India! What a glorious mental vision was summoned by that word! When, many years ago, it was suggested as my future home, imagination instantly sketched a brilliant panorama of a land given over to balls, races, and durbars—-with agreeable novelties in the shape of elephants, punkahs, and begums—and, in spite of the expostulations of my friends, I accepted the proffered invitation, and sailed eastward—the bride of a clever young civil engineer. Immediately after our arrival, Robbie reported himself at Allahabad, and there, whilst awaiting instructions, we remained for several delightful days, under the roof of a civil functionary of importance—who was also a relative. Here I caught glimpses of polo-playing, gymkhanas, and gay doings, and at a ball—thanks to my fresh colour and trousseau frock—I had quite a flattering number of partners. Oh, if we would only be sent to a similar station! But no such good fortune was in store. A long blue envelope succeeded by an official telegram—briefly determined our fate.
Robert Milman was desired to hold himself in readiness to travel to Madras, and there take up work on the new railway line, in course of construction between Jollapett and Quilon.
“Madras!” exclaimed my cousin Ethel: “oh, poor child, how terrible!—it means transportation!”
“Madras itself is bad enough,” supplemented her husband, “but I understand that this job is in a jungly district, near the west coast, where the climate is deadly and the mosquitoes are the size of snipe! If I were in your place,” turning to Robbie, “I would pack my wife straight off home!”
It is hardly necessary to mention that to such a preposterous but well-meant suggestion we turned deaf ears. I had been but one week in India, I had married Robbie for better for worse, and in spite of the lamentations of my cousins I accompanied him when he took his departure the very next morning. For several days we lived in a railway carriage; staring from the windows, I seemed to behold the East rolling by. We travelled south—far, far south. Here were the tropics—this was India; the India of nursery tales and picture books. Instead of miles of barren plains, or stretches of grain and forest trees, we had reached a landscape vivid with colour. Here were rich green crops, emerald patches of paddy, stooping palm heads, lagoons starred with water-lilies, and water-fowl; the air was moist and warm, the sunsets were amazing. On the fifth morning, we found ourselves at a certain humble little station within twenty miles of our destination, and, awaiting us, were two of Robbie’s fellow-employees, one of them being his superior officer, Major Cowley, a burly man in white drill, wearing a great mushroom topee and a disagreeable expression. His swelling importance seemed to fill up the entire platform.
“Hullo, Milman,” he said, accosting Robbie, “so you’ve come, and brought your wife, I see——” here he nodded to me. “This”—presenting a good-looking boy of one-and-twenty—“is Bethune—-a new recruit. He says he is going to look after you. ‘The blind leading the blind,’ eh?”
“Very good of him, I’m sure,” I muttered.
“This billet is only fit for a bachelor,” resumed Major Cowley. “I did my best to head you off, but the department is terribly short-handed. You have just come out from a good long furlough, and”—here he glared at me—“got married. You must send your wife to the hills—and join our little mess.”
“Is this part of the world so very dreadful?” I inquired.
“Yes, impossible for a woman—all right for a man: A 1 fishing, and the best shooting in the Presidency.”
“Where are we to live?” I resumed, as Robbie went to look after our servants and baggage.
“Aye, that’s a question! The rainy season is coming on—you won’t fancy a tent—and this district swarms with snakes!” announced this Job’s comforter.
“But it will be all right, Mrs. Milman,” broke in young Bethune. “Within a couple of miles of the line there is an old deserted station, Ahnomore. You can have your pick of bungalows, rent free.”
“But why is it deserted?” I naturally inquired.
“Cholera,” answered Major Cowley, “and some trade changes; but chiefly cholera. It lies in a low swampy situation, between the hills and the sea.”
“Your description is certainly not inviting,” I faltered, on the verge of tears.
“Oh, Mrs. Milman, it is not half bad,” protested the cheery young man. “The scenery around is lovely—the vegetation marvellous, if you sketch.”
“And although most of the bungalows are in ruins, I know of a snug little one, furnished and kept up for the assistant collector, that you will find charming, and rent free; Ahnomore has one advantage—you can’t spend money there! living is absurdly cheap: a duck costs threepence—eggs a penny a dozen, fruit and fish for nothing—in the bazaar!”
“But I thought it was deserted?” I objected.
“Oh, there are some Eurasians living in the bungalows—people who have just drifted there—and a few wealthy zemindars, who farm the rice crops and toddy-trees.”
“You will never see another white face,” growled Major Cowley; “make your mind up to that!”
“I have made up my mind to like it, and make the best of it,” I answered stoutly. “I daresay I shall discover some attractions in old Ahnomore, in spite of your forebodings.”
“Well, you will find it deadly dull, and your husband’s work will carry him farther from you every day. You’ll never stand it. In a week Milman will be getting a pass, to take you to the hills!”
“In the meantime, good-bye,” I said briskly. “I see our trolleys waiting to carry us, to our journey’s end—quite a pleasant change from being cooped up in a railway carriage.”
As I spoke, I seated myself on this low and novel means of transport, Robbie and Mr. Bethune joined me, a railway coolie set us going—in another moment I had waved a farewell to Major Cowley, and we were whizzing down the line, with feet dangling anywhere, and a soft, damp breeze beating in our faces.
Our servants and baggage followed in the same fashion, and made quite an imposing procession.
Young Bethune proved a most cheery and entertaining companion, and appeared to have taken us entirely under his half-fledged wing.
“No one minds old Cowley!” was his disrespectful announcement. “It’s his liver. You will find Ahnomore far better than a leaky tent—among a crowd of jabbering coolies.”
After a twenty-mile run on trolleys, we came to a full stop by a gap in a dusty cactus hedge; and from here we proceeded on foot, along a half-effaced track, to our future abode. I noticed from a distance that Ahnomore was extensive, and heavily shrouded in trees; when at last we entered its outskirts it appeared to consist of two wide roads which ran parallel to one another, shaded by enormous banyans, and lined with bungalows. Some of these were still standing; others were mere mounds, their situation indicated by tottering gate-piers, wild tangles of fruit-trees, and bushes of long-neglected roses, oleanders, and jasmin. As we hurried onward the overhanging trees gave one the idea of walking between the solemn aisles of a cathedral, with the tall trunks for columns, and a green vaulted roof. I could give no idea of the weird effect, and the sense of utter desolation, conveyed by this abandoned station. Even our gay escort appeared awestruck and mute, and the only sound that disturbed an oppressive silence was the booming of what I thought were minute guns—but subsequently discovered was the ceaseless moaning of the distant surf. From these gloomy avenues it was an agreeable relief to turn into a neat little compound, gay with flowers, and a comfortable white bungalow in excellent repair. It stood between the ruins of the old fort and factory, and a large building enclosed by a high wall, over which waved the tops of palms and tulip-trees.
“That was once the Residency,” explained Mr. Bethune, “and I believe has wonderful grounds full of mangoes and tamarind-trees, and a ballroom! Think of such waste! Now it belongs to a rich zemindar—a Brahmin—who shuts himself up with his belongings to the fourth generation, and keeps a temple and a priest. I am sorry you have not better neighbours!”
“Perhaps we may become friendly,” I answered, resolved to make the best of everything. “I should like to see an Indian household.”
“You will never do that here. These west-coast Brahmins are extraordinarily strict. They have it all their own way in these parts, and look on Europeans as the mud under their feet. But there is a couple of Eurasian families at the far end of the station: Old Benny, once a Company officer, and his wife; and the Mackintoshes. Mackintosh has a wood contract. He is as black as your boot—but not a bad sort”
Mr. Bethune took a boyish delight in assisting us to settle in. He emptied the plate chest, whilst I unpacked the linen, and Robbie wrestled with cases of “Europe” stores. Meanwhile the servants discovered the bazaar, and set about cooking our dinner, with the peculiar facility of natives of India. Early next morning Robbie and Mr. Bethune departed for the scene of their labours on the new line, and I was alone. As soon as I had set my house in order, I sallied forth to explore, accompanied by my ayah, a Madrassee, who spoke excellent English (with a slight Cockney accent).
First of all I inspected the ruined fort: its walls were faced with red brick, one or two old guns lay about, the earthworks were overgrown with coarse grass and luxuriant scarlet and white creepers, among which was browsing a flock of goats. Not much to be seen! We passed the late Residency, now the zemindar’s abode. Not much to be seen there either! The high walls resembled a jail, and the great iron-studded gates were closed; but even as I looked these were swung slowly back, and a green bandy, drawn by a pair of superb white bullocks, lumbered forth. The occupants of the conveyance were invisible, the shutters of the bandy being impervious as those of a prison van; but I caught a momentary glimpse of a great bungalow, the verandah swarming with natives, and of a courtyard surrounded by low buildings; then the wooden doors were slammed, and I saw no more! It was fully a mile to the far end of Ahnomore, and here I found a little church, and a large cemetery—crowded with heavy tombs; here, too, were the remains of once crammed and noisy barracks, now empty and roofless—beyond them a parade ground, a piece of water with a belt of palms, patches of emerald green, and in the distance a line of blue hills. This was Ahnomore! Our lodgings and food being so inexpensive, we were enabled to invest in two capital ponies, an extravagant supply of books and magazines, and luxurious consignments of English stores.
In a month’s time we had made ourselves completely at home in our strange quarters, and Mr. Bethune, who spent every Sunday and all his spare time with us, took part in our various expeditions. We rode through the rice fields, and clumps of cocoanut palms, to the foot of the hills, where lived a sporting Rajah—tributary to Travancore—whose forests and paddy crops brought him much wealth. Here were groves of teak wood, black wood, sandal wood—here were cardamoms, arrowroot, orchids, rare ferns, and—leeches! Oh, it was a rich country—a land flowing with game and money—a land teeming with deer, wild pig, tiger, and bison! To Robbie and Mr. Bethune it was a sporting paradise; to me, a revelation of giant tree-ferns, brilliant flowers, butterflies, and wonderful subjects for my sketch-book. What vegetation! what silver sounds of running water! what plant life!—oh, forests of Ahnomore, shall I ever forget you?
Robbie and his friend were full of wild adventurous tales (true tales). In the early morning, ere the dawn flickered on the horizon, they followed the great herds of bison to their grazing grounds in the low hills among the whispering bamboos. They boasted of how their tracker, a Kurundar, never lost a trail, and kept on hour after hour, guided by a broken branch, a wisp of leaves snatched off—above all, by the footprints; and how he knew each hoof in a herd. The result of these exertions was insignificant, resulting in cows or heifers, never in a fine “head,” for the bulls were wily, and the ardent sportsmen but inexperienced Shikaris.
Long before these days I had discovered the bazaar, as well as the Mackintoshes and Mrs. Benny. She was the third wife of the venerable Colonel Benny, an old Company officer, now approaching his ninetieth year, and still in the enjoyment of his faculties. His families had flitted to Europe one after another, but he had refused to leave India. All his good days had been spent there; and were not two wives, several children, and most of his contemporaries buried in her rich red earth? And here he lived—this once gallant “Company’s” officer—tended by an affectionate Eurasian partner, awaiting the hour when he too would be carried to the cemetery and laid beside his brothers-in-arms. He was a tall old man, with long white hair, and a weak, husky voice. When it was one of his “good days” he talked to me eagerly, and unfolded with graphic touches the glorious times of “John” Company and the Mahratta wars—tales of loot and treasure, of duels and gambling. Mrs. Benny was a dark, fat, uneducated woman—but an admirable nurse and cook.
“The Colonel was once quartered here,” she explained, “sixty years ago, and he loves the place, and talks of the grand parades on the Maidan and the balls at the Residency as if they were still going on. Oh yess, he loves Ahnomore, and though it is awfully dull, I say nothing. When he is dead, I go to Madras—to the Luz, where my sister lives—and I shall see plenty of life there. It is not so bad for me as for you, dearie,” she added. “You are young, and I have the Mackintoshes, the Captain, and the girls.”
Two of these girls were married, and three remained at home. They were all dark, talkative, and inquisitive, but good-natured. They gave me a sitting of eggs, and advised me to wash my hair with arica-nut to keep it fair. They played badminton vigorously, when off-days and holidays sent them some of the railway foremen and overseers—people of their own class and complexion. Once they invited me to tea—afternoon tea. We had a roast shoulder of mutton, and bread-and-jam. I found the combination peculiar. Captain Mackintosh was a loud, portly person, enjoying a fine pension and a congenial occupation—but his wife never appeared, and was presumably unpresentable. She did not even come to church, on those rare occasions when a Portuguese Padré and a native assistant held a brief service. In June the monsoon arrived, preceded by an alarming cyclone, and followed by days and nights of a deluge. (Even now the sound of a steady downpour, and the splashing and pattering of torrents, recall Ahnomore.) The vegetation seemed actually to sprout before one’s very eyes —ferns, arums, bamboos, palms, and plantains, glistened and dripped, and grew. The rains had damaged the line, washed away half-a-mile of the new rails, and Robbie was busier and later than ever. Oh, the hours indoors were long in this moist, enervating climate! and how I wearied for the companionship of one of my own sex! But what was the good of wishes? there was not another English girl within a hundred miles. Then came a break, of which I made the most, and went for long, long rides every morning—for the evenings were invariably wet.
One day I rode into our compound just at noon—that hour ever sacred to the native servants’ “Rice.” The house was under a spell of noontide quiet—only a wandering wind from the sea stirred the heavy palms, and rustled among the jack-fruit. I happened to glance in passing at a large fig-tree overhanging the wall which enclosed the zemindar’s domain: there, shining among the green leaves like a flower, I descried a white face—the face of a girl of my own age. “It must be imagination,” I said to myself, not a little startled.
Horrible idea! was solitude having such an awful effect that I was beginning “to see things?” I looked up again: yes, it was still there—a colourless, beautiful face, framed in quantities of soft golden hair. The vision was about to withdraw, but I held up my hand with a gesture of entreaty. “Oh, don’t go!” I implored. “I’ve not seen a white woman for three months. Please stay, and tell me what you are doing in there.”
“I—I was a-watching for a-you,” she answered, speaking with peculiar deliberation, as if English were an unfamiliar tongue; “I do watch to see you every day when they”—and she jerked her head backward—“are asleep—after food.”
“Who are they?”
“People in here—where I live—always.”
“But surely you are a European?—they are natives,” I objected.
“My mother was a native: of Nair caste—a Brahmin woman: these are her folk.”
“Do you never go out?” I asked.
“No; only in a closed bandy—now and then.
“Do you like being shut up?”
“No!” she answered quickly—“no; I hate it; but there is no help for me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I cannot explain—now. Oh, Mistress Milman, you are so young and happy, and free—it makes me glad to look at you!”
“But you must come and look at me here, at home. I shall be thankful for your company. I have many lonely hours.”
“I also. But no, no, no—I can never go to you.”
“Because my uncle, Narayana, the zemindar, would not give leave. He is a High Brahmin, and strict—also Sattianadam, the Guru, his priest; they desire to keep me native. They will, that I forget that I am English— at heart”
“How old are you,” I questioned.
“Sixteen, I think.”
“You look older; and your name?”
“Aralee they call me—my father’s name was Nemo.”
“And where is he?”
“Aré! I wish I knew! He left this seven years ago. He may be dead—like my mother—but something says No. Every day I watch for him—and every night I pray that he may soon return,” and tears rolled down her face.
“Perhaps he will. Do you know anything of him?”
“Not much. He was a famous Shikari: oh, the horns and skins he brought here—and took away! Since I was small, I can recall him here. He bought this bungalow—it is his—and he spent much time here, and in the forests. From him I learned English, and when he was laid up with a broken leg he taught me to read. Oh, I did love him! and I rode on a pony by his side, and he told me tales of fairies. How happy I was! Then he was called away to England—and has never come back. After a long while my Uncle Narayana came to live here, then my mother died, and—that is my life.”
“Is your uncle kind to you?” I asked.
“Sometimes. He wishes me to conform to the Hindoo customs and ceremonies; and I do not eat meat, I never take life—of even one mosquito—but otherwise I refuse. I will not worship, as did Devana, my mother—the cow decked with wreaths: No; I read the Bible. I once went to the chapel; always, I am a Christian!”
Here she suddenly put her fingers to her lips, and vanished.
What a tale I had to relate to Robbie that evening! At first he was inclined to be jocular and incredulous, and endeavoured to persuade me that I had been talking to a native—the Nair women are surprisingly fair. At last my eloquence had its due effect; he believed me, and was filled with a mixture of curiosity and sympathy.
“Mother dead—father gone home—native relatives swoop on the girl, and annex her house and property.”
“And her liberty. Robbie, we must do something for her—you must!”
“Yes; but how can we help her? I’m willing, but I suppose you don’t want me to scale the wall and carry her off? They say that nothing is sacred to a sapper—but I do draw the line at a zenana.”
“There may be other ways. I shall go up and see Mrs. Benny first thing to-morrow, and find out all about this business. It is strange that we have never heard a whisper of the existence of this poor girl next door.”
“I expect the zemindar has shut people’s mouths. He is a man in authority, a fanatic Brahmin by all accounts, and stern stickler for domestic observances.”
I lost no time in setting forth to cross-examine Mrs. Benny; and we had scarcely exchanged good-mornings, ere I plunged into the question of Aralee.
“Ah, so she is still there!” she said tranquilly. “I thought they had sent her away long ago.”
“Where would they send her? to England?”
Mrs. Benny laughed, and smoothed her knees with her fat little hands. “No, no, no—not England.”
“Then where?” I repeated.
“Well, you see, she is not educated—after all she is half native—she has no parents or friends; and these very pretty young girls are much valued by the Rajahs in their zenanas. The zemindar and Rama Zinga, the Hill Rajah, are friends.”
I don’t remember what I actually said, but I felt in a sort of blaze, and my vehemence startled good Mrs. Benny.
“Oh, my-my-my!” she bleated, “you need not be so cross, dearie! It would be arl-right for her: she would have lots of jewels and carriages and servants, and be so happy—now she has nothing, and she weeps all day.”
“Of course she is unhappy!” I cried: “she is in prison.”
“Truly that Narayana is a shocking bigot—and so strict—he wants to keep the child native. But, after all, why not? She sees you—her English feelings cry to you; but, once she sees you no more, she forgets—everyone forgets—in that is happiness. Look at my husband!”
“The girl is well educated—and a Christian: how can she forget?”
“Educated? No, only a little; she used to run about with the Mackintoshes once, and did lessons with an old pensioner who died here. When the zemindar uncle came, he stopped that. Oh, she was a good little girl—but showed great pride.”
“Tell me about her father, Mrs. Benny. If I could only trace him, and write to him.”
“Oh yess—but he is gone. He came here many years ago—a tall young man, with a fair beard, bringing a lot of servants, and a native woman and child. The woman Devana was very beautiful—fair as a moonflower, and married to him by the Nair rites—also, it was said, by the priest. Oh yess, she truly was his wife. He lived here for months at a time. Then he would go away—perhaps to England—sometimes for one year; but he always came back with new guns and ponies—for he was a great Shikari, ever searching for big game, and what you call ‘trophies.’ He used to come and talk about shooting to my husband, who also—long ago—was a Shikari. But my husband never took to him. No! He was awfully cruel to animals and coolies—so bad and selfish—all for himself only.”
“Why did he go away, and never return?” I asked.
“Ah, that I cannot tell for certain; but he was a long time tracking the big bison, with the wonderful horns all the shooting men knew of him, and came to seek. But the big bull, he was too cunning! And he had the fifty-inch horns. Oh, so wonderful! He liked himself to keep them,” and here Mrs. Benny laughed.
“Yes,” I assented, “please go on—about Mr. Nemo.”
“After many, many months, and after having his leg broken, and great delay, he killed the big bull—in the Pulney country—and brought in the head. My! but there was a grand Tamasha in the bazaar! he gave a big feast with tom-toms and fireworks. Soon after he went away, and has never returned. You see, he had got the wonderful bison of Travancore, the big, big trophy. There was no more! Now the Nair wife is dead many years; the girl he has forgotten—or desires she may go back to the native life.”
“I want to do something for her, Mrs. Benny—oh, so, so much!”
“No—no—no: better leave a—lone,” nodding her head gravely. “Better—leave—a—lone.”
“I cannot, Mrs. Benny. Do help me! I know you have a kind heart.”
“Well, then, see: I tell you something. In three days Narayana, the zemindar, and most of his mankind, go to Trichinopoly, to the great yearly festival, to bathe and to offer sacrifice. He will be away about two or three weeks. You go and see Ravi his wife, and the womenfolk—talk and flatter and please—wear all your jewels—and then she will let you speak to Aralee, and take her with you. Now, there is your chance!”
I lost no time in putting this plan into execution, and despatched a herald, in the shape of my ayah, to inquire if the ladies would receive a visit from me. I did not mention the project to Robbie; and I could not help laughing aloud, as I arrayed myself for my afternoon call. In this desolate empty station I was dressing almost as for a ball: a white muslin skirt was finished off with a gay pink satin evening bodice cut square—and filled in. I wore all my wedding gifts in the shape of jewellery: an amethyst necklace, gold watch and chain, diamond pendant and brooch, coral beads, earrings, rings and bangles; in my pocket I carried a present in the form of a string of amber beads; in one hand I held a white feather fan, in the other a lace parasol.
The courtyard next door was disappointing—squalid, not to say dirty, full of natives, and sleek white cattle, carts, ploughs, palanquins, and noisome odours. I noticed a temple, in which was a frightful squat figure of an idol, daubed with red and reeking with rancid ghee. Indoors, all was dim, there was a dense atmosphere of oil and incense: faded garlands hung in doorways, and many eyes watched me stealthily as I passed into the presence of Ravi.
Ravi—a stout, youngish woman—was seated cross-legged on a string bed; her hair was adorned with bosses of gold, her arms with many bangles, her nose and ears with jewelled rings. She wore a rich orange silk saree (the Brahmin colour), and was evidently pleased at my visit. The ayah interpreted with volubility, and many women listened to our conversation. She asked my age, number of my children, my husband’s income, what I paid my servants, and why we came to Ahnomore? She plied me with childish questions about England, and examined and tried on all my ornaments one by one. I presented the amber beads, and casually, before leaving, preferred my request that the girl who lived with her might now and then spend a day with me, as I was so lonely.
“Of a truth, I see no harm,” she answered, “for she mopes, and grows thin and ugly; but she must see no men. Promise that, by your God, and our gods.”
“No men, except my husband,” I amended.
After long-whispering and discussion I gained my point, and departed in high glee, and high, I flattered myself, in the estimation of my hostess.
Aralee duly appeared the next morning, conveyed in a closed palanquin. When she stepped out, I saw that she was unexpectedly tall and slim. She looked half frightened, and as I took her hand and kissed her, her eyes were brimming with tears.
“Oh, you are good!” she whispered, “and make me so, so happy!”
It was pitifully easy to please and entertain the poor girl; everything she saw was a novelty and a delight! Aralee informed me that she had read a good deal (her father having left numbers of books behind him): volumes on sport, the novels of Whyte Melville, Anthony Trollope, Charles Reade, and the poems of Tennyson. She told me that she feared to forget the English tongue, and when she paced the garden alone she often talked it aloud to herself. The girl had but one friend—her old ayah; and the fate at which Mrs. Benny had hinted, was an ever-haunting horror. Narayana, her uncle, was acquainted with a rich Rajah, who, alas! had heard of her! “Sooner than accept that life, I will kill myself,” she declared. “The ayah knows of an end, both swift and sure.”
“Do not say such dreadful things, Aralee,” I remonstrated: “there is no fear—we will protect you.”
“Ah, you do not understand my uncle! He is immovable as a stone, and as secret as the sea!”
I had once seen Narayana, the zemindar—a tall, stately person, with high-bred features, a pale, wheaten-coloured skin, and piercing eyes. His mien was impassive, his air aloof and forbidding.
Aralee talked of her father, and his passion for sport, and how hard he toiled, and how long he had sought for special trophies—including the Great Bison. He had evidently gained the poor child’s heart. His memory still burned brightly, in spite of absence and silence. With respect to her mother, she told me that she was beautiful as a lotus flower, but that of late years she had wept much, and faded and faded away. People said she died of a decline. Thanks to little gifts and civil messages, Ravi, the zemindar’s wife, accorded me the company of her niece day after day. Robbie, who had been duly introduced to my treasure trove, was amazed at her beauty; but as she was painfully shy in his society, and scarcely lifted her eyes or opened her lips, he thought her dull.
“Her face is the face of an English girl,” he remarked, “but her mind is Oriental. Her soul is asleep.”
Remembering my solemn promise, I never sent for Aralee when there was any prospect of a visit from Mr. Bethune; and, marvellous to relate, I did not tell him one word about my new friend. To keep such a heavy secret was to me pain and grief, but something at the back of my mind enforced this silence. He was a dear, impulsive, warm-hearted boy—she was forlorn and lovely. For a whole fortnight I kept my lips sealed; and then one Sunday, when our visitor was poking about the sitting-room, he unluckily discovered a portrait of Aralee that I had painted, standing face to the wall, and not yet dry! Then, of course, I was compelled to explain; in ten minutes he was in possession of the whole story, and his enthusiastic interest, his rapturous admiration of her picture, confirmed me in my resolve to keep him and its original apart.
But what will be, will be! Archie Bethune had a sharp attack of malaria, and Robbie despatched him straight to our bungalow, in order to be cosseted and nursed. He arrived early one afternoon, to discover Aralee sitting with me in the west verandah. So they met—fate had taken the matter out of my hands. Although the young people had made acquaintance in the most unexpected manner, and their conversation was of a prosaic and commonplace description, yet the stinging little question kept buzzing in my brain—“What would Narayana, the zemindar, say?” And for once I was unaffectedly thankful to welcome the heavy old green palanquin, which was to transport my visitor home. The four bearers and the stalwart peon beheld the well-matched pair with lowering and suspicious eyes; their faces grew dark as young Bethune escorted the girl down the steps, and, handing her into the dhooly, said, “Good-bye, Miss Nemo: I hope we shall meet again soon!”
Undoubtedly these words were the embodiment of a lettre de cachet, or her death warrant, for this was the last time we ever saw the beautiful pale face, that nodded and smiled, as the clumsy palanquin rocked away.
As soon as young Bethune was convalescent, and had gone back to his own little tent, I despatched my usual note next door. It was returned unopened, with a brief message, “The Missy was gone!” Gone where? We never discovered: a dead impassive silence was the sole answer to every inquiry. The great studded gates were shut fast; Narayana, the zemindar, had returned from his devotions, and retired within his borders. There is nothing in this world so impenetrable as a Brahmin’s household! I was utterly miserable and heartbroken; it seemed to me that, in all good faith, I had but precipitated the fate of my poor Aralee. I fretted myself into a kind of low fever, and my condition became so alarming, that the once repudiated free pass to the hills was now thankfully accepted.
Ten years later—long after our release from Ahnomore—we were at home on leave, and staying with relatives in the country. One night we dined at the great house in the neighbourhood—a notable ancestral mansion. The noble owner, a handsome man of fifty, took me in to dinner, and was much interested in hearing that I had lately returned from India, and that my husband had bagged three fine tigers last hot weather.
“I used to know India well when I was a young fellow. Before my uncle died, I spent years out there,” he said. “I was a fanatic with regard to sport By-and-by you must allow me to take you round and show you some of my trophies.”
I assured him that I would have much pleasure in inspecting them, and considered myself to be quite a judge of heads! Accordingly I was duly conducted through halls, corridors and rooms, to view a collection that was surely unsurpassed. Here were sambar, ibex, elephant tusks, the skins of tiger and alligator, and a forest of heads and horns.
“But now you have yet to see my great prize—my trophy of trophies—the one which cost me a broken leg, and two seasons’ hard work. My wife calls it her property. It is the finest of its kind in the world.”
As he spoke, his lordship opened the door of a billiard-room, and pointed to an object directly facing us.
“When I look at that,” continued my host, “I actually seem to hear the very crashing of the bamboos, and the cries of the Kurundar beaters.”
“That” was the stuffed head of an enormous bull bison. As I gazed up at it, the glassy eyes seemed suddenly aflame with an extraordinary expression of recognition and significance! Underneath the great trophy was inscribed in large gold letters—
It was a dull, damp afternoon late in January 1900, a perfect day for a warm fireside, an armchair, and a genial novel; nevertheless, the terminus at Southampton was filled and surrounded by a well-dressed anxious crowd, who were apparently awaiting the arrival of a troop train from Aldershot, conveying two regiments of Yeomanry to the transport Urania, now lying alongside in the dock, and within a stone’s-throw from the station. Among the throng were many sad faces, and already some wet eyes; for here were fathers and mothers, sisters and sweethearts, who had assembled to take leave of, to see for perhaps the last time, their nearest and dearest. The nation, still quivering from the shock of Magersfontein and Colenso, was sending forth with all speed money, guns, and men. The widow’s only child; the young millionaire—his own father; the stableman, his own master—all sorts and conditions of volunteers fell in at the “Assembly,” shoulder to shoulder. Besides the groups of waiting relatives and personal friends, there was a certain number of detached folk who had attended the embarkation from various motives, such as a desire to witness an uncommon spectacle, a keen spirit of patriotism, which impelled them to encourage others who went to fight for their country, whilst they were compelled to remain at home; and over and above all these was a vast leaven of the hearty British public, which adores and applauds Tommy Atkins. It was not exactly Tommy that the packed masses were ready to acclaim, but his newly-raised brother, the Imperial Yeoman, a gentleman in the present instance largely recruited from the upper classes, an individual accustomed to his club, his shoot, his hunters, and now preparing to learn for the first time, what is meant by the expression “roughing it”—about to say good-bye not only to his friends, but also to take leave of his white shirts, evening clothes, and club for quite an indefinite period.
Among the privileged groups on the platform two ladies stood a little apart. The elder of these was a tall, striking-looking woman of about forty, as smart as a Bond Street firm, old lace, and sable could make her. She wore a large bunch of violets among her furs, and carried in her muff a solid parcel and a dainty handkerchief. This was Mrs. Roland Longstaffe, a wealthy widow, who had come down from London in order to speed “a friend,” the friend being a certain hard-featured Major Sholto, late of the Madrigal Hussars, now employed in the Blue Light Yeomanry, The lady was sagacious, vivacious, and wise, and never left it in the power of any of her dear friends “to talk.” She took particular care to be always provided with a reliable chaperon of some description; on the present occasion her companion was a pretty dark-eyed girl of twenty. Sybil Hampden lived next door but two of Mrs. Longstaffe in Queen’s Gate, and, in the opinion of that lady, endured a pathetically dull existence; indeed, most of the poor child’s little pleasures were due to herself, and in the present instance she had brought her down to Southampton to witness the embarkation of the Yeomanry, and to officiate as her own sheep-dog.
“How late the train is!” she exclaimed, stamping on the platform; “my feet are so cold with standing.”
“What have you got in that parcel?” inquired the girl. “Shall I carry it?”
“Only a pocket-filter—he is sure not to have thought of it—and two pieces of soap. No; it is not a romantic parting gift, my dear, but will be useful. I’m practical if I’m anything, am I not?”
“You are indeed,” assented the other.
“I have arranged to send him out a box of good things once a week, and also parcels of shirts and socks, so he will be fairly comfortable.”
“Yes, if they reach him,”
“You horrid pessimist. Of course they will.”
“I suppose he is low at going?”
“Yes; he told me last night, with tears in his voice, that he was wearing the last white shirt he would see for months. Well, his laundress will have a holiday; he has taken years from her life.”
“Look! here comes the troop train,” cried the girl, with enthusiasm. “How exciting!”
The station suddenly developed into a scene of the most wonderful activity as the special came to a full stop; carriage doors were burst open, khaki-clad warriors poured forth, brisk officials in uniform and Staff-officers hurried forward, and all was clamour, noise, greetings, chaff, and cheers.
Mrs. Longstaffe had very quickly discovered her own particular friend; her chaperon’s services were abruptly dispensed with, and Sybil turned away and watched the scene while the widow and the weather-beaten little soldier exchanged hasty sentences. Everyone had someone to speak to; everyone seemed engaged except herself. The Yeomen were encompassed by friends, and while the baggage was being taken on board the transport, for a few moments discipline was relaxed. Outside the station and along the dock the arrival of troops had been received with cheer upon cheer. A band of the regulars was playing “Auld Lang Syne,” and the noise and uproar were deafening, as produced by a combination of steam-donkey engines, the buzz of a thousand tongues, a brass band, and a big drum.
Sybil’s eyes travelled quickly from group to group; she wished to imprint this stirring scene upon her mind, and remember it always. The smartly-clad Yeomen, with their brown belts and jaunty slouch hats, their kitbags slung over their shoulders, the busy officials, the engrossed family groups: she alone had no friend to speed; and—there was a young Yeoman on baggage-guard who apparently had no one to see him off; no, not a soul to wish him good-bye and safe return. She glanced at him again. He was middle-sized and slight, about six and twenty, with resolute blue eyes, a square chin, and a pleasant face. He, too, had noticed her—a pretty girl with dark eyes, dressed in brown, with a red hat, who apparently had not come to take leave of anyone. She stood there, aloof, idle, a mere spectator; and the two strangers, who were about ten feet apart, surveyed one another gravely. She looked at him softly, he looked at her steadily. At least they had one thing in common—their complete isolation. The girl had no friend going out to the war, and apparently the Yeoman left no aching heart behind.
An arbitrary bugle sounded, leave-takings were hurried over or cut short, the men trooped on board in single file and fell in on the main deck in line; while again the spectators cheered (those who were not sobbing), the band played, and the General Officer of the District inspected the Yeomen, and warmly congratulated the Colonel in command.
Mrs. Longstaffe had taken leave of her friend, and rejoined her chaperon with her face rather white and drawn. The last load was on board, the last kiss had been given, the transport cast off, the band playing “The Girl I left Behind Me.” It was all nothing to Sybil Hampden; she was an outsider. Why did she feel so choky? her eyes smarted, and her nose was hot As the Urania moved from her berth the crowd cheered vociferously, the band wailed, the soldiers lined the side three deep, every available handkerchief was fluttering. Mrs. Longstaffe’s was somewhat damp with tears. The ship was moving off, the deck a scene of farewells. Alone, near the stern, stood the solitary unbefriended Yeoman; and Sybil Hampden, stirred by some resistless impulse, she, the strictly-brought-up orphan niece of two prim maiden aunts, found herself carried away on the flood-tide of enthusiasm and waving wildly, continuously, and affectionately to this most utterly strange young man, fiercely resolved that someone should speed him. And he? He was waving to her with sustained enthusiasm.
Then the transport rounded a point rather suddenly, the music and cheering ceased with startling abruptness, the sea-fog enveloped all in one grey pall, and the hush and silence which fell upon the crowd were as solemn as if they had attended a funeral.
“Who on earth were you waving to, Sybil?” inquired her friend as they journeyed up to London vis-à-vis. “You did not know a soul.”
“No, not one creature except Major Sholto. I was waving to an idea.”
“To an ideal?” suggested the lady.
“And wishing good luck to them all. Oh, it is a scene and an experience I shall never forget.”
“Then imagine how you would feel if you were interested in any one of the passengers,” said the other in a choked voice. “I’ve kept up pretty well, I’ve hardly shed a tear, but I know I’ll not be fit to see anyone for days, and I shall break half—my—engagements.”
Six weeks later a large party of ladies were working in Mrs. Longstaffe’s drawing-room, and among them sat Sybil Hampden. Sybil was an orphan left to the care of two maiden aunts, and supposed to have every heart’s wish gratified. For instance, she had money of her own, she had a pretty face and figure, she had a maid, and a carriage, but she led a desperately dull, monotonous life—there was so little in it! Her Aunts Charlotte and Sara were a pair of prim old maids, on the borders of sixty. Charlotte was an invalid, and a martyr to neuralgia. “My neuralgia” she called it, as if it were her special and exclusive bane. Sara was abandoned to the cult of cats, and exhibited successfully at all the most important shows; the care of her prizes and her correspondence absorbed entirely her time and interest Sybil knew so few young people; her aunts’ friends were old maids and solemn dowagers, who came and talked symptoms and servants, Silver Blues, Angoras, and champion cats, ate and drank, and went heavily away; her opportunities of comparing notes with her contemporaries were rare, but she had read novels; she also devoured the daily papers, and took a warm interest in the war—a flame sedulously fanned by her neighbour, who utilised her zeal, and turned it into the practical shape of flannel shirts and woollen caps. Mrs. Longstaffe organised large working-parties three times a week in her own house. It was at one of these that Sybil, having finished a blue woollen cap, stretched her arms out wearily, and said to her neighbour—
“This makes my hundredth cap—I’m going to celebrate it”
“Well, I’ve worked in a good-sized lock of my hair—they say it brings luck.”
“Yes, but if you did that every time, you’d soon be wearing a wig. I wonder who will get the lucky cap?”
So do I. How I should like to be a cap, to go out and see what happens! Look!”—tying it on—“is it not a nice one—so evenly knitted in the best Scottish fingering? I wish I were a bird to watch these caps distributed, and see who gets this.”
“Some Tommy, of course.”
Sybil made no reply; she was buried in thought; and presently the other girl continued—
“Suppose you write a note, and put it inside?”
“Oh no,” with a start, “I really could not do that.”
“But, oh yes; and say, ‘If whoever receives this cap, wears it, and brings it home, will call at 700 Queen’s Gate and ask for ‘S. H.,’ he may hear of something to his advantage.’”
“I declare I will write it—yes, and if the cap calls, I will give the man a pound of tobacco and a sovereign. See, I’ll know it again,” and she exhibited a strand of bright brown hair woven into the blue wool. Sybil was thoroughly at home in Mrs. Longstaffe’s charming drawing-room, and she went over to her writing-table, inscribed something on a card, which she showed to her companion in the hollow of her hand, and hastily sewed it into the cap with clever, nimble fingers.
“It may bring me a visitor, who will tell me all about his deeds and the war—who knows? “
“Yes; anyhow if you have a visitor it will be a nice change—quite an event,” remarked her friend; “you never have any men calling—have you?”
“No; only our rector, our doctor, the cats’ doctor, and one or two funny old fogies. My aunts can’t bear young men; they are so rude to the prizes.”
“Most extraordinary!” exclaimed the girl through her nose. She was a wicked mimic, and was taking off Miss Sara Hampden to the life, as well as to her niece’s face.
“Oh, Susie, how can you?” she expostulated.
“How can they,” she retorted—“those two old ladies of yours—keep you shut up, and be so indifferent to what is going on in the world? Their horizon is bounded by pussies and patent pills.”
“They think war is wicked, and they rather disapprove of my coming in here to these sewing-parties.”
“Oh, oh! and what would they say, if they knew you were sending out to some unknown soldier a cap containing a letter, and a lock of your hair?”
Sybil became crimson, then she laughed; the young lady had a will and a spirit of her own.
“I don’t care. I am doing no harm; and some dear, good, brave Tommy now fighting for you and me, will be all the better for a smoke and a sovereign.”
It was a bitterly cold, bright day on the veldt near Kroonstadt; for although the hard African sun was shining fiercely, the wind was blowing to correspond, great clouds of thick yellow dust swept across the plain, strewn with empty cartridges, meat-tins, and the bones of dead, unhappy horses, and worn-out trek-oxen.
A trooper on a jaded Argentine was cantering towards a spot where a number of his corps were encamped, and scattered among fires, tents, and zinc-roofed huts. He was the same friendless Yeoman we had noticed at Southampton, considerably thinner, shabbier, and more sunburned than when we saw him on baggage-guard. He had taken part in some sharp fights, and done an amazing amount of hard work. He came of a race of soldiers; yet when he embarked on service, he did so despite his father’s express commands.
Josselyn Lovelace, of the Bachelors’ Club and Boodle’s, was the only son and heir of a wealthy man. He had left home under rather painful circumstances. Seeing that his father was inflexible, he had departed with a portmanteau one morning at dawn, volunteered, passed well in riding, shooting, and drill, and gone forth to fight for his country as a unit in the Yeomanry. The former Piccadilly dandy was now an ordinary trooper, who knew how to cook and wash and groom, and was accustomed to lie on the veldt, to go for hours without food, and to carry his life in his hand.
As he galloped up, dismounted, and hurriedly off-saddled, he found that his comrades had just completed the emptying of a large case of comforts from home. One exhibited a sweater, another a flannel shirt, a third a pair of socks—most of them wore caps—beautiful brand-new knitted caps.
“All right, Joe,” cried a man, “I’ve kept something for you. What would you like? Come now.”
“Oh, a shirt—the one I have on won’t hold together another day; it’s like lace.”
“Sorry, we are just out of shirts.”
“Well, then, socks; chuck ’em here.”
“No—here you are—a cap,” and he tossed across a blue woollen cap, which the other caught and put on his head.
“At anyrate, it will keep my ears warm at night,” he exclaimed, with a laugh; “but it’s not my colour.”
“Why—what’s your colour?”
“Mud colour, to be sure. I say, bar jokes, Tom, you might have kept me a pair of socks.”
“They were gone before you could wink your eye. I suppose you had a pretty stiff day, scouting?”
“Stiff? I should think so. Hi! what’s in this cap?” And he pulled it off, and turned it inside out. “A note! Well—I am blessed!” And he read aloud: “If whoever finds and wears this cap will call at 700 Queen’s Gate and ask for ‘S. H.’ he may hear of something to his advantage.”
“It has come with the Tommies’ presents—some cook, should say.”
“And I should say not,” replied Joe. “Look at this lock of hair knitted in—a great big chunk; and what a colour, and so fine!”
“The poor fellow is raving,” remarked his friend to an imaginary bystander.
“Not a bit of it, you old ass! Hair means luck—maybe this is my luck—and if I get home safe and sound along with the cap—that’s understood—I shall certainly look up ‘S. H.’ and see what she has got to say for herself.”
“I bet you what you like it’s an old woman—the writing is so shaky.”
“Do old women have nut-brown hair?”
“Certainly, when they choose to pay for it”
“Only I’ve something else to do, I’d punch your head. Now I’m off to feed and water Barebones and myself.”
On a certain foggy afternoon late in November a smart Yeoman sprang out of a hansom at 700 Queen’s Gate, and rang, with a bold, free hand, a bell accustomed to a deferential tinkle.
After a long and astonished silence the door was opened by a thin, elderly man-servant with large grey mutton-chop whiskers, who stared stolidly.
“Does anyone whose initials are ‘S. H.’ live here?” inquired the visitor with an off-hand air.
“‘S. H.’” repeated the butler, with chilling dignity. “Well, since you ask, my own name is Silas Herring.”
“Silas Herring!” echoed the Yeoman, and his face looked very blank. “Is there no one else with your initials in the establishment?”
Mr. Herring gave a little self-conscious cough, rubbed his chin, and acknowledged that Miss Sara Hampden, the lady of the house, had also a claim on the letters S. H.
“Do you think I can see her?”
“Well, sir, yes.” The Yeoman had the voice and the bearing of a gentleman. “She’s only just back from the show, and it’s close on her tea-time; still——”
“Still,” repeated the visitor, tendering half-a-sovereign, “you will show me up?”
Herring coughed, swiftly secreted the coin, and nodded assent “Who shall I say, sir?”
“Never mind my name; it’s all right, I’ve come in answer to a message.”
Sergeant Lovelace speedily followed the lean manservant up the softly-carpeted stairs, and into a large front drawing-room, furnished in quite the best early Victorian style.
“Someone to see you, Miss Hampden,” announced Herring in his softest key. An old lady, wearing grey bobbing curls, a bonnet, and a large velvet cloak sat by the fire reading a paper, and nursing an enormous Angora cat Two cats (specimens) shared an armchair, and a dignified “Very Highly Commended” was looking out of the window, meditating on the wickedness of people who keep caged birds.
“Is it in answer to an advertisement,” questioned Miss Hampden, as she stared incredulously, “about a cat—a Siamese cat?”
“No, madam, not a cat, but a cap,” responded the young man.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Herring, mind you don’t go away,” she said excitedly. “What do you mean by letting in strangers?”
“I presume I have the honour of speaking to ‘S. H.,?’” said the undaunted visitor, with his best bow; and to himself: “By Jove! Errington was right—it’s an old woman, after all.”
“‘S. H.’” she repeated. “Yes, those are my initials.”
“And this is 700 Queen’s Gate—then I have come to return you the cap.”
“Cap—the man’s mad. Herring, don’t you stir. If it was cat, there would be some sense in it Cap! Most extraordinary—what cap?”
“Why—yours, madam,” and to the amazement of the old lady he produced and handed to her, a shabby, well-worn, blue cap.
“My good man, I really don’t know anything about it,” she protested piteously, waving him away with her newspaper. “This is most extraordinary.”
“Perhaps you will recognise your writing?” and the visitor handed her a much creased card.
“If it’s for a subscription——” she began excitedly.
“No, it is not,” he interrupted, suppressing his impatience with difficulty.
“Then what do you want?”
“I want to see the lady who made the cap, and wrote the card,” replied Lovelace doggedly.
“Oh,” glancing at it through her spectacles, and shaking her head, “this is most extraordinary—it’s Sybil’s writing. Why, she made hundreds of caps. She is my niece—and a—a—little peculiar. Herring, call Miss Sybil. What did you say your name was, eh?”
“Not one of the Lovelaces of Herrow Place?”
“Yes, the other is my father.”
“Oh, dear me, this is most extraordinary! I used to know him! Why are you—a—mere—a common soldier? What does Sir George think of it?”
“At first he thought so badly of it, that he would not allow me to volunteer, and I went out in spite of him as a trooper in the Yeomanry. Now I am home he is all right, and as pleased as Punch.”
“Oh, and you are Sir George’s only son, and I thought you’d come about a Siamese cat. Ah, here is my niece Sybil.”
The sergeant sprang to his feet as he recognised in the lady who now swept into the room, the pretty girl with brown eyes who had waved him farewell at Southampton more than a year previously. She stood still, and coloured up to the roots of her hair, as she became aware of the friendless Yeoman.
“My dear,” said her aunt quite briskly, rising as she spoke, and carefully setting down “First Prize in Class 2 Angoras,” “this is the son of my old friend, Sir George Lovelace; he has called to see you about a woollen cap,” and she handed it to her niece with considerable formality.
“Oh yes, I made this,” she admitted, as she twisted it about nervously. “I recognise—the stitch.”
“Lock-stitch,” added the visitor, with peculiar significance, and a flash of malicious humour in his eyes.
“Just to vary the monotony, I put in a little—inscription.”
“Offering a reward,” appended the Yeoman.
“Yes, it was the hundredth cap I finished, and I thought a soldier might bring it here, and I would give him a pound of tobacco and a sovereign; and you—it fell to you.”
“I hope you don’t grudge it—it was the comfort of my life,” replied the wearer. “I never had a cap that fitted me half so well. I dreamt in it every night—the lining brought me visions.”
“I am glad to hear it,” she faltered. “I never supposed it would fall into the hands of a gentleman. I cannot offer you money or tobacco.”
“No, but you can give him a cup of tea,” interrupted Miss Hampden. “Here is Herring with the urn. And you can talk it over, and find out Mr. Lovelace’s tastes. I must say, it is most extraordinary. Now I wonder if he would like a pure Manx kitten?”
Although not a cat-fancier, and invulnerable to the charms of kittens, Mr. Lovelace, in tall hat and orthodox frock-coat, presently became a daily visitor at 700 Queen’s Gate—and was also received with effusive cordiality by the future Mrs. Sholto—and within quite a surprisingly short time, he had heard from the lips of “S.H.”—the original and lovely “S.H.”—of something which he considered essential to his happiness, and immeasurably to his—advantage.
Mrs. Tilley sat alone in the middle of her large, somewhat dismantled, drawing-room, her elbow on her knee, resting her plain, flat face upon her plump little hand, and gazing into space.
Ann Jane Tilley was the wife of the Collector of Kooti, who, after twenty-five years’ service, was on the point of taking his pension—and departure. He was a well-meaning, plodding civilian, but had never come much to the front, or been noted for anything, except a craze for red tape, and a remarkable helpmate. At the present moment Mrs. Tilley was not really studying the too well-known prospect of her compound. She was looking into her past, a past agreeable to contemplate—the last twenty years especially—the twenty years in which she had been climbing up in the world. Now she had reached the summit of her hopes, and, alas! there was nothing before her but declining days. At the age of twenty-two she had married Gaythorne Tilley, a callow civilian, and for her, the marriage had been, from a worldly point of view, a great match. She was a shrewd, clever young woman, and had, undoubtedly, proved an excellent wife. She had also, in the process of pushing her somewhat indolent husband to the front, made herself not a few bitter enemies.
A brilliant organiser and manager, without either beauty or charm, Mrs. Tilley had the knack of acquiring the most useful class of friends, and it was entirely thanks to her exertions that her husband had attained the eminence he was now about to vacate. Her ambition, energy, and pushfulness had carried him far. Wherever they had been stationed, she had been the leading spirit of the community. In her day she had dealt, and received, many hard knocks, but ultimately come out victorious—an all-presiding first. Various stations had known the sway of Ann Jane Tilley, not a few men and women scattered over India, and beyond the seas, had felt her power—and now it was all over! The semi-regal life was ended; the sceptre was about to pass out of Mrs. Tilley’s hands. Her husband’s successor had already arrived, and their own passages were taken for Marseilles.
In appearance the potentate was a little fat woman, with a round, pale face, illuminated by a pair of remarkably quick, light eyes. Her hair, a dull drab, was dragged off her brow in a highly unbecoming fashion; whilst her cotton blouse and skirt of grey tweed presented a picture of deliberate ugliness. Certainly Mrs. Tilley’s influence was a thing wholly independent of personal attractions; it was in tongue, pen, and diplomacy that her power lay.
The lady’s drawing-room was as pale, as ill-dressed, and as unattractive as herself. Solid pieces of furniture were arranged around a hideous fawn-coloured carpet, which was spread over the matting. The sad grey walls were decorated with terrible bazaar-bought chromos; flowers, photographs, and books were conspicuous by their absence.
Suddenly Mrs. Tilley’s day-dreams were disturbed. A victoria rumbled under the porch, the waiting bearer dashed out with the inevitable salver, and a little middle-aged lady tripped into the room.
“Well, my dear,” she began, accosting her friend, “I am glad to see you are resting yourself! I suppose you have been packing hard all day?”
“Oh dear, no,” rejoined the other in a lofty tone; “I never leave things to the last! Half of our heavy baggage went yesterday, the remainder is ready. I sent my list round ten days ago.”
“Yes; I know,” assented the visitor, seating herself. “I suppose the Hallidays have taken most of the furniture, as they are coming into this house?”
“They have bought the big things—the lamps, the cooking pots, the cows, and the watering cart—but they would not have any of my ornaments, or this beautiful carpet, nor even these handsome curtains. I shall have to send them to Cursetjee’s auction, and that means giving them away!”
“But I believe they have brought quantities of cases out from home—Mrs. Halliday being a bride, and so smart and up to date.”
“Humph!” grunted Mrs. Tilley, detached and judicial.
“I must confess I like her,” returned Mrs. Dillon; “she is so vivacious, agreeable, and unaffected.”
Again there was a little pause.
“Don’t you think she is nice-looking? She does seem rather young to be in such a position—not more than five-and-twenty. What a lucky girl, to be beginning, where you are leaving off.”
“Yes; and Halliday is fifty if he is an hour—old enough to be her father! I do hope there will be no scandal. I am told that Captain Wyse is raving about her already—and you know,” with a significant shake of her head, “what he is.”
Naturally poor Mrs. Tilley was full of bitter envy of her successor. Here was this woman entering on her kingdom, pretty, popular, young, well-dressed, admired. She seemed to have everything, whilst Mrs. Tilley seemed to have nothing—nothing but the prospect of a dull, uneventful existence in some red-brick English villa. Oh, life, glorious life—the stirring days of ups and downs, of victories, defeats, and triumphs—was now over.
Truly, this was a painful conviction. It was obvious to Mrs. Tilley that Mrs. Halliday was a usurper—at any rate she was preparing to step into her shoes. To expect a person to appreciate the individual who is about to do this, is to hope for the impossible.
“I must say she does not give me the idea of being a flirt,” urged Mrs. Dillon; “strange as it may appear, she is quite wrapped up in John Halliday.”
“I believe she was one of a large family, and had not a pice. I daresay they were glad enough to marry her to a dried-up old widower, and get her off their hands.”
“They seem to have bought a good many of your things,” remarked her champion evasively.
“Oh, well, at any rate it saves them trouble,” assented the other sourly. “They are taking on the servants, all except Munia, the ayah, who is too old for such a fashionable young lady—-and, besides, wants to go back to her own village. There she is in the verandah now, packing up the ornaments! Let us see what she is doing.” And she rose, and led the way through one of the long glass doors, to where Munia, a shrivelled little Mohammedan, was parcelling and packing away various articles into a tin-lined case.
“I see you have nearly ‘done finish,’ Munia,” remarked Mrs. Dillon in a civil tone.
“Yes, mem sahib; all the Moradabad work, Poolcaries, Lucknow figures, and brass things in here. One brass thing plenty bad—I never putting in,” and, stooping as she spoke, she picked up from the floor something in a tissue paper. This, when unrolled, displayed a beautifully-moulded figure of a little brass god, or goddess, rather—it represented the Great Kali. “My missis never taking this to England,” said Munia solemnly; “this very bad, and bringing plenty trouble!”
“Where did you get it?” asked Mrs. Dillon, turning to her friend. “It looks old—and—rather good.”
“I bought it in a dirty old shop in the bazaar at Almora when I was last in the hills—I was poking about among the rubbish, and unearthed it. Mr. Allsopp, who was with me, and is a judge, declared that it was ancient, and a wonderful find—a regular treasure trove. He said it was worth anything to a collector, but the shopman did not seem to realise its value, and I bought it for two rupees, eight annas. It has been lying in the bottom drawer of my almirah; I had forgotten it until this general routing out and packing. What am I to do with it?” she asked, looking at the ayah and then at Mrs. Dillon.
The ayah suddenly sat up on her hunkers, raised her piercing black eyes to Mrs. Tilley, and replied:
“Throw it away, mem sahib—never taking it with you! Don’t give it to anyone; whoever owns this goddess will have—oh! plenty, plenty, plenty bad luck—soon, soon, die!”
“Very well, Munia,” said Mrs. Tilley, taking the little image from her hand, and once more wrapping it up in paper. “It shall not go home with me—I will dispose of it somehow.” And she carried it into the drawing-room, and put it on the table.
Presently the bearer appeared with tea, and over the cheering cup the two ladies became loquacious, and confidential. Mrs. Tilley had exercised her influence in obtaining a post for Mrs. Dillon’s son. She was her most intimate adherent on the station.
“You will write to me, of course,” said Mrs. Tilley,—“and let me know how things go on; if they do much entertaining, and all that sort of thing, and if they are popular?”
“Of course. Why, here comes Mrs. Halliday herself, and on foot!” exclaimed Mrs. Dillon, “so I shall clear out. I daresay she wants to have a little private talk with you about the servants and bazaar prices and other matters. You can offer her most valuable advice”—then, with a laugh, “and you ought really to give her something as bucksheesh; she has been such a splendid customer! Mr. Tilley told me that Halliday had sent him a cheque for four thousand rupees, so you did not do so badly, did you? What would I not give if we could get rid of our things like that!”
“Julia, between you and me—of course, I would not breathe this to other people—I hate going. It seems to be the end of all things. I would give ten years of my life for another two years of India. I detest England! Think of the climate, the fogs, the housekeeping, and the servants! Hush!”
At this moment a dark, slight, graceful young lady, wearing a large picture hat, entered.
“Oh, Mrs. Tilley,” she began, “do please excuse me dropping in to call in this informal way, but there are so many things I want to talk to you about, if you don’t mind? How do you do again, Mrs. Dillon?” turning to her with a smiling face; “this is not the first time we have met to-day. I came here to sit for a few minutes at the feet of Mrs. Tilley, and learn wisdom and experience. I am most painfully ignorant of Indian ways, and I do so want to know all about the dhobi, the dirzee, and the milkman, and ever so many other people,” and she laughed light-heartedly.
“Very well, then,” said Mrs. Dillon, “I will take my departure—I was really just going. I will leave you to sit at the feet of my friend, and hope you will be all the better for the performance.” And waving her hand, and with smiling adieus, she hurried out into her victoria, and was driven away.
As soon as Mrs. Dillon had disappeared the new visitor, with many apologies, brought out a long list of questions. To these Mrs. Tilley gave her short, and, secretly, most grudging answers. As the girl scribbled down her replies the elder woman’s eyes were all the time travelling over her pretty hat, her pretty hair, her pretty face, with an expression of implacable envy.
Mrs. Halliday’s spirits were infectious, her charm and gaiety of manner were difficult to withstand—she was so full of eagerness to do what was right, and so anxious to please others.
When the list came to an end she and Mrs. Tilley wandered round the house, and inspected the purchased furniture, and the new-comer had to listen to long explanations of where such-and-such a thing was bought, and what it had cost, and how cheaply she had sold it—really for next to nothing.
“And so you are going the day after to-morrow?” exclaimed Mrs. Halliday as she prepared to take her departure. “I am sure you are sorry to leave this delightful life behind you.”
“Not at all,” was the mendacious reply; “I have always looked forward to returning to England. I have collected treasures for years, with a view to my English home.”
“No doubt,” said Mrs. Halliday; “I am sure you have no end of pretty things packed away.”
“Yes; and here is one which has been overlooked” (Oh, Mrs. Tilley!), “and I should like to give it to you as a small souvenir.” As she spoke Mrs. Tilley took up a parcel in tissue paper, and a peculiarly grim smile illuminated her flat face as she presented her successor with the little brass god.
“Oh, how perfectly delicious!” exclaimed Mrs. Halliday with unaffected delight; “how too utterly sweet!” she added, turning in her white-gloved hands the solid, quaint, and valuable brass image. “I adore old curios and uncommon ‘bits.’ This, I see, is very ancient. It looks”—and here she stared into the brazen and immovable countenance of Kali, Goddess of Destruction—“as if it had a history.”
“I believe it is rather unique,” rejoined Mrs. Tilley; “I picked it up in a funny old rubbish shop in the Himalayas—it is supposed to be two thousand years old. I should like you to have it, and I shall be very pleased indeed if you will accept it from me, with all good wishes, as a humble contribution to your household gods.”
“Oh, thank you—thank you a thousand times!” cried Mrs. Halliday effusively. “It is so kind of you to give me such a really valuable present.”
“Well, at anyrate it is my bucksheesh for all the belongings, and the large amount of our things, that you have kindly taken off our hands.”
The Tilleys had been entertained by the station at a large, lugubrious dinner, and had taken their departure, carrying with them piles of personal baggage, as well as a Minah, a parrot, and a cockatoo; and Mr. and Mrs. Halliday, installed in their bungalow, reigned in their stead. “Le roi est mort, vive le roi!” Nowhere is this saying more truly verified than in India.
Within a month, the Tilleys were forgotten, and every trace of their existence had been swept out of the bungalow. Indeed, it was difficult to recognise it as the same abode. The drawing-room was newly coloured, and hung with delicate water-colours, the matted floor covered with fine Persian rugs, and tempting armchairs were scattered about; there were great, picturesque palms, many photographs and knick-knacks—and all these were presided over by a charming, beautifully-dressed young woman, who was delighted with her new abode, pleased with all her surroundings, enchanted with this new world of India, and radiating good will, good spirits, and good wishes on all with whom she came in contact. To quote her own expression, “her anticipations of the East were more than realised, and she was as happy as the day was long.”
Meanwhile Mrs. Tilley, installed in a dingy, furnished house in Bayswater, was kept duly informed by Mrs. Dillon of her successor’s success, and received glowing descriptions of Mrs. Halliday’s smart entertainments, and her already celebrated dinners. As time wore on, however, tiny little clouds appeared upon Mrs. Halliday’s horizon—worries, losses, painful episodes. For instance, a beautiful pet fawn was tethered in the compound. One morning Mrs. Halliday was disturbed by curious, inarticulate, smothered cries, and, rushing out, she discovered that a pariah dog had attacked, and was killing, the unhappy captive, unable to bound away, and thus save its life. Mrs. Halliday shed her first tears in India over this sad catastrophe, which was presently followed by the death of her best cow. Soon after, as misfortunes never come singly, her little fox-terrier was run over by a cart, and so badly injured that it had to be destroyed.
Small thefts, breakages, losses, became of constant occurrence, and Mrs. Halliday, who was not really superstitious, began to declare to intimates that she fully believed their bungalow was bewitched.
One evening, after a large dinner-party, when she and the other ladies were partaking of coffee in the drawing-room, Mrs. Halliday publicly referred to the long tale of her misfortunes.
“I cannot think how it is,” she said; “if I really believed in such things I should imagine that there was something odd about this bungalow, or that someone has cast an evil eye upon it! If matters don’t mend, I was saying to John that we must move elsewhere—of course,” she added, with a laugh, “I am only joking, but I really have experienced such a chapter of accidents. At first misfortunes happened to our animate, to inanimate objects, to our servants. My ayah has had small-pox. Now disasters begin to affect ourselves. Two days ago John stumbled over a chair in the dark, and cut his head very badly, and last week the sleeve of my teagown caught in the candle, and I had a narrow escape of being burnt to death. The dressing-table was in flames, and just look at my arm!” And she held it out for inspection. “I feel a presentiment that something terrible is going to happen to us. I wonder if any of you have ever experienced a long run of unexplained but determined bad luck; or am I only a new-comer, with a too active imagination?”
“It is certainly rather curious,” said Mrs. Godfrey, wife of the brigadier commanding the station, “and most unpleasant; I cannot account for it at all.”
Mrs. Dillon, who had been listening eagerly to Mrs. Halliday’s experiences, suddenly gave a violent start, sat up, and fixed her eyes on a small object in the middle of the mantelpiece. She could explain everything! There was, in her opinion, the culprit—Mrs. Tilley’s parting gift, the little brass god!
“Yes,” she said to herself; “Ann Jane Tilley, who was devoured by envy, hatred, and malice, had left her ignorant successor a legacy of ill luck.” What was to be done? If she were to declare her own firm and settled conviction that this small idol was at the bottom of all the happenings she would be laughed to scorn.
Her character as a sane woman would be destroyed. Nevertheless, she was resolved to interfere.
Conversation was now interrupted by the entrance of the gentlemen—their arrival was hailed by the usual singing and music. Suddenly there arose a rival blare of shouting and tom-toms; a great native wedding procession was streaming past the gate, and all the company, headed by the hostess, hurried into the verandah to see it pass—all the company save one. Mrs. Dillon lingered behind. She hastily sidled over to the mantelpiece, cast an anxious glance at each open glass door, then swiftly snatched the little brass god off the chimney-piece, and hid it in her handkerchief. After this performance, she joined the other guests, and stood among them in the bright moonlight, calmly surveying the scene, but secretly palpitating with excitement and apprehension.
Soon afterwards the party broke up—Indian people keep early hours—and Mrs. Dillon (expert thief) actually held the stolen article in one hand, while with the other she took an affectionate leave of her hostess.
As she drove home beside her husband in the victoria, Mr. Dillon noticed that his wife was busily knotting up something in her lap. If he had been watching her, after they had descended at their own door, no doubt he would have been surprised to see that, instead of retiring to her room (where the drowsy ayah was awaiting her appearance), she walked out into the moonlit garden, and stood beside an ancient well.
It was a very deep old well, and she dropped into it some small, heavy object, which went clink, clink, clink, from side to side, and finally reached the bottom with a faint splash.
And here was the end of the little brass god—at any rate for the present; perhaps in another two or three thousand years it may be exhumed, and once more reappear, and be disposed of, as a friendly souvenir, or an interesting curiosity.
Mrs. Halliday did not miss Mrs. Tilley’s generous bucksheesh until a day or two after the precious figure was gone. Its place was empty, it was nowhere to be found; but the poor young lady was beginning to be accustomed to mysterious abstractions. Remarkable to relate, this valuable gift was the last of her losses. After the evening on which she had deplored her misfortunes to half the ladies in the station, ill luck seemed suddenly to have deserted her; but only one woman in Kooti associated this happy state of affairs with the unexplained disappearance of the little brass god.
It was a sultry evening towards the fag end of the London season; the atmosphere was close, the very air seemed to be exhausted, as a haggard young woman, in a black stuff dress, toiled slowly up the stairs of a block of flats in the N.-E. district There was no passenger lift, and when she reached the fifth floor, the girl paused to recover her breath, before she took out a latchkey, and entered a small self-contained suite—two rooms, and kitchen.
In the parlour, a faded little lady was stooping over the table, arranging the pattern of a lace collar, which she was endeavouring to piece together. Now, she tried the effect of the sprig this way, then that.
As she heard the door open she looked up with a smile, and said,
“Well, mother,” she echoed, “here I am,” and then she sat down on the nearest chair, as if completely worn out.
“You are tired, poor child,” exclaimed Mrs. Eliot, “I am afraid you have had a dreadful day. There is scarcely a breath of wind, even up here. Your supper will be ready in two minutes. I’ll bring it at once.”
“Oh, no, no, don’t you bother.” But already her mother had bustled into the kitchen, and commenced to rattle cups and saucers. Mabel Eliot was a pretty, dark-eyed girl of two-and-twenty: she was not tall, or endowed with a fine presence—indeed, her figure was insignificant—but she was nevertheless a most efficient assistant in the costume department of the great house of “Rosalind & Company.” It was the sale time, and she had been afoot for ten hours, and felt so woefully tired, that she was ready to weep. Mother and daughter lived alone. They kept no servant; Mrs. Eliot undertook the cooking and sweeping, with interludes of lace-making—and Mabel was at business all day long. Yet although life was something of a struggle, these two contrived to be happy, to maintain a little home, and to pay their way.
A supper-tray was set before Mabel with all speed (the meal consisted of two fresh eggs, a cup of cocoa, and some bread and butter), and she threw off her hat, dragged herself wearily towards the table, and commenced to eat.
“No news, I suppose?” inquired Mrs. Eliot—her daily formula.
“Not a word,” responded her daughter, setting down her cup, “only the usual scuffle and crush. Everyone is leaving town. What have you been doing all day? I hope you went out?”
“Well, only to the grocer’s, dear,” she answered with a guilty air, “I’m so anxious to get on with this collar for Mrs. Bennett. There is a great deal of nice work in it She is to pay me thirty shillings!”
“And we would charge her five guineas, whilst you waste your eyesight for one pound ten, including material!” grumbled Mabel. “Well, I must confess that I feel better,” she added, as she leant her elbows on the table, and cast a glance of complacency around their pretty sitting-room. As her eye fell on the mantelpiece, she asked,
“Who was your letter from, mother?”
“Oh, dear, dear me,” exclaimed Mrs. Eliot, “I’d forgotten all about it I’ve been so engrossed in my work. It is for you, dear. It came by the midday post.” And she got up, and handed it across the table.
“I wonder who it is from!” muttered the girl, turning it over.
“Open it, and you will soon see.”
There was a silence of some minutes, and then Mabel said,
“Just listen to this. It’s a letter from Aunt Jane MacCurdy.”
“Jane MacCurdy,” repeated her mother, in an incredulous tone, “why, how does she even know of your existence?”
“She knows all about me, as you shall hear,” and Mabel read aloud,
“Dear Niece,—You will be surprised to receive a line from me, seeing I’ve had no dealings with an Eliot since I became the wife of James MacCurdy. My family cut me off five-and-twenty years ago, just because I married a grocer. My husband—the best of men—was in the provision business in Glasgow. I believe it was the bacon that my family would not swallow. Well, he is dead, and can offend no one. He has left me plenty of this world’s gear, and now that I am up in years I feel drawn to my own people. Your father left the army and died, I’m told, in straitened circumstances, and I also hear, that you are in a draper’s establishment—as assistant—so you cannot look down on your aunt, who owns six of the finest grocery concerns in Glasgow. I want you to pay me a visit, that we may see how we like one another. If we don’t agree there is no harm done; if we do, it might be a good thing for both of us. I prepare you, to find me a very plain, homely body. Ask your mother to spare me your company for a week, and come up here on Wednesday next, August 1st
“I am, your father’s eldest sister,
“Isn’t it a strange letter?” said Mabel, as she held it towards her mother. “I think she might have invited you. I shall certainly not go alone, and shall write and decline.”
“Oh, Mabel dear, you could not be so foolish,” protested Mrs. Eliot “Your aunt means well, and holds out an olive branch.”
“It would be much more to the purpose if she held out a cheque! My journey to Scotland, third return, would cost five pounds. I have no visiting clothes, and, besides, I am only sent for ‘on approval.’ No, mother, we cannot afford the trip!”
“I have five pounds I can easily spare. As for clothes, there is your new coat and skirt, and a black skirt, and white blouse, for the evening. You will write and accept, dear, to please me. Janet was always most unconventional, and outraged all the Eliots by her marriage. But I’ve heard your father say she was his favourite sister, and, putting her odd ideas aside, a clever woman, and a good sort.”
“But I may be back on your hands in two days, like a returned empty! and that five pounds will pay for a week at the seaside for us both. Mother, you want a change badly. Think of the nice, long, lazy days on the beach, with a novel. Think of shrimps for tea. Yes, and we will have a boat, now and then.”
“No, my dear, not this year. Let me ask you to consider something. If anything happened to me, you have no one belonging to you but your Aunt Flint and her family. Now you know they have never been very congenial to me—and they don’t approve of you.”
“Only because I am in a shop, mother.”
“We live in a cheap flat—we are working-people. They have a smart house in Kensington, two maids, and a page, and entertain, and go into society. Certainly, they invite us once a year, to dine, but only when they are quite alone. You could never look to them for help, or hospitality.”
“No, and never would. They are nearly as poor as we are, mother. They are compelled to keep up appearances. It is desperately hard work—when money is scarce. Money is always scarce with Uncle James. Violet never has a penny, and comes to me, as you know, to trim her hats, and remodel her blouses.”
“I cannot understand how she brings herself to encroach on your time, when all she offers in return are snubs, and patronage.”
“Mother, you have no patience with her, but poor Vi. has been spoiled. There is a ring at the door.
“Who can it be at this hour? Why, it is after eight o’clock.”
Mabel rose, and went to the entrance, and presently there was a sound of loud talking and laughing, as she ushered in her cousins, Violet and Montague Flint. Violet was a tall, loosely-built girl, dressed in the height of the fashion, though her finery was somewhat faded. She wore a much beflounced muslin, a picture hat, a pearl necklace, and a pair of grimy white gloves. She had a large, fair face, surrounded by quantities of brown hair—a pair of sleepy blue eyes, and a particularly scornful mouth, “The Eliot mouth,” which was supposed to constitute one of her strongest claims to admiration, and consideration.
“Well, Aunt Edith,” she began, as she flung herself into a chair, “you are surprised to see me at this hour of night, but I wanted to find Mabel at home. I see she has just dined”—and she cast a contemptuous glance at the empty cup, and egg shells. “I’ve such a piece of good news.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” rejoined Mrs. Eliot quietly.
“What do you think? I’m off to Scotland on Wednesday. I had an invitation from that funny old Aunt Jane—the grocer’s widow. It came this morning. She is dying to see me, and already I feel installed as her heiress, and idol!”
“Mind you don’t forget your kind brother Montague,” put in the young man, with a grin. “You and I were always chums, Vi. You must take a shooting for me, next year!”
“We will see about that I must pay some of my bills first. Now, Mabel, I want you to do up one or two things for me, like an angel.”
“I didn’t know that angels did up hats,” remarked her brother.
“You see I’ve not a minute to spare,” continued the girl, waving aside the interruption, “this is Friday. I’ve very little time, and I must make a good first impression. I leave by the ten-o’clock morning from King’s Cross. Father does not wish me to travel at night.”
“That will answer very nicely,” remarked Mrs. Eliot, who had put aside the tray, “you and Mabel can travel together. She had an invitation from her aunt, too.”
“What!” exclaimed Violet, and her colour deepened, “you don’t mean to tell me that she has asked you!”
“Yes, I’ve just been reading the letter,” rejoined Mabel, “and considering the invitation.”
“It will be a great expense—surely you are not thinking of it?” and Violet’s glance became not merely interrogative but arrogant.
“Mother wishes me to accept.”
“I really cannot see why! You’d be quite a fish out of water up there. I believe Aunt Jane has a splendid place, and no end of fine servants, smart guests, and gay doings—entirely out of your line!”
“That is true,” admitted Mrs. Eliot, “Mabel has never shared in any amusements, and it is time she had a chance of making some friends. I have decided that she is to write and accept her aunt’s invitation, and she will travel up to Scotland on Wednesday morning, third class.”
“Oh, then, in that case, she will not travel with me!” cried Violet “I could not possibly go third, I’d be sure to meet horrid people, but I daresay we shall be in the same train, and can join at Edinburgh—if she really is going.”
“Oh, she really is going,” reiterated her mother, with cool decision. And as it was evident that Mabel had no time to spare for her cousin’s sewing, Violet presently departed, not merely angry, but aggrieved.
On Wednesday, the two girls travelled together, third class after all, for Mr. Flint happened to be particularly short of cash, and even grudged the five-pound note, which was to enable his daughter to assume the role of her aunt’s heiress. The cousins arranged to sleep the night at Edinburgh, and continue their journey to Callander the following morning. Mabel enjoyed the trip immensely. To her London eyes, she was viewing from the flying train a delightful panorama. She had a passing glimpse of places which were hitherto names—Peterboro’ and York Minsters, Newcastle and Berwick.
But it must be confessed that Violet was a most selfish and peevish companion. She accepted the best seat, the papers, the railway rug, as a matter of course, and to the uninitiated, she was so fine, so hard to please, so domineering, she might have passed for a lady travelling with her maid; for Mabel’s costume was plain, and her manners obliging and unassuming. It vexed her to hear Violet snubbing people, and grumbling, and talking “at” their fellow-travellers, in order that they might comprehend that she was a person of consequence, unaccustomed to travel third class. Nevertheless she was not above a flirtation with a good-looking, unknown young man (a gentleman’s servant). After passing the night at Edinburgh, the two cousins explored beautiful Princes Street, previous to making a start for Callander. Here, their third-class carriage was soon filled up by cattle jobbers, miners, and loud young men, on their way to some sports. Violet’s manner and air was that of a person in a plague-stricken neighbourhood. She looked expressively at her cousin, and drew herself far into her corner, with her handkerchief to her face. At Falkirk the crowd descended, but their place was promptly taken by a huge, breathless, old woman in black. Her clothes were whole and decent, but she wore thread gloves, carpet slippers, and carried in her hand a quantity of vegetables, tied up in a large red handkerchief.
She looked about as she mopped her face, then suddenly addressed herself to Violet.
“Am I on the road to Doune? will ye tell me?” she asked in the broadest Scotch.
Violet merely stared in her haughtiest style.
“Would you look out, and speir at one of the porter bodies, afore the train’s awa?” she resumed, totally unabashed.
“I don’t understand your language,” rejoined the lady in an icy tone.
The old woman stared hard, then rose to her feet. Her body filled up the entire door and window, as she kept asking, “Am I in the right gait for Doune, me mannie? Is this the road to Doune?”
At last the train moved on, and she fell back in her place with a gesture of despair.
“I think you are in the proper train,” volunteered Mabel, who had been consulting a time-table, “I see Doune is next to Callander, and we are going there.”
“Thank ye, dear,” she said shortly, and now she began to make an anxious search for something. She tried several pockets in her dress, one in her petticoat, but evidently the quest proved vain, for bursting into sudden tears, she sobbed.
“Oh, girls, I’m in awful distress! I’ve lost me purse! Whatever will become of me?” She addressed herself specially to Violet, who returned her appeal with a glassy stare.
“It had four good shillin’ in it—think o’ that! and when I get to Doune, what will I do without a penny piece?” Here she took out a battered third-class single, and contemplated it with streaming eyes.
Violet turned away her face pointedly, and looked out of the window, but the persevering old creature moved up opposite to her, and resumed,
“Can ye no’ do anything for me?”
Violet vouchsafed no reply, and deliberately closed her eyes.
“It is a terrible thing to be so unneighbourly! Surely ye are not so badly off ye cannot accommodate a poor woman with half-a-crown—and you so richly dressed and all?” and she lifted up her voice and wept sore.
But Violet vouchsafed no notice of this exhortation.
Then the old woman, whose pertinacity was unwearied, gasped and gasped, and sniffed, and, having dried her eyes, resumed in quite a solemn manner:
“Are ye no’ going to relieve me, young lady?”
“No,” snapped the young lady at last.
“Well, it’s extraordinary!” she exclaimed, “it’s extraordinary!”
Violet gazed out of the window, and made no reply.
The woman stared fixedly at her averted face, and flowery hat, and continued:
“If I were in your place, I’d never be so hard to anybody. How is a poor old body to get back, that cannot walk?”
Violet now rose in sudden fury, flung over to her cousin’s end of the carriage, and remarked in a loud, clear voice,
“She is drunk, see how red her nose is!—this is the result of travelling third class.”
“Maybe the servant-maid will assist me?” urged this most persevering of beggars, also shifting her seat, and staring hard at Mabel. “If you let me have even half-a-crown, dear, it would be a great matter for me, and, maybe, come back to yourself,” and she eyed her expectantly.
Mabel slowly produced a shabby purse (it was an old friend), which she emptied into her lap. It contained half-a-sovereign, a third-class return ticket, three stamps, and half-a-crown.
“Don’t be a fool,” expostulated Violet, “she’s an old impostor, and will only spend it in gin!”
“I’m sure she is in trouble,” argued Mabel, “it is not pleasant to be penniless on a journey, and I will give her this.” Here she reached across, and placed the half-crown in a greasy-looking, black-thread palm.
“Then God bless you, dearie!” said the old woman, “you will never regret this day’s charity. It’s the poor that will help the poor!” and as the train was now steaming into Doune station, she rose, seized her bundles, and descended on the platform, with almost ungrateful alacrity.
“How soft you were, Mabel,” remarked her cousin, “throwing away your money like some grandee! I’m sure Aunt Jane will be amused when she hears how easily you are imposed on.”
“Well, it’s a mistake on the right side,” rejoined Mabel. “I’d rather run the risk of being imposed on than chance refusing a case of real distress.”
The two girls arrived at Callander station, where after some little delay they were accosted by a smart footman, who piloted them out to a luxurious landau, and then returned to collect their luggage. In a very short time they were bowling through the town of Callander, and along a pretty, shady road leading to Glenorchy.
“Now this is just what I like,” remarked Violet, leaning back luxuriously, and putting up a parasol. “Those people who were in the hotel at Edinburgh saw how we were met, and didn’t they stare!”
It was not long before the travellers were driving up the approach to their aunt’s house, an imposing country place, on the banks of the river Teith. Everything spoke of wealth. Three men-servants received them in the hall, and in another moment they were ushered into a drawing-room, gay and sweet with flowers, and informed that “Mrs. MacCurdy would be with them immediately.”
In less than five minutes the door opened, and who should enter but the old woman who had lost her purse.
Her identity was unquestionable, although she appeared to be reduced to half her size, and was dressed in handsome mourning.
“We have all met already,” she began, without the smallest hesitation or embarrassment. “Yes,” and she stared at the almost paralysed Violet, “I’m your Aunt Janet; your mother’s sister. She would tell you that I was always eccentric, and mad for dressing up, and acting, when I was young! I was anxious to see what you two girlies were like when you were not on your best visiting behaviour. And so I just fixed myself up a bit, and met you with a tale. I got out at Doune, and back into the same train, and was out of it and home before you—and here I am you see!”
She paused for a moment, and then continued,
“Well, Violet Flint, I gave you good chances—real good chances—you will allow, and Mabel is the girl for my money. But we will say no more about it—there’s no one in the secret but just our three selves. I want you to enjoy your week’s holiday, so come away with me, now, and see your rooms.”
Aunt Janet has been unexpectedly generous to Violet Flint, but it is Mabel Eliot and her mother who live at Glenorchy. They are a happy, united family, and Mrs. MacCurdy hoards among her most treasured possessions a well-worn half-crown.
Two years ago, when my youngest brother, an artist, was ordered to winter abroad, I was the sister selected to accompany him to the south of France. Here, by mutual consent, we avoided fashionable resorts and palatial hotels, partly from motives of economy, partly from choice, and were so fortunate as to discover a delightful little spot, with a climate to correspond, in a nook at the foot of the Pyrenees. Our hotel was comfortable, unpretentious and moderate. In the river which flowed beneath our windows was excellent trout-fishing; the neighbourhood was lovely, and Hubert found a bewildering number of subjects for his sketch-book—exquisite bits of water, mountains, foliage, ancient Basque houses, and dignified monastic buildings.
Between fishing, sketching, and exploring we spent most of the time out of doors. Within, our fellow-guests were a pleasant, sociable company, chiefly English. Among them was Professor Baines, a learned and celebrated individual, with a fine head, a benevolent expression, and a beard reaching half way down his waistcoat. He had sought this sunny, secluded spot solely for a “rest cure,” and in order to evade notoriety and the daily post. I often watched him pacing a long, grassy, tree-shaded path overlooking the river, his chin on his breast, his hands locked behind him, his mind doubtless among the stars. There were also Mrs. Wynne, a tall, fair young woman, whose husband was in India, and her curly-headed son Bobby, brimming over with high spirits and energy; his merry chatter and his rapid, springing footsteps resounded through the stairs and passages, and kept us all alive. Although an only child, he was not the least spoilt, but a fine, manly, good-hearted little fellow, just a trifle hampered by an exuberant vitality, and the newly-acquired joie de vivre. Finally, Colonel and Mrs. Lille, an Anglo-Indian couple, friends of Mrs. Wynne. The lady was elegant, faded, somewhat of a malade imaginaire, devoted to dress, and to a tiny dog not much bigger than a rat. Her husband was a wiry, bronzed warrior, with an immense white moustache, a pleasant, cordial manner, a fund of reminiscence, and an energy scarcely surpassed by that of Bobby Wynne. The two were playmates and close friends.
Occasionally we combined (all but Mrs. Lille) and made a party to visit some old village or monastery in the neighbourhood; and in order fitly to celebrate Bobby’s seventh birthday we arranged an expedition to a venerable town near the Spanish frontier. This was an excursion of a more ambitious type, for we travelled by rail, journeying along in a lazy fashion by the river, in and out among the mountains, winding higher and still higher with every leisurely mile. At last we reached a narrow valley, at the far end of which was our destination. Here the train, to Bobby’s amazement, came to a full stop. He could not understand why it went no farther; he seemed to think it should always “go on,” and plied us with maddening questions. The truth was, we were now in a cul-de-sac, surrounded on three sides by mountains; and, for my own part, I was surprised that a railway should be here at all! Vidarry consisted of but one long, straggling street, lined with tile-roofed Spanish houses. Half way up this town stood an ancient Basque church; its encompassing cemetery seemed to be one mass of iris; the crosses and tombstones emerged, so to speak, from a very sea of purple; the old walls of the edifice were draped in exquisite mauve wisteria, and this colouring, combined with its red roof, presented a brilliant picture. Parallel with the town ran a river, and on a hill across the water was an imposing and turreted grey chateau, outlined in sharp relief, and, as it were, framed by a background of deep blue mountains. Having exhausted the sights of Vidarry—the church, the one shop, the arrival of a ramshackle diligence drawn by three mules—we made our way to the inn, which proved to be equally old-fashioned, and clean. Here, in a sitting-room commanding a view of bridge and chateau, we speedily disposed of coffee, bread and butter, preserves, and cake. Then we examined the apartment, and discovered photographs of Madame’s relations (Madame was a brisk, dark-eyed, charming little Basque). There were a few tawdry vases, some old calendars, a venerable copy of “Le Petit Gironde”—that was all. Our train was not due to start for two mortal hours. We had bungled the local “Bradshaw.” What could we do to kill time? Madame kindly exhibited her best bedroom, her vegetable garden, her rabbits; and yet we were not happy.
“Tiens!” she exclaimed suddenly, “I have it; there is the Chateau. The family are in Paris, but a friend of mine, une fermière, has the keys. She will do much for me. I will send.”
“Yes; by all means,” urged Mrs. Wynne, who spoke fluent French. “I do enjoy seeing old places.”
“But what is there to see?” inquired Hubert, in a grumbling voice. He was rather querulous, for it had been a long and disappointing day.
“It is very old, and there are beautiful gardens and parterres, and, inside, pictures—magnifique, splendide,” raising her little plump hands.
“Oh!” more eagerly, “pictures! What sort?”
“Wonderful, people say. Above all, one worth, oh—this room full of money.”
“Whom is it by?”
“Ah! that no one knows; some say a saint painted it.”
“And who is the owner of the Chateau?”
“Madame de la Vaye; she lives in Paris—here it is so triste. Once they were great folk, and had riches and honours; now all that remains to her is the Chateau and the pictures.”
“If they are hard up, I wonder they don’t sell the pictures,” put in Colonel Lille, in most atrocious French; then aside to us, “It is what we did.”
“Pardon, monsieur, but there is some family deed; the pictures must never leave the Chateau de la Vaye, or certainly they would have gone many years ago. Ah! here comes le petit with the keys. It is well; Madame Colbert will oblige.”
We had soon trooped across a narrow old one-arched bridge and along a path which ran between the river and a high wall enclosing the demesne of the Chateau, entered a gate, and found ourselves in a pretty park. The month was April; the lilac was out, the camellias too; magnolias were budding, and the lower part of the great house was, like the chapel, covered with wisteria. Without, all was so fair to see; it seemed a pity that it was so forlorn and deserted. The interior was oppressively gloomy, until the bustling caretaker flung open the shutters, and proudly displayed the grand saloon, the staircase, the long gallery, all lined with pictures—portraits or Scriptural subjects, and most entirely of the Spanish school. Hubert hummed and hawed, and criticised and sneered; but he admitted that there were two Murillos and at least one Velasquez, worth, as our hostess had said, a great price.
Little Bobby, who was in the wildest spirits, had at first declared against coming into the funny old ugly house. He desired to remain outside and chase butterflies; but his mother, knowing his volatile character, would not trust him out of her sight, and drove him indoors, a light-hearted, skipping figure, with a sailor hat on the back of his sunny curls. As he began to caper about the echoing rooms, which were really most interesting, I noticed that he had gradually become curiously quiet and silent The gloomy old Chateau seemed to have cast a spell upon the child. I watched him as he went and stood for a long time gazing out of a window which overlooked the town and river, and when at last he turned his face towards me it had a strange, haggard, almost scared expression.
At the far end of the gallery, Madame Colbert drew our attention to a half-length picture of a knight in armour; it was called “Saint George,” and was an undoubtedly admirable painting. There was much character in the bold, distinguished, absorbing face; the eyes seemed to shine out of the canvas, and to hold the spectator in a manner curiously lifelike.
“Voilà! It is worth a fortune,” boasted Madame Colbert. “People come from far to look at this alone—and yet no one can say who painted it.”
“Yes,” muttered the Professor, “like that wonderful wooden figure of the Virgin at Nuremburg—the inspired artist is unknown.”
Little Bobby, who had pushed his way among us, and stood riveted before the portrait, seemed fascinated, and unable to take his eyes from the face.
“You like it, sonny, don’t you?” said his mother. “It is the portrait of a great soldier. No one can tell who painted it, but that does not matter; it is beautiful, is it not?”
“Yes,” he assented gravely; then, after a moment’s silence, he added the startling announcement—“I know who painted it.”
“Yes. I did every single bit of it myself!”
“Oh, my dear silly child,” expostulated Mrs. Wynne, “how can you talk such utter nonsense?”
“It is not nonsense,” he rejoined, with blazing eyes, and giving his little foot a stamp; “it is true—true—true. Do I ever tell lies?” His eyes were dilated, and his round, rosy face seemed suddenly to have become thin and wan.
“But, dearest boy, you have only seen it for the first time five minutes ago, and you know you cannot even draw a straight line. Such talk is not at all funny.”
“But it is true, true,” he stammered, and his eyes were full of tears. “I did paint that in a big cold room—the floor was of stone;” here he shivered visibly. “Yes; I can remember it all right.” And he gazed up at his mother with tragic face.
Mrs. Wynne returned his look with an expression of pained amazement, not unmingled with anxiety. Was the child’s brain affected? She went up to him, removed his straw hat, and ran her hand through his curls.
“Have you a headache, darling?”
“No,” and he pushed her away, half crying. “You think I am a story-teller, and won’t believe me.” And his lip trembled.
“What is it all about, my little man?” said the Professor. “Why won’t they believe you?”
“Because,” raising his voice almost to a shout, “I said I painted that—and I did.” Here he pointed to the picture with his small, childish hand—a hand not large enough to wield a brush.
“You did,” assented the Professor, “but when?”
“Oh, how can I tell you?”—impatiently. “It’s all ever so long ago; I forget. I cannot see anything but the picture, and the river. One day—a man was drowned by the bridge; his name was Roco—I remember that—and—and—if you will look at the picture at the back, I know there are three red crosses on the canvas—my mark—yes, my mark.”
“I’m afraid the poor child has had a touch of the sun,” said his mother, turning to us. “He will run about without his hat.” Then to him, “Very well, darling, of course; don’t I always believe you? Now come away with me into the pretty garden, and we will get out of this gloomy castle as fast as we can. I don’t like it.”
Without the smallest reluctance, or another glance at the picture, the child put his hand in hers, and obediently trotted off down the gallery.
“Strange!” exclaimed the Professor. “One never quite knows—what a child forgets—or remembers! I must confess I’d like to have the picture turned about—I suppose it can be done?” and he nodded to me, put his hand in his pocket, and produced a ten-franc piece.
In a remote place like Vidarry a ten-franc piece can do great things. With but little trouble, and a considerable amount of talk, and dusting, the celebrated picture of “St. George” was removed from the wall, and there, indeed, on the back of the canvas, were three large blurred crosses in faded red paint!
“You and I understand it, Colonel,” said the Professor. “We have been in the East, where people believe, as an everyday fact, in reincarnation.”
The Colonel nodded emphatically, and added, “Yes; but here——”
“Here the child has had a glimpse, a flash, of one of his former lives. He will forget it; it will never return.”
“Surely you don’t think there’s anything in it?” protested Hubert. “Reincarnation is rubbish.”
The Professor merely smiled; he and the Colonel looked at one another significantly, and the Professor replied: “I believe in the evolution of the body, and the evolution of the soul. There! I think I hear Mrs. Wynne calling,” and he hurried towards the stairs.
Out in front of the Chateau we found Mrs. Wynne, declaiming, with both arms and a parasol, “We shall be late for the train; we have only ten minutes.”
Meanwhile Bobby, hat in hand, was chasing butterflies; yes, already the door was closed, and Bobby was himself again.
“I say, what a time you have been looking at those ugly old pictures!” he cried, running up to the Colonel. “Just look at my beautiful orange butterfly! I shall have to keep him in my pocket till we get home to the chloroform bottle.”
“Will you do a kind thing, my little man?” said the Professor. “You have had a nice birthday—eh, haven’t you? “
“Then let the poor butterfly go. His life means, much to him, and so little to you.”
“But it’s such a beauty! Well”—and the child gazed gravely up at the Professor—“here goes,” and, a second later, an orange-winged captive had fluttered away.
Little Bobby skipped and chattered in front of us all down the hill, and over the bridge to the station, where we found we had barely three minutes to spare. Once more we packed ourselves comfortably into a first-class carriage, and were soon creeping away along the valley, and leaving Vidarry behind us. But I kept my gaze steadily fixed on the most prominent object in the landscape, until it was lost to sight.
What a curious scene had taken place in the gallery of that venerable grey Chateau! and the principal actor had already forgotten the part he had played. A cautious question elicited the reply, “Oh, I didn’t like those bothering old pictures. I hate ugly black men.” Evidently every trace of the “St George” was erased from the child’s memory; he was tired and drowsy, and presently fell sound asleep, with his fair head resting against his mother’s shoulder. They made a pretty picture.
On the journey homeward, during a low-voiced but animated discussion, I overheard the Professor mutter to his neighbour the Colonel:
“Oh yes, it was ajar for a few moments—a most rare occurrence—but now the door is closed for ever.”
It was seven o’clock in the evening of a long hot-weather day, when a bare-headed idler strolled out of the billiard-room of the Cheetapore Club, and stood on the verandah with folded arms, and a cigarette in his mouth, surveying the scene around him. After all, there was not much to see! The great maidan (parade and polo ground) burnt to a rusty brown, surrounded by distant bungalows, and traversed by flat, white roads, travelling vaguely into that unknown quantity “the district.” On one of these roads his eyes remained steadily fixed for some time; then he turned his attention from earth to heaven, and gazed with an air of devout contemplation at a beautiful young moon. As he stood thus, so to speak, aloof from his surroundings a smart pony-cart, driven by a pretty girl, whirled into the Club compound, and drew up before the steps.
This arrival instantly brought the young man down to sublunar interests; throwing away his cigarette, he hurried forward, just in time to assist the lady to alight.
“I say, I have been waiting for you for ages,” he began.
“Nonsense,” she protested, with a laugh, as she ascended the steps behind him; “I saw you as I came along, a solitary, star-gazing figure. Come,” she added, “what were you thinking of? A penny for your thoughts.”
“I was thinking it was deadly slow here just now, and wishing that someone would do something to stir up old Cheetapore!”
“Yes; but people don’t care about being ‘stirred up,’ as you call it, in the hot weather. Well, I must go inside,” said Miss Aylmer; “I suppose mother is here playing bridge, and wondering what has happened to me.”
“Don’t go yet,” urged her companion; “it is like a furnace in there,” waving his hand towards the brilliantly-lighted rooms behind them; “and once Mrs. Aylmer begins a rubber, you know she forgets everything else—even your existence. Stay out here a little, and keep me and the moon company.”
“Very well, then, I will stay,” replied the girl, sitting down on a large verandah chair, “if you will promise to amuse me; and, talking of amusement, would not this be a splendid night for a moonlight picnic at Perda?”
“Splendid!” he echoed. “But who is to give it? All our rich folk are up in the hills. I do not think there are more than seventy people on the station at the present moment, and most of them have done their little share of entertaining.”
“I will tell you of someone who has never done his share—and that is the Judge. A bachelor, drawing immense pay, who never has a soul inside his doors, and is engrossed in his work, and his hobby, astronomy. He is a stingy, grumpy, selfish old hermit, and ought to be compelled to contribute.”
“Yes,” cried Captain Carthew; “and, talk of the devil! here he comes, holding his whip like a fishing-rod, and sitting bolt upright behind his two old spavined chestnuts. I don’t think he means to be stingy.”
“But he is,” burst out the girl impatiently.
“You see, he is so wrapped up in his great work on the Fixed Stars that he has not a thought to spare for anything else. Yet I have known him do some rather generous things.”
“Have you? Well, it would be a generous thing if he would give a nice picnic out to Perda, and invite all the poor remnant who are left down on the plains. Think of it,” she added, Lifting both hands, “after a broiling, broiling day, when one cannot stir outside for twelve long hours—a deliciously cool moonlight drive of twelve miles to enchanting Perda. Think of the marble pavilions; the cool, deep tanks, in which one can see one’s face; the great, top-heavy palms; the romantic, enchanting outlook; then all Cheetapore in their best frocks and best spirits, so happy and grateful for a delightful break in the long, long Indian day. Think of the tempting cold supper, the fruit from Bombay, the iced drinks, including champagne—the ices! Think of the games after supper, and the songs; consider the drive back to Cheetapore, when the silver moon overhead makes even the hot, flat plains resemble a paradise. Tell me what you think,” she concluded suddenly.
“I think you have an extraordinarily vivid imagination; you ought to write a book.”
“Don’t be silly! Here comes the Judge. Oh, if you could only prevail upon him to give this picnic!”
“If I could!” said the young man. “I am, as you know, a twenty-third cousin, and, presuming on this relationship, I have more than once hinted that his friends and acquaintances would be very delighted to see him in his own house.”
The girl laughed, and said: “As long as he gives the picnic it is immaterial to me whether I see him or not! In fact, I’d rather not.”
“I think—I may be able to manage it. Come now, what do you bet that I bring it off?”
“I bet you one of my new photographs, and I say that, if you contrive to bring it off, you will be the cleverest man in Asia!”
“Clever!” he echoed. “I am an awful duffer.”
“Still, you have brains enough to be an A.D.C. Here comes the Judge; does he not look like a mummy?”
At this moment a shabby Stanhope phaeton, driven by a withered elderly gentleman in a white drill suit, drew up under the porch. He cast his reins to the syces, and slowly ascended the steps, where he was smilingly accosted by the two conspirators.
“Hullo, Judge,” cried Carthew, “you are a bit late for whist, aren’t you?”
“I suppose I am,” he drawled, taking off his hat to the young lady.
“Miss Aylmer and I have been sitting out here admiring the moon, and wishing that some benevolent lady or gentleman—gentleman for choice—would avail themselves of the opportunity, and give a moonlight picnic.”
“Yes,” said Miss Aylmer; “to Perda—even a few hours out of the station would be such a welcome change, this hideous hot season. I declare, if mother does not take me to the hills next year, I won’t answer for the consequences.” And, with a smile and a wave of her hand, the charming vision turned towards the door of the great reading-room, and immediately disappeared.
“Oh, so you have been talking of a moonlight picnic, have you?” began the Judge—a plain, high-cheeked man of fifty, whose entire interests were centred on his hobby, and his work, and who tolerated the frivolous social circle as a lion may tolerate gnats.
Mr. Tennant was entirely out of his element in the East—the society of savants, the Athenaeum Club, and the reading-room of the British Museum were much more in his line than a lively station and the gay entourage of an Indian cantonment. Yet he was a thrice-born civilian—the Judge of Cheetapore.
As he stood outside the Club he looked hard at young Carthew, and said:
“I say, what sort of an affair is a moonlight picnic?”
“Easily managed, next to no trouble, and, on the whole, great fun. I wish to goodness someone would give it.” And he stared at his twenty-third cousin with peculiar significance.
Mr. Tennant, though torpid with respect to social amenities, was not altogether dense.
“I say,” he began, “I suppose I ought to do something—eh? Of course, I’m not a society man, but——”
Instead of the half-hoped-for protestation there was a dead silence. “I loathe the notion of dinner-parties, and my old khansamah—I have had him these twenty years—would never stand them. Some mad fool suggested that I should give a ball.”
There was a pause, and then the A.D.C. spoke:
“I really think, sir, that, considering your position, you will have to do something. Noblesse oblige, you know.”
“Yes—you have hinted as much before—but then, you see I am not a married man.”
“I don’t see how that alters the case. The messes entertain—they are not married—most of the officers are bachelors. My chief is a widower.”
“Well, and what would you say if I were to give this moonlight picnic?”
“I say that you could not choose a better opportunity of making yourself the most popular man in Cheetapore. In the first place, it is the dull season of the year; secondly, you will only have to entertain about a quarter of the station; thirdly, there is no bother about room and accommodation and lighting in an al-fresco affair. You can give a most delightful outing, at small expense, and very little trouble. The only thing is, you will have to look sharp about it, on account of the moon.”
“The moon?” echoed Mr. Tennant, looking up.
“Yes; it will be full this day week.”
“Then shall we fix it for this day week?”
“Yes; at Perda—say at eight o’clock—that will give lots of time for the servants and bullock bandies, with the food and liquor, to arrive. It is a nice, flat road the whole way. There has not been a picnic at Perda, as far as I know, for the last eighteen months.”
“All right,” assented Mr. Tennant, with a sigh; “we will settle it for next Saturday—this day week.”
“And, if you like,” said Captain Carthew, “I will take all the bother of the commissariat off your hands. Old Gooloo, at the Club here, will undertake refreshments—he is a great man for doing ball suppers, and I will order the wine, and ices, and smokes.”
“Thanks,” rejoined the Judge stiffly; “but I prefer to do the catering part of the business myself. My old khansamah is well up in functions—his late master was a lieutenant-governor.”
“But that was twenty years ago—his methods, perhaps, are a trifle obsolete.”
“No!—and if I were to place the commissariat arrangements in other hands I am convinced that he would give notice. There is one thing that you can do for me—what about the invitations?”
“Oh, send a peon round to-morrow—the station is half empty, as you know; or—” as if struck with a happy thought—“everyone is in the Club now—suppose you come in and ask them yourself?”
“Oh no,” objected the Judge. Then after a reflective pause: “Of course, it would save a lot of bother, but——”
“But, I say, why not come in with me, and I will be your spokesman. I will go into the billiard-room, the bridge-room, the reading-room, beat up a crowd, assemble them in the ballroom, and there issue an invitation in your name—short work.”
“All right,” agreed the Judge after a moment’s hesitation.
“Come on, then,” urged young Carthew, resolved to strike while the iron was hot; “let us do it at once—no time like the present.”
Two or three couples who were sitting in the ballroom, which was cool, dim, and nearly empty, were rather astonished to see a Club peon light up the lamps and before they could question him thoroughly a number of people began to stream in from the side doors. What had happened?
Presently the crowd cleared, and made a circle, in the midst of which was discovered the General’s cheery, good-looking A.D.C., Captain Carthew, the prime mover of station amusements, and beside him no less an unexpected companion than Mr. Tennant—the unsociable, miserly Judge! What did it mean? Had there been a row of any kind?
“Ladies and gentlemen,” began Captain Carthew in his full, clear voice, “I have called you together by the request of Mr. Tennant, who declares that this seems the special season for a moonlight picnic and desires me to tell you how happy he will be to see you all, this day week, at eight o’clock sharp, at the old Kings’ Tombs at Perda.”
Loud murmurs of assent, amazement, amusement, and satisfaction, succeeded this peroration.
“To save the delay and bother of answering written invitations Mr. Tennant hopes you will all hold up your hands. He will be greatly disappointed if he does not see every one of you this day week.”
Captain Carthew looked with an authoritative air round the large circle of people, which comprised almost all the members of the Club at present in Cheetapore. After a little whispering and tittering one or two hands were shyly thrust up, then a dozen, a score—finally, all.
“So that is settled,” shouted Captain Carthew. “Please note—eight o’clock at Perda this day week. Friends are kindly requested to note this, the only intimation.”
Presently the crowd scattered, and a number of people assembled round Mr. Tennant. Never in all his term at Cheetapore had he felt himself so popular or of such importance, and he was astonished to find how readily he accommodated himself to the situation.
“Now, this is really too sweet of you,” said Mrs. Potts, a pretty little dark-eyed widow; “I simply adore moonlight picnics. How clever of you to think of it!”
Mr. Tennant, who was somewhat reserved with ladies, merely grinned, and looked embarrassed.
“And who are you going to drive down?” she inquired.
“Oh, I have not thought of that yet,” he muttered dubiously.
“Well, do pray consider it now. What would you think of taking me?” inquired this bold relict of a Staff-Corps officer. “My poor little pony would find Perda rather far, and to your fine chestnut horses one small passenger more or less, is of no consequence.”
“I shall be delighted, I am sure”—and he surveyed her with an air of irritated surprise—“only too honoured and flattered. Er—how shall we arrange it?”
“Oh, you will call for me, of course. I’m on the direct road. Shall we say a quarter to seven—or half-past six?”
The Judge nodded a curt assent.
“I shall be looking forward to this outing and drive with the greatest pleasure. How clever of you to think of a moonlight picnic,” she repeated; “but, then, it seems natural, you are so much interested in the stars!”
By-and-by, thanks to the nice little speeches and attention he received, Mr. Tennant began to soften and relax, and to tell himself that it really was a very brilliant idea to propose this moonlight entertainment.
An hour later found Captain Carthew packing Mrs. Aylmer and her daughter into the family landau, the young lady’s own cart having been sent home. Mrs. Aylmer was in capital spirits, for she had won two rubbers at bridge, beaten an opponent she detested with a Grand Slam, and pocketed five rupees. Her daughter was also brimming over with good humour.
“How did you manage it?” she whispered to Captain Carthew, looking down at him with shining, happy eyes. “I declare you have worked a miracle!”
“Yes; have I not?”—complacently. “I only wish he would let me run his show. However, I have won my bet, and the new photograph, haven’t I?”
On Monday the Judge appeared at the Club, perhaps in order to bask a little longer in the rays of his newly-risen popularity, and after this he disappeared—plunged once more into a particular study of the planet Mars—and was not seen again for the remainder of the week. Astronomy was ten times more interesting than station society. What is the universe? What are all these worlds? What is our real place in the marvellous plan? These matters were of a more burning interest than commonplace acquaintances, and commonplace requirements.
The happy Saturday—the day of the picnic—dawned. It was a particularly fierce sun which rose and chased all animal life in Cheetapore out of its sight until sundown and moonrise. By half-past six, numbers of landaus, dog-carts, victorias, and even bicycles, dotted the long, straight road which led from Cheetapore cantonment right out into the district. By eight o’clock sharp, according to invitation, almost every one of the invited had assembled at Perda.
It was a truly exquisite Eastern night. The moon hung above the delicate white pavilions like an enormous electric light, which illuminated the beautiful, well-kept gardens, the pale, faded faces of the Cheetapore ladies—yes, and even of the Cheetapore men—for it had been an unusually hot and trying season. Most of the faces were wreathed in smiles—beaming with the pleased anticipation of a right merry evening. The company broke up into groups, and sauntered about the gardens, the tombs, and the terraces. Strange to say, there was no sign, so far, of their host; stranger still, as far as could be discovered, there was no symptom whatever of any preparation for supper! Where were the servants? Where were the bullock bandies? Where were the glass and crockery? And Echo answered “Where?”
A quarter-past eight. People began to be seriously uneasy, and many anxious eyes were turned to the long road which led up to the fortress. An outpost was stationed to acquaint the company with the approach of the Judge and their eagerly-expected dinner.
“Sister Ann, Sister Ann, do you see anyone a-coming?”
No; there was not even a dog to be descried along the milk-white approach; no traveller was raising a track of dust.
By half-past eight the guests became not only hungry but excited, querulous, and cross, according to their different temperaments. Some recalled the fact that Mr. Tennant was notoriously absent-minded—and invariably late. Would it not be too awful if he had forgotten the day? Others remembered that they had given their cooks no orders, and that they had not a crumb in the larder; for Indian housekeeping disdains a larder—“sufficient for the day is the food thereof.”
By nine o’clock all hope had died a lingering death; among the gathering even the most cheery flagged. There was not a smoke or a drink to be obtained—jests respecting the tank-water were voted bad taste—and most of the company were both thirsty and ravenous. It was now ten o’clock, and twelve sad miles lay between the famished ones and home.
Carriages were called, horses were put to, and the great, hungry cortège—a long and melancholy train—started in the still, cool night for Cheetapore, arriving at their separate bungalows about midnight. Oh, what a calling up of servants! What a clamour for food! What unholy language at unholy hours!
At eight o’clock the same evening Mr. Tennant wandered into the Club reading-room. To his evident amazement he found it empty, with the exception of Mrs. Potts, who was seated at the round table, reading a month-old fashion paper, and looking exceedingly cross and disconsolate.
“Why,” he stammered, “what are you doing here all by yourself? What has become of everyone? Where are they?” And he gazed around him with a dazed air, as if he had only just descended from the clouds—which was actually the case; for some days this planet had been outside the sphere of his observation.
“Where are they?” she repeated in a sharp voice. “They are where you ought to be—at your moonlight picnic at Perda!”
Suddenly he laid his hat upon the table, put his hands to his head, and collapsed into a chair.
“Good heavens!” he ejaculated, “was this the day? I had forgotten all about it I had a vague idea of some date next week “
“Well, all I can say is,” said Mrs. Potts, who was exceedingly angry, “that last Saturday you collected and specially invited the whole station to dine with you at Perda. The guests, amounting to about seventy people, are there now; the only items which are not present are you—the host—and their dinner!”
“Just think of it!” she continued. “Not one of those seventy people will be home before twelve o’clock to-night if then. For the most part they will be obliged to go to bed hungry—their cooks will have left; nothing will be ordered. I must say I don’t envy you your situation, and the only entertainment you have ever attempted to give! Ha! ha! I don’t believe the Judge’s picnic will be forgotten in Cheetapore, for the next fifty years.”
“Of course,” he began lamely, “apprehend that I have made a most fatal blunder. No—I don’t suppose they will ever forgive me!”
“I’m sure they won’t,” she interrupted passionately.
“But you—why should you be so angry? You are not there!”
“Yes; thank goodness, I am not. My one little bit of luck! You seem to forget that you promised to call for me! Of course, when you can forget seventy other people, I need not be annoyed that I am overlooked. I should not be surprised if every soul in Cheetapore were to cut you dead! I really think it’s shameful of the Government to thrust such impossible old fossils upon civilised society!”
Having made these forcible and disagreeable remarks, Mrs. Potts rose from her seat, and flounced out of the Club, leaving Mr. Tennant monarch of all he surveyed—and a prey, let us hope, to an agony of remorse.
He remained for a long time plunged in thought, and an armchair. After all, he reflected, what were the people of Cheetapore to him? To go for once dinnerless would be a wholesome discipline, and undoubtedly benefit their digestions! All the same, he had not the courage to confront them. He was sick of India; he would apply for leave (which was owing to him), and depart, somewhat ignobly, at once. Yes; his butler was perfectly competent to manage his auction and affairs; and there were other worlds, he reflected. Even on this planet, there was a world which he would seek without delay—the world of Science and the Spectroscope. There was the Infinite to conquer!
At last Mr. Tennant arose, went over to a writing-table, and scribbled a long telegram, which he immediately despatched by a Club peon. Then he wrote several letters, subsequently studied a time-table with grave intentness, finally shuffled out, clambered into his Stanhope, and drove off with unusual celerity, casting occasional looks behind him, as if he half expected to find the whole station following him in furious pursuit However, Mr. Tennant was never again seen by any of his outraged guests, for he left the neighbourhood early the following morning. He also left behind him a name which, for notoriety and world-wide circulation, the greatest benefactors of their species have rarely surpassed! Thus the great Moonshine Picnic came to nothing after all. Unfortunately, the papers got hold of the story, and the famished and deluded company became the laughing-stock of the entire Presidency.
Captain Carthew lost his bet—Miss Aylmer’s new photograph; however, during the homeward drive from the scene of shattered hopes, he succeeded in obtaining a promise of the original. For the young couple the memory of the melancholy Moonshine Picnic is enshrined in a halo of blissful romance; for others—it is a topic to be most carefully ignored.
Sandy Leith, steward on a loch steamer, was an active little man, popular with passengers, and a trustworthy employee. Shrewd, sober, and thrifty, already he had distant visions of a tidy inn in the tourist track, where all the profits on tea, ham and bread and butter would pour into his own till; but, unfortunately, one dark October evening, when the weather on the loch was very “coarse,” he fell overboard into the cold black water, and was never seen again. Sandy left a delicate widow, with one little girl; and for years Mrs. Leith made a brave struggle “to keep herself up,” and to give Jean an education. Jean attended the same school as Jamie Fraser’s sisters, and in this manner she and Jamie became well acquainted. She was a pretty child, with bright hair, pink cheeks, and smiling grey eyes; was modest, industrious, sweet-tempered, and a general favourite. Her love affair with Jamie—begun in play, when he was a long, gawky boy of eleven, and she but eight—became deadly earnest as years went on, when Jamie was twenty-one, and had returned home for a holiday spell before starting off to begin life in India. He had been offered a subordinate post on a tea estate in Assam. The mere name of the East Indies conveyed to the inhabitants of Strathyre a vista of future fortune. Jean was but seventeen when she and Jamie solemnly plighted their troth in the old churchyard at Killin, and she vowed to go out to him as soon as he could see his way to make a living for two—and that might be in a few years’ time, Jamie being so steady and so clever. Shortly after Jamie’s departure Mrs. Leith, who had long been ailing, died, and her daughter was compelled to look about for some employment She soon obtained a clerkship in a shoe shop in Glasgow. It was a sore change, the city life with its fog and smoke and noise and “push,” for the clear air and leisurely existence on the hillside at Strathyre. However, Jean was a sensible girl, and accommodated herself to circumstances. She was hard-working and painstaking, and soon made friends, and not a few of her intimates were a little aggrieved when they heard she was engaged to be married, and going out to India—some day. They admired Jamie’s photograph (exhibited to a favoured few), and envied Jean her prospects. Jamie was an excellent correspondent; he wrote and he sent little presents; but his advancement proved to be tedious. The tea estate was not flourishing: there had been a blight upon the plant; then cholera among the tea coolies; finally an earthquake, which had wrought terrible devastation.
And so the years rolled on. Jean was a handsome girl of two-and-twenty, with some savings in the Post Office, and her trousseau all ready—and still she was working for her living, and still Miss Leith.
At last she received a letter which threw her into great excitement, for it conveyed the summons—a sudden one.
The steamer Lochinvar was leaving Glasgow for Calcutta in ten days’ time. She was not a regular liner, but merely going out with a cargo of iron and whisky, and would carry passengers at a reduced rate—some thirty pounds. Donald Cram, her captain, was a good fellow, the cousin of a comrade on the tea estate, who had given Jamie all these particulars, and undertaken that he would look after Jean as if she were his own daughter. Enclosed was a note of introduction from his acquaintance.
To Captain Donald Cram,
The letter went on to say that, if Jean could lay hands on the passage money, she was to come out at once, sending a cable to say “Yes,” and Jamie would immediately furnish up his bungalow, and go down and await her arrival in Calcutta—he was wearying to see her. He had invested his savings in the tea estate, and was now a first-class overseer, drawing two hundred rupees a month, with a good bungalow and pony. He had got his foot well up on the ladder—all he required was his own little Jean to make him the happiest fellow in Asia, and he was her ever-loving and faithful Jamie.
Jean’s eyes devoured the pages with glances of eager and almost incredulous joy; her cheeks flamed, her hand trembled. So it had come at last!—and she was actually to start in ten days. Ten days! She sat for some time endeavouring to realise the wonderful fact, and to collect her thoughts. She must first of all give notice at the office, then wire to Jamie, post the letter to Captain Cram, and set about her preparations. Of course, her underclothing and house linen had been long prepared, her boxes were purchased as well, and a certain amount of spoons and forks. She had now to select the most interesting part of her trousseau, such as the dresses, hats, shoes, and wraps—also some little ornaments for her own house. Her heart thrilled at the rapturous prospect before her. She called her chief friends into consultation, and the ensuing ten days were a whirl of shopping, festivals, and farewells. It was a remarkably happy, pretty girl (followed by a solid pile of heavy baggage) that stepped on board the Lochinvar as she lay alongside at Greenock, and made her bow to Captain Cram.
Captain Cram was a bachelor of fifty—a weather-beaten seaman, with a frank face, a pair of honest blue eyes, and a heart of pure gold. He was much respected in his profession as a fine sailor and a worthy man—although he had never soared into the employment of one of the big liners, and was merely the skipper of an ocean tramp. Still, the Lochinvar paid her way handsomely, and Duncan Cram had a large share in her profits. On the present occasion nearly sixty passengers had availed themselves of the cheap trip, and fine weather and enjoyment attended the voyage from the mouth of the Clyde to the Hoogly. Everything was a novelty and a delight to Jean, and Jean, who was his particular charge, proved a novelty and delight to the Captain. He exhibited his cabin and his curios, introduced her to his parrot, made her free of his own deckchair, and all his books. At Gibraltar he bought her fans, at Malta lace, at Aden feathers. He often sought her side of a starlight night, as the Lochinvar throbbed her way through the luminous ocean, and her passengers lifted their eyes to the Southern Cross. He talked to her quite freely of his own life—his hard, poverty-stricken boyhood, of his struggle to master his profession (being willing enough, but lacking in brains). He related many strange experiences; he told her stirring tales of wrecks, fogs, cyclones; of golden days in the south seas, and tragedies in the tropics.
Donald Cram was endowed with the gift of speech, and Jean seemed to see what he so vividly described. Never had she met such an interesting companion—save, of course, Jamie—and she looked up to Captain Cram with a sort of affectionate awe. He was the master of the Lochinvar and of all on board her, and a wise and efficient ruler he proved. The passengers all liked the Skipper, although he was a bit of a disciplinarian, but they were aware that his rules and commands were for the general good. As the ship was scrupulously clean, the table excellent, and the weather perfect there was no grumbling. One night, as he and Jean paced the deck, he began to talk of Jamie:
“Lucky man,” he exclaimed, “and wise man. He is going to marry young, and create himself a home. I put all that sort of thing away, and it’s now too late. I’ve no belongings awaiting me in any part of the globe, and my only home”—and he waved his arm towards the moonlit sea—“is this! I shall miss you sorely on the return voyage. I wish I were taking you back.”
“I don’t know what Jamie would say to that!” rejoined his companion, with a happy laugh.
“Oh aye; of course, I’m joking. Your Jamie is, by all accounts, a fine young fellow, and worthy of his good fortune. He will be aboard before the Lochinvar is made fast. It’s not the first time I’ve brought out a bride.”
“Nor the first time you’ve given one away—is it? You have to act father.”
“Yes; and I’d far sooner keep you than give you away. Well, I’m an old fellow, and have no call to make jokes; but I’ll never forget this trip, Miss Jean: it’s made a young man of me for the time, and instead of sitting in my cabin, smoking a pipe over a book, I’m walking the deck like a passenger, and playing card games in the cabin. Well—now listen to this—if ever you or Jamie Fraser want a friend, you have only to put yer hand on me.”
The Lochinvar steamed up the sand heads in excellent time one fine afternoon, and during all the happy last moments Jeanie had been making an elaborate toilet in her little cabin. First she wore one hat, then she changed it for another; then next she tried on a white dress, and then, with feverish haste, exchanged it for a blue one. When her toilet was complete her heart went pit-a-pat; she felt wretchedly nervous, and was actually trembling with agitation. It was five years since she had last seen Jamie—what would he think of her? Her emotion became so uncontrollable as the docks and masts of Calcutta loomed closer in the foreground that she fled below, having asked Captain Cram to send Jamie down to the saloon. There she sat, huddled in a corner, with a white face and a thumping heart, pretending to read an old magazine—of which she could not distinguish one word. They had arrived. She was sensible of the bump against the wharf, the shouts and yells of foreign tongues, the hurrying and scurrying of feet on deck. She sat with her eyes glued to the companion-ladder, whilst her fellow-passengers hurried to and fro, carrying off their parcels. At last they had all departed, and Jean Leith had the place to herself. One steward entered, then another—and stared at her interrogatively. Half-an-hour elapsed—there she sat, as if turned to stone. She could not move—she dared not venture on deck. Presently she saw Captain Cram advancing—his gold-laced cap in his hand, his smile a little strained.
“He’s no’ come,” he announced in broad Scots; “but we are a bit before our time, so don’t be vexed with him. You and me will have a cup of tea, comfortable by ourselves, and by that time he’s sure to be here.” (The good fellow had sent an express messenger up to the hotels—the Great Eastern and Spencer’s to beat up the laggard in love.)
Jean had not much appetite for tea; but Captain Cram raised her spirits. No mother could have been more sympathetic and cheering, than this bearded sea-dog.
As six o’clock struck he got up, and said: “Now, I’ll just tell ye what it is: he has missed his train! I’ll leave word here, and you and me will go up the town. I know a nice boarding-house in James Street, kept by the widow of a friend of mine—he was lost in a cyclone off the coast, poor chap! She’s a good body, and will mind you as if you were her own bairn.”
Oh, the shame, the humiliation experienced by poor Jean Leith as she walked down the gangway, and all the crew and stewards aware that she had come out to be married—yes, and them mostly Glasgow folk!—for them to see that her young man had never come to meet her, and had left her in the lurch! Her eyes smarted, and the heart burned within her. She scarcely heard one word of the good Captain’s excellent excuses for the non-arrival of her Jamie. After a long drive she and her baggage were safely installed under the roof of Mrs. MacLean, who received her with some good will, and a scrutiny both curious and knowing.
The house had once been the residence of a merchant prince, and exhibited the remains of former grandeur in the shape of white marble stairs and lofty apartments. But a room to herself, in which to hide, was all that poor Jean craved. Captain Cram had left her in charge of the landlady, with various whispered directions, and Mrs. MacLean, in spite of Jean’s desire for solitude, came and sat with her, and talked broad Scots, and related long tales about young ladies who had had to wait on their future husbands for not alone hours, but days, owing to delays on the line, and landslips, and such like. She comforted poor, sore-hearted Jean, and made her feel at home, and when she took leave her last words were:
“Now go and take a good, good sleep, dearie; he’ll be here first thing the morn.”
But, alack for her prophecy! it was not fulfilled. Hours dragged by, and at last Jean, in sheer desperation, sent a wild but prepaid wire to the manager of the tea estate, to which a reply came the following afternoon:
“Fraser left here four days ago. Try Browne’s boarding-house.”
Browne’s boarding-house was duly explored, but although Jamie Fraser was a well-known patron he had not been there for six months, and if he had come to Calcutta, he would not have failed to have called in. He was not in the city—no one had seen him.
Not in the city, and not on the tea estate! Then where was he? Had he met with foul play? Not possible! Everyone liked Jamie Fraser; and he was an able-bodied fellow, well able to defend himself from roughs and loafers. Had he run away—terrified at the prospect of becoming a benedict? The whole affair was a puzzle—a nine days’ wonder; and during those nine days, his broken-hearted bride remained at Mrs. MacLean’s boarding-house, in complete seclusion, a prey to a most remarkable variety of sensations: fear for Jamie’s fate, anger with Jamie. She suffered from the pangs of deeply-wounded pride, from shame, from anxiety respecting her own future. All she possessed in the world was twenty pounds and a good outfit, for Jamie had commanded her “not to pinch,” declaring that it was for him to do the saving.
The manager of the tea estate wrote and telegraphed in all directions, and made considerable exertions to find traces of young Fraser. He had been seen to start for Calcutta, apparently in the highest spirits. His bungalow had been refurnished with great pains and taste. Everything was ready for the bride; he had even bought a side-saddle, and begged a kitten—and there stood the empty nest. But the bridegroom was missing, and the poor bride was deserted—a friendless stranger in a foreign land.
Jean was at her wits’ end. What was she to do? Could she get employment in an office in Calcutta? To this question Mrs. MacLean shook her head.
“No, no; they were all baboos—native clerks—no such thing as a European woman doing typewriting. It was awful hard for a girl to get employment in the East Indies. If I were you I’d just go home, dearie,” she advised.
“But I’ve not enough money to pay my passage,” rejoined her hapless guest.
“Let that be no trouble. Donald Cram and the Lochinvar will be sailing soon; and the hot weather is coming on—a sore time here, and no’ very healthy.”
“Oh, if I only knew what had happened to Jamie,” wailed Jean, bursting into tears; “it’s no’ like him to fail anyone. He was always so good, and so upright and honourable—so fond of me. You should just see his letters!”
“Aye, aye, me dear; but India lays a queer hold of some young lads, and changes their nature. Who’s to tell that he has not made up with some half-caste cutty? They are awful handsome, and wheedling. He may be married to her.”
“But, then, why ask me out?”
“Oh, that’s more than I call tell ye! Maybe he’d think to keep her in the dark: the ways of some is just awfu’ wicked! My poor Jack was a real honest, Godfearing man, but, ye mind, he was a sailor. Them that goes down to the sea in ships is the best—so the Bible says.”
“I never saw that,” retorted Jean; “the Bible makes as much of the shepherds and fisher-folk as any, and I canna somehow believe wrong of Jamie. I feel in my heart he is true, wherever he may be.”
“Aye; but I would not put trust in that feeling, dearie. The heart is deceitful—that’s in the Book, ye will no’ deny. I’m an old wife, and have seen much, and if ye will be said by me ye will put Jamie Fraser clean out of your mind. When you have left Calcutta he will come back for sure; he is just hiding away the noo!”
Captain Cram was far more kind and sympathetic than Mrs. MacLean, and he always came of an evening, and took the white, hollow-eyed girl for drives about Calcutta, and along the Red Road, and to the Botanic Gardens down the river. He insisted on these expeditions, assuring her that if she got no air she would certainly fall sick, and he would not allow her to risk that. The gallant sailor never breathed a word condemnatory of Jamie, for which his companion and late passenger secretly blessed him. But one evening, as they strolled together under the big banyan-tree in the Botanic Gardens, after a somewhat long silence, he cleared his throat, and said:
“Now, I’m going to make a suggestion; and if I am wrong, and presuming, you must forgive me, for you know, I mean well. I’m afraid you will never see Jamie Fraser. I cannot account for the young man’s action. I truly give it up. I’ve thought and thought till I’m fair silly. I can’t bear to leave you behind when my old hooker turns her nose towards home, or to think of you, alone in this strange, unfamiliar country. And now it’s coming: Jean Leith, will you marry me? I’m fifty years of age, but I’m a sober, active man, and my friends will speak for me. I loved you from the first time I spoke to you—but with all respect—you being promised. I’d go through fire and water for your sake, and you might do worse, than be an old man’s darling. I’m well-to-do; I will quit the sea, and take a nice bit of a place and garden, wherever you have a fancy, and you will never need to wet a finger, nor to shed a tear. If this is beyond possibility, I’ll take you home on the Lochinvar as my friend, and we will never look back on this conversation. I won’t ask for an answer now, but I’ll call in to-morrow forenoon, and hear your wishes.”
“Very well,” replied Jean, with dry lips; and they returned to their carriage, and subsequently to James Street, in absolute silence.
Jean spent the whole night in revolving the situation in her brain, and in the morning had made up her mind to become the wife of her good, kind, true friend, Donald Cram. They were married by the Presbyterian minister, spent a short honeymoon at Darjeeling, and returned to Glasgow in the Lochinvar. Explanations were evaded—condolences were stifled. If not a romantic marriage, Miss Jean Leith had made an excellent match, and before long was installed in a pretty villa, within an easy walk of her native place. She has a beautiful garden, and keeps bees, a collie dog, and two maids.
Mrs. Cram is an excellent wife to the busy, beaming, kind-hearted sailor—adored by her husband, and much esteemed by her friends.
But the captain’s wife has a wan face, a pair of wistful, haunting eyes, and all her neighbours declare that they have never seen any girl age so rapidly as Jeanie Cram. There are whispers, too, of queer sorts of mad-like doings, but these whispers are timid and faint They would have it believed that on occasions, when the goodman is away in Glasgow, Jean goes forth of a night alone, with the collie, and roams the moors, wringing her hands, and crying and wailing like some poor, heart-stricken creature that is fairly demented. But few credit such a tale of demure, quiet, sensible Jean—a woman so settled and home-keeping.
Mrs. MacLean was right. Three months after the Lochinvar left for the Clyde Jamie Fraser reappeared in Calcutta—landed from the sailing ship Southern Crown a wreck of the handsome Jamie of former days. His story was this: the evening he arrived from the tea estate he went straight down to the docks, in order to speed an old schoolmate who was on the point of departure for San Francisco. He hurried aboard to snatch a word with his friend, and in his haste fell down an open hatchway. Here he lay insensible till the ship was well down past the sand heads. When he was discovered and brought up, it was found that he had a broken leg and a badly-fractured skull. For one whole month he lay unconscious in the sick bay; but gradually his mind recovered its balance, and his senses were restored to him. Memory returned to mock and upbraid him—she all but drove him mad. The picture of his pretty Jean, alone, unbefriended, and apparently deserted in Calcutta, was a thought that caused him the most exquisite agony. From San Francisco he despatched long and impassioned telegrams. Alas! poor fellow, he was just ten days too late. His faithful sweetheart had fulfilled her promise, and arrived out to marry him; but, believing herself deserted and forsaken, she had departed from India, the bride of another.
Oh, Grand Trunk Road, that lies like a white cross on the length and breadth of India, were you a living thing, what stories you could relate; what strange scenes have been enacted beneath your dusty trees, and within view of your grim old milestones. These have seen wedding-parties—all gay colours, and glittering tinsel—with ponies and flowers and tom-toms, conducting the bedizened bridegroom; magnificent Temple processions, escorting the jewelled idols—acclaiming crowds, accompanying the drugged and half-frenzied girl to the wood pile, there to perform the immortal act of suttee.
Refugees from the massacres of Delhi and Cawnpore have fled for their lives along the Grand Trunk Road, and, by the same route, have marched at the rate of thirty miles a day, European battalions, to relieve their countrymen. At a certain halting-place on the route from Madras are buried forty men of one gallant regiment who succumbed to the heat and haste.
The Grand Trunk Road is wide, and liberally planned. In the middle is the hard metal track, whereon the sahibs ride and drive, and armies tramp—at either side runs a dusty rutty strip, frequented by country carts, ponies, and barefooted pedestrians. The thoroughfare is lined with immense and ancient trees of mango, shesum, or banyan, according to the locality, and these afford a shade and shelter, which is grateful alike to man and beast.
Let us, as it were, travel from the north by this truly remarkable highway—the most frequented and best-known in Asia. Leaving the Himalayas behind, we journey from Peshawer to Attack, with its grand old fortress, once commanding the bridge of boats, now superseded by that marvellous triumph of engineering, the railway bridge, supported by piles on the rock of the river bed. Here, the Indus flows between cliff-like banks, and, at times of the snow melting, rises as much as forty feet in a night! Farther on, at Hassan Abdul, in a lovely garden, lie the mortal remains of the celebrated Lalla Rookh—and in a pass through the hills, stands a tall pillar, with an inscription carved in the rock, to the memory of that idol of his Sepoys, the hero of the Punjaub—“Jani Ki Sang,” known to us as “John Nicholson,” to whom, even in his lifetime, his Pathans erected a shrine, and would have worshipped there, but that, it is said, their lord interfered with expostulations and blows.
Next comes Rawal Pindi, the Aldershot of India, and starting-point for Murree and Kashmir. Then the road passes through countries famous in the Sikh wars, by the cities of Jhelum and Googerat—and the hills of Kashmir, which have hitherto been in sight, fade away as Lahore, the ancient capital of the Sikh country, is approached.
As the road winds south, with every few hundred miles, there is a change in the climate, vegetation, language, and type of people—even the vehicles and beasts of burden are different North, are strings of camels, pacing noiselessly along—aloof and supercilious—and the redoubtable Ekka pony, with his inevitable necklace of blue beads, a sure warrant to avert the evil eye. For endurance, these hardy, unkempt animals are unsurpassed. Two ladies, who during a cholera panic were anxious to flee out of Kashmir, and tongas being in great demand, were compelled to charter the lowly Ekka. Their pony did fifty miles without more than a brief halt, and they arrived at a resting-stage, expecting to find a fresh dak. None was forthcoming, and their driver volunteered, for a good sum, to hurry on into Murree with the same animal. This he plied well with some native drug, which had a most stimulating effect, and the distance this Ekka pony accomplished, over the most abominable roads, was no less than ninety miles! Ekka ponies do not seem to flourish much below Jubbulpore—in the Central Provinces, and here we are in the land of tongas, and trotting bullocks, profanely called “cow carts”—nevertheless an extremely useful means of locomotion. The little country cattle cover the roads at a brisk pace, but object to being driven on a strange track. They like to journey the same road daily, and preferably to the same house. A certain mem sahib in Kamptee had a capital pair of trotting bullocks, and within a fixed radius they were unequalled for speed and docility. But on her departure she was obliged to sell them at a distressing sacrifice, as it was well known that nothing short of death, would induce them to leave the station—the post-office and the church being their limit.
To attempt to relate some of the events that have happened on the Grand Trunk Road, during the last two hundred years, would be to write the history of India. Battles, processions, invasions, pilgrimages, festivals, and famines have all passed along in turn. There is something in the very name of the Grand Trunk Road that to an Anglo-Indian recalls a picture of an ancient, typical highway, along which all traffic, east, west, north, and south, was once compelled to pass; now, thrown into the background by the numerous railway lines, and in some places falling into disuse and decay. It was on the Grand Trunk Road in the Central Provinces that a certain notorious man-eating tiger “held up” all would-be travellers for more than two years, until the track was absolutely deserted. His victims were many, his daring boundless, and his cunning seemed superhuman. All efforts to trap this terror of the district having failed, at last a bold and inventive sportsman dressed up a dummy figure, which he despatched along the road, tied on a bullock cart (this tiger being a confirmed man-eater scorned horny cattle), and when the cart jogged by his lair he sprang out on his supposed prey, and the Shikari, who had followed on another vehicle, grasped the long-hoped-for chance, and shot him dead, thus securing a reward of five hundred rupees, and the gratitude of many wayfarers.
Close by the great highway, and not a hundred miles from the city of Delhi, is an imposing house, of European architecture, which was built by a general officer, who had married a native lady connected with the royal family of Olide, and of great wealth. Since then it has seen many vicissitudes, some strange tenants, and much of its ancient glory has departed. The mansion became dilapidated—and had a bad name—in other words, the reputation of being haunted, and the once-renowned gardens were overgrown and neglected. Still, not long ago, an engineer, whose work lay in the immediate neighbourhood, rented the place for a mere song, and established his family under its somewhat leaky roof. Being an officer, with an unlimited supply of labour, he set to work to restore his spacious but tumbledown residence. The roof was repaired, the rooms were whitewashed, the garden was put in order, and he began to sink a well. One evening his overseer came to him, in a state of suppressed excitement, and informed him, that in digging, the coolies had come upon an old house underground. He hurried to the spot, and discovered the walls of a subterranean apartment formed of black and white marble, and then immediately remembered that the bungalow was supposed to be founded on the site of a palace once inhabited by people of the highest rank. This underground house was no doubt the place where treasure was stored or buried. Every great family possessed a secret “Tosha Khana” or treasure store. What luck it would be if he were to find a hoard of gold mohurs, and jewels. The following morning he set sixty coolies to work to excavate, hoping to make some splendid discovery. The earth was cleared away in all directions in order to reach the floor of the apartment This proved to be a lengthy operation—and, after six or seven hours’ hard labour, the engineer and his wife (who was naturally interested) were invited to inspect the new room. It was about forty feet square, and paved with marble; there were lamps on the niches of the walls; but there was nothing to be found in the shape of treasure all that the coolies had come upon, was a mason’s trowel and a woman’s bangle. At one end of the room the wall was merely brick and plaster, and the engineer took up a coolie’s pick, and began to dig out a portion, when, to his horror, he found himself confronted with a frightful human figure—which had evidently been bricked up alive! The skin was still upon the bones, and resembled parchment; the delicate features were those of a girl of about seventeen years of age; long black hair was still attached to the scalp, and adorned with massive gold bosses, the form was covered by a dress of costly white and silver embroidery; there were jewelled bangles round the wrist and ankles, jewels in the ears, and on the bony fingers.
Truly, it was a ghastly sight! The engineer stood appalled, and his wife shrieked aloud, but the head workman remained comparatively unmoved.
“Huzoor! I have seen such things before,” he remarked. “The cause was jealousy. Mohammedans used to punish their wives thus, and it was well.”
As they all stood staring at the ghastly spectacle—an object so life-like yet so death-like, so gorgeous and so weird the long-banished sun shone fiercely down on these remains, still covered with rich embroideries and precious stones. And even whilst the crowd gazed the air began to take effect, and the pitiful figure suddenly fell forward, a crumbling heap of skin and bones, hair and jewels. The latter were gathered up, and transmitted to the Government authorities. The bones received decent burial in the garden, the secret room was filled in, and the new well sunk elsewhere.
The pearls and emeralds on the miserable victim were probably worth a large sum; but the engineer and his wife could not endure to profit by this dreadful treasure trove, or make money by the trinkets of the wretched girl who had met with such a terrible death two hundred years previously. The stones and pearls were disposed of to a well-known Delhi jeweller, who broke them up, re-fashioned them into modern shapes, and for all a wearer may know to the contrary, this emerald clasp, or that ruby ring, may have been worn by a skeleton for centuries.
In the North-West Provinces a high wayside cross standing amongst the sugar-cane crop marks the spot where a crowd of men, women, and children, escaping from a sacked cantonment, encountered a regiment which had mutinied, and were marching to join their confederates. The unfortunate people were thus, as it were, caught between two fires. Some vainly endeavoured to hide among the crops; but they were all dragged out, forced to stand in rows, and were shot down in turn. Two beautiful sisters were offered their lives by the son of a neighbouring small rajah; but they refused to exist on his terms, and preferred to take their places in that ghastly company, and face death hand-in-hand.
These are some of the tragedies which the grey old road has witnessed—but there are other events, of a different nature. An officer and his wife were once travelling between Seoni and Jubbulpore, driving their own horses, by easy stages, and putting up for the night at rest-house bungalows. One evening, just at sunset, they happened to be passing along a road bordered by a dense jungle. They had brought their country-breds to a standstill in order to admire a river scene and truly gorgeous sunset The scarlet blaze had almost faded behind the horizon, and the hasty Indian twilight was already beginning to spread her purple mantle over the world. The couple were about to move on, when they heard a pitiful wailing cry—it came from somewhere in the undergrowth, and at no great distance.
“What can that be?” the lady exclaimed. “Did you hear it?”
“Yes; only an early jackal—surely you know a jack by this time?” responded her husband, and he was about to whip up the horses.
“Stop! There it is again,” she said. “Listen! Is it not like a child?”
“Nonsense,” he exclaimed, “there is not a village within miles.”
“Robert, I must see what it is,” she urged. “If I drive away, without making a search, that cry will haunt me all my life!”
“What rubbish!” he protested; “don’t be absurd. We have a good seven miles before we reach Dassi Dak Bungalow.”
“Do let me out,” persisted the lady; “I won’t be long.”
“Oh, well, if it come to that, I will go myself,” grumbled Robert in a sulky voice. “Here, you take the reins.”
“No; I am coming with you—the syces will see to the horses. I may be wrong; still, I will give this cry the benefit of the doubt.” And as she spoke she alighted.
It took the kind-hearted woman and her husband some time to scramble over various obstacles, and to penetrate into the wood, which was here intersected by a picturesque river. Again they heard the cry, and, guided by it, discovered at the water’s edge a pretty little girl of about eight months old—almost as fair as an English child. She was wrapped in the finest of muslin, and wore gold bangles on her wrists and ankles, but though undoubtedly an infant of high caste, and wealthy parentage, she had been left at the riverside, an offering to the wild beasts.
Only that her cry caught the ear of a passing traveller, her fate would have been horrible. When darkness falls, the creatures of the jungle come to the waterside to drink, and the pretty little baby would have afforded a welcome meal to the first famishing hyena or prowling panther, with which the neighbourhood swarmed.
The officer and his wife carried the foundling on to the Dak Bungalow, and instituted searching inquiries all through the district, but without avail—no trace of any claimant was to be found, and they, having no children, decided to keep the jungle baby, and to adopt her as their own.
The infant throve, and was ultimately taken to England. She is now a remarkably pretty, sweet-tempered girl, the pride and delight of her supposed parents. She has a pale olive skin, dark hair, glorious dark eyes, and delicately-cut features, and it is merely her extraordinarily supple and graceful movements that indicate her Eastern origin; but few are in the secret of Dassi Lindsay’s birth, or dream, even in their most imaginative moments, that Colonel and Mrs. Lindsay found her by the Grand Trunk Road.
A brilliant morning in June, the sky a deep, cloudless blue, the sun ablaze. Even at the early hour of ten o’clock, the “Bussers” who strained up Piccadilly (that road to ruin of London horses) were experiencing the full burden and heat of the day, and covered with lather and sweat.
But within the station of Charing Cross the atmosphere and light were comparatively cool and dim. Fussy morning trains had discharged thousands of brisk passengers, and at the present moment there was an expressive lull in the incoming and outgoing tide. A few too early arrivals lounged on the seats, or hovered round the bookstall; whilst porters, for the moment idle, compared tips and gossiped together by the luggage office.
The central and most attractive figure in the all but empty terminus was a tall, red-haired woman, who loitered below the great clock, or occasionally paced to and fro, sweeping the dusty station with her graceful grey gown.
Several pairs of feminine eyes followed the same grey gown with unaffected interest. A typist, a little actress going to the seaside for a change, and a housemaid bound for a big country place. How it fitted! There were two pleats in the back of the skirt, and no seam in the bodice: it would be so easy to copy, and the material was cheap.
Was it? Oh, miserable, ignorant lookers-on. The gown you covet is one of Doucet’s models—it cost far more than a year’s wages—and the woman who wears it is the wife of a wealthy merchant, and has one of the finest figures in London. Looking at her, as she trails away, her age may be one-and-twenty; but when she turns and confronts you, it is evident that Mrs. Murray-Anderson has passed the Rubicon so dreaded of her sex, and seen the sun decline upon thirty summers!
Yes, the charming face, shaded by a great black hat, has lost the bloom of early youth, but is still supremely attractive, a face that all men—even the most hurried passers-by—glance at twice.
Mrs. Murray-Anderson is a distinctly pretty woman; she has delicate features, pencilled eyebrows, eloquent dark eyes, a wealth of reddish hair, and yet, with all these charms, a discontented mouth. James Murray- Anderson, a rich bachelor, when fishing in Aberdeen, discovered this beauty in a shabby Scottish manse, and, after a brief acquaintance, married the penniless lass—without a pedigree. He was twenty years her senior, and he wanted a pretty, smiling face to sit at the head of his table, and a well-reared Scottish lassie to brighten his home and bring up his children.
But, alas! there were no children; no red-haired little Andersons went pattering about the great London house, shouting on the staircase, or making the empty rooms ring with their voices. This was a bitter, if secret, sorrow to James Anderson, who by degrees threw more of his time and his heart into business. But Mysie, his wife, bore the cross with serene resignation. She did not care for children. Had she not been the elder sister and slave of eight—quarrelsome, exacting bairns?
In common justice it must be urged on her behalf that her father’s stipend was but £120 a year, that her mother was a selfish valetudinarian, and lay in bed for days and weeks, leaving the entire burden of the house and household to rest on the slender shoulders of Mysie, aged nineteen. Meanwhile, Mysie, aged thirty-two, was sweeping the platform and consulting her diamond-faced watch; and here, at last, the ten-thirty train rumbled in, and the friend she had come to meet descended, recognised her gaily, and accosted her with effusion. Mrs. Woodside was a pretty little fair woman of her own age, whose plump figure was disguised in a smart silk dust cloak, and her face shrouded by a white gauze veil.
“Oh, Mysie,” she said, “how sweet of you to meet me. What a delightful day we shall have together!”
“Yes, but I’ve been waiting twenty minutes; your train is abominably late,” replied Mysie, with a touch of impatience. “I’ve laid out the whole programme, and you have no time to lose. Come along, I’ve a hansom outside. First, we will go to Furbelow’s, and choose your two dresses; next to Suzanne for your hats and ruffles. Then—the casual shopping for hearth and home. By that time we shall be quite ready for lunch at Prince’s at two. After lunch the Academy, and tea at my club. Your train leaves at five sharp. So, you see, I have it all cut and dried.”
“What a clear head you have, dear!” exclaimed Mrs. Woodside admiringly.
“So people say,” rejoined the other, with a little pleased laugh. “And now, as you have no luggage, we may as well be off at once.” And Mrs. Anderson led the way out, and, stepped into a waiting hansom, with a momentary display of frothy lace frilling, dainty black ankles, and neat boots.
“Now, tell me the news,” said the London to the country mouse.
“Oh, dear, I’ve no news—roses, chickens, children, all well.”
“Yes, flourishing. The country has given me a new hubby—no longer horrid share lists, and bulls, and bears, and tearing out of the house at eight o’clock. Oh, Mysie, our financial embarrassments were a blessing in disguise. Since I’m no longer your neighbour, I’m poor —but happy.”
“Then you recommend wet turnip fields, oil lamps—and stagnation?”
“I recommend the country, and leisure to live and enjoy life. Although I shall thoroughly appreciate this outing with you—choosing my summer frocks, the children’s hats, ties for Ted, drawing-room cushions, aprons for the servants. Half the family will meet me, panting with expectation, and open-armed.”
“Dear me, how madly exciting,” scoffed her companion.
“Oh, you may sneer, but Ted and I are contented, though you’d laugh at our pleasures. There are the chickens, the new heifer, the pigs, Hero and Leander, the piebald pony—also many interests. And then the village itself—it’s delightful, so pretty and so primitive. Everyone knows I’ve gone to town to-day, and to-morrow they will inquire where I have been, who I’ve seen, and what I’ve brought back? Later on Mrs. Doctor and Mrs. Parson will both inspect my new frocks!”
“I should make a charge for exhibition—Adults, one guinea; children, half price!”
“No, no, I enjoy being talker, and showwoman.”
“You mean that you enjoy pleasing other people, and that you revel in Arcadia—or being a Triton among minnows.”
“Now, Mysie, never mind me; but tell me how are you getting on? Dinners big and dinners little—balls, theatres, receptions—the daily round, the common task!”
“Yes, and I’m so sick of it all. I yearn to break out into some new line; I’m always boiling over with discontent and perversity, never knowing what I want next, or how to leave well alone!”
“And how is ‘well’—meaning your husband?”
“Intensely preoccupied in business, waiting for a rise in South Africans, and watching for peace, like a terrier over a rat-hole!”
“All the same, he is what I call a thoroughly reliable partner, who endows his wife with his complete confidence, and his purse!”
“Oh, a purse is not everything!” muttered his helpmate, with a scornful passing glance at a glittering window.
“Money goes far.”
“Not so far as you imagine, Susie; it does not fill all the empty hours, or supply sufficient interest in existence.”
“Tried hard—palmistry, thought-reading, writing a novel, betting on races, gambling on the Stock Exchange, and, of course, playing bridge. I’ve come to the end of all that.”
“Yes, and what is your new enterprise?”
“Friendship—a heart-whole, sympathetic friendship.”
“Man or woman?”
“Man, of course! It’s Hugo de Vere, the actor, at the Up-to-Date Theatre, a gentleman “
“Oh yes, I know, you’ve written about him,” interrupted her companion, “and I’ve seen him; but I thought all that was at an end. My dearest Mysie, it is so foolish—and so dangerous.”
“There is where the element of excitement comes in! That’s one attraction. James abhors actors, and the stage is, in his opinion, the resort of the unnecessary in society. His people are all severe Free Church. He knows nothing of Hugo, for Hugo is on the boards of an evening, and at liberty in daylight—so they are like Box and Cox!”
“Now, Mysie, please don’t joke like that.”
“Why not? Ah, here we are at Furbelow’s! What a crowd! We shall have to wait for ages.’
The two ladies sailed into the principal room, sank into chairs, and requested to see Miss Clare. “Miss Clare is engaged just at present, but will be with you in a quarter of an hour,” so said an obsequious gentleman in a long frock coat, who rubbed his hands and bowed profoundly, as he recognised in Mrs. Anderson an important and wealthy customer.
Meanwhile the two ladies sat and inspected the various models which were being exhibited on the frames of tall, graceful girls, who swam about the great room, now in furs and velvets, again in lace and chiffon. The atelier was crowded, it being the height of the season.
“Now, there is an exquisite dress,” remarked Mrs. Anderson, with animation, as she gazed at a costume. It was a delicate green foulard, a most dainty confection. The skirt was bordered with many frills, and the bodice was draped with lace and caught with silver buttons.
“Yes, it’s smart,” agreed Mrs. Woodside, “and beautifully cut. But I hate green, it’s so unlucky!”
“What nonsense, Susie! It’s my colour, shows off my chestnut hair! I wish I had not got my summer frocks, or I’d have it on the spot.”
“Well, I’ve never had any luck with a green gown,” announced her friend. “The only green evening-gown I possessed, the first time I wore it, someone upset a plate of soup over me. And as to my green cloth, you know I had that, the winter our smash came!”
“And you believe such nonsense, Susie! Well, all I can say is that you are too childish! I’m Scottish, and came into the world clothed in superstitions, but I’m not as idiotic as all that. Ah, here is Miss Clare at last.”
Miss Clare, soft-voiced, soft-eyed, firm but persuasive, was not long in making up the mind of Mrs. Woodside. One dress at ten guineas for every day, and a smart foulard, at twenty guineas, for Ascot and best.
Among others she proffered the beautiful green model, which, however, Mrs. Woodside most emphatically refused.
“It’s a very pretty gown, ma’am, and so smart,” she urged. “Miss Tracey (to the wearer), turn about, and come a little more this way. Just look at the style of the bodice and the beautiful lines it gives the figure! I really think it is the best model we are showing—and very cheap—real lace on the sleeves.”
“Only eighteen guineas.”
Mrs. Woodside was astonished—was tempted—but presently put the weakness behind her, saying—
“I’m too short for light colours, and my husband hates me in green. I’d like a pretty black and white, with quantities of lace—or a mauve.”
Miss Clare signed to the model, who marched away the despised green garment with an air of regal dignity, and presently returned, in a charming little lilac foulard. This, and a blue cloth, were finally selected as models by Mrs. Woodside, after long and anxious consultation with Mysie and Miss Clare. It took three quarters of an hour to arrange matters, dates, appointments for fittings, and services of pet dressmaker. And by this time the green foulard was once more gracefully promenading the Persian carpet, now worn by a pretty girl with auburn hair, and attracting many eyes.
“I—what did you say the price was?” asked Mrs. Anderson suddenly.
“Only eighteen guineas, and a great bargain,” answered the shopwoman.
“Then, if it fits, I’ll take it,” declared the lady recklessly. “I don’t know when I’ve seen any gown I admired so much. I shall wear it at Ascot, instead of that blue-grey you made me.”
“And it will exactly suit madam’s hair—it will be perfection, and it’s such good style! Come here, Miss Tracey, and let madam look at the lace. Real lace, you see, and one of the Paris models, lined with silk throughout—the material cost eight francs a metre.”
“Then why so cheap?” inquired Mrs. Anderson (falling more and more in love with the costume).
“Well, Mrs. Anderson, I may as well tell you, the real price ought to be thirty-five guineas, but it was made for another lady, and she did not require it. As she was a good customer—a very good customer—we took it back—it was never sent home, in fact. And you have the benefit of an extraordinary chance. I advise you to take it; I really do. I don’t know anyone that it will suit so well. If you don’t decide now, there is Mrs. MacTavish just come in; I know she will have it—but it’s just your size.”
“Then, if it fits, I will take it; in fact, I do take it, Miss Clare, and I’d like to have it at once.”
“Very well, it won’t require much alteration. Can you come and be tried on to-morrow, at twelve?”
“Yes, if you will promise me Madame Chou-Chou, the little Frenchwoman.”
“I’ll arrange all that”—making a note in her book. “I’m so glad you have decided on it, it’s a lovely gown.”
“Well, yes,” assented the purchaser, “I must say it is. But why,” she continued suspiciously, “did the other lady not take it? What fault had she to find?”
“None, madam,” replied the saleswoman, “she was delighted with the gown, but the fact is—she died before it was sent home.”
“Oh, dear me! Suddenly?”
“Yes. I know you ladies are not superstitious, but—in fact—after the last fitting here she was killed in a carriage accident, on her way home. The horses were fresh, and were frightened at a motor in the Park. They bolted, she was thrown out, and killed on the spot.”
“Oh—I remember all about it—it was a Mrs. Fontenoy.”
“Yes, poor lady, and she was such a good customer. We kept the order, and put it into stock. You can’t think, Mrs. Anderson, all the interest and trouble she took in that gown: it was to be her Ascot frock, and she got the buttons herself, from Florence. Ah, here are ladies for a trousseau-fitting! Then I’ll expect you to-morrow, madam, and Mrs. Woodside on Tuesday. Good morning.” And turning to the model—
“Miss Tracey, you can take off the green foulard; it is sold.”
The next shop to visit was a milliner’s, then a hosier’s, an upholsterer’s, a chemist’s. Finally, at two o’clock, the ladies alighted at Prince’s, and dismissed the hansom.
“What a busy morning!” exclaimed Mrs. Anderson, seating herself and pulling off her gloves. “We have got your dresses, hats, veils, gloves, sofa cushions, garden sprinkler, the children’s hats and shoes, and the kitchen table-cloths, a parasol for the parson’s wife, and a shaving-brush for your husband.”
“Yes,” assented Mrs. Woodside, as she helped herself to salt, “and you have got the green foulard gown!”
“Isn’t it exquisite? I shall live in it!”
“Then you have no nasty, creepy, crawly ideas respecting dead women’s dresses?”
“Oh, dear, no! It’s my colour and style. Hugo de Vere adores me in green.”
“You mean your latest excitement?”
She nodded, as the waiter poured out iced hock.
“Well, I hope he adores you in nothing else, and that you will never wear it.”
“Oh, won’t I! Here’s to the luck of the green foulard!” raising her glass. “Susie, if you did not live in the country, you would not be such an odious little prig, with no ideas, no horizon, beyond skipping lambs, sitting hens, and kitchen tea-cloths. You think it hideously improper for a woman to be interested in any man but her own husband—now, don’t you?”
Mrs. Woodside nodded, with prompt decision.
“Well, you are a goose, with your head in the sand! Most young women are interested, in a way, in nice men; and nice men are interested in all young women. Life would be very drab indeed otherwise. James’ idea of existence is gambling all day in the City. He comes home to a good dinner, and me, as a sedative and rest. He is so dazzled with dreams of diamonds, gold and copper, he doesn’t even know what I have on. I might wear orange, blue, and scarlet for all he would notice, and a coronet of silver forks! When dinner is over he smokes, reads The Financial Oracle, talks to the parrot, and goes to bed. After breakfast he departs to the City, and I have all the long, long, idle day to get through as best I can!”
“And Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do?”
“I don’t know what you call mischief. I shop, I return calls, I attend deadly ‘At Homes’—at least I did—now I go on the river, or down to Kew, or to the far side of the Park—with Hugo.”
“I think it all very wrong, Mysie, very wrong indeed!”
“It is not—it is all perfectly natural. My life is dull, oh, so dull and monotonous, and I shall be an old woman before I ever have enjoyed existence. I am doing no harm, and I’m happy! unluckily, alarmingly happy! I see Hugo often—and then there are his letters. He writes the most charming letters.”
“Oh, my dear Mysie, I hate to hear all this, because I’m your friend, and I feel terrified. What if your husband discovers these interviews and letters?”
“But he never will; it is impossible. Hugo rarely comes to the house; we meet abroad—in the Park, or at my club.”
“But if he did find out, what would happen?”
“I cannot say. I imagine that he would be startled. Possibly,” and she gave a little scornful laugh—“there would be a great ‘third-act’ scene. But, after all, it would be only a scolding—merely a fright, and a scolding.”
“Only a fright and a scolding for months of deceitful so-called ‘happiness?’ It would be more costly than that,” cried her friend. “Tom says, gains involve losses—everything must be paid for! Oh, Mysie, I’d give anything if you would abandon this craze.”
“Anything? Your new brocade sofa cushions, for instance?”—laughing. “You need not be the least anxious, nothing will happen—nothing can happen. And Hugo is such a dear fellow, and a true friend.” Speaking very fast, she continued, “Why, he is six years younger than I am—and I feel almost like his mother! I give him good advice, and put him on his guard against horrid, designing women. We thoroughly understand each other—I’m convinced that we were connected in some former existence. We admire the same people, places, and books. There is nothing but what is elevating and delightful in our friendship it is purely Platonic.”
“But, Mysie!” protested her listener, “surely you do not believe in that sort of thing?”
“Surely I do,” she answered, with emphasis.
“Well, let me warn you, that you will find it difficult to convince other people. Tom declares that these affairs begin with Plato, and end with Pluto.”
“Bother Tom! he knows nothing about it!” retorted Mysie, with some heat “Tom has a commonplace, commercial mind; he has never in all his life yearned for another soul into whose ear he can pour his most serious thoughts—his hopes, his cares, his aspirations, his true views of this world—and the next!”
“No,” admitted his wife, in a tart monosyllable, “and if he were to discover such a soul, I should instantly sever the acquaintance.”
As Mrs. Woodside announced this fact, her eyes flashed and her face kindled.
“Well, dear Susie, we need not quarrel, we must but agree to differ. You don’t believe in single-minded friendship, between a man—and a woman—I do. Come, let us go over to the Academy, I want you to see my picture.”
As the two friends crossed Piccadilly, and walked towards Burlington House, Mrs. Woodside was silent, apparently turning over some weighty affair in her brain.
“Pray, what is the matter?” demanded her companion, “are you regretting the lilac foulard, and wishing you had chosen something else? That is generally my own attitude!—agonised misgiving.”
“So you are sorry you took the green after all?” rejoined the other lady, smartly.
“Oh, dear, no; if there had been two, I’d have had them both. But why so pensive? Is it the after effects of strawberries and cream?”
“No; to tell you the truth, Mysie, I was thinking of you. I am so uneasy. I do so greatly wish you had some occupation.”
“Yes, if it were only poultry! But I’m afraid I cannot accommodate more than one full-grown fowl in our back garden!”
“No, no, I mean something to fill your thoughts and your days—something to interest you, and give you occasion to do good to others.”
“But I’d so much rather they did good to me!” was the flippant rejoinder.
“Mysie, do be serious. Why should you not visit a hospital and read to the patients, or go about among the sick poor?”
“Why?” in a high, staccato key, “simply because I’m afraid of infection. I subscribe to hospitals and help at bazaars, but I’m not a born nurse, and the smell of carbolic always makes me sick. Now, follow me; my portrait is in Room VI., and I am longing to hear what you think of it.”
After threading their way through a dense crowd, the ladies at last found themselves in front of a full-length portrait of Mrs. Murray-Anderson. It was a charming likeness, gracefully posed, and there was a softened look in the brown eyes, a tender expression on the usually discontented lips, that struck the spectator forcibly. In short, it was a beautiful and interesting study (which secured many orders for the artist), and close beneath it was another well-executed piece of work, which also attracted considerable attention. This was called “The Faithless Wife.” The close vicinity of these two struck the country friend as ominous, and she carried their memory in her mental vision, as she descended the great stairs, with a somewhat heavy heart.
The tea-room at the “Grosgrain” was crammed, and the ladies had some difficulty in steering their way among groups of smartly-dressed women and well-groomed men. At last they secured a nice little cosy corner, and a table.
“I’ve enjoyed my day enormously, Mysie,” announced the guest, as she sipped her second cup of tea, “there’s only one drawback—that I am miserably unhappy at your having a flirtation with this young actor —miserably unhappy!”
“Please don’t call it a flirtation—it is a solid friendship; my dear, half the women in London would hand over their pearls and diamonds and their prize toy dogs to be in my place. Hugo is charming, clever, celebrated, good-looking, and so fascinating. The public adore him—he is the young man of the hour—nay!”—with a little gesture of excitement—“the young man of the moment; for, talk of an angel, here he comes!”
Mrs. Woodside looked up, and beheld an extremely good-looking, clean-shaven individual wending his way in their direction and acknowledging smiling nods and gay salutations as he passed. Half the eyes in the room were following his negligent progress.
Yes, Hugo de Vere, the admired exponent of the killing young heroes of West-End plays, was a personage—a celebrity. She now partly understood the reason of Mysie’s infatuation—she was the proud owner of a Lion! Mr. Hugo de Vere was an exact reproduction of one of the slim, well-tailored jeunes premiers one sees upon the stage. He had expressive eyes, brilliantly white teeth, and a most pleasant voice. The popular young actor made himself so agreeable to Mrs. Woodside that she soon fell under the spell of his charm. He addressed himself chiefly to her—and her mental attitude became tolerant. Mr. de Vere’s manner to her friend was merely that of chivalrous good fellowship, though she was not a little startled to hear him address her as “Mysie.” By-and-by Mrs. Woodside brushed the crumbs from her lap, proceeded to draw on her gloves, referred to her train, and rose to take leave. Was it imagination, or had she really caught a gleam of relief on the face of her hostess? Mrs. Anderson expressed voluble regrets, kissed her warmly, and sent messages to the children. Mr. de Vere, with polite alacrity, piloted the parting guest through the crowd with the air of a Lord Chamberlain—how well his coat fitted him in the back!—and handed her into a four-wheeler with the grace of a grandee of Spain!
What was it, after all, but a sort of cousinly intimacy? Yes, she began to understand it; but how would James Anderson interpret this alliance. He was a dour, unimaginative Scotsman. Why did not Mysie tell him of her friendship, and bring this young man boldly to the house—or would it be a task of delicacy, and danger? And was it Platonic on the man’s side? Mysie was still singularly pretty and attractive. Her face had once made her fortune—would it now prove to be her misfortune?
These were a few of Mrs. Woodside’s reflections as she and her numerous parcels journeyed down to Kent by the five-o’clock express.
The ensuing summer, which was unusually fine, wore on, and occasionally Mrs. Woodside caught glimpses of her friend at such places as Ascot, Ranelagh, and Hurlingham; ever attended by the same cavalier; and she invariably wore the green foulard. Then came August and September, which shuts down a lid on London life, and scatters close friends all over the land.
Mr. and Mrs. Anderson spent August and September in Scotland, where he had a shooting, and where his wife lived solely for the mail hour, and subsisted on letters. The beautiful glens, the deep purple mountains, the silver burns, were nothing to her—the only feature in the landscape which attracted her notice was the figure of the postboy, hurrying through the heather.
At last it was chill October, and the world and his wife were back in London; the theatres were open, travellers were comparing experiences, prices, diet, and “cures.” The clubs were full, and the Andersons were re-established in Portland Place.
Mrs. Anderson had met her best friend on several occasions, had visited the theatre, and repeatedly seen him in the modern play about which the town was raving; he was much occupied—and in immense request, having made a tremendous hit in his new part. Busy as he was, he found time to write to her constantly—delightful notes, which she devoured greedily, and treasured with scrupulous care. Hugo wrote in a somewhat florid style. His glowing and artistic pen occasionally carried him away, but Mysie assured herself that he never meant her to accept all his utterances au pied de la lettre. He loved her, of course, but in a purely Platonic fashion. All the same, it would not do for these precious little notes to be scanned by an unsympathetic eye! Stupid, commonplace people might not understand. These epistles had become a part of her very existence—she could not live without them; the more she received, the more she craved—it was a species of mental dram-drinking!
On a certain November afternoon, one of these notes had just arrived, and Mrs. Anderson, who had recently returned from a “tea,” threw off her furs and read it, as she stood in the library. “Yes, it was a delightful letter,” . . . a soul-satisfying treasure. She kissed it fervently, and sat down to reply to it on the spot, throwing her sable cape on the sofa, and turning up the electric lamp on the bureau. In a few moments she had dashed off a missive, eloquent of sympathy, assuring Hugo that she was counting the hours till they should meet. To-morrow was his birthday; she had prepared a most charming surprise, and what a happy afternoon they would enjoy together. It would be a grand festival—she was always, and ever, his own Mysie.
Mrs. Anderson left the letters on the open blotters (his and hers) while she went into the drawing-room to search for a particular stick of sealing-wax. The room was in darkness. She turned up the nearest electric light, and somehow caught the frill of her dress round the leg of the grand piano; it happened to be the green foulard gown. The skirt was voluminous, the frills many—both soundly and conscientiously stitched. The castor of the piano held her fast, in the stolid, vicious manner that is sometimes assumed by inanimate objects. The prisoner uttered an exclamation of annoyance, and just at that moment she heard the latchkey in the hall door. Her heart bounded to her throat. Her husband, who was due at seven-thirty, had, for some unexplained reason, returned at six o’clock. She heard Mr. Anderson walk across the hall with a steady, heavy footfall, and straight into the library, the door being wide open.
Supposing he went over to her writing-table and discovered the letters? They were there, open, and spread out! Horror, horror, horror! Jamie was so practical—he would never understand. The unfortunate woman felt desperate—crazy—as she made a frantic effort to release herself; but the more she struggled, the firmer she was detained. The green foulard gown and the rosewood grand were like two fierce, demoniacal creatures, holding her captive between them, whilst he —her husband—what was he doing? Oh, the moments were hours! The frenzied creature’s mad efforts to release herself from the yards and yards of frilling, which had caught round her ankles, were pitiful to behold. At last she reached a dagger paper-knife and sawed herself free, and, with the frills trailing loose, flew into the library.
James Anderson’s burly back was towards her (and a back can be eloquent). He was reading a letter.
As he heard his wife enter, he rose, turned slowly, and confronted her. Her face told its tale—wild glances at the note in his hand spoke volumes.
“So,” he began, speaking in a strained husky voice, “I have it all in black and white. Here is your letter and here is your lover’s. And this is what I have got for taking you from poverty, trusting you implicitly, and loading you with luxury—you, whom I married, a poor minister’s bairn, believing that you were a good, God-fearing, honest woman. Oh, what a doited fool I’ve been!” And thrice he nodded his head with terrible solemnity.
“Jamie, Jamie,” she cried, wringing her hands, “forgive me. It is only pure friendship—nothing more—I swear. I was so lonely. I’d nothing to fill up my time. I was so sick and weary of the Park, and teas, and women’s talk, and shopping—and, oh, you loved me once, and, for the sake of that time, don’t be too hard on me! My life was so empty. You had your work—but what had I?”
He gazed at her sternly, standing squarely before her. Here was a man she hardly recognised. Here was Jamie Anderson, the hard-headed, dour, inexorable employer—not the simple, generous, easy-going husband. His face was set and of a strangely livid colour; his lips twitched nervously.
“Forgive me, I meant no harm,” she urged, and her heart fluttered wildly—what was he going to do with her?
“Oh yes, certainly, I’ll forgive you,” he answered slowly, fingering the two letters, which he held in either hand. These he consigned to an inner pocket, and then drew out a case, and deliberately selected a note, which he handed to her.
She took it from him mechanically, and saw that it was for ten pounds.
“Here,” he continued, snatching up her sable cape, “put this on.” She obeyed in trembling silence.
“Now come out into the hall.’
When she had followed him, he opened the door, and whistled for a hansom, which rattled up at once.
“Get in,” he said, hoarsely.
“Oh, Jamie,” she pleaded, in tears—“Jamie, for God’s sake.”
“Get in,” he reiterated, as he stood squarely on the pavement.
“Oh, Jamie, surely——”
“Come, no more of that,” he said, roughly, “I’ll never see your face again. Do what you like—go where you like. Get in!” he vociferated, and his voice rose to an angry shout. “Get in!”
The stricken creature stumbled into the cab, as if in a kind of stupor, whilst her husband flung the streaming frills of the green foulard after her, and banged the door with violence.
“Where am I to drive?” inquired the cabman, stooping over to ask the stout, bare-headed gentleman who stood upon the pavement; “where is the lady going?”
But to this reasonable request the other man made no reply beyond a contemptuous wave of the hand. Then he strode up the steps, entered his house, and shut out, for ever, the house’s late mistress.
The following summer, Mrs. Woodside repeated her visit to town for a day’s shopping. In the interim she had completely lost sight of her friend Mysie; her letters remained unanswered, the mansion in Portland Place had been let, Mr. Anderson was in America; and Mrs. Anderson, where was she? There had been no scandal, no “talk.” She had, as far as her circle was concerned, dropped out of everything, and “ceased to be,” was forgotten, as a dead woman out of mind. As her former friend hurried past a gay window—not far from the bottom of Regent Street—her eye was caught by a surprisingly shimmering silver dress on a stand, and the notice, “Ladies’ Wardrobes Purchased. Elegant Models—Half-price.” Beside the shimmering silver, with its dazzling paillettes, was—an afternoon toilette, looking fresh and fashionable. This was ticketed “A Great Sacrifice—Only Nine Guineas.” In another second the gazing little lady had recognised an old acquaintance, and “The Green Foulard Gown.”
Sir Richard Tracy was a gentleman of easy fortune and many friends; although his age was fifty-six and he was unmarried, yet no one ever dreamt of calling him “an old bachelor”—least of all his nephew and heir, Captain Guy Tracy—since that reminder might have turned his uncle’s thoughts in the direction of a wife. Sir Richard found the estate of single blessedness entirely to his taste. He was master of himself, his time, and his purse; he assumed a fatherly manner towards pretty girls—daughters of his contemporaries; and accepted the post of “family friend” and adviser in various pleasant houses. He rented a luxurious flat near Victoria Street, and every day, at stated hours, walked through St James’s Park, en route to his equally luxurious club.
One May afternoon Sir Richard experienced a little adventure, which for an hour or two disturbed the serene monotony of his daily round. As he passed through the Park about six o’clock, on his way home, he noticed a tall, lady-like girl standing not far from the gate opening into the Bird-cage Walk, and by which all the foot-passengers from St James’s Station stream through the Park. She was evidently awaiting someone—a most fortunate someone—for the damsel was young, and amazingly pretty—a lady, too. As she caught the glance of Sir Richard’s keen interrogative eyes she reddened, and looked down, apparently overcome with shyness and embarrassment. What were her people about to allow this mere child to stand by the wayside—a gazing-stock for all men?
However, it was, of course, no business of his, and, like the notorious Levite, he passed by on the other side, and the solitary, timid figure faded from his mind.
Sir Richard was dining that night with friends in St. James’s Square at 7.30 sharp, as they had made up a party for the theatre. Having effected his usual leisurely and careful toilet, as it was a lovely May evening, he returned on foot across the Park. By this time he had entirely forgotten the girl, and was not a little surprised to find her still standing in precisely the same spot—still gazing into the Park with her great, wistful grey eyes. As she turned them on him he noticed that they were black-lashed and brimful of tears. Her face looked pale and apprehensive, the corners of her mouth twitched with repressed emotion.
Sir Richard had a kind heart as well as an attractive and paternal manner. He paused, and said, as he swept off his hat:
“I am afraid—you are—er—a—tired standing. You have been here for some time. Can I help you in any way—or get you a cab?”
The girl shook her head slightly, and then, to his dismay, burst into a storm of tears—yes—loud, half-hysterical sobs! There would certainly be a crowd round them in half-a-minute; already the policeman was looking in their direction.
“Here! come with me,” he said in an imperious tone. “Come—over here,” hastily leading the way to a sequestered seat—“and tell me all about it.”
The girl followed him with childlike obedience, sat down beside him on the green bench, and continued to sob—and sob—and sob.
“Oh, this won’t do at all!” he exclaimed impatiently. “Come now, let me hear all about it—your friend has never turned up. Have you been waiting long?”
“Since six o’clock; I came over from Ireland this morning.”
No need to mention Ireland, for the brogue was sufficient guarantee of her nationality.
“Yes; and drove straight from Euston here?”
“Yes; I was so afraid I’d be late—at—at——”
“At the rendezvous. I see. And so she has disappointed you?”
“Oh, sir,” and she blushed to her hair, “it is not a lady who was to have met me.”
“Not?” with well-affected surprise. “Then your father—or some relative?”
“No, indeed; but a stranger—that is,” she stammered, and her voice fell to a whisper, “a stranger to them.”
“This is rather unusual. Have you friends in London?”
“No; not one—I don’t know a soul except him.”
“Yes; and I’ve—— Oh, sir,” and she dropped her hands in her lap with a sudden dramatic gesture, and looked up at him with a lovely but tear-strained face—“I know you are kind and good, and so I must tell you the truth. I have run away from home, and all I have in the world is a crooked sixpence. I gave my last half-crown to the cabman who drove me here.”
“Go on,” he urged. “Tell me all about it, my dear; you are quite safe.”
“Oh!” and she covered her face with her hands, “I feel so deadly ashamed; please don’t look at me, and I will try to tell you.”
“All right; then I won’t look—honour bright.”
“We live out in the west of Ireland, and I came up to Dublin to have music lessons, and to stay with Grannie. She is old, and nearly blind, and has a companion to read to her, and housekeep—Miss Tooke. She was my chaperon—and went with me shopping, and to my music lessons—and the dentist’s—and once or twice to concerts—and the theatre—matinées, of course.” Here she came to a dead stop.
“Yes; and at the matinées?” he went on briskly.
“I—I—there was one actor. He had the best part. He was the hero—he was so handsome, and—and—a hero indeed. I lost my head—I fell in love with him.”
“Or with the imaginary hero?”
“Yes. Miss Tooke was just as crazy. We went to every matinée. Grandmamma thought it was to the dentist. He noticed me from the stage, and smiled at me. After that Miss Tooke wrote, and asked for his photograph, and then I got to know him—and oh, I felt so proud—and happy!”
“He seemed everything I had dreamt or read of—and far more. I met him at a confectioner’s. We had tea. We walked in St Stephen’s Green. Of course, I dared not tell Grandmamma, or let them know at home. They did not approve of theatres or actors. At last his engagement was up; he left, and it seemed as if my life had ended; then he wrote to me several times, and such beautiful, beautiful letters. In the one I received on Friday he implored me to come over—to meet him here to-day. He could make me do anything—if he had told me to kill myself I’d have done it. I left Dublin this morning. Miss Tooke told Grannie I was in bed with toothache; she has managed everything so splendidly for me, and when we are married she is to live with us always.”
“May I ask this actor’s name?”
“Must I tell you?”
“I think it will be better, my dear.”
“Rupert Wolferstan—he is acting in ‘The King’s Secret’ Oh, do you know him?” she exclaimed with tremulous eagerness.
“Yes; as one of the most attractive men in London—a spoiled darling. He is married to a good little humdrum wife——”
“What did you say?”—springing to her feet.
“Married to a dowdy little woman—a woman with money; he leads her a devil of a life, but she adores him.”
“Married! No—impossible! It is not true!”
“Yes; everyone knows that.”
There was a long, long silence.
“And I thought he loved me. Oh, my heart is broken! Oh, what shall I do?” And she put her handkerchief to her face, and began to cry softly.
“No, no; your dear little heart is too young to know what the word ‘broken’ means. Tell me how old are you?”
“I am seventeen in a month.”
“And you are a wild, enthusiastic, impulsive Irish colleen. Now, shall I tell you what you will do?”
“Oh, I think I shall die of shame!” she moaned hysterically.
“For God’s sake don’t cry—the policeman will be coming over to ask if I’m ill-treating you. We will just take a hansom, and drive straight to Euston, and you will return to Dublin by the night mail. Your toothache is, I presume, still very bad; but you can present yourself to your Grandmother to-morrow morning, and tell her you are quite recovered.”
“Yes; I only want to go home—and hide myself for the rest of my life.”
“You’ll never give a thought to that scoundrel again. To think of his luring you over here—and you little more than a child—ignorant, penniless, and friendless!”
“Yes; I’ve no money, but I have this,” producing a tiny gold watch; “it will pay for my ticket.”
“No, no; I’ll lend you the fare, whatever is necessary, and give you my card, and you can return me the money at any time. After all, on second thoughts, we had better remain incognito; my address is No. 19 Saxe-Coburg Mansions. You will be the nameless young lady, I the nameless stranger.”
“Oh, how kind of you, you dear, good old gentleman—it is as if you had saved my life! I feel so frightened and strange, and in another world over here, and people stare so dreadfully, as if they knew how wicked I had been!”
“Well now, come along, let us be off,” he said, rising briskly; “you can catch the 8.30, with lots of time to spare. You will have spent just three hours in town. I hope you will never have anything more to do with Miss Tooke; I declare she deserves to be skinned alive!”
As he talked, they walked out of the Park; in another moment had driven away together in a hansom behind a smart horse.
Just as they moved off, another cab came rapidly towards them, and drew up at the gate. The fare sprang out—a good-looking, slim, well-groomed man; he caught a fleeting glimpse of the pale face and great, tragic eyes of the pretty Irish girl, of a man’s shoulder and tall hat, and in another second they were out of sight—and Rupert Wolferstan was left standing by the gate, with a real frown on his flushed face and bad words on his clean-shaven lips.
Five years had elapsed, and Sir Richard’s nephew, who had been quartered in the west of Ireland, had there met his fate—a certain Miss Kathleen O’Hara—a lovely, unsophisticated jewel of a girl, an only daughter, and a considerable heiress.
According to Captain Guy Tracy, his fiancée was so entrancingly lovely, so simple-minded, so witty and so graceful, that, naturally, all his relations were clamorous to see her, and he brought her in triumph to Loudon, in order to present her to his mother, his sisters, and, above all, to his Uncle Richard.
Uncle Richard made the lady’s acquaintance at a formal family dinner-party. The instant their eyes met they recognised each other; he was the old gentleman in the Park, she was the girl he had seen off at Euston, and the cause of his leaving an empty chair at the Greville’s dinner-party, on a certain evening in May some years previously—a girl who had enclosed him a post-office order for three pounds, with “From a grateful friend” written in a childish scrawl.
It was wonderful how she retained her self-possession; but her hand was icy cold as she placed it in his.
As the head of the family, Sir Richard conducted his future niece to dinner; the fingers on his arm were now trembling perceptibly.
“Did they ever find out?” he murmured in his most fatherly tone.
“Never,” she whispered back.
“The toothache was so very bad?”
“Yes; and I—was—so—bad——”
“And now you have cut your wisdom teeth?”
“Oh, I hope so,” she answered in a low voice.
“And no one knows except you and me?”
“And Miss Tooke—and him—and—Guy—and—mother.”
“Oh, so you’ve told Guy! That was right, my dear—and we will keep that little trip to ourselves. They all believe that this is your first visit to London; they have never heard of your flying visit!”
“No; and I recall it as a sort of hideous nightmare—sometimes I almost persuade myself that it was only a bad dream! Oh, I’m so glad you are to be my uncle—scarcely a day has passed that I have not thought of you. What can I do to show you my—gratitude?”
“That question is easily answered. Come for a walk with me to-morrow morning—in St James’s Park.”
Four years ago my sister Ursula reversed the fashion of the day, and married a wealthy young American, George P. Forrest, of Forrest & Sons, Bullion Buildings, Broadway; and, as a natural consequence, this alliance led to some intimacy between two hitherto unfamiliar circles, as well as a considerable outlay in tickets on the Atlantic liners.
George and Ursie visited her old home every “fall,” and on the conclusion of their last Europe tour they insisted on carrying me back with them across the “herring pond,” in order to introduce me to the New World.
As Ursula’s eldest and favourite brother, an extremely kind reception was accorded me by her friends—especially her girl friends. We had a very gay season in New York, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but the end of three months’ dancing, dining out, driving, and skating, found me somewhat fagged, and I gladly hailed George’s announcement that he was going to take me right away “down South,” to the part of the world which had been the home of his ancestors.
“I know a whole crowd of folk who will be glad to put us up, and give us a real good time,” he said. “Are you for coming?”
I assured him that I was ready to start at an hour’s notice.
“South Carolina is our State, you see; my father was raised there. He was in Charleston in blockade days. Poor old Charleston, the grass is growing in her streets now.”
We set out on our journey, a party of four—George and I, his cousin Edward Stewart, and a rich financier called Van Boom.
To me this expedition was a totally new experience. The wonderful southern vegetation, the fine old houses (once belonging to Royalist families), which combined the stateliness of English mansions, with the easy luxury of the tropics, above all the hospitality of the inmates, afforded an almost startling surprise. If I ever return to America, I shall pitch my tent in South Carolina.
We had nearly come to the end of our trip, when the following curious experience befell me.
One afternoon we had been wading through the soft marshy ground in the rice-fields after snipe. Our bag was seventy brace, we were twelve miles from our headquarters and the heat was overpowering, when Van Boom gave out. He was a stout, short-necked, self-indulgent millionaire, who had accompanied us for a “cure.”
“It’s no manner of good,” he declared. “It’s all very well for you Britishers, who have no occupation and nothing to do but shoot and fox-hunt; but I’m not used to this sort of nigger work. You’ll have to go on and leave me. It’s either that or carry me! I can’t sit my horse any longer.”
We had an imposing following of chattering darkies, and, having explained the situation to them, a young mulatto, pointing to a long line of trees in the distance, said: “Berry good house still, everything same as in old massa’s time, they say. Best stop here.”
To this suggestion a white-haired veteran objected, but was silenced by the young man, who had now installed himself as our pioneer.
In ten minutes’ time we had arrived before the sunken piers of what had once been a fine gateway, leading to a long majestic avenue of walnut-trees. The avenue was grass-grown, and at the far end loomed an unexpected sight—a stately white mansion of commanding appearance. As we approached nearer, we realised that it was surrounded by decaying pillared verandahs, a wild overgrown pleasure ground, clumps of live oaks, and the “tender grace of a day that is dead.”
Even the very steps were grass-grown—though the door stood wide. Sitting upon the threshold was a fat negress, with a bright orange bandana tied round her head, engaged in manufacturing what looked like a pink ball dress. In the background were several dusky piccaninnies, and a shrivelled old man.
Our mulatto guide immediately strutted forward and volubly explained our predicament, whilst we surveyed the residence—a solidly-built three-storeyed square house, invaded on all sides by a wild tangle of magnolias, orange-trees, palms, dense masses of pomegranate and lemon plant—wondering at its romantic and poetic desolation, its forlorn and deserted appearance.
After a scene of considerable altercation and hesitation, we were invited to dismount; our horses were led away, and we entered a great square hall surrounded by a gallery, from which looked down the pictured faces of dead-and-gone owners of the old house residence.
The light seemed dim after the outside glare, and the coolness of the atmosphere, to our sun-scorched frames, struck like the interior of a tomb.
The fat, gay negress was both loquacious and hospitable. She was also a capable creature; the piccaninnies were sent flying on various errands, not unconnected with the commissariat, and we were formally conducted upstairs, and requested to make a selection of apartments.
That there should be so many available bedrooms was a distinct surprise. Van Boom, like the millionaire he was, selected, as his due, the best; I, as a stranger in the land, was requested to make second choice. I chose a large chamber with two big windows overlooking the avenue. Its four-post bed and open fireplace reminded me of home, which, I believe, was the sole reason that I preferred it.
In one corner stood an old secretaire, priceless to a collector of antique furniture, the stiff, high-backed chairs were to match, and over the chimney-piece hung a large Scriptural print in a heavy black frame, representing “The Death of Jehu;” underneath was inscribed: “Had Jehu peace who slew his master?” The window curtains were of faded chintz, and the floor was dark polished oak, in places almost black.
I flung open a window, and gazed down the great avenue. The air of the room was close and musty (indeed, the entire mansion was pervaded with that peculiar and melancholy odour known as “dry rot”). As I leant my elbow on the sill, I inhaled the penetrating perfume of magnolia and jasmin; my eyes rested on dense masses of laurels, palmettos, myrtle, and orange-trees. In the distance was the wide expanse of rich savannahs, melting into vivid green rice fields, which, in their turn, faded away in the soft blue horizon.
What a delicious, peaceful spot! As I stood by the window, I seemed to fall under the influence of the languor and dreaminess of the South, and to feel its subtle charm.
The spell was abruptly broken by the loud, full voice of a stalwart nigger, hurrying down the avenue with a basket on his head, singing as he went; and the words of his song which floated up to me, were these:
“Oh, shout, shout, de deb’l is about;
Oh, shut yo’ do’ an’ keep him out,
I don’ want to stay here no longer.
For he is so much like a snaky in de grass,
Ef you don’ mind, he will get you at las’,
I don’ want to stay here no longer.”
From the far end of the avenue came back the refrain, now growing gradually fainter—
“Shout . . . shout ... de deb’l is about;”
and I turned, startled by a slight movement in the room, to find an old man entering with a great can of water; as his eyes met mine he shook his head, saying:
“I berry sorry massa take dis room.”
“Why?” I asked.
He made no reply beyond a more solemn shaking of his head, accompanied by a lamentable groan, and a call, that dinner was ready, hurried me below.
The bustling negress and her staff had served up an excellent meal of boiled fowl, with rice, roast snipe, and banana fritters. These were succeeded by fruit from the old garden, and unexpectedly good black coffee.
A sufficient supply of plate, glass, and crockery was forthcoming, and, on our expressing our amazement at such luxuries, the negress, showing every tooth in her head, replied:
“House belong to our massa—he live in Europe—nebber come here—but all ready.”
After dinner we sat for some time on the verandah watching a red, red moon rise above the rice fields; whilst the fragrance of the flower-scented air, the deep stillness of the night, and the soft, enervating atmosphere, seemed to steal its way into one’s very soul.
At last George sprang to his feet, and exclaimed:
“I say! don’t let us fall asleep yet; come round and see the horses—they are away back somewhere.”
After a short walk we found our steeds installed and picketed in what had once been a rose-garden, and comfortably located for the night A good many peering, dusky faces watched us as we strolled past the roofless stables, and the long lines of half-deserted negro cabins. As we were returning George said to me: “This is one of those old places abandoned and left to go to wrack and ruin because the owners prefer to live elsewhere, or they are broke, or er—er—because something has happened here.”
“Not much could happen here,” cried Van Boom, now restored by rest and food; “it’s such a drowsy sort of abode, one feels half asleep.”
“It’s a lovely, picturesque old spot,” remarked Edward Stewart, “but I don’t say I should like to live here altogether. However, I’m glad I’ve seen it, and I shall often revisit this old plantation in my dreams. I wonder what is its history.”
“I can give a good guess at that,” rejoined George. “An old Royalist family in the style of Thackeray’s Virginians, built this house, kept state and slaves, cut a great figure in wig-and-hoop days. Were badly knocked about by the war—income diminished, slaves enfranchised; possibly came down to one old man, the last of his race—property goes to distant branch. Fresh start.”
Van Boom blew the smoke through his nostrils, and snorted. “Not much sign of a fresh start here, not the sort of place I should care to revisit in my dreams; but I’m going to dream now. Good night;” and he stalked housewards, whither we followed him in single file.
I happened to be the one to bring up the rear, for I lagged behind enjoying the beautiful tropical night. The moon rode high in the deep violet heavens, and, as I passed a thicket of magnolias, it seemed to me that among the white blossoms there peered forth a black, malignant face. I looked away for a moment, then glanced, back; . . . It was gone! What tricks imagination does play! We hear of faces in the fire—this had been a face among the flowers!
When I at last entered the hall, I found my companions had already retired to bed. A toothless old negress brought me a candle, and informed me that we were alone in the house, as she and the other darkies slept in the so-called “lines” at the back of the premises.
Although the night was warm, I was agreeably surprised (remembering the cold chill of the room) to find that a large wood fire had been lit, and was blazing cheerfully up the chimney, illuminating the whole scene. The light caught the lower part of the gloomy print, and threw out in grim relief: “Had Jehu peace who slew his master?”
Outside the moon shone full over moss and thicket, on lily, magnolia, and live oaks, and, as I cannot sleep in a strong light, I drew the shabby window-curtains before I subsided under the canopy of the four poster. I was very tired. Wading knee-deep in the treacherous ooze of a rice swamp is rather different to striding through the heather, or breasting a brae on a Scottish moor, and I was soon asleep, undisturbed by the hoarse and clamorous croaking of the frogs in the marsh.
I must have been asleep for a considerable time, when, half between sleeping and waking, I was aware of a curious noise—a soft, monotonous, repeated knocking, which became so continuous and distinct that I was soon thoroughly aroused, and, by the still bright light of the fire, was not a little astonished to behold the empty rocking-chair, in vigorous motion!
I stared and stared—and yet it rocked and rocked, as if occupied by someone who was equally energetic and impatient. I had heard of table-turning—here was a chair moving, and there was something uncanny about its insolent indifference to me. Presently the chair creaked and was jerked back—the sitter had evidently risen.
With deliberate heavy footsteps he (for it was surely a man!) walked to the window; meanwhile I was sitting up in bed, anxiously awaiting further developments.
The tattered curtains were now brusquely drawn aside, the lattice of the window was opened, and I knew instinctively that something was standing there gazing down the avenue.
For a long time there was an expressive silence, at length disturbed by a sort of irritated tapping on the window-sill—as if the watcher were waiting for something and his patience was becoming exhausted.
And, strange to say, it was chiefly this irritated tapping that impressed me with a sensation of horror, and recalled to my mind the gruesome “Death Watch.” Suddenly the sound ceased, and, after listening with all my faculties strung to the highest pitch of anticipation, I lay down again.
By-and-by my heart gave a violent jerk, as the solid, slow steps went from the window to the door, and an invisible hand shot the bolt with murderous emphasis.
Another silence—the thing moved towards the old bureau, and I heard the clink! clink! of coin; presently I was aware of loud breathing beside me, and conscious of stealthy touches fingering the bedclothes—of a cautious fumbling with the coverlet, and then suddenly, with a force that made my heart leap—an enormous hand was on my mouth! Before I could move its fellow had seized my throat with the grip of a steel trap. I struggled fiercely and with all my strength; I flung my arms out, but of what use was my feeble resistance? The air was empty! Yet the terrible hand never once relaxed its hold—my life seemed to ebb away from me ... I was . . . dying—I was sensible that I was in the clutch of Death!
And now I began to realise that I was about to be taken away and buried. My limp and lifeless body was thrust into what I supposed was a sack—the bolt was withdrawn—I was hauled across the gallery, and down the stairs with a bump, bump, bump—then out of the house into the garden, and dragged through the high, wet grasses, bruising in my passage the scented wild geranium, whose crushed stalks gave out a pungent odour (I shudder at the smell of scented geraniums to this day!)—through clumps of magnolias and an atmosphere sickly with their heavy perfume.
Presumably it was a hot night, and yet the blood in my veins ran ice. Death was taking me to a nameless grave.
At last my gruesome journey was ended, and the sole noise that fell on my ears was the thud of a working spade. The digging ceased; the task was evidently complete, slow footsteps came towards me . . . then . . . I heard no more.
It was broad daylight when I awoke. I sat up in bed wondering if my experience of the past night had been a dream! The birds were singing, a negro was thrumming a banjo, and a soft white mist was rising over the rice-fields. Yes—no doubt it was a hideous nightmare, but who, or what, had drawn aside the curtains?
My head ached abominably, I felt feverish, anything but refreshed after a long night’s rest. The face that confronted me in the looking-glass was haggard and hollow-eyed, and I noticed deep red traces of finger marks on my throat! And even as I looked—they faded.
My somewhat shattered appearance was promptly remarked on at breakfast; I promptly attributed the cause to “a touch of fever” (a useful explanation that has done gallant service), and my excuse was accepted without demur.
After a particularly hearty breakfast, Van Boom declared himself quite fit for his twelve-mile ride, and while George was distributing bucksheesh to the servants, I strolled out into the abandoned garden.
Was it solely its luxuriance of oleanders, stephanotis, orange flowers, this tangled jungle of exquisite free flowers, that had such an extraordinary fascination for me? or was it possible that I was looking for my own grave?
Whilst I stood wondering and speculating, I caught sight of the old negro, and beckoned to him.
As he approached, he looked at me with a curious expression of interrogation in his prominent brown eyes.
“Tell me, uncle, what is the story of the room I slept in last night?”
‘No story, massa,” rolling his eyes at me. “No story—no story!”
“Come,” I said, “think again, Uncle Tom.”
But he merely wagged his head in hopeless ignorance.
“How long have you lived here?” I inquired.
“Seventy-five years—I born here.”
“Was it before that?” I asked in a low voice.
Again he shook his head like a toy mandarin.
“Oh! then you remember?”
“Oh, massa, I only piccaninny,” and without another word he hastily shuffled away.
I was about to pursue him, but I heard a call from George.
“Come on, Vernon, unless you want to live and die here; we’re all waiting.”
Thus summoned, I mounted my horse and, with all speed, followed the others down the avenue, but half way to the gate I turned and looked back, and the picture of that great, silent, forgotten home, is imprinted on my mind for ever.
Our headquarters were the delightful, well-appointed residence of George’s cousins, the Middletons, and a house full of gay young faces presented an extraordinary contrast to our recent domicile. We were welcomed and made much of, especially by the ladies of the party, and treated like long-lost, civilised castaways.
Of course, we were compelled to undergo an exhaustive cross-examination as to where we had been, and what we had been doing? George and Van Boom were spokesmen, and alternately related our experience. They told all about our discovery of the wonderful old mansion, which might have been dug up in Devonshire—and planted bodily among the Carolina rice-fields!
As they described it, I noticed that the general interest waxed with every sentence, and at last Mr. Middleton exclaimed:
“You don’t mean to say, you’ve all passed a night at Whitehall, and returned alive?”
“Very much alive,” rejoined Van Boom, “in fact, if I hadn’t spent the night there, I doubt if you’d ever have seen me again. I was completely done. What’s the matter with the place?”
“I wish I could tell you,” replied Miss Middleton, the daughter of the house. “Daddy” (this to her father), “you must know something about it—don’t you rent part of the plantation?”
“Yes—that’s a different thing to renting the house,” he replied evasively; “the folk it belongs to have no use for it—they live in Venice.”
“I don’t wonder,” exclaimed Van Boom, “there’s not much life about their ancestral halls. Didn’t they ever try to let it?”
Well—yes—they did, but it was no snap anyway. The darkies make out, it’s got plenty of tenants already. They are a superstitious pack, and possibly like to have the place to themselves. Heyward, the man who owns it, got an inkling of their tales, and sent word to the overseer that if ever anyone opened their lips about ghosts, they were to be turned off the plantation.”
“Oh—then there is a story?” said George; “of course there’s never smoke without fire.”
“Let us have the tale, true or untrue,” urged Van Boom.
“And so none of you saw anything?” said Mrs. Middleton, and her searching gaze wandered round our party.
“No,” responded Van Boom, “we all slept soundly, and did ample justice to an ample breakfast—that’s to say, all but Vernon. You looked rather chippy, old boy—you saw nothing? Honour bright!”
“Nothing,” I answered with absolute truth.
“Come then, father,” pleaded Mrs. Middleton, “you may just tell us that story right away, you’ve always been fond of a mystery, and a sort of ‘hush, hush’ about that old house. Now these four gentlemen have stayed there, and seen nothing—I claim to hear the horror!”
Mr. Middleton deliberately sat down, crossed his legs, clasped his hands, and began in a sort of monotone: “Well, years and years ago, I believe, long before I came here, Whitehall belonged to a Mr. Heyward, a man of high English family; he was unmarried, and very eccentric.”
“Of course, he was eccentric, if he was not married,” put in Ellen Middleton.
“He would have nothing to do with his own relations in his later years, but shut himself up among his slaves, his books, and his gardens. He was reputed to be rich, and a bit of a miser. His health failed; I believe he was paralysed, and he was nursed and assiduously attended by a black boy called Sam, a slave who was greatly attached to him and in whom the old gentleman placed the most absolute confidence. Sam wrote his letters and managed his affairs to a certain extent; he waited on him, and sat up of a night, and, by all accounts, tended Mr. Heyward, as if he had been his own son.
“The story goes on, that one evening the two retired together as usual. Next morning, when the invalid’s coffee was taken to him, his room was empty. He and Sam had both disappeared, and from that day to this, no trace of either the one or the other has ever been found. It was always believed that Mr. Heyward kept an immense sum of money in a certain bureau in his bedroom; but I understand that the contents of this bureau, were a severe disappointment to his heirs.
“Naturally, there was an outcry and a strong suspicion of foul play, but whether Sam killed the old man, or the old man killed Sam, or someone else killed them both, was never discovered, and, as the mystery is now buried under the dust of sixty years, no one will ever know the truth.”
Two ladies stood gazing into a jeweller’s shop in the Avenue de la Gar, Nice. Their attention was concentrated upon a case of rings, which they were discussing with earnest gravity; it did not need the sound of “my dear,” or “I assure you,” to proclaim the fact that they were English—their costumes, hand-bags, fur neckties, were sufficient vouchers for their nationality.
The shorter and better-looking of the couple was Mrs. Wagstaffe, widow of an officer, a dark-eyed, voluble, vivacious little lady, who had seen a good deal of service—and the world—and was spending her fifth season on the Riviera. Her companion, Miss Tarr, was a tall, prim-looking person of about forty, who, by the recent death of an aged aunt, had become not merely emancipated, but an heiress—that is to say, she had eight hundred a year, and a loose thousand at her banker’s. Released after twenty years of painful, domestic treadmill, she was her own mistress at last; her liberty was so recent, such a peculiar and unnatural condition, that at first Fanny Tarr did not know what to do with it, or herself. It seemed extraordinary not to be compelled to rise at seven (whether well or ill), not to have to dole out food and medicines, to read aloud for hours, to be pinched for money, and to render up an account of every spare moment, every spare stamp, to an exacting, selfish, and irascible tyrant. She had been guided to the Continent (a first visit) by her old schoolfellow, Letty Wagstaffe; they were staying at a well-known, fashionable hotel, and Miss Tarr was gradually beginning to realise that she might buy a new veil, a pair of gloves, or even a dress, without either fears or tears. She ventured to make acquaintances, receive and send letters, unread; she might devour novels, go to a theatre, wear a picture hat, or white kid gloves. All these forbidden pleasures were now hers, for poor Fanny knew as little of everyday gratifications, as a child of six. Her aunt was a harsh, embittered old woman, who had imprisoned her youth without ruth; now the yoke was removed from Fanny’s neck, and she was free to roam the world. At first like a creature long accustomed to confinement, she was reluctant to leave her cage, but her old friend had beckoned her, and she had figuratively hopped forth! Behold her, staring into a well-known establishment, making up her mind to purchase her first ring!
Her relative, a rigid Puritan, had left no “gimcracks, or gewgaws”—as she termed them—only a pair of hair bracelets, and a large black-and-gold memoriam brooch. Fanny Tarr was not exactly plain in appearance; she had a pale face, a set, demure expression, a fine head of hair, tightly tucked away, pretty eyebrows, and good teeth; if her nose was too large, and her eyes were too small for beauty, her general appearance still possessed possibilities of which she was doubtless unaware. She had a craving to possess one or two pretty ornaments, but hitherto had not summoned up the courage necessary to expend a large sum on herself. Miss Tarr had been three delightful weeks in Nice, and had already mastered the words, “oui,” “merci,” “entrez,” “s’il vous plait,” and “non.”
“Come, come, Fanny,” exclaimed her friend, impatiently, “we cannot stand here all day! Do make up your mind! You’ve been to see these rings twenty times, and must know them by heart! What are you waiting for? It is your own money you are going to spend, and if you don’t spend it on yourself, what are you saving it for? the cats’ home?”
“You like the one with the black pearl best, don’t you?” was Fanny’s inconsequent reply.
“Yes it is the one I would choose—such a beauty, a lovely pearl, set in fine brilliants. I call it a bargain for five hundred francs!”
“That is twenty pounds, is it not? I call it frightfully expensive. Well, of course, it is a big pearl, but I like the opal one; it has a sort of red spark in it, that shines like fire——”
“But opals are so unlucky. I can’t bear them. They are malevolent stones.”
“How can you talk such nonsense, Letty? You, an educated lady and a professing Christian! I feel quite sorry to hear you. Come; we will go in and look at the rings. No harm in that. But I really think a ring would be an extravagance——”
The case was brought out of the window, at Mrs. Wagstaffe’s request, and Miss Tarr, having seated herself and removed her gloves, enjoyed the satisfaction of trying ring after ring upon her pretty and delicate fingers. After long demur, and many whisperings, the opal was her selection; it was a splendid stone, of fine size, set around in brilliants. She put it on several times, and each time she became more fascinated; it was surprisingly showy, and somehow seemed to dim the glories of the black pearl, the emerald, the turquoise, and the cat’s-eye.
“I like this one,” she announced at last, “and I will take it. Twenty pounds, did you say?” she added, addressing the shopman, who luckily spoke English.
“Yes, and very cheap; a beautiful old ring; it is worth double.”
“Then why?” and she paused, and looked doubtful.
“Oh, well, madam, opals are out of fashion; also it is second-hand—a great ’occasion!’”
“Second-hand!” she repeated, removing the ring as she spoke. In her narrow experience a second-hand article was improper.
“You see,” he resumed, now leaning over, and speaking confidentially, “we do a good deal of business with ladies who—gamble—at Monte Carlo. When they lose, they sell; when they win, they buy. Here, for instance,” and he pulled out a drawer, “is a really beautiful neck ornament a customer brought yesterday, an emerald and diamond pendant She will take ninety pounds; it is worth three times the money; you can see that for yourself!”
“Oh, how lovely!” exclaimed Mrs. Wagstaffe, “and how cheap!”
Miss Tarr once more slipped the opal ring on her finger, and held out her hand for the ornament. It bore the closest inspection; the workmanship was exquisite; she turned it about, held it towards the light, then against her dress, and glanced over at her reflection in the mirror.
“Did you ever see anything so pretty?” she said to her companion, who nodded a prompt assent.
Then, to her amazement, Fanny continued, “I mean to have it! I’ve nothing to wear on my neck of an evening.”
“Oh, well, you cannot do better than that,” said Mrs. Wagstaffe, with decision.
“Have you any more bargains?” inquired the customer of the shopman, “any brooches?”
“Yes, a diamond shell, a beautiful model,” and he produced a pale blue velvet case. “It would go well with the pendant.”
The brooch looked tempting as it sparkled on its velvet bed; the price was to correspond—only thirty pounds.
Fanny Tarr fingered it affectionately for some minutes, and then said, “Oh yes, it is beautiful. I’ll take it, too. Now, have you any pretty little watches with diamond settings? I think”—turning to her astounded companion—“that I really ought to have a modern watch, instead of the old warming-pan that belonged to Aunt Susannah.”
“Yes, but why not wait a little, dear?”
“Why wait? You are the last person to ask that, Letty. Did you not almost drive me in here a quarter of an hour ago, and now I’m making up for lost time.”
“You are, indeed!” asserted Mrs. Wagstaffe, as she saw her lately timid friend, boldly select a little jewelled watch, price forty guineas.
“A perfect darling!” according to its happy purchaser, who, in twenty minutes’ time, had invested in jewellery to the extent of nearly two hundred pounds. Was this the same individual who had haggled over the price of a hair-brush that same morning? She looked strangely different. No longer prim and demure, but impulsive, restless, animated; two bright spots brightened her usually pallid cheeks, and her small, dark eyes glittered with excitement.
She was actually requesting “to be shown some bracelets and chains,” when Mrs. Wagstaffe rose, and said, “Really, Fanny, I will not allow you to buy the whole shop! You have laid out enough for one morning. Come along!”
Fanny, the meek and gentle, seemed inclined to remonstrate and rebel, but eventually agreed to defer further outlay. It was arranged that the articles were to be paid for by cheque on delivery, and, with a sigh of regret, Miss Tarr removed the opal ring from her finger and handed it over the counter, when it was presently shut up in its own little velvet case.
Then the two ladies bowed themselves out of the establishment, and departed towards Cimiez.
“What a howler you’ve gone! Fanny, my dear,” exclaimed her friend, “you began with wishing for a little turquoise ring at one hundred francs, and you have spent two hundred pounds. I suppose, in buying jewellery, l’appétit vient en mangeant. But it is so unlike you. I fail to understand it!”
“Neither can I,” burst out Miss Tarr, who turned to her with a frightened face. “I cannot imagine what possessed me! Something seemed to get into my head, and say, ‘Buy! buy! buy! you must have these things; it is no matter about money!’”
“Well, I’ve heard of wine, but never of jewels, going to a person’s head. Still, I am glad you bought them in a moment of courage. Now you have them always, and they will be a pleasure to you for life; and you really ought to have some ornaments, a woman in your position!”
“But two hundred pounds!” wailed Fanny. “Two hundred pounds would have given me the education which Aunt Susannah grudged. Just think of spending two hundred pounds in twenty minutes! I declare I feel quite sick! I’ve only eleven hundred lying at Coutts.”
“Besides your income—it’s a sum apart!”
“Yes, a sort of pocket-money.”
“Well, I’d be inclined to spend every penny on myself—on things that you ought to have enjoyed years ago.”
“What things? What sort of things?”
“Pretty dresses, travelling, sight-seeing, lessons, charities, books, souvenirs, jewels.—You have the jewels.”
The purchases were delivered that same afternoon, and at once transformed the sallow and remorseful Fanny, into a smiling, self-confident, and complacent lady. At dinner she actually wore them all: brooch, pendant, watch, and ring.
They seemed to give her assurance and self-reliance—the hitherto timid, silent spinster—who had preferred to forego salt sooner than ask it of a stranger—took part in general conversation, advanced her opinions, and laid down the law.
What had come to her friend? Mrs. Wagstaffe looked on in helpless bewilderment Was it a mental case?
Hitherto, Fan had never said boo to a goose; now she was cackling louder than any goose in the company, and people listened attentively. Especially Colonel Harker, an elderly bachelor who roamed the Continent—Riviera in winter, Switzerland in summer. He had never believed that Miss Tarr had money till now; hitherto she resembled a half-starved, poor relation, but here she was, decorated with diamonds, and looking most expensive. How she had come out of her shell! She was positively becoming festive, and ordering champagne, she who, hitherto, had been a strict teetotaller! Well, women were strange!”
The morning after her shopping, as Miss Tarr did not appear, her friend went to seek her, and was astonished to find the usually early bird still in her nest. The hour, eleven o’dock!
“Yes,” she cried, “it’s too great a fag getting up. There’s nothing to do till the afternoon, you know. It’s so nice lying here, and reading a jolly novel!”
“You call this a jolly novel?” exclaimed Mrs. Wagstaffe, as she picked up a book of too notorious fame. “Why, I thought you never touched such grubby things, or, indeed, any novels at all.”
“Oh, it’s never too late to mend!” was the amazing rejoinder. “I am awfully pleased with my purchases,” here she held up her hand and exhibited the ring; “they made quite a little sensation last night. If a woman has no fascinations, I can recommend jewellery; it attracts both sexes.”
“Oh yes; but it is only a passing glance. Why, I declare you have put wavers in your hair!”
“Yes, but I am going to-day to get a lesson in hairdressing. I asked Miss Yapton, and she recommends me to go to Refraicheur, and I will spend the afternoon in learning a new style of coiffure. You won’t know me, dear. Now run away, I must get up!”
Miss Tarr’s words were prophetic. Her companion lost sight of her for several hours after déjeuner. She was not be found in the hotel. No one had seen her, and Mrs. Wagstaffe, who began to feel seriously uneasy, was about to ascend to her room to dress for dinner, when an apparently strange lady swept into the lift. A lady in a smart feather boa and a large blue hat, which covered a head of wonderfully dressed dark red hair!
“Letty,” screamed the stranger, “is it possible that you don’t know me?”
The lift man grinned, and Mrs. Wagstaffe, who was thunderstruck, rejoined, “Why should I not know you, Fanny?”
“Oh, half-a-dozen ‘whys,’” she retorted audaciously, “come along to my room. I’ve so much to tell you.”
“I am awaiting information,” said Mrs. Wagstaffe, as she took a seat in her transformed companion’s third-floor bedroom. “But, do tell me; why have you dyed your hair?”
“Renovated,” she corrected, tossing off her large hat “I’ve such crowds of hair. The process took four solid hours, and cost—but it is well worth it. Don’t I look fashionable, with all this big puff round my face?” And she gazed at herself with rapture.
“But what possessed you?” asked her friend, examining her with discriminating and censorious eyes.
“The desire to be smart, admired, and in the swim!”
“Fanny!” she expostulated.
“Why not, pray?” she demanded, hands on hips, “better late than never, that is my motto, and a phoenix is my crest! I’ve little enough time to enjoy myself. I mean now, to make time and money fly.”
“What have you been buying?”
“Just this hat—my hair would not fit the other—this boa, eight pounds—a dozen pairs of white gloves, and some veils. I’m thirty-eight, but my hair and figure are young! With a little dressing up, I’ll do!”
Mrs. Wagstaffe suddenly realised that she was listening to another personality, and there was a piercing, not to say bold, expression in Fanny’s eyes, utterly alien to her former meek character! At last she stammered, “But—but how can you dare to come down so utterly metamorphosed? Your hair brown and grey at déjeuner, dark red at dinner—it is too sudden.”
“A sudden dying! I do not intend to go to table at all. I shall dine in the restaurant You dine too, and we’ll have a bottle of champagne. If anyone inquires, you may tell them that a shock has turned my hair red. I do think it lovely!”
To which Mrs. Wagstaffe retorted, “I will tell them your head is turned.”
“So it is, but why? I feel myself utterly different, quite daring and bold and reckless, ready to dance, go to the theatre—or even to the gambling!”
“If you have decided to have this hair always, I think we must really leave the hotel.”
“Yes, it will stand as it is for three weeks. The man guaranteed that, on his honour as a teinturier. I think the move a good idea. I’ll not show, but let us move to Monte Carlo to-morrow. Wire for rooms at the ‘Paris.’”
“But, my dear Fanny, it is so expensive. I never could afford it,” expostulated Mrs. Wagstaffe.
“Oh, bother expense! I’ll pay for both. Yes, I really mean it. A short life and a merry one! When old ‘stick-in-the-mud,’ my solicitor at home, sees my cheques, won’t he stare! I intend to have a good time, and that I tell you. What do you say?”
“That you ought to go to bed, have ice on your head, and see a doctor. I am sure you are overwrought and hysterical.”
“Nonsense! We will go down and have our champagne iced, and then, perhaps, we shall see two doctors!”
Mrs. Wagstaffe lay awake till dawn, wondering what had caused such a sudden and complete revolution in the character of Fanny Tarr—water drinker, Puritan, and prude!
In a week’s time Mrs. Wagstaffe and her gay friend were well known by sight at Monte Carlo. Fanny, arrayed in the latest mode, the most expensive and remarkable hats and gowns, really presented a striking and attractive figure, and, being thin to emaciation, she carried off the frills and flounces of the period with triumphant elegance.
The first time she had seen the gambling-rooms she spoke of them with hated breath as “the mouth of hell.” This was shortly after her arrival at Nice. Now she frequented them, and daily spent hours at the tables.
It was marvellous how soon she learnt the rules of “trente et quarante” and “rouge et noir,” how soon she began to chatter of “douzaines” and “transversals,” and “runs on the red,” and whatever soul she had, was surrendered to play.
She invariably sat at one table, in one place, with her card and her pile of money before her, her pencil in her ungloved hand. Miss Tarr was a wild and feverish gambler, and won at first amply sufficient to embolden her, and dazzle her poor brain.
When not at the rooms, or the theatre, she chattered incessantly of the tables. How this man had won ten thousand francs, and that one had lost and disappeared. As she was gay, talkative, smartly dressed, and hospitable, she picked up a good many friends, among these Colonel Harker (who, at inconvenient expense, had followed her from Nice, and taken up his quarters at the “Paris”)—nor was he the only man who would have been glad to marry the jaunty, open-handed Miss Tarr. It was true that her hair was “fashionable,” her toilettes a vivid scarlet, bright blue, or apple-green, and her laugh loud, but she was a bold, successful gambler, and so good-natured! Lunches at Ciros, motor trips to San Remo, dinners at the “Paris,” and, although her appearance was risqué and remarkable, her conversation and morals were models of propriety.
One day a wizened old gentleman came and established himself beside her at the tables. He was French, and gambled on a system, with a roll of notes, a card, and a little silver image set before him, apparently for luck. He played irregularly, and when not occupied with his own game, took a certain amount of interest in Fanny Tarr’s fortunes.
She was winning, and cleared off on one coup two thousand francs. As he had been losing, she glanced at him, and drew in her breath with a little gasp of exultation.
“Ah, I congratulate madam,” he grunted, “especially as she sits in La Carcassonne’s seat, and wears La Carcassonne’s ring.”
Fanny stared at her interrogator, and he continued: “She was very gay, and rich, and a fortunate gambler; she always sat in your chair. One day she had the misfortune to find that ring; she picked it up on the shore; they say it had a bad history. Anyway, it brought her ill luck. She lost everything; she even lost it. She gambled away all she possessed.”
“And then what happened?” demanded Fanny in a breathless voice.
“Ah, madam, only the sea could tell you! Madam is happy and wins; may such good fortune continue, but——” and he paused significantly.
Fanny turned over her hand, and gazed at the ring of ill luck.
“What do they say of it? Tell me!”
“They say—of course, it is mad folly—that it is ancient, one can see that—old as a poison ring—that each one who wears it, leaves with it the impress of a personality, and transfers her character to whoever owns it next. Those who possess it are never themselves. They represent the spirit of the former owner. You, madam, would therefore be La Carcassonne, but, of course, all this I say to you, is a foolish story. It was a jeweller who told me. Often they are liars, those jewellers.” Then he suddenly pushed back his chair, and went away.
It was an astonishing but unpleasant fact that, soon after this conversation, Miss Fanny began to enter on a cycle of bad luck. It encompassed her day after day. Her ill fortune became as proverbial as her good fortune had been. She tried every expedient; she played only in the morning, or only after dinner; she changed her table; she bought charms; she staked high, and let her stakes double. No; it was of no use! Then she became desperate—deaf to her friend’s frantic remonstrances. Mrs. Wagstaffe, ashamed and alarmed, did all in her power to persuade Fanny to cease playing, and to return home, for, besides all her winnings, she had lost three thousand pounds, and gained a taste for gambling, rouge, cigarette-smoking, and champagne.
The little widow could not desert her friend—who was generously paying all her expenses. Formerly she was somewhat close-fisted, and rarely made presents. Now the instant Mrs. Wagstaffe admired a hat, a fan, a parasol, Fanny would say, “You shall have it!” This is an attractive quality, and Fanny was most lavishly generous. But she was rowdy at times; she chaffed men, and sat with her elbows on the table, her legs crossed, and altogether adopted bold and ungraceful attitudes. She drank liqueurs, champagne, and café noir, smoked dozens of cigarettes, lay in bed till the tables were open, and wore scarlet silk stockings, and quantities of jewellery. As for the opal ring, it was never removed from her finger.
In six short weeks, she was totally unrecognisable.
Fanny Tarr, late of Tranmere, Birkenhead, had disappeared, and given place to a woman with a loud voice, bad manners, the dress and air of a French actress, inclined to be bold, profuse, and dissipated.
One day, suddenly resolved to be either rich or ruined, Fanny went to the bank, wired to London, drew out almost all her available capital, and, with a stiff roll of notes in her hand-bag, repaired to the rooms. There she hovered around in search of “luck,” and luck on this occasion seemed to have settled itself at the suicides’ table—the first on the left in the middle room. At this she halted, and at the first opportunity seized upon a chair. Something, a giddiness, seemed to have got into her head—the fever, the madness, the intoxication of gambling—and, regardless of the fact that she was staking her fortune and future, she put down the maximum again and again, and lost, and lost, and lost. When she had come to her last twenty-franc piece, she rose, flung away her empty bag, and walked forth, looking as desperate and distracted as some others who had left the same portal. To think, that in two hours’ time she had squandered five thousand pounds! She called a little carriage, and drove out to Monaco, climbed up the gardens there, sat down over the sea, and endeavoured to think. Two months ago she was a rich woman (for her); now, after eight weeks of feverish excitement, dissipation, and extravagance, she was again poor. She had about two hundred a year, and her clothes, jewels—yes, and her debts—dressmakers’ and hotel bills.
How could she go back to her old life? Impossible! better be dead. Yes; she would do like La Carcassonne—jump over the cliff, and end it all.
Dying was so much easier than living. Her jewellery—well, it would be a pity to waste it on the sea. She would tie it up in her handkerchief, and leave it with a note for poor Letty. With this intention, she sat down, pencilled a few lines on a leaf of her note-book, then proceeded to remove watch, brooch, chain, bangles, and rings; last, not least, the opal.
As they lay together in a glittering heap in her lap, and she was preparing to tie them up in her handkerchief, her friend unexpectedly appeared round the corner. Was this telepathy or coincidence?
“Fanny,” she exclaimed, “what are you doing here all alone?”
“I’ve come for a walk,” she answered shortly.
“But why have you got all your chains and rings in your lap?”
(Certainly her mind was unhinged!)
“I wanted to get rid of them—and of myself. Letty, as I sit here, I feel so odd—as if I’d come back out of a long illness.” And she suddenly removed her hat, and stared at her friend with a perfectly sane pair of eyes—the usually dull eyes of Fanny Tarr.
“I’ve been gambling. Something possessed me, forced me along, and drove me to do it. I cannot think why! and I’ve lost all my fortune, except about two hundred a year, and I’ve been mad! Now I feel sane; nothing would ever take me into that horrible place again.”
“Where you have lost thousands! Oh, Fanny! what made you do it?”
“Perhaps this ring,” holding it in the hollow of her hand, where it seemed to burn like a hot spark, or the fiery eye of an angry animal.
“Ring?” repeated Mrs. Wagstaffe, “why, I thought you were so fond of it; you never took it off, day or nigh.”
“Yes, I’ve felt odd ever since I bought it, and I’ve behaved strangely, have I not? Not Like myself?”
Mrs. Wagstaffe nodded an emphatic assent.
“No wonder; for all the time, if the old man spoke the truth, I have been a Frenchwoman—an actress, called La Carcassonne. She owned the ring; she killed herself, when she was ruined, and the idea is, that the last wearer of the ring projects her spirit into the next owner. It is not pleasant, but I think it is true, and that I, for the last two months, have been possessed by the individuality of a French dancer. Now,” rising suddenly, and approaching the parapet, “Venice wedded the Adriatic with a ring. I,” and she flung the opal high into the air, “offer this wicked ring to the Mediterranean.”
“Oh, Fanny, you’ve wasted twenty pounds!” screamed her friend.
“But I’ve got rid of La Carcassonne! In future I am going to be—I am—myself. I am sorry for my lunacy, but you must help me to save the remainder of my little fortune, sell the jewellery, pay bills, and clear out for home.”
“As soon as you like. The sooner the better,” agreed Mrs. Wagstaffe.
“To-day, to-night if possible!” said Fanny, now standing up, and tossing the handkerchief and contents to her friend. “Try and sell these. I’m afraid of them,” and the face she turned on her listener was white, scared, and haggard.
“I’ve been possessed! To think of it!” and she shuddered.
“Nonsense, Fanny; you’ve been a little off your head; it was a fit of temporary insanity, the result of unaccustomed liberty, temptation, and spirits.”
“Spirits! Yes; it was the opal ring, and the spirit of La Carcassonne. Nothing, nothing will ever persuade me otherwise. It was an accursed ring; it compelled me to wear it always. Well, now it is gone, and she is gone, I am myself again, am I not?” She paused and gazed at her friend with a pair of solemn little anxious eyes.
“I hope so, most sincerely, my dear.”
“You have been so good to me, Letty. I shall never forget it What a life I have led you—or, rather, what a life she has led us both!”
“Come now, Fanny; be really your own sensible self, and don’t talk folly. Let us go home at once, and pack, and pay bills, and get away from all this!”
“Yes; and I’ve got away from her. Do you know, as I stood leaning over this parapet half-an-hour ago, and thinking of my losses and miseries, something seemed to whisper to me: ‘Jump! It will all be over in a few seconds.’ I know it was that devilish opal. Oh yes; I’m coming; and for the future I intend to be thoroughly commonplace, and sensible. And after all, Letty, it was you who tempted me into the jeweller’s shop in Nice. Only for you, I would never have bought that diabolical ring, and fallen under the influence of its former owner—a dissipated, painted Jezebel!”
Christmas in India, particularly in a big station or cantonment, is generally but a travesty of the day at home; a dull, tawdry, expensive imitation of an English Yuletide. In the first place, “Kismiss” is accepted by the natives as a great annual “feast.” The term “feast” has here an Eastern complexion. So has Christmas morning. The sky is of a heavy opaque blue: instead of snow, the ground is covered with hot white dust; the sun glares fiercely as we dress ourselves in our Sunday best, to appear presently in the verandah, with our company smile. Here our retinue press upon us, with sonorous congratulations, and stiff, hard bunches of noisome marigolds and zinnias from our own garden. The chief butler and head malee advance and fling chains of flowers over our heads. With six bouquets in one hand, a gilt lime in the other, and a wreath of orange blossom round his neck, if an unfortunate bachelor and subaltern does not feel like a fool, all I can say is that he ought to!
Naturally these floral tributes demand a return—in silver; and when we have paid off our well-wishers—including the dog-boy (who has adorned his charges with green garlands, of which they are pitiably ashamed)—it is breakfast-time, and we are confronted by a huge white cake, inscribed with a loving motto in pink sugar—the cook’s offering.
To church we pass, still beset by bouquets, now tendered by our neighbours’ retainers. There is a triumphal arch over the gateway, and hereabouts we encounter trays—various black japanned trays—covered with presents despatched by the local shops. These include a gorgeous cake (tasting of kerosene oil and sawdust), next—horror upon horror—two bottles of champagne and one of old port, a jar of prunes, a tin of pâté, and a bottle of Eno’s Fruit Salt.
The butler graciously accepts these gifts in our name, and carries them to his “go-down,” whilst we remunerate the messenger. Church, which is always full on Christmas morning, is gaily decorated with red poinsettias, and cotton wool (simulating snow); below the pulpit and reading-desk blazes an array of crotons in pots, and other tropical plants. The congregation wear muslin and white drill, the punkah moves languidly, and the Padré mops his face as he refers to the “Season.” After the service we all troop forth, and wish one another a Merry Christmas! What a farce it is! There are no parades—no polo—nothing particular to do, and the English mail not due for three days. Our festival culminates in a dull official dinner, and we draw a breath of profound relief, as we realise that Christmas is over!
Such is “Kismiss” in a station on the plains, but the wise and experienced now take ten days’ leave, and spend the holiday in the jungle. There many a merry party assembles under canvas, or in dak bungalows, to discuss roast turkey—the poor bird has marched to the place of doom—savoury meats, and succulent mincepies. The complete change of scene, and free life, are thoroughly enjoyed, not to speak of the shooting and pig-sticking and picnics, the cheery dinners, games, and songs, which are the notable features of these gatherings.
I am now about to relate the story of a particular shooting-party, which assembled some twenty years ago to celebrate the season. The company (which was to share expenses) had decided on spending Christmas in the Wynaad, at the foot of the Nielgherries, forty miles from Ootacamund, in the midst of wild scenery and wild animals, such as leopard, deer, pig, and—these being the good old days before the district was shot out—bison, elephant, and tiger. Mr. St. Hill, the collector, had undertaken to provide tents, furniture, and transport; his wife was to be hostess; her sister, Miss Deloraine, and her fiancé, Captain Drummond, were also of the party; Major Harvey, a noted Shikari, and his wife, a notable wit; Roden, a globe-trotter, with letter of introduction to St. Hill—a little man with fierce blue eyes, a black bullet head, and an insatiable appetite for novelty and excitement—and various others, including the doctor attached to the Governor’s staff, and his sister, Mrs. Le Willows. There was a good deal of discussion and chaff respecting our expedition, but we all knew to a man, that, being in the hands of Mrs. St. Hill, our little trip would go on wheels. Two days before Christmas we rode down the Pykara Ghâut in a body—a most cheerful gang—and spent the night at the forest bungalow of Neddy-wuttam, at the foot of the Nielgherries. From there we made an early start into the Wynaad—a beautiful undulating country, dear to sportsmen and coffee-planters, with winding rivers, and forests of teak and bamboo, great grazing plains, and distant view of the Annamulley Hills. That evening found us forty miles from Ootacamund and a post-office, aloof from even a native village, and comfortably established in our camp. This camp was pitched in a lovely spot on the bank of a stream, and Mrs. St. Hill, who had arrived the day previous, had decorated it with plants and flowers. As we trooped in to dinner on Christmas Eve, and took our places at the long camp table, it was difficult to realise that we were dining in the heart of the jungle, forty miles from a postage stamp; that the baying in the distance was not the familiar barking of cantonment curs, but a pack of wild dogs, giving tongue after deer.
The table glittered with plate, and was gay with crimson flowers and exquisite orchids, whilst piles of crackers surrounded a monumental cake. A solitary coffee-planter had been added to our circle—he was a well-known authority on sport and forest lore; and as the champagne corks popped and the crackers exploded, the hum of voices and the sounds of hilarity filled the tent. During a momentary lull Mr. Roden was heard addressing his hostess.
“Mrs. St. Hill, have you noticed anything peculiar about this dinner?”
“No,” she replied, with a smile; “but I do hope it has been all right!”
“Oh yes, the dinner was admirable. I’m not thinking of that—but has not something struck you—or—” looking round, “anyone?”
She shook her head, and then Drummond burst out—
“By Jove! yes, I see what you mean. We are thirteen.”
So we were! As we counted heads, we discovered that Jones, the planter, had increased our party to the fatal number!
“What is to be done?” inquired Mrs. St. Hill. “If I had only noticed it sooner; but the deed is committed—we have dined!”
“It only affects the person who is the first to rise,” said Miss Deloraine; “he is supposed to die within the year.”
“But he does not,” rejoined Mr. Roden, with a boisterous laugh. “What rubbish it is! One would imagine we were living in the Dark Ages. Why are you all looking like mutes at a funeral?” he inquired, his prominent blue eyes roving round the company; “you might be a jury of twelve, sitting on a body! Well, I’ve no scruples, and to relieve the tension—I stand up first.”
As he spoke, he sprang to his feet, glass in hand, crying—
“Ladies and gentlemen, here I drink to the death of superstition, and to the destruction of the myth connected with thirteen at table!” and to give emphasis to his toast, he struck the table with his hand. “I don’t mind betting a fiver, that this day next year, finds all present well and hearty!”
No one accepted the challenge, but the company drank Mr. Roden’s health, as well as that of “absent friends” and “sweethearts and wives.”
And soon after they passed into the sitting-room tent, where, as they played charades, snapdragon, and blindman’s buff, they entirely forgot number “Thirteen.”
At dawn the next morning the sportsmen sallied forth, to take part in a shoot organised by Mr. Jones, who had lent his coffee coolies and bobbery pack to beat the neighbouring jungle. It was arranged that they were to return to tiffin in camp, and to join the ladies in a tea picnic down the stream. By two o’clock there was no sign of the party, and no sound of barking, shouts, or shots. The silence was remarkable. “What did it mean?” inquired Miss Deloraine.
“It means that something has happened,” replied Mrs. St. Hill, “or why is the jungle so still—as still as death? Why are they so late?”
“Here they are!” cried Mrs. Le Willows, “with four men carrying a trophy. I do believe they have got a tiger. What luck! And here comes Captain Drummond, running.”
But as he approached, the young man’s face was amply sufficient to prepare the ladies for bad news.
“We have had a frightful accident!” he gasped out, and he looked both white and scared; “a dreadful business—poor Roden!”
“Is it very serious—is that him?” faltered Mrs. Hill, pointing to the litter. “Is he dead?”
“All but, I’m afraid. We beat the jungle for deer and pig, never expecting tiger here so early in the season. We were all on foot, when a huge tigress broke close to Roden, and like a madman, he fired and wounded her slightly. She sprang at him, and in a second it was all over. The poor fellow shrieked to us, but she had already dragged him off into the scrub. We tracked her, and shot her, but he is most frightfully mauled.—They are bringing him in, as you see. M’Donell is looking after him.”
Roden died at sundown, and the company who assembled at a merry dinner on Christmas Day spoke now but little. The camp was to be dispersed the following morning, and the remains of Mr. Roden taken up to Ootacamund for burial. During the night Miss Deloraine lay awake, restless, and sleepless. She heard the baying of the hunting pack scouring the plains; nearer at hand, through the tent canvas, a muttering of voices, and a stealthy sawing sound—such a strange unnatural noise. The party were to start at six o’clock on the return journey, and when they assembled in the big tent for early breakfast,—the table was missing. Then it was explained, in whispers, that planks were unattainable in the jungle—and a shell was essential.
As the long melancholy cavalcade left the scene of such recent gaiety, a country bullock cart slowly followed them. It bore the dead man, lying in a coffin that had been constructed out of the table at which he had sat on Christmas Eve, and boldly defied the superstition of “Thirteen.”
It was a beautiful July evening in the very heart of the country, and Mrs. Watts, after the labours of the day—(she was a cottager who took in lodgers)—sallied forth bare-armed to her garden gate, attracted by the animated signals of a neighbour, Mrs. Deal (the most voluble, daring, and interesting scandal-monger in the village of Silverstream). Surely it would be hard if these two poor, industrious women could not enjoy half-an-hour’s recreation—after their tedious exertions—and nothing refreshed them so completely, or raised their flagging spirits to the same pitch, as a thoroughly good gossip.
“Well, what is it?” inquired Mrs. Watts, in response to her neighbour’s jerks of the chin and head—sure portents of some mighty intelligence.
“What do you think?” she answered in a low voice—“I never was so took aback!”
“Go on,” urged the other, “I’m waiting here to be took aback—too.”
“Them Lavenders are leaving!”
“The Lavenders of Rosedale?”
“What else—yes, and going to London——”
‘And them in the parish this four hundred years—it’s not true, woman—is it?”
“Well I had it from Susan Baker, who deals with Anne Lavender for eggs and honey—they have given notice to quit—and are off. A party is going to take the lease, and fowls, and bees, and furniture off their hands—and they are away to London in a fortnight “
“Get along? What is the reason?”
“Aye—that’s what everyone will be asking, but no one will get the right answer. Them Lavenders, though only working-people, and making a living out of their bit of land and hens, never mix with other village folk and never forget that they were once the La Venders of Vender Hall.”
“Once—a hundred years ago!” sneered Mrs. Watts, “it’s not what folks were—but what they are themselves, and they are just no better nor you or me now—Anne Lavender—doing her own washing and baking, selling the bees and chickens and honey. Dan—the digging.”
“’Tis all he is fit for!—he is half a fool. And I never myself see reason in the talk of Letty being a great beauty. She’s too thin, for one thing.”
“Yes, that’s true,” assented Mrs. Deal, who weighed fifteen stone—“but some does admire her—Thompson—and Sellings—and——”
“Young Stephen. Squire of Vender Hall,” supplemented her listener.
“But his people will never allow it—old John Squire has made his way from nothing—oh, he is a hard chap, and he is not one to allow his son to pull down what he has piled up. Young Steve is to marry money—they had Miss Bulger the brewer’s daughter, out from Winchester, staying there—and making much of her.”
“They can never make Stephen make love to her. She’s too ugly.”
“I’m not sure of that—anyhow they can make mischief between Steve and Letty—that’s easy—he being jealous—and she touchy. At the Park Flower Show, I noticed the Squire’s sisters, with the rich visitor walking between them, pass by Letty Lavender with a great stare—as if they were strangers. I giv’ you my word, if they had been real duchesses, they couldn’t have done it grander “
“—And the Lavenders of the Vender were gentry when the Squires were scraping the roads!” ejaculated Mrs. Deal.
“That’s true,” assented Mrs. Watts, “and though she is so stand off, Susan is a nice, quiet, well-spoken woman—it was great nonsense her sending Letty to school—and I said so—and all she has got by it, is that the girl is ruler in the house and leads her mother by the nose——”
“And is leading her to London—this time! I hope they may never regret it—but don’t I know they will—Why here’s Letty herself,” cried Mrs. Deal—and then (sotto voce), “I’ll pick it all out of her.”
Letty Lavender was a tall, slight girl, with a clear complexion—delicate features, and a pair of pretty dark eyes. She walked with a certain air, and carried herself with grace—the sole legacy of the ancient family of La Vender. Letty would have passed the two gossips with a civil good evening, but Mrs. Deal extended a fat arm, and held her fast.
“What’s this I’m hearing, Letty?”
She stopped, and coloured brilliantly.
“I’m sure I don’t know—you hear so much, Mrs. Deal.”
“Is it true you are leaving Rosedale—and going up to London?”
“Yes—we think we shall like the change.”
“’Tis a sudden notion ye took!” put in Mrs. Watts.
“Oh, my mother feels the damp in winter—she has bronchitis you know—and it will be livelier up there—and there is nothing to keep us here——”
“Only that you were born and reared in the place!—There is your pretty home—very healthy too—and everyone your well-wisher,” argued Mrs. Deal. “Does the Rector know?”
“Yes, and everything is settled—a Mr. Tonk answered our advertisement—a retired tradesman—he is taking the lease—and stock and furniture—and coming in next month.”
“And paying well?” said Mrs. Deal briskly.
“Oh yes—our own terms.”
“But surely to goodness you are not leaving him your old clock, and oak chairs, and chest?”
“No, Mr. Dawes will keep them till we are settled, as well as ‘Mop,’ here,” indicating her companion, a bob-tailed sheep-dog—“we are taking the cat with us.”
“’Tis said to be very unlucky to move a cat!” remarked Mrs. Watts in an impressive tone.
At this instant a dog-cart was seen approaching,—easily recognised as the Squire’s turn-out by the fine grey stepper in the shafts. Stephen in a smart summer suit was driving Miss Bulger (gorgeous in chains and feather, and giggling with overpowering satisfaction)—the two Misses Squire occupied the back seat—enacting the part of twin gooseberries. As soon as Letty Lavender realised the party, she turned her back pointedly on the quartette—and was proudly unconscious of Stephen’s doffed hat, as he and her rival swept by in a cloud of chalky dust.
“So that’s settled!” exclaimed Mrs. Deal, with a significant nod at her neighbour—“I hear she has four thousand pounds to her fortune—and she’d want it all—but old Squire is crazy for the match!”
“She’s frightful ugly!” added Mrs. Watts. “What dost say, Letty—girl?”
“Say? I must be going on, Mrs. Watts—I have ever so many errands.”
“This move will be a great change for you all, I’m thinking, after such nice work as bee-keeping, and poultry, and selling cut flowers, and vegetables “
“Oh, we shall like London—mother and me—I’m sure——”
“Dan does not care one way or another—he is a little sorry to leave the—bees. Well, good evening!” and with a nod and a smile, Letty moved off, closely attended by “Mop.”
As she walked away the matrons followed her with eyes as effective as two searchlights—then as she disappeared, they gravely confronted one another, and Mrs. Deal exclaimed with conviction:
“There’s more than one fool at Rosedale!”
Letty’s statements respecting her mother’s bronchitis—and the attractions of London—were not strictly veracious—her own proud, sore heart, was the real, true, and only reason for the sudden uprooting of the Lavender family. For years she and Stephen Squire had been playmates—friends—and latterly undeclared sweethearts. Stephen had been learning farming—he now managed his father’s land—he was a smart, good-looking young yeoman—and his father expected him to marry well. He would never fulfil their wishes by loitering in the lanes with Letty Lavender, the daughter of a widow in humble circumstances. His sisters could not forgive her for her pretty face, his father could not overlook her empty pockets, but nothing could be said against her family—for it was known that a hundred years ago, the Lavenders were great people—and gentlefolk; their impressive monuments covered half the walls in the village church—but gambling and the bottle brought them down to the rank of cottagers in less than three generations; and all that remained to Letty was her beauty, her self-will, and her pride. She was aware that Stephen, her old playmate, was “warned off” from her society. His sisters had insulted her in public—whilst his father had sought out and brought home an acceptable future daughter-in-law. But still Stephen was staunch. With eager eloquence, he suggested to Letty, that they should marry, and go out to New Zealand, and make their home there, but she refused. She would not leave her mother and brother, and make a sort of runaway match. Then she and Stephen had sharp words. He was, he said, ready to sacrifice his family, and all his prospects, but Letty would not even meet him quarter way—and she was so cold and distant, he believed she did not care a straw about him. At this crisis, Miss Bulger appeared on the scene. Stephen was seen in her company—at church—and flower show—and the breach was complete.
Letty felt that she could not endure to remain in Silverstream, receiving the compassion of the villagers. After a final scene with Stephen, when she was proud and jealous—and he was hot and hasty, she made up her mind to escape from her old life and make a fresh start elsewhere. As a dressmaker in London, for instance. Her mother would not listen to the word “separation;” if Letty went, they would all go. Dan, the lanky, shock-haired boy, was of no importance in family councils. Lefty’s imagination was active, she planned the move entirely. When the place was duly advertised, and a suitable purchaser found—she decided that they would take a nice little flat in London, where marketing was cheap, and everything was so convenient. She would go into the dressmaking business—with a small premium, or work at home—with her machine; her mother could help her, and Dan might get some nice light job. On fine days, they would all go into the beautiful parks, and hear the bands. On wet days, there were picture galleries and free libraries—and on Sundays Westminster Abbey, and St Paul’s. It would be a new and delightful existence—every hour filled with enjoyment and occupation—occupation that would employ her mind, and act as an anodyne. In London she would forget Stephen.
Mrs. Lavender, a thin fair woman—Dan, her shock-headed, half-witted son of sixteen, and Letty—her pretty, enterprising daughter, came to London in the month of August, accompanied by “Muff” the cat. They took two furnished rooms in a house near the Vauxhall Road, and prepared to enter on their new kingdom.
London was hot and airless—all the “world” was out of town, and every kind of business was slack. The letter of introduction given by the Rector was not delivered—the lady who might be useful to Letty, and find her employment, was abroad. She must therefore wait.
The two rooms were fusty and stuffy after the fine air and spacious accommodation at Rosedale—here Dan slept in the sitting-room, and though he carried water, went errands, and cleaned boots, the rent was eight shillings a week. The family resolved to move into better quarters, as soon as Letty had secured “a connection” and Mr. Tonk had paid the balance of the purchase money. Meanwhile they made the best of circumstances—they walked round St James’s Park, and admired the ducks and penguins—they explored Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery, and made one great expedition to Hampton Court. This was their holiday they assured one another, and soon they would be settled in a comfortable little flat of their own—working!
October came—with news of the war in South Africa—London filled, but trade was still slack, and faces were long and gloomy. Christmas arrived—and found the Lavender family still in the two squalid rooms, still unemployed, and one and all secretly yearning to be back in Rosedale. Bad news had arrived with the New Year. Mr. Tonk—who was insensible to letters, or even telegrams, had suddenly bolted, having quietly disposed of all the effects at Rosedale. He owed two hundred and thirty pounds—he had only paid twenty on account. This disaster, so entirely unexpected, was a terrible blow to Mrs. Lavender, whose meagre savings were rapidly diminishing in London. And the money was gone—Tonk had secretly made away with all the stock and furniture, sent the key to the landlord by post, and vanished. His references had been supplied by a rascally solicitor—his confederate—and he had enjoyed three months’ residence in the country gratis—and earned off substantial booty.
Another grave piece of intelligence—Steve Squire having refused to fall in with his father’s wishes, and marry Miss Bulger and four thousand pounds—had suddenly enlisted in the Yeomanry, and departed to South Africa.
Poor Letty—misfortunes never come singly! Stephen wrote to her before he sailed, and bade her a dramatic farewell.
“I blame myself, Letty, for my hot temper and hot words—forgive one you may never see again—but who with his last breath, will ever be true and loyal to you. Letty, you did wrong to go to London—your pride (London pride) took you there, if you had stayed here all would have come round in time, you might have trusted me—I was barely civil to Miss Bulger—and no more. I am off to the front now.” Thus Steve departed, his hopes postponed but not dispelled.
Meanwhile Letty had sufficient trouble on her hands at home. Her mother’s health was indifferent, she suffered more than ever from bronchitis, and funds were depressingly low. Dan had taken to the London streets—as a fish to water, and became the pal and friend of sandwich men and newsboys—finally a newsboy himself not being such a fool as he looked! With his square stature, large shock head, keen blue eyes—short legs—long arms, Dan was a curious specimen of humanity, but he and the cat found themselves perfectly at home in the metropolis. The cat attended concerts and operas on the roofs of Hankin Gardens, and the youth discovered much to amuse him on the pavement. Mrs. Lavender and Letty had never taken Dan into account—he was dull, he could barely read; his writing was that of an average boy of seven. He never opened, of his own free will, a book—he read from the large page of life—he wore home-made clothes and a continuous and irritating grin, but he was slavishly devoted to his pretty sister Letty, and—not a bad sort.
The year 1900 was a black one for many families—including the Lavenders. They had no near kin abroad—no one fighting and fainting on the South African veldt—but they had ample anxiety near home. It was now a question of keeping the wolf from the door, and Dan’s was the hand that beat him off. Dan took round The Evening Scream, and his voice out-bawled that of the most leather-lunged in the district, but his earnings were scanty—enough for one—but a pitiful supply for three.
Summer came with sunshine and gay parasols, and the usual London “season,” but to Letty and her mother it brought nothing but agonising memories of the pretty rose-clad “Rosedale”—the luxuriant crop of old-fashioned flowers, the beds of cool green lettuces and asparagus, the coops of chickens, the hives of bees, the singing of the river at the foot of the garden, and the leisurely tick of the old clock. Oh, she had been a mad, bad girl to tear her mother and brother from that happy home in order to gratify her own pride!—and all to show the Squire folk she was above and beyond their insolence! Why, Letty asked herself, was she not patient? why could she not wait? Their friend the Rector was dead—the lady to whom he had recommended her had gone to India, and she—instead of being a well-employed, fashionable, daily dressmaker—was sitting with idle hands. Meanwhile her mother was fading before her very eyes, and Dan, the bread-winner, looked gaunt with hunger. Letty had made brave attempts to procure work, but what had gratified the country vicarage, was not good enough for the great city. She had interviewed one “Court” dressmaker, who said, “Yes, I will employ you, and you may come at eight o’clock and leave at seven—I will give you lunch—there is no salary for the first year—and the fee is two hundred pounds—you see, I am to teach you your trade!”
Christmas came round again, and found Letty doing “slop-work” with her machine—assisted by her mother—flannelette shirts, threepence a dozen.
They were always thinking of Rosedale at Christmas of Letty decorating the church, of the “waits” to whom they invariably gave half-a-crown. Oh, if they had that donation now, it would buy their Christmas dinner—yes, and a little coal! They never wrote “home” as they called it for they had their pride. Letty was devoured by remorse as she looked at her invalid mother—now a mere skeleton, wrapped in an old plaid shawl, with a hot brick at her feet. So uncomplaining and patient—whatever Letty said was right—whatever Letty did was right. There was no Christmas dinner—nothing but a pennyworth of fish, bread and tea—such bad tea, although it cost one-and-ninepence a pound. Any stuff seems good enough for the very poor! Letty who sat opposite her mother as she poured it out was crying—her tears fell with unusual facility.
“Mother!” she exclaimed, “you and Dan ought to hate me, though this is the season of good will. I had a quarrel with Stephen—all because his sisters were rude to me, and I resolved to come to London, and be a success—look at me! Do I look like a success? and I have dragged you and Dan from your comfortable home, and simply worked on your affection, and you left Rosedale with me—left comfort—for—for starvation. Oh! oh!” and she bent her head upon her hands, and sobbed aloud.
“What’s this?” inquired Dan—“’Ere is a nice Christmas dinner, Sis! and I have brought you a Christmas presint!” and in his (I regret to add) grimy fingers he held up a little brown paper parcel. This he opened, and proudly displayed what looked like a diamond spray—and oh, how it glittered and shone—red, white, and blue, and how it coquetted with the one dirty gas-burner!
“Oh, Dan!” gasped his sister—“did you? when?—how—did you get it? it’s surely real!”
“I was looking on at one of them Salvation Army auctions last night—people send in things—for other folks to buy, for charity you see—and someone held this up from a basket of rubbish—for bidding, and one fellow said: ‘Us don’t want mock jewels, but bread,’ and the thing shook and sparkled, and looked at me so straight—and said, ‘Dan, you buy me for your sister!—she loves pretty things—and it’s Christmas.’ And so I did! for I had some extra coppers for fetching a cab, and here it is, money wasted fourpence—but mighty pretty, ain’t it? When I bought it, they all said I was a softy.”
“It is real, Dan! how could they sell it for four-pence?”
“How do I know? maybe some wicked rich woman sent it as a payment for her sins—a—a what you call it?”
“Yes, and to-morrow we will show it to young Levi, he is a friend of mine, and get him to value it—this morning I showed it to a man, and he offered me five pounds!”
“Oh, Dan dear, what folly, you should have taken it,” cried his mother.
“No, no, mammy, if it is worth five pounds—it is worth more. I know I’m a fool, but I tell you it is worth a fortune—a fortune to you and Sis.”
Dan’s words came true, the ornament proved to be blue diamonds of the purest water, and was valued at two thousand five hundred pounds, it had no history—most fortunate fact—and no claimant, so it belonged to Letty Lavender, who needless to say sold it—and with the proceeds in her hand suggested to her mother that they should return to Rosedale. The business arrangements connected with the sale of the diamond ornament were necessarily protracted—Dan’s friend, the young Jew, proved a friend indeed. The poverty of the family—their self-respecting reserve—their air of better days, and, perhaps, Letty’s wan but still pretty-face armed the keen tradesman with extraordinary energy.
By the end of May, the blue diamond aigrette was on its way to the States, and the Lavender family had returned to Rosedale. Fortunately their old house still stood empty, and they lost no time in taking possession, and collecting their belongings—dog included—and settling into their usual groove—almost as if they had never left the village. It was agreed among the neighbours that the London air had not suited the family. They looked thin and white and used up—but there was no doubt that they had prospered in the city—for they now not only kept hens and fowls, but cows—and a pony—as well. Mrs. Watt and Mrs. Deal were sorely puzzled—they had heard a whisper of the Lavenders being terribly short of money, and it was known that their clock and chests were offered for sale—a bargain—but none of the Rosedale folk fancied the like of such lumbering-up furniture.
How had the widow woman come by the fortune? since Tonk, as was well known, had run off with their money.
This interesting question has engaged the two matrons for many an idle moment. Stephen Squire has recently returned from South Africa with three wounds, two medals, and a heart still loyal to Lefty Lavender—and old John his father no longer objected to the match. Forgiveness is never so easy as when convenient—the girl was a lady by birth—and had a tidy little fortune of two thousand pounds.
He despatched his son to the enemy’s camp with a flag of truce, in the shape of a fine home-cured ham—and all is now—peace, good will, and prosperity.
Mrs. Mills was a mystery to the cantonment; as an unsolved problem, she had been handed on from one detachment to another—they came—they went; but she remained, and within the memory of the oldest inhabitant—which in a fluctuating Indian station may extend as far back as five years—there was no trace of a period, when Beetapore had not been distinguished by the presence of this benevolent elderly woman.
If Mrs. Mills stimulated my curiosity to the verge of speech, it was evident that I also arrested her interest in a peculiarly marked manner. I was on a visit to my sister, whose husband was a captain in “the Wessex” regiment (one wing of which was quartered at Beetapore), but recently released from Cheltenham College, full of high spirits, and an eager desire to see the world. In the popular sense, it was not possible to see much of “the world” at our dull little out-of-the-way station; but, nevertheless, it was all new life to me, and I was intensely happy and interested in my surroundings.
Occasionally, as I sat reading papers in the local club, it struck me that whenever I looked up I found the eyes of Mrs. Mills fastened on my face; but theirs was no basilisk stare, her gaze expressed nothing but kindness and good will. What did she mean? Did she see anything extraordinary about me? I was not nearly as pretty as my sister, nor as Mrs. Duke, the wife of the civil surgeon. As for Mrs. Mills’ own appearance, she was a tall, flat-chested, angular woman of fifty, with an undeniably dark complexion; her hair was iron grey, she had high cheek-bones and greenish eyes, her nose was a delicate aquiline. She dressed in alpaca and a bonnet, and wore an immense cameo-brooch. Her hands were long and thin, and her voice was peculiar. Yet in spite of her skimpy, old-fashioned clothes, her “chi chi” accent, and her colour, Mrs. Mills carried herself with a certain amount of dignity, and was actually a power in the place, although no one knew who she was, where she came from, nor what was her means of subsistence. Yes, in spite of her lack of social status or legal precedence, this voluble, gaunt, active woman, was the managing director of Beetapore. She undertook the book club, the Badminton club, and above all, the mutton club! Was anyone in trouble, was anyone sick, was anyone requiring servants, advice, or pure cow’s milk? they were unhesitatingly referred to Mrs. Mills. She was a regular attender at church, and appeared at the club daily, and in all weathers; but she never offered or accepted hospitality, never paid or received calls, and lived alone on the bank of the river, in a little bungalow just out of cantonment, whose bright red roof made a picturesque feature, amidst its great garden of bananas, and beautiful, fragrant orange-trees.
It was the only abode in the whole of Beetapore that boasted a gate; this gate was invariably closed to the public, and, as far as we knew, no one in the station had ever passed through it. The fact quickened speculation. As I rode or drove by, I never failed to cast an inquisitive glance down the neatly-kept path that led to the retreat, half smothered in roses, which stood with its back to the road, as if resolved to be very close respecting its own concerns.
It happened, one evening in the rains, that my sister and I—deluded by the promise of a lovely afternoon—set out for a spin on our bicycles. We were overtaken on our way home by a terrible thunderstorm. In a manner peculiar to India, the sky became suddenly dark, forked lightning zigzagged on a dense black background, the wind got up, raindrops splashed the size of saucers. The storm was about to burst; but we were still a mile from our own residence.
“Let us run into Mrs. Mills’ for shelter,” I cried.
“She can’t refuse to allow us to stand in her verandah.”
“Oh, if it were anywhere else!” said Cissie, whose face was ghastly. She was a desperate coward in thunderstorms.
“See, there she is! And she is beckoning to us.” And I jumped off my bicycle, and opened the gate with alacrity, for I had descried the tall figure with an umbrella over her head, leading in a pet goat. We were as fully deserving of shelter, and ran down the steep approach, and dashed into the verandah—breathless, and not a second too soon. Scarcely had we entered when—with a long, loud, shattering crash, the black cloud ripped from top to bottom, and the rain descended in a flood.
“You are just in lime,” said Mrs. Mills (as if our appearance were an everyday affair). “Come in; come in. Mahomed Ali will take your bicycles”—beckoning to a native servant—“and you just sit here till the storm is over. It won’t last.”
As I looked acres the river, where the prospect was a flat stretch of grain crops, with here and there a gigantic solitary tree, and saw the grey ruin sweeping victoriously over the landscape, I said, “I’m afraid you will have us for ages.”
“So much the better,” was the genial response.
“Perhaps you would like to come inside?” motioning us towards the sitting-room.
My sister accepted the invitation promptly. She desired to get away from the flashes—and if she had been invited to crawl under Mrs. Mills’ bed, would have done so with gratitude. As it was, she sat down on the sofa, and put her hands to her eyes. For my own part I was making the best possible use of mine, and what I beheld filled me with astonishment The furniture was of the plainest and cheapest bamboo, the bare walls were washed with blue colouring; but the floor was entirely covered by a magnificent Persian carpet, which must have cost hundreds of pounds.
Mrs. Mills, having disposed of the goat, and ordered coffee, happened to notice my admiration, and said, “Ah, yes, I see you are looking at the carpet. It’s a very handsome one, and it’s the anxiety of my life, keeping it from the white ants.”
“It must have been very expensive,” I remarked.
“Oh yes; it is partly made of silk. It was a present.” She paused for a moment, and stared at me in her odd way, and then continued, “I wonder if you would like to hear how I got it?”
“Yes, very much indeed,” I answered.
“Well, it is the story of my life.” Here she paused, whilst the rain pattered mournfully.
“The thunder has passed over, Mrs. Grey,” she resumed, addressing Cissie, who had removed her hands from her eyes, “and I’m going to tell your sister a tale, whilst you have some coffee.” She signed to a man to place a tray near her. “I’m very proud of my coffee, and this story will help to pass the time, till the storm clears off.”
“You must know,” she began—“indeed you do know—that I am country-born. I was reared and educated at Kiddirpore School, near Calcutta. My mother was a native lady of good blood. She ran away with my father, an officer in the army. His name was Montford. I never saw either of them; they died when I was too young to remember, and, as far as I’m aware, I’ve no relations. When I was about seventeen I was married from Kiddirpore, to Mills, an engineer on the railway. He was a clever young man—very hard working—and very fond of me, and I lived in Calcutta—oh, so happily!—for six years. He was drowned in the Hoogly on just such an afternoon as this might be.” The rain was thundering on the roof, pouring and splashing out of the gutters, and drumming on the banana leaves. After a moment’s silence she continued:
“He left me a widow of three-and-twenty, with two children, and I had to cast about to earn their bread and mine. Jim was a great favourite, and as I had some interest I got a post—a curious one, you’ll say—I was appointed to visit zenanas, and ascertain that the Government pensioners were alive to draw their pay, and not having it made over to substitutes, after their death.”
“How could that be?” I inquired.
“I’ll try and explain. You see, after the Mutiny, the English Government took the King of Delhi, and sent him away to Burmah. There were all his family to provide for, hundreds of retainers and relations, penniless and beggared, and to all these, Government granted a pension, paid monthly. Regarding the men it was simple; they applied personally for payment. They could be seen. Not so the women, above all the Princesses of the Royal house—and their pensions were large. It would be easy to say a princess was alive and draw her income, when no outsider ever saw her face—and she might be dead for years. There had been a good deal of mismanagement and cheating, among great and small. When a pensioner died, half the money went to his next-of-kin, when the next-of-kin died, a quarter of the sum went to his heir, and so it expired. Now I had been in this employment for seven years, and had brought up my children and lived respectably, making my rounds every six months, visiting all the zenanas, where I was well known. You see, of course, I speak the language like a native. Well, one day the secretary of my department sent for me, and said very seriously:
“‘Look, here, Mrs. Mills. You must be most particular in visiting the descendants and next-of-kin of the old Begum Sona-bee in Lucknow. She is failing fast. Her pension is a fine one, and half of it goes to her granddaughter. Have you ever seen her?’
“‘No,’ I replied; ‘I had not. I had seen her two sons—beautiful boys. I had visited the old Begum regularly. She liked me, we were good friends; but somehow I had never once encountered her granddaughter. Either she was ill, or she was away visiting her own people up in the Punjaub.’
“‘And this has gone on for five years?’ he said, and he was angry. ‘That is not the way to carry out your duty. Your duty is to see these pensioners, so as to swear to their identity. You must be resolute; don’t allow them to hoodwink you, or we shall have to get some other person to deal with them, and you lose your fine post!’
“Yes, and I would lose my bread, and my children would starve, I knew that; and for the future I resolved to be determined, when I went to Sona Begum’s.
“The next time, after I had paid my respects to the Princess, I asked for the ‘Motee Mahal.’ Her women shook their heads sorrowfully, and replied, Alas! by great bad luck, someone hath cast the evil eye on her Highness, and she hath the smallpox.’
“And with this tale, I was compelled to return to the secretary. He was a very strong, stern man, and he said, ‘I don’t believe it—-not one word of it There is a screw loose. You have never seen the Begum’s granddaughter, only herself, and her two great-grandsons. Where is the link? It is missing, and they know it. Now, as it is your business to find that link, you must return to the palace, and announce your intention of remaining there, until they produce the Motee Mahal.’
“‘There is sickness in the city, sir,’ I said.
“‘There is always sickness in the city, for that matter; and anyhow, it is your duty to go to the palace. Frighten them into their senses. See this woman they don’t want you to see—or consider yourself dismissed. You are too gentle, and easily imposed on. You must be firm—or you will be superseded.’
“Well, I knew that he was right, and I went home, and told my servant that I would not be back for a day, or maybe two. I put up a little food, and asked a neighbour and a friend to have an eye to Dora, my dear little girl. She was eleven; Ernest was at the Martinière College. Then I drove away to the palace, very determined indeed. I felt that I had everything at stake, and I would never leave, till I had either seen this Princess, or her dead body.
“The palace people were astonished when I reappeared so soon. I had an immediate audience with Her Highness, and told her my errand civilly and as pleasantly as I could. She at once flew into a terrible passion. She was the fattest woman I ever saw, and I thought she would have a fit. I really did! Her face seemed to swell, her eyes nearly jumped out of it, and her voice—oh, it was just one long scream! She called me awful names, and said she would have me punished for daring to disbelieve her. And then about fifty women came and stormed and chattered at me; but I remained calm. I did not stir. All I said was, ‘Bring me to see the Princess Motee only for one moment, and I go; otherwise I stay here always.’ I was hustled away into a damp, low room, looking into a courtyard on the ground floor, and left there alone. No one came near me for hours—but they peeped and whispered outside together. I remained there all night, lying on an old cane charpoy, and I ate some bread, and got water at the fountain in the court; but I could not sleep for the rats, and for the fear that someone would come and strangle me, you see. I was alone—one woman combating a hundred. The next morning I was still a prisoner; but, in the afternoon, the Begum’s cousin came to coax and bribe me. I continued immovable, though I was sick and faint with hunger. Then I was again taken to the Begum, and she was now all good nature and affection. ‘But this is foolishness,’ she cried. ‘Take this,’ and she offered me a splendid diamond and emerald belt. ‘It is for thee, if thou wilt depart, and say that all is well. “I have seen Her Highness the Motee Mahal, granddaughter of Her Highness the Begum.”’
“‘But that would be false,’ I answered stoutly. ‘My father was an English officer; my mother of the house of Oodeypore. Their daughter doth not accept bribes.’
“‘Then accept hunger!’ she screamed. ‘Hunger and death.’
“‘Nay; the British Lord Sahib is aware that I am here—by his orders,’ I answered. ‘He will seek me ere long.’
“‘To what avail?’ she asked—in a voice that was like a man’s. ‘Who dare to search the Zenana? Thy fate be on thine own head! For what saith the proverb—’Guilty is the wolf that hath eaten the sheep—not guiltless the sheep, that entered—the wood.’” With this threat ringing in my ears once more I was hustled down to my quarters below, where I remained for three days, almost starving. Once an old hag crept in, and brought me chuppaties, and whispered, ’The end is near! Huzoor—the end—is at hand!’
“But what end? My end?
“As I was thinking of lying down on the fourth night I suddenly saw a glimmer of light, the purdah was pushed aside, and a pure white woman, in rich native dress, entered, with a lamp in her hand. She was tall, slight, and delicately fair.
“‘Dost desire to see me?’ she asked, with a look of surprise in her blue eyes.
“‘The Motee Mahal?’ I inquired.
“‘The mother of sons, and granddaughter of the Begum?’
“Her voice, manner, accent were those of a native woman.
“‘Thou art fair,’ I said.
“‘Yea. It is, they aver, the Cashmeri blood.’
“Her face was pale and colourless from lifelong seclusion, but her hair was a sandy shade, she had a dimple in her cheek, and was the type of Englishwoman one sees by scores.
“Then the Begum sent for me, and said, ‘Now, behold, thou hast seen! pig of a half-caste—the English blood is ever stubborn—the Pearl Princess Motee. What of her?”
“‘She is a Belaite’ (which is English), I answered boldly—’more English than I.’
“‘Yea, and since all is known, I will tell the truth. My daughter, now dead, had no children, though she wearied the shrines with her prayers. At last a child was born—only a girl. Nevertheless, she was happy; but, behold, in a moon it died, and she was as one distraught. Therefore I sent messengers, and found a babe like a pearl, and put it in her arms, and she nursed and loved it as her own. It was the child of a soldier gone to the war, the mother dead, and an ayah of the barracks sold it to the Palace for ten rupees. She, the Princess Motee, hath no knowledge of this. She believes herself to be of my race. Her husband is of this Royal house, and she is a Pardah-Nashim, born and bred. Wert thou to say to her, “Thou wert bought in the Gorrah bazaar, and art an Englishwoman, of Gorrah logue caste,” how she would laugh! Knowing how stern and foolish are the pension rules I hid her, for I love her as mine own. Nay, she is my own—suckled at my daughter’s breast. When thou tellest the tale, be wise. Speak not of the white woman with yellow hair; but say, “Lo! there was a mistake, and there will be no claim,” otherwise the Sircar will be wroth with me, and I lose my pension. If thou wilt hold thy peace I will send thee the richest carpet in India, as a reward, not a bribe. It came to the house of Oude from the Lord of the Sun himself—but of what availeth it to me? since I desire but peace, and death.”
“I had been five days within the Palace, and when I came outside the gates I went in a gharry straight to the secretariat office, and gave in my information. It meant a saving to the Government of five thousand pounds a year, for the pension lapsed with the Begum’s life. The secretary was now complimentary to me, and spoke of increased pay; but I was too dazed and weak to understand, and when I returned home—alas! I found the grief of my life watching for me on the doorstep! My little Dora was gone! She caught diphtheria, the city sickness, and died, dumb, beckoning for me, to the last. This shock nearly killed me. Miss Roseneath,” she said, suddenly taking my hand, “you have her eyes—her very eyes—her same smiling blue eyes, and somehow, when I talk to you now, I tell you that I feel as if I were explaining to her, and trying to make her understand, how it was, that, in spite of her cries, and sobs, and signs, I could not come to her that time. I was shut up in the zenana, thinking of her every moment, longing and longing, with a sickening craving, to hold her in my arms—but condemned to wait, for the missing link.
“The Begum kept her word, and sent me the carpet. The Government gave me a pension of two hundred rupees a month, and here I spend the fag end of my life—not unhappily.”
“But your son?” inquired Cissie; “where is he?”
‘Oh, he has a fine appointment, and draws good pay, she answered. “He is fair like his father. His wife is the daughter of an officer; she does not care to see me, and does not wish her friends to see me.” She sighed profoundly, and her voice seemed to die away, as she added—“She thinks me very dark—but sometimes I creep up to Mussorie, just to have a glimpse of my grandchildren. There now, Mrs. Grey, the rain has stopped. I sent over for your carriage—and here it comes.”
Aunt Sophy was an old maid—it is said that one old maid is an indispensable member of every family—at any rate Aunt Sophy was not merely aunt, but fairy godmother to all of us. To her we were indebted for tips, timely cheques, numerous gifts, and our usual summer tour. Three years ago she invited my brother Rodney—who was home on leave from India—and myself to accompany her to Harrogate, where we established ourselves at the largest and most luxurious hotel. Aunt Sophy and Rodney were to take a course of the waters, whilst I was merely present in the character of loafer and looker-on. As far as I was concerned, it was my first experience of fashionable hotel life, and it was an agreeable novelty to a country mouse like myself, to see the stream of smartly-dressed women, with their husbands, brothers, and swains, pass along the wide corridor to the great dining-room. My simple white frock looked so plain; even Aunt Sophy’s admired crêpe de chene seemed to declare itself a home-made garment. What lovely toilettes trailed by—what skirts, what jewels, what hairdressing!
Presently we were piloted to our own little table by an alert Swiss waiter, and when we had despatched our green-pea soup and salmon, we adventured to look about us. There were at least four hundred people present—some tête-à-tête, some in gay family parties, others in solitary splendour.
“What sort of quarters have you, Dolly?” inquired Rodney during a wait.
“Not bad at all,” I replied. “But Bennett is very cross; she says there’s only room to swing a cat in hers.”
“Then I should say it’s just the place for her,” he retorted.
Bennett was our maid—formerly our nurse—and there was no particular love lost between her and Rodney, who had ever been a turbulent youth, and an acknowledged handful.
“Rodney,” said Aunt Sophy, putting down her long-handled eyeglass, “do you remember Lurline Jones?”
“Of course I do. Why, she was my first love! What do you think I am made of?”
“She was the life of our penny readings and a treasure in the choir—and, let me see—at least ten years your senior.”
“Oh, cruel Aunt Sophy,” protested Rodney, with a laugh, “your memory is too long.”
“You recollect we used to see a good deal of her, at the Court, until she married?”
“Yes; she was always in and out—the mater liked her—her people were very badly off, they lived in the bailiff’s old cottage. She made a splendid match—and forgot us. Why do you harrow my feelings—what has brought her on the tapis now?”
“Merely the fact, that she is on the tapis in this dining-room,” responded my aunt, “unless I’m mistaken, she and her husband are sitting near the third window. She is wearing a black lace gown—the woman with the elaborately-dressed hair and white face. I must say she is shockingly altered—but all the same I’m sure it is Lurline.”
“Yes—and quite the smart society lady—and he is a good-looking fellow—but rather cadaverous,” I put in.
“His name is Rainsford, and I believe he is enormously rich,” continued Aunt Sophy. “Lurline met him abroad—a very short wooing—a quiet wedding, exit Miss Jones!”
Never to return,” I added significantly.
“He has a fine place—near the border—and Lurline took to her new position with alacrity, and dropped her old friends.”
“Of course, a woman must adopt her husband’s people—especially when they are wealthy,” sneered Rodney.
“At first she sent us Christmas cards; but I believe she was anxious to forget her old days of poverty, when she turned her dresses, dyed her hats, and struggled hard to make both ends meet. Still, Lurline was a nice girl,” admitted auntie, “and I shall always give her a corner in my heart, though she has forgotten me!”
“I remember her well,” I said; “she was always laughing, or smiling, and pretty—but her hands were red. Mother used to give her gloves and hats, and——”
“Hush,” remonstrated Rodney. “Come, shall we make a move? There’s a good band outside, and I see some people going out that I knew at Murree.”
Ten minutes later we were sitting in the lounge—Aunt Sophy deep in the evening paper—when Mr. and Mrs. Rainsford passed by. She was a slender, elegant woman, with a worn face, streaks of grey in her hair, and looked quite old in my young eyes. Mr. Rainsford was dark, slight—a handsome man, with bright black eyes, and an air of great distinction.
They sat down within a few yards of us—and Mrs. Rainsford yawned, and fanned herself languidly. All at once the eyes above the fan wandered to us, and in another moment she was kissing auntie—yes, actually as if she were overjoyed to see her. She even seemed a little agitated as she said, “My dear Miss Howard, what an unlooked-for pleasure—and this must be the little girl Dolly,” turning to me.
“No longer little Dolly, I’m sorry to say,” I rejoined; “I am five feet ten in my stockings.”
“And the height of the fashion!” she answered, with a laugh. “You look like a young Amazon.”
“Well, I can run, and swim, and row, and play tennis—there’s not much else to do in the country but cultivate one’s muscles!”
“Oh, what happy days I spent down in Sandshire, and what a sweet old place the Court is.” And actually there were tears in her voice.
“Yes; but a little sleepy at times,” I suggested.
“Here is my husband. Harold,” turning to him, “I’ve just come across my dear old friends—Miss Howard, and her niece Dolly; her father is the Squire near my old home, her mother was one of my kindest and best friends.”
Mr. Rainsford bowed and smiled, and declared himself delighted to meet us. He carried himself with a considerable amount of dignity, and it seemed to me that “lord of the soil”—“great landed proprietor,” was written all over him. I felt agreeably flattered when he invited me to sit in the winter garden, and listen to the band. Here I descried Rodney in the midst of an Anglo-Indian group—and dragged him out, and presented him to my escort, who presently discovered two comfortable seats, and said,
“Now, Miss Dolly, you and I will sit here and improve our acquaintance, whilst my wife, and your aunt, have a comfortable talk over old times.”
I found Mr. Rainsford most easy to get on with, a really entertaining companion, and I was soon chattering away to him as if I had known him for years. He had travelled much—and read: he talked brilliantly— his wit was sparkling—his tongue sarcastic—he made me laugh continually. He informed me that he liked young people—especially lively young people, and that he was exceedingly sorry that they were coming to the end of their visit just as we had arrived. For the next three or four days the Rainsfords and we lived, so to speak, in each other’s pockets: we shared the same table, made the same expeditions, and the long-severed friendship was neatly spliced. I was surprised to see how Lurline—as we called her—clung to aunt and to good old associations. She really had a most faithful memory—nothing that had happened at Somers Court appeared to be forgotten—no, not even Rodney’s callow admiration—of which they both now made great fun. Lurline, in a half-apologetic way, had assured us that she had often wished to invite father and mother to Doume Castle; but the place was dull, and out of the way, and Harold’s mother, who lived with them, although a dear old lady, was decidedly peculiar, and could not endure visitors, or strange faces. Nevertheless, before we parted from the Rainsfords it was arranged that Rodney and I, with Bennett in attendance, were to pay them a visit before we returned home. Mr. Rainsford and I had become great allies at croquet and bridge, and Rodney was looking forward to some shooting, and we started on our journey in the brightest spirits. It was my first experience of a “country house party,” Aunt Sophy had kindly provided me with some smart new frocks—and I was full of anticipation and delight.
At the station nearest to Doume Castle we were received by a smart footman, in a coat that touched the ground, and discovered that we were not the only guests. A well-dressed girl with a bright, piquant face—another with languid eyes and airs—and two guns—Captain Forde and Colonel Willoughby—completed our party, and we all drove away behind a pair of fine steppers, in a most comfortable private ’bus. The country we passed through was pretty, but hilly. Doume Castle lay in a valley, and we looked down on its grey towers and dark woods long before we entered the gates of its winding avenue. We arrived just in nice time for tea. The hall was crowded, there we found Lurline playing the hostess to admiration. She greeted me warmly, and presently escorted me up to my room. It was in a stone-flagged corridor, and hung with tapestry. The windows were small and deep, and I should have called it gloomy but for the very modern brass bed and pretty chintz-covered furniture. There was a fire, flowers, books, every symptom of comfort, and a welcome.
“I’ve put you next to Maudie Anstruther,” announced Lurline. “You can keep one another company, and be sure you make yourself quite at home, dear.” Here she kissed me, and hurried away to see after her other visitors.
“Is it not like a delightful haunted castle in a fairy tale?” I said to my neighbour ere we parted for the night (the gloomy, echoing passages, the mysterious, dark corners, the silence, afforded a sharp contrast to the merry party we had just left). “What games we had this evening!”
“Yes,” she replied; “it’s a capital house to stay in—but they rarely have guests, worse luck—his health is the excuse. To me he seems always perfectly well—and the old lady hates society.”
“Is she not odd-looking?” I said. “I really feel a little afraid of her—she is so stiff and so silent,—and yet so observant all the time.”
“As if she were watching for something, and afraid,” added my companion. “They do say that Doume is really haunted.”
“Oh, what fun!” I cried. “I’ve never been in a haunted house!”
“I can’t see where the fun comes in,” she replied. “If I saw anything I should simply lie down and die!”
“And what is there to see here?” I questioned eagerly.
“Nothing,” she answered, with a shrug; “no one knows. People are found dead in their beds without any marks of violence—and you know dead men, and women, tell no tales!”
“But how hideously mysterious!”
“Yes; and there is twelve o’clock striking, and I must ask you to see me to my door, and safe inside it.”
The next week went like lightning—what with walking with the guns, going out with the lunch, drives, rides, acting, dancing, and games, the moments flew. Lurline had the knack of keeping things going, and Mr. Rainsford was an accomplished host, and entered into every scheme with zest The one drawback was his mother, who remained reserved and sternly unapproachable. She never smiled, and rarely spoke, but spent her days in a high-backed chair, knitting, disapproving, watching—yes, watching us all, with an air of cold speculation. The only time she addressed me was to inquire “when I proposed to return home?” No; she was by no means an agreeable old dame, and I said as much to Maude Anstruther. “There is something peculiar about her, I am convinced.”
“And about the castle,” she added; “Captain Forde says so. His brother’s place is within a few miles, and he declares that he knows for a fact, that within the last five years three people have died here quite suddenly. He firmly believes in the ghost. They say it comes only when the moon is at the full—a tall figure, that stoops over people, and strangles them. A man he knows, assured him that he awoke one night smothering—and struggled and shouted, and the thing disappeared. It always comes by moonlight.”
“And is all moonshine,” I jeered. “Of course, the old castle, with its passages and galleries, and secret doors, is just what a haunted house should be—and it’s got a bad name—that’s all!”
Bennett, my maid (a severe elderly person, who kept us all in order), was most anxious that we should bring our stay to a conclusion.
“Miss Dolly,” she said as she held my hair firmly in her hand, “will you make some excuse, and go? There’s something not right in this house; a lady was found dead in this wing years back—a young footman came to a queer end once—and it’s not twelve months since a housemaid met her death. They are all alike in one particular—not a mark or sign upon the corpse—it’s just the work of the dead.”
“I have no intention of leaving this, Bennett, simply because you choose to listen to stories,” I answered. “If people have died in the castle,—people must die somewhere!”
“But not as they die here,” she responded in a hollow voice—“without sickness or warning.” And she tugged at my hair till I could have screamed.
Two nights later—when it was full moon—I pulled aside the curtains, and suffered the searching white light to flood my room. For some moments I gazed out of the window on the great park, with its sombre woods, and uplands bathed in silver. Then, as I was very tired, I got into bed, and slept soundly. But what was this which awoke me—this horrible sensation of suffocation?—was it a so-called nightmare? No; somebody was steadily pressing, with a pitiless dead weight, the pillow over my face. I struggled, at first uselessly and wildly—for the thing, whatever it was, leant over me with redoubled force. But I am a muscular girl. Not in vain have I rowed and swam; my strength was often the subject of Mr. Rainsford’s jokes, and now I put it forth to save my very life. With an extraordinary effort I wrenched aside the hands that pressed the pillow—another frantic struggle, and I tore the pillow from the thing—whether ghost or fiend, I must breathe, or die!
I breathed; I uttered a faint exclamation—for in the apparition, the would-be murderer, I recognised my kind host—Mr. Rainsford. Mr. Rainsford—wearing a long grey dressing-gown—his face distorted with an expression of diabolical fury—in his eyes the wild glare of a maniac!
As I sat up panting and staring, he vanished, and there was nothing whatever to recall the recent scene, but my labouring breath, and the displaced pillow. As I lifted it, a signet ring fell on the floor. This I carried to the window, and recognised the Rainsford crest—my host’s own property. Now I understood Lurline’s grey hairs, the old lady’s repugnance to strangers—unhappy women! they were both in the secret; they were aware of the strain of insanity in the family—the curse of homicidal mania. But if his mother half-suspected, his wife never dreamt that her husband was the cause of the various mysterious deaths at Doume. I have strong nerves, but after this life-or-death encounter with a lunatic, I must confess that they were a good deal shattered. At daylight I dressed, and sought out a grumbling, sleepy brother. But the tale I had to relate roused him most effectually, especially when I displayed the ring and the bruises on my hands and arms. Then we took solemn counsel together, and determined to conclude our visit that same day. Rodney volunteered to restore the ring to Lurline, and tell her with all possible delicacy of my recent experience, and narrow escape.
Doume Castle has been let, and poor Mr. Rainsford, as polished and agreeable as ever, now wanders about the Continent, with his wife and two attendants, a madman incognito.
A few weeks ago I purchased at a cantonment auction in Lucknow an ancient but serviceable teakwood office table—with numerous pigeon-holes, and ample elbow room. When it was delivered at my bungalow my bearer duly dusted, and turned it out, and subsequently presented to me with a salaam, a small packet of old letters, which he had discovered caught in at the back of the drawers—and thus overlooked by the salesman.
I must admit that I read the “find” with considerable interest; the writers were unknown, the dates were not recent. It occurred to me that there was a lesson to be learnt in these flimsy sheets of yellow paper, and I resolved to alter names and localities, and despatch the correspondence to the press, believing that it would prove a wholesome warning to all meddling middle-aged matrons, and idle young men.
The first epistle is, as will be seen, from a certain General Sheepshank, C.B., to a Colonel Alexander Tomlin stationed at Bareilly, N.W.P.
The Yacht Club, Bombay,
My dear Tomlin,
Whilst the great Ludlow affair is still fresh in people’s memory, and when many amazing, untrue, and very scandalous statements are current—not only in Society, but actually in barracks and the bazaar—I think it right to forward the entire correspondence, and leave it to you to proclaim the truth, as I am on the point of retiring from the service, and quitting the country.
It may not be generally known, that I am uncle to the two parties, in this miserable business—Mrs. Ludlow was a Sheepshank, and my sister; my eldest nephew, Thurston Ludlow, is Inspector of Government fish-ponds, and holds an important position at Simla (he is fifteen years older than Lewis, who is deputy collector of Dullanbore), and married a Miss Fox-Fox, a popular, clever, and energetic little woman who, having done well for herself, is naturally anxious to provide for her friends—and connections. The deplorable quarrel lies between this lady, and her young brother-in-law. As the sole family elder in this country, both parties referred their grievance to me, and ultimately forwarded me their letters (herewith enclosed)—they begged me to judge the right and wrong of this affair, which has made the name of Ludlow a byword in India. The two principals are no longer in this country; I, myself, am going home to-morrow by the mail. To you, as one of my oldest friends, I transfer the Ludlow correspondence, being assured that you will make such use of it as only truth, and discretion, may dictate.
For my own part, I blame the lady from first to last, and am truly sorry for poor Lewis—“The woman tempted him, and he did write!”
George Woolton Sheepshank,
Mrs. Thurston Ludlow,
Kala Juga Villa,
Your photograph arrived yesterday. It made a nice break in the grilling afternoon, and a most ornamental addition to my properties; I must say you look ripping! That wave in your hair would be hard to beat, and your gown is no doubt one of those I brought out last November in the numerous boxes I conveyed for you to Bombay. I assure you I felt painfully embarrassed when I claimed them—I believe people thought I was landing a trousseau—for the future Mrs. Lewis Ludlow.
I am glad you are having such a good time—rather different to what we poor devils are putting in here! Dullanbore is quite the most horrible station I have ever known, or heard of, and such a hideous contrast to the many delightful places I visited on furlough. I suppose the authorities think that any hole is good enough for a fellow who has just had twelve months solid leave in England! but to my mind it represents the refinement of cruelty—because I had a heavenly time at home—it seems a little hard that I am to have the other place out here!
Here I am like the bear consuming his own substance, and live on the memory of happier days—“the sorrow’s crown of sorrow.” The shoots in Scotland, the good days in town and on the river—Hurlingham— Ascot—Goodwood—all the cheery comrades, and all the pretty girls! More than once, I was tempted to invite a fair damsel to return with me, and become Mrs. L. Ludlow. Now, I look upon my silence as one of my few-and-far-between good deeds! To bring a pretty, lively young girl to such a hole as this, would be next door to committing a murder. Dullanbore would certainly kill her in about three months! The heat at present is anything you like over a hundred, the ground for miles is as hard as a bit of baked red earthenware, the sky is a glaring blue, and there is not a soul in the place to speak to. Two companies of the Maneaters have gone—lucky dogs!—to the hills; the only folk here are the doctor—who spends his time collecting insects—a missionary, and a police officer and his wife, with whom I had a row two years ago over a pony. He is a cad, and we don’t speak, so you may think it is not very festive, I go down to the club and glare at the police-wallah over the billiard-table, we play with the marker by turns. I have no rackets, no whist, no anything but cutcherry-cutcherry, again cutcherry, and the Pioneer—that’s about my day! You, who vibrate at proper Seasons between Simla and Calcutta, who are revelling in the perfumes of pines and rose-trees, in snow-cooled breezes, and everything that conduces to “the pride of life” can never realise the miseries of this bare little sun-baked station. By day, I am distracted with prickly heat, at night, the mosquitoes devour me, and I am maddened by the incessant croaking of the marsh frogs. The only possible door of escape lies by the way of sickness. Imagine a touch of cholera, or a bad go of fever, being one’s sole hope! I declare I can now understand why some poor chaps similarly situated, took their revolvers, went quietly into their bathroom, and ended it all! However, you need hot be afraid that I shall ever emulate their example. For one thing, such an exit would afford too much gratification to my friend the police-wallah.
Well, Cis, I am afraid you will be pretty sick of this scrawl, but I have had a comfortable growl, and it has done me good. Do write me one of your nice long letters.
Ever your affectionate brother,
My poor dear Lewis,
Instead of going to church, I have set apart this Sunday morning to answer your letter, for I believe a long cheery epistle addressed to a relative who is in the depths of woe, will be counted unto me as an act of Christian chanty! You are suffering still from the reaction of the past year. We all know it! I am sorry you are in such a vile station, with no compensations, and no pals. However, it can’t last for ever. This is but slender comfort to you, poor old boy! Before I go further, I must inform you, that the frocks you brought out are a great success. I may even venture to state, that a certain orange brocade is the talk and envy of Simla! As for your belated grumble, I am your only sister-in-law, and one is bound to help one’s relations. Did you never hear of the man who was asked to take a small parcel to Bombay for a perfect stranger, and it turned out to be a huge tombstone! What are my poor little chiffons in comparison to that? But, to return to your present unhappy lot I beg to sympathise with you most heartily, though I can’t do so from personal experience, never having spent one single day in a bad station on the plains. So much for marrying a Government official! I have climbed out of the hot place, and I must now endeavour to assist you to do the same. If you can only suffer and be strong, till the end of this season, I can guarantee that you will never put in another May in Dullanbore. Thurston has some influence, and I have already begun to lay mines that will lead to your advancement. Old Sir Gregory Swann is the man—a fearful bore, I must confess—but for your sake I shall invite him to dine, and give him some sit-out dances, and sweet words. This, however, is the future, the time that presses on you so heavily—is the present I wish I could waft you up among our pine woods, and snowy peaks, but it is not to be done. You had your cake last year, in the shape of leave. If you had something pleasant to think of, and look forward to, the days would trot along much faster, wouldn’t they?”
Now, you mention that you had visions of asking one or two of the fair young ladies you met to marry you, and that you were only deterred from putting the question, by—you do not say what; but I can fill in the answer—because you could not make up your mind—you liked several enormously; you have a very roomy heart. You know you are a flirt, my dear Lewis, and have no doubt courted several nice girls, “down to the asking” as they say in Ireland. Honestly, were there no pretty faces you were tempted to fall in love with at home? Surely there were. If you have any tendresse, why not write, and ask the lady to come out and marry you next cold weather? This will fill your days with hope and excitement, and give you something to think of, besides your grievances, and the obnoxious policeman.
There are various nice girls with whom you are acquainted, for instance, Susan Lyster—so clever, bright, and go-ahead. I know she would love India, and is craving to see the country—her letters are full of it, and I would invite her out for a cold weather, only that to a woman in my position, with one thousand engagements, and many little irons in the fire, a girl is such a tie! Happy thought! Suppose you invite her, Lewis? She has twelve hundred a year of her own, is an heiress, and an only child. Then there is pretty Lucy Hayes—you saw a good deal of her, too, I believe. You won’t be long playing “Patience” at Dullanbore—I’ll arrange that, and I should be very glad if you would give me a nice sister-in-law. Do think of it, and write to
Your ever affectionate
My Dear Little Sister of Charity,
Your letter has been a delightful and refreshing boon to me in my burning fiery furnace, but it is all very well for you up among the snows to preach “patience” and to talk of “next cold weather.” It is the same as saying, “Live, donkey, and you’ll get grass”—your idea is so like you, who are so fond of marrying, and getting people married. All the same, I appreciate your “Happy thought” immensely, though I could never be such a scoundrel as to ask any English-born girl to be my Proserpine in this Hades, even though she made it heaven for me.
I grant you that Susie Lyster is charming—I’ve known her since she was a kid—we were at Kingsbrook Manor together for ten days, and she played all my accompaniments, and took me out to see the moon!
But then, she is an only child, and the old people would never let her out of their sight; also she is a great heiress, and I am a younger son. Lucy Hayes, on the other hand, is one of eight sisters, with no fortune but her lovely face. She is a darling, and would make any man happy.
When I am with Lucy, she is all the world and heaven to me—though I have never told her so in plain English. Again, when I am with Susan, she is so amusing, so fascinating, and so gay, that I am literally carried away, and forget that there is another woman in the world. Of course, she is merely nice-looking, she has not Lucy’s exquisite smile and haunting eyes, but I do like her tremendously.
There are others—but these two are bracketed “first.” If I were to write and ask one of them to marry me, I don’t think she would be much surprised. I cannot help being nice to girls, I suppose I am a flirt, but it is in the family as well as being infectious. Now that you know the state of my affections, what do you advise? I place myself in your hands, and will abide (since you know both the young ladies) by your choice, and I hope you will select a sister-in-law to please you, and enrapture me!
Eagerly awaiting your reply,
I am, your confiding brother,
My dear flattering Lewis,
Since you leave it to me, and are like the poor rose between two thorns (I spare you the other simile) I declare for Susan Lyster. She is a great friend of mine, also I believe she really likes you, for she has mentioned your name constantly in her letters, and said how well you sing, and how well you played croquet, and how much they all liked you, and how they missed you when your visit came to an end. For “all” read “Susan.” It is, as I have repeatedly remarked, time that you were married; you are thirty, and later on men get so set in their own ways and opinions that they do not make satisfactory or domestic husbands. You have plenty of brains, and sufficient good looks. All you want is a little more “go” and enterprise. Susan has enough of those endowments for half-a-dozen people. She is already longing to see India, and has thrown me out several, not merely strong, but knock-me-down hints, and I honestly believe, that your invitation will be promptly accepted.
How much better to choose a nice well-bred charming wife, with five thousand a year in prospect, than one of these newly-imported spins, with brilliant complexions, and no money. I suggest that you ask Susan to come out in December. I shall then be down, and will come from Calcutta to arrange the wedding, and reception, attend the ceremony in Bombay Cathedral on the happy day, and give you a grand send-off. Perhaps I am going ahead too fast, and leaving you, figuratively, breathless? Still it is wise to take time by the forelock—though sometimes it does come off in your hand. Should Susie say, “No, thank you very much”—at least you will have had all the interest, suspense, and excitement of the situation, and this should carry you well over the hot weather, and into the rains. After the rains, you might perhaps think of Lucy Hayes.
Of course you will not dash off a proposal to Susan apropos de rien, but lead up to it, with a certain amount of delicate address. For example, you might send her some photographs as an “ice-breaker” (and not of Dullanbore). I should get a few, including views near Simla from Johnson & Hoffman, sufficiently delightful to entice half the unmarried women out of England, I mean those with an artistic eye, and Susan’s eye, though not particularly expressive, is that! The sooner you begin to open the siege the better! Let me know if I am to forward you the photographs; they will give your letter a very plausible raison d’être, and after that, of course, you must “repeat as before.”
Wishing you good luck!
Ever your affectionate
Please send six photographs, immediately. L. Ludlow.
The idea has worked splendidly. I despatched those photographs with a letter to Susan, saying that I knew she was so interested in the East I ventured to forward specimens of our scenery. By return of post came her reply—two sheets, and enclosing a nice little kodak view of the Manor done by herself. Emboldened by this, I have written by the very next mail thanking her warmly, and on the “inch and ell” principle, asking, begging for her own photograph; so you see I am making progress. She writes a most delightful letter, and I am counting the days until I can hear from her again. I have something more agreeable to think of than Shandy the policeman, and the state of the thermometer. Also, I have been looking round the empty bungalows, and “marked down” one that would answer for a cold weather residence and a ménage.
Ever your grateful and hopeful brother,
Hip, hip, hurrah! the answer has just come, and Susan says yes. I feel inclined to go out, and kick my solar topee round the compound! She has written me such a dear, sweet letter; I wish I could enclose it, but I really cannot spare it. She says she had a kind of presentiment of this, and feels so happy to know, that I have always cared for her. Her father and mother are already making many objections, but Susan is of age, and I am sure will bring them round. I remember her telling me that she always got her own way. I am going immediately to bespeak the bungalow, as after the people come back there is a run on houses. I have wired to Madras for some rings to select from. I hope you will write at once to your sister-in-law that is to be.
My dear Lewis,
I knew it would come off! My best congratulations you are a lucky man. I’ve had several long letters from Susan; in the last, she asks about things for India what to bring?—and what not to bring? As for you you have been so occupied in writing to her, you have entirely neglected me! But I forgive you, and send you some more advice. Get the bungalow ready, matted and whitewashed, the garden done up, and look round for furniture before the hill-folk descend and swoop it away; you will require a piano, and a victoria; and I will give you a canteen fitted with plate and cutlery, and Thurston will send a silver tea service. December the twenty-ninth will soon be here, I will make all the wedding arrangements in Bombay—the affair will be small, but very smart, and you can go to Matheran for the honeymoon. Thurston is writing also. He is very pleased, and says you have done remarkably well for yourself, which is true, and partly thanks to your affectionate Cissy’s “Happy thought.”
My dear Cissy,
I am distracted, the whole thing has been broken off. Mr. and Mrs. Lyster will not hear of Susan coming to India. They say that if I like to go home, and marry her and live in England, well and good; but otherwise, she shall never become my wife. Poor Susan is heart-broken, but she cannot move her parents, nor will she go against them, and she sends me back my ring, and my letters. It came on me like a death-blow. Until I received the letter from Mrs. Lyster, I had no idea that things were not going smoothly, for Susan kept all her worries from me; besides my terrible trouble, I shall be the laughing-stock of the station. Everyone knows that I am going to be married at the end of the year; my bungalow is ready, and furnished —I’ve had a heap of presents, and congratulations. I feel completely crushed with misery, disappointment, and shame. Susan says her father’s determination is such, that nothing can shake it, and, of course, it is impossible for me to throw up my profession, to go home, and live as a pensioner on my wife’s family. I see no ray of light anywhere.
I have half a mind to set fire to the bungalow!
Your unfortunate brother,
It certainly is a blow, I am beaten, so to speak, to my knees, but I still see one ray of light—stay your hand, and do not burn the bungalow. It will make a very pleasant home for Lucy Hayes—no one will guess that she is not the original lady for whom it was prepared. Lucy is a pretty, sweet, good girl, and a pretty wife is an immense help to a man in India—and indeed everywhere. Write and ask Lucy to come out on the Palmacotta—write her a long letter, telling her everything—or nothing—just as you prefer. Ask her to wire her answer. Then you will know your fate in a fortnight; if she says “Yes” all the arrangements can stand, Thurston and I will be in Bombay on the twenty-seventh, and are giving the breakfast, and the whole affair.
I am very sorry for you, Lewis, it is hard luck; but this seems to be the best and only way out of it I am astonished at Susan Lyster, I always understood that she could manage her parents, and that they were a most obedient, and docile couple!
Ever your sympathetic sister,
My dear Cis,
The answer is “With pleasure—am writing.” So everything can go on as before. I have got a piano a Schiedmayer—from Bombay, and a nice bay, stud bred, for the victoria. I have recovered from the first shock, and when I think of Lucy, and drag my mind away from Susan, I have no doubt that I am, after all, a very lucky mortal. Susie was, perhaps, too brilliant, and too rich, and too resolute a girl, for a humdrum civilian like me. Now Lucy is lovely, and sweet-tempered, and I rather fancy, looks up to a fellow. You will think me, of course, the most fickle and weak-minded of men, when I tell you, that I am rather glad now, that it is Lucy! I shall not be able to get away before the twenty-seventh, so leave all arrangements in your most capable hands. The Palmacotta is due on the morning of the twenty-eighth.
The most awful thing has happened! No, Lucy is not dead. No one is dead—I only wish I were. I’m in a raging fever since yesterday (temperature 103), when the dak brought me a letter covered with postmarks. It was from Susan, and dated 20th November. It had by mistake gone on to Singapore, and comes—now too late. Susan says she has prevailed on her parents almost at the eleventh hour, as they realised how utterly miserable she was; they have given their consent, and she is coming out in the Palmacotta, as well as Lucy—Two girls arriving from England to marry me, on the same day! I go cold and hot when I think of it. To cope with the situation, is utterly beyond my capacity. I leave you to arrange matters—to meet the ladies when they land, and explain, what you will; for, after all, the whole thing was your idea—your “happy thought!” As for me, the doctor has given me three months’ sick certificate, and I leave here to-night, for Colombo—where I shall catch the mail for Melbourne.
Your unlucky brother,