me in this intricate costume. But I never dreamt of going through that awful bazaar a second time. I sent the bellem all the way round to the canal in front of us, just beyond the date-trees on the fourth side of the square. I shall be all right again once I am behind its friendly curtains; and then we can have tiffin.”

Chapter VII

“Are you never quite in earnest, Mr Hicks?” asked Mrs Fonblanque quietly, as I distributed the contents of the tiffin basket over the limited space of shade cast by a couple of friendly male and female date-trees. “Your lively conversation amuses me up to a certain point. But it is a trifle monotonous, and I begin to understand your character now, and why your Academy picture has not been hung yet; and for goodness’ sake, don’t try to cut the chicken-pie with a spoon!”

“That is only another type,” I answered. “I am in reality burnt up by earnestness. The fire, fortunately perhaps, is intense enough to consume its own smoke, and so you never know anything of it. The Fates, too, are against me. I am always trying to cut the chicken-pie with a spoon; and what you very properly call my flippancy, is the inevitable result of unappreciated effort.”

“I said nothing about flippancy,” said Mrs Fonblanque, adding a little more vinegar to my salad-dressing. “But you men seem to have such fine careers cut out for you from the first, that anybody condemned to be a woman for life is apt to pity your failures as well as envy your successes. You have muscle, Mr Hicks, but you want will. Had I been in your place when we both got into the steamer returning to Bussorah, I should certainly have retorted by getting into the Bagdad boat. I should have thought much more of you had you done so. Perhaps I should have followed, and that would have given you the whip-hand.”

“My dear Mrs Fonblanque,” I replied, “what you say is perfectly true, and occurred to me at the time. But as I had a distinct ideal before me, I preferred that your plans rather than mine should be disorganised.”

“I wish I could really believe that,” she said. “Indeed I wish I could believe anything. I have a trained and disciplined understanding. I have more knowledge than most women. I have read more and seen more, and I have, I fear, almost unsexed myself by a narrow habit of logical thought. ‘Why this?’ ‘why that?’ I ask myself when you or any other man talks to me; and if a lady talks to me, I say ‘bonnets,’ and the whole thing is settled off-hand, and I despise her and myself more than ever. I don’t for a moment wish to be one of the emancipated. But I am doubly hampered, as I daresay those delightful date-merchants told you last night, by being not only a woman, but a woman of unlimited resources. “Whenever I meet a man worth knowing, I feel I shall do him far more harm than good, and that, simply because I am a woman, like any one of those crowned Armenian harridans beside the barrack walls, I must inevitably work for evil, exactly as that atrocious Mr Wylie insinuated last night.”

“Oh, you shouldn’t speak of yourself like that!” I cried, gravely.

“Shouldn’t I?” she answered. “That only shows that you are not so shrewd a judge of character as Mr Wylie.”

“I don’t believe in Mr Wylie,” said I. “He’s not true, and he’s not straight. I don’t know, and I don’t in the least care, what it was he had the impertinence to whisper to you before you rose. But after you had both left the room, some man at the table said he had known you all along.”

“They said that!” cried Mrs Fonblanque quickly, and looking me full in the eyes. “What more did they say?”

“Nothing.”

“He never saw me before last night, and I assure you, Mr Hicks, that I had never seen him before. Yet he seemed to know me too. Well, well, a man like that is not worth thinking about. But I am really speaking the truth now. I have worked for evil, even when I thought I was doing most good, and I cannot possibly help it.”

“What do you mean?” I exclaimed, in profound astonishment.

That man Wylie evidently held the clue to some terrible secret, and I was now about to hear it.

“It is very difficult to explain what I mean,” she answered. “But stop! We were talking the other day of men owing their triumphs to women’s tears. That was a very girlish theory of mine, and it seemed like old times to hear you talk it over, and bring Helvetius and Diderot to bear upon me.”

“No,” I said; “Helvetius was on your side, but he was wrong.”

“Of course. Women invariably are wrong, and so are all who take their part. You make the laws. It is very easy to say, this is right and that is wrong, if one has a muscular arm and a stout bludgeon in one’s hand.”

“No doubt it is,” I answered. “But still the muscular arm seems to me an almost insurmountable difficulty.”

“I daresay Eve found it so,” rejoined Mrs Fonblanque. “But surely the world has progressed since then. Give me the tiniest pocket-revolver now manufactured, and take the biggest club you can find, and then let us try conclusions. No, no, Mr Hicks, the reign of brute force is finished, if you please. There is a kind of interregnum just now, and till that is over, we shall no doubt still think our fetters ornamental. I am no better than the rest. Perhaps I am worse; for, in spite of Diderot, I still believe in what I said about men owing their triumphs to women’s tears. In my time I have almost cried my eyes out, Mr Hicks. To make a real living man, with a real soul in him, with lips to speak and hands to smite—a man who should be as a leader and prophet to his fellows! You were right. That is all we can strive after, once we realise that our own yearnings must be repressed. But what puppets they are when we have made them—large and limp replicas of ourselves. Sometimes I think that the best men and the truest are those who have never looked into any woman’s eyes but their mothers’, and who have gone into a monastic seclusion of learned thought and indefatigable effort, just as I went this morning into that hideous costume.”

“You are hard upon us,” I said. “Most of us believe in progress. But even logically, there must be followers. We can’t all be leaders and prophets.”

“Scarcely,” replied Mrs Fonblanque, drily. “But you all talk as if you could be, and you all expect us to believe you. I assure you, Mr Hicks, that men as men know nothing of themselves. We are the dictionary with which you are translated.”

“And the translation?”

“Well, it’s not always in heroic verse.”

“Probably not. But surely, Mrs Fonblanque, despising us as you do, you have never among your many fancies wished to be a man?”

“Have I not!” she exclaimed. “I would give my fortune, such as it is, to be a man for a few years. To have a woman’s quick instinctive brain and a man’s power of instant action, to be free from petty spites and jealousies, from headaches and heartaches—what a chance that would give one! As it is, I can only sit with my hands folded primly in front of me, or make pretty little caps and socks for other people’s babies.”

Her voice faltered. I could never imagine Mrs Fonblanque sitting with her hands primly folded in front of her; but when I looked at her face, there were real tears in her eyes. I gave a sigh of relief. I had begun to think that she really was involved in some awful and inexplicable tragedy. But the tragedy of her life was a very common one after all. She had no children, poor soul! It was full time to change this morbid line of conversation.

“How about the charming day we were going to have, Mrs Fonblanque?” I asked, abruptly.

“We shall have it yet,” she said, entirely changing her mood. “I began by teasing you for never being in earnest, and ended, like a woman, by overdoing it myself. Vive la bagatelle! We will have another glass of champagne. Then you can light your cheroot, and as there is no one here to mob us, we will have the curtains rolled up, and drift down the canal as slowly as ever the tindal likes.”

When we halted for tiffin we were midway between Bussorah and the river. The new canal, unlike the old one, had very few houses overlooking it, and scarcely a soul passed by. The banks were covered with agile little tortoises, getting into the mud and out again; but when the boatmen had landed our tiffin basket and cushions and retired for a siesta behind a bend in the canal, we seemed to be so completely alone that even the little tortoises disappeared from view.

Leaving the boatmen to pack up, we walked along the well-shaded bank of the canal. Behind the date-palms, some of which still bore clusters of pale yellow fruit, there were apple-trees and apricot-trees bursting into blossom, and many other familiar fruit-trees one scarcely expected to meet in such strange company. The woodland scenery was pleasant and very homelike, and the sun not too hot.

“I call this nice,” said Mrs Fonblanque, taking my arm as I half stumbled over an ant’s nest.

« Why?”

“Because I thought ‘Lalla Rookh’ a fraud when we were in the Bussorah bazaar, and now there is Moore’s acacia actually waving her yellow hair at us.”

“Where?”

“Just behind those stiff and stupid-looking palm-trees under which we took tiffin.”

“Oh, please don’t abuse those two particular palm-trees,” I said. “They are of different sexes, just like us, and somehow they seem to typify us exactly.”

“Poor palm-trees,” she answered, with half a sigh. “I wonder if they like it as much as we do. Really, Mr Hicks, I must decline to allow you to typify me any more. It gives one a feeling, somehow, of being caught in a butterfly-net by a gigantic and immensely superior being, and of having a sniff of chloroform while one is being pinned down, painlessly of course, into a specimen cabinet smelling of camphor.”

“I beg your pardon,” I said hastily; “I never—”

“No, I know. But, come now, Mr Hicks, how many fair and sorrowing ladies are typified and docketed and stowed away in that cabinet of yours?”

“I have no cabinet,” I answered. “I tried in the most harmless way in the world to typify the palm-tree, and you accuse me of being bumptious and gigantic, and heaven knows what besides, and of attempting to caricature you.”

“Scarcely that; but I think you meant, if you meant anything, to say that one of the palm-trees typified me, and the other palm-tree typified you. We were both in the same boat.”

“No,” I answered, quickly. “We were both forgotten for a moment. I was not thinking of you or myself. I was thinking of Heine’s palm and the pine-tree that loved her.”

“Oh! how was that?”

“This is how it was,” I said, slowly: —

Upon a fierce Norwegian height
 A pine-tree towers alone,
And he slumbers on in his mantle white
 Of snow-drifts round him blown;
And he dreams and dreams of the Morning Land,
 And of one palm watching there,
From her burning bed of yellow sand,
 In lone, untold despair.”

“Bravo, Mr Hicks! If that was your own instead of Heine’s, I should say it was very promising, and I should allow you to go on typifying a little longer. If I could paint, though, I should like to paint you as a towering pine-tree, with a great snow-blown mantle around you, and a regular collection of warm and tender types and memories melting in your arms. Heine never knew much about his own love affairs. Perhaps he knew nothing at all about the vegetable loves.”

“If you insist upon being disagreeable, I may as well call the boat.”

“Yes, do; but one moment first. The male palm-trees out here have, with all deference to Heine, a very good time of it, and wouldn’t think much of his one palm watching there. They all, I am sorry to say, go in for polygamy, Mr Hicks; and, judging from the way in which they stand apart, I should say that your two particular palm-trees are just a little eccentric and quarrelsome.”

“Perhaps so,” I answered; “but suppose we drop these personalities. Neither you nor I are either butterflies or palm-trees.”

“How neatly Heine would have put that!” she said, with a little mocking, silvery laugh, “and what a blow it would have been to his bumptious Norwegian pine-tree!”

“Yes,” I said, reluctantly. “No doubt there is something wrong about those two trees. Their position is a false one—any naturalist, I know, would say that. Wellstead certainly says the Arabs always get the best result by planting a single male tree in the middle of a grove of females—”

“Does he? And, pray, who is Wellstead?”

“A famous traveller in these parts, whom Captain Croly was always quoting.”

“Really! I am sorry Captain Croly did not quote Mr Wellstead to me. He might perhaps have been a little more entertaining than he was. But I can quote too. Do you remember what the French poet says about the loves of the palm-tree?”

“No,” I replied frankly, “and I generally avoid the French poet as a dangerous authority.”

“Not in your case,” said Mrs Fonblanque, smiling. “I can’t translate him as you did Heine; but, at all events, this is what he says: —

‘Heureux les palmiers! leurs amours
 Vont, sur les ailes de la brise,
De l’amant ignoré toujours
 A l’amante toujours surprise.

Rien de réel ne vient briser
 L’essor ideal de leurs fièvres
Ils ont l’ivresse du baiser,
 Sans avoir à subir les lèvres!’

And let us hope they were happy. There you are, sir, tit for tat!”

It was a pretty idea, and Mrs Fonblanque’s French exceedingly taking.

Chapter VIII

For a few minutes more we continued our walk along the Bussorah canal; but as I was thinking over what she said, and was, in spite of her liveliness, rather silent in consequence, Mrs Fonblanque proposed before very long that we should take our seats in the bellem. The tide was ebbing slowly. We told the men to let the boat drift with it. I lit a cigar, and, as I was lighting it, Mrs Fonblanque said, “Shall I sing you a little song, Mr Hicks? just to begin our charming day, you know, and to show how unnecessarily concerned you were just now about my heterodox views. What I said about wishing to be a man and to have a woman’s head on a man’s shoulders was all nonsense, of course. I know as well as you do, if you would only be good enough to talk, that I am much nicer as it is. But we women are nothing, Mr Hicks, if not contradictory. You remember that old cavalier poem about ‘the clean contrary way’? Well, that is one of the secrets of our power that all we women know and don’t often betray. Every woman, no matter how plain she may be, thinks she rules the little world around her; and to-day, at all events, I mean to rule you if I can. I offered to sing you a little song, sir, to charm away your moodiness, as David charmed Saul’s—and you have nothing to say in answer. Wait a moment. Now I have it.”

Then, in a clear, rich, mezzo-soprano voice, Mrs Fonblanque began: —

“When a lady says ‘nay,’
She is only in play;
 She is waiting for you to guess
As to how many ‘noes’
In your heart you suppose
 Should go to a lady’s ‘yes.’

You believe her; she sighs,
There are tears in her eyes;
 But she laughs behind her fan,
For, like all of her sex,
She knows how to perplex
 Her natural enemy, man!

So I pray you beware
Of the terrible snare
 That lurks in a lady’s ‘no’!
Prove her ‘no’ to be wrong,
You are her slave lifelong,
 And woe to the vanquished! woe!”

I shivered at the words of this wretched doggerel, but Mrs Fonblanque’s voice was so full and sympathetic, that the last line sobbed along the water as if it had been part and parcel of some grand immortal poem. Then, to my horror, it came back again in a kind of unearthly screech —

“Woe to the vanquished! woe!”

We both started and looked round.

The girls from one of the date-packing factories had run out to stare at us, and were trying in a timid noisy sort of way to mimic Mrs Fonblanque.

“It almost serves you rioht,” I said, “for singing such rubbish. Who on earth taught you a thing like that?”

“One of those large and limp replicas of myself of whom I told you before we began our charming day,” replied Mrs Fonblanque, mildly. “I can sing, and you can paint, and some day, perhaps, I will really sing to you. But neither you nor I could make a living by packing dates as these girls do.”

“Of course we could not,” I said; “it is not our métier. We move on another plane altogether. You can sing, as you say, and I can paint. My daubs are perhaps no better than your doggerel, but there is an individuality behind them, and there is no individuality in date-packing.”

“Perhaps not,” she answered. “I wouldn’t like to sing for my daily bread, though, and whenever I come face to face with honest labour I feel terribly ashamed of myself.”

“Oh, if your conscience pricks you,” I said, “you can very easily solace it.”

“How?” she cried, eagerly.

“The French Rothschild,” I replied, “could never have made a livelihood by keeping any one of his own clerks’ books. But he was a millionaire ten times over. That was his individuality. A communist, madam, of your way of thinking started a little journal calling for an instant redistribution of property, especially of the Rothschild property. M. Rothschild asked him to look in. ‘There, my man,’ he said, giving him a napoleon, ‘there’s your share and a little over, for there are more than ten million men in the same plight as yourself!’”

Mrs Fonblanque told the boatmen to stop, and she flung the contents of her purse among the girls.

“Now,” she continued, as they scrambled in the mud for her coins, “I can impartially protest against the French Rothschild’s way of squaring up accounts, and I can—”

Just then, however, we were run into by a little bellem which sank at once, and I had to interrupt our conversation by going overboard—a horrible nuisance in such muddy waters—to pick up its passenger. Seizing him as best I could, I dragged him alongside our boat, when, to my amazement and perplexity, I found I had hold of my venerable and friendly Arab Sheik.

We were both, in the local fashion, most profuse in apologies to each other—he for taking me into the water, and I for pulling him out. As we talked, however, the Sheik appeared to shiver a little, and Mrs Fonblanque, in spite of all the old gentleman’s remonstrances, insisted upon wrapping him up in her costume to keep the wind out. She buttoned it herself, so there was no more to be said, and there was a quiet dignity about his white beard and grave eyes that prevented him looking absurd.

“We were talking, sir,” she said, as calmly as if she were addressing a partner in a ball-room—“we were talking, when you came up, about the painful position of women in Europe. A gentleman was telling me only last night that their position in Asia is in every way more suited to their character. Perhaps you can enlighten us a little.”

“Madam,” he replied, courteously, “it is a subject to which I have given much thought and a good deal of practical attention. I have, it is true, only three wives myself. But stay! It is hardly modest of me to speak of my wives before your husband.”

“Oh, that is all right!” she said, laughing. “He is not my husband, and the crew don’t know any English. If you think it would make matters easier, I can add the veil to your picturesque costume.”

He smiled in a sedate, oriental sort of way. “I have only three wives,” he continued, “and it is hardly fair to generalise on insufficient data. On the other hand, they happen to be very different in age, temperament, and appearance. Nour Mahal, who is the youngest, I keep in the oriental fashion; and Zuleika, who is ten years older, has charge of the key. Dear old Fatima, my first wife, madam, and the mother of all my children, is free to go about in the European way. But she is very fond of me and intensely proud, and I must say that she keeps herself much more closely veiled than either of the other two.”

“I see,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “But do they never fight?”

“Oh, that,” he answered, “is no business of mine. I see scratches sometimes certainly, and younger men, I believe, regard them as tokens of affection. I am, however, too old to have any deceptions of that kind left. You may take it that my three wives don’t fight any more than that gentleman’s wife and his two sisters (if he have any sisters and they all live together in the English fashion) fight at home, and he is weak enough to allow any echoes of their quarrels to reach him.”

“I think him weak enough for anything, Sheik,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “But I don’t believe he has a wife, so it does not much matter.”

“Not married!” said the Sheik, looking askance at me. “Grown up and not married!”

Here I tried to explain the exact position of my domestic affairs, but Mrs Fonblanque silenced me at once. “Please don’t interrupt us,” she said. “It is, I assure you quite against the rules of oriental etiquette even to allow you to listen.”

“I certainly shan’t listen if I am not allowed to talk,” I retorted.

But at that moment the bellem struck against the ladder. The old Sheik seemed to be too stiff to move. I assisted Mrs Fonblanque on to the first step.

“Poor old man!” she said, “he is wet through. I hope he has not taken his death of cold. I shall send Priscilla to see that he has a hot bath with half a pound of mustard in it. Priscilla!” she cried, “Priscilla!”

“Oh, you must not do that,” I remonstrated. “He is an Arab sheik, remember, and you said you knew all about oriental etiquette.”

“Nonsense!” she replied, but not unpleasantly. “He is an old man, and a very nice old man, and he, at all events, helped me to spend a charming day. I want to learn a good deal more about his wives. Priscilla! Priscilla!”

“There is a party from the Residency waiting to say good-bye,” said one of the ship’s officers, touching his cap to her.

“Thank you,” she answered. “Pray make my excuses. I can’t see any one to-night.”

Then, when he had gone, she said to me quietly, “Let me know when they go, Mr Hicks; and do please find Priscilla.”

Chapter IX

How the cocks crew all that night!

“Those birds are paying you a rare compliment,” said I to the chief officer, as I stumbled across him in the dark after dinner. “They evidently take your engineer’s efforts to get up steam for the glowing burst of early dawn.”

“Not they, sir,” he answered, accepting a cigar. “They are far too wide awake for that. They crow a little louder, if anything, at midnight than at dawn; and we don’t happen to be doing much yet in the way of getting up steam. We can’t take in our horses at Mohammerah till daybreak, and we needn’t start till three.”

“Why don’t you take your horses in here?”

“They won’t let us. We are not allowed to bribe the officials, and you can take little in at Bussorah, and put very little out, without a good deal of palm-oil. The Custom-house people, who thought they were doing a rare good stroke of business when they clapped a heavy export duty on horses, cut their own throats. The Company won’t let us bribe them, and so the horse-dealers bribe the frontier officials instead, and smuggle their horses across from Koweit. Officially the trade is completely stopped because no duty is paid, but in reality more horses than ever are exported. A queer people!”

“And queer birds,” I said; “I never heard a cock crow like that even in a London suburb at daybreak.”

“Oh, that’s nothing,” replied the chief officer. “When a cock crows in Bussorah you hear him at Teheran. So the proverb says,—all the cocks along the line taking up the cry, I suppose. It’s a queer country, and wants something to keep it awake. But the cocks are not as bad as the watchmen. Listen!”

A shrill, strident, melancholy cry that began in the neighbourhood of the agent’s bungalow was just then caught up far and near, dying away at last in the remote reaches of the Bussorah canal.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“To keep thieves away,” he answered. “There is no law here. It’s every one and his watchmen for himself.”

“No law! Why, I escorted a lady through the bazaar to-day, and I never saw a quieter place, or people more sedate.”

“You were lucky, sir,” he replied. “Very few of the ladies here ever venture beyond their own compounds. Indeed, I know one lady who has not been out of her garden for seven years. There is a certain amount of surly courtesy by daylight. But it is never much at the best, and it all disappears after sundown. There are thirty watchmen armed with rusty old blunderbusses round our agent’s office now, and there are not twice that number of police in the whole of Bussorah.”

“You astonish me!”

“I can’t help that, sir. Last time we were here there was a big fire in the native town, and the soldiers sent to put it out did all the looting.”

“The rascals!” I cried. “I thought they looked a particularly fine body of men.”

“Oh, the men are good enough. It’s the system. Everybody above them handles their pay before they get it, and they are generally eighteen months or two years in arrears. They must live somehow. They pay for nothing. They steal what they can lay hold of. They sell all they can get at, and I don’t suppose there is a single cartridge in the garrison now. The men sell their ammunition to the Arabs, and sometimes they sell their rifles too, and the officers daren’t say a word. Wait a bit; there is the English gunboat we’ve been expecting coming in now from Bushire. What’s that?”

“That’s their salute,” I replied.

“Count their guns. How many?”

“Twenty-one,” I said, after an interval.

“Eight you are. Now count the number of guns the Turkish gunboat fires back.”

I waited some time.

“They are rather long about it,” I said.

“Long about it! Why, they haven’t a charge of powder on board. They sold it all last Tuesday.”

“That’s a pretty state of things.”

“Well, yes. You come from Bagdad, I take it. I ran up there this time last year, and the Sultan was buying all the land round about.”

“Yes,” I said; “and what has that got to do with the ammunition?”

“A good deal. No one is allowed to bid against the Sultan, and he bought several big estates for next to nothing. That is what all the officials are always trying to do. It is a queer country. But look at my arm.”

He rolled his sleeve up under a lamp.

“That is a pretty good sample of a sabre-cut. We were moored here right under the stern of a British man-of-war when I got that, and I was pitched into the hold directly afterwards, and so were the other five English officers. The lascar crew were supposed to be asleep, and the scoundrels got away with all our specie.”

“What did you do?”

“Well, you see, I had managed to mark my man with a belaying-pin before I went down, and as our chief Turkish shipper, and one of our best friends, happened to have a corresponding mark next morning, we said nothing to the police. We kept him on board to doctor him for a day or two. Then somehow or other our specie came back, and now we are better friends than ever. I saw you give him a shove aside this evening, when you came up the gangway with the lady.”

This casual allusion to Mrs Fonblanque reminded me that I had never told her of the departure of the visitors from the Residency. They had dined on board, and made themselves so extremely agreeable that we had been longer than usual over dinner.

I went down below and shouted for Priscilla. This time she came at once.

“Oh, Mr Hicks,” said Mrs Fonblanque, suddenly appearing, “I hope I am in time to prevent Priscilla scolding you. I don’t want to be forestalled. Why, why have I been condemned to three hours’ solitary confinement? Priscilla tells me that they left at half-past eight, and now it’s nine. What did they say of me?”

“They said nothing.”

“I suppose your fat little Armenian lady came with them.”

“No, she didn’t.”

Then I apologised in a sufficiently humble manner, and we went on deck.

“Do you know, Mr Hicks,” said Mrs Fonblanque, after I had settled her comfortably in a canvas chair, “that though I am generally travelling, I hate it, and that there is nothing I dislike so much as change? I certainly would not care to stop in Bussorah, but still I feel sorry to leave it. Why is that?”

“Perhaps without knowing it you are a Conservative at heart.”

“I don’t think so,” she answered. “My instincts, I fancy, are rather the other way. But, indeed, I don’t think I ever had the chance of being anything definite. And what sort of a man would you be, I wonder, if you had never been a boy?”

“Ah! But that was a long time ago.”

“No, no, not very long ago. At all events, you were a boy once, and a very nice boy too, I should think; fond of boyish games, fond of the pets you kept, and fonder still of the other boys about you, and frank and free and very boyish.”

I could hardly be expected to discuss a question referring so personally to the prehistoric ages.

“Well,” she continued after a pause, “I have never been a girl, and so I suppose I missed the best part of a woman’s life. I have never had a pet. I don’t believe I ever played a game. I have had no girlish friends. If I look into a child’s book now, it’s all Greek to me. What should I know about Dora Greenwell’s pictures and Caldecott’s, the snow and the waits, the red berries, the mistletoe, the holly, and the rest of it? Why, I was a woman at fourteen, and, looking back a little, I seem to be terribly old.”

“Oh no!” I exclaimed gallantly; “I’m sure you can’t be thirty yet.”

“Well, no,” she said, smiling in the lamplight, “not thirty; but I am twenty-four.”

“And I am twenty-five!” I cried, delighted to have got the better of her at last.

“Are you really? You don’t look twenty-five, Mr Hicks. Yes, yes, you do, if you are really huffed. But you haven’t been a man for ten years. You were not born and bred in this wretched Indian climate. And yet, in spite of your additional twelve months, I am sure you will never be able to order me about as I do you.”

“Men don’t order women about.”

“No? Not at twenty-five, perhaps; and yet there is nothing women like better. You really must take a few lessons from the Sheik. He is a dear old creature, and, I should think, very wise. Fancy three women doting on him!”

“Stop, Mrs Fonblanque, stop! He never said they doted on him.”

“I fancy they do, though, Mr Hicks. Did you notice how he pretended to give in at once to me about wearing that absurd costume of mine, and how pleasantly, in describing his three wives, he suggested that I ought to be kept locked up?”

“That’s exactly what Mr Wylie said last night.”

“Don’t speak to me of Mr Wylie, Mr Hicks. I forbid you ever to mention him again.”

“And pray, Mrs Fonblanque, don’t speak to me of the Sheik.”

Mrs Fonblanque laughed. “You are a most teachable man, Mr Hicks. You are beginning to order me about already, and I really almost like it. But why don’t we start?”

“We shan’t start till three,” I said, severely; “three in the morning.”

“What a nuisance! If I have to travel, I like to be kept moving. But I really can’t go to bed yet. No, don’t be frightened. I certainly can’t keep awake till three; but tell the steward to bring you a whisky-and-soda on deck before the bar is closed, and then light another cheroot, and we will have a good long chat.”

“Now,” continued Mrs Fonblanque, putting her fan down after the steward had disappeared, “tell me candidly what you think of me.”

“I would rather you allowed me to paint your portrait first.”

“Why?”

“Why? Partly because, if I painted your portrait properly, I should paint your real character as well; and partly because, whether I did my work properly or not, it would occupy me for at least ten days, and so I should, at all events, know you much better than I do now.”

“You don’t believe in first impressions, then?”

“Yes,” I said, doubtfully; “I always believed in first impressions till last night. And then—”

“And then? Be cautious, Mr Hicks.”

“Well, as an artist I like you. I never saw a face like yours. Your hair is the hair of the old Grecian goddesses, and your eyes—well, I could, perhaps, paint them in a picture, but I can’t describe them.”

Mrs Fonblanque half rose as she shook her fan at me, and made me a charming little courtesy.

“If you will really allow me to paint you,” I continued, “I think I shall make one of the finest pictures in the world. But please let me paint you before you ask anything more.”

“I shall do nothing of the kind. Though you seem to think a good deal more of your art than you do of me, I don’t know whether you can paint or not. And I don’t care for impressions ten days old. I have asked a frank question. Give me a frank answer. What do you think of me now, Mr Hicks, and what did you think of me when you saw me first?”

“Oh—then? I thought you very beautiful indeed, and very unreasonably angry.”

“And now?”

“All my artistic instincts are with you, and your eyes and your hair. But—”

“But . . . what?”

“Well, when I told you my name, you said you liked the Hector but didn’t know about the Hicks; and in the same way I like the Fonblanque, and don’t quite know about the Wylie.”

“You dare to couple my name with that man’s,” she cried, “and that two minutes after I had distinctly told you never to mention him in my hearing again! Do you know how dreadfully rude you are, Mr Hicks? You may drink your whisky-and-soda by yourself now. I have a good mind to tell that dear, courteous old Sheik about your rudeness. He would never have said such a mean and ungallant thing as that.”

“He will tell his three wives if you do,” I retorted, feeling a little uncomfortable as she rose.

“Of course he will,” said Mrs Fonblanque, beginning to move away; “and I hope he will tell everybody how disagreeable you contrive to make yourself.”

“Perhaps he will,” I cried, just before she disappeared; “but he’ll know that I was right after all.”

That was not a very pleasant way of beginning a long sea voyage, was it?

Chapter X

In spite of crowing cocks, noisy watchmen, rattling chains, and swarms of bloodthirsty sandflies, I managed to tide over the night. I awoke, however, in a sulky sort of morning nightmare that many men feel, I imagine, when they happen to have made fools of themselves overnight. It is a peculiar feeling this, and intensely disagreeable while it lasts, for you cannot, for the life of you, help cross-examining yourself in the cruellest and abruptest manner. The Quartermaster, who was superintending the washing of the decks, understood it at once. He laughed when I explained my symptoms and invited his sympathy, and then without asking my leave he turned one of his lascars’ hoses upon me as I stood there, and played away lustily until I felt quite braced and robust again.

“Cold water is a grand thing,” cried I, shaking myself like a Newfoundland dog.

“And a capital cure for whisky, hot or cold,” said the Quartermaster. “The deck of a steamer, sir, with the salt water playing about it, is a hydropathic establishment in miniature. ‘Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased?’ asks Shakespeare. I think I can. A man with a hose in his hand can drive the cobwebs out of anybody’s brains in a minute or two, while the use of a coarse towel afterwards makes everything much pleasanter all round.”

This was pretty good for a rough-tongued Quartermaster on an Indian steamer at daybreak. When I last chanced to pass through Turnham Green we encountered a large charity school, walking two and two. “They will all be philosophers and scholars some day, Hector,” said my uncle, shrugging his shoulders, “and if you and I can’t pay for their forcing-beds we shall lose our raison d’être.”

I remembered the charity school, and so the Quartermaster’s language scarcely surprised me. Soaked though I was to the skin, I had only come face to face with my uncle’s problem, and the old man’s crotchets still seemed so quaint and kindly that I tried to put myself in his place and to speak as like him as I could.

“Ah! you are something of a scholar, and a bit of a philosopher,” I remarked, pulling my wet sleeping-jacket decently around me.

“Not I, sir,” replied the Quartermaster. “I am only a married man, but I happened to be on duty last night when the lady gave you her mind.”

“Dear me!” I said, almost involuntarily; “the lady you speak of is nothing to me, and our casual acquaintance seems to have attracted a very unnecessary amount of attention.”

“Well,” answered the Quartermaster, looking at me keenly, “I know nothing of that. But the ladies, God bless them! have no business on board ship. Polly, poor lass, may scold me as much as she likes when she has stowed the bairns away in their bunks in our little cottage at Whitby, and I am all the better of it. It does a man good, when he is ashore, to be henpecked and hencooped. Once shipped, I like, of course, to think of Polly and the bairns when I am swinging in my hammock down below, but as soon as I am on deck again I try to do my duty to the ship.”

The mere thought of Polly and her bairns, four or five thousand miles away though they were, gave a sudden pathetic depth to the Quartermaster’s honest brown eyes.

We are queer creatures. Somehow or other the Quartermaster had touched a chord that might some day, perhaps, make the sweetest music in the world to me, and, rough as he was, I looked at him in real admiration.

“I should like to typify you and Polly, if you will let me,” I said, humbly. “I think I can almost see my way towards reconciling my uncle to the problem.”

“Thank you kindly, sir,” answered the Quartermaster, removing his quid. “But neither Polly nor I know anything of your uncle or the problem. No offence, sir; but suppose you typify yourself first, and do the best you can for Number One. Take my advice, sir. You seem to be shivering a little just now. Walk the quarter-deck for an hour, and you’ll have an appetite for breakfast. I know nothing about typifying, but walk, sir, walk.”

“I hope you didn’t think me too abrupt,” I began, “in offering to typify you and Mrs . . . Mrs Polly.”

“No, no!” said he. “Not I—I am not a scholar; but I spent a fortnight once at Aberdeen, and all the professors there walked like mad. They had the instinct of it. They taught me a wrinkle that no philosophy can ever teach. Only get a hearty appetite, sir, and you won’t care a fig for all the troubles and all the women in the world, let alone typifying Polly and me.”

I smiled at the worthy Quartermaster’s advice, but nevertheless I followed it, as I always follow the advice I smile at. It is the advice I don’t smile at that I don’t follow. I walked the quarter-deck till I was tired, and as the ship was already at anchor, and the deck very limited in area, the experiment was not exactly lively. However, I made a comfortable and very leisurely toilet before I went in to breakfast.

Never, perhaps, out of Noah’s ark were a more incongruous set of living creatures gathered together for the simple purpose of taking food in common. At the top of the table, of course, sat our skipper—a bluff, tough old salt, if ever there was one—with keen eyes, a hard mouth, and closely cropped grey whiskers. His weather-beaten face, twisted and contorted into twenty different kindly humours, would have betrayed him at any table in the world, while his easy roll as he walked was unmistakable. You could not, however, talk to him for five minutes without learning that, if things had gone right, he ought to have been a cavalry officer. On his right sat Mrs Fonblanque, charming as ever, and trying not to look querulous after an uneasy night. On his left there was an uncommonly pretty young Nun from one of the Catholic nunneries in Teheran. The white band across her forehead only acted as a foil to her faint blushes. She blushed faintly whenever her eyes drooped, and that was whenever anybody looked at her. Beside her sat the Sheik. He came in late, as I did. But when Mrs Fonblanque sent Priscilla for him, he came without further hesitation; and as the gentle little Nun, in alarm, perhaps, at his appearance, half rose from her seat, he courteously waved her to her place, sat down beside her, and helped her to fish.

I had just come out of my cabin at the time, and, with my hand on the chair next Mrs Fonblanque’s, I was admiring the typical contrast between the Sheik and the Nun, when a gentleman said, “By your leave, sir,” and tried to slip into it. I had taken the precaution of putting my card on the plate before I went to dress, and so I felt quite justified in saying sotto voce, “Confound your impudence!” He stared at me, and then, taking the seat next mine, he tried to make the Nun talk, and failed signally. Then he was good enough to talk to me; but as the Captain and I were full of some extraordinary new method of attack by cavalry—a horse-marine sort of business at the best—he did not get much change out of that. Imperturbable to the last, he appealed to Mrs Fonblanque, and to my intense disgust she replied briskly. I held on with the skipper as long as I could. But Mrs Fonblanque’s impressive interest in my neighbour’s vapid talk was a little too much for me.

I had been quite right in the language I had used at first. He was evidently a man who required sitting upon.

“Really, sir,” I said quietly, giving his elbow a jog so as to make him upset the coffee-pot, “I must ask you to be good enough not to mistake me for your coffee-cup.”

“A thousand pardons!” he cried, looking round at me rather curiously for a moment. “A thousand pardons! I was saying, madam,” he continued, “that life on board ship is always pleasant. One’s fellow-passengers are always amiable. Everybody puts his best side forward, and if the voyage is not too long, you have no time to find out that there is such a thing as a reverse side. I assure you,” he added, turning to me, “you have no sort of resemblance to a coffee-cup.”

“I really don’t think he has,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “What do you say, Mr Hicks?”

“I am afraid I didn’t catch the first part of the gentleman’s remarks.”

“Oh, that doesn’t matter. It had nothing whatever to do with what he says just now,” she replied, looking rather amused at my discomfiture.

I had never been called a coffee-cup before, and I thought that they might both be laughing at me. This was intolerable. It was time to turn the tables.

I began mildly. “You have travelled much?”

“Oh no,” he answered. “I have done most things most men do. I have been round the world three or four times. I have been a cow-boy in Chili, and a diamond seeker at the Cape. I have practised at the Bar. I have served on the Jury. I have had to hang a man or two with my own hands. A mere accident,” he explained, turning to the Nun, who had shivered a little as he spoke; “they might have had to hang me.”

“This is most interesting,” said Mrs Fonblanque; “and besides all this?”

“Oh!” he said lightly, now that he had got the whip-hand of the skipper and me, “I have edited a newspaper—of course a hanging matter in itself anywhere—and then I have taught in the Sunday-school, managed a line of steamers, been through a couple of campaigns, kept a dry-goods store in the gold-fields, and a billiard-saloon in Little Windmill Street.”

“Bless my soul!” said Mrs Fonblanque, drawing her chair towards the Captain’s, “what an extraordinary man you must be!”

“No,” he answered; “there are thousands like me. I am a representative man if you like, an unripe product of the nineteenth century. I am just a trifle before my day. That is all. In a few years more anybody who wants to do anything, or write anything worth attending to, will have to follow in my footsteps. The world now is the only schoolroom for grown-up men, the only field in which a man can show what he is made of.”

“And what are you made of, sir?” asked Captain Forbes.

“Common clay, not China clay,” he said quietly,—“of the sins and follies, and foibles and virtues, of my ancestors, such as they were. We are,” he continued, helping himself to marmalade—“we are all puppets, and our forebears pull the strings. When I do anything mean, or when a glow of genuine enthusiasm goes through me, I say, ‘That’s the first Norman baron,’ ‘that’s the daughter of the Lady Mayoress.’ I only wish I could start fresh, clean, and unblemished from a sculptor’s packing-case. Then I might have a future. Now my future, like yours, sir, is behind me. Still there are potentialities about this new departure and this vagabond life of mine, and the next great poet must be able to express them.”

The Nun’s astonished but very soft and eloquent eyes fell upon him like a tranquil blessing, and even the skipper began to be interested.

“What do you think, Sheik?” I said, fairly aroused at last.

“I never think,” said the Sheik. “A hundred thousand pardons, Captain! It was stupid of me. I spilt my coffee accidentally, and not at all in approval of their little accident.”

The Sheik was evidently on my side. Encouraged by this unexpected support, I had just begun to frame a withering retort to my neighbour’s claims of an illustrious ancestry, when I heard the chief officer address the enemy.

“I think I saw you, mister, outside a little tent on the canal the day before yesterday, inviting the public to come in and be photographed?”

“You did, sir,” he said. “That is my present line of business. One’s ancestors hamper one terribly, but they forgot to supply bread and butter. They leave us to settle pecuniary matters for ourselves; and on the whole, it may be best. I hope, madam,” he said to Mrs Fonblanque, “that when the voyage becomes tedious, I shall have the pleasure of taking your portrait.”

“Oh!” said Mrs Fonblanque, smiling, “that is just what the other gentleman wants to do.”

“It is as I thought, sir,” cried he. “I ought never to have mistaken your physiognomy for a moment. We are—of course we are—brothers in Art.”

I looked so ineffably disgusted, that the Nun and the Sheik both began to tell their beads. This gave the Sheik fresh confidence, and, after a decent interval, he broke the pause by asking if I had finished my painting of Ezra’s Tomb.

“Oh, I see it all now!” interrupted my abominable neighbour. “You are only a painter, and you are still a little bit huffed because the sun has put your nose out of joint. I appeal to you, madam, impartially. What is the use of being a painter nowadays? I tried it myself fifteen years back. The whole thing is played out. I’d far rather make tombstones than paint them. One must move on with the times.”

“I must move, at all events,” said the Captain, gruffly. “They seem to be letting the horses kick the ship to pieces.”

“Don’t go on deck yet,” said my neighbour as the ladies rose. “Come to the bar and have a cocktail.”

I was about to give him my mind pretty freely, when Mrs Fonblanque touched me on the shoulder and said, “I want to speak to you, Mr Hicks.”

Unfortunately, however, I never learned what she wanted to tell me. Captain Forbus (as he liked to be called) was waiting for us at the top of the companion, and there was no escape from his hospitable arm. Mrs Fonblanque took it, withdrawing her arm from mine with a gentle pressure which, though I could not even at the time interpret it properly, seemed full of eloquent meaning. She gave me a look more eloquent still. “Had I a speaking-trumpet,” she seemed to signal, “I might perhaps explain everything. Nothing short of that would possibly help us in this awful hurly-burly, and that would probably spoil all our mutual confidences.”

I tacitly acquiesced. And, indeed, the deck as we saw it, coming fresh from the saloon, was a Babel, a Chaos, a Kingdom of Honyhuhum.

There were horses alongside in huge barges, horses in mid-air, horses on deck, and Arab and Persian horse-keepers everywhere with Persian cats and Persian greyhound pups under their arms. Such a jabbering, neighing, barking, mewing, praying, swearing, was surely never heard before.

“That is Mohammareh,” shouted the Captain, leading us aft.

“And what is Mohammareh?” asked Mrs Fonblanque, when we were well on the edge of the row.

“That is Mohammareh,” continued Captain Forbes, pointing to a line of low, insignificant brick-buildings and mud-huts. “Not much to look at it, is it? And yet, if the Shah would only bestir himself, he could make it into a second Liverpool.”

“I doubt if that would be desirable,” I said, curtly. “I hate Liverpool. But why, and how?”

From the tone in which I spoke, Mrs Fonblanque seemed to divine that I had not quite forgiven Captain Forbes for taking her away from me.

“Why, Captain Forbes?” she asked gently, so as to remove the last remnant of a grievance on my part.

“Why, madam?” said the Captain, coolly taking her left hand in his right and using it as a pointer. “Look before you. We are not on the Shet-el-Arab now, but on a canal as old, at all events, as Herodotus who described it. The canal connects our river in less than a mile with the Karun, a river almost as big as ours, and quite as important”—and here he gave Mrs Fonblanque’s hand a quite unnecessary nourish. “But though the Karun river runs right through the most fertile part of Persia, the Shah won’t allow a single steamer on it.”

“And why is the Shah permitted to object?” I asked.

“Why? Because England is nowhere now at Teheran, and because, like it or not, he has to take his orders from the Czar. An English Karun River Flotilla Company could change Persia into a rich country to-morrow, and give her as much gold as she wants for the corn and wool that have to lie there and rot there now. As it is, Persia is bankrupt, and Mohammareh is nowhere.”

“Why do you stop here, then?” said Mrs Fonblanque, rather pettishly, regaining possession of her left hand, and favouring me with a side-glance of immense relief.

“For our horses,” answered the Captain. “Their absurd restrictions compel us to smuggle our horses on board somewhere, and this is a convenient spot. The Sheik’s people are always obliging, and very different from the Custom-house officers at Bussorah. You heard us fire a gun off early this morning? That is all the backsheesh they want; and there is not much change to be got out of that, for they always return the salute.”

“I heard their guns go,” said Mrs Fonblanque.

“That is their battery over there,” said the skipper, handing me his glasses. “There, beyond the Sheik’s pretty little English steam-yacht, you see a very old and very tall fig-tree, the biggest and oldest fig-tree I ever saw, but not so old as the battery of rusty old Portuguese guns below it.”

“Can’t we go there and look at the guns?” I asked. “Are the Sheik’s people worth a visit?”

“That depends,” said Captain Forbes, “on what you expect to find. They were a set of bloodthirsty pirates until his wife made old Hadji Djaber respectable. She was a wonderful woman, if you like, and ruled him with a rod of iron for five-and-twenty years.”

“A Circassian lady, I presume?” said the Sheik, who, having finished his hubble-bubble in some retired corner of the quarter-deck, had unexpectedly joined our party.

“I think she was,” replied the Captain, “and anyhow a rare good sort. She was fond of her old man and her own way. She knew that old gentlemen like him joke about their old wives.”

“How extremely rude!” said Mrs Fonblanque.

“Oh, I don’t know,” answered Captain Forbes. “I am not a married man myself, but I can quite understand an old buffer like me saying to another old buffer, what some one said a long time before either of us were born, that when your wife is forty years old, you ought to be allowed to change her for two of twenty.”

“Stop, stop, Captain Forbes!” cried Mrs Fonblanque.

“If you have never heard anything worse than that, madam, you have never heard much that will hurt you. In the mouth of an Englishman that’s a very harmless joke. But in the case of a good Mohammedan with a large harem, it might, I own, play the very —— It might, I mean, be awkward.”

“Pray, say what you mean,” said Mrs Fonblanque severely, “and tell us how it was that Mrs Hadji Djaber brought her husband to his senses.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” replied the Captain; “there’s nothing like plain sailing after all, and when you are as old as she was, you will care as little as she did for anybody’s criticism. She went into the background herself, and made it her business to have the country round scoured for new wives for her husband.”

“What a dreadful old woman!” exclaimed Mrs Fonblanque, adjusting her wraps with a shiver.

“She really must have been a Circassian,” said the Sheik. “They are the cleverest women in the world.”

“She was all that,” said the Captain. “She gave him as many fresh wives as he liked. She kept a Mulla of her own to marry them, and a list of deserving officials, who would be proud to provide a home for them afterwards, and she never had a rival in her life!”

“I must tell Fatima of this,” said the Sheik to Mrs Fonblanque. “She is a good, faithful old creature, but intensely Conservative. Her views in this way are sadly behind the age. But ever since I bought her, Fatima has been an aristocrat at heart, and if anything a trifle too much inclined to follow the habits of the aristocracy. And after all, the Sheik of Mohammareh is somebody.”

“I should think so,” cried the Captain. “He has a steady income of six hundred thousand krauns a-year. He is a good deal thought of locally, and well looked after in high quarters, I can tell you. Every now and then the Governor of Fars pays him the compliment of a state visit, which lasts until it is worth the Sheik’s while to give his Highness something handsome to retire.”

“Their arrangements seem to be very funny all round,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “Come, Captain Forbes, won’t you allow Mr Hicks and me to interview this eccentric old couple?”

“Very sorry, ma’am,” said the Captain, gruffly. “The steamer sails directly, and the old Sheik and his wife both happen to be dead and buried. Their son, Sheik Muzel, isn’t worth a visit, and, if rumour is true, doesn’t care much for ladies’ society. It is almost quiet now forward. Come and see them taking in the last of the horses instead.”

Chapter XI

“A ship always reminds me of a big machine,” I said to Mrs Fonblanque, as soon as the Captain had safely ensconced us all on the bridge.

“Another type! Take care, take care, Mr Hicks! That typical palm-tree almost did for you. But a ship is a big machine. What else could it remind you of?”

“Of fifty thousand things, if I were in the humour for them,” I replied. “But you are right. It is a big machine. Captain Forbes pulls a handle, rings a bell, or gives a shout, and the whole mechanism, after a groan or two from stem to stern, implicitly obeys him. Look at the horses they are taking in. A sailor and a horse have about as little in common as any two living creatures, and yet—”

“I beg your pardon, Mr Hicks,” said the Captain, impressively. “You are altogether out. The ship groans because the agents won’t put her steering gear in order; they are to blame, not me; and quite apart from that, no one can manage a horse like a sailor. Look at my men taking in their horses.”

“That is exactly what I wanted Mrs Fonblanque to look at,” I answered, “and that is exactly what I meant when I talked of your ‘mechanical system.’ It is simply perfect.”

“Our mechanical system be . . . blessed,” cried the Captain.

“Look at them,” exclaimed the Sheik, almost warming into enthusiasm. “Look at those brutes of Persians. Look at that one. They tie a rope round each of his legs; they fasten a sling round his body. See how he kicks. It’s no good. They hold on. He is hoisted from the boat to the deck. He falls. No, he doesn’t. He picks himself up completely broken in, trots after his horse-keeper like a lamb, and is quietly wedged in between two strange horses. Wonderful! I never saw anything like it in the desert, where all our horses are thoroughbreds, living and feeding with us in our tents. ‘A wise man to manage a woman, but a wiser to manage a horse.’ That is our proverb, madam; what do you say?”

“And what do you think, Mrs Fonblanque?” asked the Captain, considerably mollified. “You hear the Sheik. He ought to know. Do you call this sailors’ mechanism?”

“No,” said Mrs Fonblanque, “of course I don’t. It’s a very, very old trick. You frighten your horses, and then they give in. Poor papa used to do it every Sunday morning before church, though he wasn’t a sailor, and hadn’t a ship to hoist his horses into.”

“Perhaps he had been a sailor?” said the skipper.

“Perhaps he had,” rejoined Mrs Fonblanque. “He must have been everything, I think, for he knew everything. At all events he could break in the wildest countrybreds in the half-hour before church by tying their heads and tails together, and showing them they were helpless. I used to beat a tin kettle in front so as to frighten them—I was a child at the time—and they used to spin round like teetotums, till they gave in. Papa used to say that his plan was far kinder and smarter than Rarey’s.”

“I have not the slightest doubt of it,” said the Captain. “And yet Mr Hicks would tell you that it was all mechanism, depending on the ropes between the head and the tail.”

According to my uncle, I always spent half my time in getting myself thoroughly misunderstood, and the other half in trying to prove my complete acquiescence in everything that exists. Still, after my morning’s experience with the Quartermaster, I could not well quote my uncle again.

“I assure you, Captain Forbes,” I said, “that when I talked about mechanism, I simply meant to say that you sailors had made your arrangements so perfect that they could not possibly be bettered. Were it necessary, I have no doubt you could take in a cargo of elephants.”

“Well! I don’t know about a cargo,” said the Captain in his old genial way. “Elephants stow badly. But I once took four in.”

“Oh! how was that?”

“The King of the Belgians,” he replied, “thought that a few educated Indian elephants would soon civilise all the wild elephants in Africa if they only had the chance. He put poor old Carter at the head of the expedition.”

“Why poor old Carter?” I interrupted.

“Because we were all sorry to lose him, and because we were all certain he would never come back. He was as well known at Maagil and Bussorah as I am on my own quarter-deck, and he was so much of an Arab that they always called him the White Sheik.”

“I never heard of any White Sheik in Arabia,” said the Sheik, sceptically, “and the lady was, I think, asking you about the elephants?”

“Well, Carter was in charge of the elephants that were to regenerate Africa. We shipped them at Bombay without the least trouble, and my officers and I laughed a little afterwards at the extraordinary fuss they made at home about shipping Jumbo. Our elephants, though, were failures from the first, and instead of training the African elephants, they turned wild themselves and bolted into the jungle.”

“And the White Sheik?” I asked.

“Oh! he was a failure too, so far as success goes. He died, riddled through and through with assegais, and that was the end of it. I only mentioned the elephants to show what we could do. But I shouldn’t care to take any more elephants to Africa.”

“And the horses?” I suggested. “I suppose you make a good thing out of them. The ship is full of horses. They must be worth a pot of money to you?”

“Not a red cent. They are so many pawn-tickets, nothing more. It’s a curious trade, and no one but the captain of a British-India steamer can understand it properly.”

“Why?” asked Mrs Fonblanque, good-naturedly.

“Why?” answered the Captain. “Why? because no money changes hand. The dealers scour the country, and pick up their horses anywhere between this and Aleppo, and promise to pay for them when they return from India. They pay us nothing for carrying their horses down to Bombay. But we keep all the horses on board until the stablemen there bail them out by promising the freight; and they don’t let them out of their stables, you may be sure, till their own charges are paid. The buyer really pays everybody all round.”

“And man, as Buffon has it, is,” I said, “the noblest conquest of the horse.”

“It is very like the story of the old woman and her pig,” said Mrs Fonblanque, leaning on the rail; “everything comes right in the end.”

“Yes,” answered Captain Forbes; “the dealers get over the stile eventually, and go home passage free with their pockets full of money.”

“An admirable system,” cried the horrible man who had separated Mrs Fonblanque and myself at breakfast, and who had at last torn himself away from the bar. “There is a future in that chain of childlike confidences. What a splendid Limited Liability Company one might make out of it without spending a shilling in promotion money. I have knocked about the world a good deal in my time, and here at last, in this outlandish place, I find the very apotheosis of credit.”

“Not credit, sir,” said the Sheik, shortly. “Not credit, but trust. A Bedouin,” he continued, almost glowering like an Englishman, “though you, sir, may scarcely believe what I say, cannot tell a lie.”

“No?” said the passenger, huskily.

“No,” said the Sheik, resuming his quiet, emphatic Arab way. “All the horses you see here have been picked up, haphazard fashion, from our travelling encampments. The dealers, once they have the money in their bags, often spend months in tracing out the owners as they travel, and I have never yet met an owner who had lost his money.”

“That is so,” said the skipper. “Still your Bedouins don’t think much of robbery or murder on the road down. They cut each other’s throats, when they don’t get the chances of cutting anybody else’s. They stuff everything they come across into the saddle-bags in which they keep their food and cooking-pots,—Persian cats, greyhound puppies, old prayer-carpets, women’s finery, sheepskin coats, chunks of tea or tobacco, and all the other odds and ends that clever thieves can put together on the highroad. All the dogs and cats and old carpets those men down below have are stolen.”

“That’s another thing altogether,” exclaimed the Sheik, still keeping his eye on the passenger I so intensely disliked. “They are rough, ignorant men, I grant you; but they never said they wouldn’t take what they found, or wouldn’t kill whom they could. That gentleman, however, seems to approve of a deliberate lie in order that he, and what he calls a Limited Liability Company, may make money out of our implicit confidence in one another.”

“Never mind, Sheik,” said Mrs Fonblanque; “we all want to make money. It’s just the same in the date trade.”

“The date trade and the horse trade are two very different things, madam,” he replied. “I breed horses myself, and sell them; but I’m neither a shopkeeper nor a date merchant. No Arab ever yet sold a horse without regretting it. And no Arab horse-dealer ever lied over a horse, or tried to palm off an inferior animal even on his worst enemy. We love our horses too well for that. We envy their purchasers, and then, our own reputations are staked on our horses.”

“They are not so particular in Europe, I assure you,” said the Captain. “It is the one trade there in which a gentleman is allowed to tell a fib. I bought a fine horse from a friend last time I was laid up in the Victoria Docks; and, in spite of his warranty and a double allowance of oats, I could not, for the life of me, persuade the beast to go beyond the Minories. And what, I ask any of you, is the use of a horse in Whitechapel when one wants to ride in the Park?”

“Thank you, Captain,” said the passenger, “you evidently think—”

“Never mind what I think,” said the Captain, rather roughly; “that’s my business, not yours. Time is up, Mr Hicks. You’ll hear a good deal more of those horses yet before you have done with them. But I must ask you all to be good enough to step down from the bridge, so as to let me get our big machine, as you call it, under way again.”

Chapter XII

The river’s banks, after we left Mohammareh, were scarcely a foot above the water. The bank on the starboard side was still covered with an almost interminable fringe of date-trees. Sometimes a narrow opening revealed a sort of glade, a superior type of what you see in the Alhambra every evening. Only the Alhambra people, no matter how many lime-lights they burn, can never really rival the effect of an Arabian sun, as it is softened and mellowed by the great leaves of a palm forest. Even Mrs Fonblanque, who did not often agree with me, and who knew nothing of the Alhambra, declared that she had never seen anything quite so beautiful as these deep recesses, now bright as emerald, and now gloomy and mysterious, just as the waving palm-trees chose to admit the sun’s rays or to shut them out. Sometimes one of these delightful openings showed us the outposts of a village, with horses and camels, buffaloes, sheep, and goats, nibbling at the herbage. Sometimes we had a much closer view of the flocks and herds as they were being watered in the river. But somewhere in the background there was always a solitary Arab custodian, and he was always leaning on his spear.

Everything on the Persian bank, however, was entirely different, for there the low alluvial banks and the innumerable islands were covered only with reeds and grass, and the country inland, as far as a good glass could reach, was evidently swept by the tide at high water.

After steaming in a leisurely way for an hour or two we came to Fao, where the Turkish cable is landed, and where for some inscrutable reason there is a post-office. The three or four barnlike buildings that stood on a muddy cove, a long way in front of the low range of distant palm-trees, scarcely seemed to justify a weekly mail. However, the steamer came to a dead halt.

“We stopped here coming up,” said Mrs Fonblanque, “and I should not like to go back without knowing something of Fao. Now, gentlemen, which of you will go ashore and bring me an entertaining account of Fao?”

“It is all mud,” replied the Sheik, “and if you are really interested in mud, Madam Fonblanque, I think you might perhaps take the trouble of nominating the explorer. Were I a younger man I would myself volunteer. But what do you say to nominating the very talkative gentleman who sat next you at breakfast?”

“The very man,” cried Mrs Fonblanque. “But he has disappeared. Where is he? Please find him, Mr Hicks.”

I went, in what the passenger himself would probably have called “an air line,” straight to the bar; and, as he was having an altercation with the barman at the time, he was delighted to carry out Mrs Fonblanque’s wishes. He started with the second officer and the mail-bag—if a great wax seal on a little rag of canvas can be dignified with the name. We watched him pull ashore. Then, in about an hour and a half he returned, looking rather more flushed than when he left us.

“It was good of you to go,” said Mrs Fonblanque, affably. “Come and tell us all about Fao.”

“A horrible place,” he answered, deliberately sitting down between Mrs Fonblanque and myself; “a telegraph station and nothing else. They only get nine or ten messages a-day.”

“Why so few?” asked Mrs Fonblanque.

“Oh, the line runs on wooden posts, and when the Arabs are pressed for firewood they cut a few posts down; and whenever they are hard up for plunder, they help themselves to two or three hundred yards of wire. But, for all that, there are two big establishments. Every message received from India at the English office has to be carried to the Turkish office, and handed over to the Greeks in charge, and vice versâ. A dull life I should say, but a more hospitable set of fellows you couldn’t meet anywhere. There was any amount of brandy of sorts, and a fairly good billiard-table.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Mrs Fonblanque; “but brandy and billiard-rooms are so very common everywhere that your account scarcely gives me a distinct impression of Fao.”

“Well,” he continued, “after our game they insisted upon taking me down to the village among the date-trees, to buy dubbers of rose-water. But that I promptly refused. If you have to water the streets of Cologne with eau de Cologne, they require all the rose-water they can make for Fao! It is a most awful village for its size,” he went on, “and it won’t bear description. I must wash the taste of it out of my mouth.”

He gave Mrs Fonblanque a most elaborate bow, and staggered off to the bar. The steamer, which had only hung about without dropping anchor, again got under way.

The low banks slowly faded out of view. The particularly sweet waters of the Shet-el-Arab grew thick and yellow, and in this waste of mnddy water there was nothing to mark the line where the river entered the Persian Gulf but a small black buoy which was changed whenever the bar shifted. Every one on board looked over the vessel’s side trying to be the first to discover the buoy. After a time, however, I put my glass aside, and kept my eye on the pilot on the bridge. He was naturally grave and stately, with a very handsome face; and as he stood there in his kuffia and his flowing aba, his appearance was singularly picturesque. He said nothing, but he passed his beads mechanically through his fingers as he waved a direction to that side or this. He looked at the compass now and then, chiefly, it seemed to me, as if he wished to keep his face towards Mecca. I began to lose faith in the pilot. I took up my glass again. Then I saw him give an unusually energetic wave of his right hand, and almost before we could see the buoy we were over it. In another moment we were ploughing heavily through the mud on the bar. This time the mud was too much for us; and after the screw had churned away for a quarter of an hour, the pilot, consulting the compass once more, called out for his prayer-carpet, and the Captain came off the bridge to tell us that we should have to wait where we were till the next tide lifted the ship. “And now,” he added, “we may as well go down to tiffin.”

“Oh, let us have tiffin on deck,” cried Mrs Fonblanque. “It is delightful here.”

“This isn’t a Rhine boat,” said the Captain, half in despair, but with a good-natured smile on his face all the time. “However, we’ll make the best of it, and though this isn’t Rhineland, our sparkling hock is the best wine we have on board.”

Captain Forbes was right. His hock was exceptionally good, and, as we had nothing to distract us, we became unusually merry for the time of day.

“We are bound to make the best of it,” said the skipper, calling for another bottle. “We have ten more hours to put in.”

“And I am very glad of it,” I cried. “Get Mrs Fonblanque to sing, Captain Forbes. She promised me yesterday that some day or other I should hear her sing really.”

“Did I? Well, perhaps I did. But not just now, Mr Hicks,” she answered, declining another glass of the Captain’s wine.

“I wish you would,” pleaded the Captain.

“Oh, with you it’s different. Certainly, Captain Forbes. I will sing something, if you like, to make the time go. Would you mind sending for Priscilla?”

Captain Forbes himself went to call Priscilla, and that gave Mrs Fonblanque the opportunity she wanted of rating me soundly.

“I must ask you not to be quite so familiar,” she said, quietly. “Some day, perhaps, when you have painted my portrait, I may take the trouble to sing to you really. But when I spoke about really singing, I was speaking in confidence, and you have no business to talk to me, sir, in a way that makes even the common sailors grin. I certainly won’t stand that.”

She referred, I suppose, to the Quartermaster, who had preached at me to some purpose at daybreak. He was the only sailor near us, and, at a sign from the Captain, he was letting down one side of the awning to keep the sun out of Mrs Fonblanque’s eyes. So far as I could see, he never once glanced round until Captain Forbes returned, driving Priscilla, as it were, before him.

“Bring my guitar and my banjo,” said Mrs Fonblanque, sharply.

Priscilla brought up two cases and helped her mistress to open them.

“An extraordinary man that passenger of ours,” said the Captain to me, as soon as Mrs Fonblanque was busily engaged. “I have had to stop his liquor already, but he was as affable as ever when I came across him down below. He was sitting beside a big portmanteau among the horses, throwing no end of papers overboard. ‘What are you doing, my friend?’ I asked. ‘Disposing of my old love-letters,’ he said, ‘so as to make a fresh start. I always look upon the sea as a splendid waste-paper basket.’ And then he chuckled.”

“He should not have done that,” said the Sheik severely, “and you should have rebuked him. No papers ought ever to be destroyed, for some words of the Prophet might happen to be on them.”

“He said they were love-letters,” said the Captain, “and I daresay they were bills.”

Here Mrs Fonblanque ran her fingers over the strings of her guitar.

“No,” she said, quietly. “You don’t look sufficiently repentant for the guitar, Mr Hicks. I shall take the banjo, and I hope I shall thoroughly shock what little artistic feeling you may have left.”

“Another bottle of sparkling hock, steward!” cried the Captain.

“Exactly so,” said Mrs Fonblanque, beginning to tune her banjo, of all instruments the most hideous, and never so hateful as in a beautiful woman’s delicate hands. “Ladies don’t often get the chance of singing a drinking-song, for you always turn us out of your dining-rooms when anybody intends to be amusing. Revenge is sweet—”

“So it seems,” I said.

“That settles it,” she answered, giving the discarded guitar a little kick with her foot. “I shall certainly take the banjo, and I shall sing you a song that must set every artistic nerve in your body on edge. And if you all promise not to tell, you may fill my glass again, Captain Forbes, and I’ll give you a lady’s drinking-song. Here you are!” she added, twanging her horrible banjo with her nervous little fingers, and laughing all the time. Then she began: —

‘The wine that women worship most
 Is not so rough and red as yours;
We like to sip a sparkling toast,
 No matter how the pledge endures!’

Now, Captain! now, Sheik! chorus—”

“Excuse me,” said the Sheik, firmly. “That surely is a most improper song. I would not allow it to be sung in my harem. It would shock Fatima immensely.”

“What an old Mohammedan Puritan you are!” exclaimed Mrs Fonblanque, “and there are two more verses, too. I must have my chorus. Now, Captain Forbes! now, Mr Hicks! chorus! If you won’t join in, I shall send for the Nun, and tell Priscilla to waken up the gentleman who was gallant enough to go to Fao at my bidding. Take the tune from me —

‘So fill the cup—’

That’s it! don’t be frightened. I want a bass voice, Mr Hicks, not a falsetto, if you please —

‘So fill the cup and let it brim
With sparkling wine, and drink to him
Who knows to love us for a while,
And knows to leave us with a smile.

Eternity is quite too much
 For lives so poor as yours and ours;
For us enough the fragrant touch
 Of every spring-time’s earliest flowers.

So fill the cup and let it brim
With sparkling wine, and drink to him
Who knows to love us for a while,
And knows to leave us with a smile.’

But you are not joining in, Mr Hicks,” she said, stopping suddenly.

“I tried, but I cannot,” I answered. “For once I agree with the Sheik. It is in every way a most detestable song, and I wonder you can sing it at all without blacking your face in the Christy Minstrel fashion.”

“How rude you are!” she cried. “You are always rude now, and I shall certainly not give you the third verse, which would have explained everything very prettily. I only tried to make the time go, and this is all my thanks. How like a man! You may amuse me now, or wait. We will, if you please, go the round of the Arts, and see how painting will help us to pass the time. What do you say, Sheik? Shall we make Mr Hicks finish that immortal picture of his—Ezra’s Tomb from a Steamboat? We will sit down and criticise him, just as you two have criticised me, and Captain Forbes shall say which of us has won.”

“An admirable idea,” said the Sheik. “I am not by my religion allowed to like pictures, or I should try and persuade Mr Hicks to let me have that picture of his.”

“Bring it up on deck,” said Mrs Fonblanque, peremptorily.

I expostulated— “I don’t want to paint to-day. I feel in no humour for painting.”

“I didn’t want to sing,” said Mrs Fonblanque, “and I sang; and when I began I didn’t want to stop, but I stopped. You have been indulged enough, sir, and if you don’t bring up Ezra’s Tomb from a Steamboat yourself, I shall send Priscilla into your cabin for it.”

The mere thought of that awful creature making “hay” of my things, as we used to call it at school, was too much for me. I yielded with the best grace I could, and, before they were drinking their coffee, I had a big easel in front of me, and all my painting materials close at hand. By degrees I threw myself into my work, and once I was properly absorbed in it, their criticism scarcely ruffled my artistic sense.

Chapter XIII

Critics, as luckier men than myself had often told me at home, soon weary of criticism if they are not answered. “Never retort,” my uncle used to say. “Let them bend their bows and shoot their arrows. They almost always miss you, though they rub their hands together gleefully, and cry out, ‘See how we have frightened him!’ You shoot back and miss them, and they rub their hands again, and cry with a chuckle, ‘We are quite invulnerable. He can’t touch us.’ The last miss always counts double, and is always in the critic’s favour.”

I was thinking partly of my uncle, partly of my theory, and partly of my picture, and was, perhaps, rather distressed than otherwise to find that my local critics had by this time forgotten me completely.

“Manna,” I heard the Sheik say, “is by far the most palatable food and the most easily digested food I know. Our poor people sometimes live entirely on it, and I often envy them.”

“That is like me,” replied Mrs Fonblanque. “I always envy poor people, for nobody ever tries to tamper with their imaginations. If I want a thing I go and buy it, and there’s an end to all my pleasure. But the poor people, who can’t get the things they want, enjoy the thought of them a thousand times more than you or I enjoy the reality.”

“That may be so,” said the Sheik. “What I really should like to know is what you think about my manna.”

It is one thing to be criticised and another to be thoroughly ignored, and when the Sheik went below for his manna, I could not help remembering that Mrs Fonblanque had made a really hearty meal at tiffin-time.

“It’s very sticky, Sheik,” I heard her say; “but it certainly is delicious. I should like the recipe. How do you make it?”

“Oh, we don’t make it!” answered the Sheik, vastly delighted. “It makes itself, being secreted in some mysterious way in the trees, and we catch it in a cloth in the shape of large crystal drops of dew, and then it hardens. But are we not neglecting Mr Hicks and his picture?”

“Perhaps we are,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “But he seemed so absorbed in his painting that I thought he didn’t want us to talk to him. What does it all mean, Mr Hicks?” she continued, looking over my shoulder.

I was busily at work on the foreground, and did not think it necessary to reply.

“It is Ezra’s Tomb,” explained the Sheik, coming close up to my other shoulder—“Ezra’s Tomb, the oldest known tomb in the world, and Mr Hicks has copied it exactly. That is the tomb there. I recognise it at once. That great big building, with a green dome on the top of it, and a crescent over that again. It nestles in a pleasant little clump of date-trees, and you see it just when your eyes are most tired of looking at the sandy desert. There! he has finished the wall, and now he is touching up the river. Inshallah! It is a wonderful art, and I often grieve that we Mohammedans may not practise it.”

“I don’t know,” said Mrs Fonblanque, returning to her seat. “Perhaps Mahomet was right. Devotion to any one particular art must cripple a man terribly in the long-run. My ideal man is thoroughly unfettered, and ready at any moment to start anywhere and do anything.”

I thought that Mrs Fonblanque’s ideal man had rather a vague mission in life, and so apparently did the Sheik.

“Why?” he asked.

“To show his individuality,” said Mrs Fonblanque, “and his freedom from all possible fetters.”

“There I almost agree with you,” said the Sheik, “and I only wish Fatima could hear what you say. Incessant travel is a cure for most evils. But Fatima—”

“You surely don’t allow Fatima to dictate to you, Sheik?” said Mrs Fonblanque.

“Scarcely that,” he answered. “But I can’t possibly prevent her speaking her mind. And when she is getting my ‘kit’ ready for another journey, she—”

Their idle chatter was too much for me. I threw down my brushes in despair.

“And when you travel,” I cried, “I suppose you go to London or Paris for the season?”

“I have been to Paris and to London too,” the Sheik answered, quietly.

“You have been to London,” exclaimed Mrs Fonblanque. “How delightful! Why, I have never been to London myself. Fancy an Arab Sheik telling an English girl all about London! It is too delicious and too absurd! Sheik, you must be joking! Have you really been to England?”

“Of course I have,” said the Sheik.

“And what did Fatima and Zuleika and Nour Mahal think of their London season?”

“Oh, they didn’t go!” he replied. “They wrote to me every mail through the chief officer of my harem, and in reply I gave them a careful account of all my adventures.”

“Oh!” cried Mrs Fonblanque. “How I should like to hear everything about your adventures in London! Begin at once, Sheik—I insist upon it.”

“I must have time to think them over,” said the Sheik, cautiously. “But I know you will only laugh at me, and, on the whole, I had better leave London to Mr Hicks, who was probably born there.”

“He doesn’t know how to tell a story properly,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “He can’t keep his uncle out of his stories. I insist, Sheik, and when I insist—”

“I know,” cried the Sheik; “and some day, Madam Fonblanque—”

“Can’t you see through him? He is joking, Mrs Fonblanque,” I said, picking up my brushes again, now that I had divided the enemy’s camp. “He is teasing you. Pay him back in his own coin. Say you have been to Mecca. And then, probably, I shall be able to go on with my painting in peace.”

“I beg your pardon, Mr Hicks,” said the Sheik, severely. “I never joke; our tribe never do. I went to England in attendance on the Nawab Ikhbal-ool-Dowlah, the ex-king of Oudh. You probably met him at Bagdad?”

“Yes, I did,” I answered, “and he certainly told me a good deal about his European travels.”

“Is he not a fine old man?” continued the Sheik. “He was never really king of Oudh, but your Government make as much of him as if he had been, and he is the real king of Bagdad. He holds the threads of Central Asian politics in his fingers, and posts up all your Residents. Well, I was nearly two years in Europe with the Nawab. You still look doubtful. Do I or do I not speak intelligible English? And how could I possibly have learned English unless I had visited England?”

“I beg your pardon,” said Mrs Fonblanque; “I never thought of that.”

And no more had I. It was another of my uncle’s pet theories that the whole world, now that it had given up speaking Hebrew, would one day speak English. I had very naturally accepted the Sheik as he was, and, without a second thought about it, had sent a most amusing account of him home to my uncle in the letter notifying the purchase and despatch of the Tree of Good and Evil

Mrs Fonblanque, however, was not so easily satisfied as she appeared to be at first, and while I was daubing in the deep blue waters of the Tigris, she began to cross-examine the Sheik cruelly.

“How did you go?” she asked at last.

“Through Bagdad,” he answered; “a most disagreeable place in the cold season.”

“There I agree with you,” I said, turning my back on my picture. “I spent four days there. I don’t remember much of it, to be sure. But I do remember the bridge of boats, and the great awkward kuffas, pitched inside and out with crude bitumen, like the ark in which Pharaoh’s daughter found Moses, and how they went round and round as a man with one oar pulled you spirally across the river. I remember the narrow streets too, and how the porters, staggering under their loads, used to block them up. There was a tramway, wasn’t there? and the houses had serdaubs or cellars underground for the winter months, and big broad roofs for the summer? I forget the details, but I hated Bagdad more than any place I ever stopped at.”

“Don’t be quite so energetic,” remonstrated Mrs Fonblanque; “but why?”

“Why? Because for the first three days I saw nothing but myself the whole time.”

“Poor man! poor man!”

“I told you, I think,” I said rather touchily, “that I was laid up with fever at Bagdad. The Resident was most wonderfully good to me. He gave me the best room in the Residency—the crystal room. The walls and ceilings were completely covered with little looking-glasses set at different angles. Wherever I looked, as I tossed about in my bed, stiff and bruised and fever-stricken, I saw a thousand reflections of myself, wan and emaciated and caricatured. It was a waking exaggeration of some most horrible nightmare. Have you ever seen yourself, Mrs Fonblanque, in a thousand mirrors at once?”

“No; but I don’t think I should mind it,” she said, smiling.

“Wouldn’t you?” I exclaimed. “Only try the experiment when you have fever on you. It is bad enough to be compelled to read one’s face every morning when one is shaving. ‘What do you mean? What have you done? What are you going to do?’ you ask it. But to see your face for hours and days together, and always in a thousand distorted shapes! I assure you, Mrs Fonblanque, that when they moved me into a little bedroom with whitewashed walls, I thought I was in paradise.”

“Hush, Mr Hicks! Please hush!” said Mrs Fonblanque. “You really must not talk of paradise before ladies.”

“And why not?” I asked, with my two eyes wide open.

“The Sheik will tell you why not,” she said. “It is a question on which I cannot possibly enter here—a question utterly forbidden to all of us poor women.”

“Nay, nay!” remonstrated the Sheik, gently. “That is altogether a vulgar error. Our Prophet never said that women had no chance of entering paradise. On the contrary, madam, when an old woman, Abufelda by name, importuned him about old women never reaching paradise, he replied that that was only because they all grew young again on the road.”

“Thank you, Sheik,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “Mr Hicks was good enough to think that I was thirty last night. There is hope for me still, Mr Hicks.”

“For you, certainly,” answered the Sheik, seriously, “but scarcely for him.”

“And why not for me?” I ventured to interpolate, as I looked round again from my picture.

“Because,” said the Sheik, impressively, “so far as our books enable us to guess, the ladies will in a future life have a little heaven of their own—a paradise all to themselves.”

“There, Mr Hicks!” exclaimed Mrs Fonblanque, triumphantly. “That is a very subtle compliment, and very prettily put. But at the same time, Sheik, now that I come to think it over, I am almost afraid that some of us would not altogether wish for such an extreme and rigid system of exclusiveness. It sounds like a seraglio without a sultan, or an arrangement of Venetian blinds with nobody on the other side to look out at.”

I laughed a little as I filled a new brush with a new colour I had been carefully squeezing on to my palette from a little tube as she spoke.

“Why does he laugh?” asked Mrs Fonblanque, indignantly.

“I think he knows the legend,” said the Sheik.

“Indeed! I must insist on knowing it too, then, unless of course there is anything decidedly improper about it.”

Neither of us spoke.

“Come now, Sheik!” said Mrs Fonblanque, tapping the arm of her chair rather impatiently with her black fan. “We are talking of serious matters, if you please. Why are we poor women to have a paradise of our own?”

“My dear lady,” said the Sheik, holding up his hands as if there might possibly be a thunder-cloud somewhere near, “what can you want with paradise just now? I hope you will live a thousand years, and grow younger and lovelier every day.”

“I hope so too,” retorted Mrs Fonblanque. “But it is scarcely likely. And in the meantime, I don’t choose to let you and Mr Hicks laugh to yourselves, in what I really must call a very tantalising manner, over a mysterious and apparently an improper legend.”

“Bismillah!” said the Sheik, placidly.

“Nonsense!” said Mrs Fonblanque, and not placidly at all. “Why are we women to have a paradise of our own?”

“Because, if you insist upon it—mind it is a legend only—the legend says that you would make a regular pandemonium of ours.”

“Oh, you horrid old Sheik!” cried Mrs Fonblanque, springing to her feet. “Put your hands down at once, and let me have a good look at your treacherous old face. Was it for this that I have taken your side against Mr Hicks from the first? I have a very good mind to let him loose! You are worse than he is, and what would either of you do without us in this world or the next?”

“There would be houris,” I suggested.

“And now you are worse than the Sheik!” she exclaimed, stamping her pretty little foot on the deck. “Would houris order your dinner every day, and sew your buttons on for you, and see that you didn’t waste your time and lose your money at your clubs, and take care that you went to bed early, and try to prevent your drinking too much wine? Would your houris, as you call them—”

“Stop,” said the Sheik, so impressively that even Mrs Fonblanque stopped. “The gentleman is right. Oh, my son,” he continued, laying his hand almost affectionately on my arm, “let us keep our affections for those beautiful and constant daughters of paradise who never cast eyes on any man but their own! And, however tried and tempted we may be, let us look forward to that good time coming, as our Prophet meant we should do, as the very pinnacle of supreme felicity.”

It is impossible to guess what Mrs Fonblanque might have said in reply; for at that moment—fortunately, perhaps, for the Sheik and myself—the little Nun rushed up and hysterically buried her head in Mrs Fonblanque’s bosom.

“Hush, my dear! hush, my dear!” said Mrs Fonblanque, soothing her like a petted child, and so overdoing it, that at last the poor little thing naturally fainted.

“Let me carry her down to her cabin,” said the Captain, who had run aft from the chart-room. “It can’t be the sea, Mrs Fonblanque, for the ship is as firm as a rock. What is it?”

“It is their absurd theory about houris, Captain Forbes, and I am afraid, from what she said, that somebody has tried to kiss her!”

Chapter XIV

It was very nearly five o’clock when the Captain disappeared below with his fair burden. Mrs Fonblanque followed him, and after leaving Priscilla in charge, rejoined us on deck. But she was too late. A pleasant day had been in some way or other completely spoiled, and considering what a merry party we had been at tiffin, we were now, as I looked round, a most woe-begone and subdued lot of people.

“I think I ought to go and smoke my hookah,” said the Sheik, as if a happy inspiration had struck him. “That pretty little Nun’s affair has, I own, rather ruffled me. “We know nothing of Nuns in our religion, Madam Fonblanque; and if you will allow me, I should like to compose my mind with a few whiffs of tobacco before the setting sun says it is time to call out for my prayer-carpet.”

“I think I should, if I were you,” replied Mrs Fonblanque, with an evident reminiscence of our late passage-at-arms. “How delightfully selfish all men are at heart, and how admirably they veil it in some ostentatious duty! If you want to smoke, Sheik, say so. Only for goodness’ sake don’t make a kind of religious obligation out of it!”

“You mistake me altogether,” said the Sheik.

“No, I don’t think I do,” rejoined Mrs Fonblanque. “I am a pretty shrewd judge of character. I have only known you for about twenty-four hours, but I fancy I know as much about your character as Fatima does.”

“That is not impossible,” answered the Sheik. “You are much smarter than dear old Fatima ever was. You are very clever indeed, Madam Fonblanque, and I have been puzzling my brains all to-day as to how a charming young woman is able to think, as you do, that she can gauge an old man’s character off-hand.”

“Well, Sheik,” she replied, slowly, “I will tell you. Most men of a certain age are the same. They all of them think a good deal more, I fear, of their creature-comforts than of their religious obligations. You, for instance, admire Mr Hicks’s picture far more than I do; for, like that horrible man down below, I don’t care much about tombstones. You said you wished you could buy it. But your religious scruples were too strong for you, and I must say that you sacrificed your artistic feelings to your religious scruples most successfully. Still, looking at Mr Hicks’s picture as it lies before him on his easel, I cannot think the sacrifice a costly one. Now, Sheik,” she continued abruptly, “was the sacrifice a sacrifice really, or are you not a humbug like—well, yes—like Mr Hicks, and the rest of you?”

“I never,” said the Sheik, “pretended to be better than anybody else. Probably I am worse. Why are you down on me like this?”

“Why?” said Mrs Fonblanque. “Why? Because you have two measures,—one for our friend’s picture, and another for your personal convenience. A good Mohammedan who can’t swallow a tomb and a few Arabs beside it, can nevertheless drink more sparkling hock than any of us poor Kafirs!”

“Oh!” said the Sheik, laughing, “is that all? Most good Mohammedans do that. Mahomet himself was fond of good wine, and all he wrote against it, if you read the Koran properly, is only a condemnation of his own personal excess. The higher class of Mohammedans, and more especially the travelled Mohammedans, all use wine in moderation. I have been assured by the best physicians in London that a light wine, such as the Captain gave us to-day, is much less deleterious than coffee; and what could Mahomet know of sparkling hock?”

“I know nothing of what Mahomet knew,” said Mrs Fonblanque; “but as you know I can know nothing of London, I think it is rather unkind of you and Mr Hicks to remind me of London so often. But you are begging the question. Was Mahomet a water-drinker? And did he, or did he not, forbid the juice of the grape to his followers?”

“He was a water-drinker, of course,” answered the Sheik, “and, of course, he forbade us to use wine. But if you will allow me to be prolix, this was how he changed his mind—”

“Certainly,” said Mrs Fonblanque softly, completely recovering her manners, “be as prolix as you please; be always prolix if you like.”

“Well, this was how it was,” said the Sheik, rather shortly. “Mahomet called one day on a hermit who had been at school with him, and the low door of the hermit’s hut suddenly became as large and lofty as if it had been the portal to a palace. This was the first sign of his mysterious power. After this he naturally conceived so great an affection for the hermit who had brought this miracle to pass, that all his followers became angry and very jealous. One night when he had gone to call on the holy man, his followers found them both drunk with good wine. They drew Mahomet’s sword from its sheath, passed it through the hermit’s body, and put it back. When he awoke, they showed him his bloody sword, and told him he had slain his friend. Then it was that our Prophet cursed the juice of the grape and all who drink it.”

“It must have been a dreadful shock,” said Mrs Fonblanque, quite sympathetically.

“It was,” answered the Sheik.

“And where do you get your legend?” said I, turning aside from my picture.

“It is an old, old legend,” he answered, quite unruffled. “It is in all our own books, and you will find it in many of yours. I think you will find it in Mandeville’s Voyages.”

“And he was the prince of liars!”

“Hush, Mr Hicks!” said Mrs Fonblanque. “Papa used to say that no one could appreciate Mandeville properly until he had lived twenty years in the East, and you are, I think, only travelling in that direction.”

“There is the steward with my hookah,” said the Sheik, “and the sun will set in five minutes. Salaam!”

Mrs Fonblanque, judging from the way in which she pushed her chair about, was evidently worsted. She wouldn’t, though I really tried to be affable, speak to me for some time, now that the Sheik had gone. So I painted away steadily at Ezra’s Tomb, and by way of local colour, I managed, rather adroitly, to put both her and myself in. But as she wouldn’t talk, of course I stopped speaking.

“Oh, Mr Hicks,” she said suddenly, putting a little hand on my shoulder, and just as abruptly withdrawing it, “that really is a beautiful picture! Without my knowing it, you have actually painted my portrait. That was too bad of you, Mr Hicks, for I was quite honest when I said I did not care for Ezra’s Tomb; but your figure and mine seem to make all the difference in the world. Do you see how I am holding my black fan in your picture? Well, that’s exactly how I do hold it when I am thinking of something else. I will give you anything you like for your picture; not that you want anything—of course I know you don’t—but just for the fun of sending it home to the Academy to see what the critics say about it.”

“You are vere good, Mrs Fonblanque,” I said, as I began to pack up all my painting tools, “and a great deal kinder, I am afraid, than any of the critics. Take the picture, please take it. I only finished it for you. When you and the Sheik teased me so unmercifully, I thought this little bit of canvas might amuse you afterwards. I never sell my pictures, because nobody will buy them, and I can’t begin with you, and I would really much rather not have them criticised. Please tell Priscilla to put the picture in your cabin, and to be certain that nobody ever looks at it.”

“How good of you!” cried Mrs Fonblanque. “I will carry it down myself, so as to be sure that Priscilla dries it properly before she packs it away. I feel almost like a thief, Mr Hicks; and what a shame it was of us to go on teasing you as we did, while you were slaving away just to please us! Try and give me absolution if you can. What penance shall I perform by way of atonement?”

“You must walk the quarter-deck till the dinner-bell rings,” I said, “and if you are really repentant, I shall expect to see you stepping out like the professors at Aberdeen.”

“I will try,” said Mrs Fonblanque, putting her hand in my arm. “Did they walk in pairs? If not, I will follow you humbly.”

I laughed a little at this, for Mrs Fonblanque was not the kind of woman to walk humbly after any man, even for a freak. And then, as we went together arm in arm, and to and fro, I told her all about the old Quartermaster and his family affairs.

“You seem to attract queer people,” she said, laughing. “I wish I had called him up when he was putting down the awning. I should like to have heard all about Polly and the problem, and the little bairns in their bunks, and his own first night at sea away from Polly and the bairns. Fancy his thinking of them with tears in his honest blue eyes, while you were perfectly happy with your wonderful uncle and his problem! You are spoiled irremediably, Mr Hicks. The poor people have the best of it.”

“Yes,” I answered; “I heard something of what you said to the Sheik about the danger of tampering with their imaginations.”

“You did, sir!” she replied, abruptly removing her hand from my arm. “But how about the Quartermaster? And how about your feelings when he said you were henpecked and hencooped?”

Mrs Fonblanque, I am sorry to say, laughed most immoderately—if a soft silvery laugh can ever be immoderate—at this specimen of the Quartermaster’s wit. His apt quotation from Shakespeare had not moved her in the least. But henpecked and hencooped was too much for her. “He must be humorous,” she said, slipping her hand adroitly under my arm again, as I pressed it rather sulkily close to my side.

“Don’t be so dreadfully cross,” she said. “I could not help laughing a little. But if you really feel ‘henpecked and hencooped’ on the quarter-deck, which we have all to ourselves, let us go forward and mix a little with the crowd of native passengers.”

We went forward as Mrs Fonblanque suggested. At a distance, poor things, they seemed to be packed together like herrings in a barrel. But as they happened to be preparing their evening meal just then, we found them a very happy and very picturesque-looking set of people. Their pilgrimages were over—most of them were pilgrims—and they could afford to spend as much time as they liked over their huge bronze soma-vofs and little tin coffee-pots. The tiny cups of tea or coffee were, as we appeared on the scene, being quickly and silently handed round by stout comely women, veiled up to their glittering eyes. The men lolled about on carpets from Kerbela or Mecca, which, had they only known it, would have paid the cost of their pilgrimage. They talked over their strange experiences in deep undertones, as they stroked their huge beards, which had been jet black when they started, and were now as red as red-clay and henna could make them. They scarcely looked at the women who handed them their tea or coffee, but each of them had a kind word for the naked, brown-skinned little children, who tumbled all about them, and when Mrs Fonblanque appeared on the scene, they pushed each other aside to make a passage for her.

“They are much friendlier here than we were on the quarter-deck,” said Mrs Fonblanque.

“Perhaps,” I suggested, “they can’t understand one another so well.”

“Perhaps not,” replied Mrs Fonblanque. “But only look at them as they lie all higgledy-piggledy on those beautiful carpets. You ought to take out your sketch-book, Mr Hicks. You will never have such a chance as this again. Look at those tawny-bearded Turks and those Zanzibar men. You are always crying out for contrasts, and you could not have a better contrast than that. Look at that negro woman holding up her cup for the dregs of the coffee-pot, and see how disdainfully that veiled Circassian beauty pours it in. But what pretty lips she has, as she smiles at that little urchin who is tugging at her gown! Oh, now that you look at her, she is smiling at you too. Didn’t you see how she gave her veil a twist that showed her face completely, poor thing? She is very fond of that little boy, I should say, and very tired of everything else.”

Blasé, perhaps, like you and me?”

“Don’t be so affected,” she said. “You are far too impressionable to be blasé, and, if anything, you are a little too much the other way. Look at that odd mixture of Arabs, Persians, Kojahs, Armenians, Jews, Afghans, Hindoos, and Parsees, all drinking their tea and coffee together, and all lying at ease like so many lions and lambs. What a happy family, and what an example to both of us!”

Here the Quartermaster, who had been touching his cap to me for at least two minutes, at last broke in.

“Beg your pardon, sir and ma’am,” said he. “There is more of the lion than the lamb about them. They all come aboard armed to the teeth, and we stand by the gangway with our bludgeons in our hands. ‘Drop your arms!’ say we in something like their own lingo. And if they don’t, why, we drop them. Then their women come up, carrying their luggage like beasts of burden, and as soon as they have spread their carpets down and fed their children, the men take their places.”

“And a very quiet, orderly set of men they seem, Quartermaster,” I said.

“That’s as you take them,” he answered. “Look at them now, and you’d think honey wouldn’t melt in their mouths. But they hate each other like poison, and when the Shiahs or the Sunnies, or whatever they call themselves, are allowed to take their rusty old matchlocks out to clean them, they keep the others at a good distance, I can tell you.”

Here the steward ran up, followed by Captain Forbes, to tell us dinner was ready, and the Quartermaster, as we left him, was surrounded by a crowd of little children who had, somehow or other, discovered that his pockets were full of apples.

“He is still thinking of Polly and the bairns,” said Mrs Fonblanque aside to me, as she took the Captain’s arm.

Chapter XV

After dinner, at which neither the Nun nor the obnoxious passenger were present, we went on deck again, and then I began to understand what Captain Forbes meant by saying that we should hear a good deal more of the horses before we had done with them. They were packed so tightly, poor creatures, that if any one of them had been allowed to lie down, all the queen’s horses and all the queen’s men could never have set him on his legs again. So it was the business of the Arab and Persian horsekeepers to keep their charges awake throughout the whole voyage. This they did in turns—and at night, by walking to and fro, singing a painfully unmelodious ditty, and hammering away at the wooden bar in front of each row of horses with a big stick. This double-barrelled system of torture was in itself bad enough the first evening I heard it. But long before I reached Bombay, I learned to hate it most consummately. I wrote down something about the kingdom of Honyhuhum just now. But here Swift’s terrible outrage on humanity was amply avenged, for the moment any poor brute leant its tired head on the wooden bar in front of him, he was roughly aroused, and, as a last resort, given something to eat and drink.

“I wonder the horses don’t all go mad,” I said to Captain Forbes, as we walked slowly up and down smoking our cheroots. “Fancy being kept awake for a whole fortnight to listen to a row like that!”

“I used to think like you once,” answered the Captain; “but I see now that the Arabs know their own business. Most of these horses have never been ridden. When you come to Bombay you’ll find them all perfectly trained, and if you fancy any particular horse here, you will be able to ride him straight away from the steamer.”

“Just as Mrs Fonblanque’s father used to do on his Sunday mornings?” I suggested.

“Yes,” he answered. “But he never kept them together head and tail so long as we do. The most perfect cure for a kicking horse is to ride him right into an Irish bog and leave him there, kicking away till he is tired. No horse has a kick in him after that. But a fortnight on board a British-India steamer is not a bad substitute for an Irish bog.”

“How is it you seem to know all about horses?” I asked, “and why was it that you told me at breakfast-time that you ought to have been a cavalry officer?”

“Oh, that’s a long yarn,” answered the Captain, smiling. “I made my mark as a cavalry officer in the old Kafir war, when I was an apprentice in the Union Line. Forbes’s Horse were a great deal better known than Forbes’s old tub of a steamer ever will be. I was the youngest man in the force, and the skipper of them all. Lord! the things we did in Cape Town! and how the regulars hated our smart grey uniform, and the way in which the girls used to wave their handkerchiefs as we clattered through the sleepy streets! We nearly came to blows at the Governor’s ball, though, and then some one peached on me. I had been left at the Cape invalided—not very sick or sorry, I can tell you, at the chance of getting a change ashore. But the directors at home came to hear of my success, and so did my poor old father, and I received two letters the same day telling me to join the first ship in, or be ruined. We were a smart troop and well dressed, but our pay was not much to speak of. Like the rest, I was a good deal in debt, and, like a fool, I resigned, and made a hash of my life. If I had only waited a week I should have had a commission. I never knew that till the next voyage out, when everybody chaffed me for resigning. Perhaps I should have been a colonel now, perhaps a general, perhaps something more, for all my instincts were in the work. As it is, I drive a cargo-boat up and down this beastly Gulf.”

“Well, your cargo, at all events, is to your taste.”

“That’s my only consolation,” said the skipper, rather sorrowfully. “I know a good horse when I see him, and I take care that he is not ill-treated.”

“Surely that’s a great pull in itself,” I said. “I am, I am not ashamed to say, a Cockney, pure and simple. I know a horse from a cow, and that’s about all. To me all these horses you have on board look like ponies.”

“That’s only because they are Arab horses,” rejoined Captain Forbes, “and because those hulking dray-horses in London have completely vitiated your taste. No horse, to begin with, should be more than fourteen hands, or at the most fourteen-two. The ideal Arab, the true Nejed horse, is rarely over fourteen. He has very full haunches, shoulders that slope like the shoulders of a beautifully modelled woman, a broad head, a delicate nose that could drink out of a pint-pot, legs hard and sinewy and very clean, small hoofs, eyes large and full and almost as soft and gentle as a gazelle’s, little ears always on the move, a coat like silk and without a suspicion of hair on it, a long mane, and a flowing tail. You recollect Manfred’s bold image when he likened the lines of foaming light flung from the Alpine cataract to ‘the pale courser’s tail, the giant steed, to be bestrode by Death.’ Well, that’s the way the Arab horses hold their tails.”

“You should tell that to Mrs Fonblanque,” I said, and then I burst into a roar of laughter. “Let me,” I cried, half choking, “only let me see a tail that—”

“I can’t,” said the Captain, evidently hurt; “their tails are all the other way, and must remain so till we reach Bombay.”

“Let me see a Nejed horse then,” I persisted, “with shoulders that slope like the shoulders of a beautifully modelled woman.”

“I can’t,” cried the Captain, hotly. “I have never seen a real Nejed horse myself, man. I am only repeating the songs of those Arab horsekeepers, who say their poets all go raving mad about the slope of a thoroughbred’s shoulders. But if you can’t tell a horse from a cow, I don’t see why you should pitch into me for my enthusiasm.”

“No more do I, Captain Forbes,” I said. “I only thought that if I had to wait until I reached Bombay to see their tails, I might perhaps be able to see their shoulders at once.”

“Well, you won’t,” he answered. “The true Nejed breed are never sold. But in the morning I can show you a couple of ponies from Nejed sires, and with all the best points, that will fetch Rs. 7000 each as Indian racers, and will be cheap at the price.”

By this time the Captain gathered that I was sufficiently impressed. Our cheroots, too, were finished, and so he proposed that we should go up to the quarter-deck.

I was glad to see that Mrs Fonblanque had found a companion in the Nun. They were sitting together in the most confidential way, almost hand in hand; and, considerably reassured, I went up to them, with something of the feelings of a truant who has not been found out.

“This is Mr Hicks, the artist,” said Mrs Fonblanque to the Nun, making room for me on the bench between them. (How is it that women when they are by themselves never look really comfortable, and always appear to be waiting for some one else to join them?) “This is Mr Hicks of whom I was telling you.”

The Nun bowed shyly, and then, after a word or two to Mrs Fonblanque, abruptly retired.

“You look pleased,” I said. “Has she amused you?”

“No, Mr Hicks. She has distressed me a good deal. She is just like you, or the Captain, or perhaps myself. She does not like her actual station in life, and so she is—what none of us, I think, are—very unhappy in consequence.”

“Poor girl! why?”

“Oh, that’s a secret she told me in confidence, and I really don’t think I ought to divulge it.”

“I don’t wish to hear her secret,” I answered.

“No, I see that,” replied Mrs Fonblanque, “but you should think of me too. I want to tell it. A secret is never safe until you have locked it away in somebody else’s breast. Get rid of it at once, and have done with it. That’s the only way to treat a secret. Poor girl! I thought she was going to cry her eyes out when she first sat down beside me.”

“Because that atrocious scoundrel annoyed her?” cried I.

“Not at all,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “You seem to know nothing of women, Mr Hicks, and you are far too quick in your surmises. She never so much as mentioned him, and I never thought she would. But, tipsy as he was, I should not wonder if he had set her thinking about old times. She was not always a Nun, you know. She had a French father and an English mother, and her home-life does not seem to have been very happy; and once upon a time it appears she loved somebody very dearly, and after quarrelling with her people about him, she fled far away from anything that could remind her of him, and she tried, how hard I cannot tell you, to forget everything, in teaching little Persian children their Ave Marias and Pater Nosters. She said she almost hated them sometimes as they laughed at her bad Persian, and that very often as she talked to them her veil was wet with tears.”

“She must have been ill,” I suggested.

“Perhaps she was. Perhaps she was only unhappy. She was telling me, just when you came up, that it is very easy to be a Nun, and very hard to forget; very easy to pray, and very difficult to think one’s prayers are always completely ignored. Is not that dreadful?”

“No,” I answered; “I have felt that feeling myself, twice at least. When one is really stirred with some great grief or some horrible injustice, it is almost a first instinct. And right or wrong—”

“There is no question of right or wrong—only of an unhappy girl who has been too impetuous, and has, poor thing, suffered far too much.”

“‘One of the flowers that fell out of the hands of God,’” said I, quoting from my own unpublished verses almost unconsciously, and, indeed, without meaning to be egotistical in the least. I had never quoted these two lines before. I will never quote them again. I never, perhaps, felt more ashamed of myself than when Mrs Fonblanque said the idea was a pretty one, though, as it could have nothing to do with the Nun, she did not quite see why I brought it to bear on the subject.

“She said it was very hard to forget,” continued Mrs Fonblanque, “and I am afraid she never will forget now. It seems that she gave all her lace frillings and pocket-handkerchiefs by degrees to one of the French minister’s servants in exchange for old French newspapers, so as to be able to follow him in fancy, as he went about with his regiment; and she saw his name twice. She struggled on for three years, and nothing gave her any real interest till the plague swept over Teheran. That did her good for the time. She used, she told me, to go out every morning, saying to herself, ‘Now I shall never come back.’ But it was not till the plague was over that she broke down, and then the Mother Superior called in the Shah’s doctor, and he said she must go home.”

“And so she is going home now?”

“Home? Yes,” replied Mrs Fonblanque, “if Europe is home to an almost broken-hearted girl. I told you that she quarrelled with her people before she ran away from them. She fears, from the last papers she saw, that he is with them now, and she doesn’t quite know whether she wishes to see him or not.”

“Poor girl!” I said. “I thought, before I heard her history, that she was in the last stage of consumption, and would be well out of her troubles before she saw the blue waters of the Mediterranean.”

“I think not, Mr Hicks. She is, perhaps, more communicative than a girl should be, and she probably has consumptive symptoms. You and I, and this rough sea-breeze together, ought to bring her round. It is not nice to think of a woman’s life being wasted for a mere girlish fancy.”

“Not nice!” I said. “Surely it is impossible.”

“No, Mr Hicks, you have not the slightest idea how easily a girl like that is made or marred. I can’t remember my mother, but I can feel for all motherless girls—all the more, perhaps, because I have no children of my own.”

We had been walking up and down the quarter-deck ever since the Nun had run away from her very uncomfortable seat, and we went on walking up and down long after Mrs Fonblanque had finished speaking.

“You,” I said at last, trying to say something sympathetic—“you really ought to get her out of that stupid way of thinking about a man whose name she has only seen twice in a newspaper in the last three years. What would the Sheik, with his silent contempt of monogamy as an institution, say to her humble imitation of it?”

“Please leave the Sheik alone,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “His ideas of love are not yours or mine. And probably the Nun’s ideas of love are not ours. He could never understand her troubles. And, indeed, I scarcely understand them myself, for the dismal little romance that made all her people turn their faces away doesn’t seem half so pathetic to me as she herself is in her black dress, and her flushed cheeks, her coif and wimple, and her vague thoughts about him, whoever he may be.”

“A scoundrel, I’ll be bound,” I cried, “and dancing round some ball-room now in a fine uniform, with his spurs jingling, and making a fool of another susceptible girl.”

“No, Mr Hicks,” said Mrs Fonblanque; “I thought you knew nothing of women just now, and now I think you know nothing of men. I don’t see why the man should be blamed; perhaps he knows next to nothing of it. Don’t you remember those melancholy lines: —

‘Alas! how easily things go wrong!
A sigh too deep or a kiss too long—
And then conieth a mist and a weeping rain,
And life is never the same again.’”

“Yes, I do,” I said. “But I scarcely expected to hear you quote them.”

“Not for myself. I have more spirit than that. Sometimes I think that I have almost too much spirit. But I can understand the lines for all that, and you will find few men of five-and-thirty, and very few women of something under that, Mr Hicks, whose eyes don’t grow a little moister at the thought of the mist and the weeping rain. Please do not say a word to the Nun about what I told you. I certainly did not tell you her secrets because I wanted to gossip. She is, as you said, really ill, and I only want you to make it your duty, as I shall make it mine, to look after her a little, and cheer her up, and entertain her. She is stifled for want of fresh air and frank companionship. A little laughter would do her a world of good.”

“I will do my best; but what a queer creature you are!” I answered, trying to study her face. “You are very cynical for a woman, Mrs Fonblanque, and for a woman very, very kind.”

“Thank you, Mr Hicks. But a cynical woman, as you call her, is a woman after all, and I fancy she doesn’t like being studied, even by the light of a binnacle. Take me on trust, or leave me alone; don’t study me. The Sheik, with his wider experience, would say that no woman was worth it. He would weigh me and measure me, and multiply the result by my complexion; and his figures would, I daresay, be quite as correct as yours. But talk of angels—here he is.”

“Sheik,” she continued, “Mr Hicks is not entertaining. He says all the wrong things. Come and relieve him. Put yourself in this long chair. Have your hubble-bubble brought up on deck, and I will light it for you. And then, tell me all about your adventures in London.”

“It is late, Madam Fonblanque,” said the Sheik, holding up an enormous watch in front of the compass lamp, “and I promised Fatima that I would always go to bed at half-past nine.”

“Poor dear Fatima,” answered Mrs Fonblanque ironically; “I forgot her. Of course you must consider her wishes. And like a loyal man, Sheik, I daresay you consider them much more carefully when she is absent.”

“I try to,” said the Sheik.

“And pray, when will you try to tell me all about your adventures in London?”

“To-morrow,” he answered, beating a retreat in such a masterly way as to make me look like the fugitive.

“Done!” said Mrs Fonblanque. “At last I have booked you; for, as you told us yourself, a Bedouin cannot tell a lie.”

We both heard what she said, but were both so far away at the time that, instead of answering, we each looked at the other.

“Ladies who do not belong to you or your family,” said the Sheik, shrugging his shoulders, “are useful for two purposes. They find out things one wants to know, and they spread abroad as many secrets as one likes to tell them. Inshallah!”

Then the Sheik went forward to see, I suppose, if his hookah were still alight, and I joined the Captain on the bridge to learn something more about the Cape Town girls who had waved their handkerchiefs at him as Forbes’s Horse went clattering through the sleepy streets there.

Chapter XVI

The Sheik was wonderfully coy next morning.

“Mr Hicks or the Captain can tell you all about London ten thousand times better than I can,” he said at last, when Mrs Fonblanque had fairly ran him down.

“Yes, yes, Sheik, but not from an Arab standpoint.”

Poor old man! he did not struggle against that soft “Yes, yes, Sheik,” as I fancy I should have done. “Never,” my uncle used to say, “never under any circumstances permit a woman to agree with you. Heaven alone knows what the result may be.” The Sheik, knowing nothing of my uncle, fell, as if snared, into one of Captain Forbes’s long chairs, saying “Yes, yes,” to everything Mrs Fonblanque suggested.

I felt deserted. I retired below to look for my sketching materials. With Mrs Fonblanque and the Sheik arrayed against me, I naturally desired to recruit my own party. Last night he thought her only fit to whisper abroad such things as he wished known. Now he was like clay in her hands. I hammered at the Nun’s cabin door, and begged her to come on deck. She had still a violent headache. Then, much against the grain, I tried to approach the obnoxious passenger. The grim old Quartermaster stopped me.

“He has had an awful night,” he said. “His one thought is brandy. The Captain says I am to let no one near him.”

Then the Quartermaster wanted to gossip, but I turned sulkily on my heel. “Every one in this wretched ship,” thought I bitterly, “has a foible. That miserable creature’s foible is brandy. The Quartermaster, forsooth, must do as he is told. The Nun has her headache. Mrs Fonblanque is inordinately proud of making a garrulous old man talk to her of his early recollections; and as he has nothing whatever to say, his foible, if you please, is coyness. Very well, Mrs Fonblanque, I shall have a foible too, a brand-new foible, a foible of silence, and I flatter myself you won’t easily understand the meaning of that.”

I was, as usual, very nearly right.

“Yes, yes,” I heard the Sheik say, just as a parrot might have said it, and just as monotonously. “Yes, yes,” he repeated, as I approached them; “but my memory, madam, is still unimpaired. I have the most vivid recollections of my trip to London. I will tell them to you, just as I wrote them to Fatima, frankly and freely and without disguise; but I must not be interrupted. Our ways of thinking will probably differ. I may, perhaps, shock you now and then, and you must promise not to mind that.”

“Not in the least,” exclaimed Mrs Fonblanque, smiling; “I promise that.”

“For yourself only?” continued the Sheik. “I am not so much alarmed about you; you have never been in London. I was thinking rather about Mr Hicks, who was probably born there.”

“Oh, I can promise for him. He shan’t come into our conversation at all, Sheik,” she answered. “Why, here is Mr Hicks. The Sheik and I are going to spend our morning together, Mr Hicks; and as you are apparently going to paint, we should not like to interrupt your work. Perhaps you won’t mind taking one end of the quarter-deck, either end you like, and we will take the other.”

“What an extraordinarily keen intuition women have,” muttered I to myself. “She saw me scowl at the Sheik, and she guessed my particular foible at once. I shall be silent if I please, but I shall certainly not be sent away to be silent all by myself.”

“That is hardly necessary,” I answered aloud; “I want to work, and I don’t wish to have to say another word for the next four hours. I shall certainly not speak unless I am spoken to; but your wranglings amused me yesterday, and Ezra’s Tomb was all the better of them. They may perhaps amuse me to-day.”

“That is true,” said Mrs Fonblanque, relenting; “to amuse you would, of course, delight us. We will try; and, indeed, I prize Ezra’s Tomb immensely. What do you say, Sheik? I think we might accept Mr Hicks’s offer?”

“Yes,” he replied, rather dubiously, “if you promise not to be shocked at anything I say, and he promises not to speak until he is spoken to.”

“Done!” cried we both; both, I think, feeling that we had the better of the Sheik at last.

“You can call out for your hookah when you like, Sheik,” said Mrs Fonblanque, “and Mr Hicks can light his pipe. Now, Mr Hicks, be silent; and now, Sheik, begin.”

The Sheik continued, however, to count his beads very nervously. “He is an impostor,” thought I, as I made a pencil sketch of him in that character; “he has nothing to say. Like me, but from a different motive, he has adopted silence as a foible.”

The steamer was now well out at sea making up for lost time. We should be at Bushire before anybody spoke. It was dull work voyaging like this in the company of a taciturn Sheik who had managed to make me promise to keep a gag in my mouth. Before I had finished many caricatures of them both, I began to wish most heartily that we were all ashore again.

“This is dreadful!” said Mrs Fonblanque at last. “Mr Hicks! Mr Hicks!”

“He mustn’t speak,” cried the Sheik, dropping his beads to hold his hands up.

“Oh yes, he may,” replied Mrs Fonblanque, “if he is spoken to; and if you don’t talk he will be spoken to to some purpose. Come now, Sheik, don’t be so absurdly shy. You went to London? Begin at the beginning. Begin with Fatima’s tears.”

“She wept, of course,” said the Sheik, passing the corner of his rough camel’s robe over his eyes. “So they all did, and so did I, as I enjoined them to live peaceably in seclusion until I came back, and as they wished for my regard, never until then to unveil the beautiful features I was leaving with so much regret.”

“Was not that rather hard on your wives, though,” said Mrs Fonblanque softly, “when you were going out into the world to enjoy yourself?”

“It is our custom,” he answered. “There is really nothing to shock you here. And it was not until a long time after I left them that I could enjoy myself at all. For ten days or a fortnight we travelled on camels, living on rough fare, and losing all the charm of the journey in the excessive haste that Ikhbal-ool-Dowlah thought necessary. Often and often I wished that one or other of my wives were with me to mix my sherbet, or prepare my coffee, or fill my chibouk. They were scarcely ever out of my thoughts.”

“You are not quite so original, Sheik, as I expected you would be,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “That’s exactly what all the men I know say about their wives when they are good enough to speak of them at all. The model wife anywhere is only just such an elegant and efficient female servant as you cannot get for monthly wages.”

I turned round abruptly. I should like to have spoken on this point, for my uncle, as a confirmed bachelor, had most pronounced views on matrimonial obligations. They both looked indignantly at me, and I subsided.

“Oh!” said the Sheik, pretending to ignore me altogether, “the ship was worse than the camels. I am used to ships now, but at the time I suffered terribly. The more the ship rolled, the more I envied the happy lot of my wives in their quiet little Arabian encampment.”

“Well, well,” exclaimed Mrs Fonblanque, rather pettishly; “suppose we leave Fatima and the rest of them in their delightful seclusion. What were your first ideas of England?”

“Intensely disagreeable,” answered the Sheik. “I had heard much on board, when towards the end of the voyage I was able to crawl on deck, of the rapacity of a famous piratical tribe called Custom-house officers. When we sighted Southampton they seized the ship. At first, any stranger might easily have mistaken them for Englishmen; but we soon discovered certain signs of their barbarous origin. I was still almost ignorant of English; and as I sat on my boxes counting my beads, they bore down on me in overwhelming numbers. They took away all the exquisite tobacco I had purchased at Aleppo, and all the silver ornaments and utensils with which dear old Fatima had filled a little travelling-trunk from our old family chest.”

“How dreadful, Sheik!” exclaimed Mrs Fonblanque; “and you mean to tell me that you submitted without a word?”

“No, madam,” said the Sheik; “not without a word; not without very many bad words. I appealed to the passengers; they shrugged their shoulders. ‘We told you to be careful,’ they replied. ‘If you wanted to smuggle, you should have been very, very careful, and have either hidden your things, as we did, or have had plenty of backsheesh ready.’ Then I went to Ikhbal-ool-Dowlah. He laughed. ‘It is quite for the best,’ he said. ‘I have been in England before; they took you for me. I arranged that they should do so; and they have passed all my boxes without opening any of them. We have got the better of the infidels, as we always do; and you may put your losses down at a fair figure in my account-book.’”

“Then you lost nothing?” asked Mrs Fonblanque.

“No; rather the other way. But it was extremely annoying.”

“Well, never mind the annoyance now, Sheik,” she said. “It was a long time ago; before I was born, I daresay. You landed at last; and then, what did you think of London?”

“I had to get there first,” he answered. “I went in a machine that puff-puffed and groaned like the ship, only on wheels.”

“That was a train,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “They are common enough now even in India; and when you talk about the puff-puff, Sheik, you seem to be treating me rather like a child.”

The same thought had struck me. and, without turning round, I laughed aloud.

“You mustn’t talk,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “You remember your promise, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I answered, turning boldly round. “But I never promised not to laugh; did I, Sheik?”

“That was implied,” he said. “But perhaps you are justified just now. Still I think I am right from an artistic point of view. I am only trying to interest Mrs Fonblanque in London by giving her my impressions as they first occurred to me.”

“Perfectly right,” rejoined Mrs Fonblanque. “Mr Hicks, you are muzzled again; and now, Sheik, how did England first impress you?”

“As very small and terribly crowded,” he replied. “The country, as we flew through it on our iron wheels, was cut up, like our chess carpets, into little patches they call fields, with great hedges every fifty or sixty yards. Half the land seemed to be wasted upon these horrible hedges. And as for their fields, they were so small that I really should not have liked to have stabled a mare of mine in any one of them. Everything looked most dreadfully green. There was not a patch of yellow sand all the way to London, and, until we reached London, I saw nothing that reminded me of the desert.”

“And London reminded you of the desert?”

“Yes, in a sense,” he answered. “I have never in all my life felt so much alone, as when I went out for a stroll on the first evening of our arrival. I wished to think quietly over the voyage and to map out my little plans for the future; but I was caught up and swept away by an overwhelming rush of people, going some one way and some another, fighting and jostling as they went, as if everybody wanted to be first in at this end or that.”

“Oh, I know,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “That was the City, and they were all trying to get to the Bank of England or to Basinghall Street. English novels tell us a great deal about the fierce struggles in the middle passage between those two places.”

“No,” answered the Sheik, with such a pronounced air of superior knowledge that I caught it at once and had it down on paper before he proceeded further. (If you are able to sit with your back to your models, you have an extraordinary advantage over them.) “No; the City, as I learned afterwards, is always deserted at that hour, and our hotel was at the West End. The rush was dreadful, and to a stranger the scrimmage and the turmoil seemed discourteous in the extreme. On the desert, if you see anybody two miles off, you are delighted to stop for a moment so as to spear him if he is worth it, and if not, to cheer him forward on his journey; and then, turning half round on your saddle, you ride slowly away with regret till he is quite out of sight. In London, I assure you, it is very different. Even on that first night I saw many faces I would gladly have seen again—faces that seemed to have a message for me, or I for them; no matter which, for we passed each other almost as rapidly as the express trains between London and Southampton.”

“I have often had that same feeling in travelling, Sheik,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “But I have never been swept away by an overwhelming rush of people. How did you feel, and how did you escape?”

“I felt lonelier,” said he, “than I had ever felt before; and I escaped by imitating a big Englishman in front of me, who used his elbows freely. I fled through some dark alleys, and then I came to a large square place brilliantly lit up with burning air.”

“And what did you do there?” asked Mrs Fonblanque.

“Oh, Fatima, Fatima!” I cried, “if you saw how these barbarians have welcomed your lord and master, you and Zuleika and Nour Mahal, and all your hand-maidens, would leave your tents to tear your hair and beat your breasts!”

“Nonsense, Sheik!” said Mrs Fonblanque. “Don’t be sentimental. It is bad enough to have one sulky sentimentalist on board.”

“You are speaking to me,” I cried. “I claim the right of reply.”

“Hush, Mr Hicks,” she said, “be silent; and, Sheik, please be practical. Forget the horrors of your first night in London, and tell me candidly what you thought of the ladies you met there.”

“That,” he answered, “is a big question, and you must really give me time to think.”

Chapter XVII

“You asked me about the ladies,” continued the Sheik, slowly. “Well, it took me three weeks or a month to realise what I saw. They walked about the streets with their faces perfectly unveiled. They sat in the play-houses without anything on their shoulders, and they appeared on the stage without any robes over their legs. It is, perhaps, fortunate for the men that the ladies are like this. For the younger ladies are so exceedingly beautiful that no mortal man could resist them if they were only as modest as they are lovely.”

“But, Sheik, how about the modest women?”

“I never met any,” he answered, shortly. “At first, of course, I thought my English friends did as we do, and that their modest women were all kept in seclusion at home. But I was wrong. All their women go about everywhere; and the older their women are, the more they wish to attract notice. It is entirely the other way in our harems. It is only our younger wives who think of attracting notice at all. But in London, and especially in the play-houses, the old women were far the worst.”

“Why was that?”

“It is hard to say. They were lean and scraggy. They spoiled the view of the stage, and everybody I spoke to on the subject approved of our system of veils. ‘You are right, sir,’ said one young gentleman, over a supper at Evans’s, ‘and let us hope that Eastern civilisation will at last prevail. In the old days we had to kiss all the women we met instead of shaking hands with them. You kissed ten old horrors for one pretty girl, and so the law was changed. But we have still to look at them. A few words from you might alter the law there too.’ This was what they called a wrinkle. So I wrote a little pamphlet on the subject, Madam Fonblanque, advocating the purdah system. It became the rage, and one of the papers started a rival Turkish writer, who used to go about the theatres counting the number of grandmothers (or ladies old enough to be grandmothers) who appeared there in low-necked dresses. They formed eighty per cent of the female portion of the audience in the better parts of the house.”

“I am sorry for you,” said Mrs Fonblanque, curtly. “Those poor old women he saw couldn’t have been much older than your mother was, and what would she have said to your pamphlet?”

“She lived and died in her tent,” said the Sheik; “but these venerable old ladies I am speaking of spend most of their time gadding about, so as to be able to play cards—an amusement we leave to our Zanzibar slaves.”

“You are wrong there,” exclaimed Mrs Fonblanque. “I like a quiet rubber myself.”

“So you may,” he said. “I adroitly advocated whist in my pamphlet as an alternative to going to the play. But wait till you have to cultivate English society. The old women are bad enough, but they are scarcely the worst feature of it. Even young children without any sort of option in the matter are brought up as our dancing-boys and singing-girls are here. Whether they have voices or not they all learn music, and London in the suburbs is one perpetual wail against this atrocious system.”

“Did you live in the suburbs, Sheik?”

“No, certainly not. But wherever you lived you learned to hate the musical side of an English education. English girls are taught everything, and always by people of another tribe.”

“Why is that?” asked Mrs Fonblanque.

“Partly because the polite arts are quite foreign to the English character, and partly, perhaps, because it would be considered bad form in grown-up English people to know anything well enough to be able to teach it.”

I looked round at Mrs Fonblanque, who had astounded me two or three days before by being so thorough in her knowledge. She actually blushed.

“But surely, Sheik,” she said, as a reply to me, “a great many English ladies must be clever and well informed and well read, and all that.”

“Oh, there are such women,” he answered. “But they are obliged to wear blue spectacles as a badge; and to distinguish them from the others, they are called ‘Women’s Eights Women.’”

“Stop, Sheik! Do I belong to that class?”

“I think not,” he answered. “They are said to be very clever. But they are not in society. How amused Fatima was with my first account of them at the Victoria Institute! But the young ladies I am talking of put off all they have been taught when they ‘come out.’ They come out of all their learning, you know; and just as with the butterflies who have brushed aside their early encumbrances, it is their single duty to look beautiful. They are young ladies now, and until they marry they have nothing whatever to do but to study the art and the cost of dress. And there, I acknowledge, they excel.”

“A very nice amusement for girls, too,” said Mrs Fonblanque, “if their allowances are only large enough.”

“Well,” answered the Sheik, “that question of allowances used to puzzle me a good deal too. How do all the unmarried girls in England pay for their dresses? They should not be unmarried, of course. Our religion is quite against that. But there they were. And as a father and a husband on a fairly extensive scale, I could guess what their dresses cost. We have our own fashions in the desert, and have had them for one or two thousand years. But in England the fashions change every month. What is blue to-day is red to-morrow, and that must mean a lot of money.”

“Oh, it all depends, Sheik,” said Mrs Fonblanque; “a ribbon here and a ribbon there makes a world of difference. But we are getting into questions that no man can possibly understand.”

“Perhaps not,” he rejoined. “But I was not talking of a ribbon here and a ribbon there. I had something solid to go upon. I was thinking of a young English lady who told me herself that she had not a suspicion where her waist would be that day six months.”

“What a nice frank girl she must have been!” cried Mrs Fonblanque. “Go on, Sheik; tell me all about England, and what struck you most when you had time to look about you.”

“The horrible contrasts I saw everywhere,” he replied, “between the upper classes and the lower. There were miles and miles of palaces,—very ugly palaces, I grant you, and many of them mere stucco shams; but all of them exceedingly smug and comfortable—far more comfortable, I take it, than our richest sheiks’ best tents. That was one side of the question. But always close behind these houses there were miles and miles of the vilest and most miserable-looking slums. How did the rich people make money enough to fill all these squares and streets? And how did the poor people contrive to live at all?”

“Perhaps their money was left to them like mine. Go on, Sheik.”

“No,” he said; “I satisfied myself on that point. With rare exceptions the people who live on their forefathers in England are a proud, decaying, and decrepit race, dwelling chiefly in what they term lodgings, so as to be as free to move about as we are in our tents. The householders I mean make their money in the city (Allah only knows how!), and spend it on the houses in which they live not more than eight or ten hours out of the four-and-twenty, so as to have time to sleep and shave and breakfast, and sometimes dine, there. As for the poor people—”

“Never mind the poor people. Go on, Sheik.”

“I will,” he continued, severely. “But the contrast interested me so much that I studied it.”

“That was like Mr Hicks.”

“Granted. He, too, would tell you that there were in all the parks and public places the most beautiful ladies sitting on their horses in an airy way that no Arab woman could attempt, or lying cosily wrapped in costly furs in their ample carriages. But for every fine lady there was some poor starving flower-girl shivering in the mud. And then the atmosphere, after the clear, dry, bracing air of the desert, is atrocious. It seems to stifle a stranger, and even the natives themselves are slowly poisoned by the smoke and fog they breathe. My doctor told me that none of their scientific men had ever found the fourth generation of a family that had lived only in London. They wither away, run to teeth and jaw, and die out.”

“That is the same in India,” exclaimed Mrs Fonblanque. “There is no fourth generation of the Europeans born in India.”

“Is that so?” said the Sheik. “But still that is not the worst of London—”

“Never mind the worst of it. We have that everywhere. I want to know about London, but only about the best of it.”

Her words and a very soft but earnest look in her grey eyes made me long to join in the discussion, so as to give her some of my better experiences; for, of course, I had them. I remembered how readily she had thrown her purse to the girls from the date-packing factories near Bussorah, and all that she had said to me about them. Still a new and unusual disguise, even of silence, is an awkward costume at first. You cannot drop it suddenly on the deck of a steamer without feeling undressed and surprised. I contained myself. I painted a series of rapid little sketches of Mrs Fonblanque as a soft-eyed daughter of the Good Samaritan, as a hospital nurse, as a sister of charity; and she really seemed much more at home in any of these characters than as the jaded owner of countless money-bags.

“The best side of the best London society,” said the Sheik at last, when he had relit his hookah, “is not very good. So Ikhbal-ool-Dowlah used to say every night in the smoking-room, and he was never far wrong. There is nothing in England of that delightful courtship after marriage that is charming enough, once you have tried it, to justify polygamy. I have seen young damsels, innocence itself in appearance, take a gentleman’s arm on the very first introduction; and worse than that, I have seen them dancing together publicly, with all the elders of their families looking on.”

“This is delightful, Sheik! Don’t stop, please. What did you tell Fatima about these dreadful proceedings?”

“As little as I could, madam, consistently with truth, for my letters had to be read aloud by a scribe before all of them. ‘You are happy,’ I said in my post-script, ‘far happier than I am. Could you but know how shocked I often feel, you would doubly prize the innocent seclusion of your tents in the boundless desert, where you have never any of you anything to think of but the love and gratitude you owe me.’”

“And what did Fatima say to that?” asked Mrs Fonblanque.

“She said that I was her lord and master, the light of her eyes, her constant thought by night and day, and then she begged me to send as many more details as I could gather together, so as to show her and my other wives and all my handmaidens what to most carefully avoid.”

“And you believed her?”

“No,” replied the Sheik. “My wives are of good descent. They are far too well-bred, though I say it myself, to expect me to believe a single word they say.”

“That must be rather trying sometimes?”

“Not in the least,” he answered, “when you have established a proper basis.”

“Well,” I said slowly, and in the most exasperating manner I could think of, “you, sir, seem to have established a pretty broad basis for yourself. I can be silent no longer. I can paint no more. After listening to you ever since breakfast-time, I must either talk or eat.”

“So be it,” said the Sheik, quite graciously. “I think, if I had the chance, I would rather be silent than be bound to talk; and it is high time for tiffin.”

“Is nobody,” I cried, “going to punish me for breaking all the laws and regulations? I wanted to talk an hour ago, and I might just as well have indulged myself.”

“Not at all, Mr Hicks,” replied Mrs Fonblanque. “The tiffin bell, which was ringing as you rose, is a complete excuse for an armed neutrality.”

Somebody once said that if the liveliest and most sensational five-act play went on unremittingly like a sermon, the audience would go stark, staring mad. I believe him. It is the intervals that make existence endurable. The pauses, as I learned afterwards, are the life and soul of Hindu music. It is not what you hear that renders a nautch enjoyable, but the rhythmical regularity of the ecstatic intervals of rest. This, however, is a question rather for the philosophers than for me. All I know is, that after a very pleasant pause, which lasted rather less than twenty minutes, I found myself once more in front of my easel, and under all the old regulations.

Chapter XVIII

Mrs Fonblanque and the Sheik continued their discussion. They were admirably matched, both being good talkers, which is rare—and both good listeners, which is rarer. They set to work at once.

“Did they stare at you much in England?” began Mrs Fonblanque.

“Yes,” he answered. “They always paid me that compliment. ‘You are really an Arab?’ they used to say. ‘How queer! How very, very interesting!’ When I travelled through the Scotch Lakes, the people cheered me heartily whenever the train or the steamer came to a halting-place. Everything, indeed, was much pleasanter in what they call the ‘Provinces’ than in London.”

“And why was that?”

“It reminded me of home,” he answered. “The freedom and hospitality of a good English country-house are almost Arabian in their simplicity, and the inmates have nothing of the formal manners and pretentiousness of London people. But all strangers have to take their pedigrees with them to show that they come from some old county family.”

“I couldn’t do that,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “I really don’t think I come from any English county family; at least poor papa never betrayed it. What did you do as a foreigner?”

“Oh!” laughed the Sheik, “my pedigree was much longer than that of any man I met. That gave me a good start. They talked of William the Conqueror, and I of Abraham. But, after all, a man in London, as in the desert, stands on his own feet. My visit to England taught me two things—first to appreciate myself, secondly to appreciate my wives.”

“Why your wives, Sheik?”

“In this way, madam. The first thing a man does with his wife in England is to take her about and show her off. If she passes muster fairly well, she is given the title of a ‘professional beauty,’ and her husband is at once promoted to some high official appointment. Any Englishman who took his wife about veiled would be regarded as a public enemy. And, indeed, it is only the very richest men who can afford to marry a plain woman; and even then, they must not be seen too much together, except in country places.”

“That can’t be very nice for the wives.”

“No; that’s what I told Fatima. But in England everything is reversed. Here, if a man is lucky enough to have a very pretty wife, he is quite silent about her. There, she is at once the boast and the plague of his life.”

“I am almost sorry, Mr Hicks,” said Mrs Fonblanque, laughing, “that I turned back with you.”

“You were wrong,” exclaimed the Sheik, earnestly; “there is nothing you might not do in England with your western beauty and your oriental training.”

“May I speak?” cried I. “I have been spoken to.”

“Yes, on the point,” said the Sheik.

“If you are sorry, madam,” I began, “I am sorry too.”

“I really don’t think he ought to speak,” said Mrs Fonblanque.

“We must hear him first, and settle the legality of the case afterwards,” urged the Sheik.

“And you, sir, seem,” I continued, severely, “to have been, according to your own accounts, a good deal run after by the ladies. Was that so?”

The Sheik glowered at me, but said nothing.

“I almost think he is speaking to the point, Sheik,” said Mrs Fonblanque, smiling. “I have once or twice been on the verge of making the same remark. I hold that Mr Hicks is right.”

“No, no, he is not,” answered the Sheik, angrily. “He simply means to be rude. He knows that the kind of men women run after in England are almost women themselves. He has no right to speak at all. I refuse to answer.”

“Well,” she rejoined, “as you like. But you appear, I must say, to have been considerably persecuted by them in England. Are Englishmen never free from the attentions of Englishwomen?”

“Oh yes,” said the Sheik, “but only in their clubs, as they style their monasteries. These luxurious palaces are state concerns for the preservation of masculine virtue. No female has ever yet been allowed to cross their sacred portals, and all but the very best men are blackballed and sent down to the common cafés and drinking-bars until they are fit for membership. I was passed in at once, and made a member of three of the most exclusive clubs in town. And in spite of Mr Hicks’s sneers, I found them very useful by day; and in the afternoon and evening very safe, as I watched the crowds of gaily-dressed, unveiled women down below.”

“Can’t you see, Sheik,” said Mrs Fonblanque, “that I am unveiled myself? It is not at all nice of you to go on reminding me of the barbarous practices of your own women. Would you wish me to tell Priscilla to bring a veil up?”

“Certainly not. But most of those women I saw were not only unveiled, but had two faces.”

“Good gracious! Why?”

“One to sleep in, and one for company.”

“You mean that some of them used a little rouge? Oh, that’s nothing; and they only do it, poor things, to please you men. You ought really to be more grateful, Sheik. But let us leave the ladies alone. Were the men at your clubs very amusing?”

“Oh dear, no!” said the Sheik, “quite the opposite. You must not speak to any one without being introduced. You are introduced at last to a famous traveller, or to a writer of great repute. You expect that pearls of some price, more or less, will drop from his mouth. Ten to one he asks you what you think of ‘this beastly weather.’ In Arabia we have no weather. It rains when God pleases, and that is very seldom; and we no more think of talking about it than of talking about any other of nature’s operations. In England, madam, the men talk of very little else.”

“I thought they always talked scandal in their clubs, Sheik, and told one another entertaining stories?”

“Not at all. When they are not talking of the weather, they talk chiefly,” he added, with some reluctance, “of horse-racing—a most villainous purpose to put an innocent horse to. I tried it myself, and it cost me everything in Fatima’s little travelling-trunk of family silver.”

“Oh-ho!” said Mrs Fonblanque. “I thought the Custom-house officers had taken it away from you.”

“So they did,” rejoined the Sheik, hastily. “I forgot to tell you how cleverly I managed to buy it back.”

“Indeed! And was Fatima angry?”

“I don’t know,” said the Sheik; “I was. I invariably chose the best horses, for in my knowledge of horse-flesh I had an enormous ‘pull.’ But they never won. You require at least two horses for a horse-race. You may take it as a rule that the best horse never wins. They both start, as a matter of course; but they have nothing whatever to do with the result. A race is simply a big gambling machine, in which nobody can win but the bookmakers or croupiers; and they know about as much of a horse as I do of the great auk.”

“And that’s what you talk about in your clubs?” said Mrs Fonblanque.

“Yes, the weather and that; and, at certain times of the year, of fox-hunting. In Arabia we look upon foxes and jackals as vermin. We had as lief hunt a weasel. If we want to hunt, we send a defiant message to the nearest tribe, and, with our spears in our hands, we jump on to our horses and follow up the messenger. There is some sport in that. But a fox—bah! And then there is no proper riding-ground in England. It is all gates and hedges.”

“Never mind the hunting and the horses and the hedges, Sheik,” said Mrs Fonblanque; “tell me something more about the English ladies.”

“I would readily do so,” he replied—“I am more at home there; but both you and Mr Hicks seem to think that whenever I am speaking of the ladies I am speaking of myself.”

“Many men, no doubt, do that,” she answered; “but you are different. You could always look back to your family tents in the desert. You stand on an entirely different platform.”

“Well, perhaps I do,” he replied, smiling. “And there was, I own, one thing in their domestic arrangements that puzzled me immensely. We have a great many wives and very few children. They have only one wife apiece and far more children than they want. How do you explain it?”

“It is not for me to explain, Sheik. I have no children, and I told you that I had never been in England.”

“I beg your pardon; I forgot,” he answered. “But when I was there, it was quite a common thing for every lady of ‘a certain age.’ as they term it, to call out among a crowd of guests, and say, ‘I am delighted to meet you, sir; but fie, fie! you naughty man, everybody is saying that your poor dear wives are terribly expensive in their tastes, and that you have run away from them so as to try and economise a little.’”

“And your retort?”

“It was always the same. I invariably used to answer, ‘But surely children are very expensive too. A child costs more than a wife, and the outlay begins at a much earlier period. Your large English families would be simply insupportable in the desert.’”

“You dreadful man!” cried Mrs Fonblanque.

“I may be dreadful or not,” answered the Sheik. “My personality has nothing to do with the present question. But you have no idea of the supreme self-complacency of Englishmen, or how they run down everything that is not English. When they were good enough to let me see what they really thought, I was astonished to find that they thought everybody born out of England must be flighty, unbusinesslike, and, above all, immoral.”

“Are they very moral themselves, Sheik?”

“Well, madam,” he replied, “that depends on the importance you attach to a mere figure of speech. In Scotland I should say they are moral—absurdly so. In England, unless you happen to be a clergyman, you must either be very good, or appear to be good. The clergymen, like the learned ladies of whom I told you, are marked out from the rest by distinctive badges. They always wear black coats and white ties. That is enough. They are everywhere accepted as good men on account of their costume, but it always covers a multitude of children.”

“Oh, Sheik!” said Mrs Fonblanque. “You don’t mean to say that the English clergy go in for polygamy!”

“No, no, far from it. The bishops and the priests are the husbands of one wife. The statesmen and lawyers and richer sort of merchants were apparently allowed more, though they would never confess it.”

“You are wrong there, Sheik. None of the English novels I have read ever hinted at such an extraordinary exemption for any privileged class.”

“I think I am right, all the same,” said the Sheik. “The English novel, as you see it now, does not in the least represent English society. It is written by women for women—and children.”

“May I speak?” I cried.

It was eventually determined that I might.

“Rhoda Broughton and Ouida,” I said, “are women too; but would you call their novels food for babes?”

“You may speak, Mr Hicks, when we permit you to speak; but we cannot possibly allow you to ask questions. I read everything those two ladies write, and think it all very charming. Go on, Sheik.”

“Where was I?” he asked.

“You were envying the clergymen their black coats and white ties.”

“Oh yes, I remember,” said the Sheik. “Well, whenever I travelled ‘incog.,’ as they call it, I wore a plain tweed travelling suit, and this seemed to be a badge of all that is bad, for directly I got out of my carriage to buy a bun or a sandwich, a lady always stepped up to me on the platform. ‘Are you one of us?” she always asked. ‘Have you found perfect peace? No? then take this.’ I always took off my hat in the English fashion. Sometimes I lost my bun or my sandwiches, and more than once I lost my train, and with a little tract in my hand, I had to console myself, as best I could, with the terrible ends of better fellows than myself. This is a pastime quite unknown in Arabia, and it would, I think, amuse Fatima immensely.”

“They could not possibly speak to you like that, Sheik,” said Mrs Fonblanque, “and on a railway platform too, without a proper introduction.”

“Oh yes, they did,” he answered. “But they were, of course, always ladies of what just now I called ‘a certain age.’”

“Well,” said Mrs Fonblanque, “you astonish me. The women at home seem to have a good deal of impudence and any amount of licence.”

“That,” replied the Sheik, “though I did not like to say it before, is really what struck me most in England. There were houris in all the houses, even in the hotels—houris in clean print dresses and pretty little white caps, doing the common household work, yet always smiling and pleasant, and waiting about to execute your orders. I don’t think Fatinia would have liked them. One day, too, Madam Fonblanque, I went to the London law courts—the only day I have really regretted. A number of ladies to whom we should have given the sack or the bowstring were on their trial. ‘Poor things,’ said I to myself—”

“Why poor things?” interrupted Mrs Fonblanque.

“Because I pitied them at first, until I saw how triumphant they all looked. The court was full of other ladies, all most beautifully dressed, who took their side at once.”

“Then the ladies won?” asked Mrs Fonblanque, eagerly.

“In ‘a canter,’ as they call it, in their horse-races,” answered the Sheik, devoting himself for a few seconds to his hookah. “The husbands, instead of being told to take their wives out of court and get rid of them as the law directs, were required to sign bonds before the judge or kazi for as large a sum as the ladies in the audience and the gentlemen who recorded the proceedings for the ladies who were unable to be present (this is what they call a jury) thought becoming. In England you may take your wife about unveiled; but if she turn out a shrew, or something worse, you are held responsible. You have to sign a bond for so much money every year. She laughs at you, and so does everybody else. I was sorry I went to that court, I thought it best to tell Fatima nothing about it, and yet all my friends said it was the most fashionable entertainment in London, and as there is nothing to pay, it was always much more crowded than the theatres.”

“Those recorders—the gentlemen who recorded,” said Mrs Fonblanque—“must be very useful.”

“That’s precisely as you take it,” answered the Sheik. “In the desert we wouldn’t think much of them. Put a spear in their hands instead of a goose-quill, and they couldn’t make a living anywhere between here and Bagdad. Truth is never new; you can’t invent it if you would; and after all, truth is what you want if you have to pay for it every morning. All our truths have been carefully tested by men of infinite learning for a thousand years, and yet the Koran is still enough for me.”

“You paid for your wives,” said Mrs Fonblanque, “or you say so. Never mind the Koran. You told us just now that all of your wives were far too well-bred ever to expect to be believed. Wasn’t that so, Mr Hicks? How about truth now, Sheik?”

“Oh,” he replied, just as I was going to speak, “Mr Hicks knows nothing about the Bedouins. We have very different rules for the men and for the women. There are two standards, just as there are two heavens. A man must, as the Kazi’s scribe said in court, always speak ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.’ An Arabian lady can always say what she likes. But in England, and especially in London, a large number of very clever men make their daily bread by retailing the latest falsehoods at so much a line to-day, and at so much more for contradicting them to-morrow. Walk down Fleet Street, their news bazaar, Madam Fonblanque, where these professional story-tellers drive their abominable trade. Buy all they thrust upon you as you go along on foot, and you will find everything you thought good to be hopelessly bad, and everything you so utterly despised, and your fathers before you, to be the only chance of national salvation.”

“How dreadful!” exclaimed Mrs Fonblanque.

“You have appealed to Mr Hicks once or twice. I appeal to him now. Have I described Fleet Street correctly or not?”

“You wouldn’t let me speak when I wanted to—I shan’t speak now. I am not a child’s doll, to be squeezed whenever you have occasion to get a squeak out of me.”

“No; I suppose not,” said the Sheik. “I think, Madam Fonblanque, you will agree with me that Mr Hicks would have contradicted me if he could.”

“I do,” answered Mrs Fonblanque, simply. “We shall have to manage without him. Well, Sheik?”

“Well, if anybody in Arabia wishes to feel a new sensation, he has either to buy a new horse or a new wife. Both are expensive. But in London you pay a penny—one penny only—and your hair stands on end till you have paid another penny for another paper as a corrective.”

“You seem to be a changeable race. Eh, Mr Hicks?”

“That is true,” said the Sheik. “But you mustn’t talk to Mr Hicks, if you please.”

“Well, we’ll talk at him,” she answered, cordially. “You know something of men, Sheik, or should do, out of your infinite knowledge of women. Should you describe Mr Hicks as changeable?”

“I think I should,” he replied, thoughtfully. “He has a changeable type of face, and then, you see, everything is changeable among the people he comes from. The young ladies, as I told you a short time back, have no idea where their waists will be this day six months, and the men change their Government every year or two. A people like that can have no real stake in the world. Our ideas, though Mahomet modified them a little, have virtually remained the same ever since the days of Esau.”

The Sheik drew a long breath (as well he might), and so did I.

“You are on your trial, Mr Hicks,” said Mrs Fonblanque, mildly. “Are you, or are you not, as changeable as the rest of your people? The Sheik says you are. I pause for further evidence. Don’t be so glum.”

“Take that,” I said, handing her a sketch-book, which I had filled as they were talking with illustrative sketches of the Sheik’s personal adventures. “That’s why I was so glum. The Sheik, if a trifle difficult to follow, is a most amusing story-teller. But still I thought you might want a reminder of what he said.”

Mrs Fonblanque gave me an incredulous sort of look, and then, with a disdainful wave of the hand, she passed my sketch-book on to the Sheik.

“Yes,” he said slowly, “that is perfect. That is the English Miss as I knew her. I wish I were going round the world like you, Mr Hicks, with a chance of meeting her again somewhere on the other side by-and-by.”

“Perhaps you are going round the world, Sheik,” said Mrs Fonblanque in the most deliberate manner.

“No, I am only going to Muscat.”

“Nonsense!” she laughed. “That depends entirely on me, and at present you are so entertaining that I shall certainly not let you off.”

“You are too good.”

“No, I am not good at all. But I like to be amused, and I don’t know which amuses me most—your loquacity or Mr Hicks’s silence. I must ask Priscilla.”

We came to Bushire eventually.

“It is a pity to stop the steamer,” said Mrs Fonblanque.

“So it is,” replied the Captain, who had rejoined us. “But it is too late to go ashore, and I shall be glad of a rest.”

“When the steamer starts again,” said Mrs Fonblanque, “you will continue your adventures, Sheik?”

“Oh yes,” he answered; “now that I have got under way, as the Captain calls it, I will go on as long as you like. But I shall call on Mr Hicks for his experiences before I continue mine. Salaam, madam! salaam sir! The sunset calls me to prayer.”

“Has he ever been in London?” asked Mrs Fonblanque, as he disappeared.

“I really think so,” I answered. “But whether he has been there or not, he has a very original mind. You know nothing of London. But he told you a great deal more about it than I knew myself.”

“Yes, yes,” cried Mrs Fonblanque, as I assisted her to pick up her wraps, “he is clever, decidedly clever. But—”

“But what?” I asked meekly, with my arms full of shawls and rugs.

“I can’t get him to look me full in the face, and he reminds me most vividly every now and then of some one I have met. At first I thought he reminded me of my old Jesuit tutor; but after hearing his experiences, I am again completely puzzled.”

Chapter XIX

I can candidly say that Bushire, the “Father of Cities,” scarcely deserves its name. We anchored in the roads nearly three miles off, and could not get a proper view of it until the next morning, and then we only saw through our telescopes a peninsula of low level sand covered with an irregular mass of two-storeyed houses, built of dried clay. Each of the more important houses was fitted with wind-catchers, something like the windsails on our ship. They perform the same vague and very occasional functions of the cow-catchers in front of the American and Indian locomotives. If a stray gust of wind comes their way they catch it. That, from the way in which they are built, is inevitable. And in the meantime they pose as the one distinctive feature of Bushire.

“Are you going to wear that wonderful costume today?” I asked Mrs Fonblanque, as she moved away from my telescope.

“Oh, you needn’t make a guy of yourself to-day, Mrs Fonblanque,” said the skipper, cheerily. “The Resident’s launch is waiting to take the whole party off. His people will accompany us wherever we go. Their costumes will be imposing enough for the lot of us. You may, perhaps, find a thick veil useful. But pray don’t deprive your Arabian friend of the costume that became him so admirably.”

The Sheik looked up from his hookah. “I shan’t go to the Residency,” he said firmly. Then he very solemnly betook himself once more to his large amber mouthpiece.

“And why not, Sheik, if we all go?” inquired Mrs Fonblanque.

“Because they wouldn’t care to see me,” he replied. “In London I was somebody. I am somebody still in Bagdad and Bussorah. In the desert I am a personage. But now we are virtually in India, and to all intents and purposes I am a native. That means I belong to the big world surrounding your little island, and am utterly insignificant in consequence. Isn’t that so, Captain Forbes?”

“I suspect it is,” answered the Captain, frankly.

“But if you don’t go to the Residency, what will you do?”

“I will go ashore with the rest of you, and show you round the town. I will amuse the Nun, and try to keep the gentleman of too many experiences away from the brandy-bottle. Then I will wait patiently in the agent’s office till you come back again, and if I can find any good carpets I’ll have them laid out for Mrs Fonblanque to look at.”

“Done with you,” cried Captain Forbes. “That’s my programme too. I don’t care much for society outside of my own ship. We’ll go together and wait together, and Mrs Fonblanque and Mr Hicks will bring us back all the latest gossip from the Residency.”

Mrs Fonblanque, however, insisted upon taking the Nun with her. The Nun demurred at first, but at last she consented to go.

I soon began to envy the others their apparent self-abnegation. The Sheik, however, as long as we were together, did his duty conscientiously. He made us visit every nook and cranny of the vilest and most unsavoury town I had ever set foot in. The Nun, soft and generous-hearted creature as she was, had a little copper coin ready for every beggar who came up, and they soon swarmed round us like a crowd of buzzing mosquitoes. She tried, too, in her gentle but ineffectual manner, to brush away with her handkerchief the flies that encircled the large black eyes of every naked little Persian child we met; and as Mrs Fonblanque’s purse was ready when the Nun’s was exhausted, we were followed wherever we went by a long retinue of children. Here the “gentleman of too many experiences,” as the Sheik termed him, came in handy. Sent to Coventry as he had very properly been, he naturally wished to rehabilitate himself in society. He dogged our steps from afar, and when the ladies were not looking round he successfully produced a startling stampede among the poor little pests who followed us. They had just found out that Mrs Fonblanque had no copper coins in her purse. She was a regular silver-mine, and a very gracious and abundant silver-mine too; and when I was beginning to be alarmed for her, the obnoxious passenger so freely and so successfully used his stick that he scattered the children in a moment. Then he came up smiling, as if thoroughly reinstated. I did not hear the precise words that Mrs Fonblanque, instigated by the Nun, actually used; but he fell behind at once, and that was, I am thankful to say, the last I saw of him.

How did Bushire strike me? I scarcely know. Like many other seaport towns in Asia—and elsewhere—it looks best from the deck of a steamer. The bazaars were the merest and muddiest bridle-paths, with squalid shops on either side, and there was little or nothing in them but cheap goods from Europe, produce from the country inland, and tea from India. Every shopkeeper, whatever else he dealt in, seemed to deal in tea, and in many of the shops there were considerable quantities of bad turquoises.

The men, sturdy hulking fellows, dressed in nothing but coarse blue calico blouses, open at the neck to show their hairy chests, and with queer little round felt hats on their heads, had such pink and white complexions that Mrs Fonblanque thought they must be rouged. The few women we saw had lost not only their comeliness, but their individuality, in their clothes. They were muffled up in coarse blue cloth wraps and skirts, and green trousers, and high boots of untanned leather. The outer garment of blue cloth was drawn completely over their faces, with a narrow slit cut across for their bold black eyes. I have always noticed among the veiled women I have chanced to meet, that the closer they are veiled the bolder their eyes appear to be. This may be an illusion, or it may be a natural law, but to arrive at the exact truth the other side of the question should be studied. These particular Bushire ladies, however, wore as many clothes as the proverbial Dutchman, and as they waddled along they looked for all the world like so many bundles of old clothes going voluntarily to the wash.

Some of the buildings in Bushire were rather impressive—from the outside. And—by way, I suppose, of showing a good front—all the best buildings faced the sea. But it cannot possibly be a slight on Bushire to say that the buildings which really impressed me most were the buildings in embryo. Here the Sheik was good enough to explain to us the process of their erection. “Brother,” said the man on the top scaffolding, “in the name of God, toss me up a brick.” And the man below, as he threw it up, said, “Brother, in the name of God, receive the brick.”

Mrs Fonblanque and I laughed a little at these very ceremonious builders. But their work, though slowly put together, was as true and square and accurate as if the workmen had all been English or Scotch Freemasons; and the houses in Bushire had, at all events, the merit of being stoutly built. Deliberation and courtesy are not always wasted, and are perhaps too much neglected by the European contractor in his haste to grow rich.

I certainly did not like Bushire. But for all that, I could not help noticing that the khans’ and merchants’ offices had fine large courts inside them, with great warehouses or “go-downs” on the ground-floor. The little Armenian church had not, it is true, much to boast of in the way of architecture, but there were some touching monuments to the British officers who fell in 1857. The Custom-house, though the officials do all they can to hamper trade, is a building of importance; and close beside it we came upon the Governor’s palace, over which floated the Persian flag, a pretty green ensign with a yellow maneless lion carrying a sword in his month. The building, however, was falling into decay—and not unnaturally, when every new governor has to buy his place from the Prince of Fars, and make what he can out of it before he is dismissed.

A number of Persian soldiers were standing about on guard. They wore soiled scarlet tunics, and such breeches and boots as Providence put in their way. They were armed with the Enfield rifle, and though their guns were dirty and their bayonets covered with rust, few of them were under five feet nine inches in height, and they might, I should say, be formidable fellows if they were properly led. And they should be properly led; for Mrs Fonblanque noticed at once the difference between the men and their officers, who were handsome fellows, well built, tall, fair, and comely, and carried their inches as if born to command. The officers evidently took some pride in their dress, and one of them, an extremely courteous man, who tried to turn the guard out in honour of us or our attendants, politely allowed Mrs Fonblanque to examine his Astrakan hat. He explained to her, through the Sheik, that what we know as Astrakan in Europe is only the skin of an unborn lamb, and can be had anywhere where sheep are common. In the middle of this rather complicated translation of foreign idioms, an orderly came up to remind him that it was time to fire the mid-day gun. In another twenty minutes or so the guard whom he had tried to call out in our honour were properly awakened. But the officer thoughtfully ordered them to escort our party behind the shelter of the nearest wall, and very courageously fired the gun himself. The guns, he explained to us afterwards, had been captured from the Turks, and were now almost as decayed as the palace, and honeycombed to the extreme edge of their bronze muzzles. No one, he added, but the chief officer on duty was ever bound to apply the portfire to their touch-holes. Mrs Fonblanque thought him a gallant officer, and so, from the little I had seen of him, did I. He was pleased with our compliments, but explained that he had had the manifold advantages of a training under the Shah’s German officers at Teheran.

He insisted upon escorting us to the British Residency, a good substantial building, with many staircases and many courtyards, and zealously guarded by a number of smart-looking sepoys from India. Here the day’s troubles really began. We had made a terrible mistake. The Resident of Bushire has a country house as well as a town house. Just now he was in his country house six miles off, and that was why he had sent his steam-launch off for us, and why Captain Forbes and the Persian engineer in charge of the launch had, without in the least knowing the cause of the dispute, held a fierce altercation during our little voyage to the Custom-house.

Everything, however, in these remote regions is, or should be, done by telegraphy. And we quickly discovered that in the Residency itself there was a telegraph office on the balcony beside the drawing-room. By the help of the Armenian clerk, who worked it, we were asked to come down as soon as possible, so as to be in time for tiffin. A rough sort of dog-cart was ordered out of the stable, and while the grooms were putting the horse in, the Persian officer and the Sheik took their leave and went off together, and we were left to our own devices.

I really could not venture to drive. I did not know our destination, to begin with, and then the Sheik with his last words had assured me that there were no roads. Mrs Fonblanque thought, I suppose, that I could not drive, but after a time she consented to sit beside the Persian driver, while the Nun and I climbed up into the back seat.

The driver, not unnaturally, spoke nothing but Persian. Mrs Fonblanque knew nothing of it; no more did I. The Nun spoke it fluently, and until she began to talk, I had no idea that it was such a pretty language. The Sheik was right about the roads. They were like General Wade’s at the early period, and the Nun was soon far too preoccupied in imploring me to prevent her falling off to interpret Mrs Fonblanque’s questions accurately to the driver. The jolting was dreadful. We were going in a straight line, much as a field-gun might have gone at some desperate moment, across a desert of little sand-hills, and along a route that was marked out on one side by telegraph posts. There were no springs to our cart, and the Nun looked as if she were going to faint, and never recovered anything like her usual colour till our horse took us through a broad deep pool and splashed everybody liberally. After that, though I had still to hold on to her, I was fairly astonished at the Nun’s sprightliness. But by this time Mrs Fonblanque, who had not received the slightest sympathy from the Persian driver, was evidently suffering in her turn. She would not talk through the Nun in Persian, and she would not say a word to me in plain English. I pressed her to tell me why and how she suffered. I implored her to change places with me or with the Nun. She declined to speak even then. At last she said she had a headache; and she was obviously cross. So I did what she had herself beseeched me to do. I made it my duty to look after the Nun a little, to cheer her up, and entertain her, and to see that she was not stifled for want of fresh air and frank companionship.

I succeeded better than I expected. To me this lumpy road along the telegraph wires was a novel experience; but the Nun knew all about it, and though we only penetrated for about six miles into Persia, I soon began to think that I had “done” the country completely. First of all, she told me to look at Bushire. As imposing from the sandy desert as from the sea, it was a two-faced, empty-hearted imposition at the best. The city, she said, as she looked back, was exactly like all the other Persian towns she knew. Here the high city walls happened to be two miles round, and very unusually formidable. But there was a big gap every hundred yards or so, through which the enemy might come in—if they chose.

We met, or crossed, as we proceeded on our reckless career, long strings of donkeys, camels, and mules, coming and going. The mules and camels were journeying to and from Shiraz, and of those outward bound, each mule had his regulation bale on his back, and each camel his two bales, the one balancing the other; and if a sulky expression ever means anything, none of the camels appeared to think that their burdens were fairly adjusted. Of the donkeys, some carried firewood, but most of them were laden with huge black skins of water for Bushire, where there is none. They went in strings, with a single driver behind, who sat almost on the tail of the last and biggest donkey of the lot, and yet nevertheless, by the use of strong language and the bold flourishes of a great stick, managed somehow or other to keep the file in tolerable marching order. Most of the donkeys had their nostrils slit up for about an inch and a half; and this was, as the Nun explained to me, a cruel practice, so as to enable them to breathe more air, and so travel farther. Then we were passed by the three horses laden with the mails from our steamer. Every mail, it seems, big or little, is started off on the backs of three horses, which are galloped full speed for twenty miles, and then changed for others. The speed is merely for bravado. The three horses are also expected to carry two passengers. This they call riding chapar. Two passengers do not often turn up in Persia; but when they do, and if they are fond of sight-seeing, nobody cares if the mails are a few days late.

By this time the Nun and I were heartily tired of the monotony of the road, and both perhaps a little put out by Mrs Fonblanque’s silence; and as I really could not get her to speak, I questioned the Nun about her experiences in Persia. She answered me very pleasantly. Her descriptions were vivid and almost humorous. I could hear the rude Persian children laughing at her bad Persian. I could see the schools she had to visit, all open to the streets like booths in a bazaar, with a crowd of eager children frantically reciting their lessons to an old begoggled pedagogue.

Had she seen the Shah? Of course she had, and seen him often. He was a man with big moustaches and a clean-shaven chin, and always dressed in plain black clothes. He often used to drive past the nunnery, behind his crimson-tailed horses, attended by a crowd of men in scarlet. She had even been admitted into the sacred precincts of the harem, and had conversed with several of his wives. There were some three hundred of her own sex there, but many were still quite children, and more were negro serving-maids. They were all reviewed by their royal master every Thursday; and when I asked her if he still went through the form of throwing the handkerchief, she said he did.

We were getting along capitally, when Mrs Fonblanque suddenly made the driver understand that she wanted him to stop.

“I really cannot stand the nonsense you two are talking,” she said sharply, in reply to my remonstrances as she tried to alight. “What can a Nun know about throwing the handkerchief? And what do you mean by cross-examining her in that way? You are making yourself ridiculous, Mr Hicks. This jolting is too much for me. I shall get out and walk. Be good enough to help me down.”

I refused point-blank. To walk under this broiling sun was simply impossible for a lady. It was bad enough to be driven. Mrs Fonblanque’s indignation affected us all in different ways. The driver, knowing nothing but his own language and the language that is common to all of us, grinned. The Nun looked at Mrs Fonblanque with a suspicion of tears in her clear eyes; and I, hurt though I was, frowned as serenely and impressively as I could. We carried the day amongst us. She kept her seat. And when the Nun in a half whisper told me of a visit she had once paid to the Well of Death, into which they used to throw all the cruel and unkind and childless and unloving women of Shiraz, I contrived, rather adroitly I thought, to turn the conversation to the Plague. Here she became exceedingly pathetic, though she said little about herself, and nothing, of course, of the man she loved. I began to be really interested in what she said, and I honestly think she was almost as sorry as I was when the soldiers on duty presented arms to us as we drove through the Residency gateway.

Here everything was suddenly changed. We were gently assisted, as if by magic, into a princely mansion, standing in a magnificent and ample garden, full of brilliant flowers, and surrounded further than we could see by citron-trees and sycamores. But, as we entered the house, the change in Mrs Fonblanque personally was almost as magical as the change in our surroundings. She put us, and our hosts for that matter, at our ease in a moment. And very gracious people they seemed to be as they led us through the ample entrance-hall. A few hundred yards away, we had left all we knew of Persia—a narrow, monotonous, and arid experience at the best—and here we were pleasantly located in a luxurious and comfortable English home. The Resident and his lady might have been taken anywhere for county magnates, and as admirable types of courtly old-fashioned English hospitality. It did the three of us good, I fancy, even to look at their daughters. Both of them had frank eyes and merry faces. Both were physically fresh and fair, and very sweet and girlish; and as we saw them in their simple muslin gowns, it was almost impossible to believe that there could be any sort of human link between them and those slouching bundles of old clothes we had encountered in the bazaar. The very rooms in the Residency and the very furniture had an appearance of refinement and repose. In the drawing-room the last English and French books and periodicals were scattered about on the tables, cut and half cut. The open piano was covered with music, new and old. The dining-room, though the glaring sunlight was carefully shut off, seemed to glitter again with snowy linen, well-cut glass, and sparkling silver. I began, as I took my place at the tiffin-table, to realise how it is that people are tempted to waste their hopes and energies in the East.

Chapter XX

How is it that men with plenty of brains and ability and an over-abundance of energy do waste themselves in the East? There is, for one thing, a sense of finality about an Indian appointment that is perhaps more gratifying to a man’s relatives than to himself. But why should anybody deliberately drop out of the running for twenty or thirty years? The luxury of the Resident’s drawing-room and dining-room, and the noiseless attentions of his innumerable servants, seemed to solve one part of the question; and, indeed, I have never seen a happier or more contented-looking man than the Resident as he sat in the middle of his family circle. I should like to have discussed this latest phase of my transition theory, and its adaptability to all manner of circumstances and places, with Mrs Fonblanque. Unfortunately, however, she was not sitting beside me, and though she seemed to be doing her best to please everybody else, she would not answer my looks.

I consoled myself nevertheless. The tiffin was good. The Resident’s cook had been carefully trained. The Resident himself was brimming over with genial hospitality. I should probably never see him again. Mrs Fonblanque, unless we chanced to be shipwrecked, I should meet every day for a fortnight. In one glance I tried to show her what I thought. Then I devoted myself to the Resident. And he most amply repaid me, not so much by anything he said himself, for here he was very guarded, but by introducing me to a gentleman directly opposite, who was, said the Resident, the one man who knew Persia; and this gentleman’s health, it seemed, sent him out here every year. I gathered indirectly from the general conversation that he was a doctor, and had once practised in the country.

Then the Resident politely devoted himself to Mrs Fonblanque, who sat on his right, and they seemed to find a good deal to say to one another.

My friend the traveller—who had, by the way, a long brown beard that went down below the table-cloth, and curious brown eyes that evidently took in far more than they gave out—managed to engross me almost immediately, for he told me some of the things—apart, of course, from the mystery surrounding Mrs Fonblanque—that I most wanted to hear just then. He knew so much about Persia that I scarcely liked to interrupt him at first.

“Is Shiraz wine,” I began at last, “really as good as the Persian poets say?”

“Well, I have tasted better,” he replied, making rather a wry face. “I never kept it myself when I lived in Persia, and I should recommend you not to touch it so long as you can get a sound dry sherry. Try that decanter of our host’s to your right. That will show you what Shiraz wine is not like.”

“Yes,” I answered, smiling. “But, as a traveller, I am bound to be inquisitive. This is a capital sherry. Is Shiraz wine—?”

“The very finest of it fetches a shilling and sixpence a bottle, the ordinary stuff threepence, and both are dear at the price. There are two kinds, Shiraz and Hamadan, and the prevailing flavour in each is that of sweet spirits of nitre. I fancy that Hafiz was easily pleased, and that he must often have had a very bad headache in the morning. Perhaps the Cholat grape, like everything else here, has degenerated since then. You smile, but I have lived in Persia too long to believe in anything that Persia produces now.”

“Russia, you mean”—I had read my newspapers, of course—“has stopped Persian productiveness altogether.”

“No,” he continued; “I did not exactly mean that, though Russia, no doubt, is gradually monopolising the whole import trade. I was thinking of Persia some centuries back, when Persian exquisites set the fashion to the whole Eastern world, and Persian poets sang in every oriental court, and Persian merchants carried her art manufactures to all the ports of India, Arabia, and Cathay. There is no Persian industry now, except, perhaps, that of carpets and rugs, and even the best of these are snapped up by the Prussians.”

“That is a pity,” I answered. “But why is the industry decaying if the demand has increased?”

“Well,” he answered, “a few years back no two of the rugs here were identical in design. Every workman did what was in him, and signed his carpets as our painters do their pictures. Now the whole trade is in the hands of foreigners. Favourite old carpets are copied and re-copied till the weavers see that originality does not pay. And to make matters worse, they are deliberately—deliberately I say—encouraged to use aniline dyes.”

“You speak severely,” I ventured to remark.

“I speak as I feel,” he answered, “and as every one interested in Persia must feel. The Shah, if he gave you an interview, would talk in very much the same strain. I hear that he has just issued an edict, under which the hands of any carpet-maker found using aniline dyes will be chopped off then and there, and nailed up over his own house-door, as a warning to other evil-doers.”

“That seems sufficiently drastic,” I said. “Do you approve of it?”

“Well,” replied the traveller smiling, “I am, I own, very fond of old Persian rugs. Their colours blend so marvellously well that one envies the men who foresaw the changes that time would make. Perhaps I should approve of the Shah’s edict if there were the slightest chance of this law or any other Persian law being effectively administered. The Shah, after Baron Reuter took him to Europe, came back with many good schemes in his head for the reformation of his country. He began by putting letter-boxes up in all the towns and villages through which men with a grievance or a suggestion were to correspond with him direct. The magistrates, however, ordered that every one who dared to approach the pillar-boxes should “eat stick”—that is, should be soundly bastinadoed. The Shah is like the Czar. He represents and embodies a terribly strong autocracy, but personally he is helpless.”

“Has he ever been to Bushire?” I inquired.

“No. He is always on the move, but he cannot achieve a visit to the south. Every year the people here think that he is coming. But the local governors are afraid of his followers, who are as hungry and almost as numerous as the main column of an invading army of locusts. They always invent a famine, and that stops him. They are right, of course, to protect their people; and then perhaps some of them wouldn’t exactly like to have their book scrutinised by his auditors.”

“What would he do to them,” I asked, “if the books were wrong?”

“It is difficult to say. But there is nothing he might not do if he chose. The grandfather of the present governor of Shiraz was boiled to death. The bakers of Ispahan, when they were caught adulterating their bread, were baked alive in their own ovens. A wealthy merchant of the same town was weak enough to complain to the Shah that he had been illegally taxed. He was brought before the Prince in charge of the district. ‘What a brave man you must be to report me to the Shah!’ said the Prince. ‘What a large-hearted, lion-hearted man! I really must have a look at that curious heart of yours!’ And in a few minutes it was brought to him on a plate.”

“How very shocking!” I cried.

“Well, I don’t know,” said the doctor. “I am inclined to think that the system suits the country. We hear now and then of an atrocity in high places; but for that very reason there is little or no crime among the people. And as a rule, life and property are safer in Persia than in any other country I know.”

“Well,” said I, “I must of course bow to your superior knowledge. But you were saying just now that the trade of the country is monopolised by foreigners. Are there many foreigners in Bushire? I should have thought that foreigners—European foreigners at all events—would have insisted upon some better system of sanitary arrangements.”

“Perhaps I was speaking rather too generally,” he replied. “There are, I believe, only three European firms here—two Scotch firms and a Dutch one. But they finance most of the wholesale trade. The rest of the business is entirely in the hands of Jews and Armenians, and it is difficult to ascertain which of them do most harm to the country. It takes seven Scotchmen, they say, to cheat a Jew, and seven Jews to cheat an Armenian. You can judge then of the actual position of the unfortunate aborigines. The Americans are just beginning to cut in, and then the misery of Bushire will be complete.”

“My dear,” said the Resident’s lady, “the doctor and Mr Hicks and yourself have done nothing but talk ‘shop’ ever since we sat down. Tiffin is over now, and it is time for us to get up and try if we can’t find something better to talk about.”

I felt, as we all rose, the implied rebuke; but I had learned a good deal I have not recorded here that was of interest to myself, and I had the materials for a letter that would, I knew, be of the greatest interest to my uncle.

The ladies went straight to the piano: after eating, ladies always go straight to the piano, just as men go straight to the smoking-room. And as I followed them, I saw in this a very pretty little problem for solution later on.

“You sing, Mrs Fonblanque?” said the younger daughter.

“Oh yes, I sing,” answered Mrs Fonblanque nonchalantly; “but who doesn’t?”

I thought I recognised a clear way here towards making my peace with her.

I opened the pages of a music-book, and then behind it said aside, “Do sing. There’s a piano here. You know we have no piano on board. Keep your promise and sing really.”

Our host and hostess pressed Mrs Fonblanque too, just as I was speaking. She bowed acquiescence to them, but kept her words for me. “Thank you so much, Mr Hicks!” she said icily and aside, as the girls were bringing up their stores of new music. “I will sing. I accept your challenge. You are a flirt, sir, and a fool. But I will do what you ask. I will sing ‘really,’ as you insist on saying. I will show you that I can do something you cannot do. I will try my best, Mr Hicks, to make you feel very small indeed for once. Then I will never speak to you again, and you and your Nun may go on talking duets as long as ever you please.”

All this was said in the gentlest tones, and the girls, I am sure, thought that I was having a very happy time of it.

“I was telling Mr Hicks,” she continued aloud, as she took her seat at the piano, “that all the arts are sisters. He is fond as a painter of painting tombstones, so I think I will begin with a dirge as a pendant to his Ezra’s Tomb.”

I never knew what she played. The motive was probably Irish. But as she sang it, it was terribly pathetic. All our eyes but hers were wet when she abruptly stopped.

“Now you sing,” said Mrs Fonblanque to the elder sister, as she rose from the music-stool.

“No,” said the Resident, gravely. “We have vegetated here so long that I had completely forgotten what the human voice could do. Neither of my girls will open the piano again, Mrs Fonblanque, if you shut it up. Please go on. I never knew that I was sensitive before. That dirge of yours will haunt me when you have gone, unless you are good enough to leave us a brighter recollection.”

Mrs Fonblanque laughed gaily, and I now began to see why her laughter was always so musical. She rejected the piles of new music that they brought her. She never played from music, she said, and then she again took her place at the piano. She rattled off a jingling French chansonnette which made us smile, though we could not follow the words. Then, as the Resident’s lady was just as urgent as the Resident himself, she gave us a couple of pathetic Scotch ballads, a dreamy German hymn, a nocturne, and finished up with an impassioned rendering of Robert, toi que j’aime! A nice revenge! But she ignored me altogether; and when we pressed her to continue, she quietly asked the Resident when the steamer was timed to sail.

We had forgotten the steamer completely.

Her Majesty’s mails, however, cannot wait beyond a reasonable time, even in the Persian Gulf. The barouche was ordered out at once, and a telegram was despatched to the town Residency, ordering the steam-launch round to the point by the telegraph offices immediately. We drank our cups of afternoon tea standing, as the Israelites used to eat their passover. Everybody wished to see the last of Mrs Fonblanque, but eventually the Resident pushed his younger daughter into the carriage, and told us to drive as quickly as possible. He must have been a thoughtful and considerate man to see that, as we three were all at sixes and sevens, we would like to have the fourth seat filled up. The young lady, however, laughed a little at her father’s energy.

“The mails can’t go,” she said, “till he seals his bag, and he can’t seal it till mamma has finished her home letters; and she had only just begun them when you came in. We shall have to wait an hour yet.” Then she coolly told the coachman to drive to the Indo-European telegraph offices.

The doctor had told me that there were only three European firms in Bushire. But there were twenty or thirty Europeans at least living in the handsome telegraph offices on the seashore, half a mile or so from the Residency. Many of them were gentlemen. Some had their wives with them. Our young hostess seemed quite at home here. She took us into the lawn-tennis courts to wait till the steam-launch should turn up. The men stopped playing as we could not well join in, and did all they could to be agreeable.

Mrs Fonblanque, of course, fascinated everybody off-hand.

“The Resident’s lady,” I heard her say to one particularly obsequious attendant of about five minutes’ standing, “seems to possess a fund of inexhaustible information.”

“I should think so,” he replied, laughing. “Don’t you know that she is the ‘Empress of the Gulf,’ and that for four hundred miles, more or less, she rules us all with a rod of iron? You look upon us as stranded and isolated; but you are wrong there. We don’t often see anybody, certainly, but when the cable is not occupied by public messages, we are free to telegraph all the gossip we like, and this little lawn-tennis court is the focus of all the news and gossip of four hundred miles. Most of us in the outlying stations have never met, but we know each other as well as you know your fellow-passengers. We have nothing to study but ourselves. Every case is fairly discussed here every afternoon, and from Fao to Kurrachee the decisions of the Resident’s lady are accepted as final.”

“That is a pretty state of things,” said Mrs Fonblanque, “but I had no idea that the gossip of two or three different countries could be so easily localised. If every three or four hundred miles of India were subjected in the same way to the arbitration of a social empress, I suspect there would soon be a mutiny among the Anglo-Indian ladies.”

Just then, however, the steam-launch came up panting, and we started for the ship.

Mrs Fonblanque would not speak to me, and so, of course, I could not speak to her. At last she spoke to the Nun. She said we were taking a wrong course: “Captain Forbes and the Sheik and that unfortunate acquaintance of yours said they would wait for us at the agent’s office, where they promised to have some carpets for me to look at. Perhaps, Sister Patricia, as you speak Persian so well, you would tell the man at the wheel that we should like to land at the beach before we go to the ship.”

The Nun in her timid way conveyed the message to the man at the wheel, and eventually we arrived at the Custom-house wharf, or the mud bank that was supposed to represent it; and here, rather to my astonishment, I found Captain Forbes and the Sheik.

“I thought you would both be on board by this time,” I said.

“I like that,” replied the Captain. “We promised to wait here for all you good people, and we shall have to wait, goodness knows how much longer, for the mails. They are generally a good hour after the Residency guests.”

“We have got the carpets,” said the Sheik. “We left your black attendant in charge of them at the agent’s office. She appears to know something about carpets, judging by the way she took her shoes off to try how they felt, and looked at the patterns on the wrong side.”

Mrs Fonblanque, however, was thoroughly put out. She was scarcely more civil to the Sheik than she had been to me. She went with us to the agent’s office, where there were twenty or thirty carpets strewn about the floor. Priscilla, from the way she looked at them, had evidently a poor opinion of the carpets. Captain Forbes told Mrs Fonblanque to be careful in making her selection, as much better carpets could be had at Bunder Abbas. Mrs Fonblanque retorted by telling Priscilla to hire a boat and have the whole lot taken on board immediately.

The coolies with the carpets were, however, stopped at the gateway by the agent’s clerk, who quietly suggested that they must first be paid for. Mrs Fonblanque glanced at him very disdainfully, and, without saying a word, opened her purse and showed him a letter. The effect was instantaneous. The clerk became effusively polite.

“Understand, sir,” she said, “I mean to have all the carpets, but I shall only pay a fair price for them. My ayah, Priscilla, will fix the price, and you will give the dealers their money, and take care that I am not cheated. Send her after us in a boat.”

Then she swept out of the office, and we followed her to the launch.

Just as we were getting on board, I was the victim of rather a ludicrous accident. A very tall and stately individual, clad in white flowing robes, sedately approached us. He had a white-and-gold turban on his head. A venerable beard covered all but two narrow oblique sections of an aristocratic though chocolate-coloured face. He held out his hand to me. I grasped it warmly. To my astonishment, the crowd and the crew, and the Captain himself, all burst into an immoderate fit of laughter, and even Mrs Fonblanque, after a word with Captain Forbes, looked very much amused.

“I don’t care two straws for your ribaldry,” I said. “I don’t share your anti-native feelings. If a Persian gentleman desires to wish me God-speed, a gentleman of obvious rank and of distinguished appearance—”

“Hold hard, man,” cried the Captain, trying to stop laughing. “You won’t get off as cheaply as you think. That distinguished-looking old chap is the head beggar here, and he certainly won’t be satisfied with the honour of shaking hands with you. He is holding out his hand again. Shake it again,” and then Captain Forbes had a relapse.

The venerable personage, who had never smiled once, salaamed to me so pathetically as I got into the steam-launch, that I tossed him a coin, and I left him fighting for it with all the urchins in the place.

This seemed to vastly amuse the people in the boat, and kept them in good humour till we reached the steamer. Mrs Fonblanque, however, never opened her lips; and after having made a fool of myself, mine, of course, were sealed.

“My dear, dear friend,” said the Nun gently, when we were all on deck again, “it mortifies me more than you can know to find you so silent. Am I to blame? I am sorry, indeed, that I came with you, and so, I think, is Mr Hicks, the artist.”

Mrs Fonblanque crossed over to the bulwark where I was standing.

“Are you as sorry as the Nun?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, “sorry and hurt. You treated me atrociously when you said you would never speak to me again, and you had no right to laugh as you did just now.”

“That I really couldn’t help,” she said, half smiling. “But when I was cross I wasn’t thinking of you. I was thinking of the Nun.”

“And she, poor thing,” I answered, “was thinking all the time of the gallant French gentleman who chose to abandon her so suddenly.”

“And you?” said Mrs Fonblanque. “What were you thinking of, as you tried to hold the Nun on to the cart?”

“Of you,” I answered boldly, and almost beyond myself. “Since I met you, and you turned back, our lives seem to have got mixed up in some inextricable manner. I detest the way you treat me, and I think you behaved very meanly to-day, both to the Nun and myself. But your eyes haunt me by day and by night. When I try to paint, I can paint nothing but your face. I shall end, whether I wish it or not, or whether I know it or not, by hating you intensely—or loving you!”

“Hush, hush, Mr Hicks!” she replied softly. “Don’t talk so wildly. Priscilla will hear you, and here she is with her big bales of carpets.”

Then she again crossed the quarter-deck, and as no one but Priscilla and I were looking on, she took the Nun’s two hands in hers and kissed her affectionately.

Captain Forbes came up just then, and Mrs Fonblanque turned round at once.

“Where is the gentleman of too many experiences?” she inquired.

“Oh,” said the Captain, rubbing his hands, “I think I have got rid of him. He went to the agent’s and sat himself down as if he were a lord. They gave him a bottle of whisky, but by the time he had finished his bottle, I came in, and they didn’t offer him another. He pulled himself together at the sight of me, and said he would like to brush his hair. ‘Only let me brush my hair,’ he said, ‘and I shall be as right as a trivet. That’s the only penalty I pay to the bottle; but I can brush away the effects of the heaviest drinking-bout in five minutes.’ Then he disappeared, and when I heard of him last, he was lying down in one of the liquor-shops in the bazaar, where, I suppose, there were no hair-brushes.”

“And you left him there!” cried the Nun.

“Most deliberately,” answered the Captain. “I never meant him to set foot in my ship again. He disgraced himself when he was here, and he has not even taken the trouble to pay for his passage. Here, Quartermaster, keep that boat by us till the steward has bundled all the passenger’s traps on board of her.”

Chapter XXI

By the time we had finished dinner, the steamer was going at the unusually rapid speed of nine knots an hour. There was no moon, and the night would have been intensely dark but for the stars. I had never seen them so brilliant before. They were pointing mysteriously upwards and downwards with their slender golden fingers. The evening star—Venus I think it was—threw a broad belt of light across the Gulf, much as the moon does in our mistier atmosphere, and we could see, as they crossed it, the huge brown sails of the Arab dhows or buggalows. Had it not been for this tremulous and glittering streak, the sea at a little distance was as black as jet. Round the steamer, however, as she ploughed her way forward, the rushing waters were literally alive with phosphorescent fire, and her tall black hull stood boldly out like the phantom-ships of which, as an adventurous schoolboy, I had been always dreaming. Beyond this immediate halo of firelit foam, the waves were now and again lit up with faint and unexpected flashes of blue and violet, which occasionally aroused some great fish from his slumbers, and sent him rushing through the sea in a thin line of livid light into the region of outer darkness. The horsekeepers on board had just commenced the drowsy songs with which their unfortunate horses were to be kept on their legs all night long. We could hear from afar the jests and disputes of the pilgrims, and the monotonous ditties they intoned to the slow music of the tar.

Suddenly there was a most ear-rending and awful shriek.

“What was that?” cried Mrs Fonblanque, clutching my arm.

“Oh, that’s nothing,” said the Captain, who happened to be passing. “They are ‘bishoping’ a horse—that’s all. They ‘bishop’ all the aged horses on the voyage down. They cut away the surface of the incisor teeth with a dentist’s rose-head hand-drill, and then give them the marks of a young horse. But they’ve no right to disturb my first-class passengers at night. I’ll give them a bit of my mind.”

And so he did; and for a short time it seemed as if everybody on board the ship had gone to sleep. We could hear nothing but the throbbing of the engines. Mrs Fonblanque and I once more appeared to be alone. I was glad of the silence, for I was in the very mood to enjoy a new experience like this, and I did my best to make Mrs Fonblanque enjoy it too. But she allowed me to do most of the talking.

“Watch that fish!” I cried, as one of the many startled monsters of the deep drew a bright line as straight as if it had been ruled over the dark sea. “He goes like a rocket. You can almost hear him hiss. The night is beautiful above us, and beautiful below. Look at that long foaming streak of light we leave behind us in our wake, and the great lumps of light that go plunging through the water from the steamer’s discharge-pipe.”

“Oh,” said Mrs Fonblanque shortly, “it is all very interesting, no doubt; but I am rather tired of phosphorus, and meteorology, and geography, and physical geography, and sea-scapes and ocean effects, and of having you posing as Nature’s showman at my elbow every moment, Mr Hicks. You forget that I saw all that there is to be seen when I came up the Gulf. There is nothing like human nature. So Sam Slick used to say. I must say that I agree with Sam Slick, and I really cannot feel the slightest enthusiasm in the insect-life that lights up the sea to-night. Talk about men and women. Talk about me, and if you can’t talk about me, why, talk about yourself; or if you can’t talk about yourself, do please be silent.”

“That’s very much what you said to me a short time back.”

“Is it?” she answered. “But doesn’t it seem a very, very long time since?”

This was rather too hard on me. Could I talk about myself? I really thought I could.

So when Mrs Fonblanque, politely stifling a yawn, asked me to call the Sheik up to continue his English reminiscences, I told her somewhat disingenuously that the Sheik was indisposed, and that if she pleased I would give her my own experiences instead.

“Well, you may try,” said Mrs Fonblanque, doubtfully; “but I don’t fancy that you can be quite so original as the Sheik is, and you mustn’t mind my going early to bed.”

Here the Nun, to my dismay, appeared on the scene, and, at a quiet signal from Mrs Fonblanque, I assisted her to a chair.

Now that we had a “gallery,” I thought it would be impossible to talk as frankly as I should have liked. But with her very first words Mrs Fonblanque put me on my metal.

“You were born,” she began deliberately, “in the year eighteen hundred—and what? and your mother thought you the very finest baby—”

“No,” said I. “My mother, poor soul, died when I was born. My life began at nine years old, in a little hut or hollow mound that we had built just for our two selves out of the grass lying drying in the meadow by the river. It was long after tea-time; but I cared nothing for the scolding I knew I should get later on. The farming men and girls were singing blithely as they went home, with their scythes and rakes over their shoulders, across the stepping-stones in the river. The doorway into our little grass-house would have been just big enough to show Edith and myself the broad sun as he sank slowly and reluctantly in a gorgeous crimson glory behind the ridge of pale green larches in the park, only, as it happened, Edith was fast asleep.”

“Go on,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “I shall be asleep myself directly.”

I saw, however, that the Nun was listening. I was myself honestly interested in my story. So I continued: “She was eight and I was nine. We had been hay-making all the afternoon, and perhaps a little too boisterously. Now, however, Edith was sound asleep, with one small white arm across her eyes. I watched her as she lay there, on a heap of fragrant grass. The interior of that little grass hut, with little Edith in it, is the picture that has cast its colours and its shadows over my whole life. I can see it now as I saw it then. I remember wondering in a vague and dreamy way what subtle and extra-ordinary changes were coming over me, when the farming girls on the farther side of the stepping-stones suddenly stopped singing. I began to live then, Mrs Fonblanque, for it was then I began to love.”

“Oh, Mr Hicks!” said the Nun, and then she stopped short.

“You will frighten him, dear,” said Mrs Fonblanque, half aside. “Let me manage him, please. You were nine and she was—”

“Eight,” I answered. “But I don’t think that you or Sister Patricia, or anybody else grown up, can quite realise the lasting influence of childish affections.”

“There I agree with you,” cried Mrs Fonblanque. “I don’t think you at all foolish in what you say about the strength of childish memories. I, too, have recollections, but I like yours. Papa, poor man, used to tell me that I had been a flirt ever since I could hold a fan over my face.”

“I meant a different set of affections altogether,” I replied. “She was eight and I was nine. She was eighteen and I was nineteen when we parted.”

“Oh, but you mustn’t skip like that,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “What happened in the interval?”

“Please tell us everything from the beginning, Mr Hicks,” exclaimed the Nun, very timidly. “I like to hear you talk like this. Girls, when they are young, are, I fancy, much the same as boys, and I really should like to hear your true feelings as a boy.”

“Begin at the beginning, sir, since Sister Patricia desires it,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “Begin at the beginning as the Sheik did.”

“I have begun at the beginning,” I replied. “There is only one thing I distinctly remember before this, outside of my nursery reminiscences.”

“And that?” they both exclaimed.

“I had been away for a long time, somewhere on an island, I think, and I brought home a big white china dog as a present for my father. I don’t remember buying the dog, or why I chose it, but I clearly remember carrying it into my father’s study when he was hard at work, and I remember him getting up and patting me on the head, and placing it in a conspicuous place among the art treasures that crowded his little book-surrounded sanctum. I was about five then, and this dog of mine seemed to give me a kind of proprietary right in my father’s study ever afterwards.”

“And what did your father give you in return?” asked Mrs Fonblanque.

“A funnel and a trumpet, elaborately carved with sharp shells out of ironwood, which an old seafaring friend had brought him from the Sandwich Islands when they were still unknown. I used to work away with my pocket-knife for months after I got my funnel and my trumpet; but my attempts gave me, I am sorry to say, an exceedingly high opinion of art in the South Seas.”

“I really have no patience with you,” cried Mrs Fonblanque; “you seem to have no individuality, no trust in yourself, no faith in your own art.”

“Oh, don’t,” said the Nun.

“I was only five,” I continued; “but I daresay you are right, Mrs Fonblanque, and I have often been discouraged since then. I used, however, just then to shut my clasp-knife up in despair and dream of the hideous beasts on my funnel, and of the cannibals who had carved them. You cannot imagine what an intense and fearful pleasure I took in those weird childish fancies, or how they followed me up the dark passages and creaking staircases every evening, or how much they told me of unknown islands, all surrounded by unapproachable foaming reefs, and all covered by thick groves of cocoa-nut trees with their nuts full of milk.”

“No; I can’t imagine all that. But I beg your pardon—I forgot that you were only five years old. Your uncle, if he is fond of you, must be fond of curiosities. What did he say to the unwarrantable appearance of a trumpery china dog in the very middle of your father’s choice collection of works of art?”

“He said that my father must be in his dotage; but he wasn’t—not a bit of it. When I saw my father last, three years ago, I said, ‘I see the old dog is still there, sir, in his old place.’ ‘Yes, my boy, and there it will remain,’ he answered. ‘It annoys your uncle, who is always getting presents himself, to think that I ever had a present from anybody too small to expect something much handsomer in return. I shall leave him that china dog when I die, and I only wish I could be here to see him receive it. Wait till he has a boy of his own, and he won’t be quite so cynical.’”

“That’s rather a nice reminiscence after all,” said Mrs Fonblanque, sighing faintly. “I thought I liked your uncle, but I don’t much care for cynical old men. What do you say, dear?”

The Nun shook her head, as if young men and old, cynical and cheerful, were all equally absent from her thoughts. Mrs Fonblanque took her hand.

“Sister Patricia is right,” she said; “we would both of us rather hear more about little Edith.”

“I could talk for ever about her,” I cried, warmly.

“At the time of the haystack episode she was eight, and you were nine—”

“Not quite nine,” I answered. “She was eighteen, and I—”

“Oh, stop, stop! What did you do in the interval? A boy of your precocity must have had many interesting experiences besides that china dog before you were nearly nineteen.”

“For those ten years,” I answered hotly, “I thought of nothing but Edith.”

“But surely you went to school,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “She couldn’t well go with you. What did you do there?”

“Nothing much,” I replied. “I went to school, of course, but with a little talisman round my neck like the knights of old, of whom we used to read about together in my father’s study in an illuminated copy of Froissart’s ‘Chronicles.’ It was a crushed little spray of honeysuckle which she had given me after we had paid a farewell visit to all our pets in the park. I put it under the glass cover of an old forgotten miniature, and I always wore it. The boys in the dormitory used to tease me about my talisman, and when we were bathing one day a big hulking bully seized hold of it and trod it into fragments under his boots. I got two bad black eyes in the struggle, but the boys thought none the worse of me for showing fight. I had lost my talisman, but as long as I was at school, I always felt that talisman round my neck, and I think it did me good then. Just now, Sister Patricia, you said that boys and girls are much the same, and I suppose their schools are much alike.”

“I don’t know,” said the Nun, shyly. “I was never at school myself. But did you tell Edith about that fight with the big boy over his talisman?”

“No, indeed,” I answered. “I couldn’t well mention my black eyes. And then, somehow or other, as we grew older, we both grew shyer. Long ago, shortly after what Mrs Fonblanque not very kindly called ‘the haystack episode,’ she lost one of her stockings and both of her shoes in wading over a stream I wanted her to cross, and I had to carry her home, and she kissed me heartily for it when they sent her to bed in disgrace. But everything was changed when I came back from school. She was altered, or I was.”

“Well,” said Mrs Fonblanque, “give the young lady the benefit of the doubt.”

“No, I shan’t,” I answered. “There was no doubt. And if she was changed, it was only for the better; and I was always much shyer really than Edith.”

“She was eight and you were nine?”

“She wasn’t always eight, and I wasn’t always nine, Mrs Fonblanque. We grew older, and things changed. I remember hating having to kiss her on my last Christmas holidays, when all the old people were kissing each other under the mistletoe in the hall. She hid behind the armour on one side of the big staircase, and I hid on the other.”

“But you both went under the mistletoe at last?” said the Nun.

“Well, yes, they made us go. But it was a sad mistake. I was shyer than ever after that; and yet the less she seemed to like me, the more I loved her.”

“Then why did you say good-bye to her when you were nineteen?” asked Mrs Fonblanque.

“I never quite knew,” I answered. “But I suppose that my financial difficulties were somehow or other at the bottom of it. When I left school, my uncle wanted to put me into his Liverpool office. But I insisted upon going to London to be an author, or an artist, or anything else you please, so as to be able to live at Putney, where Edith was still at school, and where I could catch a glimpse, once a-week, of her through the curious old oak carving of the secluded school-pew on the left-hand side of the altar, in the old parish church. Then her father came into an immense fortune, and she was a great heiress. She left Putney suddenly. But one of the school servants brought a little pencil note to my lodgings to say that she was going. We said our last good-bye at the Putney railway station.”

“That was surely very, very cruel of her,” said the Nun.

“No, no, it wasn’t,” I answered. “She was crying, not cruel.”

“Go on,” said Mrs Fonblanque, stiffly.

“Directly the governess left, she put her head out of the railway carriage and said, ‘Not good-bye, Hector; don’t say good-bye.’ But the train was starting, and I said good-bye as bravely as I could. She was an heiress then, and I had not even a trade, and I knew that my father had spent every penny of his own money and my mother’s on his collections. I never saw her again till she was married, and that was how I took to painting, Mrs Fonblanque, and why I have never yet made much out of it.”

“Don’t be savage, Mr Hicks,” said Mrs Fonblanque, very gently. “I really begin to like your reminiscences better than the Sheik’s, now that Edith has gone out of them. Did you ever see her again?”

“Yes,” I replied. “At first I was always trying to see her. I used to haunt the theatres, when I knew she was in town, and hang about the park and the picture-galleries, and when I saw anybody like her, I went home in a fever. Face to face I always knew her, of course. But she had a pretty, proud little way of holding her head up, which, when I was behind other women, often deceived me.”

“Poor dear Mr Hicks!” said Mrs Fonblanque in a low aside that was evidently divided between the Nun and myself. “That kind of feeling is as common as the measles, and much more frequent. I have often had it, and, Sister Patricia, you must have had it too. But we couldn’t either of us haunt the parks and theatres and public places, so as to grow hot and cold, as Mr Hicks did, at the back view of anybody’s head in a hat. We had to sit at home, my dear, hadn’t we, and stitch our fingers off in fancy-work as we waited for a knock at the front door that we knew perfectly well would never come again?”

“Madam,” cried the Nun rapidly, with her cheeks on fire, “your experiences are too many for me. I never did anything of the kind. I thought Mr Hicks’s story a nice one, because he frankly told us his feelings as a child. It is long since I was a child, and it was a pleasant reminiscence.”

“Yes, dear, it was,” replied Mrs Fonblanque. “I only meant to say that Mr Hicks has not a monopoly of all reminiscences. He would monopolise everything if you let him. Forgive me, Mr Hicks. The Nun, I see, has forgiven me. What did you do next?”

“I managed to live on somehow,” I said, gruffly.

“And what did your uncle say about her marriage?” asked Mrs Fonblanque.

“He said nothing about her marriage. But he said I was a tremendous young fool for saying good-bye to her at the Putney railway station because she was an heiress and I was a pauper. I had never before seen him in such a vile temper. He asked me why I had not gone into his Liverpool office instead of trying to dabble in two of the most beggarly trades there are, and why the dickens or something worse I had not been man enough to write to him before I said good-bye to Edith in heroics, like a play-actor. Then he told me to go to the devil, and paint portraits of her husband.”

“I begin to understand your uncle now,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “I always liked him. He is not really cynical. He loved your mother long before your father did. He thought you loved Edith in the same way. He meant to make your fortune in his Liverpool office, and you were conceited and silly enough to spoil all his plans.”

“I almost think you are right, Mrs Fonblanque,” I answered. “He hates the career I have adopted; but he has been wonderfully good to me ever since.”

“He is like the rest of us,” she said. “We are all of us far too good to you. Sister Patricia is looking at you as if you had been a martyr, instead of having been most miserably weak. But still, if you began life like this, you must have reminiscences enough to last the voyage out. Next time Sister Patricia and I have you up to tell us your story, I promise to accompany the touching tale of your early loves with my guitar or my banjo—which?”

I was going to answer Mrs Fonblanque rather roughly, but something in Sister Patricia’s eloquent, soft brown eyes stopped me, and I contented myself by saying—“You really have no right to be so excessively disagreeable. I talked at first simply to amuse you. I forgot myself, and became natural.”

“Well, well,” said Mrs Fonblanque, “don’t be cross. I’ll keep the banjo for the old Sheik’s tarra-diddles.”

“Thank you, madam,” said the Sheik, who had just come aft with Captain Forbes to see why the lights on the quarter-deck were not out yet. “Thank you,” and his voice was lower and deeper than ever. “What is a banjo, and what is a tarradiddle?”

“Good night,” retorted Mrs Fonblanque, imperturbable to the last. “Good night. I believe that Mr Hicks and you have some deep-laid plot against me, and come to each other’s aid whenever either of you are getting the worst of it. Stop now, Sheik! Do you mean to tell me for a moment that Mr Hicks has only one reminiscence, while you have Fatima and Zuleika and Kour Mahal, and all the rest of them?”

“I meant nothing of the kind,” I cried. “I am not fool enough to think that the world does not spin round as freely now as before, simply because I could not look as honestly as I used to look into the eyes of the particular girl who loved me and left me.”

“Then you have other reminiscences?” she inquired quickly.

“Of course I have,” I answered. “The world spins round, and we all, whether men or women, specks on it as we are, must spin round too, until we drop off for good and all.”

Then, as we all rose, I tried to take a tardy revenge. “Staircase wit,” I think the Americans call this Tarthian method of saying as you go what you ought to have said at once. Mrs Fonblanque, however, as she listened, seemed to be really sorry for the way in which she had treated me.

“No, thank you,” she said, in reply to my remarks. “My reminiscences? No, thank you. A woman never has any. Isn’t that so, Sister Patricia?”

And then they went together slowly, arm in arm, towards the companion.

Chapter XXII

Here I must begin, somewhat reluctantly, I own, by “pulling myself together.” Mrs Fonblanque had told me rather more candidly than I altogether liked that she was tired of geography and physical geography, and of hearing me talk as if the Persian Gulf, with all its ports and islands, was a peep-show, of which I had constituted myself the showman. I am still convinced that her sound common-sense and her almost invariable good taste were for once at fault here. That is one side of the question—the personal side. On the other hand, she was certainly a type, and a type of a large number of people, too. I had never been in the Persian Gulf before, and I knew so well the sorry value my uncle attached to my pet theory of the influence of sudden transitions that I half began to suspect, from what Mrs Fonblanque had said, that I might have been rather overdoing it. The world is, after all, very much the same all over; and probably those lazy Arab herdsmen who leant so picturesquely on their tall spears, as we watched them in the deep recesses of the palm groves below Bussorah, were thinking, every man of them, over the same problem as Hodge in his blouse at home—how to find food enough for the children swarming round their wigwams, and for those who would inevitably come.

M. Xavier de Maistre wrote that charming book of travels, his ‘Voyage autour de ma Chambre,’ brimful of humanity, or of men and women, as Mrs Fonblanque termed it, without ever taking the trouble to look out of his bedroom window. You remember what he said of the big arm-chair in his study? And what he said about his old bed in the corner? We are born there, we die there, and there we spend our happiest moments. It is a cradle, a tomb, a throne. There is a good deal of humanity condensed in that one sentence; and his simple mode of travel is not only easy and very comfortable, but has the additional advantage of costing nothing. My little house-boat off Medenham was probably more luxuriously furnished than the chamber of M. Xavier de Maistre. It had, too, a wonderful look-out, and, I should imagine, far greater possibilities of a charming book about it than M. Xavier de Maistre ever possessed. Why, then, had I been fool enough to cut my moorings adrift, and rush round the world in this breathless manner, to be snubbed at every turning? Judging from Mrs Fonblanque’s opinion of me just then, I had, perhaps, travelled a little too fast.

A few years back I used to frequent the police courts, with a view, as I honestly believed, of drawing character sketches. One day a little urchin was dragged into the Thames police court by an enormous policeman. “A stowaway, your worship,” said the policeman, making the boy hold his head up over the dock. “He was found in the ’tween decks of a steamer for Yokohama, and said he wanted to see the world.” “You are a fool, little boy,” said the magistrate, adjusting his spectacles—and he was a shrewd, sensible, kindly man, like most stipendiary magistrates of any standing. “If you want to see the world, little boy, stop in London, and black boots, or sell newspapers. Any London street has more of the world in it than you will find in many thousand miles of travel on the deck of an ocean-steamer. Take the little boy away, policeman, and let him go. Now ask that rather over-dressed young woman to be good enough to take his place.” The rather over-dressed young woman’s experiences showed, I am sorry to say, that the worthy magistrate’s advice to the little boy had been perfectly sound.

Even the slight humour of this half-forgotten episode scarcely reconciles me to the sacrifice I am making. I should dearly love to describe the wonderful bank of grey-black hills behind the low coast-line of Persia, as they shone out, when the sun was full upon them, in every shade of purple, pink, and red. I should like to say something of the towering peaks, covered here and there with snow, of Gisakhan Bluff and Kuh Khormaj, of Jabal Turunjah, Jabal Ginao, Jabal Bis, and of the narrow passes in the dismal hills through which the long caravans crawl slowly, like huge black serpents, into the upland plains, and then make for Teheran, Shiraz, and Yezd. I should like to describe the ever-varying charms of a zigzag voyage, in which you continually cross from shore to shore. Now you are in Arabia, where the men, rich or poor, have the manners and the carriage of Nature’s gentlemen. Now you are in Persia, where every one, no matter how he may be attired, seems somehow or other to bear the stigma of slave and sycophant impressed upon his forehead, like a birth-mark. You cross quickly from shore to shore, and change is always pleasant. Still Mrs Fonblanque was probably right. My business just now is with men and women—with myself, that is, primarily, and then with others something like me. I tear up my elaborate note-books, sketches and all, and anybody who wants a full, true, and particular account of a voyage down the Persian Gulf must go elsewhere.

Carpets! Yes, carpets. That should interest all who have money enough to buy what I am writing, and for this portion of humanity I have naturally the keenest and warmest regard. Mrs Fonblanque pretended that she did not care two straws whether her carpets were good or bad; but she was sufficiently artistic to be something of an amateur. Long before we came to Bahrein, she had her carpets laid out on the quarter-deck, with the Sheik, and, incidentally, the skipper and myself, told off as critics. Neither he nor I knew any more of Persian carpets than we knew of the carpets of Brussels or Kidderminster or the Tottenham Court Road. But we respected a lady who was able to buy her carpets by the mile. The Sheik, however, was evidently wide awake here, though he chose to distrust his own judgment at first.

“Wait till I find you an expert,” he said, “before you make up your mind that you can, if you like it, realise cent per cent on your carpets. There’s a man down below among the pilgrims who knows everything that can be known about Persian carpets.”

This individual was a disagreeable-looking fellow, and not otherwise interesting or aesthetic; but he went straight to the point, and the Sheik good-naturedly translated all he said. There are, it seems, three kinds of carpets—kale, namad, and gelim. Mrs Fonblanque’s carpets were all meant to belong to the first class. A few were worth what she had paid, but none of them, in spite of their stains, were really old. The namads, which he himself admired as much as any, were never exported. They were not woven, but made of felt, hammered out in a paste, and were very large and very cheap. What else should Mrs Fonblanque buy? He recommended Kerman shawls; tiles and bricks with hunting scenes on them; stray bits of old mosaic from the mosques of Ispahan and Shiraz; embroidery in gold and silver; bowls and plaques of Cashee ware; Khorassan blades and fine chain-armour, cunningly inlaid with gold.

“It sounds like Keats,” I said. “One could easily turn the man’s catalogue into verse.”

“That would be easier, perhaps,” remarked the Captain, “than adding it up in rupees.”

The expert, however, went on with his list. Blue and green tiles, if they were really a thousand years old, commanded fabulous prices. The fluted milk-white porcelain was dear and rare. Beautiful manuscripts of the Koran and the poets were to be had sometimes; but the lady would be cheated if she did not employ a broker. He had given up business himself, but would be happy to act for her. Mrs Fonblanque, whose faith in human nature never appeared to be very strong, smiled at this. But as she smiled she turned towards the Sheik; so did we. We had been empanelled as a jury of critics, and had not been asked for a verdict.

The Sheik took the expert’s robe in his hand and pulled him gently aside. A few low and earnest words were interchanged. Then the man salaamed most humbly, and the Sheik came back to us to say that the expert might be thoroughly trusted.

The Sheik’s arrangement saved Mrs Fonblanque a great deal of trouble, no doubt, but it must later on have cost her much money. Whenever we were about to drop anchor anywhere, the Sheik’s friend used to come up to her for instructions, and for some hours afterwards he was always busily engaged in marshalling heavily-laden porters down to the saloon, in which Priscilla and he, friends at last, continued to fill one vacant cabin after another with the oddest collection of things you can possibly imagine. I made from time to time a few small purchases on my own account. Mrs Fonblanque laughed at these. “You ought to see mine,” she said. “But I don’t think that dreadful Priscilla will let you see them.” And Mrs Fonblanque was quite right.

I have, however, promised to sacrifice my note-books and myself. The first sacrifice was happily not so painful as it might have been, for during the next six-and-thirty hours the Sheik occupied the greater part of the time in continuing his English experiences to Mrs Fonblanque and the Nun, the latter of whom was, I thought, rather more obsequious to Mrs Fonblanque than seemed altogether warranted by the way in which she had been treated. They appeared to be amused by what the Sheik said; but I had had enough of Mrs Fonblanque and the Sheik just then, and I busied myself by painting a portrait for Polly and the bairns of our worthy Quartermaster, whose well-lined, weather-beaten, kindly old face had something very tempting about it to an artist.

“Why are you painting the Quartermaster?” asked Mrs Fonblanque over dinner next evening.

“He interests me,” I answered. “I like painting people who interest me.”

“Do you hear that, Captain Forbes?” cried Mrs Fonblanque, trying to drag an entirely innocent person into a duel that should, like all duels, have been confined to the two principals. “Mr Hicks only paints portraits of people who interest him. Three or four days ago he declined to paint me—”

“I thought it was you who refused to let me paint you,” I replied. “Anyhow, there is not much in common between you and the Quartermaster. He is transparent. He requires no preliminary study. He interests me. He is amusing and intensely humorous, never flippant, and always natural. He talks when I want him to talk, and he knows when I wish him to be silent. I have had a most refreshing day. I feel as if I had taken a dip in the sea. He has actually given me an appetite.”

“That is a good thing,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “But there is no accounting for taste. Priscilla shares your interest in the Quartermaster. They were always gossiping together until you beguiled him away from her this morning. You saved me the trouble of asking her to be good enough to let the unfortunate man alone, so as to be able to attend to her duties. I suppose he was still harping away on Polly and her bairns?”

“No,” I said, and then I stopped. Mrs Fonblanque’s words threw a new light on the Quartermaster’s conversation. He had favoured me, as I painted him, with his experiences of womankind in general, Polly, of course, excepted. I had begun to think him a misogynist. Some of his parables having been rather too crude and tough for me, I had ended by taking him for a bore. That was distinctly wrong. I should never have allowed a Quartermaster to bore me. So I devoted myself sedulously to a very badly cooked dinner, just to try and recall what he had said. What had Priscilla told him about Mrs Fonblanque? What had he told me? I gave it up.

It was all Mrs Fonblanque’s fault for posing as a mystery. I scrutinised her closely as she frowned gently over the menu. I was scarcely in a charitable frame of mind. But she was just as unlike the Sphinx as any well-dressed woman could be.

“I wonder,” I said slowly, trying to hark back on the scent—“I wonder that you allow your maid to be always gossiping with one of the sailors. Native women are apt to be indiscreet, and sailors are always talkative.”

Mrs Fonblanque laughed serenely, and I did not get much out of this little manoeuvre except a fit of depression that kept me apart from the rest as if I had been a pariah, and made me decline an invitation to accompany them ashore next morning.

“I don’t care about seeing Bahrein,” I said (we had dropped anchor off Bahrein during the night). “Any one of these places is just like another, and in future, when we stop anywhere, I shall devote myself religiously to the ‘Arabian Nights.’”

“Do,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “It is a charming book. It is the only book I thought anything of when I was seven.”

“Well,” I added, “that may perhaps be taken as an argument that your taste has not improved much since then. At all events, I mean to study the East now that I am here, and the ‘Arabian Nights’ seems to me a pleasanter and a safer guide than any of the odours of these unsavoury bazaars.”

So Captain Forbes went ashore by himself. We watched him through our glasses. He was met about a hundred and fifty yards from the beach by an enormous donkey, which he mounted from the gunnels of his gig.

“Sister Patricia,” said Mrs Fonblanque, “I should like a ride. Wouldn’t you? Those donkeys are fine big beasts. See how Captain Forbes is galloping over the sands! Let us go by ourselves for a scamper.”

“I should like a scamper,” answered the Nun. “But is it safe?”

“Oh, never mind that, dear. Mr Hicks would come, of course, if he thought it wasn’t.”

I turned on my heel. I gave each of them by turn a look of perfect indifference, as I went down below to unpack my copy of the ‘Arabian Nights.’ By the time I returned, the two ladies were sitting in a broad-bottomed boat manned by a crew of grinning negroes shrieking and gesticulating like fiends. The Nun looked very frightened. She gave me an imploring glance as Mrs Fonblanque motioned to them to push off. I had just time to jump in.

“We were only waiting for you,” explained Mrs Fonblanque, amicably making room for me on a pile of rugs and wraps between her and the Nun.

“I said I wasn’t coming.”

“Oh yes, you said so, I know; and Sister Patricia said you wouldn’t come, too. But I knew better. I had not the slightest intention of letting you off. You can’t think that I was such a goose as to dream of going without a man. Come now, Mr Hicks. You are thoroughly beaten; own it, and now do all you can to make yourself agreeable to two unprotected females.”

I was not exactly in the humour to be agreeable, and I did not care to try. But I had a stick in my hands, and I kept the negro boatmen in order until we came alongside of three big donkeys standing in the water.

When I saw the donkeys, I recovered my temper. “Now, ladies,” I said, “you want a ride. Give me the pleasure of assisting you to mount.”

“We mean to ride,” said Mrs Fonblanque severely, “but we want side-saddles, if you please, Mr Hicks.”

“Don’t blame me,” I cried. “You can’t say that I dragged you here.”

“I think we had far better go back,” said the Nun.

Just then the Sheik rode up on a huge white donkey. He had been away on some business of his own since daybreak.

“Why are you coming on shore?” he asked, hurriedly. “Go back! go back at once! The people are swarming down to the beach. They have never seen European ladies before, and you have not even got your veils on. Take them back! Take them back, Mr Hicks! What could have induced you to bring them?”

The Sheik had a very pretty vein of humour. I contented myself by smiling grimly. But Mrs Fonblanque cried, “I’d like to see Mr Hicks take us back! We mean to have a scamper on the sands, Sheik, and neither Mr Hicks nor you will stop us. You can tell Fatima, and Zuleika, and Nour Mahal all about our wilfulness next time you write.”

“Oh,” said the Sheik, as he held his feet carefully out of the water, “Fatima, and Zuleika, and Nour Mahal would have the better of you here. They wouldn’t want side-saddles. You remember what I told you about my astonishment at the ladies who rode so airily in the park.”

“I remember nothing,” replied Mrs Fonblanque. “But I mean to go, side-saddles or no side-saddles.”

“In that case,” said the Sheik, “you will find them quite as much side-saddles as anything else. It depends how you sit. If you insist on going, sit as you like, take plenty of wraps, and follow me, and I will try and turn the crowd.”

It spite of the surf that kept our boat bobbing up and down, we managed, with the help of many rugs, to seat the ladies on their saddles at last; and so long as their donkeys were led by the mane through the water, all went well. But once on dry land, we found that our donkeys had no bridles. The crowd shouted and yelled. The donkey-boys hit out behind. The donkeys tore on madly through the town.

Before long we discovered, however, that there was a big semicircular wooden handle in front of each saddle, and we all instinctively clung on to that.

“Ho! ho!” cried the Sheik, when we caught him up; “who taught you the trick? That’s it. Pull first to one side of the handle, then to the other, just as you want to go. That’s the Bahrein bit.”

“Mr Hicks,” said Mrs Fonblanque aside to me, as our panting donkeys began at last to walk, “I hope your sensitive feelings are properly avenged. It must delight you immensely to have mounted two helpless women on two fiendish beasts like these, and to have started them off without bridles, or even decent saddles, on a tearing race through Arabia. We should have been killed or lost if the Sheik had not wheeled round and stopped us. As it is, Sister Patricia says she must faint.”

“I thought so then,” exclaimed the Nun timidly, “and I couldn’t help thinking so. Every time the boy thumped the donkey, the donkey almost grazed the corner of a wall or a house; and how frightened the people in the bazaar were! It is dreadful to find suddenly that you are riding a race through a crowd, and that your groom has forgotten to have the bridle put on. One feels like Mazeppa.”

“So one does, dear,” answered Mrs Fonblanque; “like Mazeppa without being tied on. But what are we to do, now that our donkeys are so amiable as to stand at ease while we discuss the question?”

“I have often been here before, Madam Fonblanque,” observed the Sheik. “There is really only one thing to do in Bahrein, when you are lucky enough to get out of it; that is—to go to the wells and taste the water.”

A pretty amusement, thought I to myself, as I imagined what my uncle would have said about this queer idea of a day’s outing.

But still the reservoir and the domed aqueducts, dating back to the days of Portuguese glory in the East, were worth looking at. I made a rough sketch of them and the grass-covered mosque close by, while the others professed to taste the water, which they pronounced to be sweet and warm,

Bahrein is a big island, seventy or eighty miles round, and so close to the Arabian coast that all the water, which bubbles up wherever a well is dug, comes straight from the hills on the mainland.

“Yes,” said the Sheik, when I addressed him on the subject, “fresh water bubbles up everywhere, even at the bottom of the sea. Many of the ships and dhows here—and the bay is always full of quaint outlandish craft—are watered by simply sending down pearl-divers with mussocks in their hands. They find a bubbling spring at the depth of two or three fathoms. They fill their mussocks, tie the necks up, come to the surface again, and there you are.”

“But surely the water is salt,” I suggested.

“No,” replied the Sheik; “it is said to be excessively sweet, like the water here.”

“I don’t think you tasted it.”

“Certainly not,” he answered, slowly. “I am a sherbet-drinker myself. I like my water boiled, with something in it. But to the vegetable world water is a great boon. Bahrein could be made into a fertile garden in six months. There is water everywhere. If the people chose, they could convert their island into a perfect paradise. And Bahrein, even as we see it, is the only green oasis in the Persian Gulf. Scratch the ground anywhere, and you get water; put in a few cuttings, and you get a stately grove of palm-trees.”

“Happy, happy people!” said Mrs Fonblanque, checking her donkey severely, as he tried very adroitly to deposit her in one of the smaller pools.

“Well, I don’t know that,” replied the Sheik, gravely. “Fatima would like them, for nowhere else are the women so religiously and carefully veiled. There is nothing coquettish about the women here. Their blue veils are simply impenetrable. But this is a veneer. They all of them, men and women too, have a strain of fiery blood from the pirate coast; and that, I fancy, makes them rather restless and unsettled. Whenever I come to Bahrein, I look upon the people here as what you call at home ‘a bad lot.’ They were worse than ever this morning, and I really cannot think how we are to get you two ladies back again to the ship. Why did you bring them here, Mr Hicks?”

“It is very pleasant here,” I answered. “The country, as you say, is green and fertile. Water bubbles up everywhere. I have my sketch-book. Let us rest awhile. If the pirate spirit becomes too obvious, we will ask Mrs Fonblanque to exorcise it; and in the meantime, I would suggest that she should dismount from her donkey before he has her in the water.”

“Oh,” said Mrs Fonblanque, after another frantic struggle, “what a dreadfully vindictive man you are! Now I have mastered him. And now, Mr Hicks, I may remind you that I didn’t come ashore to drink water or take a bath. I want a ride, and here goes.”

We heard the flick of the stick that the donkey-boy had just cut for her from the thicket, and then she disappeared behind the rising ground in front.

“Inshallah,” cried the Sheik. “I have seen Fatima and Zuleika and Nour Mahal do much the same. They had their little fits of temper; but they always came back. Mrs Fonblanque will come back too, if you only leave her alone; and if you allow me, I will ride on to the town and send your boat round here. In this way you will escape being mobbed.”

With another and a louder flick, the Sheik disappeared.

“I am sorry for you,” I said to the Nun.

“No, no,” she answered. “You should be sorry for Mrs Fonblanque. You really shouldn’t tease her so. I don’t like the way my donkey fidgets; but we must gallop off as fast as we can, and see that none of the pirates catch her.”

“They wouldn’t care to keep her long,” I retorted.

Then, as I stubbornly declined to stir, the Nun and I both alighted, and giving our donkeys to the boys in charge, we sat down close together in the narrow slip of shadow cast by one of the mosque walls, and talked Mrs Fonblanque over and over. We used her as a standard with which to measure ourselves. The Nun said she only came up to Mrs Fonblanque’s shoulders. I refused to audit this account. We had a little fight over it, and so we wandered farther afield. She told me that she had not been able to confess for a fortnight; and then, for want of anybody better, she seemed to be glad to give me a confidential insight into all her innocent iniquities of the last two weeks. What a good unselfish little creature she was! She had two thoughts—only two. She was a nun; and she had loved somebody very dearly. She did not tell me this, of course, but I knew enough to guess what was in her mind.

“Three years,” she said at last, “is a long time, Mr Hicks; do you remember what you thought or said three years ago?”

“Do you mean on really important occasions?”

“I think so,” she answered; “on occasions that were really important, though they, perhaps, looked trivial at the time.”

“Yes,” I said, though my conscience was not altogether easy—“yes, I fancy I should remember.”

“I was sure of that from the way you talked of little Edith. But would you feel bound to do what you said?”

“I hope so.”

“But if you did not say it in so many words, Mr Hicks; if you only meant it?”

“That,” I replied promptly, “would make no difference, if I showed that I meant it.”

“Ah! But who is to judge?”

There was a look of intense yearning for sympathy in her face just then, and I answered it at once.

“Let me try to judge. Tell me as little as you like; but tell me a little more.”

“No, no, I can’t,” she said, very shyly—“I can’t do that. You will think me very silly for a nun, Mr Hicks; but sometimes we have to hear very painful stories, and then we wonder what they mean. I am only thinking of a story like that. Do people who love each other know that they love each other without actually talking about it aloud?”

“Most assuredly they do,” I replied. “Their instinct is absolutely certain there. No man ever loved a girl yet without her knowing it, and when a girl loves him, a man has always strong suspicions. He—”

“Why, my dear, what a lovely colour you have now!” cried Mrs Fonblanque, as she suddenly rode up to us. Her donkey was panting violently, and covered with foam.

“I have had a most delightful round,” she cried, “and I should like a long rest now in the shade of that old wall. But there’s that irrepressible old Sheik getting out of a boat at the point.”

There was no time for further explanations. The Sheik gathered us under his wing and walked us off. When we reached the ship, we found Priscilla perfectly frantic. She had gone ashore with Mrs Fonblanque’s curiosity man. She had been pulled off her donkey. Her veil had been rent by the mob, and she had been most cruelly reviled by the crowd for not having a white face.

Mrs Fonblanque, so she sent us word, was too busy in sorting Priscilla’s spoils to appear again, and I had to fall back for conversation on my old friend the Quartermaster, who now told me that, though not an artist or a literary man, he had decided inclinations in both those directions, and that he was the happy possessor of a scrap-book of extracts that gave him a literary and artistic reputation on board every ship he sailed in.

Chapter XXIII

The Sheik and myself might possibly have had a time-honoured sort of interest in our own reminiscences, but I cannot imagine what could have induced Mrs Fonblanque to encourage us as she did, or why she and I were sitting close together before breakfast, right over the screw, as Captain Forbes was taking us into Linga.

The Sheik sauntered up once or twice, and was so successfully repulsed that he finally sank into a long chair beside the Nun.

Then Mrs Fonblanque opened the campaign.

“I have never, as you know, been in England, Mr Hicks,” she began, “and for that reason I could not perhaps appreciate all the points of your personal history so thoroughly as that wonderful man the Sheik did. But I liked what you said about the world spinning on and on—just as it spun before you were worried; and now you really might tell me what happened afterwards.”

Just then the Sheik and the Nun both looked up. They were evidently talking of us, and were very likely laughing at me. My uncle, however, had provided me with a specific against self-consciousness at unseasonable moments. I lit a cigarette.

“I am of course only a type,” I said. “But most young men, when they have been maltreated and feel disappointed, look upon all young women as their natural enemies. I know I did; and for a time I was terribly vindictive.”

“And you were dangerous?” said Mrs Fonblanque, showing more interest in my experiences than I had expected.

“You may take that as you like,” I answered. “I don’t know how to put it. No boy’s experiences, when he is smarting under his first defeat, can be properly told in plain English.”

“Is that so?” she said, glancing round at the Nun before she continued. “Is that so? Well, to be frank, I suspected you would say something like that, from what I have read in my French novels. But you need not tell me your experiences in plain English, Mr Hicks. Tell them in French; only, whatever you do, don’t tell them improperly.”

“I really can’t tell them in French,” I replied. “I am rather shaky in the irregular verbs, and surely it is not necessary to tell them at all.”

“No; perhaps not. Silence is golden, and discretion the better part of valour. Isn’t that so?”

“Certainly not,” I retorted, briskly. “But disappointments of this kind, whether you are talkative or not, are as bitter, and very likely as wholesome, as a tonic. You make wry faces over them at the time, though they do you a world of good afterwards. But at the time you want a lump of sugar to take the taste out of your mouth—and you get it. The bitter and the sweet, the sweet and the bitter—which is which? Who knows?”

“A woman would know at once,” said Mrs Fonblanque.

“Not she,” I answered. “A woman wouldn’t even know what I mean. But as men grow older, the morning-tide of life looks very pleasant to them; and the older they are, the more they talk about their early experiences, and the more they regret them.”

“Don’t be cynical, Mr Hicks,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “I am, you know, older in reality than you are. At all events I feel so, and I think in that way.”

“Of course,” I answered, “you may pretend to feel older. But you and the Nun both said that women never had any experiences. With men it is, I assure you, different; and no man ever quite forgets the early days of his apprenticeship to life.”

“Why?” said Mrs Fonblanque, slowly fanning herself, “why should you have experiences denied to us? Isn’t that unfair?”

“Perhaps it is, but certainly not unfair to you. Look at my uncle, the type of everything I hold as genuine and respectable. But even my uncle, when the tablecloth is removed, almost always says that he should never have known which the happiest day of his life was if he had not been obliged to pledge his watch for it. You know nothing about experiences, Mrs Fonblanque. But when one is young and impecunious, and brimful of faith and enthusiasm and disappointments; when one is heart-broken, and fond of poetry, and all that,—how kind and gentle all the women are!”

“Indeed,” said Mrs Fonblanque, “kinder than now?”

“Forgive me!” I cried. “I didn’t mean women of your class, or women that you could talk to, or recognise, or speak about; but all you fine ladies with your grave airs and gentle graces, your full purses and empty hearts, are the real cause of their existence.”

“For shame, Mr Hicks! Stop.”

“One moment, please. You owe them a debt of gratitude. They are your scapegoats, poor souls, as you come out, fresh and smiling and gorgeous, like rare exotics, from your hot-houses and conservatories. We tease you, and please you, and admire you, and how do you reply? It is the ice-house, not the hot-house, you have come from. But you are very vindictive to the scapegoats; and, sooner or later, they have to go out into the wilderness bearing your follies with them.”

“Mr Hicks,” cried Mrs Fonblanque, indignantly starting to her feet, and almost falling into the arms of the Sheik’s ill-favoured ally, who was trying to put a big bag of pearls into her hands. “Oh, what lovely pearls! What do they want for them?”

We were now at Linga, and, for a time at all events, there was an end of humanitarian philosophy.

“I should like four or five dozen of these,” said Mrs Fonblanque thoughtfully, as she selected the best-looking pearls.

The man explained that this, if not impossible, would be very expensive.

Mrs Fonblanque looked keenly at him, and sent for Priscilla, who came up attended, as usual, by her faithful cavalier the Quartermaster; and the bargain was soon concluded. Then, some one having said that big oyster-shells make capital dessert-plates when they are mounted in dead-silver, she started Priscilla and the man off in a small boat to look for mother-of-pearl oyster-shells. Then she stood up triumphantly in the middle of us, as we crowded round her to look at her pearls.

“Do you know anything about pearls?” she asked me suddenly.

“Very little,” I replied. “I remember something of a translation of an old German students’ song we used to sing at Heidelberg—

‘A herring loved an oyster—
 An oyster of the south—
And grew sick and thin with longing
 For a kiss from her pearly mouth.’”

“And did he get it?”

“Yes. But she bit his head off!”

“Just like a woman, I suppose?” asked Mrs Fonblanque, laughing. “Is that all you know of oysters?”

“Ask the Quartermaster, Mrs Fonblanque,” said the Captain. “Fore and aft we all use him as an encyclopaedia. Bring up that wonderful scrap-book of yours, Quartermaster, and give us a lesson in pearl-diving.”

The Quartermaster was delighted; and so was Mrs Fonblanque, for indirectly this was a lesson to me. I was not allowed to do the showman’s business. Anybody else, even a Quartermaster, might be as tedious as he liked.

The “banks of pearl” that “fade in the moonlight beauteously” did not fit very readily into the Quartermaster’s rugged prose; and, judging from what he said, there cannot be much poetry about pearl-diving. The men, poor wretches, stuff their ears and noses with wax, and work on from April to October. They spend half their lives under water, fasting fourteen hours out of the four-and-twenty, and only come up for a breath of air, blowing like porpoises, once in every two minutes.

“Not a bad way either of spending their time,” observed the Sheik, “considering the climate and the heat on shore at that time of year.”

“There are thousands of boats on the pearl-banks then,” said the Quartermaster, in a much louder voice than the Sheik’s. “The large boats have one master, fourteen divers, and fourteen ordinary sailors. Every boat pays a tax of two gold tomans to the Sheik of Linga—an Arab tributary to the Persian Shah. The sailors get their wages only; the skippers, who find or borrow the working capital, have four shares in the season’s venture, and the divers two between them. The best pearls are found in the deepest waters—”

“That, I think, is always so,” said the Nun.

“Indeed, miss,” resumed the Quartermaster, rather nettled at her gentle interruption, “it is only the case in the Persian Gulf. Here the best pearls incline to yellow in colour. In the Ceylon waters they incline to a brilliant white. I am an ignorant man myself; but I have my authorities handy. ‘In the Indies and Muscovy,’” he continued, as he read out of his huge square scrap-book in tones that reminded me suddenly of our old church clerk, when Edith and I were children—“‘in the Indies and Muscovy they like better to see the water of a yellow cast than white, because they say that those pearls in which the water is a little tinged like gold always retain their brightness, and never alter, while those that are white seldom last longer than thirty years without, when, owing as well to the warmth of the country as the heat of the body, they take a dull yellow colour.’”

“That’s rather a queer fact in natural history, Quartermaster,” I ventured to observe, as he panted for want of breath.

“Yes, it is,” replied the Quartermaster; “but there are a lot of queer facts and queer stories about precious stones. Look here, ma’am,” he added, turning over the pages of his great scrap-book. “The pearl is an excellent tonic. Cleopatra’s pearl, the finest of its class on record, was found in these waters.” Then turning most civilly and politely to the Nun, he added in quite another voice altogether, “The pearl has always been regarded, miss, as the emblem of virgin modesty. But, Lord! what stories all the famous stones could tell you! What bloody murders they have prompted! what centuries of treachery there are about them! what bribes they are! Now they glisten and glitter boldly on some young female’s lovely neck, and she blushes, not altogether with pleasure, when they are admired; now they are hidden in a casket, and can only be seen and handled when her boudoir-doors are shut; and then they deck some painted harridan on the stage.”

“You really ought to have been a clergyman, Quartermaster,” said Mrs Fonblanque, smiling.

“Not a clergyman, ma’am, but a lawyer—a sea-lawyer, saving the Captain’s presence. That’s what they all call me, when they make me turn my log over to amuse them down below. But ‘dumb jewels,’ ma’am, as Shakespeare says, ‘often in their silent kind more than quick words do move a woman’s mind.’ And you, I understand, have just bought five dozen of them. I have some jewel stories down in this book of mine that will make your hair stand on end, and Mr Hicks’s too.”

“Never mind them now, Quartermaster,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “Don’t frighten us. Mr Hicks doesn’t like being frightened. Give us facts.”

“So I will, ma’am. Here, to start with, is fact number one, about the way diamonds breed. A passenger let me copy it out of a dog-eared book he called Mandeville’s ‘Travels.’ He seems to have got a little mixed up, something in the way of my scrapbook, between pearls and diamonds. But here he is speaking of diamonds. This is what he says: ‘They grow many together, one little, another great; and there are some of the greatness of a bean, and some as great as a hazel-nut. They are square and pointed of their own kind, both above and beneath, without work of man’s hand; and they grow together, male and female’”

“How many wives have they, Sheik, I wonder?” asked Mrs Fonblanque.

“Hush, Mrs Fonblanque!” I said, waving to the Quartermaster to go on.

“‘They are nourished,’” he continued in a deep bass voice, “‘by the dew of heaven; and they engender commonly, and bring forth small children, that multiply and grow all the year. I have oftentimes tried the experiment, that if a man keep them with a little of the rock, and wet them with May-dew often, they shall grow every year, and the small will grow great; for right as the fair pearl conceals and grows great by the dew of heaven, right so doth the true diamond; and right as the pearl of his own nature takes roundness, so the diamond, by virtue of God, takes squareness.’”

“Well, I’m blest!” cried the skipper. “You are getting your innings, Quartermaster, and no mistake!”

“Is there nothing more about the little diamonds?” asked the Nun.

“Pages and pages, miss,” he answered. “I’ll go on to the end now. ‘The diamond loses its virtue by sin and for incontinence of him who bears it, and if any cursed witch or enchanter would bewitch him that bears the diamond, all the sorrow and mischance shall turn to the offender, through virtue of that stone; and also no wild beast dares assail the man who bears it on him. It heals him that is lunatic, and those whom the fiend pursues or torments.’”

“Send these pearls to Polly,” said Mrs Fonblanque, interrupting him with three or four large pearls. “Don’t be frightened—they are not diamonds; and now let me have a look at the book.”

While we were all of us (even including the Sheik and the Nun) laughing at the Quartermaster’s solemnity, Captain Forbes gave us a few more facts about pearl-diving. The harvest of the sea in the Gulf used, he said, to be worth half a million sterling annually. But the character of the pearls had been damaged of late by the excessive import of false pearls from Birmingham. He took up as many as he brought down, and the Persians were said to prefer the false stones.

“The divers,” continued the Captain, “are a hardworked, ill-paid lot. Their owners, as you have heard, stuff their ears and noses full of wax when they send them under water, and here their obligations seem to end. There are two or three English waifs and strays among them, one of whom says he is an old Oxford man. He is drunk for six months of the year, but as sober as a judge in the pearl season. The natives don’t mind the competition of the Europeans; there are so few of them, you see. But they won’t stand European inventions and machines. An American from Bombay tried to introduce diving-bells and properly equipped divers a few years back, but the gear was all smashed up on the evening after it was tried, and the men themselves were considerably mauled.”

“How wicked and how stupid!” cried the Nun, “when the poor divers might have gone down comfortably without wax in their ears and noses. Who was it did this?”

“The pearl-divers’ wives,” replied the Captain, “and they did it most completely. But the pearl-divers don’t have the worst of it, Mrs Fonblanque. The experts in India suffer far more than they do; for judging pearls brings on blindness sooner or later. The way in which the pearls are sold before they reach India is also rather queer. They are sold by weight in packets worth thirty or forty thousand rupees each. Sometimes the shells are sold unopened by the thousand; and, in the case of very big and fine pearls, they are sold on the open shell. You see the outer half of the stone. If the inside portion is equally good it may be a pearl beyond price. But you must buy it like a pig in a poke, and you must be sure that the other side has not been looked at first.”

“Surely there is something wrong there,” said the Nun.

“It is all wrong,” replied the skipper. “It must be wrong, when we get the same jewel-freight for carrying false pearls up to Linga as we get for bringing real pearls down.”

Just then Mrs Fonblanque waved a bundle of manuscripts at us. “Eureka!” she cried. “Where did you get this from, Quartermaster? The writing seems to be quite fresh.”

“Oh, bless my soul!” replied the Quartermaster, “it blew my way when the passenger we left at Bushire was emptying his writing-desk into the sea. I thought it too good for such a big waste-paper basket, as he called the sea, and I stuck it into my book, meaning to give it back to him when he was sober. But he never was sober, and so I forgot all about it.”

“I suspect you are a collector, Mr Quartermaster,” said Mrs Fonblanque, looking up. “A collector never gives back anything that blows his way. He ought to, of course; but there is, I know, a fascination about collecting anything, butterflies, postage-stamps, crests, or even rupees. One becomes a miser in one’s own line. I remember a young chaplain urging me to become a collector. ‘It is,’ he said, ‘at once a discipline and an amusement. Every Englishwoman in India ought to collect something, were it only to kill the tedium of the long, long Indian day.’ He was a sententious young griffin, but he was right; and I have been a collector ever since.”

“And what,” asked I, “have you collected, Mrs Fonblanque?”

“Reminiscences,” she answered, with a gentle sigh.

“Reminiscences! Why, you said women never had any.”

“Oh, dear me, Mr Hicks, how literal we are now! And how ignorant we are too! A woman says what she likes, and does what she can. But she always remembers. Didn’t you learn that lesson from Fatima and Zuleika and Nour Mahal, and the rest of them, Sheik?”

“Yes,” said the Sheik, stroking his beard. “They remember when they like, and they never forget. But how about the paper in your hand, madam? I thought by the way you held it that you were going to read it out aloud to us.”

“Well,” she replied, “I don’t mind if I do. I own I enjoy reading aloud, just as I enjoy singing. But you have to know what you sing before you sing it. In reading you are often as much surprised as your audience. This manuscript of the man with too many experiences struck me as opening in an original fashion, and it is not very long. This is what he says:—”

Mrs Fonblanque read as well as she sang, and the way in which she put the capital letters vocally, would have astounded a professor of elocution. But the manuscript, though it does not deserve it, requires another chapter.

Chapter XXIV

“There was a loud murmur of approval in Court as one of the ushers held up a Kit-cat portrait of an exquisitely beautiful lady in a low yellow satin dress.

“‘The jury, my lud,’ continued the counsel for the defence, ‘will have to consider the sinister depths of those dark violet eyes. It will be my painful duty to call their attention to the set expression of the lips, otherwise full and ripe, and to the arch of the determined eyebrows, which, whatever my learned brother may say about pencilling, betray a decided inclination to frown. The colour of those damask cheeks is not, and unfortunately cannot be, natural. It is not the blush of innocence. It is far too pink and white, and far too “taking,” as my lady experts will no doubt explain to you in detail. The light in those violet eyes comes obviously from Bella Donna; and how, I would ask you, gentlemen of the jury, as men of the world, can a woman with dark violet eyes have golden hair? The inference is obvious. The portrait, the authenticity of which I shall establish for a hundred and fifty years, is the portrait of a cruel, heartless, and deceitful woman; a fascinating woman, no doubt; a woman of remarkable power and great ability; but a woman capable of anything. I now put the portrait into Court as Exhibit E 14, and I denounce the lady in the low yellow satin gown as a criminal of the deepest dye. Later on I shall give you her history. But as I do not wish to waste the time of the Court, it will be enough for me now to express my pity and contempt for the eminent artist, who, doubtless from the mercenary motives of those days, has almost enabled us to see the lady in the flesh.’

“‘I don’t think that has altogether to be regretted, Mr Attorney,’ said his lordship, carefully readjusting his gold eye-glasses.

“Here the people in Court laughed immoderately, and I had the opportunity of asking the man next me—a seedy-looking fellow, apparently a lawyer’s clerk out of employ—what it all meant. I had just come back from the Antipodes, and having half an hour to spare, I had strolled into the new Law Courts accidentally on my way down to the City.

“‘What does it all mean!’ he exclaimed. ‘Where on earth do you come from? It is the great Hummum Street Murder Case. Did you ever in your life see a more deplorable-looking object than the prisoner at the bar? With a face like that, what a life he must have led, poor fellow, and how sympathetically the jury are looking at him! You have only to look at his face to see that his acquittal is a dead certainty.’

“‘I don’t understand you.’

“‘Well, I’ll put it as plain as I can. I’ll lay you five to three that he is acquitted. Come now!’

“‘Thank you, no,’ I answered. ‘The prisoner appears to me to be capable of any crime. I’ll give you ten to one in sovereigns that he did commit the murder, whatever it was.’

“‘Commit the murder! Of course he committed the murder! No one doubts that. He was throttling the woman when the police caught him. But who is to blame? That is the question before the Court.’

“By this time the amusement excited by the judge’s remark having subsided, the jury returned the portrait to the usher, and the Attorney-General continued his speech. He proceeded to show that every pretty dimple on the lady’s face was repeated and exaggerated in the prisoner’s crime-worn, weather-beaten countenance. Then experts, doctors, chemists, cosmetic-makers, hairdressers, milliners, dressmakers, and what not, were called in to prove that the original of the portrait was deceitful and false, and in every way well adapted for the perpetration of the most terrible crimes. Physiognomists gave evidence as to the curve of her upper lip, and the impatient way in which she was apparently beating a tattoo with the little finger of her left hand. A plump, rosy, grey-haired Scotch housekeeper established the traditions of the servants’ hall, as they had been handed down for a hundred and fifty years. Torn letters and faded diaries were put in evidence, and as the Attorney-General disclosed in a few well-chosen, pathetic, and very discreet words the minutest details of the portrait’s life, all the ladies in Court—and the Court was crowded with ladies—had to hold up their fans. He kept his trump card to the last, though; and the items for one particular period of three months of her milliner’s bill, as he read them slowly out, item by item, produced a profound impression upon all the men in Court, and even among the members of the junior bar. The prisoner noticed this, and began to look quite relieved. He was far from handsome even then. But he smiled, not altogether unpleasantly, until a severe scowl from his solicitor made him retake his ordinary countenance before the jury detected the change.

“There was breathless silence in Court as the Solicitor-General rose for the prosecution.

“‘So far so good,’ he said, grimly. ‘But that picture which my learned brother has turned to such account is, I am instructed to say, an impudent forgery. It is the portrait of a notorious actress; it was bought in Wardour Street, and it has been touched up for the occasion.’

“Here my neighbour nudged me violently. ‘I knew he’d say that,’ he whispered. ‘That’s the only chance he has left, and a very poor chance too. There’ll be some pretty sparring, but he hasn’t a leg to stand on.’

“My neighbour was right. In a few minutes more the pedigree of the portrait was properly established. Here at least the lady was immaculate. Then the Court rose for lunch, and my neighbour and I strolled out together.

“‘I never saw anything neater!’ cried he. ‘It’s as clear as daylight now. What a man the Attorney-General is for throwing light on difficult questions.’

“That might be so. But I was still rubbing my eyes with amazement as I invited my new friend to enter a wine-shop in the Strand that I remembered of old.

“‘I have been away for some years,’ I explained, ‘and if you are really bent on gold-bearing quartz, you must lose your touch of local matters at home. But still I cannot possibly conceive what the portrait of the lady in the yellow satin dress has to do with the question of the prisoner’s guilt or innocence.’

“‘You can’t?’ he replied, replacing his glass, now empty, on the counter. ‘Why, that lady is his great-great-grandmother! That’s all! If she is guilty, he must be innocent.’

“‘If she is guilty—’

“‘That establishes the hereditary taint. It is four years since any one was condemned in England, after the hereditary taint had been fairly proved. Of course he throttled the woman, but it was his great-great-grandmother’s wicked ways and ungovernable temper that compelled him to throttle her, poor chap! Thank you, I will take another glass, and then we’ll go into Court again.’

“‘You really ought to go in again,’ said the barman blandly, as I paid for the wine. ‘I wish I had the chance myself; but as soon as I saw the illustrations in the ‘Police News,’ I worked it all out from my Pangenesis.’

“‘And what, pray, is your Pangenesis? ‘

“‘Dear me!’ said the barman; ‘Pangenesis, the great Pangenesis, the first man who discovered that rather more than nine-tenths of everybody’s actions are due to ancestral influences, over which the existing individual has no sort of control. You astound me, sir. Don’t you remember the fuss there was about the Pangenesis Bill, when Darwin, and Herbert Spencer, and Zola, and Galton, were all thrown over in favour of Pangenesis? ‘

“‘Whew!’ I cried (for we had no barmen of this kind in our part of the world). ‘Where were you brought up, my man?’

“‘At a board school,’ he answered gruffly; ‘but they cut out Darwin and Zola from the list of primers after I left, and put Pangenesis in instead. Coming, sir, coming;’ and then he turned to another group of customers, evidently wondering where I had been brought up.

“‘The people are going in,’ said my neighbour, seeing that there was no more wine to be had. ‘We’ll have to hurry up if we mean to get standing room.’

“‘Thank you; I’ve seen enough for one morning, and I have an engagement in the City at 2.30 about financing a gold-mine, which I scarcely like to put off. What will they do with the prisoner?’

“‘Give him his costs, of course, and the judge will say something handsome about his leaving the Court without a stain on his character.’

“‘And the lady’s portrait—will that suffer?’

“‘Can you doubt it, after what you heard just now? She will have nine months in the Chamber of Horrors, and a summary of the trial will be ordered by the Court to be put against her name in Burke’s ‘Landed Gentry.’ Poor thing! there was something fascinating in her eyes, and one feels rather sorry for her after all. Thank you for your wine, sir. I wish you could come in and see it out; and I do wish you had taken my bet.’”

“Well,” said the Sheik, when Mrs Fonblanque had finished, “the gentleman of too many experiences must have been madder than I thought him. I did not like what I saw of the courts at home. But we knew nothing in our set of Pangenesis and the hereditary taint. I could hardly follow the story, but the doctrine it inculcates is surely dangerous. What should I do, madam, if Nour Mahal, when I had cause to blame her, said it was all the fault of some remote maternal ancestor, whom I could not possibly get at?”

“I think you would probably agree with Nour Mahal,” answered Mrs Fonblanque, quietly.

“You really ought to have a harem of your own, madam,” cried the Sheik. “That is the real secret. Always agree, and never give in. I thoroughly approve of your policy. But I can’t say I like such a sudden shifting of responsibility; and then, the man who wrote that story—that is, if he did write it—was not a man one could think much of.”

“No, perhaps not,” said Sister Patricia, who did not often venture an opinion. “I had scarcely heard of the doctrine of heredity before. I fancy that he was somehow or other trying to find an excuse for himself, poor fellow!”

“I daresay,” exclaimed Mrs Fonblanque.

Then, as she was stopped suddenly by an appealing glance from the Nun, I took up the parable.

“Sister Patricia may be right,” I explained; “but it doesn’t much matter, as my uncle always used to say, what your ancestors or your children are, or may be, and it matters nothing to anybody but yourself what you yourself are.”

“Oh, doesn’t it?” cried Mrs Fonblanque, recovering herself. “I have no ancestors and no children; but still I have to be taken into account, I fancy. Here is another manuscript in the same handwriting. Shall I read it out, gentlemen?”

We all begged her to go on; and so Priscilla, who had just returned, had to leave her sack of oysters on the deck and wait very sulkily till Mrs Fonblanque had finished.

Then in a sweet, low, silvery voice Mrs Fonblanque began: —

“Long ago among the blue lakes and black mountains of the evening land there dwelt a youth, who, after a frank and sunny boyhood, became strange and restless and morose, and cared for nothing but lonely wanderings through the pine forests on the mountain-side. He talked as he went to the beasts and birds, the rocks and trees, but he hardly ever waited for an answer. The fox told fairy tales; the streamlet hummed a ballad; and the lark, wherever there was room enough, carolled blithely out. The wild roses, as he passed them, brushed softly over his curls, and the evergreen petted his careworn forehead. But he refused to be comforted; and yet only a month or two before he had filled his father’s house with gladness; he had been merrier than any one else; and from the graceful way he danced, all the girls dreamt of him as their sweetheart.

“Among these girls there was one, a charming, delightful child. Her hair was like golden silk, her lips as red and ripe as cherries; her face was wonderfully fair and frank; but she had coal-black burning eyes. She was as slight as a fairy and little more than a child, but all who chanced to see her almost died of her beauty. Roseblossom then (that was her name) gave her whole heart to Hyacinth (that was his name), and before the change came over him he loved her very dearly. They were both children at the best, and the other children knew nothing of it. A violet was the first to tell, though the cats and the mice, too, in the garden down below, had certainly suspected something when they saw Roseblossom leaning out of her window every evening and Hyacinth leaning out of his.”

Here Mrs Fonblanque detected me smiling.

“It is a pretty story,” she said, slightly raising her voice, “but there is something sarcastic in that smile of yours, Mr Hicks. Why do you laugh at their names, poor things?”

“Oh,” I answered, “never mind just now. The story is a pretty one, and the names are pretty too. I will tell you why I smiled when you have finished. Pray go on. I won’t interrupt you again.”

So Mrs Fonblanque continued: —

“The violet told the secret to the strawberry-bed, who passed it on to his friend the gooseberry-bush, who never stopped whispering when Hyacinth walked by. So it soon became known to the whole garden and forest, and when Hyacinth went anywhere, the trees, and plants, and flowers used to call out from all sides, ‘Little Roseblossom is my little love!’

“But these happy days were soon over, for there came a strange man from foreign parts who had travelled marvellouslv far. He had a great long beard and deep-set eyes and dismal eyebrows; he wore a coat of many folds, with weird patterns woven in them. He sat him down on the stranger’s bench, beneath the larches and just before the house of Hyacinth’s father; and when Hyacinth brought out meat and bread and wine, he stroked his great white beard, and talked deep into the night; and Hyacinth never wearied of listening. From what they gathered afterwards, the traveller spoke much of unknown lands, and strange and curious things. He remained three days, taking Hyacinth with him up to the tops of mountains and down to deep pits and caverns, searching for no one knew what. Little Roseblossom, gentle soul though she was, began to hate him, for through him Hyacinth grew stranger than ever and scarcely touched his food. At last the wizard suddenly went away, leaving Hyacinth a little book, which not even he could read. But he pored over it by night and day; Roseblossom, poor child, doing all she could to help him, till everybody pitied her.

“One day, however, Hyacinth came home as if newborn. ‘I must go into foreign countries,’ he cried to his mother as he kissed her. ‘The old woman in the forest has told me how to recover. She threw the book into the fire, and bade me go to you and ask your blessing. Perhaps I shall return. Perhaps I shall never come back. Give my farewells to Roseblossom, for I dare not speak to her now. What it is that ails me I know not. But some strange new feeling drives me on and on. I cannot think of the old days as I used to. Peace has departed. Love and Hope have gone too, and I must needs go seek them. By-and-by I shall know whither I am going. Now I only know that I must find the sacred land in the centre of which stands the shrine of Isis the Violet Virgin. Isis alone can cure me. My soul yearns for her. Farewell!’

“He tore himself away, and started. His parents mourned for him as for the dead. Little Roseblossom kept to her chamber and wept bitterly.

“Hyacinth went hastening over valleys and wildernesses, mountains and rivers, inquiring everywhere after the holy country, from men and beasts, from rocks and trees. Some laughed, some were silent, but he heard no tidings of it. At first the regions through which he passed were rough and wild, and thick clouds and fogs threw themselves across his path. Then he went through broad deserts of sand and burning dust. And, as he wandered, Time seemed to lie unrolled before him; his restlessness fell from him like a burden; he felt changed and softened; and gradually the uneasy striving in him became a still, strong current, with which his whole mind was blended. The country, too, grew rich and fertile. It was as though many years were lying behind. Clumps of trees allured him with their pleasant shade, and, though he could not understand their language, they filled his heart with green colours, and fresh hopes, and longings infinitely sweet; and then Time ran rapidly, as if nearing its goal.

“One day he met a crystal spring and a mass of flowers coming down the valley between black columns high as heaven. They saluted him like old friends with familiar words. ‘Dear countrymen,’ said he, ‘where can I find the sanctuary of Isis? Surely it must be somewhere hereabouts, and surely you know the land better than I do.’

“‘Oh, we are merely passing through,’ replied the flowers. ‘A family of spirits is journeying, and we prepare their way and lodging. Still we have just crossed a country where her name was on every tongue. Climb the pass from whence we came, and you will learn more.’

“The flowers and the spring smiled as they said this; then they offered him a cool drink, and went their way.

“Hyacinth followed their advice. He asked his road everywhere as he journeyed, and at last he reached the sanctuary of Isis. Stately palm-trees stood like sentinels around it, and he had to force his way through a thick labyrinth of huge-leaved plants. Acrid odours and sleepy perfumes came from them as he went, and the scent of the great red poppies in the undergrowth tempted him to lie down a while and rest. At length, however, he stood before the sacred portal. Then his heart throbbed with an infinite longing, and, entering the dwelling of the Eternal Seasons, the sweetest yearning thrilled him through. With heavenly perfumes he was lulled to sleep, for only a dream might bear him into the Holy of Holies; and on delicious sounds and ever-changing harmonies, most wondrously that holy dream did bear him through halls of dazzling brightness, full of marvellous things. All around seemed so known of old, and yet in never-before-seen glory. The last earthly tinge and taint of human weakness was absorbed in a rarer air than he had ever breathed before. Then suddenly he stood within the shrine, before Isis, the Heavenly Virgin. He lifted her filmy and dazzling veil—and little Roseblossom herself fell into his arms!”

“Is that all?” asked the Sheik.

“Yes,” said Mrs Fonblanque slowly, “but what more would you wish?”

“That really is a pretty story,” said Sister Patricia. “I like it much better than the other one, and I seem to understand it perfectly. Hyacinth had to go through all these troubles before he deserved Roseblossom’s love. How pleased he must have been to find that it was little Roseblossom his soul yearned for all along!”

“I am not quite so sure of that,” exclaimed the Sheik, grimly. “I suspect he was rather disappointed at first to think that he had had all this worry and trouble for nothing.”

“You are an incorrigible old sceptic, Sheik,” cried Mrs Fonblanque, shaking her fan at him. “The story is only meant to illustrate what Mr Hicks was saying when you interrupted us, about the early days of every man’s apprenticeship to life. Love and content would be worth nothing if they were not painfully won.”

“Well, well,” said the Sheik, “we differ. I like my love and content at home. I didn’t have much of either on my travels. What do you say, sir?”

“Perhaps,” said the skipper, with a bluff laugh, “Mr Hicks is travelling just now in much the same mood as Hyacinth travelled. You have only to let him lift your veil, Mrs Fonblanque, next time you put on that horrible costume, and then—”

“Don’t be personal. Captain Forbes, and please don’t try to be funny.”

“I beg your pardon, ma’am, but it would have made matters much easier if Hyacinth and Roseblossom had travelled in the same steamer, with all of us to talk to them like flowers and rocks and birds and beasts.”

“Don’t be rude, Captain Forbes, and don’t be absurd. Now, Mr Hicks, be good enough to tell us why you laughed at the poor man’s very poetical story.”

“Oh,” I said, laughing a little, “I only laughed because I had read something very like it before. I remembered it directly you read out the names. The original tale, though the man of too many experiences has altered it a good deal, was written by Novalis—that is, by Friedrich von Hardenberg.”

“Is that really so?” exclaimed Mrs Fonblanque, looking quite pleased. “I have often wished to read his books; I have read a great deal about him, but no one in India has a copy.”

“I have a copy in my book-box,” I replied.

“That is delightful! Come, as a reward for keeping your secret so well, you shall read the next piece, Mr Hicks. It is very short. It seems to be in verse, and you look as if you could read poetry.”

I thanked her for her sarcasm, and glanced through the manuscript. “It is a duet,” I said. “We must read it together. You have to begin.”

“Anything to please you, Mr Hicks. I didn’t mean to be sarcastic. Give me hold of one side of the paper, and let us each pause a little after the other speaks.”

“You must begin,” I said. “You are Chloe and I am Mnazilus.”

Chloe.

O flower-strewn borders! tall reeds blowing
In rhythmic tune to the water flowing!
Oh tell me, is Mnazilus near your glades?
Often he comes to your peaceful shades,
And often I wish that the trembling air
Would bring me a message when he is there.

Mnazilus.

O stream! the mother of flowers, you hold
This lonely dell in your girdling fold;
Then why not bring to your winding thrall
Chloe, the daintiest flower of all?

Chloe.

If he but knew that I came to dream
Of love, and of him beside the stream!
Oh! if a glance or a tender smile
Could make him tarry a little while.

Mnazilus.

Oh! if some proud god would breathe a word
Of the thoughts with which my heart is stirred,
Then dare I pray her, when she was near me,
To let me love her, at least to hear me!

Chloe.

Oh joy, ’tis he!—he speaks— I tremble—
Be quiet, lips! eyes, dissemble!

Mnazilus.

The foliage rustled methought I heard—
’Tis she! O eyes, say never a word!

Chloe.

What! Mnazilus here! How strange to meet
With you in this lonely green retreat!

Mnazilus.

Alone I lay in the shady grass,
And never expected a soul to pass.

The Captain, after we had both finished, burst into a loud guffaw. “You told me not to try to be funny,” he cried. “You can’t think how funny you both of you looked.”

“Well, I felt like a goose, Captain Forbes,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “They were rather weak and feeble verses.”

“I don’t think so at all,” exclaimed the Nun. “I thought they were very natural, and that you read them beautifully. I wonder if the poor man wrote that?”

“And so do I,” I added. “But what are we going to do next?”

“Open the oyster-shells, of course,” said Mrs Fonblanque, “and look for pearls. You might let me keep these papers till they are called for, Quartermaster, if you don’t want them?”

“Keep them, and welcome, ma’am,” said the Quartermaster, touching his cap. “They are hardly up to the standard of the extracts in my log.”

Priscilla had purchased two hundredweight of oyster-shells at thirty rupees a hundredweight. We soon got tired of opening the shells without any result, and the work was then made over to a number of lascars, with Priscilla, the lynx-eyed, to watch them.

Later on, when the sun was sinking, the Sheik and I went ashore. The ladies had had enough of going ashore at Bahrein, and the Captain, who had been up all night, stuck obstinately to his long chair.

Linga, as you look at it, ought to be the chief port in the Gulf. The roadstead is open, and there is deep water close to the shore. But it is shut in by a belt of tall mountains, only fifteen miles away. There are no Europeans, though there is the usual English post-office, and a moiety of its ten thousand inhabitants are Zanzibar negroes and negresses. The few women we saw in the streets were muffled up rather than veiled. From the anchorage the town appears to be well laid out. The houses are distributed pretty evenly over a tolerably large area. Behind the town there is a picturesque background of date-palms, and over the domed reservoirs at either end there is another clump of trees. The streets are wider than at either Bushire or Bahrein, but the bazaar is a poor one. We saw all we could see of Linga in an hour or less; and then, as we were rowed off to the ship again, the Sheik pointed out Bassadore, the only British territory in the Gulf. It is garrisoned and maintained by an English dispensary from India, and may some day be a useful foothold. Then we boarded the steamer, to find everybody in an intense state of excitement. Mrs Fonblanque, simply because she did not want anything more, had during our absence become the owner of an enormous pearl, which Priscilla had detected, just as one of the lascars was trying to conceal it. It was a beautiful stone, white in colour and lustrous, big as a pebble, and without a flaw. Even the Sheik was impressed by its size and colour.

“Never mind, Mr Hicks,” said Mrs Fonblanque, as I took her down to dinner. “I shall call it the ‘Hicks Pearl,’ of course, and when we come to Bunder Abbas you can buy another two hundredweight of oyster-shells, and I’ll lend you Priscilla to find you a ‘Fonblanque Pearl.’ The Quartermaster said, I think, that there is not much poetry about pearl-diving. I gave him three or four pearls for Polly, and now I have got a pearl in answer that will make history for some centuries to come, if I am able to resist the temptation to use it as a tonic.”

Just before we disappeared, the Quartermaster caught us up. He was almost reverential in his attitude, as he touched the big book under his arm. “I thought, ma’am, you ought to know that I have entered the finding of the new pearl in my book. There will be bloody work over that pearl, too, some day.”

Chapter XXV

We were certainly a curious party, we three, as we enjoyed our picnic in the middle of a sort of mer de glace, which glittered in the bright sunlight with every colour of a gorgeous rainbow. The island, as far as we could see it, was covered with incrustations of salt, and these in many places were as transparent as ice or glass. We were sitting on a peak in Ormuz. Mrs Fonblanque and I were having a modest tiffin, and the Quartermaster was busily engaged in ministering to our wants. We had been hours over the voyage. The tide was against us, and the wind had dropped, and we were both rather cross. When we left our steamer lashed alongside the hulk at Bunder Abbas, the Captain vowed by all his gods that he would not and could not wait for us after sunset. However, Mrs Fonblanque had made up her mind to visit Ormuz, and here in Ormuz we were; for, when the others had cried off, I was naturally bound to follow. The Captain had lent us his gig in a huff, and had told off the Quartermaster to bring us back.

“Is it not rather like the desolation of desolation, of which the Prophet speaks, Mrs Fonblanque?” I asked, as soon as we were comfortably settled on our rugs. “There is not a tree on the island. There is not even a sign of vegetation. Are you not very tired, and are you not sorry that you ever came here?”

“Neither the one thing nor the other,” replied Mrs Fonblanque, cheerily. “I think it is simply delicious. I am sick of palm-trees and what you call infinities of green colour. Green is a colour that never suits me. Here you have more colours than ever you had on your palette. Look how brilliant they are, and how iridescent, and how quickly they change! What more could an artist desire?”

“Well,” I answered, “without being very greedy, I should like to be able to realise something of the past splendours and glories of Ormuz. You talked about them all the way here, and that kept me up. Now I am nonplussed. There are a few squalid fishermen’s huts down below. There are a few starved goats cutting capers on the salt-hills up above. So much for the present! And as for the past, the glorious past, we have the remains of a lighthouse and a fort, the crumbling ruins of an old church which had never any back to it, a number of dry reservoirs, a few roofless houses, and some dismounted rust-covered Portuguese guns, half buried in the salt, like pigs pickling.”

“Fie, fie, Mr Hicks!” she retorted—“fie on you as an artist! You who thought to reconstruct Ctesiphon from a single archway! Your imagination must be out of sorts. We are in Ormuz, if you please, sir. Around us and beneath we have the wealth of Ormuz and of Ind, barbaric pearls and gold and what not. We are sitting, you and I, a trifle out of date perhaps, at the very centre of a mighty empire, in the heart of the vast emporium of a lavish and generous commerce. Everything here is typical, or should be typical, of oriental luxury and the most extravagant magnificence.”

“Will you have any more soda-water, ma’am?” interrupted the Quartermaster, respectfully, “or shall I give you a few more extracts from my log-book?”

“The log-book, please. Quartermaster,” said Mrs Fonblanque, leaning comfortably back, with her small white hands clasped behind her head. She did not, perhaps, know her own power, but the rare grace of her lazy attitude was in itself almost fatal to the historical studies to which the Quartermaster was anxious to introduce me.

“I will quote Justamond first,” said the Quartermaster, turning over the pages of his great log-book. “He is talking of Ormuz in the eleventh century A.D. I needn’t mind that, ma’am, and so I glide softly over a century or two. You must understand that in the interval the Arabs had made this God-forsaken rock the capital of a tremendous empire. To cut matters short, this is what Justamond says: —

“‘At the time of the arrival of the foreign merchants, Ormuz afforded a more splendid and agreeable scene than any city in the East. Persons from all parts of the globe exchanged their commodities, and transacted their business with an air of politeness and attention which are seldom seen in other places of trade.

“‘These manners were introduced by the merchants belonging to the ports, who induced foreigners to imitate their affability. Their address, the regularity of their police, and the variety of entertainments which their city afforded, joined to the interests of commerce, invited merchants to make it a place of resort. The pavements of the streets were covered with mats, and in some places with carpets; and the linen awnings which were suspended from the tops of the houses prevented any inconvenience from the heat of the sun. Indian cabinets, ornamented with gilded vases, or china filled with flowering shrubs or aromatic plants, adorned their apartments; camels, laden with water, were stationed in the public squares; Persian wines, perfumes, and all the delicacies of the table, were furnished in the greatest abundance; and they had the music of the East in its highest perfection. In short, universal opulence and extensive commerce, a refined luxury, politeness in the men and gallantry in the women, united all their attractions to make this city the seat of pleasure.’”

“The manners of the Persian Gulf, I am afraid, have rather gone to the bad since then. Quartermaster,” I ventured to observe.

“So I have noticed, sir,” he answered. “But this is what Ralph Filch says: ‘There is nothing growing in it but only salt. . . In the town are merchants of all nations, and many Moors and Gentiles. There is a very great trade of all sorts of spices, drugs, silk, cloth of silk, fine tapestry of Persia, great stores of pearls, which come from the Isle of Bahrein, and are the best pearls of all others, and many horses of Persia, which serve all India.’”

“Well, well, why is it such a wilderness?” asked Mrs Fonblanque, impatiently.

“Ten minutes ago,” I remarked, “you said it was simply delicious, grand and magnificent and historical, and I don’t know what besides.”

“Yes. But that was ten minutes ago. Why is it a howling wilderness of saltpans now. Quartermaster?”

“All on account of the Christians,” replied the Quartermaster slowly. “First the Portuguese took it, and Signor Albuquerque knew his business when he was a conqueror, and so did his shipmates. This is what the book says: ‘Antonio do Campo, leaving Alfonso d’Albuquerque, in whose company he was, pursued a crowd of women, who were retreating to the hills, and killed many of them.’ Again: ‘He returned to the city, and put all the Moors, with their women and children found in the houses, to the sword without giving any quarter. Young men captured were put to work, and old Moors who were of no use he had their noses and ears cut off and let them go.’ Then he built the church over there to our Lady of Victories.”

“What an old wretch!” cried Mrs Fonblanque.

“All conquerors are much the same,” said the Quartermaster stolidly; “the English were quite as bad when they drove out the Portuguese, and put an end to Ormuz altogether.”

“How was that?”

“This is how it was, sir. In the year 1663 the English and Shah Abbas the Great determined to divide the spoils of Ormuz. The English were to have two million pounds sterling as their share. They sacked the place at night—and found next to nothing in it.”

“And then?”

“Then they were so vexed that they cut the throats of everybody here, and the Shah started Bunder Abbas to replace Ormuz.”

“Thank you, Quartermaster,” said Mrs Fonblanque, rising. “It is time for your tiffin, and it is almost too hot for any more history.”

“It is hot, ma’am,” replied the Quartermaster reluctantly, wiping his brow. “Marco Polo says it is so hot here that the people have often to lie in the water all day long. And as for Bunder Abbas, or Gombroon as they called it, Ralph Filch says it is so hot there ‘that nature seemed not to have designed it should be inhabited. It is situated at the foot of a ridge of mountains of an excessive height; the air you breathe seems to be on fire; mortal vapours continually exhale from the bowels of the earth; the fields are black and dry, as if they had been scorched with fire.’”

“That’s a pretty place to go to,” I said, as Mrs Fonblanque impatiently motioned me to rise.

“I hope to take you there to-morrow, Mr Hicks,” she answered, “if that absurd Captain Forbes doesn’t insist on our sailing to-night.”

“Thank you, Quartermaster,” I said, before starting. “Make a good square meal; you deserve it. That’s a wonderful book of yours. Where on earth did you pick up all those capital extracts?”

“From an antiquarian passenger,” he replied. “He paid me to copy them out of his books, after he had been here with me, and I took a copy for my own book at the same time.”

“Make me a copy too, Quartermaster, by-and-by. I am almost tempted to start a log-book of my own. Where shall we go, Mrs Fonblanque?”

“Somewhere in the shade,” she answered; “the walls of the old fort must be shady.”

“What did you think of Mnazilus and Chloe and our duet yesterday?” she asked suddenly, as she sat down on a long Portuguese gun inside the fort, while I stretched myself at full length on a rug on the ground beside her.

“I thought it pretty, and I thought you were very good indeed in your part. You are a born actress, Mrs Fonblanque.”

“No, I am not,” she answered. “I am too transparent and impulsive to be a good actress. But the duet was a pretty one, though I did not care to say so before them all. One gets tired of duets in company, and it is an absolute relief to be able to talk to you now without having to take the Nun’s feelings and the Sheik’s criticism into consideration. Now that we are alone at last, what did you mean the other day, Mr Hicks, by saying that our lives had got mixed up in some inextricable manner, that my eyes haunted you, and that you meant to end by hating me intensely?”

I looked into the liquid depths of the eyes that she said I said haunted me. Perhaps she was right. But there was just at that moment a soft, hazy, indefinite expression in them I had never seen before.

“I don’t think you are putting the case quite fairly,” I answered. “That wasn’t what I said. But isn’t this a queer old fort? Do you notice how it is washed on three sides by the sea, and how that rampart on the east is being gradually undermined? Those three battered old watch-towers must have seen strange sights in their time. They remind me of my first imaginings of Ctesiphon, for my imagination really seems to be better now after the Quartermaster’s extracts. What grand old memories—”

“I hate old memories!” cried Mrs Fonblanque. “They are like old family portraits—very distinct in outline and terribly flat. Never mind old memories, Mr Hicks, but do tell me why you wish to hate me intensely.”

Her hand was close beside me. It was a soft and white and tiny hand, and looked sadly out of place on the muzzle of a rust-eaten Portuguese gun. It was all I could do to resist the temptation to kiss it. Ah! how eloquent one could be if one could only always put one’s thoughts into instant action!

“I don’t wish to hate you intensely,” I said. “What I do hate are your immense wealth and my immense poverty, your supreme indifference and my hopeless state of humility. If we were face to face on a raft in mid-ocean; if we were sinking into the sea together on some stormy, moonless, and starless night—”

“Won’t a desert island do?” she asked, as a merry mischievous look flashed for a second over her face.

“Yes, a real desert island, when there was not a Quartermaster close to, and a steamer just behind us—a desert island where no help could possibly reach us—”

“Well, if we were in any one of those three uncomfortable positions?”

“I should perhaps be able to tell you how much I hated you. That was all I meant to say.”

Then the temptation grew too strong for me. I had half lifted her hand to my lips when it suddenly struck me that, as we were alone, this was an ungenerous and unfair proceeding. So I reluctantly but very tenderly replaced her hand on the muzzle of the gun.

Mrs Fonblanque did not seem to follow my line of thought. The necessity for outspokenness became more evident than ever.

“Life at the best is a bore,” I continued. “It is a series of regrets to most of us—a series of regrets and follies and blunders. Even the wisest of us, they say, make at least one fatal mistake.”

“And it is generally on the wedding-day, eh, Mr Hicks? That puts you out of court. What do you know of life’s blunders and mistakes? I am fettered by too much money now; my golden shackles clank as I go. You are in the hands of your uncle. There is a fate of some sort behind everybody, incessantly at work if you let it, and for ever pulling the strings. Good easy people give in at the first tug, and imagine that they have lost everything or won everything—which is, perhaps, worse. But neither you nor I were meant to be fatalists. We hold our lives in our hands. We have a certain amount of individuality about us. Putting aside my money-bags on the one hand, and your uncle on the other, we can generally do as we please.”

“Can anybody do as he pleases? I doubt it,” said I, as I took Mrs Fonblanque’s little hand once more in mine. The moment, however, that I took her hand the Quartermaster stood before us, touching his cap, and informing us very respectfully that, unless we started at once, the steamer could not get away that evening.

“I don’t mean her to go away this evening,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “Mr Hicks and I wish to have a look at Bunder Abbas in the morning. Be good enough to get the boat ready for us, and we will come down when we are sufficiently rested. Mr Hicks, you were saying,” she continued, as the Quartermaster disappeared, “that—”

It was no good. The spell was broken, and our new duet completely ruined. The “third party” had appeared on the scene, and from the time of the serpent onwards the third party has been the curse of humanity.

For want of something better to say, I laid this profoundly original observation before Mrs Fonblanque. She laughed a little, but she rose.

“I told you one day,” she said, as she stood before me putting on her gloves, “that you were never quite in earnest. I seem to have developed an unsuspected vein of humour in your character. Look at my watch, Mr Hicks. I had no idea it was so late. I think we may as well follow the Quartermaster down to the boat.”

I went after her very reluctantly. For a moment I thought she was cross, but she was only amused.

“Your imagination is all right again now,” she continued pleasantly, as she took my arm, “and with humour and imagination an artist ought to be able to accomplish something. I should certainly never have thought of that dear, honest old creature as a serpent. Surely you were only painting his portrait because he was so transparent. He required no preliminary study, you know. He was always natural, never flippant. Now he is a snake. We must all be serpents to please you. You won’t paint my portrait, you say. Wait a little while until I proclaim myself a Lamia. A Lamia, Mr Hicks! Now will you paint my portrait?”

“I will try,” I answered, humbly. “I will do any mortal thing you please.”

“Thank you,” she said, as I assisted her over a great boulder of rock-salt. “But I don’t particularly want to be pleased. Well, well, you may begin, if you like, by painting a picture—of my hand.”

“I will begin to-morrow,” I replied. “Chiromancy is fashionable just now. A hand like yours would look wonderfully pretty on a dark panel, and would open up a wide field for speculation and study.”

“I hate being studied, Mr Hicks. I have told you so before. For a clever man, you repeat your blunders in a most extraordinary way. Let us get into the boat as soon as we can. I don’t think I shall ever be able to bring myself to allow you to paint either myself or my hand.”

“Come now, Mrs Fonblanque. Don’t be selfish. You might, at any rate, allow me to have as much of you as I can carry off on a panel.”

“Perhaps I will some day,” she said, taking her seat in the boat. “I see the Quartermaster’s presence has given you fresh confidence already.”

We had a strong wind and a racing tide with us: we went along merrily before them, and we reached the steamer a few minutes only after the flags had been hauled down for sunset.

The Captain was leaning over the side, and, contrary to our expectations, his face wore its usual good-natured expression.

“Well, it is past sundown, and you haven’t left us,” cried Mrs Fonblanque, looking up.

“Sorry I couldn’t; sorry to disoblige you, Mrs Fonblanque. But a lot of wool was offering, and I shan’t get away till noon to-morrow.”

Of Bunder Abbas, I am ashamed to say, I remember very little. A double belt of mountains, some fifteen miles off, and 8000 or 9000 feet high, shuts it in from Persia, and beyond their barren rocky ridges we could just catch a glimpse of a huge peak, vague and misty and snow-covered. But for this isolation. Bunder Abbas would be by far the most important port in the Gulf. As it is, the trade is increasing, owing mainly to the enterprise of Indian Banians, for there is not a single European on shore. The sailors and boatmen live chiefly on fish, and are big sturdy fellows, with great legs, and brawny chests, and muscles like knotted ropes. At Bunder Abbas the finest buggalows in the world are built, and some of them are as much as 800 tons burden. They are solid ships, well manned and well found, and, with their elaborately carved sterns, they reminded me, for all the world, of the old war-ships in Froissart’s ‘Chronicles.’ They go as far as Calcutta, Zanzibar, Mozambique, and the Mauritius, and they need to be stout and strong if they ever mean to come back again. When the Gulf shemal blows down past Bunder Abbas it is a dangerous task to approach the coast.

The open space in front of the beach was even at this early hour alive with people—negroes and Turcomans, Persians, Armenians and Beloochees, Arabs and Cutchees. Except perhaps at Marseilles, I had never seen such a queer mosaic of costumes. The town was, in a degree, like the people. Arab houses and Persian houses stood side by side; yellow mud and grey limestone were equally effective and equally disagreeable. But all the houses alike were furnished with either a flat roof or an open belvedere, in which their inmates slept by night. These were now occupied by women in heavy, pointed, thick white veils, that fell from their eyes like an old man’s beard, almost down to the waist. They strolled languidly up and down, or leant sleepily over the balustrades trying to catch all they could of the fresh morning air. With the exception of a few dusty date-trees bowing their old heads towards the mountains and away from the sea, there was no sign of anything green; and between them and the mountains there lay a ribbed ocean of parched-up sand, arid and naked, and almost black with the heat. All the Gulf towns are much alike. The bazaars are equally narrow and dirty. The shelf-like shops are full of cheap rubbish from Europe, prints and piece-goods, boxes of matches and cakes of soap, needles and thread, sweet-stuffs, sham jewellery, glass beads, and so on. It would, however, be impossible to mistake one Gulf town for another.

The English factory at Bunder Abbas lies in ruins. The old Dutch factory, a fine arcaded building, is now the Sheik’s palace, and directly in front of it stands the great Custom-house.

Of course we wanted carpets, and this was the place to get them, and the head of the Custom-house the chief dealer. He and Mrs Fonblanque’s obliging friend sat side by side as the carpets were unrolled, and when he gave a nod of approval they solemnly clasped hands beneath each other’s sleeves. The Sheik explained the process to me. They were talking in a language of signs that is common to all traders in Western Asia and Eastern Africa, and that not only does away with all difficulties of language, but enables the principals to keep the terms of their bargain from the idlers who infest every oriental bazaar. To grasp the first finger means one, to press it once means ten, to press it twice a hundred. To grasp the first two fingers means two, to press them once twenty, to press them twice two hundred, and so on with the different fingers or a combination of them, while the finger-joints show the fractions. This was an interesting revelation to me, but the process was tedious, and the heat already almost unbearable.

At half-past eight we left the Custom-house, quite ready to believe all the Quartermaster had told us the day before about the air of Goombron being on fire, and all about the mortal vapours that continually exhale from the bowels of the earth.

It was a relief to get on board the hulk, an old dismantled steamer, to which our vessel was firmly lashed, so as to be able to take in cargo and put it out, in spite of the shemal. She was in charge of an old Cumberland man, who had once been an officer in the Company’s service. Now that his wife was dead, he led, he told us, the happiest life in the world. The experiences of a man who lives year after year within reach and within sight of a populous city were very quaint and entertaining. Rousseau found solitude more charming than any of his mistresses. Thoreau thought that no companion could possibly be so companionable as solitude. Here was a fair field for inquiry if ever there was one. A man of taste (especially in carpets, of which he was a perfect connoisseur), the officer in charge of the hulk was nevertheless perfectly happy in being anchored alone out here, like a barnacle to a rock.

“You must lead rather a Robinson Crusoe sort of life,” I said to him when he let me have a couple of carpets at cost-price.

“Well, perhaps I do,” he answered. “But every Englishman, like his country, is an island at heart. I have sailed the seas in my time, and been buffeted about a bit. But now that my old wife is dead, I have nothing to wish for and nothing to desire.”

His experiences would have entertained my uncle vastly; for my uncle, like all very sociable men, looks forward to a time of complete isolation. I am sorry to say that I forgot nearly all that the man on the hulk told me, in thinking how I could get back into Mrs Fonblanque’s good books. She was perhaps more civil to me than she ever had been, but when I said something about an armed neutrality, she gave me a look of somewhat too ready intelligence.

Chapter XXVI.

“Port wine for breakfast, sir, and port wine for dinner,—a real Goanese port, if you can get it. That, I think, will pull you up.”

It would have pulled me up pretty sharp, I expect. I stared at the speaker, and in the next minute or two he gave me his whole family history, from the time he left his little sister sobbing her heart out among the palm-trees on the beach. He was a dusky, vague sort of individual, and I had taken him for the purser or steward. The liquor served at table was—well, not particularly good, and I was trying to find out if there were any wholesome wines on board. He thought I was asking him for a tonic; and he turned out to be the ship’s doctor. He was not in the least offended when I explained my mistake, and Captain Forbes, who happened to pass by at the moment, roared with laughter.

“He’s not the steward,” he said, still laughing. “He’s only the ship’s doctor—that is, he has an apothecary’s certificate of some sort. I always take good care to doctor my own crew. But we must have a certified man to sign the bills of health, so as to get us out of quarantine in those wretched Turkish ports as soon as possible. Port wine for breakfast! Goa port, if you can get it! Goa port! Goa poison! Ha! ha! ha! That’s his invariable prescription, and he always takes it himself, I’ll be bound, when he can!”

The Captain’s hilarity seemed to please the doctor, who obviously belonged to that common type of men who like nothing less than being ignored. He followed me on to the quarter-deck to tell me his whole story. He came, he said, as we went up the companion, from the sunny land of Paul and Virginia, and, indeed, Virginia was his great-great-aunt.

“I thought you were going to copy my hand on a panel to-day,” said Mrs Fonblanque, as my shadow and I went forward.

“So I was,” I replied; “but the doctor says that Virginia was his great-great-aunt, and I am busy now in trying to realise her features from his. This would be a splendid study in heredity if one had time for it.”

“Yes. Only you haven’t time for it just now,” said Mrs Fonblanque, shortly. “To-day is mine. Give to-morrow to the doctor,”

“The steward wants you down below,” said the Quartermaster, rather roughly nudging the apothecary. “He’s an awful man,” continued the Quartermaster apologetically, after the doctor had slipped away. “The lies he’ll tell; the presents he’ll give you, if you care for promises; and the gratitude he’ll expect for nothing! I told you the steward wanted you!”

The doctor was again at my elbow with a worn copy of the ‘Lusiad’ in his hands.

“He wants to teach you Portuguese,” said the Quartermaster. “He has tried the same game on with all of us. We must all learn Portuguese, to see what a grandee he might have been had he lived three hundred years ago.”

“I could teach you to read Portuguese before we reach Bombay,” urged the doctor, quite unruffled by this rather personal criticism.

He was a mean-looking man at the best. But the thoughts of the grand old times lent a new light to his eyes, and a look almost of dignity to his weak and feeble countenance. Mrs Fonblanque began to be interested in him.

“You have had a hard life, doctor, I can see,” she said pleasantly, “and you have never had a chance?”

“Never a one,” he replied, solemnly. “Mauritius, Mozambique, Goa, Damaun, and Diu, sailing-ships and steamers, and everywhere the butt of the sailors! But two or three hundred years ago everything was ours—every ruined fort you pass here, and every dismantled gun, was manned by men like me!”

“And that’s why Portugal lost them all,” interrupted the Quartermaster. “The steward has been calling you for the last ten minutes.”

The doctor’s enthusiasm evaporated directly Mrs Fonblanque turned away. He put his ‘Lusiad’ under his arm hopelessly and retired. The Quartermaster explained that the doctor had a bee in his bonnet.

“He is kept to sign quarantine papers,” he said; “but the Captain doesn’t allow him to annoy the passengers, and he is forbidden the quarter-deck.” Then the Quartermaster touched his cap to Mrs Fonblanque, and trusted she would forgive his interference.

“Of course, of course,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “You treat the doctor just as he ought to be treated. I only wish I could put you in charge of Mr Hicks. He is always mixing himself up with the most extraordinary people. Talk of heredity, Mr Hicks, if it pleases you, but don’t tell me that we are always improving and developing into a higher form. From the mollusc to—to—well, almost to the angel, if you like; but then back again from the angel almost to the mollusc. With the pendulum swinging backwards and forwards along the ages, you and I are lucky if we go through life as ordinary mortals of a good average type. Now, if you please, sir, we will set to work.”

In permitting me to paint her hand on a panel, Mrs Fonblanque might or might not have been aware that the hands in any portrait are universally accepted as a crucial test of artistic skill. She had, too, rendered the task a trifle more difficult than it seemed at first, by pulling all her rings off. Her hand might really have been a study from the nude so far as the accessories went. However, I painted away as steadily as I could; and as an artist is always supposed to be absorbed in his work, I felt quite justified in saying nothing.

“That poor man,” said Mrs Fonblanque at last, “has a pathetic tipsy sort of resemblance to Don Quixote. But the Quartermaster is right. It would be cruel to encourage him. He is essentially weak; and to be candid, I always felt that his great-great-aunt rather overdid her part. It is, of course, a delightful idyl; and as a girl, I thought Paul a sort of model hero. Poor Paul! I daresay he was well out of it after all, if she was always thinking how she looked when she was a mere chit. Take my word for it, she would have been perpetually nagging at him afterwards.”

“Please keep your hand still, Mrs Fonblanque,” I said. “Thank you; that’s it. I have always thought Virginia delightful; and, honestly, I didn’t think much of Paul. I can understand two women in the same drawing-room disliking each other heartily. But I can scarcely understand your disliking a very pretty and very pure creation of M. Bernardin de St Pierre, who was buried, poor man, nearly a hundred years ago.”

“Oh,” said Mrs Fonblanque, “you have said precisely what I expected you to say. You will never succeed in art or anything else, because you love all your own comforts so well that you don’t care to stand for a moment in anybody else’s shoes. You loom so large in your own estimation that you can see nobody but yourself. That very feeble and garrulous doctor is tarred with the same brush, and ten to one his great-great-aunt would have grown to be exactly like him. Virginia, as far as I remember the story, drowned herself before her lover’s eyes, and almost drowned her lover, because she would not be saved unless she could be saved en grande tenue—that is, in all the fine new things she had just brought out from Europe. You can hardly call that practical, Mr Hicks. Her great-great-nephew is essentially not practical; and as for you, sir, you are, I fancy, the most unpractical man I ever encountered.”

“Oh, never mind me,” I said; “never mind Virginia. Look at the panel.”

“It is really growing into a very pretty little picture.”

“Your hand,” I answered, “and a little bit of your arm, will be coming through folds of heavy crimson curtains. There will be a queer old blue Japanese vase full of yellow roses on a grey-marble table, and there will be a look of indecision about your hand as you try to choose a rosebud for somebody outside. Behind the vase there will be a Damascus sword, inlaid with gold, lying by its embroidered scabbard.”

“Well, if you are not practical, you have a fine imagination to-day,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “But won’t all those fine accessories be rather too much for that poor commonplace little hand on your panel? It looks as if it were going to fly off at a tangent on some spiritualistic adventures of its own.”

“No, no,” I said. “It’s a very pretty little hand, if you please, and a very determined little hand, with too sturdy a will of its own to indulge in vagaries of any kind.”

“I don’t know that,” said Mrs Fonblanque, with just a suspicion of a sigh.

“Oh, I know,” I answered. “Chiromancy happens to be one of my many hobbies. The hand, as some Frenchman says, is the epitome of the man; much more so, then, of the woman. Lend me your hand for a moment, Mrs Fonblanque.”

“I won’t have my fortune told,” she said decisively, as, half drawing back, she allowed me to take it.

“No?” I continued, colouring a little, I fancied, as I spoke. “Sir Roger de Coverley said that one of his ancestors was the first man to make love by squeezing the hand.”

“Poor old goose!” she replied, laughing. “That’s just the kind of speech I should have expected your uncle to make. They probably have the same ancestor in Adam—”

“And—Eve,” I whispered, lifting her hand respectfully and giving it very gently the kiss that had been trembling on my lips for four-and-twenty hours.

“Mr Hicks!” she exclaimed, snatching her hand from mine, and trying to hide it in her gown. “Mr Hicks! I will never, never, never—— Oh, Mr Hicks! Hush!”

“Mr Hicks,” said a deep bass voice, “what are you doing?”

I turned round, and saw the Sheik intent on my panel.

“You see what I am doing,” I answered, as coolly as I could under the circumstances. “I am painting Mrs Fonblanque’s hand.”

“Yes, I see that,” he said gravely, “and I daresay that if you have leisure enough you will contrive to paint a very fascinating picture. You laughed at my scruples the other day about painting. Perhaps Mahomet was right after all. He generally was right. We have good artists amongst us, too. The beauty and elegance of their geometrical figures and arabesques are simply unapproachable. Art, however, must have a limit, and I think Mahomet knew where to draw the line. At all events, I should never allow any artist to paint the hands of Fatima, Zuleika, or Nour Mahal.”

“Sit down, Sheik,” said Mrs Fonblanque, actually rising to drag up a long chair, and depositing him, I was glad to see, at a safe distance. “Very likely Mahomet was right. Art is wearisome, especially to the model.”

“And the artist,” I cried, “doesn’t he suffer?”

Mrs Fonblanque turned aside with a look of such supreme indifference that the Sheik actually smiled through his white beard. She had told him ten thousand times more in this simple gesture than he could possibly have seen. But he was generally as blind as a bat, poor man, and he was still so intent on the panel that I began to feel certain he had seen nothing.

“Mahomet was very pitiful,” he said, “and, take my word for it, he foresaw the artist. Art is one thing; the artist is another. I used to meet artists by the dozen when I was in London. They wore long hair like our clay-bedabbled holy men; like them they lived on alms; and they were always going to paint a big picture. Oh, that big picture! It generally was announced to you by a Miss Tomkins or a Mrs Jones, ‘He is just going to begin his big picture.’ You went to his studio, and found nothing there but a smell of stale tobacco.”

“The Sheik is trying to make fun of you,” said Mrs Fonblanque.

“I think he is,” I answered, “but I don’t care two straws for that.”

“You ought to care though, Mr Hicks, and you certainly shouldn’t allow yourself to be made fun of.”

“It is you who make me a fool,” I cried as impressively as I could, in a speech that was not intended for the Sheik’s ears.

“Yes, perhaps to-day,” she said quietly; “and tomorrow I daresay it will be Priscilla, or anybody else of my unfortunate sex.”

“Don’t talk like that,” I cried. “Think of to-day, and say you forgive me.”

“I really don’t see how I can forgive you, Mr Hicks. I should never have spoken to you again but for that stupid old Sheik’s interference. But are you sorry?”

I caught up the panel with her little hand on it.

“I will pitch it overboard if you like, Mrs Fonblanque,” I said very quietly, “and have done with it for good and all.”

“‘No, no, don’t do that. I should like to see the accessories you mentioned.”

I held it over the taffrail. “Do you forgive?”

“I forget . . . There, put it back on your easel. You are taking a long time in lighting your pipe, Sheik. It seems to be properly kindled now, and now we had all of us better settle down to a long talk about art and anything else that turns up. If there are two brothers, why should one man be an artist, a creator, a translator of wonderful dreams into the most vivid forms, while the other is only just able to add up a column of figures more or less accurately?”

“No one,” I said, after waiting for the Sheik to speak, “can ever translate his dreams, so as to show them to others as he really sees them. But he enjoys them immensely himself, as he ‘sits down in poverty,’ as Browning says, ‘and writes and paints in pity for the rich.’ But you can’t paint anything, or describe it, as you see it; you can’t paint with your eyes. It is a long way from the eye through the arm to the pencil; and how much is lost on the road!”

“I can see that,” said the Sheik, comfortably pulling away at his hubble-bubble. “Then why not leave art alone, and enjoy yourself while you may?”

“Men,” rejoined Mrs Fonblanque, laughing, “are such queer creatures. Sheik, that some of them can’t leave art alone; and Mr Hicks is, I daresay, one of these. You remember, Mr Hicks, what that unhealthy French poet, Baudelaire, said about minds of a certain order being only able to breathe in art or literature. I am afraid. Sheik, that Mr Hicks has a mind of that sort.”

“I wish you and the Sheik would discuss my order of mind in my absence,” I said, rather testily. “You are quite wrong, Mrs Fonblanque; and Baudelaire is not an authority. Art and literature and science are one and the same thing, and some day we shall all know it.”

“Some day!” said Mrs Fonblanque, scornfully. “I like that, in the middle of an argument. I don’t see why we should wait until art and letters and science come together to prove that Mr Hicks is infallible. Do you. Sheik? But explain what you mean, sir.”

She was heartless, far more heartless than I thought her ten minutes back. When I kissed her hand so tenderly, I imagined for a moment that I had crossed the Rubicon; and now I was asked to give an explanation that no encyclopaedia has ever yet afforded! She and the Sheik were both sitting placidly before me, willing, but not over-eager, to hear what I had to say. The illusion was complete. But which was the illusion? Mrs Fonblanque as she sat there now, frank and cool and completely at her ease; or Mrs Fonblanque with flushed cheeks, and tremulous lips, and a new light altogether in her strange grey eyes, as she had torn her hand from mine and hidden it in her gown?

“Don’t look so melancholy over it,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “Solve the problem of the future for us, and then we can talk about something else.”

The Sheik, too, was looking curiously at me. I had to say something.

“It has been the dream of many men,” I said, “that all art, and all learning, and all knowledge will some day be one. Then you will know how it is that the picture and the poem, the statue and the sonata, strike exactly the same key-note.”

“It is a pretty idea, Mr Hicks; but when you know all you want to know, shall I be able to paint pictures like you, or you be able to sing as I can?”

“No, hardly that,” I answered. “But all egotism and individuality will disappear. The strangest things will seem the most natural. There will be no more mysteries. We shall all be what we were formerly, part and parcel of the one mighty soul with which nature is instinct. I shall not be able to sing as you can, but my pictures will exactly reproduce your songs, and your songs my pictures. And the chemist, Mrs Fonblanque, in some new colour, or some exquisite perfume, or some new force of nature suddenly let loose, will combine them both. The past will be the present, and the present the future, and in death we shall reach the nirvana of all our wishes. We shall be once more absorbed into the mighty soul of nature from which we came.”

“The Sheik is asleep already,” said Mrs Fonblanque, softly. “Tell me in a whisper how all this can be accomplished?”

“By love, and love only,” I replied. “Love and art are the same. You and I stumble as we walk; but what are we? Love goes on throbbing from Eve’s bosom in sweet pulsations to the end of time. You and I disappear, but love and art remain.”

“Thank you, Mr Hicks,” she said, severely. “You have taught me a lesson. Did you ever feel that you despised yourself thoroughly?”

“Yes,” I answered promptly. “I had that feeling yesterday.”

“Well, I have it to-day. Your rudeness offended me mortally, and I was weak enough to say I would forget. You began to talk about art, and then you talk about what you call love. Do you think that all women are puppets, as your ally the Sheik does; or that your art, as you term it, is the equivalent of any woman’s true affection? You have given me a lesson in art, sir, and you have given me a lesson also in the utter selfishness of your sex.”

Then she rose and quietly passed away.

Had I crossed the Rubicon? Had I irrevocably committed myself? Had I offended her? Undoubtedly I had. Was she intensely vexed? And did I really care for her displeasure? There I was not quite so sure. I leant over the side of the ship trying to puzzle out these vexed questions. Am I an impostor or not? This is the personal and very irritating form my thoughts always take when my thoughts and I sit down together. There was a good deal to say on both sides; and I was not over-civil to the Sheik when he woke up suddenly and asked for Mrs Fonblanque.

“Where is Mrs Fonblanque?” he said, rubbing his eyes, “and when are you going to finish the picture on the panel?”

“Not at all,” I replied curtly, and then I carried the unfortunate panel down below.

It is, however, the unexpected that always happens; and before our good ship had steamed very many miles more, I was busily at work again on the panel, and Mrs Fonblanque was again enticing us all to discuss her favourite theme of men and women. She could evidently keep her word. The past had gone completely. She had the feminine faculty of forgetfulness in an unusually marked degree.

“Our legislators, my dear,” she continued to the Nun, “have always treated us in precisely the same way. When I was a girl I dreamt, as I daresay all girls do, that I was going to be the ideal woman, and I turned over all the books I could find to see how the ideal woman should educate herself. I read all the wisest men have written in their wildest dreams of fancy. Soon I saw that there was no ideal woman, and that even the wisest men only want a creature half plaything, half drudge, and wholly subordinate. All these clever men, my dear, had only one type among them, and they must have copied it deliberately, poor things, one from the other.”

“What kind of men do you mean?” I asked. “Poets?”

“No; statesmen. Go through all the ideal commonwealths and see how we are treated ideally. You remember how Lycurgus thought that girls should be educated at Sparta?”

“No, I don’t,” said the Nun.

“Then I can’t possibly explain it to you. But Plato in his ‘Republic,’ More in his ‘Utopia,’ and Bacon in his ‘New Atlantis,’ all say just the same thing. You emotional people, you painters and poets, are bad enough, Mr Hicks; but heaven help any girl who falls into the hands of a philosopher!”

“Well, I don’t know,” I replied. “I don’t always agree with your favourite philosopher, Rousseau. His life was against him. But his words on your particular subject are the wisest I remember.”

“Well, what are they?”

“I will try and recollect. ‘Men and women,’ he said, ‘are made for one another. But their mutual dependence is not equal. Men depend on women for love. Women depend on men not for love only but for material support. We could do without them. They could not do without us.’”

“Did you ever hear anything so atrocious?” cried Mrs Fonblanque. “What material support have you men ever afforded to Sister Patricia or to me?”

“You happen to be two very exceptional cases.”

“We happen to be half the passengers on board.”

“Yes, no doubt, but by sheer accident. Sister Patricia by her vows, and you by your wealth, stand apart from the others. I must decline to discuss either of you as types.”

“You mean that we are unsexed?”

“I beg your pardon, I mean nothing of the sort. I was thinking of what you yourself said the other day about being doubly hampered. Your wealth puts you out of the ordinary running—”

“Does it really? How nice of you to talk of me as if I ever wished to be in it. Well, never mind; go on with Rousseau, Mr Hicks. He cannot possibly be more ill-natured than you are.”

“He says that the manners of men, their passions, their tastes, their pleasures, their happiness itself, all depend on the other sex.”

“That is exactly what I told you the other day,” cried Mrs Fonblanque.

“Yes; but he goes on to add, that for this very reason women should be specially educated to please men, to be useful to them, to be loved by them, to nurse and teach them when they are small, to take care of them when they are big, to advise them and console them, and render their lives happy and pleasant.”

“That’s just what Mahomet said ages before,” observed the Sheik, approvingly.

“They are both against us. Shall we contest it point by point, my dear?”

“No, no,” said the Nun. “I think that is the very training a girl should have, so as to make somebody’s life happy and pleasant. But how did you educate yourself, Mrs Fonblanque, when you found out that all the philosophers were wrong?”

Mrs Fonblanque laughed a little. “I thought I might be wrong too, so I did not educate myself at all. I let myself drift, and that is why I am sitting here this afternoon to be lectured by Mr Hicks.”

This required a gentle repartee.

“Cowley,” I said, smiling, “was good enough to call you one of Nature’s agreeable blunders.”

“Then he was not quite so gallant as Burns or Lessing, who called us Nature’s masterpiece. But now, turn your chair quickly round, Mr Hicks. What do you think of that for the Gulf?”

I am seldom profoundly impressed, but I had certainly never seen anything like this. We were steaming rapidly, as I turned, right into a huge wall of precipitous volcanic rocks. Suddenly we rounded the point, and glided smoothly into a quiet little cove, surrounded on its three sides by towering black hills and rugged mountains. The nearest hills and crags and peaks to the right and left, looking each one of them like an iron-bound fortress, dropped sheer and bluff to the water’s edge. At either extremity a strong fortress scowled fiercely down upon us, and a number of smaller forts and watch-towers and galleries seemed to connect the two in a semicircle behind. The shore was low and open for a little way in front, and there, between the black rocks and the blue sea, nestled a town of white flat-roofed houses.

We anchored within a cable’s length of the Sultan’s palace, with his blood-red flag still streaming over it. There was not a tree or shrub to be seen. But the white houses, the turreted forts, the deep blue sea, and the quaint craft with which the little cove was half filled, contrasted strangely with the encircling masses of dark rock all around, and a sky that was, for a moment before the sun sank, flooded with gold and crimson. To enjoy the first view of Muscat properly, you should come straight upon it, as we did, from a tedious sea voyage along the arid coast of Persia, and you should enter the harbour exactly as the sun is going down. In another moment the sunset guns were thundering and reverberating among the rocks, and then all was still, except when a deep voice from a mosque-tower here and there summoned the faithful to prayers.

“Does it remind you of Gibraltar?” asked Mrs Fonblanque.

“In a manner. But it is far too oriental. It is medieval too, and warlike. You expect every moment to hear martial music and the clang of steel and brass, and to see bands of armed men marching slowly down the innumerable steps. It is more like a drop-scene that an artist may dream of but never paint.”

“Yes,” replied Mrs Fonblanque. “How fantastically the great hills of solid rock seem to have been thrown about, as if from the hands of some tremendous giant.”

“That’s very much what the Arabs say,” said the Captain, as he joined us,—“When Allah finished the world, he threw the débris down here.”

“That’s an old story,” I replied. “They say the same thing at Lynton.”

“And at Chudderghat,” said Mrs Fonblanque.

Chapter XXVII

Captain Forbes and I were up betimes. Muscat was, he said, the most interesting port on his run, and he wished to show me its lions himself. Certainly it was very picturesque in the fresh clear light of early dawn. The beach was covered with people, and in a deep pool under the shadow of a frowning rock to our left, the negro population were taking their morning bath, shouting, laughing, singing, and swimming about as only negroes can. The harbour was already alive with boats laden with fish and fruit. The fruit here is excellent and abundant. There are melons and water-melons, grapes, pomegranates, plantains, mangoes, oranges and lemons, and great sweet limes—the size of a big turnip—that always taste as if they were iced. As for fish, the harbour was thick with them. Our men knocked them over with their oars as they rowed us to shore. “With a bucket you might have picked up enough to give a breakfast to a large family. It is little wonder, then, that the negroes here are lazy; and Muscat, like Zanzibar, is essentially a negro town. The trade, however, Captain Forbes explained to me, is carried on by Banians from Porebunder, Cutch, and Bombay. They lead their own lives, protect their own cows, burn their dead, and enjoy all their own customs. One of these customs is, by the way, rather curious. When they fail in trade, as they often do, they have to sit outside their houses, with a candle burning on a little table in front, to show, I suppose, that it is all night with them just then. So long as the candle burns, their local creditors are free to revile them as only Asiatics can.

“You laugh,” said the skipper, as he told me this. “When you reach India you will find it to be the invariable custom there too. The table is not always outside. The reviling is more or less bitter. The candle is longer or shorter. But when the candle has once expired, everybody is able to start again.”

“And then?” I asked.

“The Banians, as a rule, make considerable fortunes, which they carry home to spend in India. But, as with all exiles, even Anglo-Indians, their prosperity has its drawback. They never bring their wives here. They marry when they are children, and are started off forthwith to seek their fortunes in Muscat or Zanzibar or the Mozambique, and when they come back, sleek and fat and wealthy, their wives are old women, and they adopt an heir. Wealth is not everything, Mr Hicks.”

The agent was not yet visible, so we strolled through the town. The forts were not nearly so formidable as they looked from the sea. They had not been repaired for a century; their walls were crumbling; their guns were all rust-eaten, and many of them dismounted. The soldiers on guard were the quaintest body of men I had ever come across. They were chiefly Beloochees and Sidi-boys, with a few Kurds and Persians, adventurous mercenaries of the lowest and least enterprising type, recruited from far and near, from every district except Oman itself. This, the skipper said, was natural enough. The men we saw were the only paid troops, and not more than fifteen hundred strong all told; but on an emergency every one of the Sultan’s Arab subjects is bound to serve—and they are men of a very different stamp. The troops who garrisoned the forts were as beggarly and ill-dressed a set of scarecrows as the country bumpkins with whom Falstaff would not march through Coventry. But, for all that, they were extremely picturesque, and their arms, the remnants of innumerable fights and onslaughts and piratical sallies, would have delighted the heart of any good old antiquary like my uncle. They carried long guns with matchlocks and flintlocks (some of them with rests), old Brown Besses, pistols as heavy as small fowling-pieces, Bedouin spears, and as many swords and daggers as their tattered belts could hold. The number of weapons any man could boast seemed to be a kind of brevet rank, inherited from the family arsenal; and there was one old negro who wore as many lethal weapons round his portly form as ever decorated the main-mast of a pirate schooner in the buccaneering days. The general effect, however, was not warlike, and somehow or another made me think of Wardour Street.

The bazaars of Muscat were well worth seeing. They were so narrow that no horses and no beasts of burden but the Sultan’s were allowed to enter the town. They were very dark, being all covered in with a roof of matting plastered with mud. The arms bazaar was curious; elsewhere the goods were much the same as we had seen before. But the crowd was really picturesque. There were Bedouins from the desert, at once impassible and disdainful, tall and graceful, with high-bred features. They strode through the others, in their burnouses of camel-hair, as if they knew nothing of them. But they took their precautions nevertheless, for they were all armed, as if for active service, with ponderous inlaid guns, with silver-handled pistols, and silver-mounted swords and daggers, and little round shields of rhinoceros-hide. Then there were the city Arabs in flowing white robes, and with brightly coloured handkerchiefs thrown loosely over their thick black curls. There were negroes grimacing and gesticulating—an important element of this noisy bustling crowd—soldiers and sailors and fishermen, and a sprinkling of women doing their household marketing for the day. The women here seemed to enjoy an unusual amount of liberty, and as a veil they wore nothing more than a black band across the eyes, much like the masks at our masked balls in Europe. They were disguised, but you could see their faces, and their loose flowing robes showed off the outlines of their fine figures very prettily.

By this time we thought the agent would be tired of his bed, and we found him ready to receive us at chota hazri or first breakfast. He was an extremely hospitable and agreeable man, and when he learnt from Captain Forbes that I was supposed to be something of an artist and fond of scenery, he sent straightway off’ to the Sultan’s palace to borrow or order Arab horses.

“We cannot keep horses here,” he said. “On the other hand, the Sultan has a magnificent stud, and as he never rides himself, he makes everybody free of his stables. You will get such a mount as you never dreamt of. Eh, Captain Forbes?”

Captain Forbes agreed, and then proceeded to try the halwa, and liked it much. This peased our host. I tried it too, cautiously, and found it exquisite, and said so.

“That happens to be the best halwa,” said the agent, “that I have ever tasted. It is made by a tribe who live far inland, and seldom come to Muscat. It is our speciality here, just as toffee is at Everton, and it goes all over the East.”

“It is very good,” I said, taking a little more. “What is it made of?”

“Of nothing but sugar and ghee and the gluten of wheat. The secret is in mixing the ingredients, and every tribe have their own brand. Now let us start for the stables.”

Captain Forbes was delighted.

“I owe this to you,” he said, confidentially. “I have never had a chance of getting into the Sultan’s stables before. Now we shall see some real Nejed horses—”

I thought of their tails; but as he stopped suddenly, I kept silent.

We walked two or three hundred yards through the narrow streets, and then our host suddenly gave a loud knock with his brass-mounted riding-whip at the wicket of a great door studded with wonderful iron nails. The door rolled back at his impetuous summons, and we entered the courtyard of what was, it seems, the Sultan’s palace. On one side the entrance, in an enormous iron-barred cage, a magnificent lion growled at us as we passed. There were other caged beasts farther on before we came to the royal stables, where Captain Forbes went into raptures over a dozen or so of pure Nejed horses.

“Now, at last, I can show you a Nejed horse,” he cried. “Now, sir, as you look round, was my description overdrawn?”

They were beautiful creatures, certainly, but badly cared for. We were asked to choose our own mounts, and then we started, with half-a-dozen of the Sultan’s ragged footmen running in front of us to clear the way, by hitting out to right and left. In eight or ten minutes we were clear of the town altogether.

There are, it seems, three gates. Passing through the “Eastern Gate,” where a number of soldiers were gambling, grumbling, smoking, or sleeping, we reached a squalid suburb of negro huts and shanties; and then, looking back, we saw that on the land side Muscat was completely shut in by a strong, well-kept stone wall, fourteen feet in height, with crumbling watch-towers dotted all over it. Looking forward, we saw nothing but rocks and stones and rugged mountains. We rode slowly and painfully up the stony pathway through the valley of rocks in front, and looked with some interest at the tall watch-towers that here and there commanded the view beyond. At last we came to a tunnel cut out of the solid rock. Its great double gates stood ajar. The men or guard were sleeping, smoking, grumbling, and gambling as before. The tunnel was dank and damp and gloomy, and our horses, in spite of the clatter they made, trembled a little as they went through it. But once on the other side, the scenery was entirely changed. There were, to be sure, black and grey mountains all around, but right in front of us the road ran through a rich green garden-land, covered with maize and sugar-cane and barley and cloves, with indigo plants and all manner of tropical fruit and vegetables. There were clumps of fruit-trees, bright and gay with their pale pink blossoms. There were huge deep wells, from which the panting oxen laboured to draw water. The change was instantaneous. The morning sun broke out of a cloud and all the birds began to sing.

We rode along pleasantly enough to the Sultan’s country-seat at Sedah; and though our worthy skipper, in spite of the renown of Forbes’s Horse, had a sailor’s seat after all, the agent and I talked freely as we went. I congratulated him on the freshness of the morning air and the beauty of the country round about.

“You should spend a day or two with me in the hot weather,” he said, dryly. “For three or four months in the year Muscat is the hottest place in the world, and for twelve months it is the dullest. You saw our great square houses in the town, with their go-downs on the ground-floor, and their broad flat roofs. That’s where we sleep in the hot weather, and that’s where we are watered every hour or so by our attendants, who turn their big watering-pots on to us as if we were parched-up flowers.”

“Impossible!” I cried.

“Hardly impossible,” said the agent, smiling. “It has, at all events, been a legend ever since I landed. You can’t imagine what a terrific heat all these masses of black rock accumulate during the day and give out again at night. You can have no idea of the heat here in spring, and the dulness of our lives when the date season is over. The Resident and I are the only two Englishmen here. The doctor, who is a very pleasant fellow and very clever at his work, is an educated Hindu. There is a young American at Muttra. We can’t afford to quarrel with one another; but in the dog-days we all grow fractious, and our relations get rather strained.”

“Then you have no amusements?”

“None, unless you call an occasional siege an amusement. Every now and then some of the Wahabee Arabs think that the Sultan should join his brother in Zanzibar. They fire on the town; the town fires back. The sound of the firing reverberates among the rocks in an astonishing manner, and it is simply impossible to sleep properly at night till a gunboat comes in and throws a few shells and rockets into the camp of the marauders. That settles them for the time being, and then everything is as humdrum and monotonous as before.”

On our ride back we had a most interesting chat about the slave trade. The English gunboats are, it seems, the police of the Gulf, and keep the Turks and Persians and Arabs in admirable order. Not many years ago the whole coast was infested with pirate ports, and the seas crowded with pirate dhows and buggalows. Now the English Channel itself is not more orderly. Slavery exists, of course. You hear nothing in Muscat but Swahili, the lingua Franca of Eastern Africa. More than a third of the people here are slaves, and they are recruited from time to time from the east coast. Nominally the slave traffic has ceased; but the dhows that are accidentally captured every now and then, only show that there is still a large capital invested in the business; and then most of the pilgrims and travellers smuggle a slave or two in with their party, just as English tourists smuggle a box of cigars into England or a case or two of eau de Cologne.

“Slavery suits the country,” added the agent, “and it most emphatically suits the slaves. They are well treated; they find a home-life they never dreamt of before; they are an important item in every domestic circle here; they are well looked after, and ten thousand times better off, Mr Hicks, than ever they were at home. I talk Swahili well enough to know, and I have never met a negro who would return to Africa if he could.”

“Still,” I said, “the middle passage must be dreadful.”

“No doubt. Middle passages always are dreadful; but it is the cruel journey down to the African coast that plays the havoc with them. I am not defending the slave trade, mind you, or the smug Banian and Arab merchants who sit in safety in their counting-houses and make big fortunes out of black ivory. It is an abominable business. I am only telling you what I know. Slavery is an oriental institution, and part and parcel of our domestic life in the East, even in India; and nine times out of ten the slaves are better off than the class nominally above them.”

“In India!” I cried. “In India there are no slaves.”

“Oh yes, there are, especially in the old Mohammedan families of distinction. There are slaves in the harem and slaves in the household.”

“How do they get there?”

“By the underground passage, of course,” said the Captain, smiling.

He had suddenly come up to us, and was, for the moment, on fairly good terms with his horse.

“Have you ever seen a slave-sale?” I asked the agent.

And as the agent said nothing, the skipper replied, “I have—at Jeddah. There was some trouble in getting at the slaves before the sale, but the sale itself was free to everybody. Their head-dresses, poor devils, when we saw them, were docketed with their numbers, and then at an appointed hour their head-dresses were sold by auction in the open air at a street corner. The slaves never appeared, but the merchants knew what they were bidding for.”

“Were there women on view as well as men?” I asked.

“Yes, plenty of women; but they were chiefly boys and girls.”

“That is the atrocity of the whole thing,” I cried, “when women are sold and bought like cattle—”

“Oh,” said the agent shortly, “Jeddah is not the only place where women are bought and sold. London, I take it, is the biggest slave-market in the world. But you have to travel about a bit before you can see London, or any other place, for that matter, in proper perspective. However, here we are at the walls again, and if you care to step round with me to the Residency, I’ll show you a cargo of real slaves.”

The agent was as good as his word. An Arab dhow had been captured a week or two before, trying to run into Muscat from Dharamsalama, the regular trysting-spot, some thirty miles off. The vessel lay high and dry on the beach, waiting till she could be legally broken up. She was a wretched little craft, forty or fifty feet long, but a hundred and twenty slaves had been packed away in her. She lay there as a warning to all the evil-doers in the place, and in full sight of her captain and owners and agents, who were imprisoned, at the Resident’s request, in one of the Sultan’s fortresses just above. The slaves, too, were hard by, in a compound—the girls on one side of a hurdle, the boys on the other—waiting for some one to come and take charge of them. They were given away in a kind of apprenticeship to anybody of recognised respectability in Muscat itself. The remainder were to be sent to India to look out for masters. They would all of them, I was told, be much happier if they were sold off in the regular way. There used, added the Captain, to be an asylum for slave boys and girls at Nassick in India. But that was found to be too expensive after Livingstone died, and the authorities now depend entirely on private offers. Would I take one?

“Yes,” I said to the Arab custodian, “I should like a nice lively little creature for a lady.”

“Oh, if it is for a lady, you can have a girl if you like, but she must give us a receipt.”

I thought that Mrs Fonblanque would prefer a boy; so I selected a pretty, clean-skinned, bright-eyed, curly-headed little fellow of about ten years of age, and it was arranged that he should be waiting for me at the beach when we started. He was delighted beyond measure.

Then we called on the Resident, the one living authority on Arabian politics. He made us stay for breakfast, and I was enthralled and entranced by his conversation. I learned afterwards, what I should have guessed at the time, that he had been engaged for years upon an important work on Arabia; and for that reason it might perhaps be indiscreet to repeat any of the legends and anecdotes he told me.

He kindly undertook to arrange a visit to the Sultan in the afternoon, and then we sallied out to see if we could pick up any quaint old arms. Captain Forbes and I both laughed a little when everybody told us that all the arms in the bazaar had been sent on board the steamer, because a great English lady there did not care to come on shore.

We visited the Custom-house on our way back, a substantial arcaded building erected by the Portuguese, as an inscription over a doorway still shows, in the year 1640; but some of the inscriptions in the old Portuguese forts, and on their guns, are half a century older than this. Then, as we strolled down to the beach and pulled off to the ship, I thought a good deal about Mrs Fonblanque. She was in a different mood every day. Yesterday she had been very good to me. What would she be to-day? I should know when I saw her from her eyes, which varied in expression, and almost in colour, with all her changing moods. And how, I wondered, had she interpreted that sudden and unhappy little episode over the painting of her hand on the panel?

The Captain laughed out just then, and I fancied that I must have been thinking aloud.

“I beg your pardon?” I said, rather savagely. “I beg yours,” he replied, smiling. “It was one of the most ludicrous incidents I ever remember. I shall never forget it.”

“What?” I asked. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, the anchorage here always reminds me of it,” he continued, still laughing. “There was a sailing-ship here last year, and the skipper somehow or other belonged to the Royal Cork Yacht Club, and thought he had a right to fly the Club flag, the white ensign. One of our gunboats came in. The commander saw the white ensign, and sent off in a rage to have it hauled down at once. His men were a smart set of chaps, and got hold of it and brought it on board. Next morning, however, the white ensign was flying away gaily again right at the top of the mizzen-mast. The commander put on his uniform and went in person. The skipper, a tough old Irish salt, met him most affably. ‘Take that flag down!’ roared the captain of the gunboat. ‘How the devil dare you fly her Majesty’s ensign over your d—d old coal-barge?’ ‘I can’t take it down,’ said the skipper coolly, ‘I really can’t, and it is, I assure you, my own Club flag, the Royal Cork Yacht Club.’ ‘D—n the Royal Cork Yacht Club!’ cried the captain. ‘If you can’t take it down, I can.’ ‘No, you can’t,’ said the skipper. ‘I can’t, and you can’t. The flag is nailed to the mast-head, and the mast is—greased.’”

“And what was done?”

“I never knew. There was a deuce of a row. But the flag was still flying when I left.”

Chapter XXVIII

We found Mrs Fonblanque, the Sheik, and their humble servant the curiosity man, busy buying swords and shields and daggers. The swords and daggers were all silver-mounted. Their handles were encrusted with silver, and their scabbards curiously embroidered with solid silver cord. Some of the leather belts attached to them were also almost covered with silver work. The work was very solid and very beautiful, and the Sheik explained that every tribe has its own peculiar pattern of decoration. Some of the old swords were of good workmanship and of a wonderfully fine temper. The dealers bent them double till the point touched the hilt, and they had a queer knack of giving the blades a sudden twist as they threw them up in the air, that made them shiver for five minutes. They were dear, even the smaller daggers costing forty dollars each; but Mrs Fonblanque had purchased a pile of them.

“Well,” she said, looking up, “it is about time you were back, sir. I am tired of buying arms. Pay the men their money, Priscilla, and send them off. It was rather mean of you, Mr Hicks, to steal away without us. What have you both been doing?”

“Seeing the town,” I answered; “and, look here, I have a present for you.”

“What a funny present!” she cried. “But what a pretty little boy! What on earth shall I do with him? I wonder what Priscilla will say to your present. Priscilla! Priscilla!”

Priscilla, rather to my astonishment, approved of the present immensely; and so Mrs Fonblanque resolved to keep him, and signed the receipt.

“He has a skin like velvet,” she said, patting his cheeks. “When he is washed and dressed, he’ll look handsome and very quaint. Thank you, Mr Hicks.”

Then I gave her an account of our expedition, and both she and the Nun were rather indignant when they heard that we had had a pleasant canter through a very charming country.

“I don’t believe in the green scenery and the fruit and the flowers,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “Look at those hot black rocks, my dear. There’s not a sign of anything green anywhere. Let us both go ashore by ourselves, as we did at Bahrein, and see if the Sultan will give us a mount.”

The Nun firmly resisted the temptation, and even the Sheik, who had, it seems, persuaded them to stay on board all this time, again insisted that ladies could not possibly enter the Muscat bazaar.

However, as we were preparing for our interview with the Sultan, Mrs Fonblanque received the signal and unexpected honour of an invitation to visit the royal harem. The letter was written in very indifferent English and apparently by a Portuguese penman perhaps, or probably by our doctor. On the other hand, it was brought in state by a guard of honour. The gist of it all was, that the ladies of the seraglio had heard of the arrival of a great English lady, an event that had never occurred in Muscat before, and were so anxious to see her that the Sultan at once commanded her to come. This was evidently a mere verbal slip. She was, however, to come with the rest of us. She would be graciously entertained, handsomely rewarded, and returned in safety. The letter was ended by the Sultan’s enormous seal of soft brown wax, and it was enclosed in a pretty little casket of carved ivory inlaid with gold, which the messengers refused to take back.

“There’s a mandate for you!” cried Captain Forbes. “Don’t you go. Send back word to say it is his duty to call first.”

“It is rather a rude letter,” said Mrs Fonblanque thoughtfully, “but the envelope is really very pretty. Do you think I ought to go, Mr Hicks?”

“Oh,” I replied, “I see that you have made up your mind, so I will not venture an opinion.”

“Well,” she continued, “after all the Sheik has told us about harem life, I confess I should like to see a real sultan’s real seraglio. I shall go if Priscilla may go too.”

“You will find it dreadfully stupid, dear,” said the Nun.

“I find most things stupid,” replied Mrs Fonblanque, with half a sigh and a side-glance at me. “But I wonder what it will be like?”

“Very like your servants’ quarters in India,” said Captain Forbes, “if they had high walls all round them, and were kept locked up night and day. He is said to have twenty-eight wives; and, judging from those I have brought here and carried away again, I should say that they are mostly negresses.”

“The Sheik ought to know. Where is the Sheik?”

As he could not be found just then, she continued, “I thought they would be all Georgians and Circassians, and goodness knows what, the pick of the loveliest women in the world, in the loveliest dresses. Did you think that, Mr Hicks?”

“No.”

“And you an artist! That is only because you can’t go yourself. But I know better. Think of Sultan Mahmoud’s harem —

‘Dans mon harem se groupe,
Comme un bouquet
Débordant d’une coupe
Sur un banquet,
Tout ce que cherche ou rêve,
D’opium usé,
En son ennui sans trève
Un cœur-blasé.
La biche, et l’antilope,
J’ai tout ici,
Asie, Afrique, Europe
En raccourci;
Teint vermeil, teint d’orange,
Oeil noir ou bleu,
Le charmant et l’étrange
De tout un peu.’

I shall have the most wonderful stories, de tout un peu, to tell you when I come back.”

“When you come back? If you come back; you are taking too sanguine a view of the situation. Perhaps the Sultan may add you to his bouquet.”

“Oh, you forget that Priscilla will be with me. But what am I to say to the eight-and-twenty wives?”

“I don’t think that matters,” I said, laughing. “They won’t understand a single word of any language you know, and the interpreter, if there is one, will talk for you.”

“That is just one of the things I prefer to do myself.”

“Yes, but it can’t be done here. You’ll be made to talk in the way of the country, and it’s very lucky you can’t understand what they say in reply. Don’t you remember that old story of the first Dutch ambassador who went to the Porte? He visited the Sultan. ‘What does the dog want?’ asked the Sultan. This was translated into a speech full of ornate oriental compliments, and the ambassador replied in the same strain. ‘Let the dog feed,’ answered the Sultan, ‘and when the dog has fed, kick the dog out!’ The ambassador was delighted with the Sultan’s compliments. The Sultan felt that he had held his own, and the treaty was signed next day.”

“Never mind the treaty, Mr Hicks. The story is good enough in itself. But I fancy the Sultan of Muscat won’t presume to speak to me in that way; and as to his wives, women are cleverer than men, and we shall understand each other perfectly, no matter what language we happen to talk.”

“We shall see when you come back. But if you want to have as little trouble as possible, adopt Lord Ponsonby’s plan, and whenever you are spoken to, count slowly ‘one, two, three, four,’ and so on, till you think you have said enough.”

“Well, Mr Hicks, if I am to be deaf and dumb, I am not blind, and I promise you to keep my eyes open. I shall have such a lovely picture to describe to you this evening as you never dreamt of in that wonderful house-boat of yours off Medenham, when you fancied you saw Ctesiphon Restored!”

The Sheik, when he came up, strongly advised her to put her veil on; but though I appealed to him as a last chance, he would not try to dissuade her from this very unnecessary experience.

“It will do her good,” he said to me quietly. “There is no trouble in reaching the palace. She will see women treated there on a rational system for once, and that should give her something to think over afterwards.”

We went to the palace escorted by a number of our sailors. Behind the green blinds that covered the long narrow windows in its white walls, Mrs Fonblanque declared she saw the black eyes of the ladies of the seraglio. Over the belvedere on the roof the Sultan’s blood-red banner floated lazily, and turning round, we noticed that his two or three old warships in the harbour were flying all their bunting. The heavy gates swung back as we approached, and Mrs Fonblanque gave a little shriek as the lion, with a low growl, flung himself savagely against the bars of his cage. The large courtyard was crowded with Wahabee troops, all swaying to and fro in a weird fantastic manner, to the wild music of a Sidi band.

“I enjoy this,” said Mrs Fonblanque, taking my arm. “I am glad I came. It is very promising, and makes my blood creep just enough.”

Here the interpreter came forward and asked us to climb up a very narrow flight of steep steps protected by a hand-rail. This led us on to the gallery running right round the great courtyard, and in another moment, after passing under a low doorway and crossing an ante-room, we were in the Sultan’s audience-chamber. He came forward slowly, bowing to all of us as he came, and after courteously motioning Captain Forbes and myself to two chairs, one on either side of his own, he beckoned to Mrs Fonblanque to follow him. She turned, just before they disappeared, and there was a new look almost of timidity or doubt in her pathetic grey eyes.

The room we sat in was large, but very unpretending. The walls were whitewashed. The floor was partially covered by an unusually big and very handsome Persian carpet, in the middle of which stood the three chairs; and on one side of the room there hung portraits of the Queen, the Prince of Wales, and the Shah.

‘“That will be something to tell the Sheik,” said the Captain, softly. “With this precedent he will be able to buy Ezra’s Tomb from Mrs Fonblanque after all.”

But just then the Sultan reappeared and took his seat between us.

In spite of a rather timid manner and the studied simplicity of his attire, there was a natural dignity about Syud Toorki that set us at our ease at once. He was, I should say, some fifty years old, though he looked more. His light-brown features were regular and finely chiselled. His eyes, when they were not lowered, were intelligent and sympathetic. His smile had an expression of fixed melancholy. He wore no ornaments of any sort, no arms, and not even a turban, his head being covered with a white skull-cap in token of his priestly descent.

Syud Toorki, the Sultan of Muscat—the Imam of Muscat, as they call him in Europe from his sacred pedigree—was anxious to know all that was going on in Europe, and took a lively interest in the account of my journey here from Constantinople. Then he motioned to the crowd of white-clad slaves to withdraw, and the conversation became more intimate. He talked a good deal, and very pleasantly, of Bombay, where he had spent some years of his life as a pensioner of the Government of India: and, indeed, he still draws an English or Indian subsidy of £10,000 a-year. He seemed to regret the good old days, and to think that his younger brother had got the better half of their heritage when the British Government cut the old kingdom into two, and gave Zanzibar to his brother and Muscat to him.

“Muscat,” he said, “is nothing without Zanzibar. We were a great naval power once. Our fleet has gone, our merchant-ships are going, our trade is dying, our time is over. The Arab proverb says ‘as great a coward as a Muscatee.’ I am an Arab, not a Muscatee myself. But my people here would care nothing if the English flag were run up over my palace tomorrow. The best of them have deserted us, and gone away to Bunder Abbas and Zanzibar, which were both ours once.”

I turned the conversation by endeavouring to talk about the slave trade. But this, too, seemed to be a disagreeable topic. He expressed a kind of mild surprise at the trouble England took in trying to suppress an immemorial institution. Then he clapped his hands, and the attendants brought black coffee without sugar, very sweet sherbet, and cigarettes, and proceeded to drench us liberally with attar of roses as we smoked. The conversation began to languish. I tried to revive it by asking something about the prospects of a close union between the Arab tribes. But he understood as little of the subject as I did. I always hate talking through an interpreter. It is, I fancy, like dancing in fetters; and Captain Forbes did not think it necessary to open his mouth at all, except to suggest aside that the shower of rose-water was a timely hint that the audience was over, and that we had already sat there for a most unconscionable time. This was true enough, and I was quite as sick of it as he was; but there were no signs of Mrs Fonblanque. I could not desert her. The Sultan was still silent, and the situation became embarrassing.

“Ask his Majesty,” I said at last to the interpreter, “when Mrs Fonblanque is coming out?”

“It would be as much as my head is worth,” he replied, in a very low voice, “to mention a woman to the Sultan.”

The Sultan, mistaking our hesitation for gaucherie, was good enough to rise first, conduct us to the door, and graciously shake each of us by the hand, and there was nothing for it but to follow the interpreter down the stairs and across the courtyard. I began to be really anxious about Mrs Fonblanque. Captain Forbes was vastly amused at my discomfiture, and the interpreter could not understand it. No English Mem Sahib had ever visited the Sultan’s seraglio before, and he had no idea what the etiquette was. At all events, it was impossible to get any information from the seraglio, except, perhaps, in a very official way through the Resident. Should he take me to the Presidency?

“Nonsense, man!” said the Captain; “ten to one she is on board already.”

They knew nothing, however, of her in the ship, and I had just persuaded Captain Forbes to start for the shore again, when we suddenly heard a salute. There was a great commotion on the beach, and in a few minutes we saw Mrs Fonblanque approaching in a gold and crimson coloured pinnace.

She was perfectly radiant, as we found a seat for her on the quarter-deck, and all sat down around her.

“I am sorry I kept you,” she began; “but it really was the most delightful day of my life. Nobody could have been nicer than the Sultan after he left you to take me into the seraglio, and no one more attentive. We crossed over a broad garden, well shaded by thick trees, and full of roses and vines, pomegranates, jessamine, and honeysuckle. There was a pretty gilt chiosk or pleasure-house in the middle of it, and four marble fountains at the four corners; the rooms of the seraglio run all round it in two storeys, and everything was beautifully kept.”

“Well, all I can say is,” said the Captain, “that your experiences and ours are not precisely similar.”

“Hardly,” replied Mrs Fonblanque, as Priscilla brought her up a cup of tea. “The Sultan, however, seemed to be rather interested in my experiences, and he handed me over to the ladies’ quarters in a half-hearted and reluctant kind of way.”

“How did he express himself?” asked I.

“By his eyes,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “Mr Hicks’s bugbear of foreign languages never arose for a moment. However, when we had crossed the garden, he pulled a heavy purdah aside, and after looking all manner of amiable things, he left me there, and I went on, escorted by a very fat, very old, very white-haired negro, through a suite of the loveliest rooms you can possibly imagine.”

“Indeed!” I said; “and what were they like?”

“The first room was plainly furnished, with nothing but low couches round it. But the floor was marble, and the couches or divans, covered with pale blue velvet on a silver ground, stood on little white marble pillars. Then we passed through another room, wainscoted with silver, and inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and ivory of different tints, and a polished wood—olive-wood, I think.”

“Whew!” said the Sheik. “Poor old Fatima hates tent-life. Your description would really make her mouth water.”

“What, you here!” exclaimed Mrs Fonblanque. “You said you were going to stop in Muscat, Sheik; and I have been blaming myself for the last two or three hours for not having said good-bye to you before I went ashore. I thought it was possible you might change your plans; but what made you change them?”

“Business,” said the Sheik, dryly.

“Never mind the Sheik’s plans now,” I interrupted. “What happened in the olive-wood room?”

“Here,” continued Mrs Fonblanque, “the old negro withdrew, and two pretty, bright-eyed, red-lipped little negresses took charge of me.”

“And then?”

“They led me into a much larger and grander room. The walls here were encrusted with some kind of Japanese china, thickly studded with small mirrors. The ceiling, where it was not gold, was painted with flowers, and all the indented archways, in the wall beneath the narrow iron cross-barred windows, were filled in with baskets of creepers and pots of flowers. In the front part of the room there was a big fountain, and the water, as it splashed down through all the marble basins, cooled the air very pleasantly. The walls beyond that were fitted with low sofas or divans, covered with white satin embroidered with gold, and the floor was strewn with heavy Persian rugs.”

“What more could one wish for, dear?” said the Nun.

“I wished for nothing more. Sister Patricia,” replied Mrs Fonblanque sweetly. “I don’t know about the other women; perhaps they thought the windows too high up. It was a prison, no doubt, but it looked like a paradise.”

“And the other women, the ladies of the seraglio, what of them?” I asked, fairly astonished by all this magnificence,

“Oh, they were grouped together at the end of the room, waiting to receive me; and after we had made our salaams, they lay down again on the carpets all around, and we all began to talk.”

“And what did you talk about?”

“What do women always talk about? About dress, to be sure, Mr Hicks. They examined my things, and I examined theirs.”

“In dumb show?”

“Well, partly. But Priscilla helped us out.”

“Were their dresses very grand?” asked the Nun.

“I suppose so. They were certainly very picturesque and becoming.”

“I could hardly say that of the dresses I saw at Teheran,” said the Nun, thoughtfully. “Some of the younger women were pretty, but they couldn’t look nice in trousers.”

“No, dear? I fancy I almost prefer their wide trousers to our skimpy petticoats. I wish you had seen the lady who seemed to be their leader. She was dressed in a gold brocade jacket, pale pink trousers, an open muslin vest, a broad green girdle set with diamonds, and white satin slippers; and she wore great pearl-beaded bodkins in her loose black hair. But I really can’t describe their dresses properly to all these gentlemen. The younger girls were dressed in different-coloured damasks, embroidered with silver or gold, and wore their hair in innumerable plaits. I counted more than a hundred separate tresses on one girl’s head.”

“It must be rather hard to plait a negress’s head,” said the Captain.

“Negresses!” cried Mrs Fonblanque, indignantly. “There were no negresses there but the girls who stood behind us like bronze statues and fanned us with huge palm-leave fans.”

Here the Sheik laughed out. “I thought my experiences of England rather striking for an Arab,” he said. “They are nothing to this English lady’s experiences of Arabia. Zuleika, who knew one or two of the Sultan’s wives, must have been grossly deceived.”

Mrs Fonblanque fanned herself serenely.

“Were any of them beautiful?” I asked.

“Very,” she answered. “There were about thirty of them; and quite half were extremely beautiful, with wonderful complexions, very soft skins, very regular features, and very large eyes, supernaturally black and brilliant, on account of the black stuff they all put under their eyes, and yet with a very languishing and pathetic look in them too. Many of the ladies had, I fancied, rather a sad expression. But they smiled very sweetly when they spoke to one another, and they seemed to be as friendly as possible. They were very easy and graceful. The younger women had perfect figures, and they were all singularly free from affectation and restraint.”

“A regular happy family,” I said. “But how did they contrive to keep you amused for so long? We thought they were going to keep you altogether.”

“We had sweetmeats, and halwa, and dates, and coffee in very tiny little cups, and sherbet and cigarettes and rose-water, and they were all astonished that I didn’t smoke. Then four young girls came forward to dance, and danced very prettily indeed. I never saw anything like it in India; but then in India I had never seen a nautch in a seraglio. After that there was some music, and then another set of girls came forward as jugglers and snake-charmers. Have you read ‘Salammbo,’ Mr Hicks?”

“Yes, and thought it rather dreary reading.”

“Well, there was one girl in the troupe that reminded me a little of Hamilcar’s beautiful daughter. After that, as the sun was going down, we spent some time in the garden, and then, before I came away, they insisted on taking me all through the seraglio. They certainly have the most luxurious baths I had ever seen. One domed room led into another. The domes and the floors and the walls were all white marble. The water flowed through marble basins into tiny marble channels, and in the hot baths—Turkish baths, as we call them—the sofas were of marble too.”

“Stop!” I cried. “I have you at last, Mrs Fonblanque! You didn’t try a Turkish bath yourself?”

“Of course not,” she said. “Don’t be ridiculous, Mr Hicks.”

“Wait a little. You didn’t have a chance, then, of seeing, as Lady Wortley Montagu—”

“And who was Lady Wortley Montagu?” asked Mrs Fonblanque, innocently.

“The lady who was bold enough to say, after she had been in the harems of Constantinople, that a woman’s face is no index to her beauty—the lady, Mrs Fonblanque, from whom you have stolen the whole account of your wonderful experiences. I remember it all now, and I remember a good deal you have not told us. Will you confess? Or shall I give the Sheik, and the Captain, and the Nun too, the bits you have omitted, and cross your t’s for you and dot your i’s?”

“For shame, Mr Hicks!” she cried—“for shame! Don’t punish me for trying to amuse you all and to puzzle the Sheik. You were puzzled, Sheik?”

“Immensely puzzled,” he said. “I know nothing of Lady Wortley Montagu, and I thought you really were smitten with the restful seclusion of our harem life.”

“I hate it!” she cried. “It is ten thousand times worse than I thought. They weren’t all negresses, but they were all ugly. They did not care two straws for me, and I saw they didn’t like my dress. We had no dancing-girls and no snake-charmers; we had nothing but one dreadful old woman, who came in with the coffee, and told stories that made them shriek with laughter. There, Mr Hicks! are you satisfied now? I was never so bored in my life before. I feel quite done and quite faint. Now are you happy?”

“Why did you stay so long?” I persisted.

“Ah! that is your fault, not mine. It was not etiquette, they told me, to let me go till you had started.”

Chapter XXIX

“‘There is sorrow on the sea,
It cannot be quiet;’
There are tears for you and me,
. . . . . .”

This was the beginning of Mrs Fonblanque’s evening hymn as our good ship steamed slowly down the Gulf of Oman by starlight. We were standing together by the bulwarks. We had all bade good-night to one another some little time before, and had gone down below. But the night was very beautiful, and she and I suddenly startled each other by meeting on the quarter-deck.

“I have no right to be here,” she said, “now that the lights are out. I only wanted to be alone. But the sea here, on starlit nights like this, has an extraordinary fascination for me.”

“So it has for me,” I answered. “It looks restful, and I feel very restless.”

“Oh no!” she said. “Surely you are wrong there. The sea is not restful. I like it because it never seems the same to me. It changes with every mood of the sky, every breath of the wind, and every turn of the tide. Can’t you hear the voices of the sea? Can’t you hear what they say?”

“Not more to-night than on other nights,” I answered.

“Can’t you?” she said. “The sea has haunted me all the evening through. A few days ago I promised to sing really to you, and now that nobody can hear us, I will try, if you like, to tell you in my singing what the sea says.”

Her song, as she sang it through, was a revelation to me altogether of the power of music. It was supremely sad and tender and pathetic.

I, who thought to link all the arts together, to give music to words, and words to music, I could only humbly ask her what she meant.

“It is beautiful,” I said—“so beautiful that it must be true. But it is an enigma all the same. I can feel its beauty, but it only fills me with vague guesses.”

“All beauty should, I think, do that,” she answered, “and that is why I didn’t believe in your theory of universal knowledge.”

What did it mean after all? I remember most distinctly the strange, sorrowful feelings her song aroused in me as I listened, and how her voice seemed to sob along the waves. Mrs Fonblanque was right. The sea, as she sang, was restless and not restful. I remember, and shall never forget, those first three lines. That is all; but that is enough, for the motive of the whole song—words and music too—lay in them.

“There is sorrow on the sea.” How could Mrs Fonblanque, who had bidden me a laughing good-night not very long before, see into my heart like this? “There are tears for you and me.” That was an exact echo of my own thoughts as I had stood there for a moment alone, watching the ebb and flow of the ocean, always, as I thought till then, monotonous, always irresistible, and always sounding the same melancholy dirge.

And still, as we both were silent, the deep-toned music of the sea seemed to continue to keep tune and time to the cadence of her song.

I was moved as I rarely have been; but after all, as the long waves incessantly rolled on, what insignificant items we both were, except to ourselves, and except, perhaps, to each other!

There was a world of meaning in that “perhaps.”

“There are tears for you and me.” Who would care but us? Would she care?

“I wish,” said Mrs Fonblanque, after a pause, “that I had never turned back. I was trying to escape from myself when I first met you, Mr Hicks.”

“Why?”

“I scarcely know. You remember that horrible man Mr Wylie, and that night at the Residency?”

“Yes,” I said. “You can’t tell how I long to have it all explained away, or how miserable I have made myself over his unresented rudeness to you,”

“Poor boy!” she said, laying her hand softly on my arm. “Poor boy! the world has many disillusions for you yet.”

“But why?” I cried. “Tell me! Tell me!”

“I cannot tell you now,” she answered. “Perhaps at first I might have told you—and then, there is nothing to tell. But this I can say honestly: I had never seen Mr Wylie before. I had never heard of him. Yet for the last three days I have been wishing that I had never met you.”

“Well,” I answered slowly, looking down on the little hand that still just touched my sleeve, and thinking much more of it than of her words, “if you are sorry, I am sorry too—for both of us. The mere accident of our encounter at Kurnah, when they were sawing down the Tree of Good and Evil, has given me the happiest days I have ever known.”

“And that is why you have tried to seem so disagreeable lately?” said Mrs Fonblanque, gently. “I don’t think any of us, not even the Nun or the Sheik, thought you exceptionally happy. And as for me, you seemed to avoid me altogether.”

“No, I didn’t!” I cried. “You know better. Your grey eyes haunted me from the first moment I saw them. Then I kissed your hand, and that made me love you and hate myself. But you must know what I feeL”

“No, Mr Hicks, I don’t. Indeed I don’t. It was very, very wrong of you to kiss my hand, and very wrong of me not to blame you for it afterwards far more than I did. We were both to blame, I daresay. Now we are quits; and so let us forget all about it, as we promised.”

“I never promised! I can’t forget!” I said, passionately. “I wish I could. When I kissed your hand I didn’t want to kiss it; I scarcely knew what I was doing; but I could not help it. I will land at the first port we come to if you wish it, Mrs Fonblanque, if you will only promise to forgive me.”

“I scarcely know what I wish, Mr Hicks. But I will really and truly forgive you if you solemnly promise never to kiss my hand again.”

“Oh!” I cried, “I am so glad I am not to be banished. I promise.”

Then, without knowing what I did, I drew her gently towards me. Her eyes met mine. They were half closed, but still half resentful. Then her long eyelashes fell softly over them. Her pliant figure shivered for a moment as I held her in my arms; and, for a moment, she lay very still; and then somehow her lips touched mine, and it was I who shivered. There seemed to be a message in her kiss, a message that thrilled me through with mysterious longings and surmises.

Her eyes, I thought, would tell me everything when they opened. They told me nothing. They were cold still, though full of tears, as I saw them in the starlight; and her face was very, very pale.

“You should not have made me do that, Mr Hicks!” she cried. “I hate you and despise myself, and now you despise me too!”

She broke from me as she spoke, and stole away like a white-robed phantom to the other side of the ship, and hid her face in her hands.

“Can’t you hear the sea?” she said, as I implored her to look up. “‘There are tears for you and me.’”

“I don’t care what tears there are,” I answered, “so long as I may think you love me.”

“Oh, but you must never think that, Mr Hicks,” she cried, turning round almost fiercely, and putting her hands out as if she were pushing some horrible thing away from her. “You must never think that. I don’t love you and I can’t love you. Let us be the old friends we were. I can promise to like you very dearly, and I should like to like you, so as to mix myself up in all your plans. Let us be the dearest friends in all the world, and bound to help each other whatever happens. I must go, I must go! What would the Nun say if she knew that I were here, and what must you have thought of me for being here at all! Can’t you see that I am crying, Mr Hicks,” she said, suddenly snatching her hand from mine.

Then she stood for a moment, just in front of the companion, as statuesque as if in marble, in her white drapery, with the starlight full on her grey eyes, and pale face, and bare white arms as they were uplifted with a menace—so it seemed to me—of an eternal farewell.

“Stay, stay, stay!” I cried. “Say you forgive me. Say something for me to think over all night long when you have left me.”

“I am not leaving you, Mr Hicks,” she replied in a low tremulous voice. “I am very, very tired. That is all. But to-morrow we will start afresh, so as to be good friends, earnest, unselfish, and loyal ever afterwards, but always friends.”

Then she disappeared.

Next day, however, Mrs Fonblanque avoided me altogether, and until we came to Gwadur she seemed to be completely wrapped up in the Nun’s society.

Then Captain Forbes, who had to go ashore on business, offered to take us all off with him. We were anchored right under a huge volcanic rock, shaped exactly like a great Gothic cathedral. The shore, consisting of a strip of yellow sand with queer sandstone cliffs behind it, looked rather tempting. There were three European houses on the beach, and a native village found shelter under the cliffs.

“I should like a little walk,” said the Nun. “Shall we go, dear?”

“I should like a walk too,” said the Sheik.

“So should I,” I said.

“Come on, Mrs Fonblanque!” cried the skipper.

“I have a headache,” she answered, wearily, “and I would really rather not go ashore to-day.”

“We won’t let you off!” cried Captain Forbes; and then they all began to make their arrangements.

I only wanted to go on shore so as to talk to her. Here on board I would have her all to myself.

“May I stay?” I asked anxiously, the moment the others were out of hearing.

“No, Mr Hicks. If you stay I shall be obliged to go,” she said gently; “and indeed I have a headache, and I feel rather frightened to-day at the thought of the surf and the boat.”

“Then, of course, you must stop here,” I answered. “But why may I not stop with you? Last night you promised that we should be the best friends in all the world, and to-day you will scarcely speak to me.”

“I hardly know what is the matter with me to-day,” she said. “I do not mean to be unjust, but I did not want to talk to you just now. However, we must talk about it sooner or later, and it is very kind of you to think of staying.”

Here they all came up again, and were astonished to find that we intended to remain on board.

“What is the matter with you both?” asked the Sheik, looking first at her, and then at me. “What is the matter with you both to-day? You seem to be tired out, Mrs Fonblanque, and as if you had not slept much last night?”

“Perhaps not,” replied Mrs Fonblanque.

“I thought not at the time,” he said. “I thought so last night. I thought I heard you singing.”

Then Mrs Fonblanque looked at him.

“I could not sleep properly myself,” he continued, “so I took my hookah under the bridge and smoked away there until somehow or other I dozed off.”

Then he offered the Nun his hand, to help her into the boat.

Sister Patricia drew back a little.

“I was only going because Mrs Fonblanque was going,” she said.

“Oh, but you must go!” cried the Sheik. “I want to show you the oil-well, and the queer way it bubbles up out of the mud.”

“I really think you might go, dear,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “They will both look after you.”

The Nun glanced hurriedly at Mrs Fonblanque and myself. She saw clearly what I wanted. She did not like to go, but she went.

Then at last we were left alone.

“You promised we should be friends,” I said, as Mrs Fonblanque drew her chair a little away from me.

“And I meant what I promised,” she exclaimed. “Only we must put the last two or three days behind us altogether and start anew. I tried to think it all out last night, Mr Hicks, and if you will really forget the last two or three days, I don’t see why we should not remain true and loyal friends. Do you?”

“No,” I said. “I will try to be as true and loyal as I can. My one wish now is to be near you, to see you, to hear your voice, to feel your presence. I will try to forget the last two or three days, and the days before them too. But you are part and parcel of my life now, Mrs Fonblanque. There is a personal atmosphere about you that I feel as distinctly as I see your eyes or hear your voice. I feel your presence before I see you, and the atmosphere around you is as essential to me as the air I breathe.”

“Oh,” said Mrs Fonblanque, “you should not speak like that to-day; and after all I said, you ought not to have that feeling. If you really have it, it may last till we reach Bombay—and then?”

“Don’t laugh at me,” I answered. “It is not my fault. I have lost my individuality in yours. A cloud of thoughts and feelings, common to both of us, seems to envelop us both. What shall I do if it dies away altogether, and what shall I do now?”

“Poor boy!” she said gently, and very much as she had said it the night before. I thouoht she might perhaps lay her hand on my arm again, and that I should see her face as I had seen it in the starlight the night before.

I fancy she guessed what I was thinking, for she was silent for a little, as she turned her face away from me altogether.

“Mr Hicks,” she said at last, “we must let the future take care of itself, and be good friends to each other. We won’t look back, and we neither of us need look forward. We both want a little honest friendship. Sometimes I scold you, but I like your society better than the Sheik’s or the Nun’s. You know that, and I don’t mind you knowing it. Let us be friends.”

“And your friendship,” I said, half smiling, “would gradually develop me into a large and limp replica of yourself. Last night—”

“Last night is dead and buried,” she answered, very gravely.

“And the future is barred. What have we left?”

‘“The present,” she cried brightly, “and that is everything. One day is as good as another, and life is interesting wherever you seize it. We can seize it if we like, and give love the go-by.”

“Can we?” I retorted, rather bitterly. “That was not the way you spoke the other day when you told me that men were fired and inspired by love and only by love.”

“Ah!” she answered, “we were talking impersonally then, and we were jesting. We are talking of each other now, and we are bound to be earnest in all we say, and true, and very careful. I think I can help you a little with my friendship. But there must be no word, and no thought, and no hint of love between us.”

“But we shall, as you said just now, be in Bombay in a few days—and then?”

“Oh, then,” she said, smiling, “you shall paint my portrait. I could not sleep last night, and so I tried to think it all clearly out. We will live in a hotel there somewhere till the portrait is done.”

“But there must still be a ‘then’ when the portrait is finished.”

“I suppose so,” she said. “You are dreadfully literal and logical to-day, Mr Hicks. But you need not hurry over the portrait, you know.”

There was a bright sunny look in her eyes as they met mine frankly, that banished all my troubles and perplexities at once.

“It will be a long time before I am logical or literal again,” I cried. “I am getting exactly what I wanted. Give me a little more, and I shall be perfectly happy. The very morning after we met first, you said we couldn’t go on being ‘he’ and ‘she’ to each other. Must we still go on being Mrs Fonblanque and Mr Hicks?”

Mrs Fonblanque thought a little. “I must give and take, I suppose,” she said. “But I wish you hadn’t asked me that so soon. Yes,” she added at last, “you may call me Lydia when nobody else is near. I don’t see what harm that can do, or what good.”

“And you will call me Hector?”

“Yes.”

“Yes!” I exclaimed eagerly, “yes!”

“Yes—Hector,” she said gently, with a faint smile on her lips, and a much brighter smile in her grey eyes. “I am almost glad now you suggested it. I never liked the Hicks. I always liked the Hector.”

“How kind and good you are to me, Lydia! Give me one thing more, and make to-day the happiest day of mv life.”

“And that one thing?” she asked quietly, as a quick warm flush lit up her beautiful pale face.

“The key to the mystery between you and that man Wylie.”

“Mr Hicks—no, no. Hector I mean—there is no mystery. I have no key. I know nothing. I only suspect. I never saw Mr Wylie before; indeed, indeed I didn’t! I hate him, I don’t know why. Don’t let us make ourselves miserable with these wretched suspicions. Oh, Hector, here they come! Mind you don’t call me Lydia before them.”

“He has shot himself!” cried the Nun, hurrying up to us with a white scared face. “He has shot himself, and he is dead.”

“Who, my dear?” asked Mrs Fonblanque, rising quickly and taking both her hands.

“That poor passenger,” said the Nun; and then she began to sob, and Mrs Fonblanque led her away.

Captain Forbes, when he arrived, told us in a few words what had happened. They had had a pleasant walk to the oil-wells, and had seen the thick grey liquid foaming up through the mud into bubbles that burst at last with a report like a pistol-shot. They had tried to enter the little bazaar; but the Nun was frightened at the Beloochees and their fierce eyes, and huge Jewish features, and long masses of unkempt hair; so they returned to the beach instead, and waited there till the Sheik’s emissary had purchased some wonderful old arms for Mrs Fonblanque, and, at the Nun’s suggestion, a piece of dark-yellow cloth for the little negro slave-boy. Then they looked in at the telegraph office to see the news, and there they learnt that that wretched passenger of ours had shot himself when he was sober enough to find that the steamer had left Bushire without him. The Nun, poor thing, insisted that she was to blame for his death.

“I told her,” continued the Captain, warmly—“I told her, over and over again, that she had nothing to do with it, and that I always drop my passengers at the first port if they can’t pay for their passage. But the Sheik managed her far better than I could. Without him I don’t know how we should have got her off to the steamer. Mark my words, that Sheik is a wonderful old chap with women. He’ll watch over her, poor girl, like a father, for the rest of the way down, and she’ll obey him like a child.”

It was not long before I had an opportunity of seeing how courteous and gentle the Sheik was to the Nun, and how careful he was of her, and what close friends they became. They were, it is true, an incongruous couple; but their alliance left Mrs Fonblanque and myself a good deal to ourselves, which was exactly what I most ardently desired just then.

The Nun, good gentle creature, never spoke to me again of the ill-fated passenger. But Mrs Fonblanque told me privately that the Nun blamed herself terribly for letting Captain Forbes guess what had frightened her off Fao.

“I am sorry for him, poor chap, after all,” said the skipper, as I told him this. “If he wrote those things the Quartermaster laid hold of, there must have been something in him. He talked in a lively and entertaining way at breakfast the morning after he came on board, and I almost believed him when he said that our next great poet would have to lead a vagabond life too. And now he has snuffed himself out in the slums of a dirty Persian town! So much for the potentialities of his new departure, and his easy-going theories about the sins and follies of one’s ancestors! Poor chap!”

Chapter XXX

An intellectual friendship with a clever and accomplished woman of my own age was a strange experience to me altogether, and a very pleasant one. Mrs Fonblanque had an almost instantaneous way of seeing things—thanks to what she called “the unaided intellect”—that made her criticism valuable, even about moot questions which I had deliberately settled long since. After a time I was driven into a corner, and forced to bring my book-box up on deck so as to refer to my authorities. Then it was that the most enjoyable part of this long journey really began.

At first we read our favourite authors out by turns. But I soon discovered that Lydia read much better than I could, and that the very sound of her voice gave new meaning to the passages I almost knew by heart. So I lay at her feet on a pile of her own carpets beside my book-box. When she stopped I had always another book open at the right place; and as she read, I could, at all events, look up into her face and admire the curious way it changed in colour, and in expression too, in sympathy with her author’s thoughts. She did not seem to know that I was watching her. But she would not let me see her eyes.

We had both solemnly discarded love or any mention of it. But all the poets seemed to be on my side, and I could scarcely ask her to read prose just then. Browning, Tennyson, and Swinburne she returned to my book-box very quickly; Shelley and Wordsworth, she said, were too difficult; but over Heine and De Musset we had rather a lively controversy. She knew them, of course, though perhaps not quite so well as I did.

“They are very clever writers,” she said, “very polished, very acute, and very cynical. I hate the realistic school, but surely they disregard actual life altogether.”

“Not altogether,” I answered “They can’t quite do that—though, when they were in the vein to write poetry, they had, I fancy, much the same feelings that I have now. Love, true love, was forbidden them, and so they made love attractive and bizarre, fantastic and romantic if you like, but tantalising and fugitive, and, sooner or later, faithless.”

“That is very much what I meant,” cried Mrs Fonblanque. “There is more real passion in any one of Burns’s pathetic little songs than in the whole of the ‘Reisebilder’ or ‘Rolla.’”

“Yes,” I answered. “But Heine and De Musset could scarcely help themselves. Burns was one of nature’s children, like Shakespeare. They were the children of their age. They had la maladie du siècle. They were poets; and poets, unless they are immortal to begin with, show the worst as well as the best of their age. They are their age in miniature, and its scapegoats. These two particular poets had lost all their illusions, just as you and I have lost them. We are dumb, but they gloried in their loss. They laughed out loudly, like Figaro, to keep themselves from weeping; for Heine and De Musset were both intensely human, after all. They said spontaneously what they felt, and so they said it very beautifully, and I like them for that. But Baudelaire and Poe, and all their imitators, care for nothing but the form they give their ingenious word-puzzles, and we care nothing for them. The frame is so elaborately carved that we glance at the workmanship with interest—and pass on.”

“There is a great deal in form, though,” replied Lydia, picking Rossetti’s first volume out of the book-box. “Let me read you ‘The Blessed Damozel.’”

“Is not that exquisite?” she asked, when she had finished.

“Very exquisite,” I answered, “and almost perfect, but not quite perfect. There is something wanting. A poem with that key-note should be as pure as snow. The Blessed Damozel, as she leaned out from the golden bar of heaven, should have had no taint or tinge of earth about her: —

‘And still she bowed herself and stooped
Out of the circling charm,
Until her bosom must have made
The bar she leaned on warm.’

Doesn’t that jar on you?”

“I don’t think so,” said Mrs Fonblanque.

“Then you will hardly know what I mean when I say that Rossetti’s poems are pictures, and his pictures poems?”

“Hardly,” said Lydia. “But that surely is what you want if art and literature, to say nothing of science, are to be interchangeably the same thing.”

“Yes. But somehow Rossetti seems always to employ the wrong medium for each especial thought of his.”

So we read on, hour after hour, with all the poets on my side. It was not so easy, even in literature, to discard love as Lydia thought.

The Nun and the Sheik were both tired of our interminable disputations. They apparently found a good deal to say to each other, but they were rather cross with us at meal-times, and when they came on deck they contrived to show us that we had better remain on one side.

Mrs Fonblanque discussed all the poets had said most thoroughly, but she would never allow me to talk about ourselves. Whenever I got tired of the books and sent my book-box down below in a rage, Priscilla always brought up the pretty little slave-boy I had bought for her at Muscat. With Priscilla’s help, she busied herself in attiring him in the Nun’s dark-yellow cloth, and while I was starving for a look or a word, she petted him and caressed him till he was glad enough to get back to Priscilla.

They formed a really pretty contrast, Lydia and her slave-boy, and I plainly told her so when she had annoyed me by petting him and caressing him for nearly half an hour.

“He sets off your pale beauty admirably,” I said. “You like contrasts!”

“Yes,” she answered, patting his pretty little woolly head. “I like contrasts, contrasts of three, for our contrast would not be complete without you, Mr Hector.”

“I don’t know that,” I said, rather roughly. “Look at the Sheik and the Kun. Y”ou couldn’t have a stronger contrast than that, and yet I have rarely seen a happier couple, or a man more attentive than he is.”

“They do look very happy,” replied Lydia, “though I fancy Sister Patricia thinks we have both treated her rather shabbily and selfishly of late. But there is always something very touching in the friendship of a young girl and an old man.”

“Reverse the situation, and I’ll agree most thoroughly with you,” I cried. “My uncle always used to advise me to cultivate the society of old ladies. A clever, experienced, sympathetic woman of the world who has been sixty or seventy years in it, he used to say, is the best and truest friend a very young man can possibly have. Here, I am almost certain my uncle was right, and the two ladies for whom I feel the warmest regard to-day, and who have had the greatest influence over my life, were both more than sixty-five years old. They had the influence of their sex without its prerogatives.”

“And what may be its prerogatives?” asked Mrs Fonblanque.

“I don’t know,” I answered, hastily, “and perhaps I was talking nonsense. But those two old friends of mine spoke with authority. They stood at one gate of life; I stood at the other: and then, you forget that my mother died when I was born.”

“Oh, I forgot that!” cried Lydia. “I forgot that altogether!”

Then she dismissed her little slave-boy summarily, and we spent another dreamy afternoon over our books.

All good times, however, come to an end, and when we reached Kurrachee I did not want to go ashore. The Captain and the Sheik and the Nun had gone without even asking us to accompany them. Mrs Fonblanque didn’t like being ignored, and said she must follow them.

“Oh, do stay!” I said, “and read over the bits I marked in my Schopenhauer before breakfast. He is as dismal as I am, but liveliness itself as compared with the little we can see of Kurrachee from the steamer.”

“Schopenhauer might easily be that,” replied Lydia, smiling. “But, Hector, I can’t stay now. What would they think of us. That villainous old Sheik has simply carried them off to see whether we followed them or not. The Nun and the Captain are both sufficiently vexed with us to consent to be his bait, and that treacherous old creature has set a little trap.”

“What do we care for his little traps?” I answered. “When he comes back, we can show him my marked copy of Schopenhauer, and tell him we have been studying pessimism all day long.”

“Yes; we can tell him that. We can tell him anything,” replied Mrs Fonblanque, rising. “But I must really go on shore now. I have to do a little shopping, Hector. Now, don’t be cross. I have not had a chance of entering a milliner’s shop for more than a month, and you don’t know what that is to a woman. I can’t stop. I must shop. Be a good boy, and call up our old Quartermaster, and let us consult him.”

It would have been a capital day for uninterrupted study; and, very reluctantly, I did what Mrs Fonblanque asked me.

The Quartermaster was delighted, and at once volunteered to act as our guide. Then he urged us to have an oyster luncheon to begin with. There were half-a-dozen oyster-boats alongside; so we had an early tiffin on deck before we started. The Kurrachee oysters are the best in the East. They are large and fat, and rather too green in colour for people accustomed to “natives.” Their shells are almost as rough and clumsy as the shells of the pearl-oysters in the Gulf. But the oysters themselves—if you cut off their edges and eat them in their own juice—are very good indeed; and after a dozen of oysters each, and a glass or two of hock, Mrs Fonblanque and I both, I fancy, felt much happier.

“I am glad that the Nun and the Sheik and Captain Forbes have deserted us,” I said, as I helped her into the boat. “It is far nicer to be alone. This is almost as good as Schopenhauer.”

“Of course it is,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “Still we are not alone after all. There’s the Quartermaster.”

And he very soon showed us that he was there.

“This is a ‘Kurrachee boat’ we are in,” he said. “It has got no keel, and yet it sails closer to the wind than any yacht I ever saw. You can’t beat Kurrachee for carriages and boats. But you mustn’t think from this that anybody ever wants to get out of it. People come to spend a week here, and stay till God takes them. I have been here scores of times myself—only a day or two at a time, though, and never long enough to feel the fascination; but there is a fascination, and all the Kurrachee people say that they have the finest, or almost the finest, climate in the world.”

“Well,” I answered, “you have almost the finest climate anywhere in the East. But you must go straight up—two or three miles or so—to get at it; and that is the difficulty.”

But the Quartermaster, having made up his mind to show us all tke beauties of Kurrachee, was not to be put out by the trifling difference of a mile or two.

He waved his hand vaguely round the horizon.

“That,” he said, “is Manora, with its big lighthouse and little church. You ought to see the fun the picnic parties have there in the turtle-turning season!”

“What is turtle-turning?” asked Mrs Fonblanque.

“Oh, the turtles—and fine big turtles they are too—waddle ashore here to lay their eggs. You can catch them easily between ten and twelve o’clock at night, at the right time of year; and as that isn’t a bad time for a picnic, the ladies here are fond of coming down to the sands for a picnic, and a stroll, and a little turtle-catching afterwards. The turtle—”

“Never mind the turtle,” cried Mrs Fonblanque. “We are going to be shipwrecked!”

The Quartermaster resigned the tiller to a native boatman, and we were soon on shore, and then it was all plain sailing.

The Kurrachee carriages were excellent. They were big roomy barouches that must have originally belonged to rajahs and princes. There were two horses in each of them, and each of them had two flower-worked cushions in the back seat. Lydia chose a carriage from the attractiveness of its cushions. I chose one because the cattle looked really “fit.” Eventually we compromised, and selected the carriage that stood between the two we fancied. The Quartermaster got up on the box.

We had landed at Kiamari, and we drove along a causeway with mangrove swamps and stagnant waters on either side. We passed through the big gates of the Custom-house. Then we came to the old town, crowded with Sindi men walking about in gilt hats that looked like our chimney-pot hats, with the brim where the crown ought to be; and by-and-by we reached the European quarters.

“Their architecture is rather funny, Lydia,” I said. “What is it?”

“Anglo-Indian,” answered the Quartermaster from the box, without a moment’s hesitation.

I daresay he was right. The funny-looking buildings that dotted the dusty roads on either side might be Anglo-Indian, or Hindu-Saracenic, or wattle-and-daub, for what I cared. Whatever they were, they seemed to be in keeping with their surroundings. Dry mud, and clouds of dust, and plains of drifting sand were the characteristics of Kurrachee, and its architects had symbolised its characteristics most successfully. But we were entering the bounds of civilisation just then. I looked around me, and then I looked at Lydia, and I was quite content.

It was nothing to me now that the landscape was grey instead of green, and that there was not a tree or a flower or even a blade of grass within sight. The sky might have been pea-green and the country sky-blue, for anything I cared.

Everywhere well-dressed English people were driving about in their carriages, handsome English women, comely and very haughty and pretty bright-eyed English girls. They stared at us languidly for a moment. But when they saw Lydia they all seemed to be suddenly struck by her beauty. I told the coachman to go slowly through the European quarter. Lydia had her shopping to do, and was clever enough to know that men hate shopping with ladies. However, we went so slowly that we were always coming out at the Frere Hall or the Club, or a long low church with a huge square tower over it that looked in the brilliant sunlight like the gnomon on a sun-dial.

I thought we should have fallen in with the Sheik’s party, but we saw nothing of them, and heard nothing.

“Where shall we go now. Quartermaster?” I asked, when Mrs Fonblanque announced that she was tired of the Kurrachee shops.

“To Mugger Peer, the crocodile pool,” he replied. “It is only six or seven miles off, and there is nothing else worth seeing.”

“That will make us rather late,” said Mrs Fonblanque.

“So much the better,” I answered. “I should like to give the Nun a good fright, and pay her out for deserting you.”

We drove along a level plain of loose clay soil, overrun with prickly-pear, until we came to a gap in some barren rocky hills, seven or eight hundred feet high. The road was tolerably good, though in the pass it seemed to follow the bed of an old ravine. Beneath a white mosque, on a great rock, a number of natives were bathing in some little pools of mineral water, which was so hot that we could scarcely keep our hands in it. Then, for about a mile more, the road wound rather prettily through a grove of date-trees and tamarinds and mangoes; and at last we came to a little swamp, some eighty yards broad and perhaps twice as long. The green, slimy, stagnant water was literally filled with alligators. They were packed as close as herrings in a barrel, and when we got out of our carriage they all, with one movement, turned their long snouts in our direction.

Mrs Fonblanque gave a little shiver as she took my arm. “What a dreadful sight!” she said. “‘Slimy things did crawl with legs upon a slimy sea!’ What disgusting creatures!”

“The natives worship them, ma’am,” said the Quartermaster. “If we walk round to the mosque on the other side, you can buy a goat from the priests, and then you will see them properly.”

We had not gone more than twenty or thirty yards when Mrs Fonblanque gave a start. Just below us, seated on a log, we saw an Englishman. He had a bag of biscuits in his hand, and he was feeding the alligators with them. When they came too close he gave them a rap over the head with his stick, and he was so absorbed in his occupation that he did not notice us till I touched his arm.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said, “we are strangers, and anxious to learn something about this curious place and these strange animals.”

He looked at me in a very dejected manner—and he was a melancholy-looking man at the best—but he said nothing. He rose to his feet, threw the bag of biscuits into the pool, and then slowly walked away.

“You have offended the poor man,” exclaimed Mrs Fonblanque. “Do follow him and beg his pardon.”

“The lady,” I said, “has asked me to apologise for disturbing you.”

“Oh, if there is a lady!” he answered. “I did not know that there was a lady—”

Then he took his hat off to Mrs Fonblanque.

“I’m afraid you must think me a fool,” he continued.

“No, indeed I don’t,” cried Mrs Fonblanque. “I was only wondering why you fed the alligators. It seemed rather queer—”

“‘Rather queer,’ ‘Rather queer,’” said the poor man, sighing. “That’s what they all say of me at Kurrachee. But I have been feeding human sharks all my life, and now that I have nothing left, I have taken to feeding the alligators.”

“What kind of sharks were they?” asked Mrs Fonblanque.

“Gold-mining sharks,” he replied bitterly, “and date-coffee sharks. These were the last two kinds.”

The old gentleman had evidently a bee in his bonnet. But he explained himself readily enough later on. Just now he made it his business to show Mrs Fonblanque all that there was to be seen. Under his instructions a goat was brought out and slaughtered. Mrs Fonblanque turned her head away, but the moment the blood flowed into the water all the alligators made a rush for the bank. There were some two hundred of these hideous creatures. They measured from eight to fifteen feet each. They formed a horrible spectacle as they fought savagely but sluggishly for the bits of flesh thrown to them by the priests. Sometimes they crawled close up to us, and then the priests’ little children beat them off with sticks.

“They are quite harmless,” said the old Englishman, “and very tame. A foolhardy young officer ran over them, from back to back, for a wager once; and to the left there you can see a number of buffaloes lying down among them.”

“How did they come here at all?” inquired Mrs Fonblanque.

“That nobody knows,” he answered; “and the odd thing about them is, that they are quite different from the alligators in the Indus. The priests here have a legend that the Mugger Peer was formed by four saints, all brothers. One struck a hot spring out of the mud with his wand. The second changed a flower into an alligator. The third stuck his walking-stick into the ground, and so led to the dense grove of date-palms around us—”

“And the fourth?”

“I forget,” he said. “My memory is gone. But the lady can have tea,” he continued, brightening up suddenly. “There is a Parsee bungalow here now.”

So we had tea brought out to us under the trees, and Mrs Fonblanque encouraged our guest to talk about Kurrachee.

“The water-works!” he exclaimed at last. “Of course you ought to see the water-works. There are great rivers here, but no water. The mouths of the Indus extend for a hundred and twenty miles, but they are generally dry and thirsty, and gaping for rain.”

“That rather puzzled me when we came in,” I answered. “I had always looked upon the Indus as one of the biggest rivers in the world.”

“So it is,” he said, “barring the water. The water flows below in great subterranean channels. An engineer struck the ground with his rod, much as Moses struck the rock; the water flowed out lavishly, and now we have more water in Kurrachee than we want.”

“That almost sounds like a fairy tale of science.”

“And so it is,” he replied, “a fairy tale that no one would have believed here three or four years ago. But the engineer went on. He dug a couple of deep wells beneath the dry bed of the Malir river, and so tapped an enormous underground reservoir that drains six hundred square miles of country. Then he constructed a conduit seventeen miles long, and now, when the Kurrachee people turn the taps in their houses, they draw their water fresh and cool from the bowels of the earth, and from reservoirs so large that the supply is simply inexhaustible.”

“These huge underground rivers,” I observed, “must play havoc down below.”

“Oh,” he said, “what we see of the world is, after all, only its epidermis. There are terrible powers of fire and water lurking in the rocks down below. When they force their way to the surface, they bring strange revelations with them. Look at the hot springs of Peer Mango, which you must have passed on the way down. They are as full of medicines as a doctor’s shop. There is a cure in them for every disease under the sun. Some day some one will strike the sources of the Spring of Perpetual Youth! And then—”

“He is mad,” whispered the Quartermaster, coming quietly up to me. “The driver says he is well known in Kurrachee, and that he is as mad as a hatter.”

“Is there nothing else to see in the town?” asked Mrs Fonblanque.

“Well,” he replied, “you might drive out to Clifton, and you ought certainly to go over the Club. It is the most hospitable little club in India, and one of the most comfortable, and I belonged to many Indian clubs before I invested in date-coffee.”

“You mentioned that before,” said Mrs Fonblanque. “What is date-coffee?”

“It was supposed to be calcined dates and date-stones, and, judging from the large cargoes of dates that were brought down here to be burnt up in the factory, we thought it was a prodigious success. The process was kept a profound secret. But when the concern burst up, the secret was a very simple one. Date-coffee was real coffee sold for half its value, with a little date-dust added instead of chicory. It paid the promoters and ruined me.”

By this time the sun was sinking. Mrs Fonblanque offered our unhappy companion a seat in the carriage, but he preferred to walk. He always walked down from Kurrachee and back; for, as he naively put it, he had really nothing else to do.

Chapter XXXI

We left our unlucky but not uninteresting friend on the banks of the alligator swamp, and it looked gloomier than ever when the dark curtain of night had fallen over the black rocky hills that surrounded the little palm-grove about it.

The alligators had rather frightened Mrs Fonblanque. But now we had our backs to them. The sun had set suddenly, as it always does in the East, except in the winter months. The young moon was well up in the horizon; the trees at first, and then the rocky hills, cast weird fantastic shadows all around us, and the evening air was very fresh and pleasant. As we lay back lazily in our big roomy carriage we seemed to be completely alone. We talked dreamfully of the future—that future of three or four weeks at most—awaiting us in India; and then we were silent. But it was happiness enough for me to sit in this familiar way beside Lydia, to feel the touch of her garments as they rustled against me, and to know from her eyes when they met mine that she was really thmkmg of me.

“We are both very lazy and languid,” she said suddenly. “What castles are you building in the air, Hector? What were you thinking of as I spoke?”

“Of you,” I answered. “I was lost in that cloud of thoughts and feelings common to both of us. I was going over all our old days again, and, just as you spoke, I had come to what you said of the palm-trees at Bussorah—

‘Leurs amours
Vont sur les ailes de la brise,
De l’amant ignoré toujours
A l’amante toujours surprise.’

And you said you hoped they were happy.”

“Oh,” she laughed, “and you actually remember the words!”

“Yes, I remember everything. But, Lydia,” I cried, “your laws are too harsh for me, and too inflexible. I have promised to obey you, and I will keep my promise. But now and then, on rare occasions like this, we surely needn’t be such formal friends. You don’t know how I wish that last Sunday night were here again, or how I am longing to touch your hand now!”

“No, I don’t know,” she answered, softly. “But perhaps, Hector, I can guess.”

Then her hand touched my sleeve very shyly, and so fell gently into mine.

“This is almost like Sunday night,” I whispered.

“No, no; it is not,” she said, trying to take her hand away from me. “It is too bad of you, Hector. I didn’t mean you to keep it.”

“I don’t see what harm that can do,” I replied. “We shall be at Kurrachee directly.”

“Harm? No,” she answered, “of course not. But you should not be so absurdly wilful.”

I had my own way all the same, and her little hand lay lightly in mine until we reached the pier at Kiamari; and this contact with her, slight as it was, seemed somehow to make our thoughts go together, and to transmit thrilling little messages from her for me to guess at.

As we drove under a lamp-post, I noticed that her lips were smiling faintly; and she said in her turn, “Why are you smiling too?”

“I was thinking of happier men than myself—men who are driving about now all over the world, with their little wives nestling close beside them, in the moonlight, and in the dark, and even in broad daylight; and of happy women who allow their husbands sometimes to put an arm around them for a moment when their coachmen are not looking.”

“That was very wrong of you,” said Lydia gravely.

“I must be stricter, I see, and it is lucky our drive is over. Why, good gracious, here they all are waiting for us!”

“You haven’t gone off, then?” cried the Captain.

“Gone off? What do you mean, sir?” exclaimed Mrs Fonblanque, with her grey eyes flashing.

“I beg your pardon,” he said. “The Sheik and the Nun were both certain you had gone off, and we were just driving down to the station to see.”

“What a piece of impertinence!” cried Mrs Fonblanque, turning sharply round on the Nun. “And what business would it have been of yours, madam, if I had ‘gone off,’ as you call it?”

“I never called it that, dear,” said the Nun. “I am very sorry. Please, please forgive me. I couldn’t help being frightened when it struck nine o’clock. I was afraid something had happened to you, and persuaded the gentlemen to go and see.”

“Thank you,” cried Mrs Fonblanque. “I am not in the habit of ‘going off’ with strange gentlemen. And if a freak of that kind were to enter my head, I should scarcely invite a quartermaster to be one of the party. Perhaps you will be good enough to see me off to the steamer, Mr Hicks,” she added.

“Surely you will come in my gig?” said the Captain.

“I will do nothing of the sort,” she answered, shortly.

“You all desert us in the morning; you throw us on our own resources; and when we come back tired out in the evening, you are waiting on the steps to insult us!”

“It’s that waetched old Sheik,” she said, as we took our seats in one of the many boats that plied for hire. “But I’d no idea it was later than seven. We ought not to have stayed till nine. “We went out to play propriety, and we had far better have stopped on board and read Schopenhauer.”

“I don’t think the Nun is to blame,” I suggested.

“Not to blame!” cried Mrs Fonblanque. “I suppose you like being told that the whole of the ship’s company imagined we had gone off?”

‘“I don’t see why we should mind,” I said. “I am only sorry for one thing.”

“What?”

“That the whole ship’s company were so thoroughly mistaken.”

I was scolded severely for this. But nevertheless we had a very pleasant little supper afterwards, and I was selfish enough not to remonstrate when Lydia declared she meant to send the Nun and the Sheik and the Captain to Coventry for the rest of our voyage. She did not quite keep her word; but we saw as little of them as we could, and spent most of our time over our books.

“After all, a really intellectual friendship, like yours and mine, is very pleasant,” said Mrs Fonblanque one evening, as our coffee was brought up to us on deck. “I have learned a great deal in the last two or three days; and, incidentally, you must have learned something too?”

“Of course I have,” I answered. “Your friendship is an education in itself. But it is not everything. Schopenhauer says that friendship should—”

“Ah, but we are not all Schopenhauers, and you, sir, least of all. You are an optimist, and I always try to be one. He belonged to the dismal school, and it did not matter two straws to any one but himself, and his digestion perhaps, what he said.”

“Wait a moment,” I urged. “Friendship, genuine friendship, is, according to Schopenhauer, who was a philosopher after all, a mixture of selfishness and sympathy. The selfishness is the pleasure you yourself feel in the presence of an individuality corresponding to your own—”

“And you feel that?” said Lydia.

“I am sure I do,” I answered. “But then there is the sympathy. That you enjoy in sharing your friend’s pleasures and griefs, and in an incessant sacrifice of yourself.”

“I don’t think I should mind Schopenhauer’s kind of friendship,” said Lydia. “What does he say of love, now? A pessimist’s idea of love ought to be a good tonic for you, Hector; and though we have agreed not to talk of love at all, I fancy that Schopenhauer’s idea of love, if you explain it to me exactly, will prevent you trying to talk foolishly by-and-by.”

“It would, if I really believed him,” I replied “But I don’t; and I am sure you won’t believe him either. He agrees most thoroughly in our wretched passenger’s theory of heredity, and even brutalises it a little. Love is an instinct. We eat and drink, and sleep and love. That is all.”

“What a horrible system of philosophy!” cried Mrs Fonblanque.

“I thought you would not like it.”

“I was sure I should not. I only wanted it as a tonic for you.”

“Every Jack,” I continued, “has his Jill of some sort. You fall in love. You are a fool for your pains. You are only instigated, though you don’t know it, by the bygone generations, and are only preparing for the next. You work for the good of the species.”

“What a dreadful man!”

“Not altogether,” I said. “His theory in extremis is rather pretty. Every Jack has his Jill. For each particular woman in the world there is one particular man who corresponds to her most closely. If they happen to meet, they love each other passionately, and their love is as rare and strange as the chance of their meeting at all. And that is the love the poets and idealists are always raving ahout—the love of the story-books.”

“Schopenhauer never married, I fancy?” said Lydia.

“No.”

“That was lucky for his Jill, then. Women don’t care for absurd theories and cases in extremis, I rather liked what he said about friendship, but Schopenhauer talks nonsense about love. The stars, Mr Hicks?”

“The stars!” I exclaimed. “And why the stars?”

“Well, you and Schopenhauer together have rather rufifled me to-night. I should like to rise into a serener atmosphere for a while; and in spite of the moonlight, the stars to-night are very beautiful. The infinitely great and the infinitely little! Do you remember what some poet says about the infinitely great and the infinitely little? Each star above us in all those myriads is a world in itself, and so is every drop of water in the sea beneath. With the telescope in one hand and the microscope in the other, science is beginning to tell us what we are worth.”

“Now you are worse than Schopenhauer,” I cried. “Leave science alone, and go to the poets for instruction.”

“What do they say about the stars, then?”

“What don’t they say? Only take Heine. He knew how to read the stars aright. They told him nothing of the infinitely great and the infinitely little; but they told him exactly what he wanted to know.”

“And what was it he wanted to know?” asked Lydia.

“He wrote what he wanted to say with a brittle reed on the sands, and the tide crept up and the waves washed over it. Then from some vast Norwegian pine-forest the giants, who were his puppets, tore up the tallest and mightiest pine-tree there. They plunged it deep into Etna’s glowing abysm, and with this fiery-pointed pen they wrote on the dark veil of heaven, in stars and constellations that will remain throughout eternity—‘Lydia, I love you!’”

“Mr Hicks,” cried Lydia, “you really shouldn’t talk like that; and you must see that Heine’s idea, however pretty and poetical, is far too forcibly put. He wrote of Agnes, if you please, sir, and his poem has nothing to do with you or me.”

“He wrote for all time,” I answered. “There the stars and constellations are, and we may each spell them out in our own language.”

“Ah! but you forget one thing. They were there long before Heine,” she replied. “I don’t want to go away to the Nun and make friends again; but I shall do so unless you promise to be reasonable. I tried to talk about friendship; I let you quote Schopenhauer about love; then we talked about the stars; and you will talk about me. I told you the day before yesterday that we must not talk about each other. Let us be silent, as I used to say when you would talk about yourself; or, if you can’t be silent, let us talk about—well, let us talk about the moon.”

“Oh, I could quote the poets there again if I liked,” I cried. “But as you don’t like them, I won’t. Last time, however, that I was in America, I came across the prettiest description of the moon I have ever read. We had dined off grilled bacon, and everybody else had dozed away round the camp-fire afterwards. I couldn’t sleep, and I had nothing to read but the greasy bit of a badly-printed American newspaper in which the bacon had been wrapped. There was a big moon at the time, and this queer extract struck me as being singularly beautiful.”

“There is nothing about me in it?” asked Lydia.

“Nothing,” I replied. “It is all about the moon.”

“Well, tell me what you remember.”

“I remember the whole of it, for I was awake long enough to learn the passage by heart. Here it is, Americanisms and all: ‘No one ever gets tired of the moon. Goddess that she is by dower of her eternal beauty, she is a true woman by her tact—knows the charm of being seldom seen, of coming by surprise and staying but a little while; never wears the same dress two nights running, nor all night the same way; commends herself to the matter-of-fact people by her usefulness, and makes her usefulness adored by poets, artists, and all lovers in all lands; lends herself to every symbolism and to every emblem; is Diana’s bow, and Venus’s mirror, and Mary’s throne; is a sickle, a scarf, an eyebrow, his face or her face, as looked at by her or him; is the madman’s hell, the poet’s heaven, the baby’s toy, the philosopher’s study; and while her admirers follow her footsteps and hang on her lovely looks, she knows how to keep her woman’s secret—her other side—unguessed and unguessable.’”

“There, Hector!” she cried. “Stop there, please! You mean me? I know you mean me. I have no other side, though. I never saw Mr Wylie before the night of that wretched dinner-party at Bussorah.”

“No, dear,” I answered—and in our excitement she forgot to chide me for speaking in this way—“I really wasn’t thinking of you, and I had forgotten Mr Wylie completely. I only repeated, like a parrot, a few lines of rugged prose that struck my fancy very much when I spelt them out over a camp-fire in the backwoods years ago.”

“But you trust me, Hector?” she asked. “You trust me thoroughly? You will never, never mention Mr Wylie’s name again?”

“Never,” I answered. “But look at the moon, Lydia. Do you know the meaning of all the strange lines and marks on its surface?”

“No,” said Lydia, coming a little closer to me, so as to see what I meant.

“Look steadily at them, and you will be able to make out the violin-player in the moon. You can always see the outline of his figure. If you listen very carefully you can hear his music; and he plays the most delicious music that anybody on earth ever hears.”

“I can’t hear him, and I can’t see him,” said Lydia, looking up.

“Ah! but if you were in Hungary, on a night like this, you would hear him, and see him too. There all the young lovers steal out far away from the old people, and wait beneath the lindens to listen to his playing. They watch the moon, as we are watching now, but closer, closer—”

“And when do they hear the music?”

“When their lips meet, Lydia,” I cried. I looked into her eyes for a moment. Then I kissed her.

She escaped from me with a little sob.

“That was brutal,” she said. “After what had passed, and what we promised, you should never have dared to try and kiss me again. I told you I couldn’t love you, and you should never have tried to kiss me after that. Oh, Hector, what shall I do? What can I do? I can’t even trust you now, and I can scarcely trust myself. It all went on so pleasantly for the last two or three days, and now you have spoilt it all, and we shall have to give up our plans about the picture. Why, why did you cheat me like this?”

“I couldn’t help it,” I answered. “Just then, I couldn’t help it.”

“Perhaps not,” said Lydia, very gently. “But if you could not help it, it must have been all my fault.”

“No, no, Lydia!” I cried. “But to-night is our last night on board. I don’t think we should quarrel on our last night.”

“No,” she said, thoughtfully, “I don’t think we should. I don’t think I am bound to do that. It would be a shame and a pity to quarrel on our last night on board.”

“Everything,” I urged, “will be quite different on shore.”

“Oh! perhaps it will be,” she exclaimed. “I hadn’t thought of that. We shall be in the world again. We shall be lost, you and I, in a crowd of other people, and of course everything must be different.”

But how terribly different everything was to be, neither of us guessed.

It was a little after mid-day when we entered Bombay harbour. The blue islands, and deep blue hills behind them, were all bathed in what Shelley calls the purple noon’s transparent light. The stately buildings on shore glistened and glittered in the sunshine. We anchored off a large picturesque Swiss cottage, which was, we were told, the Yacht Club. Directly after dropping anchor, the ship was filled with horse-dealers and sweetmeat sellers and touts, and natives in huge turbans who came to meet their friends on board.

Captain Forbes found time in all this hurly-burly to advise us to go ashore quietly at once, and he kindly promised to dine with us at the hotel in the evening, and to bring with him all the heavy luggage we needed.

“Won’t you come too, Sheik?” said Mrs Fonblanque, when the Quartermaster announced that a steam-launch was waiting for us.

“I think not,” he replied. “I think I shall stay on board and go back in the steamer.”

“Oh! but you thought you were going back from Muscat,” said Mrs Fonblanque, laughing, “and you were good enough to come on when I challenged you to go round the world with me, so as to have time enough to tell me all your reminiscences.”

“Things change,” he answered, gravely. “I shall stop here and smoke my hookah till they turn the ship round. Then I shall go back to Fatima and Zuleika and Noor Mahal.”

“And the rest of them?” cried Mrs Fonblanque.

“And the rest of them,” he replied. “You have not spoken to me for the last three days, Madam Fonblanque, and I may as well keep the rest of my reminiscences to myself.”

“What a vindictive old creature!” cried Mrs Fonblanque. “I care nothing for what becomes of him, and I hope they will all comb his grey hair properly when he gets back to his harem. The old wretch! I’ll have him brought on shore to-morrow, and bring him to his bearings myself.”

Then, as the Quartermaster hurried us over the side, she turned to the Nun. “I hope you didn’t feel huffed and neglected too, dear?”

“No, no,” said the Nun. “I am very sorry to leave the ship in which you and Mr Hicks have been so good to me. It will be dreadful to have to start again in a new ship with strange people.”

“Oh!” exclaimed Mrs Fonblanque, patting her arm gently, “you must just wait here till Mr Hicks’s portrait of me is done. I should like you to see it, dear; you must be my guest till then. There will be plenty of time after that for strange ships and new people. We were a very pleasant party on board, and I’ll pay that old Sheik out for his surliness by-and-by.”

The hotel was much better and much larger than I expected; and we secured a couple of capital sitting-rooms, one of which, from its ample lights, might really have been designed for a studio.

“I am like the Nun, I hate changes. Hector,” said Lydia, after the Nun had been happily disposed of, “and I didn’t at all like having to leave that dear old ship. But we must make the best of it; we ought to have a happy time, after all, by-and-by, when you really set to work on the picture. Do you remember how crossly I declined to let you paint my portrait when we were off Bussorah, and what I said about impressions ten days old?”

“Yes,” I answered; “and that, after all, was only ten days ago.”

“Hasn’t the time slipped by since then?” she continued. “It is only ten days ago, and it seems something like half a lifetime! I never fancied then that we should ever be such friends as we are now.”

There was a frank winning smile in her grey eyes as she spoke, that almost seemed to follow me through the dark shadows in the narrow sunlit streets when I left her to tell her agents, who had an office not very far off, to look after all the wonderful purchases of which Priscilla had been left in charge on board the steamer.

Wlien I entered the hotel again I saw Lydia talking to a gentleman in a corner of the vestibule. The hall was very dull and gloomy after the bright sunlight outside. But there she was; she was talking very earnestly indeed, and as I came up she had just caught hold of the man’s sleeve and held it tightly in her hand.

I ran forward, and could not for the life of me help hearing what she said.

“Anything but that,” I heard her say, “and any terms you like. But give me time to think! Give me time!”

I could not act as a spy upon her. I could listen no longer. I walked on slowly. She heard my footsteps. She dropped the man’s sleeve and turned round suddenly. She looked at me with a scared white face, and then she caught at the balusters.

“Ah! here is your friend,” said the strange gentleman, politely.

I recognised him at once. I knew his face before he turned towards me.

She was talking to Mr Wylie of Bussorah.

“Sir!” I cried.

He lifted his hat courteously to Mrs Fonblanque, and withdrew towards the doorway.

I tried to follow him, but Mrs Fonblanque clutched me by the arm.

“Don’t go. Hector!” she said, almost passionately. “Don’t go just yet! Give me time to think. Just now I can scarcely stand.” Then she almost stumbled, and I caught her.

“I must follow him,” I said, sternly. “I must learn the meaning of your mystery. Good God! last night, only last night, you made me promise never to mention his name again, and I believed in you as I never believed in any woman. Let me go! Let me go! I tell you, let me go!”

“If you go,” said Lydia, “I will never, never speak to you again. Oh, Hector, stay and help me. Help me to help myself!”

“Tell me what it all means, then!” I cried. “And tell me why that man Wylie is here, and why you sent me away on a fool’s errand so as to be able to meet him alone?”

“I didn’t do that! I could never do that! I never knew that he was here,” she answered. “I swear I didn’t. How could I know he was here when I thought he was at Bussorah? I got tired of waiting for you, Hector, and I was only coming to see why you were so long, when he met me abruptly round the corner.”

“Stop!” I said. “If there is a mystery, Lydia, Lydia dear, explain it yourself. But if you won’t explain it, I must drag it out of him! I will throttle him and shake him, and make him speak if you won’t!”

Lyclia was silent. Her grey eyes were wonderfully pathetic; but she said nothing.

“Sir!” I shouted, as I saw him slowly sauntering through the doorway. “A minute or two with you, sir, if you please! I can take no denial!”

He paused for a moment, and he waited on the door-sill with a sardonic smile on his face as he looked back at both of us.

“He is waiting, Lydia!” I exclaimed. “Tell me everything yourself! Nothing you can say can possibly be so dreadful as this suspense!”

“Let us end it, then,” said Lydia, recovering herself with an effort. “There can be no trust without confidence, and you have neither. But you ought to know what you are about, Mr Hicks. If you like to say good-bye, you can say it.”

“Good-bye, then, good-bye!” I cried.

“Good-bye!” she said. “Think of the past sometimes, Hector, and of all our pleasant days!”

“No,” I answered. “I can think of nothing but the future. I can think of nothing but your mystery, and of you and that man in the doorway.”

“It must be good-bye, then,” she said, very, very gently, as I wrenched myself free.

She fell for a moment against the staircase, and for a moment I stopped. There was a look in her eyes that reminded me afterwards of the look in the eyes of some timid hunted animal at bay. I would not touch her outstretched hand. But I shall never forget the ashen-grey mask that shrouded her beautiful, pale, set face.

Then I rushed madly through the doorway into the street, intent only on wringing the truth out of that dreadful man, who by his lies and innuendoes had come between us. But Mr Wylie had gone! There was no trace of him. None of the people in the hotel, or the men who hung about it, knew anything of him. I reached the street. I drove round to all the other hotels in the Fort. I could hear nothing of him; but as I came back an hour afterwards, the native clerk who had brought us all off from the steamer put a little pencil-note into my hand. It was written from the railway station, and there were only a few words: “Good-bye! There are tears for you and me, and it is your fault, not mine. Good-bye!”

“Has the lady gone?” I asked, eagerly.

“Yes,” said the messenger. “We were just in time to catch the train.”

I tried to think. I couldn’t think. I felt stunned. Lydia had gone. That was enough for me. I must go too—no matter where. I must do something or go mad. The messenger stared so indifferently at me that I could hardly help pulling him off his seat beside the driver. Fresh people began to come into the hotel, and they frowned at us for keeping the doorway. Suddenly I remembered that I had a very dear friend living somewhere in Bombay. The messenger knew his name at once, and told our coachman to drive us as fast as he could to the Byculla Club.

Chapter XXXII

My impressions for the next few days were vague but singular. I seemed to live in an opium-eater’s hell or heaven, with my faculties more than usually alert, whilst I was myself supremely lethargic. Night followed day, and day followed night, and the panorama rolled on as if in one long exhausting dream, haunted night and day by visions of Lydia as I had left her crouching in her white drapery against the public stairway of a common hotel. Just as in a dream, too, time seemed to be altogether annihilated. The present, as it slipped by, was strange and gorgeous and magnificent, but not at all interesting to me personally.

I found Tom Thornton, one of my oldest and latest schoolboy friends, luxuriously reclining upon a long chair in front of his chambers at the Byculla Club. He was buying diamonds from a native merchant. Tom always used to be engrossed in making bargains, even in our schoolboy days, and never more triumphant than when he was being thoroughly cheated.

His face changed, though, when he saw me. He recognised me at once, and hurried off the diamond-merchant and his men in double-quick time. Then we clasped hands.

“Poor old chap!” he said. “You are ‘hipped.’ You want change of air, and change of scene, and change of people. I had just made up my mind not to go to Baroda. But perhaps I had better go there, after all, and take you with me. It will be one incessant whirl of amusement for a month, and that is exactly what you require. A little wholesome dissipation will settle all your morbid fancies. The train starts at 8.30. Can you come?”

Come! I had no alternative. I let him send off to the steamer and the hotel for my luggage, and at seven o’clock next morning, after a most miserable night passed in a comfortable and well-arranged sleeping-carriage, we reached Baroda.

I could not sleep. I pulled the heavy wooden blinds down, but I could not shut out the moon, and the violin-player in the moon; and I could not even help wondering if Lydia too thought of his music, as we were flying from one another across India in different directions. What fools we had been! Thornton was right. A little wholesome dissipation might do me a world of good. I would take Baroda as a tonic, and then go on to Tibetan Tartary and forget Lydia and myself in the narrow cell of some remote Buddhistic monastery.

The moonlit country, whenever in my sleeplessness I lifted the heavy Venetian blinds, was, however, very homelike, with its rich pastures and ample park-lands and broad rivers, and more like Kent than India. My childish days with Edith flashed across me. Then I thought of Lydia’s grey eyes, and the sorrow in them, and the scorn, when she had begged me to stay and help her, and then bade me go because I had neither trust nor confidence. Then, of course, I thought of Mr Wylie, and then somehow I dozed off to sleep, and Thornton had a little trouble in arousing me when at last we reached Baroda.

The Governor of Bombay, or somebody else equally important, was, it seems, in our train, and a curious scene was prepared for him in front of the station, which was itself brilliantly decorated with flowers and flags and flowing drapery. The square outside was lined with native troops, on foot and on horseback. The infantry wore long yellow coats and extraordinary shakoes; the cavalry, or lancers rather, had sky-blue uniforms. In one corner, jealously guarded by their own picturesque attendants, the Sirdars or petty potentates stood haughtily aloof, their gay silk costumes and jewelled head-dresses forming an artistic point of colour in the picture. The rest of the square was thronged with sightseers in white robes and broad turbans, red and blue and white, but mostly red.

I was still rubbing my eyes when Thornton seized me by the arm and led me out of the station.

“Is my elephant ready?” he cried, just as though he were asking if the hansom had come up to the door. A dozen scarlet-coated attendants salaamed obsequiously, and escorted us to a row of huge elephants, painted, for the occasion, in every colour of the rainbow, and, as we came up, all kneeling humbly on the ground. Men with light silver ladders courteously urged us to take our seats; but Thornton, much more particular than I could ever have fancied, answered their invitations brusquely, and selected the bulkiest and most loudly-decorated elephant of the lot—a big beast, with a many-coloured trunk, a saffron forehead, and a howdah that glittered in the early morning sun like burnished gold.

Two brilliant creatures in crimson fanned us from behind with yaks’ tails and great bunches of peacocks’ feathers; and then, at a word from Thornton, a gorgeously attired mahout in front struck his sharp spear-like battle-axe deep into a well-worn hole in our elephant’s broad head. Amidst the beating of tom-toms and the fanfare of barbaric wind-instruments, we started, with that important personage the Governor of Bombay, or whatever else he was, driving before us in solitary grandeur in the Gaekwar’s pretty little gold and silver pony-carriage.

The Sirdars bowed. The troops, regular and irregular, foot and horse, presented arms as best they could. The crowd, like a field of overgrown poppies, shook their red turbans as they roared lustily out, and before we knew where we were, I found myself looking into the upper windows of the main street in Baroda, and unconsciously studying the minutest details of Hindu domestic life at an inconveniently early hour.

The crowds in the street, too, were, to a traveller fresh from Europe viâ the desert, very quaint and novel. Most of the people were tall, handsome, fine-featured men, in broad turbans and flowing white robes. But naked fakirs, smeared all over, head and face and body, with white ashes, stood at the street corners. Snake-charmers, with flat wicker-work baskets full of cobras, crouched down here and there, keeping the snakes in order by an adroit pat now and again upon their extended hoods. Near them we saw the Gaekwar’s wrestlers, big brawny lusty fellows, and his dancing-girls, and conjurers, and acrobats, and falconers, the last carrying their hawks on their wrists. The whole place swarmed with Brahmins, who lived for the most part, so Thornton said, on the bread and rice doled out to them at the palace gates every morning, as a pious immemorial custom. They were scattered plentifully through the streets, or clustered round the innumerable shrines and temples, in which their female devotees, unmindful of the unusual din and bustle outside, prayed stolidly, or walked slowly round and round, as beasts walk in a menagerie, until they fancied their prayers were answered or their penances had all been duly accomplished. At times a sacred bull, white and fat and sleek, forced his way through the people. Peacocks, almost as sacred, plumed their feathers and spread out their broad tails, wherever they could be seen to most advantage. Green parrots, blue doves, chattering minas, and the ubiquitous and impertinent Indian crow, all took a lively interest in the scene, as they flew, flurried and startled, a little above it; and down below, the pariah dogs, the city scavengers, slouched away, hideous and obscene. Low-caste women, busy with their household duties, had been suddenly caught and held by this motley crowd, just as they were, with their great brass pots and tall clay jars nicely poised on their heads.

They had come from some lotus-covered tank close to, and though the crowd cared nothing for them, they were wonderfully picturesque to a stranger. They were low-caste girls, out-castes if you like; but, as they balanced their water-jars on their heads, their upraised round brown arms almost drew their scanty cotton bodices up from under their shapely breasts, leaving their waists quite bare. In spite of the hustling they got, they were all as sedate as their betters. But they shrieked a little, just as servant-girls might shriek at home, whenever the crowd parted to give passage to a couple of hoodwinked cheetahs, snarling at each other as they were dragged along by their keepers. Like English maid-servants, again, they hung for the most part round the ends of such side streets as happened to be blocked by the Gaekwar’s horsemen, whose gaily caparisoned, camel-necked, caracoling horses could scarcely be held in check. Other women carefully escorted, and obviously of a higher grade, led their little naked children by the hand to see the show. They wore no veils, but they threw their green or cherry-coloured garments half across their faces. Other women, of the highest grade of all, drove quietly through the crowd in picturesquely painted little carriages on wooden wheels, drawn by swift white bullocks with skins like satin. Sometimes these bullock-carriages were tented over, in much the same way as the Bussorah bellems. But here, as there, a well-rounded arm half covered with gold bangles, or a pair of mischievous black eyes, would let you see pretty plainly that there was something worth looking at on the other side of the curtain.

I was in India, and so was Lydia, and how she would have enjoyed this!

Our ponderous beasts had need just then of all their sagacity. The main street was thronged with a leisurely crowd, far too much interested in seeing what was to be seen to get out of their way. There were no trottoirs or side-walks, and on either side of the narrow roadway there were deep drains in which the little naked urchins paddled fearlessly.

The Baroda houses and shops, mud or brick or wood, or whatever they were, are all painted in bright colours—glaring red, sea-green, or yellow-ochre—and are for the most part decorated with rude outlines of Hindu gods and mythological animals. Every now and then our long winding procession had to halt, as the crowd hung reverently round a sacred stone linga in the street, or a vermilion-painted yoni in the gnarled trunk of some old historical tree that had been almost killed by the encroaching bricks and mortar. There was nothing architecturally attractive in the city until we came to a gateway under a clock tower. Here all the chief streets seemed to meet together. The tower looked like a Chinese joss-house, and was painted a light-blue colour.

Baroda is the “Place of Fair Waters,” but there is nothing like a river there. On the other hand, its woodland scenery is rich and beautiful. The whole road from the town to the cantonments was hedged in on both sides with spreading trees that might have been reared in some primeval forest. They formed a striking and stately avenue, hung just now with flags and wreaths of flowers. The avenue was bordered, right and left, with a long trellis of bamboos and palm-trees, and was spanned at short intervals by triumphal arches. The road was so crowded that our elephants had to thread their way through the people as cautiously as in the city. The whole of the country-side was apparently emptying itself slowly into Baroda.

Thornton, as he explained all this, must, from some of my questions, have taken me for an utter fool. But I was in a dream when I first met him. I was dreaming still—I could not help it—of Lydia as I left her; and I was more in a dream than ever when our elephant dropped suavely on to his knees in the midst of a pretty little canvas city in the centre of a broad green meadow, surrounded by beautiful neem-trees.

My tent, as I entered it, looked very snug and comfortable. I was thoroughly exhausted, and Thornton had little trouble in persuading me to lift the mosquito-curtains and to throw myself on the bed just as I was. He aroused me just before four. Then, after a bath and a change, I went up and down with him, still in a dreamy, hazy sort of way, so as to see what our arrangements were to be for the next three or four weeks. We went first to the Guest House, in which there were dining-rooms and smoking-rooms and card-rooms, with a big saloon up-stairs, used as a play-room for the children by day, and as a ball-room by night. The broad verandah in front of the Guest House was, however, as we afterwards discovered, the most popular part of the establishment. Here, in the sultry mid-day hours, every one lounged or strolled, smoked, flirted, or dozed away. In the pretty garden round the Guest House the married people and the young ladies in their charge were accommodated in thirty or forty double-poled tents; and, stretching across the open meadow beyond these, there was a canvas street of some fifty single-poled tents for the bachelors, which the bachelors themselves had modestly christened the Rue de la Vertu. Each of these tents was roomy and well furnished; each had a bath-room tent and a servants’ tent behind, and in front a tall lamp-post, with a lamp bearing a number, so that, by night as well as by day, every guest’s number might be conspicuous. If you knew your number you knew enough, for when once the messman had booked your number in the office, your material cares were at an end. The number in front of your tent was the number of your chair in the dining-room, and the number also of the carriage-and-pair that was always waiting for your orders. You sent your number to the office, and five minutes afterwards a camel, or an elephant, or an Arab riding-horse was ready to take you wherever you liked through the city; or, if you wished for sport, a couple of game-keepers or shikaris came up to lead you to the likeliest places in the broad woodlands that stretched away on all sides for miles and miles.

Your servants, if you had any, were every morning paid the extra allowance that Indian servants always expect when away from home, and there were printed notices up everywhere requesting you not to fee any of the innumerable boys, or hamals, or barbers, or dhobies, who had been specially imported to do your bidding.

On a marble-topped table in the Guest House hall lay a large morocco-bound complaint-book, in which all the guests were courteously invited to ask for anything that might not have been thought of.

“But surely,” said I to Thornton, when he showed me the complaint-book, “everything has been thought of. We seem to be living in an enchanted garden, just as in the old Persian story. You never see your host, but if you wish for a thing, you clap your hands and have it.”

“Yes,” he said thoughtfully, “native wealth under skilled European direction can, no doubt, do a good deal. Can you think of anything you can’t get here?”

For a moment I was weak enough to think of Lydia. What a fool I was, after what had passed, to think, even in fancy, that I wanted to see her!

“No?” said Thornton, after a pause. “Barring the impossible, they supply you with every imaginable thing except a cheque-book, wliich would be useless here. But think of anything you wish for, anything you have never tasted, or have only once tasted long ago, put it down in the complaint-book, and it will come on by the first train. Some of the youngsters here have been trying to puzzle the complaint-book, but so far the complaint-book has beaten them.”

“And who looks at the complaint-book?” I asked.

“The Gaekwar himself.”

“And who is the Gaekwar?”

“Our invisible host. Four or five years ago he lived in a bamboo hovel with his parents, somewhere below Matheran, on this side of the Ghauts. He was a cowboy, like the first Gaekwar before him. But the last Gaekwar, Mulharao, had tried to poison the English Resident with diamond dust—”

“Diamond dust!” I cried—“diamond dust for poison! They surely carry their extravagances to an unheard-of length!”

“Well, at all events,” said Thornton, “there was a break in the succession. The English police had to find a successor to Mulharao, after they had deported him to Madras. The Government chose the youngest boy the police unearthed, as being most amenable to English influences. You will see his father and his elder brothers at all the ceremonials. They are peasants, and, however magnificently attired, will remain peasants to the end of the chapter. But the Gaekwar is the adopted monarch of a splendid country. He has ahnost as big an income as our Queen, and promises to be the most intelligent young pupil that English tutelage has yet produced in India. He has a grand future, when he is old enough to realise his own significances.”

Now I knew wdiat was before me. All that is gorgeous or fantastic, costly or popular, Eastern or English, had been pressed into the service of this unseen Gaekwar’s munificent hospitality. There were state-banquets and durbars, balls and nautches, pig-sticking parties, falconry and cheetah-hunting, English races that reminded one of Goodwood, and wild-beast fights that reminded one of Rome. But except inside the Guest House, and around it, the prevailing flavour of everything was intensely oriental.

The days were warm, but the nights were strangely cold for India; and then it was that the ladies, here as everywhere, showed their complete indifference to their surroundings, and their superiority to the larger sex. If there was nothing better to be done after dinner, they strolled about the terraces and the garden listening to the band, with their white necks and bare arms gleaming in the lamplight, while the men walked beside them muffled up to the throat in ulsters and greatcoats. But there were few idle nights at the Guest House, for, as Thornton had promised, we had one incessant round of festivities and sports and entertainments for eighteen hours a-day; and in a mad effort to forget myself I tried to make the most of them.

Chapter XXXIII

It seemed a dream at the time. Had I ever known Lydia at all? Had she kissed me in the starlight in the Gulf of Oman? Had I kissed her in the moonlight, just before we sighted Bombay? Did I still feel her kisses as I dreamt? Thornton laughed at me; but the two or three weeks I spent at Baroda still come back to me like a dream—a dream in which first and foremost I remember the strange processions that were for ever passing to and fro. Sometimes the Gaekwar was there, a self-possessed, handsome lad, as he sat unmoved in a golden howdah on a painted elephant, splendidly caparisoned. His coat and turban seemed one blazing, glittering mass of diamonds and rubies, and, whenever they saw him from afar, the royal elephants formed themselves into a double line to salute him, with bowed heads and upraised trunks, as he passed through their ranks to take his proper place in the procession. There were sixty or seventy of these royal beasts, all painted in patterns of grey and red and green and yellow, all with big circles of vermilion or bright yellow round their small eyes, and all tricked out in gold and silver housings. Before the Gaekwar rode troops of sowars in green and red, or red and white, and artillerymen in blue and white, guarding the almost sacred guns of gold and silver, which are only shown to the populace on very grand occasions. These guns, two of gold and two of silver, were mounted on long silver carriages, and were drawn by great oxen with gilded horns, and housings of cloth-of-gold thickly embroidered with pearls. Then came the elephants bearing the Sirdars; the official personages of importance on horseback, with enormous red umbrellas held carefully over their bejewelled turbans; ten or twelve standards of rich gold cloth studded with gems; regiment after regiment of infantry headed by their bands; and one elephant, almost as big as the Gaekwar’s elephant, from whose broad back a gigantic Mahratta proudly displayed Queen Victoria’s imperial banner. Troups of wild Arab spearmen, in olive-coloured coats, danced along, shrieking as they danced, under their nodding plumes and their black banners, in front of a number of magnificent riderless stallions that pranced and pawed the ground fiercely to the beating of a hundred tom-toms and the awful music of the regimental brass bands and fife bands.

This sort of thing used to go on almost daily, though the Gaekwar was rarely present; and the long processions, as they uncoiled themselves slowly amidst the richly wooded scenery, took from half an hour to three-quarters of an hour in passing the Guest House.

Then the city itself was full of curious sights—quaint temples, secluded gardens, and rare old houses faced and finished with the most exquisitely carved old teakwood. We had to visit numberless tawdry palaces, furnished with silver chairs and sofas, and hung all over, in the rooms and even in the very verandahs, with the costliest and most beautiful chandeliers of cut-glass that Europe can produce, but decorated with cheap German prints, hideous and perhaps improper, and filled with trumpery music-boxes and automatic toys.

In one of the palaces the Gaekwar’s jewels were on view, and they were quite as well worth looking at as any of his gorgeous processions. Thornton was a judge of gems, and, as he spoke the language like a native, a little band of visitors gathered round him as soon as he began to cross-examine the head karkoon. The old man took his treasures out carefully, one by one, from the old pickle-pots and meat-tins in which they lay wrapped up in cotton-wool. The ladies pressed to the front when the flashing beauties of this inimitable collection were displayed, and Thornton’s sudden eloquence gave me an opportunity of making the acquaintance of an American girl, whose bright and vivacious figure, and upright, downright outspokenness on the other side of the Guest House table, had interested us both a good deal. I begged her to take my place beside Thornton, and so began a pleasant but short-lived friendship.

“Thank you, sir,” she said; “women like this sort of thing.”

Then the karkoon, with Thornton as interpreter, began to pass his jewels round, till the whole room glittered again and again with brilliant points of light. There were ruby nose-rings and kakans or wristlets of pearls, anklets or kallas of pearls and diamonds, and vavadvelas or armlets of sapphires, diamonds, and emeralds, all massively set in virgin gold. Then the other tins and pickle-jars were turned upside-down, and we saw the real prizes of the collection. There was one carcanet of five hundred table diamonds, clasped with great emeralds, and set so as to show off the “Star of the Deccan,” the largest diamond left in India. There were necklets of pearls, tapering away from pearls as large as a grape to pearls no bigger than peas, but all equally perfect in colour. There were great diamond stars and aigrettes for the turban, bunches of rubies and emeralds, and cat’s-eyes and moonstones, and all other imaginable stones, waiting to be set; rings of all sorts; and, as a bonne bouche, an engraved sapphire of inestimable value. Jewels to the value of something like a million sterling lay before us, and, though ignominiously cased, they were guarded, day and night, by a company of sepoys with loaded rifles and fixed bayonets; and they formed a very small part of the enormous wealth of a lad who a few years before had been driving his father’s cattle about the dusty Indian plains.

After this display the ladies did not care much for the jewelled arms, or the embroidered garments, or the shawls, any one of which could have been pulled through a wedding-ring. I drove back to the Guest House with the American lady, and I listened so attentively to the reverential things she said about the Gaekwar’s gems, that I was permitted to escort her to the fancy-dress ball in the evening. It was a pretty scene, but most of the Englishmen present soon thought they had been there long enough. The walls were lined with Sirdars and other native gentlemen of high estate, wondering how it was that we permitted our ladies to unveil their arms and necks in public, and to gyrate about in a manner that not even any of their hired nautch-girls would dare to attempt. I could not persuade my fair companion to come home at midnight, but she promised to go with me to the people’s fête next day. Then I fell asleep dreaming of swarthy faces and cruel lascivious looks, of pale slave-girls fettered beyond endurance in the Gaekwar’s costly jewels, of secret chambers glistening like the old Golconda mines, and beyond them all, somewhere in the far distance, I saw in my dreams Lydia’s sad grey eyes.

The fête in the People’s Park went on from sunrise to midnight, and when we ventured to visit it in the afternoon, there must have been fifty thousand or sixty thousand people present. The performers had been bribed and tempted to Baroda from all parts of India, and we saw whatever India has to show in the way of legerdemain, and sleight-of-hand, and magic. In booths or enclosures all about the park there were wrestlers, actors, swordsmen, contortionists, nautch-girls, tumbling-girls, snake-charmers, bear-leaders, giants and dwarfs, and collections of such repulsive human monstrosities as are only manufactured now in the remoter and less civilised native States. You looked at one man; he put a piece of cold charcoal into his mouth, and blew out a fiery blast from his lips and through his nostrils. You looked at another, and he emptied the contents of a huge water-chattie into his ear. You looked at a third, and with a tremendous effort he pulled up from his throat miles and miles of cotton-thread bristling for a league or two with huge darning-needles, a couple of inches long each, coming up, thread and needles alike, quicker than you could follow, until, with a grunt of satisfaction and relief, the conjurer sat in front of a pyramid of cotton surmounted with a chevaux de frise of darning-needles. Then we went into some of the booths. In one a boy’s head—and a very pretty boy’s head too, but with an ugly crimson rim round the neck—stood like a flower-pot upon a clumsy wooden table. As honoured guests we were allowed to go close up to the head—so close that but for the rope in front we could have touched it. It was a real living head, with startled, blinking eyes, but it was streaming with perspiration as it answered all Thornton’s questions off-hand. The illusion was complete. There was the head, but where was the body? Thornton drew a curtain aside as we went out of the booth, and uncovered half-a-dozen little urchins lying on the ground, all utterly exhausted. They could, perhaps, have explained the mystery, but we could only talk about it. The mango trick is so common as to be scarcely worth recording. A conjurer—and in India conjurers are mystics and mesmerists, and heaven knows what besides, and only the initiated are permitted to practise—buries a mango-seed in the ground. He covers it with a cloth, and when he has soused it well with water, he shows you a sharp green sprout. Then he takes a larger cloth, and after that has been well watered, you see a bush full of leaves. The process goes on until you have a mango-tree full of luscious fruit. The American lady was invited to pull a mango off, and pronounced it to be the best she had ever tasted. Then, of course, Thornton showed us the basket trick. A little boy came forward, and as I began to be really interested, I tied his hands and feet together myself with a stout rope. The conjurer then placed him in a basket. We turned the basket over, bottom upwards. The crowd that encircled us on all sides gathered nearer. The conjurer gave me a long sharp sword; and rather reluctantly, and feeling like a murderer all the time, I passed it through the interstices of the wicker-work, up and down and right and left, leaving not an inch unvisited. Then, after a solemn incantation, my mysterious ally suddenly clapped his hands, and we saw the boy, with the ropes loose in his hands, running towards us from a clump of trees ninety or a hundred yards off. I kicked the basket over; it was empty, of course, but with no more deception about it than there is in a washerwoman’s basket at home.

“That’s not bad,” said Thornton, “but I expected to see something better. You see these tricks everywhere. But in Baroda, on an occasion like this, I half expected to see the rope trick.”

“What is that?” asked the American girl eagerly. “Don’t tell me too much. I shall never be believed again if I repeat half of what I have seen already. But what is the rope trick?”

“I can’t do it,” said Thornton, “but it seems to be very, very simple. You take a coil of rope in your hands and throw it up. Then your confederate catches hold of the rope and runs up it, and goes on and on towards the sky until he disappears, as the crowd think, for good. Not a bit of it. They hear a thud, and see a head, an arm, a leg. They turn aside in horror, and when they look round again, your confederate is bowing blandly at them. That is a trick worth knowing. You don’t believe me? Well, let us go and have another look at the gentleman spitted on the sword-blade.”

Close to a kiosk, where all the roads met, we had seen, as we came into the public park, the man spitted on the sword-blade. He lay there horizontally, with the long two-handed sword, as far as we could see, right through his back and coming out a long way in front, while his family of young but most attentive children fed him from time to time with plantains and cocoa-nut milk. He had a serene smile on his face all through the afternoon, and in our journeyings we came across him half-a-dozen times at least, always resigned, and very pleased apparently at the interest Thornton took in his health.

The fireworks later on were magnificent, and could not have been rivalled by Brock or any modern maker at home. They had been manufactured by the descendants of an old French adventurer, who formed a little caste of their own, and kept their ancestor’s secrets to themselves. When the Gaekwar and his more illustrious guests came up, the deep ravine between the two sides of the park was suddenly illuminated, and on a thick rope, with a balancing pole brightly lit at either end, a native acrobat walked across, two or three hundred feet above the little stream at the bottom. Then he started from the farther side with a native woman in his arms. She bore the balancing pole for him now. The crowd shrieked with excitement, and all the lights in the park were turned full upon them. But the young American lady thought she had seen enough for one evening, and requested us to take her home at once; and when we reached the Guest House, we found that the people who left before us had improvised the pleasantest dance ever held there.

And so, as through a mist, the ever-changing panorama rolled on. But the most striking pictures perhaps of all were seen at what everybody called the “Sports in the Arena.” Here wild beasts with wild beasts, and wild beasts with men, engaged in mortal combat in the middle of the Agga, a huge oval enclosure, some two hundred yards long and sixty broad, surrounded by a massive wall twenty feet high, with narrow apertures in it here and there, just big enough to admit a hard-pressed man flying from an infuriated beast. On the top of the wall, well out of reach, on platforms behind it, on the rising ground behind the platforms, and upon the branches of the encircling trees, sat the whole population of Baroda, man, woman, and child. The scene was a curious blending of strong colours, what with the deep-blue sky, the rich green trees and uplands, the red turbans of the men, the robes, white or sage-green or purple, of the women, as they sat, intent and eager, with swarthy faces and flashing eyes.

The Gaekwar and his guests were accommodated in the gaily decorated grand stand, three storeys high, the lowest storey, like the top of the wall, being about twenty feet from the ground. The English ladies in their gala dresses, the English officers in their bright uniforms, and the chiefs and Sirdars in their glittering jewels and ancestral finery, must have formed a brilliant spectacle to the people on the walls. It was four o’clock when we took our seats, and the arena was still steeped in the fierce white glare of Indians sunshine.

First came the Gaekwar’s wrestlers, and acrobats, and swordsmen, stripped to the waist-cloth, their huge bodies and brawny limbs and shaven heads glistening with cocoa-nut oil. They salaamed reverentially to their young master—Morituri te salutant! The whole thing reminded us of Rome—of Rome in Asia Minor, in its magnificent decadence. Then in a long procession the painted elephants passed through, saluting the Gaekwar and his guests with upraised trunks and shrill strident cries; then the fighting elephants and rhinoceroses, and fighting buffaloes and blue-bulls, and huge-horned rams and tigers heavily manacled, went slowly by. Next came a hundred men or more with spears and flags, and chains and ropes, and bundles of squibs and fireworks in their hands, whose duty it was to keep the ground; and finally, the Gaekwar’s amazons and nautch-girls and conjurers. These last began the entertainment with a salute of twenty-one tiny brass cannon, fired by skilfully trained turtle-doves and green parrots.

But it is simply impossible to describe all we saw. In one corner a dozen couples of the Gaekwar’s wrestlers struggled, with strained backs and knotted limbs, like so many bronze Laocoons. In another, two huge rhinoceroses were let loose. For a minute or two they rubbed their battered horns amicably together. Then they retired, to meet again with an awful clash that shook the whole arena. The crowd shouted; the rival keepers urged their great beasts on with spears and shrieks and rockets, and refreshed them, from time to time, by dashing bucketfuls of water over their dusty parchment-coloured hides. When we were satisfied, or supposed to be satisfied, the rhinoceroses were captured with spike-lined clamps or hampering-irons, attached to heavy chains that were deftly buckled round their legs, and they were led off snorting and struggling like frightened pigs. The elephants, when they were brought up to the fray, looked keenly at one another with their ferocious little eyes, and then, with their great ears flapping away like punkahs, they lashed each other’s foreheads with their trunks. Suddenly the smaller beast twined his trunk adroitly round his adversary’s, and the battle became a wrestling-match. Slowly the larger elephant was pushed backwards towards the wall, and crushed so severely against it that the people on the top began to climb down in alarm. Then with shrill trumpetings he broke loose and fled, the attendants flying before him into their little refuges and up the narrow stairways. One unlucky man stumbled, and had his back ripped open by the victorious animal; and now, when the excitement was at its highest, we had the pet performance of all—a contest between a mounted spearman and an elephant maddened with bhang. The man rode wonderfully. You forgot the danger of the combat in its beauty. With a touch of his sharp stirrup the rider turned his horse at full gallop, and with a shout of exultation plunged his long lance into the flanks of the huge beast careering past him. Three times he pricked the elephant between the eyes with his spear; three times the elephant touched him, but only just touched him, with his trunk. The crowd shouted “Shabash! shabash!” and when at last the horseman fairly drove the elephant out of the arena, he was summoned by the Gaekwar to receive a formal reward. After this marvellous feat of equestrian daring, the performance fell rather flat. The blue-bulls, with lashing tails and heaving flanks and eyes aflame, entwined their horns until the horn of one poor beast was actually uprooted, and he was led off quivering, bleeding, and ashamed. Rams charged at one another from opposite sides of the arena, until we began to understand the meaning of the medieval “battering-ram.” But by this time the ladies had had enough or too much of the show, and begged us to take them out. There was a smell of blood in the air. The people were becoming excited, and the attendants, whether on foot or horseback, were far too venturesome.

“Yes,” said Thornton, as we drove away, “it is something like the great Roman shows. But we missed the Roman women, with their lascivious eyes and cruel pale faces, and their upturned thumbs, crying ‘Habet! habet! hoc habet!’ The sports, too, are nothing now to what they were a few years back. Kunderao used to wrestle with his pulwans himself, and woe to the man who threw him! He used, too, to tie notes for ten thousand rupees on to the tusks of his fighting-elephants, and laugh at his men as they were ripped up in their attempts to gain them.”

But if we seemed to be in Rome one afternoon, the next morning found us hawking—just as if the middle ages had never disappeared.

The country through which we went hawking was more richly wooded than any we had seen yet. The peasants, for many miles around, had been pressed into service as beaters, and when we reached their trysting-spot the morning air was still cool and crisp. Some of the ladies of the Gaekwar’s harem were present, to follow the sports as well as they could through the low spreading branches of the merry greenwood trees, on their unwieldy elephants, gay and gorgeous as at the sports in the arena; but the gold and crimson howdahs in which the ladies sat were now all carefully veiled. A few of the English ladies from the Guest House accompanied the Gaekwar’s women, but for the most part they rode with the men. The falconers—with their hawks on their gloved wrists, long-winged and black-eyed hawks, or short-winged and with white irises, but all now carefully hooded—and the wild Mahratta horsemen, spear in hand, looked very picturesque in their gay costumes, as they rode deftly in and out of the men on foot, trying to organise the motley crowd of beaters properly. But after the horsemen and horsewomen had been duly scattered and dispersed, the Gaekwar only waited a few minutes till the sun was fairly visible. Then, at a signal from a grey-bearded falconer, he gave the word to advance, and his orders were forwarded by shrill whistles over three or four square miles of country. A hawk’s flight is, it seems, seldom more than two miles, but it takes a daring horseman to follow him for even that short distance.

The whole place, wood and water and grass-land, literally teemed with game. The well-trained hawks in their unerring and deadly flight suddenly swooped down upon the floricans, and herons, and storks, and partridges, and quails as they flew about here and there, and had it not been for the horsemen, many of the hawks, after the sharp stroke from their talons had once failed, would themselves have fallen a prey to the floricans and herons and larger birds they attacked. Other horsemen, not quite so swift, speared the timid hares and pretty little dappled deer that were driven towards them. Altogether it struck me as a cruel amusement; but then a battue, when two or three thousand beaters are engaged, must always be unfair—for the odds are terribly one-sided. Most of us were glad, I fancy, when the hawking was over, and when we sat down to a sumptuous leisurely breakfast under the cool shade of a far-spreading hundred-trunked banian-tree, big enough to shelter our horses, our elephants, our followers, and ourselves.

There is probably nothing in the world so grateful as rest after labour; and we all spent a long lazy forenoon under the great tree’s pleasant shade, talking over the accidents and adventures and misadventures of our morning ride. Most of the ladies, however fond of sport they might be, condemned hawking as unfair and cruel. Still it had nothing of the bloodthirsty cruelty in which we all shared later on, when—tired of the perpetual morning races, at which you could neither make money in the lotteries nor lose it in the pari mutuel—we all went out with the cheetahs.

Cheetah-hunting, as we saw it, is, I fancy, peculiar to Baroda. In front half-a-dozen cheetahs, all hissing or purring like overgrown tabbies, were driven in light wooden carts, each with three or four attendants. Then followed the guests in two diverging lines of little gold-coloured and silver-coloured two-wheeled hackeries, drawn by swift white oxen. There were no seats in the hackeries, but the guests were requested to accommodate themselves in couples as best they could, packed and crossed-legged, on the square yard of carpet-cushion with which the bottom of each of these atrocious little carriages was furnished. The hackeries had, of course, no springs. But off we started, as fast as our nimble bullocks could tear, over hill and dale, upland and lowland, rut or furrow, nulla or cactus-hedge. My fellow-passenger on our little yard-square bit of gaudy cushion happened to be the very vivacious young American lady of whom I had lately seen a good deal. She could not stand the jolting of our springless vehicle, and I did not wonder at her for this; but she waited very pluckily until I should be able to show her something of the sport. After rattling on, up hill and down, for two or three miles, we came to within about a hundred and fifty yards of a herd of black-buck browsing placidly. The brilliant gold and silver decorations on our little bullock-carts seemed to make them rather uneasy. Simultaneously they all turned their heads in our direction. But they were too late. Three of the cheetahs had been stealthily unhooded and slipped. In half-a-dozen enormous bounds through the thick waves of grass and maize and dhal, they reached their victims, each of them pulling a fine buck down by the throat. Cheetahs, by the way, never pull a doe down if a buck is within striking distance; and if they fail to strike in the first three or four hundred yards, they always return sullenly to their keepers. Here, however, their keepers had to go to them and tear them off their quarry, growling and snarling as they permitted themselves to be blindfolded; and only to be pacified at last with a great silver bowl of black-buck blood, filled by an adroit cut with a knife across the dying animal’s throat.

Then the double line of garishly painted little carriages went on. But my fair companion was too stiff and too shaken to follow. She caught my arm before we had gone another mile, and implored me to stop. I lifted her out of the cart, and laid her gently on a grassy mound under a clump of trees; and then I emptied as much water over her as my helmet, filled at a neighbouring tank half-a-dozen times over, could well hold, before it collapsed; but it was only after the better part of an hour that she felt able to retrace her steps on foot. She was, though, wonderfully good. She never once threw the blame on me; and by way of trying to keep up her spirits as we trudged along, arm in arm and thoroughly tired out, behind our mockery of a finely painted bullock-cart, I naturally tried to be as lively and gay and gallant as possible. But my sun-helmet was sodden with water, the sun was blazing hot, and when I had handed the American girl over to the ladies in the verandah of one of the Gaekwar’s sporting-boxes in which breakfast had been arranged for us, I collapsed.

Thornton was smoking lazily in a long chair beside me in my tent as I awoke.

“Hicks,” he said, “you may be thankful it was no worse. You have been shivering here for a week, and raving like a lunatic the whole time!”

“Well,” I answered, “I am all right now; feel my pulse: and do please fill up the hiatus in my mind. Where’s that American girl?”

Thornton felt my pulse, and put a doctor’s thermometer under my right arm; then he almost slapped me. “You are all right, old fellow,” he cried. “But you meant suicide, if any man ever meant it. You did too much, and slept too little. We all thought you were mad. Perhaps you are; and now you ask after your trim little American beauty! What does she care for you, or you for her?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “But where is she?”

“Where she should be,” he answered gravely, “with some one else. She brought you back on an elephant, and handed you over to me very nicely; I must say that for her. Then she hurried off to lawn-tennis; and I have seen nothing of her since, and have heard nothing more of her either. Your ravings—and I could not help hearing them as I watched you, old chap—were all about another woman, a Mrs Fonblanque.”

I turned round uneasily in my bed. I was stronger than I thought. I was strong enough to hold my own again.

“Don’t talk to me of Mrs Fonblanque!” I cried.

“Why not?” asked Thornton, with his hand again on my pulse. “Not talk to you about her, when you have talked of nothing but her grey eyes for the last week? You ought to have had brain-fever instead of a mild touch of sunstroke; and even then you would not have got your deserts. Judging from your ravings, Mrs Fonblanque is a woman among women; and if you had been as frank in Bombay as you have been lately, I don’t think I should have taken the trouble to bring you up to Baroda. You asked her for her friendship. She gave you that, and told you she could not possibly give you anything else. You were bound in honour by the rules of the game, and, in spite of the rules, you twice somehow or other kissed her. What more could you want, man? The lady has all my sympathy.”

“Stop, Thornton,” I cried; “she has all mine too! I should never have babbled out my secret thoughts like this if I had not lost my senses; but when a man is on his sickbed, you really should not speak to him like a conscience.”

“It will do you no harm,” said Thornton, curtly; “and it is a relief to hear that you have a conscience, old man. Judging from your ravings—and ever since I have known you, you always raved more or less—the lady has been straight and frank all through; and what the dickens had you to do with her bygone secrets, if she have any? Friendship is one thing and impertinence another.”

I winced. Thornton again put the thermometer under my arm, and after some careful calculations on a paper covered with old figures, suddenly dragged me out of bed and stuck me on a long chair.

Dear old Tom! He was never naturally energetic, and never used strong language when it was not absolutely necessary. Then he left me on my long chair, after having carefully covered me up with wraps.

I knew, from the mere fact of having been dragged out of bed in this unceremonious way, that I was physically all right again, and I suspected, with a feeling of joyous and almost mad relief, that I had treated Lydia very badly. Why should Thornton deceive me? Or, for that matter, why should Lydia deceive me either? I had left her as she was imploring me to stay; yet surely she had always been much more to me than ever I could hope to be to her. I laughed cheerily at Thornton when he returned, bringing me a cup of beef-tea with a glass of brandy in it. But as soon as he disappeared, I got up from my chair, put my dress clothes on without much difficulty, and called for a carriage, so as to follow him to the State nautch-party, which, as an official, he felt bound to attend. As luck would have it, my own carriage had been allotted to some one else, and the messman, with a pleasant smile on his face, paired me off with the American girl who had tried so hard not to faint when we went out with the cheetahs.

We were late. All the silver sofas were occupied, and my fair companion, though several men rose to make room for her, said that she would rather stand so as to be near the nautch-girls.

It was difficult at first to appreciate the music of the men who accompanied the nautch-girls. They divided their semi-tones in some extraordinary manner into demi-semi-tones, of which European notation knows nothing; but the low wailing sound resulting from this odd division, forms, it seems, the special charm of oriental music.

Thornton saw me enter, and hurried up at once.

“Your friend is still ill,” he said to my companion very stiffly. “You really should not have brought him out to-night.”

“I beg your pardon, sir. I am not in the habit of being lectured; and I did not bring him out,” she answered. “The messman put Mr Hicks into my carriage, and I could not well insist on his removal.”

“He can scarcely stand,” said Thornton.

“You might get him a chair, then,” she replied. “Or stop; take my arm, Mr Hicks. We will look on for a minute or two, and then drive home together.”

This somewhat mollified Thornton, and in a short time he began to explain the entertainment to us. “Their music is simple enough,” he said, “once you have the key to it.”

“Oh, I have the key,” retorted the American lady. “It is not the music you admire, but the prolonged pauses in the music, and the ecstatic intervals of repose.”

Thornton laughed. “You are very nearly right. That is one great charm of Hindu music, no doubt. But, according to the high authority of Damodara, the Hindu musical scale has seven natural tones—the peacock’s screech, the parrot’s cry, the sheep’s bleat, the crane’s call, the koil-bird’s note, the horse’s neigh, and the elephant’s trumpeting.”

“I wonder he did not mention the pussy-cat’s mew,” said the American lady. “But look at those girls in their new dance. How rhythmical and graceful they are, and what very beautiful women!”

She was right. Wlien you looked at the nautch-girls you soon forgot the music. It was dreamy, and sensuous, and languishing, and amorous, and sometimes almost passionate, but, however shrill and discordant to European ears, it was, as they danced, the most fitting accompaniment to tlieir movements.

The Tanjore nautch-girls before us—and Tanjore is the real home of the Indian nautch—were both beautifully formed women, trained through their childish and girlish days to make the most of their rare and supple beauty. They were dressed in light muslins and golden tissues. They had heavy diamond pendants in their ears, and in their hair yellow flowers intermingled with diamond sprays. Vae victis! Like their sisters in Europe, they, too, had spoils to show; and so they wore chains of gold, and ropes of pearls, and armlets and bracelets and anklets of gold and precious stones, that clinked like castanets as they danced. They had rings on their fingers and rings on their toes, and the most coquettish little rings stuck jauntily on to one side of their pretty little aquiline noses.

The way in which the Tanjore nautch-girls danced had as little in common with the European ballet as their flowing drapery. It consisted chiefly of slow movements backwards and forwards, of soft and graceful postures, and of the rhythmical manner in which they dropped and raised their arms, so as to show off the contour of their beautiful figures as reluctantly but as voluptuously as possible. The chief art of the nautch lies in this graceful movement of the arms and the upper part of the body. At first they sang a love-song as they danced. Then, at a signal from the Gaekwar, the musicians, squatting on the ground behind them, changed the tune, and in movements slower and more subdued than ever, the girls began the famous serpent-dance. They were beautiful women still, but, as they danced, they were rather serpents than women. The sinuous undulations of their mobile bodies as they swayed gently from side to side were snake-like. Their arms and hands and fingers had serpentine twinings, and their feet and ankles, as they moved one toward the other, seemed to glide and creep and trail along the ground so quietly that the tinkling gunthas on their ankles were scarcely stirred.

Their eyes, as they danced, flashed and glowed with passion, and were then veiled suddenly in dulled satiety. It was a love-dance, of course, as all our dances are; but it was a story, too, of the tempter and the tempted. The nautch-girls seemed to shiver as they neared each other; then again they retreated slowly. The natives pressed forward to cheer them. The European gentlemen retired in little knots into the background; and so the dance went on. Nothing, as you describe it, could have been more decorous. But suddenly all the English ladies, with one swift look round, each to each, left the hall simultaneously; and I found that, when the American lady had dropped my arm, somebody else’s hand had slipped gently under it. I turned round, and I saw, just as in my feverish dreams on my sickbed every day and night for a week back, Lydia’s soft grey eyes. I was so tired that I could scarcely stand as I had watched the nautch-girls dancing. But now a most curious feeling of restfulness fell over me, and though I was weary as I never had been before, I looked again at Lydia, and as she led me out of the hall, the very air was purer: her gentle touch on my arm seemed to thrill me through and through with innocent and childish thoughts; and when I looked into her eyes, and knew that it was Lydia who was really leading me away from these horrible dancing-women, I thought that I was in heaven—or at home.

“Poor boy!” she said, patting my arm with soft little pats as we went out. “What have they done to you since we parted? You look like a scarecrow, and that red-haired woman who propped you up with her arm looked like a scarecrow too. I had been watching you both for half an hour, and I only took your arm when she dropped it, little minx, because the old governor pretended to blush at the antics of the nautch-girls, poor things! Come away.”

This was, of course, very unjust. But the joyous, eager light in Lydia’s grey eyes gave me fresh life; and the touch of her hand on mine compelled me to go with her, were it to the end of the world. It was tender and solicitous and womanly, and it was just what I needed

Chapter XXXIV

“We will go at once,” said Lyclia.

“Go where?” I vaguely asked, as I went down the broad flight of illuminated steps.

“Back to Bombay, Hector,” she answered. “Not to stay there, of course. I have a much nicer plan than that. Don’t you think we were friendlier on the water than on shore?”

“Yes, I am sure we were.”

“So I thought,” said Lydia; “and so, after we ran away from each other in that absurd fashion, I went straight back to Bombay, and bought a great big boat that was going for next to nothing, a steamer the Government wanted to sell. She makes a lovely yacht, and is, her engineer tells me, so delightfully slow that I have had her rechristened the Tortoise.”

“The name is promising. I ought to have time enough now to paint your portrait.”

“Oh! you are coming, then?” she answered merrily. “How quick you are to see that I have forgiven you already! What an eternal good-bye that was of ours in Bombay! But you must not suppose for a moment that I came here to look for you. By the oddest chance I stopped at Baroda to see the nautch; and then I saw you, and you seemed so wretchedly ill that I forgot everything except that we had for a few days been the best friends in all the world. So tell them to pack up your things, and let us be off at once. Priscilla and my agents between them will have furnished the Tortoise by this time, and the sooner we are on board the better.”

I was still surely in a dream, and to test its reality I protested rather faintly that I could not decently run away from Tom Thornton, who had nursed me through my fever like a brother.

“Oh,” cried Lydia lightly, “we will take Mr Thornton with us. He has a nice kind face, I shall ask him to come too.”

To my astonishment Thornton consented; and yet he was the most stubborn man I knew. There was evidently nothing that Lydia could not do when it pleased her to be in earnest.

In half an hour or so we were driving through the avenue of great neem-trees to the Baroda railway station, with barely time enough to catch the Bombay train. The trees, in the dim evening light, threw grotesque and ghostly shadows across the road and far out into the meadow-land on either side. Everything, after the bustle of the day, was strangely silent, with Baroda like a dream behind us, and in front the illimitable dreams of the future. Suddenly we heard a verse or two of a rollicking hunting-song:—

“His rage at first, his glorious burst
Dark-dashing through the flood,
His bristly might, his meteor flight,
And his death of foam and blood!”

Then, as we listened, everything was again intensely still; and then a drag laden with triumphant sportsmen who had been out pig-sticking all day long, passed us at full gallop. Some of the men recognised Thornton and me, and by way of a farewell salutation they burst into that soul-stirring old song, “The next Grey Boar we see,” the Anglo-Indian’s national melody; and even the girls and matrons, who had driven out to bring them back, lent their sweet melodious voices to the chorus:—

“The boar, the mighty boar’s my theme,
Whate’er the wise may say,
My morning thought, my midnight dream,
My hope throughout the day.
Youth’s daring spirit, manhood’s fire,
Firm hand and eagle eye,
Do they require, who dare aspire
To see the wild boar die.
Then pledge the boar, the mighty boar,
Fill high the cup with me;
Here’s luck to all that fear no fall,
And the next grey boar we see!

“We envy not the rich their wealth,
Nor kings their crowned career;
The saddle is our crown of health,
Our sceptre is the spear.
We rival, too, the warrior’s pride,
Deep-stained with purple gore,
For our field of fame’s the jungle-side,
And our foe the jungle boar.
Then pledge the boar, the mighty boar.
Fill high the cup with me;
Here’s luck to all that fear no fall.
And the next grey boar we see!

“When age hath weakened manhood’s powers,
And every nerve unbraced.
These scenes of joy will still be ours,
On memory’s tablet traced;
For with the friends whom death hath spared,
When youth’s wild course is run.
We’ll tell of the chases we have shared,
And the tusks that we have won.
Then pledge the boar, the mighty boar.
Fill high the cup with me;
Here’s luck to all that fear no fall,
And the next grey boar we see!”

That song, as it died away slowly in the distance, was the last thing Lydia or I ever heard of Baroda.

The Tortoise, when we got on board, looked wonderfully familiar and homelike. I had, of course, never seen her before. But underneath the ample snow-white awning, the broad quarter-deck was fitted up as a drawing-room with tables and chairs and knick-knacks, and strewn with the soft rich rugs and carpets Lydia had picked up on her travels. The walls of the pretty saloon were decorated with the quaint old weapons, the rare hangings, and beautiful china that her mysterious assistant had purchased at our different stopping-places, Priscilla, too, was there to meet us, with little Sambo in a fine new dress, agrin from ear to ear as he recognised his mistress.

Lydia led me round her ship. The Tortoise might be slow, but she was roomy and very comfortable. Suddenly in a retired corner we came upon the Sheik, looking gloomier and sulkier than ever, and devoted as usual to his hookah. He saluted me rather grimly as we passed on.

“Why on earth did you bring him?” I cried. “He is a regular mar-joy! Why did you bring him?”

“Oh! as a chaperon,” she answered, smiling. “I couldn’t possibly know that Mr Thornton was coming when I asked the Sheik to come, and we must have some one with us; and then I could not well leave the poor old man stranded in Bombay, after I had dragged him so far out of his road. But we will get rid of him later on,”

“And is Thornton really coming too?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“And what are you gojng to do with us all? And where are you going to?”

“I scarcely know,” said Lydia. “You remember my ideal man, who was ready at a moment’s notice to go anywhere and do anything? Well, I mean to be like my ideal man for a change.”

“And what are you going to do first?”

“We are going to Goa,” she replied, “and so far Mr Thornton has promised to accompany us. They are celebrating the Exposition of St Francis Xavier’s body there just now. The Pope only allows it to be exposed every fifty years or so. But what is the matter, Hector? I thought you would be immensely pleased with everything; don’t look so cross.”

And though the Sheik was a disagreeable surprise, it was difficult to look cross when the Tortoise got properly under way. Thornton and the Sheik had struck up a sudden friendship, and left Lydia and me to ourselves, to lean over the bulwarks and watch the receding city.

“Bombay is a beautiful city,” she said. “I wish you had seen something of the overhanging houses in the bazaars, with their great carved balconies and gaily painted fronts, six or seven storeys high, and something of its strange crowds, the strangest motliest crowds seen anywhere in Asia. And I ought to have driven you up to Malabar Hill, and shown you the picturesque sweep of Back Bay down below with its fine English buildings, and its tall cotton-mill chimneys set in groves of palm-trees, with the sunny islands and sombre hills beyond them. Talk of the curve of beauty! The sweep of that bay is the loveliest curve I know; and it is always beautiful, in the sunlight, in the gloaming, and even in the dark, when you see nothing but the lamplights marking its margin. But we were neither of us happy in Bombay, Hector, and we are best away. I daresay we shall sail back by-and-by, and then you shall paint it and describe it as it should be painted and described. No one has ever done either, and yet sometimes I think that Bombay must be the loveliest city in the world.”

“Another Naples,” I said, smiling. “Vedi Napoli e poi mori.”

But Lydia was right. We were best away. After Mr Wylie’s sudden reappearance, the town, little as I knew of it, was full of painful memories, and her mystery, whatever it was, seemed, even on our brief passage through the crowded streets, to challenge inquiry. Some of the ladies we met looked at her with interest; when we reached the Apollo Bunder two men distinctly bowed to her, but she never noticed their salutations.

However, I was still in a dream. Bombay, like Baroda, belonged to a nightmare of the past, and once on board the Tortoise, we settled down as quietly as if we had never left our old British-India steamer.

When we had talked over Sister Patricia’s parting words and tearful eyes, there was so much to speak of—and so much, after our quarrel, to be left unsaid—that we were both silent.

The hills and towers and palm-trees died away slowly, but we kept close enough inshore to see the houses on the coast, while the blue Ghauts, sharp-edged as a razor, ran some thirty miles inland. Here and there Little towns like Rutnagherry nestled in an emerald valley, at the end of a magnificent bay encircled by hills. When the coast-line was not bright and green with palm-trees, it stood out in hills and bluffs of red conglomerate sandstone. Everything on shore was either red or green, with a cloudless blue sky above, a deep-blue sea in front, and the jagged edges of the blue Ghauts behind. Now we passed an old Portuguese fort, perched on a bold bit of wave-worn red laterite; now a little low green island, shrouded with palm-trees, suddenly surprised our helmsman, while he had to keep a sharp look-out for the white-winged country craft that were always tempting even the Tortoise to run them down. But Mrs Fonblanque’s skipper knew his work.

I could not, however, for all the beauty of the scenery, forget my quarrel with Lydia, and the reason of it—that wretched Mr Wylie. But I seemed to be on my parole, and so could not mention his name. I looked at Lydia. Her eyes were veiled in thought, and told me nothing.

“You are puzzled?” she said, suddenly, “and I scarcely wonder at it. Why did I change my plans? Why did I buy the yacht? Why did I ask you to come with me on this madcap cruise? Simply because I thought I had treated you rather badly, Hector, and because, after considering everything very carefully, from your point of view as well as from mine, there seemed no reason why I shouldn’t. You know my terms—we can help each other with our friendship; but as I told you off Gwadur, there must be no word, no thought, no hint of love between us. I am not thirty, as you guessed once, but I am old enough to take care of myself, and I have the Sheik and Mr Thornton to help me. Let us be, as we promised, the warmest, truest friends in all the world.”

“But how can we be friends?” I asked, “when the friendship is all on one side, while on the other there is love and nothing else. This yacht must have cost you—”

“You must not talk of love. Hector, and never mind the yacht.”

“How can I help minding it,” I said. “I wrote to my uncle about you from Bussorah, and he telegraphed to me to come home at once. I have just read his letter in reply to mine. ‘Break stones,’ he writes, ‘black boots, beg or steal, but never live on a woman. Live your own life, starve or die. Be an individuality to the last. Work out your own career as you please, end in the poorhouse if you like, but never let a woman be your banker.’ What would he say if he saw me lying on your Persian rugs at your feet, with all the luxurious signs of your cheque-book around us?”

“Whatever he might say would not much matter,” answered Lydia sighing wearily. “We have both to live our lives out. You have Edith and your past, and I have mine—a past more durable, as it has been more painful, than yours, and, at all events, a sufficient safeguard against your uncle’s absurd suppositions. Why do you harp on my money-bags? I am an individuality too, with feelings of my own, sir, quite apart from them. I only bought the Tortoise because I thought you might like to prolong the acquaintance of a few days for a few days more, and now you talk of nothing but my money-bags! The few days will soon be over. You can go to your future, and relegate me to my past whenever you please. The instant your conscience pricks you the captain will put you ashore, and I will wave my handkerchief till you are out of sight. That is what friendship means between men and women—a sigh and a yawn.”

Lydia turned her head away for a moment. Then she suddenly turned round and stamped her little foot at me.

“You are a fool!” she said, “you will never understand me. I hate flattery. But why don’t you talk to me of my eyes, my hair, my neck, of anything but those horrible money-bags? Are they me? What have money-bags to do with the real life of you or me or anybody else? If you became immensely rich tomorrow, would it make the slightest difference in my feelings towards you whatever they may be? Or if I lost every penny I have—”

“I wish to heaven you would!” I cried. “Make a difference! It would make all the difference in the world. Then I could speak! Then I could strive and work and wait till you answered.”

“Hush, Hector!” she said, laying a finger on her lips. “Hush! the Sheik will hear you.” But her eyes were soft and tender as they had been once or twice before, and quite unconsciously she took the hand I unconsciously stretched towards her. “I wish I could unmake my life; but I can’t! Why do you think I brought that horrible Sheik here?”

“I cannot guess.”

“No more can I. I used to think him amusing. Now he fills me with nameless horrors and forebodings. Priscilla implored me on her knees to leave him behind; and though she has no better reasons than I have, she watches him like a lynx. She loves me, poor old creature, and she hates anybody I dislike. Look at her now, as the Sheik is talking to Mr Thornton and watching you and me with eyes that fall on us like a blight! She is never out of earshot, and if I hadn’t her in good control she would do him a mischief with one of those daggers in the saloon. And yet what an amusing man we thought him! But never mind the Sheik and my mad fancies. I must go and give them both their tea. I don’t know why I brought him, but (this is a secret) I brought Mr Thornton to neutralise the Sheik a little and keep him away from us. I am sick of his sulks!”

I had never quite realised Lydia’s charming individuality until she made tea for us that afternoon on the quarter-deck. I had seen something of it in that early morning meal off Bussorah; but here she was on her own quarter-deck, almost in her own drawing-room. Every little movement and attention seemed instinct with womanly grace and tenderness. She was at home. She was bidding me welcome, and in another way welcoming the others.

“Never been in England, Mrs Fonblanque?” said Thornton, as she handed him his teacup. “You are happy; never go there. If you must go, never own that you have been in India, or they will look upon you as a pleasing combination of bore and barbarian. I daresay they are proud of India, as they read about it in the telegrams, and they make a rare fuss about all the rajahs who go home with their jewels and queer costumes and tawny complexions. But the Englishmen and Englishwomen who have spent their lives out here are looked upon—well, much as they look upon the tide-waiters and excise people in the remoter corners of Scotland and Ireland. We are out of the ‘swim’ of the last London season. We are as utterly contemned in London as the poets of the Lakes school used to be. We are worse than provincial.”

“Yes,” answered Lydia. “I know from the society papers what you mean, and it must be rather ‘rough’ on a man who has administered a district out here as large as England itself, to find his only chance of public life at home on a vestry board.”

“And to be taunted in the local broad-sheets every week with the taint of Anglo-Indian impropriety.”

“I don’t think that matters,” said Lydia. “Our lives here are transparent. There are no doors and shutters as at home. We all live in glass houses.”

“Toughened glass, though,” laughed Thornton.

And so we all chatted on merrily. No girl was ever less of a flirt than Lydia; but even the Sheik saw that Thornton was almost as much fascinated as I was. I had never heard him talk so brilliantly before, and his talk, when he liked, was a compliment to any woman. Lydia was evidently pleased.

“I don’t see why you should turn back directly we reach Goa,” she said when the tea-tray was removed. “Stay a few days with us there, at all events, Mr Thornton, and have a look at the place.”

“My leave is up, Mrs Fonblanque; and then Goa is really not worth looking twice at,” he replied, laughing. “If you want to see something queer, go on to Seroda.”

“Where’s that?” asked Lydia, “and what is it?”

“A little town of girls and women, about thirty miles above Goa, and the traditional nursery of our Indian nautch-girls.”

“Were those dreadful Baroda dancing women brought up there?” she inquired.

“No; they came from Tanjore, another nursery altogether.”

Then Thornton adroitly turned the conversation, and would tell me nothing more about Seroda until Lydia had retired for the night. In the meantime he went back to his retreat and devoted himself assiduously to the Sheik.

Lydia and I tried, when they left us, to revive our interest in Schopenhauer’s theory of friendship.

“His friendship,” I said, “is only the personal pleasure of self-sacrifice.”

“Yes,” said Lyclia, “and a mixture of selfishness and sympathy.”

We were both talking like parrots, and both thinking of something else. At last I rebelled.

“I care nothing,” I cried, “for friendship, and as for self-sacrifice, why, self-sacrifice never achieved anything higher than St Simon Stylites on his pillar. You would bring us back to the molluscs and the periwinkles. No, no! Finer organisms must have movement and freedom and fair-play. It is love, not what you call friendship in any form, selfish or otherwise, that awakens the imagination and throws a new light and glamour over all the common things in the world. Love is art and life, and the intellectual soul of the worker and the artist. Love gives him his impetus, and the powers of endurance and creation throughout all his doubts and difficulties.”

“But friendship has sympathy,” said Lydia, “and mutual obligations, and when one friend has too much money and the other too little—”

“Money,” I exclaimed, “has nothing to do with what we are discussing. Nature—and art is only nature concentrated—cannot be so vulgarly materialised. A look, a word, a sign from you would have far more influence than all the cheques you could ever write.”

We were both silent for a moment.

“Wliy not give me that sign, Lydia?”

“I can’t,” she said, quietly; “you know I can’t, and you should not speak in that way. There can be no signs or words of that sort between us, but there can be friendship and mutual aid. Devote yourself to some great work. Hector, for two or three years, and let me help you a little out of my superabundance.”

“You ask me to take your money!”

“No; I only want you to feel the necessity of earnest work. You shall repay me with interest. I know you well enough to be certain you would think of nothing else till you repaid me. Listen to me. Hector. You will be a dilettante to the end unless you are rescued from your uncle—and yourself.”

“Thank you,” I said, “and your money will save me?”

“No, no! Not my money! Perhaps I can. You can’t tell how lonely my life is. I long to be of use, and your success would pay me back a thousandfold. Why else should I have sought you out, and brought you here, after you had wounded me so cruelly in Bombay? If I were a man, you would help me or let me help you without a second thought. Forget that I am a woman—”

“And take your money! Lydia, you must be mad! I don’t want your money, and if I were ever unhappy enough to need it, I would starve first, die first.”

“Not if you loved me.”

“I love you.”

“Not if I loved you?”

“You don’t love me. I am pledged not even to speak of love before you! Don’t tempt me with false words and impossible hopes. But no, a thousand times no! Your money is a curse. I hate it, and the mystery behind it. How happy we might have been if we had met without that dreadful—”

“If we had met years ago,” she said with a sigh. “Perhaps. I don’t know. I only wanted to help you. I must help you in some other way.”

“Oh, how you could help me if you would! It is impossible that I can ever live without you now! Help me! Yes, how easily! But not by tantalising me with friendship and insulting me with offers of money.”

“Oh,” said Lydia, “don’t say horrible things. You don’t know how you are torturing me. Remember our contract, Hector, the best friends and the truest! Hector, I feel the Sheik coming. I always feel his presence now before I see him, and it is like a cold cutting wind. Good night.”

“Stay! stay! why did you ask me what I would do if you loved me? Heaven knows that there is very little I would not do if you bade me.”

“I was wrong, but I did not mean it in that way. Good night! Good night!”

“Seroda?” I said to Thornton, not wishing to talk myself after she had gone.

“It’s a queer old place,” he replied, lighting his last pipe, “and worth a visit, if Mrs Fonblanque will give you a couple of days’ leave. There are no men and no streets. Its thatched cottages, and crumbling old tanks, and temples, and pagodas seem to have been cast down from some gigantic pepper-pot, anyhow and anywhere, around the broad lotus-covered lakes. There are no men to be seen except a few white-haired decrepit old priests.”

“Why only priests?”

“I don’t know. There is some mysterious theory about religion and sensuality going hand in hand; and at all events, the nautch-girls here, as elsewhere in India, form a sort of religious sisterhood. They hang about the temples and pay toll to the priests. But at Seroda, where there are no other men, the connection is perhaps more apparent than anywhere else; and in this way Seroda is interesting ethnologically as the home of the Indian Bayadères, who in the good old days used to carry the fame of their learned and pious instructors into every Court in India.”

“You say ‘used to’?”

“Because the Courts are changed, like the princes. The Naiquins have no perceptible influence now in Indian politics, and we marvel how they ever made wars and ruled conquerors.”

“They are the Hetairai of India?” I suggested.

“Exactly so,” he answered. “In a minor degree, and among lesser men, their influence and fascination are as great as ever. The Greeks used to call them ‘companions,’ which their other women, busied in the nursery or the kitchen, certainly were not. These Naiquins or courtesans of ours in India are also highly educated. It is their one duty to please. They are a caste apart, and no sort of social stigma is attached to them. They are an almost national necessity in a country of infant marriages and stunted womanhood, and blinds and purdahs, or indeed in any country in which the men are not allowed to woo their wives before marriage. For this reason you have their counterpart in Paris now. But in India, as in France, they are often the objects of the most passionate attachment. The cleverest of them make large fortunes, and many, I fancy, deserve their good luck.”

“Why?”

“Because their education is intensely laborious. They live to please, and they know it. But few of them really care for pleasure, and many, if they ever have the chance, become faithful and devoted companions. The Seroda girls I am speaking of are trained from childhood in posturing and declamation, in reading and writing, in singing and dancing, and, if they show acute intelligence, in Sanscrit and the religious books. At Seroda, moreover, they have the additional reputation of extraordinary fairness, and that is what the wealthier natives especially prize. Whenever Indian ladies of position go to look at a new baby, it is the civil thing to exclaim ‘What a wonderfully fair child!’”

“But why should the Seroda nautch-girls have the reputation of peculiar fairness?”

“The story goes that they are descended from a colony of Portuguese nuns, who, bidding defiance to their priests, fled from their nunnery to Seroda, and did what they liked there. The story is, of course, absurd. But the white Naiquins of Seroda are famous far and wide for their fair skins and regular features. They are certainly much fairer and comelier than their Goanese sisters, and Seroda was probably the secret pleasure-haunt of the old Portuguese Fadalgos two or three centuries ago. That, I fancy, accounts for the mystery, especially if all the Goanese men were excluded from Seroda then as they are now.”

“So it may,” I said, “but what did you really see when you went there?”

“Seventy or eighty Naiquins, a third of them perhaps grown up; but girls of all ages, some of them little ‘tots’ of children, were brought into an old house beside the big pagoda to show us how skilfully they could dance and sing. A few of the elder girls had really pretty faces, not many. All were fair, but most of them, through systematic training and incessant physical exercise, had perfect figures.”

“What becomes of them?” I asked.

“Ah! they wait in Seroda until they are taken away. In the first instance, I fancy, they are sold. They go through a curious ceremony of marriage to a dagger. But eventually they become independent of their trainers. They have their own privileges and their own laws, and their property all passes through the female line, to show that the mothers and not the fathers have made it. A number of them, oddly enough, when their adventurous times are over, return to Seroda to end their days in peace under the shadow of the temples of their childhood, and, judging by the costly jewels the old women at Seroda wear, they must have feathered their nests to some purpose. But perhaps the oddest thing at Seroda is the tomb of an old Anglo-Indian major who retired there on his pension, and was so much respected by the Naiquins that they burned his remains in their way before they buried his ashes in ours. But you are yawning, Hicks. Get hold of Campbell’s ‘Indian Journal’ next time you are in a good library, and look at Noel Paton’s sketch of an idealised Naiquin. That will tell you all I have omitted.”

Chapter XXXV

Panjim, or New Goa, lies some three miles up a broad arm of the sea, the meeting-place of many smaller creeks and innumerable rivers. The country, farther than you can venture, is intersected by waterways, big or little, fresh or salt. For this reason there are no carriages, and the women go about in palanquins, and the men in little flat-bottomed boats called tonas, in which only the rowers have seats. Panjim is a Christian town. You recognise this fact at once from the swarms of lean pigs, lean almost as greyhounds, that act everywhere as scavengers. There is nothing worthy of note but the square—a kind of ill-kept garden with a statue of the great Albuquerque in the middle of it—the huge palaces of the Governor and the Archbishop, and the Custom-house, all on the edge of the creek. We knew nothing of the distinction between New Goa and Old Goa when we anchored, and we found everything painfully spick and span. The houses, as a rule one storey high, were white-washed or colour-washed until they became uncomfortably conspicuous. Their doors and windows were painted in the brightest possible green. Some of the more ancient houses had balconies, to which in former days impassioned lovers might have sung from below, just as in sunny Portugal; and in these old houses the window-panes were still filled in with filed-down oyster-shells instead of glass. “Spick and span,” that is the best idea of New Goa if you can combine it with a notion of cheap splendour. To-day Panjim is the paradise of cooks. They loot their English conquerors in India, and come back to Panjim with their unhallowed savings, and there they are colonels and majors, and heaven knows what.

The streets were of a disagreeable brick colour. There was one hotel (just opened), and a few shops, and very few Europeans, the leading man amongst whom was a sturdy old American skipper, who had taken root here from almost immemorial times. But no matter what their rank, all the European Portuguese went about in showy uniforms, and their ladies in the latest Parisian fashion. Owing to the Exposition the town was full of people en route to Old Goa, at which all the good Catholics in India had to be present if they could. The women in their graceful mantillas, or the coloured kerchiefs they wore gipsy fashion over the head and round the face, looked ele gant and picturesque in the distance; and on this festive occasion every side street was thronged with black-robed black priests, and had its own brass band. The Goanese are musicians as well as cooks, and they not only make the music for all the native regiments in India, but they go as far afield as Zanzibar, and Mozambique, and Muscat.

We took a turn round the town, and then determined to leave the Tortoise at anchor, and start at once in one of her boats for Old Goa itself. While we were discussing the question, a courtly, portly Portuguese gentleman approached us. I was reading an extract from the latest history of Goa, a bulky book that had just appeared. He introduced himself with a pleasant smile as its author, and very civilly offered to accompany us as cicerone; and he began his self-imposed duties by showing us over Government House, which was hung with portraits of old Portuguese worthies in ruffs and Vandyke cloaks. By this time our boat had been stored with food and clothes enough for a two or three days’ trip, and we enjoyed the row up the creek, lined, as it was on both sides, with villages, and gardens, and cocoa-nut groves, and villas, and cottages, and old palaces, and crumbling wharves, about which our guide had much to say.

“We should stop here,” he said suddenly. “The girls are on show to-day, on account of the festivities, and very likely we shall see their future husbands choosing them.”

We landed and went to the College of Our Lady of Serra, where nearly a hundred young orphan girls are educated by the nuns until they are old enough for marriage. On high days and holidays the college is thrown open to young men in need of a wife. All the girls, as we saw them drawn up for inspection, poor things, were neat and clean, with beautiful dark tresses, but, as there were a few sheepish-looking Portuguese lads in the room, they were rather shy. The lads go round with the head matron and shake hands with all the girls in the first class. Then they send in their applications to the committee; and if they can pay a hundred rupees to the college, they are married to the girls of their choice. This was love at first sight with a vengeance, and the young men looked terribly perplexed, as we interrupted the first and last flirtation they were ever likely to have. Lydia—and I daresay she was right—said that the girls, in spite of their nervousness, thought it great fun. Thornton agreed with her, and related an amusing experience he had once had in a Bombay hotel. He was awakened by a friend very early one morning and told that a number of men were drawing lots for brides in the dining-room. He dressed hastily and went down, and found that a consignment of Moravian girls had just arrived from Europe. In this devoted community all the sons of Indian missionaries return to the country as missionaries, while the girls, whose business it is to be missionaries themselves, have to come out as missionaries’ wives. The young men are not allowed to marry till they have been some years in India, but the same steamer had brought out a number of girls and young men, who had become attached to one another on the voyage, and who mutually resented the appearance of the elderly gentlemen who had hastened down to Bombay from all parts of India to claim such brides as Providence should send them. Most of the girls were in tears.

“I call that dreadful,” said Lydia.

“It is worse than Seroda,” said I.

“I fancy not,” said Thornton. “I suspect that these Moravian marriages and those marriages from our historical friend’s College of Our Lady of Serra are as happy as any. The girls start young, and if their husbands are men of any force of character—”

Here Lydia and Thornton had a little battle, and our cicerone, the historian, was so much abashed by the reflections that I was able to throw in sideways on the system in vogue at the College of Our Lady of Serra, that, quite against the spirit of his book, he lamented the downfall of the Portuguese power in India and the want of spirit in the Portuguese Government at home. “Look at our salaries,” he cried, “and contrast them with yours!” and then he became really eloquent. There is nothing, after all, like a monetary standard.

“We were once,” he said—much as that poor mad doctor had said it before him—“the richest, proudest, and bravest people in India, and now we are only the proudest. The Viceroy of Goa lived like a king. We were a nation of soldiers and merchant-princes and priests, most of them nobles. But our marts and fortresses were soon dominated by the Church. The cowl, and the scowl beneath it, brought about the ruin of the Portuguese empire in India. After Albuquerque’s death the whole city from Matins to the Angelus was filled with ecclesiastical clamour. St Francis Xavier, in his ten years in the East, more than three hundred years ago, made more converts than there are Catholics in India now. In our archives we have official records of more than seventy auto-da-fe, at which, amidst tears and prayers and public rejoicings, many thousands of infidels and renegades were burnt alive. The Inquisition was more powerful here than anywhere in Europe.”

“And so,” said Thornton, “put an end to Goa—and itself.”

“I am a good Catholic,” replied our historian, “but I cannot contradict you there. Goa, however, still embodies all the traditions of our national splendour. Every able-bodied man in Portugal would spend his last drop of blood in its defence, and to serve here is the highest ambition of our best men at home. And what a service it is as compared with yours! Nothing shows our decadence better than a few figures I quoted in my book. Our Governor-General gets one thousand and forty rupees a-month; your local governors of Bombay and Madras get ten thousand. Our judges of the High Court draw two hundred and sixty rupees a-month, and yours nearly four thousand, and yet they come from much the same class at home, whether in England or in Portugal, and keep up much the same state in India. The frontier-line makes all the difference. You are an English civilian,” he said suddenly to Thornton; “what, if you will permit me to be curious, do you yourself draw?”

“Only two thousand five hundred rupees,” retorted Thornton, glad to ventilate a personal grievance.

“More than twice as much as our Governor-General; and is your office important?”

“No, a sham or a sinecure! But then I’ve been unlucky, and they will have to do something better for me by-and-by.”

“Ah!” said the historian. “But no matter how poor we are; to-day, at all events, you will see us at our best.”

Old Goa, in spite of its crowds of pilgrims and its newly whitewashed churches and steeples and monasteries, was in reality a city of the dead, with something like a dozen permanent inhabitants to toll the bells and chant the services in its deserted cathedral and its churches. But for the time being everything was changed. In a few steps from the river we came upon one of the busiest scenes I had ever witnessed. As if by magic a temporary town had sprung up amid the ruins and palm-trees, and there were more than thirty thousand pilgrims in it who had laboriously travelled hither on very small means from all parts of India. They were housed in immense “hotels”—so styled on flaunting pasteboard placards—made by stretching sticks and bamboo poles from one palm-tree to another for about a hundred yards, and then covering them in with leaves and mud. There were rows and streets of bamboo bazaars—liquor-shops, cook-rooms, bakers’ stalls, and shanties for the sale of tobacco, fruit, and sweet-stuffs. There was an Italian panorama of the Russo-Turkish war, with many other exhibitions and peep-shows of a less heroic character. In the stalls, jumbled together pell-mell, lay Jerusalem rosaries, showy exhortations to prayer, grim pictures and images of saints, amber chaplets, ivory and ebony crucifixes, and candles of all colours and all sizes, to be offered up at the various shrines. The pilgrims were poor, though their enthusiasm was great, and everything was of the cheapest. These bazaars ran across the ruins and moss-covered tombs, and over broken walls and half-filled ditches and stumps of palm-trees, right up to the church of the Bom Jesus, which was besieged all day long by a prodigious crowd of men and women and children, many of them cripples, and some borne in the arms of their friends. Most of the pilgrims were low-caste native Christians, but there were thousands of orthodox Hindus who, without deserting their own faith, were anxious to see what St Francis Xavier could do for their infirmities. It was a painful walk, interrupted at every step by the appeals of squalid beggars, maimed, diseased, and disfigured, all trying to make money out of their miseries.

The crumbling, grass-grown ruins of Old Goa resounded, as we went through them, with sacred music, and the ringing of bells, the firing of cannon, and the letting off of fireworks. Here we met a procession of the different religious communities, in copes of blue, and red and white tunics, with torch-bearers carrying lighted tapers round the huge gilt crucifix in front. There we saw a much more pathetic procession of travel-stained pilgrims—a whole village together, old men and children, boys and girls and women—coming from some remote corner of India, and marching slowly along, bareheaded, and singing hymns, with their grey old padre in the midst of them. The pilgrims had to wait for hours, almost for days, before they could be admitted to view St Francis Xavier’s body. But they were very orderly and terribly in earnest. Goa is the Mecca of oriental Christianity, and no one can guess the sacrifices that most of the pilgrims had made to be present, or the household stinting before and afterwards. Just as at Mecca, they had a short-lived joy. The moment after they had seen and touched the sacred corpse, they had to quit the city, so as to make room for others; and yet for five holy weeks a compact living mass of fervent pilgrims pressed on, day by day, towards St Francis Xavier’s shrine.

Many were the stories our guide told us of the miracles already wrought upon those who had kissed the saint’s feet, or gazed with faith into his well and seen the weird light that only shines through its deep black waters so long as his body is exposed, or who had spent a midnight in the ruined chapel, in which St Francis, overpowered by the raptures of divine love, was wont to cry out “Enough, Lord, enough!” Hundreds of poor creatures, brought here in extremis, died on their pilgrimage; but hundreds, again, believed that they were cured by the interposition of a saint whose life was full of miracles—who had turned salt water into fresh, who had tamed the tigers that attacked him, who had made a crab bring up his crucifix from the bottom of the deep sea, and whose bruised and wounded body, as all could witness, had been miraculously preserved from his age to this. Great is faith! The miracles at the last Exposition were judicially and canonically approved by a formal Commission; and even during our short stay there we heard a man, led about by a child, declaring, in spite of the doctors, that he had recovered his eyesight.

Our guide took us through the thorny jungle from one ruin to another. The walls of twenty-five or thirty churches were still standing, and half-a-dozen of them—each big enough for a great European city—were still used. The churches, like the Jesuit churches all the world over, had elaborate facades. In front they were grand buildings. Behind they were serviceable barns, vast and roomy, with tall towers and roofs of red tiles; and their interiors were decorated with imitation marble and tinsel, and cheap flags, and grotesque frescoes and pictures and coloured prints, that would have been more at home in an English music-hall. Here and there we came across a magnificent marble monument that had defied the teeth of time. In the churches, as in the crowds, there was a singular mixture of robust faith and childish simplicity and tawdriness. But the religion seemed to suit the people, and our guide assured us that the Roman Catholics are the only missionaries who make any real headway in India. Then we went through the ruins of the Viceregal Palace and the Viceroy’s Arch on the river, at which, from a procession of stately barges, each new Viceroy used to disembark. We tried to enter the corner of an almost impenetrable forest, now haunted by snakes and owls and bats, where a convent, three-quarters of a mile in length, stood once. Three-quarters of a mile of loveless womanhood—women who had been girls, and girls who had been children, asphyxiated by seclusion, pale-cheeked and shallow-breasted and hollow-eyed, and kept in the paths of virtue by the iron hand of the Inquisition! No wonder that Goa had fallen into utter desolation, like the Cities of the Plain! With a shudder we saw all that is left of the terrible palace of the Inquisition and the Bishop’s ghastly prison. Here, where the Inquisition had been so strong and cruel, nature had at last reasserted her supremacy. Trees and roots had forced themselves through the walls and loop-holed chambers, and had broken open the stern cold dungeon-cells, to which hopeless prisoners had once gone shivering. Ruined walls, no matter how thick and massive, were crowned and covered now with ferns and moss, and green creeping-plants and bright flowers, all trying to blot out the infernal human cruelty that had made this proud Portuguese city the most dissolute place under the sun, and had eventually destroyed it.

And yet all the stones of these wrecked and weather-worn buildings were so many fossilised remains of the first Christian upheaval in India, an effort among the bravest and kindliest that humanity has attempted, and they were all just now eloquent in praise of one of the purest men who ever breathed, St Francis Xavier—the “Star of the East,” from Goa to Japan—a martyr whom all the Churches accept as a true apostle.

The open space in front of the church of Bom Jesus was guarded, as we approached it, by some three or four hundred European and native soldiers and four guns—in fact, by the whole Goanese army. The crowd here, where it was thickest, was still quiet and orderly. We were permitted to enter through the neighbouring convent, and this brought us at once into a rich chapel containing the magnificent mausoleum, where the body of St Francis Xavier usually reposes, each portion of which had been the gift of kings. There were three coffins, and the outer coffin of pure silver was emblazoned with the Saint’s piteous cry, “Satis est Domine, satis est”—“Enough, Lord, enough!” The three coffins rest on three long, broad, deep steps of the rarest jasper, guarded at every corner of every step by marble angels, and faced all round with bronze tablets, telling the story of the saint’s life, and of his death when he fell pierced through and through with the arrows of the heathen he came to succour.

The body rested on a railed platform in the centre of the church, just below a solid silver statue of the saint. It was much shrunken, and seemed not more than four feet long; but only the face, the feet, and the left hand were visible, the rest being covered with a rich chasuble embroidered with gold and pearls. The skin was hardened and shrivelled, and of a tawny brownish colour, while a grateful odour of sandalwood hung about the corpse. There was still a little hair on the head, and on the face and forehead we could see signs of the wounds of which St Francis had died in China more than three centuries before. It was a painful and ghastly relic, and, to those who believed in its miraculous preservation, a relic of the intensest and holiest interest. We stood face to face with the man who aided Ignatius Loyola to found the great Society of Jesus, and who made the Society—the most powerful political organisation that ambition has ever employed—as strong in the East as it afterwards became in Europe. Alongside the body, once the tabernacle of a noble and indomitable soul, lay the symbol of his earthly power—a bâton, encrusted with some two hundred emeralds, which St Francis had himself wielded as the “Defender of the East.” And to this day every new Governor-General of Goa has to touch the bâton before he can establish his right of succession.

Through the strong wooden barriers the pilgrims streamed past, pausing for a moment to kiss the saint’s left foot, and to leave their candles, and what gifts of money they could afford. They were mainly, of course, native Christians, but there was a sprinkling of Hindus, a people charitable enough to believe in the human merits of any saint whose life has been good and unselfish. Like the others, they brought their candles and their offerings, and they, too, piously kissed St Francis’ feet.

When it was our turn to approach the corpse, I noticed that Lydia crossed herself, and during High Mass—when we all felt the touching and sublime grandeur of the service of the Church of Rome—she whispered to me that she was a Catholic. Four bishops in mitre and cope stood at the four corners of the platform, and behind it the Archbishop of Goa, mitred and in full canonicals, with the Governor-General and all the high officials in uniform. The church by this time was densely filled. There were six women to every man, and down below all the women wore a white saree over their black hair and picturesque dresses. In the galleries reserved for the European aristocracy, the ladies, and the men too, appeared in full evening costume. At last the host was elevated to the flare of trumpets, the boom of cannon, and the clanging of great bells. The choir burst into song, and suddenly the church was filled with heavy incense. An indescribable enthusiasm thrilled through the congregation like an electric shock. When the Archbishop, in the name of the Pope, pronounced his solemn blessing, the crowd, sensitive and excited beyond measure, shivered and trembled like reeds in the wind. Some of the women fainted, many of them wept aloud, and the men—cooks and butlers and tailors, fishermen and ploughmen—sobbed out with St Francis Xavier in his agony, “Satis est Domine, satis est!” Nothing is so infectious as the feelings of a crowd really in earnest. I was moved myself, and Lydia was strangely stirred. When we reached the open air again, she asked the others to make arrangements for our food and lodgings, and begged me to take her out of the turmoil for a while. She was nervous and excited, and half inclined to cry. She wanted fresh air and solitude.

We wandered away through the forest, and climbed a little isolated hill. Below us we saw ruined arsenals and palaces, and ramparts, and quays, along the broad blue creek, and its bluer offshoots, glistening like threads of silver as they neared the Ghauts. Nearer at hand there were grand squares and broad streets, and great forts, all in ruins too, and everywhere the encroaching forest showed that nature is stronger than man. The proudest, sternest conquerors of the East have here bent their heads to nature at last, and the scenes of their triumphs are now buried beneath moss-covered walls, and shattered columns, and broken arches, telling of nothing but desolation and decay.

Lydia’s conversation was more solemn than it ever had been. She said nothing of personal matters, as she permitted me to see a new and unexpected phase of a nature as varied as it was strong. But though she said nothing of herself or me, her sweet and earnest words showed how keenly alive she was to the responsibilities of each of us. Love, as she spoke, was purified into something higher and ampler than I had ever dreamt of, until the most hopeless love—such as that of mine for her—became the purest and noblest of all. So we sat, conversing and thinking as we watched the grass-grown ruins down below. We forgot our companions, just as we had forgotten ourselves, and it jarred upon us at last to be told that they were waiting for us at the old convent of St Monica.

The sun, as we rose, was on the very point of sinking, and for a moment the ruins on the river were touched and glorified with gold and crimson.

“Oh, how cold they look now!” said Lydia, with a shiver, when the sun disappeared. “Those desolate ruins seem almost human, Hector. They bring me back cruel thoughts about the past. Has the past no terrors for you, when the sun sinks suddenly, and everything is blank and chill?”

“No, dear,” I replied, hastening her steps. “It is not the past I care for, but the future. You are weary and over-wrought. Let us hurry on to the convent.”

Here, where eight hundred Augustinian nuns had once found shelter, their sole survivor, a feeble old lady of ninety years, sat among a number of native lay sisters, busily engaged in selling rosaries and sweetmeats. One wing of the convent was temporarily used as an hotel, and Thornton had secured a suite of fine rooms looking into a dense jungle that had been the convent garden. We dined there quietly. But Lydia was sad and tired after our long day’s labours. Her melancholy threw a gloom over the rest of the party, and with one excuse or another we all retired early to our chambers.

I was in no humour for sleep. I leant lazily on the balcony listening to the faint hum of the pilgrims in their rude tents alongside the creek, as I thought over the events of the last three days as impartially as I could. Suddenly the ringing of a great bell startled me. I heard hurried footsteps in the echoing corridors. In a few minutes after that I heard a voice in the garden whisper, “Hist! hist!”

I replied as cautiously. Priscilla was there, I found, waiting to take me to her mistress. I lowered myself quietly from the balcony. Priscilla led me through a narrow garden-path, overgrown with rank weeds and tall thick grass, to a rough garden-seat, on which I saw Lydia crouching, with her face buried in her hands.

“I sent for you, Mr Hicks,” she said in a voice that seemed dry and hard and full of pain. “I could not rest to-night without seeing you.”

She motioned Priscilla to retire to a distance. Then she rose and laid her hand on my arm, just as in the Gulf of Oman.

“I have received a telegram,” she continued, “and my whole life is changed.”

“For the better or the worse?”

“I scarcely know. But my life is changed.”

“How, Lydia, and why?” I asked, eagerly.

“I have just heard,” she said, in a lower voice than before, “that I have lost everything— every rupee I possessed is gone.”

“Lydia!” I cried, “what a splendid thing for both of us! Now you will let me win you if I can!”

“A penniless woman!”

“A woman who can now love me if she will as I have loved her ever since we met! Oh! you don’t know how I can work when I have a motive, or how I will slave for you day and night! You offered me your money as a motive. Now I have a motive worth living for. But how did it all happen, Lydia?”

“Through failure and fraud and defaulting trustees, I suppose,” she said, listlessly. “But never mind the telegram or the money”—and here she crushed up the message in her hand as if she would annihilate it—“let us forget them both, and never, never mention either of them again. Tell me what to do. Hector, and talk of the future, not of the past.”

Here and there in the shadow of the great trees the ghosts of pale-faced nuns seemed to glide in the starlight beneath the rustling branches, as I spoke to Lydia with passionate eagerness in the intensity of my love. For a time—it seemed an eternity—she listened in silence. Then she raised her eyes to mine.

“I wonder if you really love me?”

I took her hand and kissed it.

“My heart, my soul, my life are in that kiss!” I said. “But you know I love you.”

“Yes, I know it!” she answered slowly, with a long shivering sigh. “But is your love strong enough to withstand what we may have to go through? Tonight has been very painful to me; how painful I cannot tell you. Do you love me well enough, Hector, to swear that you will never, directly or indirectly, refer to to-night again?”

“There is no oath,” I said, solemnly, “that I would not take, and nothing I would not do, now you have got rid of the accursed burden that kept us apart!”

Lydia dropped my hand with a shudder. She looked me steadily in the eyes for a minute, and then, with a gentle touch, that seemed to say her doubts were over, her hand again softly stole into mine.

“Oh!” she said, “how hard it is to think, how hard it is to know what I should do! I believe you, dear; and I am trying to do right. But I want some one stronger than either of us to help me.”

“I am almost mad to-night!” she continued, after a pause. “What I saw to-day, and what has happened since, brought my whole life back again, and all my innocent girlish thoughts, when our religion seemed the grandest thing in the world to me. You will never refer to to-night, Hector? You will never mention anything I told you in my excitement?”

“Never, I swear it!”

“Then—” said Lydia.

“Then,” I cried, “you are mine for life and death, mine only as I am yours—”

But when I sought to kiss her lips as a pledge, she buried her face in her hands, and sobbed as if her heart were breaking.

“Not to-night of all nights,” she sobbed.

Suddenly she clutched my arm.

Beside us, like a spectre, stood a black-robed priest. He carried a quaint old lantern in his hand, and by its flickering light we saw a countenance that was almost superhuman in its intense humanity. His worn and emaciated features bore traces of lifelong suffering and self-denial. His eyes were lit up with a look of infinite and indescribable pity. His long snow-white beard fell in heavy folds on his black robe. His broad forehead was marked with a deep brown scar. He leant, bent and bowed, on a staff; but, in spite of his age, it was easy to see that he had been a soldier in his youth.

“You are suffering, sister,” he said, in a voice very courteous, and tender, and musical. “I saw you today in the crowd, and something to-night prompted me to come and seek you. Tears like yours are not for the young. I am an old man, with many sins and griefs to atone for. Let an old priest aid you in your trouble.”

Lydia sank down on the bench before him with her face still clasped in her hands.

What she said I know not. I could hear her earnest pleading, from the leafy corner to which I had withdrawn; and I could hear his low, fervent exhortations. When the suspense became almost unendurable, the old priest bade me come to them. Without a word he put her hand in mine.

“If you love me,” she said tremulously, as we stood hand in hand for a while, “I must marry you. I told him everything. He is the best, and kindest, and wisest man I have ever met. He has given me absolution for the past, and his blessing for the future, and he says that we must either marry or part. Hush, Hector!” she exclaimed, as I tried to interrupt her, “I could never face Mr Thornton or the Sheik again if we had to tell them we mean to marry. You can’t think how nervous and excited I am to-night. But I could never explain what has happened since I saw them; and how could I meet either of them again if they thought I had bought the yacht because I wanted you to love me?”

“Then let us run away,” I whispered, snatching at a forlorn hope. “Let us run away in our own yacht before the sun rises; let us cut off all ties with the past, and leave Thornton and the Sheik behind us.”

“Oh!” she cried, “oh! to get rid of them! I would give anything to get rid of them!”

But Lydia refused to go. It was only after the return of the priest, who had left us to ourselves for a moment, that she would even talk about going.

I asked him to plead my cause for me; and he seemed to have an almost mesmeric influence over her.

His voice was far more eloquent than mine. He simply told us to go at once to Mahé, a tiny French settlement down the coast, and, if I understood him rightly, a place for hasty marriages, a kind of Indian Gretna Green. Here, as she was a Catholic, we could be married if we chose; and he promised to help us to arrange everything beforehand, so as to make all our difficulties smooth in advance. He showed us clearly that we had to act promptly, that we must part at once and for ever, or prove that we would never be parted. I agreed with the very first words he spoke; and eventually Lydia consented to leave the Sheik and Thornton without any present explanation, and write to them afterwards.

“Can’t we leave Priscilla too?” I asked.

“Certainly not,” Lydia answered. “She will be our mainstay;” and so it proved.

We stole quietly down to the landing-place by the light of the priest’s lantern, as Lydia led him almost affectionately by the arm. Priscilla, with a few hastily whispered words, collected the boat’s crew. The old priest gave us both his blessing; and Lydia, after I had lifted her into the boat, said, “He has blessed us, Hector. He is a good man! He knows what I am doing. He says I am right; and I cannot tell you what kind and thoughtful words he spoke. How strange that I should have met him again to- night, just when I wanted help and strength! But oh, Hector! will you ever regret it?”

In less than ten minutes the priest’s tall, bent figure was lost to us, and the men were straining at their oars. We started by torchlight, feeling our way cautiously between the river’s banks. Then the dawn broke slowly, but everything as yet was silent as death. The air was moist and cold. Lydia let me hold one of her hands in mine, and as the still air turned colder she allowed me to fold her cloak close around her with my other arm. Priscilla, who had sat down beside the man at the tiller, was the life and soul of us all as she urged the crew to pull quickly. The cold grey light grew lighter and warmer. The river was fringed to the water’s edge with stunted shrubs. The broad low-lying fields, and the feathery cocoa-nut groves beyond, stood out gay and smiling from their solemn dark-green background; and, far in the blue distance, the Ghauts rose like giant sentinels of this slumbering solitude.

“We have caught nature asleep,” I said to Lydia, trying to cheer her as I readjusted her wraps. “I never saw anything more lovely; but in a minute or two I shall find you in the same plight too, dear.”

She had a pretty soft white woollen wrapper over her head. But she pushed it off impatiently as I spoke.

“I am very tired,” she answered, “but I don’t want to sleep. I am excited and frightened. I wonder if anybody will follow us. I wish we had never gone. I wish we were on board. Don’t talk to me; don’t tease me, please. I feel just as I do when there is a thunderstorm coming; and oh, how wretched!”

I could only put my arm very tenderly round her cloak again, and try to comfort her.

She nestled close beside me. “I am hot one moment,” she said, “and cold the next, and pulses seem to be throbbing all over me. Do please make the men go on!”

The men rowed gallantly, and the tide was now in their favour. Here and there as our boat leapt forward with each powerful stroke, a grey ruin at the top of some solitary hill just caught the golden splendour of the sunrise. The brightly painted houses, with their quaint peaked roofs, hid themselves among the palms, now at last softly stirred by the salt breeze from the sea; and the birds began to sing. Suddenly Priscilla gave a low cry of exultation. We had reached Panjim. The hazy tones of colour around this gaudy little town were exquisitely beautiful, and the palm-clad hills were covered half-way up with thin mists. We climbed on board the Tortoise. The fires in the engine-room had never been damped down, and, while the engineer was getting up steam, Lydia sent ashore for a boat that could be towed after us until she had written out some telegrams she wanted to send off. It was broad daylight now, as we passed the Fort and the Palace, perched on the two tall hills, one on each, that guard the entrance to the Goa river.

Then at last Lydia broke down, and the moment after her telegrams were despatched she fell sound asleep in a long chair on deck. But we had done what we meant to do; we had cut ourselves adrift from the world. We were going to Mahé, where the world could trouble us no longer, as fast as sails and steam could bear us.

Oh, the plans we made that morning! And the dreams we each spoke out aloud to the other when once we felt pursuit to be impossible. “Money?” What was it? And then for months, perhaps for years, we had goods enough on board the yacht to keep two simple people going.

How depressed and sad Lydia had been yesterday, and how suddenly she entered into the sombre feelings of all around her. To-day she was a new being altogether. There was a bright, joyous look in her eyes, and an unsuspected dimple in her chin. She flitted about the quarter-deck like a bird, and she coloured like a girl when I spoke to her. Slie insisted on steering the yacht herself, and scolded me merrily for not being able to act as captain.

“Oh you woe-begone creature, you,” she said; “take the helm, wreck the yacht! I shall never scold you again, whatever you do; but I want to talk today.”

And so we talked all through the morning, stopping only whenever we picked up the log to ask the captain how many knots we had sailed from Goa.

“After Mahé,” said Lydia, at last, with a faint blush, “we will just sail on and on till we are tired of sailing. When we want anything we will put in somewhere and sell a carpet, or a few pearls, or some arms. I think we might arrange for an auction on board off Colombo, Hector. I will give a free lunch to everybody who comes, and you shall be the auctioneer. You thought me extravagant when I purchased all these things; but how wonderfully provident I really was. I bought them cheap; I shall sell them dear. Why, that Hicks’ pearl, which cost us sixty rupees only, should be almost a fortune in itself. And when we are tired of the yacht we can sell that too, and buy a pretty cottage, and then you can paint your pictures, while I do the housekeeping, and we will live all by ourselves on next to nothing, and be the happiest people that ever were. What is money when you have a ship full of fine things and a new market at every new port? We might barter, too, if our European customers should happen to be stingy, and get legs of mutton, and turkeys, and yams, and gold dust, and ivory, and precious stones from the savages, and so become immensely rich.”

“But I thought you did not wish to be immensely rich.”

“Of course not, dear,” she answered, “not, if you don’t like it. I merely want to do what you wish; but we can’t live for ever on a ship, and our cottage means money, for I should, if you please, like a cottage of our own without a landlord. Then you will want money to pay for your paints, and I suppose my dresses will wear out. What kind of a cottage would you like?”

“A red-roofed cottage by a waterfall, and with a broad verandah.”

“Yes, and with a lake behind it. The lake will do for your pictures, and we can row on it every afternoon. The furniture. Hector?”

“There,” I said, “we must be very economical indeed at first. I think one arm-chair should be enough for both of us.”

“I think so,” she answered—“at first at all events. How stupid wealthy people are! Why, we have a dozen arm-chairs on deck here, and one surely should be enough for you and me!”

“To-day?” I asked, moving towards her.

“To-day? I am not quite certain about to-day; but to-morrow! How different everything is from yesterday!”

“And it all comes from losing your money!”

Here Lydia sighed a little.

“You are sorry for your money already?” I asked.

“Not a bit,” she cried; “I am puzzled and bewildered, that is all. I don’t know why we deserve to be together like this, or why you and I are both sitting on one chair without anybody scolding us.”

“One chair is quite enough,” I said. “We must, whether we like it or not, consider our ways and means, and the sooner we begin the better. Don’t you think we ought to send the other chairs down at once, so as to keep them safe and sound until we have our auction?”

“Yes, dear,” said Lydia; “but we can’t do all we ought. I really don’t like to tell the men to take away all the chairs but one. We’ll permit them to remain as they are, and send them to Coventry.”

And so we talked on and on.

Oh, what a beautiful sky it was! What a deep blue sea! What a lovely coast! What a still starlit nidit!

We were at Tellicherry before we thought it possible.

“This is the best port for Mahé,” said the captain; and as we had told him to hurry on to Mahé as fast as ever the Tortoise could steam, we were obliged to go ashore at once.

Chapter XXXVI

Lydia left the yacht reluctantly, as if she needed a little respite and breathing-time before making up her mind to plunge into an utterly unknown world. Her joyous manner had gone. Again she was full of forebodings, and she clung to me in a timid, anxious way, as we went together down the ladder.

The fantastic view in front was, however, reassuring. The country between us and the bold blue Ghauts might be mysterious, but it was exceedingly beautiful. Tellicherry itself is a queer little collection of picturesque white houses, standing on red laterite. Palm-trees and large-leaved plants and brilliant tropical flowers come right down to the surf as it breaks upon the shore, and, when they are stopped there, turn back to cover the deep valley and the ridge of low hills behind it with glowing foliage. Our boatmen rowed us as far as a reef, two or three hundred yards from the actual coast-line, and from this we had to be carried to the land. The Moplah fishermen and sailors, who ran out to meet our boat, are Arabs by descent; and though they must have Hindu blood in their veins now, they are still the most fanatical Mussulmans in India. The long knives they wear in their scanty girdles have given the British Government as much trouble as the swords and scimitars of the pure Mohammedan races. They are big brawny fellows, with the chests and the arms of a Hercules. Their physique, as they bore us ashore without an effort, was magnificent; but, on reaching shallow water, we were shocked to see how many of them were disfigured with elephantiasis, their legs from the ankle upwards being almost as large in girth as their waists.

To my surprise we were not unexpected. A native gentleman, who, from his retinue, must have been a person of consideration, accosted us courteously as we landed, and, with the aid of an English interpreter, explained that he had been warned from Mahé to make our journey as pleasant as possible. The interpreter would say no more than this; but, at his suggestion, Mrs Fonblanque despatched Priscilla and the escort of native sailors Priscilla had brought ashore, in three of the bullock bandies at our disposal.

Then the native gentleman, proud of Tellicherry, and, above all else, anxious to be civil, led us through the town.

Lydia’s vague surmises were right. We had plunged into a new world altogether. The bazaars were full of people, as we went through them, and the girls and women, shopping there busily among the crowd of men, were scarcely darker than the women of Southern Europe. Tall and lithe, though fully formed, perfect in figure as in feature, they were dressed, one and all, in nothing but a light petticoat, reaching half-way to the knee. They walked here and there, and up and down, through the narrow streets of Tellicherry, with such a frank and almost inconceivable abandon, that it was impossible to imagine purer or more innocent types of womanly gracefulness. How careless they were of strange eyes like ours! How different, in their slim figures and perfect limbs, from the bloated Moplahs we had just left behind us; and how extraordinarily different from the closely veiled women of the Gulf! They were Teyer women, the interpreter told us, and only modest women are permitted to go about in this way. The others have to veil themselves.

On the confines of the town we bade farewell to our courteous native friend; and as the day was still young, we sent our bullock bandy on in front, and sauntered slowly after it on foot. Tellicherry is only thirteen miles from Mahé; but everything was new and strange, and we made the most of our little journey. The road, worn deep into the red soil, with thick hedges on either side, just like a Devonshire lane, wound round the coast, coming out unexpectedly now and then on the beach beside some lonely fishing hamlet. In front we had the broad white surf-line and the still deep-blue ocean beyond it; and inland the fertile country rose gradually towards the Ghauts, now half veiled in the sultry mid-day mists. Nature seemed to have put on her brightest smile to welcome Lydia.

The road, as we strolled along its cool, green-shaded pathway, was still thronged, here and there, with groups of girls and women. Some bore great brass jars of water on their heads; others baskets of strange fish and curious fruit. By the well-side or the river we saw them, laughing and singing and chatting, or splashing each other merrily, but unconscious everywhere as Eve had once been. They wore bright flowers in their long black tresses. They had small, soft features, delicately modelled limbs, clear olive-coloured skins, eyes as coy and eloquent as a gazelle’s. We seemed to puzzle them a good deal, as we stopped to return their shy friendly greetings, and their naïveté was rather embarrassing.

Here at last in the green woods we found nature at home, innocent and naked, not in the least ashamed, but revelling and joyous in her fecundity. And in the grateful shade of the vast palm-groves, and broad green plants, and great crimson flowers on either side the road, girlish mothers, the loveliest flowers of all, went singing softly to and fro, with pretty little children planted on their hips, like so many human buds and blossoms of their own exuberant humanity.

“The men,” said Lydia, “are queer creatures. Have you noticed the large umbrella-hats they wear? Every man we meet has either an umbrella in his hand, or an umbrella-hat on his head.”

“No,” I answered. “I haven’t noticed the men. But we seem to have reached a fairy-land of beautiful women. They are breathing statues; surely that is the only phrase for them. Their lithesome figures have never known a shawl, much more a corset. They seem to be stepping down like startled wood-nymphs from dark-green groves in which Pan may still be piping, if only our dull ears could hear him. We are walking on enchanted ground, Lydia. We are crossing a corner of the long-lost kingdom of love and beauty that will be all ours by-and-by; and, as from some perfect Grecian frieze—the embodiment of the truest art, the truest love, the truest beauty—these statuesque and smiling girls are alighting for an instant to greet you, and to serve, as they flit shyly through the trees, as your bridesmaids.

But Lydia was silent and tired. The sun grew hot. There was a fierce glare in the air, and the breeze died away. Before long, we were compelled to seek the shelter of the bullock bandy.

This ill-contrived vehicle was nothing more than a cart, tented over with a huge arched straw covering, and though Priscilla had lined the bottom of it with rugs and shawls, we were terribly jolted, and it was difficult to speak easily.

“You are a goose, dear!” said Lydia at last, in the merry joyous voice of the day before. “That has not put me out. I was not in the least disconcerted by their costume. They are black people, and nobody thinks twice about black people when they have travelled as much over India as I have. Some of the girls were pretty, wonderfully pretty, and very fair for natives, and to a stranger like you, I daresay rather startling. No; I was thinking a great deal of you and a little of myself, and wondering what we really ought to do when we come to Mahé.”

That problem, however, was very promptly settled for us.

Our bullock bandy, just when the sultry air and its own uneasy motion had made us sleepy, gave us a rude awakening as it went rattling and creaking over a long, rough wooden bridge, at the end of which a French sentry, a burly native in the orthordox blue tunic and broad red trousers, suddenly challenged us. Had we any arms? I showed him my gun-case, and explained that we did not come as invaders, and after paying a fee of a few small copper coins, he lowered his bayonet, and we were permitted to enter French territory.

To the extent of four English square miles—not more, for that is the total area of Mahé—everything was essentially French. The Teyer girls, attired exactly as at Tellicherry, were a trifle prettier and more coquettish than on the other side the frontier line; the houses were whiter and smarter than in British territory; and all the roads and gardens were exquisitely neat and trim. Even the native “touts,” in their big umbrella-hats, spoke a rough French patois, as they importuned us to partake of Cognac or Bordeaux in the two or three little cafés beside the bridge. But when the crowd of girls and children began to be embarrassing, a French curé hurried breathlessly up and begged us to alight. The little crowd fell back respectfully at his bidding; and then he explained that he had received an extraordinary mandate from the highest power he knew, and had hastened to the bridge as soon as Priscilla had told him we were on the way.

Lydia trembled so visibly as she took my arm, that he said nothing further about his mandate. Like all priests, he was a man of tact when a lady was concerned. For a minute or two he talked pleasantly about the country and the people. Then he invited us very civilly to rest for a little while in the Governor’s house close by.

The Governor, a grey-haired gentleman, in the uniform of a lieutenant of the French navy, was waiting, hat in hand, to receive us. He was supported by a pleasant little lady, with sympathetic eyes, and the other three French inhabitants of this miniature settlement. They were all courteous and cordial, and brimming over with kindness and good wishes. We felt their kindness, but scarcely knew what they said, as they led us through the Governor’s quaint old house, and across a broad garden sheltered from the sun by great trees. In a natural arbour, formed by thick interlacing branches overhead, we found refreshments ready. We all sat down round a little rustic table, prettily decorated with fruit and flowers, and choice glass and rare old silver, and, from the merry laughter I remember still, we must have been a joyous party. The arbour stood at the mouth of the Mahé river. Down below the blue sea washed the base of the rocks. The farther bank of the river was covered with palm-trees. The garden itself was filled with the brightest and richest and most gorgeous tropical plants. I remember all this; and I remember how weary and tired Lydia looked; but I cannot recollect a single word of our companions’ pleasant conversation. At last Lydia looked so tired and faint that the lady noticed her paleness, and at a nod from the curé we all rose, to find behind the great trees in the garden a procession of children from the nunnery school. We took our places mechanically. We went slowly through a little village green, clotted here and there with spreading trees. There was, I remember, a great white water-butt instead of the village pump, just beside the convent school; and I remember the groups of curious spectators as they hid their bright eyes and smooth round limbs behind the foliage of the scattered trees. They were wishing us a friendly God-speed, without caring to intrude on our privacy. All the fine formal weddings I had chanced to attend at home flashed suddenly upon me; all were vulgar and tawdry and ostentatious as compared with this; and this wedding was my own, and everything here was idyllic and friendly, and though strange, very, very homely after all! How pale my bride was, and how beautiful, and how unlike any other woman in the world!

Beneath the shade of a huge banian-tree we entered a tiny white chapel, with a rude image of the Virgin over the porch. The children streamed into the chapel before us. The priest followed them; the others stood a little way apart. But Lydia, when I shyly tried to comfort her, was speechless. She could only give me her hand. Just as I touched it with my lips, the children began to sing a monotonous but touching melody, and at this signal the lady with the sympathetic eyes took Lydia from me, and in another moment we were both kneeling hand in hand, and trembling as we knelt, in front of the high altar. Then, after a long pause, the children burst out into song again. The curé laid his hands softly on our heads—and then we heard the hurrying clatter of a horse’s feet, the sounds of a fierce struggle, and of heavy blows given and returned, and a shrill cry of warning from Priscilla. Booted and spurred, and travel-stained, dishevelled and wounded, but still calm and self-possessed, Mr Wylie broke into the church, followed by Priscilla, and after her her lascar escort, armed with bludgeons. Mr Wylie strode right up to the altar, and leant upon its rails.

“I forbid the marriage,” he cried. “I have ridden day and night to stop the marriage, and I forbid it!”

Then, with a terrible look at Lydia and myself, he sank exhausted on a seat.

“You are too late, my son,” said the curé coldly, “and you are an intruder here. This is the house of prayer, not of strife. I have given them their blessing in the Pope’s name. The Church has joined them, and no man can put them asunder.”

Lydia, with a face like death, had fallen into my arms when the turmoil began. She raised her head from my shoulder.

“Is it really too late?” she asked, feebly.

“Too late,” said the curé, bending over her. “You are a Catholic, madam, and you and your husband are wife and man for evermore!”

“Not for evermore!” cried Mr Wylie, rousing himself from his lethargy with a supreme effort. “Not for an hour if I could only speak! God, my brother!”

Then as the priest went up to silence him, a broad ugly wound, that disfigured one side of his strong, clean-shaven face, began to bleed copiously, and he fell off his seat in a swoon.

The startled children again burst into their low monotonous chant, and Lydia, dead rather than alive, went feebly between the priest and myself to the vestry.

“I was warned,” he said, “to anticipate some such interruption. I have done my duty; now it is for both of you and for all your lives to do yours. I will dismiss the congregation and return.”

I went with the priest to the porch. Then I returned. Mr Wylie was still lying on the floor. I lifted him on to a bench. He opened his eyes listlessly. Then he saw me. “Time enough for regret,” he murmured; “let me give them time! That will be the bitterest punishment! Two months or three, as I please!”

There was a malignant look in his pale and almost lifeless eyes that made me shudder, and before I reached the vestry door again his voice came to me, in a low faint hiss—“Two months or three, sir! On this day two months or this day three months we meet again!”

Lydia was kneeling quietly beside the vestry table. She had heard nothing.

The priest followed me into the vestry.

“Was there any reason,” he asked, gravely, “for that strange man’s wild words? They were too late. For better or for worse you are united. But speak to me as you would speak in the confessional. Was there any valid reason for them?”

“No!” cried Lydia, rising hastily. “No valid reason, if that gentleman believes in me. You believe me. Hector! I told you, when I told you I loved you, that we might have to go through painful things. But there is no reason, valid or otherwise, why I should not love you now.”

So we signed the book the priest gave us, and the soft touch of her hand on my arm again dissipated all my doubts.

“The future, not the past!” she whispered. “Trust me as I trust you! What does anything matter now, so long as we have confidence in one another?”

Her tender words and loving looks thrilled through me. Lydia was my wife now, the life and soul of me! After all my weary longings for her she was mine!

I forgot that wretched man who lay bleeding on the bench. I thought of nothing but the confiding touch of her little hand on my arm and the wistful love-light in her eyes. I stooped to kiss her lips in the porch.

“For life and death!” she said, slowly.

“For life and death!” I replied.

Then we went proudly out, arm in arm and hand in hand, into the blaze of sunshine that flooded the little village green.

Oh, the beauty of the Malabar back-waters!

We voyaged lazily through them in a canoe of the most primitive type. It was twenty feet long, perhaps, but certainly not more than fifteen inches broad or deep. We lay feet to feet, hardly able to stir on account of the broad palm-leaf covering that only left a narrow slice of outlook—not more than three or four inches at most—through which, if we raised ourselves gently on one elbow, we were able to see something of the beautiful back-waters. One boatman stood at the bow, another at the stern, and they poled us along at the rate of seven or eight miles an hour. The canoe’s motion was deliciously easy. The sultry air was faint and heavy with rich perfumes from the brilliant masses of fragrant flowers on land. The water, when we dropped our hands over the boat’s side for a moment, was warm; and so we glided on, half sleeping and half awake, content and languid, and almost too lazy to take the trouble of looking at the scenery around us.

These back-waters are peculiar to the south-western coast of India. Sometimes they run so close to the sea as to be only separated from it by the sandy beach thrown up by the surf; but they wander and meander in the most fantastic fashion, extending for a hundred, and sometimes two hundred, miles inland; and they are generally navigable. Partly salt-water and partly fresh, they are formed by the sea as it meets and turns the numerous rivers flowing down from the forest uplands.

As we glided along them for days together, without any care for time, their beauty was incessantly changing. Now we drifted under overhanging branches on a stream scarcely broader than the Medway; now we were in the middle of a huge inland sea. Lakes, lagoons, and rivers followed one another in a long panorama of unexpected loveliness, if we had only cared to look at it; and the water, in spite of a gentle current, was everywhere as calm as a mill-pond.

We passed rafts of teak-wood and bamboos, rosewood, blackwood, and acacia, floating quietly down to the sea, with little crews of men and women and children on them, basking in the sun, or lazily fishing in the water. Sometimes we drifted through swamps of great water-lilies, white or yellow; sometimes a hungry alligator—and the water swarmed with alligators—would follow us for miles together, mechanically snapping his long jaws whenever Lydia dropped her hand idly into the stream; sometimes, not often, we heard unseen boatmen in the distance answering our boatmen’s songs very melodiously across the water. But most we loved the utter and complete silence that often lasted for hours, for in this silence we realised how thoroughly we were alone.

Priscilla and her escort always went one stage ahead, so as to have our camp ready for us every evening.

The country skirting the back-waters was very fresh and fertile. Rice-fields, brightly, vividly green, came down everywhere to the water’s edge, and were hemmed in, as the land rose, by palms and neem-trees, teak-trees, banian and mango and jack trees. But no matter whether the back-water was broad or narrow, we always found our camp pitched in some delightful place, generally at a little distance from the back-water itself, and just up the mouth of a shallow river, where the forest began to be really shady. The little low tents that Priscilla had managed to secure at Mahé formed a new and very welcome feature in this strange weird world of ours. When we saw them from afar we knew that the camp fire was alight, that our day’s journeying was over, and that we could sleep without awaking till the morning sun summoned me to take a plunge into the river. It was a gipsy life, but very, very pleasant while it lasted.

When dinner was over and our attendants had retired, we used, when we could, to steal through the woods, or loiter along the river, or rest for a little while on some great grass-grown boulder on its banks with the water rippling at our feet. We could see the deer as they stole timidly down to the water for their evening drink, and Lydia always clutched my arm when they came, for fear that we might frighten them. But tigers, and bears, and elephants, and panthers sometimes came too; and whenever we heard a stealthy tread on the dead leaves of the silent forest, we tried to guess which of these beasts were coming. I pretended to alarm Lydia with my guesses whenever the woods creaked and rustled, and in reply she used to pretend to tremble as she clung to me and kissed me; and how I loved these furtive tremulous kisses! Had the fierce animals seen us as they passed by? Would they return? What did I care? What did she care? We were far too happy for anything to part us now. Lydia held my hands in hers till they had gone, and, as they went, we whispered all we felt about our happiness.

One night, as we loitered, hand in hand, just within the borders of a gloomy teak-forest, full of eerie and mysterious sounds, the quick, sharp echo from the black rocks, on the other side of the river, gave me a mad longing to hear what the rocks and forest could make of Lydia’s clear, sympathetic voice if she sang to them. I had tormented her all day long about some foolish verses we had both of us composed in the morning, line and line about, as we lay in our canoe. “When a lady says ‘nay,’ she is only in play,”—that used to be a mischievous song of Lydia’s long ago, and I had taken that as the motive of the verses we had to make together. The words were mine, but the ideas, so far as I could catch them, were Lydia’s laughing interpretations of my own hidden fancies. I scarcely thought she would sing them to me now. But, as I teased her, she quietly put one of her little hands upon my lips, and allowed me to hold it there while she sang.

Every word in her song was hers, as she sang it, though she was supposed to be singing it for me:—

Her arms across her eyes she threw,
And all was still;
I loved her; she and I were new
To love; her will

Faltering, unspoken, incomplete,
Sobbed in her sighs,
As I lay longing at her feet
To read her eyes.

What should I see there?—Heaven knows!
But I could guess
The light of love that comes and goes
With “no” and “yes.”

O mystic eyes! that should unveil
To love alone
The sweet and sad and secret tale
I thought our own,

How clear and dear and frank they were!
And now, how blind!
How eloquent of cold despair,
And how unkind!

At last, in all her doubts and fears,
She looked me through,
With eyes as full of sudden tears
As mine were, too!

What did the rocks and the forest and the wild beasts think of Lydia’s song, as it went echoing and re-echoing amongst them? I know what I thought, and that was enough for me!

Sometimes, if there happened to be a village near our tents, we strolled down to it in the twilight, to tempt the women to come out into the open and barter anything likely to be useful for that day’s dinner or next morning’s breakfast. When she was engaged in bartering, Lydia made the most wonderful bargains, or thought so. The Teyer women were as pleased as she was, and the frank-eyed children and timid girls, who followed us to our tents, after all this bargaining and bartering, were delighted beyond measure at the presents Lydia gave them.

“Why shouldn’t we make them happy, poor things?” Lydia used to answer whenever I scolded her for extravagance. “Look at the wretched little huts they live in, and the miserable villages to which they are tethered, like goats to a cactus bush, and think how free and comfortable we are. Hector, and how happy!”

Lydia was always talking about happiness now. One day she said, suddenly, “Don’t you remember, Hector, what I said a long time back about women being the dictionaries in which you men are translated?”

“Yes,” I retorted, maliciously. “And you said the translation was not always in heroic verse.”

“Did I? I forget. I must have been right if I did. Still, whatever I may have said then, you and I seem to translate each other very pleasantly. Every day I begin to see new meanings in myself, and every day I begin to look for new possibilities in you.”

“Sometimes,” I answered, “I have that very feeling myself. But sometimes I cannot believe in it. I seem to be dazzled, dear, and bewildered. You remember how Hyacinth felt in the story when, in the Holy of Holies, he lifted Isis’ filmy veil, and little Roseblossom fell into his arms?”

“Yes,” said Lydia, quickly. “I remember that; and I remember the Nun saying it was such a beautiful story that she believed it must be real!”

“Well, when you read that poor man’s manuscript aloud to us on the steamer, we liked it because it was only a story. Now it has all come true. Will it last? And what did the old Wizard say, I wonder, when he heard how the story ended?”

“Hush!” cried Lydia. “It is wrong and cruel for anybody very, very happy to talk to anybody very happy iike that. You are worse than Schopenhauer, dear. You haven’t his caustic wit, and you have none of his excuses. When people love each other as you and I do, it is very wicked indeed to have foolish forebodings! You are happy, Hector? You must be happy too? Why, you have never once spoken of your uncle since we left the yacht!”

This was a cunning little trap for me, and I knew it, for whenever I owned, as I was sometimes forced to own, that I was almost too happy, Lydia invariably punished me by making me tell her all about those horrible lonely days at Baroda, when I was sulky and in banishment.

“It was a nightmare!” I said, as she kissed me, as she always did now when she teased me—“a long, hideous nightmare! A horrible past!”

“And the present?” she asked. “Is that horrible too, sir?”

“O, no! It is a dream, full of beautiful colours, strange subdued colours, such as no one ever saw before, and of exquisite music, faint and low, that no one before has ever heard. Don’t you feel as I do, dear, that we are both of us living in a dream?”

“Yes,” she said, slowly. “But will our dream last as long as your nightmare?”

“It will last for ever.”

And we both thought so.

Chapter XXXVII

One afternoon, however, as we drifted slowly down a silent stream, hedged in on both banks, and covered overhead too by the thick teak-forest, our canoe shot out suddenly and unexpectedly into the open sea; and in a little bay to the right we saw our own yacht lying quietly at anchor.

“There’s the old Tortoise!” cried Lydia, clapping her hands. “How delightful it will be to have a real sail upon a real sea, with a big cabin to sleep in instead of our little low tents, and to be able to walk about the quarter-deck, arm in arm together, all day long, instead of having to lie for hours stretched out at the bottom of a narrow canoe, with a palm-leaf top to it. Why, the pleasantest part of our honeymoon is only just beginning. Hector!”

I could not share Lydia’s pleasure. Our strange life on these beautiful and mysterious back-waters had been so tranquil, and so lazy, and so inexpressibly happy, that I was sorry to leave them behind us.

“Let us turn back, Lydia,” I cried. “You and I are both very happy now, and I don’t see why we should not live here and die here.”

“I only wish we could,” she answered. “But sooner or later you would grow tired of solitude, and you might get tired of me. I am not really selfish, but I love you too selfishly to like the thought of that. Love must be selfish, dear. At the best it is an egotism of two. We love each other now because we cannot help it, and sometimes I feel dreadfully afraid.”

“Afraid of what?”

“I scarcely know; afraid, perhaps, of too much happiness. We are both so happy that we cannot guess how unhappy we might be. I know you better than you know yourself. Solitude may possibly be all very well for a woman, as that wretched old Sheik used to say. But a man, however earnest his love, is always longing to be fighting and working in the world.”

I protested vigorously against Lydia’s latest theory. But she was in earnest this time, and I had, of course, to give in at last. The Tortoise undoubtedly lay there, in a little bay to our right, and when Lydia held out her hand, I had nothing for it but to climb on board, and then sail on and on, this time very leisurely, round the palm-girt coast of Southern India. I missed the careless freedom and independent life of the back-waters. I spent all my days in painting pictures and portraits of Lydia; and how easily, now that I was really inspired, my work came to me, and how pleased we both were when the sinking sun threw us on our own resources and told us that it was time for a good long talk!

I had fancied that Lydia was fond of art. I was wrong. For art in the abstract she did not care two straws. She was only fond of me; but surely that was ten thousand times better. She praised my technique and colouring most considerately. She tried to admire her own portraits. But I could feel, from the kiss she always gave me when her “sitting” was over and the day’s task done, that she never gave a second thought to my pictures of her.

One day she was unkind enough to hint that I was neglecting her for her shadow. But she did not always mean what she said; and when I looked vexed, she cried, “I was quite right. Hector, when I said you were longing for work. A man should have work of some kind.”

Work of some kind! That really was a little hard on me, when I had painted away all day long, from sunrise to sunset, whenever I could persuade her to sit, and when, for the first time in my life, I felt thoroughly satisfied with my work. Two, perhaps three, of my sketches were very beautiful, and their beauty was amply acknowledged later on. They were like her as she was, and exactly like my ideal of her. They showed, I fancy, if they showed nothing else, that the painter loved her and had tried to do his best. But Lydia knew nothing of her own loveliness; she never for a moment guessed how her supple girlish beauty affected me, or how I longed in my happiness to make it visible to all the world,

I had been loath to leave the back-waters, and was quite as sorry to leave the Tortoise. But every now and then we were obliged to go ashore. The black Jews at Cochin, for instance, had to be visited. They drifted here, no one knew how long before the Christian era, and were, so our skipper told us, a scattered remnant of the lost ten tribes, of whom my poor old uncle thought so much.

We tried to land at Cape Comorin. Lydia wanted to see if the big white building at the extreme point of the jagged Ghauts—the Land’s End of India—was really a Nestorian monastery; but the foaming surf, as it broke with a roar like distant thunder in long heavy rollers beneath the massive wall of mountain rock, was absolutely impenetrable.

There was something sublime in the huge treeless Cape, as the sea tossed and howled and stormed around it; and those poor monks, if there were any, must have hated their forlorn whitewashed prison whenever they watched the bleak desolate freedom of the raging ocean in front of them.

“I should like to have visited the monastery,” said Lydia. “The monks must be very good men, or very bad men, to live here; and, at all events, they must be very lonely.”

Then, as we could not possibly land, we started for Ceylon; and, as we started, the setting sun showed us, as through a rosy mist, the whitened skeletons of the hapless ships that lay piled up on the cruel ugly shoals below the Cape.

An emerald island in a sapphire sea—that was what Ceylon looked like as we neared the shore. It was Adam’s asylum after Eve betrayed him. It was the Ophir and Tarshish of the Bible. To Buddha it was “a pearl drop on the brow of Ind.” From times immemorial it has been the Garden of the World, with the surface of its green valleys covered by great fragrant trees and gorgeous flowers, and the beds of its rivers lined with precious stones. To us, as we landed at Colombo, it was a drowsy and delightful land, in which everything at first was doubtful and uncertain.

And the people on shore, what were they, men or women? To our astonishment they were men. Their long tresses of black hair were drawn back tightly and coquettishly from the forehead under a semicircular tortoise-shell comb, and twisted up behind in thick massive plaits into huge chignons, fastened by high tortoise-shell combs. They had smooth, beardless faces. They were dressed in prettily embroidered bodices and clinging white petticoats. The few women we met later on were not nearly so effeminate in appearance as the men, though the better sort of them were covered with jewellery. Their hair, unlike the men’s, was twisted into a simple knot, and decked with flowers, and they were plainly attired in white muslm. The Burghers, much sturdier people, from the Dutch blood in their veins, dressed almost in European fashion, and the Moormen went about in red and white. The Buddhist priests, of course, wore yellow robes, cut so as to leave the right shoulder bare. Their heads were shaven; each carried a fan and a sunshade, and a begging-bowl; and as they may not touch money themselves, they were for the most part attended by little boys, who bore their purses, and paid for their railway tickets and their carriage fares. Traditionally they are beggars; but the Buddhist temporalities are enormously wealthy, owning something like one-fourth of the cultivated land of the island. We had an early breakfast in the hotel; and, breakfast over, we strolled through the row of little jewellers’ shops in the corridor close to. Here we saw the most marvellous collections of precious stones, cut and uncut; but of all the stones, the cat’s-eyes were perhaps the most beautiful. There was something weird and fascinating in their pale-green beauty and their one narrow line of dazzling yellow; but to let us see the cat’s-eyes properly, the Moormen jewellers had to pull their blinds down, and darken their queer little shops.

Then, as the climate of Colombo, even in the early morning, is moist and almost unbearably sultry, we took the first train for Kandy. This was less than a five-hours’ journey, but surely no other terrestrial railway passes through scenery so grand, so strange, and so luxuriant.

At first we skirted broad lakes and shallow marshes. We marvelled, as we journeyed, at the double beauty of the superb tropical vegetation, growing half in the water and half on land. Then, when the steamy town of Colombo, its red-roofed houses, its pointed spires, its fragrant cinnamon gardens, had been left behind, the railway abruptly rose and left us in a virgin forest of unimaginable beauty. The great trees were all joined and garlanded and entwined with gigantic creepers, and surrounded with brilliant flowers. The landscape was rich and magnificent beyond conception, for almost every tree and plant, every flower and shrub in the world thrives here. Below us, as the railway rose, we saw gardens of pine-apples and sugar-cane, and yams and sweet-potatoes and bananas; patches of green corn; groves and clumps of cocoa-nut palms, and lime and mango and jack trees, and broad-leaved bread-fruit trees, jaggery palms and areca palms, with their graceful pohshed stems; and slender bamboos, crowned with bunches of feathery leaves. The sides of the hills were covered with rich mosses and great ferns and glistening waterfalls. Nature was hard at work in her own favourite laboratory, and streaming at every pore. Now, as the train rushed on, we were in a forest so dense and thick that the sun could only reach us here and there, and, now and then, in sudden flashes of long dazzling rays, keen and bright and brilliant as polished sword-blades. The tops of the highest trees disappeared in a tangle of creepers and climbing-plants, alive with monkeys and parrots, jabbering and screeching at the train as it passed through. Now the train, winding under enormous, threatening masses of overhanging rock, seemed to just skate along the very edge of some sheer and awful precipice, overlookmg rich green valleys, watered by innumerable rivers. The little rice-fields on the hillsides below rose like hanging gardens, one above the other, in tiny terraces. Above us, where the mountain-side had been cleared, there were broad plantations of tea and coffee, and cinchona and cocoa, looking in comparison very thin and bleak and bare. In the distance the view was lost in a horizon of wooded mountains and blue summits, half hidden in the clouds. Sometimes the line ran right along the hedgerows of crotons and bastard sunflowers and crimson hibiscus that marked the carriage-road to Kandy.

Huge-domed brick dagobas towered above the forest. Everywhere the village people were bathing in the tanks and rivers. In front of their gaily painted temples, and their primitive monasteries of dried bamboo-leaves, the yellow-robed priests walked slowly to and fro, rapt in contemplation. Each village had its gigantic image of Gautama Buddha, with that look of quiescent beatitude on the calm passionless face that is for ever teaching his followers the peace they may perhaps attain in Nirvana, when life’s feverish passions are over.

The engine whistled shrilly. We were almost at our journey’s end. We had reached the Garden of Paredenia, the loveliest garden in the world. We alighted here to rest for a while before we walked on to Kandy. The marvellous scenery along the line was the best possible preparation for the supreme beauty we found here. We passed, as we entered, a long row of india-rubber trees—the Ficus elastica—each of them, with its enormous trunks, its glossy green leaves, and its thick serpentine roots, covering something like a quarter of an acre of ground. Clove, and nutmeg, and camphor, and vanilla trees; the traveller’s palm of Madagascar, full of ice-cold water when the parched traveller thrusts his knife into any one of the green joints; the silk-cotton tree—a skeleton tree with its bare limbs spotted by red blossoms; tree-ferns, rhododendrons, gordonias, and magnolias; the palmyra and the towering talepot, and something like two hundred different sorts of palms; orchids of every colour and every kind; and great jungle-creepers, thick and strong as a ship’s cable,—it was a debauch of vegetation. The broad beds of tropical flowers were thick with gaudy insects; over everything there was the scent of the champac flower; the drowsy air was heavy with pollen. At last we came, at the very end of the garden, to a clump of giant bamboos from the Philippines. Their proportions were so exquisitely perfect that the clump before us looked from a little distance like a handful of lovely grasses. But their elegant bright-green stems were fifteen feet in diameter at the base; and, eighty or a hundred feet in height, they rose far above the tallest trees there.

Lydia was tired now, and at last, in the very middle of these gigantic bamboos, I found a comfortable and shady seat for her.

“This is surely the Garden of Eden,” she said.

“It is much more like Paradise,” I answered, “than the real Garden of Eden where we met first.”

“You mean Kurnah,” cried Lydia, “where the men in sheepskin carried me over the mud?”

“Yes, Kurnah. But how dreadfully you scolded me there for telling my Armenian sailors to cut down the Tree of Good and Evil, and take it off to the steamer!”

“Yes, I remember,” she answered, gravely. “But we should never have met if I hadn’t scolded you then, and you richly deserved a scolding. It was a sacrilege at the best; and I often wonder what your poor old uncle has done with the tree-trunk. But never mind the past, dear. What a lovely paradise we are in just now, and how odd that we should have stumbled across it directly we got out of our railway carriage!”

“That is just what I was thinking,” I replied. “We seem to have suddenly stepped out of the nineteenth century altogether. The garden reminds me of a picture I once saw in a friend’s studio in London. I wonder if it has ever been hung yet, or if he ever sold it!”

“It must have been a very lovely picture,” cried Lydia, “if it reminded you of this!”

“No, no; it wasn’t! But it made an impression on me at the time; and I remember it now, because it seems to reverse all our feelings exactly.”

“Do you know what you are saying, Hector? Do you want all our feelings to be reversed? Do you want me to hate you more bitterly than I can tell you?”

“Nonsense, dear!” I retorted, kissing her. “The picture had nothing to do with love and hate, or you and me. It was a picture of a pretty English drawing-room, somewhere, I fancy, in one of the South Sea Islands. The artist had furnished his drawing-room with everything that a modern artist’s luxuriant fancy could imagine or desire. But he had left one of the long plate-glass windows half open, and through this open window two naked young South Sea Islanders, a girl and her lover, had just strolled in from the woods close behind. They stood there, hand in hand, in front of the big piano, dazzled and bewildered, and trembling at all they saw. They formed as strange a contrast to their surroundings as you and I do now. That was why I spoke of my friend’s picture.”

“Yes, yes!” cried Lydia. “I can see them as you talk: and you are right, dear; they represent us exactly—with everything reversed!”

We had lived in a long dream ever since leaving Mahé. We were still dreaming as I spoke. But in another moment our dream had turned to a nightmare with a vengeance. The Devil-dancers were upon us. We were surrounded suddenly by a crowd of mad, fantastic beings, naked, or almost naked, but with the masks of hideous and gigantic demons on their heads.

They seemed to be half head and half body, as, dancing in a circle around us, they leapt wildly into the air, yelling and screeching in savage accompaniment to the horrid noise of the demoniacal musicians behind them.

Lydia started to her feet, and then fell almost senseless into my arms. I tried to quiet the infernal wretches around us; but they danced madly on.

“I knew what it would be, Hector,” she sobbed, “when you awoke this morning without remembering that it was just a month to-day since we were married; only a month to-day! I thought you would not have forgotten our wedding-day so soon, and I felt sure that something dreadful would happen.”

Only a month to-day! That miserable Mr Wylie had said “two months or three,” not one. In our happiness I had forgotten his words, and almost forgotten his very existence. Why did Lydia feel sure that something dreadful would happen? Luckily I thought of throwing our tormentors a few rupees. They disappeared as suddenly as they came, but their place was at once taken by a number of English people, ladies and men, running eagerly up to inquire after Lydia.

“I am sorry the lady was frightened,” said one of the older gentlemen. “We were having a picnic on the other side of the bamboos, and sent a couple of the gardeners out for the Devil-dancers. They mistook you for us. Why, Mrs Fonblanque!” he cried, excitedly, “surely that is you!”

“My name is Hicks, sir,” said Lydia, coldly.

Then, without listening to his further apologies, she placed her hand in my arm, and we quitted the garden.

“We should never have left those Malabar back-waters,” she cried. “There, at all events, we were alone. The country here is lovely enough, but it is full of horrible people. Did you ever see anything so hideous as the men who danced about us? Let us go away, Hector, anywhere you like, so long as we leave Ceylon behind.”

It was just one month since our marriage! That man Wylie had said “two months or three.” But Lydia had never heard what he said. He could have had nothing to do with her terror now. Why, then, had she fled from the civil-spoken gentleman who had accosted her as Mrs Fonblanque? I had plenty of time to think over all this as the train bore us back to Colombo.

All manner of awful doubts thrust themselves upon me, and Lydia’s extraordinary conduct next morning only made matters worse. We had reached the yacht very late, and had slept on board. But in the morning Lydia, though still rather tired, was in her usual bright spirits, and insisted that I should go ashore and see something more of Colombo before we sailed.

When I returned I found her in a state of great excitement.

“The Nun is married!” she cried. “The Nun is married! And I am so glad!”

“Who has married her?” I asked; “and how could she be allowed to marry?”

“I don’t know. The telegram only says, ‘Married to-day.’”

Lydia had a bundle of letters beside her. I took them up mechanically.

“I thought you had no correspondents left,” I said, sternly. “I thought we were going to cut ourselves off from all the world? How did these letters reach you?”

“My Bombay agents forwarded them to their office here,” she replied, “and I sent on shore for them. But what is the matter, Hector?”

In moving the letters I had disturbed an enormous cat’s-eye. I recognised it at once. It was the finest and most expensive of all the fine stones we had seen the day before.

The extraordinary way in which the news of Sister Patricia’s marriage had reached Lydia quickened all my apprehensions. She had not, of course, wished to conceal that cat’s-eye from me; indeed, she never noticed that I saw it; but still there it was. And how did it come to be there at all? She had said nothing more of the famous auction that was to have been held at Colombo; and for this I was devoutly thankful. She had, it is true, asked me, from time to time, for money for our current expenditure. But, as I paced the quarter-deck very sulkily, I could not find any possible solution to the mystery about the cat’s-eye.

I was as glad as Lydia when Colombo disappeared.

“It is dinner-time, dear,” said Lydia at last. “Kiss and make friends! You look just like a Ceylon Veddah, and the look doesn’t suit you.”

“What is a Ceylon Veddah?” I asked, still trying to be sulky.

“A man who never laughs,” laughed Lydia. “Now you are smiling, and I really don’t see why we should make each other wretched, because we did not happen to like Ceylon.”

Chapter XXXVIII

“I hate doubts and mysteries, Hector,” said Lydia, “and, say what you will, there is a shadow of some kind between us. Men and their wives are generally supposed to squabble; so, if you like it, we will live like other people—only, please tell me what to do.”

“No, no; we won’t!” I cried. “We are not like other people, and we can’t afford to quarrel like them. Other people know all about each other, and have very likely been children together. We met by chance. Everything in each of us was new to the other. We love each other very dearly, and that should be enough for us.”

“Yes,” said Lydia; “then roll up the black curtain that veils your mind. There is nothing in our past to grieve either of us. I told you that, dear, in the nunnery garden, and you promised never to speak of it again.”

As she spoke we were turning Acheen Head. There had been a terrific downfall of rain. The thunder-storm had passed over us, but the atmosphere was still charged with electricity. The stars were hidden by heavy clouds, while the horizon was bright with incessant flashes of sheet-lightning, and the sea all around the steamer was lit up with nebulous streams of phosphoric fire.

Then she talked of the future. To live out of the world, to live by ourselves, so that that man Wylie should never reach us—this was my one thought now. That was what Lydia, without knowing why, called my “black curtain”; and when she suggested that we should go to Java and stop there, I gladly rolled it up for good.

*  *  *  *

We were tired of roaming. We had sold the yacht and bought a house—not a red-roofed cottage by a lake, but a huge old planter’s bungalow, on a spur of the Himalayas, looking straight down into the glorious country of the Doab, a mile below. We were so far from the nearest hill-station, that in all our walks and rides we never met a human being, save now and then a few Tartar-featured mountaineers.

Here we were almost as much alone as on the awful day and the awful night we had passed while in Java on the top of the volcano above Bangdong. There we hid ourselves from the howling storm on the edge of the huge crater. Far down in its depths the mud-lake broke into great bubbles that burst like pistol-shots, and in a minute or two afterwards their faint blue smoke rose up in sickening sulphurous fumes. We had travelled over India since then. But we were as completely alone here in our pleasant Himalayan retreat as on that remote and unvisited volcano. But here the scenery was at once lovely and sublime. Beneath us, with the Ganges and the Jumna as its boundaries on either side, lay the smiling fertile Dhoon, under an atmosphere so clear and bright that the gleaming towers of Delhi—more than a hundred miles away—were sometimes visible. Behind us, far across the interminable forests of cedar-trees, pine-trees, and deodars, far beyond dark mountain-ridges and slopes of eternal snow, far above the seas of drifting clouds and rolling mists, we could see the Snowy Range itself, the mighty Himalayan peaks—the sources of the two sacred rivers below us, and the home of the Hindu gods.

The first sight of the Snowy Range is disappointing, for only a broad belt of the topmost peaks is visible. But the Snowy Range grows upon you day by day, till you recognise not only its pure and immaculate beauty, but its overwhelming massiveness. Then, when you have learned to know its glittering peaks and pinnacles, its towers, its domes, its glaciers, and its deep shadows, never, on two different days, and scarcely for two hours together, do they seem alike.

The sale of the Tortoise had brought us in an unexpectedly large amount of money, large enough to pay for our house and its furniture and to leave us with a good round sum in hand. The money was lavishly squandered. Not only did the most expensive things come to us from Calcutta, but things that money could not buy there, and that must, I felt certain, have been Lydia’s long ago. In the old days Priscilla used to fill me with a vague distrust. Later on I grew to look upon her as the repository of Lydia’s mystery. Now, as she opened the huge packing-cases, and seemed to find a kind of familiar place for all the ornaments and costly knick-knacks, I began to detest her—I scarcely knew why; perhaps because she was the only link between Lydia and her past. The house, a fine old stone bungalow, built in the days when planters are richer than they ever will be again, was far too large for us, and I hated its fine furniture.

It was about this that we had our first serious fight.

“I was only trying to please you,” cried Lydia. “You may live in a barn if you like. At all events, I shall take no more trouble. I shall order nothing more. The house shall remain as it is.”

Next afternoon, however, found us reconciled again, and once more sitting close together on our favourite little grass-plot on the highest point of the Black Needle Rock. The river, before it ran through the rich valley of the Dhoon, so closely washed the base of the black cliff, five or six thousand feet below, that we could have tossed a pebble into it. Behind us, as we sat, the Snowy Range shone white and bright, with its deep black shadows mapped out and illuminated by myriads of diamond points.

To atone for our quarrel Lydia talked to me as she had never talked before, except, perhaps, at Goa. But now she spoke personally and without restraint of all our happiest moments, and of little intimate thoughts and feelings I never imagined she recognised at the time.

“O sweet philosopher!” I cried, as she ran on, “you are inspired to-day. Tell me what no philosopher has ever told us yet; tell me the world’s great secret—What is love?”

“Love,” said Lydia, smiling, “is you and me.”

“That is enough for me,” I answered, “but scarcely enough for the world and the critics.”

“Hush, Hector! That is treason. What have the critics and the world to do with us? Stop,” she continued, “love is you and me and eternity. Does that please you, dear?”

“Please me! Yes. But why?”

“Because in love, as in birth and death, Hector, we perhaps touch the boundaries of eternity.”

Just then the light from the sinking sun fell full on the Snowy Range. Peak after peak, far into its remote recesses, was lit up with a beautiful pale pink colour, a living and transparent colour, indescribable in words, but as quick, as lovely, and as vivid as the warm glow that may once in a lifetime, and for a moment only, flash across the half-veiled bosom of some fair girl just betrothed.

Then a gust of ice-cold wind rushed up from the valley.

The sun had set. In a moment of time the Snowy Range was livid, grey, ashen, desolate, and corpse-like.

Lydia trembled a little. She took my hand very tenderly as she laid her head on my shoulder, and wept bitterly. I kissed her hand as it lay in mine, and then I kissed her lips. But, as I kissed her, she broke from me with a shriek. There, close behind us, stood Mr Wylie of Bussorah, with a terrible scowl on his gloomy forehead, and with one arm outstretched like the arm of an avenging spirit.

“At last!” he cried, in a deep low voice, that was almost sacramental in its solemnity. “At last, after three months’ searching, I find you both, weak and loving as of old. Did you think to cheat me by hiding in the palm-groves of Ceylon or among the volcanoes of Java? Did you, madam, for a moment—”

“Hush, sir! Spare me! forgive me!” said Lydia faintly, pressing her hands across her eyes so as to shut out the very sight of him, and retreating slowly, step by step, before his awful glances as she spoke.

“Forgive you!” he cried. “I am not of those who forgive when their warnings are ignored. I followed you and dogged you across Asia to give you warning. Why should I have degraded myself in a miserable disguise, but to save you from your folly? You knew what I meant long ago. The hour has struck for vengeance.”

“It has!” I shouted, seizing him by the throat, as an extraordinary thought flashed suddenly through my brain. “Who are you, that you should dare to spy upon our actions and dog our footsteps? Who are you, and what are you? Sheik, or Wylie, or devil, or whatever you are, be silent. The lady you speak to is my wife.”

“Not your wife,” he said slowly; “not your wife, but my brother’s!”

I let his throat go, and, sick and faint, I ran towards Lydia.

Her looks implored me to stop. I stood motionless between them.

“Lydia!” I cried, “for the love of heaven or the love of me, say that that dreadful charge of his is a lie! Say that you know no brother of his!”

“Hector,” she answered, in a low sweet voice that only came to her in moments of endearment, “I cannot say that. Of Mr Wylie I know nothing. But the poor man he speaks about, the man he calls his brother, had been mad for years, hopelessly, irretrievably mad. I was his wife once, God help me! But he and I could never have met again. I was flying from myself and him when I met you. Ah, Hector! you will never know how I liked you when we met, or how I hated my liking when I thought it wrong, or how I love you now!”

“No, madam! nor how you loved my brother! nor how you maddened him with your outbursts of loving passion, your sudden fits of cold neglect, your wilfulness, your selfishness, your craze for admiration. Mad! yes; and raving of you still in his madness, as you sat there a moment ago with another man’s arm around your neck! Love you, sir! Yes, as she loved my brother and other men before his day and since! Shall I tell you your wife’s story?”

“Stay! stay!” cried Lydia, throwing her hands out with an imploring gesture.

“Too late, madam!” he answered, sternly. “Too late! You bought my brother with your accursed gold. You loved him, and he was your toy and your plaything, for you had bought him. But you forgot that my poor brother, though he had another father and another name than mine, was almost as a son to me—a noble lad, with pure brave thoughts and great gifts and high ambitions. There was nothing he might not have accomplished if you had only let him be. I thought to make atonement for my own life by the care I took of his. You came across him, and he changed, as day into night, as white into black, as heaven into hell! You made him besmirch his fair name before you maddened him. Then you never gave him a second thought. There are others, other gentlemen, gallant and loyal before they knew you— Shall I begin at the beginning, madam, and go on to the end?”

“Stop!” cried Lydia, imperiously. “Stop, sir! Your brother was a gentleman, whatever else he was; and you should be one too. If you talk on, sir, you will talk of a dead woman!”

Her grey eyes, tearless and fearless still, met mine for a moment very lovingly. Then Lydia threw up her arms, and, as under some strange mesmeric influence, she glided towards the edge of the terrible black precipice. She seemed to be falling slowly over it. At last the spell was broken. I sprang forward just in time to save her as she fell. I held her for a minute to my heart, and then she burst into tears.

“You would not let me go?” she whispered, as I kissed her tears away. “You would not let me go?”

“Never!” I cried. “Never in this world or the next! You are mine, and I am yours! And what does anything else matter to us now?”

“Nothing,” she answered, “if you care to keep me. But you frightened me. Hector, by the scared look in your eyes, and I thought you might be happier if I flung myself into the river.... I thought—but I thought nothing. I was frightened by the scared look in your eyes.”

“Sir!” she exclaimed, as Mr Wylie again approached us, “you maligned me so terribly that I almost killed myself. There was not one word of truth in what you said, except about my unhappy marriage as a girl. You were too eager in hounding a happy woman to death in her happiness. Your brother, poor soul, if he was your brother, died before ever I met Mr Hicks. I only heard the news at Goa, Hector, and that was why I brought the telegram to you in the nunnery garden, and why the old priest, who had been my tutor and knew my story, gave us both his blessing. I lied about that telegram, dear, and how bitterly I have regretted it! But the lie I told was a loving lie.”

“Dead! my God!” cried Mr Wylie. “Dead!” Then he buried his face in his hands and disappeared—disappeared for ever—in the mist.

Lydia touched my arm.

“I was free before I met you, Hector, though I did not know it at the time. All the lies I told you about the loss of my fortune were loving lies. The wretched money that you used to think a barrier between us is ours still. We can take it or leave it as we like. I tried hard. Hector, I swear I did, to tell you the truth at Goa, but I could not tell it then; and I loved you so, that I longed to see if you would love me for myself.”

Then the moon, suddenly breaking out of the clouds, shone full upon the Snowy Range. Beautiful, calm, and supremely pure, the great white Himalayas seemed an omen of inexpressible happiness.

With all our doubts removed, and with hearts too full for words, we went slowly and lovingly home through the still deodar forest.