The crowd, wilting uncomfortably in the noon glare on that shadeless quay, familiar as the Apollo Bunder, was the usual gathering that awaits the arrival of a ship, no matter what the temperature; that always seems considerable till the ship looms in and dwarfs the people, disappointing such of her passengers as have entertained exaggerated visions of Eastern crowds. Fifty or so coolies, dressed in drab, sprawling, sleeping, or chattering like animals; a sprinkling of the Port authority, in conspicuous white; groups of Parsees, their formal frock-coats and coal-scuttle hats contrasting curiously with the picnic air of the jasmine wreaths in their hands; would-be bearers and khitmatgars in seedier white, firmly clasping their credentials in thin brown hands; established servants, less hungry-looking, rehearsing their smiles of welcome; women with parasols, women with nose-rings; a subaltern or two—such was the unpicturesque reality, the representative essence of East. A dozen little self-conscious groups—labelled, as it were, and carefully segregated—between the huge doors of the Customs and a sea like green oil, with all Bombay as their background. And, shouldering out of the horizon, with something like a grimace at the curtsying sails of the yachts in the bay—a squat, black imp, trailing a scarf of purple smoke: the steamship Narkunda, big with mails and cold-weather tourists and brides-to-be.
Considering the unbounded implications of that black hull—there were at least five prospective brides aboard, for instance, and a corresponding number of prospective husbands on the quay—there was something a trifle disappointing in the indifference, as well as the colourlessness, of the crowd. There were no handkerchiefs out, no glasses levelled. The Englishmen, with the aid of successive cigarettes, were preserving the national calm; the natives, without such vicarious assistance, were remaining characteristically impenetrable. Only two people, in fact, out of the whole hundred-and-fifty odd, were showing any signs of animation whatever. Only two—the eye naturally rested on them, for they were standing on a luggage truck and actually discussing the movements of the ship; pointing and calculating and looking at watches—rather a refreshing spectacle.
One of the two was a big, loose-limbed, healthy-looking man of middle age, with quizzical eyes and a neat little brown beard that vaguely suggested the nautical. He was wearing a roomy suit of the inconspicuous gabardine affected by hunters, but its autumnal tints contrasted sadly with a bandanna tie that would have sat gaudily—not to say vulgarly—on a man of less distinction. Distinction he certainly had, of the elusive order associated with much travel and a habit of dealing with men, and he might have been almost anything from a submarine commander in mufti to a tropical explorer in uniform—anything, in fact, that was not entirely prosaic. Actually he was Nicholas Vaine, founder and part-owner of the Shahgarh fruit estate and jam factory in the lower Himalayas. And his companion—a younger and less obtrusive personality—was Jimmy Vaine, cousin, partner and future—immediately future—son-in-law.
Tall, too, this Jimmy Vaine—and there the family resemblance began and ended; for he was slim to spareness, everything about him inclining rather to length than breadth—feminine, nervous hands; narrow, rather sensitive face. Though he was at least twenty-one and full of a wiry, open-air health, he yet gave on the whole an impression of immaturity, as of a lanky boy, still growing. His grey flannel suit looked just a trifle two small for him—whatever he wore, one would say, he would be the despair of his tailor. Also of his hairdresser. A gesture of pushing back his hat from his forehead and rumpling his hair—an evident habit in moments of agitation—revealed him careless of appearances. His hair, incidentally, was very fair, like wind-blown barley, and very untidy. But that was somehow in keeping; did not detract from a certain fastidiousness of bearing, or consort ill with a remarkable cleanliness of skin and candour of eyes. He merely looked what he was—something of a dreamer, sensitive, impractical, shy.
At the moment, of the two, he was—curiously enough—the most arresting; there was such unmistakable joy in his face that a couple of women in his vicinity nudged one another and tittered. Clearly his was a face which, whatever thoughts it might conceal, could not for a moment conceal pleasure—and this was a pleasure, almost a radiance, of expectancy. If the titter meant that one of the five prospective bridegrooms had been marked to ground, it was entirely justified—it was so easy in this case to guess the implications of that black hull, shouldering through the sea.
Nicholas, head in air—he always looked as if he were sniffing the breeze—was regarding it with an amused patience. He was expecting a wife. He had not seen her for some months, but, being tolerably certain of her presence on board, could afford to smile at the absurdity of his own emotions. He was also expecting his daughter Joan, but—well—she was distinctly Jimmy’s affair. Jimmy was doing all the necessary expecting in that direction—his eyes were positively dragging the ship out of the water—and Nicholas’s concern with Joan would begin and end with pushing her into a taxicab, decanting her at the cathedral door, and giving her away before the altar at precisely half-past twelve. The prospect of handing over his only daughter so hurriedly did not worry him. He betrayed all the comfortable satisfaction of a man who, in the very process of doing another a good turn, is in fact the gainer. His whole demeanour conveyed the unspoken challenge—“I’m domestic. In spite of all appearances to the contrary, I’m thoroughly tame. I want my wife to myself and my house to myself, and I’m going to have ’em—so there.”
He looked at his watch for the third time, with the smile of one who humours a whim, and promptly pretended he was really thinking about the wedding arrangements.
Thirty-seven minutes. Jove, James, you’re going to marry in haste if anyone ever did. Say a quarter of an hour for her to come alongside—every bit of that. Ten minutes for the kit, with luck. Ten for the drive. Fifteen and ten and ten—h’m—leaves two minutes for taking bearings inside the church. Two minutes for repentance—sure you don’t . . .”
His voice trailed off as he realized that he might as well not have spoken. Jimmy, his back turned, was still absorbed in the sea. After a moment’s thought, though, he prodded him and began again, with a certain awkwardness, as if he were conscious of improving the occasion.
“Remember incidentally that this service that we’re going to be late for unless we watch it is absolute spillikens compared with the next obstacle. You’ve got to wed her to India. And you’ve got a stiffer job than the parson’s.”
A nod told him that he was heard, and he continued more emphatically:
“You may differ over anything else you like, but India’s a thing you’ve simply got to agree about. Don’t for God’s sake ram it down her throat, though. Go easy. You’re such a devil for rhapsodizing that you make me nervous—just remember that she might be a trifle homesick for England. It takes some people that way.”
“Oh, she’ll like it. It’ll be new to her again now. Joanie likes new things.”
The quiet, vague answer came back without a movement of the head, and Nicholas shrugged his shoulders and burrowed for his tobacco pouch.
“Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Don’t rhapsodize. Don’t fulminate. Don’t pile it on.” Slapping a pocket for each piece of advice, he finally ran the pouch to earth and hastily filled his pipe, with an eye on the ship—as if just to steady her down for the duration of a smoke, and not a moment more.
Jimmy pondered. Then suddenly he turned.
“If she likes me all right . . .” he stammered a little “if . . . if . . . I don’t make a dud of myself, the rest follows. I’m the main point.”
Nicholas laughed, comfortably, silently—a large man’s laugh.
“Oh, you’re the main point. Emphatically. But India’s a good second. You’re likeable. So am I. So’s her mother. She liked us all long ago, but I never heard of her exactly liking India—did you? She wasn’t precisely what one would call enthusiastic, eh? I seem to remember certain little—well—passages from time to time that you’ve probably succeeded in forgetting, and they always give me the uneasy feeling that we weren’t as clever with Joanie as we might have been. We’re so desperately fond of Shahgarh that we can’t imagine anyone preferring another environment. We’re downright bores on the subject. Even now I’m aching to tell you what you know already—that Shahgarh’s the best place in the world, and that I want you two to be fixtures in it and bring up your children to love it as we do. It’s an awful temptation to talk like that—I’m not attempting to resist it; I’ve set my heart on that Vaine colony—but it doesn’t do with Joanie. Somehow it doesn’t do, James. And you’re as bad as I am. You’ll feel impelled to brag about India before you’ve had her to yourself for ten minutes. I know you. I can see it in your eye.”
Jimmy blushed, and the smile that they exchanged was slightly shamefaced. Anyone could see from the most casual glance that they were on common ground, that they understood each other when they talked about India, that they shared an enthusiasm of which it was difficult to speak in terms of moderation. They had not lived and worked together for a year—as bachelors, with a hobby—for nothing. It was revealed in both their faces; for each glanced up, and then down, before their eyes again met, savouring in that brief survey the atmosphere, the colouring, the very expression of their common property. Indian sunlight, Indian dust, Indian air—each, as it were, registered that momentary appreciation, that recognition of things long shared; each dwelt a little, lovingly, on the thought. But, while Nicholas’s face revealed nothing beyond the content of a man who knows his own mind, Jimmy’s betrayed a deeper feeling, a something exaggerated and altogether abnormal. Almost, perhaps, an obsession. A spectator might have fancied that he already found India too definitely alluring for complete peace of mind.
“Don’t let your tongue run away with you,” he heard Nicholas say, “keep all that for me. Joanie’s the cat who won’t curl up just where she’s told. You know—if you indicate a pleasant little nest just by the fire, the sort of place you’d think would be ideal in every respect . . . yes, well, she stalks out through the window. Funny. That’s the instinct for environment competing successfully with the domestic affections. Very feminine. Do you know, I should be inclined to be even a trifle lukewarm about life out here, just at first. Only you’re no actor.”
He promised, somewhat perfunctorily, to take the advice, and the conversation died a natural death. But a hint of that obsession remained in his face. Nicholas had made him think, made him wonder. His mind had gone back, after that brief contemplation of sky and city and sea—of India as she first strikes the eye of every newcomer—to a survey of an India more subtle, more significant, more intimately possessible; a beloved microcosm, caught up between the fingers of the Himalaya, that one could grasp, and understand, and make one’s own. His mind’s eye was trained on Shahgarh—a speck of green fertility up in the huge and hardly tenanted hills; on a valley and a village and one thin, white road; on a thatched house that Joan had never seen. The picture was complete—he could walk in it, as it were, now; it was so complete and so satisfying that he had failed quite to walk out of it and grow accustomed to the clamour and glitter of Bombay. Bombay bewildered him. After Shahgarh, any place in the world would bewilder.
“The sort of place you’d think would be ideal in every respect . . .” Yes, indeed. Because it was complete—a perfect little world between two hills; because it was friendly and definite and knowable. The mystery of the East?—a fairy-tale, a pretty, euphemistic way of expressing the ignorance of the West. Other people might imagine something of the sort and see charm in it, but he was content with the tiny corner which he could be said to know; where he could walk in the dark and not lose his way; the pleasant little nest, in fact, where he could curl up and had curled up, unlike Nicholas’s cat.
And the hills had just that way with you. They sheltered you, and hung over you, and tucked you in; they made a nest; they made a world. But how could one teach that comfort of the hills to someone who had never experienced it? To Joan, in fact.
He thought of her, concentrated on materializing her against that fascinating background—its immobility, its shy seclusion, its peace. For an instant his ears seemed to evade the noises of the quay—staccato sounds, all, with a dull, thudding, drumming undernote that bespoke Bombay—and attuned themselves to the whispers of Shahgarh. There was a lull, and voices died away for him, and he could dwell for a moment in imagination on those lesser, soothing notes—the rustle of pines round the house; the lisping of the little tree-bound lake at the bottom of the orchards; the murmur of those other coolies, and their hill songs at dusk. He captured the very atmosphere and, for a second or two, kept it and put Joan in it. Listened in company with her.
How did she stand the test?
He pictured her as he had seen her once. She would glance up from a book; listen intently; frown; shake her head violently; put her fingers in her ears; listen again, with symptoms of hope; and . . . give it up; make a desperate attempt to extract some amusement out of the book instead. And the golden head would nod—Joan would yawn, Joan would sigh.
“Oh, I’m so bored!” He smiled to himself, half anxiously, half apologetically, as he remembered the sentence. Pat it had come, in her very tone—deep, bell-deep—to cap the pantomime. It was as if she had spoken and destroyed his momentary illusion—that Joan of a year ago, who could hear nothing worth hearing in the hills.
“It’s so deadly quiet—that’s what gets on my nerves!” another expression of hers, in a tone less frankly engaging, less suggestive of an appeal for help. A prelude to a family row, that sentence—one of those “passages” that, with all due respect to Nicholas’s illusions, he had not forgotten. Very far from it. The memory of those skirmishes was indelible. Joan getting hotter and hotter; Nicholas waving his arms in exasperation, shouting; Janie, Joan’s mother, making darts at one or the other like a small bird in a cage; himself, tongue-tied, doomed to see both points of view and to be incapable of expressing either—how vividly he could recall every move from the first shot at a venture to the final and inevitable flight of the protagonists, Joan to her bedroom, Nicholas to his study, leaving Janie and himself to shake their heads and pick up the pieces. Even more vividly, too, he could recall that shadow skirmish that had gone on within himself on these occasions—love of Joan, love of Shahgarh, in strife; his mental efforts at compromise, at reconciliation of these two extremes, his loves; the emergence of the wish—the belief—the certainty that it lay in him to work that miracle, to cure her unrest and see her happy in Shahgarh.
Throughout, he had felt that he knew her better than either of her parents did. They had been too close to her for too long to see her clearly. They had got muddled about her, and rather short-tempered. Whereas he was limited to two clear pictures—Joan at ten, Joan at eighteen; and a blank space between. Joan at ten—a wilful, restless, tempestuous image in short frocks, with flaring cheeks and rebellious hair, with eyes like sloes, sombre till they were rubbed and wide awake. An imperious image, the very antithesis of himself—he had accorded it all the worship of a small, shy boy for his opposite. Joan at eighteen—the outward change had been tremendous; she had emerged immaculate, fastidious from her smooth, golden head to her tidy little feet. But inwardly there had been no change at all. He had found her as restless, as impulsive as ever; as quick to take offence and as quick to forgive; with just the same queer, feminine fund of moods and surprises to bewilder him, and bamboozle him, and, in the last resort, bewitch him into proffering the same old worship. Oh, he knew!
And then half the miracle had actually happened—the better half. She had promised to marry him in the full knowledge that it would involve continuing in the house of bondage—Shahgarh. True, she had instantly gone home, under her mother’s wing, to buy a trousseau, but—as Nicholas had put it—”A miracle’s like a motor-car, full of working parts that must be humoured at the start, if you want it to run.” He had seen the force of that.
And now, the second part of the miracle—the house-of-bondage part; essentially his part. Was he going to see her happy at Shahgarh?
Fortunately—he laid great stress on this in his mind—it wasn’t the same house. He had built a new one, at a discreet distance from her old home, separated from it, in fact, by the whole bulk of the orchards, by the lake, by the pine trees on the Knoll; a new environment altogether. Quite consciously, too, he had departed from the standards of the Shahgarh house, making the place as English as possible, even down to the thatch on the roof; leaving no loophole for the intrusive, invasive little reminders of India that abounded in those other big, ramshackle rooms—the brass trays, and the butterfaced Buddhas, and the bead curtains beloved of Janie and sacred to bungalowdom. He had, in fact, achieved an English cottage, within and without, ransacking the bazaars for the right furniture—furniture that, he liked to think, had been seasoned in sailing-ships and had weathered the Mutiny—and bestowing each piece lovingly where it seemed to want to go; hanging the prints that Joan had sent out from London; standing over the darzi while he cut out the chintzes and cretonnes that she had chosen at Harrod’s; making her, so far as he could, an active partner in it all, so that, on entering, she would have the joy of recognizing her own handiwork as well as the surprise of seeing his. Seeing her, too, in her own setting, part of her own colour schemes—walking from room to room with that poise of the head that she inherited from Nicholas, but that was more fastidious, more delicate, in her. Following her, in fancy, when she walked across the verandah and stood on the steps and confronted the India that he could not, would not, eliminate—those broad-backed, brooding hills . . .
Ah, there lay the rub. No altering those. No varying that immense silence, that grand immobility. Every morning of her life she would see those hills . . . and listen . . .
Would she grow to love them?
He was back again at the old problem.
Nicholas was knocking out the ashes of his pipe, and shouting for porters. And the ship, during the brief spell of his mental wandering, had apparently taken a giant stride. For he could distinguish figures now—white figures under the striped deck awnings; exalted figures under the smoke stack; definite movements and groupings from end to end. A tug was fussing out to meet her—two little human heads bobbing up behind the funnel, as if to provide a standard of measurement for the stateliness and the crowdedness of the incomer. Contagiously, too, the quay awoke and he was jostled off the truck.
“She’s slowing. Keep your eye on these coolies, there’s a good fellow. I’ll bring ’em off,” he heard Nicholas shout, but through a haze of hearing. It was the regulated throb of the engines that he was listening to; the sharp, tinny signal of the bell—ting—and again, abruptly, imperatively—ting. It struck him that, for the first time for all these months, Joan and he were sharing the same sound at the same moment. A little, first link—that “ting!”
Now he could see faces—tantalizing, featureless blobs. He could see colours—a pink dress, a yellow. He could distinguish the men from the women; the dark faces from the white. He might actually, without knowing it, be staring into Joan’s face! The pink dress? The yellow? Or that solitary figure in white, perched on the rail? He had no clue—they were still all dolls, mere impressions of people; but he had become tremendously conscious of her—of her personal approach to him, of her actual, physical nearness.
Joan, Joan, Joan . . . in standardizing her, as it were, into a figure amenable to recall, into a picture of the mind, he had lost that sensation of her, that consciousness that was almost a contact. She had grown more and more remote from him, only coming to life elusively in the revealing flashes of dreams, lost in the morning. But now she was back, back again in possession. The whole wonder of her was once more his, as surely as if she had outdistanced the ship on a magic carpet or a puff of wind. A year was dead. Once more he was dizzy with Joan.
His senses shouted—clamoured hoarsely and impatiently. In the oily water slopping against the stonework of the quay he caught sight of a distorted image of himself, writhing and grimacing like a native contortionist or some victim of a sudden whirlwind; and he laughed at it, for it expressed facially what he was feeling within himself. It seemed so strange that the crowd could scramble past him and still be deaf and blind to his internal commotions, his corybantic caperings of spirit. . . .
Like a great, sleek animal the liner turned—hesitated—loomed majestically in, making pigmies of them all. There was a rush of East—ducking heads and sweaty shoulders—to the foot of the gangway; lascars, coolies, porters swamped him like a tide, and he leaned backwards against the wave of them, laughing and protesting, with his hat over his eyes. He had missed the gangway entrance. He was pinned against the wooden rail, wedged between a gesticulating paterfamilias in a coalscuttle hat and a man with a telegram. The coolies he was supposed to keep an eye on had vanished. Nicholas had gone up the gangway—had probably already found Joan. He felt insanely jealous of Nicholas.
Then he heard his own name repeated—deeply, mirthfully, insistently, from somewhere above. He looked up wildly; saw rows of faces.
“Here, you bat. Lower. Lower!”
At last! And so near that, if it had been humanly possible for him to jump up, he might have touched the tips of her shoes. Joan, laughing at him because his hat was knocked sideways; Joan, delighting in him because he looked for the moment like an escaped lunatic, and had missed the gangway, and had failed to spot her on the rail of the lower deck; Joan—the figure in white after all, as he might have known from the tilt of her head—the darling head . . . .
“You darling! You darling!” he only formed the words—mischievously, emphatically—with his lips; but he might as well have shouted them, for the mail sacks and the heavy baggage were coming out of the hold and babel reigned. As well have tried to whisper against a waterfall or an iron foundry or a salute of guns. But she got the message. She returned it, laughing, leaning down to him, making the words big. For a moment they shared that delightful, stolen privacy which is only attainable in the heart of a really noisy crowd; and he enjoyed it to the full, because he was saying things that he would have been too shy to breathe in an empty room, and showing feelings in his face that he might have moderated if he had had time to think about himself. But, with his hat crooked and someone’s elbow screwing into his ribs, he could say anything and do anything. In his wildest fancies he had never pictured a more perfect meeting, nor bettered that vision of Joan—laughing, leaning down to him; making kisses for him in the air, and big, round words.
It was distressing, after recapturing the spirit of the past at a step; after establishing a code of kisses and satisfying, if soundless, words; after surmounting the mere routine of being joined together in holy matrimony at twelvethirty, and eating a wedding luncheon, and catching a train—it was eminently distressing to relapse and be shy. Yet that was his predicament, and, to judge from appearances, Joan’s too.
They had the carriage—a long sleeping compartment with a bunk on either side—to themselves; they were secure from disturbance till dinner-time, when someone would invite them to get out and walk to another car; there was no apparent reason why he should not be sitting on the same bunk as Joan, sitting very close to her and behaving as foolishly and as delightedly as he had behaved on the quay, instead of merely looking at her and talking in spasms about nothing in particular—no reason at all, unless he made her hat his excuse. It was a large hat and it lay at her feet, occupying the space that was his by right. He had made no attempt to remove it, or to cross the intervening pile of luggage, which lay between the bunks like a fortification. By stretching out his arm he might, or might not, just be able to touch her sleeve. The phrase “at arm’s length” occurred to him—a wife at arm’s length—and he recognized that they were being absurd.
Yet he took no steps. Like the hat, the anomaly remained where it was. They had discussed her visit to England; family news was up to date; he had told her quite a lot about the cottage, and they had decided to call it Pine Knoll, after the hillock upon which it was built; they had now begun, with a certain feverish anxiety, to keep the ball rolling, to sort out the experiences of the morning in great detail—especially the cathedral experience. It was so odd that ten minutes in the gloom of a strange building, and a few sentences in curt parsonical tones, could bridge the gulf between marriage and—well, the other thing—singularity. It was simpler than kissing your hand—much simpler than climbing over a pile of luggage—so simple, in fact, that it was pretty nearly incredible. Bright sunshine, streets—and four people in a ghari. Glooms, texts, blessings. Then, the same sunshine, the same ghari, similar streets, and—hey presto!—married! And all inside ten minutes!
They could not get over it. They made a phenomenon out of it, continuing to be sundered by suit-cases and intimidated by hats, till Bombay was far behind; till the queer-shaped, pinkish Western Ghats began to bob up at the windows; till the train lost its pokerlike stiffness and began to squirm in and out of those intricate hills, and the sun played a game of hide-and-seek with Joan’s hair, making it coppery now, and now pure gold.
The inevitable silence fell between them; the inevitable recourse to the windows followed it.
He found himself formulating excuses—the kind of excuses one finds good enough for oneself, but hardly worth repeating aloud. He did not want to disturb her, he told himself—it was a mistake to begin emphasizing that mere accident of the cathedral glooms, and to start behaving as if it entitled him to order her about and ask her to remove her hat and her feet and make room. He had known Joanie since she was ten, and a brief exchange of amenities under a dome couldn’t make all that difference. There was even a haunting suggestion of fraud in that marriage ceremony. Fourth out of nine couples; weddings by strict rotation, by queue, in fact; and the devil take the hindermost, for assuredly their train wouldn’t . . . somehow he couldn’t get the affair into its proper, solemn perspective. He couldn’t make it real to himself or recall it without a lamentable impulse to splutter into a handkerchief.
And what was the use of having known Joanie practically from babyhood? None whatever. It was an obstacle rather than an asset, because it was making it practically impossible for him to make a start on the new plane. Knowing her so well—knowing, for instance, that she had always hated anything in the nature of demonstration, especially kissing—how was he going to lead her into the really bewildering degree of intimacy portended and sanctioned and even suggested in the record-breaking performance of an hour or two ago? It really was a nerve-racking problem, quite sufficient to damp that sheer, God-given effervescence of spontaneity and joy that had inspired them both on the quay. He wondered whether Joanie felt the same about it; felt that the old intimacy was almost a barrier when one considered the possibility of the new. Was that why she too had become rather quiet?
Apparently not. She looked so comfortably ensconced in body—with a roll of rugs for her back and a cushion behind her head—that it was impossible to imagine her as uncomfortable in mind. She invested that hairy and funereal bunk with a suggestion of the properties of a sofa, lying on it so easily, with one foot tucked away under her and the other stretched out so that he could see her skin, faintly pink under her tight stocking; with her right arm along the window-ledge and her fingers just dangling outside to cool in the wind of the train; with her head tilted back on the cushion, comfortably niched. She had to perfection that baffling faculty of endearing, as it were, the most unlikely resting-places to her slim, lovely self; of disposing her arms and legs in a way that invariably made him feel gawky and unwieldy and overgrown by comparison.
Joan and himself—Joan and himself—so alike, so unalike. Both on the tall side, both slim, both fair; both, one could imagine, made by the same hand—except that he had been discarded in the initial stages of the work while Joan had been wrought into the maker’s masterpiece.
He could picture some imaginary and divine sculptor of humanity turning away pettishly from his Jimmy and concentrating with zest on completing his Joan; sacrificing a couple of inches to make her fine and finished; adding that inspiration of her hair—a soft, curling crown instead of the haycock that had disfigured that earlier attempt, the Jimmy. Joan and himself—similarity in diversity, diversity in similarity—amazing!
He had to admit that she was betraying no equal interest in studying him. She was looking out of the window. She appeared to be puzzling out, with marked attention, the somewhat grotesque features of the surrounding hills—frowning at times and wrinkling her neat little nose. When she asked a question now it was geological in character, for they were funny-shaped, variegated hills—whittled like tops, or cocked like thumbs, and grained like some of the more exciting trophies in a confectioner’s window. The questions were friendly—confidential even—but he doubted whether she was really thinking about the hills.
What was she thinking of? What did she make of it all?
Once she gave a clue. With a contented little smile at him she said, quite suddenly, “Oh, it’s nice to be back. I’m really quite surprised at how nice it is,” and made just the ghost of a movement in his direction—a tiny wriggle that seemed to indicate a readiness for confidences. But the queer thing was that he could not respond. He only blushed disastrously and raked at his hair and looked hungry.
“Yes, isn’t it? It’s glorious!” was the sum total of his response. He could have kicked himself.
And after that she seemed to puzzle more than ever about the scenery, even altering her position to keep this or that monstrosity of a hill in view. He assured himself, without much conviction, that this was inevitable; that people in their position always felt awkward; that it was sufficient luxury to look at her. Almost, indeed, it was. She had a new method of doing her hair, so that it fitted to her head like a soft, smooth cap, curling inwards to kiss her neck, breaking in tinier curls low down on her forehead. The effect was singularly happy. It gave a serenity to her face; a reposefulness that had not been markedly evident a year ago. A substratum of discontent—an infinitesimal pout, maybe—had been left behind in England, possibly at the hairdresser’s. Serenity was the note now.
It ought, he felt, to have been pitched a little higher. When she had leaned down to him over the rail her face had been radiant. Radiance, then; and now, serenity—a descending scale. At that rate what would the next note be? Amused tolerance? or a more complete reposefulness, verging on a yawn?
He was beginning to feel desperate, especially when he contemplated to-morrow’s emergence into publicity, into the limelight of the hotel in Agra which, for his sins, he had selected as the stage for their honeymoon. He had never really and whole-heartedly liked the idea of that hotel. He had chosen it more for Joan’s sake than his own, as a concession to her liking for fresh faces and music at meals; but now it had begun to figure in his mind as an edifice of positive gloom, much gloomier than the cathedral. It was getting so near, too. Every throb of the wheels brought it nearer . . .
He always regarded Joan’s sudden remark about Agra as the outstanding achievement of the railway journey. No sooner had that hotel loomed, as it were, into his mind than she whipped round and asked him point-blank why he had chosen it. A clear case of telepathy; an encouraging sign of the sympathy that, he had always felt, ought to exist between married minds; almost, in a sense, the first tangible indication that they really were married. He felt quite proud of it—the remark—as if he had played parent to it. There was just that about it.
“What on earth made you hit on an hotel, Jimmy? And at Agra of all places?” was what she said.
He duly called attention to the coincidence—the first-fruits of their joint minds, and Joan duly admired the phenomenon.
“But what made you?” she said.
He could hardly be explicit. What had made him was the suspicion that it would be politic to furnish a real feast of faces—a final glut, as it were—before her gaze should rest on those brooding, broad-backed, immutable hills. In his own mind he had dallied with a certain little hostel at Bhawali, in the next valley to their own, where a retired serjeant drew the beer and his wife consummated all manner of succulencies out of chickens. He had cast longing glances—but had refrained. It was too near home, too emphatically smiled on by those same hills.
“I thought we’d enjoy it,” was all he could say.
“You mean you thought I would?”
There was just a quiver in that deep note. She was laughing at him. But he vindicated Agra—collected his shreds and tatters of enthusiasm and marshalled them nobly.
“We’ve neither of us seen the Taj. We ought to see the Taj. It’s one of the seven wonders of the world. And then there’s Fatehpur Sikri, that would be one if the Taj wasn’t. . . perhaps it’s the eighth . . . anyway it’s wonderful. The thing to do is to hire a car and picnic. They run them from the Grand—reduced it to a fine art, your father says. A picnic every day . . . and anyway it’s only a week.”
Unfortunate, that last remark, coming at the end of a really creditable list of attractions. Rather like apologising for the place. More unfortunate still, he had exhausted his catalogue. He could only enlarge on the picnics, grading them—whole day picnics, halfday picnics, moonlight picnics . . .
“You’ve forgotten the other picnickers,” was Joan’s only comment. “It’s the height of the season. Half the people on the boat are on this train. We shall probably find ourselves sharing an omnibus with the Dobbses.”
“We won’t,” he murmured grimly.
“We may. They’ll be bobbing up all over the ruins anyhow, except old Mrs. Dobbs, and she’ll knit in the verandah and waylay you every time you want to be off on one of your precious picnics. Very conversational, old Mrs. Dobbs—she pats your hand all the time—and Mr. Dobbs is such an intelligent . . .”
There was nothing for it but to poke his fingers firmly in his ears and keep them there till Joan’s lips ceased to move. Then he made his short, his gallant and desperate defence of Agra.
“Hang the whole lot of them,” he concluded, “I’ve got you.”
“I’ve got you”—his first attempt at expressing the great new fact. It was difficult to say—indeed, it was only made possible by her happening to look away from him out of the window, and a queer thrill was in it, as if more had gone out of him than words. She might have been conscious of that, for their eyes met for an instant—nervously, as if they had met on some doubtful errand—and then by mutual consent strayed apart again. But something in her look—a something of surmise, of hesitation, as if she apprehended his emotion and were applying it to herself—served to deepen the thrill in him. He half got up, only pausing for a response in her, a hint of invitation.
It did not come. There was a quick “No, Jimmy. No, please,” and an uneasy gesture that was even more explicit. Promptly he withdrew into his shell, anathematizing that old tradition of theirs which gave a name to anything in the nature of love-making and called it “sloppy.” A stupid word. A stupid tradition. But it held. Quite evidently it held.
“Let’s talk. Somehow . . . in a railway carriage . . . it’s the only thing to do,” said Joan.
The question settled—his concurrence taken for granted—that was the old Joan. Just her serene self again—the pal, the pleasant travelling companion. By intention, of course. It was defensive, that serenity, as he had suspected for some time. As plainly as possible it said, “Let’s go on as we always have. Don’t let’s bother about the tiresome marriage part of the business.”
All very well . . . but he couldn’t help bothering.
“When do we get there?” asked Joan, pleasantly interested.
Another jar! He had forgotten the implications of railway travel—the complications, rather, for they were faced with a night in this little box on wheels. No getting away from it. Glancing round, he made the discovery that there exists no environment more confining, more unashamedly intimate than the interior of a reserved railway compartment on the G.I.P., except possibly the cabin of an airship, of which he had no experience. The bunks—such palpable bunks!—and the triple shutters, glass and wood and zinc; and the sense of having the night all round you, even underneath you, and of only being connected with the world by wheels—wheels that would make a barrier of sound between the silence without and the silence within—it was an almost terrifying degree of privacy, if one did not know quite how to use it. If one did not know quite how to proceed.
But he was justly proud of his “To-morrow morning.” It had just the right note of unconcern—the tacit assumption that it was merely a question of prolonging the present situation for a further period, instead of throbbing through the night on wheels.
“Oh,” said Joan.
Much more effectually casual, that “oh.” Clearly she saw no implications at all. And he saw no way of enlightening her. The fact, however, remained that one undressed, at any rate to an appreciable extent. While they were having dinner in the restaurant car the bearer and ayah would descend on those palpable bunks and convert them into still more palpable beds. On the beds—in their frank, Indian fashion—they would lay out appropriate garments, choosing the gaudiest. Joan had evidently forgotten that travelling in India wasn’t like running up to Scotland with a rug round you and a cap over your eyes. So had he, till this moment.
He coughed, and ran over one or two sentences in his mind. “Look here, Joanie, I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable. I’ll put my head under a blanket.”
No, that called attention to a palpability. What about “I feel just as awkward as you do, but we shall get used to it in time”? No.
No. What he actually said was unpremeditated, and quite foolish. “You won’t mind—er?” he said.
“Won’t mind what?”
“Of course not. Why should I?” without hesitation, “I’m longing for my bed.”
He smiled gratefully, and Joan asked him if he snored. In a discussion of the various expedients for the prevention of snoring, ranging from the removal of adenoids to the tying of a soapdish in the small of the back, the painful subject of the hotel was allowed to fade into a temporary oblivion. Presently the dusk came down, painting the horizon in soft tones of pink and of purple. Beauty stole into the carriage, till it became a dim arbour of dusk, gently illuminated with light from the edges of the hazy hills.
Joan chattered on serenely.
The problem of undressing, at any rate, solved itself. He immured himself in the lavatory.
When he returned Joan was in bed, looking more like the Joan of ten years ago than the Joan of ten minutes ago, with her hair brushed out like a silk nest in the hollow of the pillow. The brief conversation that passed before she said she was tired and going to sleep reminded him exactly of the subdued exchange of ideas that used to take place in the dormitory at school after “lights out”—it was snug, sleepy, and amicable. Any two children of ten might have achieved it, just as any two children of ten might have indulged, without undue excitement, in the good-night kiss that followed.
“Good-night, Jimmy. Thanks for not being a bother,” were the last words he heard that night. Tradition reasserted with a vengeance—it staggered even him, who thought he knew Joan.
Oh, but he had waited a long year! Dreamed of her, yearned for her . . .
“Darling! darling! darling!” he wanted to whisper, and bury his face in her hair.
No good, though. Out of the question. From head to foot she was one mute protest against his still being out of bed.
Hours later he lay awake—quite incurably awake—watching her across the dim carriage, trying to persuade himself that he was privileged, and to be grateful. She hadn’t minded his being there. She could go to sleep—she was asleep now, a little mound under a plaid rug; strands of hair, like lattice on a pillow—with him at arm’s length. She trusted him. She put herself in his charge as confidingly as she might have done ten years ago. A wonderful thing. Sometimes he had really convinced himself that nothing could be more wonderful than just to have Joan like this—to have her to himself, permanently, on the old terms. He had told himself, thinking of it in the abstract, in the course of some detached, dreaming interlude of speculation, that he was so constituted that he really would not want to make demands of her. He had even thanked God that he was not a passionate person, or likely to intrude on what he knew was as fundamental in her as it was in himself—a fierce fastidiousness of self-possession. The idea—fantastic now—had fitted in with the diffidence of his nature; that unwillingness to take an initiative that is often mistaken for dogged conservatism. He looked at it in that light himself, needless to say. There was a conception of Joan that he did not want to lose; a way of thinking of her that he did not want to exchange for any other way; a mental picture of her, ten years old, that it would be a pity to bring up to date. So on and so on—what sentimental bunkum it all seemed when one could not sleep!
Yet even as late as this morning he had imagined that marriage in so mild a guise might satisfy him. And as he had dozed off last night he had wondered drowsily whether the mere awareness of Joan’s being near might not sweeten and facilitate sleep.
Bunkum! All bunkum! All that he was ever going to be aware of in connection with Joan was a thrilling, a stampede of the senses, whenever he approached her and realized what she was—what a soft thing, what a fragrant thing. He had felt that twice, poignantly—once when he had said, “Hang the whole lot of them! I’ve got you!” And again when he had tucked her in. Her hair had strayed over his hand. But he had wanted to bury his face in her hair.
He felt it now. God, he felt it now!
He drew back the wooden shutter and let in just a little of the night to cool and calm him. With a certain sense of relief he found the world bright in comparison with the carriage. It was moonlit and starlit, and the exaggerated, restless shapes of the Ghats had given place to milder, plumper foothills, ranging parallel to the line, with cultivated plainland between. Quiet shapes these—rounded and hunched like people asleep under blue velvet bed-curtains; with tilted fields for a braid to their coverlet, and the ghosts of trees for its fringe. But on one hill a road slanted upwards to a village, and its slant was the slant of the Bhawali road, so that suddenly he was reminded of his own hills. Here was the same almost sensuous comfort of outline; the same brooding peace. The fields might have been those little chequered plots that embroidered Shahgarh valley and the base of Ramnagar Ridge, and every village was a Bhawali, and equally asleep. A clump of solitary, outstanding trees on one low hill hinted at Pine Knoll. He could almost fancy that they concealed a cottage with a thatched roof, approached by a steep, rakish path . . .
He was standing on that hillock with Joan. Under those trees. Sharing the rich silence, the pervading and compelling peace . . .
Oh, hang Agra!
The hotel haunted his dreams. A monstrous old lady who answered to the name of Dobbs patted his hand with podgy fingers, while Joan, laughing, slipped away. And in none of his dreams could he find her.
He awoke haggard with the weight of Agra. But it was not until they were sliding into the very station that, with one of those lightning changes of front that were so characteristic and so bewitching, she put him out of his misery.
“Don’t let’s get out,” she said.
The moment before she had been loud in her praises of his selection, pointing out with an enthusiasm that was positively painful the advantages of a large hotel for honeymooning; dancing with delight at the first sight of the Taj Mahal, poised like a magical bubble over the dun Jumna flats, with all the blush of dawn in it. And now, in the twinkling of an eye, “Don’t let’s get out!”
It took his breath away. Funnily enough, now that by some miracle he had got his heart’s desire, he could only think of difficulties—getting the tickets altered and the luggage relabelled and the rooms cancelled; and changing somewhere or other; and getting into the cottage at the journey’s end—for it was home now or nothing. But Joan never had had any patience with difficulties. She waved them all away.
She pushed him out of the door. She pointed out the booking office. She interviewed the guard, and captured the hotel porter and sent a message. She took entire charge, while he danced attendance and wondered whether he could be awake.
But the train slid out of Agra station, and they were still in it. The servants were in it, and the luggage, labelled “Kathgodam,” was all in it. But there was something else in it as well—something new and unforeseen and wholly delightful—a sense of adventure. A real, honest, unmistakable sense of adventure.
Adventure persisted. It was dominant when, on hireling ponies, they topped the first rise out of Chandragalli bazaar and saw their own little plumed hillock emerging from the welter of the hills. True, they had travelled across India—a matter of forty-eight hours—in a reserved carriage in such a fashion that it would not have much mattered if the carriage had been crowded. The other occupants, had there been any, could only have taken them for an affectionate brother and sister, and no one would have felt uncomfortable or constrained to retire behind a newspaper. True, in his capacity as a husband he had made no headway, and Joan persisted in being quite serene. But since leaving Agra there had been a difference; a new element in their relationship, or perhaps a very old one resuscitated—light-heartedness. A sense of leaving their plans behind them, just as now they had left the train behind them, and all the conscious restraints of the train; and the ayah and the bearer and the luggage, to come on as best they could; and Mrs. Dobbs and her fellowcormorants; and even Nicholas and Janie who, by some jugglery of chance and the railway, had finally appeared on Kathgodam platform. They were genuine truants—they had skulked behind a pile of luggage till the coast was clear and Nicholas and Janie safely installed in a tonga; imagining their remarks.
“Well, they‘re comfortably married now, Janie . . .”
“We’ll get a postcard from Agra to-morrow, Nick . . .”
Giggling together. Hugging the picture to themselves and making a memory out of it, so that years hence they would be able to raise a laugh over giving Nicholas and Janie the slip. All that contributed to the new holiday mood; led up to that little triumphant outburst of Joan’s that made him feel curiously elated and curiously ashamed, at the same time, of his own innermost thoughts.
“I was afraid we’d have grown up, and we neither of us have.”
He had had no immediate answer ready for that. Not-growing-up was a doubtful blessing if it involved not-facing-facts. He had a feeling that later—perhaps soon—he would be doing his uttermost to abolish that little triumph of hers. But not to-day. To-day he shared it. It was so inevitably mixed up with the sense of freedom and the feel of old clothes and the look of the road.
They had it to themselves—the white, dusty hilltrack, thrown like a cord across the hills, in hanks, from Chandragalli to Shahgarh. They could see Shahgarh—the front windows were ablaze with reflections, so that the house played the part of a fiery crown to the fat, green, healthy body of the orchards below. On the other side of the valley, on their left hand, the long hog’s back of Ramnagar Ridge lay purple and shadowed; and between the two—blue-green, cool and distinct, because it was out of the beam that transfigured Shahgarh—was Pine Knoll. A speck of white proclaimed the cottage, and all around the infinite hills seemed to peer down at it, one over the shoulder of another.
“That’s it,” he exclaimed, adding, with the cautiousness that never quite left him, even on the heights of adventure, “I hope there’ll be someone to let us in.”
Joan scoffed—she knew no caution.
“Who cares. We can climb in. I’ll climb in off this little beast’s back. Do you good to climb, Jimmy.”
“Rather.” Joan was contagious, and he could follow a lead, “We’ll storm the place. We’ll fairly storm it. And to think we might have been skulking into that beastly hotel.”
“I rather wish I’d seen you, though, with both your hands firmly imprisoned by Mrs. Dobbs. No, I don’t know that I do. This is nice.”
“It’s absolutely glorious!”
He meant it. The spirit of adventure was staunch. It was good to be bringing her home. He thought of his two sleepless nights—-the long, long ache—with a certain derision. What a fuss to have made!
“Most people would be holding hands at this point and slobbering over each other,” he found himself saying, rashly and quite unnecessarily. His shyness would sometimes take that form—of overdoing it; of saying much more than he had meant to say.
Joan agreed with unction.
“Yes, wouldn’t they. I’m so glad we’re sensible.”
“I might not always be sensible. Sometimes . . .” he began, at a slight disadvantage because Joan had taken it into her head to trot. His protest was swallowed in the scurry of small hoofs. He doubted whether she had even heard it.
At the estate boundary the road forks, the main prong cutting through orchards of damson and apple, and cherry and plum to Nicholas’s front door; the other dipping to the lake-side, and there rapidly degenerating. A mere woodland path, none too easy for ponies, climbs the Knoll in leisurely spirals, with a high bank on your left hand and a steep drop on your right, till you pass from an atmosphere almost subterranean—damp, green walls of moss, and secretive little oak trees—into the more spacious presence of the pines. Straight, towering pines they are, tall enough to embrace whole armfuls of sunlight under their boughs. The path, from being slippery and stony, becomes all at once thickly carpeted with needles and veined with a tortuous and fascinating network of roots. The whole hill begins here to smell of pine, and you breathe a scented air. Nothing suggests a house, for you cannot yet see the house.
It was at this point that he grew all at once abominably nervous. Another corner and Joan would know the worst. It was tantalizing the way the path kept its secret till the very last moment, and then, as it were, hurled it in your face, revealing with a flourish the insignificance of man’s handiwork compared with Nature’s giants. He began to wish that he had taken her up to Shahgarh first and given her a bird’s-eye view of the place, sufficiently mellowed by distance. This was going to be such a confronting. Red gravel, white paint, yellow thatch—spotlessly new, nakedly new—naked in the very eye of the sunset—it was enough to make the ponies shy!
Muffled hoofs, on a matting of pine needles inches deep; grunts and gasps from the ponies; and Joan, sitting up so straight, with a little red flush of excitement in either cheek—the suspense was more than he could stand. He felt inclined to run away and let her face it alone. Her first impression—it was so tremendously important; so much more important than he had ever imagined.
Quietly and shamefacedly he dropped behind. Joan went on alone.
“I’m going to shut my eyes and open them when you tell me,” she cried, to his horror.
“No, for Heaven’s sake don’t! Keep them open. It’s nothing very wonderful. I tell you, it’s minute. Don’t expect anything. Just go on and get it over.”
In his agitation he spoke quite sharply. She would wince, he knew, when she got round that last corner—wince and then blink. “Of course, it is new. It’ll tone down, won’t it?” she would blurt out eventually, when the silence became too painful. Or perhaps she wouldn’t even find that to say. Perhaps there would be no comment at all.
“Here, hang it, Joanie—wait!” he shouted, “I want to explain. It’s a tiny little place. It’s only got four rooms. Only . . .”
Too late! The moment had come. Even he, from behind, could see all that there was to see, and it seemed to him that his fears were realized, for at this moment—with the combination of towering trees in the background and a blazing sunset to a flank—the house did look singularly insignificant. There was no getting over the fact. The walls were too white, the path too pink; the thatch was almost saffron in this peculiar light; but the adventitious brilliancy of colouring only enhanced a certain futility in the place. A rather finicking futility. No wonder Joan had not said a word—only stared.
He knew at once what was the matter—it was too English. He had overdone it. It was like an illustration to a magazine article on small holdings. And, to cap the whole tragedy of it, the mali in his absence had dug three quasi-circular flower-beds in the middle of the one really tolerably spacious feature of the whole scheme—the grass slope in front; the hitherto virgin slope which, starting from the verandah steps, rolled down a long mile and faced the whole galaxy of hills. Those three red, round wounds, studded with the corpses of mute, protesting perennials, at the very apex of his vista, represented the crown of sorrows. He dared not join Joanie. She was probably about to cry—in which case he would probably follow suit. The whole thing was too awful.
He remained studiously in rear, trying to extract a little comfort from the effect of the sunset on the bedroom windows. With a stretch of the imagination one could picture a blazing fire of welcome within.
“Rather jolly, that reflection. That’s your bedroom,” he ventured. Then added explosively, I say, I never intended those damned beds!”
“What beds? Oh, those! I don’t mind them.”
She turned round. She was smiling.
“I love it all, Jimmy. I simply love it.”
He made no bones about it. He meant it.
After that it was a pleasure to linger. The insignificance, the garishness, the futility of the house had gracefully and mysteriously vanished. He was aware once more that it was a very pleasant little abode, and he intended to take every opportunity of hearing Joan say so. But the ordeal, while it had lasted, had been pretty stiff. For the moment everything that mattered—their future happiness, her attitude to India, her attitude even to him—had seemed to hang by a thread; and the thread was her first impression of home. He felt a little unsteady when they dismounted and he prepared to take the ponies to the stables.
“You’re happy, Joanie? You really are sure you like it?” he couldn’t help whispering before he went.
“Quite, quite, quite sure,” was the reply, “don’t be long. I want to get in. It isn’t properly ours till we’re in.”
He loved her impatience. It was particularly difficult to refrain from kissing her, as she stood above him on the steps, smiling, with the light on her face. But, after what he had said on the way up the road, any kind of demonstration was difficult. And he didn’t want to delete that peculiarly provoking smile.
“I’ll try and dig out the chowkidar,” he cried, and hurried round to the back, very happy. Joan was so unaffectedly delighted, and his worst enemy could not have accused him of influencing her judgment! On the contrary, he had quite needlessly insulted the house; had betrayed his own inarticulate offspring for nothing.
“You’re a damned nice little house really!” he murmured to himself as he tied up the ponies, “a singularly prepossessing little house. And I’m a bally lunatic. Quite, quite mad.”
He felt like that—light-headed with relief. He could have shaken hands with the chowkidar, in spite of finding the old man asleep in the kitchen. Yet, with Joan, there was still a certain temptation to deprecate, with a view to eliciting further praises. In fact, he delayed her at the door for that express purpose.
“I’m afraid we shan’t get much to grow here. The pines do so impoverish the soil,” was his first essay, and it worked; for Joan instantly said, “Rubbish! We’ll have a lovely garden.” The next attempt—an insinuation that the paint would smell—was less successful.
“I don’t care if it stinks!” said Joan. “You’re doing it on purpose. You’re fishing. Give—me—that—key.”
There was a brief struggle.
“Joanie. . .”
“No, I won’t be kissed here. Let me in.”
Odd how the moment he touched her, however much in fun, they must needs get serious and talk exaggeratedly. Ridiculous of her, really, to flare up like that. Unnatural. He felt nettled for the moment, and held on to the key.
“I won’t mark the occasion suitably, like a scivvy under the mistletoe, even if I am married,” breathed Joan.
“All right. All right.”
He unlocked the door himself, and in his irritation only just refrained from going in first. Joanie needn’t have spoilt this moment of all moments by making a silly scene. After all, when all was said and done, you oughtn’t to have to steal kisses from your wife.
He stumped in with his hands in his pockets at a suitable distance behind her. Sunlight was for ushering them as far as the foot of the stairs, but he shut the door on it. They stood in a gloom, sniffing fresh paint. Then he pulled himself together.
“Sorry, Joanie.” After all he was bringing her home. “You were so perfectly topping about the house that I . . . well . . .”
She came up to him, slowly, and waited.
“I only didn’t want to be obvious,” she said, “you can now.”
He did, several times. But it wasn’t the same thing. He had missed her lips as he had wanted them—half open, smiling, ripe in the sun. And Joanie hadn’t liked it. All the zest had been in him.
A queer little spasm of doubt—of terror, almost-assailed him.
“You do love me, Joanie? You haven’t changed?” he whispered; for he had missed something, some warmth that had figured in the old kisses, however few and far between.
“Disappointed?” was the quick reply. The old trick of answering a question with a question.
What else could he say?
“I’m not much good at love-making. . .”
“I don’t ask you to make love. . .”
They were eyeing each other awkwardly, uncertainly. There was a sense of tension, and he felt that it was the wrong moment to have spoken. Perhaps it would always be the wrong moment, though. If so, this was as good as any other. He began to fumble for words. But Joan cut him short.
“Now show me every single thing,” she said, taking his arm, “or it’ll be dark. Come on.”
He saw that she was right. After all, they owed something to the house—that silent little personality, waiting patiently to be looked at.
“I was just going to,” he replied mendaciously.
When it came to the point he thoroughly enjoyed it. Dusk and the filtered light of sunset altered things, so that the house was as new to him as to her. Different features came out of hiding, different aspects. Colours meant little, shapes everything—and he felt that shapes were the truer test. A bar of golden light slanting in from a window could add a wonderful, unpremeditated finishing touch—as it did to that alcove in the drawingroom, where he had put a little antique bureau and a chair with bull-doggy legs, largely because they happened to fit. Seeing that alcove now, he was tempted to think that he had been inspired. It had such character.
Did you arrange that?”—a quick, incredulous gasp and he had his reward. There was no object in giving the credit to a sunbeam. With a becoming modesty he took it to himself; and not once, but many times. The evening light was a valuable ally. It transformed the pitch of the bedroom ceiling, for instance—hitherto a dictate of some obscure law of thatching—into a fascinating feature, throwing a hardly less fascinating shadow. There was a look about that ceiling—a look of ripe antiquity; of friendly, solicitous, grandmotherly antiquity—that was quite charming. It suggested just a hint of kindly surveillance over the two beds.
There were times when it seemed that a room actually winked, or even smiled at them—and that too was a legacy of the light. The sudden oval of Joan’s Chippendale mirror, framing Joan’s bright hair; red gleams in the glass of a picture over her bed; even the glint of a bed knob, or a glow in the leg of a chair—all these, in their degrees, were overtures; smiles of welcome; little shy apologies, maybe, for a certain chilliness and a smell of paint.
Not that they minded the paint. They threw open all the windows and let in the pine as well.
And Joan—Joan was wonderful. Flitting like a will-o’-the-wisp, always just a little out of reach; peeping, fingering, prying; now on tip-toe, now down on her knees, more like a child in a new nursery with new toy cupboards in it and new chests-of-drawers than a grown-up married woman. They did not say much. A series of ejaculations from Joan—a sort of running fire of adjectives—and a series of gratified grunts from him took the place of conversation. Signs, though, of true content. She was happy; he was proud. The house was a success. It stood the test of femininity—the only true test of a human habitation—as surely as it stood the test of grey dusk and golden light. The inanimate—mere masculine dispositions of tables and chairs and what not—had come startlingly to life.
They were still discovering the fact when a rumble of heavy objects below told them at least the luggage had arrived.
After the peculiar fashion of the East, the household had materialized itself. The bearer and ayah had found a fast ekka and had driven; the cook had cast up from Shahgarh, the beestie from Chandragalli, apparently as the result of some mysterious powers of telegraphy locked in the chowkidar’s breast. Doors had begun to bang, bare feet to pad. Fires had been patiently blown upon, coaxed into being; beds made; boxes unpacked. Even the time-honoured conjuring-trick of India—in four stages: thin soup, an unknown brand of fish (probably from the lake), chicken, and caramel pudding—had been performed up to time, and the bearer had emerged in spotless white to administer it. With just a hint of senile pride, as one who works miracles.
“Yih asli machhli hai. Teen ka nahin.” Real fish—not the tinned variety—just as if he himself had dangled the worm that caught it! Very likely he had. Anyhow, they gave a fitting acclaim to the miracle, understanding and rather enjoying his pride, because it resembled their own.
The house was working! Functioning! Already producing four-course meals! Firelit, too, and lamplit; full of purpose and hurrying feet.
It was all a little incredible—this coming-to-life of an establishment, hitherto discorporate; especially so, when the buzz had subsided and the servants had faded away whence they came—into the compound behind—and left them to the drawing-room fire and their own devices. There was something dreamlike about it all. Nothing had gone wrong. Home was not only home, but home-at-very-short-notice. Even the smell of paint had been exorcised.
They sat on the sofa in front of the fire. A dull murmur of conversation drifted in from the compound, emphasizing their isolation. Indeed, he had never before realized how completely the Englishman’s home in India—painfully public by day, spied upon, agog with padding feet—becomes his castle at night. It was the railway carriage over again, save that this was stationary isolation. He visualized the house as it would appear to the servants, sitting by their fire outside—a secretive little box, lonely under the stars, disturbing to the curiosity. The thought made him feel self-conscious. He wanted to get up and pull the curtains closer.
He was very close to Joan. She was leaning forward, absorbed apparently in the fire, and it needed but a tiny shuffle on his part to take her into the crook of his arm. Her posture invited it—the elbows resting in her lap, close together, and a hand to each hot cheek; the shoulders hunched, shaped for his enveloping; the nape of her neck, where little curly hairs gleamed, each strand catching the firelight, bared for him to kiss. He wanted to kiss her there and feel the life and the queer human response to his lips that her hair could give, that her skin could give, but no silk—however soft—could imitate. He wanted to put his hands where her hands were—cupping her cheeks—and feel the delicate, infinitesimal down that he could just see the life of her cheeks, the blooming. And then move his fingers ever so lightly that they might be sensitive to all the tiny traceries of her skin; touch her eyebrows—stubborn, they looked, like fine wire, and of a darker, different texture to her hair; smooth the ivory roadway between. Oh, he wanted to explore her, to feel his wonder grow and the luxury of discovery at his fingers’ ends; watching her the while, for surely his touch would mesmerize and soothe. Her eyes would turn to his in time—wide, drowsy eyes—and love would come like sleep.
A tiny shuffle; an insignificant movement of his arm; perhaps a word or two, of the kind that came so easily into the mind, so unwillingly to the lips—and he would be translating these thoughts into sensations. Almost were they sensations already, for there were nerves in his fingers, in his lips even, that responded now to his thoughts; nerves all down his side where she ought to be measured against him. He was full—too full for any comfort—of obscure nagging impulses, of queer thrillings and stimulations, because she was shaped so; because she was sitting thus. Shy of her? He was shy of himself. It would need a tremendous act of sympathy on her part to make an avowal possible of all these strange thoughts and impulses. By himself he was nothing. He could not stir.
She must be in tune with him—that was the supreme necessity. This time there must be no mistake—no blundering, no cross purposes, and futile little scenes. The thing was too big to trifle with. She must help. She must help. Otherwise love must turn into a terrible kind of distress. An abysmal floundering of the spirit.
He studied her intently—for she too had lapsed into silence—and then a kind of panic assailed him. He had boasted of knowing her so well—to himself, often; even sometimes to Nicholas and Janie. What did he know of her—of her thoughts at the present moment, for instance? Might he be forgiven the boast! He could read no more of her thoughts than of the ayah’s out in the compound. She might be thinking of these tremendous, earth-shaking happenings—marriage, home-coming, and this sudden close contact of their lives. She might be experiencing something of his own sensations—some corresponding need, distress, or surmise. Or she might not. She might merely be following the fortunes of the fire. Fires had always fascinated her.
“Joanie,” he broke out—quite hoarsely, as it seemed to him, “what do you make of it all? You and me . . . boxed up together . . . haven’t you thought and thought? Can’t we talk about it? Can’t we just begin to feel married? Don’t you realize what it means?”
At first he thought she was not going to answer. She took her hands from her face and contemplated the backs of them, holding them over the blaze. Then she gave a sudden nervous turn towards him, and drummed her hands on her knees.
“Oh, I realize everything. Don’t worry. And don’t stare.”
But he stared, dumbfounded.
“I’m going to bed,” said Joan, “you don’t understand.”
He followed miserably, feeling that he certainly did not understand. For what had he said?
She was standing by her dressing-table when he went in, between two tall candles, brushing her hair. Very small she looked, for Joan—smaller than was warranted by the mere change from heeled shoes to bedroom slippers—and somehow a little fragile, a slip of a Joan among all the hulking shadows that the fire and the candles reared about her. A child again, now that her hair was down, all in white, beneath the big shadows; standing among her own things, miraculously unpacked and in place—jars and bottles, and silver and ivory things that would persist in looking like toys. Why, there was even a big, brightly-coloured doll straddling the mirror. And the beds, snugly side by side under the sloping roof like nursery beds . . . why, why must his mind persist in going back ten years? Why now, when they were on the point of being so irrevocably grown-up?
Perhaps Joan had been thinking of that. Perhaps that was what he ought to have been able to understand.
He leaned against the door, shy of the room; watching Joan’s face in the looking-glass, trying to see the thought in her eyes.
“You’ve been quick.”
“Yes.” It was difficult to answer casually. He faltered. “I—I never take long. You’re quick, too.”
“Yes, except for my old hair.”
She was as strung-up as he was—he knew it from the way she was treating her hair, anxiously, busily, as if her life depended on giving her whole attention to it.
He could think of nothing more to say. Slowly, consciously dragging his feet, he wandered across the room; not directly towards her, but slantwise, making for the gap between the dressing-table and the windowseat.
He picked up the doll—a miniature mannequin with scarlet hair and ink-pool eyes, in a blue taffeta crinoline—and pulled it about.
“Don’t ill-treat my mascot,” Joan warned him, and with desperate alacrity he tried to restore it to its temporary perch. It refused utterly to perch. With a nervous glance at Joan, who was watching him anxiously, he laid it down flat, and turned away to fiddle with the curtain. Finally, he pulled it back a little and looked out of the window.
Another bright night, full of stars. There was a red spark on Ramnagar Ridge—some woodman’s fire. A servant was singing—“Ma—ha—ra—nee—ee—ee—yah,” it sounded like, over and over again in eerie, haunting quavers. Rather depressing. He drew back the curtain, twitching it twice to make sure that it overlapped, making a jangle with the rings; edged round the table; faced the room for the first time. Joan’s nightgown against the firelight was like gauze. He could see her through it—a slim, definite shadow. He turned away. Why must these aspects of Joan—the maddening, unsettling aspects—keep on obtruding themselves? Joan was a spoilt baby. She ought to be wrapped up in a flannel dressing-gown.
She had put down her brushes. But she did not move. She continued to gaze at herself in the glass, and he watched her eyes—sombre as ever, and as enigmatical. What was she thinking of? What did she want him to understand?
Haltingly he came up to her; stood over her; looked with her into the glass. His hand went round her shoulder—little, cool, compact shoulder within his hand—and then dropped, slipped down her side; touched, faltered, and touched again. That maddening stuffgossamer spun on a flower to masquerade as its covering-on a firm flower, very soft and smooth to touch, very white . . .
He was trembling now, terribly. There was a wine, it seemed, in his veins that mounted, mounted to his temples and the delicate skin of his head, leaving tracks of sweetness, gathering in his depths to mount again. Feeling, from those depths, was surging outwards into all his surfaces and there breaking exquisitely, like the most delicately fretted wave on the softest imaginable sand. He could not think. He could not see, as he was used to seeing—only the bright oval of the glass, and many candles, and the white lace at Joan’s neck. And his head was dizzy, as if he were swaying on some high and strange brink of experience from which there would be no going back.
Joan did not stir. Absolutely still she stood.
He fell to kissing her—wildly, where his lips listed, till they found hers; and then almost cruelly, because her lips were so clean and so firmly resistant. It was that sense of resistance—the absolute consciousness of her mouth, point for point, to his; and then of her limbs, as he drew her in, just as firm—it was that that drove him over his brink and made him cry out and gather her up and look down on her face in a maze of joy.
And then, instantaneously, he understood. She was absolutely pitiful.
She had been nerving herself all along. Her hands were clenched now. Her eyes were closed tight. Her face was pale and drawn into lines. She was all tension. She hardly seemed to be breathing.
Oh, he understood now; every word, every action, from her far-off decision to go back to England and leave him for a year down to her silence by the fire to-night. That constant appeal to the old days, the old traditions; that assumed serenity. She had been dreading this. This was her ordeal. And—yes—he could sympathize. Poor little Joanie.
He released her, so suddenly that they staggered apart. He found himself leaning, rather foolishly, with empty arms, against her dressing-table. Something clattered to the floor, and Joan sat down very abruptly on a chair. The thought flashed through him that he had wounded her lips, kissed them too red. But her eyes were darker than he had ever known them, and her face so pale. He was terribly distressed for her.
“Let’s . . . let’s go to bed.” A very small, husky voice. Not Joan’s voice at all. Yet, just because it was weak and small, strangely inexorable to him. Weakness calling to weakness, drawing on that deep fund of his diffidence, his distrust of himself, his aversion to giving pain, his queer quixotry. Made as he was, he could but become kind.
“It’s all right. Don’t worry, Joanie. Little, little Joanie . . .”
He stooped over her; soothed her; gently led her to her bed.
In the night he heard her crying. He thought of he bright hair, all tangled and draggled and wet on he cheek. He made wild, unpremeditated promises in the dark, and so, at length, quietened her. And she was pitifully grateful. But that did not mend his distress.
He came to the conclusion that they were oddities, Joan and he; probably unique—this seemed to be the only way, consistent with sanity, of viewing the situation. Once the worst was over, that is; for he suffered torments before he arrived at that philosophy. There were moments at night when he would wonder whether he could bear to go on being close to Joan; wonder whether it wouldn’t be best if he or she went away. But morning would come, and, with it, Joan herself—sitting up in bed, sweetly, faintly flushed; with eyes big and gentle and still a little drowsy; with sleep clinging to her only as an added glow and fragrance, emphasizing that childishness, that kinship with flowers and innocent things.
She had all the resiliency of a child, the power of starting each day as if it had no predecessors, as if it were the first in the world. He might tell himself that he was ill-used and feign sleep when he heard her awake. But not for long. He would hear a laugh,
“Why, you’re shamming all the time! You can’t deceive me! “
And open his eyes grudgingly, to see her perched on the end of his bed in her green pyjamas and her coat of many colours, with the light streaming in behind her from over hills as clean-edged and clear as tinted glass. Impossible to steel himself against the obvious joy of a day that started, as every day did, with a laugh and a fragrance and a flooding of light; with that vision of Joan in her gay colours, savouring the sun in gulps. Impossible, if one were very young oneself, and greatly in love with all the stages of Joan—not excepting the romantic stage of ten-years-old, when femininity may still rub shoulders with fairyhood—impossible to be absolutely impervious to the luxury of thinking, “Well, I haven’t tarnished my treasure. I haven’t squandered it. It’s as bright and as gay as ever, and still mine.”
A platonic honeymoon—a honeymoon stripped of its usual implications; its fierce delights; its equally fierce finalities and, perhaps, regrets—he had just enough of a queer, quixotic, unworldly idealism in him to be able to contemplate it without feeling either exasperated or ridiculous.
He could stand to his promises; he could even find a funny sort of consolation in so doing. He was ministering, in a sense, to his own intense shyness, and at the same time giving a long lease of life to something very cherishable in Joan. There was the pleasure—a very abstract pleasure, it is true—of knowing oneself original and eccentric and capable of behaving as no one else in the world was capable of behaving. In fact, he was quite moderately successful in making a virtue out of his necessity. What he could not make head or tail of was Joan herself—that baffling personality who could perch on his bed at seven o’clock in the morning and chatter in sublime and airy indifference to the tears and distresses of the night before. It was almost as if she were unaware of his difficulties.
However, she was obviously cheerful—and to one who was more prone to count his blessings than his failures this counted for much. It was a joy to see her making friends with the house; insinuating herself, as it were, into its good graces; cajoling it, by a series of quite minor alterations in themselves, into being a very complete and adequate expression of herself. Nor could he call himself neglected in the process. He was frequently consulted; or, in the alternative, made to feel that the surprise was for his benefit. And, after all, Joan did know best. She had a positive genius for colour effects, even if it were confined for the moment to the minutiæ of cushion-covers and arrangements of autumn leaves; and—unconsciously, he was sure—her colour schemes took due account of her own colours, of the gold in her hair and the bronze in it, of the tint of her cheeks and the delicacy of her fingers. She had an instinct for her setting as sure and as natural as a butterfly’s choice of a stone in the wall.
Incidentally, and inevitably, there seemed less and less setting for him. The only room that could be said, after a day or two, to express him was the one that Joan despaired of—his dressing-room, where he kept his clothes and a comprehensive photographic apparatus and some stuffed birds. But that was unavoidable. The house was too small to express two people. Even the big, rambling, untidy Shahgarh rooms had only succeeded in expressing Nicholas—and that, of course, was what had been amiss with Shahgarh. He saw it now. Nicholas—with all his love of Nicholas he recognised the fact—was too big, too much the fine healthy figure of a man, too greedy with the landscape. He had put his womenfolk out of countenance, and Joan had been sufficiently his daughter to resent the experience. Hence her lack of interest in Shahgarh. Laziness, Nicholas had called it; but it hadn’t been laziness really at all—only the results of an overdose of dear old Nicholas himself!
No, she had had no background there, no corner of her own. All very well for Nicholas to talk about cats being pernickety, but he might at least have given her the chance of behaving like one and curling up where she wanted to. Only, in that case, perhaps she might have been less willing to forego her place by the fire! Things were best as they were. He was vain enough to take a wholesome delight in triumphing over Nicholas; in feeling that he, and he alone, had solved the problem of Joan’s environment.
She gave him the credit for it too. “You’ve done what dad never would do. You’ve given me something to sit down on, and pull about, and call mine,” was one of her first remarks. And often she said, to show that she had come to the same conclusion as he had, “You can’t see dad here. He’d carry the whole place away on his shoulders, with his head through the roof.”
He agreed cheerfully. It would have been unkind to damp her ardour with the suggestion that you couldn’t see very much of him either. After all, he had the dressing-room!
There were, in actual fact, precisely four rooms in the house, including the despaired-of dressing-room, since the kitchen and its attendant satellites shared the detachment of the compound. Four rooms—the two below separated by a tiny hall, and the two above by a correspondingly minute landing. Drawing-room to your right, dining-room to your left; bedroom to your right, dressingroom to your left; and at the back of each the conventional Anglo-Indian loose-box with a cold concrete floor and a zinc tub in the corner, euphemistically referred to as “bathroom.” Positively that was all. There was even a certain step on the stairs from which, Joan discovered, with appropriate contortions you could look into every room. The point of honour was not to move the feet; and, for the dining-room at any rate, there was no temptation to do so. You looked straight in, in fact, and saw a generous half of the table and felt justly proud of its polish and its blue bowl; and all the window, with a glimpse of just one pine tree, the end one, lurching out into the sun; and the reddy-brown wall-paper, very seasonable these autumn days, and the backs of books lining the farther wall. No trouble whatever, the diningroom.
The bedroom was almost as easy, except that you looked up instead of down. By craning your head you could see a captivating flounce of lilac coverlet, and a strip of lilac carpet, panelled as often as not by the bold sunlight; and the outposts of Joan’s battery of silver-topped bottles, winking window-wards. The dressing-room you naturally did not trouble about—or, if you did, you cricked your neck in a sorry cause. A stuffed water-hen was your sole reward, moping on a home-made wooden bracket. While, as regards the drawing-room, you were technically cheating. True, you did see creamy walls, and an etching or two framed in slender mourning, and apple-green chintz—and it was the most cheerful vision of all, being like bursting Spring inside a house—but you confessed to seeing it only by courtesy of the mirror in the hall. The only alternative would have been to hang from the banister rail by the toes and behave like a giraffe, and even then the event would have been doubtful. Besides, in that case you would obviously have ceased to be standing on the fifth step!
There was something subtly delightful in that discovery—a sense of having your home, as it were, under your hand. There was always a temptation to linger possessively on that fifth step, once its inherent powers had been established; to contemplate the whole house from its axis, and congratulate yourself on that fact that it was sufficiently diminutive to admit of the experience.
Then, going outside; closing the door and strolling across the tiled verandah—that was a different pair of shoes altogether. There Joan’s kingdom ended very abruptly and, he couldn’t help feeling, his own began. For there seemed to be nothing between you and the hills.
The slope in front—in actual fact a leisurely mile of short grass—seemed to stop short at a precipice only the length of a cricket pitch away; and the next thing that caught the eye was the pattern of the fields on the skirts of Ramnagar Ridge—a patchwork pattern, green for rice and copper for fallow, and red gold for wheat, with the silver edging of some stream. There was all the delusion of standing on a precipice when you first caught sight of those fields, before you took the stride necessary to reveal the grass stealing sedately and prosaically away among the distinguishable trees below. But at that stage, inevitably, you lifted up your eyes to the hills, and that, however many times a day it happened, always brought a little shock of amazement. For the hills were grouped round a great amphitheatre, like gods in council, and many looked over their shoulders.
Joan was literally physically incapable of looking at them for long. They gave her the jumps, she said. Because Ramnagar Ridge, the nearest, was remarkably like a hog, she was tempted to see animal properties in every hill; and because she really at heart disliked them, she could only think of ugly animals. Cheena, the great bare-headed monster that looked down on Naini Tal, was for her a bald baboon. Benaik was a snake in coils. Mukteswar, that curious cone, was some kind of ferret, smelling the vault of heaven. It was all very unpleasant and trying for him, and he was quite glad when she began to dream about them and consequently gave up inventing animal likenesses for his favourites.
But even he himself, after a long look, was glad to glance back over his shoulder at the house. It restored the sense of proportion, thrown out of gear by those huge spaces. It removed the spell of a kind of hill mesmerism that would come upon him at times and render him singularly absent-minded. It was a reassuring little spectacle. “I’m small,” it seemed to say, “I’m the smallest thing that was ever set up to defy the gods of the hills. But here I am and here I mean to stay.”
Their single visit to Shahgarh—now reduced to an unobtrusive presence in the background, away up through the orchards—was hardly a success. He had so looked forward to taking Joan to pay a call on her own parents and to hearing from them how well she looked, that he had forgotten the fertile possibilities of the Agra episode to one of Nicholas’s turn of mind. Nicholas was quite merciless—so merciless that there were moments when Jimmy would have exchanged him bodily for that unknown menace, Mrs. Dobbs. He could have lived down Mrs. Dobbs, but he was doubtful whether he would ever live down the Agra episode, as interpreted by Nicholas at tea.
But anyhow, Agra or no, he would have felt uncomfortable, even though the people concerned were as well beloved as Nicholas and Janie. He was aware—or thought he was aware—of scrutiny, as if he were an involuntary zoological specimen. They seemed to look at him very often—one or the other, or both at the same time—as if they were on the watch for some symptom, best known to themselves, of the blessed state of honeymooning. And that curiosity on their part, fancied or real, had an irritating effect on him, for it brought home more shrewdly than anything else could have done the sense of futility and of failure which he calculated on evading for twelve hours at least out of twenty-four. It reminded him that this, from Nicholas’s and Janie’s point of view, wasn’t, in fact, a honeymoon at all. “A couple of noodles!” Nicholas would say, if he knew.
And who could be sure that he didn’t know? He had a way of getting to know most things, and there was always a twinkle in his eye. It was really most trying.
There was something in it, too, he felt sure, for Joan was affected in the same way. There was at least one of the old, provocative, Joanish outbursts, in spite of the fact that she was on her best behaviour.
“Oh, mother, I do wish you wouldn’t search me. I feel like an exhibit,” she burst out suddenly, turning scarlet. And there was Janie—ever the little brown bird, with her head on one side and her eye beady—turning it off in the old, familiar way.
“It’s because you ‘re looking so well, dear. And I was just thinking how right I was about that hat.”
Typical of Janie, expert at smoothing ruffled places, but for once he found it in his heart to mistrust her. Hats indeed! And Joan’s ruffle was anything but smoothed, and of course the brunt fell on him on the way home.
“You suggested it. I shouldn’t have gone if it hadn’t been for you. Why you couldn’t have waited fill next week, when you’ll have to go over anyhow, beats me.”
A pause, during which he remained studiously silent. He knew the course of these tirades, and Shahgarh, it seemed, had had the effect of reminding Joan of her own peculiar methods of voicing a grievance. Another reason for regretting the visit.
“I won’t be on exhibition. Why, just because one’s had the misfortune to be newly married, should one be positively dissected by one’s mother? Does she think I’m going to have twins or what?”
Shahgarh amenities, sure enough! But he couldn’t resist a retort.
“She’ll be jolly disappointed if she does,” he said, a little bitterly.
She was furious.
“Oh, you shut up, or I’ll never go near the place again!”
And there it ended. But it was uncomfortable while it lasted, and, like all affairs of the kind, it had its repercussions. He sometimes thought, afterwards, that that brief visit to Shahgarh, and the briefer passage-at-arms that followed it, had the effect of turning Joan’s thoughts in the one direction that he wanted at all costs to avoid.
He could not be sure, but it seemed to him afterwards that the ruffled place always remained ruffled. Or just a shadow of the old discontent had slipped into the big, sunny room . . . and she had taken it away with her.
At the time, however, thinking it over—when Joan’s wrath had abated—he was rather pleased. There was something rather flattering to him in her obvious uneasiness the moment she set foot inside her old home, and her obvious relief when she was safely back in her new one. He harboured just a shamefaced ghost of selfcongratulation at having scored off Nicholas and Janie. Unworthy, doubtless, but he did harbour it. It was good to feel, however much he had bungled and however much he had missed, that at least Joan did prefer being alone with him.
That was bed-rock. There was no mistaking it. Why, she even objected to the attentions of the servants; even of the ayah, who had bathed her as a baby; even of the bearer, who was reputed to have dandled him. She would go long walks and help carry the lunch-bag to avoid them. And Joan was no great walker, and hated carrying anything! No getting over that.
“They’re always discussing us. Why can’t it be just you and I?” she said once, and he glowed, for she had expressed just that sense of mutual sufficiency that did to some extent fulfil his preconceived notions about marriage. In other ways he had been bitterly disappointed, but here at least was something that came up to expectations. “Just you and I”—no outsiders, no intruders—just you and I—when he concentrated on that phrase he had at least a semblance of what he had always calculated on feeling—a sort of “marriage sensation,” a unique composite sensation of shared well-being. It was something salved from the wreckage of that old impossible dream—that marriage could be wonder, sheer wonder, thrilling the whole day through, and never quite fading even in the unconsciousness of sleep.
Salvage from his dreams—how incredulous he would have been if someone had told him that, in the first week of that wonder, he would be relying for his mental content on little things like exchanging a glance of mutual condolence when the bearer’s back was turned; or conspiring, with the aid of lip language, to evict the ayah from the bedroom; or refusing invitations to Shahgarh! That he would reach all permissible heights of well-being when Joan kissed his eyes open in the morning, or sung by his side on a walk! Why, if Nicholas had told him that on the quay, instead of delivering homilies about wedding Joan to India, he would have laughed! But now there seemed to be more prospect of wedding her to India than of wedding her to himself, and sometimes he did laugh when he looked back on those extravagant dreams of his. Wedding her to India, forsooth! That was child’s play compared with the other. The mere fact of having her own home had achieved that.
Unfortunately, he was physically incapable of letting well alone; he was unsophisticated enough to crow over such triumphs as he had, or thought he had. In the old days Joan had been downright, to say the least of it, in expressing her aversion to India. She had phrased it, on occasion, briefly, pungently and memorably, and the general effect of her remarks had been that, though an evil providence might compel her to live in the country, by no possibility could she enjoy the process or prolong it a day more than was necessary. It was of that attitude that he was tempted to remind her—increasingly tempted as the days drew on—and he was only restrained by a vivid memory of the extreme difficulty of ever getting her to admit that she had once been in the wrong. Nicholas’s advice had been to lie low over the topic of India, and he had lain low. He had neither rhapsodized, nor fulminated, nor even called attention. But the temptation was always there. And eventually, without quite realizing what he was doing, he succumbed to it. He rashly assumed Joan’s complete conversion . . . and instantly regretted it. It was like putting your foot into an invitingly placid pool, only to discover that, when stirred, it contained volumes of mud.
The worst of it was, he discovered, that, however quickly the foot was withdrawn, the mud refused to settle. In fact, it never did quite settle.
Yet he only made one innocent remark of half a dozen words. And it did not directly concern Joan at all—only by implication. It concerned a man whom he had never seen; who was dead; whose only conceivable interest lay in the fact that he happened to have died and been buried on the spot where he had also happened to live—on a Himalayan hill, instead of in Little Podbury.
“You can’t help envying the fellow,” was the remark, “you can’t help envying the fellow.”
The evening led up to it, he always thought. It was the last but one of the honeymoon, full of little jogging reminders that there would be only one more. There was a continual temptation to look back on the preceding evenings, and take stock, and count blessings. And then, of course, it was a singularly beautiful evening—the sort of radiance in it that only the hills could produce, and that only at this time of year. And then, again, he noticed something—in a perfectly familiar landscape—that he had never noticed before; and that led to a story, and a mental picture redounding to the credit of the hills if of nothing else. All this quite apart from the fact that they were coming home, latish, by a new way—in itself a sufficient excitement. There was plenty of excuse.
They were up under the chin of the main motherly hill of which Shahgarh is a knee and Pine Knoll, perhaps, a knuckle. Even the back of Ramnagar Ridge was below them, and that was how he came to notice a window shining where he had never suspected the existence of a window at all—right up on that lonely, lovely waste, flushed at the crisis of an Autumn sunset that was like a gathering of all the legions of red leaves. It wasn’t the Ewarts’ window—Ewart was their nearest neighbour, and also had a fruit farm—because he could see the Ewarts’ smoke a couple of miles on, over Chandragalli village. And, being a glass window, it naturally didn’t belong to a native house. He couldn’t place it at all. But Joan recognized it at once.
“That? Oh, that!” the change of tone was rather amusing, and he scented disapproval at once. “That’s the Colonel Saheb’s. Surely you’ve heard dad talking about the Colonel Saheb—or, if not dad, the coolies?”
He shook his head.
“He thought he could grow fruit,” continued Joan, “but he planted his trees too close, or something. The place is called Hazrat Bagh. That means the place of a million trees, doesn’t it?”
“A thousand trees,” he murmured, “rather a nice name for a fruit farm. Funny I never spotted it, or heard of the man. What did you say his name was?”
“I didn’t say it was anything, as far as I know. Everybody called him the Colonel Saheb. But his actual name was Bartie, and Mrs. Ewart’s his daughter. He more or less went native, of course. That’s why the coolies talk about him familiar-like.”
“Went native,” he interjected quickly, “what d’you mean—went native? Did he marry a bazaar woman?”
Having a slight acquaintance with Mrs. Ewart, he could just believe it, but only just.
“Don’t know, couldn’t say,” was the airy answer, “I only meant that he took to the country—settled down for good and all, you know—never went home. That’s what I call going native.”
“Oh!” He was flabbergasted. He really didn’t know what to say. Had Nicholas “gone native,” then? Was he himself proposing to “go native”? Because he had every intention of “taking to the country,” if he had not taken to it already. And of seeing that Joan took to it too. Of wedding Joan to it, in fact, to use Nicholas’s expression.
“That’s absurd,” he said briefly, seeing dangerous ground ahead. If she looked at it like that, at this stage, God help them both.
“I don’t think it’s absurd at all,” she challenged, “when a man’s quite well connected and has done well in the army—I believe he did awfully well in the Mutiny—and has come in for a property at home, he oughtn’t to go and deliberately settle down in a God-forsaken place like this, and not give his children a chance. It’s not English. That’s why I call him a native, and I always shall. You haven’t got to wear a dholi and chew betel to be a native. You’ve heard of white babus? Well, he was a white coolie-driver.”
He winced. There were times when Joan seemed to revel in exceeding every limit of good taste, and this was one of them. She was only trying to manufacture a real rough-and-tumble, of course. Still . . .
“You can tell because no one went near the man,” she continued dangerously, “barring dad, that is. Dad stuck to him nobly. But then dad likes doing extraordinary things and parading shabby people.”
He refused to be drawn even by that—a subtle move, because it had some truth in it. Nicholas did rather enjoy an oddity.
“Ever see the man?” he asked, pretty sure that she was talking from hearsay. “You hurl insults at his unoffending head—did you ever once set eyes on him?”
He had her there, he thought.
“Oh yes, rather.” The sweets of victory were on Joan’s tongue. “Dad took me to tea when I was about ten—when you’d gone home, that Christmas—and there were a whole lot of cackling Eurasians wolfing a huge Christmas cake, and a whole lot of chickens on the verandah, The place smelt chickeny. I can smell it now.”
She made a face.
“And the Colonel?” he insisted, determined not to be led away on a false scent, however memorable.
“Oh, he was pathetic. Nobody paid any attention to him. He just pottered about. I can hardly even remember what he looked like.”
“There you are!” he cried.
“I mean he was so insignificant.” Joan looked annoyed. “You could just tell he’d once been a soldier, and that was about all. He fled, I think. I know I saw him mooning about on a sort of terrace there is there, counting his trees. Dad says he wouldn’t touch a tree, even to prune it, and of course that’s why he made such a dismal failure of the place. He was buried on that terrace, by the way, and I believe dad read the service, because the ordinary parson refused to have anything to do with it. I expect he’d turned Hindu or Mohammedan, so I wasn’t far wrong in what I said, after all. Anyway, that was the end of him—buried where he’d always pottered, in sight of his precious trees.”
“. . . and his precious hills,” he couldn’t help murmuring, because the whole story appealed really to something akin in him. But Joan did not hear him. She was marching on. She had a strong sense of the dramatic, had Joan. A victory was a victory, not to be marred by an anti-climax.
Unfortunately, as has been said, he was otherwise constituted. He could not let well alone. It was at this point that he must needs make that miserable remark, and turn a wholly academic dispute into personal channels—personal channels that it never again left.
“You can’t help envying the fellow,” he said.
There was a moment’s pause, which had the effect of making the remark more noticeable than he had intended it to be. Then Joan turned on him.
“D’you mean to say you’d like that? You’d do the same?” she shot at him.
The danger signals were out—those flecks of red. He saw the trouble, but too late. They were going to have it out about India, unless he were very careful. And who knew where that would end?
“With reservations,” he explained, hoping to laugh it off. “As a matter of fact, I wasn’t thinking about myself. I don’t want to be buried anywhere at the moment. But if I were, I’d as soon be buried where I’d had a good time and done something worth doing than in a musty little churchyard where I’d never set foot in my life. But, to tell you the truth, I was thinking more about his living than his dying. Why shouldn’t he have lived there if he wanted to? It’s a lovely site, I bet. You’d see the snows from there, and every hill in Kumaon, instead of . . .”
She cut him short.
“Oh, you and your hills!”
It was petulant, but there was just a saving grace of forbearance about it, as if she were inclined to humour a notorious foible in him. And then, promptly, she spoilt the effect.
“Do you want to live here till you die?” she asked; and he knew from her tone of voice that she had already brooded over the question and that she would never rest till she got the true answer. The fact that he knew the answer—had decided it ages and ages ago, and had never since contemplated an alternative—did not make it any easier to put it before her now. It was the wrong time, if not the wrong place. It would make a mountain of trouble if he said “Yes.” And he certainly could not say “No.”
“Why worry?” he tried. “That sort of thing decides itself.”
“Not if I’ve got anything to do with it,” she flashed at him; then, pointedly, with a pause between every word, “Do you or do you not want to live here till you die?”
They had both stopped, and were face to face. Over her shoulder he could see hills—blue, and blue, and faintest blue, like smoke, under a darkening canopy woven of the tints of smouldering fire. His heart went out to those hills.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I do.”
There was a long silence. Twice Joan began to say something and thought better of it. Then she turned and walked on. All that evening she never said another word on the subject. And that was a very ominous thing in Joan.
The immediate, rather then the remote, future was in his mind as he dressed next morning. To-morrow he was going back to work . . .
The probable effects on himself did not much trouble him, for he was going back to something already perfectly familiar. Calling the coolie rolls; distributing the gangs; inspecting up and down; checking accounts; banging for an hour on the typewriter; a word or two with Nicholas at odd moments; a pipe or two in the sun—he knew exactly how the day would pass. There were few surprises at Shahgarh. Therein lay part of its charm.
Of course he would miss Joan. After sharing all the hours—sharing them so completely that now it seemed queer to be alone at all, even if it were only while she ran upstairs to put on a hat—he would naturally feel like a fish out of water. That funny impatience would come over him, that he had grown accustomed to lately—a sense of being at a loose end, of wasting time, of boring himself, if she happened to leave the room for five minutes. And to-morrow such fragments of separation would be prolonged into hours. Of course he would miss her.
But he would get used to that. People always did. It was Joan that he was thinking of. For Joan would be up against something entirely new—being quite, quite alone. More than ever he wished that the burning subject of their future had not cropped up on the very eve of what must infallibly be a trying time. For—he had never thought about this before, but he had to face it now—Joanie was an exceedingly poor hand at occupying herself. She seldom read. Neither did she sew. She liked talking, if there was anyone available to talk to. Otherwise she was apt to flop into a chair and kick her heels and—this was the difficulty—think. “I’ve been thinking” was, with her, a sure prelude to the statement of a grievance. And, unfortunately, there was a grievance ready to hand. He had not yet heard the last of this question of their permanency in India, he knew. There had been thunder, but no storm.
“You’ll have to join us to-morrow and help Janie pack jam,” he shouted across the passage to her, just to test the atmosphere. But he had little hope of seeing her at Shahgarh.
“Can’t. The darzi’s coming. Besides, I hate packing, and I hate Shahgarh,” came the answer, slightly muffled, as if she had her head inside a garment.
“What’ll you do, then?” he yelled.
Nothing muffled about that. Quite clear, in form as in substance. She simply did not know—obviously had not given a moment’s consideration to the problem of passing the time. Well, soon enough she’d have to know. Sufficient for the day . . .
“Better make the most of it too,” he muttered to himself.” There won’t be another like it.”
He meant that they would not get another chance, this side of next Spring, of sampling the serjeant’s wife’s method with a chicken over at that Bhawali inn—the inn at which he had cast longing glances when he was only in the stage of planning a honeymoon. For the serjeant and his wife migrated to Dehra Dun in the winter. But when the phrase, “There won’t be another like it,” was said, he was sorry he had said it. For it seemed to take a deeper import. Joan and he . . . they’d had some good days, take them all round. A pity to think of endings already, to get down to finalities before they had been married ten days. “Do you want to live here till you die?”—that was a finality too. Forget it! Dismiss it! Think of the serjeant’s wife’s casserole, and brussels sprouts, and the road in the gap up on Ramnagar Ridge. Perish all references to the future, immediate or remote! Long live to-day!
He confined himself strictly, during breakfast, to the immediate business in hand—the all-day tramp over to Bhawali by a new road. And with such success that all thunderous symptoms in Joan seemed to vanish. She was perfectly happy till, well on in the morning, they reached that gap in Ramnagar Ridge and sat down.
The gap had attracted him for days. It was right up in the neck of the Ridge—where the hog’s head seemed to be indicated—and it gave passage to a dashing, dizzy little white road, which seemed to spring from nowhere and vanish in blue space—or was it blue sea? Actually, he knew by the map, it led to Bhawali and the serjeant’s wife; and he had saved it up for the last day, because it was about the only road within a ten-mile radius on which he had never set foot. He had only watched it through glasses and seen sundry black specks on it transformed, by magnification, into pilgrims and women and laden donkeys, making for some shrine or some market of the hills. They would emerge—painfully, it seemed, after a long climb; halt for a few minutes by the wayside; and then take that mysterious plunge into a sky ocean. The impulse to follow them would then become so strong that he would take an involuntary step forward, forgetting that he was only standing on the verandah looking through field-glasses.
There was no blue ocean when they too emerged painfully after a long climb, and sat down by the wayside. The sky had jumped back, taking its illusions with it. But there was a very tolerable green one. An ocean of woodland, with the white houses of Bhawali lying like foam at its edge, and here and there little flocks of fields, pieced together like fragments of a tesselated pavement, submerged on the sea floor. The seven tiny meres of Sat Tal sat deep in it, like embedded turquoises; Bhim Tal was a fat jade counter, Malwa Tal a rusty coin. It was India’s little lake district, and the lakes were frozen gems shining out of the larger liquidness of thousands of square miles of woodland—woodland forming into breakers and cauldrons and swelling, humpy waves; slopping over here, in a long line of yellowish foam, where the Kilbury woods raked the horizon; pouring away here, through a rent in the sea wall, where the silvery Gola River raced for the huger placidities of the Plains. A sea of foothills—and the greater hills were like lazy leviathans, fallen asleep, singly and in herds. There was just that liquid flicker in the air—the constant mirage of heat haze—that made one think inevitably of water; of a scene not quite solid; perhaps too beautiful to be quite solid, but partaking of the fluidity of dreams.
To Jimmy it was a revelation. It was a complete, perfect and rounded vision of all that had been in his mind when he had made answer to that question of last night—”Do you want to live here till you die?” In a sense it was the answer. He should not have opened his mouth last night. He should merely have waited till this morning, till this moment by the roadside, and then waved his hand—”There’s the answer. Would anybody turn their back on a promised land?”
Where in the world, he asked himself now—he dared not ask Joan—was there such another prospect? Such another promise? Where else could you see such giant hills soften and unbend and invite the sun like a lover into such friendly imprisonment—into such warm and kindly arms? Where else would you breathe an air tingling on the tongue like snow, without sacrificing one of the fruits of the soil? And as if that were not enough, with the glamour of ages trailed over every inch of it, revealed at every turn in the gestures of the people, in the pattern and colour of their garments, in the character of their holy places, in the sound of their songs—a glamour that, he knew, had passed long ago, into his blood and had claimed him as kin. Indeed, where else?
Of all this thought—this worship on a hill-top—he said not one word to Joan. If ever mere inanimate scenery had that faculty, the Himalaya could speak for themselves. They could express what he had never been competent to express, even to himself their own immeasurable charm. Joan must just look and look till, in spite of herself, she became aware of the promise and the meaning of the hills; look till something of their beauty passed into her and captivated her and claimed her convert.
But, when he glanced up at her from where he was lying on the grass, she was only looking at him. And from her expression—a puzzled and not altogether pleasant expression—it was only too evident that she had been looking at him for some time.
So his face had betrayed him! Well, she must get used to that. He could keep his thoughts to himself—and he would henceforward, he would—but he could not help them occasionally getting into his face. And she had only to look away, if she did not like what she saw there; only to turn her attention to the hills.
“Let’s go on,” he said, rather abruptly, springing to his feet. “That is, if you’ve seen everything.”
“I’ve seen quite enough, thanks,” said Joan.
Walking on, he made a solemn vow—wild horses would not drag a single confidence out of him—not one of his hopes, or his delights, or his secret ambitions. Henceforward he was to be mum on the subject of India—absolutely mum. It was his nature, he told himself, to retire into his shell. Nicholas might have spared those warnings on the subject of rhapsodizing—he had never really felt the temptation. On the contrary, looking back on it, it had been something of an effort to school himself into achieving that moderate pooling of ideas which he had imagined as essential to the state of marriage. An effort that he did not feel inclined to continue by any means. If Joan did not want his enthusiasms, he could quite well keep them to himself, thank you.
And then, as if to show him that it was not quite so easy as it looked, she must needs start last night’s argument again, from a different angle.
“I suppose you think I ought to have admired that view,” she began, quite suddenly.
“I didn’t get the impression that you even looked at it,” he replied, unable to keep a querulous note out of his voice.
“No, I listened.”
He raised his eyebrows. Listened? That was what he had imagined her doing when on the quay at Bombay he had tried mentally to confront her with the hills—listening and hearing nothing. Funny that she should say that.
“I always do,” she continued, “but I never hear anything. I can’t think how you can stand hills.”
“They’re quiet,” he admitted, “all hills are quiet, unless there’s a wind. The downs at home as much as the hills here. But it’s a grand sort of silence,” he said.
Joan made a wry face.
“If you do hear anything, it’s sure to startle you out of your wits. I lay awake last night for hours without hearing a single solitary thing, and then I heard a noise like sawing iron. I jumped.”
“Leopard,” he murmured. He had heard it too, round the Knoll.
“Well, what a thing to be the only thing to hear in about two hours!”
He laughed. Joan’s attitude to the English language always intrigued him, and left him a little breathless, and he was glad of an opportunity of laughing at something. They had not achieved a mutual laugh since early yesterday evening, and he hoped she would join in. But she did not join in. She looked straight ahead of her.
“That’s the thing about India that gets on everybody’s nerves,” she went on, frowning, “every sensible person’s, I mean. The silence. I don’t mean in the towns, of course, but anywhere in the jungle. You feel you’re mixed up with something much too huge to be seen and much too clever to speak. It just watches you. That’s why people will ride ten miles to get to a club. They daren’t be alone any longer. But what if you haven’t a club to go to?”
Ah, he saw the drift. She had begun to think about to-morrow, as it was inevitable that she should. No bad thing either.
“It’s all right if you’ve got something to occupy yourself with, or a decent sort of hobby,” he said, trying to take that nonsense about the jungle seriously, in case she really felt like that about it. “Lots of forest officers never see another white man, let alone a club, for months on end. It all depends on yourself. However, I’m sorry we haven’t got a club.”
Oh, I wasn’t thinking of us,” was the amazing reply, “I was just thinking.”
He gave it up. He merely waited for the next stage of the attack, which, he knew, would come from a different angle. She was trying his defences—for what exact purpose he hardly knew. But these random shafts were not for nothing. She had something to propose, that was sure.
“It’s all right for you. You don’t mind.”
Ah, here it was.
“Mind what?” he said, innocently.
“Being alone, of course. You could live alone in these horrid jungly hills for years without noticing it or minding it or feeling any different. And that’s what Kipling or someone says no one can do. They go dotty or take to drink. But you wouldn’t—not you. You’d just look at your watch after a few years or so and say, ‘Why, hullo, it must be a bit later than I thought,’ and wonder why you’d grown a beard. You wouldn’t worry. That’s the unfair part of it. You don’t really mind being alone, do you?”
She looked at him expectantly, as if she really thought he might admit that! What on earth was she driving at? Why did she suppose he had asked her to marry him, if that was the case?
“I object strongly,” he said at once; then added, with a smile at her, “People who prefer to be alone don’t go and get married. Not if they’re logical.”
Joan ignored the smile.
“That’s what’s so unfair,” she repeated. “It’s me who’s got to do the being alone, just because I’ve married you who don’t really mind one way or the other. Can’t you see it’s unfair?”
It was a very pretty appeal, and she looked delightful as she made it, with her face all puckered and ready, he knew well, to smile or frown as occasion demanded—“In utrumque paratus,” so to speak. But the appeal required unravelling, and he hesitated. The colour, he noticed meanwhile, was mounting in Joan’s face. She had still something to add, and it was either so important or so outrageous that even she boggled a bit over it.
He looked at her inquiringly . . . and then, with a rush, it came out.
“I want you to promise to leave India the moment you’ve made enough money to go home.”
He was absolutely dumbfounded. He stood still in the middle of the road, gazing at her. Promise indeed! How much more was he going to have to promise? One would have thought . . .
“Promise. Promise to leave India. India!” He could only repeat foolishly what she had said. The whole idea, coming so quickly after that uplifting experience at the top of the hill—that recognition and salute of the promised land—was simply too extravagant for serious consideration. She must be joking, he tried to think—but he knew she was not. She could accept this promise, as she had accepted the other, if he gave her a chance.
“I wouldn’t do it for anything,” he blurted out at last.
“Not for anything?”
She said it with queer emphasis—-with an odd, questioning look—as if she guessed at something that would weigh with him. Almost as if she had something to bargain with. It was a provocative look; by itself it made him aware of what must be in her mind. “I’ll make sacrifices if you will, but not otherwise,” it seemed to mean.
He hoped it did not, but . . . what else could it mean?
He eyed her, thinking it was cruelly clever of her to stand like that—just ahead of him, and looking back, revealing every, sweet and indolent line of her. The curve of her cheek, and the tilt of her chin, and that little droop of shoulder and of haunch to the right, where she leaned on her stick. The plainer her clothes—these were a khaki drill skirt and jumper—the more maddeningly defined she seemed to one who must needs put shape before colour, whether in a hill or a tree or a girl’s slim body.
God!—whatever she meant or did not mean at the moment, she was a fearsome person to bargain with if one looked too long at her!
Had she walked towards him then, smiling a little—instead of choosing to walk on—he would have promised anything. So he thought afterwards. But she walked on.
Then, at once, he repeated:
“Not for anything in the world.”
There was no answer.
They walked on in silence. He wanted to make an overture—after all, this was the last day—but he could not see how to begin. If he could have referred to the scenery or to the people on the road it would have been easier, but the people and the scenery would have brought them back to India, and India was taboo. There was a ban on all things Indian.
She had made him conscious of it. Already, he found, the old joy of discovery—the customary entertainment of the highway—eluded, him. It was not so easy as he had thought to revert to the status of a solitary and to entertain himself. He had lost the habit.
Outside Bhawali they met a wedding procession; a humble affair, but, like most Eastern ceremonial, instinct with a certain romance. Colour and symbolism—flower-decked bridegroom on his white pony; bride in her palanquin, peeping through silken curtains; posse of drummers and tattered trumpeters, and a great green flag—no one, he would have thought, could pass by without a stirring of the blood, a leaping of the curiosity. That bride, behind her curtains—what did she think of it all? Little kennelled-up thing, how did she like emerging from her prison into the world of sunlight and colour and throbbing drums? And how soon would there be passages of arms and forbidden subjects and silly silences between her and that laughing young man on a horse? But perhaps they had a salve for such, she and that young man . . .
“What an appalling din!” suddenly remarked Joan.
Back to earth! If she had not said that he might have nodded to the bridegroom and waved to the Sphinx of the closed curtains and said something cheerful to the trumpeters and the floggers of drums. But no. “What an appalling din!” He could have shaken Joan. And yet, so susceptible was he to atmosphere, he found himself too hurrying past that little pageant with averted head and protesting ears.
For it was true—the noise was terrific, just as the symbolism was worn thin and the colours crude—but it was not the whole truth. There was charm behind the crudity. Otherwise he would not have caught himself listening for the last mumble of the drums when the procession was a mile in their wake, as for something precious, something sweet. With a queer flicker of wonder at himself, as if to say, “Why do I listen? Why do I like it?” and a gesture, assertive, possessive, “She shan’t take it from me.”
Yet through Bhawali too he walked as if he were half ashamed to be there, ignoring the appeal of the old carved ramshackle tenements that seemed to gloat as they leaned over the mushroom growth of the market. There were booths out in the street, and one housed a pyramid of brass bowls of Moradabad work, and another piles of coloured grains—millet and wheat, and rice and red maize. There was a fruit stall, gay with oranges, and the big purple bananas that look better than they taste, and lemons grown in the hills; and the women were crowded round it, chaffering, while bedizened babies stared and naked babies played. It was a pretty scene, but he could not enjoy it because Joan was there and Joan was sniffing. She sniffed at every step, and presently she clapped her handkerchief to her nose, saying, “Mercy, what a whiff! I can’t stand this.”
It was only the bazaar smell—that compound of sweet and rotten, and queer kinds of smoke, that to him had elements of allurement. What it represented was so much more important than what it was—and it represented narrow streets and mingled merchandise and men smoking crude tobaccos by crude fires. To him it was a tang, a something as characteristic of the bazaar as the trail that a fox leaves down the hedgerow. To her it was just an excuse for pulling out a handkerchief and hurrying; yes, and looking at him as if he were in some way responsible for the inconvenience to her nose. “Well, I didn’t make it,” he was inclined to say.
And then, for a few hundred yards, they were in a lane that might have been borrowed from England—a high-banked lane, hung down with moss and feathery with fern, disclosing here a red leaf of wild strawberry and here the green spades of violet; a damp lane, full of the murmur and trickle of obscure little runnels of water that gathered and flowed by their feet. The jungle sustained it on either side, so that they looked through a long series of arches at a most creditable imitation of an English inn. Only a painted signboard was lacking in an otherwise perfect presentment. And there was Mrs. Ellams, the serjeant’s wife, feeding her chickens! Surely, whatever pictures had failed to please, Joan would see the charm of this one.
But Joan was apparently thinking only of getting home. Even the prospect of lunch at the end of the lane failed to rouse her enthusiasm.
“I wonder whether that woman knows of a short cut home,” was her only remark on seeing the comfortable figure of Mrs. Ellams.
It was only typical of the whole trend of the day’s happenings that a perfectly innocent desire to shorten the tramp home—a desire that he cordially shared—should lead to the mention of the one spot on Ramnagar Ridge that he was anxious to avoid. Before starting out he had assured himself by the map that they would be keeping well out of the neighbourhood of Hazrat Bagh. He had no wish to see the place. His chance reference to it last night had precipitated the entire imbroglio about India, and for that reason, he felt, he would always shun the Colonel Saheb and all his works. Yet, hardly was the question out of Joan’s mouth, when that wretched Mrs. Ellams disturbed his digestive processes with the fateful name.
“Short cut? Dear, yes, you’d go by ’Azrat Bagh. The Colonel’s that was. You know—’Azrat Bagh.”
Her omelette was excellent; her method with a perfectly humdrum speckled fowl, chosen at random from the flock and served up in a casserole almost before its protests had died on the air, was superb. Yet he disliked Mrs. Ellams.
“. . . You turns into the turpentine distillery—you’ll know it by the smell, if nothing else; smells of turpentine—and crosses the yard and turns again sharp behind a godown full of barrels, and over a plank bridge, and you’re in reserved forest. There’s a path from there right through to the forester’s ’ut—don’t get led off on the little tiddley paths—and then a track what they made for carting the Colonel’s timber. That brings you right up against them gates—or I should say gate-posts, for ’e died before they ’ung the gates and the mistri sold ’em. Well, as I was saying, once you’ve got to them gates, it’s . . .”
Gently and firmly he intervened. He was not going through those gate-posts.
“I think it’s really rather more complicated than the way we came, thanks very much, Mrs. Ellams,” he said, with a glance at Joan, who, he was sure, would at any rate agree with that. Joan was the last person to relish being reminded of Hazrat Bagh.
But he was wrong as usual. With a sweet smile at Mrs. Ellams—the first smile he had seen on her face all day—she cut in:
“No, please go on, Mrs. Ellams. I’m sure we shall find it easily.”
He gasped. For sheer contrariness, for real downright perversity he had never heard anything to equal that remark. For a moment he was nonplussed. Then he muttered something about not wanting to trespass.
Instantly they were launched on a sea of information.
“Bless you, I don’t suppose anybody walks that way once in a twelvemonth, bar the Tahsildar, and ’im only, because ’e’s responsible, as you might say.” There was no holding the woman; one simply had to grin and bear it. “It’s Court of Wards now, you see, till Miss Bartie—niece of Mrs. Ewart’s and a blackey-white, or I’ve never seen one—till she comes of age like. She’s the grand-daughter. ’Er father was in the Salt, and the funny thing was that, though being in the Salt and thirsty work, you might suppose, ’e was the only one of the sons that didn’t die of drink before thirty. So the Colonel left ’im the place, but he never lived to ’ear the news. Popped off in the Salt ’ills of sunstroke, leaving the one daughter. She’s living with ’er aunt now, Miss Bartie is, and if ever I saw a blackey-white, she’s one.”
His attention wandered. He was wondering why on earth Joan was taking this sudden interest in Hazrat Bagh; why she was positively encouraging her voluble and tiresome ally.
“Go on, Mrs. Ellams,” he heard her say, before, in self-defence, he wandered out to smoke a pipe.
Contrariness, he supposed, just contrariness. Because it happened to annoy him, Hazrat Bagh would do as well as any other subject.
Hard, that—because, after all, he had resisted the temptation to bore her; resisted it manfully all day.
Yet how was it that he couldn’t quite escape the suspicion that Joan, for some obscure purpose of her own, wanted to go back by Hazrat Bagh?
The moment he saw those two gate-posts—derelict, standing each in a bed of brambles where jungle ended and the rough, grizzled hill-grass began—he knew that he, too, wanted to see Hazrat Bagh; that it was going to mean something to him after all. He could not say why. Until he set eyes on those solid, unkempt, useless pillars of stone, guarding a useless roadway, the idea never entered his mind. He had been enjoying the jungle, as he always did—the twists and turns of an intricate path over a series of humpy hillocks, woven thick with evergreen trees; the sudden crease of a nullah, with water at bottom; and that thick, low covert, scented of sundried leaves and peaty soil, which clothes the lower limbs of a great hill, like hair on a man’s legs. Enjoying it on general grounds, as it were, because it was hill country and he seemed to know his way about it by instinct, even though he had never been that way before; because it was bear country and panther country and home for the hardy, heavy-coated hill deer—Sambar and red khaker; home, too, for those bright butterflies and birds that haunt sunny slopes—the blue-headed pheasant, and the red bird that looks like a windblown rhododendron blossom. That would always thrill him in a quiet way, Joan or no Joan; but it would never convey the particular thrill of surprise conveyed by those gates.
They represented so little, and yet so much. They had no utility; the road passed through their shadow, without changing its character—it was the same grassy cart-track on the farther side as on the hither, and there was no check in the ruts of old cart-wheels. No utility at all, but any amount of purpose. They stood, in fact, for an intention. The man who had erected them had been very sure of himself, of his security, of his permanence, of the rightness of his choice. Those gate-posts had been quarried out of the hill, chiselled by hand, man-handled into place. Compared with the flimsy makeshifts that betray the temporary quality of the average Englishman’s relations with India, they were as significant as the stupas of Asoka.
He was suddenly conscious of an admiration for the man—the “Colonel Saheb.” Stone gates to his paradise—and, all among the brambles, the vague outline of a wall . . . anything more English could hardly be imagined—-English in the best sense; the home-loving, home-keeping sense.
“Do look at those ridiculous old posts,” said Joan.
“I like them,” he answered quite quietly, without bothering to say why. Had she no imagination? Was that why, these last few hours, he had been feeling so terribly baffled, so increasingly disappointed in her, and yet at a loss to explain it? Did she merely like or dislike, and never see symbols in things?
“So typically Indian, you mean,” he heard her say. “Posts without gates. All upside down and skew-wise. And look at this road—it doesn’t do anything. It just suddenly happens in the middle of the jungle, like a sort of Indian joke without a point to it.”
“He meant to cut through to the main road at Bhawali.”
“Oh, he meant—that’s as far as they ever get out here.”
“He built his house first—-sensible fellow—and planted his trees, same as we’ve done. I bet it’s a pretty solid sort of house, too,” he insisted, determined not to forego his picture of a man whom he was beginning to like.
“It’s a pretty ugly one, anyway,” said Joan, as a roof peeped over a shoulder of the hill.
Perhaps it was. Compared with dainty little Pine Knoll it certainly was. It was the massive, square, single-storied bungalow of the Mutiny type, firmly planted on a broad plateau of grass—the terrace, he supposed, of Joan’s narrative—and disdainful of shade. There was no tree near it. The heavy orange-yellow walls harboured no creeper; the long cumbersome windows stared you in the eye; the thick pillars of the verandah were like the sallow trunks of barkless trees. It was ugly because it was so wholly uncompromising.
But . . . it was strong. It was permanent. The very breast of the hill had been flattened out to give it elbow-room. The terrace, for all its rank weedy growth, was as level as a billiard table, and banked up at both ends with masonry that would have served as a pier in an encroachful sea. The use of stone—solid, ugly stone—in a country of timber makeshifts was stupendous. The man must positively have bullied Ramnagar Ridge!
He knew him now—that man. A grand old man, purposeful, patriarchal, walking his bleak terrace and commanding Kumaon; on terms with the hill-tops, for the eye here had no time for anything less, for homely little valleys, or finicking fields. Hill-tops or nothing—an immense project, an immense disdain. Far, too, beyond his own compass—this greed for summits and bleak spaces; perhaps that was why he was conscious of such inordinate admiration for the conception. Personally, he would have craved some relief from the incessant bigness of everything.
Something made him glance at Joan, and he was surprised to see that she was studying him. He caught an inquiring look, as if to say, “Well? How does it strike you?”
“I like this,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it myself, any more than I could live in it. There’s no relief. But I like it—it’s so damned consistent, right down to the gates.”
Did a shadow of annoyance pass over her face? He was not sure, but he thought so.
“He was buried somewhere here,” she said, inconsequently, and they walked past the house towards the far end of the terrace, where a hint of tree-tops at a lower level showed between the pillars of a balustrade.
On the way they came on a huge flat slab of stone, embedded in the bristling grass, and covered with a golden mould of moss. He made out the inscription:—
RICHARD ANSTRUTHER BARTLE
B. 1833 D. 1907
No text. Again he paid an involuntary tribute to the man. Texts seemed trivial up here, concessions to fear rather than faith; and the plain slab, on which the birds had settled and lizards basked, spoke of a peculiar content.
“Fancy being buried here!”
Another of those little deprecatory asides. She was always making them now.
“Consistent,” he contented himself with saying, “and inevitable. Coolies won’t carry coffins. If we took it into our heads to die, our remains wouldn’t get much farther than the compound. We’d jolly well have to be buried at Pine Knoll and lump it.”
“We’re buried already,” snapped Joan.
He had wondered where the thousand trees were, but he knew the moment they reached the balustrade at the end of the terrace. There was a great hollow or rift in the bare body of the hill, and it was green with trees. The embankment, from which they were looking down, stood out of it like a grey pier in a troubled sea. Trees rioted—cascaded. Grey, twisted, old-fashioned apple trees, looking as if they had been blown awry; cherry trees, their leaves just turned, like sudden fountains of fire; thick, top-heavy pear trees; rakish, emasculate plums—all fighting, all struggling upwards and outwards against an intolerable tangle of weeds. The ground was one vast labyrinth of nettles and convolvulus and orange-blossomed lantana; docks choked the life out of the single stream that fed the orchard; and a little paved reservoir in the heart of it, that looked like some derelict bathing ghat in a jungle, was completely dry. Yet the trees triumphed. Choked and tortured and beset on all sides, they still triumphed. And he loved trees.
“What a sight for sore eyes in Spring . . . just imagine Spring,” he murmured, staring down, hardly knowing whether Joan was still at his side. Shahgarh in Spring was wonderful enough, but there the trees were on parade. You saw so many puffs of pink and white, like the pink and white counters on the green board of some game, like inverted halma men, so many to a row. Every trunk white-washed; every top pruned so round that in the distance it looked solid, like something turned on a lathe. Gardener’s delight, Shahgarh—God’s own delight here. For the blooms would mingle; there would be a drift of pink and white, like a snowfall dipped in sunset. The little tank even might fill and reflect the sky, and then the drift would have a heart of blue, sun- dimpled. In the Spring . . .
He had lost Joan, had ceased to be aware of her, so completely was he immersed in the possibilities of that old orchard, in the race to clothe it in the colours that would justify its disreputable appearance. It ought, he knew, to have appalled him. In his capacity of fruitfarmer, he felt, he was duly shocked and grieved. But the artist in him—the lover, the dreamer—was revelling. It was like attending a wedding and a funeral at the same time, and throwing confetti on the coffin. A perfect place; a perfect, perfect place—he kept saying to himself.
Then, suddenly, he was aware of Joan tugging at his arm. Unwillingly he came back to earth.
“I brought you here on purpose,” she was saying. “On purpose—do you see? You tried to get out of it, but I insisted on coming so that you should see for yourself once and for all. . . .”
“See what?” He was a little brusque.
“What? Why, everything,” she stamped her foot. “The house and the gates and the grave and this muck of an orchard. It’s all a failure. Can’t you see?”
He saw that she was quite white in the face, and terribly in earnest. He saw, too, the reason for her strange encouragement of that voluble woman, Mrs. Ellams. She had wanted to make his flesh creep—to confront him with an object-lesson on the baneful results of dedicating oneself to India. He could see all that—he had been remarkably obtuse not to have seen it before. But the object-lesson itself he could not see. The house was permanent; the gates and the grave still marked an epoch; and the orchard, frankly, was fascinating. Where was the moral?
“I still don’t see,” he said.
He thought Joan would strike him. He had to put his arm round her and forcibly persuade her to sit down on the balustrade—otherwise she might easily have pushed him over into the nettles. He had only once seen her so agitated—but she had been pathetic then. Now she seemed merely silly. Trying to frighten him with a bogy that wouldn’t jump—it was childish.
“Haven’t you any imagination?” was one of the many things she said; and it made him laugh, because if the day had brought forth anything it had revealed an entire lack of that quality in Joan.
“Don’t you see that it’s Shahgarh gone wrong? Didn’t you hear that woman say that all the sons drank themselves to death except one who went into the Salt Department?”
To hear her, one would have thought the inebriate’s fate mild as milk compared with the living death of a respected position under Government; but there was no hope of laughing her down. She had been thinking. All to-day and most of last night she had evidently been thinking. And the result was a catalogue of irrelevancies that made him gape.
“Can’t you see that he lost caste, and that everybody who does the same is bound to lose caste, whether it’s dad or you or Ewart, or anybody else you like to think of? Can’t you see that you’re both losing caste already with your flaring ties and shabby clothes and purple buttons . . .”
He glanced down. The flaring tie was obviously traceable to Nicholas, since he himself was guiltless of any form of tie; but the bearer, who was notoriously colour-blind, had inadvertently filled up a gap in the ranks of his khaki buttons with one that had started life on a dressing-gown. Hopeless, though, to explain. Joan had left buttons far behind.
“Look at Ewart, getting coolies to carry him round the estate in a dandy. Look at Mrs. Ewart, who’s too fat to get into a dandy at all. And that blackey-white daughter, or niece, or whatever she is Look at the kind of people we’d have to know . . .”
Ah, that “we”—that inevitable, all-pervading “we”!
“. . . because they’re the only people who do stay on in this God-forsaken country. Think of the chi-chi high teas, and the yearly outings to Missouri, and gharidriving with our friends along the Mall. And as for families, well, thank God we haven’t . . .”
“Now, Joanie, Joanie.”
Imploringly he put his hand on her arm. There was just one subject that he couldn’t bear to hear her talking about just now. Not that he wanted babies—no use thinking about them, if he did—but he could not stand them being used as pawns in an argument. It seemed so callous. Suppose one day they wanted one badly, and it didn’t come.
“Leave them out, Joanie,” he begged.
“I shan’t. They’re the most important argument of the lot. Everybody knows that India’s impossible for babies—for children of any age. Even dad knows it. He took me home. You went to school at home yourself. But if we settled, as you call it, where would the money come from? They’d have to go to Naini Tal High School with the De Sousas and the De Silvas and all the rest of them, and learn chi-chi and go into some rotten little subordinate service like the Salt or the Excise. They’d go down—down—down, like this lot here. You know they would.”
She paused for sheer want of breath. To him it was as if she had been shouting—the whole place was so still. Not a sound now, anywhere, except Joan’s panting and the drumming of her fingers on the stone. It seemed ill-omened, wrong, vulgar to announce one’s private grievances in the face of such serenity, such peace. Though no one could be there, though her words fell down among the trees and died as they were uttered, he had a sense nevertheless of something watching, something listening, something noting down. That low, stolid house; those still trees . . .
“Don’t talk so loud” he whispered angrily, involuntarily. For himself he would not have dared to shout.
“Well, we can’t ever, ever have a baby—that’s all,” was the defiant, loud reply; pitched, he knew well, on purpose to annoy him and make him want to hit her. But he was past that sort of annoyance.
Was this the trump card? A sad, a sorry card, if it was. Was she imagining that she was going to get that promise out of him by bargaining with something unborn, something so frail and tenuous that it eluded even the compass of a thought? He hoped not. He prayed not. His whole being cried out against such an interpretation.
But the words had been spoken. Joan was watching him defiantly, but he hardly thought of her. Rather, he was seeing Nicholas as Nicholas had looked, standing beside him on a luggage-truck down on a quay; hearing Nicholas’s voice, as Nicholas had spoken then, gazing out to sea; as an answer, as a protest:—
“Shahgarh’s the best place in the world. I want you two to be fixtures in it and bring up your children to love it as we do. I’ve set my heart on that Vaine colony . . .”
So had he—so had he. He knew it now—it was the trend of all his dreams. It was as if the life unborn, the frail and tenuous possibility, eluded him no longer; but took mental birth and cried out in him.
“Don’t say that, Joanie.” He turned to her quickly, urgently. “Unsay it. Kill it dead. You mustn’t use that.”
She was sullen. Dogged.
“Well, will you promise? Promise to go home the moment we can?”
He saw the hills over her shoulder; and all India beyond the hills.
“Oh, no, no, no!” he cried.
Joan seemed to freeze. She sat perfectly rigid, and all expression vanished out of her face. Her eyes were hard black, like deep ice when the surface is chipped away.
When she laughed it was like the falling of a broken icicle—hard, definite, unmusical. He would rather have heard her cry, or fling abuse, or blaspheme than laugh like that.
“I think I’ll go home. Are you coming?”
He stood up. The old joy of Joan—that ultimate confidence in her that had clung to him ten years and had weathered storms—was slipping, slipping away from him as surely as a blanket will slip from the shoulders of a paralytic—and he felt as incapable of arresting the process.
“Joanie,” he begged, “Joanie, can’t we agree to differ—put it off a year or two, anyhow?”
She turned her back on him and walked away. He knew finality when he saw it. The honeymoon was indeed ended—dead and buried in good company, if Hazrat Bagh was the home for lost causes that it seemed to be.
She looked over her shoulder furiously.
“I wish I’d never been idiot enough to marry a man who puts India before his wife.”
And that, he thought grimly, was a very suitable epitaph.
Spring had come—the quick, flushed Spring of the Indian hills—and the apple blossoms at Shahgarh were blooming and falling in a day, all along the level lines. At Hazrat Bagh too, in that rift of the hill, there would be a wilder wave of petals, blooming and falling. He had not forgotten Hazrat Bagh. Hardly a day had passed without his going back to it in fancy as the starting-point of that long series of arguments and distresses and misunderstandings which had marked the slow passage of winter. Useless, all of them; they might just as well have saved their breath, many and many a morning and evening; for whatever there had been to say had been said, once and for all, months ago at Hazrat Bagh. They might just as well have still been sitting on the balustrade, looking down on that orchard, to-day, for all the progress they had made.
It was in his mind now—that scene, as the foundation of all his daily discontents—though he was actually employed in ticking off the names of coolies in a notebook. He was standing on the steps of the little wooden hut that served as office, right at the head of the orchards, inspecting the long file of men as they passed, with their hoes and baskets, and went chattering down among the trees. A warm wind had just sprung up from nowhere, stirring the laden boughs of the nearest tree and sending a storm of petals among the brown feet—and somehow that gesture of Spring, that sudden alliance of wind and blossom, had instantly recalled a thought once made about Spring. It had suggested a picture of trees blown awry by a wind, leaning old apple trees, and Hazrat Bagh had come back with its inevitable train of thought, its inevitable question.
What had possessed them that day? What lunacy had led them to define and emphasize points of view that need never have come to light at all? It had not really mattered then, on that particular day, whether he intended to devote six months or sixty years to India. The main point ought to have been to get through the winter as happily as possible. Nor had Joan’s intentions with regard to a baby mattered then, for they certainly could not have achieved one between that day and this. Yet here they were on a Spring morning, still in the atmosphere of that Autumn afternoon; still at loggerheads over the same questions; still bickering over the remote future instead of concentrating on getting the best out of the present. Oh, a pair of noodles still! If only they had avoided Hazrat Bagh! If only they had come home by another way!
Anything might have happened, but for that afternoon. They might have drifted by degrees into loving without looking at themselves, and have made that baby—that baby that clamoured to be boRN—unawares. Or—to descend in the scale of might-have-beens to something less ambitious and more practical—Joan might have come down one day to help with the white-washing or the jam, and have developed a taste for it and joined the family party on the estate—instead of moping in the seclusion of Pine Knoll and blocking up her ears when the work was even mentioned. Even that would have been something. It might, indeed, have made all the difference. The whole atmosphere over at Shahgarh—gardens and orchard, jammery and office—was so charged with good cheer. Compared with the atmosphere of Pine Knoll—-of which they had expected so much and made so little—it was warmth itself, so that one hardly remembered winter if one thought only of Shahgarh.
Shahgarh—there was relief in coming back to it and contemplating it instead of that other picture, now, as he stood on the steps. Orchards to right and left of him, drawn up like steady soldiers on either side of the broad green walk that led down to the lake; beyond the trees, on his right hand, a long strip of strawberry ground, redder soil and darker leaves, and again beyond that a great encampment of currant and gooseberry, hundreds of little green tents; behind him, solidity—the round-roofed jammery, and, on three sides of an open square, the big store-houses and packing sheds. The doors were open. They were taking stock to-day and letting in the sunlight and this warm, heady air, with its fragrance of Spring and growth, into the dark recesses and the dismal shelves. Nicholas, very spruce in khaki drill—sure sign of the season—was standing hatless in the yard and haranguing Bishan Singh, the labour contractor; and even the labour contractor had apple blossom in his button-hole. Behind him little Janie, hatless too and blue-aproned, was flitting about with a hammer and a sheaf of labels, marking the neat cases of jam. The smell of the sawn sal wood, yellow as saffron, which he had helped to cut up in November, mingled now with the flavour of growth on the air and recalled other busy days—carpentering days under cover, with the snow outside. And every now and then Janie would drop a label and run back for it, like a blue wagtail swooping for insects on a lawn. One couldn’t help laughing—it was all so good and friendly and open-handed. Impossible, really, to mope here. Even Joan, had she come across to-day, would have woken up and smiled and entered into the spirit of things.
But she had never come across—not once, as he had begged her to come, with her hat off and her apron on and good gardening gloves on her hands. When she had condescended to recognize the existence of Shahgarh, she had always made a ceremony of it. Tea-time—small talk—best clothes; none of the zest of these glorious mornings. Long ago Nicholas had given up making his favourite remark: “Joanie coming over to-morrow? Glad to see her, you know. Do her good to get up in the morning.” Just as well, because he had long ago come to the end of his excuses. But a pity all the same—a tremendous pity. If Joanie only realized what a prodigal’s welcome she would get if she did come!
Now the coolies were all dispersed. Gusts of chatter in undertones, and the steady clink of hoes on pebbles drifted up from among the trees. Janie was still rat-tattatting on the boxes; Bishan Singh was lolloping jauntily down the road to Chandragalli on his tiny pony, with his feet stuck out to avoid scraping them along the ground. Nicholas, humming to himself, was coming in his own direction.
“James, I want a word with you. We’ll walk round and look at that new ground.”
Nothing could have pleased him better. It was a morning for enthusiasm, and the new ground represented the forward policy of Shahgarh. It was a great strip of unreclaimed land between the road and the stream which earned the overflow of the lake; cleared and drained, it would yield hundreds of bushels of strawberries—enough to treble their output of jam besides supplying the bulk of the special fresh fruit service all over India that was Nicholas’s latest scheme. He loved a big scheme. This morning it was bigger than ever. He positively crowed over the swelling cheek of land, newly shorn of its brushwood.
“Ah, it’s taking shape. You can see it now—no awkward boggy holes, and a clean fall to the brook. We’ll have it ploughed come Christmas and bearing in the summer—grow a green crop on it and dig it in. That’s the way.”
They discussed details. Then, suddenly, up went Nicholas’s head, down came his arm on Jimmy’s shoulder.
“Lord, James, this is nothing! What’s fifty acres? It won’t end here. I’ve been dreaming dreams—always do this time of year; who doesn’t?—and by Heaven fruit’s the wonder of the world! Colour, taste, shape, smell—you can’t beat good fruit on any ground. It always strikes me that the Almighty must really have been pretty disgusted when He looked down and saw Adam and Eve gnawing a bone instead of admiring that apple, eh? Regretted the fuss He’d made, eh? And here’s India, nearest to Eden, with hardly a fruit of her own worthy of the name and hardly one acre in a million given to growing God-fearing fruits from self-respecting countries. Look at Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand—no better climate than up here, no better sun or soil—baby countries too, infants in arms compared with this hoary old lady—and they’re simply flooded with fruit. Don’t know what to do with it. And it’s all the work of the last half-century or so. And then look at India—the one supreme fruit-market of the world, or ought to be, because nine-tenths of the population are never cool and always thirsty—simply starved. Can’t get it! No one grows it, except a few people up in Kulu and a sprinkling here. Don’t count mangoes—glorified vegetable marrows. I mean fruit. Scarlet and purple and gold—the very colours make you hungry, eh? When I see our bushel baskets of apples going down the hill on those fellows’ heads I often think to myself, ‘Well, you’re an artist as well as a farmer. You’re producing the very finest tints in the world. And you’re a public benefactor into the bargain!’ And so we are!”
He paused, but only for an instant. Nicholas on the heights was godlike—he went on for ever and ever. This—this immense power of enthusiasm, this youth of the mind—had inspired hero-worship in Jimmy long, long ago, when a big man had unbent to a little boy, and something of it still survived. He never interrupted these flights; and he always remembered them. Remembered too, in conjunction with the words, the fascination of the man’s face—the cock of that little brown beard when his head was up; the sensitive, quivering delicacy of his nostrils (so like Joan’s); the ardour in the eyes.
“Go on,” his own eyes said. Nicholas was never backward. He waved a hand, as if to gather the whole valley within the scope of his argument.
“Look at it. Look at that undrained land, and that great lazy profitless lump of a hill. Ourselves—Ewart—Salter”—he pointed here and there, “Hazrat Bagh’s gone back—-Macwhirter—Blunt—half a dozen of us, just nibbling at the cheese. What’s the good of nibbling? I tell you, I’m going to take a mouthful before I’ve done, if the special fruit service turns up trumps. Fruit for every thirsty throat in India! Fruit flowing out of the hills to beat old Mother Ganges herself! I’ll have it on posters. I’ll blazon it through India. And we’ll buy up this valley, and plant the Ridge, and bring old Hazrat Bagh to life again—you see if we don’t.”
Hazrat Bagh. Hazrat Bagh. If only Joanie could hear how Nicholas proposed to treat that burial-ground of lost causes! If only Joanie could be listening now and learning too just how much she was trying to make him give up! God knew he himself had all Nicholas’s enthusiasm and all Nicholas’s love of India—more maybe—but he had none of that gift of conveying it. The more precious his thoughts, the less he could put them into words. He had never, from the beginning, fired Joan, never made explicit either of his loves—-love of her or love of India. Could he altogether wonder at matters coming to the present pass?
Oh, for words—the right words, and the right way of bringing them out!
But Nicholas had started afresh.
“Talking of Hazrat Bagh,” he heard, and immediately his attention became riveted, “that’s a place I want you to keep your eye on when I’m . . . but I’ll come to that in a minute. It’ll be on the market before long. There’s a girl—old Bartie’s grand-daughter—but she’ll never live there, and Ewart hasn’t got the capital or the guts to take it up. I tell you that’s a place in ten thousand, James. I never saw anything to equal the yield of those trees in old days. Groaning—absolutely groaning with fruit, year after year. I dare say they’d yield a tidy crop even now, submerged as they are. And the reason is it’s landslip soil—all the best stuff in the hill scooped off and dumped into a hollow. And deep! There’s good mould ten spits down. Never was such a place. We’ll have that, eh?”
Jimmy nodded. It would be a queer freak of Fate if one day he had to ask Joan to migrate to Hazrat Bagh! He could imagine her consternation. But the next moment he experienced sufficient consternation on his own part to efface any thought of hers. For Nicholas, with no more warning than a slight clearing of the throat, exploded a bombshell. No milder expression could describe it.
“I’ve been putting the cart before the horse, James,” he said, lugging out a pipe, “I brought you out here to tell you something quite different, and then, as usual, my tongue ran away with me. Fact is, we’ve decided to leave you on your own here for the next two or three years. Janie and I are going to travel—as soon as we’ve got that fruit service going, that is. That’s why I said you’d have to keep an eye on Hazrat Bagh.”
He lit his pipe with apparent gusto; but, designedly perhaps, the smoke hid his eyes. As for Jimmy, he could only gasp. Nicholas going—after all that outburst of enthusiasm, that plethora of plans—Nicholas going! With what possible, conceivable object?
“We’ve thought it out,” Nicholas was almost painfully serious now, “and we’ve both come to the conclusion that it’s the best plan all round. You’ll be in charge—it’s good for you to be in charge, especially as one day the whole outfit’ll be yours. As manager you’ll draw fifteen hundred, and there won’t be any excuse then for denying that long-suffering baby of yours the privilege of existing.”
He started. This was dreadful. Dear old Nicholas—did he really imagine that the non-appearance of a family was due to a lack of funds? Was it possible that Joan had made that excuse?
“Listen to me,” said Nicholas, “I’ve got it all tabulated in my mind and I shall lose the drift if you don’t attend. You’ll be able to afford as many babies as you like, and I’m a believer in numbers. We—we muddled that department . . .”
He smoked vigorously, and Jimmy knew why; knew why Nicholas had always made a son of him, long before he had become a son-in-law. If ever he had loved the man, it was now.
“No Ramsay Hospital at Naini Tal in our day,” Nicholas continued, “and Joanie was obstreperous. So it’s up to you. Colony Vaine’s in your hands. That’s one thing. Another is that Joanie won’t have any more parents to scare her away. She’ll come over and help you when our backs are turned, and that, James, will be the making of Joanie.”
He made a gesture of dissent. These dear, delightful, childishly simple plans! If only they knew; if only, without hurting them, he could explain that nothing, nothing would ever make Joan either found a family or come over to help at Shahgarh! The idea of Nicholas and Janie tearing themselves away from their paradise—with all these new schemes blossoming, too—to knock about from hotel to hotel, and without the smallest hope of any good coming from it, was simply unthinkable. Much better to tell them the whole truth, though that would worry them dreadfully—besides, how could he explain certain things? Joan’s sensitiveness, for instance? And that wild first promise of his? Impossible.
“We simply couldn’t accept it,” was all he could muster. “It’s perfectly wonderful of you to think of it, and I—both of us—won’t ever forget it, but we couldn’t let you. We’ve got quite enough to go on with. It . . . isn’t that. And Joanie wouldn’t be any more likely to come over, if you weren’t there. Besides, where would you go?”
He was always sorry he added that last question. It distracted attention from what he had been trying to express just before, and gave Nicholas something new to talk about. And the worst of it was that, whenever—in this or subsequent talks—he tried to get back to his original position, Nicholas immediately assumed that it was their subsequent movements that made him uneasy, as now. His immediate rejoinder was, “Oh, don’t you worry about us! We’ve got it all cut-and-dried. We’re going to Australia.”
“Australia?” he could only repeat stupidly.
“Yes, why not?” Nicholas was quite in his stride again. “Why not, if you please? Janie hasn’t seen her people for years, and I want to learn up-to-date fruit farming. When we come back I’ll be able to tell you something about canning too, for one thing. Has it ever occurred to you, James, that though we grow the fruit and brew the jam and knock together the packingcases, we abandon the whole principle of self-support by ordering our jam-pots from Birmingham? Look at the trouble. Look at the waste of time and money, when we might be canning our own stuff on the premises. And, to tell you the truth, James . . .”
Hopeless to interpose, with Nicholas on his high horse again, and riding it as jauntily as ever. He could only make the necessary interrogatory noise.
“. . . to be quite honest, I like cans.” Nicholas was at his best—confidential, whimsical, happy. “I—like—cans. And if cans leave you cold, think of canisters. Picture a twenty-pound canister of picked strawberry, eh? Like a jeroboam of champagne. That’ll fetch ’em all—clubs, hotels, officers’ messes. You couldn’t do that with a pot. There’s not a pot made that you could do it with, and if there were you couldn’t get it here on a coolie’s head. Besides, I dislike the word pot . . .”
Away, right away from the original issue! He could not help laughing. If only he himself had that sort of resiliency. Cans!—the man might be giving up his fireside and his fruit and the control of all his beloved schemes, but he could still extract a laugh out of a can. Enviable quality. But it would not deceive a child, all the same—this blather about cans. Inwardly, Nicholas must be feeling sick at the thought of leaving Shahgarh. It could not be otherwise. And he said as much.
“It’s splendid of you to pretend to laugh it off,” he said, “but there’s no need. You ‘re not going. You’d loathe to go.”
They were half-way up the orchards now. The buildings—bungalow, office, sheds—seemed, as they walked up, to emerge from a foam of flowers and ride upon it, like wooden bright-windowed ships on radiant foam. There was a transforming magic in the morning. Shahgarh was radiant. He felt that nothing in the world could ever bring him to leave it.
Perhaps Nicholas saw a hint of that thought in his face, for once more he took his arm.
“I’m not like you, James. You’re trying to put yourself into my place, and it won’t work. You’re a desperate clinger—and that I never was. I’ve a fancy for stretching my legs every now and again, and seeing something of my neighbours and the good old world. Don’t you imagine that I’m one of your self-sacrificing people either. If I had been I’d have plumped myself down in Cheltenham or Malvern years ago and given Joanie what she’d call a decent education—though if there’s a better education than life in these hills I’ve yet to see it. No, I was born a bit of a tramp and a tramp I’ll stay. I want to see Australia. I want to see how those fellows grow their stuff and how they market it. Don’t think I’m denying myself or any of that sort of tomfoolery. I’m going to enjoy myself. And don’t let’s have any more of your objections and interruptions, or I’ll put you in irons. Damn it, James, who the devil are you to object to orders? Get along to your office, sir, and play tunes on your beastly type-writer, and leave your elders and betters to make up their own minds.”
Nicholas was very like Joanie after all, he thought—hopelessly fond of his own way. You might as well argue with Ramnagar Ridge as with Nicholas when he remembered that he had once commanded a submarine.
“Oh, and James—tell Joanie,” shouted Nicholas after him up the path, “tell her it’s settled that we’re going, and watch her confounded face brighten up!”
He laughed, but without much relish. This would be about the last straw to Joanie. She would imagine that it was all a plot to imprison her indefinitely in India. He did not see how else she could take it. If it had been the other way round now—Australia for them instead of Nicholas and Janie—the task of telling her would have been much easier. She would have jumped at that.
He was positively afraid to face Joanie. He stuck to the office as long as he could, inventing things to do. He checked the accounts; he overhauled the correspondence files; he wrote perfectly unnecessary letters and ordered material that could not possibly be wanted till next winter—all with the vague idea that, by putting off the evil moment of going home, he might stumble upon some inoffensive method of acquainting her with the new plan. For himself he accepted it. He knew Nicholas, once an idea had got set in his brain. But . . . how to make it palatable to Joan?
Brighten up, indeed! There was only one piece of news in the world that could really make Joan brighten up, and that was the news that she was permitted to say good-bye to India, immediately and for ever. If he went to her and said, “The Government of India’s resigned. There’s a law been passed that in future no person of British birth may conduct business within the confines of the self-governing principality. We’re ruined. We’ve got a week to clear out in!”—if he burst in on her with that, she would probably throw her arms round his neck on the spot. But if he merely said, “My pay’s to be doubled. I’m to be in sole charge. We’ve got the best possible incentive for sticking in the country indefinitely, and we’ll be fools and criminals if we don’t”—well, she’d do the opposite. She’d lose her temper and say, “It’s a plot between you and dad. He never meant to stick in the country himself—he’s not such a fool; But he knows you are. So off he goes, and leaves you to run the estate while he fattens on the profits. I know dad!” Quite capable, she was, of saying that; yes, and thinking it too. He knew Joan.
And the worst of it was that—even if she became extraordinarily kind to him, by some miracle, and he did waver in his determination to stick here—Nicholas’s action was making it finally impossible ever to leave. To that extent, it had all the effect of a very successful plot. He would be tied to Shahgarh, if only by his obligation to Nicholas. No getting away from that.
The more he thought of it, the less he liked the idea of telling Joan. In fact, he only left the office because it suddenly occurred to him he wouldn’t get any tea if he didn’t; and even the most inventive slave-driver couldn’t find him another shred of work to do.
The amazing thing was that Nicholas, and not he, was right. Joan was quite pleased. Her face did brighten up—not, perhaps, at the first shock of the news, but gradually, as he explained it. He had never been so surprised in his life.
Admittedly, she was in a good mood. She was toasting crumpets when he came in—kneeling on the rug in front of the drawing-room fire and toasting herself a little as well, as she loved doing.
“The cook made them,” she said, smiling up at him with the pleasant firelight on her face. “They’re just as good as home ones. I’ve eaten three. Try.”
He tried. She toasted another for him. It was all very delightful—firelight and crumpets and the curtains drawn, and Joan looking as if she had emerged from a fire-bath, all soft and glowing. A pity he had to spoil the picture. Rather a rare picture, too.
He determined to make sure of the crumpets first. Also, he made sure of his pipe. He sat smoking, watching Joan as she knelt at his feet in the half light and wishing he had Nicholas’s eloquence. If he had that, he would not confine himself to rhapsodies on fruit-farming. There would be rhapsodies on Joan’s hair by firelight, and on the nape of Joan’s neck. And perhaps he would be able to tell her what he never had really told her—that he loved her more than enough. Yes, in spite of everything.
Someone brought a lamp in, and that seemed to break the spell. Joan got up. So he told her the news.
At first she was rather upset. The plot theory was at least hinted at, and she took particular exception to Nicholas’s having broached the matter first to him.
“You’re so weak,” she said. “You’d agree to anything. I suppose you let him think we wanted to stay.”
“Well--hang it, Joanie! He’s doing enough for us!”
He spoke strongly, as he felt.
“What’s he doing?”
“Well, giving up his home for one thing. Raising my screw for another. I’m to be manager. He couldn’t do more.”
Curiously enough, she seemed to see reason in that. It was from this moment, in fact, that he had the impression that she was going to be sensible about it after all. He seemed to have chosen a propitious moment. Not that she answered at once, but she came and perched herself on the arm of his chair—a thing she had not done for months—and sucked her fingers.
“They’re buttery,” she remarked. “What did you say about his raising your money?”
“I’m to have fifteen hundred a month.”
“Instead of seven-fifty,” said Joan meditatively.
“What do we spend now?”
“Oh, all of seven-fifty. A bit more, because I’m still paying for the furniture. In a few months, though, it’ll be a bit less. Seven hundred, say, when we’re straight.”
“Then we’ll save eight hundred?”
“Yes. Unless . . .”
Was it the moment to go deeper into Nicholas’s motives? That grandson? She looked so sweet, Joan did, at that moment—he could imagine her sitting at the edge of a cot instead of on the arm of a chair, and still sucking her buttery fingers.
“. . . unless we increase the establishment,” he ended, trying to speak meaningly.
Whether purposely or not, she ignored the hint.
“What’s twelve times eight hundred rupees in pounds?”
He made a lightning calculation.
“Somewhere about eight hundred pounds.”
“Anything you like,” he said, smiling. Joan’s notions of finance were even more hazy than his own. But she was certainly brightening.
“How long will they stay away?” was her next question.
“Oh, three or four years, worse luck.”
“No worse luck about it,” said Joan sharply. “That’ll be two thousand five hundred pounds. More, if we can keep them away.”
He forbore to expostulate. After all, the main thing was that she was pleased. And it was not as if Joan were mercenary. The worst that could be said of her was that she was inclined to view a person’s money as the gauge of their importance—which was, after all, a child’s view of money and people. Probably she was thinking at this moment that there was more in Jimmy Vaine than she had imagined, funny old Joan!
“In five years we’d make four thousand,” she said, after a pause, and actually stroked his hair with those buttery fingers. “Five years. I guess I’ll grin and bear it. When does the new pay begin?”
“Whenever they go, I imagine.”
Certainly it all sounded rather mercenary, he thought. He couldn’t quite understand her. In fact, he could not remember her ever having discussed money like this before.
However . . . she was reconciled. Nothing else mattered.
“Well, I hope they’ll hurry up about it, that’s all. Say you can manage quite well without dad,” she whispered, her mouth close to his ear; and because she whispered it like that he did not express his feelings as to the blatant ingratitude and selfishness of the remark. Beyond saying laughingly, “I’ll do nothing of the kind,” he paid no attention to it.
But he felt a little shame-faced when Joan kissed his ear, and even permitted him to take similar liberties. It was rather like selling Nicholas and Janie for kisses.
Still, the fact remained that this was the happiest evening he had spent for months.
The Ewarts’ gramophone dance—a bolt from the blue, only explicable by an attack of some sort of Spring madness on a comparatively inoffensive household—had at least one redeeming feature. The prospect of it kept Joan occupied—even quite excited, as the event drew near—and rendered possible a continuation of happy evenings. Personally, he could not pretend to look forward to it. He loathed dancing as it can only be loathed by one who is incurably clumsy on his feet and has been told so in no uncertain terms. Also he detested the Ewarts. Ewart would probably be, or become, drunk; but perhaps not quite so drunk as Ewart’s friends. Mrs. Ewart would be boisterous—still, he confessed now to a certain interest in Mrs. Ewart, not for her own sake, but because she was the “Colonel Saheb’s” daughter and might be able to throw light on that legendary personage. Also it was conceivable that he might be introduced to the niece, in which case he could make discreet inquiries as to the probable price of Hazrat Bagh. Nicholas had stoutly refused to be seen dead at the dance; so, should the niece be there, the way was clear for him to do a little business on his own account and pleasantly surprise Nicholas, From such reflections he had extracted what consolation he could. It was not very much, and it faded to vanishing-point when he found himself standing in the doorway of the Ewarts’ drawing-room and watching the ill-assorted company begin to revolve. In fact, he would have sacrificed a good proportion of his first month’s fifteen hundred rupees to be somewhere else.
He did not dance; and Joan did dance—that was the whole trouble. He ought, he supposed, to be feeling delighted because Joan had, as it were, walked straight into the arms of an old partner of hers—one Tarporley, a long, red-necked Hussar, who had occasionally ridden over to tea from Ranikhet in the old days. He had no particular objection to Tarporley, except that he looked rather like a horse—a leggy, nosy chestnut horse—-and even neighed a little when he talked. But he felt disgruntled because Tarporley had snatched up Joan before he had even exerted the marital privilege of the first, or preliminary, extra. He had been getting on so well with Joan lately that he had looked forward to that extra. They would have had a good laugh over it, at any rate, and he liked making Joan laugh. And now, as it happened, Tarporley was making her laugh instead. He could hear a neigh from where he stood, and could see Joan giggling. And Tarporley apparently could dance.
He was turning away to seek solitude, when Mrs. Ewart was mistaken enough to leave her own partner in the lurch and transfer attention to him. In a primrose gown with a violet sash she looked swarthier and more muscular than ever—like no picture that he had ever entertained of her father—and her brilliantly red cheeks seemed only to enhance the incongruity of a peculiarly virile moustache. He did not want her to stand in front of him. He wanted to escape and smoke a pipe in the cloakroom. Still, he supposed she meant to be kind.
“You don’t dance, Mr. Vaine? Don’t tell me you don’t dance?”
She pronounced it “dohnt dunce” so sharply and precisely that the two d’s issued from her curiously masculine mouth like miniature explosions, each accompanied by a tiny, but well-directed, missile of moisture. He was familiar with the tendency—it had something to do with her very pronounced teeth and a habit of trying to pout—and was on his guard; and, because she was so obviously meaning to be kind, felt horrid for noticing it, and still more horrid for being on his guard. So he answered with an almost reckless politeness, bending towards her—she was short—and positively courting disaster.
“I’m afraid I don’t. Clumsy, you know,” he explained. “Always was.”
She smiled—a queer, convulsive spasm of kindness.
“And your wife dances so well. What a pity. We were so glad to find that she’s an old friend of Captain Tarporley’s. He came here quite by chance, you know, with a friend—another officer—and my husband helped them to get a bear in the orchard at Hazrat Bagh. Such a good place for bear. They come for the plums, you know. They’re almost tame.”
He grunted. Just like Tarporley to disturb that haven, and just like Ewart to abet him! Yes, and just like Mrs. Ewart to refer to people as “officers.”
“I’m sure they do,” he rejoined, recoiling slightly with just the ghost of a movement towards the door.
“You’ll find drinks in my husband’s room,” said Mrs. Ewart anxiously; and, with a vision of Ewart’s somewhat unsteady attentions to the gramophone—he had already sent a record spinning like a hoop among the dancers’ legs—he could not resist an inward comment on the unconscious truth of the remark.
“I’m sure I shall,” he replied, with such effusion that he thought Mrs. Ewart looked pained, and quickly added that he really did not want a drink.
“Then you must have someone to talk to. I must find you a partner.” Her p’s were notoriously disastrous, and this was no exception. “You’re shy, that’s what it is, Mr. Vaine. If you wait here I’ll see if I can find my niece. She’s not very fond of dancing either, and she doesn’t know many people, as she’s only just come.”
To his relief she ebbed away—a gently undulating tide of primrose and violet, receding only to swell the crude torrent of colours on the floor. A belated exudation of Parma violets remained with him, and he caught glimpses at intervals of a glowing smile of satisfaction on Mrs. Ewart’s face, which said as plainly as possible, “I’ve done my duty by the young man. I’ve been kind. And now I can dunce. With a clear conscience I can dunce.” No signs of searching for the niece. As he was the only person standing out, he concluded that she must be among the dancers, but he could see no marked family likeness to Mrs. Ewart among the twenty or so circulating females. With the exception of Joan—how Joan’s hair shone out, and how much cleaner she looked than anybody else, with her faint flush and her creamy neck!—there seemed to be a certain unmistakable tendency to swarthiness, which made discrimination difficult. The niece might be anybody, and anybody might be the niece. And Mrs. Ewart had obviously forgotten all about him. Still, he supposed he ought to hang about on the chance.
The longer he hung about the more dismal he became. He was a fish out of water, if ever there was one. He had less in common with these people even than Joan had, and Joan had little enough. She danced—therefore she had that much in common, technically speaking—but whenever he caught sight of her, he could not help thinking how serenely, fastidiously indifferent she looked towards her human surroundings. She was like a daffodil among a whole lot of crude crocuses, and he could not help remembering, with a certain sympathy, the expressions she had sometimes used about their neighbours. “Look at the Ewarts!” she had frequently said in the course of some argument about the disadvantages of India; and, looking at the Ewarts—though he was their guest, he could not help being frank with himself—he saw now what she had meant. Mrs. Ewart, to be honest, was inexpressibly vulgar. She talked ingratiatingly of “officers,” a habit that would have made her father, surely, turn in his grave. She encompassed herself—hopefully, but insecurely—with primrose and violet. She trailed exudations vaguely suggestive of the latter flower. A curious case of degeneration from the standards of a well-bred man in a good regiment, as the Colonel Saheb must have been! Was there something, after all, in what Joanie had said? And would the niece, one more step removed, betray a proportionate decline? If so, he was not hankering to meet the niece.
He took a pull at himself. It would never do to give in to Joan by a single inch. He must be in a pretty bad way to be even contemplating the possibility of such a thing. After all, this—this abomination of desolation—was not India. It was no more typical of India than a Hackney hop was typical of London.
“Oh, I’m going, yes I’m going—rumpty, tumpty, tumpty blowing—to that coal black mammy of mine . . .”
On droned the gramophone, Ewart beating benignant time with a half-full glass—a strikingly yellow half, one noticed. A poor specimen, Ewart—too fat and too pink. Yet, by all accounts, he had been an active, ride-all-day kind of fellow before he had married Mrs. Was the decline due to Mrs., or India, or just Ewart?
“And the sun would . . . never, never . . . shine . . .”
Ewart, of course. How could one possibly blame India for Ewart? Take the other fellows. Tarporley. No, not Tarporley—he was an exotic—-but the planter lot, like himself. Good fellows, many of them, but just a trifle out of date, just a shade shabby if one compared them with . . .
Oh, damn Tarporley!
The gramophone wheezed to a dying fall. Tarporley passed him, with Joan on his arm. Joan made some pleasant remark, but Tarporley’s gaze was riveted on his, Jimmy’s, lower limbs. There was pathos in that gaze—a pained surprise, verging at one moment in the direction of agony. It mesmerized him. He could not for the life of him help glancing downwards himself.
Well, what if he was wearing pumps! What if his trousers did bulge a trifle at the knees! If Tarporley had lived in India as long as he had . . .
He just scotched the thought—the treachery—in time. But it only just escaped being articulate. Tarporley—he still had no personal objection to the man save on the general grounds that he did everything, including dressing himself and dancing, rather too efficiently—Tarporley seemed to have the effect of making him discontented with himself, of making him notice and deplore things that in the ordinary course of affairs never troubled him for an instant. His own clothes, for example. He was aware now that his tie was too narrow, and lacked the requisite butterfly waist; that his shirt bulged a trifle below the second stud, leaving a small gap through which the observant might catch a glimpse of pink vest. And then there were those pumps. Clearly one did not wear pumps these days. Planters did . . . but not cavalrymen. In common with the majority of his neighbours he was just a little bit wrong everywhere; just a trifle shabby.
“You’re losing caste . . .”—another of Joan’s remarks—-“You’re running to seed.” Well, what if he were? Clothes weren’t everything. Clothes weren’t anything at all compared with qualities—-decent, homely, kindly planter qualities, such as one saw in any face in the room with the exception of Tarporley’s own. To reassure himself, as it were, he studied the faces—a fresh dance had started and he had plenty of opportunity.
But everything seemed wrong to-night. He could only see in others the defects he had noticed in himself. The men were gawky, and the women were primitive. They were all hot and flushed, and dancing with a kind of furtive avidity, as if they danced once a year, and intoning tunes which, according to Joan, had come out of the ark. One girl in particular—a little thing, with untidy dark hair and in a home-made dress which revealed a generous inch of white petticoat—was apparently surrendering her whole soul to the luxury of the tune and completely ignoring the time, to the obvious discomfort and disgust of her partner, who was wearing just that expression of subdued agony that he had sometimes surprised in the faces of his own partners. It was a dreadful spectacle.
And there was Joanie—in her slip of a white dress, with her smooth, fastidious hair—just sailing round as if she had been born dancing; talking little, smiling very faintly, looking unutterably splendid, and—somehow—disdaining it all. Pointing the obvious contrast, the obvious moral; unconsciously, every step she took, revealing the surprised wonderment at herself . . . “What on earth brings me here?” And, as if to rub salt in a sore place, he must needs hear voices just behind him:
“Who’s the girl in white—the mover?”
He could not catch the answer, but he heard the rejoinder:
“H’m. Too showy for a fruit-farmer, George. Too expensive altogether, I should say. Remember Mrs. . . .?”
The voices drifted away. He never heard the name of the lady who courted comparison with his Joan.
He merely stood, stiffened and glaring, sick with rage at the ill-bred complacency of the remark. His Joan—how dared they? Why couldn’t people be left alone, to work out their own salvation? Why must they descend into the arena, and be at the mercy of the tattlemongers and the touts—yes, and the Tarporleys too—of creation? Making him think, making him dissatisfied with himself and his clothes and his career and even his hills!
And the worst of it was that the remark had contained its horrid little germ of truth. Joanie did not look like a planter’s wife; did not match with his old suit and his bad shirt any more than she matched with his gaucherie and his quaint ideals. She had receded to-night. In Tarporley’s expert arms she had become a rather superb stranger. Oh, if only he could get her back to the fireside, cooking crumpets in her own old clothes!
Ewart passed him.
“Watching your memsaheb, eh? Splendid mover—splendid mover! What about a drop of dancing mixture—my own prescription?”
He declined with thanks. Ewart, like his wife, clearly meant to be kind, but everything jarred to-night. Everything conspired to make him feel disgruntled and desolate. He wanted Joan. Joan, Joan, Joan.
He slipped out of the room, and was making for the cloakroom, when he walked almost into the arms of Mrs. Ewart. She was carrying a jug of lemonade, and the girl who had revealed petticoat and awoken such strange agony in her partner’s face was acting cup-bearer with a trayload of glasses. There was nothing for it but to relieve them of their burdens. Mrs. Ewart beamed.
“Oh, that’s nice of you, Mr. Vaine. And this is my niece. She’ll take you into the garden, if you really don’t dance. Mr. Vaine from Shahgarh, Pauline—such a pity—his wife dances so well.”
The girl smiled slightly.
“I know,” she said.
It seemed a funny thing to say, he thought.
She was a funny little thing, though. She stared rather more than was usual—not so much rudely as humorously, as if she were on the point of poking fun at him. Funny eyes, too, she had—very bright, and, as it were, screwed-up into a small space by her high, tight cheeks. It was as if her eye-space were cramped and Providence had thrown in that special brightness as a compensation, with the result that she reminded him of some quaint lively little animal that he had seen and forgotten the name of. Like her aunt, she was guilty of “dohnt dunce,” as he discovered immediately, but she said it crisply and neatly, and her chi-chi was of the mild order that can be taken for French if the listener be so inclined. He found it rather pleasant.
She talked. From the outset she talked, while he lay back in a long chair, and watched the little green and red bottles, with candles in them, swinging like candied fruits in the trees. The strains of the gramophone came out to him refined, hardly louder than the thin song of the mosquitoes, through the open windows. He smoked. She insisted, with an almost uncanny insight into his mind, on his lighting a pipe. As he didn’t dance, she said, it didn’t matter—and there were mosquitoes. So he lit it, and it was balm to him, and all the time she watched him with those odd, mirthful eyes; talking.
She had been in Calcutta, having drawing lessons from a Frenchman. She loved sketching. She would have gone to Paris if she could have found anybody to go with her. As it was she had never been outside India. Not that it mattered, because she adored India. Didn’t he? Especially the hills. Didn’t he love the hills? Once you discovered them, you never wanted to let go of them—didn’t he feel the same?
She never gave him time to answer those quick little questions. She was thoroughly egotistical—wrapped up in herself. Or was it that she knew he would agree? He had a curious sensation from the first of listening to someone who knew quite a lot about him. She was quick, he supposed. Anyway, it was an advantage, because it saved him the trouble of opening his mouth.
They got round to Hazrat Bagh, and the funny thing was that she seemed to know that he was interested in Hazrat Bagh.
“Don’t you adore it?” she said. “Don’t you envy me? I’ve used it as mine ever since I came here, but it’ll be properly mine soon, when I’m twenty-one. I’m longing for it.”
Remembering Nicholas’s injunctions, he ventured a mild feeler.
“I suppose your uncle’s got too much on his hands already to take it up. Pity to let the place run wild, but then I suppose the house is impossibly big. You’d find a difficulty in letting it, I’m afraid, unless . . .”
She seemed quite startled. Her eyes were as bright as wet pebbles.
“Oh, but I wouldn’t let it. I’m going to live in it. And I love it wild. I won’t have it touched.”
Tremendously on the defensive, he saw. He had said the wrong thing, evidently, and Hazrat Bagh was not after all going to be amalgamated with Shahgarh. Nicholas would be disappointed. For himself, he had no feelings on the subject. But he had a very vivid sympathy with the girl’s possessiveness, her strong sense of what was her own.
“Won’t you find it rather dull?” he suggested—not because he could imagine her being dull if she was so fond of the place, but because it seemed to be the right thing to say. “Or perhaps you’ve a friend,” he added, thinking of a girl friend. He could hardly imagine such a funny little thing engaged.
She shook her head violently.
“No, I’ll be quite alone. I hate people. I’ll just have my ayah. She cooks.”
“Sounds rather jolly,” he said, smiling.
“Yes, isn’t it?” She leaned forward, all agog with enthusiasm. “I’ve mapped it all out. The old furniture’s there, you know, so I needn’t get anything, but I shall only use two rooms—one to sleep in and the other to work and eat in. It’s made for a studio. There’s even a skylight in the roof. It’s on the sunny side, facing the orchard, and I shall be able to watch all the animals coming up to feed. Do you know, there’s practically every kind of animal you can imagine living in that bit? It joins on to the Bhawali jungle, and I’ve seen all sorts of footprints.”
“You would. Of course you would,” he murmured happily. Had he not had that very thought himself, coming along with Joan in the Autumn? Bear country . . . sambar country . . . his own thought. It was good to find someone who loved these creatures of the hills as he did.
“You don’t shoot?” she asked suddenly, and rather anxiously.
He shook his head.
“If you shoot, you see nothing,” he explained. “I like seeing them. Always have. They’re rather a hobby of mine.”
She beamed delightedly.
“I’m so glad. Now you’ll understand everything, and perhaps you’ll be able to help me. I had such a job with my uncle and aunt. I say, do you think I could put up a notice saying, ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted—especially shooters’? You see, the bears come up when the plums are ripe, and officers ride out from Ranikhet to shoot them. That one who’s dancing with your wife shot one last summer, and I heard him asking my uncle if he could come again. Do you think I could stop him?”
Her enthusiasm delighted him—especially as it was directed against Tarporley. Tarporley could get his bearskins elsewhere.
“Of course you could,” he replied. “The place will be yours. Put up a board by the gates, and ask the forest patrol to keep an eye on his side. Then, once anything crosses your boundary it’s in sanctuary. All you’ll have to do is to keep them there. You can tame deer, you know, with a salt lick. You’d be able to whistle them up in time.”
She clapped her hands.
“That’s exactly what I want to do. I want to tame them and make studies of them. That’s how I’m going to live. I haven’t quite enough money without I’m afraid, so I’ve relied on selling my studies. It’s lucky, isn’t it, that I got some practice on animals at the Calcutta Zoo, before I ever thought of this plan. I loved doing them too. Isn’t it splendid to think of earning your living doing something you love?”
“It is, indeed,” he said feelingly. How Nicholas would have enjoyed that remark! And how good it was to come across someone unsophisticated enough to be dreaming dreams and planning impossible plans. He watched her a little wistfully. Dreams and plans . . . he had got out of the habit of them lately. Yet a year ago he would have displayed over his own plans every bit as much animation as appeared in her face now—and that was saying a good deal, for she was a very fervent little creature.
“I’m so glad you don’t shoot,” she murmured, after a pause, “I can’t bear guns. I can’t bear people who kill things either. I think I should kill them if I saw them doing it at Hazrat Bagh.”
Then, to herself rather than to him, in a whisper:
“‘None shall hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain.’”
He was surprised. The very notion of quoting something out of the Bible gave him a shiver down the back. Yet she did not appear in the least abashed.
She was sitting with her hands folded in her lap, and smiling to herself with a deep air of content, quite unconscious of having said anything unusual. More than a touch of the old Colonel, he thought, in that unaffected confession of faith, He could imagine the old man standing sternly to his texts, church burial or no church burial. Or was it merely that she shared the instinctive religiousness that was fundamental in the Eurasian race—its finest characteristic, in fact? A Eurasian, he supposed, she must be—Mrs. Ellams had used the plain, unvarnished term “blackey-white”; a term which in this case was monstrously unfair—but that did not seem to matter. She was so extraordinarily genuine. A most unusual and refreshing person altogether, he thought.
“Do you think, if I filled up the reservoir, they’d come and drink?” she asked quite suddenly, showing that her mind’s eye had never left the old orchard. That was so nice in her—the assumption that he could easily follow the trend of her dreams.
“You’d only have to have the stream mudded out, and clear the overflow pipe,” he answered. “They’d drink right enough, especially if you put the salt lick near.”
A nod. Another little pause. Her whole attitude seemed to say, “At last I’ve found someone satisfactory, who gives me the answers I like, instead of making objections.” Indeed, to tell the truth, he was rather preening himself on being useful to someone for once. He liked being appealed to. He liked it so much that he had forgotten the existence of the dance, and the gramophone whimpering in the background, and his own intense disgust with himself and his neighbours. Balm had been poured. He had found a fellowenthusiast, who would walk with him in fancy through the jungle and not want to hurry home.
“Do you think I really can make my studies pay?” she asked him, after due consideration. “Of course, I shouldn’t rely on them entirely. I should try and get some advertisement work too. Worse luck, there aren’t any magazines in India. Do you think that’s enough?”
Plans . . . plans! Highly improbable ones, too, but he hadn’t the heart to throw cold water on them. To him always the planning had been an even more important operation than the fulfilment, and perhaps it was the same with her.
“I should go ahead,” he said boldly. “You can’t tell till you try.”
Then he recollected suddenly Nicholas’s picturesque phraseology about jam “flowing out of the hills to beat old Mother Ganges herself,” and a suggestion of enshrining the idea in a poster. Just the very thing, he thought. Nor could he resist saying so.
“Anyway, you shall have our posters,” he added, and felt rewarded, for once more she clapped her hands.
“Oh, you are nice!” she exclaimed. “I’m glad you came. I thought perhaps you wouldn’t.”
There was something so crisp and spontaneous, not to say comical, about the outburst that he accepted it without a blush. He had never met anyone in his life—including Joan, and even Nicholas—who made it so utterly impossible for him to remember that he was shy. Perhaps it was partly due to the odd impression she gave—it peeped out then—of assuming that they had met before; that trick of accepting him as an old acquaintance, and of saying “You know” at intervals as if he might really be expected to know. It came out conspicuously again in her next remark, which was the most unexpected of all.
“Oh, don’t you feel you’d die if anybody tried to take you away from here?” she said, with sudden, anxious emphasis, clasping her hands and screwing up her face as if the very thought were pain; adding, “That’s what I feel about Hazrat Bagh.”
He saw her eyes searching along the hill; and his own eyes, roving in sympathy, picked out familiar outlines under the stars. The hills—she meant the hills. But how did she know he would agree? For she knew.
“I do feel that,” he muttered.
To-night he had doubted himself—was there anything he had not doubted in that abominable ballroom?—but now he felt strangely reassured. If a little bit of a girl, without a soul to back her and hardly a penny in the world, could stand to her guns and defend her dreams, so could he, with Nicholas behind him and solid Shahgarh. Mentally he braced himself.
“And I don’t think anyone’s going to shift me,” he added—rather rashly, as he thought afterwards; but she had that trick of making him, too, feel that she knew all about him.
She glanced towards the ballroom involuntarily. She was going to say something, he thought, which she afterwards decided not to say. Her nod was non-committal.
“You must come over and help me make the salt lick,” she remarked at length, “and teach me how to whistle up the deer.”
When they re-appeared “Auld Lang Syne” was in progress, and Joan—supported by Tarporley—was waiting for him in the hall, obviously ready for home. He felt so much better that he faced Tarporley’s stare at his trousers—which were embellished with a smear of pipe-ash—with equanimity. But he could not get over Joan’s marked indifference to the presence of his partner. She ignored her as only Joan, when so minded, could ignore; with the result that he felt it incumbent on himself to be extra effusive. He went out of his way to remind her to be sure and let him know about the salt lick.
Nicholas was good at his word. Either he really wanted to stretch his legs and see something of the world again, or he was very successful in persuading himself that he did; for he only gave himself a bare couple of months more of Shahgarh, and turned his back on his paradise before the picking season, trailing the hapless Janie after him. Shahgarh bungalow was shut up. Jimmy was left in sole charge, with a Sikh ex-jemadar of infantry and an apprentice clerk to help him, and, though no two men in the world could replace Nicholas, he found the combination very useful.
On his way down to Bombay Nicholas had arranged interviews with railway magnates, stopping a night or two in Delhi for the purpose, with the result that the special rapid fruit service was in full trim and only awaiting the appearance of the fruit itself to materialize. Incidentally, there was every prospect of a good season, and Jimmy had every excuse for feeling that he had started well. This was some consolation for the loss of Nicholas, which seemed to him at first nothing short of a tragedy. Another consolation was the undoubted fact that Joan had begun to take an interest in the work.
Admittedly it was a very modest interest. She came over spasmodically and stuck labels on jam-pots, duly marshalled for the purpose on the wide verandah at Shahgarh, till lunch-time. After lunch she generally discovered that the verandah was about the best place to bask in in the universe, and she accordingly basked. True, the marshalling of jam-pots, and their transport from the yard—where Janie had always done the labelling—called for the service of two of his coolies who might have done the whole thing, labelling included, in a quarter of the time; but Joan looked so happily and beautifully busy in a pale green smock, evolved for the purpose, beside her pots, that he had not the hardihood to interfere. The great thing was that she had come over of her own accord, and what did it matter if she did take a couple of coolies away from their proper vocation? She enjoyed it; they enjoyed it; and he enjoyed it more than any of them, for it involved picnic lunches with Joan instead of solitary sandwiches in the office. And during those memorable lunches she really would ask questions about the estate. It was like the beginning of a new era.
He began to entertain visions, with more than a touch of his old optimism, of what might happen if things were allowed to go on just as they were. Tactfully managed, Joan might, in time, actually take Janie’s place. The strawberry picking was almost due. Was it too much to hope that she would do as Janie had always done—superintend the grading and the packing of the best fruit for special orders? He could hardly expect her to face the heat of the jammery in full blast—as Janie had invariably done—but she still might help enormously without actually going inside. She could take over the bottling—apricots, peaches and greengages—jolly work, that; and the apple wrapping, when it came to apples; and the seething of multitudes of little oranges in sugar tubs. Ah, if only she would begin—pot-labelling was hardly, or only just, a beginning—she would discover a heap of picturesque things to do. And she would draw pay—Nicholas had made a point of that, though Janie had never drawn a halfpenny—from the moment she began any responsible work. Janie had insisted that the work was fascinating enough in itself; that it kept her young, and saved her from going to sleep in the afternoons. But Joanie, he felt, would enjoy the importance of adding to a banking account on her own.
Very tentatively he began to suggest it. “Once get her really interested and she’ll never dream of giving it up. She’ll just suddenly realize that she’s happy, and then anything may happen,” was the thought at the back of his mind, and, with so much at stake, he moved cautiously. At first he was so cautious that he made very little headway—Joan suspecting a plot to “tie her down,” as she termed it. But he worked the pay and the picturesque for all they were worth, and he soon saw that he had made her think. She began to ask questions—searching questions. She would suck her fingers contemplatively over the prospect of candied oranges and bottled peaches, and wax garrulous over aprons and embroidered smocks. And when she threw out suggestions as to the advisability of opening a separate banking account, he began to be quite cock-a-hoop because things were going so swimmingly.
Then, like a bombshell, came that wretched invitation from Tarporley, to blow his schemes sky-high.
In itself it was nothing sinister—Tarporley was on leave with a polo team in Naini Tal, and wanted a partner for the Polo Club dance ten days hence. It meant nothing more arduous than riding over to Naini on a Friday afternoon; watching the polo final, and afterwards dancing, on a Saturday; and riding back, in the cool of a Sunday evening, to be in time for work on Monday. Naini polo “week,” moreover, was an institution, and most people—even the Ewarts—managed to find time to go over for part of it. And Tarporley had arranged for everything; had even got first refusal for a double bedroom at the Royal Hotel, and would send over ponies to meet them. That was the worst of it—it was all so entirely reasonable and easy. But he knew, the moment he read the letter, that it would undo all the good work of the last two months. It would make Joan discontented again. Tarporley had had that effect on her before.
She was delighted, of course.
“Just what I hoped he would do,” she said at once, adding, “Of course, we’ll go.”
He hurriedly marshalled objections. He was in sole charge; it wasn’t playing the game to take a holiday the moment Nicholas’s back was turned; and he hadn’t any decent clothes.
“Rubbish!” said Joan, “I’ll iron them for you. And you said yourself that the strawberry picking couldn’t start for a fortnight, which makes it just right. And as for dad, he promised fifty times to take me to the week himself.”
“It’s an awful expense for three days,” he grumbled. “We’ll have to dine him, and there’s the hotel, and we can’t expect him to pay for the tickets even if he is hard up for a partner.”
“I like that from a man who’s making fifteen hundred a month,” was the instant answer. “I never knew you were mean, Jimmy.”
Already the bombshell was taking effect. He had not felt so irritable since the night of the Ewarts’ dance; and Joan had not looked so annoyed since long before that.
“I’m not mean,” he cried. “I don’t care a damn about the money!”
“Then why mention it?” she murmured.
“Only because it seems to be the only thing that appeals to you. As a matter of fact, I don’t want to go away just now. We’re getting on so well, and I haven’t earned a holiday, and when I have earned a holiday I want to go off somewhere just by ourselves. Bhawali Inn, or somewhere.”
“What a holiday! Seems to me we’ve been quite a lot together lately—at least, I haven’t seen any face but yours since the Ewarts’ dance.” She paused and stared him out, adding, “Well, I’m going if you’re not. If you like to think of me going without you, that’s your affair. Dick’s quite capable of looking after me, and I shan’t miss you a bit.”
With that she left him. He gave in, of course. The mere thought of Tarporley neighing over her for three days without intermission made it inevitable, and he wished he had given in at once. However, for a wonder, Joan seemed to bear no malice. But he noticed that, during the intervening ten days, she did not once come over to label jam-pots; and, instead of the homely sackcloth whereof aprons are made, she and the darzi were immersed in billows of pale green taffeta, and cloth of silver to match silver stockings and silver shoes. Nor was he aware that the iron, if employed at all, had left any impression on his dress trousers.
As they rode a few days later through the bottle-neck, between hill and hill, which confines to one narrow roadway the entire traffic of a Government headquarters and temporary capital of a Province, he could not help thinking how extraordinarily pleasant it would be if Tarporley contracted one of those minor polo accidents which disable for the time being but break no bones—a slight concussion, for instance. Tarporley was in a sense his host, and the feeling was therefore unworthy; nevertheless, he entertained it. It was not so very long ago that Joan had said, “Why can’t it be just you and I?” and “just you and I,” he realized already, would have been a delightful combination for a week-end in Naini Tal. For the place at first sight had a tremendous charm.
The bottle-neck, lined on either side by close, jumbled little bazaar shops, instinct with the shabby quaintness of Himalayan architecture, guarded its well-kept secret; and, until you turned the last corner, you had no inkling whatever of the great cup in the hills, of the terraced town, filling three mountain-sides, or of the long kidneybean-shaped lake that reflected it all. Water was the secret of the charm. Water it was that lent the colours of romance to that most commonplace of all microcosms—an Indian hill station—and transformed even Government offices and stucco hotels into reflected palaces.
The road ran by the lake, and, in spite of the looming of Tarporley not many hundred yards ahead, Jimmy enjoyed the last stage of the ride as he had enjoyed nothing since the view from the gap in Ramnagar Ridge. There they had looked down, and the colours of the world had seemed to ebb away from them. But here they were just on the rim of what was in effect a melting-pot, and all the colours of three hills were collected and concentrated for them within a stone’s throw. Blue and pink and yellow from the tiers of painted tenements in the native bazaar melted like shot silk into the true jade of the deep water and the tumultuous greens of the reflected trees; brown boat-houses made sombre notes of contrast, and there were deep purple shadows where leaning willows shut out the sun; a few yachts slid down the middle like white feathers teased by a gentle wind, and a little temple in the corner, nut-brown and sedate as a hen on her nest, had the appearance of stretching out a long pole of shadow to meet them. There were blue-robed and pink-robed bathers in that shadow, and great green willows on the edge of it; and there he would have liked to moor a boat containing himself and Joan, and watch the yachts drift in, and wait for the temple bells.
Unfortunately, it was Tarporley who was waiting, and had been waiting for some time, on the hotel steps. They were borne off to a crowded boat-house, where a Goanese band was playing and innumerable people were having tea. Boats there might have been, but no one suggested utilizing them, and he was compelled to watch the yachts fluttering in, and the evening breeze shooting its quick obliterating veils of silver-grey across the water, over other people’s shoulders. Somehow the prospect no longer pleased.
After tea a hundred people rose up and danced, and Joan disappeared from his ken. He continued to watch the water, cold now and uncoloured, till Tarporley took pity on him and asked him to have a drink.
He realized almost at once that Tarporley had something particular to say, and had come to the conclusion that now was the time to say it. His mouth was being tried, he felt—it was impossible to describe anything that Tarporley did without sooner or later referring to horses—or, in other words, Tarporley was anxious to know whether he really wanted to go to the dance or not.
“Not much in your line, this sort of thing, eh?” was the remark that gave the clue. He had no answer for it.
“Look here,” Tarporley continued, inserting a finger between his collar and his red neck, and wrenching, “I’m afraid you’re going to be terribly bored between now and Monday such a rotten place if one doesn’t care for the ordinary bill of fare, dancing and poodle-faking and that. Why not borrow my shikari? He’s got a tame leopard for me only a mile or two away, and he’s always badgering me to sit up for it. Of course, I can’t because of polo, so you may as well have a duzz at it as not. You’ve got to-morrow. Start about three, come back when you like—what d’you say?”
He could have laughed aloud at the sheer transparency of the man, if he had not known that Tarporley must know that he might sit up a hundred nights and never shoot a hill panther within two miles of Naini Tal. That annoyed him more than the blundering attempt to monopolize Joan.
“I’m afraid I don’t shoot,” he said very gruffly.
“Don’t shoot? Lummy!”
If he had said that he didn’t expect to outlive his mixed Vermouth Tarporley could not have exhibited a more distressed concern. “Don’t shoot?”—he repeated it at least three times, with growing perplexity, as if it were a symptom of some dreadful and disfiguring disease—one of the kind one hardly likes to talk about. “Don’t shoot? Lummy!”
“Doesn’t your missus like it?” asked Tarporley finally, as if the thing must at any cost be excused, or Tarporley would spend a troubled night.
“No, I don’t like it myself, except very occasionally for the pot,” he said, hating the man.
“Well, you are a queer fish and no mistake. What do you do with yourselves up in the back of beyond?” inquired Tarporley.
Hated him . . . hated him. Oh, how he hated the man. Yet he was drinking his drink, and sitting in his beastly boat-house, and apparently must continue so to sit and watch him twiddling his nasty little red moustache and looking down complacently at his polo boots until his friend Mr. Digby-Smithers should see fit to relinquish Joan. He seemed to divine the thought behind that complacent downward gaze. “This fellow’s a mug—a proper mug,” Tarporley was saying to his polo boots. “He doesn’t shoot (lummy!), and probably can’t kiss his wife as she wants to be kissed, and is altogether the sort of mug who goes about asking to be done brown. Well, let’s do him brown.” All that was in the twiddle and the gaze.
He registered a mental vow that wild horses would not keep him out of the ballroom to-morrow night even if, as he suspected, Tarporley had omitted to bespeak a ticket or a partner for him. Just to rile the man and let Joanie see that he was not quite so easily bamboozled as Tarporley might think—not that Joanie cared tuppence what Tarporley thought. Still . . .
“Look here, Vaine,” with a jerk Tarporley took leave of the polo boots and forced himself as it were, to contemplate the mug, “don’t you worry. I’ll lug your missus round and that. I know the ropes—what’s going on, and when, and where, and you needn’t worry for a moment. I don’t suppose you’ll care to grill yourself watching the polo any more than you care for this,” he waved towards the dancers. “Take one of my ponies and have a look round the hills she says you ‘re so fond of. Splendid hills round here—capital lot. And, look here . . .”
He knew what was coming. He had waited for it.
“. . . if you don’t care about dancing, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t trip off to bed to-morrow night, you know. I always think it’s rotten for a fellow who doesn’t dance and doesn’t know many fellows to have to hang about till all hours waiting for some woman, don’t you know, just to take her home, and not a word of thanks for it either. What’s in taking her home—that’s what I always say when I see fellows like you propping their eyes open all the evening—what’s in it? Ten to one she’s so sleepy that she hardly notices you’re there, or else she ticks you off for being so darned sleepy yourself. No thanks either way and precious little sleep either. So if you feel you’d rather . . .”
He wrenched at his neck suggestively, like a horse yawing, and looked expectant, as if to say, “Hang it, I’ve given a broad enough hint. If the fellow can’t take that!” There was an exquisite temptation to keep him dangling—to play with the idea. But he was too much annoyed to waste time over tantalizing Tarporley. He had his answer ready and he exploded it as effectively as he could.
“Oh, I think I’ll roll up,” he said, smiling brightly, “I haven’t been to a decent dance for years.”
Tarporley took it just as he had expected, with profane resignation.
“Right oh. Please yourself. But you’ll be bloody dull, I’m afraid!”
And with that he made an excuse for walking away.
It was not until next morning that he got the real shock—Joan did not want him either. She did not say so in so many words—he was inclined to wish afterwards that she had—but he knew what was in the air the moment they started walking up the road after breakfast to meet Tarporley at the Club. Tarporley had been getting round her, he knew, for she used almost exactly the same words as he had.
“You’ll be dreadfully bored to-night, Jimmy,” she began, à propos of nothing in particular, for they had just been discussing the things in the shop windows. Then she waited a little, and added, “It goes on till three.”
He pretended not to hear. Perhaps he would not have minded if he had not already been through the same rigmarole once already with Tarporley. As it was, he did mind terribly. It hurt him to the core—hurt him almost more than anything Joan had ever said or done, mainly because it was so unlike Joan. Joan always, he firmly believed, used direct methods—and here she was, taking a leaf out of Tarporley’s book, before she had been in contact with him for a day. As if the two of them had an understanding. As if they already knew each other well enough to discuss him.
“Dick hasn’t been able to beat up a partner for you, Jimmy,” she went on. “He’s most awfully sorry, but, you see, every female here more or less dances, and you don’t.”
Beat up. He knew where that expression came from. So they had been discussing him.
He looked at her. What had Joanie in common with Tarporley? As far as he could recollect, the man had only turned up a couple of afternoons at Shahgarh—once with a fellow named Jervis, and once alone—and had taken her out for a ride. A casual acquaintance, of that he was perfectly convinced. Still . . .
Oh, damn these suspicions! If there was one thing he detested more than another it was the presence of a suspicion. It gave him a physical itching, like a flea in his clothes, even if it only concerned one of the coolies. He dismissed it angrily. Once start suspecting Joan of concealing anything, and he would never have a moment’s comfort again.
“I know,” he said. “But as I don’t dance, it doesn’t seem to matter much, does it?”
Not a flicker of annoyance in Joan’s face. She paused in front of a milliner’s window. To the casual passer-by they were just two people wondering whether they could afford a Paris model.
“I only thought you’d be glad to get out of it,” she murmured, very intent on the price ticket of a tomatocoloured opera-cloak.
He couldn’t pretend.
“You talked it all out last night,” he burst out.
She appeared regretfully to abandon the opera-cloak. People were passing by.
“We tried to decide what to do with you, if that’s what you mean.”
Do with him! That was the way they talked, then.
He began to see red.
“Look here,” he exclaimed rather noisily, “I haven’t said a word about the fellow. I haven’t even asked you why you persist in calling someone you’ve met about twice Dick. I hate interfering. I hate it. But when you start discussing me, as if . . .”
Joan gently propelled him up a side-street, which faced steeply away up the hill, and was quite deserted.
“This isn’t Shahgarh,” she remarked.
“Why do you call him Dick?”
“Everybody calls him Dick, except the people who call him Sugar.”
Sugar! Didn’t that stamp the man, and the people who called him it! He had heard enough silly nicknames last night at that table to last him a lifetime, but this was the silliest.
“Did you meet him when you were at home in London?” he snapped out.
Now, the devil alone knew where that idea came from. It only occurred to him on the spur of the moment, and he fired it out on the chance. If it had not happened to be right, as luck would have it, he would probably have kept his temper and saved himself from a devastating day with his suspicions. He would have apologized to Joan the next minute for making a fuss about nothing if—it was a big “if”—she had not had to admit that she had danced casually once or twice with him at some club in London.
“Then you knew he was coming to the Ewarts’?”
That followed, of course.
“I certainly did not,” said Joan, “I was never so surprised in my life.”
“Then he knew you were coming?”
For the first time she blushed, and looked a little put out. He pursued the advantage.
“I thought it was funny a fellow in the God-knows-what Hussars turning up at the Ewarts’ and pretending he enjoyed dancing to tunes out of the ark on a secondhand gramophone. Of course he knew. The whole thing was arranged. I suppose you suggested his shooting bear at Hazrat Bagh so that he could get to know the Ewarts. Presently he’ll want to come and stay there again. I know. He asked me if I shot. I suppose he thought . . .”
Walking rapidly up a very steep hill, if it had disastrous effects on his temper, also put a strict limit on his resources for giving vent to it. He was forced to stop, though he had plenty to say.
“Don’t be silly, Jimmy,” she put a hand on his arm, “don’t be an idiot. He came up to shoot last summer, before I’d even arrived. And if the Ewarts had any special reason for asking him, it was probably to meet your friend Pauline Bartie. I know he spent half the evening avoiding her, because he told me so. Anyhow, I told you that I knew nothing about it till I saw him in the room, and I’m not in the habit of telling lies.”
He knew that. His silence was an admission of it.
“You’re not jealous, are you?” said Joan, rather more kindly, “because there really isn’t anything to be jealous about. I don’t know what ideas you’ve been getting into your head. After all, if nobody had mentioned your staying away from the dance, you’d probably have suggested it yourself.”
She was trying to pacify him. He refused to be pacified. He had plenty of breath now, and he meant to use it. She should know once and for all what he thought about Tarporley; how he hated Tarporley; why he hated Tarporley. He plunged into incoherence.
“We were just getting right . . . you’d begun to come over and take a bit of interest in the work . . . in another week or two you’d have been hard at it, and once you’d started you couldn’t have helped loving it. Admit you were beginning to get reconciled. Just admit that. And considering that your getting to like Shahgarh is just about the most important thing in the world to me—unless it’s a baby, and that’s hopeless—you can imagine how I feel when an outsider steps in and botches up the whole business. You know he makes you discontented. You know he hasn’t got a good word to say for India. You know he thinks I’m a queer fish and a mug for liking my job, and is doing his level best to make you think you’re one for putting up with me. You know you haven’t been near Shahgarh since he wrote, and the verandah’s so thick with jam-pots that you could walk on ’em. And when we go back, we’ll be just where we started last summer. Well, can you wonder at my hating the fellow, and wishing to God we’d never set eyes on him? I ask you—can you wonder?”
It was all out—all that had been in his mind since Tarporley’s invitation had come. There was a certain relief in getting rid of it, badly as he had expressed himself. If only he could tell her how he had dreamed of the day when she would be happily employed in Shahgarh! For it was that dream that Tarporley was out to wreck, consciously or unconsciously. Anyhow, though, he had made her think.
“I don’t understand,” she said after a long pause. “You want me to admit that I was beginning to like Shahgarh, just because I helped with a few jam-pots? Since when have I begun to be reconciled, as you call it? I’m not aware of being any different.”
His mind went back to the evening when he had brought in the news of Nicholas’s decision to leave him in charge. He associated it with a glowing fire and the smell of toasted crumpets—that dawn of interest in Joan’s face.
“The moment your father decided to clear out you began to be different,” he said.
“I’m blest if I did!” gasped Joan, really surprised.
“You were pleased about the money.”
“Of course. It made it certain that we could go home in five years. I’d do anything for that. I’ve been gloating over it ever since.”
It was his turn to gasp. He had forgotten Tarporley, and the dance might have been something about to happen in another world. Even the town below, with its flying flags and rustling feet, had but a peepshow futility. His mind was back in the drawing-room at Pine Knoll, concentrated on a conversation, every word of which he remembered because he had made it the foundation of his renewed hopes. Perching on his chair in front of his fireside, and all the time congratulating herself inwardly on the prospect of routing him out of it five years hence! Routing out poor old Nicholas—it seemed like that now—in anticipation. Where did it end? Had nothing been genuine. Was there some mean motive behind every flicker of interest, even down to the labelling of jam-pots?
Miserably he looked away—at the futile antics of the yachts, at a string of donkeys far down on the lake road, little figures in a silence, like themselves.
“Didn’t you even begin to feel you might settle down? Did you merely think of clearing out at the first opportunity?” he asked at last.
“Of course, as soon as we got enough money.”
Well, one thing was genuine about her—her surprise. And yet he could not quite understand her. She had been so jolly lately, up at Shahgarh. Helpful, too. He had not missed Nicholas half so much as he had expected to, simply because she had risen to the occasion. And now to be told that she was merely gloating over the prospect of getting out of it!
“Dick’ll be waiting. We really ought to go down. It’s not fair,” he heard her say, just as if nothing had happened; just as if they were still looking in a shop window and discussing a purchase, to pass the time of day while Tarporley finished his breakfast—instead of mutilating dead dreams.
Somehow that was the last straw.
“Oh, go to your Dick!” he blazed.
He plugged straight on up the hill, and did not look back till the town was a toy town and the yachts feathers cocked on a toy pond. There was a certain grim gusto in creating that atmosphere of loneliness which, in his present distorted view of things, seemed sooner or later to be his inevitable lot. Nicholas had gone, to serve that inscrutable purpose of Fate; Joanie was going; no one else but these two had ever come his way, for it was not given to him to find friends . . . where did it all point, if not to an eventual isolation? He was intended to be lonely. His father had been a lonely man, and this was his heritage. As a child, as a school-boy, he had grown familiar with it. It was like a taste in the mouth—loneliness—and back it had come, reminding him, after the manner of tastes, of a bygone attitude of mind. Loneliness—there was a tang to it, somehow; a peculiar, memorable flavour. It was almost as if—in some past chapter of life, or some former life, or dream of such—he had once before plugged up Cheena Peak alone.
Joanie would go eventually. She was slipping from him.
Not to Tarporley, not to anyone else—she was too cold and too calculating to be rushed off her feet. But she would just, in her leisurely fashion, stroll away one day and not come back, fulfilling Fate and leaving him alone, as he was obviously meant to be. There was nothing to prevent her, nothing to hold her back. He had been trying to string together some sort of a bond—love of place, love of home—but he might have known that all it would bind would be himself. There was only one bond to tie a creature like Joan to a creature like himself, and that had been put out of court long ago, on the night when they had decided that they could get along without a baby. That was the only bond between a man and a woman—the natural, the instinctive weaving together of themselves. Only fools ignored it—only a pair of noodles here and there, shy of their own or each other’s instincts, thinking they could run together in some frailer harness, decided that they could do without it.
Do without it, forsooth! Could anybody, any properly constituted person, do without it?
He never forgot what he saw at the top of the hill—it was such curious confirmation of his rhetorical question that he could hardly help seeing symbolism in it and taking the symbolism to himself. In fact, he experienced just that shock of half incredulous surprise that comes to those who ask for a sign . . . and get it.
Native women—Hindus of some peasant caste—had been toiling up the hill ahead of him—clinking, clanking, chattering figures, hooded in dark blue and plum-red, carrying brass dishes and a few flowers. He hung back to let them get on; but presently, when he reached the toll-house and road-junction at the top of the climb, he found them blocking the way. He was in a shady little clearing, and it was cram full of women.
They were all doing their obeisance to an odd lump of rock that seemed to have forced itself up between the roots of a biggish tree—a holy stone evidently, for a priest squatted beside it, and there were trays of offerings on the ground in front of it, while its surface was crimson with ceremonial paint. Endless ministrations, indeed, had rubbed the colour into the very grain of the stone, so that it stood out like a crude polished navel of the tree, for the women to tend.
He had to stop, for they blocked the way, and he could not help thinking that women, in their moods of religion, were all much alike. There was the same absorbed, contented look about these as they rose to their feet and slipped past him, their homage done, as he had encountered in the side-chapels of a cathedral or at a week-day service in a parish church—a satisfaction restrainedly serene, as if they had a secret very much their own. While he, the casual male, was a mere nonentity—he doubted whether they were even aware of his intrusion.
The jaunty Mohammedan toll-clerk ran out with a ticket:
“These women, sir,” he blustered, “think only of children. No good to tell them that a Saheb coming, they like cows to-day. Stone, sir, represents feminine principle of fecundity to Hindus. They think it actual portion of . . .”
“Thanks. I’ll take your word for it,” he said shortly.
“They’ve got more sense than the men, anyhow,” he added, more than half to himself. But the wretched man heard him.
“No need for men to trouble, sir,” he said quickly. “If men find deeficulty in child-begetting, they take another woman. That is why these women are here, sir. They know how to keep their men.”
He winced. Little things sting in a raw place.
“Oh, go to hell!” he cried to the babu, and flung off down the nearest of three roads.
Yet it was true. And the converse was true. There was only one way for a man to keep a woman, as there was only one way for a woman to keep a man. Out of the mouths of babus . . .
Oh, why had not Joan some holy stone of her own, to remind her that instincts must be obeyed? The East knew. The East called a spade a spade. The East obeyed its instincts. “These women think only of children. These women think only of children”—he repeated it over and over, as the perfect expression of the fact that had been in his mind before he had come on that scene. They knew. Children represented their anchor, their hold on their men, their very self-expression. The secret was plain now—it was written in their faces, in their deliberate, natural, almost animal gestures before that oddest of altars. They knew what was amiss with them, what to pray for, and they would sell their last bangle to pay the priests’ fees in order to get it.
Well, he had gained something by plugging up a hill. He had gained a conviction. But what consolation was there in that? He could hardly go back and march Joan, too, up the hill and confront her with a score of women, a suggestive stone, and an iconoclastic babu! Besides, there was a world of difference . . . Joan might not be so particularly anxious as they were to keep her man.
Funny Joan . . . what did she want?
Was instinct left out of her? Or was it just that she was unready for a man? Or that he was the wrong man?
“Perhaps I am.”
He thought of Tarporley. Oh, no—no—a thousand million times no!
“She’s a baby herself,” he thought, and then instantly stiffened himself against her. “That’s no excuse. She’s let me down. Whatever happens, she’s let me down.”
Those women—his mind, as he swung with big strides downhill, kept running back, as it were, to peep into their faces—there was something enviable about them. Their religion, whatever it was, was accommodated to their present, immediate needs; a desirable quality in a religion.
“Ours isn’t. It’s a kid-glove affair. Doesn’t meet our case. If there were ten churches at Shahgarh they wouldn’t help Joanie and me, wouldn’t cater for us. We’re not commanded to have children. It wouldn’t be nice, I suppose, to have an office for those desirous of having children—yet there ought to be one.”
He thought of Pauline Bartie. She had that backing that religiousness gives. He could imagine her praying for a child, and owning to it, too, without a trace of self-consciousness. But not Joanie.
She would never see the need. It stared her in the face, but would never see it. And so they would go on, he and she, bickering, bickering indefinitely, till they had no breath to bicker with.
He saw no other possible future.
It was mere chance that he had taken the road to Bhawali. In his desire to get away by himself and out of earshot of that odious little babu, he had taken one of many roads at random, and only something familiar in the look of a building told him, an hour afterwards, where he was heading for. It was the turpentine distillery—a high wooden tower—that caught his eye; and immediately afterwards he saw, a little to the right of it, a curl of smoke rising from a white chimney, and knew that he had come where he had always intended to come on his first holiday. But never alone, never without Joan.
The sight of that smoke curling up from Mrs. Ellam’s chimney served instantly to revive the acutest memories. The last day of the honeymoon, hardly a year ago; arguments about India; Joan nagging at him to promise, always to promise, that he would take the first opportunity of going home; the discovery of Hazrat Bagh, affecting them so diversely, culminating in the first real quarrel they had had . . . back it all came. A day to live down, perhaps; that was why he had always meant to bring her back to Bhawali Inn—to live it down. But, however ominous and however unhappy, a day of bliss compared with this. After all, however much they might have talked at that time, they had still been content to go about together; to share a quiet lunch at a country pub and a ramble home afterwards. There had been no shadow of a third person then.
He went in and consumed the quiet lunch, defiantly, as if to prove that, if anybody had changed, it was not he. He had almost the sensation of being true to tryst, eating that lunch, and he had never been quite so bitter against Joan as when his eye took in the empty chair facing him—the chair she had sat in a year ago and neglected to sit in now. “I’m her chair. She’s the one that’s changed, or she’d be sitting on me,” the chair seemed to say. Eventually—not without a certain hardihood, appropriate to the removal of a symbol—he put it away in a corner, and felt more definitely alone than ever, more defiant, more miserable. And Mrs. Ellams came in with the pudding and said, “Why, where’s the other chair? Was it in your way, sir?” and made him blush to the roots of his hair.
He was aware throughout that she was going to ask after Joan, and he avoided her eye. But with the coffee came the inevitable, “And your lady, sir? I ’ope she’s well. I thought I might ’ave ’ad the pleasure of seeing ’er, when I saw you come up the road.”
She was standing and he was sitting. It was permissible to pretend to be too much engrossed in the various operations of helping oneself to coffee to be capable of answering at once. But a time came when he had to say something or arouse Mrs. Ellams’s eternal curiosity.
“She’s doing something else to-day,” he muttered, feeling a gimlet gaze in the back of his neck. “I left her in Naini Tal.”
Would he ever get used to explaining Joan’s absences?
And if he boggled over a trifle like this, what would he do if she really went away for good?
Apparently, though, the woman was satisfied. She said, “Naini Tal! Well, I never!” and desisted. He thought the matter was at an end.
But, no—he was compelled to ask for change for a ten rupee note, and as long as she retained the change in her hand he was at her mercy.
“Let me see, ’ow long is it since you was last ’ere? Nearly a year, ain’t it?” The curiosity in her voice seemed to caress him, but he suspected no guile.
“Just over nine months,” he said casually, holding out his hand for his change.
“Well, well. That’s funny, ain’t it?”
She still withheld his money. He fidgeted.
“I’m in rather a hurry, Mrs. Ellams.”
Instantly she dropped a rupee. Groping for it, he heard the nervous little laugh that always betokened a bolder flight of Mrs. Ellams’s imagination, followed immediately by a rush of garrulity.
“Excuse me saying so, sir, but I made certain as you’d say she’d stayed behind to mind baby. Your coming ’ere alone-like and so quiet put me in mind of it—and just the time too, as you might say. Well, dear me . . . “
She paused expectantly.
“There’s no question of staying behind to mind baby. We haven’t got a baby to mind,” he snapped, and, positively grabbing his change, made for the door. Expressions of regret pursued him.
“Well, if that ain’t a pity now. I made sure you’d ’a ’ad one. I was only saying to Ellams when last you was ’ere what a . . .”
He never heard the precise nature of Mrs. Ellams’s confidences to her husband, though he suspected their nature. She was about to say that Joan would make a good mother, and that he had a nice face for a father—and that was the sort of thing that he could not stand listening to at the moment. Very likely he had offended her, but it was her own fault for joining the conspiracy to remind him of his sins of omission; and at any rate he had avoided the necessity of telling the good woman to go to hell.
Regretfully he realized that Bhawali Inn was closed to him for ever. Babyless, he dared not show his face. But he wished Joan had been there to hear what Mrs. Ellams had said to her husband. It would have done Joan good to be made to blush for once! And why should he be made to bear the brunt, and Joan not suffer at all?
Getting off altogether too lightly, Joan was. He could imagine her, at this moment, sitting down to a pleasantly cool meal on the Yacht Club balcony, with Tarporley on one side of her and Digby-Smithers on the other, congratulating themselves mutually on having got rid of him—they were quite capable of that, and if they didn’t precisely say it, anyhow they would think it.
After lunch, a gentle stroll up to the polo ground, closely attended by Dick, to watch Dick surpass himself at polo. In the intervals between the chukkers she would nibble sugared cakes and sun herself and exchange those little vapid commonplaces that go with sugared cakes and undersized tea-cups:
“I don’t see your husband anywhere about, Mrs. Vaine. Doesn’t he care for polo?”
“No—he’s stupid about polo. I’ve sent him for a good long walk. He loves a good walk.”
“But won’t he tire himself for this evening?”
“Jimmy? Oh no. It wouldn’t matter if he did. He’s stupid about dancing. I say, did you see that woman over there, with the . . .”
And so on, till the bell rang and Dick appeared on a new pony to remind her that a Hussar in the hand was worth any number of solitary, stupid, peripatetic fruitfarmers in the bush.
And then, the dance. Silver tissue and apple-green, silver stockings and silver shoes, and that sleek golden head in the neighbourhood of those domineering shoulders and that ruddy neck . . . oh, damn! Whispers—“he’s a devil for walking, that husband of yours. You’ve brought him up well, I must say. Do you think you could persuade him to take another one to-morrow?” Sniggers—“I think it might be managed.” “That’s right. Keep him on the move. Nothing like exercise for husbands!” Tarporley’s neigh, Joan’s deep gurgle—he could hear their very voices, talking about him. Inevitable that they should. Well, one day he might give them something to talk about in good earnest, if they persisted in driving him out into the wilderness like this.
Yes, driving him out! Joan had wanted to get rid of him. She had purposely goaded him and irritated him, knowing that he would fling off in the end and leave her for the day; knowing, too, that he would worry and suffer, as he always did if he were left alone after a row. It was only the last and subtlest phase of the campaign to keep him away from the dance, because she was ashamed of him.
Laughing up her sleeve . . .
Well, he would keep away from the dance. It suited him, and he would. But he wouldn’t be doomed to loneliness, all the same—not if Pauline Bartie were over at Hazrat Bagh.
The idea came to him between the inn door and the end of the lane. She was up there every day, if Mrs. Ellams was to be believed, “potterin’ with them paints.” And he needed someone to talk to rather badly at the moment—someone who would let him smoke a pipe and dream for a bit over the things that he loved. She had cheered him up once, the funny little thing, and it wasn’t past praying for that she would cheer him up again, if her precious plans and schemes were as refreshingly youthful as they had been on the night of the Ewarts’ dance.
He hoped they were—it would be nice to meet again with someone who was neither worldly nor disillusioned.
Besides, she had asked him to come up, and he had promised to go. He ought to have gone long ago. He would have gone long ago, if he had not been so busy, and this was an excellent opportunity—he might not be as near Hazrat Bagh again for months.
And . . . how it would annoy Joan!
His mind was made up, and yet he hesitated—why, he could hardly say, but he could not quite escape the sensation that he was embarking on a more eventful undertaking then the mere strolling through the woods to keep an overdue appointment. Common sense told him that he was proceeding, by mutual arrangement, to see a girl about a salt lick—as one might, by similar mutual arrangement, see a man about a dog; but he knew that there was more in it than that. He was taking a very definite step. He was going to look for her at Hazrat Bagh—and that made all the difference in the world, for one could not think of Hazrat Bagh without associating it with events. The place, for him at least, had a very peculiar atmosphere. He was more than half afraid of it, with the fear of an imaginative person towards something that has stirred the imagination already too deeply for comfort.
Hazrat Bagh had a history. It had influenced lives. It had influenced a stronger man than he was, and had tied him with chains—and not only the man himself, but his seed, maybe, for ever. Of its effect on Mrs. Ewart he could not surmise—she was perhaps too flabby to be influenced by anything but food—but its conquest of Pauline Bartie was amazing. She had come up from Calcutta, without an idea in her head beyond studying art, full of schemes about going to Paris and so on . . . and all the schemes had evaporated the moment she had set eyes on that solitary, mysterious, decayed place. Art had become subsidiary. Her life’s work now was simply Hazrat Bagh. The place had absorbed her. Its personality, however created, had been too strong for hers.
“I love it wild. I won’t have it touched. . . . Oh, don t you feel you’d die if anybody tried to take you away? That’s what I feel about Hazrat Bagh.”
He remembered her outburst because he could so well understand it. He himself, looking back on it, owed more than a little of his present turmoil to the chance discovery of Hazrat Bagh. The first big fight had happened there. He could see Joan how, drumming her fingers on the balustrade and trying to extract a promise out of him, and hear himself begging of her,”Don’t talk so loud!”—as if the place had had ears. He had defied Joan there. She had defied him. The moment they had gone between those derelict gate-posts they had succumbed to an influence greater than themselves; and before they had passed out they had buried several things. A honeymoon, for one. A baby unborn, for another. He had paid a stiff price for his hill-tops that day. It was there that she had said, for the only time, “I wish I’d never married you!” Was it wise to take liberties with a place like that?
He told himself that it was absurd to invest a place with any qualities whatever. It was just a place. The point was—was he or was he not going to keep his promise and look up Pauline Bartie? Yet, while he hovered about between the stacks of sawn timber and the pyramids of barrels in the distillery yard, it was of Hazrat Bagh that he was thinking. Hazrat Bagh was the influence, repellent and attractive at once, that kept him wavering.
He even went back a little way down the road, and pretended an interest in Bhawali bazaar. But it was not market-day to-day, and the street was deserted. There were no bright booths—no pyramids of brass and piles of coloured grains—as on the day when he had passed through with Joan; only a few pie-dogs bickering over a bone in the glare, and an obese bunnia sleeping in the shade. Beyond was the road back to Naini Tal, which he felt he knew as only a hunted person can know a road. He could not face it yet.
He turned back; re-entered the distillery yard; and crossed over the plank bridge behind the godowns. Even then he had not definitely made up his mind to go to Hazrat Bagh. He was in jungle, and for the time being that sufficed. A cart-track meandered beside a shallow brook—perhaps it was the identical brook that fed the old orchard and produced that inimitable tangle of greenery, but here it was free and amber-clear and arched over with protecting trees. He could scarcely see the sun, which had swept the deserted village street so fiercely and forbiddingly—only as a radiance behind a perpetual screen of leafage, dappling the ground with gold-pieces. His feet fell softly where deer had made tracks not long before, and for fun he followed those tracks, marking where the deer had drunk, where they had nibbled, where they had lain down. Then a panther’s tracks crossed them and he followed these, in the faint hope of seeing what he had only once seen—the lovely, mottled beast taking its siesta by the water’s edge.
He did not see it. He lost track of it in deeper forest. But he saw a doe watching him, large-eyed and solemn, from a brake, and knew that there were others beside her, lying down in those neat nests that they made in the silky grass; he saw an otter sitting somnolent on a stone, forgetting to fish; and the sun on a kingfisher’s jewelled back—that brightest gem in the world. He became absorbed, as he always did when he had the jungle to himself; and, when suddenly he stumbled on a decrepit wall and realized that the trees on the other side of it were apple trees, he felt that he had found Hazrat Bagh unintentionally and all too soon. Yet he might have known that it would be so, for he had followed the deer, and Miss Bartie had told him that the deer came up to the orchard to feed. They were in the habit of clambering over the little wall, he could see—standing on it and playing a sort of Tom Tiddler’s ground, preparatory to the serious business of feeding—for there were sharp little indentations in the masonry, and droppings on it, and hair. One old stag had converted the nearest apple tree into a rubbing post for his antlers, and the skirts of the tree were all ragged and pitted. He wondered if she had seen that.
He wondered if she had managed to get the water to run into the reservoir, and had persuaded them to drink. Because, if not, he could clear out the pipe for her, and give her the pleasure of seeing the water well in and mount, scattering the spiders broadcast and filling the cracks. Perhaps it would be as well if he did do it—there might be keraits in the cracks as well as spiders; and it was the kind of thing that he liked doing—making water flow where it had not flowed for years. And then he could mark out a place for the salt lick in some clear space not too far from the water and the path, and tell her where to get the crude salt, and how to stamp it down and get it hard for their tongues; yes, and teach her the peculiar whistle that arouses the curiosity of all deer. Perhaps, as evening drew on, he might even be successful in calling one up for her, for he felt in the mood now.
He hardly hesitated. Approached from this side, Hazrat Bagh was robbed of its ominousness. No derelict gates to question his purpose; no neglected, untrodden road, vanishing over the bare breast of the hill like a ghost of a road; no silent, percipient house; only an old orchard and a tumble-down wall, and the lure of little red wildling apples swinging in the trees or peeping, fallen, from nooks in the grass. Just ahead of him two trees had come down, interlocked, and the space so cleared—where in England buttercups would have made cloth of gold—was filled with the more delicate silver of everlasting flowers. He simply had to go on and tread within that soft moon of flowers.
And then, on again—because he had stepped into a place warm with the breath of old cultivation, and fragrant, and bee-haunted; because each tree was individual and had fought its battle with the undergrowth in its own way, achieving expression thereby, grave or grim or gay; because lichen in the sunlight had the blue-green tints of a pigeon’s neck, and covered the boughs like thick, lovely feathers. And once more on, because now he could see the terrace embankment, standing up against the blue like some ancient pier of masonry in a bygone river-bed, and he knew that the little reservoir was not far off.
Then he broke through on to its very brink, and found himself gazing across it at Pauline Bartie, barelegged and bare-headed, dabbling her feet in water.
If he had not been expecting to find her—though hardly so promptly—he would not have recognized her for his untidy, ill-dressed little partner at the dance. Somehow, to her infinite advantage, she had simplified herself till she was as true to her wild setting as a civilized person well could be. Short-haired, matching the ground on which she sat with her khaki-coloured painting tunic and the brownest of arms and legs, she might just as well have been boy as girl, and wood-sprite as either. She could not blush for her brown limbs—her face was too brown. But perhaps femininity was revealed in the slight effort to cover them up; in the look she gave him—slightly reproachful, yet wholly relieved.
“You came up very quietly,” was her first remark, “I might have been right in.”
She glanced down at the somewhat dubious water lapping at her feet, and he reflected that even if she had been “right in” she would have had no cause to blush. For water, it was remarkably opaque. He hardly liked to say so, though. He apologised.
“I wondered if you were ever coming,” she said, “I always keep my eye on the terrace for people, not that anybody ever comes. I thought you’d forgotten. How did you come?”
He explained, strolling round towards her and sitting down on a tree stump, while she pulled on a pair of Kashmeri embroidered shoes. Apparently she wore no stockings. Perhaps it was that element of unconventionality in the whole encounter that saved him the trouble of being formal or of behaving quite as if he had only met her once before. It seemed, when he was telling her about the deer tracks on the far side of the orchard, that he must have met her more often—she sat down by him so naturally, just accepting him as a purely normal occurrence of an idle afternoon. So it was only when he had described his walk in the fullest detail that he realized that neither of them had said, “How do you do?” or indulged in any of the usual amenities of casual acquaintance—which was an odd experience for him, if not for her. He was generally rather punctilious about such things, like all shy people.
But then, she was an unusual person. She must be, he thought, if she could sit down on a tree stump with a comparative stranger and positively show off the scratches on her legs. There, was no ulterior motive, he knew. She was simply proud of the scratches.
“I’m hardening myself,” she informed him. “If I’m to live in the hills, I’m going to be a proper hillwoman. I can balance a ghurri on my head already. I always wanted to do that. I brought down all this water on my head!”
She indicated the murky contents of the reservoir.
“How many journeys?” he inquired.
“Eighty-three or eighty-four,” was the prompt reply. “Twelve every day for a week, but one day I got tired and lost count, so it might have been eleven.”
“You’d take all that fag to give a few deer a drink?”
“I’d take more than that fag to give one deer a drink.” She said it perfectly seriously, without a trace of self-consciousness, as if it were no unusual thing to labour up and down a steep slope twelve times a day, with a two-gallon earthenware pot slopping down one’s neck, on the off chance of a pint or two of the precious burden going down the right throat—a contingency that he regarded as highly unlikely.
“They ought to be grateful," he murmured.
“But they don’t come,” she said plaintively. “I haven’t sketched one yet, and I’ve been here every day for a fortnight.”
“I’ll show you where you can sketch one,” he replied, and took her back through the orchard to the rubbingpost, pleased to be able to show her something about Hazrat Bagh that she had not seen.
“Come any early morning or any evening and lie down behind that wall, and you’ll see a decent-sized sambar stag polishing his horns on that tree,” he told her; adding, to please her, “I don’t suppose many people have sketched that from nature.”
She was tremendously excited.
“How will he come?” she gasped.
“Over that place where he’s knocked down the wall,” he was able to answer with fair certainty. “I should lie a little higher up. You’ll have to keep very still, and have your paper on the ground. Your clothes are a good colour, but don’t bob your head up. Can you lie without moving for an hour or so? It isn’t everybody who can.”
She nodded vigorously.
“Try me,” she whispered; then, suddenly grasping his arm, “Let’s lie down now. Why shouldn’t we? I’ve got a little sketch-book in my pocket. Do let’s—and if he doesn’t come of his own accord, you can whistle him up. Oh, do!”
Her face was very close to his, as she hung on his arm; and looking down on those eager lips, the hot, high cheeks that seemed to compress her eyes and exaggerate their blackness, he felt that she would be an increasingly difficult person to refuse anything. Hitherto he had hardly regarded her as feminine at all, nor was he anxious to do so; but when she touched him, he was all at once acutely aware of a very intense femininity in her—a something taut and vital and altogether unmistakable, that compelled him to pause and think twice.
This was a very lonely place, and soon it would be full of the soft languors of a summer evening. There was certainly not another human being within miles of them, except the ayah up at the house, and no self-respecting ayah ever took a walk except under the gravest necessity. And Pauline Bartie was evidently one of those people who acted on their instincts. She was tugging on his arm now as if she had known him for years.
He hesitated. He had visualized something different from this. He had never contemplated long silent vigils on the warm side of a wall in close proximity to hot cheeks and bare brown legs and dangerous innocence. He had looked at most for the quiet refreshment of imbibing someone else’s enthusiasms and so stimulating his mind. In the ordinary course of events he would have dropped in on Nicholas for that mental bracing, and he would have rejoiced to be able to look upon this girl as a sort of sexless substitute for Nicholas. But if he lay beside her, all of a long summer’s evening, with nothing much to do but look at her—talking being, of course, out of the question—he could hardly expect to remain oblivious of elements in her that would render her, to say the least of it, a somewhat disturbing substitute. She was so healthily—almost blatantly—female, that the very thought of it made him feel uncomfortable. He murmured something about the disadvantages of not being able to smoke.
“You can smoke afterwards. We’ll have tea after this, and then you can smoke while I show you my sketches.”
He felt himself being propelled nearer and nearer to that wall. This would never do.
“But I’ve got to get back all the way to Naini Tal,” he expostulated.
Well, what for? That was a poser. Joan would not be in till the small hours of the morning, and if he went back now it would only mean a lonely vigil in a hotel bedroom, for he would never be able to sleep, listening for Joan to come in. He could not blink the fact that, of the alternative vigils, this was infinitely the preferable one. He felt pleasantly lazy, He could just imagine the joy of stretching himself out in the sun for an hour or two and doing nothing except chew grass and watch that ardent little face engrossed in the deer that would certainly, after all this palaver, never come. But he did make one more effort to resist.
“There’s a dance,” he faltered. “I hadn’t altogether intended to go, but I think perhaps I ought to drop in later in the evening and just see how my wife’s getting on. She . . .”
“Oh, your wife’ll be all right. She’s such a lovely dancer—she’ll have heaps of partners,” she interrupted, and he couldn’t help liking her for it, since she must have been aware of Joan’s cutting her dead at the Ewarts’. Somehow that tribute to Joan settled the matter.
“All right,” he said, “I’ll be lazy. But I’m afraid we’re not likely to see much.”
“I want to see if I can stay for an hour without moving,” she replied, and lay down at full length like a little animal, with her chin resting on her hands. Rather gingerly he sat down beside her, leaning his back against a tree that grew out of the wall, and so arranging it that, while she looked over a gap into the orchard, he commanded the approach from the jungle. She snuggled once or twice to get herself comfortable, and then lay motionless, rather nearer to him than before. He was uncomfortably conscious that one of those brown calves—with a texture as taut and as tanned as apple skin—was measured against the green-smeared grey flannel shapelessness that concealed his own leg. A little thing—but, with nothing else to notice, one could not help noticing it now and again, however much one looked away.
He looked about him, selectively culling long grasses to suck; noting the shadows shed by the trees, and the shapes they made; listening for crackles and rustles—those queer little sounds that peep out of a woodland silence, if you sit still—and catching the long, slow, faraway note of a summer evening through it all, that sleepy drone of a warm world; moving his head ever so slightly to and fro, that he might have all his skin evenly stroked, as it were, by sunlight. But, occupy himself as he might, his eyes would inevitably come back to that neat, naked calf, whose texture reminded him of russet apples and the surfaces of brown leaves. It was such a healthy, wholesome, natural, jolly kind of leg. And her shoulders—he was looking right down on them, and could see the sharp outline of the shoulder-blades, bean-shaped, with a deep, fascinating rift between—were so clear-cut, and just as brown.
And again, those tight, trim cheeks—bulging ever so slightly against her supporting knuckles, so that the lower eyelashes rested on them like tired things; the eyes, beady, bright; the strong, wiry, out-thrusting hair—everything about her reminded of some natural process, a ripening and a mellowing. Bodily, she was just as limber and knit as the deer she was waiting so patiently to see. Yet if she but knew it, she had only to look into a mirror to see something every bit as natural.
Abruptly he smothered the thought, not because it seemed wrong, but because it seemed dangerous. The natural and instinctive and healthy side of him, he was well aware, was starved. Behind that thought was a hungry man—how hungry he was now discovering. It did not do to look down on Pauline Bartie like that and to let his mind dwell on the thought that she would take a mate as easily and as naturally as that doe which had stared at him, unafraid, down in the glen. Reason told him that it was a monstrous thought, only made possible by that hunger of his, and a sin against her that would make him bitterly ashamed when he was free of the atmosphere of this cloying place. Yet reason had a way, at intervals, of becoming suddenly dormant, or even of deserting him altogether. And then he would become aware of nothing but . . . opportunity. He would know that what he had thought was so. He had only to stoop down, without one word, and let her come closer. She would not know what was happening. She would just come. He was certain of it. It was as sure as the coming of dusk—and if he waited for the dusk, with its faint fragrances and its dim colours and its spell on the mind, this thing would happen to him and to her like a dream in a sleep, and Hazrat Bagh would record yet one more human happening within its gates.
Half incredulously he looked down at her again. She had come a little closer. He had slipped down a little. All without a word. Yes, it was so.
She was thinking of innocent things—deer and such. So was he—so was he, in the intervals. But their minds did not matter; mentally speaking, they were acquaintances who had met once and found something in common. This thing was not mental; neither was it, in the blatant accepted sense, wholly physical. It was just natural—a dictate, as it were, of the hour and the place, of which he was conscious and she was not.
And it must stop—instantly.
He stumbled to his feet in a great hurry, knocking down a hunk of mortar and a few small stones. She looked up, startled, almost as if he had awoken her from sleep, such had been the force of her concentration. Her eyes were still engrossed on something far away. Mentally speaking, she had forgotten him, he knew, or she could not have lain so close to him.
“What is it? What’s happened?” she cried.
What might not have happened, he thought. But he said, a little roughly, “It’s no use waiting. We shan’t see anything. We’ve disturbed the place.”
She got up too, and beat out the dust from her overall, standing quite apart from him and looking down the glen with disappointed eyes. Everything was normal again, he realized thankfully—the spell broken—the desire gone. The dusk might come up now and fill the orchard with languorous shadow; but they could go their ways, and one of them would not even know of the impulse that had hovered in the soft, lazy air. He could hardly believe it himself.
Yet his hands, behind his back, were trembling, and the palms of them were moist with sweat.
“What a pity!" she said, "I did think something would come. Anyhow, I can lie still, can't I?"
“Yes, you can lie still,” he repeated, wondering how anybody could move so momentously and yet be unaware of it. Or was it only he that had moved?
“We must try again,” she murmured.
“I think not," he thought.
But he said:
“What were you thinking of all the time?"
She pondered, screwing up her eyes till they almost vanished behind those thick, lazy lashes of hers. A fascinating trick, he thought, because one wondered how much she could see through that black little thicket.
“Stags, chiefly,” she said at length, “jabbing that poor tree with their great strong horns. And little does watching them, and . . . oh, I don’t know. I believe I was half asleep.”
And she shook her head vigorously, as if to shake sleep out of it.
“Let’s go in. I’m hungry. Come on,” she added, gaily, as a child might, standing in front of him. “Fancy if I’d gone to sleep. I’d have missed my tea. Would you have woken me? “
Did she realize how provocative all this was—this standing right up to him and looking like that, with her eyes half shut and wholly inscrutable, with her cheeks flushed?
And talking about going to sleep and being awoken, as if they were intimate people—and all in a fast-gathering dusk, that lay on the trees and the grass and on themselves like a soft silk veil, caressingly, dangerously spun? Did she realize that he was hungry too, and thirsty, but not for tea—and that this scented, smoke-blue hollow of the hill was danger?
He drew back, and said, with intentional bluntness:
“If you’d gone to sleep, I should have gone home, I expect. I’m late as it is.”
Would he have gone, though? Could he have gone?
“But you're coming in now? "
She looked bewildered, and a little hurt, he saw. But that could not be helped. He must go.
“I’m afraid I can’t. It’s much later than I thought.”
“But tea will be ready. I’ve only got to give the ayah a shout. And I do so want to show you my sketches. You said you might give me a commission, and you can’t do that unless you see my work. And you haven’t smoked a pipe, and I promised you you should.”
Both hands tugging at his arm; and her face fierce as a spoilt child’s, and yet appealing, too, with that faint pout. To kiss it would be like kissing the firm little petals of a red bud just uncurling; and if once he kissed, he would not go.
“I must go. I really must.”
He pulled his arm away, and buried both hands in his pockets, pretending to rout for his pipe. He dared not touch or be touched now. If she so much as laid a finger-tip on his arm again, with this damned dusk coming down, he could not be answerable.
“I’ll start a pipe now,” he mumbled, and out they all came—pipe, matches, pouch. But they seemed to dance in his hands. Incredible that she should not notice his hands.
But she was looking at his face.
“Don’t you want to have tea with me and see my sketches?” she asked, really hurt now, as he could see.
“Yes, of course. Of course I do, some other day.”
Some other day, when he was a sane, normal, decent individual again, and not a hungry, worry-hunted maniac, he would ride over after work and efface the impression of this evening. He owed it to her. He owed it to himself.
“Did your wife ask you to hurry back?”
An odd thought. Still, any port in a storm.
“Yes,” he said, “there’s no one else to do up her dress. I shall have to run most of the way.”
Lies—one, two, three of them, in quick succession. He wasn’t used to lying, and knew that he had done it badly, for with each he she looked a little more startled. And she was watching him very closely.
“I suppose you must go, then,” was all she said. Yet he knew as well as possible that she had not been deceived. And he felt—just why he could not tell—that she knew more about Joan and himself than she allowed to appear in her conversation. There was no evidence—but he just had that impression, from the way she had asked the question and the way she had received his answers.
He was reminded a little of her uncanny familiarity with his tastes and his history, revealed at their first meeting—that suggestion of sharpness, of acute intuition, that had made him wonder at the time what was behind those oddly inscrutable eyes.
He decided to be careful what he said in the future—if there was to be any future, as far as she was concerned; or, in other words, if ever he felt sane enough to treat her as the ordinary, companionable person that he felt her, at heart, to be.
With a sort of general gesture—which included a mute apology for having his hands full of smoking tackle and not being able to shake hands or raise his hat—he began to draw away. The situation was easier now that she had accepted his excuses. If only she would let him go directly
“You can’t go that way. You’ll lose yourself in the jungle. You must start from the gates and keep to the cart-track till you see the distillery tower, and then if you like you can cut across to the main road. I’ll come with you to the gates.”
There was nothing for it but to thank her and plunge once more into the glooms of the orchard. But he smoked. And he definitely refused to notice when she got into trouble with brambles. He could not trust himself. He was positively praying that one of those long thorny ropes that abounded everywhere should not catch in her overall, and pin her in three or four places, as thorns had a way of doing—for that would mean coming close again, and hovering about her, and peering, and touching her. And that, in his present mood, would mean the end. He wondered what she would say, or do, if she asked him to disentangle her and he only crushed her and drove in the thorns deeper—only swept her off her feet and gathered those bare, apple-rough limbs into a bundle in his arms; and kissed down the pout of her mouth, and kissed in her eyes, and let his lips lodge between those tight cheeks and her eyes. Would she fight? Would she struggle? Would she yield?
Yield, yield . . . his body clamoured, not his brain. But he kept his eyes from her, and made a cloud of smoke round his head, and so came through somehow, and saw with relief the sombre jut of the embankment and the looming house.
“Oh, dear, I’m so scratched. All over my poor legs—look. Have you got a hanky?” he heard behind him.
He refused to look, but he crumpled up the handkerchief in a ball and threw it at her. He had to wait while she used it. “Throw it away,” he said when she tried to hand it back.
“Won’t you just come up, now we’re here. Just to look,” she said, almost running to keep pace with him.
“No . . . no, I really can’t.”
It was difficult even to speak. A sort of growl came out; but he was past wondering what she might think.
They passed along under the terrace, and found the drive—ruts and gravel. The house was behind the shoulder of the hill. The gate-posts stood up a hundred yards below like two great gaunt watchmen, and mist was round their feet. A hundred yards . . . he hurried.
“You’re—very—funny. Are you angry?” he heard, panting and plaintive, just behind him.
He turned, trying to smile naturally, and said, “Of course not. I’m only in the devil of a hurry.”
“You weren’t before. Are you frightened of me?”
“Good God, no!” he shouted. But he was.
“Does the place give you the creeps?” She was at it again. “It does some people.”
“Not me,” he growled back. “But I think you ought to have somebody to look after you. It’s lonely.”
She laughed breathlessly.
“Oh, I’m all right. I’ve got an ayah and a beestie and a sweeper and a boy to look after me.”
“Glad to hear it,” he said and strode on. The gateposts were quite near now, and, beyond, a blackness of trees swallowed the dim vestiges of the road. He was glad of them. It would be a great relief to be alone between two walls of trees with his back turned on Hazrat Bagh. It was almost as if, once the gates were behind him, the spell would lift and he would be sane. He hoped that she would not speak again till the time came to say good-night, but it was a vain hope. She had saved a little breath.
“Isn’t the week on at Naini?” she piped.
“Lots of polo and dances?”
“Don’t you like them?”
“Not enthusiastically. You know the extent of my dancing,” he said bitterly, wishing she would just keep quiet and give him even ten yards in which to marshal the remnants of his common sense. But there was only one way of shutting that talkative little mouth, and if he took that he would never forgive himself.
“Who takes your wife to the dances? Captain Tarporley?”
That suggested Joan in pale, pale green and silver—domineering shoulders and a smooth golden head—the last picture he wanted to see. And how the devil did she guess? If this was innocence, it was a mighty sharp kind of innocence.
“I believe she’s dining at Tarporley’s table to-night,” he said, as coolly as he could. “Why?”
“Oh, I wondered.”
But she had nodded as if she had confirmed a suspicion, so that he began to wonder just how much she knew, and how she knew it. However, he did not propose to try and fathom her mind at the present juncture. They had reached the gate-posts. He held out his hand.
She took it. Her hand was warm and dry and just rough, like a russet’s skin.
He dropped it quickly, mumbling good-night, forging for the trees. But he was not to escape yet. She made him stop.
“When are you coming back?” she asked.
He had feared that, yet he was unprepared for it. He could only muster a faltering excuse about being busy with the picking for the next week or two. After that, perhaps.
That was reasonable. He had promised to give her the job of painting the posters.
“I’ll draw up a scheme and let you have it,” he told her, edging impatiently away. There was something about the gates that was symbolical. Perhaps they had looked down in their time on kisses. And Heaven knew what those black trees beyond had not looked down upon in their long day.
Opportunity . . . it was the very teaching of the trees. And she had come near again, was standing before him with just that hint of submission to his decision which made her, in that fading light, look like the picture of a penitent, or a slave. Bare-legged, bare-headed, with her fingers hooked inside the low collar of her overall, she looked like some slave girl awaiting a judgment; and again it crossed his mind that she would not care what the judgment chanced to be.
She even touched the lapel of his coat, fingering it curiously, while he looked down, trembling, thrilling, praying not to thrill.
“When do you leave Naini?” she whispered.
Somehow the scene—the gates, the watchful trees—enjoined whispering.
“I’m taking my wife home to-morrow afternoon.”
“I’ll be down by the wall every evening,” she whispered again, looking him full in the face; reading his eyes, yet screwing up her own so that he could not read them in turn or know what she was thinking of when she pictured herself by that wall.
Was she thinking of a stag coming up the glen and knocking splinters out of a tree for the delectation of does? Or was she thinking of herself, drowsy and lissom on the grass, moving inch by inch—without meaning to move—into a strange man’s arms. Which? Which?
“Go home,” he said. “Go home, Pauline.”
He did not look back till the road passed under the shadow of the trees, for fear lest he might see her standing there and go back to her after all. Then he saw that the road behind him was empty. The gate-posts stood stolid and straight and pale, and he tried to imagine a tracery of stout iron between them, shutting her away from him, instead of that tempting, inviting emptiness. If there had only been gates to Hazrat Bagh—instead of the negation of gates—he would have felt safer. Gates would have symbolized some sort of barrier. Whereas he would always feel now that there was nothing between him and the girl—nothing to belie that suggestion of free access.
Free access—horrid words! Horribly apposite, though.
“She ought to have someone to look after her. It isn’t fair,” he muttered to himself, and abruptly sat down. He felt weak and unsteady, as if he had emerged from a storm, beaten and buffeted, with a singing in the head. It was not mere physical weariness, though he was tired—it was the feeling of fighting against something that yielded yet was always there, like a wind. He did not want her, yet he could not get away from her—it had been like beating down a wind that blew as you beat, that buffeted you on. Desire was like that—the impalpable adversary—and he had no strategy to meet it, because he had never fought it before—not in this guise. He had ached for Joan—only ached. A kind of lumbago of the senses, which might be slept off and could be mastered by treatment; never a sudden, buffeting wind.
Yet he turned to Joan now, almost with relief, as if by engrossing himself in her he might be able to put away the other from his mind. It seemed not only to be his duty to do so, but even his salvation. He did not want Pauline. He still wanted Joan. Pauline was only opportunity. Joan was necessity. But . . . such a warm, impetuous little opportunity; such a cool, steady-handed necessity.
“Oh, Joanie, why can’t you feel?” his heart cried out.
All the way back—past the drowsing shutters and dim fires of Bhawali; up the thin path, presently moonlit, through trees and trees’ shadows, till he climbed the last pitch and saw the gleam of the toll-house lamp on the red stone, and stepped on dead jasmine petals, and looked down on Naini Tal, lying like an inverted constellation in its cup—it was Joan that he tried manfully to keep for company. Not so easy, because Pauline had clung to his arm, and he still carried the sensation of her strong little fingers; not so easy, because the shadow of Tarporley domineered over Joan, whereas Pauline was free as wind. Not so easy—yet he did succeed.
When he marshalled all his memories—all the Joans but the Joan of the moment, the sleek, cruel, Tarporley-obsessed Joan—he had a company real enough to crowd out Pauline. Many, many Joans—and one of them had hair all down over her shoulders, and a little green skirt, and long leather gaiters, and that one danced up and down in front of him and refused to let him look anywhere else but at her.
Oh, given the right Joan—the Joan of any date but the present—Pauline would not have a chance to survive. Take her back to Pine Knoll, out of Tarporley’s way; sit her down by the fire and lead her back, back through all the best days till she was herself again; and then plead with her, as he had never pleaded before, for the baby that would make all the difference; give up India, if need be; give up anything so long as that was achieved . . . it was not too late. Passionately he cried out in himself that it was not too late. Nothing irrevocable had been said or done. They were going home to-morrow, and home held just as glorious possibilities to-morrow as it had held when they had ridden home for the first time a year ago.
“We’re changing . . . but we haven’t changed. Stop it now—now—now.”
The climax of purpose came to him as he swung down hill, a thousand feet down, into the lighted town. He was sane again—more than sane—exhilarated. The night air filled his lungs—snow in summer, that air—and he had just that degree of appetite that makes the whole body feel clean and garnished, and the whole mind with it. The longest day of his life was behind him, and he grudged not a moment of it, because every moment had contributed to the purpose he felt now. He was going down to carry Joan away with him . . . to inspire her, and show her things that she had never seen. The power was in him. He would win her.
He had expected to creep into the hotel like a beaten dog. But he stamped and banged into the hotel—almost, he felt, in the true Tarporley manner—and reiterated orders for corned beef and bottled beer in his room. The strains of the music at the Chalet, farther up the hill, filtered in at intervals through the open window, and he heard spasms of clapping and knew that the dance was in full swing. But he refused to be cowed.
He let the windows stay as they were, and lit a pipe and told himself that he was the only sensible person in the big, deserted hotel—because he stayed in it. He even drew up a chair by the window when he had finished his meal and courted the sounds of revelry, because it would be long before he or Joan heard them again. He felt curiously sure of himself. He did not think of Pauline—only of Joan, and riding home to-morrow.
Thirty feet below the window a road girdled a quiet bay of the lake—a willow-haunted bay, only faintly stabbed with light—and the conjunction reminded him of the lake path at Shahgarh before you climbed the Knoll. They would be there before this, to-morrow, and already the road—the cunning in-and-out hill road, with a finger to its lips at every corner coming, and a chuckle at every corner turned—would have taken them in hand.
Very likely, before they reached that quiet path by the lake, he would have made everything right with Joan, helped by the road. And if not before, surely then. There was always a dusk down by the lake, a dusk even deeper than that silky veil which had descended on the orchard hollow at Hazrat Bagh. And there were white flowers, and white-and-gold flowers too, that liked the dusk and opened wider in it, and grew momentarily more fresh and more fragrant in it, till they starred and perfumed and filled the night. Whereas, a little tight, ruddy brown apple was at its best in the sun. It wasn’t worth a dusk, the brown apple.
And then, Pine Knoll—snug, welcoming rooms, with the last evening sunlight playing hide-and-seek through their windows, facing the coloured hills and all the golden air; a stair where you could stand and look into every room in the house; a bedroom with a sloping ceiling, mothering twin beds; a whole dear little box under the stars. He had only left it two days ago—but what an age it seemed, and how he had missed it. And oh! the cold charity of that other house, Hazrat Bagh!
He dreamed in his chair by the window—the dreams that sometimes bring a feverish relief after too long a day. He saw himself excitedly, as someone eloquent and compelling and for once irresistible. He saw Joan now, as Joan had never been—as a person awaiting awakening, not as a person very wide awake. He saw her as a bride. He even saw her as a mother, or a would-be mother, walking down those easy stairs at Pine Knoll and in and out of the little rooms with that grace of dignity that such a burden brings. He saw exaggeratedly—saw things which he had long ago dismissed as impossible fictions of hope. Joan a mother; Pine Knoll a paradise; fat little legs stumbling up the orchard paths at Shahgarh , . . nothing was impossible once he had sat down to dream. It was as if all the hectic excitement that Pauline had aroused had passed into innocuous, legitimate channels; as if wild desires had translated themselves into reasonable hopes. Yet he saw no danger in it. He was too sleepy.
He was cold when he woke up, and the sudden switching on of the light hurt his eyes. But the taste of dreams still lingered, and he jumped up at once to welcome Joan. Indeed, he saw her before she was aware of him—saw that she looked very serene and pleased with herself, till her eyes lit on him. Then she looked both startled and annoyed.
He went straight up to her—silently propelled, as it were, by the unspent force of his dreams—and took her by the shoulders and tried to gather her in to him, expecting in a sleepy way that she would respond—it being inconceivable that so much love should be in him and not affect her. Somehow he assumed, being but half awake, that she would share his sensations, and for a moment he continued to think that she did, for she took his kisses composedly, though the look of astonishment remained.
“Why, Jimmy, what on earth’s the matter? You’re not ill, are you? You look so funny.”
He could hardly speak straight. Babbling little half-forgotten endearments, he held her at arm’s length. gazing at her as if he had long lost her, and had found her only after tribulation. And so it seemed. The morning seemed infinite years ago.
“Jimmy, what is the matter? Where have you been? You’re all dust and your hair’s awful. Have you been trying to sleep out, or what? I thought you’d have been in bed ages ago.”
He hardly listened. He was feasting on Joan. Joan was a flower, golden and white, and her cheeks were soft as petals and cool as night, and she breathed milk and honey. Oh, he had been asleep for a long, long time!
“Joanie, you’re wonderful . . . wonderful . . .”
He kissed her wildly, but every kiss came back to him cold. Even her lips were cold. He wondered how that could be, but went on kissing till she tore herself away.
“You’re mad, I think—you’re dotty—you’ll ruin my dress—oh, do let go!”
She sat down hard on one of the beds, and instantly put up her hand to smooth her hair. He wondered at that too—it was so unnecessary, considering that she was just going to bed.
“You're so rough," she complained.
He sobered a little; sat down by her and tried to explain his tremendous conclusions—foolishly perhaps, as he knew, for he should have waited till to-morrow and the dusk under the trees by the lake, but inevitably. He could not wait. Control gave way like a burst dam, and words and dreams and images came flooding out in such a confusion that he could hardly wonder at her astonishment. Her eyes grew wider and wider.
A baby? she gasped at last. “You keep me out of bed at three o’clock in the morning and ruin my dress just because you’ve come to the conclusion that I ought to have a baby? Thanks very much. Jolly considerate of you. If that’s all you’ve got to say, I’ll thank you to get off my bed.”
“No, Joanie, listen. It’s the only way. We’ve neither of us been happy, and I’m certain that’s why. Everybody knows it . . . even women who can’t read and write, like the Hindu women I saw this morning, know that, if anything’s wrong, it’s that. Instinct tells them.”
Another tide of words followed—all this morning’s ideas. He even quoted what Mrs. Ellams might have been supposed to have said to her serjeant. He quoted Nicholas. He quoted the ribald toll-keeper.
“It’ll be our salvation,” he ended. “It’ll be an absolute God-send to you, Joanie, however much you dislike having it. You must have one at once—next summer, that is—so that you’ll have all the fun of looking after it in the winter. And this winter . . .”
“. . . I’ll have all the fun of looking forward to it, I suppose,” she interrupted, undoing a silver shoulder-strap and kicking off a shoe. “Thanks!”
“You’re not so callous as you like to make out, Joanie,” he whispered, pleading with her. All his eloquence—and he had been eloquent for once—seemed to have passed by her and to have left her as composed as ever. He saw her glance at herself in the glass, before finally relinquishing that second shoulder-strap and stepping out of her green and silver sheath.
She wandered away to the dressing-table, looking like a fastidious fairy in her gauzy under-things. He watched every movement, hungrily seeking for a sign; aware that this was a crisis, for he had spoken all his mind.
“I suppose I’d better mention that the Pens have asked me to Kashmir next summer,” she said, casually, over her shoulder. “They’re taking a house-boat.”
He groaned inwardly. The Pendleburys were new friends, gathered this trip. Pendlebury was second-in-command of Tarporley’s regiment, and known, not without good reason, as the Fountain Pen. One added, sotto voce, the words “self-filling, you know,” if one belonged to the privileged many who did happen to know. Lady Millicent Pendlebury was called, with even greater appropriateness, the Swan Pen. She had an elongated neck, and had taken a fancy to Joan. He had hated the sight of both of them, mainly because they were friends of Tarporley. Now he had a better reason.
“You don’t expect me to give that up?” Joan inquired, seeing that he did not answer.
“I do,” he said. “I absolutely do,”
He could not see her face, but her voice was ominous. He positively prayed that they might keep their tempers; that he might somehow be able to shepherd this thing through.
“Yes," he insisted, quite quietly. "We've got to have a baby."
"We! I like that . . ."
He paid no attention to the challenge, or the laugh that went with it.
“We’ve tried everything else,” he continued quickly. “I thought the work would have helped, but I know this beastly trip has knocked that on the head. We must have something—if only to keep us together and give us an object in life. We’ll go all to pieces if we don’t. I tell you . . .”
He was getting excited again. He only just avoided blurting out his feelings about Pauline—which would never do, for Joan would never understand that sort of hunger. She would only want to argue about it, and really he was feeling so worn out already that he could not stand another argument. Besides, it seemed so pitiful, after all his effort, to get back on to the old terms.
"Well, let's leave it till to-morrow. I'm tired," he said.
Joan turned round suddenly.
“I'll have a baby if you'll go home at once."
He was stupid. He thought of Pine Knoll.
"Oh . . . England!" he repeated, instantly chilled.
Why should she persist in referring to England as home, and mixing him up?
“I can’t,” he expostulated wearily. “You know perfectly well I can’t, now that your father’s gone.”
“You can. I’m more important than the estate, or I ought to be.”
He shook his head.
“You know I can’t. It would be a damnable thing to do, considering he went away on purpose to make things easier for us. We can’t let him down.”
“But I’ll promise to chuck out when he comes back, if you still want to,” he added, making the big concession. “I’ll promise that, if you do your part. It’s a lot to promise, too.”
“So you said at Hazrat Bagh when I asked you before. I begged and prayed you, but you wouldn’t. And now it’s not good enough. It’s too vague. Dad might not come back for years, and I want to go home now”
Again he shook his head.
“Can’t be done,” he murmured.
She came across the room and stood in front of him under the light. She looked very lovely, very appealing.
“Dad hasn’t sailed yet,” she said. “You could still get him back from Bombay—or if not Bombay, Colombo. He’d have to cancel his passage if you insisted on going. Send a wire.”
She just let herself sway a little towards him, so that he could see the whole soft silhouette of her. He was afraid that she meant him to see it, too.
“Don’t,” he muttered. ”That’s no good. Oh, Joanie, why can’t you feel?”
The same cry that had broken from him away back on the road, after he had left Pauline—the true, fundamental reproach. She felt nothing. She had never learnt how.
“You never made me,” was the sullen retort.
“Not my fault. You haven’t got it in you. You’re inhuman,” he cried, and thought of Pauline, swaying towards him and yet not being conscious of it.
“You’re not natural,” he cried again. “You’ve no more feelings than a bit of wood, or you couldn’t do that. You couldn’t bargain. Oh, you’re not a woman at all.”
That had stung her, then.
She was crying with rage. She came running towards him and fought him away from the bed; flung herself into it.
“I’m not coming to-morrow; I’ll stay with the Pens. They asked me,” he heard, muffled and furious.
Mechanically he began to undress. He could not trust himself to speak. If she did not come to-morrow, he would go back to Pauline—that was all. “I’ll be down by the wall every evening,” she had said—down by the wall, where the grass grew hip-high, and the trees hung over in a ring, waiting for dusk to knit them all, with their shadows, into one wonderful veil. Pauline, sun-warmed, brown as earth . . . however could he take that road alone and pass Pauline?
“You’d better come,” he muttered grimly. “You’ll be making the biggest mistake of your life if you don’t. I’m desperate. If you don’t . . .”
But he could not finish the sentence. He had not the courage to clinch the matter and give it the irrevocability of words, even to himself.
“I’m not coming. I’m staying with the Pens,” he heard again.
He rushed up to her bed and tried to drag the sheets away from her face.
“Joanie, I’m really desperate. I can’t go back alone. I can’t, I tell you. I’m pretty well done up as it is.”
She held the sheets doggedly. He could only see her hair. It was all he could do to keep his fingers out of it.
“I’m not coming. I’m staying with the Pens,” came the muffled, insistent, maddening refrain.
He strengthened his grasp on the sheets. There was an overwhelming temptation to rip them away from her—violently, forcibly, cruelly. Then he remembered what store he had set by to-morrow, how his mind had made it into the beginning of a second and happier honeymoon and a promise of so much more.
No, if only for the sake of the thought, he could not maul Joanie and tear her pretty things. He wasn’t a savage altogether. But if she repeated that again . . .
There was silence—a silence so intense, so eloquent of the lateness of the hour, that it made him feel ashamed to be standing there, with the light on, in his shirt and trousers. It seemed as if not only the whole hotel, but the entire population of Naini Tal, must have heard their voices and drawn conclusions. He wondered guiltily where the Pendleburys’ rooms where. Then he heard a clock strike four—four gentle remonstrances, the strokes seemed—and knew that they had been talking for over an hour. Feeling terribly tired, he hurried into bed.
But still he found himself listening for that maddening reiteration—“I’m not coming. I’m staying with the Pens”—and felt that itching, fierce anger. And, long after, it worked itself into the jumbled machinery of his dreams, so that he was conscious of hating Joan even in his sleep.
She was driving him back down a road which he knew, towards ghosts of gates; and every reiteration of two sentences, “I’m not coming; I’m staying with the Pens” sent him staggering backwards a few more paces, as if the words had been blows. And, standing at the ghost gates, he knew, was Pauline.
He awoke, jaded and miserable, to see Joan dressed and in the act of sending down a note to Lady Millicent Pendlebury. He wrestled for that note, verbally and physically—the envelope got torn in the process—but it went. And about noon, after their tardy and silence-stricken breakfast, an orderly brought the answer, which he managed to snatch away after Joan had read it.
“Delighted you can stay,” it ran. “Have been persuading Sugar to do likewise, otherwise should have answered before. How did you manage it? Now you can be Ariadne instead of me. I always thought, with my neck, I ought to be Leda. Fun, I think.
Yrs. in haste,
It made him furious, of course. Evidently the whole thing had been arranged. That “How did you manage it?” gave the show away. They had been discussing him, just as he had thought. It was no use Joan’s swearing that she had originally refused to stay on. He simply would not listen to her. He was certain that she had come into the room last night with the full intention of accepting, and that that was why she had looked so pleased with herself.
It transpired that the Pendleburys were contemplating a sort of Bacchic revel, and were hiring one of the boat-houses for the purpose. Tarporley was to wear a door-mat and figure as Hercules; Digby-Smithers, who possessed the right kind of hair, if not the right kind of face, had accepted the responsibility of impersonating Apollo; a paunchy Civilian Secretary to Government, named Crump, had asked to be Bacchus; and Joan had apparently been selected for Ariadne.
It was to be an exclusive revel—only about ten gods and goddesses, all told—and apparently it was to make history and perpetuate the silly tradition to the effect that Indian hill stations, being a little nearer the sun, rotated a trifle more rapidly than the rest of the world. As far as he was concerned, the Pendleburys might rotate till they were blue in the face, so long as they left Joan out of it, and he said so.
“What’ll you wear?” was the first question he asked her.
“Oh, green chiffon and a bathing garment of sorts,” was the challenging answer. She meant to hurt him all she could, he knew. She was just as angry as she could be. He doubted whether she had softened for one single instant since he had accused her of being unwomanly. The little fiery patches seemed to have been painted indelibly on her cheeks.
“I suppose you know you’ll have half the bazaar looking at you through the windows?” he snapped at her.
“I don’t care.”
He winced. The idea made him feel physically sick.
“Including some of our own people, as likely as not?” he went on.
“You know what they’ll say?” he persisted.
“Only what you thought last night.”
“You can’t do it, Joanie,” he pleaded. “It’s not like you. Come back with me; We both want looking after. It’s danger, Joanie.”
That was the nearest he ever got to telling her about Pauline. If she had shown any curiosity as to the nature of his particular danger he might have told her. He would have been glad to tell her and have done with it, if she had shown the slightest sign of softening. But she only said:
“I’m not coming with you. You’ll think yourself jolly lucky if I ever come back at all.”
And at that he left the hotel.
It did not improve his temper to meet Tarporley and Pendlebury on the steps, and to know that they had come to ask for Joan. He heard them laughing as he walked away, and felt that they were laughing at him.
“I’m a fool to leave her,” he thought. And then he wondered: “But do I want her? What’s the good of her to me? What difference will it make to me if she never does come back? She’s never done a hand’s turn to help me.”
It was a terrible mood to nurse along a lonely road; a road that he had walked bitterly enough yesterday; a road so acutely familiar that at any stage he could almost count the steps that divided him from that convenient half-way house, that house of free access—Hazrat Bagh.
Inevitably he must pass within a mile of Hazrat Bagh. He knew the point whence he would first see the wooden tower of the turpentine distillery, and the point where he would catch a glimpse of the house itself, staring over the heads of the hills. Then, not so far on, just outside Bhawali, he would come to forked roads—one leading to that wooden tower, one leading home. And none would be there to see which road he took.
“I’ll be down by the wall every evening . . .” Ay, and he knew the way there. He could walk it blindfold, jungle paths and all, from the place where he had first seen the deer-tracks to the nullah where he had marked the otter. He knew the gap in the trees whence he could look down and see her first—-brown sprite under a brown wall, chin on hands, waiting. She would think he was a stag coming to bash splinters out of a tree, and would tremble pleasurably and lie as close as a dormouse till she saw that it was no stag, but he. But she would not be disappointed—that he knew too.
If only she had not told him where she would be, had not given him a picture of herself in her setting, so unmistakably clear. If only she had been vague, or had said, “I shall be somewhere about the house, or not far away,” he could have fought the temptation better. . . But . . . the wall. Their own singular, secret, shared place . . . could he, when the time came, make the necessary, the gigantic effort to banish it from his mind?
He tried to lag—and found himself hurrying. In an incredibly short time he sighted the wooden tower, and when he saw Hazrat Bagh it was as if the house had been waiting for him and jumped up to greet him. All too soon he was approaching the forked roads; and, of the two, the least inviting, even on its own merits as a road, was that which led straight over the gap in Ramnagar Ridge and so home. It was shadeless and the sun glared upon it, while the other seemed almost immediately to take to the trees. Just a hundred yards or so of bazaar and afterwards an infinity of trees; a swelling green wave—the tower rode it like some ancient fantastic buoy, and the smoke from Mrs. Ellams’s chimney spired up straight from it like the thin breath of a ship hove-to. Sea-marks—and he yearned for that cool green sea. His head ached. But it would close over his head. And in its depths he would find Pauline.
He saw only Pauline now. Joan was a puppet—a green and silver puppet with red patches in its cheeks and a vocabulary of two sentences: “I’m not coming; I’m staying with the Pens”—she had said it once too often, and a thing said once too often blots out the memory of all other things said, so that when he tried to bring Joan into the balance there was no articulate Joan there to bring, only a puppet mouthing a silly refrain. But Pauline, who had said nothing memorable, who had only babbled questions and then lain by his side in a silence, spoke to him now as a living, breathing creature. He could feel her firm little fingers tugging at his arm, and hear her eager, “When are you coming back?” whispered in the dusk by the gates.
A child’s question, “When are you coming back?” A woman would have said, “Am I ever going to see you again?” She had assumed the major part of her question—his coming—as inevitable; had already passed on to the detail—-when? And the temptation to follow her lead was irresistible.
“If I don’t go to-day or to-morrow, I’m certain to go the day after”—once that was admitted the battle was lost. It was lost before he reached the forked roads. Long before that he had passed on to the more tempting, “Then why not to-day?” and had answered it.
“I’m coming. I’m coming, Pauline.”
There would be consequences. He was going to Pauline, and that could only end one way—in a turmoil of consequences. The future, he knew, bristled with horrible things that would have to be thought and said and done and lived through. But the worst imaginable—the shame, and the pain, and even the publicity—could not be so bad as this farce at which Joan and he were playing. And there was this about consequences—they refused to be real, just as Joan herself refused to figure in his mind now as real. Whatever his mind encountered, after dwelling on Pauline, seemed to lose substance and importance and to become evasive. It was not that he shrunk from facing the future; the future gave him no chance. Even Nicholas became a shadowy figure, when he tried to imagine what Nicholas would think and say and feel. He could only vaguely toy with the idea that he would probably eventually be living with Pauline at Hazrat Bagh and that that would quite appeal to Nicholas because Nicholas had wanted to buy in Hazrat Bagh and put it under cultivation again.
“It’s landslip soil. It’s landslip soil,” his mind repeated foolishly, as if that disposed of Nicholas.
He was at the forked roads. He had definitely taken the turn towards Pauline, with hardly a glance at the other road, and was facing the bazaar and the green jungle beyond it as if for ever home lay that way—when Ewart came trotting round the comer. Ewart in his Sunday best, jogging up and down on his old brown waler.
With an indescribable sensation of guilt he wheeled and took the other road.
Ewart pounded up behind him; slowed down to a walk. He was looking very spruce in a grey Jodhpur riding suit and grey topi of the dish-cover type, known as “Curzon.” It sat on his head like a baby dish-cover on a mountain of silverside beef—his complexion had just that blue-tinged ruddiness.
“Hallo, where do you hail from?” he boomed.
Jimmy could not face those little veiny, protuberant eyes. Ewart, as Pauline’s uncle, had promised to be the most trying of all the consequences. Yet it was Ewart who by turning him into the straight path—literally speaking—was momentarily averting all those consequences, including (presumably) himself.
“I’m walking over from Naini. Been spending the week-end there,” he replied, without warmth.
“Going there myself—funny, that,” said Ewart, wiping his face. “Planters’ dinner. However, I’ll see you so far. No hurry.”
So far from averting himself, he ranged up alongside.
“Where’s the Memsaheb? Gone ahead in a dandy?” he continued, straddling his legs out comfortably and blowing.
“No. She’s staying on a bit.”
Why couldn’t the man go—trot back up the road on his fat horse, and vanish, and leave him to retrace his steps towards Pauline? But no. Not a bit of it.
“Staying on, is she? Friends, eh?”
“People called Pendlebury. They ‘re getting up a fancy dance. I had to get back, of course,” he murmured.
No use making mysteries. The best way of getting rid of the man seemed to be to provide him with sufficient information for purposes of rumination—a kind of mental cud, in fact.
“Lady Mary Pendlebury?”
“Millicent,” he corrected, shuddering slightly.
Ewart was about to say something vulgar—he knew it.
“You’re getting on, you two.”
Exactly—getting on. “You snob, you palpitating, pink jelly of a man, get out!” he wanted to say. But what he actually did say was much more foolish. He said:
“I think they’re detestable people,” and could have bitten his tongue off, for Ewart opened his mouth like a fish, and swallowed audibly.
“You’re a queer chap, Vaine,” he remarked, in much the same tone as Tarporley had used in announcing much the same truth—a coincidence not calculated to make him any fonder of Ewart. In fact, he could cheerfully have watched him fall off his horse and break his fat neck, or writhe in an apoplexy—anything, in fact, that did not require his own active participation. He had never—not even in conversation with Tarporley—regretted so much his inherent inability to be rude to people, to choke them off neatly and effectively. Yet all he did was to grunt and flush.
“A very queer chap,” Ewart repeated perplexedly, scrutinizing him. “It’s not that you’re not sociable exactly, but . . . well, you know what I mean . . . you don’t mix, eh? That dinner to-night now, eh? I’ll be bound you got a notice of it from Salter and shoved it in your pocket and thought no more of it. That kind of thing. You might just as well have stayed on another night and got a drop of fizz inside you and jogged along back with me to-morrow morning, instead of footing it alone like this. Eh? You see what I mean?”
He suffered in silence, quivering. Pauline was receding. Every step was taking him away from Pauline; and to have to listen to a homily on his personal habits and to be called queer by a man who looked like one of the more than usually grotesque inhabitants of a deep-sea aquarium was just about as much as he could stand.
He felt inclined to say, “You think me queer? Well, you’d think me a deal queerer if you knew where you were stopping me from going at the present moment, you confounded sunfish!” Yet he only expressed a hope that he was not taking Ewart too far out of his way. And Ewart, confound him, of course pooh-poohed the suggestion.
“My dear chap, no. Glad of a chat. Often thought I’d like to tip you a wink about keeping yourself too much to yourself, eh? Young fellow—old chap like me, eh—you get me? It don’t pay. That’s what I tell that niece of mine—she’s another queer fish. You and she would have made a match—Ha, ha . . . “
Jimmy started. But there was no ulterior suggestion in the laugh. The man obviously knew nothing—was merely being facetious.
He raised some sort of a laugh himself, and Ewart went on quite happily:
“It don’t pay. Take our little show to-night. All planter chaps—Salter, Macwhirter, Andrews, Charlie Blunt, self, and a gang from Almora way—good, cheery chaps all, and as long as one half puts the other half to bed, who’s any the worse? And you pick up things—that’s what I mean to say—you pick up things. Little tips over the port and nuts—you know. Show you how the wind’s blowing, and what’s what in the trade. Invaluable. You can’t afford to be out of it these days—as, for instance—shall I tell you something?”
He nodded and tried to look intelligent—there was nothing else to do. The other turning—the turning that led to Pauline—was a mere wisp at the end of a long straight road. Bhawali—the turpentine distillery—the green ocean of trees—all had vanished behind a bare buttress of the Ridge. Soon they would be in the gap at the top, and Pine Knoll would actually be in sight.
He doubted whether he would have the heart to turn back, after once sighting Pine Knoll, even if this insufferable bore should elect to leave him. And to-morrow, with two days’ arrears to make up, he would not have time to get away.
Oh, confound Ewart!
Yet he nodded acquiescence to the last suggestion tacitly—he could not bring himself to speak—encouraging Ewart. And Ewart leant over and whispered confidentially, as if the roadside were lined with potential spies:
“Chuck that special fresh fruit service scheme. No go.”
He stared. Somehow in the last day or two he had lost touch with all that had filled his mind before he had left home. Nothing could have called attention to the change in his mental outlook so well as this preposterous piece of advice from Ewart.
It was odd to think that he had actually forgotten the existence of the great scheme—the scheme on which Nicholas and he had concentrated for months.
“What did you say?” he faltered.
“Chuck it, squash it, cut it clean out,” said Ewart, with ponderous but graphic gestures. “No go. Dead.”
He begged Ewart’s pardon. He was sorry, but he did not quite get there.
“Well, you soon will,” was the brutal reply. “There’s to be a hartal—boycott of British stuff. They’ll refuse to handle it in any of the big places. Delhi, Lucknow, Meerut, Allahabad—all in the same ring. You’ll find a stack of cancelling chits when you get back. You see if you don’t.”
He could not grasp it at all. Estate business was relegated, it seemed, to a sort of back-province of his brain, an uncharted region where Pauline was not and where, consequently, he could not see himself. So much had happened to him in three days that going back to Shahgarh was like going for the first time to a strange place, where he would have to find his bearings all afresh and begin from the beginning. A mountain of work and difficulty seemed to loom up, as Ewart droned on about Gandhi and the boycott of British goods, and the perishability of fresh fruit if left lying about on railway stations.
“You’ll have the lot rotting on your hands,” he heard, while he strove to capture the reality of the thing, “and I’m not sure you won’t be held responsible for allowing decaying matter to accumulate to the inconvenience of the travelling public, apart from ordinary demurrage. That’s the sort of thing you’d have picked up if you’d stopped on for the dinner to-night. Salter knows the ins and outs. I can only give you the facts, as I heard them this morning from my chap in Delhi. Perhaps there’s nothing in it, but I thought I’d tell you, just to . . .”
He lost the thread. It was so like Ewart to start a tremendous scare and fairly make your flesh creep, for the sole purpose, apparently, of listening to the sound of his own voice. The man was one vast vat of whiskified exaggeration.
Perhaps there was nothing in it, indeed! More than likely. Still, there was enough in it to make him anxious to hurry back to Shahgarh, and open his letters, and generally rehabilitate himself; enough in it to make him definitely give up the project of seeing Pauline for a day or two. And he liked Ewart none the better for that.
“I’d better be hurrying on,” he muttered, increasing his pace to demonstrate that naturally it far exceeded that of the lumbering, snorting old waler by his side.
To his intense relief Ewart at last took the hint.
“Well, I must be getting back myself,” he boomed cheerfully. “Don’t do to have to rush your short drinks. Don’t you get the wind up over what I told you, young fellow. I only meant to say . . .”
He was successful in eluding what Ewart had meant to say. It was lost in the general stir of Ewart’s getting his horse round and rousing the fat beast into a trot. He watched the flabby quarters waggling and the flabby man bobbing up and down with all the detestation of which he was capable.
Another minute or two and, he felt, he would have made a determined effort to push Ewart and his horse—one indissoluble flab—-over the khud. They had interposed their bulk between him and Pauline. Even now they blocked the road back to Pauline. Because of them he would go back to Pine Knoll—he could see its little bright eyes now, winking at him across the valley—and spend a lonely, harassed evening, puzzling over every sort of problem, instead of shutting out problems with the warm, human barrier of Pauline.
And now even Pauline had her place in the problems. She involved Ewart—and Ewart was such a very tangible snag in the stream of consequences. Somehow the thought of being mixed up with Ewart, to his disadvantage, of being more or less at Ewart’s mercy, as her uncle and guardian and natural protector; of having to explain to Ewart what he could not explain even to himself—that instinctive, spontaneous attraction to the girl; of being misunderstood by Ewart; or, worse, understood all wrong and forgiven “as between men of the world, don’t you know—you know what I mean” (he could imagine the whole gesture, down to the faint suggestion of complicity); of being patronized by Ewart, as a weaker vessel than Ewart himself, to the end of his days—somehow the thought of all this, combined with a too vivid recollection of the man himself, seemed to flavour the whole idea with a strong taint of the sordid.
Before, he had not looked upon his impulse as anything but a purely natural one, unconcerned with moral issues.
Consequences, yes—and he had been prepared to take them all—but not moralities. Even the obvious position—that he was contemplating a betrayal of Joan’s trust—had not borne looking into, because it had seemed to him that Joan had given him no trust to betray. If Joan had behaved as a wife, he would never have given a thought to Pauline, except as a possible sharer of enthusiasms that Joan refused to share. He did not love Pauline. That complication—that biasing complication—had not arisen.
But when he thought of Ewart, immediately he was compelled to view the matter, as it were, in terms of Ewart; to view it on Ewart’s plane. And, expressed in terms of Ewart, it was a seduction that he was contemplating; no fine, free surrender to the spell of dusk and wild, woodland places; but a common little seduction of a victim peculiarly unprotected, a queer, lonesome little being like himself. It was as if Ewart had infected him, or had brought him down from the air on to his own sordid ground. Oh, how he detested the man!
“You beast . . . you beast!” he muttered to what was now but a pear-shaped dot and a puff of dust away down the road.
“Or am I the beast?” he wondered.
Something in him shouted passionately:
“No. No. No. You ‘re only a fragment of human nature, and she’s another.”
But he went on—up to the gap, and through the gap, and down again, heading for Pine Knoll, miserably conscious that he would never again be able to think of Pauline in quite the same way. So much Ewart had done for him, by dint of merely being Ewart, and for that he hated him; hated him far more cordially than he was beginning to hate himself.
It was queer, finding himself alone in the house for the first time; encountering little mute reminders of Joan at every turn—reminders, he felt, that ought to have touched him, but merely succeeded in annoying him. Mostly untidy reminders, he was quick to notice—her sewing bag on the seat of a chair, spewing out its cargo of cottons and silks and needles because she had forgotten to draw the strings tight; a small pot of enamel, which she had opened to touch up a chair leg, still open on the mantelpiece and sticking to it; bits of garments protruding from her half-shut cupboards and drawers, and a scarf that he had given her lying on the floor—everywhere signs of hurry and fecklessness; and always the feeling that the hurry and the fecklessness had not been due to any excitement that he could have shared, but to the sheer joy of getting away from home for a bit. He ought to have blamed the servants, he supposed, for not clearing up after her, but he got no farther than being exasperated with Joan. Every item of untidiness seemed to be fresh evidence of her anxiety to be with Tarporley. Hurrying over her packing—what had she wanted to hurry over her packing for? Not for his sake, anyway.
Downstairs, in the corner of the drawing-room—that alcove which had been his pride—-stood her bureau, open and in the utmost confusion. A pen lay across a small open note-book, on to which it had dripped, and he read a line or two of what was written in it before he realized that it was not meant for him to read. She had started a scribbling diary, and the words he read before he hastily shoved it into a drawer were: “Usual day, except for new smell in kitchen. Found the khansamah sleeps there, because of the fire, leprous brute. J. very usual. All about fruit. Shall refer to his complaint as fruititis.”
He did not notice the date, and he read no farther, but he could not help suspecting that the words had been written at the very time when she had been in the habit of coming over to Shahgarh to label jam-pots, and had shared his picnic lunches. He had rather let himself go over his various schemes at those lunches, because fruit was in the atmosphere of Shahgarh, and because he had really thought her interested. Well, he knew the value of that interest now; but it was rather hard to find that she had been secretly scoffing at him at the time. All about fruit, indeed . . . what else was there to talk about, adventure being dead and love, to say the least of it, moribund? Fruit was a good enough topic for Nicholas, good enough for Janie . . . who was she to scoff?
He turned in disgust to his own letters. Fortunately there were none of the cancelled orders that Ewart had led him to expect; but, to give Ewart his due, there was a word of corroboration from Nicholas, written prior to his departure from Bombay four days ago:—
“I hear rumours of a monthly hartal, which may affect us,” he read in the course of the letter. “But I think only in the way of disorganizing supplies in general and taking consumers’ minds off what we intend them to want. You must counteract that inertia, if and when it appears, by gingering up the demand. Get some posters ready—the brighter, the better; God knows who you’ll get to draw them, but the Naini Tal Gazette Office will print them in a jiffy—and send them down into affected areas. You’ll have to stay on the place for the next week or two, in case of urgent wires coming in. But you’ll do that anyhow, if I know anything about you. I expect when I return about three years’ hence to find you hitched to Shahgarh by the soles of your boots, like a new kind of limpet. Glutinous fellow!”
He winced. Kind words—the kindest—but they stabbed. He had been accusing Joan of disloyalty to Shahgarh, but what about his own loyalty? Was it the satisfying thing of three days ago? Had not much of it been spilt on the way between Naini Tal and Hazrat Bagh? Did he really, even now, with Nicholas’s letter in his hand, care as he ought to care about the potential set-backs to the fruit service scheme? Wasn’t he rather chafing because it was going to keep him hanging about at Shabgarh instead of going over to see Pauline?
He read on—details of Nicholas’s plans, ports of call, addresses and dates on arrival in Australia—till he came to the last words:—
“Frankly, I miss you, James. I’ve no one to talk fruit to, because when Janie gets on the gad she collects others like unto herself and talks hats! I tell her you’ll be luckier with Joanie, but I needn’t really do more than hope that you’ll be as lucky—just as lucky—as I am.
He thought a good deal about those last remarks—because they brought home to him the magnitude of his dependence on Nicholas. If Nicholas missed him, he missed Nicholas ten thousand times more. And the tragedy of it was that, in doing him what he imagined to be a service, Nicholas had only precipitated a tragedy. If Nicholas had never left Shahgarh, none of the events of the last three days would have happened. He would never have stopped for lunch at Mrs. Ellams’s on that fateful yesterday—never have wandered through the jungle—-never have found Pauline in the orchard. He would have gone straight to Nicholas instead. A present Nicholas would have worked wonders. But an absent Nicholas—however kind, however characteristic on paper—could do very little for him in the present juncture. That he realized fully, if a trifle shamefacedly. An absent Nicholas could not soften him towards Joan; could not hitch him with any security to the estate; could not help him for a moment to forget Pauline.
That last he knew because, before he went to bed, he wrote to her, saying that he could not leave Shahgarh, and asking her, if she felt inclined to do the posters, to ride over and see him as soon as possible; and the excuse that he made to himself was that Nicholas wanted the posters done. But sheer loneliness dictated the letter.
She did not come till the next evening. He did not hear that thudding of hoofs up the grassy side of the Knoll—a ponderous thudding, which told him that she had waited for Ewart to return from Naini Tal in order to borrow that elephantine horse of his—till he was in the act of sitting down to tea. It was as if she had unconsciously left him a day’s space in which to be recaptured, if he would, by the spell of Shahgarh. But, alas! he had not taken the opportunity. He had passed the day in a dream, in which the spell of Shahgarh had played no part. He had been glad at the end of it to shut up the office and dismiss the coolies and hurry back to tea on the chance of her being there to greet him. So much had he changed in three days.
He looked back on it himself with a sort of incredulity. It seemed that something must have been terribly wrong with him, if he had really passed through such a day without a trace of the enthusiasm that days far less notable had not failed to awaken ever since he had worked at Shahgarh. It was as if he had been the victim of some accident, emerging whole, with all his faculties unimpaired—eyesight, hearing and the use of his mind—but emerging, somehow, callous; unappreciative; older and more mechanically minded. Nothing less would explain away the fact that he had lived through the most thrilling day in the Shahgarh calendar—the incomparable day of days, when the first-fruits of a year’s anticipating came in in the shape of new, red, ripe strawberries—without raising the faintest enthusiasm. They had brought him the baskets, laying them—with that instinct for ceremony that inspires even the coolies of the East—down at his feet, with a few white jasmine cups scattered over the berries.
They had waited while he looked, while he tasted, while he tried hard to think of something appropriate to say. And then the time-honoured baksheesh had been distributed—a little, silver, quarterrupee piece for each scarlet basketful—and they had gone out joyfully, bearing their baskets with them. And . . . he had been glad to see the last of them, glad to know that the baskets would be despatched by special runners to rail-head and that he would not be bothered with them again, glad to think that this particular ordeal was finished with for the year. For the only word that had come into his mind while he had been searching for something to say had been Joan’s horrid little word—fruititis. It was as if Joan had cast a blight on himself and the coolies and the first-fruits of the year.
Left to himself, he had tried to recall the raptures of the year before—raptures experienced at the same hour in the same office, with the same sunlight gilding the air; had tried to recall his own delighted incredulity at the thought that a spadeful of that dry, light, yellowish soil that sallowed their hill-side could mature, in its own secret fashion, such precious tastes and tints and textures that fruit-growing—as Nicholas and he had agreed was nothing less than being an active partner in a miracle and a benefactor of mankind. Even flowers, they had agreed, were not so wonderful, because, however beautiful, they appealed to two senses only at most: they lacked that satisfying ripe rotundity of the fruits.
A year ago . . . he had remembered feeling an impetus positively lyrical, that had driven him out into the sun and down the gardens, revelling, after that little ceremony. And now it had merely bored him; and—worse than that—he had not cared if it did. He had not even been ashamed of owning the boredom to himself.
Fruititis—he had cursed Joan for the word, as if by using it she were compelling him to see himself through her eyes.
Joan’s imagination was microscopic—-it revealed the little in things (so unlike Nicholas’s) and he really had begun to see himself, himself of a year ago and of three days ago, as a mere fruit-bore, on a par with golf enthusiasts and fishing maniacs and any other kind of crank.
The glory was departed. Glamour had taken wings from Shahgarh. Even in the major operations of the day—the final clearing of the new ground, and the lighting of dozens of bonfires to burn up the rubbish, bonfires that sent along parallel streamers of smoke all down the valley to tell the whole neighbourhood that Shahgarh, under the direction of Jimmy Vaine, was busy and booming—even in these he had failed to recognize a particle of that former glamour. The thing was dead.
Joan—or circumstances; but chiefly Joan—had cast a blight on it, just as Ewart had cast a blight on his romance in Pauline.
Yet he did not care—the thudding of hoofs told him that. His alacrity in jumping up to greet them; in sending post-haste for a basket of the despised berries, and ordering a second tea—all his sudden energy, nervous, excited, galvanic, told him where his heart lay; what he needed; what he had been missing. The test day was over . . . and it was Pauline he could not do without; only Pauline.
She rode up carelessly on her monstrous mount, sitting right back and letting out the reins till the moment came to pull up. Then she promptly slithered down, like a little brown avalanche, over the fat inclines in front of the saddle and left the astonished animal to his own devices.
“Well, here I am,” she cried breathlessly. “I had to waylay Uncle Tom to get him and the syce is miles behind. Leave him there. He likes grass. I’ll just make him comfortable.”
He helped her unbridle and loosen girths, watching her, taking her in from head to foot. He knew now that he had been waiting for this moment all day. And yet, now—perhaps because he had been picturing her so much, giving her such tremendous importance in his mind—he was conscious of just the faintest shadow of disappointment. The face, the gestures, the impetuousness were all Pauline. But the big mushroomlike topi, the curious coat and breeches, the badly-fitting untanned riding-boots were eloquent of another epoch—they recalled the untidy, petticoat-revealing little person at her aunt’s dance. Hs missed something—was it bare brown legs and a mop of hair?
“Take off your hat,” was almost the first thing that he said to her.
He would have liked to add, “Take off your boots, too, and anything else that conflicts with my Pauline.” But he felt better when her hat was off and the boots were hidden under the table-cloth. He was so desperately anxious to preserve his only source of glamour uncontaminated, as it were. He wanted Pauline at the gates, Pauline under the wall; not Ewart’s Pauline.
“Where’s your wife?” she asked, the moment she saw two tea-cups instead of three.
He told her.
“I thought she might,” she said. “Are you sorry?”
Their eyes met, but hers were all screwed up, and he could not read them.
“No,” he replied, colouring a little, “I can’t pretend I’m sorry,” and felt that he had all at once taken a terribly long stride away from Joan.
He did not relish being so definite. But Pauline smiled as if he had said nothing at all out of the ordinary.
“What a pretty room,” she remarked, biting a strawberry.
He acquiesced without enthusiasm. It was so pre-eminently Joan’s room. The very colours of it—the cream and the green and the gold—were Joan’s colours, and every corner of it provided him with a picture of her. He did not want to have his attention called to the fact that Pauline was so desperately out of place.
He changed the subject. But he felt already that things were not going as he had anticipated. There was an awkwardness—a lack of spontaneity. And the worst of it was that, though he tried to lead her to talk about herself and her life at Hazrat Bagh, she would persist in harping on the subject of the room. It was, “Did your wife arrange this?” and, “Did she think of that?” throughout tea.
He simply could not understand her consuming interest in Joan. It seemed to make the whole position false and ironical. He could almost believe that she had definitely set herself to remind him as much as possible of Joan—with what object he could not think, for he could not imagine her as subtle enough to want to exasperate him with Joan and so call favourable attention to herself. That was not Pauline as he had dreamed of her.
“Shall we begin on the posters?” he suggested, as soon as tea was finished—not that he cared much about the posters, but because he felt that there was a tension that must be broken into at all costs, or Pauline would go the way of his other enthusiasms.
He had just that queer sensation that had attacked him at the little ceremony in the morning—a sensation of ebbing interest. He seemed only capable of noticing little incongruities about her—mannerisms of dress and speech and eating—instead of being drawn out of himself, as he had looked to be, and soothed and comforted. He began to wish that he had gone to her at Hazrat Bagh instead of bringing her out of her environment. And perhaps she read the thought, for, when he suggested the posters, she acquiesced almost too eagerly, saying she could not spare many minutes. And that made him more restless than ever, for he could not bear the thought of her going like that.
However, when he had arranged the sofa under the lamp, and she had brought out a small sketch-book and a stick of charcoal, he felt easier. She was so businesslike, so full of ideas, so keen on the thing in hand. She began to concentrate at once, just as she had concentrated on that stag’s coming down in the orchard, puckering up her little face in just the same way, sending her eyes to bed and tucking them up, as it were, like black babies; thinking with all her might. And to some purpose, too.
His own idea of a poster had been a picture of Shahgarh as the source of a river—not an ordinary blue and silver affair, but a scarlet one, turbulent with strawberries. At least, he gave it as his idea, though, if everybody had their rights, it was originally Nicholas’s.
“What happens to it?” she asked instantly.
“Oh, it runs—gets broader and broader, I suppose.”
Where? He was feeling extraordinary stupid. He suggested a plain; cities in a plain; domes and pinnacles and so forth, attendant on the strawberry stream. She appeared not to hear him.
“It must go into a mouth,” she cried. “A lovely big mouth like a nigger’s, right across the bottom right-hand corner. Like this.”
She dashed off a really marvellous mouth in about six strokes—a mouth capacious yet appreciative, and not inelegant either, with just a suggestion of a small head and body in the offing.
“The river turns into live strawberries as it gets there, and they just drop in,” she added, showing on paper how the individual strawberries would materialize from the mass.
“That do?” she asked, poising the little black stick against her lips.
“Splendidly. You can draw.”
“Sometimes. Any more?”
He liked that alert “Any more?” It gave him a sense of personal triumph, as if he himself had conjured back the authentic Pauline.
“Yes, I thought our own road would be as picturesque as anything, and a file of coolies with baskets on their heads, dwindling into dots. That would catch the eye, I think.”
That really was his own idea, seen out of the office window this morning. But she capped it at once.
“Make it a string of elephants. Do,” she begged, and bent to materialize elephants.
“I can do them,” was her excuse.
She certainly could. But he remonstrated, pointing out that everybody knew that no elephant had ever climbed within twenty miles of Shahgarh.
“They don’t know that in Calcutta, anyway,” was the quick answer. “Everybody thought I was going to live on elephants, when I got here. Besides, that’s nothing. The point is that elephants thrill people. Everybody loves elephants. And howdahs hold so much more than baskets, don’t they?”
He admitted it, as, at this particular moment, he would have admitted anything she suggested—for this was the Pauline he had waited for all day. Quick, eager, responsive . . . he gloried in her. The jadedness of the day had vanished.
“You refreshing person,” he could not help murmuring, for she had just that quality for him.
“It was refreshing fruit a moment ago, now it’s me.”
That jarred a little—he had meant the word seriously—but he forgot the jar in the fun of her own suggestion, which followed—a poster depicting a monsoon of raspberries, with appropriate thunderclouds in the background and sunshine in the foreground. They concocted a limerick to go with it, which pleased him immensely:
“In India we mostly complain
Of our feeble allowance of rain,
But here's a monsoon
That you eat with a spoon . . .”
So far he got, and stuck. It was Pauline who chimed in with a triumphant:
“And no one need grumble again.”
and rounded the thing off.
He was delighted.
“We’ll have it,” he cried. “We’ll have it on a scroll at the bottom, with your initials and mine under it to remind us that we’ve actually published a poem. Splendid! And, while we’re at it, do do an apple. Just one big, conglomerate apple—the devil of an apple, a super-apple, apple personified, in fact—dangling lusciously in a blue sky, complete with leaves and one twig. That’s my idea. I want an apple. And that’ll be the lot.”
He was cured. He was more than cured. Fruit had come into its own again. He was seeing shape and colour, tasting, smelling—all through Pauline.
“A red apple?"
She made curving gestures with her charcoal, so that he could already see the apple trembling in the void. But he could also see the brown backs of her hands, and a russet apple came back into his mind.
“No,” he burst out, “not a red apple. A tight brown apple like yourself”—she looked a trifle surprised, but not displeased, and he hurried on—”with reddy cheeks—streaks—can’t talk straight—streaks I mean—you see?”
She, too, looked down at the backs of her hands.
“Am I so very brown?” she inquired dubiously.
“Gloriously,” he cried, wondering why he did not gather her up and gobble her.
Posters were forgotten. There was only one subject worth discussing, and that was Pauline.
“Just the opposite to your wife,” she said reflectively, still gazing at her hands. “That’s funny, isn’t it?”
Joan again—somehow that jarred. Heaven knew, he was aware of what Joan looked like—the room was full of that soft creaminess. He wanted to forget it—not to be reminded of it at every turn. So he asked, rather sharply:
“Why are you always bringing in my wife?”
She did not answer. She went on looking at her hands, putting them together and displaying them so that the light shone over her strong little knuckles and kissed in the dimples between.
“I’ve always been brown,” she murmured. “I used to dress up as a bazaar woman and paint my eyes, to frighten poor old ayah. I suppose I’ve got it in me and the sun brings it out. My greatgrandmother was an Indian rani, you know. Your wife wouldn’t like that, but perhaps you don’t mind. You love India and she doesn’t. That makes all the difference.”
He felt extremely uncomfortable—so uncomfortable that he hardly noticed that very revealing reference to the fundamental difference between himself and Joan. He was thinking that she was probably touchy about her colouring, like all people of mixed descent, and wishing he had not called attention to it. As if it mattered who her great-grandmother was!
“I expect I’ve got as much India in my blood as you have,” he rejoined, rather haltingly. “All my people have been out here—generations of ’em. I expect quite a number of them married Indian women in the old days, when there were no railways and steamers and they couldn’t . . .”
He stopped abruptly, blushing to the roots of his hair. He had been going to say “get away”—a singularly ill-chosen reflection; as if he were hinting that she owed her descent to a similar inability on someone’s part to “get away” from the country.
“You know what I mean,” he ended, with a dreadful consciousness of having nothing better to give her than a phrase of Ewart’s.
“Yes,” she said, “I know what you mean,” and the awkward silence, which he had been dreading fell.
He could have kicked himself, not merely for having hurt her feelings by a silly remark, but for having marred the whole current of their talk. They had been getting on so splendidly a few minutes ago. What had possessed him to remind her and himself of who she was and what she stood for and what their intimacy portended?
The taint of consequences seemed suddenly to hang in the air—it was almost as if Ewart himself had walked into the room and taken a hand in the proceedings.
It was she who broke the silence, with one of those strangely awkward questions that ought never to be asked—-or so he felt.
“Do you think they did marry the women?” it was.
He fidgeted. If he had been Ewart he knew that he would have replied at once, “Not they; no need,” and would have taken that reply for his text in all subsequent proceedings. It was the text of all common little seductions.
“I imagine so,” he said, mentally treading on Ewart, as the embodiment of taint and temptation.
He could imagine him, uncle or no uncle, whispering that seductive, “She’s making it uncommonly easy for you, my boy,” which summed up the attitude of the man of the world.
But he knew in himself that it was otherwise. She was making it uncommonly difficult. He dreaded her next question. And when it came he felt that his dread had been justified.
“Do you think it’s wrong . . . to mix like that, I mean?” she murmured, making little fancy strokes and squiggles in her sketch-book. And when she had finished speaking the room seemed all at once very silent, very attentive.
“I don’t think it’s right or wrong,” he said slowly. “I think it’s natural.”
“You mean because they couldn't have English wives?"
She threw down her book and leaned forward, looking into the fire—and at that moment he saw the Indian in her face, in her attitude, and wondered why he had never noticed that before.
And then he thought of her lying under the wall, watching for the deer—and knew that he had seen that expression before, there and in hundreds of other places; on temple steps, in bazaar alcoves, under the shade of trees in the fields. His own coolies wore it when they thought he was not looking at them and rested on their spades. It was not concentration. It was not vitality, though it might masquerade as such. It was just a sensuous abandonment to the joy of being alive.
“What are you thinking of?” he said suddenly, half consciously testing his theory.
She seemed to jerk herself awake.
“Oh, nothing. I was thinking of my great-grandfather and my grandfather . . . and then I lost myself. You said something was natural, didn’t you, and I’m the result of it. Something happened a long time ago, and here am I. And I’m lazy and slack and never do anything for long except brown myself in the sun, and your wife wouldn’t speak to me unless she couldn’t help it—all because an Englishman once wanted a woman and steamers weren’t invented. It all seems so funny—dear old Hazrat Bagh in ruins, and the trees growing all anyhow, and wild things walking over grandfather’s tombstone, and . . . me. What am I?”
“You’re just a consequence,” he said gaily.
Yet somehow he felt sad at the thought of what might become of her. She had ranged herself so naively with the rest of the rack and ruin of Hazrat Bagh.
What would she make of her life—year in, year out, against a mouldering background like that? If he entered her life, what would he be spoiling? His own life, maybe; but that was spoilt already. But how much of hers?
“Are you happy, Pauline?” he asked suddenly, looking into her face, and putting his hands on either side of her on the broad back of the sofa, so that she sat in her corner as if it were a little prison, leaning back.
“Yes.” Firmly. Almost defiantly.
“Do you want to be left where you are? Hazrat Bagh? Now and always?”
She nodded. She meant to be helpful, he felt sure, and give him the answers that he wanted—but they were the wrong answers. She did not understand that he wanted her to protect herself, instead of making herself vulnerable.
“Haven’t you any ambitions? Don’t you want to get married? Don’t you want to find someone to look after you?” he urged, nearly shouting into her face.
If only she would say that she had someone behind her—someone in Calcutta or wherever she came from—who was fond of her and needed her. Then, somehow, he would be able to let her go and avert this easy, mean tragedy that loomed. But she only stared back at him and shook her head.
“I want to go on and on at Hazrat Bagh. It’s my roots. I’m like one of the trees, that couldn’t grow anywhere else.”
“Don’t you want to see people—have friends?”
She held out her hands for answer—the backs upwards, the fingers just curling in. They were on a level with his face, as he looked down.
“I’m very brown,” she said. “Some people don’t want . . .”
“Pauline . . .”
He said no more. He took her hands and pressed them, one into each of his cheeks, gripping them there, hiding his face between them, so that he could see neither her nor the room they were in, for he was ashamed.
She had put up her hands for pity. It seemed a terrible thing to take them and not to be pitying—only desiring. But, nevertheless, he kept her hands, and drew them, enclosed in his own, and made them meet behind his neck.
Then he had to look at her. He was kneeling over her in her corner, and he had drawn her so close up to him that he could feel her breath on his face. There was no resistance—he had known, somehow, that there would be none. A sigh, that was all, and a yielding to him as if she were half asleep. Her eyes were quite closed. He doubted if she even knew where she was or what was happening; and that doubt—with its irresistible suggestion that he was taking advantage of her helplessness—just stayed him from being too violent with her, just kept him poised.
But there was a rushing in his ears, and he felt as if he were melting piecemeal, rapidly, like a silver-paper figure thrown on the coals; and, fighting for the remnants of that dwindling self, he was aware of queer, jagged views of things, as erratic and distorted as the tricks of the cinematograph—a glimpse through the window of a monumental horse browsing in the violet-hued dusk, supremely unconscious of anything but grass; Joan’s open bureau in her alcove, and a green cushion perking up over the back of her chair; Pauline’s hat on the floor.
For one instant, too, his mind darted off to Joan and remembered her sitting in that chair, smoking a cigarette, patting her hair. Then, in a flash, back to Pauline’s face within an inch of his own; and Pauline’s eyes, with the thick lashes jostling and crossing; and to Pauline’s lips, a little apart, craving a kiss.
He set his own lips to plunge upon them, so shaping his mouth that it would enclose and absorb hers—the budding flower that it was; doing as he had dreamed of doing in the dusk in the orchard; cherishing the luxury of just one instant’s delay.
Then the lineaments of the room seemed to merge and coalesce with the dusk outside, so that the illusion of the orchard was vouchsafed and the kiss became utterly perfect. For just as long as it lasted—and for a long time it held that unrepeatable honey-sweetness of novelty—he was away in spirit under the apple trees, and Pauline was the bare-legged sprite of the trees.
Then—suddenly—it was over and they were apart, staring at each other while the room came back into its own, and listening for the repetition of a voice that certainly belonged to neither of them. It had come from somewhere outside—an unintelligible sort of whine, only vaguely human.
It came again, and this time Pauline darted for her hat and switch and sketch-book.
“Uncle’s syce!” she breathed. “He hasn’t got a lantern. I must fly,” and, as if in echo, the third plaint filtered in from the verandah:
“Miss Saheb. Miss Saheb. Andhera ho jata. Main bhuka hun . . .”
He swore, graphically and unrestrainedly. He had been cheated of perfection. He felt that so wonderful a moment could never quite repeat itself, now that Fate, in the shape of a hungry and querulous syce, had intervened. To-morrow it would all look so different—he knew himself so well.
“Pauline,” he urged, still holding her, “you can’t go. We’ll never be so happy. We’ll lose it if you go. Oh, don’t go.”
But her eyes were roving, very wide awake. She was all too conscious of her surroundings now, and he knew that the perfection had passed. He had almost a foretaste of what he would think to-morrow, how his mind would twist and turn—and this glory, this spontaneity, slip away.
“Don’t go,” he implored. “We’ll feed him. We’ll lend him a lantern. I’ll go back with you. Only stay and settle everything now.”
Shaking her head, she put his hands away.
“I must go. I promised Uncle Tom,” she whispered.
But her expression said, “This isn’t my room, my house. I’m out of place,” and his own conscience gave unwilling assent.
“When shall I see you?” he cried, holding on to her sleeve while she made for the door—-but only halfheartedly now. He saw that she must go.
“Come to Hazrat Bagh.”
“I can’t. I’m tied. Not till Sunday.”
Sunday—six long days away, and nothing to do in them but to think and think.
“Well, Sunday then. I’ll have the posters done.”
“No, come here. Come to-morrow,” he pleaded.
Both their hands were on the door-knob.
“No, not here. Please, not. I’m not happy here.”
“Hazrat Bagh, then. Sunday.”
He opened the door, so that she was hidden in the dark angle between it and the wall.
“Pauline, one more,” he begged.
She put up her face for him. But this time it was different. It was as if she did it under protest, hurriedly, so that his kisses were snatched and uneasy. Backstairs gleanings, compared with that one perfect kiss he knew it, she knew it. But he clung to her all the same, so that she had to wrench herself away.
“Good night,” she breathed, and was round the door and gone, like a brown moth, into the dusk.
He saw her hurriedly mount, while the big-turbaned dwarf-like being who had robbed him seemed to dance in his eagerness at the horse’s head. Then, with a wave, she turned and cantered down the grass slope till trees hid her.
The last thing he saw of them was that damned syce, scuttling after her as fast as his crooked little legs could carry him—spiriting her away.
Elation—all the fine fire of it—had died out of him before he re-entered the room. Even the slender excuse of spontaneity had been snatched away from him, and he was left with the memory of an interrupted kiss, and the knowledge that—however he posed it to himself—he was contemplating a mean thing.
Yet he clung to Sunday.
That knowledge—that he was contemplating a mean, inexcusable thing, because he did not, could not, love Pauline—-was fully with him as he dragged up the Ridge road to Hazrat Bagh on Sunday morning. It had clung to him throughout the miserable week, dogging him, clogging him whatever he did.
He had worked desperately hard—picking and packing were in full swing, and he had had additional difficulties over distribution, owing to the sporadic hartal down in the Plains, with the result that much of the fruit intended for hotels and messes all over India had to be side-tracked at the last moment and converted into jam. He had overcome the difficulties somehow or other—working himself in the stiffing jammery till he seemed to breathe jam and sweat jam and reek of jam; he had, he supposed, by dint of employing extra labour and makeshift cauldrons and turning out emergency jam literally by the ton, saved the situation and turned a loss into a profit; but the thought had brought him no elation whatever.
A fortnight ago he would have been swelling with pride and importance at the thought that he had justified Nicholas’s confidence in him and falsified Ewart’s gloomy predictions; if this had happened before the Naini Tal visit, instead of after, there would have been no bounds to his happiness.
But now he had felt, throughout, merely miserable. And so far from being the solution of that misery, his infatuation with Pauline was, he suspected, the cause of it. Yet he had never foregone the thought of Sunday. And here he was, stealing the few hours of respite between a jam-plagued Saturday and Monday on the old track that led to Hazrat Bagh.
Hazrat Bagh—the very name was ill-favoured to him to-day. It conjured up the antithesis of all that he had been toiling for and sweating for during the week; the antithesis of what Nicholas stood for, and Shahgarh stood for, and he himself, in his better moment stood for; the antithesis of health and endeavour and sane toil. All that was dead in Hazrat Bagh. The weeds grew over it, and it stood for decay and that fibreless sloth which was the one element he detested and dreaded in the influence of the East.
And the bitter thing was that the spirit of Hazrat Bagh was Pauline. He could not dissociate her from the place. “My roots,” she had called it. “I’m like one of the trees, that couldn’t grow anywhere else.” And that, he knew, was so. She would cling and cling to Hazrat Bagh. If he took her, he must reckon with Hazrat Bagh too—not in the way Nicholas had intended, possessively, forcibly, to clean it up and reclaim it; but submissively, as his eventual master.
Something told him that he would never be able to withstand the atmosphere of the place. It had mastered stronger people than himself time ago.
He knew that when he saw the sallow-faced house eyeing him malevolently over the shoulder of the hill—knew that he could not divorce Pauline from it, and that life with her would never be the idyllic running wild among the trees and playing by the wall that he had imagined it might be, but a long, stern, hopeless struggle with a veritable monument of sloth. All that jarred in her—all the little slipshod untidinesses of dress and speech and mind; the lapses from tact; the shiftlessness selfishness, egotism; the utter inability to look effectively ahead—all these characteristics, seen or suspected, came, as it were, from within the house. They were her heritage from the house, and she would always bring back to it more than it gave.
The finer Pauline—the lover of wild things, the child of Nature, the innocent—dwelt outside, but only while the sun shone and the dusk stood aloof. Delectable little bare-legged person! But one could not live outside. And there were times when the shadow of the house loomed long and dark over the orchard . . .
Yet he had kissed her—not casually or playfully, but right down on her lips, where kisses had long life and full significance. Knowing all, down to the last mean by-product of her Eurasian blood, knowing too her helplessness and her utter vulnerability, he had kissed her. There seemed no way back from that. Nothing for it but to go on, and kiss her again. Besides, he wanted to kiss her again. That was the worst of the whole miserable business.
But not within sight nor shadow of Hazrat Bagh. Not till he was away across the orchard, on the sunnier side of the boundary wall, with a steady phalanx of trees to shut out that sallow façade and all it stood for.
And even then, he feared, he would not be happy. He had had too long a time to think in. Too many days, too many nights in which to see what he was doing. If only he had not met Ewart and been diverted from the way a week—it was only a week, after all—ago! Then, there would have been some show of spontaneity. Not now.
He had honestly tried to get back to Joan, mentally speaking, just as he had tried—and succeeded—once before. But this time she had seemed too remote. If only she had suddenly come back and walked into the room in her old way, banging down her things and shouting for the bearer to bring tea, anything might have been possible. But she had not even given a date. She had not written a line in answer to two letters, despatched each after a long, hard day, imploring her to come back.
The only news he had had of her was culled from a noxious little account of the revel in the Society Jottings of the local weekly, in which the writer drove a lushly imaginative pen over “hairy-chested satyrs and sparsely-clad nymphs disporting themselves by lantern-light on the revered bosom of our ancient lake”; and he had seen Joan and Tarporley in every line of it, and frantically torn the libel up.
That was last night, and it still rankled. It was material in driving him even up this last stage of the climb to Hazrat Bagh, for it represented a picture that he could not bear to look at—Joan, silly Joan, mad and maddening Joan, rousing in others the very feelings he himself had for Pauline.
So much she meant to him still. She could make him writhe. But she could not make him turn his back on Hazrat Bagh, unless she came herself and pulled him back. And she had not come.
Because it was morning and Pauline was presumably at work—evening time for the wall—he went right up to the house and stood in the broad, pillared verandah and shouted her name. At the sound of his voice a couple of startled grey squirrels dashed from an embrasure past his feet and whisked up a pillar into the roof. Otherwise there was no response. The shuttered house seemed to dream in sympathy with all the blue, distant, dreaming hills.
Though it was fully eleven o’clock and great bays of sunlight washed the stone flags of the verandah and beat fiercely on the cracked woodwork of the windows, so that it seemed to shrivel under his eyes, though day was blatant everywhere, he wondered whether she had not got up. That would be like her. He could imagine her lying lazily on a bed, not asleep, but with closed eyes and slumbering senses, as he had seen her lie in the grass; appearing to think great things, really thinking of nothing at all. Yes, though to him personally it was inconceivable—to lie abed at eleven o’clock—it was conceivable in her. It had to be reckoned with.
A nutshell crackled under his foot. Feeding squirrels—that was like her, too. That was the other Pauline. He could picture that one too, scattering monkey-nuts in a fine profusion and waiting for the little creatures to come—little creatures rather like herself, bright-eyed and furry and warm.
But one could not be blind to the other side of squirrel nature. They hibernated. They lay abed. They made much ado and achieved nothing. That side of them had to be reckoned with, if one studied squirrels.
He looked up and saw a little grey face, badger-marked, bead-eyed, peeking at him from behind a cornice. He waved his hand, and with a whisk and a sound in its throat like a tiny laugh it was gone. Pretty, empty little thing, he thought—abominably like Pauline.
He shouted again,
“Pauline . . . Pauline,” and stamped, gazing up and down the verandah in a quandary. Very impatient, because he did not want to go on thinking. He had thought more than enough about Pauline.
This time there was a response. He heard a rustle down at the far end of the corridor and an old woman hobbled hurriedly into view and stood looking at him. She stood in the angle between the westward and southward verandahs, where a double pillar cast a great slab of shadow, and, attuned as he was to the slightly eerie note of the place, he could not help starting and thinking what an ill-omened figure she made.
In her long, waisted scarlet coat and the white petticoat, which the darkness of the corner endowed with a strange, moth-like incandescence, she looked like a witch. Then she came forward a pace into the sunlight, and he saw merely an exceedingly disreputable old ayah, in the red flannel and dirty muslin so beloved of ayahs in the hills.
“Tumhari Miss Saheb kahan hai?” he asked rather roughly, disliking her for no particular reason except that she had startled him.
But it shocked him to think that such a dirty person dressed Pauline and made her bed and cooked her meals.
The Miss Saheb had not yet come out, she answered in that mumbling whine in which he detected infallibly the note of the cringing caste.
What was Pauline doing with a sweeper woman, he wondered angrily. Letting her touch her, and paw her clothes, and feed her? It wasn’t right. It would have to be stopped . . .
Then he remembered how she had said that she had been in the habit of dressing up as a bazaar woman and painting her eyes to frighten “poor old ayah.” It would not be so easy, then, to get rid of “poor old ayah.” “Poor old ayah” was rapidly assuming the status of a consequence, to be ranged with Ewart and Mrs. Ewart and Hazrat Bagh. Seedy connections.
“Sote hain?” he queried sharply, quite ready now to be told that Pauline was still asleep, yet dreading the confirmation of his suspicion.
“Ji,” nodded the woman, and mumbled something about getting a bath ready. He felt as if he could go into the garden and be sick. Pauline, Pauline—the murky contents of the reservoir in the orchard would have been nicer than a bath prepared by this bag.
“Has she had her breakfast?” he asked.
“Ji. Ji. Main ne banaya.”
“Oh, you cooked it.”
Again the same wave of disgust. This was life, then, as lived at Hazrat Bagh. He had known it all along in his heart of hearts, but he had never faced it. Now, he seemed almost to smell it—a frowsy, stuffy affair, day in, day out, without end. These closely-shuttered windows seemed to proclaim it, and he imagined Pauline having breakfast in bed behind one of them in a room unsunned, heavy with sleep and food, while this individual with the dubious hands poured the water and laid out the towels.
He remembered with a shudder Joan’s unsolicited testimony—”The place smelt chickeny. I can smell it now”—and grudgingly admitted that for once she had not exaggerated. All his fastidiousness—the one quality he really shared with Joan—was in rebellion. He could hardly face the thought of going inside the place without swallowing audibly.
Desperately he had recourse to the other side of the picture—gazed between the pillars at the clear-edged hills, and the tips of the apple trees on the far side of the orchard, and the green tide of the jungle sweeping in to Bhawali. Ah, they were clean! And Pauline belonged there as here . . . half of Pauline. A fair half, a generous half, he tried to think, opening his heart to her.
But a shuffle recalled him to the slattern, weaving her bony black fingers and stammering at him. Emblematic, alas!—not to be ignored, as the keeper and the minister of the other half of Pauline.
Would the Saheb come inside and wait?
He hesitated. His feeling for the house now amounted to repulsion. He had an infinite longing to go outside and smoke a pipe somewhere out of sight of it, and wait for Pauline to come to him.
At the same time, however, he was irritated at the thought that he was feeling precisely what Joan had felt with regard to it, and what she had expected him to feel on that distant day when she had first led him to Hazrat Bagh. It was as if Joan were scoring all along the line; and he could not allow that.
“All right. Achha,” he said resignedly.
Perhaps there would be a kind of homoeopathy in the experience. To know the worst was no bad thing . . . he would have to know it sooner or later. He ought to have thought of Hazrat Bagh in that mad moment when he had kissed Pauline.
He followed the woman round the corner where he had first seen her emerge, down another corridor of the verandah (which enclosed three sides of the house) and round yet another corner, so that he was on the side of the house away from the terrace—the side that faced uphill.
Here there was no view—hills, orchard, jungle were shut away. All that was to be seen was a decrepit block of outbuildings—kitchens and godowns and servants’ quarters, their walls cracked, their plaster sagging, their doorways agape and black and forbidding—outlined against a bare buttock of hill. Brambles and lentana rioted almost to the windows, save where the ground was pitted with the black blots of dead fires.
Here, he suspected, “poor old ayah” did the major part of her cooking—and neglected to clear up afterwards, for rubbish was scattered everywhere. Jam-pots, biscuit tins, potato peelings, hunks of mildewed lard nestled among the weeds, and Heaven knew what horrors lurked in the more tangled recesses. It would have taken his whole staff of coolies the best part of a working day to clear up the place—a task which had been left to the wholly inadequate resources of a few crows, two goats, and a score of cadaverous chickens. The latter, he noted, were moulting—-a purpose to which the verandah was apparently well suited. Glutinous feathers adhered to his shoes, though he walked delicately enough, and sensitive and inaccessible portions of him itched in anticipation of fleas.
It was appalling. It was more sordid than anything that he could have imagined. His coolie lines were sweetness itself in comparison, and when he recalled the scrupulous back premises at Shahgarh and Pine Knoll, he could scarcely fancy himself in the same world. To think of them was like waking up from an unsavoury nightmare.
Yet, within sight and sound and smell of all this lived Pauline—lived, ate and drank, slept and awoke, day by day, week by week. The windows this side were unshuttered, and one of them farther along was actually open. Her bedroom, perhaps. Looking out across a feather-plastered verandah on to garbage. Not even decent, honourable decay such as hung over the rest of the house and the terrace and the orchard—but stinking, festering garbage.
“My God!” he muttered, and tip-toed very gingerly past that window, for if Pauline had called out he could not have trusted himself to answer. His profound pity for her, living in such impossible circumstances, was mingled with another feeling that he did not care to give a name to; for it owed its existence to the dreadful suspicion that she did not worry, did not notice anything amiss, did not mind. That was the awful thought, the thought that poisoned his best impulses—the impulse to take her away from it all, and care for her, and surround her with something better—she did not mind. She would not thank him to take her away. She was content.
“My roots.” Oh, Pauline, Pauline!
He was inexpressibly relieved when his guide turned yet another corner and he saw good, clean grass again, and the end of the terrace, and the tips of apple trees. He had only walked along a corridor—a few seconds’ journey—but he had seen enough to make him feel that he had passed through an epoch and come out sickened and horribly disillusioned.
Yet, he felt, Fate was in it. He had been intended to see and be sickened—perhaps the physical garbage was mildly symbolical of an accumulated mental garbage of his own, that neither crows nor coolies could clear up, and he was intended to appreciate the fact. Otherwise, the old woman might just as well have gone round the other way and spared him. The other way would incidentally have been the shorter way.
At any rate, if she were enacting the part of Providence, he determined that Providence should not go scot-free. Round the corner, he told her exactly what he thought of her and what would be done to her if this state of things continued. When she pretended to be deaf, he repeated his warnings in unmistakable pantomime, ending with a graphic representation of the process of flaying her alive. Whereat she fled, wailing and beating her breast, while he stamped through the garden door that she had indicated and, for the first time, found himself in the interior of Hazrat Bagh.
With something of a pang he recognized the room. It was the studio and living-room that she had described to him with such enthusiasm at the dance. He could recall her eagerness, her very gestures, as she had leaned forward and sketched its features for him—the old furniture; the heaven-sent accident of the skylight; the sunny windows, commanding a peep of the orchard.
The room—the starting-point of all those dreams and schemes that had seemed to him so artlessly wonderful, that had drawn out all his own dreaminess in sympathy—here it was. He was in the room. And his first impulse was to get out of it and forget it and see to it that he was never in it again. For it supplied the full, intimate, unabridged index to Pauline. It revealed Pauline as surely as the big, open-hearted “Do-as-you-please-room” at Shahgarh revealed Nicholas, or the fastidiously delicate drawing-room at Pine Knoll revealed Joan. Her name was written all over it. And he could not but quail.
It was not that it was big and barracky, and gloomy in spite of its two sources of sunlight; or that the dusky orange plaster—he could imagine the old Colonel ordering a ton of that colour, and slapping it on inside and out as the nearest thing to the complexion of his pippins—was pitted and peeling; or that the old furniture—a long, mistri-made trestle table, a tattered settee, basket chairs in every stage of decrepitude—was sparse, mean, and ugly. None of that was her fault.
She was poor, and there was a certain courage in confronting life with such company. Even the dust, and the cobwebs that festooned the high cornices, and the unswept grate were the ayah’s province rather than hers, and, after the squalor outside, made little impression on his mind.
No, it was the inherent shiftlessness of the room that frightened him. There were so many ideas—pretty ones, lovable ones, some of them—that had never come to anything, had gone astray and died. So much begun; so little finished; and, if finished, finished indifferently, impatiently, or half-heartedly. It was as if he were privileged to review the very history of her dreams.
It was a terrible position. He had all the sensations of an eavesdropper—a peculiarly unpleasant eavesdropper, for it was her mind that he was looking into, the inside of her mind, laid bare for him without her knowledge. It was worse than being the unwilling confidant of a drunkard or of a delirious person, because somehow the eyes were so much more difficult to close than the ears.
There was a singular ruthlessness in the invitation of the room. It compelled his interest, and his only excuse was that, had she been present, the result would have been the same. She would not have turned the faces of her unfinished pictures to the walls, or removed the dead and withered flowers from the vases on the mantelpiece, or hidden the pretty unfinished embroidery that she had allowed to be stained with paint, or the squirrel that she had only begun to carve.
He could not help remembering that she had urged him to come in the other evening when, in the nature of things, she could not have forestalled him by tidying up. Besides, that would never have occurred to her.
The whole room was eloquent of her blindness to the necessity of tidying anything up—whether it was a picture, or an embroidered camisole, or a flower-vase or a dream. She just left it, whatever it was, for the dust to settle on; and what matter if it were stained? He could not feel altogether guilty, looking at things that she would never have troubled to hide from him herself.
He wandered round the room, looking at the sketches which had been pinned up, apparently with a view to covering the more unsightly wounds in the plaster, each with one pin. The result was that, being done either on limp canvas or, in many cases, on plain unashamed brown paper, they curled inwards, and he had to use both hands to flatten them, and thus was compelled to stand unfairly near. Unfairly, because he had an opportunity of seeing, with deadly precision, the exact point at which she had lost interest in each of them.
Water colours, pastels, charcoal studies—no matter what they were—they all began so ardently and finished so untidily. Their merit was a sharp, almost uncanny gift for catching and imprisoning something momentary—an expression of face or, more perfect still, a posture of body, whether in a human being or an animal. They were all portraits—studies, rather—either of bazaar faces or animals in a Zoo, caught unawares, at their most natural.
She was so natural herself, he supposed, that she had an instinct for the natural in others and lost interest in them when once she had captured that quality; for her backgrounds, her attempts at clothing or ornamentation, her suggestions of houses and scenery—all the painful necessities of the craft—were ludicrously futile. She would have done better not to have attempted them. Admittedly the unfinished things—a glorious leopard, dead or asleep, in three colours, orange-tawny and velvet black, with a touch of white about the belly and jowl; a brown, naked boy beating on a toy drum; a shrewd old bearded face or two from the bazaar; and a little girl lying on her back and laughing into the inquisitive face of a goat; all rough and hasty—were the best. Especially the poses of body—the languor of one, the delight of another, the innocent abandon of the third—appealed to him, because all three recalled moods of Pauline herself—the child, the outdoor Pauline.
He wondered whether she had ever drawn herself. He seemed to know instinctively how she would have done it, what pose she would have chosen; and it was with the idea of searching for a self-portrait that he began to turn over the mass of rolls and sheets and scraps of paper that littered the trestle table from end to end.
It was an unfortunate move, because almost the first thing he discovered was the rough draft of one of his own posters—the one which involved a string of elephants—and, so far from being ready, as she had promised, it had hardly been begun. To be precise, she had drawn one elephant complete with load, one elephant unencumbered, and the head and shoulders of a third elephant that she had abandoned because there was insufficient space for its body and tail.
At that point, he surmised, she had broken off to search for india-rubber, and had never resumed. It was characteristic, but irritating. He particularly wanted the posters.
Investigating farther, he discovered that they had all four been begun—the apple one was pinned to a board on an easel and half the apple was as lusciously tinted as he could wish—but not one was ready. If only she had concentrated on two, he saw that she could easily have finished them.
But no, she had flown from one to another in a frenzy—he could imagine her at it, like a child with too many new toys, like one of her own squirrels with too many nuts—with the inevitable results . . . No posters.
There never would be any posters.
There never would be any solid, tangible, useful results from all this fever of work and dreaming. She would concentrate well enough perhaps on the pretty unprofitable fancies of her heart. She would lie by the hour under the wall and watch for deer, and wear herself out carrying unnecessary water for them to drink. She would expend an infinity of time and pains on blacking her eyes and painting those tight little cheeks to give “poor old ayah” the shock of her life.
But, work—no. Achieve anything—never. She was no better than Joanie over her jam-pots after all. Worse in a way, because she promised more. Poor Pauline!
“Do you think I really can make my studies pay?” the question, pathetically eager, pathetically futile, came back into his mind, and he shook his head. The answer was on the table, on the easel, on the walls.
And, if not clear enough there, it was written in larger letters over Hazrat Bagh itself; from gates to garbage heap; from one dusty, desolate room to another; over every misshapen tree in the orchard from the neglected terrace to the ruined wall. There was not one item of hope or encouragement or promise throughout the length and breadth of it; not one fresh or fruitful thing, save Pauline herself, and she was under its spell. An intolerable place.
Again he felt the impulse that had come to him when he had first stepped inside the room—to slip away and put a hill between himself and Hazrat Bagh. This time it was almost irresistible. A host of morbid fancies arose and bade him begone; and he went to the door and looked out yearningly at the free spaces, at the rifts and ravines of the Ridge, any one of which would hide him and take him home.
He thought of Shahgarh, orderly and prosperous and sane under the sun, and wished himself there, in his shirt-sleeves, lending a hand with the baskets. For the first time since that fatal visit to Naini Tal he experienced the old bracing love of the work. To think of Shahgarh now was to breathe fresh air again after swallowing musty air; the very thought of it was health.
Should he go?
He hesitated, peering out of the doorway and listening. The walls were thick; no one lived on this side; he could not hear a sound of Pauline. He had been in the room perhaps ten minutes. It would take her longer than that to bathe and dress, however perfunctorily. Should he go?
It was a mean business, this, at best. There was no good thing to be said of it; no good could come of it. What was done could not be undone, but no bones were broken yet. No hearts either, unless Pauline . . .
Why not go?
Whatever Pauline’s feelings were—even if he had achieved the incredible and taught someone, for once, to love him—it would be kinder in the long run if he went now. Love would have short shrift at Hazrat Bagh; and anything less than love no shrift at all. The place was poisonous—it only fostered rank growths like itself, rank habits of body and of mind. Better to go. It was not too late.
He would have gone. He was in the act of closing the door behind him, when suddenly he heard a rustle of draperies and that horrible old woman came shuffling round the corner. She took him aback, appearing so suddenly, padding over the grass on her flat, bare feet. He could think of nothing to say to her—no excuse for her to give Pauline. Before he knew what he was doing, he had involuntarily opened the door again and retreated a step back into the room.
The Miss Saheb had sent a message, she said. She was on the point of coming—“. . . abhi, abhi a jata.” And, as if to confirm the imminence of her approach, he heard Pauline’s own voice calling somewhere behind the muffling walls—
“Ayah! Ay . . ah!”
“Go to her,” he motioned, bowing to Fate. The Saheb would wait?
Yes, the Saheb would wait.
He drifted back to the table again, and began idly looking over the pile of miscellaneous work; pulling out a sheet here and there at random, and wondering all the time what excuse he ought to have invented for the ayah to give Pauline. The more he thought of it, the less, excuse did there seem to be. He could only have pleaded a sudden indisposition, and that, likely enough, would have brought Pauline flying after him.
And even if he had brushed past the old woman and simply disappeared, what good would he have done? Pauline could ride over again any day. She knew where to find him.
No. If he meant to go, and put an end to the episode, there was only one way of doing it—tell her. Tell her he had made a mistake. Tell her, when she came up to be kissed again, that there were to be no more kisses . . . however much he wanted them, however much she did.
But what could he say? She had done nothing to hurt him—the contrary rather. Without hurting her, then, what reason could he give? Could he point to Hazrat Bagh and say, “This is my reason”—or to the pathetic gallery of failures on the walls, and say, “I’ve seen too much of you here to want to see any more,” and so take his leave?
Impossible. Better to tell the truth and say, “I don’t love you. I only wanted you. And now I’ve thought better of it.”
And then, even then, she would only ask—
How could he tell her why?
In an agony of indecision he watched the door.
It was the merest chance that he picked up the sketchbook. His fingers encountered it among the rest of the litter, while his eyes were employed in watching the door, and they fished it out presumably because it happened to be solid and small and convenient to catch hold of. But when he did glance down at it, he recognized it. He had seen it before—once, clasped unopened in her hand as she lay by the wall; and again in the drawing-room at Pine Knoll. She had made her jottings and notes for the posters in it. Probably, being a handy little pocket-book, it recorded most of her first impressions. It looked well thumbed, and the elastic band was worn.
She did not come—he was pretty sure now, from sundry muffled voices and comings and goings in the distance, that she was taking a good deal of trouble with her appearance—so, to steady himself, he began to study the contents of the book, carelessly at first, and then with interest, for almost the first thing he saw was a study of himself.
It was the last thing in the book, coming directly after pages that he recognized—the page containing the capacious and appreciative mouth with strawberries streaming into it, and another full of elephants and those quaint little squiggles that she had made while they were discussing the vagaries of ancestry—and she had taken a great deal of trouble over it. That was the odd thing about it—it was so painstaking. It was more like a copy than a thing done on the spur of the moment, from memory, yet not a very good copy, because she seemed to have tried to alter the expression and to have failed. But it was undeniably a picture of himself, sitting on a low wall, leaning forward a little, with just that hint of mobility in the mouth that suggested conversation. In fact, the whole attitude pointed to the presence of another person. Perhaps she had intended to draw herself.
A much odder thing struck him. He was wearing a felt hat—an old thing that he had not worn for months—anyhow since the cold weather. He did not know even what had become of it. He had a dim recollection of throwing it away, when his room was cleared and his winter garments stored for the hot weather, but he could not be quite certain.
Anyhow, he was perfectly convinced that he had not had it on on any occasion when Pauline could have seen him. Yet, here it was, to the life, in the picture—greeting him, as it were, like an ancient and disreputable friend. Very puzzling. The oddest thing, because this sketch was not a week old.
She must have copied it. But from what?
He heard a quick step outside and looked up.
It was Pauline.
He saw her first, just as she turned in to the door.
As he had surmised, she had been dressing up for him and very fresh and gay she looked in a pink summer dress, with pink in her hair. Her arms were bare to the elbow, and he noticed a thick gold bangle slide down her brown forearm as she put up her hand to keep the door-curtain away from her hair. She looked full of an eager, childish happiness, and he could tell from the way she tripped up to the door that she had run round the corner.
He moved forward rather awkwardly to meet her, wondering what had become of his own faculty for elation. Would a kiss revive it? She looked so sweetly kissable.
“Oh, there you are! I’m terribly sorry for keeping you waiting. Couldn’t find the right hair ribbon, and Ayah . . .”
Very abruptly the little torrent of sentences ceased. To his astonishment her expression changed almost in the instant of her seeing him—became suddenly sharp and intent, as she stared down at his left hand. It happened that she was just under the skylight at the moment, and the change was so marked that he glanced down immediately himself and realized that she was staring at the book. He had kept it in his hand, with his thumb at the place.
At once he thought of the hat.
“I say, Pauline,” he began, “here’s a most extraordinary thing, the oddest thing. I haven’t worn this hat since . . .”
She started as if she had been stung, interrupting him before he could even show her what hat he meant.
“You oughtn’t to have looked at it. You’ve no right. It’s mine—private,” she burst out, and he saw her fingers quiver as if she were going to snatch the book. In the whole of his life he had never seen a person so quickly upset. Every trace of that eager happiness had vanished; and as for a kiss . . .
“Give it me at once.”
He was one of those people who invariably lose their nerve when an order is, as it were, thrown at their heads. He promptly dropped the book. Both of them made a grab at it, and she got it. But he got a loose page that fell from it as it dropped, and one glance told him that the explanation of the oddness of the hat was in his hand.
He had picked up another sketch of himself in that hat; and in this sketch he was talking to someone; and the someone was not Pauline, but Joan. Only, Joan’s face was scored across and across with a very petulant pencil; she was a sadly disfigured Joan.
It took him a moment or two to realize what a very human document this sketch was—firstly, in the scratching out of Joan; and, secondly, in the care that had been bestowed on himself. He felt that he ought never to have looked at it, and he handed it back to her with a whisper.
She took it without a word. She looked so distressed that he put his arm round her shoulders and drew her to him, only to realize that she was trembling.
“What is it?” he whispered, at a loss to understand her. After all, it was such a little thing to get into a state over.
“You shouldn’t have looked,” she muttered, freeing herself from his arm. “I never thought you’d look.”
But he was a little less sorry than before. She was being silly, he thought; disappointed perhaps, because she had come in so gaily and nothing nice had happened Hardly his fault, though, that.
“When did you take that liberty with our faces Pauline?” he asked lightly, to relieve the tension.
No answer. She was putting the book away in a drawer, and she did not turn her head.
“It’s the hat that puzzles me,” he went on. “I know the old fellow well—couldn’t mistake it, after you’d immortalized it—but I’m bothered if I can remember wearing it this summer. I should have got sunstroke if I had. I never start a soft hat till September and leave it off in April. And the odd thing is that I’m positive I chucked that one away long before April.”
It was a little thing, but it was just the sort of thing that he would puzzle over, and go on puzzling over.
“When did you do it?” he asked, moving towards her.
“I don’t remember.”
She shut the drawer, and stood with her back against it.
“Well, where were we when you did it? I was sitting on a wall, and Joan . . . I say, Pauline, that wall—did you do it here by any chance?”
It was just a shot, a sudden surmise. It came into his head that the wall was suggestive of Hazrat Bagh, and he would not have given the matter another thought if she had not received the question so oddly. He had no desire to cross-examine her; but it was certainly queer to see her start again and look away so quickly.
“Was it here?” he repeated.
Though she looked him in the face, he knew that was a lie, and a very unpleasant sensation it gave him. He had encountered that kind of lie pretty often—in coolies—and he knew the symptoms perfectly.
“I say, steady on, Pauline. It was here,” he cried, thinking hard.
It was a trifle, of course, the whole thing, but such trifles left an unpleasant taste behind them.
Besides, he was interested now. Joan and he had only once been inside the gates of Hazrat Bagh, and that was nearly a year ago, on the last day of the honeymoon. Never since. They had had lunch at Bhawali, and Mrs. Ellams had told them the way through the jungle, and he had not been very keen to go, but Joan had insisted. Remember it? He was not very likely to forget it—the discovery of the great, gaunt house; and the Colonel Saheb’s tombstone; and the orchard coming into view so unexpectedly, in jerks, as he had followed Joan along the terrace.
And then the arguments, the cross purposes—his refusal to give her a promise, her refusal to give him a baby—and the last bitter feeling that they were stamping the spirit of the honeymoon down into the very soil of Hazrat Bagh, burying it, blotting it out.
It all came back. Behind Pauline’s head, as she stood stiffly against the table, facing him out, he saw, forming among the shadows, a picture of himself and Joan, sitting face to face on the terrace parapet, dealing blow after blow at all that was precious between them till the honeymoon was dead, and they got up, and went home.
And then . . . well, it was his turn to start in good earnest; for the picture he saw in his mind’s eye was just the picture in the sketch-book. Joan and himself on a wall. Of course, it was familiar—it was the low balustrade along the terrace parapet. The sketch had been done that day. And that day he might easily have been wearing the hat. Of course.
But . . . Pauline?
He gazed at her, his whole face puckered in an effort to connect her, whom he had not set eyes on till months later, with that day of all days.
“I’d never even heard of you . . .” he murmured, half to himself, but studying her intently.
“Yes, you had,” she exclaimed, flaming out. “You’d heard her call me a blackey-white. You’d heard her say that we’d all lost caste, dad and I and all of us.”
“What do you mean?” he said, not following.
“I was down in the orchard.”
That made him think.
That brought things back, with a vengeance—hard, true things Joan had said about Hazrat Bagh and everybody and everything connected with it. It was dreadful that she should have heard them.
But Joan had said other things too—intimate things, life-and-death things, things that no decent person could listen to if they had fingers to put in their ears. Had she heard them too? It would explain much if she had—explain that extraordinary sense that he had always had of being better known to her than she was to him. From the very first she had never seemed like a stranger.
“What else did you hear?” he asked, very quietly, very ominously, for it seemed to him terrible that there should be even a suspicion of her having heard that conversation, the very words of which were coming back to him.
“I heard . . .” she began, and broke off, looking distressed.
“I was there all the time.”
She evaded his eyes.
“Listening?” he demanded.
“Then you didn’t even put your fingers in your ears?”
Her lips just formed the word; he did not hear it, utterly quiet as the room, the house, the world had become. In that ominous silence, he felt, anything might happen—but not for a moment. He would get the truth first. Then . . . well, a storm was brewing, slowly, surely.
“You heard the whole of that quarrel? Everything I said—everything she said?” he asked again, knowing that she must have. For the stillness in the room now, and outside in the sun, was the same brooding stillness that he had noticed that day, so that he had begged Joan, in positive fear, not to talk so loud. And Joan, purposely defiant, had sent out those ringing replies across the orchard. Not that it mattered—a whisper would have carried down there to anyone waiting for it.
“You heard what a miserable mess we were of things?” he repeated, as she did not answer.
She gave an infinitesimal nod, but did not look up or meet his eyes.
“Do you call that fair, Pauline?”
Now she looked up, in quick resentment.
“She called me a blackey-white.”
“That’s no excuse for eavesdropping. You know the proverb about listeners?” he said, trying to keep calm. But his sympathy was with Joan—not Pauline.
“I hate her,” she muttered, and he saw all of it in her eyes.
“So you spied on her?” he flashed out.
“If you like.”
“And encouraged me to see you and kiss you and get fond of you?”
“Are you fond of me, then?”
He could not trust himself to answer. He turned his back on her and walked over to the door, feeling that if he said anything it could only be something wounding. He did not want to say any more things like that last.
But he felt them. Irresistible, that sensation of having been imposed upon. Gaze out at it as he might in the effort to recapture the first Pauline—the innocent, the dear companion of an evening—that orchard was spoilt for him for ever.
No longer could he see her in it, as he had come upon her first, dabbling her brown feet in the water, smiling up at him in relief that it should be he who had come; or as he had watched her and wanted her, lying so engrossed, chin on hands, down behind the wall; or panting behind him in the dusk, scratching her bare legs that she might keep up with him, when he had grown so fond of her that he must fly from her.
Every one of those incidents was poisoned for him, coloured irrevocably with her hatred of Joan. He could only see her now as she must have sat on that other distant afternoon, ensconced like a watchful, callous little animal behind her screen of leaves, hating Joan. Crouching—oh, she could keep still right enough—taking full advantage of that sinister, sodden silence; her face all agog, her eyes bright beads, like squirrels’ eyes; listening with delight to Joan giving herself away; storing up facts against the person who had called her a blackey-white, for future use.
He could just imagine her sigh of disappointment when Joan finally got up and walked away, and the deliciously dramatic little scene was over before she had had time to finish her sketch of it!
How glad she must have been to see Joan again at the dance . . . and Joan’s husband again! No wonder he had been baffled again and again by those funny, mirthful, unrevealing eyes, that hinted so much and gave away so little. And all those soft, pussy-cat references to Joan—how beautifully she dressed; how wonderfully she danced; how prettily she furnished her room—claws in velvet, every one of them, such clever, sharp little claws.
And then, her ways with him . . .
That uncanny knowledge of his mind, his tastes, his wants, that had given him at the very first a sense of meeting not as strangers, but as old friends; that had precipitated intimacy—it was explained now. It was not the wonderful thing he had thought it—not the acute intuition or the quick, warm sympathy. It was nothing genuine at all—just a trick that anyone could play who had overheard a man pouring his heart out and who had sufficient motives for remembering what she had overheard.
Strip her of that power, that sympathy—what was left of her? What was genuine?
He looked at her.
She was still standing where he had left her, leaning against the table, gazing down at the buckles of her shoes, at her bits of finery. Even now he could not tell what was in her mind—whether she was deeply wounded, or merely amused. He would never know, he felt.
This last revelation—crowning a long series of doubts—had blinded him to all other aspects of her but the one that she had illuminated for him so vividly. For the rest, she was obscure to him now as the inside of one of her own squirrels’ empty little heads.
He came back to the table. His hat was on it.
“Pauline, I’m going,” he said, picking up the hat.
She did not move; only raised her eyes, and looked at him steadily.
“I knew you would. You wanted an excuse.”
That stung him—there was truth in it.
“You didn’t play the game,” he muttered.
“Did you?” came the quick response.
“No,” he admitted, very low.
“I’m only a blackey-white. You wouldn’t expect me to play the game.”
“It’s not that. I never thought of that,” he faltered, moving towards the door. A positive yearning was in him to be away and alone, the other side of the hill, out of sight and sound and memory of Hazrat Bagh.
“It was that, all the same,” she said. “You thought I’d spoil your work, and make you like myself—once you began to think.”
He retreated farther, facing her still, but very conscious of the door and the sunlight just the other side of it; of the invitation of the spaces over the hill.
“You’d better make the most of that work of yours,” she flamed out suddenly. “It’s all you’ll ever get out of life. Don’t come back to me.”
“I promise you that,” he said, furious.
And then he was out in the sun, striding past the corner of the house, with chickens flying from before his feet; past the ayah, squatting by an open fire, boiling water; up a ragged path between two outhouses, threading clumps of brambles; out on the hill; over the hill.
His first sensation when, breathless, he pulled up and took his bearings was one of surprise at himself for not feeling more buoyantly elated. Here he was, free—completely, finally free. A few minutes ago he had been at his wits’ end as to how to compass that freedom without giving pain to Pauline; and, behold, Chance had put the means into his hand, so effectually that in the end it had been Pauline, and not himself, who had closed the door on the episode. Hers, that final, irrevocable, “Don’t come back.” He had merely promised to keep closed the door which she, of her own accord, had already shut. All the burden, all the responsibility of severance she had taken on herself. It had turned out better than he could have hoped for.
Then why, in Heaven’s name, was he not content—nay more, elated?
Was it because he could not quite put out of mind the picture of a little figure left lonesome in a big room, to contemplate the failure of one last pretty scheme? Did a pink cotton dress and a pair of buckled shoes that he had never even paused to admire stand now between him and the joy of feeling free? Or a kiss, expected and never taken? Or just that faint, haunting suspicion that she had felt more than she had revealed—a suspicion of tears somewhere?
He supposed so.
But he had done what was right; he had done the only possible thing; and, if the means of doing it had been a trifle less direct than he cared to contemplate, the result, at any rate, was all that could be desired.
The only thing further to be done—and that concerned his own peace of mind—was to forget Pauline; to forget that once, for an hour, all his instincts had arisen and proclaimed her mate for him.
That, he thought, should be easy enough. It simply came to this, that once more Hazrat Bagh must be relegated to the background where it had belonged a year ago—be the one place within a ten-mile radius where he never set foot. Not difficult, because the place was naturally isolated. No road led to it except a jungle road, and he could count on his fingers the points from which it could even be seen from afar—that spot from which he and Joan had first noticed the flash of one of its windows, away up on the rolling mother-hill behind Shahgarh; a sudden curve on the Bhawali-Naini Tal road; and one or two high places farther along the Ridge itself; no more.
It was not like a place that he would have continually to pass in the way of business, or must see every time he looked out of a window. So far from courting, it shunned observation. He need never see it again. Need he, then, ever think of it either?
Even looking back now, at only a few hundred yards’ distance, he could see nothing of it—not a tile of its roof, nor one shred of its smoke. It was as if, while his back had been turned, the smooth swell of hill and the abrupt blue drop-curtain of sky had suddenly conspired to do the business for him and efface Hazrat Bagh.
The hill, he could fancy, had stirred in its sleep; the great sky had taken one giant stride forward—and, behold, a world divided in two halves in such a way that the near horizon hid Hazrat Bagh and all its works from him, while Pine Knoll and Shahgarh, set preciously across the valley among all the loved shapes of his particular hills, caught and held and carried the eye. A world in two halves, seen and unseen—the seen so rich in promise; the unseen, surely, so negligible . . .
Yet . . . why was he feeling unhappy? Why lonely? Why oppressed with a sense of loss?
The symbolism was surely not at fault. There, mapped clear but a valley’s breadth away, lay in profusion everything that should satisfy, that should make life worth living, that should bring down the balance with a run and prove him triumphantly justified in his choice.
After all, home lay there—perky, bright-eyed little house on a hill, clear-cut as a carving against the tilted, patterned green of orchards that were surely a safer background for a better dream than such as had come to him in that other orchard. Nothing squalid over there, nothing narrow. Scope enough, surely—space enough—for any man; no excuse for trespassing, even in thought, on forbidden ground. And if he needed inspiration (that strange, unattainable, desperate need of the moment!) he had surely but to fancy himself back again, with Nicholas at his side, strolling down the long lines of trees, listening to that stirring voice—“Lord, James, this is nothing! What’s fifty acres? It won’t end here. I’ve been dreaming dreams . . . and by Heaven fruit’s the wonder of the world!” Surely but to see with Nicholas’s eyes—see that tawny belt of new fallow adjusting itself year by year to a greater girth of orchard-land, till at last the whole valley should be filled with trees and Shahgarh sweep down in triumph to Chandragalli.
Surely that—that rich promise of fact and vision, piled up in the prospect, in the seen half of world—was good enough to bring down the balance. For what was there to set against it? What lay in the other scale?
A slip of a girl, dressed up for an occasion in cheap finery, standing lonely in the shadows of a great, gaunt room. A house desolate. Desolate lands. The very negation of all that lay piled in such profusion in the other scale.
Crying, maybe—the girl? Softly, to herself? Because she, too, had dreamed, poor thing?
Well, she had said it—”Don’t come back.” Her words, not his.
And who could be sure she was crying? And even if she were crying, tears soon dried. A few tiny tears squeezed like beads of mercury through long, jostling lashes—they had no weight in a scale; against solid, profitable lands; against fruit in mounds and mounds . . .
But something—some ghost of doubt within him—whispered to him, “You’re wrong, you know. There’s no love for you in that rich scale. But there was a chance of love in the other.”
He refused to hear it. He went forward passionately, spurning the suggestion, crowding it out of existence with more and wilder suggestions of his own. Joan would be coming back. If she did not come soon, he would ride over and fetch her. And then he would tell her everything—all about Pauline—all that he had thought and felt, and needed and done; reveal himself to her, as he had never had the impetus to do before; lay the future at her feet. Joan would come. They would find a way out between them. And then, then the balance would be righted. There would be no ghost of a doubt then.
He hurried, though—running, stumbling down the hill-side, as if he were afraid lest any moment he might let slip such vision as he had and so come empty-handed, after all, to his empty home.
As he panted up the grass slope to the house, there came a wild moment when he seemed not only to hold his vision intact, but to hold it reinforced and strengthened and even fulfilled. For the house was strangely astir for a Sunday afternoon.
There were coolies sitting on the verandah steps, and a dandy set down in front of the door. Windows were open, and through Joan’s open window he saw a flutter of white draperies and recognized the familiar figure of the ayah, who had stayed behind with Joan.
The ayah . . . Joan had come home!
His heart throbbed and bounded.
He was vindicated—justified—saved. Joan had come home. What was a pitiful little person in a pink dress, what were a few tears, to weigh against the presence of Joan?
Yet he did not run those few last yards. He did not call out. There was something a little artificial, perhaps, in his excitement after all, for he felt strangely at a loss. Thus he gave the ayah ample time to see him approaching and come down the stairs.
“Where’s the Memsaheb?” he cried out to her.
“Memsaheb? Main nahin janta. I don’t know.” She fumbled in her garments and then produced a letter.
“Memsaheb sending this.”
With a queer sense of fatality—the woman looked so expectant, somehow—he took the letter into the drawing-room, and shut the door. There—in the cool room, with blinds drawn down; among Joan’s own cool colours—the green that she almost always wore, the cream, the gold; in an atmosphere faintly fragrant of her, clean and cool ever—there he read, while the coolies mumbled outside, and the ayah creaked about in the room above his head.
But, before he began to read, he knew. It was such a long letter for Joan to write—all four sides of a sheet of Naini Tal Club notepaper; such a careful letter.
”My dear Jimmy” he read, ”I’ve told the ayah to pack up my big trunks and send them straight off to Bombay to follow me. I’m going home with Dick Tarporley. I know it’s a cruel way of telling you, but it’s no use beating about the bush and pretending I don’t want to go when I do. Of course, I’m sorry. I suppose you’re really a much nicer man than Dick, and deserve someone much nicer than me, but he has a better effect on me. You shouldn’t have said I can’t feel. If you hadn’t said that I don’t believe this would ever have happened. I can feel. It was you who didn’t make me. You’re too cautious, Jimmy. If by accident you ever did make anyone feel . . .”
Here, for the first time since he had realized what was coming, he really did wince.
” . . . you’d lose her just the same, I believe, dithering about and seeing difficulties and giving in to her, instead of going straight for her and carrying her off her feet, even if you were a bit brutal about it. The only thing you never dithered about was India, and it was that, I think, that originally gave me the wrong idea of you. You seemed so certain of yourself over it that I suppose I thought you’d be the same about everything and carry me with you. That’s no excuse for me, of course. But if only you’d been half as pig-headed over me as you have been over India!”
He nodded. He understood. It was painfully clear what she meant. Yet, if he had the whole time over again, could he—would he—alter himself?
He read on.
”I hope you’re still certain about that. It would be dreadful if you weren’t. But I think, even if you’re not now, you’ll get it back. You’re meant for India, and I never was, and after Friday I shall never see it again. Dick’s exchanging into a home regiment when his leave’s up. He doesn’t feel the same about India as you do.
”You ought to have married someone who loves India. Nothing else would have mattered.”
Nothing else, he agreed, bowing his head. Nothing else—not even Hazrat Bagh. There was a dull pain in him, and he could hardly read. Not even Hazrat Bagh. True. True.
”I seem to have been blaming you all through this letter for what I’m doing myself, but I’m not as mad as all that. I blame myself from the beginning. I ought never to have let myself be persuaded to marry you.
”Oh, I’m sorry, Jimmy! I know I’m a beast, but I can’t help it.
“Not your fault. Not your fault,” he muttered, grievously, turning the extra half-sheet on which she had scrawled postscripts, to see which way it read. The hurried lines were blurred for him. He read them mechanically; realized, even in his extremity, how characteristic they were, how like Joan. She had left the details to afterthought.
”P.S. We shall have started for Bombay when you get this,” he made out, “but anyway I want you to understand that it’s too late to go back. Don’t come after us. It couldn’t make any possible difference, you see. I suppose you’ll divorce me. How horrid it all is for you.”
And then, this:
”I’ve given the ayah the labels, you needn’t do anything. I should go out while she’s packing. And I’ve given her notice and wages, so you needn’t see her again.”
Last of all, a P.P.S.:
”Get dad to come back.”
That was all.