The Vaines had an Indian tradition. Most of them were born in India. Many of them died there. And the history of ordinary men on that side of the world being written for the most part in scraps, in short notices in the “Pioneer,” in odd entries in wayside Dak bungalow visitors’ books, in dusty files and forgotten gazettes, and on plain, obscure tombstones—in such places the name must be looked for.
Thus, in September, 1901, the newspapers contained the following brief notice:
Vaine.—On September 3, at Dehra Dun, the wife of Charles Townsend Vaine, Imperial Forest Service, of a son.
The son was christened James Townsend Vaine, and called Jimmy.
Again, in May, 1905, under another heading:
Vaine.—On May 15, at Philibhit, of cholera, Mary, the beloved wife of Charles Townsend Vaine, Imperial Forest Service.
Thereafter, for a short time, the Forest Bungalow books contained the entry “Charles Vaine and child” in the touring season. But subsequently to January, 1906, Charles Vaine toured alone. Jimmy was sent to England.
He lived with his aunt, Miss Pamela Vaine, in a small house in Ledbury Square, where he forgot his father’s and his mother’s faces in the constant obsession of his aunt’s. Though their photographs hung in his room—his father, with his big, untidy mustache; his mother, with her rather wistful eyes—they conveyed to him no real sense of personality. Only a certain note—very low and quiet—conveyed his mother, and only a smell of tobacco and tweed recalled his father. Whereas there was no escaping the reality of his aunt.
He was a slim, little boy with dry, light hair and a long face. He had the Vaine complexion, a soft, pale skin, apt to freckle in summer; but his thoughtful, gray eyes were his mother’s, as was his sensitive, almost girlish mouth. When in perplexity he would wind his right forefinger into his hair and tug; and, as he was frequently perplexed, his hair was generally untidy, like wind-blown barley. He talked easily to himself, but less easily to any one else, unless they had information about animals—an absorbing interest—and were prepared to impart it. He smiled slowly, as if smiles were precious, and seldom laughed out loud; read furiously; kept himself unusually clean; ate unusually little; and slept always in exactly the same position—curled up like a dormouse, with the fingers of his right hand twisted in his hair and his left hand thrown out as if to shield him. He dreamed vividly, by day as well as by night.
Miss Vaine was a most antithetical aunt, for whereas Jimmy was above all things a lover of make-believe, she prided herself above all things on being a practical woman. Such phrases as “I detest sympathy,” “I never show my feelings,” and, “I never imagine,” were common with her; and when she gave vent to them she would thrust her chin outward and her lower lip upward as if she were challenging the world. She had white hair, piled above her forehead almost à la Pompadour; small, bright, unblinking eyes; pale, pursed lips; a nose like a pen; and downy cheeks which reddened easily when anything put her out. Her voice and her manner and her methods of business were all essentially masculine, which fact was perhaps the cause of her perpetual insistence on her femininity. For she described herself as “a practical woman” or a “woman of business” or “a woman of common sense” so constantly as to give the impression of doubt as to whether her sex could be left to speak for itself. She needed, it seemed, to reassure her acquaintance—and, possibly, even herself—by driving in the fact that in spite of all evidence to the contrary she really and fundamentally was a woman.
The house in Ledbury Square was run, as might be expected, with all the system of a house of business. At half-past six each morning Miss Vaine pressed buttons by her bed, and bells rang in the ears of Mrs. Medal the cook, Alice the housemaid, and May Perks the between-maid. At seven precisely pressure of another button galvanized Ponder, her own maid, into active life. At half-past seven Ponder did Miss Vaine’s hair, and at a quarter to eight she roused Jimmy. At eight she fed a Maltese cat with uncanny blue eyes, and a mute canary; and at half-past eight she rang a silver hand-bell, whereat a rustling procession entered the dining-room and Miss Vaine delivered prayers. At nine there was breakfast, and Miss Vaine read letters. At half-past nine she opened the “Morning Post”; at ten the store cupboard. At eleven she drank a glass of milk and answered her letters. At one, lunch-time, she recognized Jimmy’s existence by asking him what he had learned during the morning. At two she lay down and forgot him. And at three she began the day’s bridge with Lady Beetle, Miss Frisby, and Mrs. Chopley-Wing. Ponder, a gaunt woman of forty, took Jimmy in charge from that hour.
Only on Saturday afternoons and on Sundays did the system collapse. On Saturday afternoons Alice took charge of Jimmy while Ponder visited her sister, and on Sundays there was church and a walk round the Kensington Gardens with Miss Vaine. The only other variations were the annual month in Folkestone, where one rigid system gave place to another, and the rare occasions of Ponder’s headaches, when Alice took her place. Alice was young and pretty, and she came from a Berkshire farm, which was Vaine property. At the end of his second prayer, wherein divers persons were lumped together for a general blessing, Jimmy made special reference to two only:
“Please give Ponder a headache to-morrow,” he would say, “and please let Alice take me out.”
Perhaps he loved Alice—certainly no one else—for Alice was human. He would not have put it thus; but he was vaguely aware that she understood him, and perhaps more vaguely aware still that he needed a lot of understanding, an amount, at any rate, far beyond the compass of his aunt. He was not exactly afraid of his aunt, nor did he actively dislike her. But he could never tell her anything. Once he had tried to tell her one of his own stories, and half-way through she had picked up a book and begun reading, though she had pretended still to be listening. Alice, he felt, would not have done that.
But Ponder he hated. At the age of seven he had broken a Spode tea-pot, profusely ornamented with pink roses on a foundation of improbable gold fish-scales, and his aunt had reddened rapidly and sent him to bed. He had been sorry, for he had liked the pot, but he had ceased to be sorry when Ponder came in and turned him over and spanked him. He had, in fact, substituted sudden death for the headache in his second prayer. Only the removal of Ponder, he had felt, could wipe out the indignity; but Ponder had continued to encumber the earth. So he had hated her ever since.
For the exclusion of Ponder and his aunt he had gradually built up a world of make-believe, which by his ninth birthday was complete down to the minutest detail. In it he made himself a modest central figure as a hermit, living in a cave on a cliff, with a bright beech-wood behind him and the sea below. It was not the sea of Folkestone, but a sea more blue—a narrow water known only to some sea-gulls besides himself. There was a green ledge in front of the cave, and a little “jaggly” path led down from it to the sea and behind it to the wood, and the path was blue with corn-flowers. It was a vivid picture, and for years it never altered. The wood was brambly and steep on the far side, and therefore impassable to his aunt and Ponder, but he could peep at them in their bleak valley through a curtain of leaves if he had the mind. For companionship in his fastness he drew on the pictures supplied by Alice from her home—brown cows that she had milked, and calves that she had mothered; lambs and sheep-dog puppies and fluffy yellow chickens; baby rabbits at a copse-side; squirrels; robins—and he eventually co-opted Alice to share in these delights, as seemed only fair.
“That will be nice, Master Jimmy,” she said, and kissed him. It was then that he made the discovery that there were kisses and kisses, or hard lips and soft ones, and he was glad that he had invited Alice in.
There was another person who, for a period, came and went in his life—came at ten and went at one; Miss Webster was her name. She was a faded woman who for twenty years had walked beside Lady Beetle’s bath-chair and jogged Lady Beetle’s memory. As Lady Beetle’s echo she had long ago lost all individuality, and her face was as expressionless as her walk. She might have continued to her dying day in that capacity had she not committed the solecism of fainting in the Kensington Gardens and becoming inextricably involved in the bath-chair, with the result that positions had been reversed, and Lady Beetle had had to wheel her echo a hundred yards in the sun. On that day a pension had become an alarming possibility, and Miss Webster had been passed on. As Miss Vaine claimed for her, she gave no trouble. But she gave Jimmy remarkably little information.
He wanted to know so much. What Russians looked like, and whether kings had dogs, and whether Henry VIII was ever sorry; and if Greenland was really green, and New Guinea golden, and India as red as it was on the map; and was that why the red Indians had left it; and would Italy ever kick Sicily back to New Zealand, the patient boot at the other end of the world? But at all these questions Miss Webster only pursed her lips and squeaked inside and put her hand to her mouth. She gave him sums and the capitals of countries and dictation and grammar, till one day she failed to come and faded incontinently out of his life.
After a short interval it was decided that he should walk daily round the corner to Mr. Curlew’s and learn in company with Cyril Curlew and Audrey Beetle, the only children of his acquaintance. Mr. Curlew was the curate of the neighboring parish of St. Abbs, and Miss Vaine, as she somewhat curiously put it, had “sat under him” for a number of years. He was, therefore, “suitable.”
Mr. Curlew blinked habitually, and had to perfection that peculiar intonation that so often makes curates into caricatures. He spoke in psalms, saying most of his sentences twice over, first in the plaintive whisper of doubt, and then in the strong, round voice of assurance. Thus he would describe Jimmy to his aunt: “Shy, old-fashioned, and rather girlish, Miss Vaine; girlish, Miss Vaine, and rather old-fashioned,” in precisely the same manner as he would say, at the lectern in St. Abbs: “The seventeenth verse of the twelfth chapter of Ezekiel; the twelfth chapter of Ezekiel, the seventeenth verse.” And in between strophe and antistrophe he would invariably sniff up his nose with a whistling sound and blink.
Here, too, was a faded atmosphere, for they worked in the basement in a study that smelled always of slops and sometimes of cabbage as well, being next door to the kitchen and opposite the scullery. Through a gloomy window Jimmy could see, on a higher level, a heap of flower-pots, a glassless cucumber-frame, and a bleak, black tree. With these things as symbols of the outside world, he began Latin and read “Paradise Lost” and, for half an hour each morning, heard about God. God, as interpreted by Mr. Curlew, was very complicated, and, moreover, in some way connected with glooms and darknesses such as the vista outside. But Jimmy had heard something better of God from Alice, and, looking out at the stark waste that seemed to embody Mr. Curlew’s academic theories, determined not to forego the God of Alice at any price.
“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters.”
There was a picture in that. He could see that God. So he rarely listened to Mr. Curlew on that or any other subject.
All of which preamble is intended to indicate that up to his ninth birthday he had never had, unalloyed, a treat.
For a month Jimmy had concentrated in earnest prayer on materializing a headache for Ponder on his birthday, and with such fervor that he was hardly even surprised when the prayer was answered. September 3 dawned hot and remained hot. Ponder awoke peevish and remained peevish. He knew from the way in which she jerked up the blind when she came to call him that a headache was only a matter of hours. But in his wildest dreams he had not anticipated that giddiness on the part of his aunt would, so to speak, be thrown in. Nevertheless, it was so, and the lot fell on Alice to escort him to the Zoo.
So when, clad in the dark Norfolk suit which embodied Miss Vaine’s birthday emotions, he turned into the High Street with Alice, he carried in his mind two not uncomforting pictures: his aunt in the drawing-room, with blinds down, plying eau de Cologne; and Ponder in the kitchen, with blinds down, stertorously asleep under a newspaper. Whereas he was free, the world before him, and Alice at his side, with roses in her hat and roses in her cheeks.
But when the turnstile clicked behind them and they were actually and for the first time inside the Zoo, he forgot Alice. He was in a new world. True, there were many of the evidences of the old world: notices, and asphalt paths that you must walk on, and grass that you mustn’t, and people; but there was a new feeling about, and, particularly, a new sound. The notices pointed and the paths led to wild things, and already he could hear those wild things. Their mysterious mutters and shrieks and growls conveyed a promise of infinite thrills.
Before he had progressed a hundred yards he had radically altered the whole conception of his world of make-believe. It was not big enough for its new company. The wood behind the cave must be enlarged—luckily enlargement was easy—to hold bright macaws, and a black panther pacing up and down like a policeman, and wizened monkeys, and a lazy tiger with one fixed eye. How, he wondered already, had he ever been contented with such a little place? Why, the whole of it was not worthy of one black panther, let alone a tiger. Space—space!
“Enjoying yourself, Master Jimmy?”
He nodded gravely. He was at work on wide spaces. That sea, for instance. Polar bears. . . .
“It’s a mercy they’re in cages,” Alice reflected.
“I wish a man would open them. Would he?” he asked eagerly. If the doors could be opened. . . .
“Mercy on us, Master Jimmy! We should all be eaten.”
“We could climb trees.”
“Mercy on us!”
“Except Ponder; she can’t climb. I wonder what would eat her?”
“Mercy on us!” was again Alice’s refuge and inspiration, with a chuckle and a belated, “You shouldn’t say such things.”
Jimmy smiled to himself. He had decided that Ponder would probably fall a victim to a bear, but women were funny about such things.
“Perhaps you’ll be going to your father in India one of these days and seeing plenty of animals, not to speak of monkeys, horrid things!” remarked Alice by way of changing the subject.
He considered it carefully. Mowgli. . . . Why, India was the very thing!
“Yes,” he said very gravely, as one who makes himself a pledge, “I will.”
It was an epoch-making pronouncement, for in that moment he transported himself and his beech-wood, and his cliff and his cave and his sea irrevocably eastward.
Many sensations followed. They became positively intimate with creatures hitherto only known through books and read of with bated breath. He poked a crocodile and was rewarded with a slash of a scaly tail. He was permitted to wind a small python round his neck. He saw seals diving, like gray phantoms pursued by bubbles, for silvery fish; a leopard gnawing a knuckle-bone between his fore paws, like a dog; the inane smile of the brown bear and the hippo’s incredible grin; the overtures of an elephant; and the greed of lions. And at every cage he experienced the same secret wonder that made his heart bump and bump: “What would it do if it got out? What would it do?” and the wild surmise: “What would it be like in a place where all these things were free?”
Then, while they were having buns and ginger-beer under the trees, he had some semblance of an answer to his question; so, at least, it seemed to him. The sky grew very dark, and there was a crash somewhere of thunder, then silence. All the lesser sounds died down, and there was a lull and a sense, tremendously exciting, of something going to happen. He could really imagine now that he was out in a huge, gloomy forest. Suppose the cages came undone!
For one glorious instant he thought that they had. Three girls in cotton frocks and a young man, with a straw hat attached to the back of his neck and flying out behind him like a flag, came running for the trees with their heads down, the girls shrieking and trying to hold their hats on and their skirts down at the same time. It was a wonderful moment. He expected to see a tiger after them at least, and he jumped up to get a better view. Then he felt a little splash of wet on his cheek and knew that it was only the rain.
But he was still excited, for the rain, descending like a dark curtain, seemed to shut out all the ordinary things. The paths had disappeared. They were rivers now. The people were huddled fugitives, as they ought to be. To Jimmy standing—regardless of his new Norfolk suit and the expostulations of Alice, who had a best hat to consider—outside the circle of the trees, it seemed that the Zoo had come into its own. For it had awakened. The sounds were nearer and fuller, like a rising chorus of welcome to freshness. Something roared; something barked; something grunted; something shrieked. There was a real stirring, as if they were all back in their deep jungles and glorying in the end of a drouth; a smell, too, compounded of earth and leaves and wet asphalt and beasts, most stirring to the blood. As for Jimmy, he stood in a puddle and shouted and sang, with the rain dripping down his neck and into his ears. He loved the rain, for he, too, had come into his own.
Then it was all over, as suddenly as it had begun. Alice sacrificed her hat and dragged him in. The rain stopped, and the chorus of welcome died away as if doors had been shut on it. Paths were paths again. Boots squeaked on them, and the owners of the boots held up dripping skirts and hurried away. The young man with the hat, now a dead-weight on its string, said, “Ow, my ’at!” and the girls giggled at him. Alice said: “You’re a naughty boy! It’s a mercy you weren’t struck.” And they had to catch a bus. It was all over.
But the sense of triumph remained. He was splendidly wet, and—something had happened during that feverish fall of rain. The world had for a space been set right. He had had a treat unalloyed. His horizon had been immeasurably broadened, and his dream world enriched with wet, green jungle, with the shadows of creeping, peeping things, and with all the stir of mysterious sounds. Henceforth he would live in it a little tremulously, but none the less deliciously.
He had a Seidlitz powder that evening because his eyes looked so bright, and he dreamed that he was in a dark wood and that something was looking for him. He could not see it, but he knew that it could see him . . . and he could not move. It came nearer, nearer, and still he could not move. It touched his shoulder. Fur . . . it had fur. It was an enormous . . .
His own cry woke him up, and there he was in the passage at the top of the kitchen stairs. And, instead of a gigantic bear, there was Alice in a blue flannel dressing-gown. Shivering and babbling of bears, he was escorted back to bed.
But he could not get bears out of his head. He dreamed of them all night—big and little, black and brown and white. It was a night of a million adventures, and it seemed as if a million years had passed before Ponder, with a, “No more Zoo for you, mister, waking your aunt!” slapped up the blind and let in day.
Still, his thoughts ran back to yesterday, all through breakfast, and his aunt’s remarks on the selfishness of excitement and its effects on other people’s repose; all through the half-hour when Mr. Curlew discoursed on God. He couldn’t keep still, and his mind was worse than his body; it would not stay still. Twice Mr. Curlew blinked at him over his glasses and asked whether he was indisposed. But it was no good. He only mumbled, “No, thank you,” and instantly went on shuffling. Finally a bell jangled somewhere, and Mr. Curlew was called out to see a mysterious applicant for “an ’ospital ticket.”
“Tango, the future perfect, the future perfect of tango, I shall have touched,” he directed as he left the room. “Write it out in full, and try to sit still, James. Endeavor, please, to control your limbs.”
Jimmy might have succeeded, for his mind was free now to range forests, had not Cyril Curlew chosen that moment for a little jeu d’esprit, calculated to magnify him in the eyes of Audrey Beetle. He dropped his Latin grammar under the table, and when he descended to recover it took his pen with him. This he inserted, heaving with suppressed mirth, into the fleshy portion of Jimmy’s right leg. Jimmy arose convulsively, causing the pen to stab deeper than perhaps Cyril had intended, and pulled down his stocking.
There was a little black mark on his calf, bordered with red—blood and ink! And Cyril was peeping at him over the other side of the table, and spluttering into his hand. . . .
One glance was enough. He saw red.
Inspired, perhaps, with some memory of Zoo tactics he went for the head. There was a grunt in the neighborhood of his stomach, and a tinkle of broken spectacles.
“Oh! O-oh! You’ve broken his specs. You’ve broken his specs!” chanted the ecstatic Audrey Beetle, who had thoughtfully climbed on the table. “Give it him, Cyril! Give . . .”
Her voice seemed to fade away into infinite distance, as he concentrated his attention on that elusive bullet head. He had it, but he did not quite know what to do with it. Finally it jabbed him in the stomach, and he hit it and hurt his knuckles. Then Cyril clutched his ankles and brought him down.
The table was involved from the first. It was a gate-legged table, with a long green cloth that brushed the carpet, and it collapsed magnificently on top of them both, conveying the wriggling Audrey Beetle with it. For a moment there was chaos. Then, in the welter of legs and arms and dust and ink, Jimmy perceived one object glowing like a beacon—a prominent, scarlet ear, obviously Cyril’s. He clutched it and twisted it.
Cyril emitted one mighty howl, and Mr. Curlew came in.
It was a dramatic moment. Cyril was whimpering and looking at his fingers, which for some obscure reason had blood on them. Cyril’s nose, too, was bleeding, and he had a smeared red mustache. Audrey Beetle had clearly intercepted the fight of the ink-bottle with her face. There was ink on it, but not all the ink. The rest of it was meandering in a slow, glossy stream among the books and papers and the maps. There was a dust, too, hanging like a pall over the wreck. And Jimmy himself was feeling sick.
Mr. Curlew’s face worked; there is no other expression for the process. He blinked very rapidly, and his Adam’s apple fluttered in and out, as it were, of his neck. He looked very blue where he had shaved and very white everywhere else. He did not speak—even in psalms. He gulped. Then his eyes lit on his favorite commentary lying under the overturned ink-pot.
Had it not been for the fate of “Thompson’s Epistles, with Maps and Itineraries,” 25 s., he might have avoided the extreme measure that he took, for Jimmy’s education involved a monthly check for eight guineas. But “Thompson’s Epistles” proved the last straw. He swooped like a hawk, clutched Jimmy by the collar, and conveyed him out of the door, up the stairs, into the hall. There he had difficulty with the door, since only his left hand was free, and in the brief interval of rattling the knob he found words.
“You little beast!” he said in a hurried whisper. “You’ve made me angry, you little beast! Go! Don’t come back here.”
Then the door banged.
Vaguely, as he walked up the square toward the High Street, Jimmy realized that he might have explained. After all, Cyril had begun it with the nib. But Mr. Curlew had never asked anything about that. He had just pounced. Not that it mattered. Even if Mr. Curlew had asked, it wouldn’t have been worth while telling him about the nib. Nothing was worth while except getting away somewhere and being sick . . . and then, perhaps, going to sleep for a long time and waking up in India. But being sick came first. It was the only thing about the morning that was real. The fight hadn’t seemed a bit real, not even as real as the bear in his dream. And he had no feelings about it now. He wasn’t surprised or afraid, or angry or ashamed. He was just sick—sick and cold.
He was in the High Street now, by Barker’s, black with people. But he had only to cross the road to get to the Gardens. He could see the trees and the grass beyond the iron railings. Once there. . . .
He waited for a policeman to stop the traffic and got over. Then he ran, past the long succession of standing taxis and into the gates. One or two people stared at him, but he didn’t care. He must lie down on the grass under a tree and be sick. Then he could decide about going to India.
But there were people under all the trees—people and prams and dogs. They looked misty, somehow, but they were there—hundreds and hundreds of people and prams and dogs. He must run on. His legs felt light and his head felt heavy, but he must run on. Surely there must be one tree. . . .
“An’ serve you right if you did bump your nose! Stravagin’ about.”
He had run full tilt into a perambulator, and the expostulations of a startled nurse were the last words that conveyed anything to him for a very long time.
Within three days the doctor had diagnosed pneumonia, but Jimmy was unaware of it. He was aware, in fact, of very little beyond a mountainous pain in his right side which he attributed by turns to Cyril Curlew and a perambulator and a huge black bear; but soon it hurt so that he did not care where it came from. Aware, too, of a thirst and the continuous desire, never satisfied, of cool, green ginger-beer; of stuffiness; and a room dismally yellow, because the blind was down. There were occasional regular experiences—thermometer, milk, medicine, sponge—and people coming and going. His aunt and Ponder; the doctor, who called him “young-fellow-me-lad” and hummed tunes while he was listening to his back; the nurse, in clean blue and white; Alice—they came and went, and he dimly recognized them, but not by their faces. Altogether it was funny about faces. He only saw them when they weren’t there. He recognized people by little odd signs and tokens: the doctor by the black strings coming out of his ears; the nurse by a silver pencil hanging from a chain, and the coolness of her hands, and a mediciny smell, like tooth-powder and soap; Ponder by her watch, fastened to her black dress by a silver bow; Alice by her shoes squeaking. But no faces.
But when he was lying alone the faces crowded in. They were so close that he talked to them, and mixed them all up in an extraordinary dream that he had. It seemed to dog him, did that dream. The scene was always the same: a deep dark wood, with rain pattering on the leaves. There were shadows in the wood, and eyes and faces. Every one he had ever known lived there. But though the wood was crammed with faces, there was always something else in the background—some monster thing that he could not see. Yet he could feel it, for in some mysterious way that monster thing was identified with the pain in his side. That was always there, and though it grew and grew till it filled not only the wood but the world, he could not see it. It terrified him.
Once, just before he got better, he thought Mr. Curlew was leaning right over his bed and that his lips were moving. He knew what the words were: “You little beast! You little beast!” But he could not hear them; and somehow the sight of Mr. Curlew’s face working—and no sound coming—frightened him more than anything, so that he screamed and screamed and had to be held down in bed. That night he was given something to make him sleep, and when he awoke he awoke to a miracle.
He could see faces properly. He could see the room and all the familiar things—the photographs and the books and the wash-stand. He could see the green tops of trees in the Square garden, and a bold beam of sunlight, alive with dancing motes, like a golden path between the window and his bed. The blind was up! He was well!
“He’s gone,” he told the doctor; and though no one knew what he meant, everybody smiled.
He was amazingly weak. Even an egg-spoon felt heavy, and a cake of soap tested all his powers. Eating was a fatiguing operation, hardly worth while even when the thing to be eaten was golden jelly or the green pulp of grapes. He preferred to lie still and do nothing.
Then, still smiling but less effusively, they began to threaten.
“If you don’t eat this you’ll never get up, Master Jimmy.” “Poke it down, or you’ll never get any forrarder, young fellow.” Always threats and the dire penalty “not getting up.”
He didn’t like to say so, but really he didn’t want to get up. What was the use of getting up? He could see all he wanted to see from where he was. Who would get up when getting up meant Mr. Curlew every morning and Ponder—less impatient now, but still Ponder—every afternoon?
No, things were very nice as they were; people too; but especially bed.
So, ten days. Daily proddings from the doctor, head-shakings, and, “No flesh, Miss Vaine. No flesh. Can’t go on like this.” Lastly, consultations outside the door, and new tactics.
The doctor was bluff. Miss Vaine was insistent. Alice tearful. Ponder grim. He himself was anxious to please and conscious that he was giving a lot of trouble. But he could not swallow what they gave him. Everything—soup, fruit, jelly—seemed specially constructed to stick in his throat. And he wanted to get up less and less. He cared less and less to look out of the window. His one idea now was to drowse.
Then one wonderful morning his aunt came in and, without any preliminary, made the epoch-making utterance:
“You’re going to India!”
He ate two poached eggs that day. Within two more he had walked to the window and made the return journey unaided. Another week, and he had achieved the circuit of the Square gardens. India had certainly done the trick.
Little by little he extracted details. Dr. Parker had suggested it. Why? Because he needed flesh, and.because his right lung wanted filling, and because winter was coming. Anything, in fact, to get him out of bed.
No, his daddy had not suggested it, but he had been wired to and had consented.
How was he going? Bless the boy, what did that matter? Well, if he must know, he was going with Nicholas, Who was Nicholas? Second cousin, and younger brother of Anthony Vaine of Vaine Court. Yes, it had all been arranged. Nicholas was home from India, and Nicholas had been written to, and Nicholas had risen to the occasion—which was unlike Nicholas. What was Nicholas? A planter who only came home once in a blue moon, because he never made any money. Now he had come home to fetch out his wife and daughter. What was her name? Joan, his aunt thought, and she would be seven or thereabouts . . . but really she was not au fait with Nicholas’s affairs. And really she couldn’t answer any more questions—no, not one.
The fact was that Nicholas had displeased the family. He had failed for Sandhurst, and thus had branded himself as the only Vaine within memory who had missed getting a government appointment in India. Worse still, he had not appeared in the least distressed at his own iniquity. He had gone out to the East on his own, actually working his passage, and continuing for a considerable period as mate of a tramp steamer on some obscure commercial line. He had knocked about. He had been a volunteer in some frontier expedition and had emerged as a sergeant. Then he had tried fruit farming, and had settled down in an impossible village in the Himalayas, which he had bought for a song. There he had built a bungalow with his own hands and had positively had the audacity to put a wife in it, an Australian girl called Forrest, about whom nobody knew anything except the fact that Nicholas could not afford to keep her. A pretty girl, it was said. Probably flighty, it was hinted. Miss Vaine sniffed slightly whenever she mentioned Nicholas.
However, the fact remained that Charles, Jimmy’s father, had met Nicholas in India and liked him. Nicholas had been with Charles after Jimmy’s mother had died, and had apparently rendered some service. So if Charles liked to put his son in Nicholas’s hands, it was Charles’s affair. Only, Charles had become very queer by all accounts since Mary had died.
Thus Miss Vaine, in confidence to Mrs. Chopley-Wing, with a sniff that indicated more clearly than words that Nicholas had lost caste and that all the services in the world would not help him to recover it.
Miss Vaine was one of those people who have a horror of “over-excitement,” especially in children. She detested the bright eyes and flushed cheeks and raised voices that betray the disease. There was, she felt, something emotional and even vaguely indelicate about it, and it led to enthusiasm in later life, which was vulgar. Probably she herself had never been over-excited, though when she had met the Dowager Duchess of Glasgow at Lady Beetle’s and the dowager duchess had murmured, “Vaine . . . of course,”—nothing more—she had been dangerously near it.
If she saw a child under the influence, as it were, she would say, “Excited, I think,” in precisely the same tone she would employ for saying, “Drunk, I think,” of a man who smelled of beer. Her inward sensations would also tally. Both the flushed child and the flushed man, in their degrees, would awake in her a sense of disquiet mingled with disgust.
And now Jimmy had all the symptoms! He was perpetually over-excited. She could never have conceived that the prosaic fact of a sea-voyage under dubious auspices could instantly bring out the disease in its worst form. It was a real shock to her, for the suppression of excitement with its corollaries—secrets and surprises and treats and so forth—had been the fundamental principle of her educational system. She had stamped on excitement with all the persistence of a man putting out a fire in the hearth-rug.
She blamed herself, but she blamed the doctor more. He it was who had betrayed her into hasty action by his emphasis on the need of stimulation. Stimulation! The boy was positively tipsy with excitement. Her own procedure would have been to reduce the pleasure of anticipation to a minimum by waiting till the day of sailing, putting the boy into a cab, and saying, “You are going somewhere, never mind where.” Failing that—and in consideration of his illness—a few carefully graduated hints would have been ample. However, the thing was done. He knew. So she salved her conscience by withholding the date.
He was quite strong now. A reassertion of discipline, of principle, was overdue. And nothing could drag the date out of her. No plenipotentiary departing on a mission of international importance could have had a darker veil of secrecy drawn over the plans made for him. He had to feed his curiosity on the most meager circumstantial evidence, such as the advent of a green fiber cabin-trunk from the Army and Navy Stores, the purchase of an ulster “suitable for a sea-voyage, modom,” and the trying on of thin vests. For long these were the sole indications of the reality of his departure.
Then, at the end of October, his old nurse Mrs. Pullen journeyed up from Camberley for the obvious purpose of saying good-by. He had great hopes of Mrs. Pullen, but, though she shed tears and bestowed chocolates, she did not part with information. A pursing of the lips and a furtive glance at the door showed that she, too, had been sworn to secrecy.
“That’s for your auntie to say, Master Jimmy,” was the answer to his impetuous, “When? When?” with, “But, depend upon it, you’re going. You’re going,” added in breathless confidence, as if Mrs. Pullen might pay with her life for the disclosure.
As for Alice, she said she “dursn’t,” and she stuck to it through thick and thin.
So it came about that the affair went off in a manner after Miss Vaine’s own heart. The household became normal, and Jimmy behaved as much like a grown-up person as a boy of nine could be expected to behave. True, he was restless at night, but that was not surprising after a weakening illness. As Ponder remarked discreetly, when doing Miss Vaine’s hair one morning just before his departure:
“Things are just as they was now, miss; though I’m sure it’s only what was to be expected.”
Which meant—if it meant anything—that Miss Vaine and her handmaid had successfully insured that Jimmy’s last impression of Ledbury Square should be one of restraint; that it should be, after all—in spite of the relaxations incident to the sick-bed—a stronghold of practical common sense, with little space for dreaming. They had insured too, as far as in them lay, that he should leave it suitably old for his age, suitably reticent in his confidences, and suitably inoculated against excitement. Perhaps he was not Ponder’s ideal of a small boy—one who should be seen sparingly and heard not at all. Perhaps he had not sufficient “grasp” for his aunt. There were, too, certain unexplained matters—such as the unprovoked attack on Cyril Curlew and the unhealthy attachment to the housemaid. But on the whole Miss Vaine felt justified in sighing and saying, in answer to the above reflection from Ponder:
“I think I’ve done my duty, Ponder.”
And Ponder had no hesitation in replying:
“I’m sure he might have been your own son, miss,” with a hurried cough at the end, as if her imagination could not quite go to the length of imputing even the possibility of offspring to Miss Vaine.
As Ponder too remarked, there was no “play-acting.” At six o’clock in the evening of November 14 Jimmy was summoned into the drawing-room, where his aunt was seated at an escritoire writing on red labels. These she finished before she turned half round and regarded him over her pince-nez, which hung outward from her eyes as if they were intended to catch something.
“You are starting to-morrow,” she said abruptly. Then, more abruptly still, “Good gracious, my dear boy, do control yourself.”
Jimmy had suddenly started in his seat, with the flush and brightened eyes that, to her, betokened mental derangement. His mind, in fact, was temporarily deranged, for it was bubbling and seething and frothing over with joy. It had simmered so long, like a kettle on a slow fire, and now it had boiled over. He could not speak. He could hardly breathe, for his chest felt tight; and from pink he turned, very rapidly, white. At one moment Miss Vaine feared that he actually might be going to faint, a proceeding she held in horror. His illness had already tried her severely, for it had made her feel anxious and sympathetic—emotions she habitually repressed in herself and others. Now, in reaction, she was irritable. She wanted intensely to see the last of him. So, while his brain danced and shivered with irrepressible excitement, she reiterated very sharply:
“Control yourself, or leave the room!”
Then, as if aware of having been rather hard, she explained.
“Vaines don’t show their feelings, my dear boy. You are starting to-morrow. Is there anything very extraordinary about that? You are to meet your cousins at the boat-train in Liverpool Street Station at eight o’clock. Ponder will accompany you. In Bombay your cousins will hand you over to your dear father, who will keep you with him till he comes home—in April, I believe. What? Who?”
He had made a wild petition for Alice to take him to the station. Miss Vaine’s frown returned.
“No, Alice has her house-work to do, and Ponder is in every way more suitable,” she said, studying a time-table. Then, dropping the subject completely.
“Yes, eight will be ample. I saw Mrs. Nicholas Vaine by appointment yesterday”—this in the tone that she employed for street accidents and tipsy cabmen, and with a slight sniff—“and, so far as I was able, arranged matters with her. She was very busy.”
She glanced at the clock.
“I think Ponder will have packed your things by now, and it is imperative that you should have a good night’s rest. I have ordered an early supper, and I expect you to go to bed directly after it. Good night, dear boy.”
It was like the night after the Zoo. Sleep would not come. There was a moon, gleaming fitfully behind driving clouds, filling the room with an unreal, ghostly light that made many shadows. A creeper outside the window, moving gently in the wind, was casting a shadow like a thin hand on the white washstand. It held his eye. The hand seemed to be tapping with long fingers, never still. There was his box, too, like a black block on the floor.
In the distance a church clock struck the hour, ten o’clock. He counted the beats. But, though he knew that it was only ten at night, he could not help feeling at the same time that the cab was coming any minute. It was so light. The cab would drive up. He would hear the horse’s hoofs far away—tap, tap; then nearer—plank, plank. Then it would stop. He would be dressing wildly, shouting that he was coming down in a minute. But the driver would not hear him. He would be just ready, and dragging the big box across the room, when off would go the cab again—plank, plank—tap, tap. . . .
He was obsessed with that cab. He kept on hearing it, now near, now far. Reason, of course, told him that it was somebody driving back from dinner. But he knew better. It was his cab on the way. And he would miss it.
He lay, propped up in bed, staring with wakeful eyes, seeing the tapping hand, hearing the cab, and thinking about a hundred things at the same time. He had never been in such a jumble, even when he had been ill.
Then one picture had persisted in his mind. Now it was a kaleidoscope. He saw daddy one minute, tapping at the window; then it was his cousin Nicholas coming home in a blue moon; then that turned into the sea, and he was alone on a ship; but there was Aunt Pamela writing labels, and her fingers were very long, and they grew, and they grew till they were his fingers and he had given Cyril Curlew a bloody mustache. But it wasn’t Cyril Curlew at all; it was Alice, and her face was all red like the labels, and it was blood. . . .
He must have dozed, for he cried out without knowing it, and his own cry woke him up. He was still lying on his back. The hand, fatter now, was still tapping. The cab was there! The wheels were grinding just below.
He was half out of bed, when the door gently opened and Alice came in. She sat down on the bed and took his hand.
“It’s come! It’s come! Tell it to wait!” he said, feverishly pointing out of the window.
“Hush, Master Jimmy!” she whispered, “your aunt’s upset. Just you shut your eyes and go to sleep, and I’ll sit here.”
“You won’t go?”
“Not till you’re gone,” she answered. Her voice was wonderfully calm and reassuring.
He shut his eyes. But in a second he remembered something else.
“She said Ponder was to take me, and I wanted you.”
Again the voice came, reassuring, out of the shadow.
“No, I’m to come. I told her you wouldn’t sleep unless I did. So now you’ll have to sleep.”
He sighed. Presently his hand slipped from hers and went to his hair, the other being thrown out as if to shield him. With a rustle he curled up like a ball. The clock struck twelve.
Writing in her diary, as was her wont last thing at night, in the next room, Miss Vaine penned the words: “Avoided all excitement.” Then she took a bismuth tablet and a sip of water, sprayed a little eau de Cologne on her handkerchief, and turned out the electric light.
“So this is the new relation!”
The big man, muffled in a thick, double-breasted, green ulster removed his pipe and held out his hand. Jimmy looked up, putting out his own hand, which was gripped steadily for a second, while the man’s eyes met his. Instantly he found himself smiling—a matter for surprise, for he generally took a long time to smile at people; but they were blue eyes and clear, and he had to smile.
The man was big. He filled the carriage door. Not only that, but in some way he seemed to stand out of the whole buzzing, shifting, restless crowd on the station. With his short, pointed, brown beard; his clean skin, tanned like an orange pippin, brown over red; his tweed shooting-hat, brim down over one ear, up over the other; his comfortable tweed suit of the same material, peeping from under the rough coat; his brogue shoes, polished mahogany; and, above all, with his easy attitude, as of a man who can wait quietly without fuss, he stood out of the crowd as something stable and reliable and vaguely different from the rest. He spoke unhurriedly, too, as one who was not afraid of the sound of his own voice.
For a moment he seemed to be taking Jimmy in. Then he jerked his head round toward the inside of the carriage.
“Here he is, Janie. Come and shake hands with your cousin, Joan.”
He stood away from the door. Jimmy shook hands first with Mrs. Nicholas Vaine, then with Joan, and remained, as he had begun, tongue-tied. He was taking them in, and he could not do two things at once.
Mrs. Nicholas, the planter’s daughter, about whom nobody had known anything except that Nicholas could not afford to keep her, was a great surprise. Here she was, married to the big man with the beard, mother of the small girl with the cool hand and the questioning eyes, yet she looked and spoke like a girl herself. Jimmy thought there must be some mistake. The prefix “Mrs.” to him had always instantly conveyed two people—Mrs. Medal in the kitchen and Mrs. Chopley-Wing at the bridge-table. And, conveying these two personages, it had stood for a certain solidity of chest, a certain puffiness of cheek, and a wheeze. But here was an undeniable “Mrs.” who skipped out of the carriage with a flash of brown stocking and tumbled tweed skirt; a “Mrs.” who was as thin as a boy, and small, and freckled; who stood for an instant regarding him with her head perked to one side like an inquisitive bird’s, then impulsively shot out her hand; who then, more impulsively still, said, “I shall kiss you, Cousin James,” and did it. A big, warm, red mouth this “Mrs.” had, and the most lively, shining eyes. In one impulsive half-minute she upset all his preconceived notions of matronhood. Then she talked, very quickly, all in little bursts.
“He’s not a bit like Charles, Nick. Smile, Joan dear, and make yourself pleasant. . . . Like Mary, I suppose. . . . I never saw her, of course, poor darling. . . . Thin, I should think so! . . . Have you seen about his luggage? . . . Oh, and who brought him? . . . So this is Alice Sparkes. . . . How do you do, Alice? . . . We had your mother’s milk and chickens. . . . No, gracious, no! We stayed at the Dappled Deer. . . . Yes, very well, thank you. . . . No, not for years. . . .”
On and on she went, while the big man regarded her with a sort of kind, amused smile, nodding his head sometimes. Meanwhile Jimmy and Joan regarded each other. Joan had a small head, like her mother’s; freckles, too; eyes, big and blue-black, like sloes, a little somber now; thick brown hair in a curly tangle, with a hint of bronze in it, where it lay on her green coat; and very long legs in brown stockings. She looked at him most steadfastly before she remarked in a surprisingly deep voice:
“You’re thinner than me.”
The thought seemed to afford her satisfaction.
“I’m not, at least I don’t think so,” said Jimmy, regarding her legs dubiously.
Her chin went up, and a very red under lip pouted. She had an air of command.
“What do you weigh?”
Jimmy didn’t know.
“Then come and be weighed. A penny, please, dad.”
She caught Jimmy’s elbow with one hand and her father’s bottom button with the other. The latter had his head in the air. He seemed to be sniffing the smoky, steamy air of the station, as if it meant something to him. He looked down from his height with a sort of kind abstraction.
“Well, miss, what is it?”
“A penny, please, dad.”
“He’s never been weighed.”
He looked at Jimmy very seriously and fumbled in his pocket.
“But suppose he breaks the machine? Or suppose it says to itself, ‘Here’s a fellow who’s never been weighed before; we’ll show him’? Or suppose . . .”
But she was dancing up and down now and twisting the button.
“Please, dad, please!” she said. “I shall pull it off! Don’t tease.”
He seemed to be loath to obey this most imperious daughter, for with a whimsical look at Jimmy he spun a penny into the air and caught it in the neighborhood of her right ear. Then he produced it again, catching it, as if it were an insect, under her chin. Then he lost it, and, groveling, lit on it in her shoe. Jimmy marveled at him, but Joan seemed impatient.
“Give it me at once, dad,” she said. And, putting on a crestfallen, meek expression, as if to say, “See how she treats me,” he handed it over.
“Two minutes, Joanie. Don’t get left behind,” he shouted, as she scudded off down the platform, dragging Jimmy after her.
Then Jimmy, out of the corner of his eye, saw Alice. She had finished her conversation with Mrs. Nicholas and was standing apart, looking rather lost and forlorn among all the porters and the piles of luggage. Jimmy stopped. His cousin still tugged at his arm.
“Come on, slow-coach,” she said.
It was very awkward. Politeness in him was struggling with something else. Here was an old friend and a new. He did not want to offend either, yet one must be offended, and that one could certainly not be Alice. He disengaged his hand.
“I’m afraid I must go and talk to Alice,” he said quietly and rather primly.
Joan turned and looked at him. Again her lower lip shot out and her face flushed.
“You shan’t,” she said.
“All right, then. Go to nursie, then.”
Her voice was very scornful, and he wasn’t sure that she didn’t put out her tongue, but she turned away too quickly for him to see.
“Well, Master Jimmy, you’ll soon be off now. I’m sure I hope you’ll have a happy time, and come back safe and sound.” He heard Alice say: “You’ll be so big that we shan’t know you when you come back.”
He could say nothing. It seemed silly not to want to go after all the fuss he had made about it, and he could hardly understand it, except that good-byes were always horrid, and this was good-by to Alice. But there was no time for thinking about it. There was a hissing of steam and a loud whistle. “Take your seats, please. Take—your—seats,” some one shouted. Doors banged.
“Come along, Cousin James,” said the big man, holding their door open, “jump in.”
Jimmy kissed Alice hurriedly, and then was bundled into the train, aware of a surprisingly big lump in his throat.
The train moved, gathered speed, ran out into the open air. And the last and the best face in the Ledbury Square life was out of sight.
He used his handkerchief.
There was something very confusing about the whirl and rattle of the Tilbury train. It made his head reel, and he had the feeling that there were so many things to be taken in at once that he would shortly burst. No sooner had he thoroughly grasped the fact that the old man opposite in the check suit and canary scarf had no hair at all, when his attention was whisked away to the lady in the other corner, who peered over her specs and called the old man “Wilfred, dear.” Then, just as he was beginning to see a resemblance between the lady and his aunt, a resemblance pregnant with interest, he must needs notice the blue roofs of houses through the gap between Cousin Nicholas and Cousin Nicholas’s “Times.” Blue roofs under a streaky gray sky, and wisps of white smoke from the engine uncurling into the air—interesting food for thought, but fugitive, for the next instant he must be aware of a piercing whisper of, “Nursie,” from Joan, delivered obliquely under cover of “Comic Cuts.” Another readjustment, difficult to achieve under a running fire of questions from Mrs. Nicholas, and in any case painful, because he wanted to be friends with Joan. If only he could explain. . . .
But the train rattled on. So did the questions. Mrs. Nicholas announced her intention of finding out all about him, and, as seemed to be her way, succeeded remarkably. Ledbury Square was soon an open book to her. Not that he minded, because she smiled all the time, and when she smiled she screwed up her face delightfully, so that all the freckles seemed to flock round her eyes. Her mouth, too, was big. She smiled generously, and so made him feel, at intervals, comfortable and even important. As time went on, and Nicholas retired into the corridor to smoke and Joan transferred attention from himself to the seagulls and the mud flats outside, he talked more and more to her.
She had seen his father. Very grave, his father, very gruff (she mimicked his voice), but with such a nice smile, if only he would not mislay it. Get on? They would get on famously. They were so alike. “Oh, dear, how shy you’ll both be!” she said.
She had lived in the jungle, all among the hills, and loved it. She had seen all manner of beasts. “You see them? Of course you will. Your daddy’s an expert about beasts, especially elephants. He’s wonderful about elephants. Oh, you’ll have great times.”
Great times! He believed it, too. She was so certain. No special voice about her, put on the moment a treat cropped up. No “buts.” No “ifs.” Simply, “You’ll have great times,” and a chirp of anticipation. He liked her. He liked her so much that by the time the train ran into Tilbury he had left Ledbury Square a tremendous way behind.
Then, like death-blows to its dull memory, came the vivid new impressions—the clamor of the docks; the hooting and the hammering and the splatter of water; the maze of shipping, mile on mile, dominated by the one big ship that was to hold them; the feel of the deck; the look of the cabin; and, suddenly, the overpowering sense of the sea.
The great times had begun. After a racing exploration of the immediate mysteries—decks and saloons, baggage-room and kitchens—a peep at the engines and a peep at the bridge, and five minutes’ excitement over the anchor, Jimmy could hold no more sensations. Almost in self-defense, he curled up in the top bunk of the cabin that he shared with Nicholas and promptly fell asleep.
He looked so absurdly happy that no one dreamed of disturbing him, and it was dusk when he awoke and clamored for tea.
While Jimmy was eating buns to the tune of a muffled thump, thump—thump, thump, and a swish of sea, two shadowy figures were tramping up and down over his head and discussing him. Nicholas strode and his wife pattered, and both were constantly changing step in vain attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable—their paces. Well above Mrs. Nicholas’s head a cigar-end glowed, emphasizing the fact that he stood six feet four to her five feet six. But in conversation she had, on the whole, the advantage, since she could accomplish three sentences in the time he took for one.
“He’s old for his age, Nick,” she was saying. “That’s Pamela, of course. I couldn’t stand her. What a family yours is, to be sure!”
“Well, I didn’t make it,” growled Nicholas.
“No, poor Nick. But you are rather a quaint lot, aren’t you? Even dear old Charles is rather quaint, isn’t he? As for Pamela, she made me want to howl. ‘Of course, I’ve endeavored to keep him free from modern excitements and, I hope, vulgarities.’” She mimicked Miss Vaine’s delivery beautifully, including the slight sniff. “D’ you know, Nick, when she said that, I wanted to make a rude noise at her. And Ponder! You oughtn’t to have missed that.”
“What’s Ponder? A poodle?”
“No, a female undertaker. ‘My maid.’”
Nicholas burst out laughing.
“Ponder! Ha, ha! Ponder! What a name! Oh, Lordy, Lordy!”
The idea seemed to cause him great diversion, for he hummed:
“Whither do you wander,
Pamela and Ponder?
Can any one be fonder
Of Pamela than Ponder?”
to the tune of “Oranges and Lemons” for quite five minutes, regardless of dubious glances from sundry deck-chairs.
“He wants spoiling,” murmured Mrs. Nicholas at length. “He’s been sat on for years and years.”
“Pameliously. I got a little out of Alice Sparkes. He’s had no children of his own age to knock about with except a little spoiled horror called Beetle and a boy whom he fought called Partridge.
“Seems to run to natural history. But fought him, did he? Who won?”
“Well, the Partridge bled. . . .”
“Ah, winged. . . .”
“. . . and Jimmy fainted in the Kensington Gardens and woke up with pneumonia.”
“One up to the Partridge,” said Nicholas cheerfully, trumpeting into his handkerchief.
“Don’t be horrid. I think it’s splendid of him to have fought at all, considering. Why, that nice Alice Sparkes was the only human being in the house, and, will you believe it, Pamela called her a doubtful influence. She deprecated her, Nick.”
“She would. She would. She deprecates me.”
“Oh, you! You don’t matter. The point is that I’ve made up my mind to spoil Jimmy horribly.”
They paced in silence for a few moments, the glow of the cigar waxing and waning in the darkness, till Nicholas flicked it into the sea.
“What about Charles?” he asked abruptly.
“Yes. Old Charles don’t slobber over anything but trees. He’ll take the boy into the jungle and bring him up on wood and expect him, what’s more, to enjoy it. But he won’t enjoy it if you’ve been feeding him on toffee. He’ll be disappointed, and think his father a dull old stick, and no one will be happy.”
“But Charles is going home in the spring.”
“I know he is, but he’ll still be Charles. He’ll buy a small jungle and put barbed wire round it and grow saplings. And he’ll walk young James round every morning and evening to measure growth, and blather about reafforestation till eventually the boy turns wooden. If you go spoiling him you’ll be interfering with an important experiment in lignification.”
“Silly!” said his wife, and pinched his arm.
“I can’t think what Charles was about to leave him in England all that time with that old dragon,” she said thoughtfully, after a pause.
“Exactly. There you have it. That’s Charles.”
“But why? He didn’t even write.”
“But why, Nick?”
Her voice was quite plaintive. Nicholas shrugged his shoulders.
“Obviously because the boy’s the living image of Mary,” he said, as if that closed the subject.
They stopped and leaned over the rail, looking at the lights shimmering across the black water.
“You never talk about it,” she murmured at length.
“No.” His voice was grave. “I never do. I hardly like to think about it. I was so much in it, I suppose.”
He stopped and considered, then went on slowly:
“It was damnable, you know. Charles was such a chap for concentrating. One felt quite awkward staying with them. He used to take her right out into the most impossible places in the jungle and worship her. And she deserved it—lived for Charles. Then it came. Milk, I think . . . from a cholera village. A servant got it and she felt his pulse, and so on. No doctor, of course, within fifty miles. Charles was out in the forest at the time. She couldn’t have known about cholera, you know, but even if she had known. . . .”
There was a pause, and he began again:
“Well, she never told Charles about the servant when he came in. Saw he was fagged out, I expect, and didn’t want to worry him. Next morning she had a little fever, but she didn’t tell him that, either. So the poor old man went out with a party to mark trees miles away. The next thing he knew was that she was dying. A messenger, a coolie, ran out to him in the afternoon and gave him the news as a coolie would, in three words. And Charles ran back like a maniac all down those unending forest rides, mile after mile, dead straight, damnably the same, to find her gone, snuffed like a candle.”
He blew his nose noisily, then added very quietly:
“So that’s why Charles sent the boy home. He tried to keep him, but he couldn’t bear looking at him. I was there then, so I know, and I don’t blame him. He wasn’t squealing; that ain’t Charles. It was all driven inside . . . and he simply had to be alone. And alone he’s been ever since, poor devil.”
For a long time neither of them spoke. Then she asked:
“Was Jimmy there, Nick?”
“Yes. It’s a wonder he didn’t get it. But then, cholera’s like that. Takes one, leaves another.”
“Would he remember?”
“Hardly. He wasn’t much over three.”
“Poor Charles!” she whispered. “Poor old Charles! And if Jimmy’s got Charles’s temperament. . . .”
“Poor Jimmy!” said Nicholas Vaine.
The next morning, and for several mornings after, the sea was gray-green, flecked with white, and the sky like a dove’s wing, the sun showing only as a misty yellow circle. Life automatically became a matter of meals, and the passengers creatures of habit. There were two main categories—the ardent walkers and the persistent huddlers. The former stamped up and down the deck, while the latter frowned at them from their deck-chairs. Midway between the two was a small, self-constituted body known as the Amusement Committee, which neither walked nor huddled, but met mysteriously in the mornings and spent the remainder of the day persuading people to sing, pinning up notices, and collecting half-crowns. There were, of course, sub-categories. Nicholas, who was prone to summing up, described them to his wife as, “The regular cats, the undefeated mothers, the Church Missionary Society, the Army Council, the Imperial Government, the faithful brotherhood of the bar, the blessed kids, and the human beings.” In the latter category he modestly placed himself, his wife, and the man in the check suit, who was called Sir Harry Spens, and who, in the course of discovering several natural features in Africa, had shot more lions than he could do with. It seemed strange that this intrepid hunter should never venture to disagree with his wife in the smallest particular, but so it was, even to a flannel chest-protector. Her, Nicholas called “the Dreadnaught.” He had names for most of his fellow-passengers.
“The blessed kids” numbered ten. They had their meals together, an hour before the regular meals. Three were fed with spoons. Three were still in the throes of bibs. The only independent people were Joan and Jimmy and the Baxter twins. Incidentally the Baxter twins provided most of the excitement of the voyage. They were dark little boys with inscrutable expressions, and they were constantly being lost—to be found among the engines, or hanging perilously out of port-holes, or defacing the chief officer’s paint. It was they who, pursued by a short-sighted, stammering father and an abundant, empurpled mother, invaded the precincts of the bridge. It was they who discovered the tar, which spread over the ship on the third day out like a plague. At meals they glowered at each other. After meals they fought each other. Eventually, it was believed, the Baxter parents divided the day and the night into watches, for they never appeared together. Nicholas dubbed them “the parental sleuth-hounds.”
The significance of the Baxter twins, so far as Jimmy was concerned, lay in the obvious attraction they had for Joan. She was obsessed with them. In their absence she would talk of them incessantly, and, in their presence, talk up to them. At first it did not seem as if they relished the process. They snubbed her. But she persisted, strangely meek in the face of pointed remarks anent the stupidity of girls, and on the second afternoon it was evident that she had made headway. There was a mysterious meeting of three in a secluded corner of the fore-deck, followed by a purposeful promenade, a pair of long brown legs being flanked by two pairs of short stubby ones. Joan had an arm round the neck of each of them. Jimmy could not understand it. It seemed as if the twins possessed some quality which was lacking in him, and he puzzled painfully over that quality. What could be wrong with him?
He wanted to like Joan. She seemed to embody a dainty, fragile fairyhood such as he had never before imagined. She was so free in her movements and her speech and her laughter, and never seemed to think beforehand of what she did or said, but simply did it or said it impulsively, and went on to do or say something else without pause. Whereas, he thought . . . always thought.
Thinking was just the trouble. He could not help thinking of her. Her deep voice, her tumbling hair, above all her searching, somber eyes, he could not keep them out of his mind. But she never seemed to think of him at all. She only recognized his existence for purposes of comparison with the Baxter twins, making pointed remarks at meals about “nursie” and “auntie,” and glasses of milk, and tears.
And he couldn’t answer. For the life of him he couldn’t answer. The answers only came into his mind afterward. He couldn’t say, right out in front of them all, across the tea-table: “She wasn’t my nurse. I hate my aunt. I loathe my milk. I have never cried.”
Somehow, in the face of these taunts, he was reminded of another occasion when an answer would have put everything right—the time when Mr. Curlew had come into the room and stood blinking at Cyril’s bloody mustache and bloody fingers. Then, too, an answer would have explained things. He could have said, “Cyril stuck a nib in my leg,” and so have justified himself. But he couldn’t drag it out; not only that, but it hadn’t seemed worth while dragging it out. That was it. It hadn’t seemed really worth while.
Now, too, he had that feeling . . . that it wasn’t really worth while. Joan, like Mr. Curlew, was accusing him of doing and being something that he hadn’t done and been. He hated that. But it somehow wasn’t quite worth while putting her right.
He was diffident.
But he did want to like Joan. Not as the twins liked her—up and down—but steadily, as he had liked Alice. He didn’t want to pinch her and pull her hair one minute, and hug her and kiss her the next. He didn’t want to touch her at all. It vexed him to see the twins touching her, and her touching the twins. It gave him a shocked feeling, like the feeling he had had when Ponder had come into his bedroom and turned him over and smacked him—a hot, desperate feeling. It made him hate the twins-with the very hatred he had felt for Ponder.
No—he wanted to see Joan smile at him, as she smiled so often at other people. She smiled, in fact, at practically everybody except him, and they smiled back so easily . . . a thing that he would have found difficult, too. She had a regular morning round of smiles. She went along the deck after breakfast and stood in front of people’s deck-chairs and smiled at them, and the people would put down their books and knitting, or take out their pipes, and say, according to their sex: “Isn’t she a winsome little thing! Such eyes! What is your name, dear? Now give me a nice kiss”; or, “Well, and how are we this morning, my lady?” And Joan helped with the babies and was called, “Quite a little mother,” and smiled again . . . always smiled . . . except at him.
It made him feel lonely. Before, he had been lonely, but he had never felt lonely. If he had thought about it, he would have probably concluded that everybody shut themselves off, as it were, from everybody else. Aunt Pamela did. Ponder did. Mr. Curlew did. Even Alice had once remarked that “she kept herself to herself,” and he had remembered her saying it. But now he saw with his own eyes that people did not keep themselves to themselves. He wanted to be like that. But he couldn’t.
He wanted something from her. He did not know the name of what he wanted, for he was unacquainted with the meaning of the words “sympathy” and “approbation.” He expressed the want in a sort of mental picture, a picture he hardly dared look at. It lay deep down in him like a photograph covered up and buried in a drawer of clothes. It was a picture of him and Joan, whispering together. If only she were nice to him, and went on being nice to him for years and years, he might, one delicious incredible day, whisper to her about his cave and his woods . . . perhaps she, too, had some such place.
But he never looked straight at the picture—only glanced at it and shut it up again. It was so manifestly too good to be true.
Joan was implicated in the affair of the tar. Jimmy had not the full facts, but he knew from personal observation that Joan had, during dinner on the fatal evening, been very busy with the seats of certain deck-chairs, and that these were the identical chairs which had subsequently left their tarry imprint on Colonel Ardley-Broughton of the Bengal Lancers, on the commissioner of Bandelkand, and on the bishop’s tremendous wife. During the subsequent hue and cry, which had ended in a chorus of squeals from the twins—caught black-handed with the tar-bucket—Joan had been very silent, reading a book. Occasionally she had glanced round, and, satisfied with the results of her observation, had furtively rubbed the fingers of her right hand on her stocking. He had not been able to help noticing that, and he went to bed feeling ill at ease. Joan had done it, or helped to do it. But the twins had been punished. Something was wrong.
He was not relieved when he heard, beyond the curtain of the opposite cabin, fragments of a conversation between Joan and her mother. It began with a discovery.
“Joan, what’s that on your hand? Oh, Joan! You don’t mean to say you helped those dirty little boys with their disgusting tricks?”
Mutters from Joan.
“But why did you do it? And why didn’t you tell me?”
“I’m ashamed of you. You will have to say you are sorry. Yes, you will.”
Sounds of protest.
“Then I must tell daddy. . . . Yes, I know he will. . . but . . . all right then. Just say you did it and you’re very sorry. And won’t you say you’re sorry now?”
“I’m going, Joan.”
Still no answer.
He heard Mrs. Nicholas go out, and he heard her sigh. There was not a sound in the opposite cabin. He felt intensely uncomfortable. He had heard what he ought not to have heard . . . and, somehow, everything was wrong. The Joan he wanted to whisper to wouldn’t have done that, and he had made her so concrete an identity in his picture of her that he felt as if some part of himself had misbehaved. He felt inexplicably guilty.
Then he caught a new sound from the opposite cabin. The first and the second time he could not place it, but the third time it was unmistakable. It was the sound of a sob under bedclothes.
She was crying . . . and suddenly she was once more the Joan of whispering, the Joan to share troubles with. Joan crying! If the other things had seemed all wrong, this was more wrong than any of them. He thought of Joan going up in the morning to the very people she used to smile at and saying, “I put tar all over your chair, and I’m very sorry.” The very people she used to smile at . . . it was unthinkable.
Another sob . . . and words . . . “I won’t, I won’t, I won’t, I won’t.” Then many sobs.
Jimmy could not stand it. Without any clear idea of what he was going to do he crept out of bed, crossed the little passage, and opened the door.
It was almost dark inside, but he had a vision of clothes lying about, of an open suit-case on the lower bunk, and on the upper bunk of a heaving white mound with vagrant hair.
She had not heard him. He felt more uncomfortable than ever, but it occurred to him that it might help if he offered to go with her when she said she was sorry. It would be difficult, but it could be done.
Intending to suggest it, he took a step forward, and instantly fell over a can of water. There was a metallic rattle and a swish . . . and Joan sat up.
“I heard you crying . . .” he began, dancing about on one leg to avoid the cold water creeping round his bare feet. “I thought . . .”
“But . . .”
“Go away, or I’ll kill you!”
It sounded as if she meant it, too.
“I . . .”
“Go a . . . way!”
It was half threat, half wail, and he didn’t know what to do. Stooping to right the can, empty now, he encountered a dripping shoe and began mechanically to wipe it on his nightgown, staring meanwhile at Joan, who was quivering with wrath.
“Oh, I hate you! . . . Do . . . go!”
There was nothing for it. Feeling a miserable fool, he went. Yet, though he thought about it for half the night, he could not see exactly how he had made things worse. But the fact remained that he had. Though Joan apologized to the victims of the tar outrage next morning and, after a “Pray don’t give it another thought, young lady,” was more or less reinstated; though she abjured the company of the Baxter twins and gravitated to that of one Rosemary, a doll enthusiast; though she waxed voluble over dolls—in spite of all she had not a word for him. Not even a look.
From Finisterre onward the chief interest was looking for land. Sometimes it was a mere shadow where the waves melted, sometimes so clear that they could almost distinguish sheep on grassy hills. Sometimes the sun would catch a roof or a window and make a diamond in a green setting. Then, early one morning, they lay an hour under a big, bold rock—Gibraltar. It was curious, when, after all these landless days, they came under the shadow of land, to be told that it was still English land.
At Marseilles they spent the better part of a day, waiting for the overland passengers and the mail, surrounded by the masts and funnels of innumerable ships, fringing the long docks like a leafless forest. Jimmy had become so used to their own sounds—the thump, thump of the engines, the mysterious creak in the dining-saloon, the steady song of the sea—that Marseilles struck his ears like a Babel. It reminded him of the first drive after his illness, when the world had all at once seemed to burst on him. Only here there was no drone in the background; a rattle rather—drays on cobble-stones, and the hoofs of stout gray horses dragging big barrels that bumped. The quay was full of them. A dismal hooter dominated the city, while dozens of shrill sirens took up its lament. As at Tilbury, iron tapped on iron. As at Tilbury, men on shore put their hands to their mouths and shouted, but here they wore peaked black caps and blue overalls, and their shouting sounded like throat-clearing. There was so much to watch on the broad road that ran along the quay—the drays, the cabs, the vans, and the yellow trams—and so much color in the long lines of ships, red and yellow and blue and rusty brown, that Jimmy was hardly aware of the great white town in the background till they stood out from it. Then he saw that the whole basin of the hills was filled with it, houses upon houses, very tall where they pressed round the Vieux Port and the Cannebière, squat as they climbed toward the hills. And their shuttered windows were like rows of unblinking eyes. For long, as they steamed out, he could see the trams, like little toy trains, plying along the Condamine, and the glint of the golden Virgin on Notre Dame de la Garde. Then, no more land—detailed, distinguishable land, that is—till the passage of the straits of Messina.
Perhaps that was the most memorable hour of the passage of the Mediterranean, for he could feel be forehand that, in a sense, he knew his country. He knew what Italy and Sicily looked like. He had so often studied the presentment of the one punting the other across the world—as projected by Mercator—to the thin but alert toe of New Zealand, and had so often asked for the faded Miss Webster’s views on the phenomenon. And, if the actual view of the kicker and the kicked as solid, immovable lands, equipped with roads and houses, brought about the burying of one old illusion, it proved the resurrection of another. For that sea was his sea. That strip of dimpled blue water, where the long-winged gulls dipped to meet wave-tops of their own whiteness, ere they scattered in diamond spray, was the sea he had dreamed of, the one more blue than the sea of Folkestone, the narrow water known only to a few gulls. To see it in life, to pass silently through it and gaze across at the tiny white towns set like ivory carvings on the shore, was to find a dream come true. There, of all the new places, he had been before.
He liked looking at things, just standing still and looking at them and wondering about them. And Joan didn’t. Joan liked looking at people, and not standing still and wondering about them. That seemed to be the main difference between them. Their curiosity was about quite different matters.
When she asked questions the questions were personal: what some one wore for dinner, and how much money some one had, and how many children, and how many houses, and had he or she a motor-car? When in the afternoons they both sat by Mrs. Nicholas’s chair, he used to listen—not without a certain admiration—to Joan’s eager flow of questions. There was a boldness about her that he envied, possibly because it was fundamentally opposite to his own sensations. To him people were almost all disconcerting, some terrifying. It would have required great intimacy and much courage for him to ask questions of them or about them, whereas mountains and woods and water were reassuring, incapable of snubbing.
He was afraid of people. He was not afraid of things. He remembered one afternoon’s conversation particularly. The whole family was sitting together—Nicholas in one deck-chair, his hat over his face, his hands in his trouser pockets, his legs well out; his wife in another, sitting upright, mending a brown sock; Joan and himself on rugs.
Joan was interested in a missionary lady.
“Was she ever pretty?”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” came from one deckchair.
“I do,” came from the other.
“Hush!” from the first.
“But was she?”
“Really, Joan. We don’t talk about people’s looks. That’s what’s called making personal remarks. Nick, you ought to have given me this before. It’s a disgrace, and I haven’t any brown wool. Will a nice little pink patch do?”
“Splendidly,” said Nicholas.
“Has she any children?” she asked after an interval.
“I don’t think so; has she, Nick?”
“I hope not,” said Nicholas, yawning under the hat.
“I suppose she doesn’t want to be bothered with them. They are rather a bother, you know, Joan. She’s a very busy woman.”
“Needn’t she have them if she doesn’t want to?” persisted the distinct voice of Joan.
Nicholas slowly extricated himself from his chair, stretched his arms to their full extent, and yawned again, finishing his yawn with a howl.
“Come along, James,” he said. “You and I aren’t interested in other people and their hypothetical children. Let us walk.”
Presently they stood by the rail. Two ships were passing: a long white liner, with graceful lines, moving easily; and in her wake, falling farther and farther behind, a blistered brown tramp, stertorous with great gouts of black smoke.
“The hare and the tortoise,” said Nicholas. “That big boat’s cram-full of people from the ends of the earth. And the little boat’s just carrying a few things—tobacco or tea, or salt fish, or rice, or fruit—Heaven knows what. Yet, do you know, James, I like that blistered old rattle-box the best. Things. Smelly old things in a greasy hold. But I like to think of them, you know.”
He threw back his head and laughed, adding whimsically as if to himself:
“Can you see me in one of those, James? Sitting on a barrel in my cotton slacks, peeling potatoes . . . Calcutta, Rangoon, Penang, Singapore . . . with a cargo of boxes and barrels and bales grinding in the monsoon. Well, I did . . . once.”
He had another tremendous yawn, shook himself like a big dog, and went down to the cabin. Jimmy watched the big ship slip away, while the tramp hardly seemed to move. But in a dim way he, too, liked the little one best. She had a friendly look . . . a comfortable, weather-beaten look. And she carried . . . things.
Possibly it was the result of the conversation about the two ships, possibly of something more obscure, but Jimmy was not afraid of talking to Nicholas Vaine. The fact surprised him when he thought of it, for Nicholas was a giant, and he could not imagine himself feeling comfortable in the presence of a giant. Nevertheless, it was so. Nor was it simply a matter of being unafraid. There was something more positive in his feeling.
When in his imaginings he found it necessary to imagine a man, he began to imagine Nicholas Vaine, tentatively at first, eagerly afterward. There could be no better description of his attitude than that.
In the past he had filled the gap, so to speak, with a vague picture of himself. He had not rated himself very high, nor made himself do anything very wonderful. There had been no stirring fights, no deeds of derring-do, no hairbreadth escapes. He had pictured himself simply doing the things he thought he would like to do . . . wandering about in woods, seeing and talking to animals . . . and a shy, diffident image it had been.
But when he began to picture Nicholas Vaine, it was as if he had said to himself: “This will never do. He must be a king among men.” To make the image of Nicholas do merely the things that he himself thought he would like to do—wander about in woods, see and talk to animals—seemed too dull. Nicholas must lead men and sail ships and climb mountains. He must, in fact, be a hero.
It came to that, unaffected hero-worship. He made Nicholas Vaine do all the things that he himself could not do and would never dream of trying to do. He extended his dream world for him. He carried his forest over the mountain for him, and made him do impossible feats of endurance in his wide spaces. He watched him, as it were, with bated breath. He wondered at him. But, curiously enough, he never envied him or tried to emulate him. For himself, he stuck to the things he had always thought he would like to do.
Another feeling grew in him, which, he felt, ought not perhaps to have grown. He caught himself wishing that Nicholas Vaine were his father. He could picture the one so completely—the other not at all. Even the smell that stood for his father had proved an uncertain sign, for it was precisely and emphatically the smell of Nicholas, who always wore tweeds and who always smoked pipes. There was not a single peculiarity left whereby he could identify his father in his mind, while there were dozens of peculiarities to give definition to Nicholas. But there was more in it than that.
He had not seen his father all these years. Why not? Other people saw their fathers, or got letters from them. Why not he? Because his father did not want to see him. Instinct told him that, not reason; for reason told him that his father had even now sent for him, and would hardly send for him if he did not want to see him.
His father was a vague figure, and, because vague, disconcerting also. “I really think he likes his old elephants better than most of his fellow-creatures,” Mrs. Nicholas had said, and he had remembered it, partly because he had so entirely understood it. He could understand a hermit who buried himself in the jungle for months with his elephants. It was precisely what he had so often pictured himself doing. But, in accepting that picture, he accepted his own exclusion. He would be one of the “fellow-creatures.” His father would not leave his elephants for him.
So he, in a sense, understood his father. His father would be something like himself. But his heart went out to Nicholas, who was in every respect the opposite of himself.
Time and time again his first impression came back to him. The man was big. Wherever he was, he stood out. He took no trouble about it. He did not try to make himself look big. He was big.
Nicholas was never in a hurry. Everybody else that he had known had, on occasion, fussed. His aunt had fussed about her Spode and her housekeeping books. A crack in the Spode or a penny wrong in the books had produced a curious note in her voice—a note of tension that made one jump. Agitation—controlled, but nevertheless sufficient to charge the atmosphere. Ponder, less controlled, had rasped at dirt—dirt on boots, dirt on carpets, messes, soapy water that had escaped the basin. Alice had been easily flustered at things people said or things she thought people might say. Mr. Curlew—books. A fancied slight to a book infallibly caused his throat to work. Mrs. Nicholas—in a way she was the worst of all, but not in the same way. She did not fuss, exactly. She never rasped. But she gave one a feeling of impatience, of hurry. She talked as she moved—jerkily, on her toes. Nicholas, too, talked as he moved—lazily, on his heels.
Fussing in Nicholas was inconceivable. But the worst of him was that he showed other people up. He made them seem to twitch. Jimmy once watched him playing bridge on deck with the colonel, the commissioner, and Sir Harry Spens. He was the only one of them who did not in some way twitch. The colonel’s fingers twitched when he picked up cards. The commissioner’s lips twitched as if he were talking to himself. Sir Harry’s eyes roved quickly, like a bird’s. But Nicholas—fingers, lips, eyes—was deliberate, lazy almost.
But what impressed him most of all was the way in which Nicholas would come into the cabin late at night. Often, of course, he would not hear him. But sometimes he would be awake and would watch the big man making himself small. The giant would become a mouse, moving quietly in the dark, slipping soundlessly between the sheets. Nicholas Vaine was never so great a hero as when he was getting into bed.
He woke up one morning with a curious sense of unreality. All the familiar sounds were absent.
He could hear Nicholas below him shuffling on his bedroom slippers, and the steward’s tea-cups clattering outside, but the ship itself was making no noise, except a feeble dripping somewhere. For a moment he thought he had waked up in a house. Before, the little sounds had always been drowned in the thumping and the throb. He had never heard Nicholas putting on his slippers before.
“Have we stopped?” he asked.
“Put your head out of the port-hole and see,” said Nicholas, as he made for the bath-room. “Behold the East, and the smell of the East.”
He looked out.
There was nothing particular to smell, but things to see leaped to the eye. In fact, they dazzled. Wherever he looked was brightness—in the sparkling sea; in the vivid blue of the sky; in the white houses; in the sunlight dappling an empty street. The light seemed to strike him. He blinked.
“Very chip, young master. Very chip. You tell missis mother very chip. Oh, yes.”
The voice came from below. Directly under him, bobbing and dipping in the oily jade-green water, were half a dozen rowing-boats, painted white and blue. In one of them a pyramid of oranges flaunted, a patch of marvelous color. Each boat contained two men, who appeared to be dressed in nightgowns. All had black hair, brown faces, and round red caps, and one of them had three long scars on his cheek as if he had been scratched by a cat. They were all looking at him. The appearance of his head from the porthole seemed to absorb them.
“’Ave an orange. Very chip. Oh, yes.”
They were all holding things up—one, a couple of oranges; another, half a dozen strings of beads; another, a sheaf of white ostrich-feathers. He was just meditating about what he ought to say when Joan’s head bobbed out of the next port-hole, and, to his relief, they transferred their attention to her.
“You buy, little missis. You know very chip thing. Oh, yes.”
“Jao,” he heard Joan say in her deep, distinct voice. He did not know what it meant, but evidently it annoyed the men in the boats.
“You no spik English to Egyptian man? You spik Indian? But we no go, missis. Oh, yes.”
Having defined their position, they turned their attention to some one else, some one who desired a sponge. It appeared that they had between them everything that the heart of man could desire, save only a sponge. Jimmy dressed to a chorus of suggested substitutes for the sponge. A monotonous chant floated through the port-hole. First, a wheedling voice.
“Best Turkish Delight. Better than sponge. Very chip Turkish Delight. Fifty piaster. Forty piaster. You take—thirty piaster.”
Then, a hopeful voice.
“Puss-cart. Picture puss-cart. Nile River on a puss-cart. Cigret. Very chip cigret. Twenty piaster hundred cigret. Puss-cart.”
Then another, most insistent.
“You, sir. Cigret, sir. You know me, sir. Very chip man. Hund’ cigret fifteen piaster. Yes, sir. Oh, yes. All right.”
Confused murmurs from above. Then a long stick, with a box of cigarettes in a diminutive butterfly-net, passed the window.
“Because of his importunity . . .” remarked Nicholas, who had come in to get a hat.
They were rowed ashore after breakfast.
They sat down in an open-air café, flush with the pavement, and drank lemonade. Across the street, in a similar café, Frenchmen in straw hats were sipping coffee and reading the paper. Between, moved the long-robed, leisurely crowd of Egyptian youths, disturbed only by the objurgations and whip-crackings of dingy charioteers. It was a peaceful and a sunny scene. Port Said, as Nicholas had said, had nothing to do.
Then suddenly, like a magician of fable, a little man in a corn-flower blue robe plumped down on the pavement at their feet and placed an aluminum cup bottom upward in front of him. He caught Jimmy’s eye and winked pleasantly—a merry man, with a round, brown face and a roving glance.
“Sicken,” he remarked, “little sicken.”
Then he snapped his fingers, winked again, and whipped up the cup. There, in its place, was a tiny yellow chicken! It cheeped. It shook itself. It lived! But, before Jimmy had time to gasp, the little man picked up the chicken, snapped his fingers again, and there was no chicken! It had disappeared as magically as it had come.
Everybody was watching the man now. Joan was dancing up and down in front of him.
“Bring it back. Bring it back. I want it,” she begged.
The man did not seem perturbed. “Or right, missis. Or right, Mrs. Ellen Terry. You want back that sicken. Or right. You got that sicken.”
“You got my sicken in your pocket. Look, missis. Gali, Gali, Gali, Gali, Gali, Gali!”
Casually Joan glanced down at the pocket of her coat. Then, with an expression of consternation, put her hand inside . . . to bring out the chicken, struggling.
“Oh, you darling little thing!” said Joan.
“Oh, yes, very darling,” remarked the man, taking back the chicken. “Very good tasty. Yes, Gali, Gali, Gali, Gali!”
And he swallowed it, with every appearance of gusto, rolling his eyes and rubbing his stomach. Joan screamed. Jimmy was past any form of outward expression. It was a dream. It must be a dream Such things only happened in books. All the things he had been discouraged from believing in—witches and wizards, and magicians and fairies—came tumbling back into his mind, as if craving for readmittance. For, if this could happen, what might not happen? Nothing was any longer impossible. For, though the chicken had been swallowed before his eyes—digested almost—it would come back, unruffled, not even wet. He felt that in his bones. His belief in the power of this man was infinite. The chicken would come back.
Joan had not the same faith, apparently. She was tugging at her father’s coat, crying:
“Oh, make him take it out! Make him be sick, daddy!”
The man was equal to the occasion. He winked at Jimmy.
“You want back? Or right. No sicken for dinner.”
His face suddenly became serious. There was something amiss. He arose with dignity, and stood before Jimmy pointing an accusing finger.
“I think you got my sicken, Mr. Asquith.”
Everybody burst out laughing, but the man seemed to think it no laughing matter.
“You got my sicken,” he repeated.
Jimmy did not deny it. It was impossible . . . and yet not impossible, because in this magic hour nothing was impossible.
“P’raps I have,” he answered, and waited.
The owner of the chicken had no doubts on the subject. He pointed to the opening of Jimmy’s coat, Jimmy looked down. A yellow head, a beady black eye—the impossible had happened! Gravely he imprisoned the truant in his hand and handed it back.
“Thank you, Mr. Winston Churchill,” said the man, and with another burst of, “Gali, Gali, Gali, Gali!” rapid as a machine-gun, he tore the chicken in half ruthlessly and made it into two chickens.
After that there was no keeping pace with him. Chickens danced before their eyes. The man rained chickens, each of them apparently infinitely divisible into more chickens. They did inconceivable things. They swallowed marbles as big as their heads and passed them out of their systems without apparent inconvenience. They disappeared in empty cups and reappeared in the linings of hats, without seeming to notice the change in their surroundings. And there, smiling on the ground, was a man. That was the extraordinary thing, that a man could make these things happen, could be so prolific of surprises that, when he tapped his metal cup with his little stick, no one—not even Nicholas—could say what would appear from under the cup, whether a marble or a penny or a chicken or an egg. And, if a marble or a penny or a chicken or an egg, why not an emerald or a gold piece or a pigmy or a blue butterfly? The world was revolutionized. Magic happened!
Nor, when the little man, having swallowed a whole collection of shillings and having denied his ability to restore them, had drifted out of sight round a corner, did the sense of revolution cease. It was present afterward in the shop. At any moment, from among the screens embroidered with storks, and the curtains embroidered with red, angular men and women; from among the carven elephants and tigers and hunched gods; from among the lacquer chests and the round-bellied pots a merry little man in a robe of corn-flower blue might pop up and make the storks to fly, the elephants to walk, and the hunched gods to yawn and stretch themselves; might produce treasure from the chests and smoky shapes from the pots. Even as he looked at them the embroidered things and the carven things seemed to take life, and to grow a little different—just as the world was a little different—and Jimmy himself was a little different.
They saw the de Lesseps, the giant of green bronze, facing the sea. They walked on the beach and watched fishermen wading in with their nets and pouring out a silver shower of fish on the sand. They gathered pink shells. And in all they did there lingered still that indefinable sense of wonder. Because of that it was a marked day—a day of color and glitter and wonder and new things.
He must have shown something of what he was feeling, for Mrs. Nicholas kept looking at him. Finally, on their way back to the ship, she said:
“I don’t believe he has ever seen a conjurer before, have you, Jimmy?”
He frowned, and his hand went to his hair.
“A magician, she means, Jimmy,” said Nicholas quietly.
“No, never,” he said.
“Not at Maskelyne and Cook’s, or at a party?”
He shook his head.
“He’s waited for the real thing in the real setting,” said Nicholas.
“Oh, but fancy, Nick. . .”
“He’s never been to a party at all,” said Joan with a laugh.
She was quite right. He never had.
The East was definitely marked in his mind as the place in which extraordinary things might easily happen, whereas the only other environment he had known—Ledbury Square—had been the place where every possible precaution had been taken to prevent the happening of extraordinary things. The very adjective in Miss Vaine’s mouth had denoted disapproval. It. had stood for something not quite nice, and had almost invariably been linked to the noun “behavior.” Extraordinary things had been turned from the door in precisely the same manner as extraordinary people—such as organ-grinders with monkeys, and yellow-scarfed Gipsies—had been turned from the door. But, in the East, both the people and the things were encouraged. The former were given sixpences, the latter appreciated. Wonder, surprise, excitement—all the Ledbury Square anathemas—were given place. Doors were being opened, not shut.
The blue-robed magician had set the tone. The boy with the shining skin who wallowed like a seal at the ship’s side, recapturing sixpences apparently fathoms deep and pouching them in his mouth, helped to maintain the wonder. It was present, variously guised, in the slow passage of the canal; in the sight of great hulls looming out of such narrow water; in the flush of a wonderful evening, that made the desert on either hand a fairy-land, with black flights of strange birds strung out across it; in the finding next morning of a new sea on the other side, bounded by hills of a new sort—copper in the shadow, beaten silver in the sun; again, at Aden, in the frenzied clamor of woolly-headed boatmen who fought for the privilege of conveying a yellow tin trunk till they actually sank it in the sea; in the even more frenzied woolly-headed policeman who knocked their heads together for sinking it; in the gilded trail of phosphorus at night; in the sudden flying-fish and the plunging porpoises of the oily Arabian sea.
A door, then, was open—a door which so often had been closed with a bang and a, “Not to-day.” It was a new world of open doors. Never, he decided early and passionately, would he live in any other. The decision made on his birthday at the Zoo—that in dreams he would rove eastward—was thus strongly confirmed in reality. There began to bloom in him a quality of mind definitely new—an expectancy—a wonder—even a confidence in the unlikely. It was as if he appreciated the open door, and ran through it radiantly, and shut it with a bang behind him on Ledbury Square.
The pleasant, pervading warmth, which makes November in the eastern seas comparable to July in the western, soon permeated the ship. Officers and stewards donned their white, ladies their pinks and blues, till the decks blossomed flower-like. The mysterious Amusement Committee came into its own. Hitherto its life had been the life of a bulb, growing unseen beneath the surface. But in the Red Sea a first green shoot, so to speak, had ventured furtively forth in the shape of a gramophone dance; and after Aden, as if in response to the warmth and the sun and the energizing influence of a rain of half-crowns, the committee burgeoned. They radiated amusement, not at stated hours or in stated places, but at all times and in all places. There was not a quiet corner of the ship. The intermittent thudding of deck-quoits, the salvos of bean-bags, the whining song of the gramophone supplanted the thump, thump of the engines and the sound of the sea as the familiar noises of the ship. As Nicholas put it, the only escape from being amused was being drowned.
The East was true to its character. The natural order of things was inverted. For grown-up people—people as old as Miss Vaine and as serious as Ponder—suddenly began to do the most amazing, incredible things, while the children looked on. The committee filled the role of magicians. They piped in the background, and the passengers gamboled by day and danced by night under the influence of their spell. So it came about that Jimmy saw with his own eyes a bishop boxing blindfold with a colonel of the Lancers; a bishop’s tremendous wife running, with an egg poised precariously on a tea-spoon; an avowed grandfather pillow-fighting on a pole and falling with a shriek of ecstatic mirth into a sailful of sea-water; a portly member of the Calcutta Chamber of Commerce overturned at cock-fighting, shooting out arms and legs, like a capsized beetle; a commissioner plunging his head into a barrel of flour for a bun. They played hide-and-seek; they hunted treasure in droves; they cheerfully suffered all manner of indignities, blindfolded, pinioned, and manacled at the whim of the all-powerful committee. It was difficult to believe that, but a fortnight before, these same gambolers had sat swathed in rugs, muffled to the eyes, silent, forbidding . . . difficult, unless the analogy of bulbs be brought to mind.
In the whole orgy of the sports there was one serious event—the children’s race—and, even then, the seriousness was confined to the competitors. The spectators were riotous. A book-maker appeared in whiskers and a white hat, and worked himself into a frenzy over the comparative chances of the Baxter twins. The handicapper was mobbed at the outset, and it became doubtful whether the race could ever be run, owing to the behavior of the crowd on the course. But it was run. It was run with the utmost dignity and gravity. Not a runner smiled. Rosemary, a rank outsider, won with a half-way start and gravely added a blue-eyed doll to her family. Joan, who was second, pouted at a box of chocolates. Jimmy barked his shin on a deck-chair. The twins fell out by the wayside, causing the book-maker to bolt, sobbing, from the ring. And the course was instantly cleared for a senior event—apple-bobbing.
But, for all his gravity, Jimmy was awhirl inside. This new wonder was all of a piece with the sense of happenings. The world had become different. He himself had become different. Now even grown-up people had become different. In the old world they had been aloof, aloof from him, and, in a lesser degree, aloof from each other. In the kitchen they had “known their place.” In the drawing-room they had had “a sense of their position.” They had shaken hands dubiously, and kissed suspiciously. To him they had said “hush” at the smallest hint of noise. To each other they had conveyed “hush” no less clearly. Even Alice had known her place. Even Alice had been timorous of noise. But now, in a twinkling, in a sudden gush of warmth or glimmer of sun, they had become different. They pushed each other, and clapped each other on the back, and hopped together, with ankles secured by a handkerchief, and bumped into each other blindfold. Their two salient characteristics—aloofness and objection to noise—had been put aside with their overcoats and mufflers. What, after all, were grown-ups? Their apparent volte-face bewildered him. He was not quite sure that he liked it. It made him suspicious of them in the mass.
Joan was affected quite otherwise. She seemed to see nothing unusual in the new departure. Rather, she redoubled her smiles, passing from group to group, smiling here, there, and everywhere, and receiving smiles in return. She basked in smiles. She was radiantly happy, and, with a queer little tug somewhere inside him, he used to watch her triumphal progress and wonder why the smiles stopped, snuffed like the flame of a candle, when her eyes met his.
Sometimes it seemed as if her eyes were trying to be friendly. She would run up to him and start telling him something. But, half-way through, the same thing always happened. A look would come into her face as if she had suddenly remembered something. Then she would say, “But you’re so slow,” or, “Why don’t you say something?” or, “Oh, you do stare!” and toss her head and run off to tell some one else—the twins as like as not. He would be left staring, and feeling that he had missed a chance. It puzzled him, because the twins never bothered to listen to what she had to say, whereas he would have listened.
Another thing puzzled him. There seemed to be two or three different Joans. There was her father’s Joan, who seemed to know the way of getting anything she wanted. There was her mother’s Joan—impatient. The twins’ Joan—boisterous and submissive by turns. His Joan—scornful. Other people’s Joan—radiant. She seemed to have no difficulty at all in making herself different. No blue-robed magician, no gush of warmth, no glimmer of sun were needed here to make a change. The only way of foreseeing which Joan would be in the ascendant the next minute was to foresee whom she would be talking to. She seemed to know what would please everybody—except him. Yet, he felt, there were so many Joans that one more or less would not matter to her. If only she would take the trouble. . . .
Imbued with a proper respect for middle-age, the Amusement Committee gave the grown-ups a fling before they turned serious attention to the children. So the Fancy Dress Tea came late, came indeed when the emergence of Bombay from the sea was a matter of hours only. It was kept a secret, too, till the day, and only on the day did Jimmy learn that they were going to dress up.
He had dressed up once before. On a winter’s evening in the dim past he had appeared shyly in the guise of Robinson Crusoe, meticulously carried out even to artistic scratches on his legs. He had not been encouraged. Ponder had called it “play-acting”—an occupation which, in Ponder’s opinion, led straight to the nether flames—and had added: “Don’t let your aunt see you. That’s all I say.” It hadn’t been all she said by any means, but it had been enough to discourage him. He had never dressed up since.
But now, in this strange new world, he was expected—nay, encouraged—to dress up.
“What shall we make of him, Joan?” Nicholas said. “Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, apothecary, plowboy, gentleman, thief? There you are, all the professions. Take your choice.”
“Plowboy,” answered Joan instantly, and went on to whisper to her mother mysterious details of her own dress.
“There are worse careers, I freely admit,” said Nicholas, apparently taking up the suggestion seriously, “but, unfortunately, we have no available plow. The committee would not pass a plowless plowboy. Very careful, the committee. What about being an amiable apothecary, James, armed with a medicine-bottle of gigantic proportions? Or a picturesque tinker?”
Jimmy had, however, made up his mind.
“I’d like to be what you are,” he said.
“Do you hear that, Janie? James would like to be what I am, and tactfully omits to specify further. Now what am I? That’s a very interesting question, because, between ourselves, James, I’m hanged if I know what I am. I’ve been called so many things, you know. Your respected aunt once called me a disgrace to the family. My father used to refer to me as a damned nuisance.”
“As a qualified nuisance. But you can’t go to a Fancy Dress Party as a disgrace to the family or a qualified nuisance. The committee wouldn’t look at you. Let me see.” He stroked his beard. “I own, occupy, and cultivate a fruit-garden. You would infer, James, that I am a gardener. Unfortunately, I am not in a position to lend you a spade or a mowing-machine at the moment, so we aren’t much forrader. The Income Tax Officer, again, will have it that I am ‘a British subject domiciled in India.’ You could be that, of course. You could wave a Union Jack and insinuate at intervals that you are meant to be a British subject domiciled in India. But”—he bent his head and looked earnestly at Jimmy—“they wouldn’t believe you, James. They would require you to fill up a form for reference to the Government of India. You would have to commit yourself. Never, James, allow yourself to be persuaded to fill up a form for reference to the Government of India. We shall have to try again. What am I? Tinker—only vaguely. Tailor—the merest amateur. Soldier—emphatically no. Sailor—sometimes. Gentleman. Joan, am I a gentleman?”
“No!” shouted Joan.
Nicholas shook his head sadly.
“I was afraid I wasn’t. James, I am sorry to have to say it, but you can’t be me, not in any of my capacities. I’m too intangible. I’m sorry. I should like you to have been me.”
He got up from his chair and walked to the side, as if in meditation. Then an idea seemed to strike him.
“James,” he said, “if I can’t give you my personality, it is my duty to provide a substitute. Come down to the cabin and discuss substitutes. Yes, now.”
They went down to the cabin, and Nicholas looked in boxes, while Jimmy peeped over his shoulder. He looked inside all his own boxes, and at each examination he shook his head more despondently. Finally he stood up.
“It is on such occasions as these, James, that one regrets one’s popularity,” he said. “When you have a wife she will knit you socks; that is to say, if you are as popular as I am. But you won’t have room for anything else. You won’t be able to provide fancy dresses any more than I am.”
“It doesn’t really matter,” said Jimmy.
Nicholas seemed to be far keener on the dressing up than he was himself. He wasn’t at all sure that he wanted to dress up. It would only make Joan laugh at him.
“Doesn’t it really?” said Nicholas, suddenly brightening up. “Very good of you to say so, James, because I’m at my wit’s end, to tell you the truth. Is there any box that we haven’t looked at?”
“Oh, well, just for form’s sake. You have a look. I seem to have a depressing influence on the boxes.”
He went out, humming.
Jimmy dragged his box from under the bunk, and opened the lid, expecting to see shirts. Then his eyes nearly started out of his head.
The top of the box was all blue and gold—blue silk and gold embroidery. A sky-blue coat; a sky-blue turban, with a jewel in it; a gold waistcoat; gold shoes, with turned-up toes; a scimitar; pearls. One by one he lifted them out, with a new thrill at each, till they were all on the bunk, and the box was once more reduced to its humdrum condition of shirts.
A rajah! A prince! He, Jimmy! Of all impossible things . . . a rajah, a prince!
He looked at the box. Yes, his box, no mistaking it. Packed by Ponder, labeled by his aunt. His box, right enough.
He looked at the garments on the bunk, hardly daring to finger them. Real . . . they were real, just as real as the box. He was awake, too. There was no deception. But how had they got there?
How had they got there?
All sorts of wild fancies rushed into his mind. It was magic. Magic really did happen on this side of the world. Back came the witches and wizards and genii and magicians and fairies. He looked round quickly, as if he expected to see the merry little man himself sitting in the corner, saying, “Gali, Gali, Gali, Gali, Gali!”
He had expected shirts. He had found sky-blue silk and gold and pearls. Just as under the metal cup he had expected a marble and found a chicken; and if a chicken, why not an emerald or a gold piece or a pigmy or a blue butterfly? Why not?
Nicholas, still humming a tune, poked his head in at the door.
“No luck, I suppose?” he said. Then, starting suddenly: “Hallo! Hallo! What’s all this? My word!”
He came inside and surveyed the array on the bunk.
“Who’s your friend, James? Very liberal, very liberal, I must say. Princely, in fact. I congratulate you.”
Jimmy looked at him. Could he have—no, he was so surprised.
“They’re real,” he ventured.
Nicholas felt the coat.
“Indubitably real,” he said. “Pearls, too. And a remarkably handsome waistcoat. James, you’re in luck. Now—I wonder. You haven’t seen that fellow in the blue nightgown hanging around, have you? He had a look in his eye, now I come to think of it; a distinct look in his eye.”
“I thought of him.”
“Ah, did you?—That’s funny. So did I. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy, you know, James. If you ask me, I say, ‘Blue nightgown.’”
“Are they for me?” asked Jimmy, voicing his last doubt.
“For you? Of course they’re for you. Not a doubt of it.”
He placed the turban on Jimmy’s head.
“Fits, you see. That proves it. Salaam, Maharaja Ji, salaam. Now, if you will take my advice, you will array yourself as the rajah of Bong. In half an hour I will return and provide you with eyebrows and mustaches. Then you will march like a conquering hero into the party and give Joan the surprise of her life—and I believe you will find that she, too, is not unsuitably attired. Tell her so, Bong. Rajahs have privileges.”
When Nicholas had finished with him, and he was permitted to look in the glass, he gasped. Could this sumptuous being, with the fierce mustaches, the beetling brows, and glittering eyes, really be he? A tremulous feeling within him told him so. But it was difficult to realize. His presentment of Robinson Crusoe had been a pale, sordid affair beside this effulgence.
Nicholas surveyed him critically.
“Now you know what it feels like to be a potentate. Does the head lie uneasy?”
“No, thanks,” he replied.
The uneasiness lay in his legs, which were trembling. He liked dressing up, but publicity lay ahead. Nicholas seemed to divine his thoughts.
“You must strut, you know, James,” he said. “No one ever wore that sort of kit and failed to strut. Persuade yourself as you swagger into the party that it is your party and your party only. Let there be no nonsense about it. Command the situation. Stand thus”—he struck an attitude, folding his arms and throwing up his head—“and proclaim yourself. Say:
“I’m the rajah of Bong,
So down on your knees!
Come along, come along,
Or I’ll carve you like cheese!
Something striking like that, James. Then extract the scimitar from its sheath. You’ll have them, James. You’ll have them!”
Jimmy looked doubtfully at his scimitar hilt. He couldn’t do that, draw the scimitar and shout something. Nicholas could, of course. It seemed to suit him. But, then, Nicholas could do anything.
“I don’t think I can say that,” he said.
“Well, perhaps you’re right,” Nicholas answered cheerfully. “An air of quiet dignity will do just as well. Less melodramatic. Stand at the door and flash your eyes. That will show them the kind of person you are. Ah, here you are, Janie. His Highness the rajah of Bong; Mrs. Nicholas Vaine.”
Mrs. Nicholas promptly flopped down and bowed her head to the cabin floor. Jimmy caught sight of himself laughing in the glass. It was like seeing a stranger laugh, a stranger with gleaming teeth and a wicked expression.
“Featly, featly,” continued Nicholas, who was enjoying himself mightily. “His Highness, who is unaccustomed to conversing with any one below the rank of full colonel or companion of the Star of India, would wish me to convey his permission to arise. You are further graciously permitted to look at him without extra charge.”
Mrs. Nicholas looked.
“He’s splendid, Nick. Just the partner for—oh, sorry, I forgot. Jimmy, I feel tempted to kiss you.”
“Impossible, madam,” said Nicholas. “You would infallibly delete a mustache. Now, we’re late already. I, as political agent in Bong, will conduct his Highness swiftly and silently. . .
“No, Nick, let them go together. They’ll make quite a sensation.”
“Will Joan. . . .”
He raised his eyebrows meaningly.
“Shall we introduce them?”
“Yes, I’ll get her.”
Mrs. Nicholas went out. Clearly there was some mystery afoot. Jimmy was just going to ask what Joan was going to be when the cabin door opened slowly and Joan—or a radiant vision with the lineaments of Joan—stood in the opening.
“His Highness the rajah of Bong; her Majesty the queen of Sheba.”
It was Nicholas’s voice, but it seemed to come from another world. In this world there was nothing besides Joan.
He stared. He couldn’t help it if she minded; he had to stare. She was dazzling. She was all glorious from her silver veil to her silver slippers. There was a shimmering cloud like moonlight all about her head and shoulders. Gossamer still more delicate half hid her mouth and nose and caused her eyes, always mysterious, to seem larger now and quite black. A little coat of cream-colored silk, silver embroidered; rose-pink trousers, billowing, caught in at the ankles; those silver shoes. . . .
“Give her your right arm, James, and strut!” said Nicholas behind him. “The British subject domiciled in India and the gardener’s wife will bring up the rear. Quick . . . March!”
Dreaming, still staring, he obeyed. . . .
It was a wonderful party, set in blue and scarlet, hung with a forest of flags; the great ones of the earth stooped to hand round cakes and cups of tea; and it was his first. But its wonder did not lie in these things; it lay solely and entirely in the fact of Joan. The art of the obscure magician in the background had not stopped short at external transformations. Miracles were afoot. He could talk. He could make Joan smile.
The twins, disguised as sailors, were nowhere. They might not have existed. When the gramophone was turned on, it was Joan who suggested dancing. Useless to point out that he couldn’t dance; she insisted. She gathered his hands and danced round him, while he tramped up and down—one, two—one, two. The louder the music the harder he tramped, and when his feet, instead of encountering deck, encountered silvery toes, she made no sign of noticing. It was as if the magician had thrown in with his other spells a measure of anesthesia.
People beamed at them, not at one of them, but at both of them, indivisibly. It was no longer, “Isn’t she a winsome little thing?” but “What a delicious pair!” For a time he sunned himself in publicity. Publicity, like sunlight, made him glow and expand. Then, in a twinkling, came the crowning dispensation, the greatest miracle of all.
Suddenly, without any preliminary skirmishing or heart-searching, he found himself alone with Joan on the solid wooden chest under the upper deck stair, and they were whispering together. It had come, that incredible moment so much too good to be true. It had actually come.
“I like you to-day.”
So it began. And it was she who started it.
“I like you,” he whispered back.
“Do you think I’m pretty?”
“Prettier than anybody?”
She looked at him searchingly. There was a pause, while he strove for a word to express the inexpressible.
“Awfully!” at last, with an anxious look, as if the word were poor merchandise and known for such.
Poor as it was, it was accepted. He looked relieved. He nodded. She smiled. He smiled back. It was his turn now.
“Do you think it was the blue-nightgown man?” he asked anxiously.
“The chicken man. I think so. Were your clothes in a box? I think he put them there.”
He looked at his turned-up shoes, as if visualizing the lithe hands stowing them in the box. A look of laughter flickered into her face, and flickered out, to be replaced by a pucker of the brow. A spectator could have read very easily the passing of a first and the coming of a second thought.
“I expect he did,” she said, rather awkwardly.
Jimmy was delighted. She might so easily have laughed. He had almost expected her to laugh. But now he was sure of his ground.
But his next question, addressed to his shoes, could not be put without a deep breath and a faint blush. Existence was at stake. If she were to laugh at this, the world would tumble to pieces. It was a tremendous risk, but something seemed to impel him to take it. For the prize, if she were to understand, would be tremendous, too. So, with a deep breath and a faint blush, he asked:
“Would you like to hear about my cave?”
Then, without waiting for her answer, afraid to hear her answer at so early a stage, he went on quickly.
“I made it up to live in. It’s a little cave, with woods all round, and there’s all sorts of things in the woods—monkeys and a black panther and a tiger asleep and some parrots and squirrels—but they won’t hurt you. We could go out in the rain. Oh, and I had the sea once, like the sea between Italy and the football—Sicily, I mean. We could have it again, if you like it. I gave it up, but we could have it again.”
Once started, he dared not stop or look at her. The only thing was to go on.
“We could have anything you liked. We could wear these clothes. We could . . .”
Breathless, he looked at her at last. Then he felt glad. She was not laughing. She was thinking.
“Have you told any one else?” she said abruptly.
What a funny question . . . had he?
“Only Alice,” he replied confidently.
“She was at the station.”
Joan frowned. He looked at her eagerly. Fate was still in the balance.
“Did you tell her all of it?” she asked, after an interval.
“No, only bits.”
“Only the cave, I think.”
Joan pondered, playing with the silver tassel of the cord which sustained her trousers. Suddenly her face lit up.
“Then we won’t have the cave,” she said decisively. “We’ll have a house. I’ve got a house, but I’ve forgotten some of it. It had three drawing-rooms, and you went into them through conservatories full of lilies. And a ball-room, and hundreds of pictures, and three hundred and sixty-five windows—one for every day—and a huge bath, and feather-beds, and an ice-machine. You can have your wood outside—yes, and the sea. We’d bathe. We’d have a boat. You could row. Would that be nice?”
She squeezed his arm. Her face was so close to his ear that her hair tickled him.
Her picture was rather overpowering. He missed already the simplicity of the cave, where everything lay ready to hand. In its place had come the picture of Kensington Palace—the largest house he had seen—with bare red walls and innumerable windows. Lilies; huge bath; ice-machine, too. A cold place, it struck him; but the thought passed at once, for—hot or cold, big or small, known or unknown—it was her choice.
“Yes,” he said, “I’ll give up the cave. We’ll have the house.” Then added as an after-thought: “But couldn’t we have one special little room without any windows for . . . for when we want to talk? Something like a cave . . . only joined on to the house.”
Joan looked dubious. “No windows?” she repeated.
“Slits,” he said quickly. And then, casting about in his mind for something which would commend his project to her, he remembered a chance phrase from Miss Webster’s interminable talks about the insides of churches, a phrase that had caught his imagination at the time. “Whispering-gallery,” it was. Why not a “whispering-room”?
“We could call it the whispering-room,” he urged.
Joan liked that.
“All right. Have your whispering-room,” she said magnanimously, and swung her legs till the rose-pink silk that incased them billowed again.
“I shall wear pink trousers,” she warned him.
He conceded the pink trousers.
“And silver shoes.”
Those, too. Anything she liked. Then, when the thought of the glories ahead of them became so vivid that he had to sing or burst, he sang. The tune was the tune that the gramophone had played, but the words were his own. For that one marvelous minute his dreams became articulate, and he—he was a hero, a conqueror with a triumph song to sing. Wide-eyed with astonishment, she heard him out, and then, as if seized of an intuition, she did a pretty thing. She put up her cheek to be kissed.
It was his turn to be astonished. He pecked at her cheek almost as if he were afraid of bruising it or of burning his lips. It was only afterward, when the fleeting sensation of softness and roundness and warmth came back to him, that he wished he had regularly smudged her cheek.
Joan laughed, though, and turned her head away. So that was the only kiss. But he had one more question to ask.
“When shall we go to our house?”
The answer was lightning quick.
“When everything’s ready, of course . . . silly!” said Joan,
Bombay was behind—a jumbled vision of sunlight and high houses, of a motley crowd and a road full of creaking bullock-carts, impatient motors, and overcrowded trams. There had been a great station, too, full of hammering and steam; and then the long train, with the chattering people thronging the doors and the wailing water-sellers passing up and down. All the color and movement in the world might have been crowded into that hour’s experience and yet have only served as a vague background to two realities: the parting and the meeting. He had said good-by. He was with his father now.
His head still buzzed with the confusion of it all. No time to think: “This is good-by. It ends here.” Every one had been in too much of a hurry. Packing, breakfast, labels, telegrams, tipping . . . one thing after another; Joan here, there, and everywhere—now darting to the cabin, now to the side to see Bombay, now flying along the gangway to say good-by to the twins, now dancing up and down in front of him and intoning a breathless chant:
“We’re going to the Crawford Market, where they sell parrots. We’re going to Malabar Hill to see the vultures eat dead bodies. And we’re going to the Yacht Club, where there’s ices. And we’re going . . .”
Then, in the middle of it, Nicholas’ sudden:
“Here’s your daddy, James, at last.”
Still more hurry, then—hand-shaking, kisses, promises to meet at Christmas—“Yes, you’re both to come to us at Christmas”—and the thought that Christmas was years and years away. After that, nothing but the ache—the enormous ache—in his throat, and the smarting of his eyes, and that curiously soft, curiously distant voice of his father’s between the rattles of the gharry-wheels on cobblestones.
“So you’re James. I wonder why we called you James.”
He hadn’t answered. He really hadn’t even looked at his father. Some one tall and thin, in a white suit—that was all he was aware of, some one who spoke suddenly and yet softly and never seemed to finish what he had to say, as other people did. There had been three of those short remarks, and he hadn’t answered any of them because he had expected something else to follow. In the gharry they had passed a graybeard in blue with a yellow turban, and his father had said, “That’s a policeman.” No more. Not, “That’s a policeman. Isn’t it funny to see a policeman with a beard?” Then in the station, when a still more venerable graybeard in white had bowed to the earth with expressions of obvious delight, his father had said: “This is Madar Bax. He remembers you.” But he hadn’t explained who Madar Bax was, or why he should remember. He had just walked on. And now, in the big carriage, with the white houses and the palm-trees whirling past the windows, he had made the third remark, as abrupt and unconnected as the rest:
“You wouldn’t remember your mother?”
And once more Jimmy had been stumped for an answer. He hadn’t even said, “Oh!” Not that his father seemed to notice. He behaved as if he didn’t expect an answer, or knew the answer already, or saw it in the dim distance behind Jimmy’s head. He just stared.
But it wasn’t quite staring. It wasn’t even uncomfortable, once you got used to it. For, whether he was looking at Jimmy or out of the window at the hills, his eyes seemed to be fixed on a point much farther away, far beyond Jimmy and even far beyond the hills. It was more like dreaming than staring.
He stared himself. He wanted, so to speak, to take in his father. But it was difficult, because in his mind he was seeing Joan and hearing Joan and feeling the brush of her warm cheek and the softness which even now had not left his lips. She seemed nearer to him than the man in the corner who, he was told, was his father. He only saw the man in snatches, and at every snatch he had the same funny shock of surprise, as if again and again he were seeing a stranger for the first time.
Yes, Joan was the nearer . . . Joan, Joan, Joan.
The whirling scenery he hardly noticed at all. Only afterward did he remember with strange vividness the shapes of the Ghats—a hill like a pencil, a hill like a tortoise, and a pink hill like a cocked thumb—and the glint of the track they had just passed, squirming in a spiral round the brown slope under their feet. Afterward, too, there came back a picture of men and women trotting along a white road, carrying bundles on long poles that bent and swayed; and a glimpse of a child falling down in the dust—an open mouth and crinkled face, lost as they swung round a new curve. At the time he seemed to be taking in nothing except in those snatches, much like awakenings, when he would wake up to find himself in a long carriage, longer than the inside of a station omnibus, with black-cushioned seats and many windows, and on the door a map of India scored with lines, red and black. Then, as the sunlight winked in for a moment, he would dwell on the motionless figure opposite and try to fit it into the scheme of things.
Tall, like, Nicholas . . . yet somehow not so big. Nicholas filled the world; when Nicholas was there, one didn’t notice other people; but this man, his father, hardly seemed to fill his own clothes. Not only was he thin; he seemed to droop, to sit huddled. Ill—he looked ill. Still, in the shadow, he might have been an older Nicholas.
But sunlight took away all likeness, showing a long, thin face, almost haggard; a big, untidy, brown mustache, hiding the mouth; a thin nose, like Aunt Pamela’s; thick heavy brows; those searching, dreaming eyes; a slight but incessant frown that seemed to come from the effort of perpetual looking into distance; and grizzled hair, cropped very closely. That was his father. That was the face of the photograph that had always hung in his room. But . . . it was the face of a stranger, all the same. He didn’t know it. It didn’t, as it were, belong to the scheme of things as known to Jimmy Vaine.
Then, after ages of bewildered surmise, his father gave him the only possible clue to himself. With an obvious effort he roused himself and broke the absurd, self-conscious silence.
“We’re shy birds. Let’s eat,” he said, and smiled.
The smile was the clue. It was only a flicker, as rare and as precious as Jimmy’s own, but it did bring with it some fleeting sense of familiarity. For a moment at least parenthood was asserted, and Jimmy realized that he had, in a past dimmer than dreams, seen this man before.
The intricate processes of lunch—the peeling of slippery tomatoes, the chase of an elusive drumstick over a rocking plate, and drafts from a slopping cup—precluded conversation. But after lunch Charles Vaine lit a pipe and, from behind a barrage of smoke, talked.
It was difficult talk to follow at first, because it was impossible to know, when he made a remark, whether it was intended to be a statement or a question. Difficult, too, because he always gave the impression of talking principally to himself. More often than not sentences were left unfinished. His voice would trail off. . . .
“You were only four, of course . . . just four.”
So it began, and Jimmy nodded, though without any clear idea as to what had happened when he had been four.
“You remember camping with me after your mother . . . left us,” his father continued, more than half to himself, “before I sent you home, in the Doon?”
So there had been a time when he had been alone with his father, just as he was now; but recall it he could not. Instead, there came into his mind—quite inconsequently—the recollection of the deck of a ship and a brass band in scarlet coats, forgotten until that moment, dreamed of, perhaps.
“I was on a ship, with a band,” he faltered, and felt foolish, for there had been no question of a ship. “But I don’t really remember,” he added.
Charles Vaine nodded.
“Ah, that was after,” he said. “Just before, now. Do you remember Dob? Say it to yourself. D-O-B. Dob.”
Dob . . . Dob . . . it seemed to come back, a flutter of the memory, and go again. Perplexed, tugging at the roots of his hair, he shook his head.
“You called me Dob. I’m sure I don’t know why. But your mother liked it and . . . she called me Dob, too. But you won’t remember . . .”
A pause. A cloud of smoke. Then:
“I believe I sent you away because the name recalled . . . well, that’s done with. I wonder whether I was right to . . .”
Jimmy was certain that his father was talking to himself. It caused him to look out of the window, for he had a strange impulse to cry. Some note in the voice seemed to grope for his tears. Uncomfortable, that feeling, as if he ought not to be listening.
“I suppose you never thought about it?”
About what? About going away? What was it all about?
“I might have written, of course. Do you like letters?”
Jimmy started. Till this moment he had never thought of a letter from his father. The only letters he had ever had had been from Alice on her holidays—those, and Mrs. Pullen’s annual Christmas cards, memorable for the real snow that glittered on them.
“I didn’t have many,” he said. “Only Alice’s. And Christmas cards with real snow.”
He threw in the latter, because his father looked disturbed about the letters, which really didn’t matter—only he couldn’t quite say so.
“She’s our housemaid.”
It seemed a poor description of Alice, but what else was she?
“She’s very pretty,” he added, and felt better.
His father nodded.
“So you were much left to the tender mercies of the housemaid,” he said to himself. “I hope they were tender mercies.”
“Oh, yes, very,” Jimmy replied cheerfully.
“H’m. And Pam . . . your aunt? Did she show you my letters?”
Technically she had not, and there was no getting over the fact. He made the best of it.
“No, not show. She read out the places, but Miss Webster couldn’t find them in the map, because the map had only the towns in it. And Mr. Curlew hadn’t got a map—at least only England and Jerusalem.”
He was quite surprised at himself, making such a long speech of it. But it was all right, because his father was leaning forward and looking interested.
“You were keen about finding them? Keen about India?”
“Oh, yes.” Here he was on the firmest ground.
“But no one could enlighten you?” Pause. “No one could tell you anything you wanted to know?”
“Alice . . .”
“Ah, Alice,” said his father, and smiled. “What did Alice tell you about India?”
“She said there are woods and forests and you were head of them; and animals like we saw at the Zoo, not to speak of monkeys and such like.” Alice’s description had come back very vividly all of a sudden, and it tided him over his hesitations. “And I made up about them and pretended to be like Mowgli with a cave, and I made a little jaggly path to . . .”
Sheer amazement at himself stopped him. What was he saying?
“But Aunt Pamela said it was silly to make up,” he added, blushing violently.
“Oh!” said his father gravely. “But perhaps you couldn’t help it.”
This was more amazing than ever. How could any one know that he couldn’t help it?
“No, I can’t really,” he admitted.
Then his father gave him a curious look, and said a very curious thing.
“Neither can I,” slowly; and still more slowly, “But it’s a mistake. It’s a great mistake,” and again, after a long pause: “A great handicap. I shouldn’t, if I were you.”
And there, as by mutual consent, the talk stopped, which was a pity, because in an instant they were strangers again. Jimmy felt terribly uncomfortable, for at the words, “Neither can I,” he had started forward in an agony of expectancy, breathless at the thought that here was some one who really understood what “making up” meant—all the gloriousness of it, and the not being able to stop. A door had indeed been opened, with marvelous possibilities of confidence beyond; then, with cruel deliberation, shut. “I shouldn’t, if I were you.” Why, what else was there to do?
He looked hard at his father, as if in the hope of some reprieve from such a sentence. But unfortunately his father had opened a newspaper; so he was driven to looking out of the window. And for a long time the song of the wheels, as it came to him, was bitter.
“Why shouldn’t I? Why shouldn’t I? Why shouldn’t I?” the wheels seemed to say.
The sun was among the hills now, and the queer crooked shapes of them were blackening against an ever-deepening glow of orange. At some wayside station Madar Bax had brought tea and had laid out blankets and sheets along the two seats. There had been talk, but strangers’ talk; mostly about what he had learned from Mr. Curlew. It had flickered between them and then, as shadows filled the carriage, had died. There seemed, indeed, to be nothing to talk about, now that the great subject had been broached . . . and forbidden. He wished and he wished that he had never mentioned “making up.” Was his father after all nothing but a second Aunt Pamela? He didn’t want to think so. It was a dreadful thought, but . . . possible. He needed a smile to drive it away, but for a long time there had been no smile. Only staring, and little jumpy remarks. Perhaps his father didn’t really want a son, just as he himself didn’t particularly want a father. He didn’t particularly want anything except Joan and the place they had made up together. Joan . . . Joan . . . and the whispering-room . . . nothing else. . . .
The lights came on, suddenly, and the stones at the side of the track were framed in flickering yellow squares. But beyond was a curtain of deep blue, only faintly luminous with some lost glow of day. Now the air had magically changed. In Bombay it had held all the heaviness of thunder weather. During the ascent of the Ghats it had come in in hot gusts, like breaths from an oven door. But now it was stealing in like a kiss, with a faint but fragrant incense compounded of earth and grass and blossom and wood-smoke . . . stealing in through the open window to feed on his cheek and stir his hair. It seemed to bring the night and the land nearer, almost as if he were roaming out of doors; to bring, too, a sense of kindred, an instinctive welcome from the friendly country in which he had been born. Sleepiness came with it, and he nodded as he sat up and watched for the little fires by the wayside which glowed on the huddled forms of men. Once a high-pitched song floated in at the window . . . and that, too, seemed familiar.
Half asleep, he heard the suggestion that he should go to bed; and sleepily obeyed, going right into a corner to undress and then hurriedly slipping between the blankets. Very dimly conscious of being tucked up, and as dimly grateful, he muttered, “Thank you,” and curled up and lay as he always did, with his face shielded by his left hand. So, in the brief passing from sleepiness to sleep, he did not realize that his father was standing over him and looking down intently, with a curious expression of recollection, of almost incredulous recollection, nor see the puzzled indecision in the face of a very shy man.
Indeed, for that brief space, he had forgotten his father, for Joan had come near, and Christmas was not far away. Already they were straying into the promised land, and, if it was he who led the way through the woods and up the jaggly path where corn-flowers grew, it was she who pointed triumphantly at the long lines of windows molten with sunlight. Together they were dancing down shining galleries, gay with their peacock tapestries and battle-pictures and burnished suits of mail. Together—precious thought cherished for the very threshold of sleep—they were stooping to peep into the little room at the end of all, where firelight flickered like laughter and the corners were made for whispering. . . .
To Charles Vaine, still staring down, the happiness in his son’s face was amazing. Yet it woke no answering happiness. Like a man confronted with an insoluble problem, he first scratched and then shook his head. Finally, he reached down a blue volume entitled. “Quinquennial Report on Reafforestation in the Kumbala Special Area, United Provinces of Agra and Oudh,” and read eagerly, occasionally penciling a note in the margin, till midnight.
India burst on him in the morning, not as a vague background to thoughts, but appreciable and vivid, illimitable. It seemed as if they must travel for ever, for there was nothing definite to break the continuity of that vast plain, dotted with random clumps of trees, round whose trunks shreds of the night mist still lingered, giving the ground a fairy spaciousness. No hedges, no walls, no hill to make a clear horizon; no definite shapes, such as fields and woods and villages bear in England; but rather an infinite park-land, carpeted with young green wheat and red fallow, and shaded with self-sown trees, under a sky as patternless. The low, gray villages, wrapped in smoke and mist, had no beginning and no ending and no shape. They were scattered broadcast—mud houses, thatched shelters, squat temples, growing up as tangled and as haphazard as the creepers on their roofs. Cattle and goats—dots of brown and black—were straying seemingly where they would; men and women—dots of white and red and blue—plowing, drawing water, washing, loitering, seemed by their very insignificance to enhance the gigantic spaces of the land. And the very train was puffing along unconcernedly and unhurriedly, as on an endless mission.
Only now and then would a straight white road, flanked by thick trees, or a deep-scored cart-track split the world in half and for an instant make bounds.
But it was a glorious world. He could not take away his eyes from it. To wander through it thus without seeming to move—for that was the impression he had—was like reading secrets in a fairy-story, without having to turn the pages. There was time to see everything at once. In England the train had indicated secrets without revealing them, like some one turning over the pages of a book too quickly. Something interesting would appear—a man on a jibbing horse, or a man running to catch a train, or a dogfight, or a motor-car meeting a flock of sheep—and then, with a rattle and a dash, the train would shut out the picture and put in a wall or a hedge or a house or a hill instead, so that one never knew if the man fell off the horse, or if the man caught the train, or which dog won, or how the sheep behaved. The page was turned over much too quickly.
Here all the pages were open at once, and the secrets in them were far more absorbing. India, unconcerned with their passage, was living her life under their eyes. Already, when the mists still clung to the morning, the men and women were out of doors; only the children remained behind, to scramble for a view of the passing train, and naked, brown, steeped in sunlight, merry-faced, to wave and to sing. These little knots of children seemed to be the only inhabitants of deserted villages. Their fathers were already driving the creaking carts along the road; scratching the thin furrows on the fields with wooden plows; riding their diminutive ponies to a market twenty miles away; hurrying in excited groups to court; one and all bound on a purpose. Their mothers—hewers of wood and drawers of water—were already girt for the day’s drudgery, their bundles and their pots on their heads, their bare feet twinkling in the dust. And two thousand years ago—had he been able to transport himself on the same journey—they would have been doing precisely the same things, walking and talking in precisely the same way. So his father said. But the suggestion only increased his bewilderment.
That bewilderment had its birth in the sense of disparity between the world he had left—the world of regular streets and houses, of buses and perambulators and bowler hats—and the patternless world into which he was plunging. A stretch of sea, however wide, seemed too insignificant a link of such tremendous opposites. Reality itself must have been left behind in London. India was unreality, fairy-land. He had to rub his eyes to make sure that he was awake. These men, with walnut faces and black sticks for legs, content at most with underclothes for covering and, at least, with pocket-handkerchiefs; these hatless women, whose buoyant walk reminded him of horses in Hyde Park; these children, who were never even meant to wear clothes—did they really belong to the same species as Nicholas and his aunt and Joan and himself? Men, women, and children; the ordinary terms sounded silly, so silly that he could imagine that he had walked off the earth in his sleep and fallen upon another star where the only links with earth were his father and a railway-carriage that had fallen off, too.
Birds, too. He would be looking for something with sufficient birdhood, so to speak, in it to justify the name of bird; and then a blue-jay, fluttering from tree to tree beside the track, would flaunt its incredible color at him; or a pair of great gray cranes, red-legged, would fly in majestic unison over the cornfields as if to challenge him and say: “Birds? Dare you call us birds?”
Cows, then? But cows were no better. Could he be sure that that head with staring eyes and immense horns leering at him from a swampy bed really belonged to a cow? He was told so, but being told so was a vastly different matter from being certain. The perpetual question drumming inside his head, which of course he could not ask because it sounded ridiculous, was: “Are they all really real? If I were to get out, would they still be there?” Would there still be fantastic trees, growing out of mist? And shapeless villages? And puzzling people? And birds, too big or too blue? And cows with monstrous heads and unimaginable bodies, sunk to the neck in mud? Or would it all be wiped away and toned down to an uncharted blank?
The question was so strong on him at times that he actually clung to the window-frame, gripping the wood and concentrating all his powers on maintaining the vision as it was. For India came to him as a climax, and, like every real climax and every real surprise, was a little incredible, a little fraught with the fear of its going as it had come. So he needed to grip the scene with mind and eyes and hands to keep it his own.
The spell, for the time at least, was complete. The scene, and the morning air, and perhaps, too, some happy diplomacy of dreams in the night, were, in conjunction, too much for his doubts. A little time of seeing—every minute brimful of things to see—and then Christmas, and Joan, and a million more things to tell Joan. Had he been alone he would have sung another song of triumph out of the carriage window. As it was he sang it soundlessly, with his back to his father, who shaved and dressed and read as if no spells were abroad. So Charles Vaine missed the passionate, the intense radiance of his face; missed, too—because it was never expressed—the unique quality of that infinitely precious first dawning of India on a mind unprepared save through its own imaginings. He was, in fact, puzzled, and not unnaturally, for his staccato, “Well, India up to expectations?” was met with a blank look and a blush, as if the boy had not understood, and succeeded by silence. He could hardly know that his son was engrossed in sustaining a vision, or that he had just seen, in all its vanity of burnished green and magic blue, a real peacock—perched on a temple tower.
He had another new—and, in its way, equally startling—experience that day. For the first time in his life he was treated as a grown-up person. That is to say, he was expected to understand the trials and the problems and the grumbles of a disappointed man. And he found it very puzzling.
It began, hopefully enough, with disjointed remarks about the fascinations of India. He listened eagerly to them, for there were thousands of things that he wanted to know. For a time he reveled in descriptions—halting, but vivid enough—of camping and care of trees and elephants and the treatment of men. Much of it was above his head, but he understood enough to desire to hear more. Soon he began to ask questions. Then it was that, imperceptibly, his father began to talk about himself. Then, too, he discovered that when his father talked about himself there was less fumbling for words. With a set face and a certain lugubrious bitterness of tone, he talked and talked and talked. And the more he talked the more puzzled Jimmy became. For the impression grew on him that his father had forgotten that he was there.
“Too old to work . . . at fifty. That’s their idea. So I’m to go . . . and even a boy like you can see that I shall be a fish out of water anywhere else but here. Woodcraft . . . why, five and twenty years is nothing of an education in woodcraft . . . just beginning to be useful. Just beginning to be useful. But no. Time’s up. No use for you. Young blood. Young fiddlesticks! My experience . . .”
“India! India gets into your blood, if it’s not there already. You can’t do without it. Not if you’ve once been bitten. It’s a poison . . . it’s a drug. You’ve got to keep on. Why, even a young fellow like Nicholas can’t keep away . . . told me he hated England . . . aching to get back . . . different man once he set foot in Bombay . . . And I’d do the same if it weren’t for your schooling. I’d buy and settle. Nothing easier. But . . . you. don’t know anything. They don’t seem to have begun to put anything into your head. Not your fault, but . . .”
He listened politely, but none the less uncomfortably. It seemed that his father was being forced to give up his work because some one unknown thought him too old, which was of course unfair; that he was having to leave India, which he loved, which was more unfair still; and that he had no chance of enjoying the last few months, because of a mysterious process known as “handing over,” which involved incessant and unnecessary work up to the moment of departure. But that was not all. In some funny way he himself was involved. It was his schooling that was at the bottom of it. If it were not for his schooling they could both stay in India for ever. That was the uncomfortable part of it all.
Of course, he could see a way out. It puzzled him that his father should not have seen it, too. Wipe out school, and the whole thing was easy. Wipe out school, and join the Nicholases; in fact, he suggested it.
“I’d rather stay here,” he faltered.
But the answer was only a gloomy stare and a remark about neglected responsibilities. The subject was dropped then. His father returned to the blue book, and he to the window. And although he felt a sympathy for the tired man who had so much to grumble about, he also felt that in some way he himself was being blamed for something he couldn’t help. Again that impulse of revolt that had stirred him the night before came back to him, and he turned fiercely to the window and to dreams of Joan. Christmas . . . at Christmas everything would be all right.
Yet another morning ended the eventful journey. Light showed the plains still stretching unbroken to right and left; but ahead there now lay blue hills, their lower slopes darkened with a shadow of forest, and beyond and above them, impalpable and detached as a summer cloud, hung the snows. Then, it seemed, the jungle crept down the hills toward them, spreading over the plain—now in thicker clumps of trees, now in thorn-brakes feeling like fingers along sluggish streams, now in established outposts of thick bamboo and cane, and lastly in a long line of golden grass breaking like the uneven wash of a wave on the cultivated lands.
Then suddenly—climax to a climax—they plunged into the very body of the forest; into dark, secret places where the trees almost met over the track and the reed-like grass would have covered an elephant; through sunny spots where scarlet dagh blossoms were strewed on cropped grass, and emerald parrots swooped away like so many bright arrows; past tiny stations, hemmed in and dwarfed by trees. Every moment the magic of the East was at work, fulfilling dreams with visions that surpassed dreams, yet lavish with promises of more marvels still. For after all this was only the train. Soon—ecstatic, breathless, perilous thought—they would be living in that jungle; walking in it; sleeping in it. He would be left alone in it, perhaps even lost in it . . . and what might not happen then?
At last Charles Vaine suddenly shut up his book, jumped up, and began to pack.
“Sardapur,” he said. “My headquarters. We get but, young man,” and it was as if he shared Jimmy’s excitement, for he kept looking out of the window and humming an odd, moody, absent-minded tune of his own, much like a monologue on two notes. It was easy to see that his heart lay in Sardapur, and that he had grudged every minute spent away from it. And when the train jerked to a standstill by a platform piled with balks of sawed timber, and a small motley group—fat spectacled babu in black, orderlies in green and scarlet, nondescripts in khaki—came salaaming to the door, he jumped out of the carriage and plunged into Hindustani as if he had altogether forgotten the existence of his anxious offspring. Actually he had acquiesced in the babu’s hopeful:
“This way, sir. Everything ready, sir,” and had hurried ten yards along the platform before he remembered that he had not come alone.
“I declare I forgot you for the moment,” he said, when some one had called attention to the chota sahib, who already had begun imagining himself marooned at the edge of the jungle; and, obviously preoccupied, added something about pressure of work and “going into camp almost immediately.”
Beyond a vague surmise as to what would happen should his father forget him in the pathless forests that lay ahead of him—a surmise not without its attractions—Jimmy paid little attention to the matter. For all among those piles of saffron sal wood in the timber yard brown monkeys were playing hide-and-seek. While, towering imminent over their heads against the immaculate blue sky, were the gray buttresses of a gigantic gorge, set like a gate to the infinite hills that blotted out the north.
All the way up the road to the forest bungalow that gorge obsessed his eyes. As they climbed higher he caught a glimpse of white water falling among pine-trees. Then, when they turned into the compound, he saw as in a flash the immensity of the promised land. A living map was suddenly unfolded, for the bungalow stood out on a cliff sheer above the broad bed of a river which swept, sparkling, down from that gray gorge, forked half a mile to the south in two leisurely channels, and melted, miles away, into the green haze of the forest. On the other side were the deep, undulating mysteries—sal woods and great bamboo thickets—of Nepal; and on this side the light sunny glades and the golden grass plains of the Terai. .Toward the hills and over the hills the trees thickened and darkened. And, with a wave of the hand that included all the hither side of the river and all the westward hills up to the dim blue line of the Siwaliks, Charles Vaine said, as a man repeats a creed:
“You’re looking at my division. You can walk for forty miles out there and still be in my division.”
And then, with almost a groan, as if the shadow of retirement had come near:
“Bigger than Yorkshire . . . and that’s what I’ve got to say good-by to.”
Having said that, he hunched his shoulders in the doleful way he had and stalked into the little white bungalow. But Jimmy, because he was greeting and not saying good-by, stayed behind and gazed till he had a picture of the place laid by in his mind for ever . . . and even then still gazed. Hatless, with the wind of the gorge gently stirring his fair hair: flushed and breathless, as if he had run, not walked up the hill; a little frail, seen alone on his cliff and confronted by such gigantic heights and spaces, but with eagerness in every line of him; eyes bright, mouth open—so he stood, and his soul sang. For surely this was the place that he had looked for ever since he had learned to dream.
The cliff . . . he was standing on the cliff. At his feet water, as blue and as bright as any sea. Behind him, above him, right and left of him, filling the eye . . . sunlit forest. And as a bulwark, as a wall, the hills with their gray backs arrowed with pines and with closer greenery clustering about their feet. Only a big house was lacking, and for that there was room. It could take the place of the little white bungalow. It should have a tower, of course—a high pointed tower with windows north, south, east, and west—and a telescope. Then they would be able to see forty miles, see the river winding like a blue snake through the little green trees—see wild elephants bathing and deer drinking—he and Joan.
For Joan would come to him here. After Christmas he would bring her back with him in the train. But he wouldn’t tell her what he was bringing her to. In the train it should be a secret. Then, when the train stopped, he would jump out first and hurry her into a closed carriage and tell the man to drive quickly up the hill. She would have to keep her eyes shut till they were standing on the cliff. Then . . . “Everything’s ready.”
And everything must be ready. She had said so. She would ask dozens and dozens of questions, and he must have the answers pat, or she would pout and say, “I don’t think much of your ‘Everything’s ready.’” He mustn’t be like the fat babu who had had to change his, “Everything ready, sir,” to, “Chowkidar saying everything ready, sir,” when the keys of the bungalow couldn’t be found and the veranda was full of goats. None of that for Joan!
His very words must be ready:
“We couldn’t have the sea very well, but there’s this river. It’s really nicer, I think, and anyhow it goes into the sea. . . . There’s the boat, by that hut, and you can see a jaggly path coming out of the hut, and”—dubiously—“lots of corn-flowers, and”—with confidence—“millions of trees. And from our tower you can see. . . .”
He did not go on with what you could see, because at that moment he could see so clearly . . . Joan. Joan, with her tumbled hair, bright as new pennies, defying the green tam-o’-shanter that he liked her best to wear; Joan, with her pink cheeks and big, eager eyes; Joan, dancing for joy one minute, and the next—with a flash of petticoats and a twinkle of brown legs—racing him to the house; Joan, caught at last in the whispering-room . . .
“Is everything ready . . . silly?”
“Yes, everything’s ready . . . Joan.”
Next morning began Charles Vaine’s last cold-weather tour as a forest officer. Camels ushered it in. A string of them, piloted by a phlegmatic individual with a short black beard and a massive black pipe, filed like dun ghosts into the compound. From his bed Jimmy could see through the chick curtain a great craning of heads and dancing of clumsy legs before they could be persuaded to kneel down, and hear the jingling of their bells and guttural complaints at their loads. Then, after he was dressed, he saw them file out again, strangely top-heavy with their burdens of tents and tent-poles and zinc baths and striped blue dhurries, to disappear in the smoking dust of the forest road. After them—very silent and dignified in comparison—came an elephant. And with an elephant looming ten yards away—swaying slightly from side to side and making furtive passes with its trunk at a shrub—it was absurd to be expected to eat porridge. In spite of his father’s lugubrious, “You’ll see plenty of them. You’ll be sick of riding them in a week,” he could not take his eyes off that elephant; and the shriveled old mahout, sitting motionless as a carved image on its neck, seemed to be the most privileged person in all India. To be a mahout. . . .
Yet soon he was almost as privileged as the mahout—at least, sitting on the pad in front of his father, he could see over the old man’s head; see, after clasping the rope very tight at the ponderous rise and the first few lurching paces, as a god might see men . . . from on high. It was a glorious sensation to look down at the world from elephant-back—to be level with the gutter of the bungalow roof, and actually higher than the cramped booths of the village bazaar; to pass, magnificently swaying, the upturned faces of the salaaming bunnias; and to smile down at the naked children in the dust, dancing and waving and chanting that nursery-rhyme that he was to hear afresh in every village, “Hathi-hathi-ganna-de! Hathi-hathi-ganna-de!” Sick in a week—sick of riding elephants in a week!” He turned and laughed in his father’s face.
But Charles Vaine, who was remembering that this was the start of his last tour in an Indian forest, was in no mood for laughing. He sat all hunched up and gloomed at the children, smoking furiously.
Soon they had swept out of the village and were rocking gently to the accompaniment of that steady, nearly noiseless shuffle which left a trail of such satisfying footprints in the dust. Wonderful footprints, round and big as frying-pans—yet spaced to a hair’s-breadth. More wonderful still, if there were a hundred elephants on the road instead of one there would still be but one track behind them. So said his father, roused to a momentary interest, and was borne out with a, “Ji, Huzoor. Ek-hi mallan,” and a nod of the beard, by the old mahout.
But the silence of it! The great beast made no more noise walking than a child would make on that rutty road; and the jungle seemed to intensify the stealth of their progress. The road was walled on either side by leafage so close and so mysterious that it was impossible not to imagine the presence of crouching, peeping things just behind the screen. Only now and then, in a gap made by some fallen tree, could they see a tangle of rotting branches and giant cobwebs, veiled in twilight. Then it was like looking into a gray cavern. You expected to see eyes.
It grew, that sense of being watched, the illusion of silent places. The ears seemed to catch the ghost of a rustle, the stirring of unseen creatures somewhere behind the leaves. And, at every turn in the road and on the threshold of every clearing, the eyes would rove quickly round for the sight of something, something which, instinct said, had just been there; something that had only just gone round the corner; something alert, seeing but not seen.
Indeed, they went three full miles without actually seeing a living thing or hearing a recognizable sound. Then Jimmy could stand it no more. He asked his father what had happened.
Charles Vaine, naturalist at heart, warmed to the subject in spite of himself.
“Happened? Everything’s happened. You don’t suppose that’s”—he waved his pipe at the trees—“empty? I tell you, young man, every instant something important happens in there. Something’s born or killed; something’s startled. Not one creature that isn’t hunting or hunted or expecting to be hunted. But you want to have eyes, you know . . . and even then you’ll only see one millionth . . . and that after the fun’s over. You’ll see scores of pug-marks, but you’ll be lucky to see what made ’em; and plenty of bones, but not often a tiger. If I’ve heard the monkeys coughing and the peafowl screaming and half the jungle marking a tiger once I’ve heard it a thousand times . . . yet I’ve never seen a tiger, as I’d give my eyes to see one, just strolling about on his own, or having a roll and a scratch. I don’t count driven tigers. . . . Seen them? Of course. Who hasn’t? And I haven’t seen a moonlight elephant dance, and I don’t suppose any one else has either. Yet I don’t doubt they happen. Everything happens . . . in there . . . but not for us, young man. We’re out of it, even the keenest and the wisest and quietest of us. We’re not even inside the fringe of it. We don’t know the language. We don’t even know the a-b-c. So if you ever think of becoming a naturalist, go humbly and remember that after five and twenty years of it your father was still boggling over the alphabet of wood-lore.”
It was the longest speech he had ever heard his father make, and there was a heat and enthusiasm in the delivery that any other time would have startled him considerably. But it chanced that, the same instant, something still more startling occurred.
They had dipped down into a hollow, one of the innumerable little ravines of the foot-hills, with a dry watercourse at the bottom. At least it was almost dry. Just below the road, shaded right over by an arch of low branches, was a water-hole, relict of the summer rains. Black water, flecked to amber where the sunlight had found a way through, and—this was the wonderful thing about it—rocking, dimpled, disturbed! A second before, while they had been talking, something had been drinking there.
More, there was a clue to that something—a scatter of feet on leaves and a crash of a body in brushwood, and, for one fraction of a second, the flash of dapple, gone so quickly that, but for the noise, it might have been nothing but a trick of sunlight and shade.
“Cheetal doe,” muttered Charles.
“Cheetal . . . madin,” echoed the mahout.
But to Jimmy—then and always—it was a tiger that had been drinking there. The conversation had led up to a tiger and . . . a tiger it was! That crash through the bushes . . . that flash of yellow fur, striped—yes, striped—was tiger, and nothing else but tiger. Dull indeed he must be who thought that the shadow of branches could account for such stripes as those.
And for the rest of the ride he was perfectly convinced that that tiger was stalking them among the trees—step for their step. Which surmise accounts for the fact that, though he daily rode on elephant-back on roads similar in all respects to this one, and though his father was seldom conversationally inclined—having other things to think about—he never grew sick of the process. Quite the contrary, since for everything seen a hundred were imagined.
There was another experience which—though sameness itself—never lost its wonder, and that was camp. The very routine of it—the jingling of the camel-bells at unloading, and the writhing, darting heads; the busy battering in of pegs; the bustle over fires; and the lugging and lifting of the tents till at the last their shapes grew regular and squat and satisfying—not a detail was missed by the anxious figure, standing engrossed in the sunny clearing. Though Hindustani came back to him in a rush of remembered phrases and he was fluent within a week, he asked very few questions of anybody. He really preferred to be alone and to look on, which was as well, since Charles was invariably busy and preferred himself to be alone. For that reason, perhaps, he was given a small bell-tent to himself.
That tent 1 Every time he went inside it and closed the flap he had that same glorious sense of security, of possessiveness, that marked his first entry on that first morning. The blue and white dhurry, soft and crackling because there was straw underneath; the neat camp-bed, tucked under the sloping white wall; the unsteady folding chair and the still more unsteady folding wash-stand; the chipped blue enamel jug and the dented basin . . . positively, had they been Sheraton and Sèvres they could have excited no more affection. Battered and trodden and bruised and old . . . they were his. And the tent was an attic with a sloping roof; a topmost attic, hard to come by and therefore loved. Not for worlds would he have exchanged it for the huge structure that formed his father’s office and bedroom, or for the dining-room tent, or any other tent in the world. It was simple. It was small. It was perfect. It was his.
But at night, when the light was out, it changed its character. It seemed to grow so vast that he had the illusion of sleeping in the open air—an illusion borne out by the triangle of starlit sky seen through the open flap. The wonderful night air—always friendly, always fraught with the freshness of dewy leaves and the crisp scent of camp-fires—could steal in here unalloyed. And when the men ceased singing and the murmur of the camp died, stranger sounds would steal in with it; sudden sounds that would cause him to draw the bedclothes tighter and lie tense and staring; sounds that recalled only one previous experience. They reminded him of the caged animals’ welcome to thunder rain on that far-off afternoon at the Zoo, when he had stood in a puddle with the rain dripping down his neck and had shouted and sung. Now every night brought the same salute to freshness. The owls hooted it, and the night-jars, with a sound that had gurgling water in it, passed it on; the jackals echoed it mournfully, and dogs answered the jackals; a mating leopard rasped it; and the deer, by snort and bark and bell, carried it far away. Every night these sounds; and on one gala night two more that set his heart beating madly . . . the humming, purring, nasal song of a questing tiger, and the squealing trumpet of a restive wild elephant.
He never forgot that night. He was standing—a shivering but exulting figure—at the entrance of the tent, fascinated by the moonlight and the ground, lacquered in silver and ebony. From far away, in a calm unbroken by the indefinite hum of day, he could hear a clear call of the wild—the bell of a sambar. Once . . . twice . . . like a distant hunting-horn. Silence. Then, startlingly near—at his elbow almost, it seemed—rose that unearthly whine; rose; throbbed and throbbed; died in a purr. He listened, spell bound. Then—like a blow across his tense nerves—came the squeal of that young elephant. And that seemed to be nearer still. . . .
He fled into bed, and dragged the clothes over his head. Nor did he ever afterward look on moon-lit ground without imagining shadows—gross shadows and sinuous shadows—shadows with tusks and shadows with stripes—stealing nearer and nearer. And he always had the same thrill—that belonged essentially to night—of delight and terror. Delight and terror, mixed.
Right from the start they were continually on the move, visiting the tiny jungle hamlets which—though consisting only of a clearing, a forest bungalow, and a few huts—were known by such grandiloquent names. Dogari, Chorgalia, Jeolasal, Ronsali, Nanakmatta . . . there was a fascination in the sound of them, as of rare names buried among the trees and seldom mouthed. Short, easy names, it seemed, were left for the hurried speech of cities. Men took their time about it when they were expressing the dignity of the jungle.
They traveled by all sorts of roads, and sometimes by no road at all. There were the straight rides that cut the forest like a knife; and winding cart-tracks with their perpetual promise of something exciting just round the corner; the little paths of woodmen and the still smaller paths of deer, where huge black spiders with yellow bodies spun webs from creeper to creeper. Sometimes they followed rivers, and that was exciting because there were always tracks in the sand by rivers—history of hunters and hunted, fated both to drink of the same stream. Tiger-tracks and leopard-tracks and the sharp imprint of deer . . . he came to know them all; came, too, to look, in sunny glades, for the mild eyes and the soft ears of hinds at gaze, or the craning, anxious head of a stag, pausing to puzzle out the problem of familiar elephant in connection with unfamiliar man. And, since Charles had no interest in shooting, they saw more than most people see. Once they got near enough to a herd of elephants for a photograph; elephants standing in deep water and spraying each other’s humpy, shiny backs. And always, when there were no animals about, there was something to be learned about trees. “My children,” Charles called them. Children, indeed, they might have been, to judge from his manner with them. They brought out all his enthusiasm. When he measured a tree his hand would linger on it and his eyes would soften, almost as if he were fondling something beloved. And he loathed the sound of a saw.
To a stranger they would have appeared a curious couple—both shy, both silent, both preoccupied. There was none of the sustained intimacy that would be expected to blossom under the circumstances. Intimacy—if it could be called that—flickered rather between them, in little jerks and flashes, when they happened to be talking about something which interested them both. There was no outward sign of affection. Perhaps none was felt. It was as if they were separated by a barrier of unsaid or half-said things. Thus, the memory of the mother, which might have affected much, was kept in silence, though it was clear enough that all through the last tour she was in Charles’s thoughts. In saying good-by to the jungle he was saying good-by to something intimately shared. Yet for him there was no safety-valve in talk. Long ago—perhaps on the day of her death—secretiveness had set in.
But an even more fruitful source of gloom was the fact of the last tour. It was never entirely out of his thoughts, and it was expressed in a passionate, almost fanatical clinging to the present; a tremendous effort to absorb the environment of the places he loved, and thus to provide for the lean years ahead. So as the days went on he became like a man hunted; snatching his meals, driving himself and his subordinates to dropping-point, curtailing his sleep, waking again tired. And so it went on: inspections from dawn till dusk, then office-files till midnight. Often long after midnight there was a light in his tent.
The reaction was inevitable. Pessimism—that poison infused through the lonely, jaded days of many hot weathers—had got into his veins. Now it mastered him. And with it was mingled that subtler sister poison of India, fatalism. He used on occasion to say very bitter things, things that would have made the atmosphere trying to an older man, let alone a boy. So there were times when Jimmy was bewildered; when he was conscious of a dim, troubling sympathy mingled with a dim distaste; when he felt strangely old and in doubt.
But that he was not often, for two things assuredly saved him. One was a queer little mine, tucked away somewhere inside him, of expectancy and confidence; a streak of faith which was perhaps the heritage from the mother who had kept cholera a secret rather than worry her husband. The other thing was . . . Christmas.
Christmas! The thought of it was so precious that he could never bring himself to speak of it. Though he longed to know when they were to start, how they were to go, how long it would take, how long they would stay, he could never come to the point of asking his father. He could never frame the questions. He could hug Christmas, and squeeze Christmas secretly under the table in his two hands, and dream of Christmas. But he dared not put Christmas into words. Dared not . . . that was the word. His father would never understand what it meant to him to be going back to Joan. He would frown and twist his mustache and say: “Christmas! When did I ever say anything about Christmas? Surely, you’ve found out by this time, young man, that your father’s a—very—busy—man.” He might even . . .
He knew it was absurd to be like that about it, when it had all been properly arranged.
“You’ll spend Christmas with us?” Nicholas had said, and Mrs. Nicholas had chirped in:
“Yes, you’re both to come to us at Christmas”; and his father—he could still hear that slow, detached drawl—had said:
“Christmas? Well, we’ll have to see. Yes, certainly, unless something unforeseen happens . . . see how your place has grown up.” And Joan—Joan had nodded and pinched his hand. All arranged . . . but . . .
Speak of it? Why, he could not even think of it without feeling tremulous, without a thumping of the heart and a delicious sense of secrets. It was like knowing of hidden treasure, but not looking at it outright . . . only peeping, and peeping again and again. It was like magic, because it was almost—not quite—too good to be true. Everything led up to it—the nice things, because he was going to pour them out for Joan—and how they seethed and bubbled in his mind now! The nasty things, because they only showed how happy he was going to be. Everything led up to it.
One day . . . two days . . . three . . . he didn’t know how long they would have there. But he crammed everything that he had ever wanted to do and say and feel into that wonderful period. He didn’t know how long . . . and therefore he made it boundless. There was no after-Christmas. Perhaps the world would come to an end then. Or perhaps there would be an earthquake or something, and they would have to stay with the Nicholases for ever, cut off by a chasm or a flood or a flame from the ordinary life. Something like that, surely, because there could be no after-Christmas.
He made it an instrument, too, of the sweetest torture imaginable. “If I don’t tread on all those sticks I won’t have Christmas,” he would say to himself as he walked along a path. Then came nervous work: incredible strides and contortions, so that not a stick should be missed; breathless balancings on one leg; desperate hops, calculations, tremors, and hops. But in the end a series of defeated sticks, cracked and broken sticks, and . . . Christmas reasserted, triumphantly sustained. Pledged fifty times a day, fifty times a day breathlessly redeemed . . . that was Christmas. Wearing work, but utterly delightful.
And now Christmas was a bare fortnight away, and he must talk to somebody about it, or burst. The thought was too big for him to carry about alone. Like a kettle, he must boil over or burst . . . and he preferred to boil over. Hence the letter—the great letter—the first letter to Joan.
It ought to have been easy. He had a tent and a table and a chair. He had a writing-case; one compartment literally crammed with note-paper, virgin white. He had a yellow pencil—a hexagonal yellow pencil—and a penny pencil-sharpener. He had sealing-wax, unblackened, unsullied with previous use. He had solitude. At a low computation he had a million things to write about. He could not therefore blame his equipment. Yet it wasn’t easy.
Should he tell her everything? Then there would be nothing left to whisper at Christmas. Should he tell her nothing? Then why write? A bit—that was what he was going to tell her—but which bit? Just something to show that he was counting the days, and that he hadn’t forgotten the weeniest morsel of what they had made up to do—very good! Lovely! But . . . difficult.
He must be pictured off and on for three days in the yellow half-light of a little tent; both arms on a rickety dressing-table, that clattered every time he moved—clattered obscurely and annoyingly; contorting himself because the seat of the chair was hard, and writing to Joan a breathless experience; rumpling his hair till it stood up like a haycock; chewing that new pencil, tasting cedar-wood and gritty lead; writing, tearing up, starting again, all with grunts and groans and smiles, hot face and expectant eyes. Then, at the end, pounding the gummed envelope with his fist; eying it; running to the cook-tent to borrow matches; strewing the floor with matches and the envelope with stray blobs of red wax; burning, then sucking, his finger; but breathing deep breaths, smiling, triumphant with the letter in his hand.
He knew it by heart. Though he had shut it up and pounded it and sealed it with a finger-mark, he couldn’t help saying it over to himself and seeing the words, big and round as he had written them.
“Dear Joan,” it began. He had started with “Darling Joan,” and then had torn it up. “Dearest Joan” had suffered the same fate. He would never be able to say either of them; and why write what he could never say, not if he lived to be a hundred? So, “Dear Joan.”
Then, “We’re coming at Christmas like we said. I haven’t asked him yet”—he wrote of his father just as he thought of him—“and I don’t know when we’re to start, but we’re coming. It’s only thirteen and a half days now . . .”
He had worked that out on the blotting-pad, and the days were in a line waiting to be crossed out.
“ . . . and only thirteen really, because I don’t count half. I’m writing in a tent. It’s little, but I like it best, and it’s mine, you know. I remember all the things we made up and I’ve added some new. He says he wouldn’t if I were you. Make up, I mean. But I can’t help it. I’ll tell you at Christmas. Oh, and everything’s ready like you said, so it’ll be happy Christmas. Won’t it?
“With love, your loving
That was all. But it had taken three days and had used up, one way and another, fourteen of those virgin sheets of note-paper and five envelopes, not to speak of half a hexagonal pencil and all the sealing-wax. Moreover, it was the longest letter he had ever written. But it was for none of these reasons that he hugged it in his hands when everything had been done and it was really ready. It was because of what he had put inside it—not so much words as visions—terribly precious things.
Now that he had written it he was afraid to post it. To drop it into the letter-box outside the office-tent; to see it no more till it was emptied, with a flood of other letters, on to the ground by that very black man in khaki—the dakwala; then to watch it being carelessly bundled into a sack . . . and the sack left about, while the dakwala had a puff at the camel-man’s pipe; to know that the sack would be banged about—sat on—possibly dropped in the jungle and eaten by jackals . . . it was a terrible process, posting precious things. If he and Joan had a carrier-pigeon, now. . . .
But it must be posted. Otherwise—some obscure whim of self-torture decreed this—he would miss Christmas. One more pledge—this letter. And the cruel part of it was that the redemption depended not on his own agility in stepping on sticks, but on the antics of a man whom his father constantly referred to as the laziest hound in the camp. Still, posted it must be.
Clutching it tight behind his back, he stood in the tent-entrance and looked across a maze of guy-ropes at the little red box hanging drunkenly from a pole. Then he looked at the letter . . . the seal . . . the clean white envelope . . . the . . .
Suddenly he was in agony. If he had posted it! If he had posted it without an address!
Then, worse agony. He didn’t know the address!
That, he realized, meant his father. Sooner or later . . . better sooner than later.
Slowly, lagging as if he were ashamed, he walked over the guy-ropes and the scorched grass to the office-tent.
He was unfamiliar with the office end of the tent. Perhaps that was why he noticed everything about it so particularly. The big, untidy table—littered with papers in brown covers tied up with pink tape, and pens and pencils and brass compasses and foot-rules—was in an alcove under an awning, and on three sides of it were green chick curtains. To him, coming in from the sunlight, the whole place looked green—dark green and, in a way, chilly. His father was sitting facing the green chicks. There was a sort of shadow over his face that made it look gray. Stern, he looked. The fat babu was bending over his father’s shoulder and fumbling about with papers.
“Here, sir,” he was saying, “serial Number Fourteen—instructions from honorable secretary to Government in the Department of . . . hum, hum, hum . . . No, sir, I have mistaken, sir. Serial Number Eighteen, circular letter from . . .”
“Twelve!” his father was shouting, “plain as your face, you, blasted . . . Well, what do you want?”
For him, the last remark. His father was staring at him and tapping on the table. . . . Tap, tap-a-tap. Tap, tap-a-tap . . . quick.
He was trembling. He hadn’t expected the green light or the chilliness or the babu . . . the babu who was staring at him, too . . . with his yellow eyes . . . with his round yellow eyes . . .
“I, I’ve been writing a letter . . .”
Why didn’t that babu go? How could he, could he go on, with that shiny face just there, all glistening with sweat . . .?
“Yes. What d’you want? I’m. . .”
Busy . . . yes, of course. He knew that.
“I’ve written about Christmas.”
“About going to them at Christmas . . . like . . . like we said . . .”
It was ghastly. His father looked . . . hard. He kept glancing down at the papers, and tapping. And that babu, smiling to himself, smirking . . .
“Going to . . . them . . . at Christmas? Going to . . . Oh, I see. Well . . .”
“Christmas camp fixed for Kaladunghi, sir. Delimitation of Notified Area boundary with deputy commissioner sahib. Inspection, sir, of . . .”
That hateful babu had chipped in. He would like to kill that babu; hurt him first and then kill him. Smirking—he knew he was smirking, though now he couldn’t see him properly. He was going to cry. His throat was aching with tears. His eyes were hot. Oh, they couldn’t . . .
“Hold your tongue!”
One for the babu. The babu wasn’t smirking now. But . . . what was his father saying? What was he saying?
“. . . Pressure of work . . . don’t want to be unsociable, but I’m behindhand as it is. Can’t leave things just anyhow. My successor . . . Lost a week fetching you from Bombay. Unavoidable . . . not your fault, but . . . No, I’m afraid it’s out of the question. In fact . . .”
There was something pounding like an engine in his head; a hot, heavy, horrible thing. He must get out . . . somewhere in the air . . . in the woods . . . anywhere.
Oh, what had he said? How could he have said it? How could he?
He was out in the sunlight. It was hot on his head, but not so hot as the inside of his head. That was fire.
Guy-ropes . . . dozens and dozens of white guy-ropes, all misty. They were dragging at his knees, and his feet were heavy.
He fell over a tent-peg, and got up very slowly. Then, groping, found the entrance of his tent. He lay down on the little bed with his hands clutched tightly over his face; and between his hands and his hot face the bulging envelope—the cold, wet, crumpled paper.
Disillusionment is deep water, it takes time to clear. It is hard, too, to estimate the quality of a tragedy when the victim is but nine years old and never mentions it. So Charles Vaine never knew—never even began to guess—that he had damaged something precious—a vision—a promise. The boy was quiet, but he was always that. He ate next to nothing—as before. He smiled seldom; that was hereditary. He looked peaky and had headaches; who wouldn’t in an abnormally stuffy Terai spring? He mooned about by himself; he talked to himself . . . Well, he was his father’s son.
Besides, Charles was undoubtedly busy. There were the usual eleventh-hour harryings from Government—requisitions for reports, marked “Immediate and confidential”; requisitions for timber; requisitions for labor, turpentine, advice . . . anything that was calculated to distract attention from the formidable business of handing over command. For the last month or two he hardly realized the existence of his son. On the ship he had a breakdown. And in England it was altogether too late. The ache in Jimmy had turned numb. There was a numb place . . . just that.
Impossible, while they were still in places treasured for Joan—jungle places, lovely places—not to ache; impossible while he was on a ship not to expect to meet her at every turn, smiling. But in England it was possible to be numb; possible after a time not to think of her. While they were in the London hotel he achieved that. He was desperately unhappy, though, in that London hotel.
Then came summer and change; and somehow he began to think of her again. Doubtfully, falteringly, painfully . . . but he did begin. For that there were various causes. There was a letter from Nicholas—a short note with a funny sentence in the middle, “You’ve the makings of a philosopher—don’t shirk thinking things out,” and a precious sentence at the end, “We’ll ferret you out one day.” There was a book from Joan, with a big scrawl in it: “Jimmy with love from Joan.” “Treasure Island” it was, and the magical story of another boy, the ups and downs, the challenges to fortune—these, too, played their part in giving what was almost a new lease of life to him. But most of all it was that hardy strain of faith in himself that wrought the change—faith as unsuspected as a seed in the ground; but, like a seed, stirring and active; imperious in its hold on him, its amazing insistence that still—yes, still—everything could be all right. Sometimes, when almost unconsciously he would start the old dreams, peeping into forbidden places and finding them not utterly dark, he would feel a sudden surprise at himself. It was wonderful to find the old thoughts still there; to be waylaid, as it were; to be told: “Here we are, just the same as ever . . . your old dreams. We shall hurt you. Oh, we shall make you ache! But you can’t get away from us. You can’t. You can’t. And . . . you wouldn’t if you could!”
And so it was. There were desperate struggles, storms, tempests. But the dreams had their way. They beat him down. In spite of himself he began to cherish the thought that some day . . .
Nicholas had once prophesied that Charles, on his retirement, would buy a piece of land, put barbed wire round it, and grow saplings. The prophecy proved materially correct, for Charles, after two months’ hesitation in a Bloomsbury hotel, did buy a small estate—two hundred acres of indifferent soil and a reputed Carolean farm—and did plant trees.
Dunbarrow Farm, as it was called, was set somewhat bleakly in the last slope of the downs which subside stage by stage—from Sleepless Hill to Pilot Hill, from Ladle Hill to St. John’s Hill—between Inkpen Beacon and Wootton St. Lawrence. Standing perhaps three hundred feet, it looked over its own spinneys, past the undecided middle country, into the broad plain of fields and trees and homesteads which infolds the red brick and the misty chimneys of Reading. Down there, in the plain, was company enough—to every few fields the glint of roof or window. But Dunbarrow Farm, though commanding a view of beaten tracks and populous villages, seemed doomed to loneliness. Its very attitude was aloof. It seemed to shrink into a fold of the down, as if ashamed; and its gates, permitted still to bar an otherwise public—albeit, little-used—road, enhanced the impression of conscious privacy. Possibly this character accounted for Charles Vaine’s choice of it. He was well accustomed to living two miles from the nearest human habitation; ten, more often than not.
It was not unbeautiful, though its beauty lay rather in accessories—in an ancient high-backed barn; in a wide green, dominated by a single twisted oak; in an ivy-clad garden wall full five feet thick, enshrining a roofless summer-house of autumn-tinted brick, inevitably endowed with a legend of king’s hiding. Itself, it had the austerity, without the charm, of age; externally at least. Inside, the low ceilings and the dim diamond panes seemed to invite the presence of the dark old furniture which Charles Vaine never thought of buying.
That love of furnishing had been left out of his composition, or long forgotten in twenty-three years of making shift. So the furniture of Dunbarrow hesitated between two standards, the bare, uncompromising standard of the forest bungalow and the ramshackle standard of camp. In his own study, for instance, he put a plain deal table and camp-chairs. In the dining-room—once a generous kitchen, and still retaining the blackened ceiling and the uneven red-tiled floor—he also put deal chairs and a deal table, distinguished, however, by a varnish which perennially glistened, as if wet. For easy-chairs—it was their only other sitting-room—they had products of Roorki, which held blessed memories for Jimmy, who had sat on them in camp and had seen them bound to the backs of camels. In the bedrooms stood the old camp-beds flanked by new chests of drawers; once more of deal, but painted white. For long there were no pictures, till Charles unearthed a set of water-colors done long ago in Philibhit by his wife, and put them in a forlorn array on the dining-room walls: fragile, dainty scenes; ghosts of faded sunsets and beaches and glades, overpowered by the shadows and the spaces of the room; but nevertheless the one touch of homeliness. Of their painter there was no picture. She lingered only in these gentle relics of her handiwork.
There were book-shelves—legacy of the last owner—but few books. And, if the atmosphere of the house demanded dark furniture, it no less clearly demanded the presence of books. Books would, so to speak, have saved its face. True, there were the paper-bound reports of forest surveys, and the annual reports of the Imperial Forest Department, with some tattered manuals in German and English, and a number of note-books filled with diagrams and calculations. But the covers were as uninspiring as the contents . . . and still the deep shelves cried out for books. Jimmy’s own hoard—“Treasure Island,” the “Jungle Books,” “Vice Versa,” the works of Shakespeare in a school edition, “Robinson Crusoe,” “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” and some school-books dating from the obscure period of Miss Webster—occupied the floor-space between his chest of drawers and the wall, until he went to school. There he had carpentering lessons, and the first-fruits were book-shelves.
Though the inside of the house, through no fault of its own, was denied its heritage of romance, there was one feature of the premises which generously made up the loss—that summer-house at the bottom of the garden path. Poate, the gardener, who was unresponsive to queries about fruits and flowers, would wax positively garrulous on the subject of that summer-house. It was older than the house . . . twice, three times as old, to his knowledge. He wouldn’t be far out if he put it at a thousand years old. Some said Roman. Well, he wouldn’t say it wasn’t Roman, and he wouldn’t say it was Roman. He would only say that they could build in those days, whatever anybody else said. But—he was on his own ground here—King Charles had sheltered in it “along of a starm.” Some said that the roof had been struck when the king was under it. He wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but anybody could see that there wasn’t a roof on it now, and hadn’t been in his grandfather’s day. The king, they said, had escaped by an underground passage to the cellars of Wrensdale Abbey, three miles by the fields. Likely enough, though no one rightly knew where the abbey had stood, or where the passage ran. So far, Poate, who sometimes concluded his narration with hints of ghostly visitations during thunder-storms at night—a pale cavalier, lit by lightning, staring through broken beams at the sky.
There was enough romance for any one in that; but Jimmy proved that the summer-house could sustain more. From the moment that he first entered it, and encountered its sudden gloom after the sunlight on the path outside, he recognized it as something belonging not to a legendary king, or a possessful Poate, but essentially to Joan and to him. It was the whispering-room to the life.
No window; only a narrow slit in each strong wall, through one of which a shaft of light, flickering through ivy and cobwebs, came to gild a fraction of the rubble on the floor. No door; only a low Gothic arch, screened with ivy, to pass which he must crouch. Walls that stooped and hemmed . . . it was the whispering-room. And there—somewhere under the rubble on which he was standing—a hidden passage, leading to cellars three miles away! Grass grew over it. Poate had doubts about it. But it was there. Of course it was there.
Often in the years that followed he dug for that passage, always with a beating heart, always with the expectation of the spade clattering into a dark hole, of a great step of stone. And, though he never found the passage, he made the summer-house entirely his own. Not the house, but the summer-house was his home. On the first day of his holidays he would make for it. His last good-byes were kept for it. And, in between, never a day without at least one visit to what he might have called his spiritual home, but what he did call the whispering-room.
Mrs. Poate “did for” them, single-handed. Mrs. Poate bought, conveyed, prepared, peeled, cooked, and served the meals; made the beds and dusted the chairs; carried out mending operations and emptied slops; performed the duties of liaison with the village two and a half miles away; and still found time, in obscure hours, to “do for” Poate as well. She rarely talked to any one but herself—a characteristic which appealed to Charles—yet still supplied the conversational element of the household. There was always a pleasant hum of talk on the stairs or in the kitchen when Mrs. Poate was alone.
It was left to Poate to materialize vegetables, to clean boots, and to tend the young trees; an unequal division of labor which supplied the motif of all his wife’s soliloquies. They quarreled incessantly in subdued voices, but on one point they were always agreed, that Dunbarrow Farm was not as lively as it used to be . . . not by a lot.
The few neighbors apparently came to the same conclusion. They found Charles so absent-minded and austere that a legend of sunstroke in India was frequently evoked to explain him. As for the little boy, he was taking after his father. “Ridiculously reserved,” the little boy, and “old, positively ancient, at ten.” So Dunbarrow was accorded the claim that seemed inherent in its very shape. It was left alone and aloof.
When Nicholas made his prophecy as to his cousin’s future movements, he added a corollary: “He’ll walk young Jimmy round every morning after breakfast to see his saplings grow, and blather about reafforestation, till the boy turns wooden.” “An experiment in lignification,” he called it, and perhaps he would not have been far off the mark, had not one important factor been omitted—school. School was at least a counteracting influence.
Charles had forgone India—where he otherwise would indubitably have settled down—in order to make that school possible; yet it is characteristic of him that, having sacrificed so much for the project, he first delayed and then shirked a deliberate reasoned choice of a school. He wrote to no agents and made no inquiries, but, when the matter could no longer be delayed, he took a map and measured distances, as if he were measuring the site of a camp. There were three schools within thirty miles of Dunbarrow: Marlborough, twenty-five miles; Wellington, seventeen; and Anfield, eleven. He chose the nearest, and the sole reason for his choice was a rooted, almost passionate objection to railway journeys. His dislike of a crowded carriage amounted to agoraphobia, and he foresaw that visits to a distant school would mean a succession of potentially crowded carriages; whereas Anfield was accessible to the village fly. So in the village fly they went.
Jimmy never forgot that drive: the fusty smell of the cushions; the rattle of open windows; the gaunt old horse staring from side to side like a camel, flicked unwillingly out of his shambling trot into his foolish canter; the rumble of loose wheels; his father’s disjointed remarks: “Of course I don’t know, but we must see . . .” “At any rate I’m within hail, and if . . . well . . .” “I remember how I disliked . . . and, above all, his own silence of wild surmise. School? What was school? What would it mean?
Hedges; a heathery heath; hedges again; a steep dip to a little river; a bigger river, with water dancing down from the mill-race; a long climb to uplands, and more heather; a big red building, for one breathless moment mistaken for the school, but found on inquiry to be the workhouse; a hogback hill; boys in pairs, with blue caps, carrying books or paper bags, eying the carriage; last, an old beamed gateway and overpowering buildings beyond . . . all these things passed as scenes succeed scenes in dreams, while his mind was vainly trying to connect the item, himself, with the unknown entity, school. He could not grasp school at all.
There was a difficulty in finding the junior school, which stood aloof from the main buildings. A master, carrying golf-clubs, put them right. Another master—a pleasant-faced clergyman—showed them over the dormitories and class-rooms, introduced them to the matron, offered tea . . . but that, too, was more than half dream. Throughout he had the feeling that he was some one else, a stranger to himself, a stranger who was going to school. He was not afraid; interested, rather, in a dispassionate sort of way, and numb, and bewildered. It was impossible to believe that the village fly would lumber away without him; that he would be there, obeying the summons of mysterious bells, caught up in the procession of boys drifting past the window and up and down the hogback hill—to-morrow; that, seven years hence, he would still be there.
But the cab did at length lumber away through the dusk . . . and there he was at the gate, waving automatically and wondering what his father had meant by his last words:
“We’re exceptions, I suppose. I wonder whether schools are still hard on exceptions. Well, it’s no use . . . Good-by, son.”
Then a bell rang. Boys began to run toward the gateway; and, afraid of being shut out, he went inside.
We’re exceptions,”—in all the seven years that elapsed before he stood by that gateway waiting for another fly to take him up and lumber away with him he never quite understood what his father had meant by that sentence. For school was not hard on him. There were no insurmountable difficulties in conforming, in observing times and seasons, and in obeying bells. Hour by hour the days were mapped out. There could be no doubt as to what he had to do and where to do it, what he was expected to learn and where to learn it . . . to eat . . . to play . . . it was all arranged for him in a manner so succinct as to preclude misunderstanding. For that side of life there came to him early and stayed by him throughout a kind of unsuspected sixth sense; a machine sense, specially designed for the observance of rules. Most of them had it. Some had not; but his was no revolutionary spirit. He conformed; that is to say, the parts of him that were directed by the machine sense conformed.
A certain degree of sociability was demanded of him. That seemed difficult, until he discovered—by the help of the same sense—that the degree need not be very high. It was largely owing to the influence of Crampton that therein, too, after a fashion, he conformed.
Crampton—who inhabited the next bed to him on the first night, and, years later, shared the same study, and with whom he walked on Sunday afternoons because he had to walk with some one—indicated clearly that his duty lay in playing listener. Crampton indulged in reminiscence and aspiration, while he listened; and he found to his surprise that as a listener he was satisfactory to Crampton. From first to last Crampton had no serious fault to find with him, except the fact that he “looked pi.” That others shared Crampton’s opinion is shown by the nickname “Pi-face,” which was hurled at him during the first week and stuck for seven years. Some one was inspired thus to express that eager expectancy, that innocence open-eyed, which was sometimes to be surprised in his face; and, moreover, to connect it with the fact that he got on tolerably well with matters, and with his manifest inability to comprehend such references to impurity as he sometimes heard.
Yet here was an enigma, for though he looked “pi,” actually he by no means fulfilled all the implications of the term. He could not be accused of “swotting,” or even of moderate success in form; his knowledge of the Bible was grotesque; he scarcely ever wrote home or flamed into passionate championship of “his people”; and his prayers were suspiciously short, and by no means regular. As an exponent of the externals of piety, of whom something was expected, he was disappointing.
Excess of ragging he escaped on the whole; perhaps because, though inviting badinage by his serious, old-fashioned ways of expressing himself, he fended it off by the absurd youthfulness of his face. Had he worn spectacles, he could never have escaped it. He showed, too, a certain impulsive courage at football, which imparted an element almost of romance to his otherwise desultory game. He had no aptitude for games whatever. But he appeared to court rather than to shun disaster—a point in his favor. He was a willing fag, too—in his case a disarming factor.
From the moment when he perceived that by listening to Crampton he could please Crampton, he took the line of least resistance. He listened. He made himself amenable. Crampton had numberless aspirations: the junior mile, first; that won, the senior mile; the second eleven; the first eleven; even a Blue, faint on the horizon of desire. But Jimmy, listening, had no answering aspirations to put forth. Rightly or wrongly he felt that Crampton would never understand the call of lonely places, the messages of rustling underwood, and, never, the whisper of a room. So, though sometimes the burden was a little heavy, he kept them to himself; and thus, though he knew Crampton and quite a number of other people through and through, he was aware that none of them knew him . . . the essential him, that still dreamed and imagined and hoped behind the machine.
But an exception? Surely, by the greatest stretch of the imagination, he could not be called that; he who, of all the humdrum nonentities, succeeded best in conforming to type; who neither deserved nor desired to make his mark; who under no conceivable circumstances could be prominent either in field or form. He never arrived at his father’s meaning. Yet, when the successes of Crampton were forgotten, people would sometimes remember the slight, reserved figure of Crampton’s friend. “Retiring sort of devil,” they would say, “but rather original in his way. I wonder what he’s doing now?” Why they wondered is hard to say.
The fact that people affected him little was only in accordance with his previous bent; for he had always liked surmising over things. And here things did not fail him. The school, as something beautiful, as a whole infinitely greater than its parts, had a real appeal. It lay so serene and undisturbed in its valley, sheltered by its wooded hill, and guarded by its lazy river that hovered long ere it was lost in the music of an unseen fall. Between the hill and the river lay the playing fields of slumbrous green, and to stand in those fields, looking across the river and the water-meadows beyond it, was to gain the illusion that the school was girdled with forest. For, toward Basildon and Yattendon, the gentle upward slopes were clothed in woodlands. In autumn those slopes made a barrier of red gold, carrying to the very horizon the essential complexion of the school itself—mellowed red—the red of turning leaves and turning tiles alike.
In such surroundings he was happiest when alone. For this reason, as soon as he had passed from the junior into the senior school, he joined the Natural History Society and gained one summer afternoon a week for himself, and exchanged football for lonely runs in the winter. It was as a member of the Natural History Society that—in a very restricted circle—he made his single unconscious bid for prominence. He suddenly confronted that least of all the prophets, the science master, with a series of bird photographs accompanied by descriptive articles, both of which the science master described as “simply astounding,” adding that he could not have conceived it possible for a boy of thirteen to sit still for so long without falling asleep. But no one else was particularly interested or cared to inquire where and how Vaine had learned to sit still and make intelligible the movements of birds. Nor did the hobby, though it served him well both at school and in the holidays, make for companionship. Crampton would have none of it.
But he learned those woods and water-meadows as few learned them. They compensated, in their homely way, for the loss of those wider woods and wilder meadow-lands that nothing could make him forget. Perhaps, indeed, the setting of Anfield won him so much that he paid less attention than was due to that which lay within the setting. In the first four years, at least, he formed no conception of the spirit of the school as something distinct from its externals, as worthy material for wonder, as a force, indeed, which he, no less than others, could hardly ignore. He was content with liking it—so far justifying his father’s haphazard choice—but he was far from loving it. That, however, came to him—not, as might have been, in the slow course of routine, but in the rush and shock of that overpowering event of his thirteenth year—War.
They could do nothing beyond odd jobs—O.T.C. parades, munition-making, errands—which, however enthusiastically performed, were as nothing beside the reality across the seas. But, perhaps because they were conscious of being able relatively to put forth so little, they thought the more. They realized that, even if they—the individuals—were of no account, the school—that whole in which they shared—had a significance hitherto unsuspected. No longer was it, on its lowest grounds, a house of bondage; or, on its highest, a somewhat indefinite background of their lives, dimly appreciated. It stood out, sudden and distinct, as the tangible side, to them, of that colossal shape that was England. They found that, after all, they had been strangers to it. They began to study it. They even learned anew the look of buildings, already thought to be familiar. They despised nothing of it. But, more important, they began to feel for its spirit, because through that medium alone could they expect to share in what was afoot. Old boys were no longer strangers, who thrice yearly descended in garrulous hordes, usurped passages and playing-fields for a space, and departed by the seven-o’clock train for the limbo of London. They were the men who were in it—in the real thing; who might any day do glorious things; who might any day die. So, when they departed by that seven-o’clock train of tradition, it was no longer into a limbo. Many eyes followed them.
There were masters, too, and brothers and fathers, to be followed; and a stream of themselves drifting out every term from the upper forms. All these belonged—a word fraught with meaning now—to the school.
Then, if ever, was there a trumpet-call to the imagination; and in Jimmy Vaine, as in all who were in any degree imaginative, it evoked a passionate love of the nearest tangible entity—the school. All his fund of loyalty was called upon, and thus the predominating influence of those four years—his thirteenth to his seventeenth—was that of the school rather than of the home.
This was as well. For the effect of the war on his father was to give fresh impetus to that morbid pessimism that had clouded his last days in India. He resented it almost as an intrusion on his hardly earned rest, and the instant rejection of his offer of military service—made gloomily and without visible enthusiasm at a time of unequaled enthusiasm—intensified this resentment, so that he deliberately turned his back on the lesser avenues of usefulness. “Long faces won’t win this war, my dear sir,” the depot commander had said, and it had stung Charles Vaine. He was offered a post in connection with the organization of timber supplies, and he refused it. Neighbors—all ostensibly engaged in some form of service—turned their backs on him. Even Poate grew restive and departed to a labor corps. So the ready poison of his fatalism and pessimism claimed his system, and he became one of that minority who believed that we were fated to lose.
This attitude of his father’s could not but have been disastrous to Jimmy, had he not felt the counteracting force of the school. Even as it was, there were elements of disaster. He could no longer claim to understand his father. His own optimism and confidence were, if anything, reinforced. The school saw to that. He could not fail to see that precisely the opposite had happened to his father, but—what was worse—he could not see why. He began to feel a kind of pity for this now old man who grumbled and despaired while others were striving and believing . . . and from that pity it was difficult to keep a despising note. Thus, the ground they had gained was little by little lost. Yet, characteristically, they never threshed the subject out.
The last two years of his life at Anfield—years that had promised to be fruitful—were embittered by nothing else but the doubt and the restlessness caused by his father’s attitude. Thrown more and more on his own resources, more and more apt to shun other people, he began to wear a puzzled look . . . almost an ashamed look. Boys and masters, all preoccupied, drew their conclusions and left him to himself. No one could have been expected to know that he was trying all he knew to straighten out a tangle in his loyalties . . . and failing.
It was all the more difficult to see his father’s point of view, because other Vaines—no younger, either—were actively engaged all over the world. A cousin in the gunners in France; another commanding a brigade in East Africa; half a dozen with the Indian Army; Nicholas—Nicholas the well remembered—somewhere on the sea, and enjoying himself mightily; Mrs. Nicholas and Joan nursing at Basra . . . not a Vaine unemployed. Even Aunt Pamela, under the pseudonym of “A Strong-minded Woman,” was bombarding the food controller with extracts from her daily experience in the Kensington High Street shops. While there was his father moping, prophesying disaster, almost, it seemed, grudging success. And he . . . if only he were one year older! Thus, and thus only, could there be a solution.
So, two years, lonely, embittering; hastening manhood, and yet retarding growth; unfruitful, therefore. Then came the unlooked-for, unimagined solution. The war was won; the armistice was signed; and his father, refusing doggedly to take notice of a chill, was caught by the tempest known as Spanish influenza; went to bed tardily on a Monday in November; and on a Thursday died.
Jimmy was of course at school, and was only summoned on the Wednesday afternoon by an ill-written scrawl from Mrs. Poate, handed in by the cabman who came to fetch him. He drove back through a dank and dripping world, to find that his father was in a high fever and breathing with great difficulty. The doctor was with him, the nurse said. So he sat down in the dining-room, and tried not to hear the strange, heartbreaking coughs in the bedroom over his head and the ghoulish soliloquy of Mrs. Poate in the pantry. . . .
“’E won’t last the night. They may say what they like, and do what they like. But I say ’e won’t last the night.”
She was quite right. He died within five minutes of dawn, and the only words that his son had to carry away with him began unintelligibly and ended, typically enough, in an unfinished sentence. For an hour that evening, staring fixedly into the darkness at the foot of his bed, Charles Vaine talked huskily of trees, with here and there a sentence of Hindustani, and once a cry: “Mary!” After that cry he seemed to notice his son, though without looking at him, and murmured something which sounded like, “Too much alike. Ought never . . .” Then he lost the train of thought, and did not speak again till late in the night, when, in a fairly normal voice, he asked the nurse when Master Jimmy was coming. He did not, however, wait for the answer, but went into the doze from which he never awoke.
It was the fact of that half-finished sentence, that flicker of understanding in the darkness, which seemed to carry in it all the poignancy of the loss. It was so typical of their relations throughout. Such sentences had so often been begun, and so often ended diffidently . . . as if they had not been altogether worth finishing; and in that mutual diffidence they had lost each other. There was a sense of failure, as if the loss had been not so much of one loved as of one who ought to have been loved; a loss of something which had never been properly found—of a chance rather than of a fact. Through all the sympathetic references that followed—masters, relations, casual people speaking of loss, always of loss—he could not escape the terrible conviction that he was imposing upon them; that he was mourning for a stranger; and that the loss was in reality only the loss of an opportunity. Sometimes—especially in retrospect of the last two years—that opportunity loomed over him like a gigantic phantom, till he believed that, by neglecting it, he had contributed to his father’s death. This is to say that the pain went deep, or, as Mrs. Poate expressed it to herself, he took it “mortal ’ard.” And, among all the masters and the relations and the casual people who volunteered condolence and help, there was not one in whom he could confide.
Practical matters followed in their course. There was no will, and the small pension died with the pensioner. Savings had been sunk in the purchase and stocking of an unprofitable estate, and, since school bills were mounting up meanwhile, an immediate sale of Dunbarrow Farm was judged advisable. This was carried out in the spring of 1919 at a considerable loss, with the result that, in July, Jimmy was informed that after the settlement of outstanding debts he would inherit a capital sum not exceeding fifteen hundred pounds. From the same source—Clement Vaine, a retired Indian civilian who undertook nominal guardianship—came the suggestion that he would do well to make up his mind to a profession without delay. The Woods and Forests were tentatively proposed, and the correspondence closed with a mild regret that a more practical provision had not been made for the future.
Reading this letter, it seemed to him that the suggestion was superfluous. “Make up his mind to a profession without delay” . . . why, he had already made up his mind. In relation to the future his mind stood precisely where it had stood eight years before. India—India as typified by the myriad-eyed, inexhaustible jungle; by plains of golden grass asleep under a dancing haze; by haunted, trembling foliage—India, undimmed, possessed his mind. Her pictures, startlingly real, still came back at call: that morning in the train and the first sight of the forest stretching its tentacles into the misty fields; that sunny spot where red blossoms had fallen on cropped grass, and green parrots stooped and wheeled; the river, dimpled with light, stealing past Sardapur; that forest road, screened with leafage, and, in the gloom below,, giant yellow and black spiders spread-eagled on their webs; tents, and men hammering, and camel-bells; moonlight, and the shadows of live things . . . hundreds and hundreds of pictures, by the side of which even Dunbarrow, even the school, seemed dim and dull. “Make up his mind?” . . . no difficulty there.
But the word “profession” followed, and, hard on its heels, the word “practical,” and a visit to his housemaster proved their power. India? Well and good; an excellent choice, an admirable field. But—a pause here—in what precise capacity? Woods and Forests. Ah, excellent again—for a certain type of man. His father’s service? Exactly. Most suitable. Eminently suitable. So, in due course, two years at Oxford . . . six months or so on the Continent . . . examinations . . . say three to four years, very pleasantly spent, no doubt. Meanwhile—an apology here—where would Vaine propose to live? Relations? Friends? And—renewed apology—how?
So Mr. Dickinson, mildly and politely, but nevertheless most effectually, brought him to earth with a bump. The future, so sure and serene when he had knocked at the door, was bristling with doubts ere he had stirred his tea-cup. He had waited eight years, and it seemed at the moment as if he had been waiting very impatiently. To wait four more was intolerable—with those pictures flashing in and out of his mind, dancing before his eyes . . . and at Oxford of all places!
He had once accompanied a running team to Oxford, and had carried away an impression of high gray walls, drizzle, bicycles, hot toast, and excessive bonhomie. He would always associate Oxford with bicycling in the rain to a gigantic tea-party, with twenty people extended in long chairs under a pall of tobacco-smoke, and twenty kinds of toast piled precariously on the hearth-rug. At the end—examinations. One and a half questions finished and five minutes to go; that was his association with examinations. And, in vacation-time, Ledbury Square or a lodging-house. These prospects were bad enough in all conscience; yet they might be bearable, but for one fact. They would inevitably swallow up his fifteen hundred pounds—Mr. Dickinson said as much—and then there could be no house that Joan built . . . no room for Joan at all.
That interview with his house-master bewildered and depressed him. He had never counted on obstacles. He only wanted to get away—away from England, and people, and the memory of his failure to understand his father—and to take up life where, as it seemed, he had really left it. And now . . . Oxford, examinations, boarding-houses without end!
As a refuge from these reflections, he took his mind back passionately to survey that wonderful ninth winter, and he found that, by immersing himself in its memory, he could recreate the full sense of its wonder. That ever-present quality of surprise . . . of magic . . . of impossible things coming to pass . . . that came back to him forcibly. Things had happened then. Beginning with the antics of a merry magician in a robe of corn-flower blue, the world had grown different. Like the merry man himself, wonders had popped up out of the ground. He had wanted to whisper with Joan. Then . . . the magic touch. He had whispered with Joan. He had wanted the wild woods. Again, the magic touch. He had seen, he had felt the wild woods. Dreams—they had come true then. When, why, had they ceased to come true? When and because he had ceased to dream? No. But when and because he had ceased to expect them to become true.
Well, that could be remedied. He would expect, and expect, and go on expecting. He would force the solution to come.
With these trains of thought, there would come almost a radiance into his face. They generally coincided with the hours of mathematics, and he was twice asked whether he had any real hopes of laying an egg . . .
But the old expectancy was back in his face.
The wonderful thing was that it happened. The solution came. Within four days of the interview with his house-master—on July 17, to be precise—came a letter with the red stamp of India, and the postmark Shahgarh. Evidently it had lain some days at Dunbarrow before the agent forwarded it. It was from Nicholas. It began with apologies for belated condolences, caused by the fact that Nicholas had only just returned from Constantinople, and therefore had only just heard the sad news. Then, like bursting sunlight, came the magic touch . . .
I am writing in the dark [said Nicholas]. I haven’t the smallest notion as to how you have developed or what you are likely to want to do. But I have a shrewd suspicion that you are still the surprised spectator of the universe with whom I found much in common, in which case you will be finding it as difficult as I did to suit yourself. If so, here is my suggestion for what it is worth.
Come to us and see if you would care to learn to garden. I need an assistant, and I can tell you from personal experience that gardening suits the philosophic temperament. Fruit, James, fruit . . . especially apples. They love their certainty of sun here.
Of course, I realize that I am preaching a heresy and tempting you from the narrow way. But I fancy—another suspicion—that you will not have what I call a government conscience, such as so many of our mutual relations are endowed with. Your father hadn’t. He never got his deserts. Personally, as you know, I am an anarchist and an outcast—or, if you don’t know, you will soon be told—so do not be prejudiced by me if you feel called by the conventional Vaine tradition. Think it over, and wire one way or the other. If you haven’t enough money for a passage, put it in the wire. Anyhow, be sure of one thing: we shall all be delighted to see you.
Joan has her hair up, and Janie is sometimes taken for her elder sister. They would send you their love, if at the moment they were not drying their hair on the hillside.
I wonder what you’ll be thinking of life. You used to show a polite interest in things. We could explore.
There was no lack of practical provision this time. He sailed in September.
To the passengers tramping the exiguous space allotted to the second class Jimmy Vaine was seen as a tall, slight youth of eighteen, who had somewhat outgrown his strength. He was pale—a lady called him “spiritual”—with a long and serious face; with gray eyes, very direct, yet seeming to see beyond the immediate object of attention; and with fair, untidy hair which he would tug nervously when asked questions. Though he had a polite answer for questioners and a pleasing voice—slow, gentle and, in its emphasis, complimentary—and though he proved a satisfactory listener to travelers’ tales, he nevertheless fell short of the buoyant camaraderie which inspired the others. He did not play bridge. He could not sing. He looked at the sea—“mooned over the side,” some had it—and, when land appeared, devoured it with his eyes, as if looking for a sign. Thus he was left alone.
He was well content, for as it was he could hardly keep pace with his thoughts. There was a constant feeling that he was not only recapturing, stage by stage, the one big experience of his life, but in some subtle way fulfilling that experience. It was impossible not to link the ninth winter with the eighteenth in such a way that destiny emerged from the union. He was treading, he felt, a prepared path leading to some achievement or some failure nine years overdue; encountering—imminent—his destiny. Each stage of the journey—gray sea, and blue sea, and green sea; Marseilles, with her tangle of shipping, her golden Lady; the magic strip of Messina; Port Said—above all Port Said—each stage seemed to give fresh sanction to that curious, haunting conviction. Destiny . . . interrupted . . . but alert now, taking control, driving, hurrying . . . where?
The intervening time seemed to fall away. Once more he was walking the deck with Nicholas, listening to those faintly quizzical views on life. Sentences came back, word for word. He had only to see a little ship panting in the wake of a big ship for the half-amused, half-wistful words to come back . . . “The big boat’s cram-full of people. . . . And the little boat’s just carrying a few things. . . . Things. Smelly old things in a greasy hold. But I like to think of them, you know.” So distinctly they came into his mind that he would look round. And Joan . . . the deck was populated with visions of Joan. How she would have flitted, smiling, from group to group! How she would have danced up and down! But, with her hair up, would she be the same Joan? That wanton hair, that disobedient tangle, had so expressed her. Would it be possible to whisper to a Joan with her hair up . . . to make believe . . . to . . . There his thoughts led always, and always stopped, for in that picture of destiny, clear as in a circle of light, stood Joan; and though sometimes it seemed ridiculous to expect her to remember, he nevertheless cherished the expectation.
With Bombay came noise and bewilderment, and for a few hours he feared lest he had lost some part of the glamour of his first experience. For Bombay seemed dusty, less colored than of old, even more confused, and as the train slid through the suburbs he was asking himself with a tinge of disappointment: “Can it ever be the same? Can it ever be as wonderful?” But when sunset flooded the grotesque Ghats with scarlet; when the incense of night touched his face and hair like lips; when the formless fields emerge from the mists of night and, in an hour, yielded up the old secrets—the old life of man and woman and child under the sun; when, later, the jungle came creeping down from hills of fairy blue with remembered shapes . . . then, again and again, there rang through him, passionate and triumphant and wholly happy, the song: “It is the same! It is the same!”
So when, at Kathgodam Station, Nicholas—strikingly the same Nicholas—shouldered his way through the chattering hillmen, held him at arm’s-length, and looked at him long, Nicholas’s first words were:
“Why, James, you look like an angel in disguise. And I believe you’re still nine. It was handsome clothes then, and, I rather think, a gentleman in a blue nightgown—remember? But whence comes the radiance now?”
“Oh, getting here,” said Jimmy.
“Ah!” said Nicholas, and smiled.
There still remained a day’s journey on ponies—by Ranibagh to Bhim Tal, up a well-trodden hill-road winding through sunny oak forest, where sometimes some brighter tree flaunted its blossom like a flag; past a long, still lake, reflecting a rounded hill; thence, by rougher paths, into the very heart of the hills, where pine-needles dulled the sound of the hoofs and the scent of pine thrilled the nostrils; then, for a.space, barren hills clothed only with cactus and berry, till at a turn they caught the glint of gold in a window . . . one sparkle of light among trees.
“Shahgarh!” said Nicholas, pointing. . . .
There was no village; only the low brown building, modest and creeper-clad, hiding in the niche of a domed hill. Above it and on either hand trees spread like a feathery fan; and only below it was there that hint of line and angle which revealed the hand of man—gardens scored with paths, dotted with huts, claiming half the hill; then, lower still, more trees and a gleam of water peeping out of a valley.
As they rode up Nicholas told its history.
“Thirty years ago,” he said, “when I was just about your age, I happened to come up here, partly because I was out of a job and partly because I had determined to see the Himalayas at all costs. I hadn’t any ideas beyond that. I just got out of the train when the train stopped and took a tonga till the road stopped, and then walked, sleeping where I liked and shooting for the pot. Well, one day that lake—my lake now—caught my eye. I camped there and fished there; unfished water, James, and pretty lively. Next day I heard a cuckoo. Never thought I’d hear a cuckoo in India. Stopped on to listen to the cuckoo—you’d have done the same—and blundered by chance on to something else more English than even a cuckoo—a wallflower, of all things. I shall never forget coming on that yellow flower, and—well, smelling England in it. Then I found that I’d chanced on a ruined garden—pre-Mutiny, I dare say. There were plums, run wild, but still plums—the bears had found them, too; and walnuts; and oranges, wizened little chaps, but still oranges; not a trace of masonry; no history; just the ghost of a garden . . . What was it?
“A girdle of brushwood and thorn incloses
The steep square slope of the blossomless bed,
Where the weeds that grew green from the graves of its roses
Now lie dead.
“That’s sheer swank, James, because neither the wallflower nor the weeds were dead. Anything but dead. Nothing melancholy or poetic about my garden. Homely to a degree, and sunny, and—I suppose because I found it—romantic. Anyhow, I never went a step farther, and afterward, when I’d forgotten the dates and the names of the places and all the rest of it, I kept on picturing that old garden . . . every tree-trunk and every trick of sun in it. I dare say I used to dream about it. Then—you’ll laugh, James—ten years later, when I’d chucked the sea and settled down and married, nothing would suit but that garden. I made it a kind of mascot, and I remember driving poor Janie up here, wondering whether anybody had cut the trees down, worrying myself silly with the thought that it might not still be there, and then going into hysterics because it was still there. Then we lashed off to the collector sahib, and bought the hill, and were called lunatics for our pains. I was a bit of a pioneer in my way. No one else had thought of buying a hill then. But I started on it right away, rigged up a shanty, made clearings, and began planting the orchards you see now. Then the others started. The place is stiff with orchards and tea-gardens, and very productive they are. But I doubt whether they owe their prosperity to a little wallflower trying to keep its head up in a tangle of briers and trees . . He paused for a moment and looked at Jimmy; then asked a question: “Now, James, as a philosopher, tell me what you think. Was it just school-girl sentiment, or was it destiny?”
“Destiny, of course,” said Jimmy promptly. Was not this in a sense the sanction of his own dreams?
“I made a large bet with myself that you’d say that,” he said. “It was a pointer, and I took it, thank God.” He glanced almost shyly at Jimmy. “You know, I’ve left it just as it was. It’s well to the left of the bungalow, in the corner where the trees are thickest. You can see the little burn that runs right through it—very useful it is, too, lower down—never dry. I never fire a gun that side, and you’d be astonished at the way the birds, and the animals, too, have tumbled to that. We’ve had everything there . . . even serow, and they’re precious shy. Pheasants galore. All I’ve done is to put up a little wood hut, where I sit sometimes and watch it all. My God, I love this place of mine, James!”
That last remark—very sudden—made Jimmy start, for it was as unlike Nicholas as the foregoing remarks had been like him. Always before he had given the impression of being faintly amused at himself, so that it had been hard to say for certain that he was serious. He had always talked rather as if he were concealing a smile with difficulty. But that remark had had a painful passage. It came almost like a cry. In the pause that followed it Jimmy studied Nicholas from a new point of view.
There was something puzzling about him. To outward appearance he had hardly altered. He still filled the eye, and made it impossible to look at any one else when he was about. A few flecks of gray on his beard and hair; a few wrinkles round the eyes, themselves clear as ever; thinner cheeks, perhaps; looser clothes—nothing of importance there. The same habit of sniffing the air, head up; the same carriage, careless, yet conveying distinction; the same level voice that, in a crowd, would command the ears, as the man himself would obsess the eyes . . . again, nothing of importance.
Yet a difference there was; the nine years had told on him. It was revealed, not in his talk, but in his silence . . . a preoccupied look, almost a weariness. And, as if he were well aware of it, he would catch himself in the act, as it were, and plunge headlong into talk. All the way there had been these bursts of talk—of the war, of the sea, of places seen, of business; of his wife, a great deal; of Joan, less—surprisingly less—and it was not the old lazy, speculative talk. It was restless. It was almost talk for talk’s sake. Then, that exclamation—“My God, I love this place of mine, James!”—almost a challenge to trouble, and definite enough for Jimmy to reflect on the contrast between his father, who had taken refuge in silence, and Nicholas, who took it in talk. Was there trouble?
Nicholas’s next words seemed to hint at clues.
“You know, I need you,” he continued thoughtfully. “I was immensely relieved at your wire. It’s not only that I need an assistant, though I do. My babu, like the rest of them, can’t carry on unless I’m just round the corner. . . . No, it’s your company, too, James. We shall see eye to eye. We shall value the same things. I was afraid you might have lost that—what shall I call it? Well, imagination, isn’t it? The love of looking behind things, and not taking them just as they come. But you haven’t. You’ve never been blasé, have you, James?”
He didn’t seem to expect an answer, but went on, looking up the road.
“I’ll have to leave you in charge, though, sometimes. That’s another thing; I shall be able to get away, though I hate the process, and, come to think of it, I’ve only just got back. However . . . needs must. It is dull for ladies, you know, precious dull. Janie never complained, but—well—Janie’s Janie. Joan ought to see something of her fellow-creatures. I ought to take her about a bit, give her some fun . . . Lucknow week, dances, races, and so on . . . ghastly! However. Why, she hasn’t been home since we brought you out. No schooling worth the name. And she wasn’t a born nurse, like Janie. Never really took to it. Hated it, in fact. Don’t blame her, either; you are or you aren’t, and that’s all about it. Yes, Joan’s the problem——” He glanced round at Jimmy. “I wonder how you’ll get on with Joan. . . .”
They were on the last incline now, and the roof of the bungalow peeped through the trees. There was a flutter of white . . . only a mallee watering flowers. For one instant he thought he had seen Joan. Then he heard Nicholas still talking.
“I confess I had no illusions about India. The jackals were bound to start whining for the pickings as soon as they thought any one would listen to them. But, Lord . . . to win a war and amaze the world, and then knuckle under to the jackals! Weak? Why, the lesson ought to have lasted a century! The tales the sepoys brought back ought to have been handed down to their grandchildren’s grandchildren; and we’ve let ’em forget in less than a year! Blithering idiots!”
Jimmy could hardly take it in. His eyes were on that triangle of brown roof and a patch of path. Any minute . . .
“I thought about that, you know, when I wrote to you,” Nicholas was saying. “But you were booked for India. We all are. What I couldn’t see was you as a government servant subscribing to a tomfool policy. One day, James”—his attention was compelled now—“a government servant—and, as likely as not, a Vaine—will be told to sign away India to the babus, as we’re thinking of signing away Egypt. India! . . . Well, he’ll be footing a big bill, will the fellow who signs that. I’d rather raise a regiment—I could—and take what I can get in the old style. I’ll do it, too, if it comes to that. Nicholaspur! The refuge for the simple-minded; no bunnias or babus or lawyers admitted!”
Nicholas’s head was up, and his voice rang up the road. “India! My God, the idea of signing away India!”
Then he laughed, saying in the old whimsical way: “And that’s that, James. Startled you, I expect. Startled myself. Well, this is the Englishman’s home.”
They were rounding the corner of the veranda, still hidden by a creeper. Then . . . the front of the house . . . rambling veranda, filled with basket-chairs . . . Joan!
She had been sitting in one of the basket-chairs and had got up at the sound of the hoofs. She was laughing at something—the same low laugh—so that his ears recognized her before his eyes did. Some one else got up too—a young man with a dark mustache, in riding-kit, who remained in the background when she came forward. Then the sun caught her, as she reached the top of the steps.
For an instant she stood in an arch of dark wood against the shadowy background, almost as if she were standing for a portrait, and in that instant Jimmy’s mind went straight back to the little girl with the long legs who used to stand so confidently in front of strangers and to insist on an exchange of smiles.
There was no doubt about her. Her hair—catching the eye first because the sun was drawing ripples of bronze from it, glancing in the truant tendrils that would always break duress—was the same curly tangle. In her eyes, in her mouth, the same frank curiosity, the note of interrogation: “Do you like me?” Her whole attitude—eager, not unconscious of its charm—was eloquent of the old Joan.
Then she moved down the steps, and in a measure he modified the impression and lost that first impulsive triumph of recognition. She did not run down the steps as she would have run ten years before, nor dance impatiently for them to be off their ponies. She walked very slowly, and he had time to see how tall she was, and—in a plain white dress, cut square at the neck and unadorned—how amazingly graceful. The walk, too, was the studiously negligent walk of the girl who is accustomed to have her movements followed. In no sense spontaneous, it was the walk of a stranger after all, and he had a vague sense of difficulty or of loss, with a sudden intense shyness. She was different—more beautiful—too beautiful—unapproachable. And yet, one second before, he had thought her the same . . .
As he was dismounting he heard her say: “We gave you up, dad. However, you seem to have brought him all right” . . . and then she was facing him and holding out her hand. Her eyes—the remembered somber eyes—were looking him up and down, just as they had taken him in at their first meeting. That brought a flash of memory, and he half expected the old challenging, “You’re thinner than me.” He would have welcomed that. It would have shown . . .
“How do you do, Cousin James? We thought you were never coming. Mother’s up-stairs. She’ll be down in a minute. By the way, let me introduce Captain Jervis. My cousin, Mr. Vaine . . . Captain Jervis. Captain Jervis has ridden all the way from Ranikhet, dad. I think he deserves a large peg before he starts back.”
Bows—polite murmurs from Captain Jervis—a shout for a servant from Nicholas—“I’ll go and see about tea,” from Joan—everybody at ease except himself, everybody perfectly happy and contented and self-possessed—and he, hopelessly tongue-tied. He had always dreamed of meeting her alone, and had pictured himself as miraculously freed from shyness, while she would be eager, bubbling with questions. With a pang it came back, that dream of Sardapur Station—how she was to have been leaning out of the train; how she was to have jumped out—a flash of tumbled skirts and brown stockings; then, his triumphant, “Everything’s ready!” and that breathless halt to survey their kingdom. “Everything’s ready!”—madness—pathetic madness. Instead: “How do you do? Let me introduce . . .” and, then, tea.
Yet he knew that he was being ridiculous. In the presence of a stranger, what else could she have said or done? Besides, ten years . . . he was being absurd. A week, a month hence, perhaps. But to expect her to remember everything in the first minute—laughable! As they went inside, he felt almost annoyed with himself for having dreamed at all.
It was no better inside, though the whole atmosphere of the room in which tea was laid invited easiness. It was a delightful room—not formal enough to be called a drawing-room—but rather—as Nicholas expressed it—“A do-as-you-please room.” It was long, with a low-beamed ceiling, not unlike the Dunbarrow dining-room; and the glow of evening—purple and pink and blue delicately fused—crept in through diamond panes. A wood-fire was reflected brightly in the tea-things and dully in the legs of old chairs and tables, which might have been reasonably expected to figure in Dunbarrow Farm, but which in India pleasantly surprised the eye. No strong lights—no formalities—yet still he felt ridiculously uncomfortable. His voice, he thought, sounded queer; Joan, he saw, kept on glancing from him to Captain Jervis—especially to Captain Jervis’s immaculate brown polo-boots—and he felt that she must be comparing him; Nicholas would drink his tea standing in the window and humming; and, though he had washed his hands and face, he felt indescribably grimy. He was out of it. He was making everybody feel awkward . . .
Then Mrs. Nicholas came in, and the tension lifted. Characteristically she ran in, throwing off her gardening-gloves, looking at him for an instant with her head on one side, as like an inquisitive bird as ever, and then suddenly kissing him. Then she kissed Nicholas and swept the whole party into conversation, apparently without taking breath once.
“Well, Cousin Jimmy, at last. Stand quite still and let me see what the world has done to you . . . Joan, the kettle’s boiling . . . Oh, how do you do, Captain Jervis? Stupid of me not to see you . . .fancy riding all the way here . . . Energy! . . . You really haven’t altered a bit, has he, Nick, not in face, I mean . . . the other cupboard, Joan, second shelf . . . Ten whole years, isn’t it? and you still rumple your hair . . . and Joan’s just as bad . . . These are anchovy, Captain Jervis. Those are cucumber . . . Oh, Madar Bax, chinni lao. Chinni, you owl . . . Tell us about the voyage . . . Milk or cream, Captain Jervis? Oh, I beg your pardon, I didn’t see your whisky. Quite right . . . Were you actually sick?”
It was like a race answering the questions, but Mrs. Nicholas was always ahead. Nor was this the limit of her achievement, for, in addition to keeping the threads of three conversations she found time to ring the bell, stoke the fire, pour out the tea, and eat a piece of buttered toast. In contemplating her—a breathless occupation in itself—Jimmy forgot both the shyness and the sense of disappointment. Here was some one who had refused to change.
She kept him occupied. He could steal very occasional glances at Joan, and Captain Jervis he hardly took in at all—except as a large and obviously healthy individual who twiddled his mustache and talked in undertones. Undertones indeed seemed to express his personality, for the hand that twiddled the mustache also covered the mouth, so that only chance words emerged clearly. These invariably referred to picnics. Whenever Jimmy caught the drift, Captain Jervis was either recalling a picnic, or devising a picnic, or urging a picnic. Joan, too, seemed to like picnics, for he heard her deep, clear remarks at intervals:
“I insist on finding the ruined temple where a ghost feeds the monkeys . . . yes, somewhere behind Mal-ghat . . . and you really can hear him gibber, Tom, if you wait long enough . . . They say he was put on a burning ghat and refused to burn . . . An asbestos monkey man . . . Well, that’s one place. Then there’s Malwa Tal. Wouldn’t you like Malwa Tal by moonlight, Tom? . . . yes, if you behave . . .”
Plans . . . he was not the only person with plans. If only he had the same gift of putting them into words, of making them interesting! Captain Jervis, whom he was beginning to dislike, evidently had that enviable gift, and somehow recalled in his person the long-forgotten Baxter twins. They had been dark and.healthy. They had been clearly destined for aggressive mustaches. They had had the mysterious faculty of interesting Joan, of making her amenable . . . even submissive. They had usurped her.
There came back into his mind an old doubt, an old question: “What do I lack, that they have?” Then he remembered that, after all, the Baxter twins had missed the real Joan, whom he himself had, by slower courses, found. And, as for plans, how could the plans of a day compare with his . . . the guarded, the often dreamed?
So when Captain Jervis rose to go he smiled at him. And Captain Jervis was understood, behind his hand, to suggest another picnic.
There was no doubt of his welcome. Nicholas had put it beyond question, going out of his way after dinner to set a seal on it.
“My word, James, this is splendid!” he had said; and again: “You must look on this as your home. What’s more, you must call it home. No boggling about the bush—H-O-M-E, Home. They say in England that you can’t build a home in India; you can only build a house. That’s wrong, like most of the things they say. You can make any house a home, if you put enough into it. It’s not a matter of furniture, though, is it? Well, when you speak of this place kindly employ that much-abused word.”
Mrs. Nicholas, too: “Now that we’ve adopted you you must behave like a real son. You must ask for third helpings and sing hymns in the bathroom . . .”
And Joan? Joan had asked questions—not perhaps the expected questions—but plenty of questions. She had wanted to know a lot about England and all about London; what people were wearing; what theaters were on; the latest jazz tunes. And when he had betrayed his remarkable ignorance on each and all of these subjects, she had gurgled and said: “You’re a quaint old bird, Cousin Jimmy. What do you think of all the time?”
He had missed that chance. He would have given much to say: “You must know. You must have thought of them, too . . . our places . . .” But he could only look at her and blush. Yet in her eyes he had surprised something—a confusion; a recognition, more than half incredulous. It had been almost as if she had said: “Wasn’t there something—something childish that we planned? What was it?” But what she actually did say was: “We shall have to wake you up, Cousin Jimmy. You’re only half alive.” She said it laughingly, challengingly, and—with the twinkle in her eyes, and the color in her firm cheeks, and the bronze ripples in her hair—took his breath away. That vision of her under the lamp—head thrown back and laughing mouth—seemed to haunt his room and bewitch his dreams.
Later, lying in bed in the quiet house, he seemed to find in it an almost tangible individuality. Home . . . in the past he had put the word to strange uses. Ledbury Square . . . a tent in the jungle . . . Dunbarrow . . . and, of the three, the tent in the jungle had come nearest to representing home. But now the word was already gaining a new, a knowable content. Nicholas need not have commanded. The house would have fulfilled the title without that.
Not that there was anything wonderful about the house. It was not large. It was not particularly beautiful—sturdy, rather, and warm and permanent. It had two stories, and each story had a broad wooden veranda running the length of it, on which all the rooms faced. To pass from one story to the other it was necessary to go out on a veranda and up or down steps; and, as the night air seemed to come straight from the cold snows forty miles away, it was always good, after that brief journey, to be in a room again. The main walls were of a granite-like stone, at least a foot thick, but the verandas gave the house, from the front at least, the appearance of a wooden house. That impression was enhanced by the smell of pine that haunted it—a healthy smell, always to be associated with that house and no other. In the bedrooms it was sawed pine; down below, when the fires were alight, it was burning pine; and outside, up to the top of the hill, it was warm and growing pine. Pine filled the air.
The furniture and a few old prints had come from Mrs. Nicholas’s father. Chairs, tables, beds were all of oak, appropriate to the days when men had sailed for India with small hope of returning, and had chosen their household goods lovingly, for permanence. So Jimmy lay in a high, railed oak bed, that had stood long ago the buffeting of a voyage round the cape and the tremors of the Mutiny. It seemed indeed to have a history, for it was bruised and scarred, and in one place blistered with burning. Perhaps such things as these gave identity to the house; perhaps the bright heaped-up wood-fires emphasized it; the colored prints of bygone durbars and hunting expeditions—palm-trees and palaces, kneeling elephants and bedizened rajahs—certainly enhanced it; but whatever the cause, the house had all the atmosphere of age. It was hard to believe that only twenty years ago its site had been claimed from virgin jungle.
But if there was glamour inside, there was greater glamour out of doors . . . in the setting. Before he went to bed on that first night he stood for a few minutes by the window. The wooden shutters were thrown back, and he could see dimly, below, the ordered lines of the gardens; then, deep in the valley beyond, a ring of dark trees surrounding the lake, which shone in the moonlight like a smooth gem; and last, on the other side of the lake, a little knoll, the trees on its crest cut very black and clear against the velvet-blue sky. The house was silent. Every one had gone to bed. But far down on the lake a waterbird screamed, and, as if in answer, a barking-deer called on the hillside above. The call was echoed, and again echoed. Then came back the old illusion. The dark trees seemed to creep up the hill, to blot out the gardens, to press round the house. The jungle . . . the same, the giant, irresistible jungle . . . was hemming him in. Just as years before he had stolen—a little shivering figure—to the entrance of his tent, and had watched the shadows on the enchanted ground, and had imagined them taking shape and color, putting on antlers and stripes and spots, becoming definite, so now he experienced the same tremors. The shadows were moving in. But this time they did not take the shapes of beasts, nor any definite shapes at all. Rather, he felt as if some inconceivably enormous and formless personality were slowly claiming him. He had almost the sensations of being embraced—the sensation of shrinking and the sensation of yielding experienced simultaneously, and hardly distinguishable. The thought of the power which mere inanimate forest could exercise over him frightened him almost. Standing at that window, he seemed to lose identity . . . to be drawn out, to be merged, to be blotted out in that welter of earth and water and tangled trees that hung below him. He caught himself wondering what it would be like to dive down, to meet tree-tops and the embrace of leaves, to feel the cold branches handing him on, one to the other, and at last to find earth—a soft bed of moss and moldering foliage—somewhere in the valley. There was a fascination in the thought. It brought sensations curiously physical. He had actually to force himself to realize that he would indubitably break his neck in the process.
But when with an effort he had thrown off the illusion and gone inside, he could not sleep. That haunting sense of fatality, which had never been absent since Nicholas’s letter had come to him at Anfield and had been given such tremendous impetus by Nicholas’s own story, would not let him rest now. But it was confused fatality, for in his troubled thoughts he seemed to be drawn in two directions. Joan was calling to him. He was intensely aware of Joan. She was almost a physical presence in the room, and he constantly saw her face at very close quarters. Those somber eyes of hers—challenging, mysterious, perhaps mocking—were very near his eyes in that darkness. Her lips seemed to be laughing at him, but not unkindly; and there were moments when he felt a power in himself of making Joan understand. Then, as if to taunt his confidence, Joan would recede. He would hear some sound from outside—some call of night—and once more the jungle would claim him. It represented the life which he had always meant to lead, and now it was calling at his very window. But—the confusion lay here—he could no longer reconcile the call of Joan with the call of that life outside the window. As a boy he had made it so simple—that picture of life. They had wandered in it hand in hand, and there had been no doubts; only surprises, and laughter, and whispering in a room. Now . . .
He was not going to be idle. As they walked down the broad path between the orchards next morning, while the lake was still invisible under a coverlet of mist and wisps of white still clung to the hills, Nicholas outlined the components of the new life, emphasizing his points with a flourish of a black club-like stick which he always carried on his rounds, and pausing between sentences to take his familiar sniff of the morning.
“We’ll go over every inch,” he said, “and let the ground teach you its own lessons. You’ll see all my problems by just taking a walk anywhere in the untouched jungle, and then you can come back and see the solutions to them written here. History . . . all history. The first difficulty was water. I was at my wit’s end till a fellow in the P.W.D. showed me how to canalize the burn. Capital fellow, name of Hobkirk, who also incidentally made the Mandelkand Canal. He and I dug these little ditches with the help of half a dozen coolies twenty years ago, and now he’s got fifteen thousand coolies working for him in the Punjab, while I’m still selling apples. He envies me, naturally. Life, James, has few attractions to compare with the selling of your own apples—especially when the fellows who are eating them are stewing in kilns like Delhi. I only wish I could afford to give them away. An orange pippin, just going from green to yellow, in the hot weather is like heaven in a skin . . . Well, that’s our system. There’s an emergency pipe from the lake for June and July, but we hardly use it. I struck lucky over water . . . Enemies? You can’t imagine how many enemies domestic trees and plants attract to themselves. We have a gang of coolies fighting frost now; another, spraying; another, pruning; another digging out a new section by the lake, where I’m trying apricots. It’s a slack time, of course, but you should see us picking and packing! And, now you’ve come, I mean to start a jam factory. Great field for jam in India, hardly exploited at all . . . You and Janie in charge . . . acres of strawberries . . . two or three crops a year . . . Tiptree transplanted . . .”
With a flourish of the black stick to every point, with a bracing of the shoulders, a thrust-back of the head, it was inspiring talk. And there, at his feet, the ordered beds, the trim trained orchards . . . results. Nicholas stirred him. His father had planted, had loved planting; but he had planted, as it were, on the sly; he had used quiet persuasion with the trees that had been his children. Nicholas, on the other hand, was galvanic. He ruled nature. And, when he talked of his kingdom, Jimmy could imagine him ruling anything. The old hero-worship came back; nay, blossomed and grew. There was nothing, he believed, that Nicholas could not do.
They were strenuous days, for they did not only watch the coolies working; they took off their coats and worked themselves. There were trees to be felled, trenches to be dug, logs to be piled against the winter. Jimmy was glad to get to bed at nine o’clock, and for long there was little place for the mood of the first night. Sleep asserted a prior claim.
One thing puzzled him. Nicholas was a fanatic over his fruit; his wife almost so. They both worked untiringly, and in the intervals talked cheerfully and incessantly about fruit . . . till Joan came into the room.
Then they would abruptly change the subject. At first he dismissed it as coincidence; but he soon realized that Joan’s heart was not in the garden. She rarely visited it, however alluring the warmth and the colors and the bustle of it. She seemed to prefer sitting on the veranda with a book in her lap. But she rarely read the book. She never sewed. Occasionally she wrote a letter. But most mornings she simply sat. Looking up, as he often did, and seeing her listless attitude, he could hardly believe that this was the same Joan—the Joan of restless enthusiasms, who had danced up and down in front of people rather than lose a smile. Where, he asked himself again and again, had all her impulsiveness gone to? It was not even that she was lukewarm about the place. When he came in, full of the sheer joy of it, as daily he did, and tried to interest her, she answered politely enough. Sometimes she yawned. But when Nicholas in a moment of triumphant enthusiasm came in to lunch with the completed plan of the little jam works and refused to carve the mutton before he had given a resume of the details, she made a remark which showed only too clearly how the land lay:
“For Heaven’s sake let the garden alone, dad, or I shall go mad. I hate and loathe and detest it. It’s nothing but garden, garden, garden morning, noon, and night. It would get on the nerves of a saint to be cooped up in it, let alone talked to about it.”
Nicholas only shrugged his shoulders and dug the knife into the mutton. But it was easy to see that he was disappointed. For a moment his face showed it, as a child’s face clouds at the slighting of a toy. Then he smiled.
“Come, it’s not so bad as that, Joanie,” he said quietly.
“No, it’s worse; much, much worse; it’s damnable!” and Joan, very pale, left the room.
That scene gave Jimmy all the clues he wanted. It showed the seat of Nicholas's trouble. Evidently it was not the first of such scenes, and he soon realized that it was not likely to be the last. Joan was discontented and hankered for a change. Nicholas hated the idea of leaving his property. The result—discord. Nicholas was willing to compromise to the extent of a winter tour of the race weeks—Lucknow, Meerut, Lahore, and the rest; but nothing would satisfy Joan but England, which meant deserting the estate for a year or splitting up the family. That was the pith of the trouble.
It was frequently discussed. Joan had a ready solution, that she should go home alone; failing that, with her mother. Jimmy could keep her father company in India meanwhile, and thus every one would be comparatively happy. But this did not suit Nicholas. He had spent four years away from his wife and his home, and did not see the force of spending a fifth. He would counsel patience. Joan would flame out. So, another scene.
Try as he would Jimmy could not understand it, that passionate hatred of hers for all that he loved. England? What had England to offer in comparison? Scenery? What could equal their own warm hillside with its infinite colors marvelously blended and marvelously repeated in the lake below? And if that were not enough, could she not climb up among the pines and see a very ocean of hills with ranges for waves, green and purple and gray and blue, breaking at last in a surge of sunlit snow? Excitement? . . . With the haunted jungle to explore? Peace? . . . With that garden?
She told him. After one of the inevitable scenes he found her sitting in the veranda drumming her heels on the matting, and he paused awkwardly, searching for something to say. She was frowning. Her face was scarlet. She looked terribly resentful. She was muttering to herself, and he was reminded vividly of another occasion when he had proffered help and been repulsed . . . in the cabin on the first voyage out. “Go away, or I’ll kill you!” she had said, and he had upset a can and gone away, wondering. He could well imagine her saying the same thing now—not only saying it, but doing it. However, he stood his ground, hovering awkwardly over her and looking at her.
“I suppose you think I’m the limit,” said Joan, still drumming her heels. “I can see exactly what you’re thinking.”
“I rather doubt it,” he answered.
“You think I’m unreasonable.”
“Not at the moment.”
“Then what are you thinking of?”
Should he recall it? Why not? It might amuse her.
“I was remembering the last time when you were—er—upset, and I made a feeble attempt to cheer you up. You were in disgrace for tarring people’s chairs”—just a flicker of a smile from Joan—“and I thought I’d be helpful. You . . .”
“I remember. I was in bed and you upset the water.”
“Yes, and you threatened to kill me if I didn’t go . . .”
“Of course,” said Joan meditatively. Then, looking straight at him, “Well?”
He shuffled his feet.
“Well, I don’t know. I thought you might feel murderously inclined now.”
“You mean I’m upset now? And you feel helpful?”
Joan smiled, then quickly frowned.
“I was crying then, you booby. Do you think I’d let you see me crying? I suppose you imagine that I’m on the verge of tears now, because my estimable parents will not see anybody’s point of view but their own. Is that it?”
“No. I didn’t exactly expect you to be crying. Just upset. I can’t imagine you crying, Joan.”
“I should think not,” said Joan. “But I could quite easily commit murder—wholesale murder!”
She stared resentfully across the valley, and once more drummed her heels. Jimmy quietly took the next chair and watched her. He could not help admiring her in this smoldering mood, it was so utterly unlike any of his own moods. To him there was something daring, something rather fine about it, although he was far from understanding the cause of it. And anger suited her—no doubt of that. It brought a radiancy to cheek and eye and mouth. Looking at her face in profile, he marveled at the brilliance, the utter clearness of it. Not a line, not a freckle. A sort of radiant transparency rather, absurdly called “skin,” fuller of life than any opening flower, softer than any silk. The impulse to touch her cheek was almost intolerable. He felt that the touch must communicate to him some undreamed-of electricity, some thrilling current of her vivid life. He felt drawn to her—conscious that in some mysterious way he was being dominated by an infinitely greater vitality than his. He had never felt anything like it before, this consciousness of her, this magnetism that seemed in some way to be connected with her anger. How, he could not say. But her excitement, it seemed, had passed into him. He found himself trembling.
“Any suggested alterations or improvements?” said Joan, suddenly turning round.
He started. He had hardly known that he was staring.
“If you’d only talk, I wouldn’t mind quite so much. I don’t mind people looking at me when they talk. In fact, I prefer it. But I don’t like silent searching. Mother excels in it.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t . . .”
“You never were much of a one for talking, though, were you, Jimmy?” continued Joan, paying no attention to his attempted apology.
It was her first spontaneous reference to the past, and her first departure from “Cousin James.” He felt grateful, though tongue-tied as ever. Joan, however, seemed to want to talk.
“I suppose you think a tremendous lot instead,” she said. “To hear dad on the subject of you, one might think you were a sort of Diogenes. Do you have these marvelous thought-waves, Cousin James?”
Her eyes, with a lazy query in them, for an instant seemed to hold his, so that he was looking into the depths of them. Again he felt that dominating thrill. But . . . “Cousin James” this time. He had a twinge of disappointment.
“Nothing very marvelous in my thoughts, I’m afraid,” he said.
“You've a good memory, haven’t you? You even remember about that silly voyage.”
“Don’t you?” he muttered.
“I? Good gracious, no! I never remember anything.”
“You remembered about my coming in and upsetting the can.”
“Oh, that!” she laughed. “Your face amused me.”
“None of the . . . the other things?”
This question meant much, more than he dared convey in his voice. But her eyebrows arched in a disarming surprise, and her answer was a bland interrogation.
“Were there any other things, Cousin James?”
He could only look at her. She must remember. Why, life was one tissue of those other things . . . all the dreams . . . all the plans. Now was the time. He must put them forcibly, make her listen. She might think him foolish at first, but little by little the spell would grow upon her, and excitement would dawn in her eyes. “Oh, I remember,” she would say “Tell me some more. Quick!” Then the eager questions, the whispered . . .
“Why don’t you talk, Cousin James? I like people to talk. I don’t care what they say, as long as they say something, without looking soulful and broody over it.”
The sudden, petulant outburst scattered his ideas. Another second . . . but she gave him no time. She spoke quickly, tempestuously. Once she clutched his arm. “That’s the whole thing. I won’t, I won’t be dull. Dad and mother don’t understand. Nor do you. You like views and trees and work and being deadly, deadly dull. You’d be content on a desert island. So would they. I’d drown myself. I’d rather. Anything rather than be alone. I’ve told them. ‘Go a walk,’ dad says, ‘look at the view.’ Mum says, ‘Count the washing.’ Damn the view and damn the washing!” She paused and her eyes challenged his. “I’m shocking you, I suppose. Well, I shall. You’re asleep—all of you. I’d love to shock you and hurt you, and wake you up and make you see what’s the matter with this place and why it’s such an abominably deadly little hole. Do you know why?”
He was dazed. He shook his head. The vehemence, fierce undertones, the look in her face shocked him, hurt him, and yet . . . strangely enough . . . drew him. He could not help looking at her. He could not help wanting her to hurt him. There was that in his look which welcomed blows, and she must have seen it, for she suddenly became calm. Her voice softened.
“The worst of you, Jimmy, is that you always look so innocent. You’re a baby, you. So I shall always want to hurt you. Babies always make me want to pinch them and make them howl . . . fat, sleepy, squodgy little things. I grind my teeth when I think of them. That’s wicked, I suppose, unwomanly. I don’t care. I am wicked. I like hurting people, especially good people like you. And I must have people to hurt . . . even if they hurt me back. People, people, people—amusing people, horrid people, vulgar people, any people, as long as they’re not dull. That’s me.”
She smiled, and he saw a whimsical, a soft look—surely reminiscent of Nicholas—creeping back into her face.
A wild thought came to him—that he might kiss her face, and so win that look into perfection. Her face was very near, searching his for the effect of her words. If only he had courage . . . If only he could say: “All that may be, but I like you. I love you. I love the courage and the cruelty and the force and the life of you. Let all the old dreams go. Only let me kiss your face.” But he was not bold, and the mood passed. He remembered that this was the Joan to whom he was to have whispered, the Joan whom he was to have awakened to the quiet delights of the woods. He suddenly felt physically tired, as if strength had gone out of him. And he only gazed back at her gravely. So the smile and the softness faded, and she frowned again.
“I must have people,” she was saying, though he only half heard her. “When I think of the restaurants at home, full of lights and clatter and chatter . . . and then our meals . . . I feel that I could get drunk and go mad and dance on a table, crunching the plates and glasses and flowers.
“That’s wicked, too, I suppose. Everything I think of is wicked. Uncontrolled, dad would say . . . and that’s exactly what I feel here when no one talks, unless it’s about fruit, and when I look out of the window at night and hear nothing. Nothing! I want to run. I want to fling myself about, and shout and yell. Abandoned is the word. I don’t care . . .” She was forcing him to listen now. “Dad disapproves of Tom Jervis. Says he’s a waster. He isn’t a waster. He’s a fool. Such a fool, Jimmy.” She smiled at some thought. “I don’t care a snap of the fingers for Tom Jervis, so they needn’t be frightened, unless . . .”
She stamped her foot, adding: “If I’m cooped up here much longer I could do anything. You see, he does talk. He keeps things going. He makes you laugh. Awful rot, of course . . . He’s a mean beast, too . . . but he’s awake. He’d love to hurt me . . . he’s rather like me in that; but . . . oh, Jimmy, why don’t you slap my face when I talk like this? Why doesn’t dad beat me, instead of looking hurt? And why will mum cry? You’re all so damned . . . good that you make me worse. Come on—slap me.”
She offered her cheek. Once before she had offered her cheek, and he had kissed it, and found it soft and round and warm. Somehow the memory mastered him. Hardly knowing what he did, but in a sort of madness, he suddenly leaned forward and—again—kissed her cheek. Then, overcome with a medley of sensations—wonder at himself, shyness of her, awe at the intensity and the stress of his own feelings—he stared at her, as in a stupor, the fingers of his right hand twisting and untwisting a curl of his hair. And Joan seemed to crouch back into her chair, fondling her cheek . . . staring back at him.
So, a long moment, in which thought seemed to slip away, giving place to a wondering confusion. Yet dimly in the background of his mind there hovered already a sense of finality. Whatever he had been meant to do he had done. That alert destiny, nine years interrupted . . . dominant now . . . had driven him very quickly across this Rubicon, had given him no breathing-space at all. Outside, the sunlight danced in a haze over the gardens. The coolies came and went with their bundles on their heads, laughing to each other. Nicholas, half-way down the hill, was pointing at something with his black stick. The trees were just stirring, and a ripple was turning the lake from jade to silver. Soon the sun would kiss those trees on the opposite hill, would flood them with light, and leave them cold and gray. The lake would be black then, and the birds would begin to cry . . . But all those things, so important yesterday, so full of interest even an hour ago, were dim to him now. For his destiny was set, and Joan filled the world.
“You, Jimmy! You!” she was saying, and there was wonder rather than anger in her voice. “Why did you do it?”
“I had to.”
“You had to? Why?”
“You must know.” He could hardly hear his own words.
“I? How can I know? It’s so extraordinary that . . . I can’t even feel annoyed. No one . . . Jimmy, it couldn’t have been because you like me . . . after all I’ve said. It wasn’t that?”
“I have always liked you.” Of all the tremendous sentences that were forming and fading in his mind, for that to come out!
Joan was looking at him thoughtfully.
“If anybody else had said that I should have called him a liar,” she said. “But I believe you may have always liked me. It’s possible, I suppose. Besides, you’re not a liar.” She seemed to be talking to herself rather than to him. “Well, you must stop at once.”
This was agony. It was like a sentence on a dumb man, for speak he could not. But she must have seen the question in his face, for she added:
“You see, if you persist in liking me I shall inevitably want to hurt you. The more you like me the more I shall want to hurt you. That’s me. I’m a devil, I suppose.”
The power of speech came back then.
“I don’t believe it,” he said.
“You will, though. You see, I know myself rather well. I’m one of those people who have been mercilessly spoiled; that’s what anybody who wasn’t a fool could see at a glance. I once heard some one say it—a woman at a tea-party—and I said, ‘Hear, hear!’ at once, which rather upset her for the rest of the meal. Naturally I’m selfish. There’s something very pleasant about being really whole-heartedly selfish. You mustn’t look pained, Jimmy. This is nothing to what I should do if I got used to your liking me. Then, I always believe the worst of everybody, whereas I’m sure you are just the opposite. You probably think my bark’s much worse than my bite, but you’re quite wrong. I often wish I was a man and could put into words the awful things I think about people.”
He made a gesture of denial, but she was determined to go on.
“So, you see, I’m a dangerous person to like in the . . . in the sort of way you might like some one. Dad dotes on me, poor dad, and I make his life a misery. I’m the only person who has made mum cry. I think I’m safest with people who don’t feel anything at all, like Tom Jervis, and always, always with new people. That’s me. I suppose you think I’m worked up and hysterical and don’t mean a word of what I say. But I’m not. I’m only warning you, because I really think you are rather nice. Dad and mum think so, and they both have a kind of nose for niceness. In a way I’m actually being unselfish for once, because I . . . rather like being liked. I’m being honest, I suppose. It’s one of my pet poses, honesty. So please don’t have ideas, Jimmy.”
She smiled. Then, as if she knew the witchery of her smile, looked suddenly solemn. But he had seen the little wrinkles and dimples peep and play in her face ere she sent them into hiding, had quivered under the spell. Besides, it had happened. The last step had been taken. And, as for ideas, they had been born ten years ago. Life of his life, those ideas. Indestructible . . .
“It’s done,” the words came mechanically. “Not your fault. I’ve always . . . thought about you.” Then, recollecting her phrase, he added whimsically, “That’s me.”
She was looking at him intently, searching his face. Then he saw by her expression that she believed him.
“I sometimes wondered . . .” she began, but did not finish the sentence. Instead, she gazed perplexedly down the hill. He saw her eyes following the central path through the gardens, empty now and silent. He thought they dwelt on the lake below, unruffled now and black with the shadow of the looming hills. He tried to divine her thoughts. For him all this meant peace. For her . . .
She could hardly have known that she shuddered, the movement was so infinitesimal. But he was conscious of an alertness almost amounting to divination, and he knew her thought as if she had spoken it aloud. She had considered a possibility and . . . she had shuddered. What matter if her lips answered otherwise? That shudder was the true answer.
Then, with a shake of the shoulders—as if to throw off the burden of a problem—she stood up.
“You must get me out of your head, Jimmy—seriously,” she said, and went into the house.
A week followed without a sign from Joan that she realized the eventfulness of that hour on the veranda. Partly because it was a busy week—the last week of hard work before the inevitable wintry weather—and partly because she was hardly ever at home in the daytime, he had no opportunity of doing what he ached to do—thresh the matter out. He thought about her incessantly. Every sentence of that wild self-revelation and every look that had accompanied it was fixed in his mind. And, though those sentences goaded him and stung him, he had a strange sense of gratitude to her. She had given him, gratis, a.picture of herself that by the very boldness of its outline challenged and mocked the weak picture produced by his own fancy. A caricature, perhaps—emphasizing the venom, the discontent, the cynicism, even the cruelty of her nature—but at the same time an unconscious revelation of compensating qualities—a courage, an intense vitality, a truth. He bowed to the wilful truth of her admissions, almost glad that he had at last discovered the living, breathing Joan, distant and dangerous as she might be. And sore as his heart was, he never believed in her more than he did in that week of readjustment. His confidence in her was such that he would literally have done anything at her bidding. But she gave him no sign.
Captain Jervis came over constantly with a pony for her to ride. Sometimes he brought a friend, too, a fair-haired cavalryman with a loud voice, named Tarporley. He would see them riding off together—their hats bobbing among the trees, their ponies fitting into the tones of the dying leaves—and when they were out of sight he would listen to the clock, clock of the hoofs and the snatches of talk—Jervis’s monotone, Tarporley’s shouts, and Joan’s clear laughter. Sometimes they invited him to join them, but they never pressed him, and he never went. Daily he caught himself envying them—for, fools as she might think them, they nevertheless possessed something that he lacked, some faculty of carrying her with them—and daily pulled himself up with the thought, “She has told me what she would never tell them. She treats me better . . . really.” And, though she laughed in their company and returned flushed and happy from those rides, he strove manfully to keep that thought uppermost, telling himself that admittedly she did not care for them, nor they for her. They were but repeating the part of the Baxter twins . . . friends of a fortnight, forgotten in a day.
As it chanced, he was mostly alone, for Nicholas and his wife were concentrating on the plans of what they called the Jammery, and it fell to him to supervise the coolies. He found it refreshing to listen to their cheerful badinage and to reflect that they at least were utterly unconscious of any change in him. In the evenings he would stroll down to the lake, plunge into the tangled undergrowth that surrounded it, and watch the blue smoky haze of dusk creep over garden and jungle. Sitting there with his hands clasped round his knees and his head bent, he would wonder how it was possible for Joan to miss the spell of the place, and there were times when he almost persuaded himself that in him lay the power of opening her eyes. She was unhappy. She had admitted that. But she had sought the wrong remedies. Surely peace was the cure for unhappiness, and here, if anywhere, was peace. If he could only persuade her to give his remedy a chance!
The old dreams would crowd in on him then. He would picture her under his guidance, listless at first, then slowly betraying interest, till at last the eager flood of questions would come. He had so much to tell her. Already he knew the secret places of these woods. He knew where the deer lay, half-way up the glen. He had seen them passing down to drink, and once a sambar hind had stared into his face on her way to the water. He could show her the chir pheasants, and a woodpecker, and a kingfisher so vivid as to seem scaled with blue; with luck he might lead her to a little scarlet bird that always hid itself in the thickest thorns. Flowers, too. The rhododendron-trees were bursting into crimson, and at the lake-edge pink flowers, like willow-herb, made a wall of color. The moss was greenest here, and soft for a seat. If only he could get her to come! If only he could begin to tell her!
Dreaming so, he would recapture his old expectancy, his confidence in the unlikely. With wonder in his face, he would look still farther, and see a clearing on the sunny side of the opposite hill, and a house in the clearing, and little paths radiating from the house, and Joan coming and going on those paths; Joan coming to meet him, walking negligently no longer, but impatiently as of old; Joan with a home for defiance of discontent, and with his service for all her days; surely the passion of that service would fill the place of those other visionary things that she hankered for. He would go back then, step by step, through that ultimatum of hers. He would see loopholes, little shafts of light in the gloom—matters that had escaped him at the time, but now significant. Had she not called him Jimmy and continued to call him Jimmy? Had she not in a sense appealed to him throughout—to him, only to him? Had she not decried herself for his sake? Had she not said in so many words that she had confidence in him?
Surely, too, there had been other signs—better interpretations of the real Joan, because unconsciously given. How her voice had softened when she had said, “You’re a baby, you.” How in spite of herself that whimsical look had crept into her face and reminded him of Nicholas—Nicholas who would not hurt a fly. Then, when fatally his lips had kissed her cheek, how the bitter mood had passed from her. Crouching back in her chair, she had studied his face as if she had found in it something new, or something dimly remembered. She had said nothing for a long time. Surely in that silence the old memories, the old promises had been knocking at the door of her mind. What had her face shown then? Doubt? Indecision? Struggle? All of these, but something else as well. A gentleness . . . a flicker of gentleness.
But she had shuddered. Whatever she had contemplated in those long moments, it had brought no solution but a shudder, and . . . “You must get me out of your head, Jimmy—seriously.” Final, that . . . and yet . . . not utterly hopeless. For such had been her mood that she must correct any impression of weakness instantly. Every smile had been corrected by a sudden frown, every softening of the voice by a sudden—surely an assumed—hardness.
She had been impatient. Rather than show a sign of weakness, she had wilfully exaggerated. She had posed. “It’s one of my pet poses—honesty.” But not the only pose. A passionate independence was the key to Joan.
Logically, as it seemed, his mind worked round to that. It explained everything. It explained her chafing at the restrictions of home. It explained her indifference over the gardens, her failure as a nurse. Routine. Claims. These were her nightmares. She needed freedom. She had a physical fear of anything less than complete freedom. Rather than admit the existence of claims, she would make herself out a devil disguised. That was Joan.
Again and again he came back to that solution, and invariably found comfort in it. Indeed, there were times when he exulted in it, feeling that he, and he only, understood Joan. Like some beautiful creature of the wild, he pictured her standing at bay, defiant of restraint. To be untamed, to be passionately free . . . such was the attribute of a goddess. His idealism leaped to the image, and eagerly, triumphantly, he installed the new Joan, radiantly free, in the only possible setting for a goddess, the mountains and the mountain woods and the flowers of the woods.
His part? Service. As was fitting. Understanding her, he would have no need to make claims . . .
No one suspected. He was sure of that because of a discussion which took place about a week after his talk with Joan. It concerned Joan, and they would hardly, he thought, have discussed her in his presence had they known of his feelings. Evidently his face showed nothing. That he could understand, because his lonely sessions down by the lake had brought him a strong measure of comfort. The discussion, indeed, began with a reference to his face. Nicholas made a remark about it.
“There’s no doubt of your settling down, at any rate, James. He’s positively blooming, isn’t he, Janie?”
He saw Mrs. Nicholas glance at him. A sharp little glance it was, like a bird’s. But she, too, smiled.
“Of course he is,” she said. “I have only one bone to pick with him. He won’t ask for third helpings. I told him when I adopted him . . . Pass the gravy, please, Nick. Help yourself on the way, Jimmy . . . What was I saying? Oh, about third helpings . . . and hymns. Third helpings and hymns in the bath . . . thank you . . . are the sine—what is it, Nick?”
“Sine qua non?”
“Sine qua non of a properly constituted son. More hump, Jimmy?”
“After that I can’t refuse it,” he said, passing his plate.
“And the hymns?” suggested Nicholas.
“Hymns of thanksgiving, I hope.”
“Of course,” he said and, looking at their kind faces, he meant it.
“Talking of singing,” said Nicholas, “you haven’t heard Joanie sing. She’s really quite pleasant to listen to. She hasn’t many notes, but she makes deep gurgling sounds that always remind me of some water instrument and make me feel peaceful and lazy. We must make her sing. When did Joan last sing, by the way?”
“Ages and ages ago,” answered his wife, “and you fell asleep and snored.”
“Well, she shouldn’t gurgle melodiously,” said Nicholas, and relapsed into silence. When Joan was discussed there were always these silences. They would glance at one another shamefacedly, those two, as if each knew what the other was thinking. Then Nicholas would hum a tune, and his wife would change the subject. But on this occasion Nicholas did not glance at his wife, but at Jimmy.
“What do you think we ought to do with Joanie, James?” he said.
They were both looking at him curiously, as if to divine what side he would take. He felt intensely uncomfortable.
“Do with her?” he repeated vaguely.
“Perhaps . . .” Mrs. Nicholas began, but her husband held up his hand.
“He’s got eyes. He knows the circumstances. He’s unbiased; that’s to say, his affection’s evenly distributed. And he’s a philosopher. In other words, there’s an opinion on the subject stowed away inside his head, if we can only winkle it out.”
“Poor Jimmy!” murmured Mrs. Nicholas.
He looked at her gratefully, but there was nothing for it. He would have to say something. But what?
“In what way?” he asked, for breathing-space.
“In this way . . . No, let me explain, Nick . . .” To his surprise it was Janie who answered him. “Joan has a grudge against this place. It started quite lately. She was perfectly happy before Captain Jervis came. She loved the summer. Then, I think, he talked a lot about England and the dances and fun she was missing and . . .”
“No thinking about it. He deliberately . . .”
Nicholas was waved aside.
“Shut up, Nick! I have a logical mind. Captain Jervis . . . and the Tarpaulin man too, though he’s a shade more sensible . . . gave her the idea that she’s wasted out here. A girl is easily made to think that.”
“Not if she’s got her head screwed on,” mumbled Nicholas.
“Nothing whatever to do with her head. Much more to do with her clothes. Well—where was I?—oh, yes—they made her feel India wasn’t good enough. These bloated young plutocrats—Jervis is potted meat—who haven’t learned the language, and don’t shoot, and can’t play polo, and haven’t enough common sense to find out the glorious things you can do in India, think it the thing to say that India’s no place for a gentleman. Captain Jervis tactfully conveyed as much to me.”
“Damned young swine!” Nicholas growled.
“Hush, Nick! He can think so if he likes. I don’t mind. But when he leads our Joan astray—even if he doesn’t mean to, and he’s too much of an ass to mean anything—we object. We did object. You’ve seen the result—thunder and lightning. Joan won’t tell either of us anything now, and Jervis has taken root here.”
“A nice confession for two doting parents to have to make,” added Nicholas, gloomily thrusting his hands into his trouser pockets.
“Yes, but we have spoiled her, Nick . . .”
“Oh, I know . . .”
“. . . So it’s partly our fault. Anyhow, she wants to get away from here, Jimmy . . . tout de suite . . . next boat. We say next year, when you have learned everything there is to know and can represent Nick. Or else . . .”
“That’s the position, James,” said Nicholas hurriedly. “We can’t split up the happy family just because Joanie has a hankering for England, which she’ll probably forget as soon as she sees the Tilbury mud. ‘United we stand,’ is my motto.”
He glanced at his wife. Then they both concentrated on Jimmy.
An extraordinary diffidence possessed him. He did not want to discuss this, of all subjects. Of what use could his opinion be? True, he knew more than they did. True, they thought the cause of the discontent simple, when it was anything but simple. All he could say was that they had missed the salient point of Joan’s character . . . and how could he say that? But something he must say. He drew a deep breath and addressed his remark to his plate.
“I don’t think Jervis . . . has . . . much to do with it,” he said.
“Oh, but he has, really,” said Mrs. Nicholas.
“She wouldn’t be . . . influenced . . . by some one weaker than herself. In fact, I can’t imagine her being influenced by anybody.”
“Least of all her dad,” interjected Nicholas.
“Yes, because you have claims on her, and she hates claims.”
“She told you so?”
They both spoke at once.
“No. Not in so many words. We did talk . . . once . . . and I saw that things were getting on her nerves and that she wanted to get away. Then I thought it over, and it seemed to me that it was just independence.”
“And love of novelty,” said Nicholas.
“That sort of thing.” He felt that wild horses would not drag another word out of him. Surely that would satisfy them. But no . . .
“She does exactly what she likes.”
Nicholas sounded slightly ruffled.
“Perhaps that accounts for it,” he suggested, blushing.
“You mean we spoil her? Well, granted. What then? What would you do?”
What would he do? Build a house on that knoll across the lake . . . gently but firmly put her in it . . . tell her to shut her eyes . . . tell her to open them and see fruit blossom cascading over the southern slope, see sunset reflected in the lake, see . . .
“I shouldn’t do anything,” he said very slowly, seeing pictures as he spoke. “Because . . . one day she’ll simply have to wake up and see what a jolly place this is.”
They both shook their heads.
It was almost as if he had made a prophecy. At least, he had reason to believe that Fate was on his side, for Joan did not bring Captain Jervis in to tea that day. This in itself was unusual. More unusual still, she volunteered the information that Captain Jervis was a nuisance. Most unusual of all, she asked Nicholas how the Jammery was progressing; and Nicholas in his surprise knocked over a tea-cup. In consequence, tea was a cheerful meal.
Nor was this all. After dinner Janie sat down at the piano and played some Australian nursery rhymes—little tripping songs about wattle, about possums, about moonlight. As she played she sang the words—as she put it—or, as Nicholas put it, “talked” them. Her singing was in fact all on one note. Her expression was one of constant anxiety regarding the proper distribution of her fingers, and each mistake in distribution was marked by a little shriek from the singer and a guffaw from Nicholas. Joan, in an arm-chair by the fire, gurgled with laughter from time to time, and Jimmy was aware that Janie’s nursery rhymes were a family institution. He had a comfortable sense of being privileged, more especially as every one looked perfectly happy for once.
“They live in a lean-to, so I hear,
’Way back, out ’way back,
A sort of shanty small and queer
’Way back, far away! They live on goat and kangaroo
And parrot pie and wallaby stew!
They seem to like it, so they do,
’Way back, far away!
sang Janie; and Nicholas, with his head back, gazing at the ceiling, followed in a key of his own devising. Joan was not following. She was looking into the fire, and the firelight seemed to play tricks with the corners of her mouth, making her seem to smile. Or was she smiling? And was that babyishness in her face, that elfin look, a trick of the fire, too?
Jimmy watched her. Had the magic happened already? Were these childish songs magic for her? They were calls to the bush, every one of them, echoes of the very plans he had made . . .
“Now, Joanie,” said Nicholas, in the silence that succeeded “’Way back.”
For a moment it seemed as if Joan had not heard, and the only sound in the room was made by Janie turning over music in the corner. Then Joan got up and slowly went to the piano. There were whispered discussions. More turning of leaves. “Not that I” . . . “No, I hate it.” . . . “I course I can’t,” from Joan.
What would she sing? Why did she take so long to make up her mind? He could not look at any one, for fear that they should see how desperately nervous and anxious and excited he was . . . over a song. As if it mattered to her what she sang! As if she could know that her choice at this particular moment was so tremendously important!
But there was no getting away from it. It was important. If he were right, the song would be an answer to all these doubts of his. Suppose something had happened—something to make her change her mind and turn it homeward; suppose she had been thinking, too, and some of his thoughts had found their way to her and had opened her eyes . . . then the song, and the singing of it, would tell him.
“Oh, well, then. This!” from the corner, and a page smacked to keep it down.
The first notes brought him a feeling almost of triumph, for the song she had chosen was “Loch Lomond.”
He forgot that the firelight was illuminating his profile for Nicholas, sitting within a yard of him. He forgot that Janie, having just remarked that she could play “Loch Lomond” with her eyes shut, might conceivably keep them very wide open for other contingencies. He simply leaned forward and looked at Joan. She was not looking at him. She was, in fact, looking into the shadows beyond his head. But he felt that if he kept his gaze fixed he would draw hers; that she would lose herself in the song . . . and find him.
“By yon bonny banks
And by yon bonny braes . . .”
Yes, he had expected her voice to be like that—low and clear, having kinship with the music of water. But he had not expected such softness or such sadness. The song was the lament of a lonely person, and she sang it as only a lonely person could sing it. For once, stranded over there by the piano, she looked little and looked lonely. Yes, Joan the independent, Joan the passionate repudiator of claims, was after all only a lonely little person in a corner. She wanted something, and, by her voice, she wanted it rather badly. But did she know what it was?
. . . Or was she after all acting the song, and he imagining? If only she would look at him . . .
“Oh, the wild flowers spring
And the wee birdies sing
And in sunshine the waters are sleeping . . .”
She had looked. Not for long. But enough. With something of the bewilderment of a puzzled child’s eyes her eyes had dwelt on his. It was as if, puzzled over the answer to her problem, she had turned for a moment to him; as if she had said to herself: “Shall I find it here—what I want? Flowers and birds, sunshine and water, are his sphere, not mine. Is there anything in them, after all? He should know.”
So it had been a pensive, serious look. None of her challenging quality had gone into it. The room for a moment had seemed to be emptied of the others, of the furniture, of the firelight, of everything except that child in the corner and her doubts and her question . . . and himself and his answer. For he answered. If he had shouted across the room he could not have answered more clearly. More than that, he thought her eyes thanked him, for they rested on him twice more before the song was ended. It was as if she were considering his solution, and looking again to make sure of it . . . or of him. And, when the song ended in that lingering silence which always succeeds music that has been felt, she looked again. Standing quite still, she looked straight at him. And this time it seemed as if something outside themselves held their eyes so steadfast that he had the sensation of a contact almost physical. It was a meeting—not of her eyes and his, but of something inward, something at once tremulous and strong that bade them look for ever. To look away was to him almost like an act of violence—a rending of something tangible and precious that had grown up suddenly between them and might not grow again. But it was Nicholas who snapped the spell.
“Thanks, Joanie,” he said quietly. “Old times again.”
Then he got up and patted her head.
There were no more songs. It seemed that one had sufficed to bring back what Jimmy perceived had long been missing, a happy atmosphere. A spirit—which, because he had not always lived with them, he did not wholly understand—had come back to them and had made them, as it were, familiar instead of being merely units of a family. Thus when he wanted to think of them together, as well as for other reasons, he always remembered that evening.
For a little they talked, and the talk ran on old times—the days before the war and the still older days of the voyage out to India. Nicholas did most of the talking. He was feeling for the past, as if he knew that the firelight and the atmosphere and the mood of the evening demanded the past, almost as if he had an object in recalling it. Then, as the mood grew on them, silence fell. Each, it seemed, had special thoughts. Nicholas puffed at a pipe and stared into the fire. Janie knitted. Jimmy and Joan sat still, and a dozen times their eyes met and held—always, to Jimmy, with that sensation of a contact.
Then, after perhaps half an hour, Nicholas got up and yawned.
“There’s a moon,” he said. “Full or nearly full. Afraid of the cold, Janie? Never.”
He strolled out, and his wife followed him. Soon they heard their footsteps on the gravel, outside.
The room was very silent then. The fire made little splutters and chirps, and at each tiny sound the light leaped and the shadows jigged and danced. But Jimmy was watching Joan. Sitting there, half curled up in the big leather arm-chair, shielding her cheek from the firelight with her hand—with her slip of a white dress, and her tossed, unruly, burnished hair—she was the Joan of nine years ago, with the old elfin grace and elfin mystery. But little and lonely, after all.
Perhaps that thought gave him the courage he needed. Conscious of a power within him, which seemed to be taking the direction of everything out of his hands, he got up and pulled the sofa up to the fire; hesitated a moment; moved the lamp so that no light but the firelight would fall on them; then asked her to come. And she came.
Then, sitting side by side, they turned and looked at each other; and once more, the moment their eyes met, that magic came between them, so that neither could look away. His were full of wonder; hers, too, wondering, but half incredulous . . .
“What is it?” she whispered; then, still lower, “Why?”
“Love. Love.” His lips just formed the words. He had no others in him. Those two words seemed to drain him.
“No. I . . . It mightn’t be.”
“It’s only . . . this evening. The singing and everything. We’re different to-night.”
Whispers still—little more than their lips moving—hardly any sound. But their eyes told more.
“It has begun to-night,” he said.
“No. Years ago for me, in a way. I didn’t understand it before—altogether. Now I do, because it has begun for you, too. It’s ours to-night.”
“You mean . . .?”
She didn’t say the word. No need.
“Yes, yes. Love. Isn’t it?”
She made no answer. But she couldn’t look away. She was reading his face, still startled, still doubtful.
“Isn’t it?” he repeated. He was trembling all over. Yet, strangely enough, he felt strong. .For this time only in life he had a power in him that made Joan weak beside him.
“Isn’t it?” he said for a third time, wondering at his own vehemence and almost pitying her, as if he were frightening her in spite of himself. And indeed she looked white. Her fingers were twisting, twisting all the time.
“Yes . . . no . . . oh, I wish . . . you see, you’re different to-night.”
“Not really,” he said gently. “I’m the same—worse luck—unless you help me. I’ll be the same old, dull, tongue-tied fool to-morrow unless . . .”
She stopped him, putting her hand on his arm.
“No, you’re not dull, Jimmy. You’re nice. That’s the worst of it.”
“It can’t be.”
“It is. You expect so much . . . more than I’ve got, though I do like you. At least, I like you now and like this.”
She looked round the room, as if it explained things.
“Not ‘like,’ Joanie,” he whispered, hardly aware that he had used the diminutive for the first time; “it’s more than that.”
“Perhaps. Yes, it is. Now. Here. But oh, Jimmy, there are so many to-morrows and so many me’s.”
He shook his head, smiling, but she went on.
“And you’ve thought of such nice things for us; I know you have. Oh, yes, I know the kind of things. You’ve dreamt and dreamt and dreamt down there by the lake. I know, you see. You’ve made up things, like . . .”
“Like we used to. You, too, Joanie,” he said quickly, his triumph seeming very near.
“No. Not the same things.”
“How do you know?”
“I don’t think so,” she said thoughtfully. “But I’ll hear about them if you like.”
“You want to?”
Triumph was here. She was smiling now; and her lips, trembling ever so little, took a shape that made him suddenly wild to kiss them. He leaned forward.
“No. After,” she whispered. “After, you shall. I’ll let you. I want to be nice to you, you see, Jimmy, while I can. Let’s talk, though. Tell me what you’ve thought. Are they very old thoughts, or new?”
He rumpled his hair in the old characteristic way, and she smiled to see him. Surely he could find words . . .
“I expect they’re about nine years old,” he said.
She was watching him, and she just nodded.
“Perhaps they’re not very grown up . . . I don’t know . . . They haven’t changed much, any more than I have. I’ve thought about you ever since I can remember properly, but it began on the boat, of course.”
“Always me?” she asked then. “Absolutely always?”
She looked away . . . at the fire . . . and seemed to sigh and laugh at once.
“Poor Jimmy!” she said at last. “You deserve somebody very nice, indeed. Oh, why did it have to be me?”
“Don’t know. It had to be, thank God!”
“Yes. I have and I do and I will. Why, I hadn’t seen you for three days before I wanted to go away into a corner with you and tell you everything I had ever thought of and never been able to tell anybody else. It wasn’t much, but it was all I had, anyway. I thought you’d laugh at first . . .”
She started then, as at a sudden memory.
“And if I’d told you that the one thing I wanted in the world was to whisper to you, you would have laughed. I should have minded then, so I wouldn’t risk it. Now . . .”
She did laugh—very gently, as one who laughs at a child.
“You have your wish, Jimmy. You’ve been whispering to me for the last half-hour. Or has that thought grown up?”
He faltered and blushed.
“I don’t know. I suppose it has . . . partly.”
“You aren’t content with whispering to me, Jimmy.
If you were . . . But you want all sorts of things. You want to kiss me. You did kiss me, didn’t you? Even nine years ago you did. That’s quite different from whispering secrets. That’s a big thing . . . isn’t it?”
She shot the question at him so suddenly that he thought she was angry.
“I suppose it is,” he said, rumpling his hair furiously; “everything to do with you is big, and everything’s important. If you didn’t like . . . that . . . I’d try not to ask for it, though.”
She frowned; why, he couldn’t imagine. She had not frowned before. But he went on.
“I know you don’t like claims, or being asked to do things.”
“No, not claims . . . or being asked . . .” she repeated as if to herself, or to the fire. “I’m afraid I’m not at all certain what I do like. I’ve never been made to do anything, you see. I mightn’t like that either, but I don’t know. Do you think you could make me do anything Jimmy?”
She was looking at him now, as if measuring his strength.
“No,” he said, “I don’t think I could.”
She sighed at that.
“That’s the worst of it. If you could make me . . .”
“What would you make me do, if you had the power?”
For a moment he did not answer.
Then he surprised himself.
“I’d make you open your eyes,” he said. “I’d make you explore. I’d make you get up before sunrise, and tramp all day and get dusty and hungry and thirsty. But I’d be showing you everything I’ve ever found, and you wouldn’t know you were tired. I’d make you smell the woods—earth and pine and wet grass and, oh, millions of things—till the smell went to your head and you wanted to shout and run like a . . . like a goddess of all these glorious hills. I’d make you see things you’ve never seen or bothered to think of seeing . . . things growing and moving and living. I’d make you live among them and . . . love them. And in the evening I’d make you sit down in a cool place by a bit of water, and we could watch them all coming down to drink. And then I wouldn’t whisper to you, Joanie, unless you cared for me to. But I know I’d worship you.”
He drew a deep breath as if he had run a race. And indeed he had. He had been racing his own diffidence and, for the first time in his life, he had won. And throughout that breathless race Joan had not stirred. She had neither laughed nor frowned. But she had looked at him almost as if he had been a stranger talking.
“I like that,” she whispered. “That’s new. I could do that . . . at first . . . if you talked like this. Fancy you! Do you know, Jimmy, you looked just like you used to look when you said that.”
She laughed tremulously.
“Your hair’s like a bird’s nest . . . the same old hair. And the same old serious face that I rather like to-night. And you want to tramp me and dust me and freckle me and tire me out and do all the last things anybody else could possibly want to do with me . . . and I like that, too. Oh, Jimmy, Jimmy, if it could only last! If only I could go on wanting to be tired out and interested and worshiped. If I knew that, I’d walk with you to-morrow barefoot on brambles, and worship you, too, if you liked to make me. Fancy being really certain of what you want and keeping certain for nine years! Oh, dear, you’ve never grown up at all, you baby, you.”
And, to his utter wonder, there was a little impulsive rush and Joan’s arms were round his neck. They were kissing as children kiss—quick, warm kisses tumbling at random one after the other with little laughing cries and little croonings between. In that moment they were conscious of nothing but the sheer joy of finding one another. It was more like the end of a game of hide-and-seek than a conquest or a surrender. Thought played no part in it. Happiness left no room for anything approaching thought. They kissed blindly, touched without realizing that they were touched. And so they laughed.
Then, like an awakening, thought came back. He knew suddenly that her arms were soft and her cheeks warm. He felt the touch of her hair and saw the light in it. And he found her lips. There was no more laughter then. A silence. An almost desperate clinging, before they let each other go and looked at each other, like discoverers.
It was Joan who spoke.
“But we’ve grown up, after all,” was what she said, and she said it wistfully, so that he knew what she meant. He had reason to know, for he was trembling from head to foot; shaken; almost torn; and bewildered at the knowledge that such a storm of feeling had been slumbering in him of all people—to wake thus because her lips were so warm and so soft. Bewildered, too, because all the old imaginings had fled away, as if crowded out by the one new reality.
“I don’t care,” he muttered wildly, “I was wrong. I’ll chuck all those old thoughts. They’ve gone. You’re . . . everything. What do you want to do? Where do you want to go? I’ll come. I’m yours.”
Already he was hungering again for a kiss like that last kiss. His mouth, all quivering, was blindly seeking hers, as one might search for a flower in the dark.
But this time she withdrew and stopped him with her hands. And to his utter amazement he saw that there were tears in her eyes.
“Oh, I’ve done it! I’ve spoiled it!” she cried and there was some pain in her voice that he didn’t understand. “That was me. Oh, be the old Jimmy! I didn’t know that I liked the old Jimmy best.”
He only looked at her, distressed because something had suddenly happened to their happiness; what, he couldn’t say.
“Whisper to me, Jimmy! Tell me all the things you ever made up about me. There was—oh, I remember—your cave, all in the woods. But I liked a house better then. I don’t now. I don’t really. I want your cave. Don’t let’s be grown up to-night. And to-morrow you shall take me out as early as you like and tramp me and freckle me and dustify me to your heart’s content. All day, Jimmy. All night, if you like. Now, if you like. Dad said there was a moon. Oh, let’s breathe and run races and smell your earth and pines.”
No tears now. She was radiant. She was pleading his cause with a fervor greater than his. They got up slowly.
“It’s your chance, Jimmy, you dear old owl. You’ve waited for it nine years, and now you don’t take it. Can’t you see something’s happened? I’ve never felt like this before and, if you don’t do something, I’ll never feel it again. Come . . . on!”
She had danced up and down in front cf him before she caught his hand and dragged him out of the room. It was then that he knew that a miracle had happened and that firelight had brought back the Joan of his dreams.
He did not stop to wonder any longer. He forgot that, for a kiss, he had rejected all that was precious to him—all the dreaming and the planning. He opened his mind and welcomed it all back. With a cry, mingled of gratitude and joy and worship, he sprang after her.
But she was elfin to-night—utterly incalculable. By the time he was on the veranda she was running with the speed of a wild thing down the broad central path to the lake—a white, lithe figure of mystery, haloed with moonlight—of all imagined shadows of a moon-lit night surely the most slender and the most lovely. Spellbound for a moment, he saw that it was an evening of magic promise, for every branch and every blade of grass in the garden was clothed in the tremulous diamond tissue of the first frost of the year.
So, feeling like some primeval, intrusive, blundering monster on the threshold of a fairy-land, he, too, ran forward to take his happiness.
He caught her at the end of the broad path where garden met jungle. She was standing full in the moonlight, like a statue of silver or of pearl, waiting for him; and, as if fearful lest in that magical light she might after all be as fugitive as a shadow, he put his arms round her and held her tight.
“I can hardly believe you’re real,” he whispered. “I feel as if you’d vanish if I let you go. Oh, Joanie, you belong to the woods to-night more than to me. It’s like a baptism, this rime. It’s all in your hair.” There were tiny beads of frost in her hair, like diamond-dust threaded on gossamer.
“I ought to grudge you to the woods,” he whispered again, “but I don’t because I belong to them, too. You can’t resist them, can you?”
“Nor to-morrow. We belong,” he urged.
She looked away then and saw the cold shafts of water shining through the trees. She shivered a little.
“Don’t let’s think beyond to-night,” she said, and there was an appeal to him in her eyes.
“Now we’ll explore,” she added, leading him on.
“Where will you go?”
“Wherever you have made up your mind to take me. You’ve planned it all out, haven’t you?”
“There’s a deer-path round the lake,” he told her. “They separate when they come down the valley, and some go one side and some the other to drink. There’s a sort of antechamber where they stand and make up their minds. I sit there and watch them sometimes. It’s a jaggly path, though.”
The old word, used to describe the path he had invented as a child, came back and slipped into speech. Joan recognized it, for she smiled.
“It must be jaggly,” she whispered. “Come on.”
They walked into the shelter of the trees just as children would walk, hand in hand, peeping into the shadows. The leaves, crisp with frost, crackled under their feet, and every twig that they stirred shed its little dash of diamond-dust on them. Sometimes they were on the very brink of the lake and, through the light mist that veiled it, saw dim reflections of the moon and stars. Sometimes they were deep in the undergrowth and could not see their feet. They heard the wild duck squabbling and squattering within a few yards of them, and once a barking-deer, startled at his drinking, fled from them like a wraith and went his way up the glen, pattering on the leaves and giving at intervals his hoarse call. Otherwise there were no sounds, except the infinitesimal crack and rustle of a frost-bound forest.
“Oh, it’s good!” Joan whispered once. “The air and the . . . feeling. Feel my cheek.”
He touched her cheek.
“You’re warm,” he said; then, remembering that she had rushed out without a wrap, added:
“You’ll be all right? I ought to have brought you a coat. Have mine.”
She laughed softly to herself.
“Tom Jervis would have wrapped me up to the eyes,” she said; “and himself, too. But he wouldn’t have found me a jaggly path.”
She lingered over the last words, as if she liked saying them, and he loved her for it.
“No, I shan’t catch cold to-night, thank you, Jimmy.”
“What’s happened about Jervis? Have you . . .”
He was going to say “quarreled,” but she cut him short.
“Tom Jervis doesn’t belong to to-night,” was her answer.
They were on the far side of the lake now, at the foot of the little knoll whose shape—domed with a crest of feathery plumes—had always fascinated him. He had sat under it. He had walked round it and explored beyond it and had seen it reflected in the water from every possible angle. It was perhaps the most familiar feature to him of all Shahgarh, partly because he saw it every morning from his window and partly because it had such a definite shape. Yet he had never climbed it. He owed his abstinence to a whim. He had never meant to climb it without Joan.
So he had to search about for a path. She soon saw that.
“Jimmy, you’ve lost your way. Confess!” she said.
“New ground—unexplored,” he muttered, peering among the trees. “But I know there’s the beginning of a path somewhere here.”
“I thought you’d been everywhere.”
“I kept this.”
He grunted his assent.
“You dear,” gurgled Joan. Then added:
“You were very certain, weren’t you, Jimmy?”
“Sometimes,” he answered, looking up the hill and rumpling his hair, for he could not find that opening under the trees that he had marked down as the way.
“I’m a great hoper, you know,” he added. “I nearly always hoped you’d come . . . believed, that is. And I had to picture it, so I chose this little hill. I thought we’d sit up there and . . . talk.”
“That all, Jimmy?”
He blushed, and looked at her shyly before he answered.
“I thought it would be just the place for a little house. There must be an open space inside the tree. And on the other side there’s a grand slope for a garden—catches all the sun. That’s what I really thought of.”
She didn’t answer. But, as at that moment he found a track leading upward, he forgot that she hadn’t answered. Short as the climb was, they needed all their breath for it. In places they had to scramble, holding on to ferns and the twisted roots of the little oaks that covered the lower slope. These passed, they were among the pines. The air was glorious with the scent of pines.
Jimmy’s guess was right. The pines made a circle, and within was a space perhaps fifty yards across—smooth and almost level, softly carpeted with moss and pine-needles. The moon, now at the height of her course, played full on this space, silvering it into the semblance of still water, so that it held all the light of day and all the mystery of night. Only at one edge of it did the shadows of the trees intrude and destroy the illusion that they were walking on to water. But the trees themselves stood up like giants, naked except for their tufted tops; and so bright was the moonlight on their trunks that they retained some semblance of the tints of day—gold, and amethyst, and the palest rose—in addition to the night’s silver.
Joan was spellbound. She turned and said very seriously, as if she doubted her right to such surroundings:
“We’ve found the most beautiful place in the world. We’ve found the most beautiful place in the world.”
“It’s the fairies’ ring. It’s the only real one. Look at those trees. They’re the silver pillars. They hold up the roof of the star chamber—and oh, Jimmy, the stars!”
They stood looking up, and perhaps that was the one minute of the evening when they lost consciousness of each other, for on a frosty night in the Himalayas it seems to the watcher that a new generation of stars has been born to reinforce the old. On such a night there are no spaces, but stars for ever, like a veil of golden gauze flung broadcast on the air. So when they were looking up they were silent.
“Was it to be here?” Joan whispered at last.
“There’s room,” he answered. He knew well what she meant, for he, too, was picturing a little house ringed with turf and trees.
“It’d be a pity. Suppose there are fairies.”
“They’d dance round it. There’s plenty of room.”
“A very little one?” she murmured.
“The smaller the cozier. You wouldn’t want a window for every day of the year here, would you, Joanie?”
They laughed together, for both were back in that childish planning of nine years before, when she had insisted on three drawing-rooms and three hundred and sixty-five windows. They were reenacting that scene—but with a difference. Here—in the very place where they were standing—a house might really rise. Only one word was needed from Joan.
“I wish it would suddenly happen—just for tonight. You used to believe in magic, Jimmy? You thought the Port Said conjuror was a magician, and dad got quite annoyed when we suggested that he was only a conjuror. Perhaps you do now?”
He smiled at her.
“Of course I do. And, if I’d never believed in it before, I would to-night. This is magic. You’re magic. Oh, Joanie, was there ever such magic as you?”
“And you can’t even make a little house spring up in a night?”
Her expression was exactly the expression she would have had nine years before—half smile, half pout.
“I could make it spring up very quickly, Joanie,” he said, his eyes pleading to her. “Why, it could be done in a month.”
“But I want it now. I mightn’t like it in a month. A month’s ages. I might hate it. I don’t often like little rooms.”
He winced at that. Had not the whispering-room been little?
“Then I’d make them big,” he suggested.
Their eyes met, and once more hers seemed to be searching his face.
“I should have to like you very much,” she said slowly at last. “But do I? Do I?”
“You’ve said so.”
“For to-night. Oh, why can’t to-night go on for ever? That would be magic.”
“It could,” he answered quietly. “It will, if you . . . love me, Joanie. Try. Please try. You do to-night. Well, I shan’t change. Whatever I am to-night I shall be the same always. You’ll know where you are. Perhaps I’m not very bright . . . I mean, I don’t make you laugh . . . and I can’t dance, or sing, or talk, or do anything in particular. But I suppose I was made for something. Every one is. And if I was invented to make you happy, Joanie . . .”
She cut him short quickly.
“Oh, you! You’re all right. But what about me? You can’t explain me, Jimmy. What was I invented for?” She laughed. “A sort of wasp, to worry people? I do it anyway, whether I was invented for it or not. You can’t tell me that I was invented to make anybody happy, my Jimmy—you or anybody else. I’ve never made anybody happy in my life—not even Joan Vaine.”
He caught her then by the shoulders.
“You’re wrong, Joanie. You’re wrong from beginning to end. Because you’ve made me happy. You . . . oh, I can’t tell you what you’ve been . . . right through from the beginning, from the very first day. You can’t imagine, I know. No one could. And the worst of it is that I can’t tell you—except that I’ve always thought of you as—well—the one person. I know there hasn’t been a day . . . no, I can’t explain. It’s as if, ever since I can remember, you’ve been the only part of me that mattered.”
He stopped, seeking hopelessly for words, hoping she would understand; then concluded, as he felt, lamely.
“So you wouldn’t expect me to give you up, would you? You couldn’t. You’re so precious.”
At that last whispered word he had shot his bolt. He could never, he felt, explain better. Yet he had explained . . . nothing. Oh, for words!
But she had listened. She was looking at him in a sort of serious wonder, and nodding her head gravely as if at last she understood.
“It’s a lot,” she muttered, as if talking to herself; and again: “It’s an awful lot.”
“Why, you must be splendid. Why on earth . . .”
All the time he was waiting, watching her face for a sign. Then, suddenly, she seemed to come to a decision. Her hair was tumbling all over her forehead and her cheeks, and she shook it back with a gesture that seemed to imply a clearance of doubt.
“I’ll try,” she said, and looked him square; “I will if I can. It isn’t as if I mattered a tinker’s curse to any one else, or myself for that matter. And you’ve made me precious.”
She smiled to herself, and the deep note that came into her voice when she was touched or pleased was there.
“And you mean it. I really am precious to you. That’s nice, Jimmy. I ought to be honored, I know . . . I think I am. But, oh dear, what a dance I shall lead you!”
His arms were ready for her, but she still held back, looking at him with her head on one side a little wistfully.
“I won’t be engaged . . . Yes, I will . . . Aren’t I generous with myself to-night? Soon I shall be thinking that I am really precious. But I want to give you things to-night; you haven’t had much up till now, my Jimmy? So I’ll call myself engaged.”
Then, seeing the light in his face, she added:
“Oh, don’t look so . . . so uplifted. It’s only a trial. I only want to give you all I can, because now I’m in the mood. And you’ll like it. And I’ll be at least serious about it. But don’t make a claim of it, Jimmy. Don’t bother me with a ring. And, above all, don’t tell mum and dad. One thing at a time, for Heaven’s sake. Think of me as one of your wild things that has to be tamed in bits. And don’t be surprised if I’m horrid again. Don’t be surprised at anything. Oh, what am I doing?”
There was mighty doubt in that cry; pain, too, and perhaps a vision of consequences. But he smothered it. He swept her off her feet and—very much as a dog nuzzles his master, giving little incoherent cries—he pressed his cheek to hers, whispering words that had come to him at last. She gave him kiss for kiss.
Then, after a last look at each other and at the place, they clambered down into the valley, still radiant with silver, and made for the one lighted window that still kept vigil on the hillside.
As they climbed the hill Joan sang.
Sunlight awoke him, full on his face. Sunlight filled the room, speckling the pillow, splashing the carpet with gold, shimmering in the glass of every picture. He jumped out of bed and stood at the window, bathed in it. He raised his arms till his fingers touched the ceiling; stretched; filled his lungs with crisp morning air; sniffed healthy pine; reveled.
All his sensations were sharp, clear, exalted. The air thrilled. Scents were magnificent. Colors were brighter than yesterday’s colors. The first sight of the hoar-frost on the grass and the trees dazzled him. There were diamonds and rubies and emeralds strung on all the trees.
And there, on the white sparkling grass of the broad walk, were comical blobs of green; big blobs and little blobs; her footprints and his. It was true! He had dreamed none of it! It had happened!
After an icy bath he dried himself at the window, in the sun, tingling and glowing.
A glorious day. A glorious world. Only a deep breath and a great shout could express the day and the world and him.
He dressed quickly. Anything would do: gray flannel trousers, tennis-shoes, cricket-shirt open at the neck, hustled on anyhow. Now! To go out . . . to run down to the lake . . . see the morning reflected . . . climb the Pine Knoll . . . stand there and shout. Glorious.
He dashed down-stairs.
The Greeks were afraid of exaltation. It was the mood in man that tempted the jealousy of the gods. That instinct survives in many—had not Miss Pamela Vaine expressed it perfectly in her anti-excitement campaign?—but there was no trace of it in Jimmy. He exulted whole-heartedly. He meant the day to be as wonderful as mind could make it. The Greeks—and his Aunt Pamela no less—would have said that he was riding for a fall. Too happy, they would have said in their different ways . . . altogether too happy to last. A little jar, now . . . a little warning jar . . .
There was a jar. It seemed only a little one. At the time he paid hardly any attention to it.
He met Nicholas at the bottom of the stairs. Nicholas had just come in from his morning round.
There was dew on his boots, drops of bright dew in his beard . . .
“You seem mighty pleased with yourself,” was his greeting.
Jimmy stopped as if he had been shot.
“You left the bottom gate open.”
Bottom gate open? Very likely he had. At the bottom gate he had stopped and said, “And we’re really engaged?” At the bottom gate she had started singing. Her answer had been to sing.
“I’m awfully sorry. I’m afraid I did.”
“Yes, you did. And it’s a curious coincidence that, for the first time since I have been here, young trees have been damaged . . . by a person who came in through the bottom gate.”
“Damaged! I say . . .”
Surely Nicholas didn’t suspect him of damaging young trees.
“With a pick. Devil’s own mess. You’d better go and help clear it up. West side, second, third, and fourth sections. I’m going down to the lines.”
Before he could answer Nicholas had gone, swiping angrily the air with his stick.
So he didn’t run down the broad walk or see morning reflected in the lake. He walked rather slowly, feeling a little jarred . . .
Nothing particular had happened. After all, there were plenty of ways of getting in besides the gate. But . . . the wonder of the morning had somehow receded. A little. A very little. Nicholas had been distinctly annoyed. A pity, on this morning of all mornings.
A little later, while he was probing about for broken roots, he heard loud voices above him. Nicholas and . . . Joan. Nicholas was still angry, evidently.
“I won’t have . . . You don’t . . . What on earth . . .”
He couldn’t hear Joan’s reply. But there was a row on. A row; of all things, a row. He picked up his coat.
That was Joanie! She had gone into the house, walking quickly. Obviously annoyed, too. And Nicholas was coming down the broad walk. Nicholas looked very angry indeed.
“No discipline about her . . . doesn’t seem to care what happens . . . thinks of nothing but herself . . . I told her . . . serious matter . . .”
What was it all about? Why bother? Why desecrate the one wonderful morning of a lifetime? As if a few trees mattered . . . or a few words . . . or a gate . . .
“I’m awfully sorry . . .” he began.
Nicholas was standing with his hands in his pockets, glooming over the line of torn little apple trees.
“Oh, that’s all right,” he cut in, but without looking up or ceasing to frown. “I dare say it would have happened anyhow. What annoys me is that no one can say a word to Joanie without a flare-up. I told her it was serious. Downright, organized malice. Look here . . . and here . . . and, by gad! here.”
He pointed contemptuously with his toe at footmarks in the rime, footmarks with splayed-out toes and heavy heels.
“Horny-heeled swine!” he said. “That’s a coolie. You see, he knew exactly what to do . . . each row in turn . . . every single tree smashed.”
“One of ours, do you think?”
“Of course. I told ’em so, too. I said I’d fine the lot if I didn’t get the name this evening. Now they’ll strike.”
It was serious then. He ought to be realizing how serious it was.
“Yes, strike.” Nicholas kicked viciously at a clod. “I’ve been waiting for it. Haven’t said anything . . . no use panicking . . . but I knew there’d be a rumpus sooner or later. It’s all round us, you see. Ewart, at Ramgurri, had it months ago—incendiarism. There was an agitator in that, fellow called Gopi Nath. Government had him safely locked up after the Lahore business. What must they do but let him go? Amnesty for political prisoners, you know. Result: he came up here and started preaching seditious muck in the coolie lines at Ewart’s. Ewart asked me what I’d do. ‘Kick him out,’ I said, ‘and if he comes back kick him harder.’ Well, Ewart didn’t. He referred to Government, and Government went to sleep over it. So it’s spread. Worse than cholera, disaffection. Salter, on the other side, had fifty huts burned down last week. Now Gopi Nath’s been here.”
He glanced at Jimmy and smiled grimly.
“Just what I told you, you see. This is only one phase of the process of signing away India. This is the ‘freedom of speech’ phase. We’re not supposed to know what’s good for our own coolies. The agitators must have their say, though. On no account must their liberty of speech be interfered with.”
The breakfast-bell sounded incessantly, and for the second time, but he did not seem to hear it.
“Oh, no,” he repeated, “mustn’t on any account restrict the liberty of a subject—even if he does happen to be poisoning your labor and squeezing you out of the country by inches. India’s finding herself! Coolies are being taught to think! And here”—he stabbed the soil with his stick—“are the first-fruits in Shahgarh.”
As if words had failed him he turned round and walked a few yards up the hill. Then, as suddenly, turned again and came back to where Jimmy was standing.
“Better come and have some breakfast,” he said, and for a moment the old smile peeped out. “You may think I’m making a tremendous fuss about nothing. But I have means of knowing, and—I—know. This is a feeler. They want to see how I’ll take it. Well, they’ll find I’ve a card up my sleeve worth two of theirs.”
Up went his head then. For a moment he looked buoyant, twirling his stick and striding up the path. But the next moment he was frowning again.
“My place, James! That’s what gets me, that it should come to Shahgarh. I suppose I’ve been too proud of Shahgarh. Great mistake to be too proud of anything.”
Silence for the next few yards. Then, in reply to Jimmy’s query as to how he could help, he said something which cast a shadow over the whole morning.
“Till . . . till I play my card, we’ve got to do patrol, James. One of us by day, both of us after dusk. If I possibly can, I want to catch a man in the act. So we’ll sleep down here in chuldaris—at all events for a day or two—one in the west corner by the lake and the other near the Chandragalli path. I’m afraid moonlight walks must be off—and I don’t want the feminine portion of the household in the gardens at all. See?”
Jimmy said that he saw.
Joan was subdued; there was no getting away from it. The row had evidently upset her, for at breakfast she did not speak, and when he looked for her after breakfast he was told that she had a headache.
He spent the morning telling himself that everything would be all right after lunch; in trying to recapture the exaltation of the first half-hour of day—a thing that, for no apparent reason, he failed to do; and in starting at every sound that could be interpreted as a sign of her coming out. Little by little a sense of depression, which at first he scornfully refused to acknowledge, persisted in making itself felt. He was on tenterhooks—he could not say why. He longed for Joan’s appearance, and yet . . . in a way he dreaded it. Suppose she regretted last night. Suppose she receded from him ever so little. He would know at once, however much he hated knowing. He would be able to see . . .
He laughed at himself, time after time, for thinking that; put it down to the sense of ill omen created by the damage in the garden, and Joan’s quarrel with Nicholas; felt unreasonably annoyed with Nicholas. Nicholas had spoiled the day.
But his memory would play tricks on him. When he wanted to remember all the delicious things—the being with Joan, the look of her, the tone, the touch—his memory would chip in with doubts, little things that she had said and had probably not meant. Certainly not meant. But . . .
“We’re different to-night,” and, “I want to be nice to you while I can.”
“While I can”; what had she meant by that?
And, “There are so many to-morrows and so many me’s.” And, “Why can’t to-night go on for ever?” .and, “Don’t be surprised if I am horrid again. Don’t be surprised at anything.” . . . Why had she kept on saying things like that?
To leave herself a sort of loophole? To warn him, in case? . . . Or to tell him, as kindly as she could, that this was a mood—a mood that belonged to moonlight and old songs and a fire-lit room?
Again and again he kept looking up from whatever work he happened to be doing, at the Pine Knoll. There it was, the very symbol of their loving and dreaming, clear under the high sun, with hardly a shadow on it. But would it affect them in quite the same way by day? Would they miss something—a radiance, a mystery that belonged to moonlight? And that elfin quality of hers—that quality that had made him hold her tight lest she should slip away and vanish among the trees—the quality that, he knew, had made him for once bold—would that be there to help him by day?
Was she right after all? Would there, after all, be a difference?
Doubts—the most absurd doubts. Doubts that would vanish, of course, the moment they were alone together? But, till she came and dispersed them, doubts . . .
After lunch he saw her. He would have liked to take her out, up to the Pine Knoll—their own setting. He would have liked, though he did not confess it to himself, to test the atmosphere of the Pine Knoll by day, to confront his doubts with . . . her. But he was fated to see her indoors, sitting in an arm-chair and tying knots in a handkerchief. Isolated, that chair, with its high back and high arms. He could not get very near to her. He fiddled about, trying to summon up the courage to do the obvious thing—ask her to sit on the sofa. And somehow the courage had gone.
He sat down facing her, a yard or two away. And the ridiculous idea must come into his mind that he looked like a doctor interviewing a patient. And she . . . she looked like a patient who wanted to be left alone.
The first words. He had meant the first words to be different. In the first words they should have recaptured the whole feeling of last night. Whereas last night seemed farther away. She had not even smiled.
“Well, there’s an awful mess,” he began. “And he’s . . .”
“I didn’t make the mess. You might have thought I’d smashed his beastly trees.”
“He’s awfully worried.” Why must they discuss the inevitable trees? “You see, it isn’t only the trees. It’s the beginning of a sort of organized . . .”
“Stuff! Dad’s crazy.”
“Well . . .”
He didn’t finish the sentence. It wasn’t worth finishing. As if the trees mattered. As if anything mattered . . .
“I told you I should be different.”
He started. The very word—“different”—“different” . . . maddening word. And there was happiness simply hovering between them, waiting to be captured. Only a matter of a word—the right word, the word that belonged to last night—and just a smile to set them on the right track.
“Of course you’re not.”
He leaned forward, smiling to make her smile, willing her to throw off the mood. With a toss of the head she could do it, he knew, with no effort at all. An infinitesimal quiver of the lips; that was all he was looking for. Then he—they—could start again.
“I say, Joanie . . .”
He touched her knee, made her look at him. But her eyes were somber. She shook her head and looked away.
“It’s no good, Jimmy.”
She was saying that, and yet he couldn’t stop her. What was the matter with him?
“Much better if you hadn’t come in. I was afraid you would.”
“But, Joanie . . .”
“I can’t help it. I feel . . . ragged. I knew I should. The best thing you can do is to go out and leave me quite alone till I feel nice again. Otherwise, we’re sure to quarrel. There!”
He gazed at her in astonishment. But she meant it; he could see that.
“But, Joanie, only last night . . .”
She made a gesture of despair . . . shut her eyes . . .
“Do listen. If you go on looking soulful and mournful and . . . and eager at me, I shall scream. Dad shouted himself hoarse at me this morning, and that’s enough for the day. I couldn’t feel nice if I tried. Can’t you see that it’s all very difficult for me because I don’t really, actually . . . Oh, do go, or I shall say something really beastly!”
He stood up. But he still lingered. Surely . . .
“Yes, go along. And . . . hope for the best.”
It was rather difficult to go on hoping for the best when day succeeded day without a sign of progress. He was alone mostly—working, fighting frost, watching. Chafing, too. Either Joan was avoiding him, or he was experiencing the most miserable luck. And every time he got alone with her it seemed more difficult to start on the right track, so that he always parted from her with the dismal thought that he was losing ground. Whatever power he had had in him of drawing her and holding her had belonged to that one night; a gossamer bond, too frail perhaps for sunlight. But hope was still just round the corner. A word would set things right. A sudden morning meeting, and . . . they would be smiling before they were aware of it. That was what he wanted.
The worst of it was that, through an absurd whim of Nicholas’s, Joan was not allowed in the garden at all. The ground for sudden meetings was thus restricted.
Joan looked worried, of course. But then they were all worried. Not that anything more had happened. Still, the coolies were on strike, and there was always the expectation of something happening. A kind of threat seemed to hang over the place, mainly because it was empty and silent; the familiar buzz and movement were lacking; the air was uneasy.
That, of course, accounted for the passages of arms at meals and Nicholas’s notion that Joan was wasting her time. It was getting on their nerves . . . all their nerves. Every one showed it.
A horrible, unsettled atmosphere. Something must happen. Then . . .
It was nearly a week before anything did happen. Then, early one morning, Nicholas got word that Gopi Nath had arrived from Almora and intended to hold a mass-meeting in the coolie lines. He started off for the lines at once and took Jimmy with him.
The lines lay half a mile down the road by which he had first ridden up to Shahgarh; two rows of huts on a bare hillside, with a stream below them and a narrow path between them. At one end there were half a dozen stalls—grain shops, cloth shops, and a liquor shop—and a minute hutch of a temple. These roughly formed a square, and in the open space between them the coolies were all collected. There were fifty or so: squat, stalwart hillmen with seamed faces and dingy loin-cloths; a few slatternly hags, quick to cover their faces; children tumbling about on the outskirts; pariahs; chickens. Not an alarming gathering. Some of the men, in a shamefaced sort of way, even salaamed to Nicholas as he made his way to the platform of the largest shop, where a big, heavy-looking man in a white shirt was holding forth.
Nicholas went straight up to him.
“Well, Gopi Nath?”
Silence. It was curious to see how the men, like all strikers, were inclined to pack together and look solemnly for a sign. There was no truculence.
A child was bawling. Gopi Nath was scratching large, unshaven jowl . . .
Nicholas was standing right under the platform. Curiously enough, though the other was quite three feet above him, he looked the bigger man. And he kept quite still, hands in pockets, chin stuck out. What were the coolies thinking? Surely they had the sense to know the better man . . .
“All right. I take it you’ve nothing to say. Now you can clear out.”
Nicholas’s voice was incisive. Evidently their eyes had met, for Gopi Nath’s eyes dropped. He was fidgeting with the paper in his hand. An exciting moment. Crucial . . . any one could see that.
“I am to understand, Mr. . . . Mr. Vaine, that you forbid me these premises?”
It was a throaty voice, pitched to impress the crowd.
“Yes. My boundary is Chandragalli corner. Get the other side of that. Now.”
“And if I find it inconvenient to get . . .?”
The man was smiling, an insolent smile, again assumed for the lookers-on. “I’m master of the situation,” it seemed to say; “I can afford to be polite.”
“If you find it inconvenient to get out I’ll kick you out.”
Nicholas made the slightest movement forward as he said it, and the smile faded. The man glanced behind him. It was the merest flicker of the eyes, but it was not lost on the coolies. One or two of them smiled.
Nicholas was evidently enjoying himself.
“To bring action for criminal assault and intimidation. To inform the Government and public press. To represent . . .”
The climax was never reached, for Nicholas took one step forward and was on the platform.
“You can represent anything you like the other side of Chandragalli corner. But if you’re not out of this place within one minute by my watch, you’ll regret it.”
For perhaps a quarter of that minute not a soul moved. Then the champion of the oppressed got down from the platform, and pushed his way through the coolies. After about ten yards his gait miraculously altered from a slink to a strut, as a few hangers-on joined him. After twenty yards he looked back over his shoulder and spat. And when he reached the last shop he shouted out with great bravado:
“Not I, but you will regret. You will hear of me.”
“The other side of Chandragalli corner,” said Nicholas, and turned his back.
Jimmy was jubilant. It was obvious, he said, that now the men would come in. But Nicholas shook his head.
“No,” he said. “Three quarters of them would, but that fellow’s got a hold on the other quarter. See how smug he looked. He’s got something up his sleeve. Well, so have I. So have I.”
He had often wondered what this mysterious something was. But Nicholas only chuckled.
“Something very efficacious and—frantically illegal,” was all he would say.
They were strolling up and down the broad walk that same evening before turning in. The lights of the house were already out. Nicholas’s cigar glowed, now fiercely, now dimly, against a pitch-dark background, for the moon was not yet up.
“Wonderfully quiet,” he was saying. “You could hear a man a mile away . . .”
At that very moment they heard a man scream.
It was not in the house; that was certain. It was farther away. Nor was it absolutely clear. A sound from round a corner . . .
“The devil! The Jammery!” said Nicholas, suddenly, and began to run.
Then, over his shoulder:
“Get a lamp. One on my table. Don’t wake them up.”
Then he was gone.
Jimmy found an electric torch. As he dashed out again he was dimly aware of sounds up-stairs—agitated voices—argument. He thought Joan shouted a question at him, but he could not be sure. The main thing was to join Nicholas.
The Jammery was isolated, round a bend of the road. You couldn’t see anything of it till you came right on to it; or hear, either, unless you were half-way down the gardens. They had left it to the watchman, an old soldier. Surely . . .
He whirled round that corner. Then he pulled himself up in amazement.
The Jammery was ablaze. Tongues of flame were darting greedily through the gap of the unfinished roof . . . through the windows. Every chink seemed to harbor a point of flame. And the smell . . . how could they have missed it? Burnt wood and petrol. Choking.
Crash! The door had fallen in. What a blaze! Hopeless.
There was Nicholas, pulling something out . . .
That something proved to be the chowkidar, and a pitiable object he was. His clothes were blackened and in places charred. He had lost his turban. There was a big bleeding weal on the side of his head. His face and his beard were streaked and stained with oily soot. And he was so badly burned about the feet and legs that he could hardly stand.
“Narrow squeak,” said Nicholas, himself covered with dingy stains. “They locked him in. Comes of being a soldier.”
There was all the disgust in the world in his voice.
“Can’t we do anything?”
Any one could see that the fire was beyond control. It had evidently been started at half a dozen points with the aid of petrol, and already the woodwork was burned out. Still . . .
“Not much,” said Nicholas shortly. “I want you to help the old man hobble up to the house. Get them to clean up this lathi wound and smear some ghi on the burns. Here . . . your shoulder, man.”
Extraordinarily light, the old man. Nothing but a bag of bones. He could feel his ribs.
“Right. Go slow. I’ll follow,” said Nicholas.
Something in his voice made Jimmy ask what he meant to do.
“Do? I’m going to the lines to raise Cain. And if Gopi Nath’s there I’m going to do Government’s dirty work for them.”
He made a significant gesture with that thick, knobby black stick as he turned to go.
Jimmy hesitated. Nicholas was formidable, if any one was. Still, alone . . . among fifty . . . and at night . . . A sudden picture came into his mind: Nicholas, like a red-bearded Colossus, plying his stick right and left; fierce firelight in the background; dark faces seething; a blow from behind . . .
“I say, hadn’t I better . . .” he began.
“You’d better do what you’re told, James.”
Mrs. Nicholas—who rarely had opportunities of nursing anybody—pounced on the chowkidar and bore him off. Joan, who had come down with her, remained behind in the hall. She had evidently thrown on the first things that came to hand—an old brown tweed coat and skirt and a pair of slip-on riding-boots—and had not bothered to do up her hair. So it was as he had not seen it for ten years, curling and glowing round her shoulders. And excitement had made her face positively radiant. Cheeks bright, eyes brilliant . . . and a flood of questions . . . all amazingly characteristic of the old Joan.
Question after question. What had happened? Who had done it? Had they caught anybody? Why not? What were they going to do next?
Then, while he was trying to get a word in edgeways, the sudden:
Perhaps he hesitated. It crossed his mind that possibly Nicholas did not want his movements discussed. If so, she misinterpreted his hesitation. It was a curious look that she gave him. It made him realize in a flash how strung up they both were.
“Gone down to the lines.”
If he did hesitate, it was only for a second.
“And you came back.”
It was not exactly a question . . . after all, it was obvious that he had come back. It was more like an accusation. Something in her tone irritated him. Did she really think . . .
“And you came back.” Too patient, that repetition . . . too cold. It assumed things. It assumed that he had been glad to come back. Absurd, of course . . . not worth explaining. If she liked to think that . . .
He laughed. He couldn’t help it. The situation was so exactly like another situation, a situation ten years old, when Joan had accused him of having a “nursie,” and he hadn’t thought it worth while to put her right. But even while he was laughing he realized that he was doing a foolish thing. Even to him it sounded provocative . . . a silly laugh. No sooner begun than he regretted it, and with reason. For with a muttered, “Well, anyway, I’m going,” Joan brushed past him and banged the front door behind her. Gone . . . like a whirlwind.
For a moment he stood where he was, faintly amused at her flaring up over nothing. “Let her go,” was his first thought. Then he remembered where she was heading for. Suddenly anxious, he wrenched open the door and began to run.
Yes, she was making for the lines. Running, too; running hard. And she had a good start. Though he could see the white glimmer of the road for perhaps twenty yards, he could not see her.
Running was having an unexpected effect on him. He was getting angry—angry because of what she had said, or at least conveyed; angry because she could run; angry because she was making him run; angriest of all because she was heading straight for danger. There was no sense in it. She had no right. Impulsive . . . absurd . . . mad . . . yes, mad . . .
And she was spoiling everything. What right had she to spoil everything just as . . .
Now he could see her, a vague shadow, scudding ahead. Any moment she might trip up over a loose stone and hurt herself. There was a narrow place, too, a little farther on, where half the road had slipped. And anyhow the coolie lines were not a quarter of a mile away. Five minutes, and she would be plunging into a mass of enraged men. Good God! what right . . .
He tried to yell. The result was so feeble that he became angrier than ever. Still, he was convinced that she had heard him. She must know that he was just behind her.
Five yards now. Less. He had caught her.
He clutched her arm.
“Look here . . he began, fighting for breath, annoyed now because he could not see her face. “Look here . . . Oh, damn!”
She had jerked herself free. She was starting to run again. Laughing . . .
Somehow that finished it. Furious now, he made a dive for her elbows; caught one; wrenched her back; caught the other; and twisted her round to face him. They were both beyond speech.
The baffling thing was that even now he could not see her face properly; and how could he tell her to do things when he could not see her face? Maddening, this struggling in the dark . . .
Suddenly he was shaking her, holding her by the shoulders and shaking her . . .
“You’ve—got—to—go—back. See? You’ve got to—go—back,” he was muttering, with a little shake for every word. And she—gulping, trembling, trying to say something . . .
He had her now. Shake, shake . . .
“You’ve no right to . . . play the fool.”
And throughout—in the background, behind the temper—a strange sort of angry pity for her because she was so light, so small, so . . .
She had smacked him hard in the mouth.
“Oh, I loathe you! I could kill you!”
His lip was bleeding . . . all down his chin.
“Go back. Will you go back?”
“It’s the end of you.”
“Can’t help it. Go . . . back!”
“Then I’ll take you.”
He was wondering what he would do next. Pick her up? Carry her? Somehow.
Then, suddenly, she slipped out of his hands. Without another word she went back.
That instant all heat left him. He stood there, cold, miserable, wondering what he had done.
“It’s the end of you.”
Already, while he could still hear her walking away, what he had done seemed incredible. A nightmare had swept them together; had caught them up and whirled them in a gust of rage; had dropped them and passed on, leaving them cold and calm, to wonder what had happened. Incredible that a storm like that could rise out of nothing; terrifying that, having risen, it could control him, drive him, hurl him into fighting a girl.
But he had done it. Twist it how he might, he had fought. He had bruised delicate things—her shoulders, her arms; and without excuse, because his hands had told him at the time how slight her shoulders were, how little after all she was. He had known that, but . . . he had done it. And, as if his hands had memory, he could still feel the trembling, quivering shoulders that he had shaken.
So, “It’s the end of you.” Well, he couldn’t complain. No use, either, going back and groveling to Joan. It would only make her loathe him all the more. He must go on. But . . . what was this devil in him? Where had it been all these years—ever since he had hurt his knuckles on Cyril Curlew’s bullet head? Where was it now? Asleep? And why, of all people, must Joan awaken it? And in Heaven’s name how was it that he could hate Joan and love Joan in the same instant? For that, too, had happened.
Deadly miserable, he walked on toward the coolie lines. And as he walked his mind played with the idea of fire and slaughter, as if flames and fighting could in some sense shrive him. He looked to finding the place full of angry men. He hoped that they would see him and come for him, brandishing their lathis, shouting. Then . . .
But the coolie lines were empty. The moon had topped the hill at the back of them, and the single street was washed in the silver light. Strangely lonely it looked, with the derelict shanties lurching out over it at all angles and casting sinister black shadows where he had expected to see moving men. He had been there before by night and had associated his visits with a smell of frying and peat-like smoke, and the bustle over the evening meal, and the sound of drums and quaint hill-songs coming out of the darkness. Now, the contrast struck him forcibly. The night air reeked of decay. And the only living thing he could see was a pariah dog skulking under the shadow of a wall. It growled when it saw him and disappeared.
He could not imagine what had happened. Yesterday the place had seethed with people. He had heard the buzz of them from the gardens, and their drums at sunset. To-night it was as eery and empty as a graveyard. More, it looked wicked and felt wicked. To his jangled nerves there seemed to be lurking evil in the dark entrances of the huts and under the leering roofs . . . an atmosphere of corruption that could not be only fancy. Never had he felt anything quite like it—sinister, without any tangible reason for the feeling. For to the eye it was simply an ugly, empty street.
He began to look about. Evidently the coolies had left in a hurry. Some had not taken their beds with them even, and half the huts had their heaps of black wool and skins and loathsome rags on which men had been sleeping. The street was littered with broken earthenware. It crackled under his feet.
Suddenly he smelled spirit. There was a stream of it running black across the street from a big-bellied pot with a hole in it . . . the raw stuff of which he had heard that it inflames men more quickly than anything else in the world. He knew the smell. Once you snuffed it up, you couldn’t help smelling it in everything. Now, the whole lines seemed to reek of it.
Instantly his mind seized on that smell, as if it were the key to the problem, and leaped forward to conclusions. The men had been drinking to celebrate the burning of the Jammery. So Nicholas had walked into a mob that was mad with spirit and hate. While he had been fighting a girl, then, Nicholas had been fighting for his life. And now . . . the coolies had run away. Why had they run away? For fear. For fear.
The horrid thought struck him like a blow; and in his state surmise meant certainty. The coolies had run away because they had killed an Englishman. While he . . . he had gone back to the house, and fought a girl.
He thought he was going mad. His impulse was to scream. He was seeing Nicholas’s body everywhere: a lump on the white street; a heap under the wall; a bulky, motionless thing in the corner of a hut; twenty shapeless shadows that might be Nicholas . . .
Some one was coming. Some one was on the road below. Some one who was wearing honest boots . . . and humming “Ye banks and braes” . . . and, yes, smoking shag.
It all seemed so simple when Nicholas explained, so simple that he felt twice a fool. The coolies had cleared out and joined the malcontents from other gardens at Chandragalli. And Nicholas was relieved. They would soon find what it meant to enroll under the banner of Gopi Nath. Nothing like starvation for strike-breaking. Perfectly simple. All for the best.
“Came down here breathing fire and slaughter. No one about except one old hag, who tucked up her petticoats and fled screaming, ‘Dakul’ Great fun!” Nicholas was actually chuckling. “Well, I caught her and made her tell me all about it. Gopi Nath’s sworn that he’ll burn me out. To-night’s affair was a sort of preliminary canter. Six men were in it—but none of them my men. Two were Ewart’s and the rest the sweepings of Chandragalli. Dirty little hole, that; a sort of clearing-house for coolies and mendicant priests. Smell? My word, it does stink!”
“You’ve been there?”
“As near as my nose would let me. Near enough to see the fun. There’s a crowd of about two hundred listening to a great, bouncing, naked fakir; a devil of a chap, all beard and bluster . . . full of opium and vice. Made rather a fine scene, what with torchlight and the faces and that chap scattering dust on his head and yelling blue murder.”
“But, I say . . .”
“Oh, they’ll talk. Talk’s the safety-valve of India. He’ll keep them amused for an hour or two, and then go to sleep like a hog. These Hindu ascetics aren’t like the mullahs. They can’t lead; haven’t the incentive, I suppose. Now, if he’d been a ghazi, I should say, ‘Look out.’”
“But you’ll tell the police, I suppose.”
“Police?” Nicholas looked quite hurt at the suggestion. “What on earth put them into your head? They’d only say I brought it on my own head and insist on my remitting the fine. And the coolies’d say the sahib was afraid of Gopi Nath. No, thanks, James. I’ll run my own show. I’ve got to. How near do you imagine the nearest police station is? Well, rather over twenty miles.”
He lowered his voice and took Jimmy’s arm.
“You see, James, one can’t always be bothering the police. An outlying planter’s got to run his own show. And another thing: this business isn’t mere coincidence. It’s all part of a regular scheme to get the white man out by stinging him through his labor. That’s non-co-operation. They know—damn them!—what these places of ours mean to us.”
“We’re colonists, you know; just as much as the fellows in Rhodesia and Canada. They’ve run their own show. So must we. And every planter’s home now is a potential battle-field; make no mistake about that. Why, the Malabar riots started in a tea-garden.”
Jimmy didn’t answer. It seemed to him that Nicholas was taking intolerable risks. Had he forgotten his wife . . . Joan . . .
Nicholas seemed to divine his thought.
“All right, James,” he said quietly. “I’m not really just sitting down and trusting to luck. I’ll tell you a secret. You’d have known it to-morrow, anyway. The day this show started I wired for half a dozen Pathan ex-soldiers of my acquaintance; men who can shoot dead and whip down a khudside like greased lightning. I’ve seen ’em do it. Nothing like a Pathan for trouble, and one of my chaps is a host in himself—a six-foot Tiwana, ex-body-guard—great fellow. Well, they’ll be about if they’re wanted. But to the ordinary eye they’ll just be working in the garden. See?”
“But . . . six?”
“Ample. Wait till you see them on a hillside. They’d chivvy a coolie mob off the face of the earth, if it comes to that.”
Nicholas was warming to his subject.
“Look at it like this. A mob’s artificial. It’s the creation of its own loudest talker. He directs it up to a point, and then he loses it unless he happens to be a born leader—which Gopi Nath obviously isn’t. After that it’s blind and drunk. And it just goes bald-headed for the nearest thing it can burn—and by bald-headed I mean that it packs into the most obvious route. In this case, this identical road. See that?” Jimmy grunted. He hadn’t the heart to argue about anything at the moment, especially as Nicholas seemed so cocksure. But it seemed fantastic to suppose that, with thick cover all down the valley from the lake to Chandragalli, any mob would expose itself on an open road. They had come on the Jammery stealthily enough.
He might have mentioned that, but Nicholas had begun again.
“Well,” he was saying. “Here’s the land-slip corner. Road six foot at most—buttress of rock—sharp turn. Six men could hold this against an army, let alone a mob. And, mark you, six trained men; six led men; acting on a scheme. That’s where we have them. I’ve a man down in Chandragalli to tip me the news—Brij Nath, the forest patrol. The moment he arrives I blow a whistle for alarm stations. The Pathans, who are picketing the garden, rally to the whistle. That’s their immediate action. Yours, too. Janie and Joanie bolt themselves into a bedroom. That’s theirs. Two men to look after them—there’s an all-round field of fire from the balcony—and the rest of us on the road. How’s that?”
“If you’re sure the Pathans will be here . . .”
“Oh, they’ll be here right enough. They’re in Chandragalli now, as a matter of fact, picking out the ringleaders. You’re the only person who knows that. You’ll see them to-morrow—with spades in their hands. Innocent laborers in the vineyard . . . attacked suddenly by overwhelming numbers . . . forced in self-defense to use the Martini rifles providentially discovered in the roots of an ancient apple tree. Capital yarn for a report to the D.C.”
There was a ring almost of triumph in Nicholas’s laugh. At any other time that laugh would have been infectious. But to-night Jimmy could only see objections. Nor could he wholly concentrate on the matter in hand, for, knocking continually at the door of his mind, was that, “It’s the end of you!” “It’s the end of you!”—the very tone she had used seemed fixed in his mind for ever, just as the twitching of her shoulders seemed to have become inherent in the tissue of his fingers. And while Nicholas was talking, a thought, a vision was gaining on him. His own course of action was mapping itself inexorably. When this—this affair of the coolies—was over he would have to go away. Go away . . . that was what he would have to do. Right away . . .
“ . . . No good worrying over the Jammery.” Every minute Nicholas was becoming more resilient. “Have to build a better one, that’s all. . . . Best to be fire-proof . . . cut out wood altogether. Then you can stand siege . . . not that I really anticipate siege . . . still . . . don’t you agree with me?”
Automatically he made the correct noise of assent. But it was directed more to his own course of action than to Nicholas’s query. All very well, he was thinking, for Nicholas to take a loss philosophically, when it was a loss of material only—a few planks of wood, a few rupees—one could laugh over that. But he . . . he had lost Joan.
One could rebuild a Jammery. The loss could be made good in a fortnight. In a fortnight the place would be looking neater and cleaner than ever. But an act . . . a word . . . a blow . . . no cleaning up there. Stark facts.
The moving finger writes and, having writ . . .
It was like that with him. He had made an end. the thing to do—the obvious thing to do—was to go right away . . .
What was Nicholas saying?
“ . . . One day you’ll have this place, I like to hope. I’ve always thought you and Joanie . . .”
He could stand it no longer. Muttering some excuse—happily intelligible because they were on the doorstep now—he ran on; stumbled up the dark stairs; and, as once before in a moment of misery, lay down as he was on a bed and found in it no comfort.
If only Nicholas had not said just that . . . just then . . .
The weather had changed during the night, and in the very atmosphere of day there seemed to lurk a boding of the untoward. Dawn was hazy, and the risen sun remained misty and indefinite, but hot none the less. Somewhere in the hills there were occasional mutters of thunder, but in Shahgarh itself the silence was almost a breathlessness. Nicholas put this down to a premature threat of the Chota Barsath—or Little Rains—and prophesied a succession of dullish days. But, whatever its origin, to Jimmy the change seemed as if it were meant to express his own mood. It was without an enlivening element. And Joan came down looking like a ghost of herself, not that he could blame the weather for that.
She ignored him, just as he had expected; yet perhaps not quite in the manner that he had expected. He had thought that she would make it quite clear that he was in disgrace; had steeled himself for something in the nature of sarcasm or veiled scorn; was, in fact, prepared to be hurt, since it was only reasonable to suppose that she would want to punish him. At least, he thought, she would make a show of cheerfulness, conscious that nothing could hurt him more. But, as it turned out, she did nothing of the kind. During the few minutes when it was inevitable that he should sit face to face with her and eat breakfast as if nothing had happened, he never saw her raise her eyes from her plate. He knew, too, that she ate practically nothing. She was as quiet as he was, and looked as miserable, and somehow that hurt him more than any sarcasm could have done. Another meal like that breakfast, he felt, would be intolerable. To have made Joan sad . . . he had never seen his action in that light. Through all the self-reproaches of the night he had never faced that. It would take, he knew, a terrible lot to make Joan show sadness . . .
All the more reason to go. All the more reason to go. Impossible that this should happen three, four times every day. The sooner he cleared out the better. And yet, with trouble hanging over the house, what excuse could he make for suddenly leaving it? What would he say to Nicholas?
He made up his mind to take his problem into the farthest corner of the garden. He would work furiously. If he worked hard enough he might be able to flog a solution out. Anyhow, he would be doing something. There would be a sort of relief in driving himself till he couldn’t see for sweat, in digging till he dropped . . .
But even that relief was denied him. He had not gone twenty yards before Nicholas called him back to hear Brij Nath’s report and see the beloved Pathans before they were allotted their stations. Nicholas was as pleased as a child presented with a new set of toy soldiers; it was impossible to refuse. But, once he had joined the party, he couldn’t get away. Nothing short of a complete tour of the whole estate, with numerous halts for tactical discussion, would suit Nicholas. For once, in fact—and, of all unsuitable days, on this one—Nicholas wanted an audience. He fancied himself as a strategist, as any one could see. But that the trait should come out to-day . . .
He endured it for three hot hours, knowing that he ought to be interested, failing even to pretend interest. At any other time, he knew, he would have gone into raptures over those shaggy, stocky, devil-may-care rascals with their oiled love-locks and curled mustaches, their loose clothes and the roses stuck rakishly in their pugarees; in their language—the softest and sweetest he had ever heard; in their naive, boyish boasting of exploits—points scored in a family feud or a khud race or a horse-deal—as rendered by Nicholas; in a kind of rakish romance that clung to them, and their superb confidence: “Leave it to us, sahib. We’ll see you through.” But not to-day, though he knew to his shame that Nicholas was drawing out his pets for his special benefit. The only thing that really impressed him—and that unfavorably—was Brij Nath’s report:
“A fakir preached all night long in Chandragalli bazaar. ‘Get men,’ he tells them. ‘Go out into the gardens and get men. Beat them if they refuse to come. If the sahib log interfere, beat them, too. But bring back men.’ . . . Little by little they come in, sahib. This morning there were two hundred men in Chandragalli . . .”
“Talk . . . all talk.”
That was Nicholas’s way. Lucky for Nicholas that he could feel like that. Grand to be able to feel like that, but . . . two hundred men, packed in a hot little street, their eyes on Shahgarh. Impossible not to shudder when one thought . . .
For reassurance he looked at the road. From where he was standing he could see the red scar of the land-slip and, beyond, a slender ribbon of white, cactus hedged. Yes, the road was all right . . . if they came by the road. But there was another track—out of the corner of his eye he could not help seeing it—which led also to Chandragalli; a short cut, hugging the shore of the lake and of the stream beyond the lake; a green, covered way; a finger of forest pointing to Chandragalli. The more he looked at it the less he liked it. But when he called Nicholas’s attention to it he was met with a laugh.
“That way! They’d be afraid of their own shadows. Catch, a coolie passing Malghat after dark! Have you never heard of the corpse that refused to burn? No? Well, he’s worth a brigade of infantry any day. The road . . . the road’s what we must watch.”
Well, Nicholas knew. Nicholas was quite certain. There was no more to be said.
“You’re under the weather, James. It’s the day . . .”
Nicholas had voiced his own thought. Very likely it was the day. Looking round at the heavy sky—deep, unnatural blue, darkened as a summer sky is darkened above a factory chimney; at the little leaden, pale-edged cloud that seemed to be balanced on the plumes of the Pine Knoll; at the oily lake—he began to believe that it might almost be the day. The day . . . and that decision . . .
In the afternoon he had his way. He escaped to the farthest corner of the gardens and dug till the sweat streamed over his eyes. But the expected relief did not come with digging. Digging only had the effect of making him think, and the very monotony of it—the inescapable repetition of the same action—seemed to get into his brain and drive him through an inescapable repetition of the same thought. “You’re finished. You’re going away. You don’t know where, but you’re going away.” It was like a piston in his head. His head reeled with it, but he could not check the piston or alter its beat. It only served to goad him into still wilder digging.
Then, toward sunset, something happened. A big drop of rain fell on his forehead—fell like something solid, to shatter into deliciously cool fragments over his face. Another . . . and another. He threw away his spade and stood, as he was—in a flimsy shirt and gray trousers, hatless and collarless—with open mouth and unturned face, to catch all the comfort he could. And comfort it was, exceeding the merely physical; for though he welcomed the spray, sharp and ice-cool, on his back and chest and the hot skin of his head, he was still more grateful for the inward relief that it gave. Before, his brain must have been on fire. Now it was cool. And, though last night could not be washed away by rain, nor the decision of last night toned down, the very worst was mysteriously over. He could think clearly again.
It is significant, as showing the healing powers of that shower—which seethed and smoked over Shahgarh for a bare five minutes, to be routed by the most brilliant sunlight that he had ever witnessed—that his thoughts took a direction that they would not have dared to take before the rain. Then he had been working wilfully and for the express purpose of shutting out from his mind all thoughts of what he was losing . . . Joan, and home, and the beauty of both. Now, though he could not face the thoughts of Joan, he was at least facing the beauty of her home . . . of what he was to leave behind. It was self-torture, but at least he felt a kind of courage in it. He was beginning at last to face the truth, thus passing at any rate the lowest stage of misery.
At that moment Shahgarh was very beautiful indeed. The little shower—albeit sufficient to drench the ground and the grass and his own clothes—had wrought a miracle. By some alchemy of the raindrops and the succeeding sunshine and the sweet fresh air, the place was, as it were, made suddenly new for him. He saw it, perhaps for the first time, as a lovely whole—as if its spirit had been in hiding and had only now burst upon him. It uplifted him—a vision knit of raindrops, welded of sunshine; it dominated him, so that in spite of himself he had to surrender to the desperate exaltation of viewing such a scene.
Knit together; that described it. Everything fitted perfectly into its place. The brown house, modest and mellow, with here and there a fleck of gold in roof and window where the sun glanced on glass or wet tile—how it seemed part of the very scheme of the hill. How it seemed to crown the gentle, sedate slope of the orchards below, the slope that was like a bosom frankly bared to the sun—and then, in the very act of crowning, itself to seek shelter.
And the lake! The lake was its mirror, quaintly girdled with thick little oak-trees, that seemed now to be clustering and whispering as if they were intrusted with a tremendous secret—beauty bathing behind a wall of green. Stay, though; there was a gap in the wall. In one place early rhododendron blossom forged a crimson path in the shimmering green reflection. Gorgeous! Unforgettable! And his . . . for how many more hours? Oh, he was losing what he had only just found! And if that applied to a place, it applied a thousandfold to a person. Joan . . . he was losing what he had only just found.
He had come to it. He must face that truth, too. As he had realized Shahgarh—looked it in the eye, and found it good—so sooner or later he must realize Joan. He must face the significance of Joan to him . . . now.
His impulse to self-torture—the impulse that bids us know the worst to the point of dangling it in front of our eyes—had become even passionate. For now he was looking toward the Pine Knoll. Now, as if mesmerized, he was walking toward it . . . slowly, as if he shirked the task impulse had set him.
An orange beam was falling slantwise into the very ring of the knoll, gilding the pines that chanced to be inside its circle so that their spines seemed golden and their trunks almost ruby red. But the outer pines were blue black in contrast, and he could only imagine the blaze of gold that must be on the bare floor within the ring. He would just be there in time to see it fade. Then in the dim after-light he could sit . . .
He hurried a little when he had skirted the lake, for the light was already fading. He was breathless when he reached the top of the knoll, and therefore paused for a second or two before entering the circle.
But he only just set foot inside the circle; set foot, and started, and stood stock-still—his heart beating to suffocation, his eyes wide open and amazed. For Joan was there. Of all possible surprises, this—at this moment—was the most overwhelming. Joan was standing in the ring of the Pine Knoll.
She was standing with her back to him, looking down the slope that he had destined for their garden. She was wearing the old brown tweed coat that she had worn the night before, the coat she had liked because it had roomy pockets. Her hands were in them now. She had no hat, and, in that concentrated amber beam that seemed shepherded to her and for her through the great vault of pines, her hair had a quality almost of flame. To him, standing in the shadows, with eyes not quite free of the gloom of the undergrowth below, she appeared, for a moment at least, transfigured. And through all the sunlit space round her there danced millions of bright-winged gnats, born of the heat and the rain, with here and there the golden skein of a floating spider’s web. So, in the second before he began to wonder what had brought her there, he was truly spellbound.
Why had she come? Come so quietly that he had never heard her passing through the garden? Why?
Was it just chance? Had she merely gone out for a walk by herself and happened to find herself there at sunset-time? Or had she come on purpose to prove to herself that now the Pine Knoll meant nothing to her? Or . . . even to himself he dared not express this solution . . . had she chosen the Pine Knoll for another reason? Because in its way it was a symbol. Because one could not think of it without thinking of what had happened there. The Pine Knoll . . . their own place, their chosen place. Was it because of that!
If only he could be certain. Then he would join her. But, no. It would be risking that most slender chance, the very hope of which he could hardly admit to himself. The place would plead for him a thousand times better than he could ever plead for himself. Why, everything must be conspiring to soften her. The very best thing he could do would be to go away. Then, when she came back, there might be some sign in her face . . .
He stole back through the pines into the undergrowth; peeped once more and saw that she had not moved; hurried down the hill and along the lake; paused again at a sudden sound—the bell and jump of a sambar down the valley, foiled probably in its drinking; then, reassured by the steady silence that succeeded it, strolled on up to the house.
Such was his preoccupation, his utter absorption in the wonder of Joan’s presence on the Pine Knoll, that it was only when he was actually in sight of the veranda that the thought flashed into his mind: what could have startled that sambar?
Suddenly, in that instant, all the fears of the morning returned to him. There was danger; how could he have forgotten it? Twilight was on them. Already the trees were indistinct. And Joan, alone out there. Suppose . . .
He had turned. He would have run back and never have stopped till he had found her. But, in the same instant, Nicholas hailed him.
“Hi, James. I’ve been looking for you.”
What followed was, as it were, burned into his brain. If he lived to be a hundred he could never forget that instantaneous transition from the ordinary to the extraordinary—to the terrific. One moment he was talking on the veranda to Nicholas—talking at cross-purposes, because Nicholas, too, had something important to say and meant to say it.
“I say, I must go back. Joan . . .”
“No, but look here. I’ve just thought . . .”
The next moment, chaos. Neither of them ever finished their sentences. An enormous figure broke out from among the trees on their right—so suddenly as to take their breath away—and ran full tilt down the broad walk. It was the big Tiwana, with a rifle in his hand. But there was no time to wonder what he had seen or heard, for, just as the dusk seemed to convert him into something fantastic and unreal, there was a rasping explosion below, such as only an overcharged muzzle-loader could make. They saw the huge man stop in a sort of surprise; then spin; then crumple and lie still.
“God . . . they’ve come Malghat way. I . . .”
Nicholas’s voice was drowned in the crack of a Martini numbing the ear. Sudden sounds seemed to tumble out of the sky, then—the shriek of the whistle; a cry from above, and the answering bellow—“Inside, Janie! Shutters!” the patter of naked feet, as the other Pathans came in; shouting.
Then a wave of white figures, breaking from the trees . . . between them and Joan.
He began his blind, agonized dash to get to her—only to feel Nicholas’s hand wrenching his collar.
“Wait, you idiot! Wait!”
Struggling, he was literally lifted back.
The Pathans were kneeling now, shooting into the white wave, making little gaps here and there. One of them was singing to himself. And he . . . he was splitting his lungs trying to tell Nicholas that Joan was over there. And Nicholas was calmly choking him with his own coat collar.
“Listen, you fool! For God’s sake . . .”
He looked back furiously.
“Listen. You know where Joanie is. When we rush, you go through. Stick to her. See?”
Now he understood. He nodded, and felt the grip on his collar relax.
The wave was hardly fifty yards away now. Men stood out of it, especially one man—bone naked, smeared white, with wild hair. He was brandishing something over his head, something black and round . . . and red . . .
Ugh . . . why didn’t some one shoot him? Could nobody hit him?
But no. He was coming on—open mouth, all foam, and staring eyes; singing, too, senselessly, shamelessly; and that terrible trophy in his hands was dripping over his face. Was he bullet-proof? Could no one . . .
“Get ready. Pick your place.”
Nicholas was good to watch, standing poised, fingering his old black stick. And the Pathans were good, too; firing like happy machines, grinning even now. He felt curiously cool and calm himself. Nothing was going to stop him. He’d find Joan.
He turned to Nicholas, nodded, and got an answering smile . . .
It was a joyous, heartening yell. He had a glimpse of Nicholas hurtling forward; the gleam of an uplifted knife, too late for the crash of the black stick; the smeared body bent backward . . . Nicholas going on . . .
A Pathan at his side was worrying a man as a dog worries a rat . . .
Some one had missed him with a lathi . . .
Some one was dancing up to him . . .
He had trodden on a man’s head . . .
He was through the wave; plunging down a bank of soft crumbling earth; into a muddy trench and out of it; he was through . . .
No, he wasn’t. There were men round the potting-sheds. The potting-sheds were on fire, and they were dancing round the fire. Go through them. Crash through.
His impetus carried him. For a second his feet crackled over red-hot debris and he felt flame on his face. A man, with a ridiculous look of surprise, was sent spinning into the embers . . . without the smallest effort to himself. Men seemed to go down automatically. He was like a knife going through butter . . .
Clear now. Cool air. He was on the cross-path between garden and jungle. Alone. Once more a steep drop, and then the deer-path and lake. Dark . . .
It was always dark there, but after the fire it was inky. As he plunged he could distinguish nothing except the dim glimmer of water below him; and he was not aware of the four men squatting just under the bank until he was right among them. They must have just heard his coming and started up, for he caught one man in the very act of rising and bore him back in a crumpled heap. As he staggered apart the flames behind him lit for an instant the upturned face, and he realized that he had fallen on Gopi Nath—as ever in the background—and that Gopi Nath had turned a sickly green. Then something crashed on his shoulder.
He toppled over sideways, spinning with the impact of the blow; clutched wildly with his left hand, but failed to recover his balance; then felt, for what seemed a long time, like a limp bundle handed on from tree-trunk to tree-trunk, every impact driving in that scorching pain in his right shoulder. Last came the shock of cold water and the immediate sense of sinking.
He had landed in the lake; not a deep place, but a peaty back-water, which was worse. He seemed to be sinking like lead through that thin ooze that was just too thick for swimming in and yet made no resistance to his feet. And all he had was his left hand—which felt as if it were doing work for the first time—and dubious tree-roots that snapped just as he was drawing himself up a little. Life depended—not his life only, as he realized distinctly through all that wild floundering and scrabbling—on the chance of finding one dependable root in a tangle of rotten ones. He found it when he was up to his chest in mud.
Then came an ordeal. He had no breath left. One arm was not enough; he had to wallow against the bank, squirming like an eel, forcing his body up inch by inch, now getting a purchase with his elbow, now with his knee. Then, with a sucking sound, one leg came free, and he lay, sobbing for breath, half in the ooze, half out. Every bone of him was aching. His head was spinning madly, and he had to jabber to himself to keep a hold on consciousness; or so it seemed, for jabber he must. And, at regular intervals, came that fierce, throbbing pain down his right arm. But he was out. He was only waiting for breath. Then he must run on—must.
Sounds came to him: scurrying of feet; babbling; shouts as of men hailing one another, keeping touch in the darkness; once, a whistle.
So Nicholas was safe. Good hearing, that whistle.
There was this about the sounds: they were all on his own side of the lake. Not one from the Pine Knoll. And they all came from the same direction. All the runners and all the voices were between himself and Chandragalli. None behind. That meant—must mean—that Nicholas was hunting them home. Nicholas and his five men—his five led men . . . well, he might have known it.
Still dizzy, still talking incoherently to himself, he dragged himself wholly out upon dry land, and tried to think.
He had left Joan on the Pine Knoll five . . . ten . . . not more than ten minutes before the first shot was fired. Say, another twenty minutes at most for the fight. It seemed longer—was probably less. Half an hour ago, then, Joan was on the Pine Knoll. Half an hour!
He started to run, just able to see ahead of him by the dull glow from the burned building. It gave the effect of plunging into black caverns, vaguely framed with branches, and he could not know whether he was going uphill or down, for the ground was the blackest part of the caverns. He had, too, to run lopsided, to protect that useless, dangling arm; and that gave him the impression of running in a circle. But run he must. Somewhere in that darkness ahead was Joan . . .
It was terrible running; perpetual dodging of trees, perpetual stumbling over fallen trunks. He was down and up again half a dozen times. And his shouts—the shouts he put all his breath and strength into—they were stifled with trees. Even if she were near, she would never hear him. If only he could get clear!
Miraculously he was clear. And he knew where he was. He was in the open place that he had called the deer’s antechamber, just at the foot of the Pine Knoll itself. Heaven knew how he had struck it . . . but there he was. He knew, too, what it meant to him to be there. No trees to stifle a shout . . .
One good shout would tell him. Life depended now on one good shout . . . and the clear answer that must, must come back.
“Joanie! . . . Joan! . . . Joanie! . . . Joan-ie!”
Poor little sounds, after all; but the hills were being kind to them. The hills were taking them and tossing them on. Yet it was an exasperating kindness. If she were far away he might so easily miss the answer in the echoes.
But . . . he hadn’t, he knew, missed the answer in the echoes. There had been no answer.
Again! There had been shouting down in the valley, too. His had not been the only shout. She might easily have mistaken his for theirs; naturally she would be careful. Now . . . the valley was quiet now.
“Joanie! . . . Hallo! Joanie! Joanie! Joan . . . ie!”
He had shot his bolt. He stood very still, listening as he had never listened, throwing every fiber of him into the work of catching a sound; not the clear sound he had hoped for, but some little flicker of sound that surely must come if he listened enough. And he prayed for that little sound long after the echoes of his own cry had ceased to mock him—long after he knew in himself that it could not come—when the seconds had slipped away, and all of him, save that persistent fraction that prayed, had given in.
Then the night seemed to press down on him, on his eyes and ears, like a black blanket. He was seeing pictures against that blackness—Joan listening; Joan calling for help; Joan running; Joan lying very still—and he could no longer keep them out.
With an inarticulate cry—half sob, half summons—he started running up the side of the knoll. For a torturing age he was slipping among ferns and roots and rotting leaves; staggering, then, through leagues of pines; seeming at the last to strike open space; throwing himself forward . . .
He met a solitary pine-trunk full on his right shoulder, but he did not know that. For, just inside the circle, he fainted.
Jimmy! Jimmy! Wake up. Oh, do, do wake . . . up!”
Joan! That was Joan. He had been looking for her for ages, everywhere. Trees—black water-fire . . . he had been through them all; fought, too, and shouted and fallen down, all in the dark. But that was over. That didn’t matter. For he had found her now.
She was here, just beside him, on the green grass under the beeches, where a jaggly path led down, he knew, to the sea. Of course . . .
“You must! You must! Jimmy! . .
Ah, she wanted to explore. There was a house she wanted him to see, with too many rooms before you came to the whispering-room and were happy. Presently—in a little while . . .
“Oh; please! . .
She was dragging him by the hand—and didn’t it hurt! Lugging at his shoulder . . . lugging . . . Ah!
But there was no green grass; no brightness. Only a little lamp—and night—and the huge shadows of trees. And Joan . . . Joan was crying.
“Oh, Jimmy, I thought you’d never wake. What’s happened, Jimmy? Where are you hurt . . . darling? You must get up, you know, Jimmy . . . You’re soaked through. You must get up.”
Was he awake? Was this he, shuddering and sobbing against Joan’s warm coat and hearing wonderful things . . . and feeling like a child, because her voice was somehow new and made him feel so . . . was this he? Or would this go, too?
A stab of pain in the shoulder completed his awakening.
“My arm,” he muttered drowsily. “Some one hit it. It’s . . .”
“Which? . . . Oh, I see . . . Good gracious! . . .”
She was holding the lamp over him, and he could see her face puckering as she tore at his shirt.
“It’s nothing . . . now . . . you’ve come.”
Well awake as he was, he was feeling stupid. He had meant to say something quite different—something about last night. But he couldn’t talk straight. Before anything he ought to remind her . . .
“But you must come in at once. It looks awful.”
He glanced down.
Yes, it certainly did look awful—swollen and scratched and black. But then the whole of him was black. Caked mud . . . and his shirt in shreds . . .
“I say . . .” he began, smiling up at her.
“I never saw such an object in all my life.”
She said it so softly, so—almost—joyously, as if she really liked him best as an object in muddy rags and wanted to keep him so, that even he—stupidly staring at his shoulder, shy of looking at her—realized a change. Something had come to her . . . something that was in her voice now, but never before now . . .
“You’ve admired your arm quite long enough.” Very gently she was helping him to his feet. “Put the good arm . . . here!”
“Here” was her shoulder. Last night he had shaken her shoulders. Now he was leaning on them . . .
“Oh, Joanie! I’ve been so sorry for last night.”
Near as she was—all under his arm—she seemed to come nearer at that, to lean to him.
“Last night was a bad dream . . . last night never happened . . .”
“Bless you! Joanie, you’re too . . .”
Silence then, a silence that was sweetness itself, for they seemed to come together in it, to bury last night out of sight. As they threaded the pines and dropped over the brow into thicker darkness, he had all the sensation of leaving something ugly and heavy behind him and finding in its place indescribable lightness. He felt . . . renewed; full of that new thing which he had caught in her voice, and now, in silence, was sharing with her to the full—a lightness, an almost heady happiness . . .
“You see, I know the way.”
She was proud, delighted because she knew the way. He understood that so perfectly . . . knowing the way. They laughed together because she knew the way.
“I saw you,” he whispered, sure that she would understand in her turn, because their thoughts were dancing and meeting ahead of speech. There was hardly any need to voice them at all.
“Did you? Were you there?”
Of course she had understood.
“Yes. You were standing just where . . .”
“ . . . It’s to be. I know.” Again he felt her quiver to him. “I was thinking of it. I’d decided. Can it be soon, Jimmy?”
“Two or three months . . .”
“Two or three months!”
“Well, building . . .”
“Yes, I suppose it would take that. It’s a long time, Jimmy. Couldn’t we have a tent till it’s finished?”
“You . . . you darling!”
“We’ll have a tent.”
Silence again—delicious, shared silence—while they peered for the lake-path. Then, a startling thought—he had forgotten everything else—Nicholas, Janie, the fight, that dead man. He had never even asked.
“I say, do you think it’s all right? I never even thought . . .”
Even now all that seemed very far away, something that had happened years before in another world. Still, he ought to have thought. In a sort of eager penitence he was trying to tone down that new-found lightness . . . to be grave.
“. . . I ought to have thought.”
“It’s all right. I’ve seen them.”
Whisk! He was in the clouds again. All right . . . of course! Nothing could really be wrong.
“You see, I went back,” she was telling him about it now . . . something else that he might have asked, and somehow hadn’t. “When I heard the shots, I thought I’d make a dash by our path, but there seemed to be men everywhere. I nearly ran into some . . .”
Good Heavens! He was really penitent now.
“And I never even asked!” he muttered.
“Well, I didn’t run into any one, did I? I worked round till I found the stream, and followed that up to the place where dad always swears he found a wallflower and got the idea of coming here. Then I cut across home and found mum in rather a state. She didn’t know where any one was, and there was one poor man . . .”
That was the blot on the night. Yet he had forgotten even that.
“Well, I stayed with her till dad came in. Then . . .” she trembled a little. “Well, you weren’t with dad. He . . . he told me where you had gone. I felt awful.”
He looked down at her, sharing vividly that luxury of restoration that he knew she was feeling. To lose, to fear . . . and after all to find—wasn’t that the sweetest thing in life? Oh, he knew! There was something indescribably glad—some quintessence of understanding, of mutual possession, of thrilling sympathy—in the smile they shared then. It expressed all that words were failing to express. It satisfied.
“Then I heard your shout.”
He started. That after all she had heard . . .
“You didn’t answer?”
“No, I ran. I snatched dad’s lamp and ran. Somehow I knew where you’d be. That was funny, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, and his letting you come along . . .”
She laughed—the old familiar gurgling laugh that he loved, because it was so essentially hers, so closely linked up—he liked to think—with her secret thoughts.
“Oh, I told dad. Dad knows!”
They were on the board walk now, looking up to the dim shape of the house. There was a light in one room—the do-as-you-please room—and the ray seemed to reach out to them and draw them home. In that little square picture of lamplight and firelight they could just see Nicholas, walking up and down, smoking a pipe, talking, and the back of the chair in which, they knew, Janie was sitting and listening to him. That picture, and the silence and the starlight, seemed somehow symbolic—visible signs of restoration and serenity—and not only that. These things seemed to stand for something in the future as well as for something restored out of a pleasant past. There was a promise in them. They summed up hopes.
That sense, too, they shared, for without a word they stood still and looked, before climbing the last slope; noting with a mutual relief, unexpressed in words but recognized in a glance, that the only traces left of the storm were a few scars on the turf and a few broken branches; putting, then, that storm right out of their minds; turning wholly to one another, and, for that little time, seeing and hearing nothing else. She whispered a question:
“Why didn’t you tell me you were there, when you saw me? Why didn’t you call?”
“I was afraid. I thought . . .”
“I know. Silly! As if I’d have gone on minding. Why, I went there on purpose to forgive you. As if I could have gone there and . . . not forgiven you. If you’d come then you’d have known.”
He bent his head; drew her to him.
“Yes,” he said. “But I’m glad I didn’t. I’m glad I went back now.”
Her lips, near his now, just formed the word.
He smiled radiantly. For a moment it was as if his soul came into his face.
“This,” he whispered. “This is so perfect. So right. Your finding me, and waking me . . . it was like a miracle. You see, I thought I had lost you. I went through that first. Then I dreamed I had found you . . . the way I’d always thought of you, and in the old place that I told you of years and years ago. And then to wake and find that you were really there . . . oh, it makes me feel that I’ll never doubt anything again. It was like—like God answering.”
Her eyes were shining, too, as if she were sharing a vision. But her voice was a little tremulous.
“Yes. Yes. Oh, I thought . . . You were so like the old Jimmy lying there . . . all curled up . . . and smiling to yourself and wrenching your poor hair. Do you know, I hoped you were dreaming. And . . . and . . . was there a—” the words hovered, then burst out like a song—“a jaggly path in it?”
“Then . . .” in that delicious confusion of lips the words had a poor passage—“your dream’s . . . ended . . . happily.”
“Begun. Begun . . .”