G. H. B. and R. C. H.
The Suez Canal
My Dearest Laura,
As the day comes stealing over the desert I sit up in my bed and write to you. The night has been so hot that everybody slept on deck, and around me are dozens of slumbering women; the white outline of their bedding looks so weird and ghost-like in the dim dawn! I wish I were asleep too, I wish I were not so restless and excited, I wish I could forgive Dick for advertising that he would not be responsible for my debts. There is a woman on this ship that I envy with all my heart; she is twenty-three, just a year older than I am, and she is married to a gay, handsome being who is undoubtedly a handful. I could not hold him for six months, but his wife is a big, gallant-looking girl who is very fond of him, and yet — O Laura! if he follows any will-o’-the-wisp fancies, if he tries her forbearance too far, she will never forgive him. And he knows it. She is utterly without that desperate desire for a reconciliation which aches so within my heart; she will never experience the longing to pardon that is such a big handicap, you know, to the injured party! I fear I am dreadfully like that melting female in Tennyson’s poem, who said, “Ask me no more for at a touch I yield!” For I know that Dick has only to ask, only to express one word of regret for his action, and I shall love him as I did sixteen months ago when I was such a wonderfully, perfectly, happy bride.
In the meantime I intend to ignore the past; it would be so undignified to wrangle. Besides I am not at all sure that it would be possible to wrangle with Dick; there might be an air of “brush away ’dis blue tailed fly” about him which would disconcert me. But you don’t know—nobody knows—how maddened I was last August when he dealt that blow to my pride. Everything went wrong; first that fat old rascal Geogehan took a fancy to my money and decamped with the whole of it and we had thought him as safe as a church! Then Dick was ordered off to the row in China, and I was left to try and live on four hundred a year. Heaps of women do it—I am quite sure his mother managed on it, when she was left a widow—but I could not. I tried, but I simply could not. I gave up bridge, I gave up a maid, I really bought very few things, and yet the money flew! I stayed with the Hazlewoods, and the Cranmers, and with little Peggy Wimpole’s people, and then the first awful crop of debts began to sprout. Dick wrote very kindly about it, and he settled them immediately; but he explained to me what a professional handicap debt would be to him (he has nothing but his pay, you know), and I gathered that he feared I was recklessly extravagant, and also that he was hurt that I did not seem to be content to live quietly while he was on service. Just as if I was not living quietly! I stayed with friends and relations, and did not go to any gay functions. I did not want gaiety. I was far too miserably anxious about Dick. It could not be helped that my friends were not badly off, could it? When the debts began to accumulate for the second time (Oh dear!) I fled from the world and lived in cheap lodgings all by myself for three weeks. It was simply ghastly; dirty table-cloths and niggers on the beach. And one day Betty Delamain—by the way I can’t endure her, partly, I dare say, because she reigns in Granny’s stead—motored over from dear Wootten with three men I knew, and they discovered me on the parade taking a forlorn constitutional. Of course they invited themselves to tea with me, and you should have seen their faces when they saw my surroundings and found that I had not even a maid with me! I felt that Betty thought it queer. I know she has been whispering since, Muriel Hazlewood told me so. One of the men was Lord Merewether, whom I had been at some pains to avoid since Dick left. He motored over again twice that week. I packed up my things and went to the Cranmers in town—a silly thing to do, for in London money melts. Laura, do you remember how Granny spoilt me as a child? And as a débutante I had every whim gratified, and then, when the dear old lady died and I was left with a thousand a year, I did manage to have a splendid time, didn’t I? It was a most unsuitable bringing up for a poor man’s wife, and you—oh! why were you doing a rest cure just when I needed you so badly?
For, when Dick wrote and warned me that he would feel obliged to protect me against my own recklessness by advertising that he would not be responsible for further debts, I refused to accept his letter as a warning; I regarded it as a threat and resented it in every fibre of my being. I own that I rather defied him to do his worst! He warned me again. Ah! distance is a cruel thing! All the longing in the world won’t diminish it one inch. Had we been in the same country the misunderstanding between us would never have ended in his advertising that he would not be responsible for further debts! But still I ask myself again and again how he could have had the heart to do it.
It led to most galling episodes. Lord Merewether haunted me till I became furious and crushed him, and that rather impossible friend of the Cranmers’, Captain Ffolkes, actually had the insufferable impertinence to deliberately set himself to lose money to me at bridge! To me—Esmé Delamain that was. And each time I said to myself, “Dick’s action is the cause of this insult.” I really do not know what I should have done had not old Sir John Danvers, Granny’s great friend, come back from St Petersburg. He persuaded me to be patient, to be less bitter. One day he said to me, “All my life the quarrels of men and women and States have come within my knowledge. There is hardly any conceivable relation or condition of life without them. They are as natural as the act of sleeping. There will never be a time when war is not. And in my experience there is much good in quarrels, much that is fine in the anger of both parties; the best as well as the worst passions of the human heart are subject to wrath. Does it seem unnatural to you to differ from one you love? Ah! my child, what of the strife of soul and body, of purpose and performance, of self with self?” Was he not an old dear?
And now, thank Heaven the war in China is over and my Dick is safe and sound in Dera Ismail Khan, commanding the Derajat Brigade. And I am proud of him. And I want to be happy; I want most terribly to be happy. This is my first day in the East. We are floating towards the Dawn in a veil of quickly fading Night. I can dimly see on the bank of the Canal the silhouette of a man riding a camel—beyond him is Asia. The women all round me are still sleeping; I wish them happy dreams. I am dreaming too, Laura, and if my dreams never come true—”
The slight figure, huddled up on her bed, suddenly ceased writing, but continued to sit chin on hand while the P. & O. glided quietly on and on, and her thoughts flew back to the England she was leaving so far behind. How blissful she had been at Delfer Towers with the Bethunes during her brief courtship and engagement! Her husband, Dick Norman, had come into her life then representing the very things which her experience and surroundings lacked—purpose, adventure, discipline, hard work. She had liked the remoteness of his life from all luxury and idleness, from all petty aims and ignoble goals. He went to her with the honours of war fresh upon him, a fighting man, a frontier man, and the longing for the true realities of life which dwells in the soul of the imaginative captivated Esmé’s interest and admiration. His was a remarkably strong personality, she watched his effect upon other people and took pride in it. He was good-looking too, very tall and extraordinarily well made. He asked her to marry him one day when the charm of spring was bewitching the land and all the earth was fragrant. Esmé, in the killing heat of the Suez Canal, wistfully remembered how the lawns were splashed with sunshine and how the million cobwebs wove fairy carpets of silver and diamonds. Her thoughts lingered now on those enchanted days of her engagement. She acknowledged that he had never been a demonstrative lover. It had vexed her sometimes, and she smiled as she recollected how one day she had been piqued into exclaiming, “I do not believe that you think me in the least pretty!” Her beauty was such a proven fact, if proof lie in the common consent of man, that it was scarcely vanity that had led her to challenge him so much as a thoroughly new conception of herself.
“Ah! that would be telling,” he had responded with a grin, his face lit up with almost schoolboy glee. The transformation from its wonted stern repose was striking and attractive. She had often found herself trying to make him look like that again.
“I wish you would tell me your real opinion,” she urged, conscious that she was coaxing for praise as a child coaxes for a chocolate, but unable to resist the temptation.
“Well, then,” he said unexpectedly, and with a downright finality in his abrupt speech; “well, then, once and for all, I think you are perfectly lovely.”
It took her breath away rather. It gave her enormous satisfaction (even now she dimpled when she thought of it), and she dropped the tiniest little fluttering kiss on the sunburnt hand that rested on the leather arm of the chair. He caught her dress as she moved away, a firm grasp, but one that detected and yielded instantly to her quick movement to free herself.
“Esmé!” he called after her, but she only turned a laughing face to him at the door and was gone, taking with her a memory of the note of emotion in his voice as he called her name; it had so seldom been there before. She thought now that she might often listen for it and not hear it in the years to come.
She certainly received no more flattery that night; when she joined the rest of the house-party in the hall she found her fiancé talking shop to General De Boulay, and after dinner it was the same thing, yet she found no fault with the slim, distinguished figure, with its air of perfect grooming, that sat rather apart with the older man and seemed absolutely unconscious of her presence. Perhaps she was a little chilled for the moment, but the General set her aglow with pleasure as he took his departure. “He is a very remarkable man, that fiancé of yours, Miss Delamain,” he said warmly, “I had a most interesting talk with him.”
Only when Norman brought her a heavy silver candlestick, and stooped to light his cigarette from the tiny yellow flame, did he play the lover, and then entirely after his own fashion.
“Pretty indeed!” he said in a low voice. “The conceit of the creature!”
She ran upstairs, with a blush and starlit eyes, and Laura Bethune, kissing her good-night, had exclaimed, “O Esmé, why are you going to marry a man in the Indian Army and desert us? I should hate to go away to weird places in the East with anybody!”
“Prosaic old thing!” smiled Esmé. “‘A primrose by the river’s brim’ will never be anything but a primrose to you, that is certain.”
“Exactly,” Laura had answered, suddenly serious; “and I only expect it to be a primrose. Now you would endow it with an immortal soul and a love affair and run the risk of disappointment.”
Ah! How clearly those words came back to Esmé now. Did she expect too much of the life that awaited her in India? She questioned herself anxiously, twisting her wedding ring round and round on her slim white finger. No matter, she would not demand less, since to be content with little was impossible. For this woman, going out to India nearly two years after her marriage, asked a great deal of existence, weaving big qualities into the characters of those she loved,—too often quarrelling with the absence of those qualities in their speech or actions,—idealizing life, sensitive to its every aspect.
One by one the sleepers stirred, roused from their slumbers, and flitted off to their hot cabins, leaving the deck free to be scrubbed. With noise and bustle the day’s work began, while the fierce sun rose in its splendour over the edge of the world, and Esmé Norman her momentary impulse to confide, to seek sympathy, past—tore her letter into tiny fragments and dropped them into the Canal. Then she turned towards the bow of the great ship ploughing eastward.
“Dick, I’m coming!” she whispered.
The trees grew high and slim in the hotel courtyard, palms stood in green tubs at the corners of the narrow, dusty paths, and the small plots of grass were bordered by white stones. On all four sides rose the building with verandahs running round each story. Looking up at the small square of sky, one’s glance was almost beaten earthward again by the shimmer of its fierce blue. The big white dome of some mosque towered behind the commonplace hotel walls, and pigeons cooed and fluttered and sidled around it. The sounds were the sounds of Anglo-India; from the rooms could be heard the breath of swinging punkahs, aloft on one of the verandahs an ayah was soothing a fretting child and chattering her rapid Hindustani to a sweeper in the curious pitch of voice peculiar to her race and class. Inside the entrance hall could be heard an Englishman asking for a peg, and the answer came from a Goanese servant. The appointments of the hall were all English, a railed-off office in which sat a busy Eurasian with a pen tucked behind a dusky ear, a notice board with the latest telegrams from England and shipping intelligence, the framed list of visitors’ names, the piles of neat luggage by the big doorway. All so like some second-rate hotel in England, yet all with such a difference! Conveying, in a vague way, the impression that railed-off offices and framed notice boards are rather wonderful things. Looking from the prosaic hall, through the swing doors, what a contrast met the eye, what a revelation!
The amazing, fierce sunshine beat into the thronged street, splashed the housetops with light, wove gold into the dust, powdered with diamonds the water which dripped from the water-cart, drawn by white bullocks, flashed from the glass on a woman’s bracelet, winked from every shop window, blazed from the brass tray of the sweet seller. What a crowd! East and West passed by.
An Englishman rode past wearing a solar topee. Two English ladies drove by in a victoria chattering gaily to each other, they wore muslin frocks and flower-trimmed hats, and held up green-lined umbrellas. The sunshine twinkled on the brass ornaments of the harness, and on the splash-boards and spokes of the wheels. Now and then a foreign merchant, Swiss or German, threaded his way along the hot street, and there was always a sprinkling of Eurasians. And the soft footfalls of the people echoed ceaselessly. A Parsee, in neat frock coat and black skull cap, drove along, and, by his side, sat his ivory-cheeked, almond-eyed wife, clad in fluttering, rainbow-hued silks. Close behind them drove, in a high-wheeled dog-cart, a fat Hindu merchant, gorgeous in plush coat and huge puggaree; his little son was with him and was dressed exactly like him, a pathetic little figure, with big wistful eyes. A white clad Hindu shopkeeper from the bazaar strutted along with a big caste mark on his forehead. A fat babu, holding up an umbrella, pushed his way through the crowd, and a schoolboy loitered to bargain with the seller of sweets. A sepoy in khaki uniform swung along, and a policeman in blue and scarlet shouted, “make way, make way brothers!” A spectacled postman, with a striped puggaree and badge of office, went slowly from house to house. Now there passed a Brahmin from Poona, and now a state official from Baroda, and now there swaggered through the throng a Pathan horse-dealer from many thousand miles northward. A handsome Sikh native officer, belonging to a Punjab regiment and about to sail for England, as one of the King’s orderlies, walked along haughtily, towering above the crowd of down country natives. A native judge drove by, with much ringing of his carriage bell, and a native pleader wormed his way through the multitude on a bicycle. Everywhere thronged the servants, Mahomedan bearers and khitmutgars from the United Provinces and the Punjab, Madrassee “boys,” Goanese butlers and cooks, high caste Hindu chuprassies, municipal bhisties,1 and sweepers. Side by side with the motley swarm of human beings jostled the animals—the whaler, the Arab, the Kabuli pony, the English thoroughbred—in an endless stream, and, following their English masters and mistresses, scampered fox terriers, Irish terriers, dachshunds, airedales, and here and there, seated in a victoria or buggy, a pampered Pekinese Pug from China. Their poor relations, the pi dogs, snuffed at refuse, scavenged for a meal; shrinking, yapping, thin, mangy, horrible. Big black crows and dust-coloured vultures swooped to the ground with solemn and loud flapping of huge wings. A water buffalo passed, hideous beyond words, a black blot in the sunshine. Then two milk-white buffaloes with soft slow tread drew out of sight in the shifting crowd a gaily painted wooden cart, and here and there were driven past the little hump-backed cows, their necks adorned by blue necklaces to avert the evil eye. Animals and mankind met and passed and jostled with the tolerance and indifference of the East, under which sleeps so fierce an intolerance, so vivid an antagonism. English, Eurasians, Goanese, Parsees, Hindus and Mahomedans, split and resplit again into a thousand, thousand divisions of education, creed, income, official position, profession, trade, craft, caste, class, province, district, and village; they passed and repassed amid the blue shadows and golden sunshine, with the Rule of the West effecting in a greater or lesser degree every living thing in that sea-girt Eastern city. That city of colour—of sky blazing with turquoise light, of white domes and flashing minarets, of stucco houses painted blue and yellow and red, of golden brass vessels and golden dust, of silken garments and velvet garments and muslin puggarees—violet, saffron, rose, emerald, azure.
Down by the vast expanse of blue water, dancing with light and sparkling up into the face of the glowing sky, lay the green enclosure of the Yacht Club. There sat or strolled groups of English men and women. To some of them the vivid city of Bombay meant merely the terminus or the starting-point of the crowded life on a P. & O. steamer, to others it was the shopping centre, “where the Army and Navy Stores are.” To many the limitless miles of India stretching south and east and north—finding north and east and south, different peoples, different tongues, different problems—meant the unknown Beyond, into which acquaintances slipped and from which they emerged again homeward bound on leave, or going for good on pension. To others again—these were to be found among the menfolk the problems of India were the—problems of their daily work, their fingers were upon the pulse of the people; yet their own beat none the quicker. And everywhere the Magic of the Eastern Sun scavenged, sterilised, purified, propagated, called to life or withered to death, purged and burnt, while the sea crooned its soft lullaby to the constant, ceaseless farewells and greetings, partings and meetings of the shore.
Ah! Those Indian partings and meetings! Husband and wife, parents and children, lover and beloved—each with its individual circumstance, its individual sorrow or joy. How many men had waited there eagerly for the coming of the joyous bride, to part affectionately but without unbearable pain eighteen months later, when the wife went home for the hot weather; all the romance, all the vivid joy, as dead as last year’s fruit! How many parents had sent off their little ones to meet again, after anxious years of self-sacrifice and longing, as strangers? How many wives returned unwillingly to take up the poor remains of a married life which the long, long separation had spoilt beyond repairing? How many husbands came out to face their life’s work alone, all that they loved most, their wife and children, left behind in England?
The breeze stirred the trees and the grass, the setting sun spread a great light on the golden sea as a pathway for the coming brides and wives, and among those who waited for the morrow, looking seawards, was Dick Norman. As a Punjab man he did not know many of the crowd assembled on the lawn, but he sat among a little group of men, some of whom had soldiered with him in China, others were from the North too, and, like himself, were waiting for a woman. They were talking “shop.” The “shop” of those who hold or govern the vast land of India, where a man, among men, chucks his conversation from the merits of a fox terrier, the shooting to be found in any given locality, and the incidents of the last chukker of polo, to the revenue, the land settlement, the recruiting for the native army, the last frontier war, and the probabilities of the next, the question under consideration at headquarters, the intrigues of some native state, and, in these days, sedition. What a harvest of experiences! Gathered in from Chitral, Leh, Thibet, China, Japan, Russia, Burmah, Aden, Somaliland, Persia, South Africa! From the fastness and passes of the frontier, the Khyber, the Kurram, the Gumal, the Bolan; from Tirah, the land of the Mohmands, and the wild hills of Waziristan; to the lonely tales of camps pitched by canals, by railway lines, in the desert, on the outskirts of some isolated native town; to the gossip of the English communities in Gul Merg, Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Lahore, Delhi, Meerut, Simla, Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Rangoon, Poona. They travel far, they see much, they live hard, they play fair—these sunburnt Englishmen, worthy of the great trust reposed in them by their countrymen and many alien peoples. Worthy too, in nine cases out of ten, of the great trust reposed in them by the women coming through that sea and air and sky—all golden in the West.
Norman had always meant to marry, he had always looked forward to the coming of a wife to share his life in India. But in his boyish dreams and in the castle-building of maturer years the coming of the wife had never been cheapened, soiled, spoilt by months of disappointment and irritation. The lines of those months were on his forehead now. Men said that, “China has taken it out of Norman; he looks older.” It had been a great blow to this man’s pride that the income he allowed his wife had proved insufficient, and that the income he was earning now, in command of the Derajat Brigade, should be so much more than he had ever had before, and yet should be still so much less than the income she had been brought up to spend.
The first blow had been followed by innumerable pin-pricks and worries. No one talking to Norman at the Yacht Club that day would have known that in his innermost mind he was wincing over the recollection of his last inspection of his dogcart, when he had pronounced it intolerably shabby, over the fact that there was no horse worth having in his stables, no Persian rugs in the drawing-room, and that this nakedness of the land was waiting for the coming of the bride! Professionally too it annoyed him. Here was he, at forty-five, a Brigadier-General, and he was keenly disappointed to be unable to have everything about his establishment that the position seemed to require. He was right there, a young brigadier is a foolish man to go shabby.
There was something pathetic in the thought that this reserved, determined, and rather stern—but withal eager, dashing, and sensitive—man should have won by his sword so much for his wife, and that that “much” should prove “not enough.” You may ask what had he actually to offer? Well, he had a good income and a “senior position” in India. Ah, you may laugh! Let idlers laugh. The Anglo-Indian knows that, though “a big position in the county” can be held by right of income, acres, and a name, a “senior position” in India has to be paid for in years of toil and danger and anxiety, by responsibility splendidly fulfilled, and by all the elusive elements that spell success.
If his wife had only understood! He had drawn good pay on the staff while on service in China, but out of it had to be paid Esmé’s allowance, the marriage donation to the Pension Fund, and the premium for his life insurance. Moreover, it was necessary to save the money for her passage to India, and for the many expenses of setting up a married household. Then had come the disastrous necessity for paying her debts; twice. It had been with the greatest distaste and enormous reluctance that he had advertised his refusal to be responsible for further debts. He had done so as an extreme measure of protection. Should he be killed during the fighting in China what position would Esmé find herself in? The Pension Fund not fully paid, the life insurance not fully paid, and her own debts! Such a prospect was unbearable, so, since his presence beside her was impossible, and his written remonstrance proved futile, he had acted characteristically enough in adopting drastic measures. Doubtless prejudice had something to do with his action. On a short acquaintance Norman had not been favourably impressed with the Cranmers or the Hazlewoods, and as for Betty Delmain, he simply loathed her. He distrusted their influence on Esmé’s extravagance, an extravagance which he knew to be in her blood. He was not, in truth, fully in touch with his wife or her friends in England, and writing to his lawyers from his tent in China, surrounded by the life of active service, he had been perhaps unconsciously sceptical of the “needs” of a society woman’s life in England.
Well, the gilt was off the gingerbread, the unforgotten boyish dreams were so far unfulfilled, and Norman was sore at heart.
And Esmé? She came to him leaving days and nights and miles of sunlit, tossing sea between her and all else that she loved. Came with a doubt in her heart because they had quarrelled. But came eagerly, glad that the time had come at last when she could really and truly learn what manner of man was this husband of hers. And, in spite, of the doubt, in spite of the waiting, watchful criticism, there was the woman’s realization to the full of the possibilities of the occasion. Ah! The tears of parting, the lonely longings—should these be cheated of their comfort in the end? Never. Womanlike she would have her taste of heaven first, her Day of Judgment afterwards. And so the great ship brought her to the shore with all emotions banished for the time, save those of love and excitement.
Early on the following morning Esmé stood in her little cabin adorning herself with intense interest while Miss Foster surveyed the process with enthusiasm. Miss Foster was a globe trotter, and had proved a charming cabin companion, having fallen a hopeless victim to that modern form of mania—a girl’s adoration for another girl.
“I’m sure I look a brute,” said Esmé, with conviction, peering into the glass, “My hair is too awful, and my poor nose is crimson with this heat.”
“Oh, Mrs Norman, how can you say such a thing! You look perfect!” cried the love-sick Miss Foster.
“I wonder how the brides feel,” said Esmé, with a giggle. “I think I must go and look after Miss Morris or she will certainly cover her yellow face with powder till it looks like icing on a sponge cake—and melts like it too. I should not care to be her bridegroom, should you?”
She wheeled round as she spoke for the cabin door opened and Norman stood in the doorway. Then a terrible thing happened. The romantic Miss Foster, realizing that this was the husband, made a dash from the cabin in order to escape from the meeting of the married pair, and Norman, blinded by the dimly lit cabin after the glitter of the sunshine, caught her by the shoulders and kissed her thoroughly and with sincere conviction.
A wail resembling that of an afrighted rabbit rose from Miss Foster, enormously to Dick’s astonishment.
“Oh, don’t mind me, Dick!” cried Esmé from her berth, where she had collapsed instantly in helpless laughter.
“I beg your pardon. I thought this was No. 45,” apologized Norman.
“It—it—d-doesn’t matter at all,” stammered Miss Foster.
“Not at all. Do try all the odd numbers,” tittered Esmé. Miss Foster scuttled away into the din and confusion of the outer world and Norman made no mistake the second time.
“I hope that struck you as being a bit different to your first attempt,” remarked his wife, disengaging herself.
“It was uncommonly awkward, eh?”
“Oh, it was too lovely! Fancy just kissing away like that on the chance it was me, and never discovering your mistake! You do behave queerly on a P. & O., Dick. What a pity you weren’t here for the whole voyage!”
It was a queer meeting after all her dreams, she said to herself, and, during the next half-hour of noise and bustle, of farewells to acquaintances and arrangements about luggage, she was conscious that her husband was reshaping himself again, was coming out of the personality of her thoughts—the creation of her imagination, moulded during their separation—into the definite being of reality. He was most satisfactory to look upon in his white serge, and white solar topee she noted with pleasure. He got what he wanted too, very quickly. She saw him for the first time as a sahib, giving orders in Hindustani. “This is Abdur Rahman, the bearer,” he said, and a tall, slight, young Mahomedan, in faultless white, salaamed. Norman knew a good many people on board, and Esmé saw him now among his friends, not hers. It gave her a curious, aloof feeling; cut off from her own world and plunged into his.
During all her swift mental notes, she was outwardly just the laughing, delighted young wife, chattering nonsense at the top of her voice. “Oh it’s too dreadful, Mrs Blane; he began at once kissing everybody. It was No. 45 before he got to me. It was really—ask Miss Foster! I shall be thankful to get him off the ship, a P. & O. is no place for respectable married men. Good-bye, Major Davies, don’t forget all the good advice I gave you. Good-bye, Mrs Melbourne, don’t fret so dreadfully about your babies, you poor dear. Good-bye, Mr Long, I hope you will get a Punjab regiment all right—”
Norman carried her away at last with difficulty. Many eyes followed her as her foot touched India’s soil. She was dressed in plain, heavily falling and faultlessly cut white linen, her golden hair rippled out from under a big straw hat trimmed with white guelder roses. She looked the embodiment of the spirit of the quick-flying breeze, the dancing water, and the sparkling sunshine.
Her husband glanced at her contemplatively, “You ought to have a topee,” he said. “That thing on your head is no good.” And he insisted on stopping at a shop and taking her in to purchase one.
“What frightful things!” sighed Esmé. “My head looks like the dome of St Paul’s now, doesn’t it?”
“Better than sunstroke,” he remarked; unsatisfactorily she thought.
“That’s a primitive reason for buying a hat,” she said, with a little shrug of her shoulders, turning away to dig in the hatpins. Seeing him take money out of his pocket and pay for her purchase had given her a moment of intense embarrassment: “ Pleasant, if I am always going to feel this about money,” she said to herself with flushed cheeks.
“That’s a rupee, and that’s eight annas—and that’s two annas,” he informed her, spreading the coins on the counter for her inspection.
“Oh,” she said, rather blankly.
A pair of very toffee-coloured and gaudily dressed young women left the shop as the Normans went out to their hired “ tikka-gharri,” and one remarked to the other of the young English salesman who had served them, “Oh, my! That-t is one dull! I asked him for flesh-coloured stockings and he gave me-e tan.”
Norman met his wife’s eye and they both collapsed into a fit of laughter, “Notice the chi-chi accent?” he asked.
“Is that a chi-chi accent? ‘He gave me-e tan’ such a good match, too, poor thing! Oh, I shall never forget it. This is the most amusing country I was ever in. Do look, Dick! What wonderful things one sees every moment. It’s like a vastly superior Earl’s Court Exhibition, with nothing to pay.”
“Do you like it?” he asked; she could not guess how anxiously.
“I’m just dancing with excitement,” she answered—and to herself she breathed a fervent hope that Dera Ismail Khan would be cooler, for the discomfort of the damp heat struck her as almost unbearable.
“What on earth is that?” she cried suddenly. “A water buffalo? Poor dear thing, how truly awful for it to have a wife and daughter buffalo as plain as that. It is the most hideous creature I ever saw, and the old man riding it looks like a gnome. What a weird world it is!”
Through the crowded Eastern streets they drove and reached the quiet of their own room in the hotel. As they crossed its threshold together the new intimacy brought the colour to Esmé’s face. It was half sweet, half terrifying to her. She turned to her husband. “Darling, are you glad to have me with you at last?” she asked softly.
“Huzoor,” interrupted a strange voice by the open window leading on to the balcony, “if the memsahib will give me her keys I will prepare her dress for dinner. All the ‘bundobust’2 of a mem-sahib is known to me.”
It was Abdur Rahman, full of interest and importance.
“He says he’ll put out your dinner things if you’ll give him your keys.”
“Oh no thanks,” said Esmé, quickly. How strange it was. No woman but herself. She felt suddenly rather forlorn.
“Achcha! The memsahib wants nothing; it is too early,” said Norman, and the white-clad figure disappeared.
“They all look exactly alike to me. I shall never know these natives apart,” said Esmé, and in after years that first impression struck her as extraordinary.
“The worst of the beggars is that you never know when they are there,” remarked Norman, and suddenly drew Esmé to him and kissed her with an utter disregard of that fact.
“It will be well to please the memsahib in this naukri,”3 said the watchful Abdur Rahman to himself.
Esmé decided that she was never likely to forget that railway journey northwards. They left Bombay at night, and the first hours were spent in darkness, wrestling with the discomforts of her bed-valise, which was spread out on one of the long, narrow seats that ran the length of the carriage. She was alternately too hot and too cold and the dust was terrible. She awoke from her uneasy slumbers when the train stopped with a jerk at a station consisting of a platform and a shed. It seemed to have dropped from the sky and to have no connection with any human habitation. The cool, clear, breath of the Indian dawn rose from the sleeping plains which lay, vast and grey and featureless, sweeping to the horizon. The call of the sweet-sellers and the cry of the water-carriers, “Hindu pini pani,”4 shrilled up and down the platform, which was crowded with huddled forms of natives, wrapped in soiled, white chuddars. They kept their mouths covered from the keen morning air, and for the most part gave one the idea of some grey ghosts of the night, who had delayed their flitting till too late, and had been discovered by the peeping daylight. Here and there a shrouded figure
stirred and roused himself to smoke his hookah, coughing loudly, and a few Mahomedans were praying, with their faces turned towards the great shafts of light that stole over the sky from the East. One or two men were rinsing their mouths out with much noise, from their brass drinking vessels, and the railway dog, shorn of one leg, slunk about from group to group in search of scraps of food. A queer little party of four walked down the length of the platform, and Esmé craned her head out of the window to watch them. Two old, grey-bearded men were supporting between them a young woman. She was of the lower classes, evidently, for she did not wear the “Burkha,” which completely hides the face and form, but was dressed in a short, pleated skirt, beneath which her little brown feet shuffled in sandals, and her silver ankle bracelets tinkled as she walked. Her red sari half covered her face, and she leaned heavily on the two men and moaned. An older woman, whose veil hardly hid her grey locks, followed them, wailing and beating on her breast. The men helped the younger woman into the women’s compartment, but she thrust her thin arms through the window, holding her hands outstretched towards them, and clawing the air with nervous fingers, while she uttered shriek after shriek. Her cries beat upon the indifferent crowd and the limitless grey plain with a weird monotonous regularity. The two men squatted on the platform, facing her, and waited silently. Down the lined cheeks of one of them the tears were pouring slowly; the weak, impotent tears of unresisting old age. The elder woman stood behind them and continued to beat her breast and utter wailing lamentations.
“O Dick, do wake up and find out what is the matter with these people!” Esmé” cried, shaking him by the shoulder. Urged by her eager voice Norman roused himself to look out of the window.
“It’s nothing. We can’t interfere,” he said. “The woman in the train has been visiting her own people, probably, and she may have heard of the death of her husband and be going back to the mourning. She will doubtless have a rotten time of it; widows aren’t merry out here by any means. Or, perhaps he is very much alive and she loathes him. The poor old beggar of a father seems pretty miserable. The mother is a fraud, she is looking at you all the time.” And Dick went comfortably to sleep again.
The train groaned and jerked and then started. For a long time Esmé fancied that she could hear the woman’s awful shrieks above the rattle and roar, and she could not rest.
“You’ll never do for India if you fuss like this,” remonstrated Dick at the next station, where the refreshment room Khansamah—whose beard was dyed a bright rose-pink—brought them chota hazri, and Abdur Rahman rolled up the bedding and tidied the carriage. “Why, at Peshawar, in the hot weather, I’ve seen half a dozen natives taken out of the third-class compartment dead.”
“Dead! What from?”
“Heat. The third class was precious full too, I should think the frowst was enough to kill anything. At Ghazi Ghat, only the other day, a woman and her husband—respectable people, zemindars—got out of their crowded compartment next to mine, awfully upset. Their child, who was in the woman’s arms, had just died of plague. Poor devils! I expect they died of it too.”
“Dick, how can you talk of such horrors calmly!”
“Shall I tear my hair to please you? I’ll have a shave anyhow.” He jumped out, and three or four natives on the platform, who happened to be in his way, did not stir. “Hut jao!”5 said he sharply, and taking the nearest man by the shoulders he pitched him against the others with sufficient force to upset one and send the remainder staggering back. The native policeman, hurrying up, repeated this manoeuvre and scattered the docile crowd with much abuse.
“Just like these down country natives,” said Dick to Esmé, over his shoulder. “Have the d—d cheek to get in a sahib’s way, and slink off like jackals if you touch ’em. Now a Pathan has manners. He knows how to treat a sahib, but, if you lay a finger on him, he’ll knife you or shoot you, if he can.”
“I think I’d prefer milder manners! No shooting or knifing, thanks,” ejaculated Esmé.
“Better than bombs,” said Dick, and strode off.
Esmé watched the crowd, fascinated. How extraordinary to be an atom in this vast sunlit land, to be not of these people but alien! Set apart too from her own sex. She looked at the shrouded forms of three purdah women seated by their cooking pots and their children on the platform, and realized suddenly that eastward to Japan and westward to Greece lay a great world of men and women, wherein the women were veiled, secluded, hidden. Where wifehood and motherhood fulfilled their part in the great scheme of things, but where man, and man only, walked free in the good clean light of day. It overpowered her for the moment. Gone was the sense of the commonplace, the usual, the familiar, the secure, which, till now, had environed her life and her outlook on life. Ever since she had landed in India she had still felt one with the crowd to which she had always belonged, had dimly felt, too, as if England had made India English by owning it. She woke, finally, from that dream now, as the sun rose in full power over the burning levels and the train went on and on—past brown villages that nestled in low huddled masses on the brown earth, past solitary wayfarers on camels, silhouetted against the fierce sky, past big native cities with great city walls, silent, fantastic, mysterious. A land, and villages, and cities speaking so plainly of the life of the peoples of India, lived apart from all English men and women, and all English thought, that it seemed to Esmé that the train and Dick and herself were unreal, and that she must presently find herself in London again, and the history of England’s occupations of India prove to be but a fairytale of the Arabian Nights.
As they went Northward the types of natives at the stations changed completely. When Dick got out of the train to stretch his legs he was no longer conspicuously tall, for he mingled with tall men. Mahomedans predominated over Hindus now, and at one of the stations the platform was crowded with sepoys. There were manoeuvres taking place in the neighbourhood, and a party of Dogras and a party of Sikhs were waiting for a train under the command of a native officer. Dick, looking out of the window, uttered an exclamation and jumped out.
“Oh-h-h-h! Pertab Singh!” he called.
The native officer turned quickly at the sound of his voice. Even for a Sikh—that most handsome of Asiatic races—he was strikingly good looking. He was a big man, and stood considerably over six foot in his service boots and towering khaki puggaree. His jet black beard was twisted round his chin and behind his ears after the fashion of his caste, which sounds so hideous in description but, in reality, presents the appearance of a smartly trimmed beard and gives a fine contour to the lower part of the face, just as the puggaree which with a Sikh conceals long hair and the sacred comb lends a dignity to the brow that is somewhat lacking in nature. Nothing was needed to improve the modelling of the big straight nose or the fine dark eyes. The man’s face lit up with pleased recognition when he saw Norman.
“Ah, sahib!“ he cried, saluting, and Norman shook hands with him. Esmé could not understand their conversation, but their mutual pleasure in meeting was self-evident. After a moment’s talk they turned and walked together to the group of sepoys, who saluted smartly, and then clustered round Norman. This was a new Norman to Esmé. She had never seen him display this cordial camaraderie, never seen him at better advantage than among these Eastern soldiers. He was evidently a bit of a wag, Esmé thought; with a quick acknowledgment that she, seemingly, had known only one side of him. The sepoys were all laughing at his remarks, and Dick looked positively jovial. Dignified too, with a bearing to match and dominate even the dignity of these fine fellows. He was coming back to her carriage now with Pertab Singh, and stood by her window with one hand on the sill while the big Sikh, looking rather bashful, waited beside him, drawn up in a stiff salute.
“This is Pertab Singh, Subadar, a native officer in my old regiment,” said Dick, adding under his breath, “Say ‘salaam’ and shake hands.”
“Salaam,” said Esmé, graciously, holding out her hand. The native officer placed his own in it awkwardly, with a murmured, “Huzoor ke mihr-bani,” and then pulled his sword half out of its scabbard and hitching it up presented the hilt to Esmé.
“Touch it,” said Norman.
Something in this tribute of respect, this offering of service, proffered by a man whose medals denoted that his sword had been drawn many times in grim earnest for England, who had been twice—Esmé’s eyes read the medal ribbons quickly—Norman’s comrade-in-arms, touched her sharply, and roused her fire of enthusiasm and imagination that was ever quick to kindle. She pulled off the glove of her right hand before she touched it.
“I think that is a beautiful greeting, Dick,” she said. “Tell him it is my best welcome to India.”
“He wouldn’t understand,” said Norman. “I’ll tell him you are glad to see him,” and he spoke in the vernacular again.
“One lot of them look like princes. Who are the others, the ones without beards?”
“Dogras. Now they’ve got blue blood in their veins if you like. Aristocrats to a man. They were my men when I was a double company commander. I swear by them. Devils for fighting on service and never give an hour’s trouble in cantonments. Subalterns nowadays don’t appreciate them. All mad on Pathans; say Dogras won’t play hockey! They’d play fast enough if the boys knew how to get at ’em. Dogras are retiring fellows, they need an officer who knows them well. Nowadays the subalterns go home on leave for eight months nearly every other year; they don’t know their men the way we did.” The bell clanged warningly and Dick shook hands with Pertab Singh and climbed into the carriage. All the men stood at the salute as the train left and there was a chorus of “Salaam Sahib.” Dick’s face was still aglow. This was a new Dick indeed.
“Do all English women shake hands with native officers?” enquired Esmé.
“Don’t know really. Pertab Singh has never met any except those married to officers of the regiment I fancy. They are the only ladies to whom he would present the hilt of his sword, of course. I expect they shook hands with him. They ought to. I daresay Mrs Little did not, but she was an ass who pretended she knew nothing of the Indian Army. Nobody cared what she did; we all laughed at her airs and graces.”
“Is a Dogra a Mahomedan, Dick?”
“Good gracious! don’t you know that in England? He is a Hindu, high caste. So is a Sikh; you become a Sikh, it’s a sort of church militant. Originally it was not unlike the Knight Templars of the olden days. But Sikhdom is a big subject. A woman is not really ever a Sikh, but I fancy a Sikh only marries the daughter of a Sikh as a rule. There are Brahmins who are Sikhs, we have a lot in my old regiment. Our orderly is a Brahmin, old Arjan Das. He would never become a Sikh, the old rascal, too fond of his smoking. He is in Dera Ismail Khan and belongs to the regiment. He has been with me for years, but he is getting old now and goes on pension next autumn. Best orderly in the Punjab. Simply invaluable on service. He hated the Chinese like poison because they didn’t kowtow to his lordship.” Norman chuckled, then went on with his reminiscences. “I remember once a party of our fellows, Dogras, were travelling all together in a compartment, as happy as sand-boys (natives love the train), and the native guard wanted to shove in another man. The sepoys said that the carriage was quite full, and so it was. Then the silly ass of a railway policeman must needs smack one of our men over the head with his truncheon. The Dogras swarmed out like wasps, hauled the policeman into the carriage, rolled him up in his puggaree, and shoved him under the seat and took him on to a station two hundred miles away! There was a deuce of a correspondence over it, of course. Another time, I recollect, I and another fellow were at Khushalghar station and there was a party of Pathans going off on leave from their regiment. There was no accommodation for them, poor devils, and the station-master, a native, nothing but a babu really, wouldn’t move a finger to help them. They were wild at the idea of losing any of their leave and, by jove! they were on the point of wrecking the station and pulling the whole show about the station-master’s ears, when, luckily, we turned up.”
“What did you do?” asked Esmé.
“Made him put on a carriage for them, of course. But there it is, you see, Pathans and Dogras are fighting men. They won’t stand any rot from weaker natives, even officials. And yet the Bengalee babu wants to rule India!” Norman snorted contemptuously and relapsed into silence. Esmé roused him by asking him, “Don’t you think that, eventually—before very long—the clever, well-educated native must more or less govern India? After all, the fighting classes obey, they don’t govern, in Europe.”
“Education is not necessarily the faculty, or talent, for governing, especially education which is not of national growth. European women are well educated, but they can’t govern. The educated native can’t either. He can be given a share in the administrative work under our rule, but, even then, he’ll be less trusted by the majority of natives than any Englishman would be. No, if we clear out of India, it won’t be those educated fellows, who are shouting for power now, who will govern India, but some strong man of the fighting class like Ranjhit Singh, who will assume supreme local power, and rule by fear; the education we have given will disappear and India will go back a hundred years.”
The train went rocking through the dark for the sun had set an hour ago in flaming splendour, and Esmé sat with her chin on her hand and tried to realize this strange new world.
They dined at Lahore station, where the great hanging lights and vaulted roof, the huge trains, the piles of luggage, and the bookstall seemed to fling Esmé back to old familiar landmarks again. A good many people were dining in the refreshment room, and not a few knew Norman and exchanged greetings with him as he piloted his wife to a table. They noticed her with admiration and interest.
“That’s his wife,” announced a little lady, who was dining with her husband and half a dozen fellow-travellers. “I know, because my sister, who was at Dera, said, in her last letter, that the General had gone to Bombay to meet her. Isn’t she lovely? And so smart. I wonder how that marriage will turn out?”
“Well, he is a jolly lucky fellow, if you ask me. She is the prettiest woman I’ve seen,” remarked one man.
“One doesn’t often see that sort of vision in India, does one, Mrs Willis?” said another.
“And our husbands don’t have to advertise that they won’t pay our bills. Her’s did,” retorted Mrs Willis, sharply. “I know, because a friend of mine knows a friend of hers. Mrs Norman was in the Smart Set at home, and all that. I suppose she will be a gay Simla lady unless she goes home for the hot weather. She is sure to turn up her nose at everything in India.”
The group looked at Esmé with increased interest. “It must seem pretty awful to a woman like that,” said one of them.
“I love it, Dick,” Esmé was saying softly. “I’m not really too tired, and it is positively cold.”
“Better take your coat off here or it won’t be any good later on; it will be precious cold to-night, I can tell you,” said her husband.
Esmé slipped off her big dark coat, and indeed few women could stand comparison with her after a long journey. She wore a silver grey alpaca dress which did not show the dust. It was very simply made, skirt and shirt fashion, with a white lawn collar and cuffs that could be changed en route. Hers gleamed fresh and spotless now, and a rose pink tie made a charming touch of colour. Her curly hair lay in shining order beneath her grey straw hat, trimmed with a grey chiffon scarf, and her wonderful clear complexion was as faultless and radiant as when she set out on her journey.
“General Norman, you must introduce me,” said a cheery voice, and, looking up, they saw a great fat woman in a brown tweed coat and skirt and motor cap, with a jolly face, rustling towards them. “I am so interested to meet you, Mrs Norman,” she said heartily, “I’ve known your husband for years, longer than I dare count up. I have just come out from home too, a week ago. I stayed with a cousin at Ferozepore, and now I’m off to join my good man at Rawalpindi.”
“Did you have a good time at home, Mrs Sitwell?” asked Norman.
“Ripping,” she said, sitting down beside them, “but it is just too awful to be back. I suppose I shan’t hate it so much in a month’s time, when I have got used to counting jharens6 again and living in a mud house; but, oh, dear! it is trying after a nice flat in London. You have it all before you, Mrs Norman. I daresay you think, now, that it is an easy life; that’s what everybody at home thinks. The first time I returned to England, after being out here three years, my sister said, ‘I expect you will find life in England very strenuous after your lazy life in India.’ I nearly slew her on the spot. I said, ‘My dear, in three years I have learned a language, written a book, had a baby, boiled every drop of milk that comes into the house, counted every blessed duster, and weighed all the joints myself. I have travelled thousands of miles, learned to ride—to stick on anyhow—and have packed and unpacked every mortal thing I possess in the world eleven times, and have been separated from my husband for sixteen months out of the three years.’ And she thinks herself dead after a day’s shopping in town, and cries if her husband goes away for a week’s fishing! It’s the hardest life in the world for a woman, but you take my advice, and learn the language; it’s the greatest saving of money and temper. Oh, that’s my train! Well, good-bye, and I hope you’ll like it. I always grumble, but it’s not so bad, really, especially if you have good servants. Achcha! Hum ate,”7 to a bearer, who thrust in an anxious face at the door “I hate these natives more every day I spend in India,” she added vigorously, as if her servant’s reminder had been an unprovoked attack that had roused her righteous wrath. “Good-bye again, Mrs Norman” and she bustled off.
“She is a good sort, Mrs Sitwell,” said Norman, with a short laugh.
“What kind of books does she write?”
“Never read them. London society novels, I believe.”
“Oh,” said Esmé, and lost interest in that. She had a vast contempt for most of the books that come under that heading and deal with a society in which the authors have not mixed. It was so easy, she thought, to create characters in fiction, fast, vulgar and wealthy, and then label them, “London Society.” “Why does she hate the natives so much?” she enquired.
“Ask me another,” said her husband, without expressing criticism of Mrs Sitwell’s intolerance.
Esmé ate her dinner thoughtfully, some of the happy glow gone from her beautiful face. It was rather a pathetic little scene really. Here was a girl, eager, sensitive, enthusiastic, bringing to her new life all her wealth of imagination, and all her ideals, and in this noisy refreshment room, on the threshold of that new life, she was met, first, with the criticism that, because of her debts, implied doubt of her good qualities and doubt of her capability for making a success of her married life; and secondly, all her unfolding sympathies, all her tentative good-will, which had been reaching out towards the people of the alien land, trying to put forth sensitive little shoots, like the first delicate fronds of some fern (in spite of the first vivid realization of differences, the cruel and vast difference of the position of Eastern womanhood), were met by the sincere verdict of an Englishwoman who had lived many years in India, who spoke with experience—”I hate these natives more every day.”
“Oh, I am so tired,” said Esmé, suddenly, with a great sense of home-sickness besetting her.
“Better have a peg,” said Norman, thirty thousand leagues from divining her feelings.
“No thanks,” said his wife.
“Then we ought to be off,” and all eyes followed them again as they went out to the cold air on the noisy platform.
At Lahore Cantonment station there were some soldiers, and Esmé hailed the sight of them with joy, “Oh, the dears!” she cried. “I have travelled thousands of miles through India for a day and a night, and these are the first Tommies I have seen. How ugly they are, aren’t they? With their insignificant faces! I’ve never noticed that before; but I have never felt their importance before either. We could not be in India without them, that is certain. Are there any in Dera Ismail Khan?”
“No, nor in Kohat or Bannu. The Derajat Brigade consists of one native cavalry and three native infantry regiments and a mountain battery.”
“And this is its General—clever thing!” said Esmé, patting his head, “What a baby it is for the job! Most intelligent infant, so forward for its age,” she held her laughing face close to his, teasingly.
“Go to sleep, chatterbox,” said Norman, with a grin. Inwardly he was pleased at her chaff. It was the first sign she had given of appreciating or realizing his extraordinary success. And this man had always been a lonely man, picturing sympathy and understanding as precious things which would come into his life with marriage. He was eager for them now, keen to perceive their existence or their lack, as incapable of asking for them or seeking them as of standing cap in hand at a street corner begging for alms.
Esmé took his advice presently with a weary little yawn. First impressions of India were exhausting she thought. As the train went roaring through the night, Norman looked at his sleeping wife and noticed her fragility; the outline of her long slender form under the rough dark rugs looked so slight and delicate. One white, jewelled hand, flung out over the coverings, with its rosy palm upwards, seemed all too fine and frail for its surroundings. The golden hair on the dusty pillow, framing the quiet, childish, lovely face, appeared to utter a protest against the jar and jolting and dirt and noise. Her husband wondered how she would get on in India. She was so young, so completely of her London world: what would she seek in the new life, what would she find?
It was bitterly cold at Daraya Khan, and a white mist was rising from the ground. Esmé thought the tonga was the most primitive conveyance she had ever seen, and after jolting over the rough kutcha road for a mile or two, she decided that it was also the most uncomfortable. The luggage followed slowly in bullock carts. Sand and scrub lay for miles on either side of them: in the far distance the hills made a faint blue outline against the pale morning sky. They passed a good many natives trudging to Dera Ismail Khan, and two long strings of laden camels wound slowly over the plain. By and by they came to the Bridge of Boats, made of great wooden barges, with carved prows, floating side by side with their noses down stream. It spanned the Indus, which flowed silently in an oily calm of pale blues and greys, of dazzling silver lights and clear green ripples, giving no hint, in its placid swirl against the barges, of the mighty anger and force with which it dashes seawards summer after summer, sweeping the puny link of the bridge away, and flowing majestically seven miles between bank and bank, dauntless, treacherous and untameable.
Esmé looked eagerly about her as they reached the Cantonment with its ugly bungalows, standing in their compounds of about half an acre to a couple of acres in extent. The servants’ dwelling houses, the stables and the kitchens, at some two hundred yards from their bungalows, skirted a portion of the low mud boundary walls of the various compounds. The well, a tennis court, or croquet ground, and a few trees were the chief features in each. The name of the occupant of every bungalow was painted on a tin square, which was fixed to the entrance gates.
“You must not expect too much,” said Norman, scanning her face. “The furniture in our house will make you laugh at first, it is hired from Ram Das’s shop—the only place where you can buy anything in Cantonments. It looks rather awful, but most ladies seem to make it do all right; they cover it up with chintz, I think.”
“I packed some lovely chintz in one of those boxes I sent on ahead; did you open them?”
“No. They only arrived here last week. Here we are.”
The tonga swung round the corner into a broad road which lead to the Club, and to a big dusty parade ground beyond. They turned in at a gate, where a sentry presented arms, drove up the short drive, and stopped at the front verandah.
“At last! All the way from London town!” cried Esmé.
The various members of the household swarmed into view from every direction. Esmé felt as if the big dark room, which she entered from the verandah, and which Norman told her was the drawing-room, had engulfed her in noise and confusion. She sat down, a little dismayed, on a wicker chair that instantly collapsed, a catastrophe which annoyed Norman to the point of making him lose his temper completely; he slanged the khitmutgar, cursed the absent Ram Das, and kicked the offending chair into the verandah, where it lay, a disreputable-looking wreck, beside Esmé’s dressing-case and hat-box. It certainly was not the home-coming that she had pictured, and she wished devoutly that Norman would cease storming. Had she but known it, his irritability was due to the discontent which he felt with all he had to offer her. He could not have denned what was wrong with the drawing-room, but he inwardly declared that it was a ghastly hole and must appear to her as such. As a matter of fact, Esmé’s mind’s eye scarcely focussed it as a drawing-room; it seemed but the natural sequel to the long strange journey, the primitive tonga drive, and the weird Bridge of Boats. She was cold and tired and the room was dark; the servants, who hurried to and fro, added to her sense of bewilderment, for she could not identify their various avocations, and she received the impression that they were doing everything wrong, and making a great fuss about it. One of them presently spoke to her with a salaam.
Esmé was none the wiser, and she rose and went in search of Norman, who had disappeared. “Dick, one of the servants is speaking to me, but I can’t understand him!” she called, when she found him.
He was still enraged it seemed. He stood accusingly in front of a row of sad-looking pots that skirted the drive on both sides and in which drooped very tired yellow chrysanthemums. A half moon-shaped lawn, with a flag-staff adorning it, lay in front of the house, bordered by the drive and edged by a brown strip of earth, from which peeped various little cleft-sticks holding paper labels. An abashed mali hovered near his irate sahib, vowing that God was his witness, that he had daily watered the chrysanthemums of the Protector of the Poor, whereat Dick forcibly stated that the mali was the grandson of a flea, and that his speech was the speech of a liar.
“Look at this!” he said to Esmé, when he heard her voice. “Look at this! The flowers were lovely when I left, and this fool has never watered them, just like a native! The whole garden is spoilt!”
“Is this the garden?” said Esmé, and flung her little pointed chin into the air and rippled with laughter. The Italian Garden at stately Wootten, the beautiful old English garden at Delfer Towers, the lovely terrace at the Cranmers’ place, with the view of the splendid park beyond, were vividly pictured in her memory, and this little confined spot, looking out on a dusty public road, with its drooping flowers in a row of pots, and its narrow earthen border with unkempt edges—this was “the garden,” that she had imagined so differently! Had half unconsciously expected to find resembling the fair gardens which she knew and loved; only with a tropical beauty of its own and on a smaller scale! Alas for the reality of a compound’s garden in the Punjab; it was a case of laugh or cry, and Esmé laughed.
Poor Norman. Every day at dawn and every evening since he had arrived in Dera Ismail Khan, he had toiled in this garden. He had taken enormous pride and pleasure in it, and had felt that it was a very successful effort at a garden and had looked forward with keen anticipation to her appreciation of it. “The house is not up to much yet, but it is an awfully nice garden for Dera Ismail Khan,” he said to himself many times. Well, here was her verdict on it. For the rest of the winter he continued to work in his typical exile’s garden, but it never represented the same thing to him again. It stood, from that moment, for a rather bitter disappointment.
“Oh, the whole show is rotten,” he exclaimed sullenly.
Here the patient khitmutgar again announced that breakfast was ready, and Dick led the way into the house. Esmé, by now, felt thoroughly depressed. If only he had been gay and affectionate, making her feel that her new presence rendered his home perfect to him, in spite of wicker chairs with unsound legs, and chrysanthemums with hanging heads, there would not have been a lighter heart than hers in northern India, but lacking this assurance she felt homesick and miserable. Breakfast helped matters considerably, however, in spite of the fact that it was a picnic meal; their wedding presents were still packed, and the table appointments consisted of Norman’s camp canteen. Hot tea, nice scones, an excellent omelette, and some fruit made a different woman of Esmé. She laughed and chattered and praised the appearance of the room, with its red serge curtains and white-washed walls adorned with various trophies and weapons from China and the Indian Frontier. The clouds vanished from Norman’s face, and after breakfast he showed her their bedroom, which was empty save for a striped red and blue dhurri and the two beds that stood in the middle of the room. They were Nawar beds of string with painted wooden legs; “cat’s cradles,” Esmé dubbed them in dismay. Their rolled up bedding in brown canvas bed valises, dusty from the train, had been dumped down by the beds, and Dick’s fox-terrier, “Waggles,” was curled up on a couple of pillows, which were without pillow cases and looked somewhat grubby. It all seemed dreary and uncomfortable, she thought. Her dressing-room was quite cosy by contrast; white muslin curtains veiled the glass doors which were the invariable substitute for windows, there was a rather handsome dressing-table, a long looking-glass, two big arm-chairs, and several cupboards. Norman had taken infinite pains over this room, and her remark, “Oh, I shall be able to make this quite nice,” disappointed him. Her bathroom led out of the dressing-room: “It has a tin tub, a hole in the wall through which the bath water is emptied, a hideous wash-stand with an enamelled jug and basin (a good deal chipped) and a mud floor. The washstand still bears the label of its last owner, “Captain Franks, 115 Sikhs,” who was killed by a Ghazi last year. The hot water is brought in an old kerosene oil tin, and the cold water in a goat’s skin, called a mussock, which is the stock-in-trade of the bhisti—a respectable Mahomedan, but a weird-looking person. He has a bronze Frontier Medal, and a social standing in the compound far beyond that of the syce, the grasscut, the dhobi, and the sweeper. My bathroom is like all bathrooms in the Punjab. Oh luxurious East, you are an utter fraud!” Esmé wrote a week later, to Muriel Hazlewood.
“She is pulling your leg, they do themselves deuced well out there, I know,” was the comment of Muriel’s husband when he read the letter.
Norman’s study was a pleasant room; a big office table stood in the centre laden with red books, and files, a few small tables (chiefly littered with scrap albums), pipes and odds and ends were scattered about, and a bookcase filled one corner, and there were a couple of red leather chairs. The walls were covered with swords, jezails, knives, and shields. Esmé’s photograph on the mantelpiece seemed in curious contrast to its surroundings. Then they inspected the store go-down, the lamp room, and the saddle-room—where golf clubs and polo sticks were kept too—and went out to the kitchen. The sun had banished the cold white mist and had transformed everything with its glowing, golden touch. Under a huge banian tree the syce was putting a horse into a Ralli-cart and Esmé made a bee-line for it.
“We must have a buggy next year,” said Norman, quickly.
She glanced at the trap carelessly: “Oh, this is very nice, I think. Good old boy, do you like your new missus?” she said coaxingly, stroking the pony’s nose. “Where are the other ponies, Dick?”
“Others? There are no others.”
Esmé felt that the silence which followed threatened to be awkwardly eloquent. “This is a handsome little beast, but is it big enough for a charger?” she asked.
“It is up to regulation measurement out here,” answered Norman—then, “I used to play polo.”
“Why don’t you now?”
“I can’t afford to buy the ponies this year.”
Esmé experienced a sudden stab; her debts again. “I wonder what I shall do with myself without a pony to ride,” she thought aloud, uttering the words involuntarily.
“You can ride this one occasionally when I don’t want it,” said Norman, unfortunately not saying, “need it,” which would have expressed his meaning.
“Thank you,” said his wife dryly.
“But we have to trap it as well,” continued the unconscious offender, “so you must not overwork the poor devil.”
“My dear Dick, I have ridden all my life and know quite enough about horses not to do that,” said Esmé haughtily, deeply provoked. Then she checked herself. Her first day in her own home was to have been such a perfect day! So it must be still, for the sake of all the dreams of happiness that had anticipated it. Only it was difficult to realize those dreams in this bewildering day, for Norman appeared to have weaved no halo of romance about this home-coming of his wife, and at present was intent on teasing Waggles by pretending to throw stones for her.
“Where is your orderly?” Esmé asked, tucking her arm into her husband’s.
“Arjan Das? He is at his roti khana,8 I fancy. Being a Brahman he can’t appear quickly, if you call him from it.”
“Because he has to eat it naked and go through all sorts of purifying ablutions. All decent classes of natives have ceremonies of sorts to perform before eating, so it is rough luck on them to be interrupted. You ought to give each man two hours off duty to cook and eat if you can manage it. The great Mahomedan fast is on now, and they can’t feed between sunrise and sunset; it makes them pretty stupid over their work sometimes, poor devils. Well, I must be off to the office. Take care of yourself. Tum-tum lao!” he called to the syce; and getting into the trap, drove away, shouting to Esmé over his shoulder, “Don’t stay out in the sun any longer, it is too strong.”
Esmé looked round her. Certainly the whole compound was drowsy now in the sunshine, and, except for the syce’s children funny brown little golliwogs not a soul was to be seen. Esmé approached them in friendly fashion, but they fled screaming, so she retired into the bungalow. The bearer was making her bed, and the bullock carts with the luggage had just arrived. Arjan Das came out of his house to wrangle with them over the last pie.9 He was a striking looking sepoy, with a fine bearing and great broad shoulders, his voice was deep and almost like a sahib’s. When, after infinite noise and bustle, her things were deposited in her room, she spent a weary couple of hours unpacking and putting away their contents in the big almirahs. Then she rested in the drawing-room, and soon began to realize its possibilities, in spite of its present ugliness. She jumped up and went in search of the boxes she had sent out from home. She found them in a go-down, together with a big yak-dan that was unlocked. Opening it she discovered some treasures from China, embroideries, silk garments, and one or two beautiful bits of carved ivory. Suddenly she heard a chuckle and looked round to find Norman beside her.
“You’re a regular Miss Pry,” he said.
“Oh, these are lovely!” she exclaimed, “and Dick, I do so much want to unpack the other things this afternoon.”
“Not tired? Right O—we’ll do so then. Come along to lunch now. The Freemans have asked us to dine and I have accepted. He is my Brigade Major. She is not a bad sort, you’ll hear queer tales about her, but it never does to believe what you hear.”
Lunch was curiously served on Norman’s camp kit, as breakfast had been, and Esmé perceived the wisdom of dining out. Norman seemed in high spirits now and talkative for him. Presently he looked at her rather intently and began to speak, then checked himself, but later appeared to have reconsidered the matter and began again. Esmé felt that he had some special purpose in speaking.
“Great Scott!” said he, “it is extraordinary how women ruin their husbands’ careers sometimes. I will tell you a case in point, without mentioning names. If you guess, later on, keep the matter to yourself, that’s all. There is an officer here, a very good fellow; not brilliant, but he did well on service and would get on all right if it were not for his wife. By George! that woman is a terror! Very pleasant to meet, I daresay you will like her, but she would interfere regimentally. The greatest mistake any woman can make. She ran her husband absolutely, in every way, and got all the officer’s backs up, for the C.O. was in England and he was officiating in command. The real second in command had suddenly gone sick, and was laid up in a hospital in Lahore. James was his name; he died six weeks ago. What brought all the friction to a head was this, when officers receive their pay, every month, it is all entered in a big pay-book, with details, such as Mess subscriptions, Regimental subscriptions, Pension fund, Club bill, Mess bill, and so on—written down, and deducted from the amount of each officer’s pay, and the actual sum he is to receive is written at the bottom. The officer sees the book when he gets his pay, and signs his name. They don’t get much, poor devils. Take it all round I don’t suppose that the average that a major in the Indian Army draws for his own expenditure, when the items I have mentioned are paid, is above Rs. 600 a month. A very tight fit in India in these expensive days for married men. Well, it is no harm, and, as a matter of fact, it’s often done—but the pay-book used to be brought round to the house of the man of whom I am speaking, with his pay, and it seems that his wife used to pounce on it and read it.”
“But she might just as well have read other people’s bank books!” said Esmé.
“Yes, in a way. If she had held her tongue no one would have been much the worse or much the wiser perhaps. Another officer, a captain, was hard up and he was in arrears temporarily. Instead of receiving pay he owed a certain amount to the Mess. Well, what must the good woman do but whisper this to everybody; that Captain So-and-So did not draw a penny of pay last month, and had no private means, and yet he had bought a polo pony, and was going off to Kashmir, and drank pegs at the Club, etc., etc.! Of course the whole thing was twisted and exaggerated and when it came to his ears he was furious. Not content with having made that amount of mischief, she actually repeated, about an officer in the regiment, a sentence in his confidential report, which her husband had, very wrongly, quoted to her. Taken with its context it was criticism which qualified, to a certain extent, some very high praise, told as it was by her, it sounded most damaging. So the fat was in the fire, and when the C.O. came out from home he found his officers at loggerheads, and the two chief victims of this woman’s tongue laid the matter before him. Now comes the rub. Her husband should be appointed second in command in place of James, for whom he officiated, but the colonel is dead against his ever getting the regiment. He has failed in “q,” which gives the colonel a handle, and the upshot of the whole thing is that the colonel has not recommended him to be appointed and another officer is being brought in over his head.”
“Oh, poor soul! Can’t you do anything to help him, Dick?”
“I! Help him? Not a bit of it. It is his own lookout. If he chooses to let his wife drive his team for him he can’t complain if he comes to grief. The thing came up to me, of course, and I have agreed with the C.O. Why should the whole regiment be made to suffer because that fellow is a weak ass and his wife can’t hold her tongue? No, let it be a warning to women not to interfere with their husbands’ careers. Soldiering is not their affair, and the sooner they realize that the better. Half of them have nothing to do all day long, and, when they cease to be young, society does not amuse them so much, nor do they particularly amuse society, and, in consequence, they attempt to get some power into their hands by trying to pull the regimental wires.”
“Aren’t you sorry for the men?”
“Oh, in a way,” said Norman carelessly; “their women should not meddle, they only do harm to their husbands.”
Esmé drew a little sharp breath and pushed back her chair. “Come along!” she said. “No, I won’t rest. I will unpack, and you are just to come and unpack too, you lazy thing.”
Norman was tickled at being ordered about and followed her to the go-down with a grin. Esmé noted the difference which marked his unpacking and hers. For the first time in her life no attentive maid or housemaid had unpacked and put away her personal things. She had “toiled and moiled” by herself, but now that the sahib undertook a similar task the entire household was in attendance.
Esmé enjoyed that afternoon like a child; the bungalow rang to her laughter. The servants, quickly infected by good humour as all natives are, gave a willing and eager help. Old Arjan Das displayed the greatest interest in everything—was the chintz bought in London? It was? Ah, bohut achcha!10 What price did the Presence pay for it? The cushions, without doubt were good and were not stuffed with rhui. He took them to his sahib’s study promptly. The pictures he looked at with dignified gravity, but quite as willingly upside down. He inquired the names of the sahibs and memsahibs in the photographs, and hailed one of Norman with satisfaction. “I too have one of my General Sahib, it is a picture of my sahib when he was a captain, and I was his orderly. The memsahib will now give me one of my sahib as a general,” he remarked.
“Buck mat karo11 and take your great foot off that curtain, you clumsy old buffalo,” said Norman, good-naturedly.
The wedding presents were passed from hand to hand; the silver dragon, which formed a cigar lighter, puzzled them, but the bearer, who was a man of the world, informed the others as to its use, with an air of superiority. Arjan Das was much pleased with the silver butter dish, upon the lid of which stood a model of a cow. It was, he said, “Sub chis se achcha,”12 and he deposited it, in an overbearing manner, upon the drawing-room mantelpiece. “Son of an owl, it is for holding butter, take your goddess away to the dining-room,” said Norman, when he discovered it, and the twice-born, around whose neck lay the sacred circle of the Brahman, meekly bore it away again. There was evidently an excellent understanding between sahib and sepoy. Esmé, in moving the things about, handed the tiffin basket, which they had used on their journey, to Arjan Das, and her husband immediately interposed. “Don’t do that, he won’t like it. Remember an orderly is not a servant. He will do almost anything for you or me, because he is a good sort and has been my orderly for so many years, but you can’t exact it as a right. Besides there is food in that, and a Brahman can’t touch it.” Esmé was astonished to find that Norman took an intense interest and pleasure in their possessions. He worked hard in his shirt sleeves, and hung up the rose-coloured brocade curtains in the drawing-room, as keen as Esmé to see how they looked.
After tea he went off to the Club, and Esmé sat in the drawing-room, too tired to put the things in order. Presently she found it both dark and cold; the bearer brought in one badly trimmed lamp which smoked, and when the clock warned her that it was time to dress for dinner, she groped her way to her dressing-room and found the matches with difficulty. There was no hot water for her, and she was blue with cold when she had washed. Looking for her things in dim cupboards, by the light of one candle, chilly and over-tired, she was not far from tears over her first experience of discomfort. She forced them back, however, when Norman put his head in at the door.
“Put on a warm wrap,” he said, “we drive there in our trap you know.”
This meant more groping till she found her big sable coat, that was a wedding present from the Bethunes. All trace of depression vanished when she stood ready in the drawing-room and heard Norman’s pleased exclamation, “By Jove, Esmé, you’ll take them by storm!”—then, with a sudden misgiving—“Dera Ismail Khan is not London, you know, and it is only a quiet dinner.”
Esmé laughed, heedless of the criticism; in social matters she was quite sure of herself, though her self-confidence was instinctive, and she was unconscious of it. “I am not overdressed, if that is what you mean,” she said.
She had taken special pains when dressing, for she knew well that a first appearance creates an impression and gives rise to a reputation which subsequent occasions take a long time to modify. She wore a dress of gold tissue over which fell black chiffon in light and graceful folds, her white arms were veiled to the wrists, but her lovely neck and throat were set off to perfection by the black draperies, and her glorious hair rivalled the golden tissue in its rich shimmer.
Mrs Freeman, as she greeted her, acknowledged her instantly as a most beautiful girl, and one who dressed with distinction.
Lucy Freeman wore a rather daring, but wonderfully cut, flame-coloured dress, and her dark chestnut hair was well arranged. She had a good figure, but her face was almost ugly. Her eyes were so light a hazel as to be really green, her nose was too short and her mouth too wide, but it was an intelligent face, full of vivacity. Esmé thought her interesting, and was glad of the comfort of the pretty room, bright with lamp light, and of the warmth of a blazing fire. The dinner too, was excellent, and well served by perfectly trained servants. Esmé compared the confusion and discomfort in her own house with the order and comfort which reigned here, and wondered if she and Dick were dreadfully poor. She opened her eyes wide when Lucy Freeman said, “You have such a nice bungalow, Mrs Norman, and a ripping garden, we all envy you.”
The men talked “shop” a good deal, and Norman was listened to with a deference that almost annoyed his wife. Surely, she thought, it must be bad for him to meet with this special respect invariably. Had he been in England he would, doubtless, have received it from all junior officers, but it would have been lacking in his intercourse with civilians, with the men he met at his club, or hunting in the shires, or shooting with John Hazelwood and his friends, and so forth. In little, isolated Dera Ismail Khan he was the General, and only the Deputy Commissioner and two other Indian civilians were not under his rule. Even to the womenfolk he stood for something of importance, and Esmé marked, with deep disgust, that her hostess was flattering him openly. She was too new to the influences which make the life of an Anglo-Indian community different to all others to realize that, though such a position as Norman held doubtless fosters a sense of self-importance in a few pompous natures, yet the previous life of discipline holds good in nine cases out of ten, and prevents anything of the sort. Norman’s promotion had come to him remarkably quickly, and while he was wonderfully young for it, but the years of training in the service, received before there was any coddling against ragging, had laid their mark on him and had rendered him free from pomposity. Had Esmé known enough of life in India, she would have realized, too, that Norman owed much to the fact that he had always played games. In the racket court, on the cricket field, in the polo ground, where the rule is give and take, are to be found the surest antidotes for too much officialdom and too great a self-relying on seniority. In the Indian Army the few cases where a senior officer is hopelessly out of touch with his juniors and ridiculously self-conscious of his rank as a field-officer the cause is nearly always to be found in the fact that he has not played games.
When Esmé and Lucy Freeman went into the drawing-room the hostess gave her guest an amusing account of all the people in the Cantonments. “There are only twenty ladies, and some of them are so dull they don’t count,” she told her.
“I suppose I had better begin to pay my calls at once; will you give me a list?” said Esmé”.
“If you wait, everybody will call on you first, as the General’s wife,” said Lucy.
“Oh, I shall call first, as that is the rule for newcomers in India. I don’t see that being a general’s wife makes any difference, and I expect that some of them are old enough to be my mothers.” Esmé spoke with the arrogance of twenty-two. Since she left her friends in England she had missed the homage paid to youth. On all sides she had been treated with the deference due to General Norman’s wife, and here, too, it looked as if the dreary rule of precedence was to be her only meed. How far preferable was that voluntary gift of homage that Sir John Danvers, and many others of a distinguished circle, had given gladly to her youth her divine youth! And, in return, Esmé had never been guilty of any lack of reverence towards age.
Lucy Freeman looked at her with peeping green eyes. “Oh, no,” she said, “I think not, very few of them are your husband’s age I should say.”
Esmé, figuratively speaking, sat up. So this new acquaintance had claws sharpened by envy! Esmé hated to be reminded of the disparity between her age and her husband’s, so she changed the conversation quickly, and questioned the hostess about the natives, for hers was the educated interest of the traveller. She did not feel this was the momentous occasion of her debut in Anglo-Indian society; she was oblivious of that, but she was intensely interested in a new land and its peoples. Mrs Freeman’s point of view amazed her.
“Oh, I really know nothing about natives, they bore me. I don’t object strongly to my servants, but I can’t look upon them as human beings, really, they seem more like machines. The bearer’s hands give me the shudders if they touch me when he does up my dress. I don’t keep an ayah, for Charlie objects to my being waited on by the sweeper caste; he says people in the Indian Army ought to be careful what caste of servants they employ as cooks, bearers, and khitmutgars, because of what sepoys think. I call that absurd. We conquered this country, why should we bother as to what the natives think? People are spoiling them by all the fuss they make about their opinions now-a-days. I don’t trust a single one of them, and I think they ought to be well sat on. They have no respect for women, and so I never speak to a native if I can help it.”
Driving home, Esmé, shrinking in every fibre from the prospect of living in an atmosphere of disrespect, asked her husband if Mrs Freeman was to be believed on this point. There was a mute appeal on her face as she turned it to him.
“You will always be treated with respect, I’ll guarantee that,” Norman said grimly.
“The form without the spirit, engendered by fear of you,” she said, her tone rejecting it as insufficient; “that is not what I meant. O Dick, can’t you understand?” She hoped so much that he would understand, it seemed as if her womanhood, sensitive and proud, was waiting for comprehension.
“They don’t look upon any woman as Caesar’s wife, it is not in them to do so. That is their loss you know, Esmé. But an Englishwoman can earn their respect. They are not fools, and they accept the evidence of their own observations. I am quite sure they they will respect you.”
She went to bed quite happy but she could not sleep. She lay, thinking, through the long hours till the dawn. Pondering over the new elements that were to effect her life in India, criticising and wondering, seeking and finding, seeking and missing.
Two months had past since Esmé had arrived in Dera Ismail Khan. She realised this with something of surprise as she set her calendar, and then strolled out into the verandah, in a restless mood. Her little world seemed small now, for she knew its contents, and she had come to the conclusion that, socially, it was uninteresting. Officialdom laid spoiling hands upon it and reduced it to a more or less official routine. It could, she thought, with a rather scornful little smile, be suitably embodied in a file and tied with red tape. It was composed of officials and officials’ wives; of people of one generation, between the ages of twenty and forty-five roughly, of restricted incomes, on a well-known scale, producing few variations; of two professions only, and of almost identical interests and occupations. Everyone lived in much the same houses, with much the same households, and did things much at the same hours. They entertained according to what was expected of their several positions, and met, by subscription, at the Club, to which all men and women belonged as a matter of course. The chief initiative in the matter of entertaining lay with the Messes; at polo, at hockey, at a cricket match, or for a gymkhana or regimental sports the regiments took turns in being at home and invited “All members of the Club.” Esmé wrote as follows to Laura Bethune with some truth, “I am asked everywhere, either as a member of the Club, or because my hosts are ‘working off’ their list, which is adorned by the names of the General and his wife. Captains’ wives and subalterns’ wives don’t cumber their lists with our name as a rule, or if they do they write “tea” against it! It is all absolutely impersonal. Invitations are neither sought for nor prized, they are merely expected and accepted.”
The feminine power—which rules social matters everywhere else in the world—was disastrously lacking. Any youngster could be present at all the big social functions simply as an officer, or as a member of the Club. The restrictions which the presence of a hostess imposes, and the social discipline which she can apply, if required, were entirely absent, except at dinner parties.
The fact that, with a picked breed of men, such restrictions and discipline were seldom needed did not altogether do away with this objection. Society, as such, lacked inspiration—it will probably always lack it in India—and Esmé longed intensely for the types that were not to be found in the construction of Anglo-Indian society. She criticised impulsively and was naturally often mistaken. It annoyed her to find it accepted, as a thoroughly established fact, that “all men at home are narrow minded.” At least she said to herself—if this were true—it was not to be excused by the absence of standards of comparison, to which she attributed the self-satisfaction of the isolated Anglo-Indian community. Cut off from richer men than themselves, and from men whose interests differ from theirs, deprived of all contact with men who have reaped fame in politics, statesmanship, commerce, art, or literature, and living surrounded by millions of a subordinate race, what wonder that they lacked in many ways the very breadth of mind, upon the possession of which they congratulated themselves?
Esmé quickly perceived that a certain amount of ignorance, shown by some of the women in the station, as to social matters in England, was due to the fact that most of them were daughters of men of small means, and had lacked opportunities of acquiring much social experience, before coming as brides to India. Yet some of the results of this in the less well-bred women, struck Esmé as vastly comic.
“You know they would place you in the Smart Set, Louisa,” she remarked mischievously on her first return to England to the outraged Duchess of Hampshire, who cherished a horror for this social distinction and its vulgarity. “Oh, rather, very much so! They read about you in all the papers at the Club, ‘wearing diamonds and velvet,’ and all the rest of it. They feel, then, that they know you quite well, just as they might imagine that they knew Ellen Terry better for looking at the advertisements of Odol on her dressing table!”
“How appallin’,” said the Duchess, who was an old playmate of Esmé’s.
“And when anybody loses her reputation in India,” continued Esmé, cheerfully, “they all say, in a sort of chorus of satisfaction, ‘It’s no worse than the Smart Set at home.’”
“It’s pretty bad everywhere,” said the Duchess, vaguely. For the future she always maintained that Esmé knew a queer lot of mad creatures in India.
Esmé’s criticisms were shrewd, but, as yet, they lacked the insight of pity. She was right, however, when she perceived and deplored the attitude of Englishwomen towards India. “They limit it to a knowledge of cantonments, a suspicion of prices, a small vocabulary, a list of stores, and an utter ignorance of the natives,” she declared with something of scorn. Her keen, though, as yet slightly superficial, perceptions by no means injured her popularity. She went everywhere, lovely, radiant, and gay, and was everywhere welcome. People called her fascinating and found her lovable—withal, something of a young imp. A dash of wilfulness, a madcap humour, a daring fearlessness that was as much moral as physical, swayed her impulses. The knowledge that she had spent money right and left at home—so the story ran—filled little souls with envy; they longed for intimacy with her, they discussed her by the hour, and they weighed her every look, word, and action as evidence for or against the judgment that she was “pretty rapid, and did not care tuppence for her husband, but was in awe of him.” It was fear of him, they said, that made her so careful not to get talked about. The elder men liked her, but found her provoking, for, when she should have been lending a gracious ear to their conversation because she was the General’s wife, she was frequently guilty of bestowing far livelier attention upon the sights of India itself, seen in the streets and roads, glimpses of the city or parade grounds, and peeps of the lines, or of obviously finding the conversation of a girl or boy of more absorbing interest. She was too thoughtless for her official position, they said.
Her opinions hurt Norman. He had brought her to India—was she going to hate it? She was in his kingdom—did she scorn it? She was a new pilgrim, beginning the path where so many noble, patient, fearless feet had trod, which had been over and over again the path of duty and the way of glory, yet she was no reverent worshipper. He, on the other hand, had accepted India unquestioningly, as a lad of nineteen, seeing in it scope for ambition and promise of power. He had been neither very discerning nor very critical of what did not immediately effect his profession or career. Few knew as much about the Indian Army as he; in the very best sense he was in touch with the fighting classes and a born leader of men.
Esmé herself summed up the matter, as she stood looking out into the glitter of the garden. “Our lives meet here,” she said, “but they are like two trains coming from opposite directions--they meet with the force of a collision.”
Norman was aware of his wife’s watchful criticism behind her charming manner to him, and it shut him into his reserve as with a bolt and bar of iron. There remained little mutual understanding and Esmé agonized over this. They both maintained a disastrous silence as to his action over her debts.
His was due to a resolution to ignore the past; the last thing he wanted to do was to “rub it in,” so he held his tongue and would have asked in amazement, “What more could she want?” Ah, so much more! The rapture of real reconciliation, the balm of tears, the peace of mutual comprehension. Her silence was maintained by pride, which grew stubborn as time went by. She had dreamed it otherwise! That was her pain day by day that she had dreamed it so differently.
Unfortunately Norman made a bad blunder at the very beginning. Distrusting her inexperience and her powers of economy, and somewhat non-plussed by her utter ignorance of the language, he had practically undertaken the management of domestic affairs. This is not infrequently the case in India, but it is always a mistake. The khansamah brought Esmé a daily menu, written in quaint English, but Norman took the account at the end of the week and settled all expenses and paid the servants’ wages himself. The result was neither comfortable nor economical and each blamed the other for the failure. Esmé found it a continual provocation, and held herself haughtily aloof from all financial management. When the all-important question of the price of charcoal swept over feminine conversation she confessed to utter ignorance on the subject, and the women-folk shook their heads over her in consternation; it was just that sort of thing in her that was so much to be deplored, they said; it showed how worldly she was so plainly that they could not sufficiently express their surprise that their husbands didn’t “see it.” These blind persons eat an excellent dinner at the Normans’ and said, “Oh, stuff!” to their wives, who knew so much about charcoal, which was hard lines when you come to think of it. Esmé certainly knew how to entertain, and she had a very pretty and dainty house. Bright chintz, gleaming silver, beautiful embroideries and charming pictures had transformed the drawing-room, and Esmé’s arrangements for the decoration of her dinner table were the envy of the station. The household was contented too; they liked their memsahib, they understood her imperious ways, and appreciated them, for she was always courteous—always merry too, and interested, sharing hopes and fears over the health of a fowl, or amusement over the funny ways of the wee golly wogs. Old Arjan Das came between her and many of the annoyances which usually beset the new-comer to India, greatly out of loyalty to his sahib, but also because of the kindly consideration which she invariably showed to him. From him she rapidly picked up some knowledge of Urdu, and it was a great source of pride to him that the memsahib should be willing to sit there on the verandah, knitting a tie, listening to his tales, and talking. It was an “Izzat”13 indeed, and as such he bade the household regard it, treating her with the respect which given certain circumstances the sepoy classes will always yield to an Englishwoman. Indeed it was rather a lonely little memsahib, finding that interest in her husband’s career was not encouraged, and that she had few household employments to fill up her time. So, not being a self-centred nature, she sought interest in all the people around her, making her acquaintances and her household yield to her the mental occupation which she vaguely felt, threatened to be somewhat inadequately supplied in this life of exile, unless India would open as a book before her, a book of absorbing fascination.
At the end of two months she found herself always trying to satisfy her mind as to whether Norman was a hard man or not. The doubt tormented her. Till she laid it to rest she would be very gentle, she told herself, but not demonstrative beyond that point.
Norman seldom spoke to her of his own responsibilities in connection with his work, but that day, when she suddenly asked him if he thought Major Walters would pass “Q. II.” at his third attempt, he said emphatically, “Certainly not.”
“But won’t you—won’t the Board, practically let him through? I expect it is his last chance, poor man, and it is only a case of getting flustered.”
“Just so. Gets flustered at a critical moment. I daresay he is cool enough when the results don’t matter a pin to him at an ordinary field day for instance. But, when the occasion includes one of the elements of active service—namely that the result spells real success or real failure, where is Walter’s nerve? Let him through let some poor devils of junior officers and sepoys in on a Frontier show as a consequence! Not I.”
“But it does seem hard,” sighed Esmé, who liked Mrs Walters—a gentle, timid little woman with several children, and burdened with that dread Anglo-Indian burden of debt. “After only three chances, perhaps in time he’d pass.”
“Good Lord! He’s had time enough—twenty-one years. We are not testing a subaltern for fitness to command.”
“A good many men think well of him. I know General Black does, he told me so when he was here.”
“I daresay,” said Norman, indifferently. He had risen and was filling his cigarette case preparatory to going out; Esmé almost regretted the discussion, it seemed to irritate him, and she so seldom found him in the sitting-room, fragrant with mimosa, and dainty though it was, that she wished she had charmed him to linger instead of bothering about the Walters. Yet—imp-like—she clung to the subject of the examination.
“You’ve made up your mind, evidently,” she remarked, twirling about on the music stool—the only real music stool in Dera Ismail Khan. “Do you never have misgivings as to whether you are right or not?”
He paused in the doorway, his twirling wife had her back to him by now. “Well,” he said, “I may be wrong, but I’m not in doubt.” Then he went off, whistling to the dog. Esmé had ceased her restless movement and sat motionless, looking after him, torn between resentment at what she termed his hardness and a curious pride in his resolute will.
“Behar ke sahib salaam deta,”14 said the khitmutgar.
Major Wade, the D.A.A.G., was waiting to drive her to a hockey match. He often did so, and Esmé regarded him with very friendly feelings. He was a Frontier man at heart, and, while echoing all the usual current abuse of Dera Ismail Khan, Bannu, and Kohat, was in reality much attached to the Border. His wife was in England, and had been there for the last three years, almost ever since he left the Staff College. There was a son at a kindergarten school, and two little daughters, twins, born soon after Mrs Wade arrived in Eastbourne. Their father had never seen them. He toiled for them, however. Seven hundred rupees a month went to England to keep up this man’s home—he called it that in all simplicity, without a trace of sarcasm—and he scraped along on the remaining three. He shared a bungalow with two brother officers and lived, of course, at the mess, to all appearances a bachelor. In fact, though naturally it was known that he was a married man, a great many of his acquaintances among both sexes had no idea as to whether he had any children or not; some shrewdly observed, “I expect he has, he seems so hard up,” but that was all. It is typical of the superficial character of Anglo-Indian acquaintanceships that such determining factors in a man’s existence are often unknown to the circle among whom his daily life is passed. Esmé knew, but she had a genius for acquiring such information, and could even sort out the golliwogs in her compound and tell you which was the dhobi’s and which the syce’s. She listened with real interest to Major Wade’s account of what Jimmy used to say—of the twins he seldom spoke. Their coming had robbed him of his wife and home-life and, so far, had given him nothing in return. Neither did he speak much of his wife she disliked India; she was not strong; she remained at home on account of the children; he could not afford to take leave, of course that was all he ever said. He was a tall, thin, sandy man; the hairs on his big hand shone red in the sunlight as he grasped the reins. Esmé looked at the square jaw under the solar topee, and remembered Norman’s remark, “Wade knows his own mind and does not care a kick for anybody.” She knew that she charmed him though, and the knowledge, mysteriously gathered as bees gather honey, enabled her to be at her very best with him, her merriest, simplest, sweetest best.
They drove together very happily to the hockey, but on their arrival Esmé promptly deserted him and flew off to sit beside little Mrs St John, the wife of a subaltern in the 500th Punjab Infantry, and they put their heads together as to how Mrs St John was to have the white serge, which had just come out from England, made up by the durzie. Esmé gave the matter a whole-hearted attention, such as she would have bestowed upon a frock for herself in which to attend a drawing-room, and evolved such brilliant ideas that Mrs St John dimpled and smiled and began to think that it really would be quite a success.
“Oh, I do hope it will be nice,” she sighed. “Bobby is so awfully critical, you know; he is always saying to me how queer my clothes are, and how beautifully you dress.”
If an expert critic, yet hardly gifted with knowledge upon which to base his odious comparisons, Esmé thought, considering his poor little wife had to dress on twenty pounds a year, whereas Esmé had never spent less than three hundred upon her clothes before the crash came, and, intermittently, had expended large sums since. She felt that the superior Bobby ought to be crushed for weighing down his pretty young wife with his unattainable standard, but Bobby was out of reach of her wrath just then. Dressed in a khaki shirt, adorned with a big “ 500th P.I.” in green flannel letters, wearing shorts, and armed with a hockey stick, he was prancing behind a fleet Pathan of the 150th Punjabis, breathless, hot, and happy. The Pathan, an Afridi, was clad in khaki and red, his lean brown legs were bare, and he ran unshod a brown vision, like an animated speck of the hockey ground dribbling the ball under the very nose of stupid Kishn Singh, artfully avoiding the headlong attack of Captain Fordyce, and passing so cleverly to smart Dilbar, the Dogra, that the latter hit a goal before young Lance of the 500th’s warning cry of, “Kabadar! Kabadar Pahlwan Khan!” had reached the goal-keeper’s ears.
It fascinated Esmé to watch the game. The opposing teams beat up and down the hard mud ground all golden-brown in the flooding sunlight, to the thud of sahibs’ boots and sepoys’ feet, while she, watching, felt the wonder of the spirit which animated it all the spirit inculcated by these fair English boys, fresh from their public schools. A spirit that bred competition without strife in in these turbulent Eastern soldiers, that made the native struggle fairly and freely with the sahib, whacking the shins of a protector of the poor in the excitement of the game, without fear or favour; that mixed Pathan and Dogra, Punjab Mahomedan and Sikh, loyally backing each other up, in one team, and that prompted Sada Singh, referee, dashing along the white chalked boundary line, to blow shrilly upon his whistle and give a foul against his own Captain Sahib. Truly a very wonderful thing this spirit of the public schools triumphing here, thousands of miles east of Suez, among the sepoys of our native army! But not more wonderful than the discipline, so much harder to inculcate at play than at work. Yet here it was, dominating the scene, hard knocks received but not returned in anger, rules remembered and obeyed, penalties enforced and complied with. Good humour and order reigned supreme where the young English voices rang out, “Chelo forwards!”—“Honko-honko!” “Shabash! Tayub Khan!” “Pass karo jehldi Gulab Singh!”
Esmé remembered a letter Sir John Danvers had shown to her, written to him by a Frenchman of one of the proudest families of France, who had globe-trotted in India, and who was always a regular correspondent of Sir John’s. “First you fight and win. Then you give justice to all. You make an army, you make a police. You preserve an aristocracy, you fire salutes for princes. You give freedom to every faith and lift not the woman’s veils. Is not that enough? No, you must needs teach your dangerous and fatiguing games, and sweat in the sun to lead your Asiatics to victory at your terrible hockey. Bah! Do I say it is sublime? I will answer that by saying it is English. Only the English do such things!”
Esmé turned to Mrs St John: “It is a wonderful sight, isn’t it?” she said gaily.
“I’m rather sick of hockey, and there is such an awful glare,” said Mrs St John, “but I like to come and watch Bobby, of course.”
A low murmur of running comments on the game came from the crowd of sepoys and native officers—the latter in white clothes, or long frock coats, splendid puggarees, and bright yellow boots, seated on benches, the former in the mufti of their various castes, all come to watch the sahibs and sepoys. By and by when the game was over, and the 500th had won by a goal, the offending Bobby came towards his wife, glowing with joy. It may be a terrible thing to be a married subaltern, reducing one somewhat as regards the regiment to the standing of a beastly day-boy, so to speak, but it is undoubtedly a splendid thing to be the captain of a victorious hockey team, and everybody seemed to think as much. The 150th were most complimentary.
“You’re men are uncommonly good, St John,” said Major Younghusband; and the Colonel of the 500th beamed upon Bobby and said to the 150th that it was a very equal match, and it had been great luck mere luck hitting that goal just at the last; and “Sher Khan is a ripper, Sir,” confided Bobby to the Colonel. Then for three minutes all the officers of the 500th discussed Sher Khan with enthusiasm, and the 150th listened and chipped in with praise and comment, but Esmé caught a murmur in the background of, “Yar Muhammad Khan is every bit as good a half-back, couldn’t be better,” from one of the 150th, and all his brother officers agreed with him. The women-folk took no part in the discussion, did not know who Sher Khan and Yar Muhammad Khan were, and did not care. A subaltern went with a message to the native officers, who came across the ground in response, and salaaming after their dignified fashion to the Sahib-log, sat down on chairs, placed just outside the tea tent, and drank soda-water out of the bottles. They might not drink from tumblers previously used by others than their own caste, but soda-water has been proclaimed to be inoffensive to all castes if drunk from the pure source of the bottle itself, thus proving that where there’s a will there’s a way, and placing the delights of the beverage beyond dispute. The temperance societies should be pleased at that, but then Mahommedans require no temperance societies to keep them from less innocuous beverages, and the Hindus of the native army, to whom wine is of the goodly fruits of the earth and not forbidden, so seldom misuse this freedom from restrictions that perhaps the temperance societies find them uninteresting.
Esmé was surrounded with a little group of chatterers, and had kept them all laughing. Now she disengaged herself: “Well, I must be off to Mrs Freeman’s,” she said. “I promised to go to tea with her. I am sorry that she has to be a grass-widow next week, for she tells me that she is awfully nervous when she is alone.”
“Yes, she is in such a fearful funk that all her nerves go to pieces, her husband says. So I am going to stay with her till he gets back,” announced young Lance.
“Drop me at Mrs Freeman’s, please,” said Esmé to Major Wade as they drove along, passing the regimental break of the 101st Cavalry and strings of polo ponies being lead back after the last chukker.
“You and she seem great pals,” remarked he.
“Well, not exactly, we eye each other, and are deeply interested,” explained Esmé.
Wade laughed grimly. “Oh, that’s it, is it!” he said.
Esmé was deep in thought. She thoroughly disapproved of the arrangement that young Lance should stay with Mrs Freeman during her husband’s absence. She considered that such an action was imprudent to the last degree and most detrimental to a woman’s dignity and reputation. To her dignity, because it laid her under an obligation, and admitted a young man under her own roof in the position of a protector, breaking down the reserve and distance which should hedge every woman. Hospitality leaves this barrier intact, but this invitation to young Lance was not given as hospitality. Detrimental to her reputation, because it left it as a matter of faith to her acquaintances, and few people are so fortunate as to inspire perfect faith among the jealous, the spiteful, the evil-minded, and the credulous. Lucy Freeman invariably showed a preference for Mr Lance, and his admiration for her was well known. Esmé knew that she would justify her choice by exclaiming, “Harry Lance is such a great friend of Charlie’s and mine”; but surely that was absurd.
Friendship between men and women has its privileges certainly, but its highest and best are those that lie in the pleasure to be found in each other’s company, not in usurping a right to defy the wise conventions which restrict the intercourse between all men and women in society.
To Esmé’s mind nothing could be less in accord with the best traditions than that a married woman should, in the absence of her husband, permit another man to live under her roof. And, in India, when this is done, it is done without an English servant—without indeed another person—being present in the bungalow from the time when the bearer and khitmutgar put out the lights, and go off to their houses in the compound, till they return with the chota hazri the following morning. She was well aware of the Anglo-Indian argument that in an Eastern land, where an Englishwoman, living alone, is of necessity left to the protection of native men-servants, she is justified in preferring and availing herself of the protection of an Englishman instead, and that, under such circumstances, to express disapproval is a case of Honi soit qui mal y pense, but this was, in Esmé’s eyes, only a social permission to skate on thin ice; it was no protection against the dangers of the situation.
She told Lucy Freeman exactly what she thought, so gaily and sincerely that it was impossible to take offence. She invited her to stay with them instead, but she met with a bland refusal.
“There, you see!” cried Esmé, shrugging her shoulders, “you won’t come to me; you prefer to have Mr Lance to stay with you. You insist on throwing away your justification for the arrangement, for, as you could come to us, it is no longer ‘necessary,’ even from your point of view. I suppose you think that the chaukedar’s15 cough is sufficient chaperonage!”
“That is one way of putting it,” retorted Mrs Freeman; “but I might say that to accept your chaperonage now, instead of maintaining my position—which is that I need none—would be to cast doubts upon my discretion in having invited Harry Lance to stay with me during Charlie’s absence. Oh I can’t remain alone in a bungalow, I tell you; it gives me the creeps. The orderly sleeps on the verandah, and there is a sentry quite close, but they make no difference to me. I’m scared to death in India without an Englishman in the house. And I don’t choose to suffer tortures of nervousness for the sake of what people say. If they want to talk (!) let them! Besides, I tell you, it is quite an ordinary thing to do out here.”
“You do it rather than feel nervous; well, I might steal rather than feel hungry, or travel round the world with a man friend rather than travel alone—you can’t justify yourself by that standard,” declared Esmé, with imp-like exaggeration. “What your feelings are has nothing to do with it.”
“You’re wrong, they have everything to do with it. I refuse to suffer; that’s all,” said Lucy, stoutly, and they both laughed while the elder woman tilted her chair back and looked at Esmé out of her queer green eyes, almost softly. “How you disapprove of me, Mrs Norman!” she exclaimed, as if rather pleased than otherwise.
“Thoroughly,” replied Esmé, amused. She did not choose to ignore Lucy Freeman’s challenge, but she rather despised it. Such eagerness for self-dissection she held as a very cheap emotion.
“Exactly; but I don’t bore you. That sounds conceited, yet it is true, I think?”
“Well, then, be honest. Admit that I don’t bore you simply because you never quite know what I will do next—with regard to Mr Lance, for instance! I am not particularly conventional and I go my own way. I interest other women, for the sole reason that they think that the men-folk find me attractive. Oh, I know!” She balanced her absurd high-heeled shoe on her toe, clasped her hands behind her head, and nodded provokingly at Esmé.
“Well—if I were just good, quiet Mrs Freeman, plain, but so nice, who adored her husband, never said ‘boo’ to a goose, and hardly spoke to a man, don’t you think you would find me a trifle dull?”
“Not necessarily. Mrs Younghusband adores her husband, is quite conventional, and never bothers her head about a man, yet no one calls her dull. She is a very interesting woman, and has a lot of influence.”
Lucy got up and pulled her chair near the fire, so that the red glow fell upon her shimmering black frock with its green and silver belt. As she half-crouched towards the blazing logs her lithe, graceful figure made rather a striking effect. “You will never understand, Mrs Norman. You are beautiful, you can afford to be simply yourself. Personally, I don’t agree about Mrs Younghusband, I call her deadly dull and a prig, but she is handsome and she is well-bred; she can appeal to all that side of you. It is so different for me. I’m downright ugly. Oh, don’t bother to be polite! Did you ever see such a nose, or such a mouth? But I’ve got the wits to know how to do my hair and improve its colour (it is just the shade of wet, brown seaweed by nature), and I dress well. I don’t choose to have a slow time. You think I flirt; perhaps I do, but where is the harm? I don’t do anything bad. It amuses them, and it doesn’t hurt me, and it enables me to enter a room without feeling a worm. How would you like to know that you had a frightful face and a mere smattering of an education? If, added to that, you were as meek and mild as Moses, you would soon be trampled on, I can tell you. Nobody tramples on me.”
Esmé laughed, “Is it worth all the trouble?” she asked. Mrs Freeman turned on her almost passionately.
“How do you know I take trouble? Over my hair and my dress do you mean?”
“No, we all take trouble over our appearance, unless we are idiots. I mean trouble to attract attention, trouble to create a personality.”
Lucy Freeman drew a long breath: “If any other woman had dared to probe like that I should have been furious! It is hateful and humiliating to take trouble of that sort, is it not? To sit just here so that I may look picturesque—eh? But if you want to know, yes, it is worth while.”
“That’s all right then,” said Esmé, with a quiet nod. “It must be because you are a born actress.”
“Born grandmother!” said her hostess sharply, “I do it because it pays. I daresay you would do it too, if you were in my shoes, and married to Charlie.”
“I’m too lazy,” said Esmé. She knew too well that she was not lazy, hers was an ardent nature, but she was far too fastidious to practise what she mentally termed ‘tricks.’
“I took some pains to marry Charlie,” continued the irate Lucy, who was wound up, “and you can see what he is like; a good sort, and clever, and all that. But you aren’t married to him; I am. I flattered him steadily all through our engagement, and after we were married too—at first. Then I saw it did not do. There was danger in it; the danger that he would be the successful, charming, popular soldier, while I grubbed along as the loving wife, without any success or popularity of my own, duly thankful for any reflected glory, with everybody saying, ‘She is a very nice woman, but I do wonder why he married her!’ And Charlie is quite capable of being conscious of all that. Oh, yes! he is. No thanks, Mrs Norman, not for this child. Not at any price.”
“I call that a distorted view to take. Captain Freeman is devoted to you. All that self-consciousness as to the verdict or criticism of outsiders is very petty, when measured by that fact,” retorted Esmé, looking at her steadily with her frank eyes.
“Not a bit of it,” Mrs Freeman declared, shifting the folds of her dress with restless jewelled hands. “Charlie is devoted to me because I keep him on the qui vive. I struck out a line for myself and men find me amusing. The consequence is that Charlie thinks me amusing too. He never quite knows what I mean to do or how much I care about him, and it keeps him up to the mark. He is twice as attentive when I am having a good time. He was awfully keen on me last summer in Simla, and it was all because I had several men friends floating about.”
Esmé rose and stood beside Lucy looking down into the fire. The simplicity of her pose and of her dress was very marked in contrast to the other woman’s elaborate air.
“Marriage is not an intrigue,” she said.
Lucy looked up at her quickly with something that was almost affection softening her voice, “You don’t intrigue, my dear. That face of yours does it for you,” she said.
“It does not!” said Esmé, hotly, “what a horrid idea! Think of the tragedy it would be to me to depend, as you suggest, on my looks! They go so soon.”
“Ah, that is what you pretty women always complain of! Well, you can’t have everything.”
“My face, indeed!” continued the indignant Esmé; “ it has nothing to do with my husband’s affection. There is something in me, the real me, that he likes.”
“Oh, nothing, of course. He would have proposed to you if you had been minus a nose, or with a squint, wouldn’t he?” asked Lucy, dryly. “I don’t say,” she added, “that it is altogether your looks, but your beauty is the electric light by which people see your good qualities. Now, I have no such electric light, they would have to grope for mine. Charlie, I fancy, would have grown tired of groping.”
“Will he never grow tired of dancing to your piping? You work on his feelings, you create an artificial atmosphere, you force a situation—is not that rather exhausting even to devotion? Would it not be far better—and safer—to be natural, to care for him and trust his affection for you? To take the good and admit the limitations? After all, the whirlpool does not grow into an ocean, its force is mere agitation.”
“A whirlpool does not stagnate,” said Lucy, with a pleased little laugh. Esmé saw that the idea had merely been grasped to feed her vanity. Highly disgusted she struck out impatiently:
“Oh, you cheapen it all,” she said. “The whole relationship of husband and wife relies on truth for its dignity. To intrigue for love, to provoke by jealousy, to dissemble in order to arouse emotions is to play the part of a mistress!”
“Oh, my dear Mrs Grundy!” said Lucy, good-naturedly.
“Yes, I’ll be Mrs Grundy,” said Esmé, stoutly. “I like her far better than the women who ape the ways of—of the other world. Let the poor souls fight their way with their own weapons, but why imitate them? If I were one of them, I might have to do that too—flatter and provoke, be now loving, now cold think always of effect—let my attractions and not my character dictate my actions; but, oh, the misery of it! The dullness, the void. To go through life bowing and scraping to expediency. To enslave passions and be the slave of gold. Never to receive a free gift of love and respect that knows none of the self-seeking of gratification, never to give affection, nobly, serenely, without calculating reward or risk! I should die, I think.”
“You are a queer girl,” said Lucy. “I would give anything if I could walk through life with my head up in the air like that. It’s so becoming. But it isn’t in me. And, if you only knew it, you probably owe your lofty ideas to your beauty which lifts you above the crowd. But you’ve depressed me.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Esmé, quickly. “How have I upset you?”
“You’ve made me feel that my social life is rotten. So it is really. More so, than you know. Your influence on society is not my influence and, in consequence, people show a different side of their characters to you to what they show to me. To me life must be dull or else rather too emotional. You can draw dignity and imagination and all sorts of beautiful things out of what I call the dull side of existence. I can’t. It may be my fault, but perhaps it is my misfortune.”
Esmé wriggled nearer to Lucy in a confiding way: “You dear,” she said, “cheer up. And it’s all so unnecessary for your—for your social success. You are awfully original, that is refreshing and stimulating enough. Give us a chance to enjoy that, and drop all the rest.”
“Original, am I?” said Lucy, with a twinkle. “H’m, original sin, and plenty of it. Still I have my domestic virtues. I make Charlie uncommonly comfortable, and I am a splendid manager. Honestly, I am. Men appreciate that, I can tell you.”
Esmé nodded with a little sigh. She envied Lucy Freeman her capable management, envied her still more, a few moments later, when Captain Freeman entered and, after greeting Esmé, turned to his wife: “Tired, darling?” he asked. On her way home, escorted by Arjan Das, carrying a lantern, Esmé burned with indignation because Norman never called her “darling.” Was Lucy Freeman’s “success” altogether worthless? “But she has got a vulgar mind,” she declared to herself with distaste.
“It is cold, Huzoor, the Presence should do up her coat,” said Arjan Das, breaking in on her thoughts.
“Do you like Dera Ismail Khan, Arjan Das?” asked Esmé, suddenly.
“Nay, Sahib,16 it is the plains, none of the plains are good. I am of the hills, near Murree. My sahib is also a hill-man,” he added contentedly.
Esmé thought of Norman’s mother, who was of a Highland family. When had her unapproachable husband offered this bond of union to the sepoy? Hillmen both, and soldiers both. Ah! men could forge strong links, if they would, even in this land of exile, but Englishwomen were so aloof such isolated atoms in a sea of humanity!
The deep, kind old voice, courteous, dignified, broke the silence once more: “Was the father of the Presence a Colonel Sahib?”
“No, he did no work, he lived on his own land,” said Esmé, in her stumbling Hindustani.
“Ah-teek! In my country, Huzoor, we call that a Rajah.” Arjan Das was well pleased. The matter of birth is no light matter in the World of Contradictions, this vast world of Ind, where the twice-born, the Brahman, whose curse is perdition, can be at the same time a peasant soldier, poor and unknown where the sweeper is called in irony “prince!” Where the Rajah of other than high caste must pay through the nose to every caste above him; where the Sikh may not smoke and the Mussulman may not drink; where the Mussulman must eat of flesh that has had its throat cut in the name of God, and the Sikh may only eat of meat that has been beheaded. Where beef is pollution to one, and pig is horror unutterable to another. A splitting of straws truly! Yet each straw the great gulf fixed. Esmé, following behind the orderly and the dancing light of the swaying lantern, passing the shadowy, challenging sentries—the great bear in the jewelled sky, the only familiar sight in the heaven above or the earth below—realized vividly what it may mean to be an Englishwoman.
Far flung over the seas, compassed about by clashing creeds, the struggle of race, the uproar of differing ideals, the strife of incompatible social standards, making a hideous discord indeed to any sheltered woman’s ears! Creating, too, an atmosphere of loneliness and isolation in which a woman’s instincts, ever turning homewards, may sorely wrestle and gasp for breath, growing faint with pain. Yet, to be an Englishwoman is also this—to be served by races that serve no other women—to see East and West as no other women see them—to be held by their countrymen above the bonds and tyrannies and menaces of creed and race and caste as no other women are exalted. Ah! the Englishwomen, lifted above—so far above—all others in the East, if they would but look down- wards with understanding and pity, if they would but look upwards aspiring greatly to all high things! A few pale faces, set on a throne beside Authority, without power, yet wielding the influence of their position! A few fair faces exalted above the peoples, watched ever by the peoples! Let them hold their heads high, let them prove themselves worthy: “In all times of our tribulation, in all times of our wealth” for England’s sake!
So, dreaming of opportunity and performance, Esmé was rather silent that evening, but, when she left the room to go to bed, she paused beside her husband’s chair—a charming picture, with her air of fine distinction, her grace, her youth—and laid an impulsive hand on his shoulder. He did not lift his eyes from the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic, however.
“Dick,” she said, “why were you vexed when we talked about Major Walters to-day.”
“Oh, confound Walters,” said her lord.
Her hand stole to his hair; it lay there with a caressing touch. In spite of wayward impulsiveness she was a woman of infinite patience where her womanhood’s vocation was concerned; as a wife—or as a mother—few would rival her in that.
“But why were you vexed with me?”
“Because,” he retorted with heat, jerking his head away, “because you seemed to think I did not care a jot what became of poor old Walters.”
“Of course you care,” she admitted quickly—but she had not thought so!
“And you are perfectly prepared to back any other fellow’s opinion against mine! Of course I must be wrong unless Black agrees with me, eh?” He grunted with indignation, and settled himself to read again.
Esmé threw coldness to the winds. She put her arms round his neck and hugged him: “What do I care what that stupid old ass General Black thinks! Oh, you darling!” she said.
He looked up at her with the same expression on his face that she had seen on the day he had admitted he thought her lovely. He pulled down her face and kissed her. She went to her room and he could hear her laughter and Waggles’ joyful squeals; she was romping and playing like a child with the dog. Whurl-l thud-d! The pillows were flying. Norman found an extremely prickly hair-brush in his bed and swore. His wife crowed her glee. An hour later he heard her laugh in her sleep. Then he wondered if she regretted that he was forty-five. He found it a most disturbing thought.
Lucy Freeman, brushing her hair that night and laying numerous little pin curls on the dressing-table, told her husband that Mrs Norman was shocked at the idea of Harry Lance staying with her.
“Rot,” said Captain Freeman, “all affectation. Why, she was in an awfully fast set at home! Mrs Ford’s sister knows about her. She got into a regular scrape, debt and all sorts of things, I hear. She is prim and proper enough under the General’s eye—I bet you he stands no nonsense—but wait till she goes off to the Hills by herself!”
“If you believe all you hear in India you are a greater fool than I thought you,” said Lucy, with pleasing frankness.
“I don’t,” said her husband, shortly.
“Bah! One always believes some of it,” snapped Lucy, with a bitter little laugh. “I wonder when Mrs Norman snubbed the gay Charlie,” she added to herself.
The Normans had gone to Peshawar to stay with the Chief Commissioner of the Frontier Province and his wife, Sir David and Lady Layard, for ten days. Norman had a half-formed hope that Esmé would be inspired by Lady Layard to take a less prejudiced view of officialdom. Esmé, however, did not concern herself with views on any subject for the first few days. She was too busy enjoying herself. The luxury of Government House appealed to her ease-loving nature, she was made much of by her host and hostess, and was in high spirits in consequence and, best of all, she met Lord James Kenworthy, whose regiment was stationed in Peshawar, and who was a friend of her childhood.
“I did not know how homesick I was till I met you, Jim,” she said.
“Buck up and come for a ride; I’ve got a pony that is just the very thing for you,” urged Lord James, and so, one dazzling afternoon in early February, Esmé rode with him down the Mall, vastly content with life.
The well-kept bungalows, on either side of the broad road, stood in blossoming gardens, the great trees spread a green canopy between her and the sky and, as always, the passers-by interested her. Now a buggy dashed along, driven by some daintily dressed Englishwoman, glowing in her furs, here a string of polo ponies led by syces walked by the roadside, then whirrrr—fuzzzzzzz—and a large motor car driven by a native flashed past, a subaltern wended his dusty way on a bicycle, two Tommies walked briskly along the path where some children with their Ayah chattered and laughed. A policeman in blue and red, his coat all baggy and his leather belt awry, represented the majesty of the law and a sowar of Bengal Cavalry, resplendent in dark blue and gold, rode by on a camel, with gorgeous trappings emblazoned with the regimental crest. They past Jamasjee’s and left the Club, with the band and tennis-players, behind them, and reached the little bridge, which crosses the rapidly running stream, through whose chilly waters many a wily Pathan has slipped silently into Cantonments at night, his bronze skin well rubbed with oil, intent on rifle thieving. They turned to the right, past the native Cavalry lines, and went down the circular road which, running north, divides the fortified quarter guards from the bleak and barren Tom Tiddler’s Ground that lies between Peshawar and the blue hills of the Frontier. Not the majesty of frowning battlements defies the lawless tribesmen, only low mud walls crowned with stones at irregular intervals, lest the sentry’s head should present too sure a target to the lurking foe—only the silver spider’s web of barbed wire entanglements protect the Sirkar’s17 realm against invaders. Further on, under a tiny culvert which spans a ditch, a hidden hukah18 and tobacco with an earthenware jar of drinking water preserve, year after year, the immunity of the Sikh Sappers and Miners across the narrow white belt of road from the unwelcome attentions of the Pathan rifle thief. Tobacco—beloved of Mahommedans and abhorred of Sikhs! Here, indeed, is a triumph of diplomacy, transforming that tiny squalid culvert into a veritable British Embassy! Far blue hills, featureless plain, mud quarter guards—who can conjure romance with these? Yet it dwells here. The hillmen, raiders, looters, cattle-lifters—O dead and gone clansmen of the Scottish Highlands do you see yourselves live again far off under Eastern skies? The blood feud, the passionate coveting of cattle and of rifle, passing the value of women; the old men’s counsel of prudence and the young men hot for the fight—these passions dwell like eagles on the heights. Do the Campbells, the Frasers, the Gordons, the Camerons—subalterns, captains, majors, colonels—puckering their eyes in the glare of the sun on a Field Day, look towards your hills with a thought of the Sirkar’s lawless past in old Scotland? Pathans as friends and sepoys whom we drill, arm, and place behind mud walls. Pathans as foes against whom we drill, arm, and fortify. Sher Mahomed, havildar, keeping watch and ward through the night against Sher Mahomed, rifle thief, lurking there in the open, where every tree is felled that might afford him covert, while, on the sepoy’s side, lights aloft in the branches throw searching eyes afar across the levels, probing for the foe. Our best, the Frontier breeds that, casting its halo of romance over ordinance, transport, supply, over routine and ceremonial. Our best men, best administration, our best school for war, our highest aspirations, keenest hopes, greatest efforts. This spirit springs to life when the sword is bared and bright and the hand grips the hilt right firmly looking towards the Border.
“It’s a good way yet to the city,” said Lord James. He was a captain in a Highland regiment and the son of a former viceroy. He was without part, lot, or influence in the administration of India, and desired none; a light-hearted young man, keen on his regiment, and his polo, and unable to distinguish a Dogra from a Punjab Mahomedan, ignorant of the fact that his excellent bearer was of the sweeper caste and that his resplendent khitmutgar was, like the rest of the mess servants in his regiment, a dhobie.19 Wise old Arjan Das, who knew much of the ways of sahibs, shook his head over such a “bundobust” when ever it came to his knowledge. “The sahibs of the red coats do not know. My sahib knows. The service of low-caste folk does not please him. Never since I, Arjan Das, have been his orderly, has the hand of a sweeper touched the bath or the bed of my sahib.” To the father the homage of Ind, to the son the service of the mehtar-log,20 truly a puzzling race, these sahibs! Few natives salaamed as Lord James rode on his way, but the Sessions Judge, driving in his trap, an excellent middle-class man, son of a solicitor in a little country town, was met with profound salutations on every side.
“I don’t mind how far it is, there is plenty of time, but are you sure it is safe?” said Esmé.
“Oh, rather, these fellows don’t lay a finger on a woman.”
“But for you?”
“Safe as a church,” he assured her with more arrogance than knowledge. “If you don’t mind the smells it is well worth seeing, once. Shall we trot on?”
As they neared the city gates there was considerable traffic. Laden bullock-carts, camels, donkeys, goats, men riding ponies, high dog-carts with prosperous natives sitting aloft rattling off to cantonments, water-carriers, servants, fakirs, sepoys, thronging in or drifting out again, and once within the city the crowd grew denser and denser—a crowd entirely of men, almost entirely of Mahomedans. Dark eyes gleamed under dark puggarees; fair skins, big Jewish noses, thin-lipped mouths; stern faces, savage faces, fine faces, bold faces, here and there jovial faces, but seldom mean, insignificant, squalid, sodden, or decadent faces. All of them followed the Sahib-log’s movements, all turned to watch them. As a crowd, to Royalty, is a crowd of watching faces, so to these two of the Sovereign race, the city was a city of eyes and noses and mouths, but haunting, inscrutable, alien, menacing. On their entrance to the city the police had closed in around them and followed them always, shadowing their progress through the thronged streets, alert, vigilant. The houses on either side of the narrow way scrambled in irregular, huddled masses skywards. They rode past now the fur shops, with carpets, poshteens, skins and curios from Kabul, Kashmir, Leh and Thibet; now the food shops where the flies buzzed drowsily, and here and there half-naked men pulled vigorously, with brown arms, at long ropes of sweet stuff; they reached the potter’s store of gharrahs, plates, and jars glowing brown on the brown mud, and close by the road was golden on either side with brass water pots and cooking vessels and the paler gold of all manner of grain. Fat Hindu baniars, with red caste marks on their foreheads, sat pallid, among their merchandise, and now and then a tomb, jostled by dwelling-houses, lay, apart from law or lawlessness, remote from passions and struggles, amid the crushing, cramming, noisy life around. And above the fierce humanity the Englishman and Englishwoman rode slowly, ungreeted but never unobserved.
Lord James pulled up in front of the house of a dealer in furs. “Can somebody hold these horses, and can we go up there?” he asked in his queer Urdu, pointing with his whip to a Tower in the City.
“Wherefore not, Huzoor?” came the courteous reply.
Lord James helped Esmé from the saddle and pushed a way for her through the loiterers around them.
“It’s jolly dirty,” he warned her, but the darkness that shrouded the narrow, twisting stairs hid the evidence of his words from view and Esmé followed contentedly till they emerged once more at the summit of the Tower, into the sunlight.
Peshawar lay beneath them, the fierce Northern City of the Pathans, basking in the sun like some sleek panther, as savage, as restless, and as bold. The hum that rose from its crowded streets and dwellings was like the humming of an angry wind amid a thousand thousand throbbing wires. The sense of those passions which breed danger breathed from its torturous ways, its pushing, leaning, stretching, rambling houses, and gave to it that strong attraction for the imagination that few cities have gained; but gaining never lose. Babylon, Nineveh, London, Rome, Moscow, Memphis, Jerusalem, Peshawar, crushing from the earth the sweetness of flowers, the fragrance of fields, the fairness of trees, yet drawing to themselves the passions of the human heart—wearing for ever as a Crown a name that thrills.
Up in the sunlight of the Tower, above the world of men, they had reached the world of women on the housetops. Now the crash of bracelets on a woman’s arm, now a woman’s laugh, now the murmur of a babe, floated to them on the still air. Close by, Esmé could see the tiny perch of some daughter of Eve, facing the sun and sky, shielded from all eyes save those of the stars at night and the gaze of the Englishwoman on the peeping height of the Tower. She crouched, a thin, lazy, graceful Pathan wife, upon a deep red rug, one bare brown arm flung out over a rude wooden cradle. Mother and child were sleeping quietly and above them curved and fluttered the coo-ing pigeons which hovered in glittering thousands over the City.
So peacefully they slumbered between the restless city and fierce sky, that Esmé groped in her memory for the clue to her haunting sense of having somewhere grasped a link with just such a scene as this. It evaded her awhile but came at last a vivid picture of dim aisles and the voices of men and boys, chanting the words of the great Poet of the East.
“It is but lost labour that ye haste to rise up early, and so late take rest, and eat the bread of carefulness, for so He giveth His beloved sleep. Lo children and the fruit of the womb are a heritage and gift that cometh of the Lord.”
Ah! here was the Home of the Song. Suddenly too she thought of the glowing stained glass windows and dark oak carvings and the cold English sunlight falling, dyed with red, upon the old, old tomb of a knight who reposed grimly in his carved armour, while at his feet lay his gaunt lion which betokened death in battle, and his crossed legs told in stone to the unborn centuries the proud truth that here was buried the dust of a Crusader.
So long ago as that—the struggle of the English and the East, and now again after many generations behold the English ruling over Eastern peoples. She glanced at Lord James; it was the tomb of one of his ancestors of whom she thought, a memory of childhood’s days when her parents used to take her to stay at Chillingham Castle and the governess marshalled a troublesome little crew to church on Sundays. The thought remained with her as they descended the dark stairs into the crowded streets, and his magnificent head and shoulders rose above the natives pressing round his horse. They retraced their steps and passed with the throng out of the city into the broad road leading to cantonments. The old Crusader under Richard Coeur de Lion—and the young soldier of Edward VII. The cruel Eastern city behind them, and the wild border to the west where the hills were flaming in the sunset over the path through which the great Alexander fought his way. O, the Tale of the Years how rich it was, yet how poor so often in the telling!
“I feel to-night, Jim, as if I should like to talk to Richard Coeur de Lion,” said Esmé.
“Who’s he?” enquired Lord James, suspecting a nickname.
“Dead,” she answered shortly.
He stared, then grinned. “O, Magna Carta and all that,” he said with vague cheerfulness. “What would you talk to him about?”
“The Indian Army. I think the Indian Army is really the greatest romance since the Crusaders. Richard Coeur de Lion would see what I mean, you don’t a bit.”
“Jolly good service. Shouldn’t like to be out here so much though, rather a rotten country after all,” said Lord James, and so brought her down with a run from her Crusaders and knights, and soldiers and cities and Armies of Romance.
Yet the sense of exhilaration remained and she arrived in the Club in a madcap mood that banished all the feeling of critical boredom with which such a place had hitherto inspired her. Peshawar has a much larger garrison than Dera Ismail Khan, and is the Headquarters of a Division, but even for the favourite station of the Punjab there was a big crowd that night; a buzz of voices came from the men’s rooms and there was laughter among those discontented explorers in the Library hunting for new books. Little Mrs Rose dashed up to Esmé and was hailed by her with joy, for she was a gleeful, mischievous, pretty person, who lived for the merriment of the hour and had the attraction of all happy things. Mrs Rose loved India, she enjoyed the constant round of dinner parties, theatricals, races, gymkhanas and sports. She found the rendezvous of a club thoroughly congenial and revelled in the unfailing supply of men folk for all social amusements. She was one of the steadily diminishing number of those who can afford to ride, and the peculiarly dangerous hunting to be had with the Peshawar hounds gave her many cold mornings of unalloyed bliss. When the hot weather came, she went to Simla with an unabated zest for dances and a delightful supply of frocks, or she travelled to Kashmir and wore her innumerable toilettes in Gul Merg, and wrote affectionate daily epistles to her husband until he was able to join her on leave. His regiment—he was in British Infantry as they phrase it in India—went to Cherat in the hot weather, but it never entered little Mrs Rose’s pretty head to go there too. Cherat was hot and Cherat was dull and, “Everybody goes to Simla or Kashmir,” was her view of the matter. She had an English maid, a Genoese butler and cook, and English ponies and traps, her wardrobe knew nothing of the durzie’s powers, she shopped as freely in Sloane Street as if she still lived in Cadogan Place, and the limit of her exile was fixed by her preference for an Indian hill station rather than going home for the hot weather. No inexorable barrier of poverty hemmed her in and made “going home” the wistful dream of an aching heart. Pay and pension, and bills and billets, and the hot weathers—burdened by the dreadful difficulty of meeting the necessary expenses of sending the wife to the hills, meant nothing to her. The inability of many officers of the Indian Army to take leave from the burning plains from sheer lack of means was never realised by her. Nearly every regiment of British Infantry sends half a battalion to the hills in the summer and so the officers of each regiment obtain a cool six months every alternate year without extra expense, but no regiment of the Indian Army stationed in the plains has that boon, and their officers, with thirty or so hot weathers to face, must get relief from the cruel heat year after year out of their own pocket as best they can.
“Oh, Mrs Norman, do play bridge, just this once!” Mrs Rose begged. “I’m dying for a game and so is Captain Wells and I’m sure Lord Jimmy will make a fourth, won’t you?”
She whisked him off and, with three congenial companions, about to play her beloved bridge, Esmé felt more like the Esmé of old than she had done for many a long day. There was a pause while Lord James sent for more lights and just at that moment up came Norman.
“Hullo Esmé, what have you done with the pony?” he asked.
“Sent it away.”
“How are you going home then?”
“With you in the dog-cart.”
“Well, I’m off now. I have some writing to do. Come along.”
“I’m staying on for bridge.” She felt the disapproval but disregarded it. All her usual sensitiveness to his every mood was dulled by excitement as a nerve is frozen by cocaine.
“Bother--come back now. The dog-cart has been out long enough and it is not ours. Besides it will be dusk by the time you have played a rubber.”
“Can’t you wait for me?”
“No, not to-night.”
“Well then, send a bazaar tum-tum with the orderly.” She turned her shoulders on him coldly, vexed by his making difficulties. Heavens! Fancy Muriel Hazlewood, or Betty, or Laura being deprived of their bridge by such petty objections! Standing by the green baize table, a tall gallant young figure in a dark, loose habit, she was for the moment just an unapproachable, self-sufficient woman of the world. They cut for deal and she took up her cards.
“Oh, goodness, Dick,” she said in her cold clear voice, “Do go away and leave me to play in peace. You don’t grouse and you don’t grump, but you do frump sometimes, and you are frumping now just like a dowager.”
“Dinner is at eight,” he remarked and walked off. Few men would have relished the little defeat less than he. But naturally his wife had it in her power to baffle or thwart him as no one else could do.
“Oh, goodness gracious what a relief!” gasped Mrs Rose. “I thought he was going to drag you away.”
“Why?” asked Esmé, and the subject dropped instantly. At half past seven they went home and Esmé, driving down the Mall, was challenged out of the darkness by the many sentries, “Halt, who goes there?” In Peshawar this is no idle enquiry after your health and it is best to answer quickly. “Friend!” said Arjan Das. How strangely the English words rang out from the sepoys’ deep voices, awakening again Esmé’s vision of the East! The word “Friend” to pass Pathan driver, Brahman orderly, and an Englishwoman side by side! Truly this Peace of the English was a strong and splendid thing.
She ran up the steps of stately Government House, past the chuprassies in scarlet and gold, tore down the long corridor to her room and, after a hasty knock, arrived breathless in her husband’s dressing-room. He was vigorously towelling his head and looked at her through a whirl of white huck-a-back.
“Dick! I’ve just loved this afternoon and I think you Englishmen out here are marvels!” she announced, radiant.
“My word!” said Dick, “you’re a quaint young pickle.”
“And I’ve lost four rupees at bridge,” she informed him.
“Did you? Well, I lost thirty-two. You’d better cut along and dress,” he answered cheerfully.
“Don’t rub off all your hair. How nice your hair wash smells, and the soap,” said his wife with a fastidious little sniff, hovering at his dressing table. She kissed her hand over his shoulder to his reflection in the glass and he smiled back. Then she flew off and dressed. “It was nice of Dick to promptly tell me he had lost more than I when he does so hate me to play,” she said to herself with glee. Ah, the joy of not being disappointed by those we love! The Normans went together to the big drawing-room as the air tingled with the many bugle calls from the Messes, announcing the dinner hour of the Sahib-log. It would have been hard to find a better looking pair or a more contented one. For the little scene in his dressing room had set Norman’s heart aglow, and he entered the room feeling keenly appreciative of his beautiful young wife in her stately white satin frock, proud of his service, and glad of his success, his “luck” as he called it. Sir David Layard noticed the happiness on the soldier’s fine face and warmed towards him. “A thoroughly good sort is Norman,” he said to himself. Sir David’s great personality dominated the whole Frontier Province. Sahib-log and native both felt its force, and the tribesmen across the Border were much influenced by his firmness and courage, the stately manner in which he impressed them with the power of the Sirkar, and by his splendid physique. Esmé experienced her first pang of envy in his presence. At the Bethunes’ and in Dera Ismail Khan the laurels for the most exceptional character, success, and career had been Norman’s but here he was overshadowed. Her reluctant acknowledgment of this was followed by a swift impulse of tenderness towards her husband, and the awakening of an ambition which for the future never slumbered.
Lady Layard was very interested in the Normans; the man’s extraordinary force of character, combined with a singular vein of simplicity, which rendered him utterly free from all self-consciousness, attracted her. If shelling peas had interested him as an occupation he would undoubtedly have shelled them, regardless of the fact that it would not in public esteem rank with playing polo, as a pastime. Esmé’s youth and impulsiveness, no less than the fame of her beauty, rendered her an absorbing study in the role of wife to such a man.
“I declare that, had I been Mrs Norman, my husband might have whistled for me to join him. Not a step would I have come after he had publicly refused to pay my debts,” she declared to Sir David, on one of the rare occasions when he had leisure to enjoy her society.
“And what would you have lived on, my dear Florence?” enquired her husband practically.
“If Mrs Norman has a private income it is evidently considerably involved or insufficient for her requirements. If she had refused to join her husband he would be scarcely under an obligation to supply her with the means to live away from him.”
“Yes,” said Lady Layard, “she certainly avoided great dangers by coming to him and to all appearances she is much attached to him. I daresay her heart and not her head saved her. Had she remained in England, practically breaking off her marriage, she must have lived on her friends or her bridge winnings and drifted into untold disaster. But to what terrible dangers his act exposed her!”
“I fancy Norman knew what he was about. You see—she is with him and they both seem happy. He is a man capable of exercising a very great influence. I imagine that no woman would lightly break with him.”
“She is not quite happy,” said Lady Layard, thoughtfully. “She is restless and excitable. I wonder how it will end?”
“I am sorry to hear you say that. She is so very young and so capable of happiness.”
“Wonderfully attractive, wonderfully,” agreed Lady Layard. “But if I were one of her own people I would always love her with a pain in my heart. With all her gay spirits there is some quality akin to pathos in her which makes a great appeal to me.”
The big drawing-room was cold in spite of its two blazing fires and Esmé was glad when dinner was announced. There were a few men guests and Esmé never forgot that evening; it remained a bright memory ranking above most previous social experiences—however brilliant—in her estimation. One of the guests was a Colonel Unthank, V.C. A man of curt, crisp speech, keen and decisive in all his opinions. Another was a Major Wilberforce, who had gone into the Political, and was now a Deputy Commissioner. The third was Captain Forest, D.A.A.G. The fourth was Mr Lloyd, a young political assistant at Wano, and the fifth, Captain Adams, commanded a Frontier Militia.
Sir David and Norman were both men whose interests were frankly centred in India and their professions, and the talk soon drifted into “shop.” But such “shop!” Esmé listened with glistening eyes; she was a wonderful inspiration as she sat among them, intent on all that was said, her white satin frock shimmering in the light of the many candles, a row of pearls caressing her perfect throat and her young, eager, spirituelle face framed by its shining halo of gold hair. Lady Layard, dignified and charming, watched her with approval, it was thus that she liked to see her fellow exiles appreciated by a new comer. The younger men were keen to draw Norman out, and he responded after his own characteristic fashion. Silent, or invincibly monosyllabic for a while, then, on suddenly becoming desirous of stating a fact or an opinion, he would lean a little forward, push his wine glasses to one side—an unconscious trick of manner—and would say exactly what he wanted to say. He never by any chance wished to be effective but he always scored a rather striking effect. He never hesitated for a word, nor did he ever appear to select one with a view to creating a strong impression, yet the result was that he arrested and held his listeners’ attention, heightening the effect of all he said by his way of understating rather than overstating every situation. They wanted him to talk of affairs in China, and they had considerable success. Esmé was spellbound, wondering why he had never opened out like this before. For a while he and Colonel Unthank kept the ball rolling between them. And out of the ebb and flow of the talk, Esmé gathered a little of what their experiences of men and lands had been. Norman knew many high Chinese officials and some officers of all the great European Powers and the Japanese Army, knew them too as a strong character knows men, while Colonel Unthank could tell of the hardships and withal of the fascination of Somaliland. He knew something of the Abyssinian forces, and had experience of our African troops and Somali levies, to add to his experience of service with his British regiment in the Soudan, where he learnt not a little about the Egyptian Army. On going into the Indian Army he had served with Jats and Rajpoots, before he came North to a Punjab regiment. What a vast store of knowledge of the fighting breeds of the world he and Norman possessed between them!”
“It was amusing to see some of the foreigners with the Indian troops,” said Norman, “all natives were alike to them. You’d see an Italian officer in full uniform with his arm round the neck of a line sweeper, awful fond of him—‘Brother-in-Arms—most glorious.’ The sweeper quite liked it. Both of them considerably drunk of course.” Thus the conversation came down from the serious to the ludicrous and dropped.
Major Wilberforce had lifted a portion of the veil that shrouded Thibet. He counted a Lama among his friends and had acquaintances in mysterious monasteries. His talk, however, was chiefly an amusing comment on affairs at Calcutta, where he had been spending ten days. All the little party were interested to hear of the latest appointments, moves, and rumours, and criticised them keenly. And into it all were woven names of men who were known to everybody at the table except Esmé. Captain Forest had come out from the Staff College at Camberley just in time for the last Frontier show. He broke into an anecdote about theatricals at Government House with an account of the latest musical farce in London.
“They had a series of representations of Shakespeare’s plays, acted by natives, in Peshawar City one hot weather, Mrs Norman,” said Sir David, with twinkling eyes. “I went to see ‘The Tempest.’ Great show. They had no conception of what a shipwreck would be like so they had, with much originality, substituted a railway accident for it. The guard who walked up and down saying, ‘Tee-kuts, please,’ was quite a good introduction. I wish Tree could have seen him.”
“Natives can act jolly well, I saw one of our fellows take off a British officer to the life the other day,” said Captain Adams.
“I remember up in the Toche on the anniversary of Cronje’s surrender the sepoys did a great show for us,” struck in Mr Lloyd with a grin. “Roberts and Cronje were impersonated by the two fat office babus because the rest talked Pushtu, and Urdu was considered more classy. According to their notions of us the dialogue gave a most characteristic touch. Babu Cronje handed his sword with great pomp to Babu Roberts, saying, ‘Yih burra afsos ke bat hai,’ and Babu Roberts replied, ‘Kuch pawani, peg pio!’ That means, Mrs Norman, ‘This is very sad talk,’ and ‘No matter, have a peg!’
Everybody laughed. “How’s your Militia getting on Adams?” asked Norman.
“First class, thanks, General. It is extraordinary to see the change in the recruits. They come to us little, foxy-faced, distrustful fellows, and after a bit they are as jolly, open, contented youngsters as you would want to see. He is not a bad fellow, the Mahsud. I swear by him as fighting material.” He spoke slightly on the defensive, for the qualities of the Mahsuds do not as a rule endear them to the Frontier Authorities.
“H’m,” grunted young Lloyd. “They’ve tried to murder my orderly and they half-killed my native assistant the other day.”
“They would be all right if it were not for their Mullahs, would they not?” asked Lady Layard.
“It’s the Mullah Powindah, confound him,” said Norman.
“What queer opponents Englishmen run against!” said Esmé. “Colonel Unthank versus the Somaliland Mullah and somebody else versus the Mullah Powindah. Aren’t you glad you aren’t schoolmasters in England scoring off little boys in the fifth form year after year?”
“Yes, by jove, or on an office stool. India is undoubtedly the place for a poor man,” said Captain Forest.
“Won’t be fit for any Englishman to live in twenty years hence,” growled Colonel Unthank, and when the door closed behind the ladies, the talk round the table was of sedition.
Esmé overflowed when she found herself alone with her hostess. “You did not select them as a special lot, did you? No, I thought not. Well! Aren’t they splendid? Seven Englishmen taken haphazard, and what a record of men and matters they can produce!”
“Battle, murder, and sudden death. Plague, pestilence and famine. Literally and actually I should think,” said Lady Layard, quietly. “Let me see. Yes, between them they have been in all the fighting at the frontier for the last fifteen years. China and Somaliland as well. Also South Africa—Captain Forest was there. My husband has seen two Englishmen murdered by Ghazis, one in the railway station here, and one on the golf links at Bannu. Major Wilberforce was in the awful earthquake at Dharmsala. His sister and his children were killed in it. Plague! It is all round their daily work. Last winter when it was raging in the city, you could hear the roar of the people praying for it to cease, from here. It used to break my heart. Cholera! It hung on the skirts of the last Frontier Expedition in the most ghastly way. I was in Murree during the cholera scare one summer, when half a dozen people died of it the day after a dance. If I remember right, it carried off a hundred of the sepoys in your husband’s old regiment in one night some years ago. And O, my dear, pray that you may never see the sights of a big famine. David knows all about that. Captain Adams knows something of it too. He was on famine relief duty as a subaltern. We met him there for the first time. Both my husband and Major Wilberforce have had to pass sentence of death often, and they have all, I imagine, taken life in warfare. Ah! their work has been no child’s play!”
“I never realized it at home,” said Esmé. “I thought of India as a place where men drew big pay, and played polo, and shot tigers, and had pig-sticking, and where women wore muslin frocks, and went to heaps of dances. I knew nothing about the natives except that they mutinied once, and were sat on, and well, that’s about all I knew! I pictured them salaaming to us in tremendous awe. I never realized sedition, I never appreciated the existence of loyal personal attachment. I never grasped that natives could have individualities, and that it would be, and must be, a case of give and take between us. I never imagined that Englishmen were as kind and considerate and patient to them as they are.”
“What makes me furious is the prevalent idea that the Englishmen in India are hardy, out of door sort of creatures, but not intellectual,” said Lady Layard. “It is a great mistake. Think of Mr Lloyd’s brilliant degree at Cambridge for instance! As linguists too—to take one small point—few of them are to be despised. If the men in the next room were put to the test you would find that they can speak between them French, German, Chinese, Persian, Urdu, and Pushtu. Not bad, really, is it? The chief languages of East and West.”
Esmé was silent a moment, then it all came forth, a great outpouring of her enthusiasms and disappointments, her likes and dislikes, her criticisms and prejudices. Her hostess looked at her with a mixture of pity and admiration. This girl would make such enemies, would awaken such keen interest, would cause such jealousy, would cast such spells!
“Wait, Mrs Norman,” advised the elder woman wisely, “have patience a while. There are so many different Indias for the Anglo-Indian community. You will not always find your life empty or cramped. There is the South, and Bengal, and the Central Provinces, all differing greatly from the North. And here, in the Punjab, there is the life of the big stations, such as Rawalpindi, Umballa, and Lahore, and the life of the small cantonments; there is the life of the Frontier stations, and the life of the posts beyond the Border. There is the life of those who work on railways and canals, the life of the solitary district officer, the life of camps, and the life of the hills, all utterly different. I have lived many of them, and I know.
“One thing I miss,” said Esmé wistfully, “is meeting people who are in possession of what they love most. I like to see people show their affections. In India, I meet a mother whose children are in England, a husband whose wife is thousands of miles away, a bachelor who has just arrived in a station without an old friend except his dog. And they do not love the land. Now, in England what a charm is given to our intercourse with our friends by seeing them in their own home circle, among their babies, with people of whom they are fond, and amid their household gods! Even if I found a man dull or irritating, I generally liked him, in a way, if I walked with him across his park to his home-farm on Sunday afternoon. He had, as a rule, such a nice manner to his dependents, he loved every tree and every blade of grass, and his mind was stuffed with pleasant thoughts of fat sheep, or young pheasants, or new gates. At home it is all under normal conditions; it is far easier to gather pleasure and happiness from simple things there, than here, I think.”
The door opened, and the young confidences ceased.
“Mrs Norman, do sing, I am sure you sing,” said the Chief Commissioner.
“I would if I could, Sir David, I should love to serenade you! But I’ve got no voice at all, only a little squeak. Shall I recite to you instead?”
“Oh, that will be delightful,” said Lady Layard graciously. She was rather dismayed at the offer, dreading boredom. Recitations, during which people spoke of the blue sky and the dashing horsemen and pointed to her hanging lamps and armchairs, were her pet abhorrence. She might have had more faith in Lady Mary’s granddaughter; the Merivals and Delamains had puzzled and provoked society again and again but they never bored it. Esmé stood motionless, her shapely little head perfectly carried, her voice beautifully modulated, and gave a very short French recitation with a charm and a spirit that were inimitable. Lady Layard noted Captain Forest’s expression as he watched her—so she had cast one of her spells to-night!
She could not be prevailed upon to recite again, but for the next half-hour she held them all under her sway, enchanted. It was the witchery of youth and gaiety and beauty, carrying with it an intoxication of its own. But the triumph was destined to be short lived and to have a bitter ending. The talk suddenly hit on the reluctance of young men to enter into the bonds of matrimony.
“It is all because they are afraid of women’s extravagance,” said Norman. “How can a poor devil afford to give his wife twenty pounds for a tiny thing all over holes she calls a coat—no, a bolero! I came across one in the advertisements in the Queen. Never saw such a thing. Lace, it was lace, or crochet, or something, and I swear it was all holes. Cost twenty pounds, let in every draught, and would last a month I suppose.”
“I had no idea you read the Queen, Norman,” said Sir David, chuckling. “The advertisements of polo ponies for sale in the Pioneer used to be more your style.”
“Oh, I’m a married man now,” said Norman with a grin.
But the Layards had exchanged glances and to an over-excited, tired girl Lady Layard’s look said, “Poor man. Her debts, you know,” and Sir David’s responded with, “Exactly, my dear.” A tempest raged in her heart and a white, set little face looked at itself in the glass on her dressing-table half-an-hour later. “He did it to humiliate me. I know he did!” she whispered to herself passionately.
Norman, coming into the room in a glow of happy content, that was almost boyish in its unconsciousness found himself rebuffed in an utterly unaccountable manner.
“I would rather you did not touch me,” said his wife, when he stooped to kiss her.
“What’s up?” he asked quickly.
“Please remember that I dislike it. That’s all.”
It gave him a shock. He turned without another word and went into his dressing-room, all the happiness spoilt. She had been so sweet to him before dinner, why this complete change? Was she never really content? Had she nothing to give him, his fair young wife, save criticism and caprice?
“Our dinner last night was atrociously bad,” announced Norman at breakfast. He was in uniform and his khaki, with its brown leather and an eloquent narrow bar of ribbon across the left breast, became him uncommonly well. At the other end of the table Esmé, in white serge, rivalled the great blue china bowl of newly gathered sweet peas in freshness. She was absorbed in her letters from England, and Norman had to repeat his remark before it gained her attention.
“Yes, atrocious,” she agreed cheerfully, opening another envelope and diving into its contents.
“I shall give the Khansamah fits,” he continued, irritation gathering on his brow.
“Do,” urged his wife absently.
“Not that it will be of the smallest use. What this household needs is someone to manage it properly.”
“How modest you are.”
Norman stared hard at her but she did not enlighten him as to her meaning, and merely requested him, with great innocence, to hand her the marmalade if he loved her.
“It is not my business to attend to all the details of this house,” he said shortly.
Esmé shrugged her shoulders.
“The soup was cold, the mutton was tough, everything was badly served and the dining-room fire was not lit in time,” he growled.
“And the soda water ran short,” she added, blandly—then thoughtfully, “The flowers looked lovely, though it sounds conceited of me to say so.”
“People don’t eat flowers.”
“I should think they might have been thankful to nibble a nasturtium last night; they are warming things too.”
“You seem to consider the matter a good joke. It does not amuse me in the least I can tell you. The Donalds—a subaltern and his wife—probably get a far better dinner in their own house.”
“Let’s go and dine with them then. Happy thought!” bubbled the irrepressible Esmé.
It was the last straw; Norman’s blue eyes flashed dangerously. “You’ll make me lose my temper in a minute,” he said very quietly.
His wife jumped up and came swiftly round to his end of the table, she ran her slim ringers through his close cropped hair and then caught him under the chin with both hands and tilted it up, while she brought her own face down to within an inch of his and wrinkled her little nose into the drollest of grimaces.
“Who cares for you—you Turnip Top?” she enquired—and was gone in a flash.
Norman’s face gradually relaxed into a rueful grin. “Did you see that, old girl?” he enquired of the faithful and wise little Waggles. “A minx, isn’t she? What will the next mood be—eh?”
Esmé had indeed been a creature of caprice since she had returned from Peshawar. As some flower transplanted to bloom beneath alien skies, makes tentative efforts to adapt itself to new conditions and often subtly changes colour, fragrance, or stature in the process, so she made restless attempts to become acclimatised to the atmosphere of her present life and in so doing developed many moods. At first she tried to fill her official position, modelling herself upon Lady Layard. People applauded and enjoyed themselves—they also said how extravagant she was, how absurd it was to give champagne, and that she cared for nothing but gaiety. This phase on the whole met with indifferent success, for the wine bill assumed alarming proportions and moreover the dual control of household matters hampered her. The irritation provoked by this, and by her effort to “do her duty as a general’s wife” having been the cause of Norman raising his eyebrows over expenditure, got on her nerves and she suddenly ceased to play the part of hostess except when absolutely necessary. She lost interest in the station and gave up going to the club. A few of her criticisms, uttered imprudently to Lucy Freeman, were repeated and her popularity waned. Society in India is extremely self-centred, nowhere is it easier to achieve isolation by merely refraining from attending the gatherings to which everybody goes. Even the society of the most attractive women is less sought in their own houses than competed for in public and Esmé, though still the subject of constant discussion in Dera Ismail Khan, found that few among her new acquaintances took the trouble to drop in to see her. Hurt by this neglect she became more and more capricious with regard to all that the cantonment had to offer and entered upon phase number two. This was a truly dreadful affair, for she became alarmingly “intellectual.” In other words she buried a great many of her natural gifts and made a great deal of fuss about cultivating her mind. She poured for hours daily over a very stiff course of reading and when bored by it was either moped or, it must be unwillingly confessed, decidedly snappy. She engaged a munshi and made real progress in her study of Urdu. Then she became possessed of a feminine and overwhelming desire to shop, and consulted price lists galore. The fact that Norman seemed to have no idea that she could have need of ready money maddened her. Her behaviour to him was certainly bewildering. As a rule, now, she was absolutely undemonstrative to him, she displayed no interest in his pursuits or hobbies, but he himself was her constant study. She longed for an explosion between them that would clear the air or hasten disaster; yet, Sir David had been right when he said that no woman would lightly break with Norman; at the very moment when a domestic storm seemed imminent she would, with imp-like cleverness, restore him to good humour. He was puzzled and wretched, but felt powerless to right matters. He believed by now that she hated India, found small means intolerable, and his companionship insufficient compensation for exile from her former luxurious life in England. In his most despondent moments he decided to arrange so that she could go home for the hot weather, and began to save the money for her passage; hence his objection to the enormous wine bill—enormous in proportion to his income—during the month she chose to entertain recklessly.
Norman’s remarks to the khansamah and the khitmutgars over the failure of his dinner-party on the previous night, were extremely forcible and promptly produced that amazing fervour for work which is guaranteed to last for twenty-four hours only. Arjan Das felt called upon to be present at the heated interview and to add some lordly injunctions of his own, which ended in a pleasant exchange of civilities between “Khansamah Gee,” and “Pundit Gee.” Esmé, from the verandah, looked out on the garden, rather wistfully. Norman was moving from flower to flower wholly absorbed by them, and was followed by the bearer, mali and khitmutgar; the silver irrigation channels, trickling through the brown soil, sparkled in the sun, the grass, drenched with moisture, seemed strewn with diamonds, the big hedge of sweet pea blazed with rose and palest pink and violet, the green parrots flashed like emeralds among the branches of the great banian trees. It had rained in the night and perfumes breathed from the lawn and the flowers. Arjan Das brought forth his little cream-coloured hump-backed divinity and tethered her to graze, addressing her as “Maharanee,” and by other high flown titles. Norman offered her a handful of grass and she tried to butt at him. Waggles whisked about, joyously barking, and the Brahmin patted him affectionately, “O Wugguls! Bacha ke Bacha!” he said, but he would not touch the chain by which the sweeper led her, for all the world. The bearer was a pigeon fancier and his pets came strutting forth, with a tinkle-tinkle of tiny ankle bracelets, to pick up the golden grain that he threw to them, Norman looking on with interest while the intricacies of the competition between loft and loft in the contest as to whose pigeons will remain longest circling in the sky, without dropping earthwards to their home, were explained to him. His relations with his household were very simple and kindly in a patriarchal way. The animals were devoted to him, Waggles was his very shadow and the pony came and snuggled his nose up against him asking for bread. The khansamah, restored to favour, told him of a bundobust for firewood in which there was much profit, the bearer informed him of the necessity for new socks, holding out a disreputable object full of enormous holes for his inspection, and Arjan Das, knowing that the Burra General Sahib was coming to stay and that the honour of his General Sahib was at stake in the matter of a sufficiency of clean table napkins, admonished the dhobi with great earnestness.
They all seemed very bound up in Norman’s affairs, Esmé thought, feeling rather aloof. She turned to her English letters for consolation when her husband rode off. They were somewhat unsatisfactory. Muriel Hazlewood had not written for weeks. Betty Delamain sent a scrawl, the first page of which was entirely filled by the announcement that the motor was waiting and that she was just off and only had time for a line. Little Peggy wrote many sheets giving a detailed account of her own doings and her frocks, Esmé scanned them eagerly in vain for news of mutual friends. Lady Violet Cranmer sent an amusing description of the doings of Esmé’s intimates from Chillingham Towers. “All the old lot are here,” she said, and Esmé drank in the subsequent gossip joyously, but at the end she sighed for lack of an assurance that they missed her. Laura Bethune’s letter was wholly comforting; she wanted Esmé so much, she said, she would be lost without her during the big house-party for the Hunt Ball and also for the tiresome Primrose League Fete at which Sir John Danvers had promised to speak. What was Esmé’s advice as to the bedding out on the South Terrace this year, should she have nothing but red tulips or a mixture of colours? Already the Spring had come a-wooing, the snowdrops were beautiful under the elms, and she wished Esmé could see the purple and yellow crocus.
Major Wade, dropping in presently to return a book on his way to the Brigade Office, found her looking decidedly depressed, “Homesick?” he asked abruptly.
She nodded, “There is one thing I cannot endure to do,” said she, speaking softly, “I cannot shut my eyes and let my heart see places that I love in England. My home mail makes me do it, yet I cannot without great pain look upon Wootten, with its swelling downs, its hollows where the farms lie and the woods nestle, or let myself see again the silver ribbon of the Thames, its banks embroidered with gardens and golden meadow lands. I dare not conjure up the vision of Hampshire woods in Spring, where in the open spaces the undergrowth is stacked in bundles and primroses and violets carpet the earth. I may not think of the country lanes in Gloucestershire, when the orchards are in blossom, and Spring is drawing a veil of palest green over the trees. Ah! the birth of Spring in the land where one was born, how one could weep for the breath and the sound and the sight of it by the waters of Babylon!”
“Does it hurt as much as that?” he asked, wondering at her low, dreamy voice.
“It is dust of my dust,” she answered. “Oh, I am homesick for it all! For the wild hyacinths and the cowslips and the purple cuckoo pint, for the meadowsweet in the deep green grasses, and the golden gorse on the hill, and the buttercups by the brook! For the white mist of the traveller’s joy in the hedges and the moss on the old stone walls. I want the ripple of clear cool streams, I want the rustle of the fallen Autumn leaves and the scent of new mown hay. I want the big ploughed fields and the great teams of horses and the straight furrow in the brown earth. I want the English homes and the English gardens, I want the land that I love!”
“I’m sorry,” he said, simply. “I know how hard it hits one sometimes. My wife hates Dera Ismail Khan. But I’ve good news this mail; she is coming out to me in the Autumn.”
“What! O, I am glad!” cried Esmé, and indeed she was.
Her genuine sympathy warmed his heart. He found himself thinking of her several times that morning and looking critically at Norman’s strong, undecipherable face.
Thus nearly all the Englishwomen in Cantonments were alike absorbed in their own social or domestic affairs and were in turn an important—sometimes an all-important factor in the lives of the Englishmen. But side by side with Anglo-India, the drama of India was ceaselessly unfolded. The Englishwomen saw nothing, the Englishmen something of it; they were in part its cause or inspiration and in part utterly remote from it, for its source often sprang from behind an impenetrable veil—the veil of the Purdah women. Esmé felt intense curiosity with regard to this drama. Her course of reading had been undertaken with a view to acquiring some knowledge on the subject and her study of Urdu had been begun with a fervent wish to provide herself with the means of communication with the people of the Punjab. After living several months in India, she had never yet found an occasion to speak to a native woman and had never seen a native lady. Her intercourse with the officers in the Indian Army, her observation of the sepoy Arjan Das and of the sentries and orderlies passing to and fro, the sight of the hockey teams and the crowd of spectators, her visit to Peshawar, the incident at the railway station when Pertab Singh had presented the hilt of his sword to her—had all helped to awaken in her a deep interest in the native army, while the talk of sedition and the unrest of the frontier stirred her imagination and quickened her enthusiasm. She thought as she watched Major Younghusband drive by, that homesickness would be more bearable and exile less bitter if she—like him—had (to quote her with exactness) “a finger in the pie.”
The road was still full of puddles from last night’s rain and the syce, holding on for dear life to his perch behind Major Younghusband’s buggy, was a woeful object besmattered with mud. The trap turned in to the regimental office on one wheel—Younghusband was invariably in a terrible hurry—and the khaki clad figure jumped out almost before it was at a standstill. “Le-joa, I shall walk back,” he said to his syce. “Gad! it rained last night,” he added to young Smith of his regiment, and he stood for a bit slapping his leather leggings with his cane and inspecting the battered carnations in their row of pots. A havildar came out of the office carrying a medal in his hand. Younghusband returned the man’s salute, “Milgya?”21 he asked in friendly fashion.
“Huzoor ke mihrbani, milgya,”22 the havildar answered.
Younghusband turned with a frown to Gerald Smith, “See that fellow?” he asked, “We lent him to the —th, for the Zhob Valley show and his medal has just come. Shoved to him over the table like change across a counter. That’s the new fashion. It’s a rotten one. The men don’t like it. That medal ought to have been presented after parade with the deuce of a show. What you young fellows call a beastly fuss, eh?” And with a snort he went into the office.
The regimental pension sheets were being revised and man after man came up, bashful, reserved, uncomfortable. Had he a wife? No one could have looked more shyly anxious to deny it. Well, could Kishn Singh, native officer, say whether the man had a wife or not? Without doubt he had. All right, let all others stand back, and perhaps this coy young thing with twelve years service, can be induced to whisper the lady’s name. Now then did he understand that, if he gave her name, she would receive a pension from the Sirkar in the event of his death? Certainly, he understood that such was the favour and mercy of the Sirkar. Right O! well then—? Well, then he gave a name. But it was not the right one. And so on through scores of names.
At last Younghusband was left alone with the Subadar Major, that fine and handsome Sikh, Gulab Singh, who wore the Order of British India and had served in the regiment for thirty years. He had known Younghusband since the latter had joined as a wild young Subaltern, with about twelve Hindustani words in his vocabulary, a prejudice against natives, and a boyish home-sickness for his British regiment. The Subadar Major had taught his British officer much, the British officer, his youthful years behind him, had taught the Subadar Major more. A friendship, a brotherhood in arms, forged strong links between them, and Younghusband grinned a friendly and informal grin to him across the office table. The record in the open book showed that the Subadar Major had been a married man for twenty years, with two sons and a daughter.
“Anything to change, Subadar Major?”
“Nothing? By jove, how many grandchildren, eh?”
The dignified Subadar Major laughed at the chaff and the two left the office side by side. The British officer’s ribboned bar showed three medals, the Sikh’s a duplicate three, two more and an order. They talked shop and parted at the corner of the Mall, Younghusband going to his bungalow, the Subadar to his Lines.
Now had the record in that office book been correct, it would have shown a tragic widowerhood and a recent wedding. For plague in the Ferozepore district had laid to rest the mother of the Subadar Major’s sons and with her the first-born himself—a recruit, home on leave. Not content with so greedy a harvest it had carried off the remaining lad, mourning over his dead, and the Sikh’s house was left unto him desolate. His brother and his brother’s sons for the time were carrying on the work of the homestead, the fields, the cattle, and the place in the village council—nevertheless it behoved the head of the house to marry again, for how unblessed is the hearth where the little feet of a son never tread! Moreover, as the marriage doweries of the four daughters (not one, the first child of the marriage had been a girl, hence the record; what man in his senses would acknowledge the unwelcome birth of three others?) had been a heavy tax, the new bride must have a goodly portion.
The position of the Subadar Major made him an excellent match and he was married once more, his bride being the daughter of Lachhman Singh, Pleader, of Lahore. Just the little office table with the incorrect record had separated Sikh and Sahib; twenty years soldiering in the same regiment and three campaigns bound them, and yet the reserve of the Asiatic dug a gulf wide as East from West between them, and buried in its depths lay hidden the Tragedy of the Plague and the fact of Gulab Singh’s marriage with the daughter of one of the cleverest sedition-mongers in the Punjab. A man of wealth, of good birth, a distant cousin of his son-in-law, of far-seeing unscrupulous intrigue, who plotted and planned in his highly trained scheming brain, who resented every social slight, or seeming slight in his sensitive passionate Sikh pride, slow to explode, deadly tenacious in purpose. A man who had educated his daughters as few Hindu women are educated, inflamed their minds with political poison, retained over them an enormous influence and had married them in pursuance of his own plots and plans to four Sikh native officers, two in Sikh regiments and two in Class company regiments such as the 150th Punjabis.
“Oh, well,” said Major Younghusband to the Second in Command, who was lunching with them and suffering badly from inspection fever, and inclined consequently to complain of the Subadar Major and every one else in the world as being little less than useless. “Oh, well, come, you won’t find a better native officer in the Punjab. I’ve served with him for twenty years. There is precious little I don’t know about the old boy.”
“Oh, yes, rather, first-class fellow, first class,” said the Second in Command, soothed by a most excellent salad.
“I know him through and through. Why, in the Black Mountain show—” but here Mrs Younghusband wanted to know if it were really true that young Mr Smith was engaged? Too awful. A subaltern! And the Subadar Major was forgotten. Naturally, for a subaltern’s marriage is an important matter to his regiment, it spoils the Mess, may drive him to the S. & T. corps, and suppose “we” the other ladies don’t like her? A calamity indeed!
That evening when the straight dark blue line of haze had faded in the sky and the sunset had died splendidly in purple and gold cerements, when the smoke of cooking fires rose in the frosty air and the smell of the burning lay pungent over the lines, the Subadar Major sat upon his charpoy,23 an excellent meal finished. Who knew better than this bride of his how to cook a tender kid, how to prepare rice (not the poor stuff the sahibs eat, who know no better, but the very best that India produces) how to brew tea, such as his soul loved, with thick black sugar to sweeten it and rich goat’s milk? The small quarters of the native officer were comfortable enough. There was the courtyard, open to the sky, where the stars twinkled overhead and the fire blazed in one corner by the brass cooking pots, there was the outer room unfurnished save for one chair, the tin-box of many colours which contained Gulab Singh’s uniform, and a round table covered by—wonder of wonders—a tablecloth from Birmingham! His wife had brought it back from her recent visit to her people in Lahore and it mesmerized him still, with its inky blue-black ground and startling blaze of poppies. Such a thing had never incongruously thrust itself into his home near Ferozepore. That dead and gone mother of his sons had been of another age and of the old, old ways. The Subadar Major blinked at the tablecloth, and it winked at him, sitting on the charpoy in one of the two inner rooms, where his quoit caught the reflected light from the camp lantern and threw a silver halo on the wall, above the photograph of the British and native officers, taken at the celebration of the regimental jubilee. The light shone, too, on the hilt of his sword and the buckle of his sword belt, hanging on the wall, after the fashion of the sahibs, with a background of red desouté cloth. Gulab Singh had laid aside his puggaree and wore only a white linen coat and dhouti. His long black hair was twisted into a knot on the top of his head, above the comb of his caste, and he was busily employed gazing at himself in a dim little shaving glass, preparing and grooming, with great care, his silver threaded beard; for was not the Burra General Sahib to inspect the troops to-morrow, and was not he, Gulab Singh, to have a personal interview with him? While the hands were busy with the beard, the reflexion in the glass showed lines of care in the fine face, for the day had been full of “dik.”24 A sedition monger was expected in the city, and it had come to the knowledge of the Subadar Major that one of the Sikh officers, two of the havildars, and doubtless a good many of the men cherished the intention of going to hear him. This it behoved him to prevent. Further he had that afternoon become aware that there had been a fakir from over the Border preaching in the Lines. To-morrow he must be forbidden to return—he had wandered off to the Risala ere Gulab Singh had heard of his visit—and the matter would have to be reported to the Second in Command. The Colonel was in England.
The “dik” and the worry lay in the background of his mind but there rose in his ears and clamoured at his heart strings, at his passions, at his caste, at his blood, the voice of his wife reading aloud to him one of the most cleverly written seditious articles that the Native Press had yet produced.
Wonder of wonders that she could read! She was so childishly, passionately proud of her gift that to have denied her the pleasure of displaying it to her lord would, he knew, produce one of those blinding storms of tears such as quell the peace of households, and shall not a man have peace at the end of a hard day, after a most excellent meal, when there is moreover this business of his beard to attend to?
“Will you not hear me, Huzoor?”
“Read thou then, Beloved.”
Truly he loved her after his fashion, this wealthy, beautiful, educated bride of his autumn years—the mother of his infant son. So her soft voice, raised in the sing-song utterance of her race, filled the room as she obeyed the command of her father and read to her husband.
Who has not seen the group of natives—servants or sepoys may be—sitting contentedly listening to one of their number continuing for hours in the same weird chant some oft told tale? So the Subadar consented to listen at first (as many a man has done) for the sake of domestic peace, and then, the words woke him, gripped him. Truly the pen is mighty as the sword, yet had the sword been in his hand he had wrecked little of the words of the pen. Had the soldier spirit been awakened by the shock of war, the discipline of an assembled regiment, or the presence of a British officer, Gulab Singh had known no danger from this pricking poisoned pen. But here—and now, the official daily life over, his uniform laid aside, the religious and caste ceremonies of his evening meal just finished; with the smells, the earth currents, the unseen influences of the land and air of his country around him; with the purdah of his home and woman setting him utterly apart from the Alien Western Race—shall not a man be shaken by the words uttered in the tongue of his own people, by the voice of his own wife, under his own roof?
And what words they were! Words that twisted, misrepresented, suggested, implied, hinted, till a lie was misbegotten of the truth, till a plain man knew not what to believe, till a Sikh ceased to reason and began to feel. To feel as a Sikh for Sikhs, as an Asiatic against Europeans, as the humiliated against the humiliator. For the sting was there, maddening, inflaming. Honours turned into bonds, service represented as servitude, mannerisms as insults. The steel quoit and the steel sword on the opposite walls gleamed coldly at each other.
Six hundred men lay still in the silent Lines, and the Lord of the Lines listened to the words, words, words.
Along the moonlit road skirting the Lines, that runs from the General’s house to the bungalows of the officers of the 150th Punjabis, twinkled the lights of the Younghusbands’ buggy, driving back from the Normans where they had been dining to meet the General Commanding the Northern Army.
“I do wonder what all those men think and talk about,” said Mrs Younghusband, peering through the darkness.
“Rice and pice chiefly,” said the Major.
“For manners are not idle, but the fruit
Of loyal nature and of noble mind.”
Esmé rose early the next day, she had borrowed a pony and meant to ride out to see the Field Day. She looked very young—almost childish—in her dark habit and big solar topee, with the shining coils of hair twisted close to her little head. The dinner party to meet the General had been an unqualified success and Esmé was glad of it in spite of the fact that it probably postponed the time when—she hoped—Norman would be driven by failure to see the error of his ways and place the entire management of his household in her hands. Perhaps it was her charm as a hostess last night, as much as her fresh young beauty, that made the General and his staff unreservedly glad to see her on an occasion and at an hour when few women would have been welcome. She dispensed hot coffee and mirth on the verandah as she stood in the bright sunshine, whilst the cantonment hummed with the moving regiments. She felt resentful when Norman made obvious masculine signs to her to be off, she knew she was neither boring nor detaining the General, and it exasperated her that her own husband should consider her de trop. She made a move however and the General put her up on her pony.
“You go up like a feather, Mrs Norman,” he said approvingly as he settled the skirt of her habit for her. “By jove, your wife can ride,” he added a moment later to Norman. “Look out! I think that pony is a bit of a brute.”
The Deputy Commissioner’s motor flashing by had frightened the little beast badly, and Esmé had her work cut out for her, but she had him well in hand and rather enjoyed the tussle at the gate.
“I’m all right. Leave him alone,” she said to her husband who had gone to her assistance—then, “You were keen enough to get rid of me a moment ago.”
With her it was merely the letting off of steam, after her annoyance at his signs to her to leave the menfolk to attend to matters of greater importance than her fair self; she forgot both the words and her irritation in the pleasure of riding and in the interest of watching the 150th march by—like a great field of ripe wheat, she thought—comparing the sight with the reviews she had witnessed at Aldershot, when Laffan’s Plain seemed scarlet with acres of moving poppies. Norman, on the other hand, had a miserable subconsciousness of a jar with his wife which remained with him all the morning, dimming the joy of his pride in his brigade. It made him taciturn when he would willingly have been at his best.
“Rather a surly fellow. Good soldier though. Very charming wife, she’ll get him on fast enough if she goes to Simla,” was the Burra General’s verdict.
On the group of sepoys—the orderlies sent from the different regiments to attend the General and old Arjan Das—nothing had been lost. They noted how the great General Sahib had himself offered his hand for the Memsahib’s foot, to mount her. How the group of distinguished officers had raised their hands to salute as she nodded and rode off. How the Deputy Commissioner Sahib had pulled up his motor and walked back, baring his head, to call out apologies and enquiries. Truly the ways of the Sahibs pass a plain man’s understanding! They are always of infinite interest to the sepoy, nevertheless. For the sepoy is not a snob as we understand the word, but he is, in the old biblical sense, a great “respecter of persons” and these things impress him. The orderly who has probably never spoken to a Memsahib till he speaks to his officer’s wife and who, in his village and in the Lines, lives somewhat remote from the servants’ gossip in the bazaar, is perfectly prepared to look upon her as an important personage. Whatever his own ideas as to womenfolk may be his race has never failed to recognise a Queen as Queen, a Begum as Begum, and there is no doubt that a British officer’s wife as such holds a very distinct position in a sepoy’s eyes. The Englishwoman, married to an officer in the Indian Army, has a firmly established position as regards his men. What use does she make of it? As a rule, none that is conducive to the popularity of the Sahib-log.
A few hours later the regiments were returning to their Lines and officers were riding back in two and threes. Along the Mall rippled a line of lances and pennants as the Native Cavalry, with jingle of bit and spur, turned the dusty road with its commonplace bungalows on either side into a pageant well worth the seeing. The twentieth century has few more picturesque and inspiring sights to offer than a “Risala.” The Subadar Major of the 150th Punjabis wended his dignified way to the bungalow of his Second in Command, Major Reed, who was to go with him to his interview with the General commanding the Northern Army. Gulab Singh had rid himself of last night’s poisoned thoughts and leaping pulses, they had flown with the sane touch of dawn, the saving medicine of discipline and work. He would certainly report the matter of the fakir to Major Reed—be the result much trouble with the Pathan Company or not. Moreover, no Sikh should go to that meeting in the city. The upshot of that would doubtless be antagonistic feeling in the Sikh and Dogra companies, in his wife’s family in Lahore, and perhaps among his own people in the Ferozepore district, but Gulab Singh was a strong man. Not without cause had he risen to be Subadar Major in a class company regiment.
A cheery youth, attached to the Monmouthshire regiment as a candidate for the Indian Army, and at present staying for ten days leave with his cousin in the Mountain Battery, stood at the corner of the cross-road tightening the girths of his pony, a bad tempered country-bred that had already endured more than he could stand from young Meredith’s riding, which smacked of what he had not forgotten of his course in the Sandhurst Riding School, and of nothing else. Meredith had ridden out to see Indian troops on a Field Day for the first time in his life, he had ridden hard, and what with dust, sun, and general bewilderment was distinctly cross. The pony would not stand still, and fate willed it that, at the moment when Meredith was unsuccessfully trying to mount, with the exasperated animal waltzing in circles and himself performing the like manoeuvre very ungracefully and unwillingly—with one foot in the stirrup and the other hopping in a forlorn circle—the Subadar Major should appear to the right, and Sadu Singh should approach from the left, on his way to the Lines for his roti-khana,25 already unduly delayed by his day’s work. Now to young Meredith a Sikh sepoy in mufti, was not a Sikh sepoy in mufti but, “just a fool of a native, don’t you know.” He hailed him in his amazing Urdu to come and hold the pony’s head and as, to the Sikh, young Meredith represented an unknown Sahib in difficulties, his request was instantly complied with in the most courteous manner. Namely, Sadu Singh stood stock still when addressed, gave a rigid military salute and then eagerly and instantly grabbed at the excited pony’s head. The result was demoralizing. The pony, already nervous, backed and plunged, Meredith nearly fell and his toe was most painfully trodden on. As, with the energy of wrath, he flung himself into the saddle, he poured forth to Sadu Singh the only Hindustani he was as yet fluent in—the abuse picked up by listening to his soldier servant speaking his mind to the syces and sweeper. He flicked his pony with his whip in his irritation and disappeared in a cloud of dust, most insecurely balanced in his saddle.
He had no notion that he had insulted a Sikh soldier past forgiveness and that his words were rankling with inexpressible bitterness in the Subadar Major’s mind. Not many years later, when, in order to pay his tailor, he went on famine relief duty, he picked up from the roadside a starved and dying native child—horrible with smallpox—and carried it in his arms three miles to the nearest shelter, and no one heard of the deed, but, nevertheless, on this day, in the first year of his ignorance, he was the cause of Sadu Singh cutting his name, and taking to politics, and he came near to playing the devil with the professional honour of Gulab Singh.
It was with unabating anger that the Subadar Major reached the bungalow of his Second in Command. It stood almost flush with the road and the servant’s houses bounded it on one side from the left gate to the back. A smart Dogra orderly, Kinha by name, waited about by the door for his Sahib’s return. He saluted the Subadar Major and informed him that the Major Sahib was not back yet. The Memsahib was in. Then nothing further occurred. That was the very worst that could have happened. The syces, the sweeper, and the sweeper’s wife sat and stared and chatted; it was no business of theirs. The bhistie and the musolchee26 were in the bazaar. The khansamah smoked outside the kitchen, waiting for the Major Sahib to return and demand breakfast or lunch instantly if not sooner; it was no business of his. The Goanese butler saw the Subadar Major arrive, but he had no feeling in the matter or, if he felt at all, it was a satisfaction in what all the compound held to be the discomfiture of a Sirdar.27 The Eurasian “maid” asked the butler who it was, and told Mrs Reed, who was struggling with a durzie on the back verandah, “There is a native officer to see Major Reed, I think,” and Mrs Reed said, “Oh, bother, I’m too busy to see him now. I expect Major Reed will be back presently. Do you think the durzie has got this armhole right now, Lily?”
So you see nothing happened. No chair was sent to the Subadar Major, no message. For twenty minutes he waited about in the compound by the road like a servant with a chit.28 He waited in full uniform recognized by all natives as the Subadar Major of the 150th Punjabis, while the 500th Punjabis marched past, while two native officers of the Risala rode by, while one of the regimental sweepers called to see the Reed’s sweeper and remained to chat, while a leading Sikh in the city passed and repassed, and while the Dogra orderly bore witness to his humiliation—he, the Subadar Major, who needed every whit of his prestige and dignity in these difficult days. They were twenty such minutes as may make a man repent his service and hate those he serves. And all because kind-hearted Mrs Reed was busy with the durzie, had learned nothing of India, prided herself merely on keeping in touch with home, and so disliked natives of this country that she must needs be served by Eurasians and Goanese and thus preserve her ignorance alike of the language and people of the Punjab. “Not a bit Anglo-Indian,” you see.
“Sahib ate!”29—the compound was on the alert instantly. The Subadar Major saluted, a suave dignified native officer seemingly unruffled. Reed returned his salute and flung himself off his horse.
“The Burra General Sahib has fever and can’t see you after all, Subadar Major Sahib,” he said, “perhaps he’ll see you to-morrow, but he leaves very early. I’ll let you know, Achcha. Ruksat.”30 And, with further salutes exchanged, Reed went into his bungalow.
“It went off all right. The General was very pleased with the regiment. The old boy is rather tucked up though, he has fever and has gone straight off to bed.”
“Some native officer or other came to see you, dear. I didn’t bother to see him, I was so busy, and I think it is much better not to mix oneself up with natives, and I can’t talk to them. It was all right, I suppose?”
“Oh, yes, quite right, quite right. Lunch ready?”
That is how the Reed family regarded the matter. It has its points. No fussing. Moreover ladies of a “regimental type” are distressing persons. Still, courtesy, and the insight which appreciates both the opportunities and the limitations of social amenities has its value East or West. But especially East. A gracious salaam from the Memsahib, the mere exchange of a few halting words, making the most conventional enquiry after the Subadar Major’s health, the hospitality of a chair sent out on to the verandah, these things have a result, their omission may have a deplorable result. By the performance of such small social duties Mrs Reed would have been no meddler, she would not have been “dreadfully regimental, you know,” as she herself expressed it, she would merely have been doing the right thing. And the Reeds were really very anxious to do the right thing. But luck was in an evil mood and had wrought sad pranks that day. All officers of the Indian Army play the game of war and diplomacy in connection with their regiments with a large element of chance, now withholding, now bestowing success in their dealings with native officers and sepoys. For who can foresee the thousand and one possibilities that may arouse suspicion and prejudice in Eastern peoples? So that it is not enough to play the game as Major Reed played it honourably, conscientiously, kindly; it must be played brilliantly, with imagination, with dash and pride, with humour, insight and tact, with sympathy and courtesy, with all that is most soundly British and yet with a touch of the glamour of old world romance. For how runs that rough jingling toast to the British officers of Frontier Militias?
“Here’s to the Sahib who holds in his head
The feuds of the Tribes and the blood they have shed;
Here’s to the Sahib who holds in his hand
The sword and the law and the strength to command;
Here’s to the Sahib who holds in his heart
The passion for war and of friendship the art;
For this is the Sahib we will not deny,
When the smoke of our Homesteads31 is staining the sky.”
“I will instruct my sorrow to be proud
For Grief is proud and makes his owner stoop
To me, and to the state of my great grief
Let Kings assemble; for my grief’s so great
That no supporter but the huge firm earth
Can hold it up; here I, and Sorrow sit;
Here is my throne, bid Kings come bow to it.”
No smell of cooking pots, no food, no peace. The Subadar Major’s house lay in the grip of such a storm of emotion as would appal the temperate races of the West. Such a storm as perhaps the long-forgotten years could tell of, Sheba in her wrath, Cleopatra in her grief, the Sabine women in their shame. Now and then actresses with genius arise who can portray our great emotions greatly, and the huge theatres of Europe show tier after tier of white tense faces, as hearts are drawn beyond the barriers of their own experiences and sensations and are sucked into the whirlpool of passion behind the foot-lights. But even there the art is the art of the twentieth century, nor wrath, nor grief, nor shame, lay their heart-beats naked to the world.
Not so in these daughters of the East. Unfettered by the critical restraint of society, untutored by the discipline of education, unconscious of any indignity in lack of self-control, nervous, highly bred, delicate, passionate, such a tempest was breaking now as only the elements that brew the awful thunderstorms that rage over the Himalayas, the mad torrents of rain that burst the rivers’ bounds, the fierce heat that makes the earth a furnace, could have bred in a woman’s body and soul. The East was speaking in her daughter; the West, seeing, would have withdrawn shuddering.
The sari was flung from her head and lay, a crimson ripple, at her feet; her dress was rent from hem to waist; her dark hair was uncovered— Oh, shameless! and unbound from its many plaits. It hung as a shadowy shroud around her as she writhed upon the floor and beat with her delicate little hands upon her breast, while upon her tear-stained face her passions flickered with the swift, blazing, changing, quivering light of fire flames. Her voice shrilled, and thrilled through the room; it had in it the monotony of a moaning wind, the nerve-breaking shriek of the sea storming upon the beach. There is no emotion in a word—utter the syllables pain, wrath, grief, they appeal to the reason of the man who speaks that language, not to the senses of mankind. But listen to the shriek of pain, the howl of wrath, the moan of grief, how humanity’s nerves quiver to that touch! Thus she moaned and screamed.
Yet, at last, the words came too, in that rough oratory which has power incalculable over ancient races.
“My lord—my lord—shall I be silent when there is shame upon this house? When the Pathan-log in the Lines laugh at our very door? Ai-ai-ai! They laughed not thus at the people of the Sikhs in the old days, when my lord’s father’s father fought against the English, as they will fight again and prevail, and prevail, and prevail! Nay, I will not rise. I will beat upon my breast and mourn as one who mourns for the dead. Has not Sadu Singh—of thy caste—of thy blood—very Sikh of very Sikh—been called unclean, black pig, dog, misbegotten! Shamed by an eater of cow’s flesh, a feeder with pariahs, a blasphemer of the Gods!”
“Peace, woman, peace.”
“What peace, Huzoor? The peace of slaves, of sweeper-people, of childless folk, of old men! How shall I hold my peace when for hours my lord stood, shamed, at the door of a white woman? One of the Sahib’s women, bold, barren, barefaced. Shall my lord be treated thus by a woman in the eyes of a sepoy, in the eyes of a sweeper, in the eyes of all regiments, in the eyes of Ind! She knew not the “dastur?”32 Lies, lies, lies. They know all things these wicked ones, they desire but to place their feet upon thy beard! Are the Sahibs better? What honour hast thou among Sahibs? In the Messkot none—in the Kallufghar,33 none—in the Duftar less than the Chota Sahib,34: a stripling without knowledge. And lest the regiment know thee as their rightful lord they set their women on to put shame upon thy head!
Nay, be not angry with thy servant, hearken oh! Gulab Singh—Sikh! In what is thy pultan35 less than those of the Gora-log?36 Can it shoot less straight, march less far! On the hills can they climb as thou canst? In the plains can they endure the heat as thou canst? Can they go with- out food and drink as thou canst? Thus and thus speaks my father who knows all the learning of the English and spits upon them! Medals? Child’s toys for a child! Gold? Aye, the gold of Ind! Honour? Where is the honour of Gulab Singh and Sadu Singh this day? Nay, I know it is true. Seek not to sweeten this cup with lies. The wife of Sadu Singh and the wife of Kanha have been with me. O, I have drunk deep! Would that I could die, could die, could die! For the shame of my son’s father is upon my son this day my little son! His name is a name for laughter among the Mussulman-log, for mourning among the people of the Sikhs! Ai-ai-ai!”
It died away at last, leaving her utterly spent and worn; rigid save for convulsive twitchings, her beautiful ivory face weary with tears and one hand clutching a fold of that tablecloth from Birmingham. And the Subadar Major, dinnerless and sullen, locked his mouth when he thought of the fakir and the meeting in the city. Who knows what he meditated as he sat there, gazing down at his wife, pursued by words as by winged Furies?
Beatrice Younghusband was a tall, handsome woman, with dark brown eyes and long black lashes, and eyebrows that arched below a beautiful forehead from which the glowing, rich-tinted auburn hair rippled till it was coiled at the back of the perfectly shaped head. Her neck rose superbly from her fine shoulders and she had a magnificent carriage. She touched life vehemently and with conviction. Her handsome presence lent vitality to the dullest of gatherings. Not that hers were the gifts of humour, merriment, or wit, she possessed enough of the former to preserve a true sense of proportion in her judgment of men and matters—since with it, she had the balancing quality of reverence—but she was not an amusing companion. She was intensely alive though, and brought to one’s mind the lines,
“How good is man’s life, the mere living. How fit to employ
All the heart and the soul and the senses for ever in joy.”
Her father had been a distinguished diplomat, and, since her schoolroom days till she married Major Younghusband when she was twenty-eight, she had lived most of the time abroad with him at Rome and at Berlin, where he was Ambassador. Superficial observers wondered at her choice of a husband. Younghusband was a fine English gentleman and soldier, typifying some of the best qualities of his race both morally and physically, but he was not a brilliant man, neither had he a brilliant life to offer her.
“I cannot see the attraction,” remarked a gifted writer of morbid modern novels to Sir John Danvers when the engagement was announced.
Sir John eyed the speaker serenely and then looked at Beatrice standing beside her towering fiancé, receiving congratulations as if she were accepting homage—and quoted amusedly—
“But knowing nought, to enjoy is something too,
Yon rower with the moulded muscles there
Lowering the sail, is nearer it than I,
I can write love odes. My fair slave's an ode.
I get to sing of love when grown too grey
For being loved. She turns to that young man
The muscles all a ripple on his back.
I know the joys of kingship: well—thou art king!”
“Will it wear well?” queried the dissatisfied author.
“As well as the race wears,” said Sir John. “That charming young lady—she is charming, don’t you think so?”
The author grunted.
“Ah,” sighed Sir John— “Well, that very charming young lady has seen her country represented abroad ever since she grew up. She comes home, she has a good look round at everything, she meets us all, she marries him. Perhaps marries what it was most satisfactory to represent abroad. Eh what?”
“I know the joys of kingship—well thou art king!” mused the author. “He is a fine type in his way. Still, I’m not sure—”
“But Miss Beatrice is,” put in Sir John annoyingly, with a chuckle.
And truly Beatrice was quite sure. She was absorbedly interested in India too. Instead of thinking of herself as a person who “had to live in India” to use the Anglo-Indian phrase, she never lost the point of view that she was one of those whose race rules India. Unlike most exiled Englishwomen she dwelt in her land of exile with a sense of responsibility. Nor would she have had her husband be other than a soldier. “I’ve been an Ambassador’s daughter and I realize to the full that the long suit for diplomacy is to hold “Clubs,”—she said to him, one day.
“It must be such a dreadful change to you, after the position you held as a girl,” remarked a chap- lain’s wife to her, in Dera Ismail Khan. “For he is not even second in command!” she had ejaculated a dozen times at the Club.
“I think it is much nicer to be married,” Beatrice had answered simply.
“What a help you must find all the people you know at home with British Cavalry!” cried little Mrs Jones, whose father was a country solicitor and whose husband was in the P.W.D.
“In what way?” asked Beatrice surprised.
“I don’t think she is really clever, and she is very hard to talk to,” complained Mrs Jones afterwards. She had been unable to answer the simple question, “because it’s so hard to explain those things in words you know,” but to her the way was remarkably clear for all that.
Esmé and Beatrice were drawn to each other at once. Rather curiously they formed no intimacy, Beatrice was reserved and Esmé just then was self-absorbed and troubled, but to each the other was by far the most congenial woman in cantonments. Beatrice could live much more serenely than Esmé. The latter wistfully imagined that this was because Major Younghusband’s devoted companionship left no corner of his wife’s life lonely. Yet had Esmé been married to him she would still have known the depths and the heights; that was her temperament. “Other heights in other lives”; Esmé’s supreme gift was her power of loving. Beatrice could never, perhaps, attain to the summit of that height.
“I’ve the greatest admiration for Sir John Danvers,” she told Esmé, with glowing eyes.
“So have I. I just love him,” responded Esmé.
The two women sat together now in Beatrice’s drawing-room, full of costly Persian rugs, of carvings from Kashmir and furniture and curtains from England. Esmé had fled there as a refuge from the seven devils of depression that were defying her in her own bungalow, gathered there, sad to say, owing to the arrival of temptingly illustrated price lists from home. She looked round her at the evidences of an ample income, and sighed. She sat on the old gold fire-seat, dressed in brown holland and wearing a huge coarse straw hat wreathed in roses, and gazed disconsolately at Beatrice.
“I was never taught anything useful,” she declared, pettishly, “every object disappeared out of my ken just at the moment of practical instruction. What happens between the time when a sheep’s a sheep and when it’s a cutlet in a paper-frill goodness knows. I don’t! It is exactly the same with clothes; first, it’s the stuff I select and then it’s the frock I wear, what happens between whiles is a mystery to me. That’s why my khansamah and my durzie defeat me at every turn.”
“You can’t have everything,” said Beatrice to this woman who desired so much, “you’ve got taste and you organize wonderfully. We enjoyed dining with you night before last, more than I can say. Everything was so dainty, and your dress was a dream, and you had such interesting conversation. The best “talk” I’ve heard since I’ve been in India. As a rule a dinner to meet a big General out here is ghastly, because all the men hold their tongues for fear of being suspected of having any desire to shine in the great man’s eyes! I only wish I had your gift of inspiring people to trot out their ideas.”
“I think I shall come to tea here at least seven times a week,” said Esmé, with a contented sigh. “Compliments are really awfully good for me. I wish more people realized that. Mrs Warbern dined with us the other day, a stuffy old cat. I had strained every nerve to represent prune jelly to the khansamah; I drew if for him. I can’t draw really but I drew something that was awfully like a jelly shape and I hugged a bottle of prunes. I thought he was frightfully impressed. He called in the bearer and the khitmutgar and the orderly and they all said, ‘Achcha’ and ‘teek.’ Now would you believe it, my drawing that jelly put him off completely, they had not a notion what I was up to! They decided it was a charm and buried it in the floor of the kitchen! And the khansamah gave us baked custard. I appreciate baked custard, but it appears that in India puddings have a social standing of their own and baked custard has no official position whatever—it is dak bungalow style! Anyhow after dinner Mrs Warbern said to me, ‘If I were a General’s wife I’d have a Goanese cook.’ I felt thoroughly crushed.”
“I don’t suppose she meant to annoy you,” said Beatrice with a twinkle in her eye.
“No, I don’t fancy she did,” said Esmé, dryly.
“Do you hate India?” asked Beatrice.
“No,” said Esmé after a moment’s consideration, “it wrestles with me,” she added, quaintly, “struggles with the years I’ve had in England, but lately I have begun to dream that I might grow to love this land.”
Beatrice threw up her head and gave a soft little laugh, “Now that is just the answer I knew I should get from you,” she said. “Ask it of most women and by ‘India’ they understand their own houses and their circle of acquaintances. They object to the ‘kutcha’ door-handles, floors, and fireplaces in the one, and to the lack of”—she hesitated— “well, social capital in the other. Take Mrs Anderson as an instance. I think that in England she liked her acquaintances to represent something beyond their own selves to her, they had to be ‘wealthy,’ ‘well-known,’ ‘county,’ or ‘in the smart set in town.’ Then she enjoyed knowing them. As far as I can make out it was a progressive sort of thing—the more you knew the more you were likely to know, the more invitations you got, the more you were likely to get. She has had to leave all that behind. She feels out of it, though she tries to keep it up frantically by letters. The majority of people she meets out here won’t mean anything to her when in England, because they don’t represent what—to her—are the only desirable spheres. Quaint, isn’t it?”
“It seems perfectly mad to me,” said Esmé, Beatrice laughed again. “I don’t think you are as geographical as most of us,” she said. “English people certainly deserve to be called insular. They never mean ‘Colonial,’ ‘Anglo-Indian,’ ‘provincial,’ or ‘suburban,’ in a complimentary sense. The acquaintance you ‘pick up’ abroad you would ‘form’ in a country house-party! Oh, there is a lot in geography—you’ll have to study it.”
“There is more in history,” declared Esmé, suddenly going off at a tangent; she clasped her hands round her knees and her eyes had the dreamy look of the imaginative. The dimples round her mouth and the smile that peeped forth every now and then were in curious contrast to those dreams half-unveiled by the eyes. Hard to define, almost impossible to depict, and more persuasive than her words was the gift of fascination that she possessed.
“I wish we had not lost the instinct of the old feudal system,” she said. “I want it at every turn out here. Sometimes I feel that a little of it survives in me; the something in the blood—not gout you know—that I get, I suppose, from the rowdy old Delamains who held, for hundreds of years, goodness knows what queer, absolute powers over the men, the women, and the children on the estate.”
“I fancy that sort of inherited instinct does help one out here,” agreed Beatrice slowly.
“Look—in the old days in England how the peasantry followed their barons to war, or raid, or revenge! Look how their women worked in the old castles and knew all about the family that ruled them. Our class tolerated an intimacy, then, that we would consider impossible cheek! Think of the jesters, the minstrels, the foster-mothers, they were all on an extraordinarily intimate footing with their superiors. I believe the whole system was held together as much by sheer personal intercourse as by the Barons’ power. I almost wish we knew how to be in touch with the peoples of India like that nowadays.”
“But they were the same race,” objected Beatrice. “The difference is so much greater here. It is the difference of East and West.”
“A great gulf fixed,” nodded Esmé—“Yet never as great as that between African and European, for the Jews who are a purely Eastern people belong now to the different nationalities of the West. Yet think how long the slavery system held good in the Southern States! Held good in spite of all the evils inherent in slavery itself. Why? Because the Southerners were of aristocratic blood. They had the old, old instincts. The system could never have survived as long as it did had there not been genuine friendly feeling, and personal interest and affection in it, as well as fear. Now, of course, they hate the negroes.”
“I see what you are driving at,” said Beatrice, “but you forget the obstacles of creed and caste and the position of Eastern women.”
“No, I don’t,” said Esmé, “one can’t forget such facts, but it is the spirit in which we Englishwomen deal with those facts that seems to me rather amiss. Look at our children—natives like them, there is no racial antagonism there. I believe it is chiefly because the children are really friendly, not officially or conscientiously so.”
“But it’s so easy for children!” cried poor Beatrice, “there is my little Bunny, he clings to Mir Alam’s leg and says, ‘I do love ’ou, Mir Alam,’ or he bangs him with his fists and screams, “Budmash—budmash—budmash!” And in either case Mir Alam seems to adore him, and they understand each other perfectly. But will the men of India ever understand Englishwomen, Mrs Norman? I doubt it profoundly.”
Beatrice was intensely in earnest, Esmé was sincere, yet she was but dreaming and now she seemed to dismiss the whole subject from her mind.
“Do look,” she cried with an irrepressible giggle, “there is your husband tip-toeing along the verandah trying to escape! He sees a visitor—oh, you wretch, why do you call him?”
But Beatrice unheeding, dashed on to the verandah and led back her captive by the arm; he towered above her and they made a splendid looking pair—Esmé noted wistfully that they were the most excellent comrades. Younghusband sat down astride a chair, his arms folded across the back of it; he held a peg tumbler in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He was in polo kit, and it would have been hard to find a more throughly cheery fellow or a finer specimen of manhood.
“I thought it was Mrs Ford, and I simply can’t stand her,” he said in apology to Esmé.
“Now I wonder what you saw to make you think that,” she mused.
“Just your foot and a bit of your dress, she has a frock that colour.”
“She wears sevens,” said Esmé, with a groan.
“Oh, well—I didn’t take in details,” he said with a grin. He was one of those fortunate men who are assured of finding their womenfolk perfectly serene. No moods, no nerves, no temper, no sulks, no discontent or petty injuries marred his return home on any occasion. Unless with due cause for agitation Beatrice was always certain to be in her usual splendid “well being” when he came back. Only those who live with a self-centred, or small natured woman, or one whose nature is suffering in some hidden struggle, can appreciate the full extent of what this meant to Younghusband.
“We’ve been having a most interesting talk, Alwyn,” said Beatrice. “Here is Mrs Norman, who thinks that we women could do much more than at present we attempt in India. She thinks we might use our special gifts, tact, and sympathy, and intuition, to lessen the gulf between us and the natives.”
“Not to lessen the gulf,” interrupted Esmé, quickly, “our sex emphasises the gulf anywhere East of Suez. To lessen the dislike that glares across the gulf.”
“So that’s what you two have been at, is it? Discussing affairs of State—by jove!” chuckled Younghusband.
“Not for the first time,” remarked Beatrice with a quiet smile. The manner in which civilians and soldiers in India banish their womenfolk from all interest or discussions in the affairs of India always amused this woman, who had known much of the statecraft of Europe.
“What’s the idea?” asked Younghusband.
Esmé plunged promptly, her face aglow, while her host regarded her in an amused way. Yet he was interested.
“Most of us Englishwomen are more or less vague in our ideas as to what our intercourse with the peoples and classes of this country should be,” she said to him, chin on hand. “A certain proportion are quite definite, and they say that no native respects a white woman, and that it is a deplorable necessity that an Englishwoman should ever have to speak to a native, or be in the same room with one.”
“Humph,” said he. “Do you and Beatrice agree to that?”
“Not we!” declared Esmé. “At least, granted the necessity, it seems futile merely to deplore it, and more dignified to look for a way to remedy the lack of respect—if there is a lack!”
“But,” put in Beatrice, “though I am full of theories as to the courtesy and kindliness that women should show to natives all my ideas are apt to be swept away by sheer rage every time that I have the existence of disrespect towards Englishwomen—in thought, word, or deed—brought before me. The white women out here are so splendid, are the daughters of such a grand race of women, that it seems horrible that, in view of the unworthiness of the native mind that mistrusts and vilifies them, anyone should venture to criticise them, in their attitude to the natives. Especially when one knows what would be the fate of white women in India, if the balance of power left the Englishmen’s hands even temporarily.”
“O yes,” agreed Esmé, “If globe trotting M.P.’s or misguided editors of home papers took up the question, and lectured us, I should call it both impertinent and unpatriotic, but surely we may be allowed to set our own house in order? I don’t think a bit less of myself than the woman who believes that every native suspects evil of her, and is therefore really unfit to stand in her presence.”
“Hear! Hear!” said Younghusband.
“I’d like to give public service royally and fearlessly, because we are the sovereign race! I’d like to give it wisely and generously because we are a great people,” declared Esmé, making a comical little grimace.
“And what on earth do you call public service?” asked Beatrice, laughing.
“Any intercourse, social or domestic, that I have with natives,” declared Esmé, “one ought always to act with a view as to how it affects the position of the Sahib-log in India, so it is public service, you know.”
“It’s so frightfully difficult for most girls who come to India to look at it like that,” urged Beatrice. “In so many cases theirs is the very limited view of the villa born and villa bred. Very often a girl’s intercourse with classes other than her own was confined to occasionally giving an order on her own initiative to her mother’s maid-servants, to seeing the tradesmen’s boys call for orders, to speaking to saleswomen across a counter when shopping, to paying cabmen, and tipping porters, and questioning policemen. She never travelled, never met different nationalities. Then she comes out to India and you put her at the head of the small community in her compound consisting of a high caste Hindu bearer, a Mahomedan cook and table-servants and bhisti, low caste syces, and the dhobi -and sweeper! A world in itself, and she has to cope with it, poor thing!”
“Well—doesn’t she manage all right?” asked her husband with a grin.
“O she manages beautifully,” laughed Esmé. “She feeds her lord and master, keeps down the bills and has things decently clean and in order. But her attitude to her household—what is it generally? A mixture of fear and contempt.”
“By jove, that’s a bit strong,” said he.
“Its perfectly true,” put in Beatrice, quietly. “At best she remains a stranger to them, and to what she might learn through them of the classes from which they came. She does not learn the language, she does not even feel sure of their respect, she drifts more and more into this attitude year by year. See the increasing number of European, Eurasian and Goanese servants employed nowadays! It’s a little straw, but it shows how the wind blows.”
“Quite so,” said Younghusband, “but the native servants are awful rotters as a rule, you know. I’d dislike natives right enough if I knew the servant class and them only.”
“Still, they are the source through which we Englishwomen are known,” said Esmé. “What they say of us in our compounds to-day, the district will say of us to-morrow. So it is worth while to try to make oneself known at one’s best in one’s own household. It seems to me that if we fail in our intercourse with native servants the very foundation stone of our dealings with natives is ill-laid.”
“The important point to my mind is,” said Younghusband, “that what your servants say of you, your husband’s orderly will hear, and the men in the Lines will believe. So that it’s quite true that your domestic relations with your compound may have a far reaching effect. As to your social intercourse with the people of this country, if you really want to do something practical and useful why not become acquainted with the native officers’ wives?”
“Oh!” said Beatrice, astonished, then after a thoughtful little pause, “yes, I think I would like that.”
“You see,” he said, “if you could establish friendly terms with a native officer’s wife you would render a rather important diplomatic service, and that’s in your line, eh? First, you please the native officer, socially, and any day the rub may come between them and ourselves on that point. They are a sensible lot of fellows as a rule; their official “izzat,”37 and the standing their commission gives them among natives has been sufficient up-to-date to satisfy the class of native officers at present in the service. But education is spreading, especially among the men whose birth entitles them to direct commissions and with education comes, as a rule, a tendency to social discontent. Then, too, more native officers go home year after year, they get made much of there. Some of them come back with swelled heads, most of them return with social aspirations. Well, suppose that—eventually—native officers want a recognized position in our society, suppose they want a certain footing in the mess and in the club? It will be the very deuce, for the idea of a mess is that all members are on an equality. The same holds good of a club. Besides ladies are honorary members of all clubs in cantonments, and they can’t possibly be asked to meet native officers or other native gentlemen as fellow members of a club. It wouldn’t work.”
“How do you think we can meet native gentry, then?” asked Esmé.
“In your own houses. It’s all right there. By coming to your house to salaam they announce their respect. Your own roof implies the direct protection of your husband. In the giving and acceptance of hospitality the native is courtesy itself, and such intercourse has properly defined limits. After all that is the important thing, because in a question of different races with different customs the chief difficulty is the limit. And, hang it all! it isn’t so long ago since those were the limits under which you met your own countrymen. It is only within my recollection that men and women have hob-nobbed at clubs, restaurants, and hotels.”
“You think that, where the social question is concerned between native officers and the Sahib-log, it will be a sedative—a safety-valve—a pacification if we Englishwomen know their wives, and that it might act as a preventative of social friction?” mused Beatrice.
“Exactly. It would at this moment please the native officer and, through him, the sepoy. Further it pleases his family in his village, and his bai-bund38 in his or other regiments. And, probably, it affords some gratification to the native woman herself. Native officers’ wives are constantly in their homes in the villages, and while she is in her’s, she will represent the service of her husband to be one that confers an “izzat,” upon herself such as probably no other woman in that locality even the wives of far bigger men have received. It all helps our relations with the people of India, and especially the fighting classes.”
Beatrice looked round the room, “Very well, I’ll invite the Subadar Major’s wife, if she is here,” she said, with slow emphasis, “and I shall hit her in the eye. I shall wear my pink liberty tea-gown, because they admire draperies, not waists, I shall fill in the décolletage with lace, so as not to shock her. I shall put on all my jewellery—every scrap I possess. I mean to deluge myself with scent and fill the room with lamps and flowers. All the silver we own shall adorn the dining-room table, and I’ll light the candelabra and fill the silver dishes with fruit. “Do not hide your light under a bushel,” was Eastern advice. I intend to act upon it.”
“Good Lord, Bee, why take all that trouble! You forget the sort of home she is used to,” ejaculated her husband in astonishment.
“And you forget the sort of vision she may have conjured up as to how we live! Her husband, too, probably magnifies everything to do with his sahibs, when he condescends to talk to her. What great men you are, what a great man he is to be your friend! Why, Alwyn, if she went home and uttered the Punjab’s equivalent for “I don’t think so much of your precious Younghusbands after all!” the whole thing would be a diplomatic fiasco!”
“There!” cried Esmé, rising and putting on her white serge coat, “there! Major Younghusband, look at your wife, that’s the material some of you Englishmen would waste out here, year after year! Is she not exactly what is wanted to deal with the feminine influence which is behind the men you see and rule? You meet a frontier beyond which you dare not and may not penetrate at the threshold of every native home—can you afford to refuse or ignore the spirit which is willing to break the bread of friendship in that forbidden land? Your wife had, as a girl, a lot of experience of every class in her own country—you know what I mean, Mrs Younghusband—the housekeeper’s room, the servants’ hall, the dairy, the laundry, the gardeners and the stablemen and their cottages, the game-keepers, the gillies, the farmers, the tenants—the tenants’ ball! The same thing over again on one’s friends’ estates. Then look at your training abroad how many nationalities you’ve known, how many questions of policy you’ve heard discussed! Look at the social education you’ve inherited and experienced! Ought it not to make you something of an expert in dealing with the present social difficulty in our intercourse with natives? And yet I know heaps of men in the Indian Army—Oh, heaps—who would have rendered you useless by declaring that they “don’t want you muddled up with natives!” It makes me savage to think that practically the only Englishwomen known to natives are missionaries, who, however charming or good, would hardly, as a rule, be great successes as—well, as Ambassadresses you know!”
Both the Younghusbands laughed, but he was undoubtedly pleased.
“That’s settled, then,” he said, “I’ll invite the Subadar Major to send the old lady. They’ve been married years, and she probably speaks nothing but the broadest Punjabi. I don’t know if he will let her come though.”
“Not let her come! why, you said it would be so gratifying to him! And he is so fond of you that surely—” Beatrice began in argument.
Younghusband roared. “Fond in a way, yes. So am I of him, very fond. He is an uncommonly good soldier. But why should we see eye to eye about social and domestic matters? He may be as pleased as punch to send his wife here, I hope he will be, but I would not bet on it. None of us really understand the native.”
“Well, good-bye,” said Esmé, “Remember I am coming to your party, Mrs Younghusband. Don’t you forget to ask me.”
The Younghusbands walked to the gate with Esmé and waved to her again as she disappeared round the corner.
“She is a very good sort—what?” said he, as they tramped back together.
“I like her immensely,” said Beatrice. “You know the way she has of saying ‘Look at this,’ and ‘Look at that? ‘ Well, really she does make one see all sorts of new views on subjects one thought settled. Lots of her arguments and statements won’t hold water, yet they reflect some truth even when they don’t contain facts. She fascinates me.”
“She is not a patch on you, Bee,” said her big husband. Which was satisfactory.
Next day, Major Younghusband gave his wife’s invitation to the Subadar Major. If his breath was taken away by astonishment he certainly showed no sign of it, but accepted the invitation with the suave courtesy of his race, that splendid manner which does so much to remove the racial antipathy, which on many occasions the Sahib-log would be only too conscious of feeling did not the manner seem to represent the man. That the invitation was accepted was no surety that the lady would really put in an appearance, Major Younghusband warned his wife, she might plead “fever,” a “pain in her stomach,” or “too greatly fear” at the last moment. Gulab Singh, himself, was by no means prepared to prophecy her reception of the invitation. Personally he was gratified by it, and soothed in his pride, yet still not wholly reconciled to his sahibs. Major Reed was going on ten days leave, but the Subadar Major had not unlocked his lips to acquaint him with the mischief brewing, or likely to brew, in the Lines.
He found his wife going about her cooking, with sullen brows. A letter from her father, received that morning, had exasperated the feminine temperament. Of what use to upbraid and goad, to pour scorn upon her husband’s position, and to express disbelief in the power of her influence? It was only extremely annoying and the lady sulked. But, when Gulab Singh unfolded his tidings, was there ever such a transformation? Smiles, laughter, eager questions, delighted chatter. No talk now of “wicked ones,” of “bold, barefaced ones,” or, of the placing of feet upon dishonoured beards. Oh dear me, no, far from it. The cry was for new clothes, for very beautiful clothes indeed, which she must wear at the tamasha so that she might not shame her lord. She was very tactful in the way she put it—and she put it to him again and again with the maddening persistency of her race and sex—but the demand was for the immediate adornment of her small person.
Certainly the “izzat” was great. The wife of Lachhman Singh was a particularly jungli woman who spoke Punjabi only, and neither she nor her fair and educated daughters had ever known a memsahib. The pleader was an unpopular individual, suspected on excellent grounds of considerable disloyalty, so his acquaintance and the acquaintance of his family had not been desired by English ladies. And Lachhman Singh had known how to turn this too to his own ends, he had been extremely clever at rubbing it in. Gulab Singh’s wife, driving in a closed carriage in Lahore, had gazed out of the shuttered windows with fierce, sad young eyes that blazed with hatred at the unconscious Englishwomen. The hurt pride, the jealous longings of this cruelly educated, secluded girl had been bitter indeed. Many a time since the birth of her son had she promised herself that he and his generation should humble the proud ones in the dust. Her influence would have all tended that way. Every evil impure thought, every dishonouring suspicion coarsely breathed by Lachhman Singh, every inch of the social gulf, every difference of social custom craftily measured by Lachhman Singh and hatefully implanted in his daughter’s breast, would have been handed down—a legacy of the zenana—to the son of Gulab Singh.
And now? Ah, the thirst of those behind the purdah for excitement, the longing for some new thing! No prejudice, no political training, poisoning the mind of this half-child, half-woman, could prevail against such a temptation. And at the back of her mind the comparison arose; the daughter of Lachhman Singh, pleader, was ignored by the ruling race, the wife of Gulab Singh, native officer, was invited to the house of his Major Sahib—result, the loosening of the father’s political grip. Women, East or West, place a wonderful value upon a social position. Do politics, does love of country, does even affection or passion always win if weighed in the balance against it? We have Radical peeresses, American duchesses, and young wives of rich old men. And how many marriages are saved from disaster by no emotion more noble than the fear of forfeiting all social recognition? There is no room for surprise that this thing meant much to Gulab Singh’s wife.
It was a very nervous little person who drove after dark from the Lines to the Younghusbands’ bungalow and who clutched at her husband’s arm at the approach to the light which streamed from the glass panelled doors on to the verandah. Gulab Singh felt that this was very soothing and quite as it should be. Of what use to be for thirty years in the confidence of sahibs, with an honourable seat in Durbar, and the somewhat wearisome privilege of being received for a few formal moments by the British officers’ wives, if in one’s own house there was this foolish talk of no honour, no reward, and that particularly aggravating reference to the Mess and the Club? But now things have resumed their right proportion; here we are, Gulab Singh, Subadar Major, perfectly undismayed by the arrival at the bungalow of our Major Sahib, and here is our house,39 who had such high and mighty notions, praying fervently to all her gods.
The orderly, Kirpa Singh, was waiting to announce their arrival. To him had been left the responsibility of making the bungalow purdah for the occasion, by drawing every curtain, bolting every entrance—save the door into the drawing-room—and banishing the servants to their quarters. He had bought the fruit which bedecked the dining-room table, and selected the scent for the guest—cooked food being unacceptable to a Sikh in a sahib’s house was not offered. He now stood at a discreet distance from where the bazaar tum-tum pulled up, and saluted the senior native officer without looking in the direction of the native lady.
“Salaam, Subadar Major Sahib,” said a soft voice as Beatrice came out, with a flood of light following her, through the open door. There was no awkwardness, no uncertainty. The order, “Kirpa Singh, chaukee do40 Subadar Major ko,” rendered Gulab Singh’s course clear; he was to be seated on the verandah, on guard so to speak. The Major Sahib had, of course, left the house and gone to the Mess; this was an affair of women, but no attention due to himself was lacking. A bottle of port wine—dear to a Sikh—and a glass—new, and brought from the shops by Kirpa Singh, was waiting for him on a little table by a chair. A dhurri was spread and there was a glowing “angeti” lest he should be cold. “Salaam,” said Beatrice again this time very gently, as one woos a child’s confidence, and taking her little guest’s hand she led her indoors.
“Who is the other mem?” asked the Subadar Major, catching the sound of a further greeting.
“It is the mem of the General Sahib.”
“Ah, teek!” The native officer was much pleased.
“There is an excellent bundobust within; scent, fruit, and many flowers. The memsahib has given herself much trouble in the matter.”
“Bohut achchi memsahib hai.”41
“Beshakk, bohut achchi.”42
Thus the deep voices without growled contentedly in their beards, and on the morrow the Lines would echo their words. Within, the scene was charming. Esmé was dressed in a soft blue chiffon frock, she wore her pearl necklace and diamond earrings and a big diamond and tortoiseshell comb; Beatrice looked magnificent in her heavily falling Liberty tea-gown, and, if the picture was somewhat marred to Western eyes by the Christmas tree effect of every jewel, paste ornament, and trinket she possessed being bestowed about her handsome person, it certainly added to the dazzled admiration with which the Sikh girl gazed upon so much splendour. She stood between the two tall Englishwomen, a wife and mother aged sixteen and, lest all things were not quite clear to these memsahibs, she said in her soft Urdu, “I am Gulab Singh.”
There was something pathetic in the little declaration and in the quick rise and fall above her heart of the pink and violet draperies, embroidered in gold tinsel.
They asked her to sit down and with her tiny hands pressed together she uttered the conventional words of gratitude for hospitality. After that, formalities vanished and time flew. The absence of constraint between woman and woman, the welcome lack of officialdom, the fact that no clogging precedent existed to enforce a prescribed and stiff etiquette made friendly conversation between the three an easy matter. Both Beatrice and Esmé were gifted women, socially, and Gulab Singh listened, pleased, to the flow of voices and rippling laughter. By and by Beatrice played “The Merry Widow” waltz to her gratified little guest who was charmed by the honour but somewhat aghast at such unpleasant sounds.
If the wives of General Norman, Major Younghusband, and Subadar Gulab Singh made an incongruous trio when listening to the melody of “The Merry Widow “ there was, nevertheless, a wonderful harmony between the three when, later, they hung over the white cot of “Bunny Sahib.” A sleepy, rosy Bunny Sahib, who cuddled in his dimpled arms his beloved woollen monkey, Peter.
“Hanuman,” murmured the little figure in rose and purple and gold, “Hanuman, behold my lord holds a god in his arms.” The two ivory hands went up to her forehead in a quick salaam.
Nurse, with a crackling of starched apron, brought the lamp forward to throw the light better on the precious charge. Disapproval unutterable was written on her countenance, for had not Mrs Younghusband said in defiance of all nursery law, “Let us see him properly, Elizabeth, it really doesn’t matter if he is wakened just this once.”
“Salaam,” said the Sikh girl again to this new memsahib.
“This is one of the Gora-log, who waits upon my son,” said Beatrice.
“Ah, teek,” murmured the guest.
Bunny stirred and the toy fell from his cot; quickly with a swift and utterly graceful movement she picked up the monkey and put it back. “Take it O Maharajah! Sleep, little Protector of the Poor,” she whispered, then laughed, an excited, hushed little laugh, for Bunny had clutched her slim hand with his dimpled fist. “Behold!” she cried in the prettiest triumph, and Bunny woke up. Fortunately that young cherub elected to be his most heavenly self. He crowed, he chuckled, he was irresistibly affectionate, wth an adorable desire for kissing and cuddling and the greatest admiration for the “pretty lady” in the gold tinsel. He sat on his enraptured guest’s lap, a lovely dimpled baby boy, making an entrancing picture, while his mother, flashing with light from her many baubles, knelt in front of the child-woman and baby-sahib and played the absorbing game of “This little pig goes to market” with ten pink little toes. The imp made a gleeful grab at her hair and tangled it in his fat fingers; Esmé flew to the rescue, but Beatrice only laughed and, when released, kissed the rosy palms of the small tormentor. “They are getting a wee bit cold, put him back in his cot, Elizabeth,” she said.
“Come, Master Bunny,” commanded that excellent and outraged person stiffly. She took good care not to touch the fragile scented figure in gaudy draperies as she captured the unwilling baby and flounced him back into his bed.
“Wah! Without doubt the mem is the very mother of the child, and the Gora is not the handmaid of the Major Sahib who bore him this son. She is verily, as the mem said, the hireling who waits upon him,” commented the woman of the East to herself.
Esmé bent over the cot, kissing and coaxing the indignant Bunny back to sleepy smiles.
“Has the Presence a child?” asked the visitor.
“Nay,” though no regret was permitted in the voice, the hidden face was full of longing.
“May God send a son,” murmured the Hindu woman, and there came back the arrogant, almost the defiant answer.
“Without doubt He will send a child.”
Driving back to the Lines, Gulab Singh’s wife muttered to herself, “It is not true that they bear no children and desire none, it is not true that they take no delight in sons, perchance the rest are but lies also.”
And to the thrilled wife of Kinha she recited all the wonders of the House of the Major Sahib, of her dresses of satin and silk, of her coats of wild beasts’ skins, very costly, of her jewels and silver and lamps and flowers, of the exceeding beauty of her son, and of her size and strength to be the mother of many and above all, and over and over again, of the state, dignity, and importance of the wife of the Subadar Major who was the guest. By and by, travelling by word of mouth, blown hither and thither amid the ceaseless gossip of Ind, these things were discussed in the villages of the Sikhs from whence came recruits for the regiment and in the Kangra district of the Dogras.
Younghusband duly heard of the visit of the fakir, and no native officer, non-commissioned officer, or sepoy attended the sedition-monger’s meeting in the City. Later it leaked out that one of the 500th’s men had been there and the junior officers of the 105th were somewhat elated.
“It comes of our being so much in touch with our men,” said the Senior Subaltern. Well! Well!
During a few weeks after Beatrice Younghusband’s purdah party Esmé felt as if Dera Ismail Khan wore a new and far more interesting aspect. She never drove past the Lines without thinking of the wife of Gulab Singh and wondering what she and the other native ladies were doing, what they were thinking, what they were feeling, what they really were. But gradually her interest slackened. This was inevitable. She never came into contact with native officers, in fact she never so much as saw them. Moreover, as Norman was not a regimental officer, she did not come into touch with the regimental discussions when the names of native officers were constantly cropping up in the course of conversation. The deeply engrossing subject of promotions to the commissioned ranks never, in her house, kept double company commanders talking round the dining table while the hostess, in remote and solitary glory, yawned her head off in the drawing-room. As the General’s wife, she was out of touch with the regimental side of life in Dera Ismail Khan. Mrs Bobby assured her that she had some reason to congratulate herself on this point. “For,” said that young person sagely, “it isn’t all jam.” Esmé was always glad to see the St John’s amazingly shabby bamboo cart drive up to the door and to hear the girl’s voice calling “qui hai,” to the servants, but sometimes she had a mood when she tried to survey Mrs Bobby from the standpoint of Chillingham Towers and then she was fain to confess that Violet Cranmer and Betty and Muriel would have found nothing in common with the girl, who had lived all her life in Bedford until she had married the fifth son of a retired Colonel in the Rifle Brigade. They would have called her a queer little thing and her clothes weird, unless they had immediately banished her from their minds as one of the thousands of shabby gentlefolk, who, as far as they were concerned, simply did not count. Mrs Bobby would, with provincial suspiciousness, have dubbed them snobs; Esmé knew better but she realized that her circle at home were for the greater part indifferent to the remainder of the world. The keen interest which she felt about people in general had always distinguished her, and it had to a great extent paved the way for her acceptance of Dick Norman and the abandoning of her life in England for the strange life of the Sahib-log in India.
Mrs Bobby, looking very pretty in her cheap durzi-made print frock, went to see Esmé one day towards the end of March, quite sure of a genuine welcome and, as she expressed it, “simply bursting for a good talk.” The two girls sat side by side on the sofa among the cool looking green cushions and Mrs Bobby adjured Esmé to thank her stars that she was not in the same regiment as Mrs Vine.
“I told her,” she announced with pink cheeks, “I told her straight out what I thought. I said, ‘You seem to consider that a pretty face is simply one form of temptation, like a Salome dance or the picture of an Eve! It seems to me that it only tempts women to envy, hatred, and malice,’ she turned a sort of mauve colour.”
“I wish I had seen her!” moaned Esmé. “Oh, why didn’t I?”
“I don’t care if she considers me a conceited toad or not, or whether her husband is a Major while Bobby is only a subaltern; I don’t care one tiny little scrap,” recklessly but stoutly.
“She is jealous of you. A mole could see that!”
“She may be jealous if she likes,” observed Mrs Bobby, loftily, “but I refuse to permit her to be impertinent. So does Bobby. He always says to me, ‘Mind you are not sat on.’ Now don’t you call this cheek, Esmé? She came to see me the other day, and after a long rigmarole, she ended up by saying, ‘You ought to be careful, Mrs Bobby, you really ought. You are young, men admire a young face while it lasts. Don’t get talked about with Dick, Tom and Harry.’ I just ask you, who are Dick, Tom and Harry? How am I to defend myself against myths? Is she not an aggravating woman? And really and truly no one ever talks about me except herself!”
“Of course, they don’t,” Esmé assured her with a hug.
It never occurred to either of the girls to imagine that their friendship for each other was the cause of Mrs Vine’s jealousy, yet such was the case. The intimacy that existed between the General’s wife and the wife of a subaltern in her husband’s regiment was gall and wormwood to Mrs Vine. That Mrs Robert St John on a tiny, tiny income should dance through life joyous and popular was both incomprehensible and trying to the elder woman, who would have loved to have patronised her junior, and, failing that congenial occupation, took umbrage at all her acts. It certainly was not easy to effectively patronize a bewitching young person, who, when you went impressively to tea with her, waved her hot butter toast at you in welcome as she rose from among a bevy of friends who had dropped in. Now no one dropped in to tea with Mrs Vine to eat the frigid icing of the cake made by her superior khansamah and to listen to her commonplace conversation. She was at a loss to discover how Mrs Bobby managed it; she thought she must be decidedly artful, and disapproved, “I do not lay myself out to attract men,” she proclaimed. But she found it disconcerting to inform Mrs Bobby of the fact—the weighty fact—that, “Major Vine and I are dining with the General and his wife next Monday,” when the girl could retort, “Yes, I know. Esmé told me when she popped in to lunch with us this morning.” (Esmé had groaned, “Your awful Vines are coming on the 10th.”) And Major Vine, convinced by his wife that the St John’s were a distinctly spoilt and self-important young pair, “took it out” of the disgusted Bobby with great thoroughness, till Mrs Bobby shook her little fist at the very mention of his name.
“Don’t I long to open the General’s eyes as to what the creature is really like!” she would cry, when utterly exasperated on behalf of her lord and master. “I have a good mind to tell Esmé.”
“Poof! What’s the use of that? He does not listen to his wife about professional matters. Not like the Major,” retorted the gloomy and injured subaltern, and Mrs Bobby could only exclaim for the hundredth time “Oh, why can’t everybody be nice and jolly, just to make life worth living!”
Mrs Bobby had the warmest heart in the world and her young husband was her idol, yet her woman’s wit detected much that was hidden from the boy. She saw—and winced horribly—that the other subalterns thought him handicapped by marriage, and she noted, too, that he was slightly out of touch with them through not being, as they were, inseparable inmates of the Mess. She sighed and divined the criticism of his seniors that young St John wanted sitting on. Ah! if they only knew him as she knew him, thought little Mrs Bobby wistfully, if they only guessed how this boy, weighted with domestic responsibility, needed encouragement. If they could but guess, too, how much he went without, could but realize the hundred and one unselfish little economies. If, beneath his faults of manner, his cheery self-assertiveness in the face of painful anxieties over alarming bills, they could but know—as she knew—what a dear he was.
Esmé had penetrated behind the reserve of the simple household. She had seen Master Bobby, when his twenty-three years were wholly boyish, pulling down the hair of Mrs Bobby, a thrillingly happy person of nineteen in struggling whirls of white muslin, both of them given up utterly to the congenial occupation of “ruxing.” She had seen them, too, when Mrs Bobby had a chill and her husband coped vigorously with hot water bottles, quinine, poultices, and the ordering of the patient’s meals. She had sympathised with him during the girl’s severe attack of fever in the Spring when he talked anxiously of the possible necessity of her going home, without a penny available for the passage. Sher Khan, the bearer, proved himself a veritable treasure during those trying weeks; he stuffed his Memsahib with chicken broth and beef tea, he drove her indoors from the garden when the sun grew strong, and he pursued her with wraps at the first breath of cool evening air, not least of all he presented no bearer’s account at the end of the month, and the khansamah’s bazaar bill was a mere trifle.
“They are not bad sorts, you know, when all’s said and done,” commented their young sahib.
During Mrs Bobby’s convalescence, Esmé used to sit with the St Johns on the verandah as the day grew less blazingly hot towards six o’clock and the three settled the affairs of the world with the delicious “cocksureness” of extreme youth. Never from Bobby St John’s lips fell the disillusioning declaration that no sahib really understands a native, on the contrary he held forth by the hour on that fascinating subject to Esmé and his admiring wife and imparted much information, unmarred by the slightest doubt as to its infallibility. He was just as interested as Mrs Bobby, too, in the sayings and doings of the entire station; and this was no mean spirit of gossip but a right and keen participation in the life of the community. These two young things, who had so early in life formed that most important element in any society—a home, were enthusiastic critics of all circumstances and events effecting the members of their circle, and were in this matter far more perceptive and sympathetic than the bachelors, even though the latter could boast a more expensive and varied participation in the gay doings of the station, such as polo, rackets, bridge and guest-nights. When she was with them Esmé remembered Sir John Danvers’ words, “Experience of the world? That’s not a marriage dowery,” and she felt a sudden dismay as she thought of her Dick’s forty-five years. Here was Norman, finer, stronger, greater than young Bobby, with indisputably more to give the world than the merry-natured, kind-hearted, commonplace boy had it in him to bestow, but what if he had a lesser capacity for loving than this young husband? What if he could make less room in his life, in his very nature, in the sacred place by his heart? What if the forty odd years had crowded her out, had banished her from her birthright? Undoubtedly that right was hers since hers was young love, as young as the St Johns’, needing what all youth needs, what the tender things of Spring claim youth around, the whisper of love, the caress of happiness, the sunshine of approval. If Dick’s heart was saying to her young heart, “Love me with the calm, placid, unexacting love of mature years; strong, tried and true,” could she grant that request? No—no—no, not yet, not yet, not yet. She could count the reiterated refusal over and over in heart beats.
So a visit from Mrs Bobby often left Esmé rather depressed, and on the occasion of their talk about Mrs Vine she felt almost tearful, for the hot weather was coming on apace and the exodus of the womenfolk was already being arranged for.
“I can’t think why you don’t make plans, Esmé,” said Mrs Bobby, reprovingly, “everybody else has. Mine were made ages ago. If you are going to take a house in Simla you had better hurry or they will all be snapped up. I am going to the Gullies. It is cheap there and Bobby is to be at Chungla Gullie for the Musketry Class, so you see we can be together for some months, thank Heaven! When I am alone I must manage on a hundred and fifty rupees a month. Simply must, but goodness knows how!”
“What is everybody doing?” asked Esmé languidly.
“Oh, Mrs Freeman goes to her beloved Murree, of course. She starts on the 12th April. The Bridge of Boats is to be broken up on the 16th April, and I should not advise anybody to wait and go by the Ferry Steamer, it will take hours and hours to cross the river by it. Besides it will be simply boilingly hot here by then. Frightful. The dear Mr Lance is to go to Murree, too, needless to say. To cram for “C & D,” he announces. Much cramming he’ll do! He takes first leave. Captain Freeman takes second leave; he goes to Sheikh Budin with the Derajat Headquarters till then—but, of course, you know that. Mrs Younghusband has taken a hut in Gulmerg, and the Vines are going to Simla. A treat for Simla. She says he feels he really ought to go this year, “To see and to be seen.” They are awfully impressive about it, and I’m sure she is bound to impress Simla with that ghastly sapphire blue voile dress! The Mervalls are off to England; lucky wretches. I don’t suppose the Wordsworths and Smiths will come back here as the 101st Cavalry are leaving in the Reliefs. Half the Station will be different next year.
“I hate that,” said Esmé. “It is such a bore staying on in the same place and having a whole lot of new people invade it instead of one’s old friends.”
“Oh, that is India all over,” said Mrs Bobby, philosophically. “Well, I must fly.”
Esmé was left to meditate on the coming separation from her husband. A separation which came, she felt, at a most inopportune moment, “Just when we were beginning to get into each other’s ways a little,” she sighed. Norman, for his part, felt that he had an announcement to make which would fill her with glee. He made it at lunch.
“Would you like to go Home this hot weather?” The very manner of the question smote her. It was delivered so casually, asked with just the smallest pause between striking a match and lighting a cigarette, and a glance of his steady blue eyes scrutinised her.
Esmé threw as little feeling into her reply. “No, I don’t think so.”
He cracked a couple of walnuts in the pause which followed, and when he spoke again his face was screwed up into an expression which merely betokened the hardness of Kashmir walnuts, and the exertion of breaking them.
“You had better go, I think. You won’t like the Hills.”
The khitmutgar brought him a chit before she could make a rejoinder. Norman was so obviously absorbed in its contents that Esmé, pale with the heat, and looking rather like a drooping snowdrop in her white frock, perforce sat silent, toying with her coffee spoon and forming a resolution unchallenged. She was furious. So he could care little enough to suggest the placing of such a separation of time and space between them! Could be so indifferent to what that separation had meant in the past! Had he no memory for pain? O it was unbearable. A sudden picture of Lord Merewether, of Captain Ffolkes, captured her. Then she saw herself tired out on the journey to Deera Ismail Khan. Saw herself—vividly—as she would feel among her old circle in England if she went home now with about tuppence half-penny to spend on getting “new things.” She rose from her chair with an unrestrained impatience and anger that had hitherto been completely foreign to her gracious ways.
The hot March sun blazed and blinked on the verandah and glittered in the garden. Wasps buzzed angrily outside the chick. A fat frog came hop, hop, flop into the room. Not a breath stirred.
“Well, I do think you are an extraordinary man!” clashed Esmé’s voice.
“What? Wait a moment. I must attend to this,” said Norman—and he went out of the room with the note in his hand.
She could hear his footsteps dying away as he reached his office. The huge shadow of the camel, ridden by the sowar who had brought the note, lay black on the drive. His red saddle cloth seemed almost to burn in the sun. Esmé looked out at the familiar sight with unseeing eyes. Her anger increased with each moment’s enforced silence, with the quiet drone of the Persian wheel at the well, with the distant rumble of some slowly drawn bullock cart. Every suppression of feeling, every occasion of unresponsiveness, every lack of tender demonstration, all absence of wooing, all absence of claim on her love, her sympathy, her interest, rose before her and flamed there in bitterness. Norman, coming back, paused by the doorway in astonishment at her stormy face.
He met the situation with a grin. “What has upset her now, Waggles? Just look at her,” he said.
“You are an extraordinary man,” Esmé repeated.
“O Lord!” said Norman, in quiet exasperation.
“You appear to be utterly indifferent as to whether I am in England or India. Does it not matter to you where your wife is?”
“Oh, so that’s it, is it?” He seemed to meditate on this, then, “If that is all you can complain about you are not a very greatly injured woman; are you? I was not thinking of myself. I thought you might prefer to go to England for the hot weather. You don’t seem particularly in love with India.”
“You don’t make me so.” She interrupted hotly.
“I daresay not. I’m not a rich man,” he said, rather wearily.
“Money—money—money! Do you never test me by anything else? Always money between us!” she flashed.
“I am not aware that I have ever begrudged you anything within my means. I know you have often made me feel precious sore.”
“Oh, that things were not good enough. However, there is no use going into all that question. I can afford to send you home if you want to go. If you do not care to go there is no necessity for you to do so. I can’t see what you find to complain about in that—but you are never satisfied.”
“Never satisfied “ she echoed, blankly.
“Never. From the moment you arrived you’ve hated everything. Oh, I daresay it is natural. It is only India, after all—and a rotten Frontier Station—but it is not my fault, it has been the best I could give you.”
Esmé looked at him in surprise, he had never spoken so hotly so unguardedly, before. Astonishment took the place of anger.
“I have hated nothing in a way that mattered,” she said, slowly. “Nothing, Dick, except your ways with me. You have never, never, never made me sure that you love me.”
“Never what?” he almost shouted, as if he had been accused of never eating, or never breathing, or something equally preposterous.
“Love me,” repeated Esmé.
“Huzoor!” old Arjan Das’s head came round the chic. A cypher telegram had come. His work claimed him.
At the door he turned. “She’s mad, Waggles,” he announced and went out.
For a moment she thought she must be. She stooped and patted Waggles. The dog wriggled away and flew after Norman.
“Well, go to him, then! but of all puzzling and aggravating creatures—” said Norman’s wife, despairingly.
Later she mused on the formidable rival that his profession threatened to be, and in a few days time, she and the other wives in the Station knew Fear at the unanswerable claim of that rival.
“Will there be an Expedition in Wazeristan?”
The question was discussed at the Club, in the Messes, and in the Bungalows. Those who affirmed that there must be a show this time never lowered their voices, nor hid their opinions, in the presence of anxious wives. On the Frontier the women’s nerves must be the nerves of comrades. Yet Rumour with her sensational tongue doubtless tormented them. “There was a certainty of a row. It was intended to have a big affair. If an occupation followed, some regiments would not be out of the wilds for a couple of years. The Tribesmen were well armed. The Amir was backing them up. The Gomul was confoundedly unhealthy,” and so on, endlessly.
And the women whispered to each other that it was so hard to know what to do.
“My husband wants me to go home, he says he won’t know a moment’s peace if I am in India in case anything should happen to him.” “I can’t make any plans till I know if there is going to be an Expedition. I certainly see no object in going to Simla if Jack won’t get any leave to come up there.” “Our passages are taken for the 10th but I have not a notion what we shall do, for Gerald refuses to start, if there is a likelihood of being recalled. He might miss the whole thing, you see, if it is only a dash in—whack at the tribesmen—and dash out again—I am worried to death, for he has been out here eight years and needs a change to England terribly!” They admitted the worry, they kept the Fear to themselves—a hidden pain.
The husbands, in their leisure moments, had a look at their insurance policies and wished to God that they could have afforded to have doubled them. They sorted bills rather wearily—there is much method but little prosperity in elastic bands round neat little piles, in files, and in account books. They felt they touched a real grievance when they reflected on the pensions their wives would receive in the event of their death—£100 a year for a Major’s widow, less for the widows of Subalterns and Captains. A baby would get a pension of £12. It is so easy for gentlefolk to bring up a little child on that sum! In the course of time it would rise to the wealth of about £35 yearly. “We would willingly pay more in donations and subscriptions to the Fund if only they would give our wives and children a decent sum to live on,” said the soldier men sadly. They sought consolation in the fact that if they were killed in action their widows would get double pensions. “But, mind you, the Government extracts a fat sum out of the tribesmen as a punishment, and not a penny of it goes to the unfortunate wives of men who are killed,” they growled.
The bachelors rejoiced greatly, and every officer alike dreamed, heaven knows what dreams, of a good fight—dreams of the sword handed down through turbulent centuries. Everywhere there were keen preparations. Orderlies pitched tents to see if repairs were needed, men looked to their boots, nobody could find a sale for superfluous possessions, though offered dirt cheap. Ram Das, the shopkeeper, ordered in quantities of stores, transport officers were worked off their legs, subalterns gave immense quantities of information to each other; nobody else appeared to know anything, but the youngsters were making sure of seeing service this time and were blissfully happy.
“You ought to be as keen as mustard on a show—that’s a soldier’s wife,” Norman said abruptly to Esmé one evening.
“Do you think there will be one?” she said, not answering him more directly.
“H’m, one can’t be certain, but it looks like it.”
“Major Wade said yesterday—”
“Oh, of course, Wade knows more than I do about it! Commanding the Brigade. I naturally am kept in ignorance,” he interrupted hotly. “Well, go on.”
“No, I won’t go on,” said Esmé, with spirit, “not when you jump down my throat like that. I do wish, Dick, that I could sometimes have a pleasant conversation in my own house with my own husband.”
“And don’t you?” he asked.
“No. It is impossible to discuss anything with you on conversational lines; it is more like a battle.”
“That is because you argue.”
She remained silent, and presently he said, “Now, is it not absurd to suppose that Wade could give me any information as to the present situation?”
Esmé piled another cushion behind her head and cuddled into its soft depths comfortably; she flung up her white arms and laid hold of the corners of the frill above her head, the sleeves of her frock slipped back, showing adorable dimples.
“Dick,” she said, “he did not offer information, he gave his opinion. Do you—can you—suppose that you are the only man in the Derajat Brigade who possesses an opinion worth having and worth hearing?”
“No,” said Norman, “I’m not an ass. Wade is a sound fellow, too, an excellent officer. What I mean is this, why on earth should you listen to his ideas rather than to mine, when he naturally has less accurate information upon which to form them?”
Esmé gazed at the rafters of the white-washed ceiling. “Oh, goodness,” she sighed, “what a merciful thing it is for my sex that a pope can’t marry! Fancy being wedded to an infallible husband! How he would rage if one listened to a mere cardinal’s sermon.”
Norman apparently was deaf. She peeped at him over the corner of her cushion.
“Does it ever strike you that it may be a wee bit of a strain to me not to know whether you will be beyond the Frontier in a few days?” she asked.
He wheeled round in his chair and looked at her with interest.
“Think of my luck if I command a brigade on service. How else am I to get on? Aren’t you keen?”
“Don’t imagine,” she answered wistfully, “that I begrudge you your chances. If I could make you a present of all my anxieties and fears about you, as the price of your success, I would do so with all my heart and never count the cost—but—”
“I can’t long for war, not as the instrument of our ambitions.”
“That’s all right,” he admitted, “that’s all right in a way. But what did I come into the service for?”
“Never mind that,” urged Esmé. “It’s so selfish and personal. Where you gain a C.B. some men gain only death and women broken hearts.”
“War is an ugly thing,” Norman said slowly. “You women want to moralize and sentimentalize over it, and the facts won’t adapt themselves to that. A man has got to enjoy a fight for the fight’s sake—and fight to win. Cost? Of course it has to cost something; if you are going to boggle at the price you are not a soldier, that’s all, and had better grow carrots somewhere and curse over taxes.”
“It is queer,” said Esmé, softly, “I can’t understand what you feel. Women are different, utterly different. Not more merciful, not less brave than men, but death appals them more. They have a greater innate respect for life.”
“Why?” he asked sceptically.
“It’s instinct,” she responded dreamily; “woman never takes life.”
“She murders. She has no mandate to shed blood in war, no powers or code to deliver a blow for an insult. Only when she sins against the whole human race does she slay. She gives life instead. Her natural lot is to bring forth life. As a result the value of human life, the reverence for it, the horror of its loss is bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh.”
Norman jerked his head towards the Frontier. “Well, your sex are the cause of a good bit of fighting; those Pathans as often as not start their blood feuds over a woman—cherchez la femme.” He rose and stood leaning his broad shoulders against the mantelpiece, his hands thrust deep into his pockets. He looked gloomily at his young wife.
“And mind you what the men of the Native Army need during this sedition and unrest is—fighting. They want blood-letting. Do ’em all the good in the world. It is in their breed. And they don’t have to worry about what their womenfolk will feel, they have got the pull over us there.”
May in the Hills! Was there ever such a delicious sunlit world? The air blew crystal clear from the snows of Kashmir, the tender green of the trees wove a delicate mantle in the vast forests, the fairy-like maidenhair and the quivering grasses swayed and whispered and danced in the sunbeams. The Plains, slumbering in a mist of heat below Pindi Point, seemed the very footstool of the world. Everywhere was majesty and tenderness, the awe of immeasurable vastness and the sweet intimacy of fertile loveliness. The wondrous Himalayas pierced the heavens, and close by, near and dear to sight and sound and touch, the violets peeped from the moss, the silver birch trees tapered sky-wards, and the little eager streams splashed and tumbled and sang down the hillside, through the tangle of rock and bough, of twisted root and writhing creeper, making merry music all the way. The bungalows crowned the mountain height, nestling among tiny gardens, the bazaar hummed like a wasp’s nest, every climbing path was dotted with coolies, the valleys echoed to the tonga’s horn; the road leading up from Rawalpindi roared beneath the heavy wheels and hoofs of its ceaseless traffic; bullock carts, tongas, baggage mules, ekkas, motors. The telegraph wires leaped in silver flashes from spur to spur. Two mules, laden with post bags and driven ahead by a mounted sepoy, carried His Majesty’s mails at a brisk trot from Murree through the Gullies. The bugles of the regiments quartered for the summer on the wooded hill-tops rang sweet and clear from the peaks. Truly a gay and sun-kissed world. Mystic, too, at night, when the shadows hid the earth and the mountains touched the stars. Yet a shuddering land in moments of terror when the sky spat flames and roared and crashed in thunder, or the great bulking, soaring heights rocked in the earthquake.
And the tiny ant-like creatures, amid the limitless spaces, commented daily on the miracles of beauty and force around them after the manner of their kind: “Isn’t Murree pretty?” “What a pity the thunderstorm spoilt the Smiths’ picnic!” “I timed the earthquake, it was exactly half-past four by my watch.”
The thrill of the revelation of the fairness of this refuge of the hills helped Esmé greatly during her banishment from her husband. The storm clouds threatening an expedition into Waziristan had dispersed; once more the tribesmen had been put upon their good behaviour and requested to stay there. Dera Ismail Khan was bereft of its womenfolk, and the headquarters of the Derajat Brigade had moved up to Sheikh Budin, where cool nights were obtainable. Esmé had offered to accompany her husband there, but he had pointed out that she would be unable to leave the place during the six fierce summer months, as the hot journey across the Punjab would be too much for any woman’s strength. “And that would mean that I could not take my three months leave,” he added. So Esmé went to an hotel in Murree, and Norman purposed joining her and taking her for a shooting trip into Kashmir on the 15th July. Till then she settled down in a tiny suite of rooms, consisting of a bed-room and sitting-room. The latter looked out on to the courtyard, where the noisy scene was usually rather fascinating. The doorways opening on to the low long verandah were dotted with name-boards, and boxes with “Not at Home” painted on them for the reception of visiting cards. Bearers, ayahs, and durzies squatted outside their mistresses’ rooms and impeded the progress of passers by. Empty dandies, made bright by coloured cushions, stood in readiness to bear the memsahibs on their rounds of calls, or to lunch and dinner parties, to dances and theatricals, to races, picnics, or gymkhanas. The jampanies’ suits formed vivid splashes of orange, sapphire, and purple, or scarlet and rose and white, as they stood about the entrance in chattering groups. Life in the hotel struck Esmé as trying and yet interesting. Everybody called on everybody else, and the community consisted of husbands, wives, bachelors, grass-widows, and grass-widowers. In the large dining-room the tables seated about eight people each, and Esmé found herself in the somewhat anomalous position of sharing the amenities of breakfast, lunch, and dinner with members of both sexes to whom she did not stand in the relation of either host or guest. This had its drawbacks.
“I am flung among these people for all the world like any bachelor in a residential club for both sexes. No, after all, a club without ballot, rules, or committee is unthinkable, it could not exist. We womenfolk are nearly all young, are deprived of all our natural domestic responsibilities and occupations, and are without the advice and influence of our husbands. The bachelors are making merry away from the discipline of their regiments, the married men are separated from their wives who are absent in England. There is every opportunity for “Chance, blind contact, or the strong necessity for loving” to play the devil. Propinquity, propinquity! An hotel in the Hills is like nothing else on this earth I should imagine,” she said to Lucy Freeman one day with a shrug of her shoulders.
“I would not live in one for thousands of pounds,” said Lucy, decidedly. “Too many cats about. I always tell Charlie that I simply must have a house of sorts, even if he has to pay a rent of fifty pounds for a piggery.” She gazed contentedly round her comfortable little cottage, hidden away among the trees on a spur of Kashmir Point.
“Are you not nervous?” asked Esmé, mischievously.
“Oh, I have people to stay with me from time to time,” replied Lucy, blandly. “I have the Winters, now. Do you know them? He is a retired general who has stayed on in India. Too hard up to go home, I imagine. I am very sorry for them; they had such a big position and now they are nobody at all. It must be dreadful to come down like that!”
Esmé shrank into her shell at this; the mind of the middle class was always out of tune with hers. Yet on the face of it, how accurate was Lucy’s view of the situation! The Winters appeared to be quite without interest or importance in the eyes of Murree, though, had the General still held a command, they would have received much consideration. Was this a “come down?” Mrs Winter seemed to feel it as such, for she referred apologetically to their existence: “Of course we have no position at all out here,” she would say sadly. This was a foreign language to Esmé, and a distasteful one. An aristocrat to her finger tips, she would turn with relief to gaze at the great sovereignty of the Hills and the humble homes of the toiling Indian peasantry dotted here and there in scattered villages for as far as the eye could see. She often encountered Mr Lance on her way to and from Lucy’s house, and undoubtedly Murree whispered. Not once nor twice was Esmé questioned on the subject. “He stayed with her in Dera Ismail Khan, did he not, whenever her husband was away?” or, “What do they say about Mrs Freeman and Mr Lance in your part of the world?”
Lucy, in the gayest of spirits, was unafraid of whispers or questions.
“What do the cats say?” she asked, with keen interest. “Are they wild to know about Harry Lance and me? Do tell me; Charlie will be so amused.”
“You are a goose, Lucy,” Esmé, proclaimed.
“A goose? Not I. Will you ever say, “Ba-ba black sheep” to me, instead, do you think?”
“No,” said Esmé.
“I wonder,” mused Lucy.
A few days after she lent out of the window of Ahren’s tea shop, and noisily attracted Esmé’s attention, opening her scarlet parasol and twirling it wildly round and round. Young Lance was looking out over her shoulder.
“Come and have tea with us!” Lucy screamed.
“No thanks, not to-day,” replied Esmé.
“I know what that means,” retorted Lucy.
“Ba-ba black sheep,” she flashed, pointing to Lance with an over-jewelled finger.
Esmé shrugged her shoulders and went on to keep one of her numerous engagements. She was having what Lucy—without envy—termed a raving success. Invitations flowed in upon her and her jampanies bore her hither and thither at all hours of the day and night, and whether in the blinding golden sunshine, or in the starlit purple darkness, hurrying out to lunch or homewards after a ball, Esmé loved the caress of the mountain air and laughed careless laughter, living vividly and keenly every moment of the twenty-four hours. Yet she had her difficulties. Not least among these were the men who were intent on having a good time. Esmé was lovely, sought after, and, despite her dignity, there lurked the rumour of “an awful row with her husband over something when he was in China.” The Hills afforded opportunities. Though the men found out their mistake, they attracted people’s attention. Esmé became an object of intense interest to the world of Murree. Also nice, straight-living, soldier men, who were “sorry for little Mrs Norman up here by herself,” sought her companionship and besieged her sitting room. Esmé, the soul of hospitality, reading them shrewdly, knowing full well the clean, upright comradeship that they offered her, found her ingenuity heavily taxed to limit their visits without slighting their friendship. She often felt sheer exasperation at their denseness over all consideration as to what interpretation other eyes, watching in spitefulness or idleness behind the chics and nameboards and “Not at Home” boxes, might put upon the fact that “Captain Wallace is always coming to see Mrs Norman now,” or, “That is the fourth time that Major Frith has seen her home,” or, “What ages Mr Nesbit has been there this afternoon.”
Lucy’s advice to “have a good time and let people talk” did not recommend itself to Esmé, in whom pride for her name was almost a passion.
“I would as soon permit dust in my room as a breath of scandal on my reputation,” she declared one day.
Lucy looked at her puzzled, yet half admiring. “Does she not realize in the least how people discuss all that fuss about her debts in England? Is she genuinely ignorant that Major Horner is wildly in love with her? And small wonder considering that he has sat next her for three meals a day, during the last six weeks!”
Esmé was quite aware of Major Horner’s infatuation. Her powerlessness to escape from its neighbourhood maddened her at times. But she imagined that the rest of the world were ignorant of it. As for the wretched man he congratulated himself on having absolutely disguised his real feelings towards her. Ah! the blindness of self! Pitiful, mad, dangerous.
Something protective in Lucy made her veto young Lance’s suggestion to invite Esmé to a supper party at which a Colonel Farrant and a Mrs Bead were to be guests. “They are not her sort,” she declared, decidedly.
“I should think the Colonel would amuse her.”
“That shows, my dear boy, that you have still much to learn.”
“And as for Mrs Bead—”
“Esmé would not know such a woman at home.”
“But out here it is different, she is bound to meet her sometime or other. In a small station she could not avoid knowing her. Besides, what harm will it do her? You like Mrs Bead—”
“Yes, and I like you. Tastes differ,” said Lucy, nastily, looking up at him with her queer eyes.
Esmé discovered, by inference, that many women held their own social value at a very low price. How else came it that men presumed to invite Mrs Norman to be their guest at dinner and supper parties on the slightest of acquaintances, consisting probably in an introduction at a picnic or the mere paying of a call?
“Would any woman make herself so cheap as to accept this?” she wondered, as she wrote another refusal. “There! I hope he will realize now that there is one woman who requires her acceptance of an invitation to be sought, not simply requested,” she said crossly, and proceeded to write her daily letter to Norman. These letters were far from satisfactory, for the reserve which was marked enough, even when they were together, set Sheikh Budin and Murree very far apart.
“She is quite fit and seems to be having a good time,” announced Norman, in reply to Major Wade’s inquiries. In his secret soul he divined that she was lonely. He knew the danger of that—in the Hills. Yet he could not be with her.
“Oh, my husband likes Sheikh Budin very much, thanks. It is not uncomfortably hot, you know. He is not quite sure whether it is worth while to come here on ten days leave,” Esmé answered in response to kindly questions from Sir James and Lady Seabright, the General commanding the Northern Army, and his wife. In her heart she ached to know that he missed her, and longed for the ardour that would bring him hot foot to her side.
Esmé saw a great deal of Lady Seabright, who amused her vastly. “I have,” said that good lady, “an early Victorian figure, you never see it nowadays.” Certainly when present it was impossible to avoid seeing it, and her jampanies groaned beneath her weight. She enjoyed considerable popularity, which she attributed to her fifty odd years. “These young women have too much vanity to wish to exchange with me,” she chuckled grimly, as she ruled somewhat despotically over Murree.
“I want to be friends with you,” she explained to Esmé, “my husband admired you so much in Dera Ismail Khan, and that would be tiresome for me if I did not admire you too. However, I could not help doing that. After I have seen you I always go and powder my nose and rouge my cheeks to make myself look less of an elderly mummy. Then I rub it all off and try to forget your complexion. Oh! decidedly we must be friends; besides we both own Generals. Vexing creatures, are they not?”
She often tried to draw Esmé out on the subject of her marriage, but in vain. One day the younger woman, nettled by the elder’s persistent questions, looked at her lazily and proclaimed her admiration for the reticence of the native women, which prevents them from even mentioning their husband’s name.
“Well, I like to talk about things,” said Lady Seabright, comfortably, “it’s so interesting. And as for the women of India, I don’t suppose that we have much to learn from them. It is a picturesque land, and the idea of seclusion and veiled women and all the rest of it is rather fascinating, as we express it; but the actual reality is very sordid, you may be sure.”
“Veiled women,” said Esmé slowly, “that means so much. No pitiful failure of gentle blood to keep up appearances, no slatternly creatures reeling outside public-houses. When a woman in the bhurka43 passes you see neither wealth nor poverty; though youth and beauty are hidden, so, in dignity and mercy, are the tragedy of their loss.”
“Poof!” ejaculated Lady Seabright, “what a nightmare of a theory. Looking is better than spying. If you seclude women, the naughty world goes a-peeping.”
“Reserve fascinates me,” said Esmé.
“It aggravates me,” retorted the elder woman. “But I admit that reserved people are the true leaders of others. They never weaken their influence by indiscreet confidences. They tell nothing, and are told very little, except the information which they require. The little prattling people don’t spin hampering webs of pathetic personal appeals around them.”
Esmé nodded; she knew the difficulty of making a personal appeal to Norman.
Lady Seabright looked at her shrewdly. “If one really said what one thought, one would breathe the wish that every woman might have a child in her first year of married life. Husband and wife start fair then. The man keeps his profession and games and men friends, and his wife can’t appropriate the better half of all three for her own use, which is the usual modern way. On the other hand, the woman keeps what has always been and always will be the chief gain to a wife in marriage—a child. Parentage is never the same thing if it comes later. It is not then the inevitable fate, which resigns the father and mother to inconvenience and sacrifices. In after years the husband is inclined to regard his wife’s motherhood as a gratified whim. Men have no sense like that. Ask one of them if he enjoys the “q” exam, because he wished to become a soldier and got his wish twenty years ago; he’ll say “no” fast enough, but in the same breath, if his poor wife finds travelling with a longed-for infant both exhausting and irksome, he will say that she is never contented, and remind her that she used to wish for a child! No, no, motherhood should be the first-fruits of marriage, not an afterthought.”
So, as sunny day drifted into sunny day, as evening after evening music and laughter went up into the starry spaces of the night, Esmé began to realize something of the life of the Sahib-log. Into her mind there crept gradually a knowledge of the difficulties of the exiled Englishwoman. The battle against the climate, in which victory lay only with the strong. The struggle to make two ends meet, while the purchase power of the rupee grew less and less, while little toes grew vigorously through little shoes, while schoolboys’ bills became larger and larger, while the problem of a daughter’s future, unprovided for save by the inadequate pension and the father’s life insurance of a thousand pounds, gloomed over the little dancing mite, while still in her ayah’s arms. The sheer fatigue of constant moves; the heartbreak of constant separations; the loneliness of continual changes, with new surroundings, new faces, new servants, new acquaintances. The sacrifice of household gods with all their intimate associations sold, not once or twice but many times, to meet the expense of a regiment’s move or of the passage home. These things softened her to the women carried to and fro in dandies, chattering at the club, dancing at the Assembly Rooms, rehearsing theatricals, playing tennis, going to races, riding in gymkhanas. Idling? Hardly that; filling in the hours, with all the hours had to offer, these young wives and mothers whose children were in England, whose husbands were in the Plains, whose homes baked in the cantonments dismantled and silent, save for the punkah’s creaking, empty, but for the sweating soldier men. Flirting? Seldom; foolish very often through the temptations of their lot, the difficulties of their environment, the absence of old safeguards in this new life among many men; a vast majority of staunch and devoted wives, but some thoughtless women and a few who brought dishonour. Frivolous? Not altogether; laughing back into the face of a hand-to-mouth existence, threatened by every rumour of war, every aspect of sedition, every outbreak of enteric, cholera, or malaria; plucky beyond question. Purposeless? Not entirely; bent very often on saving here and screwing there, so that the insurance money, which meant so much to the children, might be forthcoming. Ambitious, too, for their husbands, staying out one more year perhaps in spite of the doctor’s protests in order to enable the man to pay for the cramming for the Staff College. Knowing, well, all of them, that India stole much, destroyed much, lent a little, gave nothing. Stole their husbands and children, their youth, strength, looks, talents, energy. Destroyed their own little niche in England, their friendships, their circle of acquaintances in the motherland, killing these by the brutal force of separation, by the lingering death of absence. Lending many houses, many horses, many dogs, many gardens, many interests, many amusements—till the death or retirement of the husband swept all away from the woman’s clinging hands and the passage home for good wrote “Finis” to the chapter. India gives nothing save memories that an Englishwoman may keep for always.
The knowledge of their sorrows crept into her heart and found a home there, and above all the sorrows of motherhood in exile moved her to pity. Bravely, indomitably, in the rocking cruel trains, in the rattling jolting tongas, the Englishwomen bearing their burdens suffered through their weary way to the Hills in April and May. In the crowded hotels without privacy, without quiet, without really nourishing food, they waited. Surrounded by strangers, without a woman of their own family, without an old friend, often without their husbands; in small rooms with thin walls, in a low-roofed row of quarters crowded with bachelors, they passed through the agony of their Dark Hour.
And the motherhood thus begun met with many difficulties hereafter. Long journeys with fretful babies; the endless conflict against heat, mosquitoes, dysentery; the battle for a proper milk supply; the watchful anxiety against the carelessness—or worse—of ayahs; the guarding of little feet from the dangers and evils of the exile. Till, carried safe home at last, little Tommy or Johnny or Molly, children of the Sahib-log, left for the sweet English air to blow roses into their cheeks, left in the motherland, so that they may have their fair chance in life, their fair start—their mothers can but kiss them and leave them.
Yet, though such were the mothers’ sorrows, Esmé saw around her the many childless marriages of the Sahib-log with wonder and regret. Ah! the flower without fruit, the stream without a bourne, the name that dies!
Norman coming up to Murree after all for ten days’ leave in June found Esmé less critical, more sympathetic towards her surroundings, and, in consequence, husband and wife hit it off better together. Though Esmé found cause of offence in the fact that Norman expressed unqualified dislike of Mrs Freeman.
“Oh, you fickle butterfly!” she jeered—anything less like a butterfly than Dick cannot well be imagined—“Oh, you ‘Miss Prunes and Prisms’! Who threw his wife into Mrs Freeman’s arms when she arrived in India, all youth and innocence, I should like to know?”
“She is a rotten woman,” said Norman, unmoved.
Esmé was further puzzled by his suddenly rousing himself to active interference, when young Lance developed enteric fever and Lucy announced her intention of taking him into her own house and nursing him.
“Well, it’s kind-hearted of her, anyway,” said Esmé, in defence.
“Oh, kindness be damned,” said Norman, briefly. “I’ve arranged for him to be taken in at the hospital.”
Life in the hotel bored Norman, and he refused to be dragged out to small social functions, so the pair spent long sunny afternoons in the woods, where Waggles hunted squirrels in an ecstasy of excitement.
“Dick,” said Esmé, suddenly, one day, as they sat on a spur of the hill overlooking Gharial, “what do you think you will feel when you retire and leave India for good and all?”
Dick grunted; to describe just what he felt was always against the grain with him. “Rather sick over some things,” he responded.
“Sphinx, Egyptian mummy, deaf-mute, speechless infant, horrid bad sailor!” ejaculated Esmé with astonishing swiftness and vigour.
He laughed. “Well, I suppose I shall miss it all; badly,” he admitted. “I shall miss the other fellows, and the sepoys and the polo and the life I’ve been used to.”
“You’ll miss the power, Dick,” she said shrewdly.
“I daresay,” then, with sudden resentment, “of course you will be thankful to go.”
Esmé played with the ferns that grew all round them on the bank, and dug a little hole among the pine needles in which she carefully buried a dead leaf before she answered. “No, I shan’t,” she said at last, decidedly, “I shall want it all again, I expect, when I can’t have it. The camels with their burden of villagers, returning home; the hot breath of the thronging cities; the groups of sepoys swaggering out of the Lines; the sowars at their tent pegging. I shall miss the little brown hamlets and the green fields that rustle at their doors; the moaning wells and the long dusty roads; the queer gardens and big bare bungalows; the friendly birds and beasts; the quaint tolerant life of the folk in one’s compound, the dignified greeting “Salaam. Huzoor”; the little wayside shrines; the vast horizons. Yes, I shall want it all again, even in England.”
It had come after long months, the declaration of true companionship, the real adoption of his path as her path. It had meant a good deal to her to make it, it meant even more to him to hear it, but that unlucky shyness with her, that boyish something that he could not outgrow, which in his childhood had made him wriggle at a parting kiss through all the misery of a good-bye, which had made “I don’t care” the quickest mask to a sensitiveness that felt too keenly, prompted him to say the wrong thing.
“You will have the shops,” said he.
Esmé rose and shook the little bits of fern and moss from her blue cotton frock rather elaborately. “Yes, I shall have the shops,” she said coldly.
They turned homewards rather wearily because of the distance which seemed ever to lie between them. And all around the beautiful world wooed the woman. The heaven of the snows, where the flaming clouds of rose and purple and orange burned in the evening sky, woke the longing for life more life! The whisper of the trees stretching, a velvet world of breezy spires and mossy roots, of murmuring sounds and swarm of myriad tiny lives, of sweet scents and fair flowers, for rolling miles towards Kashmir, quickened her senses. Old Mother Earth was thrilling her. While the man beside her—that “lucky devil,” Dick Norman—was feeling the dumb depression of all big creatures when they are hurt or misunderstood.
“Your shoe lace is untied,” said he suddenly. “Stick your foot up on the bank.”
She did so and he tied it and, woman-like, she took comfort from the trivial service and little caretaking. Also from the entirely satisfactory shape of the back of his head, the set of his shoulders, and the fine firm neck showing red while he stooped above the rim of his collar; and Dick’s collars always looked whiter than anybody else’s. She gave a little pat to the shoulder she steadied herself by, just as he finished the bow, and he looked up at her with a grin, good-fellowship restored.
“Crosspatch,” said he; and thus man-like established matters on the excellent basis that the woman had felt unreasonable resentment at an entirely harmless and sensible remark.
Only Esmé, walking gaily by his side, knew in her heart of hearts that they ate the fruit of life together and missed its full flavour.
When they reached the hotel their bearer met them with the news that the orderly, Arjan Das, was ill. “He has pneumonia badly,” said a doctor, hastily summoned, and the dhoolie bearers carried him off to the hospital. His mother and his two wives were sent for from the village of which he was headman, which lay some fourteen miles across the mountains from Murree. The night before Norman’s short stay in Murree ended the three native women were brought to Esmé’s room after dark, by one of Arjan Das’s sons, to salaam to the memsahib. Esmé was dressed for a ball, and the light from the candles shone on the gold of her hair and crept into the diamond pendant on her breast, playing there in flashes and glittering on the silver things scattered about her dressing-table. The long looking-glass caught the bright picture and held it; held, too, the group in shadow by the door, the aged mother and the two tall wives, arrow straight and slender, with delicately chiselled features and tiny hands and feet—a group in which harmony would have been impossible to the West. Esmé, in her fair, gay beauty, seemed almost an arrogant figure in her many claims; the claim to unshared wifehood, the claim to rove over land and sea unfettered by seclusion; the claim of the dominant race. This last received stately acknowledgment from the salaams of the three Brahman women, whose lives were bound up with that ebbing life of the sepoy, now passing slowly towards the valley of the shadow. Light and Shadow, East and West, the woman of the world and the women of the hearthstone; could there be sympathy, understanding? Elusive, almost unavailable for speech or realization, the bond was there, woven fantastically by Fate; the husband and son of these women in the shadow, serving the Sirkar,44 fighting through long years for the race and with the husband of this proud figure in the light, so that now these four, born so far apart, were grouped together at the hour of his death; pitiful, regretful. And the race he served, all-powerful, would, when his death came—as come it surely must at dawn—hold back these two silent wives from any final passing from the Shadows through the Light of Flames. Thus the West ruled; claiming the man’s service in life, claiming obedience from widowhood in the very face of death. Haughty claims, indeed, yet paling into earthly insignificance beside the claim of Brahmanhood, before which the claims of prophets, miracle workers, mahdis, popes and priests and seers dwindle to nothingness. “Salaam, Huzoor.” The dim group had gone from the door and Esmé was on her way to the ball to spend merry hours till, sleepy but rosy with the glow of health, she found herself in the little hotel sitting-room again as the clock struck four. Abdur Rahman was waiting for them with a message for Norman.
“Arjan Das sent his salaams to the Presence, and said that if his Sahib would, by his great favour, come to him he should die in peace. I sent word that the Presence had gone with the memsahib to the tamasha.”
“I’ll go now.” Norman began pulling his coat on again over his evening clothes.
“Oh, Dick, you have that awful journey before you in a few hours.”
“That can’t be helped.”
Esmé lay awake while the dawn came glimmering in through the windows. She tried to picture Norman and Arjan Das together. It touched her to the heart that the sepoy, Brahman and peasant, in his own land, among his own people, should, in the hour of his death, crave the presence of his sahib. Ah, she thought, here was a sovereignty which satisfied her pride of race to the full that a sahib should reign above all others in the heart of his sepoy! And the woman in her went out in queer sympathy with the Brahmanhood of the dying soldier; the body taken from generation unto generation of Brahmans, the dust of dust that was, the ashes to ashes that so soon would be—in its supreme Caste holy to the uttermost; yet, guarded from the hour of its birth to the last rites after death from all material contamination, though the soul within the body sin ever so vilely. Yes, surely the woman could understand that, since her own womanhood—apart from mind or soul—must likewise be guarded ceaselessly, requiring, throughout its sojourn on Mother Earth, sanctuary from the contact in pollution which could outcast it to deepest damnation.
Norman’s return woke Esmé from a fitful slumber. She sat up in bed, her golden hair falling in sunbeams over her shoulders.
“He is dead.”
“Oh! What did you do for him?”
“Nothing. You can’t do anything for a dying man. I just sat beside him.”
“Will they give him a military funeral? she asked in ignorance.
“Lord, no! Sepoys won’t have one. Arjan Das’s own people will see to that. I mean to pay for it, though. His body will be burnt, and a few of his bones kept for throwing into the Ganges.”
Ashes, fire, and water, thus ended Caste, but the heart while it beat had wanted his sahib. Esmé thought of the two widows wonderingly. Then she noticed how worn-out Norman looked.
“Of course. Let me go to sleep,” and then, a few minutes after, in tones of deepest regret, “Poor old Arjan Das!”
“Dick can’t be really hard if he feels his orderly’s death keenly,” the doubting wife assured herself, next day, as she watched the tonga carry her husband out of sight down the hill. She felt horribly depressed, and sought the bracing society of Lady Seabright as a tonic.
“Got rid of that nice husband of yours, have you?” said that plain-spoken person. “Well, I am thankful to see you for I have just come to the end of an entrancing novel and I feel forlorn. The heroine was a fascinating minx of twenty-five. That is why I am wearing white muslin myself to-day. I hope it fascinates you?” For Lady Seabright to obtain possession of an interesting book was little less than a domestic calamity. She propped it up against the milk jug at breakfast and vain were Sir James’s hopes of a second cup of tea. She answered him at random during the entire day, one finger keeping her place and her eyes dropping eagerly to the page again. If her friends had not read the book they were in her opinion of no importance whatever, had they read it and failed to appreciate it she regarded them with undisguised loathing. She wept over its tragedies, beseeching would-be consolers to allow her to continue to enjoy herself. Above all she invariably modelled herself for a day or so upon her last heroine.
“There is a fat woman in this book who is rather like me,” she told Esmé; “at least I’m sure you will be reminded of me. I prefer to think that she resembles that detestable Mrs Flood.”
“Don’t you like Mrs Flood? I think she is rather a motherly soul,” said Esmé.
“Motherly! H’m. Never adopts daughters, does she? Not poor little Mrs Brown, for instance, who lives next door to her and expects her first baby shortly, nor that lonely Mrs Martin who is as plain as porridge and does not know a soul in Murree. Mothering young men who play bridge and golf with her is more her style. Well, are you having a good time?” she ended, with startling abruptness.
“Oh, yes, in a way,” said Esmé, without enthusiasm.
“Not satisfied? From all I hear you seem to make plenty of slaves but no fools. Very wise of you, the women who make fools of men generally end by losing their heads. Of course if you want everybody to look with vast interest at you and exclaim, “That is Mrs Norman!” you must be, well—like Mrs Freeman. I can quite imagine that it is pleasing. The only drawback is that such murmurs are the breath whispered just before the hooting begins.”
“Lucy Freeman is all right,” said Esmé, stoutly.
“So far. But you know that silly young fool Mr Lance is so in debt that he may have to leave the service? You did not know? Well done, General Norman! Of course he knows. Thank heaven James tells me things and, as you see, I babble artlessly in white muslin.”
“It is not Lucy’s fault,” maintained Esmé.
“Is it not? Who do you suppose pays for those wonderful frocks of hers?” said Lady Seabright, dryly.
Nevertheless Esmé continued to see a good deal of Lucy Freeman. Mr Lance was still in hospital, and Lucy consoled herself with the society of a certain Colonel Moore, who added to a splendid reputation as a polo player the distinction of possessing an unrivalled skill in flirtation and intrigue.
“To be admired by him is to be admired by a connoisseur,” laughed Lucy in triumph.
“And added to a collection,” retorted Esmé.
The gay pair sat behind Esmé one afternoon at the Murree Football Tournament and willy-nilly she overheard a scrap of their conversation. They discussed gardening.
“I am putting in all sorts of flowers to fill up that bit at the end of the border,” Lucy was saying in childlike accents.
“I don’t care about herbaceous borders,” he responded languidly.
“No,” flashed Lucy, with a world of meaning, “you prefer bedding out!”
The wit and audacity of the remark, despite its boldness, captured Esmé’s irrepressible interest. For the life of her, the dimples in her cheek could but soften and smile in sympathy with Lucy’s ripple of laughter. Later she saw the couple in an absorbed tête-à-tête eating strawberry ices on a grassy bank, Lucy’s light hazel eyes were all aglow and Colonel Moore was undoubtedly highly entertained. It must be confessed that Esmé’s intimacy with Lucy revived after this little scene, for the undisputed title of a fascinating woman, which Mrs Freeman bore in Murree, dazzled her for a while. Yet the time came when Esmé worried her soul out over the problem as to whether a word of warning to Lucy would deter her from compromising herself or merely render her more reckless out of sheer bravado.
But on the last day of June, as the people in the hotel were thronging into the verandah after breakfast, a telegram was brought to Esmé which sent all thoughts of Lucy flying, and severed, as with a knife, her vivid interest in the doings of Murree. It ran as follows, “Sorry to tell you the General is dangerously ill with dysentery. Strength well maintained. Will wire news of any change immediately. Wade.”
Vain was all the advice proffered in kindness by the sympathetic crowd, vain the warnings. There might be truth in the assertion that if the worst came to the worst she would be too late, there might be truth in the dissuasions that she could never stand the awful journey through the Plains—little cared she. As well might the leaves blown by the breeze seek to deter the homing pigeon from flying to its loft. Without fuss or hesitation she made her preparations. And her influence, which had ever been extraordinarily strong, declared itself in a hundred ways. Without helplessness she claimed help. Major Horner hurried off to book her tonga. Captain Wallace wired to Major Wade and to the stationmasters at Rawalpindi and Darya Khan. Mr Nisbet received from her the money wherewith to pay her dhobi and jampanies and various little outstanding accounts. None of them sought to hamper her with persuasions to remain where she was when they realized that her mind was made up, none of them urged her to accept more than the assistance she asked for, after they had heard her gracious but firm refusal. Behind the chics and nameboards there was much chattering, much comment, but no interference.
“Why does not one of her men friends insist on escorting her to Dera Ismail Khan? It is too awful to think of her taking that journey alone!” they exclaimed, but they added, “It is useless to offer to help her with her packing, she would hate to be bothered.”
Little was thought of or talked of that day, save Esmé, and, when the coolies shouldered her baggage to carry it by steep paths to the starting point of the tonga and she set forth from her rooms, a little hush fell on the watching womenfolk.
“Did you ever see such a beautiful face?” asked one softly.
“Or such an agonized face?” asked another, wonderingly.
“How she loves that man!” groaned Major Horner.
Thus Esmé left Murree.
For long years, whenever dust blew against her cheek, Esmé thought of that journey from Murree to Sheikh Budin. First came the whip of humiliation, for her young strength which made of her slight frame so vividly joyous a thing when dancing or sleeping, when riding or resting, in action or in repose, on the hilltop, became—as the tonga plunged through stinging clouds of dust to the furnace of the Plains—a thing of straw inadequate for all purposes save that of barely enabling her to endure the misery and discomfort. Her back ached with every jolt and jar, her nerves strained at each delay when the miserable little overworked ponies were changed, her eyes winced from the blinding glare, her lace neckband and all her clothes clung damp against her skin, and her solar topee pressed a deep red line across her forehead and wobbled from side to side with maddening gaiety, as she swayed with the swinging of the tonga. Round perilous corners, through a ceaseless stream of traffic, they went down and down, and little recked Esmé of the beauties of the way. Ten, twenty, thirty miles beat out under the leaping wheels and then the untempered heat of a Hot Weather evening in the Plains scorched her vitality as a forest fire licks up the sap of young trees. She was only conscious, as she sat later under the dreary punkah in the waiting room of Rawalpindi station, of a dull wonder as to how Englishmen endured this dreadful atmosphere week in and week out, toiling and mute. The train was a veritable hell. Screeching and screaming it whirled through the burning night, a shroud of dust polluting every breath; while the woman, gasping, flung out her hands in terror, instinctively struggling with this strange and awful foe of thick hot air which hemmed her in on every side for limitless miles of dark torture. Fear came roaring in through the shuttered windows, dizziness spun webs of bewilderment amid the noise and ghastly heat, and suspense hung horror over all the lonely levels. How was Dick? Her heart throbbed out the question in time to the jarring of the wheels. She dosed, and saw in the blackness of the night the dim purples and browns and blues of the Grahams’ moor in Scotland with the wind blowing sweet and strong across the heather. She smelt the chill sea breezes and the shining wet miles of golden sand on the East coast. She pictured the blur of the lamplight in Bond Street, the rain all aglitter on pavement and puddle, on umbrella and splashboard, and the diamonds all aglitter too beneath the rosy electric globes in the jewellers’ windows. She saw the grey halo of the horses’ breath, she felt the wet veil against her cheek, the luxury of the Cranmers’ motor, the vivid life and merry movement of it all, the warmth of her furs—and woke with a start and moan to wipe the drops from her face and to gasp and struggle for air, wondering how many young Englishmen scattered throughout the Punjab were lying sleepless in the torment of the night. She wondered, too, what the Bethunes would think if they could see her now, the only white person in the crowded train, racing through Hell on this night in June!
Dawn came at last, glowing upon the horizon, showing the dust that lay thick in the gold of Esmé’s hair, and covered every inch of the carriage with silver powder. Just for a brief half hour the earth smiled, refreshed, and breathed the pure air of morning, but the train never freed itself from the clinging, stifling, dead, impalpable Thing—the dust that smothered it. Esmé had thought that the night could have no rival in cruelty, but the fierce noonday and the dreadful hours from three to five when the climax of heat is reached disillusioned her. The hot blast as the train roared its way under the naked sun was bad enough, but the stations were unspeakable. And as a woman of the slums, burdened and defeated, sinks beneath the physical strain and overwhelming odds, becoming at last a slatternly thing, unwashed, unkempt, inert, so Esmé Norman, begrimed with dust and smuts and stained with dripping perspiration, lay soiled and effortless, her eyes shut, her mind chaos, cut off by twenty-four hours of India’s untempered ferocity from the Esmé Delamain of temperate climates, deprived of her personal dignity, her remoteness from the insult of dirt and exhaustion. The parched, cracked lips twisted into a wry little smile. “So much weaker a thing than our menfolk!” she said to herself.
“Darya Khan”—the liquid syllables written across the flare of the station lamp amid the flickering mosquitoes seemed a godsend of welcome after the long hours and miles when no familiar name or landmark had eased the way. Better still an English voice out of the dark speaking to a coolie, “Kabadar!45 you silly fool!” She went towards the figure clad in pyjamas, to which travelling costume the wearer paid the tribute of a blush in the unexpected presence of an Englishwoman.
“When does the boat start?”
“The ferry boat has gone, but the stationmaster told me he had received a wire to say that a special boat was being sent for a lady. I will go in it, too, if you don’t mind; I missed the ferry. Can I do anything for you?” His eyes rested on her without the faintest awakening of interest or admiration; so transformed an Esmé!
He took charge of her, however, stumbling on in the darkness towards the boat which bulked grotesquely against the deeps of the river and sky, both ablaze with starlight. In a vague way Esmé heard him ask the boatmen how long it would take to cross to-night and whether the landing was very low down on the opposite bank just now, heard dimly that the day’s crossing had taken fourteen hours, that a Lieutenant Sahib had found the heat great “takalluf”46 and had had much water poured on his head, but thanks be to God and by the favour of His Honour’s Presence the return journey might take but eight hours, though the shifting shallows were beyond man’s foretelling. The waters murmured against the boat like the thrumming of a banjo and lay silver in the wake, broke too into a silver ripple at the touch of each oar. Esmé wiped the moisture from her forehead and gratefully accepted the soda-water pressed good-naturedly upon her by young Brown, who mopped also and observed affably that the habit of perspiration was a very healthy one. So the hours drifted by, and Esmé Norman and Brown of the Telegraph Department, who talked with a chichi accent of England as Home yet had never been there, sat side by side in queer companionship. The boatmen seemed like some tireless spirits of the dark night, standing and sitting to each stroke of the heavy oars, or wading thigh-deep in the rushing waters as they towed the great boat onwards, through the moonlit shallows. The Eurasian, tragically akin to Englishwoman and boatmen, instinctively disliked by each, was the object of a coarse jest when, in peremptory accents, he bade the toiling bronze figures in the bow be silent for he wished to sleep. “Bohut achcha Huzoor,” came the submissive answer and then the low aside, “Ari, brothers, God made the native but the Gora made the Eurasian!” and one of the natives spat upon the waters. To Esmé the boat and its load seemed remote alike from the glittering sky or the wild river as they drifted on and on through the formless spaces of the night wrapped ever in the awful, loathsome, caressing touch of hot air. At dawn the elements stood revealed again as earth and water and shimmering sky, and she could see the outline of a string of camels and the huddled mass of a flock of goats beneath a low halo of dust close by the river’s edge; the simplicity of the picture, showing life as it had been lived here from time immemorial, gave her a queer sense of peace. “For ever and ever. Kismet,” she murmured idly, and watched a golden bowl floating towards her on the sun-kissed ripples as a strong bronzed swimmer, a veritable son of Mother Indus, bore his merchandise of milk in its brass vessel mile after mile to the opposite shore; as he swam, supported by an inflated goatskin, with the blazing bowl floating mystic-like beside him, and the water dripping in diamonds when he raised his arm for the overhead stroke, he looked like a young river god in a translucent halo of dazzling blue and gold, having nought in common with the old, old dusty earth. Yet he was in truth only a peasant earning his daily bread.
“There is someone waving to you,” said Brown, suddenly, his eyes still heavy with sleep.
Esmé saw a man clad in holland and wearing an enormous sun-helmet standing by the landing point, and her heart leaped into her mouth. Dick—O Dick, was she wife or widow?
“Much better. No need to worry now, but it was touch and go. You must not go straight on, really Mrs Norman, you can’t. You don’t realize what the heat can be on that road over the desert. I have had a room opened in your bungalow and told them to send over food from the Mess. Your tonga is ordered for you to-night.” Major Younghusband looked down at her very kindly and spoke slowly for she hardly appeared to hear or understand him.
“I can’t think,” she observed, presently, with her world still reeling round and round but the leaden weight of dread removed from her heart, “I can’t think how men can endure to go to the Hills for ten days’ leave. I am sure that awful journey twice over within so short a time is too much for anybody.”
“Yes, it is bad. Still, if one’s wife is up there, don’t you know? It is well worth it.”
Esmé drew her hand across her forehead wearily, but her eyes shone for a moment. “It is a compliment for queens,” she said a little wildly, “I wish, O I wish that the great beauties of the London world and the worshipped mistresses of men could know how year by year you all come through fire and water to us poor things.” She looked back with a sort of horror at the blazing miles of river. “Through fire and water to your wives!” Her voice broke in a little sob.
“Never saw a woman so cooked in my life. She did not know what she was saying half the time,” commented Major Younghusband, later, when, having deposited Esmé in her bungalow, he was breakfasting at the Mess.
“Don’t wonder,” observed Captain Warden, a fat gunner, red with prickly heat and melting visibly. “It was the worst twenty-four hours we have had. I drank a dozen soda last night, and had to get up three times to pour water on my head. Thought I should have had a fit. How’s Foster?”
“He was 104° at midnight. A nurse should arrive from Kasauli this evening. I don’t believe she’ll be in time though.”
“Oh, one does not peg out quickly with enteric, don’t croak.”
“Poor woman,” remarked another speaker compassionately. “A damnable journey and hard work in this heat at the end of it.”
“And rottenly paid, too, would not suit us, what?” said Major Younghusband.
“They have a ghastly time on those journeys, worse than a man could have,” said Warden. “Can’t speak a word of the language when they first arrive in India, and make no decent ‘bundobust’ for themselves. Don’t get a thing to eat travelling, half the time.”
“Bah! This cursed country is no place for any woman!”
Young Mason, whose three months leave on the Hills, just ended, had taught him much in the wrong school, gave a would-be cynical and man-of-the- world laugh. “They enjoy themselves all right as gay grass-widows,” said he, and by and by when writing to his latest divinity seated under his punkah he grumbled, “All the fat old majors and captains are as stuffy as blazes; they do nothing but growl at the heat and bite one’s nose off, but I have you to think about so nothing else matters,” which blissful state of mind lasted till prickly heat came out and bills from the Hills came in. Also the divinity forgot to answer his letters.
Esmé slept most of the day, soothed by the relief of complete repose after two days and nights of ceaseless motion, hushed by the utter silence of her own home. A home that wore a very different aspect in its drowsy solitude from the bustle of its cold weather regime. She had been the only white woman in the train, she was the only white woman in Dera Ismail Khan, and in the evening she set forth again as the only white woman on the scorching road through the desert to Pezu. Darkness shrouded the track, only the hush of the wheels when buried in sand, the jolt and jar over stones as they crossed the dry bed of some stream, the hard clang as they galloped along the road, told the story of the way to the traveller. At each changing stage a lantern lit up the lonely scene, showing the ragged syces, muffled up and half asleep, backing the ponies on either side of the crazy pole and fastening the weird harness; then with shoutings and plungings and blowings of the horn and etching of fantastic shadows where the road showed white from the lantern’s dim glow, they were off again, galloping through the hot night. The courtyard of the Dak Bungalow at Pezu became alive with voices and lights when they clattered in; the sepoy guard called to the khansamah, and the old man came forth with deep salaams. “Major Wade, Sahib, has come to meet the Presence. He sleeps without on a charpoy. He sent salaams to the Memsahib and tidings that the General Sahib is better, and that soup is within which the Memsahib must drink. The dandy and coolies will be ready to start very early.” Esmé slept outside on a charpoy too, for the bungalow was like an oven. The mosquitoes devoured her, and just as she fell into a doze a mullah’s voice calling the Faithful to prayer at dawn told her that it was time to start the ascent to Sheikh Budin.
“The General is furious with you for coming,” was Major Wade’s greeting to her, given with a broad grin. “He says that he is quite well and that you must be half dead.”
“Quite alive enough to keep him in order,” retorted Esmé, merrily, and the queer little procession set forth.
Two sepoys with rifles guarded the Sahib, but a woman is safe from fanatical murder on the Frontier, and Esmé was carried up the steep narrow path by coolies while Major Wade rode on ahead with the two Dogras marching near him. The baggage mules straggled in the rear. Up and up they went, away from the furnace into the cool clear air, up and up and up among the barren rocks and low growing thorn trees, while the view over the plains grew ever vaster and vaster. When, after hours of climbing, they reached the straggling bazaar they were met by the Keeper of the Peace, the holy man who prayed thrice a day for the safety of Sheikh Budin, and who, by his prestige among the lawless folk nine miles away across the Border, rendered the little place secure from attack in the odour of sanctity. The Sahib-log dwelt here in a veritable eagle’s nest, swept by the winds, and Esmé thought she had never seen any place so weird and fantastic with its dozen bungalows crowning the desolation of the bleak pinnacle. The cruel hours through which she had passed had written dark lines beneath her eyes, but the memory of them faded from her mind into oblivion as she passed from the glare of the stony pathway into Dick’s room—at last.
She perched herself on the foot of his bed. “Oh, my poor old boy, what a thin scarecrow you are!” she cried.
“Why did you come?” asked the ghost of a voice from among the pillows.
“Can’t you guess, Dick?” she asked, lightly, though her tired eyes grew wistful.
“Impulsive creature! Rushing off in the heat. I’m quite well, and you have probably knocked yourself up.”
Her exhausted nerves snapped. “You have a curious idea of being grateful or even glad to see me!” she cried, passionately.
“Grateful! Do you suppose I wanted you to kill yourself?” he retorted with equal heat, a flush mounting on his haggard cheekbones.
“It has not done me any harm; I came because I thought—Oh, you never understand me!”
“I am too weak to argue,” he said, wearily.
The doctor, Captain Wilson, put his head in round the door. “The General must keep very quiet, Mrs Norman,” he said.
Esmé slipped from the bed. “I’m just coming,” she said, then she stooped and kissed her husband. “Darling!” she murmured.
He took her hand. “I can’t stand scenes yet,” he said.
She joined Captain Wilson in the little sitting-room and received directions from him as to the nursing of the patient. “You will find the new Pathan orderly, Pahlwan Khan, a great help. He has been a brick,” he told her. Once in her own room her self-control forsook her, and she flung herself on her bed, shaking with sobs. Would Dick never, never understand her, would he always withhold sympathy when she most needed it? The bitter hour when she, living pluckily and loyally among her friends, had read that he would not be responsible for her debts rose up before her and stabbed her, kindled, too, a very fire of condemnation. The disappointment of her first day in her new home measured afresh the lack of loving sympathy in their intercourse. The failure to greet her with words of joy and gratitude cut her to the quick. Made her angry also, for she was no patient saint this girl sobbing out her resentment, her face buried in the pillows. She pitied herself vividly, comparing the cherished Esmé of old days with the wife who fought her way through the torment of the Plains to her husband’s side, only to receive so sorry a welcome. She loved Dick less, not more, because he loved her in so niggardly a fashion. So at least she told herself while her anger scorched her heart. She pictured the temptations she had passed through, calling up the faces of the men who would so willingly have given her a very wealth of worship. Then, utterly worn out, she slept.
She woke after many hours much refreshed, and though she regarded her swollen eyelids in the mirror with vast self pity, and no small resentment, she schooled herself to self-control, almost to toleration. Her compassion for Norman’s physical weakness, her remorse on hearing he had passed a bad night, her susceptibility to his influence, resulted in a charming gentleness towards him. Yet she was aware that her tears had marked a very real progress on the road to separation.
Norman’s recovery was unchecked and he was soon able to resume his work and abandon invalid ways. But weakness caused a certain amount of irritability, and he and his wife had frequent jars. These resulted in depression on his side and a certain amount of excitement on hers. She had the feeling that she was playing with fire when she provoked a dispute or met anger with anger, and thus she smothered the longing for his love beneath an intense desire to prod the lion into roaring out his feelings. In so small a place as Sheikh Budin, there was little to distract her mind from the tense situation in her own house; Charlie Freeman went on leave, but she saw a good deal of Major Wade of whom she grew very fond. The two other women of her own class in the station had little in common with her, yet so strong is the influence of the petty events of daily life (which in Sheikh Budin were perforce shared to a great extent) that Esmé and Cara Wilson, the pretty, feckless wife of the doctor, and Mrs Harmer, the tired, neglected wife of the Deputy Commissioner of Bannu, grew very intimate with each other. The General commanding the Bannu Brigade and his staff officer both bored Esmé, and she groaned over the fact that she was obliged to see a good deal of them. Norman took no leave as he refused to allow his wife to undertake the journey to the Himalayas again, and she could but acknowledge the wisdom of his decision, so they settled down in the weird isolation of the mountain peak for the remainder of the summer.
One day in August she was perched on the uneven stone wall that bounded a tiny three cornered plot of grass in which were four treasured flower-beds, for the watering of which the bath water was anxiously saved, at her feet stood a tub, its iron sides and its contents twinkling in the sun, while six little yellow ducklings took their morning swim in it and a cackling old hen scratched vigorous protests on the hard earth and shared her maternal anxieties with Esmé. The girl was brooding over a dispute which had arisen between herself and Norman at lunch, a wrangle that had arisen out of nothing more vital than whether she spoilt Waggles’ pup or not, but had passed swiftly to personalities and finished in a remark which had cut her to the heart. “You will ruin that poor devil of a puppy for your own pleasure. A nice sort of mother you would make!” Her mouth still wore a wistful little droop, and her eyes still flashed when Pahlwan Khan, the new orderly, came striding round the corner, a handkerchief full of white mulberries in his hand. Esmé watched him idly as he sat down on his heels by the tub and fed the little fluffy yellow balls. It was a picture for some master’s hand to draw. The awful, dark, trackless heights to the left, the sunny slopes around them, the thorn trees dotting the hillside and the rough rocks throwing back the light with a hot blaze. An eagle soaring just below spanned a distant valley with his wings. The village of Paniala nestled eleven miles away in the shadows of the hills, the date palms for which it is famous showing blue-green in the distance; hardy fellows the Paniala men with little to fear by reason of their hardihood from their turbulent Mahsud neighbours, just then more troublesome than ever, scarce a week passed without news of a daring raid. To the right the great Takht towered 14,000 feet into the sky, and the Gomal river debouched on to the Plains from the frowning Gomal Pass, which is held by the Southern Waziristan Militia in such lonely outposts as Khajuri Kach and Nili Kach against the lawless tribesmen, in order that the British rule of the road may grant security to the great caravans travelling slowly through them. Who can relate the Romance of the Powindahs? Great fearless men, black robed handsome women, little laughing babies with hair bleached gold-brown by the sun, wolfish dogs as bold and savage as their masters, thousands of camels, male and female and their young; with the stir of many feet, with the babel of many voices, with the shifting of many camps, indomitably—without order, without hurry—making for the Plains of the Punjab. Ah the Plains! They quivered below Sheikh Budin in a misty frenzy of heat. A land as impalpable, as seemingly unreal as some fairy ocean. Drifting into the blue of the sky, drawing it down into the bosom of its mirroring sand. Vast, featureless, unsubstantial, with shadows of the clouds for cities and the mighty Indus flashing in the sun for boundary. An ever-changing land, now grey, now blue, now gold, now whirling like some mad thing in a dust storm, now sleeping peacefully like some immeasurable sea.
Esmé with her little high-heeled shoes tapping a tattoo on the zinc bath, and her hands, on which the rings twinkled, clasped round her knees, watched the baby ducklings and the old hen wistfully, and crooned the song to the Purdah women to herself, its pathetic air floating out softly.
“O you who dwell in deep seclusion
Why do ye seek the world’s intrusion?
What footsteps of the street
Make music half so sweet
As sound of baby feet?
Mothers see! The World is but a Cup,
’Tis you who fill it up.
“O you who find your joy in giving
Why seek ye other ways of living?
Be she of East or West
Of womanhood the test
Is that she give her best.
Mothers peace! The World is but a Cup,
’Tis you who fill it up.
“Have long years taught you nought of sorrow
That of Man’s share ye too would borrow?
Does Day not turn to Night
That, Moths towards a Light,
Ye fain would take your flight?
Mothers wait! The World is but a Cup,
’Tis you who fill it up.”
She stopped and surveyed the wild Eastern scene, then the big Pathan. “Is thy country like this, Pahlwan Khan?” she asked, jerking her head in the direction of the hills of a million scars, graven there by some mighty Past.
“Yes, Sahib. It is a good place.”
“Has thy house47 ever lived in the Lines with thee?”
“Nay, not yet, but she will come later; now there is a little baby.” The big face under the turban bent bashfully over the tub.
“A baby!” Esmé was all interest at once. “When did you hear?”
“It is four days!”
“Why didst thou not tell me before?”
“It is a girl.” There was regret beyond words in the tone.
“That is good: girls are very good,” said Esmé, emphatically.
“Nay, Sahib, of what use is a girl?” And at his sincere conviction her protest died. Of what use indeed in barren hills, where every mouth to feed was a sore tax, one whose dowry would be a responsibility not to be shirked? It was a grim world enough blinking there in the sun, offering scanty welcome to a new life. Esmé’s thoughts flew to the unknown mother in the unknown home; she bent over the ducklings and lifted one or two tenderly on to the grass to dry themselves there, while the old hen scolded.
“By and by thy son will come,” she said.
“That is kismet,”48 Pahlwan Khan answered, stuffing the swimmers with mulberries. “These grow strong, Sahib.”
“As thy son will be. It is good kismet that the first is a girl, the first are never very strong.”
“That is true talk; this one is a weakling.”
“Ah!” said Esmé, with guile, shaking a wise head. “And behold, thy house now has her first child, when thy son comes she will be a wise mother.”
The strong brown face showed satisfaction. “Without doubt. She learns now, when the son comes—who shall be strong—she will have wisdom. Also there will be much milk!”
Esmé nodded; at that moment no heir to a dukedom could have interested her as much.
“Write not,” she said softly, “write not that thou art sad that the babe is a girl. Consider the tyranny of such talk after all the trouble of thy house in giving the child.”
“Nay, I will write that I am pleased, much pleased, burra kush,” said the Pathan, rising to his great height, his prejudice and conviction as untouched as his hills, but with his mood changed, more contented with fate, more satisfied.
“Hast thou a brother in thy regiment?”
“One brother, Sahib.” Then after a pause, “An uncle of mine there was who served the Sirkar; he died in Kabul. Has the Presence heard of Caviagnari Sahib? By his side he died. In Mardan there stands a big stone upon which the names of all who died, sahib and sepoy, are written. I have seen it. His name is there.”
“Much honour,” said Esmé.
“Without doubt much honour. His mother wept so that her eyes became blind and she died.”
“Pahlwan,” said Esmé, slowly, “I have heard that the women of thy people do not weep for such things.”
“Wah!” said the Pathan as one who brushed aside a folly, “that is not true, they weep much. One’s mothers are very good towards us. It is four o’clock, Sahib?”
“I go to take the ‘lakri’49 of the Sahib to the kaluff-ghar for the ‘creekut.’” He saluted and swaggered off with the free gait of the Pathan sepoy.
Esmé sat motionless. Ah, the sorrows of women! Mothers regretfully bringing daughters into a hard world, mothers weeping over a son’s death. The great hills around her sheltered such tragedies year after year, they drifted to her, an Englishwoman, through the alien tongue of a sepoy “Of what use is a girl, Sahib? Our mothers are very good towards us. His mother wept so that her eyes became blind.”
“What queer people they are!” she mused, and then caught a reflection of herself in the water of the tub. “Yet it is me that is queer here!” she admitted with ungrammatical frankness. “Talking like an old mother Gamp to a Pathan! Ah, the poor mothers!” Then with sudden impatience to the hen, “Oh, do be quiet, you old stupid, the ducks aren’t really yours, so why should you mind about them?” And she drove hen and ducklings before her to their coop.
The Keeper of the Peace was dead. He had died of heart disease, and the end had come very suddenly, and now a faint sense of apprehension hung over lofty Sheikh Budin. The summer was over, though a few late roses bloomed by the water tanks, and the trees which only grew in that one little smiling dimple in the bleak barren hill top were parched and dry. The bazaar was emptying, and the General and his staff from Bannu and the Bannu guard had left on the previous day. Esmé, lazily reading among the rose bushes, looked round her contentedly. The Tree from the Mount of Olives whispered and rustled in the breeze to her right, and above her on the bank the Tree of a Million Nails stood, gnarled and forbidding and silent. For how many years had Hindu and Mahomedan alike hammered into its writhing branches a nail for the remission of sin or sorrow? God knows. For how many more years will Christians preserve the Tree from the Mount of Olives, set apart now by a hideous little iron railing? Esmé wondered, and looked down at the date trees of Paniala, miles and miles away, wrapped in an Autumn haze. They are the children of the trees planted by Alexander the Great, whose transport broke down there, necessitating the flinging away of vast quantities of dates—so men say, at least, and Esmé loved the Tale of the Trees. How changed she was from the girl who had landed in Bombay, critical, insular! Now, though English to her finger tips in her prejudices, her principles, and her pride, she had given—what so few women give to our conquered land of India—her heart.
“It has come at last,” she said to herself, “the love of the land. It has risen in my heart as a tenderness and I have eyes to see. All the solitudes, the immensity of the great plains sweeping to the horizon, the sublime Himalayas soaring to the sky, the tragic Sulimans passionate and barren—they do not come to me as strangers now, alien, forbidding. I have heard their tales of big things and little things, gathered their flowers, the purple and white balsam, the violets, the roses. I have breathed their depths and gasped their heights, I have prayed their pure snows and agonised their bare precipices. I have felt them. I have known their moods, the thunder of their wrath, the weeping of their rain, the joy of their sunshine, the sleep of their starlight. I have watched the patience of their plains struggling for bread, the courage of their desolation in the thirst of their deserts. I know their homes, climbing the mountains, clinging like bee-hives to the cruel hills, dotting the plains, brown as the earth, humble as poverty, unknown to the world, the million, million homes of the peoples of India! Ah,” she murmured contentedly, “and because I am English it is my land too!”
She started, hearing a step close by. “What’s the matter?” she challenged, for Major Wade, coming towards her by the stony pathway, had bad news written upon his face.
“Everything,” he replied, joining her by the tank’s brim where the rose leaves dropped one by one and drowned slowly among the sparkling sun-flashes in the water.
“Quite enough,” said Esmé, and waited.
“The mail is in,” he volunteered, presently adding in a queer matter-of-fact tone of voice, “The twins are dead; pneumonia.”
“Oh, how awful for you!” cried Esmé, impulsively.
“Think so?” he asked, “my wife doesn’t.”
“Doesn’t think it is awful for you?”
“Thinks I won’t feel it.”
“Well, perhaps not—by comparison,” she hesitated.
“Oh, I daresay,” he growled. “They’ve taken half my pay in life insurances and remittances home; I’ve never seen ’em, never had a day’s pleasure out of ’em, and now—” he stopped abruptly. “So you don’t think much of the paternal instinct either? By comparison, eh?”
“I think a lot of the paternal sense of duty which prompts such sacrifice,” she said, quietly.
“Oh, you do, do you,” he grunted, ungraciously.
“And I know you care,” she said softly.
“Poor little beggars,” he acknowledged the truth of this by his tone. Then slowly, “My wife is not coming out after all.”
“Why?” exclaimed Esmé in dismay.
“She says she has only Jimmy left now, she says she is afraid to leave him, she’d never forgive herself if anything happened.”
Esmé was silent for a moment, the hundred things which might be said were crowding through her mind. When she spoke it was very simply and directly. “She is making a great mistake, I think.”
“You women are kittle cattle,” was all he would vouchsafe in response, and he watched her as if waiting for her to speak again, but she remained silent, thoughtfully smoothing out the folds of her pink print frock.
“What price me?” he asked, presently.
“Whatever the price it will have to be paid.”
“Paid, eh? Who by? Me? By gad—”
“By both of you,” she said, quickly.
“Oh, she’s all right. She gets what she wants— the children. That’s all she cares about.” The man’s face for the moment was positively savage.
“She has lost two of them now,” Esmé interposed, softly.
“Oh, I know that. But I say what price me? I’ve lost Jimmy practically, I’ve lost those poor little beggars, and now I’ve lost my wife. What do you suppose a man marries for?”
“Poor you!” sighed the woman, unable to answer the question flung at her. All women of her type are unable to reply to it.
“What does she think a man’s made of?”
The blue veins under the sandy hair on his big rough hands were knotted and strained with the force he was using to break a stick into bits of even length. He was quite unconscious of the task upon which his hands were so sternly intent. “She has been away two years, now she wants to remain away till Jimmy goes to school. Five—six—seven—that’s three more years. Perhaps I shall get eight months leave out of that time. What sort of married life is that?”
“A tragic one,” said Esmé, very steadily and quietly.
“Tragic, eh?” He threw a gloomy look at her, then gave a short, hard laugh. “No one would be more aggrieved than Mary if I failed her in any way.”
“In what way?” she asked, abruptly.
“In the way flesh and blood fail. A man is human.” Again the laugh that Esmé found more bitter than any curse. “Mary would be shocked at that.”
“What is her reason for staying at home?”
“She loves the children more than she does me.” Esmé gave a sad little nod of comprehension and he turned his lowering eyes upon her. “Nothing shocking in that, eh?”
“A woman can’t help it. Some are made with the maternal love stronger in them than any other.”
“And that’s sufficient excuse, is it? Made that way! What if I’m made so that I want my wife?”
“Would not she come if you claimed her?”
“Oh yes, she’d come,” he muttered. Then in exasperation. “‘Surely you can love me just as much apart’—that’s her argument! ‘I never cease to love you,’ she says. And she declares she can’t understand me. ‘You brought Jimmy into the world, you are responsible for him and yet just when he needs his mother most of all you would deprive him of her for your own sake,’ that’s her cry! ‘You can have me for all the rest of your life and yet you won’t give me up for a while to your son.’ Gad! what fools women are.”
“But she was coming to you?”
“Because I did claim her. Now, when she has lost those little kids, when there is only Jimmy left, when she says, ‘If I leave him the thought that he may be taken too will haunt me day and night’; I can’t claim her. I will never drag any woman out to this cursed country against her will.”
Esmé looked at the barren, deserted hills. “This cursed country?” she echoed.
“You find it all right,” he said, grudgingly.
She was half surprised by her own reply: “I don’t altogether know yet. I wonder, often.”
He hardly seemed to listen. “This is my life!” He gazed accusingly at the weird scene. “Mary doesn’t care a kick about it; hates it. Bored with the whole show. Can’t stand the servants, dislikes natives like poison. Wore herself to shreds trying to make the house nice and all that; never let the ayah do a thing for the boy, did it all herself. (This last in accents of pride though he spoke gruffly.) “Now she lives with the youngster and a nurse in rooms at Eastbourne; nothing to do but potter about with the child and go to the shops or to church. It would drive me mad in twenty-four hours.”
“Where is the companionship between you!” exclaimed Esmé.
“That’s just what she can’t see. And, mind you, men aren’t like women.” He set his mouth. “Mary is running risks.”
“Have you warned her?” colouring quickly, “I mean does she understand what you feel about the separation?”
“No, she doesn’t,” he retorted, savagely. “Can’t, won’t, never could, never will.”
“However large the price you pay for this separation she must pay too, don’t forget that. If marriage falls short of happiness both pay the forfeit. If her absence changes you for the worse a change for the worse comes into her life. If your love for her diminishes she loses the best gift in the world. Remember that. Can’t she see that?”
“You’d see it fast enough, eh? It might have been different if we had never had children but I don’t know.”
“Ah! You could not do without Jimmy!”
“Couldn’t I? I have to; my wife can’t.”
“You love her?”
“Yes. Always have.”
“Then it will be all right!”
“Why, you are as bad as she is!” He looked at her gently because she was like the uncomprehending Mary. “What induces you to come to a place like this?”
“My feeling for Dick.”
His eyes rested with a kindly twinkle on her pink frock. “What do you wear a dress like that for in this forsaken hole?”
She greeted this with a laugh, but her answer was given in all good faith. “To bring refreshment to one of the earth’s dusty places. You don’t want a dowdy female in this pokey little spot, it would be the last straw!”
“Oh, that’s it, is it? Not a bad reason either. Get Mrs Wilson to take a leaf out of your book; the most untidy woman I ever saw and the most spoilt children. Well, I shan’t see them again for I go down to-day.”
“Do you? The Wilsons and old Mrs Harmer go on Thursday, we go on Friday, and the guard is withdrawn on Saturday.”
“This being Tuesday. Well, I’ve seen about enough of Sheikh Budin. Good-bye till Friday.”
“Good-bye, and I’m so sorry about it all.”
“I ought not to have bored you with it.”
“I was not bored, you know that.”
He gave his abrupt laugh. “No, how you manage to take such a deuce of an interest in everybody beats me. Well, we all like it, and you worm things out of all of us, I expect.”
He left her strewing the red roses’ passionate petals upon the cold glitter of the water. “I don’t worm much out of Dick,” she sighed. She watched Major Wade stride away. “I should like to shake Mrs Wade!” she muttered.
In her year in India she had learned much of the lives of men and women, had gained a deeper sympathy, a broader view, but as yet she had not found the key to an understanding between herself and her husband, though she sought it bitterly.
On Wednesday she was in her bungalow taking the khansamah’s daily account, while Dick, smoking the pipe of peace on the verandah, divided his attention between the Civil and Military Gazette and Waggles’s toilet which Was being performed by the sweeper. To the side of the bungalow the bhisti from Paniala was unloading his mussocks of drinking water from the patient donkey’s back. Boota Singh, the orderly of the Brigade offices, was watching him sleepily.
“Sirdar! Oh—oh—oh, Sirdar!” A call to the servants’ quarters from a telegraph peon, devoid of all pomp of office save for an official belt and badge. The bearer leisurely went to him from his task of polishing his Sahib’s boots, and appeared presently on the verandah carrying the little yellow envelope on the silver salver.
Dick signed the receipt for it. “Teek nay saf kia,”50 he said to the sweeper. “Aur’ brus dedo,” as he opened it.
There was a silence for a moment, then—“Bring telegraph forms and a pencil,” he said to the bearer. He re-lit his pipe, his eyes contracted to two pin points, his brows knitted. Inside the drawing-room the khansamah’s voice droned on.
“Soup do anna. Chops char anna chai pie.”51
Dick wrote a telegram and handed it to the peon. “Quickly,” he said; then to the bearer, “Send the two orderlies here.” He turned to the sitting-room but paused to call to the Pathan, “Don’t empty those mussocks, leave them alone.”
“Esmé,” he said, “I’ve just had a wire from the officer commanding at Wano. There are about three or four hundred Mahsuds en route to raid this place.”
“Phew!” said his wife.
“Great experience for you,” remarked he, grimly. “Now listen—the moveable Column will be here from Dera Ismail Khan as quickly as possible. I’ve wired. In the meantime I shall hold the Club with the police and the 150th’s men. Now this is what you have got to do—tell the servants to go there, at once, and any of them turning up without water will be sent away. They must bring no baggage, a few cooking pots, that’s all. Everything available to be filled with water. And send up some of your stores, nothing more. Go and tell the same to the other women. How many are there? Quick!”
“Mrs Wilson, nurse, two children, old Mrs Harmer, Miss Compton, and eleven mission children I think, there may be more. Mrs Smith, the sergeant’s wife, and three children, they are at the dak bungalow unless they went back to Bannu yesterday.” Esmé answered calmly, but her breath came quickly as if she had been running.
“Twenty, and ourselves. Well, look here, you’d better— See here, hurry up and warn all these people. Tell them exactly what I’ve told you. Send them along to the Club, and you and everybody are to be there in an hour’s time.”
“Dick, what about the animals?”
“O Dick, cows! For the babies.”
“Well, Oh, damn! All right. But that’s all, no goats, no poultry: the place will soon be in a filthy enough state as it is.”
“Come on Waggles!” He whistled to her as he strode off for answer.
“My dressing case?” she called.
“Certainly not. Good Lord, what next!” was the decided reply.
His orderlies and the bearer stood on the verandah. Norman’s eyes twinkled, he loved a fight and it tickled him to surprise these people. “There is news. The Mahsuds are coming to raid this place. Go you—” he spoke to Pahlwan Khan, “and get my pistol and revolver and the cartridges and come with me. Boota Singh, go and find the Thanidar and tell him to meet me at the police-khana, chelo!”
Boota Singh saluted and opened his mouth to speak, with the result that he nearly had his head in his hand for a plaything, and was soon striding off to the bazaar in search of the Thanidar, his slow Sikh brain gradually taking in the fact that there was to be a fight which was good, and much bother which was bad.
“Is this man a good fellow?” Norman asked Pahlwan Khan, pointing to the Paniala bhisti.
“Very well then, look here,” he spoke to the bhisti. “Go you to Paniala quickly—quickly, mind and tell the men of Paniala that the budmashes of the Mahsuds are coming to raid Sheikh Budin, perhaps they will be here in a few hours. Tell them that the General Sahib, all the Sahib-log, mems and babies and twenty sepoys and twelve police and all the people of Sheikh Budin are in the Kulluf Ghar53 and will make a fight there till the regiments come from Dera Ismail Khan. Tell such men of Paniala as can fight to come at once to Sheikh Budin to help the Sirkar. Tell them that if they do not come here there will be a great shame and the Sirkar’s favour will be turned from them.” He scribbled a few lines on a bit of paper. “Give this to the Headman of Paniala, my order and name are written there. Now repeat what I told you.”
The rugged, wild fellow repeated it in guttural Pushtu. Dick nodded, “That’s all right. Now look here, if you go quickly and if they come at your word I’ll give you a hundred rupees. Do you understand? A hundred rupees.” The man salaamed, protested his zeal and good faith and scrambled off by a short cut down the khud. Paniala slept in an October haze beneath them in the plains.
Norman went into his room to fetch his pocket book and field-glasses; he heard the swish of Esmé’s dress on the grass matting in the next room, it disturbed him as no other distraction to his thoughts, rivetted on the matter in hand, could have done. He left the house, passing her room, and put his head in at her door.
“Don’t forget your best ball dress! You’ll need it,” he said.
But his eyes were regretful for a moment. That this woman of all women should be in danger!
Esmé’s laugh died with the sound of his footsteps dying away from the threshold of their home. Oh, to be certain of their return thither!
The whole incident was shorn of every dramatic look or word, thus do the Sahib-log play out the drama of their rule in India.
“Drive that donkey along with you,” said Dick to Pahlwan Khan, and the General, the Pathan, and the little donkey laden with water made a quaint procession through Sheikh Budin, striding rapidly by the rough path to the post office. The postmaster was still there and the tiny room was crammed. Dick entered.
“Get out,” he said to the humming crowd, instantly awed into silence. “Sent my telegram, Babu? That’s all right. Now clear out of this place and lock its doors, none of the wires which these people have written are to go.” Heedless of protest Dick went on, the people at his heels, to the guard of the 150th Punjabis. A few sepoys were still hurrying back from the bazaar, the remainder were fallen in under their havildar with rifles and ammunition belts and were drawn up, waiting. Norman looked at them with satisfaction, they were fine fellows taken from one of the best companies of Dogras in the native army.
“Show me the ammunition. How many rounds are there?” he said and went into the magazine.
Orders flew after that, calmly, decisively. The men were to take all ammunition up to the Club, placing a guard over it. Then he passed on to the police station. The Thanidar was awaiting him there, a pale, fine drawn Hindu, with a refined face and stooping shoulders. A high caste man he showed his caste now, betraying no fear but looking careworn enough.
“Tell the people,” said Norman, “tell the people that I will hold the Club. All may come there. They must be there in an hour’s time. I do not know how soon the Mahsuds will be here but for their own sakes they had better hurry. I am responsible for no one who remains away from the Club. Tell the men that if they send their women and do not come themselves I will send the women away. If they prefer to sneak down the Hill on their own hook their women must suffer for it. Tell them that everyone, man, woman, and child, must come bringing food and water in their hands; the men must bring enough for their own use for three days. Tell them to bring no baggage.”
A fatigue party was formed for carrying water from the tanks to the hilltop which, with the rest of Sheikh Budin, was devoid of well or spring and dependent on the tanks and on water brought on donkeys and mules from Pazu and Paniala. As the natives from the bazaar turned up they were formed into another fatigue party with the old Sikh priest from the Sikh dharmsala in command. The sepoy and police posts were abandoned as being useless for defence. Only the bleak Spur upon which the Club rested was to be held.
Up the hill went Norman, Pahlwan Khan, Waggles and the everlasting donkey.
“Behold what comes from the death of the holy man! Had he lived there had never been this tamasha,” said the Pathan.
“Behold what comes of these Mahsuds being fools as all Pathans are,” retorted Dick. He kept to himself his opinion of what comes of weakness in dealing with the Frontier, of vacillation and procrastination which are mistaken for fear.
Meanwhile Esmé was hurrying over her preparations in the silent bungalow. For the life of her she could not resist putting on all her jewelry. Then she dragged forth two sheets (“for bandages”) and flung pell mell into them scissors, reels of cotton, and a cut-glass silver-topped bottle containing boracic acid powder, dragged cotton wool from the lining of a sachet and tabloid bottles, hurled in some carbolic soap, and rolled the whole thing into a bundle.
“That’s for the wounded,” she said to herself.
Then she flew out on the verandah and screamed till she made herself heard above the hubbub in the servants’ quarters.
“Khansamah, go and pack all the stores and three cooking pots. Not the kerosene oil, mind. Let the mother of your sons go at once to the Club carrying food and water. Who is that woman going off with that bundle? The dhobi’s wife with their goods! Bring her back. Oh, shameless fool! Leave all those things on the ground at once and take food and water.”
The dhobi murmured something about “gharib admi.”54
“Well, then, remain here, with thy goods, and tell the Mahsuds that you are a gharib admi!”
The shot scored and the dhobi gave in with the exclamation that here was tyranny indeed.
“Oh, bhisti come hither with me!” She sped round the corner to the go-down in which the food for the ducks and fowls were kept and made him drag the sacks to the chicken run. She flung the golden grain out into the sunshine and then helped him to carry out the bath, in which the soapy water frothed in many coloured bubbles as it splashed to and fro with their swaying footsteps, into the open.
“Now, I’ve done all I can for you!” she cried regretfully. “Go bhisti and loose the goat, it must take care of itself, and drive the cow to the Club. Carry a gurrah with thee and fill it at the tanks. Sweeper, come here.” She went again into the house and carried out Waggles’s latest pup.
“Kill it,” she said to the man and putting her hands over her eyes she waited. “Kill it quick,” she gasped.
She took the little dead thing back into her arms with passionate tenderness, then threw the limp warm body as far over the khud as she could. “There would have been no milk or time to spare for you. You would have suffered,” she whispered pitifully.
By this time the servants were ready and she saw them off. “Give me six bottles of soda water lest the Sahib turn me away!” she cried to the khansamah, laughing, and so departed from her home with a jest on her lips, leaving it deserted.
Twenty minutes of precious time had gone already and as she staggered up to Miss Compton’s bungalow, laden with her bundle and the soda water, she panted for breath. She expected difficulties here, and she met with them. Miss Compton was prepared to face martyrdom and reluctant to leave the household goods of the Mission. She had only been in India for two years and she held firmly to the ideas of Upper Tooting; with the pinched lips of the religious bigot and the narrow brow of peasant extraction she sat, the picture of hopeless obstinacy.
“Can’t bring these native girls among all those men? Nonsense, everybody will be busy,” Esmé cried crossly. She turned to the girls, “If you stay here you will be killed, go at once to the Club. Carry food and water. You, also,” this to the servants who stood in excitement at the doorway. “Be quick. It is the order of the Government. Bearer, take with you the children of the Mission.”
They flocked to obey her and she found the girls as unpractical, useless, and absolutely without initiative as women reared on the “incubator” system of an institution invariably are. It seemed to Esmé as if the feckless crowd would never be equipped with food and water, rid of useless baggage, and ready to start, but at last they were off.
“I stay at my post. The General can take me by force if he must take me,” Miss Compton declared.
“Oh, dear me, no,” said Esmé airily, “he won’t send anyone to take you by force, why should he when you’ve got two legs?”
She left, and a backward glance showed her Miss Compton slowly following the girls.
Mrs Wilson came running towards her, shading her eyes with her hands. “Oh, my dear, what has happened?” she called. “All the servants are scurrying off to the Club and say something about our going there too. I went down to your bungalow but it was deserted, Nurse declares that the servants said we are to return to Bannu at once and she is packing the children’s frocks in the most awful temper.”
Esmé explained the situation, holding Mrs Wilson’s arm above the elbow and emphasising her account with little shakes. Cara’s face paled, the gentle calm temperament which gave her such a soothing charm seemed unable to cope with this violent crisis.
“Oh, my poor babies!” she kept on repeating, hurrying and stumbling over the stones back to her bungalow. “It’s such an unnatural thing to happen to civilised people like us!”
“It is perfectly natural to the Frontier, and fighting ought to seem perfectly natural to all English people considering the odd spots on the earth they will insist on ruling,” chuckled Esmé.
Madge and Tommy were as rebellious and troublesome as usual, the latter lay on the floor and roared; he wished to go on playing with his Noah’s Ark, he would not go with dear Mummie to see the lovely soldiers in the Club.
“I should smack him, Cara, I really should. We can’t have this delay,” urged Esmé, longing to shake the whole family.
“O Tommy dear!” said Cara helplessly.
An old head came round the corner of the door. “Lord-Sahib! Lord-Sahib! Behold there is a big fight and many men killed, come and see!” Imam Ali, the chuprassie, spoke in the most blood curdling whisper and Tommy rose hastily.
“Is it true, Imam Ali?” gasped Cara.
The dignified eye almost winked at her. “The Lord-Sahib is needed to come and see. Missie Baba may come too, the Lord-Sahib will protect her.” Both children clung to his hands while Esmé put their topees on.
“I have the Escotts’ Emulsion, Huzoor, three bottles, shall I take the baba-log swiftly? The servants have gone to the Club as the General Sahib’s khansamah bade them.”
“Yes; go!” cried Cara; “Esmé, it is just like a nightmare, fancy my bringing those children into the world for this!”
“Will you fly and tell the sergeant’s wife? She will have a fit. I must go to Mrs Harmer and it is getting late,” said Esmé.
“What’s all this, M’m?” enquired the nurse’s voice. On hearing the news she decided to faint, but this impressive measure fell rather flat, for Esmé urged Cara to throw a jug of cold water over her. She condescended to come to her senses with jerks and gasps and announced between closed teeth, “Mrs Smith’s baby has the measles. That is why they did not go back to Bannu yesterday.”
“Heavens! And we’ll all be shut up with the child! And with Willie at Bannu there is no doctor here now,” wailed Cara, thinking of her precious pair and hastily pulling a photo of her husband from its frame to take with her a talisman.
Esmé looked at her and gasped, measles—was that all they had to fear? A photograph of Captain Wilson! Ah well, that she could understand; anyhow it was Cara all over, so loving, so unpractical.
“Do be quick and don’t fiddle-faddle about, I must fly now,” she urged. Mrs Harmer received the news calmly but with considerable mental confusion. “Yes, my dear, yes. I will certainly take what stores I can, but where have I put the keys?” As they seemed hopelessly mislaid she had to set forth with a tin of biscuits which was all she could find.
Everybody was streaming in the same direction now. The Pathan from the tiny hamlet below the Shyiad’s house was driving up his four cows, the fat buniar was hurrying along with a stream of coolies carrying grain, native women dotted the steep hillside with red and black as they climbed to the Club bearing gurrahs of water from the tanks, every boy and girl was scrambling hither and thither collecting stones. The place was as busy as an ant hill. Esmé flinched beneath the weight of the bundle and soda water, which had become well nigh unendurable. She gazed in wondering admiration at the native women swinging up the khud side absolutely undistressed by their heavy burdens. How physically helpless and weak were the gently born women of her race! Yet, after all, the strength of these others was the strength of beasts of burden, hers was the force of character, the power to command and organise. Pale, puffing Ram Das in squeaking yellow leather boots toiled behind her carrying water. “Salaam, Memsahib,” he panted.
“Salaam, Ram Das, is this a good tamasha?”
“We shall all be killed I think-k,” he wailed.
“Keep a stiff upper lip,” urged Esmé, cheerfully.
“Yes, Memsahib,” said Ram Das, dolefully. Doubtless he questioned the practicability of making mouths at the Mahsuds.
Esmé chuckled with her last remaining breath.
“Oh, look, dear, they are building walls!” cried Mrs Harmer. “Really it’s a terrible amount of trouble for only a couple of days, but your husband is so thorough always.”
Something in this remark upset Esmé completely, already thrown more off her balance than she knew. “Oh, oh, oh,” she gasped and sat down laughing helplessly, her head in her hands. The natives, hurrying past, glanced at her. How mad were the women of the Sahib-log! Yet they caught the infection; the women cast shy, swift glances and went on smiling, calling to each other “ Ari, sister! Behold how the Mem laughs!” The men, more stolid, went on without remark. Mrs Harmer was much concerned, “My dear, do eat a biscuit, do! You’ve been so long in the hot sun this morning. You really ought to have gone to Simla—I always said so—with your looks and your pretty frocks. Oh dear! Oh dear!”
“I’m all right, it’s nothing,” said Esmé, and staggered on till the top of the hill was gained, the last of the Sahib-log to reach the rendezvous.
Once there she stood amazed at what Dick had achieved. The ammunition with a sentry on guard was stored in the main building which was to be held to the last. In two small rooms to the east of the big central billiard room the water vessels were being crammed, those for the Mahomedans in one, those for Hindus in the other. All natives retained such food as they had brought with them, but the stores from the Buniar were in the third room opening on to the verandah.
The cows were tethered outside. In the tiny porch two khansamahs with their cooking pots were accommodated, one for the Sahib-log and one for the Police, Punjabi Mahomedans. The Dogras of the 150th had their cook in the annexe—called the cottage—busy now preparing a meal.
The verandah, below which was a deep drop, was to be left absolutely free to the defenders, and a wall was being raised round it composed of bundles and bedding brought in defiance of orders by many of the natives and confiscated for this purpose.
Every available man was working, throwing up sangars and digging trenches under the directions of Norman and the sepoys who were being kept from fatiguing labour as far as was possible in view of what lay before them. The position consisted of the crest of the hill—a distance of a few hundred yards—the main building of the Club, the cottage to the north, and a low row of servants’ houses to the south. Norman ordered these last to be destroyed by fire at once. Barbed wire had been procured from here and there, and was being skilfully used in forming entanglements. The last line of defence was prepared round the Club building itself and the cottage: a barbed wire maze, a trench in which was barbed wire, a wall of earth and loose stones, and an inner and higher wall of piled up benches from the gardens below, of chairs and tables and doors wrenched from their hinges.
Every man’s position was already told off, but as yet Dick’s spies sent out to watch on every height had brought no news of the approach of the Mahsuds. At intervals along the line of defence were piles of stones by which so many coolies and able-bodied men from the bazaars were to be posted, ready to give the alarm if the enemy should threaten to rush the position at that point. Though stones were a primitive weapon with which to resist the rifles of the enemy a storm of them hurled down the steep hill in the face of the foe might serve to gain time till the fire of the besieged sepoys could be concentrated on the attack.
At three o’clock everybody was to have a meal and already the cooking pots were challenging the sunshine.
“See here,” said Dick to Esmé, “when I get news that the Mahsuds are sighted a bugle will go and everybody will take up their positions. All women and children will be herded into the billiard room and are not to leave it on any pretext whatever. There will be about 150 to 200 of you and the atmosphere will be snug. Don’t have a panic for it will infect all these servants and fellows from the bazaar. So keep them quiet if you can. At seven everyone is to have a meal, and again at dawn to-morrow. The water will be doled out, so much each. That’s all.”
She put her hand on his shoulder for a moment, “Don’t fret about me, Dick.”
“Not, eh? Well, don’t you fret about me then.” And he left her to hurry off to the men.
Esmé remained at the doorway a moment, looking at the scene with its familiar features and strange meaning. The hills basked in the sun, silent, peaceful; a haze veiled the Indus and Dera Ismail Khan, which doubtless already hummed with preparations. Paniala wore its every-day aspect. The busy crowd was full of faces that Esmé had seen all summer long, seen without any recognition of any link and yet here it was, forged strong in an hour, the link of life or death, defeat or victory which they perforce awaited together. The servants, the chuprassies, the orderlies, the Thanidar, Ram Das, the sepoys and police, these had had some place hitherto in her existence, but what of these rough coolies, swart and squat, clad in one loose garment of dark blue or dingy white? These women with their short pleated skirts, rope sandals, saris, and bare arms and feet? These children, thick as flies around the cooking pots? The swish of chittai55 being dragged out of the rooms, to form part of the many familiar objects of household furniture which made the inner barricade, mingled with the noise of many voices and the thud of stones and earth echoing over the hills. The cows browsed placidly, and gazed at the harassed human beings with big brown eyes which had about as much expression as plates of clear soup. The rest of Sheikh Budin lay silent and deserted.
Esmé turned from the glare to the billiard room. Two charpoys had been pushed into one corner and the billiard table almost filled the middle of the room. Tommy and Madge were playing under it with Mrs Smith’s boys despite poor Cara’s fear of infection; Nurse was helping to look after the wee sufferer from the measles, but it was a bad case and the baby tossed in pitiful misery on her mother’s knee. Mrs Harmer, with her topee all awry, aided the native hospital assistant to tear up sheets and roll them into bandages; most of his medical appliances were on their way back to Dera Ismail Khan. The servants were carrying in tiffin. Esmé made a cup of strong bovril for Dick and took it out to him.
“By Jove it is hot for the time of year!” he said, mopping his streaming brow. He gulped down the soup with a grimace and continued his work. “See that Waggles gets something to eat, will you?” he called over his shoulder.
The afternoon wore away, the children growing more and more fractious and unmanageable.
“Oh, I do wish they could be happy, it may be their last day,” cried Cara, her pretty face white and drawn and with a racking headache.
Esmé hardly realised the passing of the hours when suddenly, with the lengthening of the shadows and the cooling of the air, a bugle broke the lullaby short on Cara’s lips as she hushed little Madge to sleep. So the Mahsuds were sighted at last. They had come with the close of the day.
There was the sound of the sepoys’ and police’s heavy boots as they tramped to their places on the verandah, in the rooms east and west, in the bath-rooms north and south, in the porch, and in the cottage, the dull patter of rope sandals as the rest of the natives went to their posts. Esmé could hear Norman’s voice giving orders that every man was to have a drink of water at once, then that the women and children were all to go to the billiard room. The first came to the door and paused to shuffle off her shoes; Esmé had a vision of captives dragged weary miles by hurrying captors and she went to meet the timid crowd.
“Keep on your shoes, sisters.”
Some misunderstood the order, some hesitated, puzzled by the disregard of etiquette, but with their menfolk hurrying them they flocked and sidled into the room, like so many pigeons with the tinkle and clash of ankle bracelets and the cries of the babies carried in their arms and on their hips.
“Sit down,” said Cara, gently, and they sat crowded together with a low murmur of voices.
Esmé stood among them, all eyes riveted on her, furtive dark eyes. “Listen,” said she in Urdu, “have no fear and make no noise. None may rise, all must remain seated. If anyone gets up or makes a noise she will be sent away and will be killed by the Mahsuds. Please explain to the Pathan women in Pushtu, Miss Compton, they must not start a panic.”
There seemed little fear of it; the women huddled up together were perfectly docile and quiet. Nurse began to sob loudly.
“Hush, my dear, hush!” said Mrs Harmer.
“Be quiet this moment. Are not you ashamed to let these natives see you are afraid?” hissed Esmé.
“Let us pray,” said Miss Compton and she and the native mission girls knelt down.
“I won’t say mine twice, I won’t,” proclaimed Tommy stoutly, eyeing this development with disfavour.
The native women watched with curious glances. Prayer was good and without doubt all the Sahib-log were mad, but as for the native girls of the mission, with hair uncovered like the bold mems, praying there! Oh, the shameless ones!
The room was crowded to suffocation, the air grew more horrible every moment. An hour dragged by; two hours. Then the door opened and Norman entered. The native women shifted uneasily, drawing their saris across their faces. The group of English women looked at him expectant, Esmé riveted her eyes on his fine head, bold face, and big frame as if to draw the image of it down into her heart.
He spoke first to the natives in Urdu, “Have no fear, the Sirkar will drive away the Mahsuds. Make no disturbance and obey the Mem-log.” Then he added in Pushtu, “If the Mahsuds enter this room make no resistance. Submit quietly and refrain from provoking anger, so shall your lives be spared. Moreover persuade the Mahsuds to preserve the lives of the mems and babies, treating them with respect and holding them as hostages. So shall they make terms with the Sirkar. If a hair of the mems or babies be hurt the Sirkar will so punish the Mahsuds that their children’s children shall talk of that day with fear.”
Then Dick, who had not once glanced at the native women, spoke in English. “Cheer up, it is all right. They’ll never take this place in the time and the cavalry from Dera will threaten their retreat and then off they’ll go. It will be short and sharp, but don’t be alarmed. They have been looting and burning and the attack will begin when the last ray of light goes. Sit tight when you hear the first shots, it will be all over in no time.”
Esmé was by his side, her hand detaining him, “Give me something to shoot with, Dick,” she whispered.
“In case the Mahsuds enter this room. Oh, I know they won’t, but in case—”
“The very worst thing you could do would be to start shooting—if they came in and heard a shot it might be all up with these women and children.”
“But myself, to shoot myself. O, Dick, can’t you understand as a husband!”
He peered into her face, “You might bungle it, you’d have an awful time if you wounded yourself, they could not look after you. You might die slowly.”
“I’ll risk that O, Dick do!”
He had to make a decision: it was the most painful one of his life. “No,” he said, “No. They will treat you decently, I tell you.”
She let go his arm and smiled at him very sweetly and bravely. “All right,” she said, “I expect you are wise.”
“Not a bit.” But she was. Did Norman realize what it was like to sit unoccupied and unarmed and wait? She wondered.
In half an hour the first shot drove the blood from the women’s hearts. The attack had begun.
Norman had done all he could for the women and children, and now he put the thought of them from him. Through the coming hours he no more thought of Esmé than a polo player thinks of his wife in the midst of an exciting game. He was a fighting man and here was a fight after his own heart, no wearisome “bundobust,” no war correspondents, just a rough and tumble through the night. His blood sang in his veins, it may safely be said that Norman enjoyed himself enormously.
The moon hung her silver lamp over hill and valley, not a sign of help came from Paniala. The stars glittered, the earth was a vast shadow, the sky a jewelled veil, the glare of the burning bazaar and bungalows cast a quivering, passionate light on the calm heavens and sullen hills and creeping up silent and unseen, encircling the Hill, the Mahsuds drew nearer and nearer. Round the racket court they swarmed and up the familiar path and stony khud, by the uneven ground, over the hot ashes of the servants’ houses, up the steep hillside to the north and south and east and west, noiseless save for panting breath and the fall of bare feet upon earth and stone.
Norman, tense as an electric wire, listened for every sound, waiting—waiting—holding back his men’s fire till there, in a patch of moonlight, he saw a crawling huddled form within twenty yards, “Fire!” and the Club and cottage spurted death and flames and the night rocked to the sound of it.
Back came the shattering answer from the moonbeams and the shadows. Spitting, blazing, hurtling, the phit-t-t-t—ping of the bullets whistled and sang through the air.
On the hillside lay human forms that had been men twisting, struggling, or still as the stones upon which their rifles rang, fallen from slackening hands. Yet the attack pressed and the thronging numbers dashed towards their prey.
Dashed and yelled and sent death winging on before them from their rifles, barely held at bay during that tremendous rush of forty yards or so by the thirty-five rifles of the besieged. Death seemed to surge around the lonely building as the great Atlantic waves beat upon a lighthouse, and then first the wire caught them and the weight of dead bodies lay across it when the oncoming stream of Pathans sought to dash it and trample it aside, then the trench trapped them and those who sprang from its embrace to scale the sangar lived to scale it only to wrestle and scramble in vain against the barricade beyond, to fall brave, indomitable, but defeated, with half an ounce of lead setting the soul free.
Then the tide ebbed, the foe fell back. The first attack had failed.
It had taken its toll. In the cottage two Dogras lay dead and the billiard room door opened to admit what—? “Not Dick,” breathed Esmé as one in mortal pain. No, the huddled figure in white and brown, the boots already too heavy for the limbs from which the life ebbed, was Boota Singh. They laid him on the charpoy and the native assistant and the Englishwomen tended him. A Hindu woman was called to give him water ere his soul passed, none of his blood or caste around him, fighting an old foe, serving an alien race, a fine Sikh, a fine man, gone to solve for ever the mysteries of race and creed, of sex and caste.
The Thanidar took one of the spare rifles, two Pathan coolies with some experience of shikar the others. The foe, sullen and shaken, but dangerous and lustful of blood drew off. From the ruins of the servants’ houses, from behind dead bodies and piles of stones, from the gallery of the racket court, they sniped and snarled. But they did little damage for the besieged lay behind walls and barricades and snarled back while the wild wind roared and moaned over the Hills.
Two hours dragged on. The door opened again to admit a shuffling trio who carried between them one of the bhistis of Sheikh Budin. The man was wounded in the stomach. His cries made the room horrible, they came regularly with the beating of his hand upon the coat that Mrs Harmer threw over him as he lay tortured upon the billiard table.
The room was ghastly now. Moonlight filtered through the skylight and lit the crowded place with a mocking ghostly light. It showed the herd of native women, motionless save for the shifting of a veil, or the rustle of a mother changing the position of her child. It showed Miss Compton, rigid, with the light of religious exaltation in her eyes, she had been praying almost ceaselessly and now and then one of the mission girls had grown hysterical. Cara sat with Madge on her knee and the nurse held Tommy who moved restlessly and moaned. It threw its beams full upon Mrs Harmer, that woman of many sorrows who, in the solitudes of Sind when her husband was in camp and she alone among the natives, had lost a child and given birth to a child on the same day, and who now stood beside that screaming, suffering horror on the billiard table, pitiful, tender, but helpless. It shone upon the cold steel quoit round the pugaree of the dead Sikh stiffening upon the charpoy and floated in fairylike dancing beams over the whitewashed walls. The smell in the room was awful.
Out on the verandah Norman was wrapping his left wrist up in a bit of the khansamah’s turban and his eyes glittered as coldly as the stars while he watched Imam Ali and Pahlwan Khan wriggle down the bank to strengthen a bit of the sangar and barricade. Fleecy clouds were blowing across the sapphire sky towards the waning moon. With the threatened darkness the second attack would surely come. It was now about four o’clock and the wild wind still roared and howled over the heights.
“Huzoor,” the bearer stood by his side, holding a whisky peg in his hand. “Drink, Sahib.”
Norman drank and handed it back—a moment later there was a crash of broken glass and the thud of a falling body. Abdur Rahman had exposed himself.
“Bismallah!” he gasped and died, while his Sahib knelt beside him, heedless of the danger, peering to see if the hurt was mortal.
When he rose his face was set like a flint. He took the rifle from the Dogra beside him, waited, watched, swore, fired. There came a rattle of stones as something heavy squelched against them. Norman handed back the rifle satisfied.
Half an hour wore away. The light had gone from the jewelled sky, the darkness was impenetrable. The night seemed to hold its breath, the wind had ceased.
The second attack came at last, putting an end to the ghastly stillness, came in good rough earnest, came triumphantly, gallantly, pressing on the besieged at all points till Norman—urging, encouraging, commanding—saw defeat coming nearer and nearer. The cottage caught fire and the Dogras, like smoked out bees, came forth in fury; the clamour was deafening, for the coolies dashed out with gurrahs of water to beat down the flames, or at least to save the fire from spreading further; many fell killed and wounded and others stumbled over their bodies. The women smelt the stinging, drifting smoke, and wondered, doubted, feared. The Dogras fought like wild cats yet fought steadily, never yielding an inch. It was a gay fight for the living and little they recked of the dead.
Bursting through the defences, dashing by the blinding smoke with bloodshot eyes and maddened brain came the Mahsud Ghazi; he sprang out of the darkness and confusion, knife in hand, within a yard of Norman. That most strange of human developments—a fanatic, and that product of disciplined years—a General, faced each other- England and the East, Sandhurst and tribesman’s lair, Army and outlaw saluted each other with death and then Pahlwan Khan’s bayonet point received the mad Mahomedan and with a sick cough he fell forward and died.
After that the attack slackened. Cowed, disheartened, the Mahsuds pressed less gallantly, then ceased to press at all. A dull rose light, then pale yellow, then blue, showed over the Plains towards the Indus. The stars paled, the forms of the hill tops grew distinct, turning from sapphire to grey, from grey to brown; a white mist lay like a shroud in the valleys, the smoke of Sheikh Budin rose in spirals and floated into the sky. The Mahsuds melted away leaving behind them their dead and dying. The daylight, dim but rosy, showed the drawn weary faces of the defenders.
Norman entered the women’s room and threw open the door to the sweet air. “They’ve had news that the Cavalry are cutting off their retreat and have skidaddled, it’s all over,” he said. Then, to the native women, “Go outside.”
They went, leaving the group of white-faced Englishwomen. Mrs Smith was crying quietly over her baby, it had died of convulsions, its little soul passing away at the hour when the bhisti’s torture ceased. He had died in agony, as strong men die, at dawn. Outside rose the shrill wails of the native women mourning over their dead. Inside, Norman, with Esmé’s hand on his shoulder, stood regretfully by the charpoy gazing into Boota Singh’s calm face.
On the night following the attack Esmé slept in the Club as it was deemed inadvisable for her to make the journey down the Hill till the next morning. Her husband had been busy communicating with Simla and she had spent the long day drearily enough, watching the smoke ascend drowsily into the sky from the ashes of her most cherished possessions.
“It is a mad sort of ending for frocks made by Félicité,” she remarked ruefully to herself while the rest of Sheikh Budin buried their dead.
The night brought her no sleep, she was haunted by the memory of the bhisti’s screams and by Boota Singh’s dead face kissed by the cold lips of dawn. She shrank from the vivid picture of what she had seen huddled on the hillside. To-morrow, and all the days to come, would blot it out by the crowding details of daily life but now she lay in the grip of it. She crept from her charpoy and stole out into the verandah and sat there, her arms folded on the wooden balustrade and her chin resting on them, hour after hour. Her mood was scarcely normal, her nerves still quivered under the recent strain, her body still shrank from its late contact with death, and her midnight thoughts ran riot. She saw Norman as he had been last night—the merry fighter; she saw him as he had been to-day—the highly trained officer impatient of interruptions; she saw herself as she would have been had fate made her a widow and shuddered. What might have been, might still be, for an expedition was now a certainty. Could she endure it, the strain, the suspense, the fear? Yes. But could she endure the worst? No: not if her husband left her unanswered, uncertain, not if the lonely years were to throb and ache with the question, the doubt, as to what Norman really felt, as a husband. Her big dreamy eyes looked out into the Eastern night probing her own powers of endurance. She was confident that Dick would make no outpouring before he left her; the initiative, the test, the crisis, must be her work.
Words ran like fire through her brain, words to compel his comprehension, words to woo his confidence—words which tormented her so fast they set her pulses beating, so stingingly they brought the tears to her eyes. She rose almost violently, excitedly conscious of a loss of self-control, and went to the room where her husband lay sleeping. She would make her claim here and now while the impulse lasted; was life more his than hers—was happiness more his than hers—that this bar of silence should be imposed on her because he wanted it?
The moonbeams fell upon his face, showing the strongly marked features, showing a gentleness that was absent when the man roused himself to command events. His hand with the bandaged wrist was flung out over the resai which covered him, and Waggles cuddled up by his feet. Esmé paused on the threshold and the flood of her passionate demands for an explanation ebbed, giving place to the maternal instinct which dwelt so purely in her heart. He was tired out, her poor Dick. And something in her acknowledged a prior right as his; not because life or happiness was more the man’s than the woman’s but because he was the worker. He who had fought this fight, he upon whom the weight of responsibility must fall in the coming expedition, he must rest in peace now. Softly, so softly, his wife crept away.
Next morning’s breakfast found her exasperated at her own powerlessness to maintain the mental attitude of the previous night; neither its passionate excitement nor its gentle renunciation was hers.
“Am I a weather-cock? Do I feel nothing deeply? Have I no strength of purpose?” she asked herself, and was further astonished and indignant to find that the slamming of a door sent her heart into her mouth and brought ridiculous tears to her eyes. Moreover, that extraordinary creature Dick, who had said no word of praise for a pluck that could stand comparison with his own, showed an unaccountable tenderness at the sight of her agitation. He walked round the billiard-table with his coffee cup and holding it with his right hand stroked her hair with his injured left.
“Poor old girl, you are on the jump,” he said.
“Nonsense, I’m all right,” gulped Esmé, and then down went her golden head on the table while she shook with sobs.
“You ought not to have got up so early,” said her husband helplessly, and untruly, for their departure was urgent.
“It is the table the bhisti lay on,” she cried with a shudder, pushing back her chair with both hands.
Norman turned on the khitmutgar, “Fool! Why did you not give the memsahib her breakfast in the other room?”
Esmé regained her self-control by a great effort, “Never mind me, Dick,” she said, wiping her eyes, “I’m idiotic to-day.”
“Damn! Why should you have to go through this!” he exclaimed savagely, adding, “I told you all along that you ought to have remained in Murree.”
“What! and miss the most thrilling event of my life?” cried Esmé.
He regarded her in genuine astonishment. “Pity the bearer did not miss it, poor devil,” he said regretfully.
The return journey was accomplished without any difficulty and half Dera Ismail Khan were assembled to greet them. Beatrice Younghusband remained behind when the others left in order to help Esmé try on some of the frocks which she was lending her till a few could be made by the durzie to replace the burnt ones.
“Where was Captain Freeman?” questioned Esmé, “I missed him.”
“Don’t you know?” asked Beatrice hesitatingly, “Poor man.”
Esmé twisted round quickly from surveying herself in the long mirror. “Not something horrible about Lucy!” she cried.
Beatrice nodded. “The very worst,” she said. “There is to be an action for divorce—undefended.”
“Who is it?” gasped Esmé.
“A civilian, Mr Towers. She only met him in July.”
“You have made me shake all over!” declared Esmé, sitting down forlornly on the edge of her bed.
“I went to see her,” began Beatrice.
“You did? How splendid! Well, go on-” commanded rather than requested the fragile fairness on the bed.
“She greeted me in the most calm way; she said, ‘You are the last person I should have expected to see under the circumstances, but as you are neither impertinent nor officious I presume you have not come to offer help or advice.”
“That was decidedly uncomfortable for you,” commented Esmé.
“Very. I simply replied, ‘I have come so that you may know you have a friend,’ and then she softened. Can you believe it, Mrs Norman, while she was talking to me it was as much as I could do not to laugh!”
“Laugh? How mad.”
“It sounds so, but she was so quaint, so witty, and so bubbling over with amusement in mimicking what ‘the Murree cats’ would say of her.”
Esmé wriggled in distaste, “I call it horrible,” she said.
“So it is,” responded Beatrice quietly. “She seems to feel no pity, no remorse, as to Captain Freeman. She is decidedly horrible. Yet she has pluck and a sense of fairness. She said to me, ‘Don’t imagine I shall seek social recognition, I am not a beggar. After all a wife gets a good deal out of her world both socially and legally; she has her position and her rights. Well, if she flings both away, if she goes in for “love and the world well lost” I have no patience with her if she wants the world again in the end. I expect to be a model wife to Cyril but I daresay that if we all shifted round until we found the husband that exactly suited us we could all contrive to be models. No, I’ve broken the rules and I shan’t ask to be a member of society again.’”
“How will it all end?” asked Esmé, sadly.
“The woman we knew has gone,” said Beatrice, “gone under, disappeared.”
“I wonder what led to it.”
“She went step by step,” said Beatrice slowly, “she abandoned all safeguards. She left pride for vanity, convention for wilfulness, high ideals for low ideals. She was not a religious woman. She was childless. She did not love her husband. She was much alone. And this is the end.”
Esmé’s eyes filled with tears; so Lucy, who had been fond of her, who had been sorry for the poor old Winters, who had done many a careless kindness, had made this final, fatal mistake.
“I suppose this coming expedition is the best thing that could have happened for Captain Freeman just now,” sighed Esmé.
“Unfortunately he won’t go to the front, he will have to remain here as he is ‘routine,’ it is Major Wade who is ‘Art of War,’” Beatrice reminded her, and then “O Mrs Norman, that expedition! What a nightmare.”
“Still, it would be too humiliating if there was no expedition now. I should feel ashamed of the British Raj! And it will be splendid to have our husbands fighting,” said Esmé. The two women looked into each other’s eyes for a moment and Esmé slipped one bare white arm round the other’s neck. “Good luck, dear,” she whispered.
The next two months of preparation dragged slowly for the womenfolk and nerves strained under the suspense. Esmé found that every hour’s absence from Norman was fraught with a sense of loss, that any friction haunted her with regret. Found herself morbidly watching him with a dread of the death that would menace his strong frame two months hence. Two months, one month, three weeks, two weeks. Esmé, looking at her husband snatching a few moments’ leisure to plant sweet peas for the long distant spring, said to herself, “In five days you will be out of sight. Perhaps I shall never see you again. God help me.”
Yet that night saw her the gayest of gay hostesses, inspiring all the table with the reckless spirit of her mirth. A recklessness befitting the occasion; for those whose duty it is to gamble with their lives must have wives who will stake their all gaily.
Three days, two days, the last day. On the following morning Norman and his staff were to set forth, already some of the troops had started. One Brigade was to throw itself into Waziristan from Bannu, another via Wano, and a third—the Derajat Brigade—via Jandola. After dinner Esmé, in a soft green chiffon dress which caressed her fairness, fastened a crimson rose just above her heart; it was beating in rushes of excitement. Her cheeks were delicately flushed, her hands cold. Would Dick heal all bitterness, obliterate all misunderstanding before he went or would he go without a word?
“How splendid the 150th looked as they marched out to-day, did they not Dick?” she said, seeking something—anything—to delay him, for he had risen and was deliberately collecting his favourite pipe and tobacco pouch.
“Hope they’ll do well, it’s a fine regiment; their Sikhs are a bit too big for hill work, that is the only thing against ’em,” replied Norman, pocketing his pipe.
Esmé slipped the pouch under the sofa cushion, “I wonder if they will have a bad time,” she said; the beating of her heart was suffocating her.
“It won’t be like a girls’ school taking a constitutional, poor devils,” grinned Dick, looking round everywhere for his beloved pouch.
“Dick, why do you never call me a poor devil?”
He looked at her keenly, the curved red lips were quivering. “Have you seen my pouch?” he asked.
He had practically refused to respond to the little appeal, his leisurely but absorbed search for his own comforts racked her nerves, already strung to the pitch of irritability. She flung the pouch impatiently on to the table. “Here you are!” she said, bitterly. “Good-night, Dick.”
He ignored her anger as he had ignored her pain, but he lingered a moment and when he spoke it was with a certain earnest awkwardness, “I’ve got to get as much sleep as I can, you see it would not do to start fagged, I must do well on this show—eh?”
“I am certain you will do well, Dick,” she said gently and generously.
He went towards her and caught her in his arms. There was no lack of rough tenderness in his embrace. As he left the room the petals of her crushed rose fell one by one on to the floor. She went to her room quietly. After all, this was what she had expected. Dick would go without a word.
Her mass of golden hair rippled and sparkled as she brushed it and her own reflection in the glass caught her attention. A slim childish form with long waving hair falling over a white night-gown, a blue ribbon at the throat the only touch of colour: on her bed lay the elaborate frock with its crimson wreck of a flower. Gone was the armour of a woman of the world, into the glass were gazing the tear-dimmed eyes of a hurt child. Quick as a flash she was at Dick’s door, her sobbing breath catching at her throat. She flung it open.
“Dick, Dick, I want you!” she cried.
He was busy over the last details of his packing, but he turned quickly at her voice and a look that was almost dread flashed across his face. He feared to see this woman suffer. He went towards her.
“What’s the matter, Esmé? I am awfully busy and I must get some sleep.”
“I want you!” she said again.
“Don’t make a scene, old girl, eh? You will really only upset us both for nothing.” He sought to take her hand but she pushed past him and crumpled up on a chair, her face buried in her arms, one slim bare foot and ankle peeping below the hem of her nightgown, and her whole frame a-quiver with sobs.
“Oh; damn!” cried Dick, helplessly. “Esmé dear, don’t! The fact of the matter is a soldier ought never to marry. Here am I; with God knows what responsibility on my shoulders, and here you are upsetting me just when I need all my nerve.”
She raised her eyes to him, “Aren’t you strong enough for us both, Dick? For both your work and your wife?”
This went home.
“I don’t know,” he answered, doubtfully, “perhaps in some ways I am a rotter but I can’t bear seeing you unhappy, though I daresay by now I ought to be used to it.”
“I can’t think,” she said in a tired, childish voice, “I can’t think why you’ve always complained of me for being unhappy; surely I have had cause enough to feel so!”
“Hanged if I can see—” he began, excitedly.
“I will tell you then,” she interrupted. “I married you, loving you. I lost my money. I was separated from you. I was anxious about you. Was that a happy time for me, do you think? Well what happened? I made a bad mistake, I spent too much money; twice. I owned up to you both times. I had tried hard to live among my friends on a small income but I did not succeed. My fault lay in my failure. It was not that I did not try. And what did you do? You advertised that you would not pay my debts!”
“I did it to protect you,” he flared.
“Then you failed too! You tried to protect me in one way and exposed me to what? To one man attempting to give me money at bridge, to the evil attentions and intentions of another. That was in England. Out here it has been the same sort of thing over and over again.”
“Do you mean—”
“I mean,” she flashed, defiantly, “that men sought through your action a short cut to a flirtation or an intrigue with your wife.”
“Why did you not tell me?” he asked, heavily, in the last few moments his face had grown very tired.
“Because I wanted peace between us—because I was too proud because I was too hurt—Oh, for a hundred reasons.”
He made no answer. “Well?” he asked, presently.
“You never showed that you cared whether I went to England or not, you never told me you were grateful when I went to you in Sheikh Budin, you never said you thought I was plucky in the awful attack there—you would have left me now to eat my heart out without a word.”
“He moved uneasily. “I suppose I’ve seemed a brute to you,” he said, slowly, “but though I’ve said nothing I have felt all those things.”
“But what use was that to me,” she asked (her eyes brightening), “if I could not guess it?”
He looked at the childish night-gowned figure. “You analyse everything,” he said, “and you criticise me so. I’m different. I do not take our married life to bits and fuss about it. And you are you to me. I don’t criticise you.”
“You criticised me and condemned me over my debts,” she cried.
“Yes. But I wish to God I had never published the fact,” said her husband.
Esmé stood motionless, looking at him. His words wiped all bitterness out of her heart. She knew in that moment that he loved her with no hard, grudging affection. Her dreams had come true, this was the love she had needed, had sought for.
Her arms were round him in a flash, she pulled him down into the big chair beside her. “O, Dick darling! I do love you!” she cried.
“And I love you,” said he.
“And I am a fiend to keep you awake and upset you when you have this responsibility on your shoulders.”
“I’m not a bit upset,” said Dick, untruthfully. Then with a world of regret in his voice “What an unhappy married life yours will have been if this is the end, poor Esmé!”
This woke in her a very agony of remorse and dread. All that was loving, all that was sweet and appreciative she whispered to him, her golden head resting against his close cropped dark one, and he replied as best he could for the throttling arms that cuddled round his neck. Utterly different in character and in temperament, utterly different in their ways of self-expression, utterly opposing often in the clash of wills, these two strong personalities had found in each other the real mate, the true love.
The next morning brought to the man action, to the woman reflection, to them both separation. Dera Ismail Khan waited through the days and nights for news; there was little enough for the women to do but they showed no lack of pluck through the dragging hours. Esmé felt that here mid the stir of events on a Frontier her letters from England awoke but a dim echo of interest in her mind. The casualty lists spoke grim tragedy or sad loss. Sahib and sepoy fell side by side, and sad eyes scanned the list.
Lieut. Wilkins 111th Cavalry;
Jemadar Kirpa Singh, 500th Punjabis;
Sepoy Shah Baz, 150th Punjabis.
And so on through scores of names of which only the name of the English boy meant aught to the English women though to the officers it was otherwise.
“Kirpa Singh! That’s bad luck, one of their best native officers,” commented Captain Freeman.
Then came a day when a rumour, starting Heaven knows where or how, tormented Dera Ismail Khan.
The Bannu Brigade going via the Tochi were to have met the Darajat Brigade at Makin, so ran the tale. The latter force had failed to keep tryst at the rendezvous and black disaster had ensued.
Esmé, white and terrified, wrote to Captain Freeman for news. He could only reply that he had no official information, but feared that the Bannu lot had been badly cut up.
“Much loss of life?” Esmé wrote back to ask.
Yes, he feared so. Then, later it was official that the Bannu force had met with a serious reverse. No details yet.
To her dying day Esmé will never forget that night. She sat alone by the fire, thinking, thinking. Had Norman failed, blundered? Let her heart wince as it might, the thing may be was there to be faced. Into the scales it went: on the one side his courage, his past services, his past success, his private life, his character, her love—into the other, failure. Well she knew that the last must outweigh the first. She saw it all vividly: his horror of defeat, his passion of regret, his shame of failure. She saw the little daily details: their meeting with this between them, their relations to other people, his responsibilities for the dead, their struggle for forgetfulness. Ah, poor Dick! His ambitions killed, his pride stabbed! Everything made ten times more terrible for him because he was married, because she must suffer too. And through all her pain throbbed regret that she had not set him on his way with light-hearted zeal, her flags flying and her bands playing.
Alone in the silent house Esmé watched the grey dawn come creeping in, saw the sunshine chase the shadows from the world, and learned a hard lesson in the hard school of the Sahib-log.
“Huzoor,” the new bearer stood in the doorway, a note in his hand from Captain Freeman. Esmé tore it open and read it.
“I knew you would be anxious. It was the Brigade from Wano that failed to turn up at Makin owing to a breakdown in transport. General Norman with the Derajat Brigade pulled off a big victory on the 27th which should cancel the Makin fiasco and break the back of the tribesmen’s resistance. You’ll have him with you before long now. Bobby St John has been killed and Younghusband has died of cholera. It is awful bad luck.”
Ah! the tragedy of life and death so terribly wedded to each other! Ah! the poignant pain of little things, of the familiar empty tent, of the riderless charger, of the white initials on the tin uniform box, of the hundred personal trifles littered about the quiet bungalows where Major Younghusband’s laugh and Bobbie’s whistle had echoed so cheerily.
Esmé, driving past the gates, found the glittering world of turquoise sky and silver dust, of blood-red pomegranates, and white almond blossoms that shivered noiselessly to the ground and hushed the buggy’s wheels in their soft silence blotted out by the black name-board with “Major Younghusband, 150th Punjabis,” painted on it. Written there for a day or two longer till Beatrice, his wife, left his home and made way for a stranger, written on the white cross that would dazzle in the northern sunshine and drip grey in the hot rains, greeting the eyes of the mali weeding the narrow paths, seldom if ever greeting the eyes of a friend, till the fierce Indian seasons erased it slowly from the faithless marble; glittering longer perhaps on the little brass in the Church “This tablet is erected by his brother officers.” Through the unheeding years the officers of the Indian Army and their wives would glance at it till the generation that yielded to it the tribute of recognition—“I used to know him”—passed away and a new generation caught glimpses of it under the swaying punkah frills in the hot weather, read it and straightway forgot it.
Beatrice came to Esmé from the purple shadows of the verandah white and fierce eyed. This woman was in torture, her strong frame offered her mind none of the stupefaction of weakness, her agony was as keen and passionate and powerful as herself. She was bereft of her all, the earth was a heartless robber under her feet, the sky was a ruthless tyrant over her head. The white hands that clenched and unclenched themselves in the long folds of her black dress were the only signs of her suffering that could not be tutored by the iron will that made her white face a mask of marble, and held back her tears in a frozen calm.
Esmé held out her arms to her, “There is nothing to say,” she whispered.
Beatrice made no sign of greeting, “You lucky woman,” she said in her low, full, musical voice, “you lucky woman.”
“Yes, I know,” murmured Esmé, she who had her Dick still.
“I can’t talk about it,” Beatrice went on in the same level tones, “don’t try to make me talk.”
She turned and went into the house, Esmé following sick at heart. She noticed the signs of the packing, the pictures were gone from the walls, the curtains from the windows, the Persian rugs from the floor; Beatrice’s writing-table was gone too, and big packing cases filled the dining-room. She sat down by a large table covered with files where her cheque-book lay open.
“Can I do anything for you, Beatrice?”
“Nothing, thanks, I’ve nearly finished all the business affairs and the packing is almost done.”
“Can I give you any meals, we shall be quite alone?”
“I can manage perfectly here, thank you.”
“Is baby all right?”
“Yes, he is splendid.”
This was too awful. Esmé looked through a mist of tears at the beautiful outline of the woman framed against the blazing sheet of glass in the window.
“Have you any plans, dear?”
“I sail with baby on the 15th, I shall probably take a flat in town.”
Such a silence, broken only by the moaning of the well and the screaming of the parrots. Through the open door Esmé could see the dead soldier’s tent white and still on the lawn, and his orderly walking towards it; it was going to be struck for the last time.
“I’ll go now, Beatrice. I know my being here only bothers you.”
Beatrice held out one slim hand to her. “Don’t think—” she began.
“I understand,” Esmé said, brokenly.
“I hope we shall meet again in England,” Beatrice spoke again in the even quiet tones of a hostess.
“I’ll write,” said Esmé, “good-bye.” And then because the utter desolation of this woman, whose happiness Alwyn Younghusband had held as such a precious thing, frightened her, she paused one moment on the threshold.
“Oh, my dear, my dear,” she gasped, “does not having the baby—his son—make it any better?”
“I don’t know what I should do without him,” came the quiet answer, “my baby.”
Then a thing happened that Esmé never forgot and often dreamed of. Beatrice suddenly, terribly, for one brief quiver of time lost command of herself. Just in that second there flashed over her face and through the involuntary movement of her whole frame the expression of her torture. “Oh, the nights!” she moaned, “Oh, the awful, awful nights.”
Esmé went away without a word. The tent yielded to slackening ropes, as she drove past, and lay formless on the lawn, the orderly turned to salute her, and then mounted the waiting charger to exercise it. At the gate Baby Bunny in his go-cart was crowing gleefully at the bearer who had caught a half-fledged parrot for him.
Mrs Wells greeted Esmé on the Mall with violent wavings of her sunshade, “Oh, my dear Mrs Norman,” she ejaculated, as Esmé perforce drew up, and she waddled and panted towards the trap. “I can guess where you are going, it is so like you. What a comfort you must be to Mrs Younghusband, too. I am so sorry for her, but I hear she has been left very well off, her own money, so nice, and with that dear little baby. I always liked Mrs Younghusband though she kept very much to herself, didn’t she? He was a charming man, so polite always. Well, well, well, it quite depresses one, doesn’t it? And Mrs St John too! Left without a penny and heaps of debts into the bargain—dreadful! what a mercy she has no children! I tell all the subalterns it is a warning to them never to marry. Why her parents ever let her make the match I cannot imagine, but perhaps there were a lot of daughters and nothing to keep them with—one never knows. Did you ever meet her people? No, of course not, how stupid of me! I fancy they were something suburban—not in your sphere at all. It is sweet of you to be so kind to her. I wonder if she will ever marry again? It is not as if she were really pretty, and probably she won’t have many opportunities of meeting men. I fancy she will have to do something. Well, good-bye, dear Mrs Norman, don’t wear yourself out, the General will be so angry if we let you kill yourself!”
All that the world’s coarse thumb and finger failed to plumb, all the pain was written in Mrs Bobby’s tear-dimmed eyes. She lay on her bed in the quiet bedroom, the sun shimmering whitely through the cheap muslin curtains and the door into the dressing-room open, showing Bobby’s odds and ends—his spurs—his riding whip—his golf clubs as of old.
“I haven’t put his things away yet,” sobbed his young wife—“and such heaps of our wedding presents will have to be sold. They must be because of the debts.”
She sat up and thrust her curly hair off her forehead. “I do try to be brave,” she muttered, her lips quivering, “but it is just too awful. My Bobby, he didn’t want to die.”
“Let me brush it, dearest,” said Esmé, laying her hand on the tangled brown mass.
“Oh, what does it matter? Nobody will ever care about my hair again.”
She lifted despairing eyes to Esmé’s sad face. “That seems such a little thing and yet none of the pain is really trifling, it all stabs one to the heart. And oh, I am changed so—I’m not the same girl Bobby knew—I had never writhed like this, then”—she dropped her little clenched fist upon the crushed pillow—“and he would hate it so for me. My Bobby’s heart would just break to see me like this.”
Esmé’s arms stole round her.
“I do hope and pray that it came quickly, that there was not one dreadful moment when he knew it was coming and thought of me—and the debts.”
“Don’t, dear, don’t torment yourself so.”
“Oh, nobody knows,” panted the girl, “nobody knows how Bobby worried over the bills, it simply breaks my heart to think of all he went without. Things he needed so as to be a smart officer. He cared frantically about being that. I wish he had had all the things he wanted—how I wish he had!”
“He had you.”
“Yes, I am glad he had me. It does make it a little better to think about that,” said Mrs Bobby, piteously. “If he had died without having married it would have been worse. He would have missed more of what the world has to give. That does comfort me just one tiny scrap.”
“But what about yourself, you poor darling?” whispered Esmé.
“Me? Oh, there is not enough to live on. I shall have to be a companion or something equally dreary. Fancy being a paid companion to an old lady after being Bobby’s wife!” she laughed a little hysterically and clutched at Esmé, who noted the fear in the girl’s eyes, and quivered.
“It is not for myself that I mind that so much now, it is thinking all the time how Bobby would simply hate it if he could know, how he would wince. It is thinking that people may be rude to his wife, and she too dependent to resent it. And he was so splendid in never letting anybody sit on me, not even the Vines, though he is a Major.”
She flung herself off the bed and stood looking out at the glittering garden. “This is the last home of my own I shall ever have. It is not long to have had it—only just a year. My one year.”
“Such a happy year for him,” said Esmé, softly.
“We quarrelled sometimes,” said Mrs Bobby in smothered tones, “Oh, how could we!”
Then she turned from the window again. “It is horribly petty of me,” she said, feverishly, “but do you know, having Major Vine as the President of the Committee of Adjustment makes me simply squirm. Bobby would have loathed having him poke into his affairs. And he does jar on me so: I know he thinks Bobby was extravagant, and he wasn’t—he wasn’t! But he spoilt me and he would give me things.” Her eyes wandered to a pink chiffon parasol. “That cost nearly two pounds. He got it from Home for my birthday and now Major Vine sees the bill”—her lips quivered—“It was his last present to me and so private.”
She looked at Esmé out of her troubled blue eyes, the deep shadows beneath them showing the bruise of anguished nights.
“Does all that seem very small to you, too small to mind about now? I suppose it does. But you see it is the sort of thing Bobby and I would have talked about together for hours. I know just what he would feel over it. In years to come things will happen—I will be hurt by people—I shall have trouble—and I shall not feel Bobby’s sympathy there, for I shan’t be in touch with it. But I feel about the Vines as if they were hurting him too. That’s why I mind.”
She stopped her incoherent appeal to Esmé to understand, and two big tears rolled down her cheeks. She rubbed them away dully with the back of her hand and looked out of the window again.
“Those are the flowers Bobby planted,” she said, wistfully, and then with a despairing little cry—“Oh, I can’t bear it—I can’t bear it! That he should be always in this awful India, that he should become dust of her dust!”
Esmé took her by the shoulders. “Mrs Bobby, you mustn’t,” she said, quietly.
“No, I know. Only I am so tired. And there is no Bobby to take care of me. I hope I shan’t get ill in England, it is so expensive,” she added, anxiously.
Esmé left her with a bitter ache in her heart, which throbbed with pain to think of the lonely sobs that would echo through Bobby St John’s home that night.
The sunset made of the horizon a rim of sapphire against the vast amethyst of the sky, the mountains of the Frontier crowned in golden light and clothed in raiment of purple shadow made a fitting throne for the glory of Empire. Only alone in the gathering darkness two Englishwomen were paying a great price. By and by, clear and sweet, above the stir of the Eastern City, the laughter in the Messes, the weeping in two empty homes, the whispering of the leaves on silent graves, the bugles of the soldiers would sound the Last Post.
Norman was extraordinarily moved, his self-contained face was strangely pale and gentle yet there was excitement in his eyes, and in the touch of the strong hands, holding the back of the dining-room chair he sat astride. He had brought it out on to the verandah after dinner, and Esmé lay on a wicker lounge, the white of her dinner dress tinged with pink, where the light of the lamp fell on it through the rose-coloured shade. The chics were rolled up and the arches of the verandah let in a flood of moonlight and showed the splendours of the night, the jewelled glory of the starry sky, the velvet mantle of the shadows. The air was heavy with the scent of roses, warm with the breath of the warm earth. The servants were gathered into a circle round the kitchen fire, which glowed red at the base of the low, irregular, dark mass of their houses. The drive to the gate lay white in the moonbeams. Beyond at the cross roads the sentry challenged a passer-by, “Halt, who goes there?” A pi-dog howled afar off, and for a moment a chorus of barking dogs made the night hideous. Then silence again save for the dim sounds of a tamasha in the distant Lines. Not a leaf stirred.
“I am so glad to pay the debt we owe to the world, you know,” she said, dreamily. “A soldier takes life, he of all men should beget life. You have sent some woman’s son out of the world into the unknown mysteries, you have called another life out of the unknown mysteries into the world—you are paying your debt.”
“I hope it will be all right for the child—eh?” he said.
“Why not? Oh, my dear, he won’t have money, but it is not a bad heritage: we give gentle birth, sound health of body and mind, a good name, good looks, good abilities; there is the prospect of all that. It is much, Dick, very much—and to be English!”
“Conceited person,” said Norman.
He was very quiet, smoking his cigarette, but his heart was beating in the drum of his ears, great throbs.
“No—proud,” she said. “Counting it all up you know, my baby’s heritage. Including all this too,” she pointed to the garden, “nights and days, the earth and the sky, the beauty of it all; Europe and this mysterious Asia—all this wonderful world for my baby!”
“Some people find it rotten enough,” said he.
“Ah,” she responded, quickly,” you feel the responsibility.”
“Rather. I should think so.”
“I don’t,” she said, simply. “Not now, except the instinct to take care. I feel all the gladness, all the hope of the earth at Springtime.”
“Quite right,” said Dick, “quite right.”
“And if you were to remind me of the ups and downs of life, well, I’d accept them all for our child, why not? why not,” she added, softly, “with Heaven hereafter?”
“Yes, that’s the way for you to look at it,” muttered her husband.
“All the important things are Trinities, and all the mysteries,” she murmured, “Body, soul and spirit—youth, maturity and age—birth, marriage and death. Leave out one and there is incompleteness; the body without the spirit mindless: without the soul dead. Maturity without age is but a life cut short, and is any human life complete without mating?”
“Apply it as a general law to Nature and death before mating results in universal death,” he answered.
“The things one cares for,” she whispered, “God, country, and family—what better gift can any woman bring them than a child? It is her work for all three. And, oh, my dear, maidenhood, wifehood, motherhood! A Trinity again.” She rose suddenly and went to him. “You have given me wifehood and motherhood,” she said.
He stood and took her in his arms. “Glad, are you?” he asked.
She nodded, her face buried in his shoulder.
“Not a bit afraid?”
“No, only terribly happy.”
“Esmé, is it worth all—for me? I have not been too rotten to you, eh?”
She held him at arms length, her two hands on his shoulders.
“I love you with all my heart,” she said, simply, “you have always been to me the ideal father for my child.”
After a while he spoke again, settling a cushion for her head.
“You’ll have to take good care of yourself.”
Then they sat once more in silence, while the bats made muffled noises, fluttering in and out of the verandah. By and by she asked him, “Have I brought you a gift that really fills your heart and your ambition, Dick?”
“You did that,” he answered, shortly. And she saw he was greatly moved.
“But this—this is not superfluous?” she whispered, happily.
“This?” He put out his hand and took hers. “This completes everything. Do you think a man is not glad and proud when he hears of the coming of his child?”
“Men like you, Dick,” said his wife.
And in after years in England she thought of India most often as it was that night, offering visions of the Future, sleeping crowned with stars and flower-laden, gentle in its silent warmth, wooing the coming Spring. The deep-bosomed Mother Earth, full of promise of young life, enshrining in a sweet-scented darkness her supreme moment of happiness.
So ends the story of Esmé Norman—but how shall end the story of the Sahib-log in India?
Bhistie = water-carrier. ↩
Bundobust = arrangement. ↩
Naukri = service. ↩
“Drinking water for Hindus.” ↩
“Get out of the way.” ↩
“All right! I am coming.” ↩
Roti khana = food. ↩
Pie = farthing. ↩
Very good. ↩
Don't talk. ↩
“The best of all the things.” ↩
“A visitor sends his salaams.” ↩
Chaukedar = native watchman, who coughs at intervals to show he is awake. ↩
Sepoys seldom use the word Memsahib in speaking to an Englishwoman. ↩
British Government's. ↩
Native pipe. ↩
Dhobies are of low caste. ↩
"Got it?” ↩
"By the favour of the Sahib I have received it." ↩
Charpoy = native bed. ↩
Roti-khana = his daily meal. ↩
Musolchee = washes up dishes. ↩
Sirdar = native gentleman. ↩
“The Sahib comes!” ↩
Ruksat = “you have my leave to go.” A form of dismissal only used to men of birth and position. ↩
The men who enlist in the militia are for the most part local men and, in the event of an expedition across their border, would probably have their loyalty tested by the sight of their villages in flames. ↩
Dastur = custom. ↩
Kalluf-ghar -Club. ↩
Chota Sahib = junior British subaltern. ↩
Pultan = regiment. ↩
Gora-log = British soldiers. ↩
Honour or dignity. ↩
Brotherhood, relations. ↩
House = wife. ↩
Give a chair to the Subadar Major. ↩
“It is a very good memsahib.” ↩
“Without doubt very good.” ↩
The garment worn by Purdah women out of doors. ↩
Sirkar = British Government. ↩
Take care! ↩
House = used in deference to native prejudices instead of the word “wife.” ↩
Kismet = fate. ↩
The racket of the Sahib to the Club for tennis. ↩
“You have not made her clean, brush her more.” ↩
Soups, 2 annas; Chops, 4 annas 6 pie. ↩
Sach = true. ↩
Poor man. ↩
Grass matting. ↩