The train drew up with noisy deliberation at a little wayside station that broke, hideously, the flat calm of the Indian landscape. The number of native passengers that emerged from the carriages was surprising—surprising, at least, to those remaining travellers who were conscious only of the barren surroundings, the sunny quiet, the lack of any sign of habitation; who could not know of the existence, beyond the solitary grove of trees on the near horizon, of the native town that rendered the station convenient.
The crowd that now covered the narrow platform was entirely native, with the exception of a young Englishman, and a woman dressed in black with a little boy clinging to her skirts.
The Englishman was met by a peon, or orderly, pompous and smart in blue-and-gold livery and Government badge, who made profound salaams as he tendered a note and drew attention, respectfully, to the private tonga and pair of stout ponies that waited outside the station, ready to bear the sahib to his destination, some twelve miles distant.
“The sahib” had but just arrived in India for the first time in his life, and had travelled up from Bombay in a comfortable compartment with sleeping berths, space, and water in plenty to wash the dust from his person.
The woman in mourning had never been out of India—on her mother’s side she belonged to the country. There was no one to meet her, no vehicle awaited her outside the station, and she, with her child, had been “intermediate” class, which has no alleviations, and only affords better accommodation in that, being intended for poor whites and Eurasians, it is a little more expensive than the ordinary third class, and therefore not so crowded.
Consequently the woman was dirty, dusty, dishevelled. But even these disadvantages could not defeat the fact that she was unusually handsome.
Her features were fine and firm; she was tall and dark, very dark, with a rich rose tint in her cheeks and lips, and her eyes were like the eyes of an animal, glowing from amber to chestnut-brown. A wide straw hat pushed back from her forehead showed hair that was thick and lustrous and black, the black that holds the rusty undertone of sealskin. In figure she was slim, with long lines and well proportioned.
Mark Rennard, during the journey up country, had noticed her on the platforms of one or two of the important junctions at which they had halted for refreshments. And now, as they both stood waiting for the clamorous, pushing throng of natives to disperse, he marvelled, involuntarily, that her good looks should still rise so triumphant over her inelegant plight. Glancing at her furtively he judged her to be aged about thirty; also he imagined that her child’s father must be as unattractive as the mother was pleasing in appearance—for the little boy was hopelessly plain. Pale, straight, red hair, a nose that was barely distinguishable, being the worst class of snub; the small eyes of his type sank behind high cheek bones, and the upper row of his “first” teeth projected over his lower lip, boding ill for the second set that must be infinitely more aggressive when they came.
Alaric Nottage was barely seven years old. He had been travelling in the greatest discomfort for forty-eight hours, and his mother was angry about something, he did not know what, and had therefore paid small attention to him throughout the journey. Though, at last, they had left this horrible train, which at the start had seemed so delightful and exciting, the ground still swayed beneath his feet, he still felt sick, and thirsty, and miserable; so he began to cry, pitching his lamentations in an aggrieved, defensive key, appealing and remonstrating in rapid Hindustani. His mother shook him absent-mindedly, and looked about her in a dazed, bewildered manner.
Rennard came forward, alert, boyish, clean, a diffident expression in his sincere grey eyes, doubtful as to how his offer of help might be received. He raised the latest Bond Street straw hat from his head.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” he asked.
It was a few moments before she realized his presence, and answered apathetically: “My things should be all there,” she waved her hand towards the end of the platform, “but I have to get them to my brother’s place—he does not know I am coming. I must walk there and say ‘Send a cart!’”
She clipped her words; there was a curious lack of emphasis on any one syllable, and she turned her sentences awkwardly. Rennard realized that he was listening to the notorious “chi-chi” accent common to the Eurasian and the European bred in India. He had heard it imitated on board ship, but had not actually encountered it until now. On the whole he thought it rather pretty, and wondered why it should be so derided.
That she should have to walk seemed to agitate the poor lady seriously. Rennard concluded that “my brother’s place” must be some considerable distance from the railway station, otherwise there could be no great hardship, since the cold-weather atmosphere was pleasantly cool if not a little chilly now that the afternoon was closing in, and the ground looked firm and level. Evidently the child shared his mother’s apprehension, for even to Rennard, who was ignorant of the language, there was no mistaking the drift of his vehement protests in Hindustani.
“No, no—not walk!” he shrieked, “I will not walk. I do not wish to walk!”
“How far off does your brother live?” Rennard asked quickly.
“Oh! it is quite near—just by the bazaar behind those trees.”
She pointed to the mango grove towards which the native passengers who had got out of the train could be seen streaming along, in small, uneven groups and single file, most of them with bundles slung over their shoulders.
“Then won’t you allow me to give you a lift? This note,” holding up the envelope delivered by the peon, “says that my boss has sent a trap of sorts to meet me, and a cart for my luggage. I could drop you at your brother’s house. I daresay it isn’t much out of my way, if at all, and the cart might take your things too, if you’ll show this fellow,” indicating the obsequious peon, “which they are?”
“Oh! you are awfully kind”; a dull gratitude was in her voice. “I am so tired and worn out, and in such trouble.” She sighed, straightened the child’s sailor hat, and mopped the tears from his cheeks with her handkerchief. “This is named Alaric,” she added irrelevantly, and pushed the little boy forward, “but we have always called him Junksie for pet. I am Nottage—Mrs Nottage.”
Rennard felt embarrassed. He held out his hand kindly to the child, who at once threw himself back against his mother and screamed afresh.
“We’d better see about our luggage.” Hastily Mark beckoned the peon closer. “Do you mind telling this man what we have arranged? I was supposed to have learnt a certain amount of Hindustani at Oxford, but I can’t say that, so far, I have been able to make myself understood very successfully!”
He spoke with humorous politeness to relieve the situation, which after all was awkward, apparently, only to himself, since the lady accepted it without a trace of self-consciousness.
She spoke a few words glibly in Hindustani to the man, who salaamed with every show of respect, but there was a covert gleam of surprised contempt in his dark eyes as he turned to claim the belongings of the young sahib fresh from across the black water, and those of the kerani (half-caste) woman who was taking such shameless advantage of his inexperience!
Soon the little procession passed out of the station—Rennard and his two unexpected companions, led by the peon, and followed by a string of half-naked coolies bearing luggage on their heads. Mrs Nottage had pointed out as hers a bright wadded quilt of many colours and Paisley pattern, rolled around various bulky objects, and kept in position by string; also a large bundle wrapped in a dirty bath towel, two battered sun hats, a yellow tin trunk with an iron padlock, and a water bottle in a leather case, with straps by which to suspend it in the train. The coolies surrounded the cart, and immediately an uproar arose, evidently over the question of “baksheesh,” for the word was clamoured by every coolie tongue; while the peon, who was to escort the cart, shouted abuse and cuffed and pushed with indiscriminate energy. The noise had not abated when the tonga started in the direction of the clump of mango trees, with Rennard, Mrs Nottage, and the child in a row on the back seat.
They rattled and bumped along a rough cart track that, except for the ruts, was hardly discernible from the waste ground on either side. A few stunted thorn bushes stood up here and there, and tussocks of coarse, reed-like grass were dotted about. Otherwise nothing broke the bare monotony of the immediate surroundings, though further away in the distance a thin straight line of trees appeared to extend indefinitely. Rennard pointed towards it; he found the heavy silence of his companion rather disconcerting.
“Is that an avenue away over there, or what?” he asked.
Mrs Nottage turned her head slowly. She seemed numbed, mentally and physically, and spoke with an evident effort.
“Oh! That? It is the canal—the trees on the bank. There is always work of all sorts going on near a canal, and that is good for my brother, because of the bricks. My brother, he is contractor and makes bricks. It is a dull life! It was very dull for me before, and now I have to come back again.”
She sighed despairingly, and Rennard’s quick young sympathies went out to her. Still he felt he could hardly ask personal questions without seeming inquisitive and interfering.
“Yes, I suppose very few people live about here,” he said lamely.
“Nobody but natives and old Mr Macintosh,” she replied with disdain, “all the town is just natives, and there are no English. The headquarters of the district is at Usapur, quite twelve miles away.”
“That is where I am going to,” said Rennard eagerly. “I’ve just joined the Indian Civil Service, and am posted there. Is it a decent place? I suppose you know it?”
“Oh yes, of course I know it. Ever since I can remember I have known Usapur. I often went there to stay with my friends, the Josephs. Inez Joseph was in school with me up-hill. She was such a pretty girl, but she died. Her sisters must be grown up now. Usapur is a small place, but there are some people and a club and tennis, but not many people,” she added, as though fearing she might have raised his expectations too high, “not enough for dances, parties, or concerts.”
“Do you know Mr Banister, the magistrate, my boss? He seems a good sort from the note he sent to meet me.”
“No, I do not know him. It is nearly eight years since I was here. I have not been back since I was married.”
Rennard felt sure she was on the point of telling him more of her personal history, when the tonga took a wide curve round the mango grove, and they came in sight of a square, white building, with a flat roof and deep veranda.
On one side of the bungalow was a large garden, well cultivated, having a well, and orange trees, roses and vegetables, and gaily flowering shrubs. On the other side, beyond a low mud wall, a brick-field spread itself wide and long, with patches of smoke hanging low over the furnaces, red stacks of completed material, rows of soft clay moulds that awaited their turn for burning, and the untidy heaps of rubbish inseparable from the industry. An acrid smell of burning lime hung in the air, and native men and women were squatting in groups on the ground, busily occupied, or moving about with bricks, neatly packed, balanced on their heads in the wonderful native fashion that presents the perfection of poise. About a mile further on in the flat, clear landscape, the precincts of a native town were visible, the thatched huts and mud hovels rising gradually to walls and parapets, and flat roofs of irregular heights. Over it all the cold-weather sun shone hard and bright, and sharply through the thin atmosphere came the shouts from the brick-field, the creaking of the well-wheel, and the high plaintive sound of some native singing with the full strength of his lungs as he worked.
“Here we are,” said Mrs Nottage, and suddenly her apathy left her and she seemed nervous, breathlessly apprehensive. As they stopped in front of the house she laid her hand on the young man’s arm.
“You will come in with me?” She besought him with her beautiful eyes as well as her lips. “My brother does not know I am coming, and I am so afraid he will be put out. If you are with me he will not mind so much. He likes to keep in with all the officials. He will be flattered that you have driven me!”
What could Rennard do but comply?—though he felt no desire to be present at what promised to be an unpleasant domestic scene. His good nature had involved him in more than he had anticipated. He helped mother and child from the tonga in a rather rueful silence, and followed them up the veranda steps.
A green parrot was imprisoned in an iron, dome-shaped cage that hung from a nail driven into one of the pillars. The bird shrieked simultaneously as Mrs Nottage called the usual summons of the country, “Quai-hai!”—to which there was no response. Again the same thing happened.
“Oh! that bird!” she exclaimed petulantly. “It is just the same after eight years! It must be as old as the hills.”
She called again, and once more the parrot shrieked with her, but this time a split-cane blind was moved a little aside from a doorway, and the face of an old native woman peered out. It was an evil old face, yet stamped with extraordinary power, and the remains of great beauty. The skin was light for that of a native, the features were sharply cut, and the dark eyes were still large and piercing though now sunk deep in the head. Even during the brief moment that passed before she dropped the blind and hid herself from view, Rennard recognized that the face must have been remarkable in its youth—was even remarkable now in spite of old age and decay. With its subtle lift at the corner of lip, eyelid, and nostril, it reminded him of something he could not recall.
He knew that Mrs Nottage glanced at him furtively, as though in hopes that this apparition had made no impression on him. She herself said nothing. The incident had passed so swiftly that even the child did not appear to have observed it. Mrs Nottage and the parrot again lifted up their voices in discordant duet.
“Why does nobody come?” she complained with impatience.
Then an answering shout echoed from within the bungalow, and an untidy-looking table servant burst forth with salaams and apologies. He lifted the cane blind servilely that they might enter, and Mrs Nottage said something to the man in Hindustani as she passed him. Directly afterwards Rennard heard his bare feet thudding through the veranda and down the steps into the compound, as though he had been despatched in search of someone.
They were now in a large room that ran down the centre of the house. It was lighted by windows that were more like ventilators, high up in the ceiling, and apparently it was enclosed by other rooms, for doors were numerous on either side. It seemed to be half dining, half sitting-room, and was furnished gaudily though without much comfort—that is to say there was an English carpet of a startling pattern, and a few black-and-gold framed chairs upholstered in crimson plush; an overmantel and some what-nots, also in black-and-gold, completed the suite, and scattered about were ornaments such as one usually associates with recollections of sea-side lodgings in England.
Mrs Nottage sat down on one of the plush chairs, and Rennard stood by the fireplace feeling rather foolish. He wished he had not allowed himself to be drawn into such an adventure, yet the sense of adventure was mildly exciting, and he certainly had a curiosity to see what would occur when “my brother” appeared, who did not know that his sister was coming! Alaric, alias Junksie, began to demand something with shrill insistence. Judging by his gestures—he opened his mouth, pointed down his throat, and patted his stomach—Rennard supposed him to be illustrating the fact that he was hungry. The child’s entreaties had just merged into howls of anger, when a sound of footsteps at the further entrance of the room distracted his attention, and caused him to turn with his mouth wide open, and his breath held, in the middle of a roar.
A thin, spare man, in a check cotton suit that hung limply from his shoulders, entered and walked with short rapid steps up to the little group near the fireplace. In his hand he carried a large pith hat, stained and shapeless; he flung it down on the dining-table as he passed, and it skidded over the smooth surface of the white table-cloth and fell to the floor. As he advanced Rennard perceived that he was some years older than his sister; his skin was darker, he was not so tall, but in his own fashion he was quite as good looking as Mrs Nottage, with well-formed features and magnificent eyes. He had a small black moustache, and his figure, even in the baggy suit, looked lean and supple.
“Oh! my!—why, Teresa!” he said, and stood regarding the trio before him in astonished inquiry. One of his hands shot out, the thumb well extended, in a native gesture of interrogation.
Mrs Nottage began to cry. Rennard had feared this would happen; he felt inclined to leave the room and escape at once in the waiting tonga. Outside he could hear the jingle of the harness, and the rattle of the bar, forming a sort of accompaniment to “Teresa’s” sobs within. Somebody must say something. He took a step forward.
“Mr—” he began civilly, but was met by a truculent response.
“Sir, my name is Klint—Howard Klint. What is yours?—and why for has my sister brought you here? Where is her lawful husband—where is Nottage?”
The man was a mass of self-conscious bluster, and Rennard stiffened at his tone.
“You had better ask your sister,” he said, and turned towards the door.
Mrs Nottage raised her head and held out one hand towards him, the other towards her brother. Tears were on her cheeks.
“Do not go!” she appealed. “Let me explain. Oh, Howard, do not be so quarrelsome. This gentleman is the new assistant magistrate going to Usapur. He was very kind when he saw me lonely and helpless on the platform at Krabganj station to-day, and he gave me and the boy a lift in his tonga. I asked him to come in here with me. I was afraid to meet you alone, because I have come back here a widow with nothing, no money, only trouble—” She sobbed again, but her brother took no notice of her. He turned to Rennard, his manner completely altered.
“I am indeed wexed” he said effusively, and held out a thin, cold hand, which the other was forced to take, “that I made such a mistake. But how could I know?—seeing only you and Teresa dropped from the clouds!” He laughed affectedly. “But now I will make amends if I can. You must have a peg, or do you prefer some tea? Here—Quai-hai!” he shouted, before Rennard could stop him, and when the slatternly servant appeared, which he did in a moment, it was useless to attempt a refusal of refreshment in some form. Mr Klint would take no denial.
Therefore the unwilling guest chose a whisky and soda as being quicker to prepare and to consume than tea, which, all the same, he would much have preferred. Some biscuits were also produced, and at sight of the tin Alaric renewed his demands for food more violently, and was only pacified when his uncle gave him a handful impatiently.
“So that is your child?” he remarked to his sister, and gazed at the little boy with patent disgust; “he is just like his father. And you say he is dead—Nottage is dead?”
The man’s manner towards her was rough and contemptuous. It enraged Rennard to listen to him, and he felt a hot compassion for the crushed, beautiful creature who sat there, so humbly helpless, at this brute’s mercy. She only nodded dumbly in answer to his question.
“And what made him die, drink—h’n?” Klint gave Rennard a confidential wink, and the other felt inclined to knock him down. He repeated with emphasis, “Drink, h’n?”
“I do not know—I daresay,” replied the woman faintly. “He was away, he left me, and then he died. I was not with him. He had spent all the money—there is nothing left for me and the child. We are beggars.”
She wept afresh, and her brother addressed Rennard with a tragic countenance and both hands spread out before him.
“There now!” he exclaimed; “this is what comes of people being selfish and pleasing only themselves. She e-loped with this Nottage, a rascal, and a horse dealer and all. But, oh! yes, she must get away from Krabganj—it was so dull after being in school up in the hills—though who paid for her staying on in school another year?—her brother! Who was willing—”
“Oh! Howard! Teresa interrupted, goaded into self-defence, “what are you saying? You know it was because you wanted to make me marry old Mr Macintosh that I ran away with Napper! It was not all my fault that I married him, though it is true Krabganj was very dull, yet it was better than Mr Macintosh. And now Napper is dead!”
“Yes, and now you are come back on my hands with a child, and expect me to keep you and pay for you and him! Supposing I had been married, with children too—and how do you know I am not going to be married?—you would expect to stay just the same and be supported! This is not a poorhouse—” he checked himself, noticing Rennard’s restive embarrassment, and smiled resignedly. “Well, well, I suppose blood is thicker than water, and it will have to be done. But it is hard luck on me. It is the way of the world! I hope, sir, you will never experience such hard luck yourself, but then you Government officials are all in clover, while we poor fellows on our own hook are at the mercy of misfortune!” He wagged his head and his thumbs.
Rennard put down his glass, and took advantage of the pause to say he must continue on his journey. At once his host overpowered him with gratitude for having “come to the rescue of my sister,” for his kindness, for his condescension. Rennard might have saved the lives of Teresa and Alaric Nottage, at least, to judge by the thanks he received, instead of merely having spared them a walk. And all the time poor Teresa sat in the plush-backed chair sobbing, and looked dumb, wistful thanks out of her wonderful, amber-coloured eyes. Though she said nothing, Rennard understood. He felt a profound pity for the unfortunate woman he was leaving in this depressing, lonely bungalow, with a brother who would bully her, and the ugly little boy so like the dead man who had deserted his wife and left her destitute.
“When I am out in this part again,” he said on an impulse, and pressed the hand she held out to him so limply, “I will come and see you if I may?”
Then he fled from Howard Klint’s hospitable invitations, and drove off in the tonga. As he left the compound he passed the cart with his luggage. It had just deposited the belongings of Mrs Nottage at the back of the bungalow.
He lighted a cigarette with a feeling of relief as he was jolted over the rough cart track towards the metalled road; this led from Krabganj station to Usapur, and was in fairly good repair. There was not much dust, so the twelve-mile drive promised to be pleasant.
Once well on the smooth way, with the regular beat of hoofs and the music of chain and buckle in his ears, the wide, free country on either side—out in the clean cold air that was a pleasure to breathe, Rennard reviewed, dispassionately, this extraordinary introduction of his to Indian life. His meeting with Teresa, their little journey together to the bungalow, the unfavourable impression Howard Klint had left on his mind; then the piteous distress of the widow who did not seem even to have contemplated any alleviation of her predicament other than that afforded by a return to her old home! Poor thing! He could not forget her unhappy eyes. Then he remembered the face of the old native woman who had peered out at them for one moment from behind the cane blind, and suddenly it came to him that she had reminded him of the pictures of Satan in the old family Bible at home—pictures that had frightened yet fascinated him as a child.
He gave a little shiver of aversion—and turned his mind to blissful dreams of the girl he was engaged to marry, and the sunny future that lay before them. So that, very soon, Krabganj, and Teresa Nottage, Junksie, and Howard Klint were forgotten completely.
A small station in the plains.
To those who know Upper India the words will perhaps recall the vision of an isolated little spot marked on the vast level of the country by a group of white-washed bungalows standing within mud-walled enclosures; a few scattered trees and dusty hedges of aloe and cactus; a tangled patch of native town linked to the English quarter by a broad, metalled road, and, all around, stretches of barren land and tracts of tall, dry grass relieved by the mango groves and temple-tops of occasional villages and their radiating acres of close cultivation.
It was in just such a place that Mark Rennard began his Indian official career—the little place called Usapur, which, though twelve miles from the nearest line of rail, and again some hours from thence to the nearest station of importance, was yet the centre of a large and well-populated district. The white-washed bungalows were occupied by the usual number of European officials who go to make up the “small station” community—the magistrate and his assistant, the doctor, police-officer, perhaps two representatives of different branches of the public works department, possibly an opium agent, and a sprinkling of sub-ordinates, Eurasian or country-bred. At times during the cold weather, when tours of inspection were obligatory for all but the civil surgeon, the little station would be practically deserted, and the modest club, with its reading-room, billiard-room, and two lawn-tennis courts composed of dried mud, would present a neglected appearance for days together.
Certainly Usapur would not appear as an attractive starting-point to a young man fresh from England who was of a gregarious disposition and had a weakness for amusement. But Mark Rennard was inclined to accept its drawbacks indulgently, because he was joyously, healthily in love; because it was the cold weather with its sharp, brilliant mornings and exhilarating days when even the ugly white houses, and the sparse trees, and dusty boundaries looked almost attractive in the splendid sunshine; also because, being a youngster, he was under the immediate wing of a superior officer and was spared the trials of actual solitude. He lived with Mr Banister, the magistrate, who was a bachelor. Two rooms in the lofty, spacious bungalow had been allotted to him, and he paid a reasonable sum, in proportion to his pay, towards rent and household expenses.
Had it not been for all these alleviating circumstances, Mark would doubtless have hated Usapur actively from the outset, for association with India had no part in his mental inheritance. None of his forbears had been Anglo-Indians, he held none of those hereditary instincts that render the members of families connected for generations with the East prone to adapt themselves readily and naturally to the ways and atmosphere of the country, to find something comfortably familiar in their surroundings, however discouraging. He had not been brought up on Indian sketches and diaries, nor on traditions of the services and importance of Anglo-Indian ancestors, and he had never known what it was to look forward with eager excitement to mail day that brought descriptive letters, and interesting little parcels, sealed up in wax-cloth, from parents who always “hoped to get home soon.”
Mark’s father was a clever, successful barrister, autocratic and unyielding, who had destined his elder son for the English Civil Service. Always sharply intolerant of limitations in others, he could hardly forgive the boy for passing high enough only to take the Indian Civil Service, and his vexation at Mark’s “failure,” as he persisted in calling it, caused him to overlook the fact that considerable ability and determination are requisite in order to pass at all. The culprit himself was so dismayed by his father’s annoyance, and the resulting sense of his own shortcomings, that he remained quite unconscious of having achieved that which, to the average parent, would have brought pride and satisfaction.
At the same time, the prospect of official life in London had never attracted him, though, dutifully, he had done his best to attain to it. Obediently he had worked, “smugged,” to use his own term, and perhaps if he had “smugged” just little harder he might have fulfilled his father’s ambition. The boy was really clever, but with the clean, wholesome type of cleverness that yet stood in the way of his reaching to the full mental success of which he was capable. His very soundness of mind and body gave him the love of recreation and outdoor sports that claimed time and attention he might have devoted wholly to his work. So, when Mark not only passed too low for the Home Civil, but was last on the list for the Indian, his father made bitter, cutting speeches, his mother shed helpless tears, and Ernest, the younger son, became superior and self-righteous; for, though still a schoolboy, Ernest, with his large head, short-sighted eyes, and argumentative manner, intended to succeed where his brother had “failed.”
Mark endeavoured to look and feel ashamed of himself, and managed to do both, but only because he was painfully conscious of a guilty joy in the situation! It was such a relief to know that he was not to be shut up in close rooms surrounded by streets and traffic—that he was going to a country where, apparently, everybody rode and shot, and danced, and played polo and tennis as a matter of course, and lived chiefly in the open air. It was next best to going into the army, a desire he had cherished since childhood, but had never dared to utter, for his father held the army, as a profession for a man with brains, in rude contempt.
And now, here was Usapur! So entirely different from anything he had anticipated. His people had few Anglo-Indian friends, and nobody had warned him that such places existed, and that it was quite likely he might be sent to one of them.
This morning, three months after his arrival, he stood on the steps of the magistrate’s bungalow waiting till his chief should be ready for their mid-day breakfast. And as he loitered he reflected with amused disgust on the dreariness of the little station. In spite of the blue of the sky, and the clear radiance of the atmosphere, the view beyond the compound was pointless depressing.
Half aloud he said: “What a place to bring a bride to!” Then remembered that in due time he would of course get a better station; told himself that the inevitable must be accepted—young people could not expect to have everything at first.
He had fallen in love on the voyage out from home. Long, sunny days, the hypnotizing throb of machinery, warm, moonlit nights, music, idleness, freedom, worked inevitably on two young impressionable hearts, aided by a card-playing chaperon, and Mark landed in Bombay engaged to Eve Lancaster, a motherless, beautiful girl, just out of the schoolroom, whose father awaited her at a station cruelly far from that part of India to which the young civilian found himself gazetted.
The couple parted in desolation, with fervent promises, and lingering looks, but with the cautious understanding that for the present they were to correspond only in friendly fashion. Eve said, “Father might be tiresome about letters”—but directly Mark could obtain a few days’ leave he was to hasten to the distant cantonment where the Colonel commanded his regiment. And then, once having made the Colonel’s acquaintance, he could demand the daughter’s hand in marriage with every observance and precaution. Until such time, they agreed, the matter had best remain a secret; otherwise there might be danger of parental obstruction on the score of youth, or other elderly, unreasonable objections. Whereas, together, they would surely be strong enough to overcome all argument of a hostile character.
Now, after three months’ close attention to duty, Rennard knew he had grasped the outlines of his work as far as was possible in so short a time, though he had found it difficult and often heavy. Also he had studied the language with commendable diligence. In company with Mr Banister he had toured about the district in tents, hearing petitions, investigating cases, settling boundary disputes, carrying out the cold-weather duties of the administrator of English justice in India. And he considered that the time had come when he might ask, not without reason, for the much-desired leave. He felt he could subsist no longer on “friendly” letters.
This morning he meant to put his request to Mr Banister directly that gentleman came out into the veranda, as he invariably did for a few minutes after bathing and dressing when the morning routine work was over, and breakfast was at hand. Mark had discovered, by now, that it was safer to approach the magistrate on a doubtful subject before a meal than after in case an error in the cooking of dish should disturb his temper. When that happened Mr Banister had attention to spare for nothing else, and for no individual but the cook.
Mark paced the veranda, and his spirits rose high at the bare possibility of seeing Eve within the week—of perhaps returning to Usapur as her openly affianced husband. On the other side of the club-house there was quite nice little bungalow standing empty… the garden had gone to pieces, but could easily be put in order… They would have English flowers growing all the cold weather. The stables were good too, though small… that wouldn’t matter, since they could only afford couple of ponies at first. All this Rennard had noted in passing at various times, and once, with view to the future, he had gone over the bungalow and thrilled himself with the sweet hope that this very place might be their home within a few months! There need be no difficulty about “setting up” well; he had saved money already, his father gave him an allowance which, so far, he had not touched and his expenses, since he joined, had been light.
From his breast pocket he took the last letter Eve had written him, hurried scrawl though it was, and kissed it. How he adored her ... his darling … his little queen.
“Quail for breakfast,” said Mr Banister behind him, “quail wrapped in vine leaves and steamed in a closed jar—eh?”
He would have rubbed his hands, but that they were full of official envelopes of different sizes. He was looking through these documents, holding each one close to his face, for he was near-sighted.
Mr Banister was a short, solid person with a self-satisfied manner, the result of an immovable conviction that all he said or did was correct. At headquarters he was merely considered a useful officer, though somewhat over-devoted to detail. But, as a skilled housekeeper, and an accomplished cook, his name was famous throughout the province. Wherever he went the ladies of the station were afraid to ask him to dinner.
“Just the right time now for quail from the crops,” Mr Banister continued, and tore open an envelope.
Mark said suddenly, “Do you think I could have a few days’ leave, sir?” The words almost choked him, so much depended on the answer they were to receive.
The other looked up, astonished. “Good gracious! What for?”
The boy reddened, and Mr Banister was interested at once. Curiosity, as well as culinary talent, was a feature of Mr Banister’s character. But at this moment a white-coated figure proclaimed from the doorway that breakfast was on the table, and of course quail must be the first consideration. “Come along,” said the magistrate, “and tell me while we eat.”
He threw the Government papers down on a table as he passed, and from among them a pale blue envelope that was not official fell to the floor. It was square in shape, sealed with darker blue wax, and addressed in pretty handwriting.
Mark Rennard swooped down upon it. “That’s for me!” he said breathlessly.
“For you?” Mr Banister half turned as he reached the doorway. “I don’t know how it got in among my dâk (post). Sorry I didn’t notice it before.”
He disappeared into the dining-room intent on the quail, and Mark lingered behind. For a moment he glanced quickly about him, then tore open the precious, unexpected letter.
A minute later he was standing rigid, the blue paper crumpled tightly in his hand. There was an odd, suffocating pain in his throat; his limbs felt leaden; he was stunned, confused, conscious only of the blow that had distorted his present and blackened his future.
Eve had “changed her mind.”
Could he only have realized it, the thing was inevitable. The girl, to her remorseful surprise, had soon discovered that it was possible to enjoy herself whole-heartedly without her lover. She was surrounded by admiring, amusing subalterns; there seemed to be no time to think of anything but dances, riding, and entertainments. Gradually the board-ship love affair had faded to pleasant remembrance. Yet, with the cowardice of youth, she had continued the “friendly” letters, until frightened by Mark’s announcement that he meant to ask for his leave, and had every hope of getting it.
Then she had written, with tears of self-reproach, sighs of pity for the “poor boy,”—a tender, abject little letter on her favourite blue paper, explaining the situation.
Rennard gazed before him, his eyes dark with misery. The bright atmosphere seemed all at once hard and callous, the turfless ground of the compound was actually repulsive; the vista of wide, featureless country filled him with a sense of despair that he could not control and hardly understood.
The searching, cold-weather sun shone full on the young face with the piteous, troubled eyes. The hopelessness of the boy’s bearing and expression contrasted cruelly with his obvious youth and vitality. Even Mr Banister, coming out of the dining-room with a table napkin under his arm to ascertain the cause of Rennard’s delay, perceived and paused, regarding him with concerned attention.
“Anything wrong?” he inquired.
At first Mark did not answer then he said very quickly, “I shan’t want the leave I asked for just now. This letter has made it unnecessary.”
“Come and have some breakfast,” said Mr Banister, kindly.
Mark shook his head. He felt that to swallow food would be impossible at this moment.
Mr Banister pondered. He desired intensely to know what had upset young Rennard to such an extent, and why the leave he had wanted but a few minutes ago should now be unnecessary. But he was well-bred, if greedy and selfish, and did not dream of investigating the other’s affairs.
“A good gallop across country,” he observed casually, “often puts one’s liver right—wish I could go for one myself to-day, but my office table’s choked with things no one can attend to but myself.”
Mr Banister was attempting to insinuate tactfully that there was nothing particular for Rennard to do, so that the boy might absent himself if he wished with a clear conscience.
Mark caught at the suggestion. He felt that physical exertion was imperative if he was to preserve his mental balance; also that Mr Banister’s kind company was, for the present, intolerable.
“I think I will go for a sprint,” he said with an effort to speak naturally, though he knew well enough he had not succeeded, “that is, if you don’t want me for anything?”
The magistrate waved ready permission. “Only wish I could come too,” he repeated, and went back into the dining-room to finish his assistant’s share of the quail as well as his own.
Not waiting for the day to slacken, Mark ordered his pony to be saddled—the well-bred little bay mare he had bought because, though a trifle light for himself, he thought she would make such a suitable mount, later on, for Eve. And presently he rode through the station, passing, with a shiver of pain, the empty bungalow behind the club-house. If English flowers ever grew in that unkempt garden they would not be planted by him and Eve. The silent veranda, the closed doors, the weeds, all seemed symbolical now of the emptiness and desolation of his own existence. Yet, amid all his confused sensations of despair, surprise, and injury, there was no hint of blame or resentment towards the girl who had brought about his trouble. He only winced beneath the conviction that she too, in measure, was suffering—though how differently from himself! Her letter had breathed of self-condemnation, and a childish sense of wrong behaviour, which he realized must have been acutely painful to the distressed little writer. He almost wished she had not understood how much he cared for her, and what a darkness she had cast over his life.
He resolved to master his feelings to the point of writing her such a letter as would dispel her remorse and doubt. He would save her every scrap of unhappiness he could, that she might be her own light-hearted self again without compunction.
At right angles to the metalled road that formed the backbone of Usapur he turned off into the open country, taking an aimless direction. Then he galloped madly, regardless of holes and rough ground, and the willing little mare stretched her neck and laid back her ears, and raced along gamely, her heart in her work. It takes good blood to go in such brave fashion without rivalry or incentive.
After a time he pulled her in, and allowed her to walk quietly for a mile or so, but the ache in his heart, and the confusion in his mind, and the queer, tight feeling in his throat that made his eyes smart and his temples throb, became unendurable without the relief of violent movement, and when the mare had cooled down he urged her on again. They swept past a village, skirting the crops of wheat, barley, sugar cane, pulse; then across a canal bridge, and on, and on, down the broad, grassy way of the opposite bank.
Suddenly, with a jerk, the mare changed her stride and slowed down from a gallop to an uneven canter. Her master stopped her, and dismounted. She had cast a shoe—must have been going for some time without it, for, when he moved her forward, she went distinctly “tender.” To ride her home all those miles could only result in serious lameness. What cursed luck! Everything, he thought bitterly, was going wrong with him. He looked about. In the distance, ahead, there seemed to be a village with its attendant mango-grove, but it was a long way off. He turned, and tipped his hat over his eyes to gaze up the canal in hopes that he might be near a rest-house, but no habitation was to be seen on either bank. In weary resignation he drew the bridle over the pony’s head, and trudged forward in the direction of the village; the animal followed him with almost apologetic docility, now and then rubbing her soft muzzle against his shoulder.
As, at last, they neared the grove of trees, he saw, with surprise, that what he had taken to be a village was a substantial house with a flat roof, and the usual cluster of servants’ quarters. To one side lay a patch of what looked like ruins, and wisps of smoke hung low over the debris. Surely it was familiar to him? Rennard halted. Yes; away to the left was a blurred interruption of the flat landscape—a native town. Behind those trees would be a tract of barren land, and an ugly little railway station.
Now he knew where he was.
Since his arrival at Usapur Rennard’s memory seldom turned to his curious acquaintances at Krabganj. The account of his meeting with Teresa Nottage and Howard Klint had amused Mr Banister the first evening at dinner, and to-day, as Mark approached the residence adjoining the brick-field, thankful for the refuge it promised to him and the mare, he recalled all Mr Banister had told him concerning the history of the half-caste contractor.
“A cute fellow,” the magistrate had said, “with more push and intelligence than most of his kind. I don’t know his exact pedigree, but some people say papa was a subordinate in the public works department who retired with more money than he ever got out of Government! Anyway the old man started this little contracting business, and built the house years ago, and died there at a good age. The son was educated at an engineering college in this country, and carries on the work. Probably he makes a good deal of money for a man in his position. Occasionally he comes into the station to interview me or one of the public works men, on business, and he always knows what he’s about!”
“And his mother?” Mark had inquired.
“Oh! she was a Eurasian woman of sorts, I suppose,” was the careless answer; “she’s no longer alive—but there’s an old native grandmother in the background. She’s known as ‘Bibi-Klint.’ Bibi means madame more or less in Hindustani. Whether she has a right to the title or not I can’t say! I really don’t know anything very definite about them—I’ve been here such a short time.”
Mark had not paid much attention to this information when it was given, but now, as the talk came back to his mind, he thought of the Satanic old face that for one moment had peered at him from behind the cane blind when last he had been here. No doubt he had then beheld the grandmother of Teresa Nottage and Howard Klint! He wondered vaguely if he should see her again to-day.
As he arrived at the foot of the veranda steps the parrot in the dome-shaped cage began to scream viciously, and continued with such persistence that Mark despaired of making his own voice heard. He looked about him, hoping to catch sight of a servant, but the whole compound seemed to be asleep, though across the garden, in the brick-field, he could see native figures moving about slowly. Also, with the exception of the parrot’s clamour, there was no sound of life about the house. In the bare veranda a few painted clay toys, horses, tigers, elephants were scattered about on a striped drugget, and on a little bamboo table lay a pile of fancy work and a basket. There was a rocking-chair beside the table, and a small pair of scissors had fallen beneath it. Evidently Alaric and his mother were still living with Mr Klint.
Rennard waited, thinking that surely the bird’s diabolical noise must attract attention sooner or later, and as he stood there in the blazing sunshine, tired with his violent ride, vexed at the mare’s accident, for which he blamed his own lack of consideration, irritated by the parrot’s outrageous behaviour, the sense of misery that had been dulled temporarily by action returned more acutely than ever. He thought of the last time he had come here—how untroubled, how confident he had been! And now he was sore and sick at heart, so undone with the prospect of his blank future, robbed of all happy anticipation, that he felt he could have turned his back on the house and the mare, on Usapur and his work, and walked away over the flat face of the country without rest or relief till he dropped dead from exhaustion.
At last the bird ceased its cries and gazed at him with a malignant expression. The cane blind moved, and Mark half expected that a sinister old face with curved features and glittering black eyes would peer at him as it had done before. But, instead, Alaric ran out, dressed in a cheap blue sailor suit, and having on his head a disreputable pith hat, that almost concealed his hideous little face. At sight of a visitor the child stopped abruptly; then, recognizing Rennard, he smiled with precocious hospitality.
“My mamma is at home. Enter!” he said in Hindustani, and spoke with wonderful distinctness, each syllable perfectly pronounced with the soft, liquid intonation of the native who has never spoken a foreign language. He might now have been a boy of almost double his age, to judge by his speech and the self-confidence of his demeanour; whereas the last time he and Rennard had met, Junksie’s hunger and discomfort had reduced him to the likeness of a fractious baby.
“Enter!” he repeated, and as he turned to usher the visitor into the house he bent and picked up the pair of scissors that lay under the rocking-chair. With a swift movement and a furtive glance at the sahib he put them in the pocket of his little sailor blouse, then pushed aside the split-cane blind that hung before the doorway.
“I cannot come in yet,” said Rennard, in passable Hindustani, “because of the pony. Could you call a syce, or take me to the stables?”
The child returned to the veranda steps and lifted up his voice in the piercing, long-drawn-out summons, common to natives, that will carry an incredible distance. It is said that in old days news was spread throughout India by means of such shouting from one point to another.
The power of Alaric’s lungs seemed extraordinary, and Rennard watched him observantly as he stood with his head thrown back in the halo of the sun hat, and his mouth wide open, driving the shrill sound far over the compound.
A native, scantily clothed, appeared in a few minutes from the back premises. He moved unwillingly, and was binding a dirty turban round and round his head. This individual escorted the sahib and the mare to the stables. The stalls were empty save for an underbred dun-coloured pony, that had a clumsy head, no shoulder to speak of, and sloping hind-quarters. The animal’s high crest and hogged mane gave it a vicious yet classical appearance, that was enhanced by small, china-blue eyes. Chained to a post in front of the stable was a brown monkey—a guardian, according to native belief, against demoniacal influences.
“Klint Sahib has gone out—he went this morning in the tum-tum with the other pony,” the man said sulkily.
Rennard hoped that Mr Klint had gone far and would return late. A couple of rupees transformed the uncivil syce into a polite and obsequious being who produced grass and grain and a spare horse blanket with alacrity, and undertook to fetch a blacksmith from the town who might be trusted to fit a shoe safely. Then Rennard went back to the bungalow, and saw Mrs Nottage waiting for him in the veranda.
Even in his dejected condition of mind he could not but note what a striking picture she made as she stood tall and lithe at the top of the steps, in a plain gown of some soft, dull material that emphasized her warm brown beauty, yet drew no attention from it as a bright colour might have done. A black band round her waist was her only token of mourning. When Rennard saw her last she had been beautiful even though dusty, weary, untidy: but now, without these disadvantages, the perfection of her skin and hair and features seemed almost unbelievable. She was like some rare fruit, straight from the hot-house, in all its bloom and flawlessness, without speck or fault.
Her expression was the only discord. It was dissatisfied, listless; and what wonder, thought the man imprisoned in this remote quarter, cut off from all pleasure and sociability, her only companions an old native grandmother, a disagreeable brother, and a most unattractive child! With the prejudice of his sex he considered that perhaps to a plain woman the hardship might not have been so great, but this splendid creature must feel herself literally “wasted on the desert air.”
She was unaffectedly pleased to see him as well as surprised. He explained the reason of his sudden appearance as he followed her into the house.
“What a long way to ride out so late in the day, but if you came across country of course it is much shorter—or are you camping near?”
“No—we’ve done with camping for the present, though I suppose we shall make another tour, a short one, before the hot weather is in full swing. I—I just came out for a ride, and didn’t notice how far I’d gone till I found the mare had cast a shoe.” It was comfortable to feel that any statement he chose to make, how ever unlikely, would be accepted by his companion without question.
“It is nice to see you,” she repeated plaintively. “For three months I have spoken to nobody but the natives, and old Mr Macintosh two-three times, and my brother, and Junksie here, and”—she hesitated, then added quickly, “and my grandmother.”
They sat down at the drawing-room end of the long room. The place looked a little more homely, Rennard thought, than when he had last seen it. There were some cheap novels lying about, and a few photographs in frames were arranged on the mantelpiece. Teresa leaned back in her chair prepared for unlimited conversation.
“After Calcutta of course it is so dull,” she said, a tremor in her voice, “no dances, no concerts, no club to go to.”
Mark felt sorry for her. She, too, had had her days suddenly darkened, through no fault of her own. There was a link of sympathy between them.
“It must be pretty awful,” he said with feeling.
“But how you are hot and tired!” she exclaimed, and regarded him with concern, “and me talking only about myself! You must have refreshment. What will you take?”
All at once Mark became conscious that he was very thirsty and overdone; his throat seemed to dry up and his limbs were aching.
“I should like some tea,” he said quite greedily.
It was soon laid on the table, an unpretentious little meal of thick slices of fresh toast, butter made from buffaloes’ milk, and the tea in a large brown pot. Food that, this morning, he could not have swallowed Rennard was glad of now, and felt the better for eating. And the presence of this dusky woman opposite to him, with her marvellous eyes and gentle, indolent manner, was curiously soothing to his chafed, unhappy spirit.
Junksie devoured toast and butter sprinkled with coarse country sugar, like yellow powder, and behaved with decorum, and when tea was over they all went out into the veranda. Rennard smoked; the child played with his toys; the parrot, mercifully, was quiet, and Mrs Nottage trifled with a strip of fancy work. Presently she looked about her as though she had lost something.
“Now, where are my scissors!” she complained. Rennard was about to say that he had seen Junksie pick them up from under the chair, when the expression on the child’s face checked his words—it was a look of such exceptional cunning that it gave him the semblance of an evil imp, and Mark was silent from sheer astonishment.
“Did you take my scissors, Junksie?” his mother inquired. She spoke first in English and then in Hindustani, as seemed to be her habit when addressing her son.
The little boy shook his head innocently. “No, I have never seen them!” he declared, with every appearance of candour; then he pointed across the compound. “See! My uncle comes!” he cried, and ran off in the direction of the brickfield.
Mrs Nottage paused in her fancy work and gazed at the child’s retreating figure. “Junksie has made a mistake,” she observed tranquilly, “his uncle will not be home till much later. He drove into Usapur this morning—I think he goes to see the Joseph girls,” she added, and an anxious look of apprehension clouded her eyes, “he will never take me, and he makes such a secret—”
So Junksie had first lied about the scissors, and then feigned to see his uncle that he might elude further inquiries! What appalling duplicity in such a baby! His mother seemed quite unsuspicious, yet Rennard noticed that she made no further search for the scissors.
Disgusted with Junksie’s exhibition of deceit, he yet felt relieved that it had caused the child to absent himself. Also he was glad that Mr Klint’s company was really not imminent. It was pleasant to sit in this low wicker chair and watch the slim brown fingers of his hostess move delicately over her work. He felt instinctively that she was the most soothing companion he could have had in these hours when his heart-wound ached so badly. Alone, he could hardly have controlled his suffering; with Mr Banister it would have been a torturing strain to appear natural and at ease. But Mrs Nottage, ignorant as she was of his mental trouble, concerned herself only with his bodily distress, and he need make no effort to mislead her.
“You are looking better now,” she said, and regarded him with satisfaction.
“Yes, thanks to you I feel quite different,” he returned. “That blacksmith will have to hurry up if I’m to get back before dark,” he concluded rather anxiously.
“Oh! he will come soon,” Mrs Nottage said with indifference, and added with animation: “And how do you like being in India?”
This morning Rennard would have answered that he found it a delightful country—with reservations. Now he said almost roughly, “I hate it!”
She looked at him attentively, her peculiar amber eyes glowing golden between their thick rows of black lashes.
“I know how you feel,” she said with deep interest, “you find it all so quiet and still?” she would have used the word “stagnant” had it been familiar to her. “Nothing seems any good? I feel the same. I miss Calcutta—you miss your England. But then you have your work and your position—and I have nothing—only Junksie. Every day is the same. There is nothing for to-morrow!”
“Were you in Calcutta for long?” He thought she wished to talk about her life, and he was only too willing to listen to anything that forced his attention from his own concerns.
Mrs Nottage leaned back in the rocking-chair and swayed gently to and fro. “Ever since I got married,” she spoke monotonously, “I lived in Calcutta. You see I met Napper at the horse fair ten miles from here, the year I came from school in the hills. We had gone there for the day, Howard and me, because Howard needed a new pony. And Napper was introduced. He was very dashing in his check coat and riding breeches and all. And he said to me, when my brother was not near, how I was wasted up here in the jungle. He seemed so kind and he admired me so much. Howard was pleased with him because he gave advice about the new pony and saved a bad bargain, and seemed to be rich, and so he invited him to stay if he liked for two or three days at our place—” She paused, conscious that her listener knew the sequel.
“And you married him.” Rennard could picture the flashy, low-class horse-dealer, infatuated with the beautiful schoolgirl, luring her with descriptions of life and amusements in the great Indian capital where all classes have wide circles of acquaintances, and opportunities of enjoying a society peculiarly their own. It must certainly have seemed a more attractive prospect than that of wedding “old Mr Macintosh!”
“Well, you see,” she spoke apologetically, “I dare say I was ungrateful and foolish, but there was Mr Macintosh always asking, asking, and Howard saying must because he was rich and would make provision, and I felt I could not do it. So I just ran away with Napper, though I had only known him two-three days, and we were married in Calcutta. He was very fond of me. I wrote to tell Howard—I wrote afterwards many times but he did not answer.”
“And who is this Mr Macintosh?” Rennard inquired with some curiosity.
Teresa waved her hand. “He has an indigo place away over there—the other side of the canal. He has always lived there and has never been married, and they say he has gathered lakhs and lakhs of rupees. But he is so old and a miser, and he takes opium or something like that, and all his servants and his people hate him. His house is so dark and dirty and there are stories—” she shuddered. “How could I marry him?” she went on in pathetic appeal. “I was only sixteen and I wanted to be happy!”
Mark stifled an exclamation of surprise. So she was a much younger woman than he had imagined! She looked at least five or six years older than her age. He remembered how, on the platform of Krabganj Station, he had calculated that she must be nearly thirty.
“Sixteen! That was very young to be married?” he remarked.
She raised her eyebrows. “Oh! no. Lots of my school friends were married at fifteen. Sixteen is quite all right. I was happy and had a little bungalow and plenty of clothes, and was so gay—though Napper did not always make money! Sometimes we had quite a great deal, sometimes none at all. But it went on—and when he was away, buying horses, I was not lonely because I had so many friends, and I could go out every night if I wished. There were lots of people just the same as ourselves—the clerks in the shops and offices, and the business houses, and the railway, and the shipping, and all—” she sighed. “Napper was not a very good husband,” she continued critically, “but I saw a lot who were worse. He did not beat me, or use abuse, though he drank too much and lost money playing card-games, and had some bad friends. When he sold a horse well, he always brought me something pretty—and he had the taste! You see, Napper was all English. His people’s bungalow was in a place near London. I forget just how it was called—the place. Is there a Patna town—the same as here in India?”
“Putney?” Mark hazarded.
“Yes—yes—now I recall! But Napper did not like his father’s work. It was a place for frying fish, and the smell and the noise of frizzling he did not care for. So he joined a friend who knew about horses, and somehow they came to India. Of course my brother Howard, he says that Napper was low-sort—not like us whose father belonged to Government service. But then Napper was all English, you see!” She glanced anxiously at her companion, and her eyes held a question—did he know of the native grandmother?
Mark preserved a politely interested attitude—indeed the sordid little chronicle was far from uninteresting.
“And then what happened?” he heard himself say, and felt like a child listening to a “made up story.”
“Oh! well, Napper came in one day and said he was going to Australia to fetch Waler horses, and he gave me some rupees. ‘That is all I can spare, old girl,’ he said. He was not tipsy then, and he told me he would be back soon with plenty of money and we would have a good time, and I was not to worry about him but go out and dance, and sing at concerts, and amuse myself. He did not say goodbye to Junksie—he was never fond of children—he was glad when my second baby was born dead, a year after Junksie. It was a girl too! He went away, and when all my money was gone I sold the furniture in the bungalow, and went to live in Mrs da Castro’s boarding-house. My! but she was a nasty, rude woman! Then, when the furniture money was gone I sold my jewellery and my best clothes, but they give so little—fancy only three rupees for a blue silk evening dress all trimmed with silver spangles! And then I got a letter. It was from the captain of a ship, and he wrote that coming back from Australia in charge of horses Napper had been kicked on the head, and was dead, and all my money gone, and no way of getting more! So what could I do? A kind man at the boarding-house he gave me some rupees and said better go to my brother. It was no use for him to lend—how could I repay? and I had the black clothes for when my second baby was born dead, so I put them on for Napper, and came back to Krabganj with Junksie.”
She concluded this recital with an air of finality, and Rennard sat silent, doubtful as to what he was expected to say. Evidently the death of her husband was no great grief to Mrs Nottage, yet the little touch of tender defensiveness in her manner of alluding to his negative virtues was very pathetic. He wondered if Mr Macintosh had renewed his suit!
“It is all very sad,” he murmured tritely. “What are you going to do about the boy? How will you get him educated?”
She merely looked helpless, and shook her head. “I do not know. I suppose he will just grow up and help his uncle with the bricks.”
“But surely,” Mark began persuasively, “the child ought to be taught? He can’t even speak English, can he? Won’t your brother send him to school?”
“Howard will not like to spend money—only to feed us. And I cannot teach Junksie myself. He will not sit still, or listen. He will always only please himself.”
Then it was that Mark had a sudden glimpse of what had been described to him by Mr Banister, and others, as the “hopelessness” of blood that was intermingled East and West. Mrs Nottage lacked energy and initiative, though her nature might be sweet and patient. She succumbed to circumstances, and there was no fight in her, even for her own advantage; she bewailed misfortune without making the faintest effort to overcome it. Mark realized that she was incapable of imparting to her child what little knowledge she herself possessed, because it was a task that would entail perseverance and determination, and she would never even contemplate it seriously. Teresa could not look forward, and perhaps for her own peace of mind it was as well, but the injustice of it all to the poor little boy, who already seemed to have developed the most undesirable turn of character, caused Mark to feel a genuine concern.
“Would you care to go round the garden?” Teresa suggested. She left the subject of Junksie’s education with much the same vacant indifference as an infant will drop some object that has been thrust into its hand.
They rose, but before a start could be made a cloud of dust and a light bamboo trap drawn by a white pony swept round the corner of the mango clump.
“Oh! there is Howard come back!” said Teresa, and Rennard shared the vexation in her voice.
Mr Klint rattled his conveyance over the rough road and into the compound. He drew up in front of the bungalow with a good deal of bluster, and stared offensively at the strange figure in the veranda; then, as he recognized the young assistant magistrate from Usapur, he flourished his whip in extravagant welcome and descended from the trap with eager haste. His suit was of striped blue flannel, a yellow rose dangled from his button hole, and a large grey felt hat, with a gaudy puggaree bound about the crown, was set rakishly on one side of his head. There was something insufferably boastful and self-complacent in his bearing. Whatever the errand that had taken him to Usapur it had evidently been a success.
The matter of the bay mare’s shoe was explained to him, and at the same moment Mrs Nottage said:
“Look—there is the syce. He is coming to say about the nalbund,” she corrected herself—“about the blacksmith.”
The man stood at the bottom of the steps and salaamed. Then put his hands together as though craving forgiveness.
“Cherisher of the Poor—the blacksmith has come, but he reports that it will not be well to fit on the shoe at present, by reason of the soreness of the hoof.”
Mark uttered a word of dismay.
“Oh! my—what now?” said Teresa, turning to her brother.
“We will go and investigate,” said Mr Klint; “the blacksmith may or may not be speaking truth. He may or may not have shoe ready, or it may or may not suit him best to come to-morrow. In any case,” he concluded disdainfully, “it is no use to trust to what these black people say.”
They all proceeded to the stables, and to his intense annoyance Rennard found that the blacksmith was right. To shoe the mare at present and ride her back to Usapur would be nothing short of brutality.
“No matter,” said Mr Klint with lordly hospitality, “it is quite easy to stay here in my house for the night and ride home to-morrow.”
Rennard felt that he could not stay with these people. Mrs Nottage was harmless, and restful, and kind, but her brother was impossible, his florid society unendurable.
“Thanks very much,” he said helplessly, “but I really must get back to-night.” He mentioned work and Mr Banister, and added: “Could I hire any sort of animal, or turn-out, in the bazaar, do you think?”
“Now, now, do not talk of hiring! Besides, what is there to hire?—only ekkas! If you must go—well, then, you must. I know what work is. And you shall have my other pony—the dun fellow there. How would that do—h’n?”
At least it would be better than remaining at Krabganj for the night, and Rennard accepted the offer while expressing reluctance to deprive the other of his second pony.
“No matter—no matter!” protested Mr Klint. “Will you ride home or drive? The dun he can go in saddle or harness, and this syce he has done nothing all day.”
“I’d rather ride, thanks,” said Mark, “and please don’t send your man with me. It’s quite unnecessary. I’ll return your pony to-morrow by my own syce and he can bring my mare back.”
Mr Klint slapped his leg. “Ah! now—I have thought of a great plan. Listen! You keep my mount till Sunday and then ride him out yourself and take your own home! There is no work on Sunday, and you could be out here for breakfast. Send your rifle ahead and I will invite my friend Macintosh too, and we will have a stalking after black buck. There is a big herd comes on the far plain beyond the cultivation, such fine animals, and skins and horns to make envy! It would be best return you could give for loan of pony—to come out and call and say ‘Thank you’ once more. Ha! ha!” He grinned with boundless cordiality.
Now Rennard had not yet shot a black buck, and he had heard of this particular plain—too remote from any cantonment to be harried by English soldiers, swarming with game, a sportsman’s heaven. He had longed to shoot there, but hitherto it had seemed hardly worth while to go out so far alone—what could a solitary gun do over such a wide area?—and nobody in Usapur was keen enough to make the expedition with him.
Mrs Nottage moved nearer to him. “Please come,” she murmured, and her eyes said: “Remember how dull it is and lonely for me here—it would be kind and good.”
Rennard glanced quickly at Klint to see if he had overheard his sister’s words. Apparently he had not caught the whisper, for he said facetiously:
“Now, Teresa, you a hostess, and not joining in invitation—you did not learn hospitality in Calcutta—whatever else they taught you there!”
He laughed again, and Mrs Nottage made a formal little speech, expressing the hope that Mr Rennard would consent to her brother’s proposal. Mark hesitated: it would seem rather ungracious, perhaps, to refuse Klint’s well-intentioned offer, and Teresa’s soft persuasion, and after all the sport would occupy his mind and body on a day when otherwise he would have unwelcome leisure to think and to remember. So after a pause he accepted the invitation.
“That is fine!” cried Mr Klint. “And now I will go and change and have some tea, and tell the cook there is a guest for dinner—no, no!” as Rennard protested—“you will stay and have some food. It is getting late already, and it will be dark soon and you would only lose your way. After dinner you will have a good ride home by moonlight, but you must even then go by the road, not across country, though across country is much shorter—because of the holes and bad ground. Now Teresa will look after you—perhaps you will like to see the garden with all our English flowers and vegetables? And when I come out I will show you my brick-making.”
He waved his hand with a grand air, and walked off with quick, important steps.
“Do you care to come to the garden?” Teresa asked doubtfully, “there is not much really to see—only just orange trees, and roses, and food-stuff?”
Rennard thought they might as well walk round, and they moved away from the stables, but once inside the garden he gained a soothing sense of peace and seclusion. There were straight paths of crushed red and yellow brick crossing one another, bordered with small white stones; the roses, massed together and sadly in need of pruning, filled the air with their scent; flaming clumps of poinsettia and great bushes of oleander, with pink and white blossoms, hid beds of useful vegetables, native and European. It all led to the dark, glossy background of the orange grove, where birds fluttered with happy cries among the foliage—the only sounds that broke the stillness of the warm, dry air.
As they passed in among the orange trees the sharp rattle of a little drum arose suddenly, startlingly near. Rennard looked about him, expecting to see the performer within a few paces.
“Where is it?” he said, turning, and saw that Mrs Nottage hesitated, that she seemed inclined to go back.
“It is only—” she began, with a deprecating little laugh, and stopped as a figure came into the pathway about fifty yards ahead, and, pausing, faced them.
It was the figure of an old native, garbed fantastically in various coloured rags patched together. A necklace of what appeared to be bits of bone hung low on his chest. The man’s eyes were lurid and restless, his grey hair straggled in matted wisps. Rennard thought involuntarily of a hyena—the gaunt, mangy form, the rusty locks and long, emaciated limbs, the narrow, haggard face and wild eyes. A little drum, shaped like an hour-glass and covered with tight-stretched skin, was clutched in the claw-like fingers that beat on it rhythmically.
“What on earth is it?” said Rennard, and he grasped threateningly the whip he carried. If his companion feared that this uncanny looking creature meant to make himself unpleasant—But next moment the apparition had vanished among the trees, and the rattling noise of the little drum was carried further into the distance.
With some curiosity Rennard hurried ahead to look down the path that crossed their own, and he saw the lank form striding along with fluttering rags and stiffly floating hair towards the stretch of waste ground that lay between the compound and the town. He returned to meet Teresa, who had followed slowly. “Did you think that brute was going to be nasty?” he asked her.
“Oh! no,” she made a quick gesture of dissent. “He would not molest anybody like that. He is only a poor, mad old thing who believes he can make charms and spells, and cure sickness and snake bites, and cast out evil spirits. You know the sort. They are always in native places. Mr Macintosh calls him a ‘devil-priest,’ and perhaps that is about right, eh? Of course it is all silliness about what he can do—and yet sometimes I have heard of queer things, and the natives have faith in him.”
“Who was it said you should never deny what you cannot disprove?” Rennard remarked idly. “Hullo, what a fine old tree!”
They had emerged from the orange grove on to a level space of hard ground. In the centre was a magnificent specimen of the pipal tree, with its great girth and spade-shaped leaves that tremble so mysteriously at the least breath of wind. Probably it was the sole survivor of an ancient grove cut down in some bygone time of severe drought and distress, the one tree spared as a refuge for those branch-dwelling ghosts that had been deprived of their sanctuaries. Around the massive trunk a little platform of masonry had been built, through which the snaky roots were thrusting up their way, and on the platform lay an irregular heap of stones that showed traces of rude carving—evidently relics of some ruined temple long ago demolished and forgotten. Behind the tree, in squalid contrast, stood a rude shelter of thatch and bamboo, protecting a dilapidated string bedstead, a dirty quilt, and a few brass cooking vessels. A fresh patch of ashes lay in front of this dwelling, if it could so be called, and a long staff tipped with a little ochre coloured flag was planted like a sentinel in the ground beside it.
“The devil-priest’s quarters? asked Rennard lightly.
Teresa looked embarrassed. “Oh! well, he comes here when he likes,” she said reluctantly, “he is not always here, sometimes he goes away for weeks, but he has been allowed to stay in this place for so long a time that now it seems to be his right, though Howard is always grumbling, and saying he must go. The servants and the coolies are so many it is like a village in our compound, and they are often asking him things; they would not be satisfied if he were sent away, and they would be afraid of his curse too!” She listened for a moment. “He is not coming back—shall we sit down?” and Mrs Nottage, to whom walking was irksome and distasteful, seated herself on the edge of the masonry platform.
Mark Rennard did the same, and took out a cigarette. Now he felt inert, disinclined to speak, even to think. He only wondered, dully, that he should be sitting here miles away from his headquarters in this unlikely spot in almost intimate companionship with a woman he had only seen once before in his life, and that woman neither of his own class nor yet quite of his own race. This morning how little he had anticipated such events!
A weak little breeze arose that set the leaves of the pipal tree clattering metallically above their heads as though the over-crowded spirits were quarrelling among themselves for the best perches. An acrid whiff of burning lime floated across from the brick fields, and mingled with the dry, aromatic smell of the Indian garden; high up in the clear blue sky a kite turned and wheeled supremely with the easy power of his long tapering wings. Teresa sat silent, her elbows on her knees, her chin in the palms of her hands; she was gazing before her with melancholy, dreaming eyes, and her beautiful mouth drooped forlornly. Her attitude and expression increased the sense of depression that lay heavy in Rennard’s breast; the tranquillity of his surroundings, the absence of near sound or movement, seemed to permit his misery to expand without check: he felt overwhelmed, despairing.
Then all at once there swept through his being a savage rebellion against his unhappy lot—against this tribulation for which, even in the future, he could see no remedy, no ease. So far he had endured it helplessly—now rage and defiance laid hold upon him. Why must he suffer, why should his life be spoilt? it was all so unfair, so undeserved. At the moment he felt violent—he could have broken his favourite hunting crop across his knee in an insane striving after relief, could have kicked at the masonry platform till he lamed himself, could have bitten his own flesh. The emotion that overcame him, rendered yet more intense by its very futility, was the primitive instinct of retaliation against Fate that often causes a decent man balked of legitimate love to turn in blind defiance to evil courses. He felt irresponsible, totally unlike himself, in the grip of this new sensation which an older man might have recognized and subdued, or indulged deliberately. He swore under his breath.
“What did you say?” asked Teresa. She put her hands down on either side of her, and turned her face towards him.
“I didn’t speak,” he said shortly. And then he became conscious, sharply, of the languor in Teresa’s eyes, of her downy duskiness, and the rose-flush in her cheeks, and his distorted senses impelled him to take the opportunity of vengeance on circumstances that seemed suddenly to present itself. He bent swiftly and kissed her. She half closed her eyes, her arms were rigid, her fingers clutching the edge of the stone seat, her head was thrown back showing the round, saffron-tinted neck. She made no effort to repulse him and he kissed her again and yet again, fiercely, with much the same sense of vicious satisfaction that it would have given him to break his whip across his knees.
When she gave a little gasp of warning, and drew herself away, Rennard raised his head to see a native woman standing before them. It was the same old native woman who had peeped out from behind the cane blind on the day of his arrival at Krabganj! He recognized her instantly. She was swathed in white cotton clothes, and her piercing dark eyes gleamed deep in her head. How horribly witch-like she looked, with her prominent nose and chin, the skeins of white hair that fell over her forehead from beneath her wrapper, her wrinkled skin and sardonic expression. Motionless she stood, outlined against the dark background of the orange grove behind her, and the next moment Mark Rennard became uncomfortably conscious that she was smiling—at least the corners of her curved old mouth seemed to rise further into her cheeks, and one long, discoloured tooth appeared between her lips. She nodded her head, too, as though in approval of the scene she had just witnessed.
“It is well,” she croaked in Hindustani.
Mark’s first impulse was to order her out of his sight as he would have dismissed, summarily, an importunate native beggar; then he realized that this old creature was Teresa’s grandmother, that she had seen him kissing Teresa—and when the old woman took a step for ward and salaamed to him in dignified homage with the one word “Sahib!” he felt paralysed in mind and body.
He looked at Teresa helplessly. She appeared to be unmoved, and was re-arranging her hair which his violent conduct had disturbed.
“Teresa!” he said involuntarily, using her Christian name without intention.
She turned to him with a flame in her yellow eyes that made his heart sink.
“Do not mind her,” she said. “I will tell her to leave us alone.”
This was not exactly what Mark desired, though he felt that anything would be better than exposure to the meaning looks of this awful old female. Also the sooner he could come to some explanation with Teresa the better. Yet what explanation could he make? What was he to say?
Teresa addressed her grandmother in rapid Hindustani that Mark, in his perplexity, could not follow; indeed at any ordinary time he would have found the words difficult to understand, for they were a curious mixture of polished phrasing and local patois. What ever was said caused the old woman to draw her wrapper more firmly about her head and move away behind the tree.
Never since his school-days when caught in some humiliating act of disobedience had Mark felt at such complete disadvantage. He was ashamed of and exasperated with himself. What on earth was he to say?
“Mrs Nottage—” he began, but she put up her hand to silence him, and he observed, not without relief, that the passionate light had gone from her eyes leaving them dull and expressionless, that all at once she looked tired and faded.
“Hush!” she said hurriedly, “here is Howard coming—let us go and meet him.”
They moved forward as Mr Klint stepped from the orange grove, smiling, self-satisfied, in a change of clothes, his hair sleek with oil. Mark felt almost glad to see him, since his appearance delayed the awkward moment of understanding between himself and Teresa.
Howard Klint did not mean to waste his guest’s company any longer than could be helped on the despised Teresa—the humble dependent on his charity. He apologized elaborately for the length of his absence, hoped with earnest concern that Mr Rennard had not been dull, and deprecated the poor surroundings that could offer so little distraction. He turned and walked abreast of his visitor back into the orange grove along the narrow path, and ignored his sister who lagged behind listlessly.
Rennard heard no word of Mr Klint’s voluble talk. His brain was in a tumult, he had hardly regained his mental balance, and he was sharply disturbed by an irritable sense of apprehension and self-reproach.
But submissively he walked through the brick fields with his host after Teresa had disappeared into the house. He listened with patience to the comparative advantages of different methods of brick-burning, to descriptions of new ways and old ways, of native tricks and European innovations. He heard long stories of the trials and risks that were the lot of the honest brickmaker, and dark hints of the perfidy of government, wails as to the infinitesimal profits to be made out of such a precarious profession as that of an engineering contractor.
Then, when it grew dark, they went into the bungalow, and sat smoking and talking until dinner was ready, and Teresa came into the room.
Rennard, self-conscious, rose from his chair and glanced at her, but she did not look at him. She had changed her gown and wore a limp white muslin with a low collar of cheap lace, and sleeves to the elbow, and the dead white folds of the material that clung about her long, generous figure enriched and deepened, by contrast, her eyes and hair and exquisite colouring. For one vivid moment, as her beauty forced itself on him afresh, he did not regret having kissed her—he felt he should have done it again had they been alone together! Then the realization of his predicament brought about by his own folly returned to him, and he watched her in nervous expectation, but her face was impassive, she did not meet his gaze, and appeared quite unconcerned. Now she puzzled and piqued him. Perhaps she was well accustomed to the kind of thing that had happened under the pipal tree? and he might have spared himself his repentance and remorse! With the suggestion came a certain relief that was yet mingled with annoyance. He reminded himself that he knew nothing of the ways of thought of such people as these. They were outside his experience, and it was impossible to “place” Teresa in regard to such matters as a man can usually classify a girl or a woman—the girl who needs no introduction, the woman who attracts disrespect. Meanwhile she sat at the head of her brother’s table, placid, majestic, lusciously pleasing to look upon, with no hint in her wonderful eyes as to what might be passing in her mind.
She spoke very little, and then chiefly to Junksie who was inclined to be loquacious. The food was curious, most of it from tins produced in honour of the guest—tinned cod and tinned jugged hare were two of the dishes, but the meal was redeemed by an excellent chicken curry.
By the time they had finished dinner the moon had begun to rise, loitering low and red in the darkness of the sky, and Rennard made haste to prepare for his departure. But first he must manage to apologize to Teresa, and he quailed to think of the interview.
“I had better be off, I think,” he said, wondering how he was to get rid of Mr Klint and Junksie, “can I have the pony?”
“I will give order,” said Mr Klint, and shouted to the servant who was clattering the plates outside.
When the pony was at the door, and they all got up from the table, Teresa said good-bye still pleasantly impassive, without meeting the pleading apology in his eyes. Junksie and Mr Klint accompanied him into the veranda to superintend his departure, and the latter’s farewells were noisy and profuse. In the middle of them Mark slapped his pocket, muttered something incoherent about gloves, and darted back into the room. He might have the chance at least of saying one exculpatory word, of asking her to forgive and forget his insulting behaviour before Klint could follow him—but she was gone, there was no one in the room.
As Rennard rode away the shrill voice of the half-caste contractor followed him.
“Remember thee shoot on Sundayh!”
The dun-coloured pony was not a comfortable mount, he lacked the willing nature of the little mare, and Mark soon gave up urging him to quicken his pace. After the emotions of the day the stillness, the sense of vast space and majestic desolation, acted on the young man’s nerves as a drug that dulls the consciousness of individuality. He felt detached, as if he were riding along in delirium. The stumpy trees on either side resembled malevolent old people with faces and gesticulating arms; the sudden, united yells of a pack of jackals as they swept over the open face of the country were peals of mocking, demon laughter. The moon that had now risen high in the sky leered down red and swollen on an enchanted grotesque land, on a spell-bound traveller. Through the thick, white dust the pony’s hoofs shuffled heavily, and the smell of cooling earth struck upwards into Mark’s face. He rode on in the huge silence taking no count of time or progress.
With a dull pain visions of Eve passed through his mind, gauzy wraiths that by turn melted and materialized, smiled and wept, beckoned and repelled. His spirit floated out to meet her; he forgot his misery and disappointment; he felt in a trance, intoxicated by the golden moonlight, by the solitude and the perfume of the Indian night…. Then of a sudden a sound, very faint yet insistent, struck on his hearing and awoke his material senses. It was the thin, monotonous rattle of a little drum, nearer, nearer, louder, louder. He pulled up the pony and waited and listened, and the remembrance of Teresa, dark, passionate, glowing, came back to him as he had seen her during those mad moments under the tree when he had held her in his arms and kissed her lips. Something was moving over the plain, coming at right angles to his road—a lean, lanky form with hair hanging grizzled and stiff, dressed in a robe that was patched and ragged. And the little drum was beaten without cease as the long legs kept time to the monotonous rhythm in regular strides. On it came, at first shadowy, undecided, then clear and distinct in the full red light of the moon—the devil-priest, the “hyena,” rattling his little drum, staring with hollow, unseeing eyes straight before him.
He passed in front of the pony, and crossed the dusty road, never turning his head, never altering his pace, bound perhaps for some distant village to cast out a devil from some afflicted being, to cure a snake bite or counteract a curse. He plunged in among the thorn bushes and tussocks of dry grass on the opposite side of the way without halt or hesitation, and the rattle of the drum grew fainter till at last it became as but the echo of a throb in the distance.
Rennard shivered. He gathered up the reins, struck the pony’s shoulder sharply with his whip, and bent his whole energies on getting home with all the speed possible.
“Bend lower, daughter,” directed Teresa’s grand-mother, “or the water may flow down thy back. Wahla! that is better.”
Teresa, heeding the caution, thrust her head deeper into the zinc bath over which she knelt and shut her eyes and mouth more tightly; her hair was being shampooed with an infusion of the bitter areca-nut that lathers like soap yet is sharply astringent—a concoction beloved of native women for its beautifying qualities so that its use is on no account to be hurried or lightly undertaken.
Teresa’s hair had been rubbed and kneaded into a great ball of spongy foam by the experienced fingers of her grandmother’s faithful crony and attendant, one Chandi, who had been ayah to Howard and Teresa in their childhood. Her name, which means Silvery, or Moon-like, was entirely misappropriate now, whatever it may have been in the past, for anything less silvery or more unpoetical could hardly be pictured. She was quite as old as the Bibi, and her bald head, on the occasions when her wrapper fell off and exposed it, recalled the dull, dark appearance of an ostrich’s egg. Also, she was slightly deformed, one shoulder being higher than the other, and her nose was almost flat to her face giving her a grotesque and comic expression. How the feature had become damaged nobody knew save Chandi herself. “It was Fate,” she had replied darkly whenever Teresa, as an inquisitive little girl, had attacked the subject.
The trio were in a narrow veranda at one side of the house. Teresa and Chandi crouched together over the zinc tub; the Bibi squatted comfortably on her heels, native fashion, her back against the wall, watching and directing the ceremony. A crowd of tiny birds, lalls, with red beaks and gay plumage, twittered above her head in a wicker cage hung on the white-washed wall, and next to them a talking myna gabbled incessantly in Hindustani. Through the doorways of the room to which belonged the veranda could be seen a low bedstead, painted red, covered with a wadded quilt and piled with pillows. On the floor a brass tray and a copper box, highly polished, twinkled from out the shadowy interior. It was Bibi Klint’s bed and dwelling-room, and it faced the least frequented part of the compound; heavy bamboo screens that could be let down or rolled up at will were hung between the pillars of the veranda, and at present the screens were rolled up. In a few minutes Teresa would want to sit on the steps in the sun, with her hair spread out to dry.
At last all traces of white lather had been rinsed away, and the heavy rope of hair was twisted and wrung till water ceased to drip from it. Chandi dried her skinny old arms, pulled down the sleeves of her little print jacket, and re-arranged her wrapper over her head. Then she dragged the tub to one side, picked up the towels and other evidences of the late operation, and disappeared into the room.
Teresa sat down on the veranda steps and shook out her masses of hair in the full blaze of the sun. The Bibi drew forward her hookah to refresh herself with a smoke, and presently the liquid bubbling of the native pipe rose and fell, the birds twittered, a faint steam floated from Teresa’s bowed head, and it was all very peaceful and somnolent.
Bibi Klint enjoyed her smoke. Her hands clasped tenderly the long pipe with its tubing and stand and handsome mouthpiece. From beneath lowered eyelids she regarded her grand-daughter’s huddled form half covered by the dark cloak of hair.
The two seldom talked together save on trivial, everyday matters connected with the servants and the gossip of the compound. Indeed they were not very often in each other’s company, for the Bibi lived her own life apart from her semi-English descendants. She had her own quarters, her own servants, and, incidentally, her own way whenever her stubborn will clashed with the wishes of Howard, her grandson.
Teresa, from her tenth year, when her mother died, and she was sent to school in the hills, had felt more resentment than affection towards the Bibi. Among her school-fellows she had quickly discovered that purely native relationships were best concealed and denied, and, though many of the girls were in positions more or less similar to her own, none would admit to anything but the most unadulterated of European descents. Her dearest school-friend, Inez Joseph, whose people lived just outside Usapur, of course had known about the Bibi, but then Inez could be trusted to keep silent since Teresa also knew that Mr Joseph had been a Bengali student who had assumed European garments and a Biblical name. He had captured the heart of an Eurasian heiress who owned a few villages in the Usapur district, and a small estate on which they lived.
Therefore it was quite safe for Teresa to stay with Inez, and Inez with Teresa in the holidays, without mutual fear of betrayal during term time.
Teresa, her mind wandering now disjointedly in the past, revived pleasant memories of her school life with its jealousies and excitements, its games, its scrapes, and the fashionable worship of the last new governess, but she also recognized, with regret, that she had learnt little that was of much practical value to her mentally.
Her temper was sweet, her disposition indolent, and though she had worked with docility when under constant supervision, she afterwards forgot almost all she had been taught through sheer lack of the energy or desire to remember.
Now, as she parted her hair with her fingers, to let the sun penetrate to the roots, she recalled the death of her father, which had occurred when she was fifteen. She had always been a little afraid of him—of his long silences and his gloomy eyes. Her thoughts came round again to the Bibi, and she remembered how, after her father’s death, the old woman had disappeared for six months! Chandi had divulged that the Bibi had gone down country to her old home, that she wished to visit her own people whom she had not seen for many, many years, but of course she would come back.
Meanwhile her room was preserved exactly as she had left it—the painted bedstead, the pile of pillows, the heavy, wadded curtains that hung before the doors, the striped drugget on the floor. Even the embroidered shawls and petticoats were left in the long camphor-wood box. Only the plain clothing was taken, and the hookah, and the lacquered toilet box that had piece of looking-glass inside the lid, and contained red paste and orange sticks, and antimony and henna and other native cosmetics. Many things that then had made no impression on Teresa, and to which she had never given consideration until her return from Calcutta, now struck her as singular. For instance old Nattoo, the “devil-priest” as Mr Macintosh called him, had appeared at Krabganj simultaneously with the Bibi’s return and had installed himself in the shelter of the pipal tree. Somebody, not Chandi, had said that he was the Syana, or Cunning Man of the Bibi’s people, and was also her relative. At any rate he erected his little hut beneath the tree and there had received clients ever since—people who came from Krabganj and the surrounding villages for love-charms, for spells, for curses, for cures, and the exorcising of evil spirits.
At one time, Teresa recollected, there had been a terrible disturbance when Howard, to whom the presence of Nattoo on his domain was a lasting grievance, had tried to evict the old man in spite of the Bibi’s angry opposition. But at once Howard had been seized with a dire attack of pain in his interior, so bad that he was convinced he was dying of cholera, and the Bibi had been so positive and persistent in her opinion that Howard had brought this misfortune upon himself by his ill-will towards Nattoo, that, once convalescent, the master of Krabganj withdrew his opposition to the old man’s presence in the compound. He did so with plausible reasons that deceived nobody, though they preserved his self-respect. Teresa wondered now, looking back on the episode, if her grandmother had perchance known more of the cause of Howard’s stomach-ache than old Nattoo?
Junksie came running up the veranda steps. “See—see!” he cried in excited triumph, “I caught a seven-sister bird; with a piece of string and lime did I snare it, and held it tight and cut it till it was dead, though it pecked and clawed, and made a great noise. Was I not brave?”
The Bibi laughed. Teresa jumped up, tossing her hair back from her face.
“Naughty Junksie!” she cried; “cruel Junksie!”
The child was indignant. “I am not naughty. Is it bad to kill for sport? Is it bad to kill for offerings? And has not Nattoo told me that blood will scare away demons and ghosts?”—he smeared his red fingers across his face.
Again the Bibi laughed, and, exasperated, Teresa seized the boy’s shoulder and shook him. The mutilated little body of the seven-sister bird fell on the stone floor, and with a small pair of scissors stained and dirty.
“Oh, there are my lost scissors!” but Teresa could not bring herself to touch her property, “and you have killed the poor bird with them. It is shameful! Where did you get my scissors?”
“I found them in the house of the washerman,” was Junksie’s cool reply. “Doubtless the son of the washerman is a thief.” Deliberately he stooped and picked up the dead bird, and then the scissors which he wiped on the sleeve of his sailor blouse, and offered them with grave politeness to his mother.
Teresa shut her eyes. “I do not want to see them or you or the bird!” she said, and shuddered.
Junksie looked at his great-grandmother in some perplexity. His mother did not know he had taken her scissors, there was no harm in his having killed the bird, so what was the matter?
“There, there, run away little one,” said the old woman indulgently, “but remember when thou killest to kill quickly and surely. Scissors are not the weapons for a man.” Then with a shrewd twinkle in her eye she added, “Return them to the washerman’s son who stole them, since thy mother will not receive them!”
Junksie glanced at her with quick suspicion, but the next moment he smiled ingratiatingly, and with a gracious little salaam to the aged relative who always understood, and never reproached him without reason, he pattered down the steps and went off in the direction of the servants’ quarters.
With a sigh Teresa sat down again; her hair was still very wet, and Junksie, she knew, would continue to please himself however much she scolded him. She tried to put the distasteful scene from her thoughts and to bring back the peaceful, reminiscent condition of mind from which the child had aroused her. But now the Bibi began to talk.
“Thou art a fool, girl, to sigh and complain over naught! Is not the little one a man-child, moreover with the blood of sahibs in his veins? Such doings must be expected; was not his father wilful and bold?—and doubtless he inherits also the spirit of his great-grandfather, my man, who was a mighty hunter and a sahib in an English regiment, and brave and handsome as the striped-one himself.”
The old lady’s eyes grew dreamy; she set aside her pipe and clasped her hands in front of her knees, smiling, as she remembered those long-gone days when her lover, the fierce English soldier, had taken her from her people, a race of gipsy origin, and housed her in the bazaar of the great city beyond the cantonment where the English troops were quartered.
Teresa looked at her grandmother through the curtain of hair that hung before her face. Until her return to Krabganj as a widow with experience of life and the world behind her, it had never occurred to Teresa to speculate as to her grandmother’s early history and her own mother’s paternal origin. But once or twice in the last four months she had felt a certain apathetic curiosity on the subject, and now the Bibi’s speech stirred it again strongly. She saw her chance.
“Was my grandfather an officer?” she inquired carelessly, concealing, with native caution, her real interest. Had the Bibi evaded a reply Teresa would have abandoned the subject for the time being, only to return to it on some later opportunity. But her grandmother answered readily.
“Without doubt! Did he not dress always in a red coat with much gold upon it, and sash with fringe, and medals on his breast, and have great authority in the regiment!”
But Teresa had learned in Calcutta, and also while she was at school in the hills, that officers only wore their uniform when on duty. No, it was evident that her grandfather had been merely a sergeant in the English regiment, but there was nothing to be gained by contradicting the Bibi so, instead, Teresa asked for further information.
“Then,” continued the old woman, “while the child, thy mother, was yet an infant at the breast, came trouble at a distance with fighting and murder and confusion, and one night the sahib in great haste sought my house in the bazaar and said the order was for the regiment to march at dawn. And he gave me rupees and some paper money, and kissed me and the little one, and bade me ever remember that she was a white man’s child. He said, ‘If I do not return take her to the padre people, let her not grow up in the bazaar.’ And he went forth quickly, using bad words which with the sahib people takes the place of tears—Hai-mai!—but it was all so long ago!” She sighed and drew the hookah towards her again, and twisted the mouthpiece absently.
Teresa waited in anxious expectation, and presently the quavering old voice began again in monotonous recital:—“For two, maybe nearer three, years did I await the sahib’s return; never did I leave the bazaar for the fear that I might miss him. None troubled about me or the child, and I had rupees enough till she was able to walk and speak. Then did I know that the sahib must be dead, else would he have come to us when all was peace, and after much thought I took the little one to the padre-khana, and told the ladies she was a white man’s child—which they could see for themselves was truth, for she was like unto her father with blue eyes and red in her cheeks, though her hair was black as mine. The padre people took her and said she should be brought up as an English child, and taught Mission work. Then did I know that if I could not stay near her, and see her, and keep her love I should die—also were my rupees nearly gone, and my heart was sick with sorrow. The padre people were soft and believed lies,”—her face lost its dreamy expression, and she chuckled wickedly—“and they rejoiced when I said that long had I desired to become a Christian and learn of the only true God… so was I given room in the compound with other native Christians. Pah!—but their ways were unclean! and daily did I see my little one, and kept her love, and watched her grow up and gain in beauty and learning. Always was she glad to speak with me, her mother, and when she was ill did the mission mem-sahibs allow me to nurse her. It was true I had to learn the Bible and teach its word to others—what else?—and there was over-much talk, and pooja in Church, and the life was troublesome, but naught mattered so that I saw my daughter and kept her love. For thirteen years did we live thus, she and I, and as she grew near to womanhood she would tell me she was tired of the lessons and the work and the rules, and how the ladies reproved her and called her idle. I bade her have patience, and to remember that soon would she be old enough to gain the favour of some sahib and then would she be free. I spoke to her of love, and of her father, and how I also hated the Mission-khana, and the worrying, soft-mouthed memsahibs, but I warned her to keep secret my words and feign contentment—”
The Bibi laughed again at the memory of her treachery, and finished her story with evil relish. “Then there came talk of sending the child across the black water to England that she might learn more, and an arrangement was made for her to go. My misery was such that I could neither eat nor sleep. I pondered how I could keep her, and one day, when she and I were walking in the bazaar with our Bibles in our hands, we beheld Klint sahib, your father, who had journeyed for two days to come to the city on business. I saw him look with favour on the little one, who was of marriageable age and beautiful, and I permitted him to speak with her, and afterwards I myself spoke with him in secret. The sahib was no longer young, but he was tall and vigorous and rich. He had understood the way to gain riches in Government service!” The old woman winked. “His English wife, who had been old and childless, was dead. The rest was easy. He swore to me that if I would but help him to take the girl away without the knowledge of the padre people, I should come with her and he would never part us. Also would he give me a side room in his bungalow, and a servant, and every month rupees should be paid to me which should not cease even with his death. The little one was pleased, she did not wish to go to England and leave me, and she was glad to go with Klint sahib away from the Mission-khana. So we fled in the night-time leaving no trace, and none knew whither we had gone, and Klint sahib brought us here to the house he had built, where he made much money with his brick field, and where his wife had died old and childless. He and the little one lived happily, and he kept faith with me, her mother….”
She paused, thinking, and swayed with amusement. “Often do I remember, with laughter, how I tricked the padre people, and got the little one brought up as a white man’s daughter, not in the bazaar, according to her father’s order, and how I robbed them of her at the end, even as they would have robbed me of her. The padre people were fools, after the manner of their kind, and it was well for me and the child!”
She put the pipe into her mouth again, and drew a long bubbling breath of smoke. Teresa sat gazing at her in silence. She felt dimly disturbed and shocked by her grandmother’s revelations, and a shrinking fear stole over her of this unscrupulous old being who throughout her long life had acknowledged no law save her own undisciplined will. With a feeling of uncomfortable surprise she realized that the Bibi was not just the old native grandmother who did not count except as an inevitable and rather humiliating component of the establishment, but was a lurking, hitherto unsuspected power to be reckoned with if circumstances did not please her! Teresa felt disconcerted by her discovery—a discovery that is apt to disconcert many of us at one time or another—that some person with whom we have been in close contact all our lives is, in reality, totally different being from the one we had conceived and accepted comfortably in our minds. She shook out her hair that, in drying, had swelled into soft, rich cloud, and reached for the brush that Chandi had left ready on the drugget. With the instinct of an inarticulate nature she sought action as an antidote to her confusion of mind, and used the brush with energy. The Bibi watched her attentively.
“Truly daughter,” she said presently, “thy hair is even more beautiful than was mine in my youth. True, not so long, but it has red beneath it, like unto the fur of the black panther. The sahib, thy grandfather, took pleasure in beholding my hair when it had been washed with areca nut, and fell to my feet as wrapper—a marvel to see!”
The Bibi smoked for few minutes in contented plain silence, then she added: “If the young sahib, who is coming to-morrow, could see thee now, would he also be pleased after the manner of sahibs when they love.”
The Bibi knew very well why Teresa had wished to have her head washed to-day. Was not to-morrow Sunday, when the sahib from Usapur was to come and fetch his pony and shoot deer with Howard on the plain? Before this she had said nothing to her grand-daughter concerning the little scene she had interrupted under the pipal tree.
Teresa turned a red, impatient face towards the old woman smoking so complacently with her back against the wall.
“The sahib has no such thoughts,” she said, angrily helpless, and the Bibi’s expression annoyed her still further—the incredulous lift of the wrinkled forehead, the meaning curve of the long, thin lips.
“‘Hast thou seen a serpent’s legs?’” quoted the Bibi as in derision of an impossible statement. “Is the sahib coming here to-morrow for love of How’d, or that he may converse with thy grandmother?”
“To shoot deer is he coming, and to fetch his pony,” Teresa replied sulkily.
“Wah! said the Bibi, “why seek to throw dust in mine eyes? Am I a fool? Was I blind that time, three days since, under the pipal tree? Take that which the gods send thee, girl, and be thankful for such good fortune. Maybe the sahib will even marry thee if his love but grows hot enough, and thou art clever and careful. And then will Junksie go to England to school, and come back to this country to be a ruler of men like unto his mother’s husband.”
Teresa bent her head that her grandmother might not see the tears welling into her eyes. She knew that Mark Rennard had not kissed her with intention, that he had repented directly afterwards; she had seen and recognized the truth in his face the moment her grandmother had left them alone again under the pipal tree. But for all that, when his lips touched hers, the man had set fire to the purer passions of Teresa’s undeveloped nature—had awakened a love that, primitive and unrefined as perforce it was, yet had in it all the elements of sacrifice. And it was for this reason, though hardly understanding her own motive, that she had spared him the discomfort of explanation, had purposely avoided being alone with him. In her ignorance of his feelings and his perplexity, she imagined she had given him to understand by her demeanour that the episode would remain ignored by her. She thought and hoped she had relieved his mind.
“Why question Fate?” went on the Bibi. “The sahib found thee fair—do not waste thy gifts. When he is with thee again gaze on him with eyes that burn, whisper to him of his brave looks, and his manhood, and his strength. Touch him with soft touches that thrill a man’s veins. Sing to him as I taught thee to sing when a little child; what matter if the songs be in the tongue of Hindustan?—there is but one language of Love the whole world over! Brush his face with thy hair, so dark, and soft, and scented. Thou art beautiful, daughter, and is there any man living, black or white, who can withstand beauty in a woman?—else what is the good of it! Know thy power, and use so that the years to come may be well for thee and the child.”
She relapsed into an impassive silence, apparently having no expectation, or wish, for an answer to her harangue. Teresa brushed her hair with violence, and said nothing.
Unwittingly Teresa Nottage acted more to her own advantage than to Rennard’s, when, by her puzzling behaviour, she sent him back to Usapur uneasy in mind and conscience. Had she given him the opportunity he desired for apology and explanation he would have felt that he had been delivered from an uncomfortable predicament more easily than he deserved; he would have sent for his pony and broken his engagement for Sunday, politely, by letter, knowing himself to be equally cowardly and prudent. But, as it was, a species of culpable curiosity tormented him. How had his heedless indulgence of impulse impressed Teresa? Was she thinking of him as a ruthless young cad who had held her in no respect? Did she imagine he was really attracted by her, that he meant to inaugurate a love affair, clandestine or otherwise? In either case he must undeceive her. Even if she revealed herself as of the kind that accepts a kiss or a flirtation as mere amusement, the knowledge would at least set his scruples at rest. He could avoid Krabganj in future as a matter of caution and without self-reproach. But her manner had given him not the smallest hint of the truth, and his perplexity and indecision even acted somewhat as a counter irritant to his original distress of mind. The affair assumed exaggerated dimensions encouraged by his depressed condition. He felt he must know the worst, and endeavour, if necessary, to explain his conduct, and yet a strong reluctance to revisit Krabganj still held him irresolute.
Mr Banister observed the young man’s restless preoccupation throughout the next day, but was at a loss to know how he might suggest relief. It would be easy enough to provide such breakfasts and luncheons as should dispel by their excellence any ordinary cares, but the notion of spoken sympathy was extremely repugnant to Mr Banister, though he wished, quite as much from real concern as curiosity, that the boy would declare his trouble. After the arrival of the blue letter Rennard had gone off on his bay mare, and had not returned till midnight. Moreover he had ridden home on a strange pony, as the magistrate discovered during his visit to the stables next morning. A common, dun-coloured animal, with china-blue eyes and a clumsy shoulder, occupied the bay mare’s loose box. Mr Banister at once interrogated the syce, who, sorely aggrieved, said he knew nothing about the pony, the sahib had told him naught, maybe he had bought it in the bazaar and sold the bay mare. In any case it was a villain, and kicked and bit all who approached.
Though much puzzled, Mr Banister asked no questions of his assistant until after dinner, when the two sat out of doors in deck chairs placed on the low, circular platform of cement that is to be found in the gardens of most old Indian bungalows, a comparatively cool resting place for hot weather evenings, on which adventurous snakes or insects could easily be spied. The moon, that last night had lighted Mark and the dun-coloured pony along the dusty road, was now transforming the ground of the compound into a golden pavement, and the trees and bushes into shapes of ebony. The smell of Mr Banister’s cheroot mingled with the scent of mango blossom that stole heavily through the warm air. Rennard was not smoking; his head drooped forward, and his arms hung listlessly on either side of his chair. He sat very still and silent.
“Where the dickens did you raise that horrible yellow pony you’ve got in the stables?” Mr Banister began in affable reproach, “he nearly caught me a nip on the shoulder this morning when I passed him—a squealing, wall-eyed brute, only fit for a ticca-gharry!”
“I had to borrow him,” said Mark wearily, and with an effort he explained how the animal came to be in the stables.
“So you dined with the Klints?” This interested Mr Banister. “What did you have for dinner?”
“Oh! garbage out of tins, but there was a good curry.”
“H’m—I wonder if we could get the recipe out of them. One can often pick up a hint or a wrinkle from people of that sort where a curry is concerned.”
Mark was not interested.
“By the way, is the distressed widow still living with her brother?” and Mr Banister laughed as he recalled Rennard’s experiences on the day of his arrival at Krabganj.
“Yes, she’s there. And the child.”
“What’s she like?”
“Beastly handsome,” said Mark, unconscious of the rue in his voice.
Mr Banister took the cheroot out of his mouth, and looked with attention at the boy’s dejected profile outlined by the increasing moonlight. Surely the half-caste widow could not have had anything to do with the blue letter that had so disturbed his young assistant yesterday morning? Unwillingly the elder man felt alarmed. It would be such an infernal pity if the boy got into an entanglement of that sort, and such an infernal nuisance to have to get him out of it! Mr Banister felt suspicious, yet incredulous. He was pretty certain Rennard had not been to Krabganj until yesterday since the date of his arrival in the Usapur district—and yet, of course, it was not impossible.
“Handsome half-caste widows are best avoided!” he said, awkwardly jocose. Then, after a pause, he added seriously. “Do you really mean to go out there again on Sunday?”
Mark raised his head. “Oh! I didn’t intend to give you that impression,” he said, with a slight laugh that had no amusement in it, but he remembered, uncomfortably, the situation regarding Teresa.
“A fellow I knew in our service,” Mr Banister went on clumsily, “was fool enough to get mixed up with a Eurasian woman, and she married him! She was very pretty then, but you should have seen her five years afterwards. And it ruined his career.”
Mark felt perverse. “Jolly unfair!” he said, truculently—it was a relief to argue about anything—“to keep a man back in his profession because his wife happens to be the wrong class. If he did his work well he ought to have had the same recognition as anybody else.”
Mr Banister paused. Evidently there was something! “But he didn’t do his work well,” he said presently; “he got slack and fat and took to country-bred ways and habits. He couldn’t accept big stations because of the memsahib—she was totally unfitted for any sort of social or official position—and they just grubbed along in small places eating too much dal and rice and curry, and taking too little exercise. When they went home on furlough she didn’t like it, and his people shied at her. The end of it was she took bribes and it was found out, and he had to leave the service—”
“The fellow must have been rotter to start with,” said Mark, who now divined the other’s apprehension, and found it rather entertaining to “pull old B’s leg.”
“He was young and self-opinionated, certainly,” said ‘old B’with dry significance.
“What would you have had him do! I suppose he fell in love with the woman and she with him, and not being a blackguard as well as rotter he married her.”
“Is there no alternative?” The contempt of maturity for unreasoning youth was in Mr Banister’s question. “A man may fall in love with a woman it would not be expedient to marry—but he may also have the sense and determination to conceal it from her and keep out of danger—”
“Anyway, your friend defied expediency and married the lady!” Mark was purposely evasive.
“And hated her afterwards!” added Mr Banister. Mark yawned. “Well, I suppose Love is one of those things you can’t make permanent at will. He might have married a woman of his own class and colour and hated her too, or much more probably she would have hated him.” Then he sat upright with an impatient jerk, wearied of the little diversion of misleading Mr Banister. “Love is a curse!” he said with sudden violence. “Good heavens,” he turned to his companion leaning forward, “do you suppose I’m breaking my heart over a half-caste widow? No, the girl I was engaged to has had the pluck and honesty to tell me she doesn’t want to marry me after all, and I’m having a damned bad time. That’s all.”
Mr Banister’s feelings were divided between genuine commiseration for the boy’s unhappiness, relief that it was not caused by an undesirable entanglement, and embarrassment at having to express condolence. But he was spared this ordeal, for Mark flung himself from his chair in angry shame at his own outburst and went quickly towards the house.
Mr Banister watched him disappear. Pity! he mused; “all the same he’s too young to be thinking of anything but his work and career at present. Just as well the girl threw him over—if he’ll only steer clear of the dusky widow.”
Mark went to bed petulant and morose. What business had Mr Banister to pry into his affairs, even supposing he had been running after the woman at Krabganj! It was all very well for him to talk and warn, and give back-handed advice—he could never have been in love himself with anything more human than a sauce or an entrée. The boy felt painfully lonely. Mr Banister was not of the type to whom he could have opened his heart; nor was the magistrate of the type best qualified to help a decent-minded lad through a critical crisis in life. A different man might have dragged Mark out shooting on the Sunday in an opposite direction from Krabganj—might have bullied and chaffed him into sending for his pony instead of fetching it himself, and talked about work and the future till the ambition that was drugged by love in the boy’s nature revived and reasserted itself, so that afterwards he would have looked back on this period and remembered his “master” with tender, amused gratitude. But, as it was, the influence of a strong personality and the relief of speech confidential were denied to him.
He lay in the dark and raged against Fate and circumstance. Dimly he realized that all his life, until he met Eve, he had been curiously cut off from affection. With Ernest, his self-satisfied, pedantic little brother, he had had no tastes in common, and the years also divided them. His father had concerned himself only with the educational achievements of his sons, for the understanding of their hearts he had had no leisure in his busy, ambitious life. Mark had never been on confidential terms with his delicate, colourless mother, dominated as she was by her masterful husband who discouraged sentiment where the boys were concerned. “He had never been coddled and considered and indulged in his youth. e had had to work and do without pleasures and luxuries; why should his sons have this, that, and the other, when he had done without—and expect to begin where their father was leaving off?” etc., etc.
It was perhaps this starvation of a nature inherently generous and warm-hearted that had caused Mark to fall in love all the more deeply and seriously when he met with response from the girl who attracted him. At once all his thoughts, his future, his very existence seemed centred in her, and the sudden withdrawal of what he had allowed to become the pivot of his life left him suffering grievously. He felt so desolate, so hopeless as he lay alertly awake, listening to the trilling of the crickets outside, the weary barking of dogs at the moon, the ceaseless little sounds in the compound, and the thought came upon him with the violence of a physical shock that his life was yet all before him, that he could not endure the years to come. Surely, sooner or later, this heartache must ease—must cease? He turned with painful restlessness from side to side, then sprang up and paced the veranda that opened from his bedroom. He found an odd satisfaction in the noise made by his loose slippers on the stone floor. It was something tangible, definite; the monotonous “clap-clap” calmed and steadied his nerves.
Someone began to beat softly on a tom-tom at the far end of the compound behind the servants’ houses, and the sound brought with it the thought of Teresa Nottage. Her image salved his mind. She was restful, tranquil, so beautiful. Why should he reject her friendship if she were willing to give it to him? Once he could make an opportunity of explaining his behaviour to her there was no reason why they should not be on pleasant terms, which need not mean anything sentimental. It would be a relief to speak to her of his trouble because she would be so sorry, so sympathetic. He could picture her eyes full of feeling and regret. Again the hot wave of rebellion against the tyranny of sorrow rose within him. He would go out to Krabganj on Sunday whatever old Banister said or thought, he would put things right with Teresa and find what consolation he could in her presence; he would have a good day’s shooting and think of neither the past nor the future. He would go. The resolution braced him. He went back to bed, and presently fell into a dreamless, exhausted sleep.
On Sunday morning Teresa reviewed the remains of the wardrobe that had been her delight in Calcutta. She sighed for the papery silks and satins, and the spangled nets, that necessity had forced her to sell. She regarded with disgust the plain, not to say shabby, relics that now were left to her. The garments lay scattered about the bare, white-washed bedroom she shared with Junksie, a narrow side-room with bazaar-made matting, cheap and splintery, on the floor; two light framed beds laced with webbing, and very make shift furniture. The dressing table was two old camel trunks balanced one on the other, the wash-hand stand was an inverted packing case.
It was very early in the morning, that most animated time of the day in India, especially when the hot weather is at hand, and the air of the dawn is no longer raw and misty. From beyond Teresa’s little veranda came busy sounds; the monotonous creak of the well-wheel in the garden, the bleating of goats, the shrill, fussy clamour of fowls just released, energetic shouts from the servants’ quarters. Only the brickfield was quiescent, for Howard Klint was far too European in his aspirations to ignore Sunday, though he observed the Sabbath in no other manner than by taking a holiday himself and allowing one to his work-people. He was wandering about the compound now. Teresa could see him through the transparent blind of split cane—his hands in the pockets of his baggy suit, his large pith hat pushed to the back of his head. Presently he went into the cook-house, doubtless to ascertain if a suitable breakfast was in preparation for the expected guests.
Teresa sighed as she picked up the dresses and hung them on a row of pegs fixed to the wall. She longed avidly for something pretty to wear, not realizing that her beauty gained by unobtrusive clothing, that the more simple her dress the more seductive was her appearance.
Slowly, and with bitter discontent in every movement, she selected a dull, washed-out blue cotton, and held a fold of the bodice beneath her chin as she looked at herself in the glass. Yes, the colour certainly suited her well enough, but what a miserable old rag was the dress itself! She dropped the despised garment and gazed wistfully at her own glowing reflection. She imagined herself arrayed in the latest English fashion, a purple gown, and a large hat with long feathers and clusters of flowers. She pictured herself driving in a smart landau with two natives in livery on the box—and she was not alone. The vision of Mark Rennard seated by her side recurred so persistently that at last she made no struggle to dispel and gave herself over to the blissful dream.
Instinctively she peacocked a little; took a few mincing steps, held her head high, smiled and bowed as to a passing acquaintance. Then in a moment, with a gesture of impatient despair and a smothered cry, she ceased her make-believe and put on the old blue cotton dress with nervous, trembling hands, and tears on her cheeks. She turned her mind to the actual pleasure to come—the presence of Mr Rennard for the whole day at Krabganj, and beyond that she would think no further. She would see him, talk to him and, in spite of her hatred of exertion, she intended to go out with the guns in charge of the tiffin basket. They would picnic under a tree, and she would sit and watch the shooting when she could not follow. It was a great bother that Mr Macintosh was coming, but he would perhaps talk to Howard if she took no notice of him, and that would be just right. But oh! if she only had something pretty to wear, that she might not look so shabby before the man she loved. Not even a brooch did she possess now—all her little stock of jewellery had been sold in Calcutta. A bright ribbon—a little ornament—surely there must be things of her mother’s in the bungalow. Would Howard let her have something, even if only just for the day? She would ask him. He could but say no. He was coming out of the cook-house now.
With a determined effort Teresa lifted the blind and called to her brother. He looked in a good humour, full of importance and self-satisfaction; it was surely a favourable moment. She disliked making a direct request. In addition to her fear of Howard’s indignation her native tendencies were all against it. She would much have preferred to ask Chandi to suggest to the Bibi that she might persuade Howard into giving his sister some little embellishment that had belonged to their mother.
The more round-about the means to an end the more judicious does it appear to the Oriental understanding. But there was no time now to manoeuvre, she must use methods that were more or less direct.
As Howard came up the steps with purposely deliberate progress she rolled up the cane blind and tied the cord to keep it in position.
“Well, Teresa?” he leaned against the doorframe regarding her quite affably, and added, “You are dressed in good time to-day!”
Generally at this hour in the morning Teresa wandered about the house and compound clad in an old dressing gown.
She stood facing her brother, one hand still up-raised resting on the rolled-up blind.
“Yes,” she said disconsolately, “but my dress is very shabby—and company coming—”
“Is that all you called me to hear?” Mr Klint gazed out into the compound, uninterested in his sister’s grievance.
“Oh! Howard,” Teresa spoke with tremulous rapidity, “I look so dowdee—nothing pretty to wear. I called you because I thought I would ask you if there is anything I could have that our mother left? She had jewellery and clothes, and perhaps—”
The man turned on her with a sneer. “And if there is anything, pray what is your claim? Are you mistress here? What belongs to you in this house except your clothes and your child? And whose fault is it that your clothes are shabby and you have nothing to wear? H’n?—tell me that! And yet you will take, and take, and ask, and ask, and no shame!”
“I was not claiming,” Teresa faltered; she now regretted her boldness. “But if things are lying by, useless, I thought you might just lend perhaps—if only for to-day.”
Howard changed his lounging attitude and stood erect. He reminded Teresa of a cobra about to strike, and involuntarily she shrank back a little further into the room.
“I see it is now time to speak,” he said tensely. “So listen, you Teresa. Those things of my mother’s, jewellery and silks, and embroideries, all the handsome presents my father bought for her at times with lavish hand, and the things that had belonged to his first wife, things of value, I can tell you! Well, they are not for you even lending for one day. They are for my wife, and they will not lie useless much longer, for when I ask Irene Joseph to marry me then she will accept. And I shall be asking her just now. I have made up my mind at last, and she knows it, and she is ready whenever I choose to pop the question.”
He concluded with a triumphant chuckle, and Teresa turned cold. The possibility of Howard’s marriage was not a complete surprise to her, but she had hitherto ignored it because the contemplation of such an event entailed unpleasant problems and strenuous consideration in so far as it might affect herself and Junksie. So she had evaded serious reflection on such a contingency, but now she was confronted definitely with the fact, and she knew well that the change must be all to her disadvantage. Howard with a wife and children and no room for an unwelcome sister and nephew! And Irene Joseph, too, who could not be more than seventeen at the most and was stuck-up, conceited, disagreeable!
Howard openly relished her discomfiture. “Well?” he inquired, “are you not going to congratulate?” Then something stirred in the depths of Teresa’s tranquil nature, and rose with slowly increasing force till it possessed her being—a hot, heavy anger in which the smouldering passion of her Eastern blood mingled with keen Western resentment of injustice and persecution. At the moment she could have killed her brother had means been available. With her head thrust forward, and her hands gesticulating, she let loose her rage, incoherently, mixing English with Hindustani, shaking and blazing in her paroxysm of wrath. What she felt she struggled madly to express, what she actually said she hardly knew.
Howard astonished, incensed, insulted, seized her wrist.
“Be quiet!” Unconsciously he too spoke in Hindustani. “Be quiet!”
And as suddenly as she had begun Teresa ceased. She stood silent, gasping a little, her breath coming quickly, her eyes dilated, her mouth open.
“Now!” he said, obdurately vindictive. “Now, that fixes it. You do not stay here in my house. You may go, you and your child, and fish for yourself, or you can marry Mr Macintosh who still is willing to take you. Yesterday he said.”
Teresa’s face that had been flushed with anger paled now to a sickly drab colour. She put her hands together in the native attitude of supplication.
“Oh! Howard, no, no, I cannot marry him. He is so old and so ugly and I am afraid of him. I will think what I can do—let me stay here till I think what I can do” Her mind turned and clung confusedly about the image of Mark Rennard. In some way he might help her—he was coming to-day—he would tell her what to do—and there was the Bibi’s advice—what was it the old woman had said?—she tried desperately to remember—all the time staring with entreaty at her brother’s angry, merciless face.
“You can make decision to-day,” he said. “You can be wife to Mr Macintosh, it is lucky he is willing to take you, and no conditions, and the child too; or you can go to blazes. Macintosh will most likely ask you when he is here for the shoot. I have given consent—so please yourself—”
Something caught his eye at the far end of the compound and he turned and hastened down the steps. Teresa ran after him. “Howard!” she called “Howard—stop—listen—”
But when she found herself outside, following and calling to the retreating, unresponsive figure, she saw that a tonga had just stopped inside the gate. The conveyance had a brown canvas hood and was drawn by a pair of white bullocks, and from it stepped the old planter, Mr Macintosh. His red face under an enormous pith hat shone in the brilliant morning sun. It looked as if it had been glazed. He pulled out a rifle and a gun from under the seat, and with them a bottle in a leather cover. He and Howard greeted each other boisterously, and Teresa fled back into the house.
She stood by her dressing table, agitated, hunted, desperate. Ever since her childhood Mr Macintosh had been an object of terror and dislike to her—first a bogie man, later a real dread. Teresa became conscious, sharply, of her own limitations. She knew that if Howard turned her away from Krabganj she and Junksie must starve. An appeal to her grandmother would only result in the worldly-wise recommendation that she should accept the refuge Mr Macintosh offered. Nobody would understand her predicament but Mr Rennard, and an instinct assured her that if it lay in his power he would find for her a way of escape.
Soon he would be here. She looked in the glass and re-arranged the waves of her luxuriant hair, then sat down on her bed to wait, anxious, expectant. Twice she fancied she heard the sound of hoofs in the compound, and she went to the window. The third time she saw Howard’s dun-coloured pony being led towards the stables, and a vast relief soothed and elated her. He had come.
The door opened, and Junksie stepped into the room with a sententious air. He held out a note to his mother. “My uncle desires that you read this letter, that has been written to him by Banister-Collector-Sahib of Usapur,” he said, and Teresa snatched it from him to read words that dropped darkness over her spirit. Mr Rennard was down with a sharp attack of malarial fever, unable to keep his engagement with Mr Howard Klint, unable even to write his excuses himself,
It was quite true that on Sunday morning Mark Rennard was tossing and turning on his bed chattering nonsense in a loud, unnatural voice, with a temperature of 104°. All night, too, he had raved and sung, and Mr Banister sent for the Civil Surgeon. Also Mr Banister ordered chicken essence to be made, after his own recipe, in a stone jar sealed with dough and only one tablespoonful of water added to the dismembered fowl. And he took the opportunity to send off the squealing, dun-coloured pony at daybreak to Krabganj, with the note that had darkened Teresa’s world. With a sense of relief and satisfaction he had stood in the veranda in his pyjamas and watched Rennard’s groom lead the obnoxious animal out of the compound.
“If the boy was going to have fever at all,” he reflected, “he couldn’t have had it at a more opportune time. The widow can’t catch him so absolutely on the hop now, at any rate.”
Then he called the cook to his presence and gave minute directions concerning a custard pudding for the invalid that was to be smooth, and not reminiscent in appearance of Gruyere cheese. He caused soup-chickens and raw beef to be brought up to the veranda for his inspection, for he knew that constant nourishment of the kind is essential throughout a sharp attack of malaria, especially when the victim happens to be young and new to the country. Therefore when Mark’s temperature went down during the next few days, and he picked up his strength more rapidly than the doctor anticipated, it was chiefly Mr Banister’s knowledge of cookery and conscientious concern that he had to thank for it.
Even so, he felt a miserable weakling the first time he left the bungalow and crawled over to the little club late one evening. A set of tennis was in progress, four men, and as he passed the court Mark was faintly amused to see Mr Banister running industriously from side to side, missing every other ball, colliding with his partner, and quite spoiling the game. He wondered drearily if he should ever have the strength to hold a racquet again himself. At any rate he did not care. He did not care if he lived or died. Nothing seemed of any consequence. All initiative had left him, even when he discovered that Mr Banister had returned the dun pony to Krabganj in exchange for the bay mare he had not been able to exert himself to write to Howard Klint, and his anxiety for an understanding with Teresa had evaporated. He felt mentally dumb, and indifferent to the future.
The little veranda of the Club was empty. Neither of the two ladies of the station, the wives of the doctor and canal engineer, had come over this afternoon to sit and knit and watch the game, or join in a set, perhaps, themselves. The low rays of the sinking sun struck full on the row of cane chairs, and Mark felt disinclined to remain in the glare and heat. The two-roomed interior of the little building would be cool, and there were English papers to look at. He entered listlessly, expecting to find the place empty, then he hesitated at the door, for a lady was sitting by the table behind an open illustrated paper. She put down the paper, and there was Teresa—Teresa Nottage gazing at him with wide-open, startled eyes until she recognized him, and then a deep, carnation flush rose in her cheeks. Even as he saw it Mark realized, almost unconsciously, that previously her face had been unnaturally pale.
He hastened forward and she stood up. They shook hands.
“Why—what are you doing here?” he asked, and laughed uneasily.
Teresa’s underlip quivered. Howard and I have come to stay for two days with the Josephs. They are playing badminton—out at the back.”
She made a gesture towards the open doors behind her. Mark crossed the room and looked out on the badminton court, where Howard Klint with two girls and one of the Public Works engineers played a frenzied game. Howard’s partner was a lean, dark little creature of Mongolian type, with a great bunch of black hair at the back of her head. The other girl wore a dress to her ankles, and a shiny pig-tail swung behind her. Evidently the two were sisters. Mark knew them to be the Miss Josephs though he had not yet been introduced to them. He had seen them once or twice driving in an antiquated victoria that was lined with red baize and had enormous splash-boards; also the Josephs were members of the Club. Social distinctions cannot be observed very closely in a small station where every subscription is of value, and they were unobtrusive people, well-to-do, and of a certain importance in the district as landowners.
Rennard turned back into the room. Teresa had seated herself again by the table. He thought she looked very troubled, and he wondered if she were disconcerted at finding herself alone with him. He wished he felt less shaky. The walk over to the Club, his first walk since the fever left him, combined with the embarrassment of this unexpected encounter with Teresa, had rather exhausted him, and he glanced out wistfully at the table spread with glasses and bottles that stood alongside the tennis court—at hand when the game should be over, and a long drink so acceptable after the violent exercise. Mark Rennard was an abstemious youth, but at that moment he yearned for a stiff whisky and soda.
Mrs Nottage was gazing vacantly at an advertisement on the back page of the paper she had laid down on the table. Her heart was trembling. She had dreaded that at the last moment Howard might change his mind and refuse to allow her to visit the Josephs with him, so defeating her secret hope of a meeting with Mr Rennard. She had excused herself from joining in the game of badminton and had sat in the musty little Club-room that was lined with old three-volume novels, and watched and waited and longed for him to come, torturing herself with the fear that he was stricken with a mortal illness, small-pox, typhoid, even plague, had presented themselves to her mind. And now that he was actually here, so pleasant-looking in spite of his pallor and evident loss of flesh, so quiet and kind, such a real “sahib,” she was almost crying with relief and pleasure.
“Are you better? she asked softly—she dared not look at him. “I was very sorry when the note came, and I have been fearing all sort. The note said only just fever, but that is generally well in two-three days’ time, and yet there was no news.”
“Oh! it was only just an extra nasty go of ordinary fever.” He sat down at the same side of the table as Teresa, and spoke with elaborate cheerfulness, pushing the papers about aimlessly. “But, by Jove, it can pull one down, can’t it? This is my first day out. I ought to have written to your brother, but I felt too slack to do anything.” He paused, hesitated, and looked at her; then on an impulse he said: “I ought to have written to you too. Indeed, Mrs Nottage, I meant to come out and see you directly I felt up to because I wanted to ask your forgiveness for the horrible way I behaved that time—under the pipal tree. It has worried me most awfully. don’t know what you must have thought of me, and you wouldn’t give me a chance of speaking to you before left. I suppose it was no wonder!”
Teresa said nothing. She stared at picture of a lady clad in Jager underclothing, and rubbed her finger up and down the page.
“I don’t know why I did it,” Mark went on in shamed confusion, “except that I was utterly miserable that day, and you—you looked so beautiful! But I meant no disrespect—on my honour I didn’t.”
He bent forward regarding her eagerly and again her beauty overwhelmed him—her glowing face, the amber of her eyes as she raised them to his, the full, smooth underlip curved like the petal of a red rose. Discomposed he looked away, stared at an atrocious oleograph of the Queen Empress that hung on the wall opposite him, and waited for her to speak. At least he had unburdened his conscience; now, how would she meet his acknowledgment?
He heard her draw in her breath with little sound that was half sob, half exclamation.
She said “I—I did not let you speak, because I knew you were sorry you had done it, sorry that you had kissed me. And I did not want you to feel that it mattered. I did not want you to think I meant to take notice—”
He turned and looked at her in amazement.
“Oh!” she added, helplessly, “I could only do that for you when you had been so kind and civil and friendlee. I did not want you to feel troubled—”
There sprang up within him feeling of surprised appreciation and tenderness towards this simple, kindly creature. How could he ever have suspected her of base motives or inclinations—her nature was as sweet as her appearance, and just as devoid of art!
She snatched up the fashion paper and held it before her face. “And now,” she burst out, her voice broken and tearful, “Howard is going to marry Irene Joseph and I have to marry Mr Macintosh. Howard says, Must or Go!”
Rennard jumped up and his chair fell over backwards with crash. He took the paper from Teresa’s hands, and saw her face convulsed, the tears rolling down her cheeks.
Nauseating stories that he had heard concerning the old planter shot into his mind. Pity and indignation enflamed him. It was like finding a harmless animal caught in a cruel trap. In some manner Teresa must be released. He could not abandon her to such fate.
“But it’s impossible!” he said. “You can’t marry Macintosh.” They looked distractedly into each other’s eyes. “I will help you somehow. Somehow will help you, Mrs Nottage. Don’t cry. Let us think what can be done.”
She turned her head, listening for moment.
“They are coming in from the badminton,” she said in a whisper, and looked about her as though for refuge.
Certainly Mark had no wish to be surprised in such a situation. Teresa’s agitation was too evident and beyond her control. The noisy party was already clattering up the steps. He laid hold of her arm urgently.
“Come outside—quick!” he said, and hurried her to the door that led out at the side of the Club-house. As she slipped into the veranda he bade her wait for him, and then he turned back just as Howard and Miss Joseph entered the room. Mr Klint was saying loudly and aggressively: “Now, where is that Teresa?” when Rennard advanced and greeted him pleasantly.
“Do you want to take your sister away at once?” he asked after much hand-shaking. “We were just going for a little turn in the garden. It is so close in here, and we wanted some air. Are you in a hurry?”
“No, no! No hurry,” responded Mr Klint with effusion. And Mark had to allow himself to be introduced with formality to the Miss Josephs, and reply with detail to inquiries after his health, before he could join Teresa lingering in a corner of the veranda.
Like two conspirators they went softly down the steps into the dusty little garden. Teresa was still sobbing under her breath, and Rennard realized that they were in full view of the tennis players, also that there was nothing to prevent Howard and his friends and the Public Works Engineer, a supercilious individual, from observing them through the doors and windows of the Club. He felt awkward, and self-conscious, and apprehensive as to how far Teresa might be overmastered by her feelings. Therefore he hurried her across a dry patch of grass and down a path that led among some fruit trees.
The setting sun filled the air with a warm mellow light that was melancholy yet beguiling, and seemed to draw more poignant perfume from the flowers and blossoms. A bat flickered past their faces as they stepped from the screen of trees onto an open space. With a mental spasm Rennard recognized that they were in the neglected compound of the little empty bungalow that held, for him, such hurtful reminders of dreams that could never be fulfilled. An aching sense of desolation gripped him, but he turned attentively to Teresa. He must remember her troubles at this moment, not his own.
“Now tell me,” he said with persuasive sympathy.
“There is no more to tell,” Teresa responded dismally. “Howard is engaged to Irene Joseph. It is all fixed. And if I do not marry Mr Macintosh I shall have to go away from Krabganj, and no home. That Sunday Mr Macintosh came but there was no shoot. Howard made excuse and left me all day with Mr Macintosh.” She shivered. “After all,” she added hopelessly, “perhaps it is best thing. And there is Junksie too—”
They moved on in silence for a few yards. The man’s mind was utterly perplexed and concerned; the woman was striving to withstand temptation. The Bibi’s counsel throbbed in her memory: “Look on him with eyes that burn, whisper to him of his brave looks and his manhood, and his strength. Touch him with soft fingers that thrill a man’s heart—” And the repulsive vision of “old Macintosh” with his glazed, evil face, and the dark sinister bungalow haunted her with vicious insistence. Thoughts careered wildly about poor Teresa’s limited brain, and Rennard’s own ideas were hardly more connected. He could not set Teresa up in business. Imagine Teresa in business! He could not give her an allowance sufficient to enable her to live and keep the child independently of her brother—how would such a proceeding strike outsiders? He might even lose his appointment over it. How the deuce was he going to help her?
Now they were close in front of the little bungalow. It looked deserted and forlorn with patches of discolouration on the white-washed walls, holes in the thatched roof, cracks in the plastered pillars. The windows were so veiled with dust and cobwebs it was impossible to see through them, but Rennard remembered the rooms inside, and the delight it had given him to inspect them, planning how the place might be transformed into a suitable home for Eve. The sharp stab of his disappointment pierced him afresh, making him smart and suffer till he could almost have cried out with pain.
He turned for relief to Teresa. At the moment her bare hand brushed against his own, his shoulder came in contact with her softness. His own nature, untried, inexperienced, was rebelling hotly against his lot; just then he was unable to reason, to look forward. He was nervously sensitive to Teresa’s nearness, to her warm slumbrous beauty, her pliant form, and then, looking into her eyes, he saw love, primitive, undisciplined, yet infinite. He caught her hand in his and bent towards her, and suddenly the conception of Macintosh in possession of this woman and all her sweetness drove the rapier of male jealousy deep into his senses. Macintosh should not have her. He would marry her himself, and take what happiness and solace was within his grasp, since all that he really desired was denied to him so cruelly.
“Teresa!” he said turbulently, “wouldn’t you rather be my wife than old Macintosh’s?”
She clutched his sleeve. “Oh!” she cried breathlessly. “Oh!”
He put his arms about her, tightening his hold, and then he kissed her, as he had kissed her under the pipal tree, with a sudden revengeful passion, but this time there followed no regret. She was lovable, inviting; she would soothe his weariness, his heartache, and help him to forget, and when she answered to his wooing with adoring abandonment he was satisfied, comforted.
“Do you really mean it?” She nestled to him, cooed into his ear, and when he assured her Yes, he meant it seriously, truly, and would do his best to make her happy, she sobbed with joy just as a few minutes back she had sobbed with misery.
They sat down on the broken steps of the veranda, and she clung to him half delirious with the wonder of this unexpected paradise. She yet could hardly realize that her great love was not to famish, that her life was magically transformed, taken into the keeping of this king of men! She saw no consternation or reluctance in his eyes as she had done that evening at Krabganj under the pipal tree. He wanted her for his wife—his wife! He said so. And was she not his most thankfully, and without reserve! She lay in his arms, hysterical with emotion, and he soothed her with protective tenderness, finding pleasure and consolation in her grateful worship.
It was Mark, of course, who said they ought to be going back to the Club. The orange glow of sunset had faded to a soft greyness that was creeping quickly over the dilapidated bungalow and unkempt garden.
It would be dark almost before they could reach the Club-house. For Teresa, just then, time had ceased to hold any meaning; she would have sat there with her lover indefinitely. But she obeyed him at once, touchingly docile and acquiescent, and let him guide her across the rough ground and through the opening in the fruit trees as though she had been a child. On the steps of the Club veranda he paused.
“Don’t tell your brother yourself, Teresa. Leave it to me. I will see him to-morrow.”
“Whatever you like,” she said. She was standing one step above him, and her face was on a level with his own. The oil lamps in the Club had been lighted, outside the darkness had deepened, moreover they were shadowed by a pillar. For an instant he laid his cheek against hers, then led the way into the lighted room thrilled with the exquisite softness of the contact.
He felt elated, no longer weak mentally or physically, and he was able to endure without exasperation the persecution of Howard Klint, who persisted in pretending that he believed Mr Rennard had failed to keep the engagement with him on Sunday because he did not care to come. Like all ill-mannered people he could never regard an excuse as genuine. But Mark eluded the subject at last by the employment of congratulations on Mr Klint’s approaching marriage, and the result was much self-conscious laughter and personal pleasantries on the part of the affianced pair. And when Mr Rennard requested to be allowed to call the following day on the bride-elect the proposal met with an enthusiastic reception.
Now the tennis players, who had been loitering round the “peg-table,” came trooping in, and the room seemed full of people and the noise of voices. Mrs Nottage was captured by her future sister-in-law to give her opinion on a picture in a fashion paper—the trousseau naturally was prominent in the young lady’s mind.
Mark dodged Mr Klint and reached the door. Teresa seemed to know by instinct that he was leaving the room, and she raised her head. He nodded to her confidentially, and she smiled in complete understanding.
Once out in the veranda, in the silent dimness, and the fragrance of the early night, he turned and looked back into the lamp-lit room. Teresa was standing close to the table in the full glare of the big lamp. She was still gazing towards the door through which he had disappeared, her lips a little parted, an ineffable devotion in her eyes. His heart went out to her, he wished she was with him, here in the darkness, that he might hold her in his arms again, and remind her that she was never to be lonely, or poor, or unhappy any more, that always he would take care of her. Never mind, he would see her to-morrow when he called on the Josephs.
Rennard went round the corner of the Club-house and shouted his bearer’s name. He knew the man must be waiting somewhere in the background with a lantern to guide his master home, and presently he followed the white-clothed figure of his servant and the lantern that creaked as it swung from the man’s hand, through the Club compound, and out on to the main road that led to the Collector’s bungalow.
As he walked he found the words repeating them selves in his brain: “When I call on the Josephs—when I call on the Josephs.” The metallic creaking of the lantern, and the shuffle of the bearer’s shoes on the dusty road, seemed to echo the sentences with meaningless persistence.
And now, away from Teresa, out of sight and touch of her, removed from the stimulation of her beauty and her manifest passion, he realized that he felt very weak and weary. It seemed a long way from the Club to the bungalow. His spirits sank, a chill feeling crept about his heart. Doubt came; misgiving. “When I call on the Josephs,” creaked the lantern in front of him. What had he done? His future wife belonged to people like the Josephs. She was Howard Klint’s sister—she was the grand-daughter of an old native peasant woman—and there was Junksie! He thought irrelevantly of the little empty bungalow behind the Club, and its unkempt garden, where Eve might have planted pansies and heliotrope and roses. Pain, anger, desire jostled in his being with a yearning for some thing to relieve this mental chaos, that was so confusing, so unbearable. Teresa would love him whatever her disadvantages, he would find value in life in making her happy—and, after all, he was not such an important person that it should greatly matter whom he married! Mr Banister would, of course, declare that his career was ruined. Well, it should not be ruined. He would work as he had never before dreamed of working, and he would teach Teresa to do him credit as his wife. Surely here was a definite purpose to attain, to prove that a man need not be hampered in his profession by an unequal marriage!
Mark stumbled over a piece of loose kankar in the dust and recovered his balance with an effort. He was giddy, he could not think any more. Thank goodness here was the bungalow at last. He would go straight to bed, and so avoid Mr Banister’s questioning eye at dinner. He staggered up the steps and into his room, and ordered urgently whisky and soda, and ice.
The Josephs’ bungalow stood nearly two miles out of the station. A fine avenue of mango and shisham trees led from a gateless entrance to the front of the house that differed subtly in appearance from the group of formal dwellings in the English quarter at Usapur. Here the garden displayed the maturity and development of undisturbed residence, a quality that is usually lacking to the compounds of official habitations where change of tenancy is frequent, and attention to horticulture a waste of labour for the individual.
In the Josephs’ garden the shrubs and plants were close and luxuriant; a suggestion of moist, teeming fertility hung about the clumps of bamboo, crotons, and pampas grass. Flaming with blossoms were the oleander and pomegranate trees, the purple bougainvillea, and the gold mohur. Water was used ungrudgingly, for the family could afford it, but order or system there was none. Yet the peace and the perfume, and the tangle of colour, blended fitly with the character of the house—the thick thatch that brooded low over deep verandas crammed with plants and bird cages, and a miscellaneous collection of furniture: an atmosphere of secrecy, almost mystery, pervading the dim interior.
The family, with their guests, sat at breakfast in a long, dark room that smelt of spice and dust. A punkah with a dingy white frill, red-bordered, hung motionless from the ceiling. It would not be wanted just yet, nor had it been used for the last six months, but it had hung there, whether active or idle, for several years without being washed or renovated, and whenever it was touched millions of mosquitos flew screaming from its folds.
Mr and Mrs Joseph were an amiable, elderly couple whose grizzled hair caused their brown skins to appear darker by contrast. Irene was languid and superior as the affianced young lady; her sister, whose pet name was “Saucy,” talked perpetually in a high animated voice. Howard’s manner was bland and intimate, very much the accepted suitor, and Teresa sat silent, like a woman dreaming.
She ate nothing, and scarcely heard a word that was said around her, was unaware of the trend of the conversation. All night she had lain awake enraptured, transported with happiness, insensible to material conditions, and she still felt as though apart from her surroundings. She stared vacantly in response to some question that had been addressed to her at least three times by Mrs Joseph, and now Howard shouted at her in angry reproach.
“Are you asleep—you Teresa? Did you not hear what Mrs Joseph was asking? Where are your manners?”
“I know!” giggled Saucy, “she is thinking what will Mr Macintosh say when he hears of her walking with a young man last evening in the Club garden!”
They all laughed, even including Teresa herself. But Teresa laughed with triumph, to think of the envious amazement that must overtake the company when the real truth became known!
“If I were Mr Macintosh I would keep my eye on you!” persisted Saucy, elated with her success.
“Perhaps we had better send you back to Krabganj before the gentleman calls at this house to-day!” said Howard, with a wink at Saucy. “He will not be allowed to call at the factory when you are Mrs Macintosh, Teresa my dear. I can tell you that. Old Mac is too sharp to run risks!”
Irene inquired when the wedding was to be, and she and Howard exchanged amorous glances, for she had promised to fix the date of her own wedding the moment Teresa was safely out of the way.
Teresa desired desperately to stand up, and say: “I am going to marry Mr Rennard and not Mr Macintosh, and I hope I shall never see any of you again afterwards!”
But Mark had bidden her leave the matter in his hands, and never would she disobey him. She grew crimson with the effort of withholding her secret.
“Nothing is settled as—as—y-yet!” she stammered and almost choked as she tried to drink some tea.
“I beg your pardon!”
Howard contradicted truculently. “Everything is settled. You will be married in three weeks’ time. Mac is having his place all whitewashed—in honour—and it is nearly finished now. It will be quite ready by then. The time suits me, and cannot matter to you. In fact I should think the sooner you have a home of your own the more you will feel pleased. A husband, and a home, and money too. How lucky some people can be, and yet not grateful!” He helped himself, excitedly, to a pile of snowy rice boiled to perfection, with which he mingled curried chicken, yellow pulse, and mango chutney of Mrs Joseph’s own manufacture; he added various accessories such as chillies, powdered mint, green ginger, grated cocoanut, and over the lot he crumbled Bombay duck and asafœtida biscuits. Already he had partaken of kedgeree made with tinned salmon, and kuftas which are cakes of mince, fried in clarified butter, and served with a rich gravy. The Josephs lived well, and disdained petty economy; though their kitchen was in ruins, and the cook with his entire family, besides all his own and his wife’s relations, used it as a dwelling-place, without apprehension of remonstrance or investigation from headquarters.
“Hurry up, Howard, you greedy!” urged the privileged Saucy. “You and Irene were late for breakfast, what with your spoonings and delayings and all! And it is nearly one o’clock already.”
“Well, then, please do not wait for me,” said Mr Klint, who intended to enjoy his curry. It is a dish that cannot be eaten with any real enjoyment by a connoisseur if time happens to be limited. Also he meant to conclude the meal with fruit; a cluster of loquats of superior size and quality reposed in a golden heap before him. He was very fond of loquats, and had never yet succeeded in growing them to their height of excellence at Krabganj.
Saucy took advantage of Howard’s politeness. She had finished her breakfast long ago, and rose now with obvious relief. Irene snapped at her sister but Saucy only replied with a rude grimace and went out into the veranda, where she could be heard talking with shrill vivacity to the tame squirrels and the monkey, and imitating in turn the myna, the bul-bul, the parroquets, and the painted partridge. Presently she ran back into the dining-room.
“There is a tum-tum coming up the drive,” she announced, “it must be Mr Rennard calling. And all you still eating. Shame—shame!”
By the time Mark had driven up to the door, sent in his cards according to Indian custom, and been conducted into the drawing-room by the old family bearer, Mr and Mrs Joseph and their daughters, with Teresa and Howard, were all assembled there to receive him. He felt the circumstances to be somewhat of an ordeal, but bashfulness was not one of his difficulties. His manners had always been easy. And soon he was congratulating Mrs Joseph on the beauty of her garden, discussing the crop prospect with her husband, commenting, to the delight of Saucy, on the menagerie in the veranda, and listening to the plans of Irene and Howard as to their future.
Only to Teresa did he say nothing, and she sat in the background in understanding contentment, though her heart fluttered breathlessly.
“And they say,” observed Howard, with playful significance, “that one wedding brings another.” He looked at Teresa. “Perhaps you have not heard that my sister, Mrs Napper Nottage, is going to be married too? though last evening she told you of my engagement she may have been too shy to mention her own—h’n?” he laughed fatuously.
The humour of the situation appealed to Mark overpoweringly. He was still young enough to find a certain school-boy delight in the public discomfiture of a despot, and though he had arrived at the Josephs’ house with every intention of seeking a private interview with Howard when the formal call should be over, he was now seized with a perverse desire to announce his and Teresa’s engagement without further preliminaries. The very defiance of his present attitude towards Fate urged him to enjoy the dramatic effect that must be created by such an unexpected declaration.
“Oh! yes,” he said suavely. “I knew Mrs Nottage was going to be married too, but not, I understood, to Mr Macintosh.”
Teresa gazed at him helplessly. Surely he was not going to tell them all, then and there!
Howard turned to his sister. “What have you been saying to Mr Rennard?” he demanded sharply.
Teresa quailed, and drew in her breath with a sob. Mark rose and crossed over to Teresa’s side. The little sob, the frightened look, roused in him a tumult of protective pity and chivalrous indignation, and dispelled the spirit of mischief.
“I will tell you,” he said, and addressed himself exclusively to Mr Klint. “I asked her last evening to marry me instead of Mr Macintosh, and she was kind enough to promise that she would do me that great honour!”
He took Teresa’s hand, and stooping, kissed it; he stood, holding it in his own, and awaited the explosion.
There was a petrified silence for the space of a few seconds. Then, to Mark’s dismay, there arose a clamour of delighted congratulation from his future connections. They crowded about him and Teresa. Howard was slapping him on the back and wringing his free hand. Mrs Joseph cried and embraced Teresa; Mr Joseph pressed near, and smiled and nodded, and exclaimed, “Atcha! Atcha!” unconsciously expressing his pleasure in his native tongue. Irene clung to Howard and repeated, “Oh! my!—to think!” over and over again. She regarded Teresa with envious admiration, and reflected that if only she had known Mr Rennard to be so susceptible she might have made an effort to secure him for herself. As for Saucy, Mark really feared she meant to kiss him. She danced ecstatically round the group, wild with excitement, shouting, “May I be bridesmaid, may I be bridesmaid?” The caged birds in the veranda, alarmed by the commotion, set up shrill cries, and even the bay mare, waiting outside in her master’s trap, neighed interrogatively two or three times.
Mark now repented that he had indulged his impulse to discountenance Mr Klint. He was too unpretentious to have given due importance to the fact that, on Howard’s part, such a marriage for his sister could only give cause for such triumphant approval as would override every other consideration, that the feelings and claims of his friend Mr Macintosh would be regarded not at all.
But at least Mark had the satisfaction of knowing that he had given Teresa her moment of exultation, that he had humbled this bullying brute before her, and he submitted to the consequences. Home-made cherry brandy and ginger-wine were produced, and healths were drunk with much noise and emotion. Howard became almost hysterical in his ferment of satisfaction. He was thinking, of course, of the benefits that might accrue to himself through this marriage of Teresa’s—easy contracts, first consideration, prestige in the eyes of native clients, and therefore a large increase of business; he even saw eventual appointments in government offices for his sons! He was obsequious to Teresa, grovelling to his future brother-in-law, tearful, and sentimental in the expression of his joy.
Mark could endure it no longer. He shook hands all round with great civility and self-control, and made an appointment with Teresa to take her for a drive in the evening. Then he bolted from the bungalow. But they all accompanied him into the veranda and saw him off, a waving, cheering party, and he was obliged to respond till he was half-way down the avenue.
He drove home rapidly, striving to oust from his mind all thought of the Josephs and Howard Klint, trying to remember only Teresa and her devotion and the attraction—half pity, half desire—that he felt towards her. To protect himself from a mental recurrence of the scene in the Josephs’ drawing-room he planned how he was to tell Mr Banister of his engagement; he supposed the Collector would have to marry them in the Court House, since there was no church at Usapur, and the place was seldom visited by a clergy man. Then—where were they to live? It came to him with a sense of dismay that the only dwelling available was the little empty bungalow behind the Club!
He was glad to find himself stopping in front of the Magistrate’s house—he had driven along mechanically and without attention—and now he went straight to Mr Banister’s study to find his chief writing busily at his office table.
“Can you give me a few minutes? Mark said in a level voice.
Mr Banister looked up. He assumed that his assistant had come to him with some official difficulty. “About that report—”
“No, about my own affairs. I’m going to be married.”
The elder man laid down his pen with the quick suspicion: “By Jove, then it’s the widow after all,” and prepared for unpleasant moments. Much as he disliked effort that he was not paid to undertake, particularly over matters that did not affect him personally, his sense of the fool-hardiness of such a marriage impelled him to remonstrance.
“And who are you going to marry?” he asked, feeling the question to be superfluous.
“Mrs Nottage—Klint’s sister.” Then, divining the other’s exasperation, Mark went on quickly, a little breathless: “Of course you’ll say I’m an ass, and talk about my career and my official position and all the usual clap-trap, but I conclude that as long as I do my work conscientiously I shall be entitled to draw my pay, and if because my wife has Indian blood in her veins I am not to receive my fair share of advancement, I can only sit down under the injustice—”
“Good God, boy—don’t talk like that!” cried Mr Banister, “it isn’t the fault of Government if you marry a woman you can’t expect people to recognize as a social figure head. It mightn’t matter so much while you’re a junior, but if your wife was looked down on, how could you expect later on to get big stations or be made a Commissioner? There’s entertaining and no end of considerations, not to speak of the natives. They’re as sharp as needles about social distinctions, and know ladies and gentlemen when they see them a good deal quicker than many of us do. Recollect that as a member of the Civil Service you’re a representative of the Crown and have duties accordingly—” In much agitation Mr Banister rubbed his forehead with a silk pocket handkerchief.
Mark began to walk up and down the room. “I maintain that a man’s private life has nothing to do with his official recognition,” he argued doggedly, “In England—”
“India isn’t England,” Mr Banister interrupted. “There’s no such thing as private life for an official, whether civil or military, in India. People who don’t know, talk about the immorality of Anglo-India! I tell you it’s the cleanest atmosphere going because we all live on the house-tops, and when anything does happen everybody’s bound to know—whereas in England you can do as you like and nobody need be pin the wiser, as long as you’re not blackmailed!”
“I don’t see what all that has got to do with my marriage,” said Mark stiffly.
Mr Banister picked up paper-weight and banged down on the table. “Wasn’t I trying to prove the fallacy of your private life theory as applied to this country?” he demanded with impatience. “I don’t mean to say for a moment that a man who was duffer at his work would get plums of office just because his wife was well bred and charming—though I admit that it has happened. But if there were two fellows with pretty equal capabilities, and one had a lady for his wife and the other—well, hadn’t—the man with the lady would probably be given preferment and quite right too. The women count for great deal in official life out here.” He put up his hand to stop Mark’s reply. “Just one thing more—don’t delude yourself with the idea that if your wife handicaps you it’s only because she partly Indian. If she was good deal more Indian than she is but was also well educated and of good birth, I should say please yourself, though I shouldn’t understand your taste. Nowadays it isn’t question of colour out here nearly so much as of class—”
There was a pause. Mr Banister took up his pen again, and held poised in the air.
“Besides—what will your people say?” he added.
“There is no necessity to consult them,” was the answer.
Mark moved to the window and stood with his back to his chief. Mr Banister glanced at the straight young figure that betrayed obstinate resolution in the square setting of the shoulders, and the firmly planted feet. He raised his eyebrows, muttered a few words, and went on writing.
Howard Klint’s pronouncement that Teresa was to be married in three weeks time fulfilled itself, but the bridegroom was Mark Rennard, not Mr Macintosh. Mr Banister, under protest, married them in the Court House early one morning, but even he was softened by the sight of Teresa in an ivory-tinted gown of some filmy material, and a lace hat trimmed with roses that were shaded from palest yellow to orange brown. Her eyes harmonized with the roses, her skin with the gown, her hair made a dusky contrast, and her cheeks and lips glowed gloriously.
Teresa had mentioned purple to Mark as being her favourite colour, and had expressed her weakness for dyed feathers where hats were in question, but it appeared that Mark did not admire bright colours, and had always disliked feathers, so mercifully the small sum of money Howard Klint made over, grudgingly, to his sister for her clothes (he would have sent her trousseauless to Mr Macintosh) was expended on an outfit that at least was inoffensive though it could hardly have been termed modish. The hats were chosen from the illustrated price list of a cheap Calcutta emporium where Teresa had shopped in the days of Napper. The materials for the dresses were purchased in the Krabganj bazaar, and made up in the Josephs’ veranda by a native tailor who was clever and ambitious. Also, fortunately, he was a relation of the tailor who worked for the Civil Surgeon’s wife, an advantage that enabled him to acquire models and ideas that could never have been borrowed from the unsuspecting lady herself.
With hardened feelings, and a determination to forget, Mark had taken the little house behind the Club, and very soon the thatch was repaired, walls were colour-washed, holes stopped up, and plaster replaced. The stables were made weather-tight; the garden was put into order, and assumed a bald, patchy appearance in consequence. Just then the police officer was transferred and Mark bought all his furniture; so the bungalow was ready for occupation actually before the wedding day. Things can be accomplished very quickly in Anglo-India. People arriving from furlough with nothing but their clothes and personal belongings are often settled in the space of a week as comfortably as if they had lived in their new habitation for years; an uprooting can be equally rapid. If you die one day you are buried the next without any apparent difficulty or delay. Owing to some difference of opinion your servants may all take themselves off at a moment’s notice, but a new staff can usually be installed in a few hours.
Therefore Mark and Teresa experienced few of those drawbacks and vexations generally associated with the setting up of a new home by a young couple of moderate fortune in England. The servants were eager to please, the white ants had been suppressed for the present, and the newly married pair were free to start on their ten days’ honeymoon with the pleasant certainty that they would return to a house that was prepared for them in every detail, though the appointments might be simple to the verge of roughness.
The Josephs, Mr Klint, and Junksie were present at the marriage. Otherwise, at Mark’s request, it was private. The party was afterwards entertained at breakfast by Mr Banister, who with sly discrimination provided as many of the dishes from tins as was possible. The repast was therefore approved of as entirely the correct thing for such an occasion by all but the host himself, and the bridegroom who gave no attention to what was put before him.
It was not a very festive gathering. Howard Klint made spasmodic efforts to be jovial, but he was overawed by the presence of the Magistrate. Miss Joseph was stiff and self-conscious, even Saucy was subdued and did not contradict her sister once; the old people beamed silently, and Junksie’s behaviour was so full of important reserve that Mr Banister quite expected him to make a speech in Hindustani. It had been arranged that the little boy was to remain at Krabganj with his uncle and great-grandmother until after the honeymoon, when his future was to become the concern of his step-father.
Mark had suggested Agra for the honeymoon, and of course Teresa had agreed, as she would have agreed had he proposed to take her to the topmost peak of the Himalayas. Mark wished to see Agra because he had become interested in a desultory fashion in the life and times of Akbar, that Moghul magnificent, who in force of character, in courage, in intellect, came no way behind his fellow monarchs of the age—Elizabeth of England, Philip of Spain, Henry of Navarre. The Indian Emperor’s tolerance towards religions (so curiously modern! ), his analytical mind, his sense of justice and power of administration, combined with the recklessness and despotism common to his race and time, attracted the young civilian and awoke in him a spirit of curiosity towards this marvellous period of Indian history.
He felt a desire to see the city that Akbar had built and then, embittered by disappointment and family scandals, had forsaken—the City of Victory, the expression in stone of a mighty personality, now alas! ruined and forlorn. He would have journeyed much farther than the twenty odd, dusty miles from Agra to read the carved inscription so pathetically significant of the weary spirit in search of a faith that might console and convince:—“Said Jesus, on whom be peace! The world is a bridge: pass over but build no house there; he who hopeth for an hour may hope for an eternity; the world but an hour, spend it in devotion the rest is unseen.”
So Mark borrowed Mr Banister’s translated copy of the Aini-Akbari, that mosaic of Court detail, and packed it in his trunk together with some other of the numerous books that have immortalized the Moghul dynasty, and he took them, as well as Teresa, with him to Agra.
The two saw the Taj in all its ethereal delicacy, and arrested decay; the fierce red fort enclosing the pearly palace of marble that had known such splendours, such tragedies, such triumphs, such degradations. They moved out to the City of Victory where accommodation is provided for visitors, and spent long, hot, dusty days among the ruins—when Mark would read, and comment, and explore and Teresa hung on his words though she could not comprehend their drift. She enjoyed the picnics in the crumbling empty mosques with shiny black crows as their uninvited guests, impudent and familiar, and parrots, green as young grass, screeching over their heads as they flew into the crannies of the ruins. She was content to doze and dream in the shadow of some worn and shapeless tomb drugged by her own happiness, while Mark wandered in the silent heat or through the white, echoing palaces, returning to her now and again to ask if she were all right, or to tell her of something that had fired his fancy. She would smile at him sleepily, and murmur perplexed admiration of his wisdom and cleverness, and perhaps beguile him by her ripe beauty into kissing her, and lingering at her side.
Negatively Mark was content, as though a soothing draught had lulled some aching nerve, and brought the comfort of relief, but the nerve was there, alive though torpid now, and deep in his consciousness he knew it. At the same time he was resolved to make the most of the solace that was his; there should be no looking back, no repining, he would find zest in his work, pleasure in making Teresa happy, there should be purpose and interest in his life now that he had another to think of and consider. After some deliberation he had decided to say nothing to Teresa of his previous engagement. She lived in her happy present, gratefully, serenely, and asked no questions. To know the truth would only distress her, cause her unnecessary pain, and serve no possible object.
On their way back to Usapur the Rennards called at Krabganj for Junksie.
Mark’s trap had met them at the station, and as they drove up to the house his memory turned inevitably to the day on which he had first seen Teresa—Teresa lonely, distressed, in her shabby black gown, yet so arresting in her helplessness and beauty. Now it seemed to him years ago since he had stood with her and Junksie on the steps of the veranda, and she had called, while the old parrot screamed, and the Bibi had peeped at them from behind the cane blind. What would his feelings have been then had a voice whispered but the bare suggestion that the woman with him was his future wife!
He gave a side glance at her as they sat waiting in the trap. Teresa had sent in a card on which was scrawled “Mr and Mrs Rennard” in her untidy hand writing. She intended, she told her husband, to observe every formality in her dealings with Howard now that her own position was so different, but never again would she be on terms of friendship with him; the truth being that Teresa rejoiced to have the opportunity of giving herself airs, and displaying her independence. This Mark understood intuitively, and it amused him. But he had no desire to spoil Teresa’s small satisfactions, so he neither laughed nor remonstrated. Also he was conscious that Teresa’s attitude towards her brother brought distinct relief to his own mind. He knew very well that, under the circumstances, it must have proved a difficult matter to reconcile his official position with the recognition due to his wife’s nearest relative. He would never have instigated avoidance of her people, but since Teresa had her own reasons for desiring no cordiality between the two houses he was not sorry to take advantage of her inclination without blame to himself.
Teresa’s vexation was undisguised when the bearer returned to say that Klint Sahib was out. He had gone to Usapur, but Junksie-babba was somewhere in the compound, and of course the Bibi was at home.
“Didn’t you write?” said Mark. “Didn’t they know we were coming to pick up Junksie to-day?”
“Oh, no! I did not write,” said Teresa. She got out of the trap, and her husband perforce followed her. She turned on the steps to face him, smiling, witless of the waste of time and lack of consideration involved in her unbusinesslike omission.
“Then of course the child isn’t ready, and his things aren’t packed!” said Mark with some exasperation.
It was a trying time of the day—early afternoon, when the sun is still arrogant, whether in summer or winter, and just now all the irritating indications of the hot season had begun. The west wind was driving its fierce breath across the country conveying a sense of unrest, discomfort, destruction, and the prevailing sounds were its hot roar, the rattle of dry foliage, the maddening notes of the brain fever and copper-smith birds. The interior of Klint’s house, Mark knew, would be dusty, airless, uninviting, and he felt no desire to wait within it till Junksie could be prepared for his journey, when the bungalow at Usapur with its thatched roof, cool interior, and orderly preparations awaited them.
“Well,” he said, “Junksie’s things must be sent after him. We can’t hang about here till he’s ready.”
Teresa passed on into the sitting-room, holding the cane blind aside for Mark to follow. Her serenity was provoking. If she would admit that she had forgotten to write, or express the least contrition for her want of thought, Mark felt he could resign himself so much more readily to the tiresome situation, but evidently she was quite unconscious of her negligence. To her it was “all no matter.” And inside the room a further test of his forbearance awaited him.
“Oh! here is Chandi! said Teresa, and Mark saw an old native woman standing bashfully against a curtain that hung before one of the doorways, drawing her wrapper across her grotesque old face in the coy manner that native women of the lower class affect when in the presence of an Englishman. She turned her back modestly to Rennard, and croaked sideways to Teresa that the Bibi sent salaams to the Sahib and the Memsahib, and would be pleased to receive them in her own apartments.
“Yes, I will come,” responded Teresa, carelessly. Mark observed that she gave the crone no greeting—it might have been this morning only that she had left Krabganj never to return to the place again as her home. She turned to Mark: “You had better perhaps wait here,” she suggested, “my grandmother has sent a message, but there is no need for you to come and see her unless you wish. I will be back just now.”
A half angry determination to spare himself nothing, to fulfil every obligation of the situation into which he had voluntary placed himself, took hold of Mark. He would visit the Bibi, indeed he felt a species of impersonal curiosity to see again the remarkable looking old woman who had peeped at him on the day of his arrival, who had interrupted his discreditable love-making under the pipal tree some months later.
“Of course I will come too,” he said, rather crossly, and then reproached himself for his petulance as he saw a troubled look cloud Teresa’s placid eyes. It was the puzzled, half-alarmed expression of a child when an exasperated elder vents on it vexation that has been caused originally by something unconnected with the child itself.
They despatched a servant in search of Junksie, and then followed Chandi through the curtained doorway. “This was my room,” said Teresa.
Mark glanced round the dreary narrow chamber. How comfortless it must have been with its crude, white-washed walls, the coarse prickly matting on the floor, the makeshift furniture, and the two rickety looking beds now devoid of all covering. She had had such a bad time—poor Teresa! and how uncomplainingly she had borne with it. He was a beast to have felt annoyed with her, and he had hurt her feelings too. A rush of remorse and compassion ousted all petty impatience from his heart. He passed his arm through hers: “Your room in our bungalow is nicer than this—isn’t it?” he said, and looked into her eyes that filled at once with happy tears. She turned towards the window.
“Oh!” she said, “how unhappy I was that morning standing there at the window when the note was brought to say you would not be coming. How I cried, and cried! Aand there was all about old Macintosh too!” She clasped her husband’s arm as though she still feared the planter might pounce on her from a shadowy corner and wrest her from him.
They moved on, for Chandi was holding up a heavy quilted curtain on the further side of the opposite doorway, and framed in the opening Mark viewed a curious picture. The Bibi was enthroned stiffly on the red lacquered bedstead amid a pile of gaily-coloured pillows, mindful, as are all natives, of her dignity.
A beautiful camel’s hair wrapper with a finely embroidered border was draped about her head and shoulders, and the shrunken Arab-like face looked out shrewdly from its folds. On the floor at the side of the low couch gleamed the brass tray and copper pan-box, and the silver hookah with its long tube and accessories stood near at hand, ready for use. Two chairs had been set for the visitors—two clumsy wooden chairs with arms and cane seats, the kind that is fast disappearing from India now, except in very remote stations; a relic of John Company days when furniture was scarce and guests took their chairs out to dinner with them as well as their own muffineers and servants. There was little else in the Bibi’s room beyond the striped red-and-blue drugget, the camphor-wood chest that Teresa remembered from her babyhood, and a miscellaneous heap of articles collected carelessly in a corner—brass vessels, biscuit-tins, a roll of clothing, some lumps of charcoal, and a brown blanket.
The old lady salaamed, cracked her knuckles for luck, and made a polite speech of welcome. Mark returned the greeting ceremoniously with a feeling of half humorous respect, and took the chair she indicated with a wave of her brown hand—a hand so little, and lean, and withered. Then she looked from him to her grand-daughter, and Mark read in the sharp glitter of the narrowed eyes, and the satirical lift of the lips, her amused relish of Teresa’s success, her contempt of his own incredible folly, and her wicked interest in the whole amazing situation.
“Truly the Gods have favoured thee, daughter!” she said suavely. “And thou hast acquired a great and good man.” She chuckled: “And Macintosh sahib still lacks a bride! Well, well, ‘a precious stone is not for the breast of a monkey.’ But see to it, girl, that thou art good wife. Be not as the musk rat that oils its head with jasmine essence.’” This was the Bibi’s rendering of “beggar on horseback.” She turned to Rennard and expressed the embarrassing wish that he might beget many sons and few daughters, also that he might rise to the topmost pinnacle of fame, and honour, and wealth.
Owing to his close and persevering study of the language since his arrival in India Mark was able to converse with his wife’s grandmother with comparative ease. They discussed the weather, the price of grain, and the prospects of the rainy season before they proceeded to more intimate topics, when the Bibi inquired concerning his father’s profession, the number of his brothers and sisters, the age of his mother, and whether he had ever been married before, etc. And all the time old Chandi sat behind the head of the bed and contributed occasional comments and exclamations to the conversation.
Then the Bibi fumbled among her cushions and produced little pouch of exquisite native needlework from which she took lump of turquoise, polished between the palms of her hands, and gave to her grand-daughter. “To preserve thee from misfortune,” she said, graciously. And to Mark she presented a small copper receptacle, three cornered in shape, with an invocation inscribed upon it. The little case was firmly soldered together and contained, the Bibi informed him solemnly, a fragment of the dead body of a holy man—a most powerful protective against hostile spirits; the amulet, she declared, was of untold age and immense value.
Mark accepted the gift with grave courtesy, conscious that the Bibi was watching him with close attention to detect the smallest betrayal of contempt or derision.
It was a mischievous test, he suspected, of his good manners and self-control, rather than a tribute of concern for the safety of his body or spirit! He put the relic in his pocket, signed to Teresa, and with civil leave-taking rose to go. According to native rules of etiquette he knew, in his position of grandson-in-law, that he should have waited for permission from the Bibi to quit her presence, but he considered he had humbled himself sufficiently to please her while yet retaining his own self-respect, and he had no notion of contributing to the old woman’s malicious enjoyment of the circumstances beyond a certain limit.
He returned with Teresa to the sitting-room in silence. “And now,” he said rather grimly, “where is Junksie?—how long do you think we shall have to wait before he is ready?”
“Oh!” let us go on home without him,” proposed Teresa cheerfully. “He can follow any time.”
Mark looked at his wife in amazement. He had formed the idea that Teresa was devoted to Junksie, for which reason he had suggested calling for the child on their way back to Usapur instead of sending for him a few days later. To discover that his unselfish consideration was totally unnecessary and unrecognized was disconcerting to say the least of it! Also this unconcern towards her child, repulsive as he found the little boy himself, gave him something of a shock. He had yet to learn that there was now no room in Teresa’s heart, or mind, or affections for anyone, or anything save himself.
Yet intangibly, the little display of comparative indifference caused Mark a sense of relief as well as of disapproval. The question of his step-son’s future had always rasped at the back of his thoughts like a small injury that could not be ignored or forgotten. He meant to send the child to school in the hills as soon as was practicable, and subsequently to England, for his education, but Mark had dreaded Teresa’s grief over the separation—perhaps her fierce opposition to it, and he had not yet ventured to open the subject with her. Now it seemed quite possible that she might accept the arrangement in a calmer spirit than he had anticipated, and the prospect helped to reconcile Mark to the tedious delay while Junksie was being searched for in the compound, and the outhouses, and the brickfield.
They sat waiting. Teresa tilted herself backwards and forwards in a rocking-chair, humming lazily, without a sign of impatience. Time meant nothing to her, and as long as Mark was at hand she did not care particularly where she was. The wind had lulled as the day declined, its gusts came fitfully now, and a cane blind in a back veranda tapped spasmodically. At intervals from the compound rose the servants’ voices shouting for Junksie. The room was close, and smelt mustily of curry and coarse tobacco. Mark felt oddly oppressed and spiritless. The moments dragged by. He almost fell asleep.
Presently a yawn, long-drawn and contented, from Teresa roused him; then came voices and footsteps in the veranda, and Junksie was ushered into the room by a couple of triumphant servants, who had found him at last, they chorused from the doorway, asleep in the hut of old Nattoo, the Cunning Man.
The child was exceedingly dirty, and still only half awake. With some exertion Teresa rose from the rocking-chair and seized him, brushing his clothes with her hand.
“Oh! my, how you are in a mess!” she complained. “Go now, and shake hands with your new Pappa, and then Chandi must tidy and clean you to come with us. Where have you been all this time?—keeping us waiting, waiting!”
The little boy rubbed his eyes and obeyed. He shook hands punctiliously with his step-father, and explained that he had been spending the day with Nattoo, learning much that was both clever and useful.
“Since you went away with this sahib,” he said to his mother, “I have done as I pleased. No one has interfered with my wishes, and in the house of Nattoo have I passed much time. I understand now how to bring ill-luck upon an enemy, and how to scare away demons and ghosts. Also when Nattoo pours black stuff into the palm of my hand can I foretell what is to happen, and discover things that are lost, though it is true that afterwards I forget, and it sends me to sleep. That is why I slept but now, and did not hear when I was called, and so kept you and the sahib waiting.”
Junksie’s excuses were made with grave politeness, but his mother completely upset his dignity by shaking him.
“Naughty!” she scolded. “Do you not know quite well that you have been bidden to keep away from Nattoo and all his nonsense? Look at your hand, quite black and stained from the nasty stuff he has put on it! How can you tell what is going to happen or where things are lost! And there are no demons or ghosts to be scared away. It is all lies. You are a bad little boy!”
Junksie emitted a shrill scream, and would have fastened his teeth in Teresa’s hand, but that Mark pulled him back in time and motioned his mother aside.
“Let him alone,” he said, significantly, “the child isn’t himself yet. Look at his eyes. He hardly knows what he is doing!”
And indeed Junksie had almost the appearance of being under the influence of a drug. His pupils were dilated, his skin had a curious dullness about it, his expression was not natural. Mark summoned the old bearer who still lurked in the veranda, an interested audience, and picking up the child he placed him in the old man’s arms.
“See that the babba’s clothes are collected and packed,” he ordered, “and that he is made clean and tidy, and give him drink of cold water. Then we will leave for Usapur.”
The child and the bearer disappeared, arguing, and Mark turned back into the room. Teresa had reseated herself in the rocking-chair, her complacency already restored.
“It would never have done for Junksie to stay here any longer without you!” said Mark.
“Oh Nattoo means no harm, and children are all self-willed,” responded Teresa, vaguely.
She clasped her hands behind her head, and rocked gently, humming again with indolent good humour. Mark wandered about the room. He found he could no longer sit and wait quietly, and he moved aimlessly from one window to another. Once as he passed Teresa, with his head bent and his hands in his pockets, she looked up at him with a slow, sensuous smile that was almost passion articulate. But he continued to pace backwards and forwards as though he had not seen it.
Then, for the first time since the moment of reading Eve’s fateful letter, Mark Rennard’s mind, so to speak, “came to.” The uninteresting room, the yellow outlook from the windows, Teresa herself, all seemed to fade away, the very sounds were stilled to him—he only saw the future, stretched ahead, a dreary vista of mental solitude without shade or relief; a prospect that not even zest for work, or the purpose of making Teresa’s life happy and finding comfort in her devotion, could ever alleviate. For the moment nothing was real to him save this inner perception of the truth in all its hopelessness, the sudden, petrifying conviction of his own irreparable error. The man in him awoke condemning the youth’s arrogant folly. He knew he had fought life like a spoiled child, had been perverse and self-indulgent, had yielded to impulse with petulant defiance, and whatever he now must face and suffer was his own fault, his own doing. A great bitterness crept through his being, bitterness not against Teresa, poor soul, nor any longer against circumstance, but against himself and his own weakness.
He stood straight, resolutely pushing back the hair from his forehead in an effort to rout the desolation that had fallen upon him, but he felt old, and dazed, and tired, and when Teresa spoke to him presently he said, “Yes, dear,” without having realized one word of her question.
“The station” at Usapur received Mrs Rennard kindly, if with a somewhat natural sense of injury. It was really rather hard, as the other ladies agreed, that in such a small place, where they were all so dependent on each other, there should be anyone, above all a civilian’s wife, who was not an acquisition to the little circle. It was deplorable that such a nice, promising young fellow as Mr Rennard should have “done for himself” so completely and so early in life by marrying beneath his class, but after all there was nothing against the woman’s character, and it would be cruel to make things more difficult for the young man than they were at present—he would probably feel the situation quite sharply enough when he came to be transferred to a larger station! Places like Usapur really ought to be reserved entirely for such couples, and then nobody would be any the worse, etc. So the doctor’s wife, the wife of the canal engineer, and the new policeman’s sister, all gave dinner parties in honour of Teresa as a bride, and were civil to her at the Club in the afternoons, and her very obtuseness preserved her from making active blunders, and from appearing in any way ridiculous. She spoke so little, and was never noisy, aggressive, or contradictory; her undeniable beauty gave her a certain advantage, and her gentle, unassuming manners defended her from unkindly criticism. Of course there were subtle distinctions in the general attitude of the Usapur community towards her, distinctions which she did not observe, though they were realized by Mark, and her success was no more than negative, but such as it was her husband appreciated it, and he was grateful for the kindly consideration of their neighbours. He went to endless trouble in his endeavours to help and improve his wife without hurting her feelings. He urged her to exert herself and take more exercise. He subdued her taste in dress and persuaded her always to wear white, telling her with truth as well as with stratagem that he liked her in best. He tried to inspire her with an emulative spirit in the management of her household, but it was solely that he might be made more comfortable and have things as he wished that she studied cookery books, and asked questions of the other ladies, and attended personally to details she had never troubled herself about previously. She disliked taking the daily accounts from the cook, it irked her to keep watch over the store and linen cupboards; dust and untidiness in the rooms were no drawbacks to her, but since Mark hated both she made real efforts to see that the bearer did his work and to be orderly herself. It was all foreign to her nature, but a veritable labour of love.
There were two points on which Mark failed entirely to influence her. He could not correct her accent, and he was unable to induce in her the smallest desire to read. He found she had no idea that she pronounced her words differently from himself, and though she was pathetically anxious to please him in this, as in every other respect, he perceived that she was incapable of benefiting by his guidance where her manner of speech was concerned. So he abandoned all attempts to change her articulation, just as ultimately he was obliged to give up prevailing upon her to read the books he recommended, for though Teresa would sit down dutifully enough with a volume in her hands her application was painful, her lips moved with each word, and she made pencil marks at the point where her task ended for the day. Her attention was easily distracted seeing that her interest was never secured, and the book often fell from her hand to the ground. If Mark read aloud to her she nearly always went to sleep. The only form of reading that really appealed to her was the fashion papers, and her grateful pleasure was unbounded when Mark agreed to take in various weekly periodicals, published especially for the feminine world, that were not available for inspection at the Club.
Many minor proclivities on the part of his wife were a trial to Mark. For example, her love of the flavour of garlic in every form was a perpetual source of offence to him, Mark being one of those unfortunate people to whom such a pronounced seasoning was an abomination.
“A suspicion is all right, and quite artistic,” he said in remonstrance one evening when some otherwise excellent dish was ruined, for him, by the overpowering savour, but though Teresa promised to see that it did not occur again she added, naively, that for her part she preferred certainty to suspicion. And though she attempted conscientiously to control the cook in the matter the result was not unqualified, and Mark found himself growing accustomed to the taste of onions in everything he ate, with even a hopeful prospect of active appreciation thereof in the future.
Then Teresa was inclined towards superstitious remedies for ailments, and various odd little native convictions. She never moved about in the dusk without the turquoise stone her grandmother had given her, because, she assured Mark, no snake would touch her so long as she had it about her person, and when Junksie developed a boil on his arm she bathed the place with water in which she had previously dipped the lump of turquoise. Once when Mark had a sore throat she brought him a glass of water to drink, the surface of which she cut across two or three times with a knife. A sore throat, she explained, was caused by having swallowed a hair, and the water would now give him ease by cutting the hair in two. Mark laughed at her absurd beliefs, but Teresa, though half ashamed of them in consequence, was by no means disillusioned.
And, of course, there was always Junksie, who for the first period of the Rennards’ married life was a constant annoyance to his stepfather. Junksie did not approve of regular hours. He slept when he felt tired, and ate when he was hungry. Therefore it was his usual habit to rest from twelve till five in the daytime, and converse and play games with his attendant, a Mohammedan youth, practically all night. When persuaded to sit at table with his parents he behaved with bored politeness, and seldom consented to eat anything, having invariably spoiled his appetite with native sweetmeats, coarse country fruit, or savoury scraps from the kitchen. His notions of possession were elastic—what he fancied he appropriated, and then lied freely to protect himself from punishment. Pencils, knives, scissors, straps, and such-like useful articles disappeared continually, and even Mark’s dressing-table did not escape pillage. Junksie’s explanations, when suspected, were so fluent and plausible that it was often extremely difficult to bring the blame home to him; though, on one memorable occasion, proof was positive—a bottle of tabloids was missing from his step-father’s room, and the little boy was subsequently taken so violently ill that it was necessary to summon the doctor. Then only did Junksie admit the truth, the extenuating circumstance, in his opinion, being that “the balls” looked like peppermints.
The child led a curiously detached and independent existence which Mark found it impossible to counter-act, and he was forced to content himself with making the necessary arrangements for sending Junksie to school at Mussoorie as soon as his outfit could be completed, and a trustworthy companion bespoken for the long journey.
Mark awaited the replies from England to his letter giving the news of his marriage, without expectation of anything but censure. He had not brought himself to write till he was actually on his honeymoon, and then he simply stated facts making neither excuse nor apology. There was no object, he felt, in concealment on any point; indeed it would have seemed to him but a further concession to his own weakness.
Therefore he wrote that his wife was the widow of a horse dealer; her brother was a petty contractor; her father had been an English subordinate in the Public Works Department, and her mother half a native of India. He explained that Teresa herself was amiable, good looking, and worthy of every respect. She had a boy of between seven and eight years old, having married her first husband when she was only sixteen. No doubt, he added, his father would disapprove of the step he had taken and so discontinue his allowance, for this he was quite prepared, but he hoped, when he brought his wife home on his first furlough, a long time hence! that his parents would be kind and receive her as a daughter-in-law.
But before the answer could arrive Mark heard of his mother’s death. She had died without warning, peacefully, in her sleep. Mark was saddened by the news but he was conscious of a certain relief that it should have happened before she could know of his marriage; for he had been attached to his mother with a mild, instinctive affection, and he believed she had been fond of him in her timid, impalpable way. But always had the overpowering personality of his father stood between them, discouraging her faltering temperament, shrivelling her tepid emotions, till her real character was lost and stifled, and she appeared to have no individuality apart from her husband’s will. Good she had been, and very gentle, but her goodness was of the extremely personal order. Mark could never remember her having scolded him, nor could he remember receiving praise or advice from her.
He had often suspected his father of marrying for money rather than for affection. She was not very young when she became his wife, she was neither good looking nor of any particular birth, she was of the opposite type to attract such a man, but she had a comfortable income that enabled a penniless barrister to wait conveniently for briefs and so secure success and fulfil his ambition. “He will marry again,” thought Mark, when he read his father’s correctly disconsolate letter, “and this time it will be for social and professional advantages instead of for money.”
Eventually came the father’s acknowledgment of the son’s marriage. It contained no comments; a cheque was enclosed as a wedding present; a civil hope was expressed for the future prosperity of the couple.
As for the allowance it should be continued. The whole tone of the document expressed an attitude of complete detachment, and Mark translated it thus: “You always were a fool, and I am not in the least surprised that you have evidently remained one. It matters nothing to me what you do, or how you go to the devil, now that you are out in the world. Your follies do not concern me.” Mark felt it to be almost worse, more galling even than recriminations or reproaches.
In other matters that might well have disturbed and harassed him Mark met with singular leniency from Fate. For one thing, Howard Klint’s wedding, which his brother-in-law had dreaded, took place in Agra. An aunt of the bride’s, co-heiress with Mrs Joseph, and wife of a Deputy Collector, willed that the wedding should be “her affair.” The lady’s circle of friends and acquaintances in the Josephs’ class of life was a wide one, and with her support the event became one of importance, with church decorations, and bridesmaids, an elaborate reception, and a report in the local newspaper; instead of, as Irene expressed it, a miserable little hole-and-corner affair in the Usapur Court House with only Mr Banister to officiate, like the marriage of Mark and Teresa!
So the Joseph family, with Howard Klint, departed a week before the date fixed for the wedding, and though, of course, Mr and Mrs Rennard were invited to join the exodus the death of Mark’s mother gave reasonable excuse for refusal, and a handsome present of plate successfully counteracted any “feelings” that the refusal might have caused.
The absence of the Joseph family brought deliverance to Mark from the society of Saucy, who believed firmly that her company was pleasure to the Rennards. She came over, uninvited, whenever she felt inclined, which was frequently, and was nearly always present at breakfast with her pert remarks and incessant chatter when her host returned from his morning’s work at the Court House. The only boon to him of her patronage was that Junksie’s companionship seemed to please her, and she would keep the child amused and out of mischief for hours at a time, and often take him back with her to her home to spend the afternoon and evening. But, once Junksie had been despatched to school in the hills (a crisis that passed peacefully enough), Saucy’s visits were nothing more than a nuisance, and when, after the wedding, it was arranged that she should accompany her opulent aunt to a gay hill station for the rest of the summer, Mark rejoiced—on his own account more than on Saucy’s!
He was glad, too, that Howard and Irene found it possible to enjoy a protracted honeymoon, a native overseer carrying on the work at Krabganj, and when the pair did return, and ceremonial visits had been exchanged, the Rennards saw little of the Klints. Teresa had no desire to go out to her old home more often than she could help, and when Irene came in to Usapur, which was seldom, she stayed with her own people and did not always call on her sister-in-law, whom she openly denounced as being “stuck up.” When she felt she needed a change she sought the superior relaxations of Cawnpore or Agra, having hordes of relations of her own calibre in both places.
Life for the young couple in the thatched bungalow behind the club settled down to an even routine with little to vary the long, hot weather months. Mark had no wish for distractions. The monotony suited him, and brought a quiescence of spirit for which he was thankful. He found himself passively content, even happy in a negative degree. Work he had in plenty and he was growing more and more absorbed in it as his knowledge of the country and the language increased, and he read deeply—Indian history, Indian folk lore, religions, philosophies, all available literature connected with the country he was helping to govern.
There was tennis in the evenings, rides in the early mornings; the bungalow was cool and comfortable, and there was no need for economy in luxuries that alleviated the heat and rendered existence more bearable. His pay was good, his allowance continued, there were few expenses in such a place as Usapur beyond personal requirements, and he knew, when his father died, that he and his brother Ernest must inherit their mother’s money between them whatever became of his father’s savings.
Financially, therefore, he was secure, physically he was satisfied, but mentally he was desolate, alone. He was not always conscious of it, but when the realization did overtake him he suffered severely, and the memory of Eve and the sweet, brief dream of his love for her would return with an aching sense of finality. The boyishness of his mind and appearance merged precociously into the man matured and set, and in his work he began to display completeness and self-reliance that became of the utmost service to Mr Banister. The administration of the district was arduous and complicated, it would have occupied three officers fairly, but Rennard had the knack of squeezing the last dregs of work from subordinates without sparing himself, and his grasp of detail and never failing application lessened materially the Collector’s labours and responsibilities. More than ever did Mr Banister regret his assistant’s hasty and unsuitable marriage.
“A fellow who might end up as Lieutenant-Governor if he wasn’t handicapped with black wife!” he would reiterate to himself after some special proof of Mark’s capability, and “the pity of it” sometimes came seriously near to blunting the Magistrate’s enjoyment of his most favourite dishes.
But even Mr Banister was forced to admit that Teresa was a good wife within her limitations, and as time crept on a curious species of friendship sprang up between the selfish, middle-aged bachelor, and handsome, guileless Teresa, so absorbed in the idolizing of her husband, so innocent of any knowledge that she might be a hindrance or a drawback to his career. Mr Banister made his assistant buy an oil stove for his wife, and with this new acquisition, set up on an inverted packing case in a back veranda of the Rennards’ bungalow, he tried to teach her to cook. It was long before any of them forgot the episode of Teresa’s first jelly made without supervision. She confessed to her instructor, with tears in her eyes, that when she shook it out of the mould it not only fell unbroken to the floor, but actually bounced! Then Teresa’s first cake! She was alone when she took it out of the oven, and hastily she hid it in the store cupboard, where, months afterwards, it was discovered by Mark and mistaken for a brick.
An inkling of the force of Mrs Rennard’s devotion to her husband came to Mr Banister during the companionship entailed by these cookery lessons. He recognized that it was something completely primitive, a passion unlimited in its intensity, and he doubted whether Mark himself understood its depth or extent. It was true that as yet Mark was hardly alive to the quality of Teresa’s love for himself; he had little conception of the smouldering emotions that lay beneath her indolent good humour and anxious adoration. But one day there came a revelation that surprised and alarmed him.
Junksie, or Alaric as Teresa now ruled that he must be called, had come home for his holidays. It was several months since he had left Usapur, for an Anglo-Indian school term begins in the early spring and lasts till late autumn in consideration of the climate, and the discipline and tuition, though neither was of the highest quality, had improved the child very obviously. He spoke English habitually, though his accent was appalling, and he would still relapse, when excited, into Hindustani. He had grown, and filled out, and though he had lost his first front teeth and the second were hideously prominent, his face was more shapely and his hair had darkened a little in shade: no longer was it quite the colour of marmalade. But there was yet a furtive, foxy look in his small eyes that caused Mark some misgiving, and the boy was curiously reticent on the subject of his school life and experiences. Indeed he was never loquacious, though his deportment, as of old, was almost ludicrous. The natural animal only appeared when he was in physical distress—hungry, hurt, tired, or ill.
Soon after his return home Alaric went to Krabganj for a day and a night on the invitation of the Klints. He came back with the announcement that he was shortly to spend a fortnight there with his great grandmother who wished for his company while his uncle and aunt were away. Teresa saw no objection, but Mark interfered.
“We ought not to let him go,” he said, “he will spend his time with that old devil-priest, or what ever the creature calls himself, if there is no one but the Bibi to look after him. It isn’t good for the child.”
“But he is so determined when he wants!” said Teresa helplessly.
“Nonsense, he must do as he is told.”
They were in the drawing-room, after dinner. The place looked bare, for Teresa had been putting things away preparatory to their start into camp for the first cold weather tour.
“But if the Bibi wants him perhaps it would be best to let him go?” Teresa suggested. “She is rich you know. A whole village belongs to her that my father bought and gave to her as provision. Now it is worth much more since the irrigation and the railway, and perhaps she will leave it to Junks—Alaric. If she is annoyed about him it will go to Howard and his children, but she is fond of Alaric, and one day she was telling me she might make him her heir!”
“It isn’t worth considering,” said Mark, “and even if it were I wouldn’t consent to his going. It might undo all the benefit of his school life.”
But Alaric was of a different opinion. He had been listening behind the curtain that divided the dining- and drawing-rooms, though he was supposed to be in bed. Now he entered, a grotesque little figure in a flannelette night suit of a vivid pink that contrasted painfully with the colour of his hair. He pattered up the room with quick, even footsteps, and planted himself in front of his stepfather. For a moment Mark thought of an albino snake, though certainly he had never seen such a thing—the narrow gleaming eyes with lashes so faint that they were barely perceptible, the flat face, and teeth protruding in a little forked point from the wide, lipless mouth, all contributed to the suggestion. How was it possible that Teresa could have produced such a little reptile! There was nothing at all of his mother about the child save his well-proportioned body, and a certain grace of carriage that recalled her movements.
“I wish,” he began urbanely, “to go to Krabganj to be the guest of my grandmother. Has it been arranged?”
“Your mother and I don’t wish it,” replied Mark, trying to speak with kindly banter. “You are coming into camp with us next week where you’ll have a much jollier time. You must learn to ride and shoot now, you know.”
“There will be time for that too. I wish first to go to Krabganj.”
In friendly fashion Mark took hold of the little stalks of arms just above the elbows. “Look here, old chap, your mother and I say No. So better shut up and make the best of it, eh?”
At first he thought Junksie was going to spit in his face but the child wriggled himself free in silence, and, despite his mother’s advances, he left the room evenly, quietly, as he had come.
“Oh my,” said Teresa in cross alarm, “what does he mean to do?”
“Go to bed, I should think, if he has any sense. Perhaps you’d better follow him and see, if you’re at all doubtful?”
She went, with some reluctance, but returned presently complacent and reassured.
“He all right, going to sleep.”
But neither she nor Mark had any idea that Junksie lay awake that night hour after hour in his comfortable little English bed (procured expressly for him by his stepfather) till the first glimmer of dawn trembled in the sky; that then he got up and dressed himself, went out of the house, and crossed the compound like a flitting, uncertain shadow.
When Mark came out next morning dressed for his ride, he saw the child in the veranda leaning against a pillar at the top of the steps. He seemed dreamy and preoccupied but not, his stepfather was glad to observe, in the least sulky. They exchanged civil greetings, and Mark descended the steps to look towards the stables. The syce was late this morning with the bay mare.
“Yes, he is very late,” said Junksie with sympathetic concern, but he did not add that he had counter-ordered the pony with a fictitious message from the sahib that quite deceived the syce.
“Are you going out this morning?” Mark inquired idly, still looking towards the stables.
Junksie made no answer. He was watching his stepfather’s feet intently as they moved about on the gravel. The child’s face twitched, his hands were closing and spreading spasmodically.
Just then Teresa appeared. She came forward leisurely, with the intention of making some trivial remark to her husband. But suddenly she sprang down the steps and threw herself against him, clutching at his arms, so that he almost fell backwards.
“Keep still, keep still,” she screamed, “do not walk about, do not move!”
She pointed with a shaking hand, her eyes wide open in horror, to something on the ground.
Entirely mystified Mark looked, and perceived before him a little pyramid of dust decorated with a yellow blossom.—“It is chalauwa, chalauwa!” cried Teresa hysterically.
And then Mark remembered, swiftly, that he had read of this chalauwa, or “passing on” of a disease, generally the disease of smallpox. The pile of dust most probably contained scabs or scales from the body of a smallpox patient, and had been placed there by a native in the belief that whoever touched or disturbed it first would be likely to take the malady upon himself. It was an odd place to find such a thing—right in front of his own house! Who could have put it there? Then he realized that the servants, if they saw it, would of course shrink from such a sinister sign, but that the sahib, coming out to mount his pony would be liable to step on, or kick the little heap without noticing unless warned in time. He glanced into the veranda. Junksie had disappeared.
Teresa was chattering incoherently partly in English, partly in Hindustani. She dragged him towards the house, carefully avoiding the dread little heap. When they got into the dining-room she fell at his feet, sobbing, and clasped his knees.
“Teresa!” he expostulated, “what on earth are you doing?” and forced her to stand up. Her face frightened him. It was grey, distorted with fear, relief, and rage.
“Junksie did!” she gasped. “I saw him watching. He ought to be killed—the little budmash. He is a wicked! I will box him; he shall be starved. I will turn him out of this home. I hate him—Ah!” she flung herself upon her husband, caressing him wildly with her lips, her hands, her cheeks, in an abandonment of passion that startled and bewildered the man. For the moment he felt paralysed, then gently he disengaged himself and put Teresa, sobbing, and grabbing at his coat, into an easy-chair. He fetched glass of soda water, but she pushed from her when he offered it.
“Darling!” he urged, “do try to control yourself. Remember if Alaric did play such a trick he is only a child, and the whole thing was just a silly little piece of superstitious revenge. Even if I had touched the heap I don’t for a moment suppose I should have caught smallpox, or any other disease. Probably it was nothing at all really but just dust and a flower, but, of course, we shall have to find out for his own sake if the child has been near a smallpox case.”
But still Theresa cried, and said she was sure it was a true chalauwa, and that nothing could have saved Mark had he touched the abomination. Her superstitious view of the matter was unshakeable, and he was obliged to let it pass without further argument.
“I will not forgive him! He tried to kill you!” she said vindictively. “Send him away, send him to England, as far as possible away from us….” She wept herself helpless, and would not allow him to move from her side, nor would she consent to go into her bedroom and lie down. She even threatened to take her own life if Junksie were permitted to stay. She was as a woman demented. Mark could hardly believe that this distraught, unreasonable creature was the serene, good-humoured Teresa who had always been so yielding, so tractable.
“Don’t be foolish, Teresa. We can’t send the child away from us altogether just yet. He shall go to England when he is older, but he isn’t much more than a baby at present. We can’t treat the matter so seriously.”
Teresa would not listen. She demanded the instant banishment of the child. “He will do something else to you if you do not get rid of him. He has picked up all this wickedness from Nattoo. Nattoo has taught him, and Nattoo knows too much! If you love me, Mark, or care for my peace, you will not let the boy stay. I cannot bear risk of danger for you. Nothing else matters for me but you—I will not lose you. I love you—I love you—there is no one else in the world for me.”
This went on till Mark, distracted and desperate, promised to consider the question, and Teresa by that time was so prostrate with exhaustion that she allowed him to support her into her bedroom and call the ayah to help her undress.
Then he went back into the dining-room and mixed himself a strong whisky and soda. He felt quite unnerved and an active dread of the future assailed him. The nature of Teresa’s love for himself, a love so savage and undisciplined, was now painfully apparent; it was a force that must be recognized and taken into account, and he foresaw that he must always be liable to scenes such as he had just suffered if anything occurred to provoke them.
There was no doubt that if Junksie remained at Usapur, and should see fit to continue his pigmy campaign of vengeance, there was no possible escape from perpetual distress on Teresa’s part, and a trying situation on his own. In any case, humiliating as he felt the admission to be, he doubted if he could ever cope successfully with Junksie’s subtlety and complete lack of moral sense. Perhaps, after all, it would be better for the child, as well as, without question, more comfortable for himself and Teresa to send the boy off to a good preparatory school in England? Perhaps Mr Eastwick, Mark’s own preparatory schoolmaster, who was still conducting a flourishing establishment in the Isle of Thanet, would be willing to receive the little wretch and reform him. Eastwick had always been so keen on “difficult” cases, he remembered. He almost decided to telegraph at once and ask him. There would be no difficulty about finding a reliable person to take charge of the child on the voyage in return for passage money.
But Mark felt that it would only be just to Junksie to investigate this morning’s affair before taking such a definite step. The chalauwa itself was of little importance in Mark’s practical British judgment, but if Junksie had really put it there in the hope of bringing destruction on his stepfather, then the motive ought to be taken seriously. It might be that some enemy of the syce had placed the chalauwa in front of the house knowing that his victim would pass over the fatal spot when leading the mare to the front door? Possibly Junksie was ignorant of the whole matter—had not even seen the evil little mound in the gravel! His abrupt disappearance could well be accounted for by his alarm at Teresa’s unexpected behaviour. Mark did his best to delude himself. He shrank from the notion of sending the child off alone among utter strangers, to such an entirely new existence, while he was still so little and so comparatively helpless. It seemed to him a cruel and premature measure to take—much as he might prefer to take it for the sake of his own peace and comfort.
He went out into the compound and demolished the chalauwa with his stick—(if Teresa could have seen him! )—then he questioned those of the servants on whom he could rely. He went back into the bungalow, unearthed Junksie from beneath his English bed in a condition of mingled defiance and terror, and by a judicious mixture of tact and severity extorted as much of the truth from the little sinner as he could hope to obtain. Thus he learned that the child had been seen to leave the compound in the early hours of the morning; that he had countermanded the bay mare; that he had visited an individual of the Nattoo genus, who lived on the farther side of the city and prospered on his gains ill-gotten by the sale of spells and charms. It was not until later in the day, by sure but round-about methods, that Mark ascertained, with considerable relief, that this being had sold to Junksie a few perfectly harmless seed husks, declaring them to be smallpox scales. For these he had charged the sum of two rupees. How Junksie obtained the money remained a mystery; probably he had helped himself from Teresa’s string money-bag, which she never could be persuaded to lock up.
The next two or three days passed uncomfortably. Junksie now seemed to his stepfather to resemble a frightened white rabbit rather than an albino snake; he shrank into corners and darted nervously across open spaces till Mark felt a painful compassion for the child. But all his attempts at friendship and conciliation were in vain. Teresa remained in bed, for a sharp attack of fever followed on her storm of emotion, and her fearful apprehensions lest Junksie should resort to further villainies in order to remove his stepfather from the world kept her temperature high. Mark himself was in a condition of resentful perplexity, and there was no one in Usapur to whom he would have cared to turn for counsel, save perhaps Mr Banister, and the young man hesitated to lay bare his domestic difficulties even to the friendly Magistrate.
Then suddenly Junksie himself, of all people, relieved the situation. When Mark was changing for dinner one evening the child walked into the room with a determined air.
“I wish to be sent to England,” he said smoothly, just as he had expressed his desire to go to Krabganj. “I wish to go now—at once.”
Mark turned round, a brush in each hand, and surveyed the unpleasing little apparition standing stiffly by the wardrobe. Junksie looked dirty and neglected, but his important gravity and self-confidence seemed to have been restored to him. Mark wondered if anything would ever convert him into a normal, vigorous schoolboy, with healthy instincts and animal spirits!
“I wish to go to England,” repeated Junksie with rather more insistence—“now—at once.”
“All right, my son,” said Mark affably, yet with a pang of pity for the unpromising little creature, “so you shall!”
Little occurred to break the monotony of Anglo-Indian existence at Usapur during the four years that Mark Rennard was stationed there; his own unconventional marriage was practically the sole event at all out of the ordinary. The Civil Surgeon and his wife were promoted to a hill station, and an average couple succeeded them; the wife of the Canal Engineer had a baby; the Police Officer’s sister nearly died of typhoid, and in their several ways they all helped to save her.
Individually, also, little had happened to alter the quiet continuance of Mark’s domestic life. No child came to him and Teresa, and he knew that he was not disappointed, for reasons which he would hardly admit to himself. Teresa, on the other hand, was unreservedly relieved, and she stated her reason frankly after she had been to see the infant born to the Irrigation Officer and his wife.
“Mr Bird is even more pleased than Mrs Bird,” she said to her husband. “I hope we shall never have any children, Mark, because I should be so jealous and afraid you might think more of the little one than of me!”
And Mark could only laugh indulgently for answer and kiss the fragrant, dusky head that was pressed against his shoulder.
As Mark had foreseen, his father married again. The lady was the daughter of a prominent politician, and connected on her mother’s side with a well-known legal family. According to Mr Rennard senior, she possessed every quality that was desirable—she was handsome, clever, tactful, not too young, and had been trained to the utmost proficiency as a hostess in the service of her distinguished father. Before her marriage she had stipulated that Mr Rennard should take silk; her stepson in India surmised that she meant to be the wife of a Lord Chancellor.
Junksie remained in the firm grasp of Mr Eastwick, who wrote that the boy was certainly peculiar though by no means dull. It was unfortunate that he hated games, and was inclined to be revengeful when he considered himself aggrieved, which tended to make him unpopular with his companions, but there seemed no definite reason why he should not develop satisfactorily enough in time, and of course no effort would be spared for his advancement, physically and morally, both during term and holiday times.
Evidently Junksie’s unfamiliar type puzzled the experienced, fair-minded schoolmaster, into whose charge and that of the capable, energetic Mrs Eastwick, Mark had placed the boy unreservedly for the present.
The reports did not grow much more encouraging as the terms went by, but Mark felt that the best possible was being done for the child, and he did not grudge the heavy sum it cost him. Junksie’s absence was worth paying for, especially when it could be purchased with a clear conscience on the score of his future welfare.
When Mark could count nearly four years’ service, Mr Banister took three months’ leave because of a brother’s sudden death at home that left nephews and nieces in difficulties. Mark was appointed to officiate as Magistrate for the short period, and the taste of power acted as a tonic to his brain. It strengthened his waning ambition, deepened his insight into the character and condition of the people under his rule, and developed his administrative faculty. Now he began to realize, when Mr Banister returned and he reverted to his subordinate position, that he was in danger of becoming mentally drowsed by routine, and by freedom from direct responsibility. He looked forward with eagerness to his first independent charge, or at least to a transfer that would take him into a more active atmosphere. In Usapur and the surrounding district things were yet on much the same level as they had been for the past twenty years. The local Rajah was conservative in his views and loyal to his security under British Rule. The “New Spirit”—that unholy trinity of sedition, privy conspiracy, and rebellion, brooded but lightly over these remote and peaceful regions of agricultural contentment.
Rennard grew restless and yearned for a change, but there seemed small prospect of a transfer at present, and he had no definite reason for applying to be moved. When, however, a reason did eventually present itself, it was about the last one that he could have desired.
He came in one evening after a fatiguing day’s duty—the investigation of a dispute between two villages many miles from headquarters—to find Teresa more than usually solicitous for his comfort. He was tired almost to exhaustion, for the rains were but just over and the country steamed like a hot-bed; he had been out in the sun since early morning. Teresa mixed him an iced drink, and ordered his bath to be prepared at once.
Then she followed him into his dressing-room and would have unlaced his boots had he permitted such a thing. A rather nervous note of anxiety seemed apparent in her ministrations; it was as if her devotion had received some motive for exaggeration, though the demonstration itself, he knew, was genuine at core.
He lit a cigarette and threw himself on the bed to await the welcome sound from the bath-room of water being emptied generously into a deep zinc bath. The punkah swayed with soothing rhythm, bringing cool relief, and Teresa dragged a chair forward and sat leaning back in it, facing him, at the bedside. She wore a soft white gown, and he noted, with admiration, the imperviousness of her beauty to the trying period of hot weather and rains, which had never sapped her health, drained her cheeks and lips of their bloom, or given her hair the dank dullness that with generally washed-out appearance seemed to be the unhappy portion of the other women of the station, who, like Teresa, had refrained from fleeing to the hills.
Lying there, calmed and cooled by the punkah, invigorated pleasantly by the iced drink, comforted with the cigarette, Mark regarded his wife with renewed appreciation of her physical advantages. He held out his hand to her with an endearing word.
Instantly she clasped it in both of hers, and pressed her lips to the palm with pathetically swift reciprocation. “What have you been doing all day?” he asked idly.
“This morning,” she said, “I made mango chutney from Mr Banister’s recipe. And this afternoon the Bibi came—” she hesitated, and looked at him a little doubtfully.
“The Bibi! What for? How did she get here?”
“She came in her ekka with the red curtains—you know—and her own white bullocks drawing. She does not often use it. only when she has important business.”
“It was lucky you were at home. What was the important business she had to transact in Usapur?” he spoke with kindly indifference.
Teresa moved uneasily. “Oh well—she came really to see me. She is unhappee about her village and the rents. She says this cold weather there will be land settlement, and she afraid her property may not be assessed with all fairness. She was saying a lot about it to me—”
“Yes, I daresay! I fancy good many landowners are agitated over the same subject. But I don’t see why she need be nervous. The British Government doesn’t want to defraud her, or anyone else. It’s precisely to give fair play to the people that these periodical assessments are made.”
“Oh! the Bibi does not want to cheat,” said Teresa plaintively, “only to have things understood, and she says there is so much lying and falseness over this land settlement always.”
“Then if there to be any lying or falseness over her share of it she will have to do it herself!” said Mark shortly.
Teresa’s lips quivered at once. She slid from her chair and knelt by the bed, putting her head down beside Mark’s on the pillow.
“Don’t scold me!” she pleaded. “I did not think it was any harm to repeat.”
Her mouth was very near his own, her long lashes just flicked his cheek—she was so sweet, and cool, and soft—and so distressed by his little outburst of severity. He felt himself to be a brute, and kissed her in warm contrition.
“Won’t you see her, Mark?” she murmured presently, “poor old Bibi! She says it is so hard to explain on paper. She cannot write herself and she does not want her private affairs made public. If she got a letter written it would be talked about perhaps. She could tell you what she wants if you would see her—tell you so much that you would never hear otherwise. Do see her, Mark, and help her if you can? She has nobody else she can ask but you. Say you will see her—to please me?”
Mark felt very sleepy. He wished Teresa would stop talking and let him have a nap. “Perhaps I will,” he said drowsily—“to please you.”
“And then,” Teresa went on, now in animated triumph, “you could make it all right with Mr Banister! He thinks so much of you. And of course the Magistrate has influence with the Settlement Officer—h’n?—and then all will be well for the Bibi! That was just what she thought—”
Mark raised himself with a jerk, and took the cigarette from his mouth.
“Teresa!” he said sharply, “what are you driving at!”
She lifted her head, and endeavoured to stand upright but her skirt impeded her knees, and in the effort to release them something fell from the front of her dress and Mark’s hand caught it.
“What have you dropped?” he said, “your brooch?” and opened his fingers.
In his palm lay a native pendant of uncut gems, clustered together in a clumsy gold setting. Probably the ornament was of considerable value intrinsically, while to the Hindu mind its combination of the nine precious stones sacred to the planets would render it still more covetable as a talisman. He looked from it to his wife with angry understanding.
“The Bibi gave you this!”
“She said it would have been mine all the same when she died,” Teresa explained hastily. “It is a nau ratana—and so luckee!”
“She gave it to you now as a bribe,” said Mark relentlessly, “to get you to use your influence with me to help her cheat the Government!”
Teresa began to whimper. “Oh! no,” she declared, with obvious untruth, and held out her hand for the pendant, “I will send it back to her, Mark dear. Give it to me. I am very sorry. I did not know you would mind me taking it, and, after all, you need not have done anything the Bibi asked you—only heard what she had to say—”
“The bath ready!” shouted voice in Hindustani from the bath-room.
Mark rose from the bed, and put the nau ratana down on the dressing-table.
“Never mind, Teresa,” he said hopelessly, “daresay you didn’t mean to do wrong, but that kind of thing is impossible in Government service, and it’s dishonourable. I’ll send this back to the Bibi. She will understand why, quick enough! I will have another made for you like it, if you want one.”
But Teresa flung herself on the bed and buried her face in the pillow. “You are angry with me—I am miserable—I should like to die—” she sobbed convulsively. “And the Bibi will never forgive—she will hate you now always.”
Mark stood looking down at her in troubled hesitation. The incident had annoyed him so deeply that he felt little impulse to comfort her, and the sight of her distress gave him no pain. Dimly he realized that he should never feel quite the same again towards Teresa. It is generally the end of Part I. in the book of matrimony when, for the first time, a man fails to be affected by the sight of his wife’s tears. And yet he knew that Teresa was not really so much to blame.
She had only followed the immemorial custom of the land to which she half belonged. According to Eastern feeling it is no more reprehensible to give or accept rewards for the exerting of influence for personal gain, than it is to practise polygamy or any other hereditary usage that may happen to be opposed to Western notions of morality. Infanticide, widow-burning, human sacrifice, were all legitimate, even praiseworthy proceedings until prohibited by British law, but it is doubtful if prohibition has created universal conviction of their undesirability in the depths of Oriental consciousness.
Mark knew he could never make Teresa understand the fundamental treason of her behaviour. He could only forbid her to repeat it. The result would probably be the same, for she would no nothing willingly to vex him, but he felt that there should be an end of all possibility of connexion between his official duties and the interests of his wife’s people. He must take Mr Banister into his confidence, must ask his chief to get him transferred from Usapur.
Officially, as well as in fact, the cold weather season at Koranabad was well advanced; the Secretariat had descended from the Himalayas with Lieutenant-Governor, Heads of Departments, Secretaries, Under-Secretaries, Clerks, and Office establishments. A flag flew from the roof of Government House, another from the dwelling of the General in the Cantonment quarter. Wives, sisters, daughters had flocked down from hill stations, or out from England, and bungalows that had stood forlornly forsaken for the past six months now displayed curtains in the doorways and plants in the verandas, and servant-figures moved about the compounds.
An air of purpose and activity pervaded the traffic on the broad, tree-lined roads intersecting the station. The English shops, that looked like well-built private houses from the outside, were obviously busy; every afternoon in the Park tennis and badminton courts were full, the space about the band-stand was crowded. It was a lively reaction from the torpor and weariness of the hot weather and rains.
In the morning the soft, gauzy mist, true token of the Indian winter, rose from the ground and wafted itself away in wreaths and wisps, gently reluctant. Every evening it gathered again, pungent with the mingling of smoke from native fires, and dispersed heavily as night came on, unless it lingered thick and cold dimming the road-side lamps or hazing the moonlight.
This evening, as the mist rose to meet the dusk, Mark Rennard sat in the deep veranda of the Koranabad Club, an imposing stone building, and watched with interested attention the groups of people that streamed past him into the lighted rooms. It had grown too dark for outdoor amusements and exercise, and now the carriage drive became quickly crowded with horses and vehicles—among them were two or three motor cars, the first Mark had seen in India. From out this increasing collection of conveyances the voices of native grooms and coachmen sounded like the buzz of gigantic insects.
Mark’s chair was in deep shadow, and he could see, illuminated in the broad band of lamp-light that struck from the wide open doors to the veranda steps, moving forms of men clad in tennis flannels, in riding kit, in more ceremonious tweed garb; of women in garden party costumes covered with light wraps, in habits, in coats and skirts. Someone came out of the Club and sat down in the next chair, a tall man of lanky outline wearing a long loose over-coat; so much only was discernible in the darkness as he leaned forward in an endeavour to recognize his neighbour.
“Who’s that?” he asked.
The voice was pleasant, a typically modern voice, educated, yet careless of pronunciation. As a matter of fact he had said, “Whoz-zat?”
“My name’s Rennard,” Mark answered with some diffidence. “I’m succeeding Maycroft here, and only arrived this morning. I take over to-morrow.”
“Oh! yes, Maycroft—civilian. Of course, I heard they were going. She’ll be missed. A jolly little woman, always getting up theatricals and concerts and shows. Have you met her yet?”
“No. I’ve only seen the Jacksons so far. He’s my chief. I called there to-day. I’m staying at the hotel till I can find a house for my wife to come to.”
“Oh! the hotel. Yes, not half bad. We’re improving in that line out here since the rupee fell and prices rose all round. I suppose in old days they weren’t wanted, and there was hardly such a thing in the country. Now people can’t afford to be hospitable to strangers. Your boss-folk, the Jacksons, tell me they’re ruined with globe-trotters in the cold weather. They come with more or less official introductions that can’t be ignored, and as often as not go off without so much as saying ‘Thank you,’—probably under a hazy sort of notion that Government stands it all. Mr Jackson swears that the wife of one of these interfering M.P.s they were forced to put up and be civil to, carried off the soap and the candles from the bed-room and dressing-room. That was a bit too much even for the Jacksons, who are as generous and hospitable as they make ’em and can’t save a penny. Nothing of the stinge-pot about the Jacksons.”
“Mr Jackson wrote and asked me to put up with them till I could get a house,” said Mark; “but I thought I’d better be independent. He was very good, too, in getting me elected for the Club beforehand. And when I arrived at the hotel I found a note saying they hoped I’d dine with them to-night, and go on with their party to a fancy ball. I saw Mr Jackson when I called. He seemed a very good sort.”
“Yes. They’re quite popular, but they squabble like blazes in public, and Jackson nearly weeps when he gets the worst of it. It’s awfully funny! He’s a domestic ass, but an official tiger, I’m told. What station do you come from? Far off?”
“A place called Usapur, the other end of the Province.”
“Ah!” vaguely, and without much interest, “Usapur? Never heard of it. Small civil station, I suppose.”
“Very small. I’ve been there four years. This place will be a tremendous change.”
“I like Koranabad,” said the other with critical condescension. “It isn’t half bad. No cliques, and plenty to do. The polo’s decent too. I’ve been playing this afternoon. I hear the shooting’s good when you can get at it, but it’s always so harried anywhere near a big cantonment. Our regiment hasn’t been here long—native cavalry. My name’s Dustand. Of course,” he added resignedly, “they call me Dustbin—no help for it.”
So this sociable person was a soldier, the first, like the motor cars, that Mark had met with in India.
“The ball to-night will amuse you hugely,” went on “Dustbin.” “A fancy ball in India causes more excitement and jealousy and fuss than a foreign missionary meeting in a country town at home. And the awful mysteries the women make about their dresses! Last time we had a fancy ball our major’s wife told me the day beforehand, as most a most deadly secret, mind you, what she was going as. She’d kept it absolutely dark for fear some other female should copy her and I had to swear I wouldn’t give away even at the very last moment.” He put his hand to the side of his mouth: “She was going as a Swiss peasant!” he said in a theatrical whisper. Then he went on in an aggrieved voice: “And the ugliest girl in the station called herself “Forget-me-not,” he laughed at the recollection. “I shall not,” he added drily, and took out his cigarette case.
Mark was amused, but he said he thought, all the same, that he should not attend the ball. “I don’t know anybody here yet, and I haven’t got a fancy dress, though I don’t suppose that signifies. I shall go back to the hotel after the Jackson’s dinner.”
“Oh! you must come. The Jacksons would introduce you all round, and, like hotels, women aren’t as scarce out here as they used to be. I’ve seen ’em sitting in rows round the ball-room! You’d get plenty of partners if you’re keen on dancing. Call yourself ‘The Stranger’ or ‘The Diner-out,’ or something rottenly vague of that sort.”
“You’ll go in uniform, I suppose?” began Mark, but the other did not answer. He had risen quickly from his low chair and flung his cigarette, just lighted, over the plinth. Then he stepped forward with eagerness into the pathway of light to meet three people who came laughing and talking up the steps.
Now Mark could see his late companion distinctly—see the plain, good-tempered features and humorous eyes, the lanky figure enveloped in the loose covert coat, the spurs that glinted from the heels of his polo-boots. Into the light came also a short, elderly man who held himself stiffly erect and was the owner of a nose that counteracted his lack of stature—the nose of character and of command. Two girls were with him, and at first the figures of the men rather blocked the girls from Mark’s view. They all stopped for a moment, talking, before they moved on towards the open doorway.
And then Mark realized with a quivering sense of excitement that one of the girls was Eve—Eve Lancaster—the girl he had loved so desperately, who had turned the current of his destiny, had made him the husband of Teresa Nottage.
She passed very near to him, within a few yards, and he saw quite clearly the charming, expressive little face, and lightly poised head that he so well remembered. But all trace of the child, the schoolgirl, was gone. He recognized this instantly, with a wild, futile jealousy that stabbed his heart. Questions beat through his brain. Was she married? Was she happy? What had happened to her throughout the years since they parted? It seemed to him that the blue eyes he saw shining for one second in the full blaze of the lamp-light held an expression that was wistful even to sadness. If he found she was unhappy how could he endure it? Eve, little Eve!—who had been such a sunny, careless child when they two made innocent love together in the moonlight on board ship with the throb of the engines sounding as music in their ears. Now he forgot Teresa, forgot his married life at Usapur, and was back again in the days when Eve had been all his hope, his world, his future.
The return of the tall thin soldier aroused him.
“Can I give you a lift back to the hotel?” he was suggesting civilly.
Mark stood up. He felt rather dazed. “Thanks,” he said,” I should be very glad. I walked here in daylight, but should probably lose my way going back in the dark.”
They waited side by side, on the steps, lighting their cigarettes from the same carefully guarded match, while a smart dog-cart was brought forward by a syce wearing a regimental badge on his turban. The pony fidgeted and rattled its bit, flinging about flecks of foam; the syce chirruped in soothing remonstrance; the two men got into the trap and were whirled down the drive at an impetuous pace.
They swung out into the road, and the rapid, resolute hoof-beats rang loudly from the hard, metalled ground and echoed into the misty night air. Mark welcomed the swift movement of the light, well-hung cart.
It did him good—gave him the mental and physical tonic he needed to enable him to ask with calmness the question that was pulsing through his being. His voice he could now control, and in the darkness his face would not betray him.
“Who were the people you were talking to in the Club veranda?” he asked and waited with held breath for the answer.
Dustand drew his whip across the pony’s back; the animal began to canter, and for a moment was hard to hold. When the pace settled down again he said: “The people I went into the Club with? Oh! my Colonel and his daughter, and her cousin out from home, who’s staying with them.”
It seemed to Mark as if the man answered thus vaguely out of sheer perversity.
“What are their names?” he inquired with forced deliberation.
“Let me see now, what is the cousin’s name? I’m a prize ass at names, and she’s only just arrived, so I haven’t heard it often. It begins with an F. Oh! I know—Metcalfe!”
“And your Colonel?”
“Lancaster—one of the best—a white man all through, and a sportsman in every sense of the word. We’re proud of the daughter too—Miss Eve. But I’m afraid she’s considered one of the biggest flirts in India! Not her fault—she’s so fetching every fellow falls in love with her, though I must admit she doesn’t do much to stop ’em! I’d marry her to-morrow if she’d look at me, but when I popped she only chaffed, and said she wasn’t reduced to the dust-bin yet, though one never knew what might happen.” He laughed ruefully, Mine’s an infernal fool of a name! It ought, of course, to be Du Stand, but I never thought of that till it was too late.”
“Then Miss Lancaster is not engaged?” Mark asked.
“Not at present—that I know of, though she has rather a bad habit of accepting a fellow one minute and chucking him the next. They say she’s lost count of her proposals. There’s a man called Troy, Colonel Troy, Royal Engineers, who’s supposed to be in the running just now, and it looks rather as if he might have a chance.”
“Why?” Mark wondered if the word sounded natural. To himself it had seemed like a sharp exclamation of pain.
“Oh! because he’s a good fellow with a fat appointment and private means, and only one old life between him and a baronetcy with a nice place at home. Miss Eve can’t go on amusing herself for ever. She’s had her fling, and I fancy her father thinks it’s time she settled down, and wouldn’t mind seeing her settle with Troy. If you’re dining with the Jacksons to-night you’ll very likely meet him there. He’s a great pal of the Jacksons.”
“Do you think—is it likely—” stammered Mark, “that the Lancasters will be there too?”
“No—they’ve got people themselves, and I know Troy hasn’t been asked. Hullo! here’s the hotel. I all but passed it. This pony goes like the wind and pulls like the devil.”
Captain Dustand refused Mark’s invitation to come in for a drink, and drove away, having uttered the hope that they should meet again that evening. And Mark went to his bedroom to sit in a crazy cane chair and think the same thoughts over and over again. To and fro they sawed through his mind painfully, disjointedly. His transfer to Koranabad, where Eve’s father commanded the native cavalry, could not now be cancelled. Constantly, almost every day he would meet her, see her surrounded by other men, perhaps see her married to this fellow Troy, who was said to be so desirable as a husband…. He dreaded his first meeting with her… It would be at the ball this evening—if he went to the ball... He would not go…. Yet why should the meeting cause him embarrassment? Eve had ceased to care for him nearly four years ago; he had married another woman who adored him, a woman he loved. Yes, he did care for Teresa, poor Teresa.
In the tumult of apprehension that beset him he wished for Teresa’s soothing company. Also he felt, vaguely, that her presence might be a safeguard against thoughts of Eve Lancaster. Teresa did not know that he and Eve had ever been engaged. Eve would certainly not tell her. With Teresa at hand he must watch his words, his looks, his very thoughts, and so in time he would grow hardened and accustomed to the situation. He would write to Teresa to come as soon as she could start, and she must leave the packing to the servants. She could stay with him at the hotel until a house was ready for them.
No, he was not going to this cursed ball to-night. He did not want to see people, he did not want to dance. He had not danced since he came out on board ship, when he danced with Eve—.
He sprang up from his chair in angry desperation, and paced about the room. He knew he was craving to speak with Eve, to hear her voice again, to look once more into her blue eyes. He knew that he should go to the ball, whatever his resolutions—that it was beyond his will to keep away.
While Mark Rennard argued miserably with himself in his bedroom at the Koranabad Hotel, Eve Lancaster was dressing for the fancy ball. A distracted ayah hovered anxiously about, receiving contradictory orders, and accepting unmerited reproofs with a guilty air, agitated, yet in no way resentful because the Miss-sahib was in such a bad temper this evening. If it was the pleasure of the Miss-sahib to find fault about nothing it was not for her devoted slave to complain; moreover, the Miss-sahib was never cross for long, though of late perhaps she had been cross more frequently. Doubtless it was because she was annoyed at not being married. Ayah was deeply concerned that her mistress should have arrived at such a mature age and still be single. She wondered what the Colonel-sahib could be thinking about not to have selected a husband for her long ago!
Ayah suffered agonies of distress if her dear lady apologized for her impatience, as sometimes she would do. The faithful little native woman would rather have been scolded by her mistress than not noticed by her at all, and Ayah was not one to forget who it was that nursed the fever-stricken little brown boy, her only child, back to life and health when the omens of ill-luck were numerous, and the midwife from the bazaar had said he would die, and even the English doctor, summoned by the Miss-sahib herself, had thought there was no hope.
But the Miss-sahib possessed the healing hand, and it was surely through the power of her goodness that the evil spirits were overcome, and little Dukhi, “the afflicted one” (so called to avert demoniacal jealousy), was now strong and vigorous as a bull-calf, and though no more than three years old was already of use to his father in helping to tend the dogs! Ayah knew well that for all her sharp speech, and imperious ways, there was nobody in the world with a more tender heart than this yellow-haired Miss-sahib whom she had the honour to serve.
Privately, Ayah was much entertained by the costume that was to be worn to-night by her mistress, who said it was to represent a blue butterfly! Truly the sahib people had strange ideas of enjoyment! Two shining blue wings, light as cobwebs, had somehow to be affixed to the back of the dress, and Ayah fumbled and ejaculated, and bewailed her own stupidity till she was sharply bidden to call to the rescue, from the adjoining bedroom, the Miss-sahib who had lately arrived from England.
Norah Metcalfe was ready dressed as a hospital nurse, a profession she had ardently desired to adopt as giving her “an aim in life,” whereupon her mother, in the unspoken hope that matrimony might replace hospital nursing as the “aim” in Norah’s existence, had hurriedly despatched the girl to India on a visit to her uncle and cousin who submitted good-naturedly to the experiment.
She was a rather ponderous young person physically and mentally, of about Eve’s age, with a round fresh face, solemn brown eyes, and a self-opinionated bearing. India she at once condemned, at least she disapproved most emphatically of the ways of the English in India as being frivolous and empty-minded. She had visions of raising the intellectual tone of Koranabad by getting up Shakespeare readings, or a Dante or Browning Society, perhaps a Debates Club. Eve she considered shallow and worldly; she thought her Uncle John drank too much, and that he ought to be more careful about his language. To-night she was going to the ball under protest; in her opinion fancy balls were beneath contempt as a form of entertainment for adults.
“Oh! Norah, of your charity come and help me. Ayah is so stupid. How nice you look in that dress. I don’t wonder you want to be a nurse! All the men will pretend to be ill when they see you. When they see me they will be really ill, for I look more like a blue devil than a blue butterfly in this get up!”
“It is a very flimsy dress!” said Miss Metcalfe, rebuke in her voice, but with capable fingers she fixed the blue wings firmly in their place.
“Yes, it is,” agreed her cousin, “but I think it will last out the evening—I hope so. Thanks very much; how cleverly you’ve done it. You might have been dressing or binding up a wound, and I’m sure you’d much rather!”
Eve laughed; then gave a little sigh and her face grew pensive as she fixed the pair of slender black antennae into her yellow hair. “If you could specialize in dressing and binding up heart wounds, old Nurse Norah, you would make your fortune in India. I wonder how many love affairs will prosper or come to grief tonight!”
Norah pushed about the trifles on the dressing-table. She glanced doubtfully at Eve, began a sentence, stopped, and coughed affectedly.
“What’s the matter?” Eve inquired with amiable indifference, intent on her finishing touches. “Speak up!”
Norah coughed again. Then she said: “Well—you won’t think me impertinent or interfering if I ask you something?”
“I am sure you are far too high principled ever to be impertinent or interfering, so ask away—anything you like.”
“Well then, Eve—do you mean to marry Colonel Troy?”
The blue butterfly glanced swiftly at the serious hospital nurse. “Why?—do you want to marry him yourself?”
Norah grew crimson with indignation. “How can you suggest such a thing?”
“It was only what you asked me, wasn’t it? I’m sure you didn’t ask out of curiosity so you must have some excellent reason for wanting to know!”
“You are very unkind, Eve! It was simply because I feel so concerned about you that I asked the question. I can’t bear to think that people talk about you.”
“Who talks about me?”
“This evening at the Club, when you were at the other end of the room, I overheard two women saying horrid things about you. I suppose they didn’t know who I was, or that I could hear what they said, though I don’t think they were at all careful. It was all I could do to sit quiet!”
“You should have risen to your full height, as they say in novels, and told the two cats what you thought of them. Tell me what they said.”
“Oh! Eve, it’s nothing to laugh at! If I tell you, you won’t be annoyed with me? I really think you ought to know.”
“Go on, we’ve lots of time.”
“They said—” Norah’s voice sank to a horrified whisper, “they said you got yourself awfully talked about, that you were fast; that you’d been engaged several times and very soon nobody would marry you!”
For a moment Eve Lancaster stood silent, looking into the glass but seeing nothing. Her first feeling was one of mocking defiance; then the natural honesty of her nature asserted itself. She knew she had given cause for gossip, even perhaps for scandal—that to those who were not her friends her conduct might easily appear reprehensible. But she had never concerned herself with outside opinions, and until now she had not realized that unpleasant things could actually be said and believed about her. The realization came as a sudden blow that stunned her consciousness of all but the one perception. She moved restlessly. These wretched people who “talked” were within their rights; she deserved their censure, it was her own fault. They could not guess at the true reason of her fickleness, her flippancy, her “fast” ways. Well, at least Norah Metcalfe should know, self-righteous little prude! and perhaps it would even be a relief to speak out for once, to put into words the heart-hunger that ached beneath all her careless gaiety and love of life.
“Look here, Norah,” she said, a little unsteadily, “of course what these pigs of people say doesn’t matter to me a row of pins, but it was nice of you to mind on my behalf. I suppose I ought to consider public opinion more than I have done, but as a matter of fact all my apparently heartless flirtations have been nothing more than honest though unsuccessful efforts to fall in love!”
Eve could not help laughing at the expression on Norah’s face. She went on rather recklessly: “Once, a long time ago, I made a big mistake, and I didn’t find it out till it was too late. I got engaged to a man coming out on board ship, the first time I came out. I broke it off afterwards because I was having a good time—nobody knew I was engaged—and I thought I could do without him. But I’ve never met any man since that I could care about in the same way, and now I’m pretty sure I never shall, though, as I tell you, I’ve tried hard and given myself every opportunity! It’s quite true that I’ve been engaged two or three times, but I always found I couldn’t go on with it.”
“Then you shouldn’t have let things go so far!” cried the scandalized Norah.
“But how could I tell it wasn’t going to be all right? I always hoped for the best. I should like to be married if only I could fall in love again. But it isn’t my fault if I can’t pump up the right sort of feeling however much I try, is it?”
“Why didn’t you write to the first man and renew your engagement?” argued Norah resentfully. She distrusted these plausible excuses.
“Well, really, Norah, you might credit me with having some pride whatever you may think of me. He wrote me a most charming letter when I broke it off, and I don’t think he was at all heart-broken. I’ve heard no more of him from that day to this, and probably he has married somebody else and forgotten all about me. It’s rather hard luck, I must say, that I can’t contrive to feel the same about any other man, but I suppose some people are like that—it’s once and for all with them, and I was too young and idiotic to understand my own self at the time. However there may be hope yet. Perhaps Colonel Troy may fire my dead heart!”
“Eve!” gasped Norah.
“And even if he doesn’t, I’m half inclined to take him and stick to him, and not bother any more about sentiment. He’s a very good sort, and I like him better every time he proposes.”
She peered into the glass, and put a touch of rouge on either cheek.
“Don’t, don’t paint your face!” shrieked Norah.
“Don’t, don’t be ridiculous. Everybody makes up for a fancy ball except you, of course, dear saint. There! Now I look fifty times better—a blue angel!—no longer a blue devil. I must praise myself up to get into a good temper for this evening.”
She held out her gossamer skirts before the cheval glass, and danced a few light steps—a blue sprite, elfin, dainty, fragile, with a gleam in her eyes that sorely provoked her cousin who could see nothing to suggest the angel in Eve’s appearance!
The Jackson’s dinner-party before the ball was a lively entertainment for all but Mark Rennard who, even had his heart felt light, was in that inevitably depressing position of a stranger-guest among a gathering of intimates. Ignorant of local gossip, unable to appreciate the jokes and allusions, he felt like a foreigner beside all these gay, chaffing individuals in their fancy dresses and brilliant uniforms, he with his silent tongue and sombre dress suit.
Mrs Jackson, a middle-aged woman, thin, sallow, vivacious, was dressed as a witch. Her husband, short bald, and bland, represented a French cook in white drill suit, an apron, and a paper cap. Other guests were in equally hackneyed disguises—there seemed an extraordinary lack of imagination in the choice of characters. All, however, appeared supremely satisfied with their several selections excepting Mr Jackson who, it seemed, had desired to bind a red cummerband about his waist—a finishing touch prohibited by his wife.
“A ridiculous idea!” she said emphatically, when the question arose at the dinner-table. “Who ever heard of a French cook wearing a red silk cummerband!”
“In some parts of France they do!” asserted Mr Jackson in helpless though mendacious defiance.
“You know nothing about France, Tom. You have never been there except on the way to and from home, and you can’t possibly know anything about French cooks. Now I do. I asked Mrs Hedges—her daughter is at school near Paris, and her cousin was educated in France—”
“That doesn’t prove—” interrupted Mr Jackson desperately.
Mrs Jackson thumped on the table, and drowned the rest of the sentence. “Yes it does. It proves that I know more than you do. Be quiet, Tom. Don’t speak to me. I am right and you are wrong, and anyway you couldn’t wear your red cummerband even if I would let you, because I gave the old rag away to the ayah, and her son is now wearing it as a puggaree. There!”
She looked round in good-humoured triumph, and Mr Jackson capitulated as usual, amid amused applause from the guests.
Colonel Troy was at the dinner. Mark regarded him with unaimable interest, but could not deny to himself that he was a man any girl might be willing to marry—a man of fine physique, of evident self-reliance and accurate mental habit. Perhaps his manner was a little supercilious, and he had a trick of raising his chin that gave him a masterful air, but the eyes and the voice were kindly and courteous, and it was he, more than the rest of the company, who attempted to include the young stranger in the conversations, so that in spite of his prejudice Mark liked him involuntarily.
But—he estimated that Colonel Troy must be at least twenty years older than Eve Lancaster! The man’s plentiful hair was almost white at the temples, there were lines on his face as deep as scars. He had no right to wish to bind a young girl to his side. Mark had visions of the Colonel, ten years hence, in a bath chair on an esplanade, with his wife in attendance walking by his side, a youthful martyr, a patient, uncomplaining nurse!
When Miss Lancaster’s name was mentioned casually he glanced at the face of Colonel Troy, but saw no flicker of change in the steady expression. His own heart beat faster, and he knew that the blood rose to his face. His inability to stay his emotion caused him a furious annoyance. Again he resolved that he would not go to the ball, and yet, a little later, he was being borne along swiftly to the meeting he yearned for, yet so dreaded, seated in a roomy brougham with his hostess, Colonel Troy, and the girl he had taken in to dinner, a lively, plain little person dressed as a Pierrette.
The great hall was a blaze of light, and dancing had begun when they arrived. Waiting in the vestibule, with other men, for the ladies of the party to leave the cloak-room, Mark watched through the archways figures that whirled against a background of pink and white festooned draperies, flowers, and palms. He listened to the regular, rapturous swing of a waltz that to him was new though just then the refrain had become popular to satiety. The music, the circling crowd in fantastic garb, the handsome uniforms, the gleam of the polished floor, and the effective decorations gave him a sudden sense of exclusion and loneliness, like a beggar-child gazing into a toy-shop. He had enjoyed so little of his own youth, so small a share of harmless pleasure had been his! Four years ago how keenly he would have taken part in all this merry making.
“Looks rather imbecile, doesn’t it?” said a voice at his side, “a lot of men and women dressing up like this to come and dance with each other!” Colonel Troy was drawing on his gloves with deliberate care. “No wonder the natives call a fancy ball ‘a lunatics’ dance.’ To see them now you’d think none of the men ever did a stroke of work in their lives, and that the women were all of them feather heads.”
“Yet I suppose most of them have the grit and pluck that’s needed out here,” said Mark wearily.
“Look at that ass capering round dressed as a clown!” Colonel Troy followed the ridiculous figure with amused eyes. “He saved the lives of two Sepoys in the last frontier skirmish, and all but lost his own over it. And that little woman over there, dressed in pink—paper, isn’t it? She stayed down with her husband in a famine district all one hot weather, and did the work of at least one Englishman among the people. The sights she saw and the risks she ran must have been appalling. There aren’t many in that room who haven’t been through the Indian mill in some form or another, or who won’t go through it without squeaking when their turn comes. It’s a mercy we can play the fool when there’s nothing else to do.”
Mark did not answer, and the other looked at him for a moment with attention, wondering what sort of experience had made the good-looking young face too old for its years, and taken the smile from the grey eyes. “A youngster with the right stuff in him, but he’s somehow had a rough time,” Troy reflected. “I should like to see him go off and enjoy himself. He ought to be itching to join in the fun, instead of standing there like a stone image.”
Then Colonel Troy turned to meet his hostess and the little trail of women that followed her. They all passed into the ball-room and Mark found Pierrette at his elbow. Mechanically he asked her to dance, explaining that he was out of practice and feared she would find him an indifferent partner.
Of Mrs Jackson Colonel Troy was asking questions about young Rennard. She looked round in search of him.
“Oh! He’s got a partner, I see. That’s all right,” she said. “Where does he come from? Oh! some place right away in the wilds. Clever and hard working and manly, Tom was told. Just the kind of youth Tom likes to get hold of—not the under-sized, spectacled little specimens that are so numerous now. But he’s married, which seems a pity. These young civilians make such a mistake when they start their careers handicapped with domestic responsibilities.”
“Married! By Jove, then perhaps that accounts for it!”
“Accounts for what?”
“The look on his face. I never saw such an old head on young shoulders before, and I was wondering what the reason could be.”
“And of course it must be because he’s married? How like a bachelor!”
“Do you know anything about his wife?”
“Nothing whatever. Come along and finish this waltz with me. We aren’t too aged yet to dance, whatever we may look.”
And Mrs Jackson, still graceful and light and a good dancer, despite her senior position and approaching grey hairs, sailed off with Colonel Troy.
Mark and his partner stopped at the further end of the ball-room, where a raised platform held the band—the red coats showed in patches through a glistening screen of palm leaves. The waltz came to a noisy finish, and the room was emptying.
“How can you say you have forgotten how to dance!” said the girl. “Perhaps you are just a little bit stiff, but in half an hour you will be all right, and quite one of the best. I did enjoy that turn. Some of the men here dance so badly!”
She was popular, in a manner, with men, this commonplace little being; because, in self-defence she had cultivated the power of flattery—a weapon that an ugly woman with intelligence to gauge its subtle strength will sometimes sharpen to a point of allurement that well-nigh counteracts her physical deficiencies. Aggie White was seldom without partners, she was never in the background, she had, as she herself said, “a very good time”, and nobody could ever quite explain why!
Her partner did not appear to be as elated by her praise as she expected. He murmured a polite repudiation and then remained silent. Aggie felt aggrieved. The least this dull young man could do was to ask her for some more dances, since she had implied that it was a pleasure to waltz with him. Her programme was not yet full, all the fault of Mrs Jackson for coming so late—tiresome woman! And there was that odious, conceited Eve Lancaster coming into the room now, refusing dances right and left.
Mark gazed at the slim blue figure that had just entered, that was at once surrounded by men. Then, presently, Eve came drifting down the middle of the ball-room, down the long length of polished boards, answering one man at her right, listening to another at her left, turning to speak to a third over her shoulder; a light sylphic figure, a blue Will o’ the Wisp that surely a puff of wind might waft away.
Miss White saw an excellent opportunity of securing Miss Lancaster’s leavings in the matter of partners. “Oh! come along,” she suggested eagerly, “and let me introduce you to my friend Miss Lancaster. You will appreciate her dancing!”
She was careful not to add that a newcomer would hardly be likely to obtain the favour of a dance from the young lady. She presented Mr Rennard to Miss Lancaster with all formality, and left them facing one another as she turned to angle delicately for names to fill the blank spaces on her card.
So the two who had parted as boy and girl lovers four years ago met again in the middle of a ball-room as though they were strangers; for memory held their lips painfully silent. Eve, all unwarned as she was, could not entirely control her surprise and excitement. She paled, then flushed, and her trembling fingers dropped her fan with the pink programme attached to it. Mark picked it up before the other men could dive forward, and deliberately he looked at the piece of tinted cardboard before he gave it back to her. On it he saw no blank spaces.
Nevertheless he said, in a low voice: “You will give me a dance?”
Without looking at him she nodded, and mentioned a number rather far down. The band struck up a roystering two-step, the room filled quickly, and separation came as a distressful relief to two agitated human beings.
Mark was barely conscious of what he did or said till the number of his waltz with Eve was due. He knew he was dominated by a childishly eager desire to improve his dancing before the one moment of the evening should arrive; that he danced frequently with Miss White and once with Miss Metcalfe when he talked of Eve. Also he went through a set of Lancers with Mrs Jackson. All the time his senses were in a tumult. Hungrily he watched the light figure in blue flit past him in the arms of other men—how he hated those other men! Never before had he quite understood how deep rooted was his love for this girl, how all that was best and purest in his nature had been hers in reality throughout. In spirit he had been ever faithful to her; now he knew that so he must be faithful even to the hour of his death. His love though it had slept under the drug of his passion for Teresa was awake again, clamouring, frenzied; perhaps only the stronger for the repression of the past years. How fruitless, what hardship!—when, long ago, she had ceased to care for him, and he, in his bitterness and lower need, had made another woman his wife! Every note of the music, provocative, stimulating, sung to him of Eve. For him the room held nothing save that gossamer figure with the slender neck and cloud of yellow hair, the filmy blue raiment, and cobweb wings. There was enchantment in the heated air, in the scent of the flowers, in the colour and light and sound about him.
When his turn came he was waiting feverishly. After the last dance he had noted the direction in which she went—went, too, with Colonel Troy! and he watched with strained attention the doorway through which he thought she must re-enter the ball-room. The music began again, a throbbing, disquieting waltz. Was she never coming? Had she forgotten?
Then suddenly he turned and found her close to him, and for the one unguarded moment of relief the truth was in his face, and Eve saw it—saw the love for her and the yearning that had never really ceased.
Quickly he governed himself and said some trifling words, but all his pulses raced unbearably, for it seemed to him that Eve’s eyes and mouth were tender, and the torturing possibility pierced his mind that had he been free she might yet have let him win her for his own.
Neither of them spoke. They moved forward simultaneously, and he passed his arm around her. His arm trembled; he strained his whole will to keep from crushing the slim body to his own as though he would never let go. And then in silence they danced, and danced, to the last quickened notes of the final bars.
As his arm released her the exultation and the glow fell away from Mark, leaving him shivering in spirit, oppressed with hopelessness and dull dread of all that was to come.
As they would have passed out of the ball-room, into the veranda beyond that was dimly lit and enclosed with tent-walls, they met Captain Dustand with Miss Metcalfe his unwilling partner. Norah detained her cousin to inquire how late she intended to stay, and Captain Dustand observed Mark for a moment attentively.
“It’s my friend of the Club veranda, isn’t it? We only saw each other in the dark this evening, but I thought recognized you—dancing away like blazes, though you said you weren’t coming! Take my hoary counsel and hurry up about finding that house for your wife you were talking about. Koranabad’s too full of charming ladies to be safe for a grass widower. Isn’t it Miss Lancaster?
The hand on Mark’s arm moved with little jerk. He felt it and he dared not look at Eve. Miss Metcalfe and her partner went on and he heard Eve suggesting that they should sit on the dais instead of going into the draughty veranda. Her voice sounded artificial. She freed his arm and preceded him to the dais at the top of the room, where the consorts of the General and the Lieutenant-Governor had enthroned themselves till supper should terminate their patronage of the evening. A few sleepy, hungry chaperones, whose daughters meant to keep them there till daybreak, completed a formal semi-circle. Eve sat down on sofa, and patted in cordial fashion the empty place at her side. Mark took it feeling miserable. She turned towards him, the impenetrable mask of good manners and society observance on her face—an agreeable, animated acquaintance, pleased to have met him again.
“How curious,” she said, “that we should find ourselves in the same station. So you are married? I am so glad. I am not, you see! Soon I shall be a hopeless old maid. I suppose you are stationed here. When do you expect your wife? I shall look forward to meeting her very much.”
He realized, bitterly, that this was better, safer, than any explanation.
“I am going to ask my wife to join me as soon as she can,” he said steadily, “not to wait till have found house. We are succeeding the Maycrofts, but their house was already let.”
Eve fanned herself. “How long have you been married?” she asked with civil interest.
“Between three and four years.”
“None.” He felt he could not bring himself to mention Junksie!
His sore heart protested. Why should she torture him like this, powerless as he was in the grip of convention and matrimonial loyalty. He forgot that if Eve had perceived his emotion, and more especially if she had been conscious of any herself, there must have come a revulsion of feeling on her part when she understood that he was married.
Actually, the girl was smarting with mortification and resentment, and she feared desperately lest Mark should guess the truth—the humiliating truth that she had been only too ready to acknowledge her mistake in the past, willing to meet half-way the fealty and love she thought she had surely recognized in his eyes!
“My wife,” he said with an effort, “will find Koranabad a great change after Usapur.”
She winced with the remembrance of the letters she had addressed to Usapur. “I hope Mrs Rennard will like being here,” she said pleasantly. “You must bring her to see us when she arrives, and we will do all we can to help her. I daresay we can be of use in various ways—give her tips about where to hire furniture if she wants any extra, and who to call on to begin with. It’s so bewildering coming to a big station after a small one.”
She pattered on. They discussed houses and deplored the high rents and the lack of satisfactory accommodation. She gave him advice as to locality when house-hunting. And all the time he wondered grimly what Eve would think when she saw his wife, and discovered her to be a Eurasian of low origin and little education, though fleshly beautiful and of amiable disposition. He could not enlighten her without treachery to Teresa, without forcing the understanding that was best avoided. When the next dance began they rose at the same time, and stepped down from the dais. Eve’s next partner claimed her, and Mark withdrew politely.
Heedless of his engagements he got his hat and coat and left the building that was so full of light and revelry. At first he did not realize that there was a moon, the light seemed so faint, so cold, after the blaze of the ball-room. The air was chill and silent, save for the murmur of voices from lines of vehicles at the end of the compound. He went rapidly through the gateway and out into the road, walking in dull desolation without thought of the direction he was taking. He could feel Eve’s slender body against his arm, see every line of her delicate face with the blue eyes set wide apart and the sheen of golden hair above them. Nothing else seemed real to him.
One or two figures muffled in brown blankets or white cotton sheets passed him like phantoms, their bare feet making no sound in the dust. Between the trunks of the great Indian trees on either side of the road the moonlight lay over lawns and gardens, and blackened the shadows of the houses. A long way off a drum was being played, ceaselessly, in perfect rhythm, the monotonous notes pulsing clear and faultless as though beaten by machinery. It brought to Mark’s memory old Nattoo and the pipal tree at Krabganj. It was to the sound of a little drum like this that the tragedy of his life had begun. How was it to end? If he could only escape from Koranabad—even a transfer back to Usapur would be welcome now. But officially another move was impossible for some time to come, and he must live on here striving with his trouble, doing his duty by the woman he had married, tried continually by the sight of the woman he loved, who was forbidden to him.
He wandered on and on, regardless of time or direction. The bungalows ended, and now behind the trees on either side were crops and stretches of bare ground whitened by the moon. He passed through a native suburb, a little gathering of huts that was quiet enough save for a few pariah dogs that foraged in the gutters and barked at him faint-heartedly. Beyond the last hovel a fakir sat erect on the road-side in a Buddha-like attitude, his ash-smeared face and body ghostly in the moonlight. He raised an arm that resembled a thin, leafless branch, and shouted, “Ram! Ram!” in an unearthly voice as the Englishman went by.
It was daybreak before Mark Rennard came back to the hotel, weary, dusty, restless still, and uncomforted. Instead of going to bed he wrote to Teresa and requested her to join him as soon as she could get away.
And while Mark wandered in the moonlight, Eve danced, and laughed, and talked, impelled to reckless distraction by the same unquiet spirit that had driven Mark to pace the road. Colonel Lancaster and his niece went home protesting, but Eve remained under nominal chaperonage till “God Save the King” had been played.
Unmercifully she went into Norah Metcalfe’s room when she got back.
“Norah, wake up! Be a treasure and take off my wings. Ayah would be too sleepy to see if I sent for her. Besides—listen—are you awake? I’ve got some thing to tell you.”
Miss Metcalfe raised a smooth head heavy with long plaits.
“No, I was not asleep. At least,” she added conscientiously, “I don’t think I was. I’ve been worrying too much about you.” Her tone was patiently reproachful.
Eve sat down on the edge of the bed and presented her wings to be unfastened. “Why on earth should you worry about me? I came in partly to tell you that I have accepted Allan Troy, though we are going to keep it dark for the present; so mind you don’t let it out.”
“Eve!” Norah pushed her cousin aside, wings and all, and sprang from the bed. She clasped her hands and raised her eyes to the ceiling. “Oh!” she sighed loudly. “How relieved I am!”
Eve regarded with cynical amusement the substantial figure standing in this attitude of thanksgiving, robed in a very ugly night-dress.
“Why should you be relieved! Don’t be an idiot, Norah!” she said rather crossly. Really, Norah’s antics were very exasperating.
Miss Metcalfe dropped her eyes and her arms to their natural positions, and proceeded to put on a quilted dressing gown. “Perhaps,” she said doubtfully, “I ought not to have betrayed my feelings “—she tied the silk cord about her waist—“but I’ve been in an agony the whole evening.”
“Why? In case I shouldn’t marry Colonel Troy?”
“No, not that so much, though you know I hoped you would make up your mind in the right direction. He is such a worthy man in my opinion. But because—oh! don’t think me interfering again, because I was so nervous about that new man at the ball to-night—that Mr Rennard!”
Eve felt the blood rush through her body. Norah’s words were so entirely unexpected. Apprehensive astonishment held her dumb.
“When I danced with him,” Norah went on more boldly, “he said he came out with you on the same ship about four years ago—your first voyage and his! Of course I couldn’t help thinking of what you told me when we were dressing for the ball, and I observed that he never took his eyes off you the whole evening, and then you danced with him though you said before we started that your card was full, so you must have thrown somebody over for him. And oh! Eve,” her voice rose in shrill distress, “the man’s married! He mentioned his wife!”
Eve recognized that Norah’s agitation was quite as genuine as her curiosity—that she pictured an elopement, a dreadful scandal, the wreck of two lives, everything that was melodramatic and unlikely, and had worked herself up into such a condition of alarm and distrust that she was quite hysterical with relief on hearing her cousin’s news. Eve heartily repented having confided in Norah. She marvelled, now, how she could have been so senseless as to yield to the impulse. Yet who, at the time, could possibly have foreseen such a coincidence! She was the victim of one of those incensing accidents for which one can only blame oneself, while feeling furiously resentful towards that usually malevolent power called Chance.
Eve decided that hypocrisy was unavoidable. She patted her cousin’s fat shoulder good-naturedly, and again presented her wings to be removed. Norah should not have the satisfaction of studying her face.
“Then all your concern and anxiety was wasted, my dear,” she said cheerily. “Even if Mr Rennard were the man there would be no cause for worry on your part, seeing that he is married, and I am engaged. So for goodness sake stop crying, you silly, and undo my wings!”
The wings were taken off, and the cousins kissed each other.
“Well,” said Norah, as she groped under the pillow for her handkerchief, “I’m sure I congratulate you most warmly. And I’m thankful to hear that Mr Rennard is not the other man after all. I hope you feel you can forget him now. But why,” she added, with sudden suspicion, “do you want to keep your engagement to Colonel Troy quiet for the present?”
Eve gathered up wings, fan, cloak, and gloves. “Because for one thing he is off to-morrow for a long tour of inspection, and I prefer to wait till he comes back to have it given out. For another,” she said with malice, “I might change my mind again, and in that case, if the engagement had been made public, I should be talked about even more than I am at present, which I’m sure you wouldn’t wish!”
With that she went quickly into her own room, bolting the communicating door on the outraged Norah. And for an hour afterwards a blue wisp of a figure lay on the bed crying silently and angrily into the pillow.
A few days later Teresa came to Koranabad in accordance with Mark’s desire, and he met her at the station.
At first the crowd of arriving and departing native passengers was so dense that he failed to see his wife, but as the platform cleared he recognized the face of their head servant, and beyond the man, with her back to the refreshment room door, was Teresa surrounded with luggage.
Heavens, what luggage! In addition to boxes of all sizes, there were bundles tied up in bath towels, in horse blankets, in cotton druggets and mats; actually there was a zinc bath filled with loose articles, probably collected at the last moment. And heaped together were sticks and umbrellas, coats, and sun hats, plants in pots, a bird in a cage, a cat mewing in a basket. The sweeper stood holding three dogs that dragged at their chains and barked deafeningly. Also there were various pieces of furniture. Evidently Teresa had brought everything with her that had not been sold. The servants were present in a body, and their luggage, an indescribable assortment, added to the jumble.
This was not at all what Mark had intended or anticipated when he wrote to summon his wife to Koranabad sooner than had been originally intended. He could not control a spasm of impatience as he looked upon the chaos before him. Teresa should have brought only her personal belongings besides her ayah, and a table servant. She should have left their capable headman at Usapur to auction off the rubbish and follow later, when a house had been found at Koranabad, with the rest of the staff, and the animals, and what ever might have seemed worth the keeping. What was to be done now with all this encumbrance? And accommodation would have to be provided for the servants too. How stupid of Teresa.
He shouldered his way through the lessening crowd, and by the time he reached his wife the platform was comparatively clear of passengers. He noticed that Teresa was very untidy. Her hair was coming down, her hat was on one side, a large triangular hole had been torn in her skirt. She looked nearly as dishevelled as she had done that afternoon at Krabganj station, so long ago, when he had first spoken to her.
He almost expected to see Junksie clinging to her dress. Till she perceived him coming towards her, the same bewildered forlorn expression was on her face. Then, in a moment, her magnificent eyes brightened, the rich colour flushed her cheeks, the red lips parted, showing the line of even, gleaming teeth. At once Teresa was beautiful again, despite her dishevelment and travel stains, and Mark knew that the sudden transformation had been brought about solely by the sight of himself. Perhaps he realized at that moment more than on any previous occasion how intense and ineffable was her devotion. It weighed on him now as an unwelcome responsibility; a feeling of protest, of foreboding, oppressed him profoundly. To wound her, to disturb her faith in his affection would be infinitely cruel; he quailed to think should accident ever reveal to her his true mental position.
“Oh! Mark!” she cried joyously, and her accent seemed more pronounced than ever. “How I am glad you are come to meet me! How I am pleased to see you. It has been such a fatigue this journey. And so long! All the way I was saying to myself, ‘Oh! my! Where is this Koranabad! ’ But now at last I am here, and with you once more.”
Regardless of spectators she threw her arms about his neck and kissed him with fervour, almost sobbing in her relief and delight.
And when she released him, and he looked round, uneasily self-conscious, he saw to his annoyance and discomfiture Miss Lancaster and Miss Metcalfe coming down the platform from the parcels office! They must pass close to where he stood with Teresa, and the servants, and all this horrible paraphernalia, and he watched the approaching figures in sullen resignation. Eve looked so exquisitely fresh, so neat, so active in her white serge coat and skirt, and becoming straw hat, her wash-leather gloves, and little brown shoes. She did not stop, for which he thanked her inwardly, but nodded and smiled, and pointed to the large package she had evidently come to the station to claim, carried in her wake by a coolie. Of course she must guess that Teresa was his wife, not only from Teresa’s manner of greeting him, but because the previous evening, during a formal little chat with Miss Lancaster at the Club, he had mentioned that he expected his wife the following afternoon. Mark had no suspicion that Eve deliberately timed her quest for the parcel with the arrival of the mail train that would probably bring Mrs Rennard to Koranabad, yet it must be admitted that she actually had been guilty of the manoeuvre.
“That woman,” observed Norah Metcalfe, as the two girls left the station, “must have been Mrs Rennard?”
Eve did not answer. She got into her smart little Ralli cart, and the parcel was stowed away under the seat. She gathered up the reins and the pony gave a bound forward.
“Do be careful!” protested Norah, who was nervous. When satisfied that there was to be no accident she repeated: “That woman must have been Mrs Rennard?”
“It’s to be hoped she was, considering the embrace she gave him!” said Eve.
“I thought her a very odd-looking person, didn’t you?”
Again Eve said nothing. Her thoughts were in confusion. Why had Mark married this woman who was obviously “dark,” obviously below him in station? Out of pique? Or had she entrapped him? Intuitively Eve had known, from the night of the ball, that there was something wrong in Mark’s domestic atmosphere, that the woman he had married did not hold his love.
And now she pitied him deeply, felt dismayed at the prospect of the possible social difficulties in store for him. She forgot that to the male mind these same social difficulties might not appear so important. Whatever his matrimonial circumstances, the company of his own sex is seldom debarred to a man, and purely masculine sports and amusements are always available—a point of view that a woman would hardly consider when just confronted with a problem such as Mark Rennard’s marriage seemed likely to present.
“What do you suppose is wrong with her?” persisted Norah. “Perhaps she is an East Indian? I suppose you and Uncle John would say ‘half-caste!’” she concluded severely. Then as Eve made no defence she continued: “Miss Smoothy, the Zenana Mission lady, tells me that “half-caste” is not a polite term towards people who have a mixture of dark and white blood in them, and that Eurasian is not much better. We ought to say East Indians.”
“Why not say Europeans while we are about it,” snapped Eve, “and give them the benefit of the doubt?”
“Poor things—they are a terrible problem, and, as Miss Smoothy says, a disgrace to our rule! If Mrs Rennard is one of them don’t you think we ought to do all in our power, Eve dear, to show her that we don’t mind—that we intend to be just as nice to her, whatever other people may say or do?”
“To patronize her openly you mean? I think it would be just as insulting as if we called her a half-caste, or a Eurasian, or even an East Indian to her face!”
This rather mystified the well-intentioned Norah who exclaimed. “How prejudiced you are!”
“I hope not,” said Eve simply. “But I don’t think we need agitate ourselves about Mrs Rennard’s feelings. As the wife of a Civilian her official position anywhere in India is assured, and how she is accepted socially depends on herself. If she is a lady, educated and well-mannered, nobody will dream of patronizing or ignoring her, or think twice about her dark blood except to admire her for not being ashamed of it. But it’s very seldom nowadays that these people are born in our own rank of life—for a man to marry one of them out here is generally like marrying into the shop girl class at home.”
“I heard Uncle John say the other day that lots of the big officials years ago married native ladies and nobody minded!” said Norah.
“Yes, but they don’t do it now, and the descendants of those marriages after one generation nearly all deteriorated and sank to a much lower level. There is something fatal in a mixture of Eastern and Western blood, one can’t deny though, of course, there are excellent exceptions. A good native is as good in his own way as a good Englishman, but mix the two races and after one generation there nearly always comes disaster.”
“Then, do you think that Mrs Rennard—is—is—”
“An East Indian? Yes, do.”
“I wonder why he married her,” said Norah, with human curiosity.
It was precisely the question that was tormenting her cousin, though curiosity alone was not at the root of Eve’s desire for the answer.
“Well, I must say that I should like to hold out a friendly hand to her!” Norah Metcalfe burned with the mischievous spirit of interference that so often masquerades as an angel of benevolence.
“There nothing to prevent your doing so,” said Eve pleasantly.
As the two girls passed along the platform and out of sight, Teresa inquired who they were, and Mark told her.
“I came out on board ship with Miss Lancaster, the one in white,” he said with guarded indifference, “it was her first voyage as well as mine.” Then he turned his attention to the accumulation of servants and animals, boxes and furniture.
“They looked different, those two, from the ladies at Usapur—somehow,” said Teresa.
Mark was of the same opinion, though he was unable to explain the reason—that detachment from the world, even the limited world of Anglo-India, is inevitably demoralizing where feminine appearance is in question—that without incentive it needs an exceedingly vain, or an exceedingly strong-minded woman to maintain an immaculate standard of elegance. Generally the ladies of such places as Usapur feel under no provocation to do more than freshen up their old garments, or have them copied by a native tailor in the veranda.
Teresa was quite lively during the drive from the station to the hotel in a dilapidated hired vehicle, that rattled along a well-kept road with prosperous-looking bungalows and gardens on either side.
“Oh!” this makes me think of Calcutta!” she said in animated satisfaction. “I am sure there will be lots of fun and parties. I shall have to go round and call, and all that, h’n? like the high people in Calcutta! h’n, Mark?”
The hired conveyance rattled and jolted so violently that Teresa had to shout the question, and she grasped her husband’s hand to further engage his attention.
“Yes, I suppose you will have to pay some calls,” he said rather wearily. “This Indian custom of the newcomer calling first always seems to me a bit rough on the newcomer! but I daresay in a country where there is supposed to be no class distinction among Government servants it’s the best method of announcing that one has arrived in a place.”
Teresa hardly followed him. All she gathered was that calling would be expected of her, and she looked forward to the duty with unquestioning pleasure.
“What would happen, Mark dear, if I paid no calls?” she inquired.
“Nothing would happen,” he said, and felt ashamed of the hope that arose within him. Did Teresa wish to forgo society?
“But it would be bad for you, though, in your position if I did not call?” she suggested pretentiously.
He could hardly assure her that, in reality, it would be far better for him! “You must please yourself, dear,” he said. “Of course if you would rather not know a lot of people—”
“Oh! but I shall enjoy! she interrupted with complacency, “and we shall go out such a lot—to concerts, and the band, and all. How jealous Irene and Saucy will be, h’n?—ready to tear out my eyes, I know! Can I get some new clothes, Mark? Mine are very dowdee for a big station.”
“Of course. Get what you want, you know you can. Only remember how I hate bright colours, Teresa, won’t you?”
Teresa sighed. “Yes, I will remember. But, oh! what a pity you have such a dull taste, Mark dear, and do not care for stylish and gay things!”
Mark felt a sudden apprehension that the change to a large station might have an undesirable effect upon his wife. Teresa without her diffidence, her inoffensive silence, her really charming tranquillity might become hopelessly aggressive—a sort of glorified Irene or Saucy! His spirits sank the lower as Teresa’s seemed to rise. Elated and excited with her new surroundings, relieved to have ended the tedious journey, enchanted to be with her husband again after their first separation, she chattered and questioned and made impossible plans all the way to the hotel.
That evening, after dinner, he tried to warn her. A wood fire had been lighted in their bedroom, and Teresa was unpacking without method, or seemingly any progress. The floor, the chairs, the two beds, were strewn with a variety of articles—clothes, house-linen, books, stores, ornaments, and a multitude of odds and ends.
“Why don’t you unpack one box before you begin another?” Mark inquired in mild exasperation.
At first he had tried to help her, but now, in despair, he abandoned her to muddle by herself, while he reclined in a clumsy armchair that had a sloping seat and two long wooden arms like paddles, on which glasses, books, human legs or anything else could be rested with confidence.
Teresa, barbarically handsome in a crimson dressing-gown, deserted her boxes and crouched on a cushion at his feet.
“I do not know why,” she said placidly, and yawned. “But as long as the things we shall want are taken out what does it mat-ter?”
“But you seem to have packed anyhow?” he protested.
“Well, the things were packed,” said Teresa vaguely, a statement that certainly could not be refuted. “In a house it will be all right.”
“Yes. We must decide on a house as soon as possible. I’ve marked down one or two. I’ll take you to look at them to-morrow afternoon.”
“And when shall I do my card-calling?”
“Oh! that can wait till we are settled. There’s no great hurry, and look here, Teresa,” he kicked nervously with his heel at a log of wood, and sparks flew crackling up the chimney—“I want you to try and bear in mind that the people you will meet here are not quite like the people you knew in Calcutta. They are quite a different—different—” he fell back on the Hindustani for class, “jat. And perhaps it would be better if at first you kept rather chup.” Again he used, in desperation, a Hindustani word meaning quiet, silent. As a hint to keep in the background for the present Teresa would understand it better, and resent it less. “Give yourself time to see how the other women dress and what they do and where they go, and all that. You see what I mean, dear, don’t you?—I—”
He hesitated, and looked at her in helpless apology. He despised himself because he could not accept her as she was without criticism. He knew he should find it impossible to present her to Koranabad society, to Eve Lancaster, and feel no sense of humiliation. He knew he could not rise above the situation because he did not love Teresa with his heart, or with his intellect, because her attraction for him had never been anything but physical.
Something for the time had quickened Teresa’s brain, perhaps the responsibility of the move, the necessity for action, or the change, and the prospect of a gay existence. At any rate she understood him more quickly and with less difficulty than usual. A great doubt that was almost fear proclaimed itself in her face. She edged nearer to him till she was kneeling at his side, her hands on his knees, as though claiming his protection from some but half-scented danger.
“Oh! Mark, will they all say you ought not to have married me? Will it be bad for you if I do not seem like the other ladies here?”
He realized with sharp compunction that her first concern had been for him, entirely. He hated himself as he reassured her, saying it was for her sake only that he had given her the hint—people were so unkind, so ready to pick holes and find fault. It was best to be on the safe side till she got to know some nice women in the place who would give her their help and advice. (What else could he now do, short of telling Teresa he was ashamed of her?)
“You will tell me things too, Mark?” she said anxiously. “I will not do anything unless I first ask you.”
His answering kiss seemed to comfort her. Happily she could not know that it was a kiss of contrition.
She laid her head down on her husband’s knee, silent through sheer perplexity of mind, for dimly she had begun to realize that there was more to be considered in a big station than amusement, than the delights of concerts, the band, paying visits, wearing smart clothes. There was that mysterious atmosphere called society, in which her most harmless sayings and doings might be condemned, might brand her as Mark’s unequal in class and education. How should she know just what to say and do? Never before had she considered the question, and now she was filled with distrust of her own capabilities. A vague sense of insecurity harassed her. She wished they had never been transferred from Usapur where people knew the worst about her and were kind just the same. All her child-like pleasure and eager anticipation was clouded.
And then an awe-struck gratitude and wonder welled up within her that Mark should have chosen her for his wife; that he loved her with all her drawbacks, though in every way she was so far beneath him. She vowed confusedly to herself that she would work hard to be like the other ladies of the station—she would watch how they behaved. Indeed she would exert herself, even to the studying of the hard books Mark wanted her to like. She hoped she might find some one of her own sex in Koranabad who would befriend her, and help her over many little difficulties that might be beyond Mark’s power to remedy though he would know that there was something wrong.
The face of the girl in white serge, Miss Lancaster, who had come out from England in the same ship as Mark—who had passed them on the platform this afternoon—pervaded her memory. Intuitively she felt that anyone Miss Lancaster might choose to favour would gain a rare and loyal friend.
She fell asleep with her head on Mark’s knee, and he sat motionless, gloomy, staring into the fire, his heart gentle with pity towards her, yet bewailing bitterly his own false position, yearning for the supreme companionship that he had missed, that now he could never know. The musky scent of some native oil rose from Teresa’s hair, drawn out by the warmth of the fire. It seemed to him symbolical of her indolent, voluptuous nature that was seductive yet noxious; and then, immediately, he repented the thought and tried to atone for it. He recalled and dwelt upon Teresa’s single-hearted devotion, and simplicity, her trust and belief in him. He knew there was nothing in her power she would not do for his sake if necessity arose.
Presently she sobbed in her sleep. The unhappy little sound distressed him acutely. He laid his hand on her shoulder: “What’s the matter, Teresa?” he said tenderly.
She stirred, and murmured something. Then lifted her head and rubbed her eyes, like a child, with her knuckles.
“Oh! I had such a teasing dream,” she said fretfully.
“Tell me what it was.”
She hesitated. “It is better not to tell a dream at night, unless it has been told already in the day. The Bibi always said—”
“Oh! Teresa!” he sighed in resigned remonstrance. He knew by experience that nothing would ever shake her superstitious beliefs, and he had long since ceased to argue with her on such matters.
“It will be all right, though, if I tell my dream to the lamp, not to you.”
She shifted her position, so that she could lean her shoulders against his knees and turn her face to the bracket-lamp on the wall above the mantel-piece. She spoke towards it.
“My dream was that I was trying and trying to climb up a big hill, all rocks and stones, and so steep. And Mark was at the top and I wanted to get with him. But I was always slipping and falling, and no higher, and my feet and my hands were all hurt and sore. I would not desist, but went on trying, and Mark did not see me or hear when I called and cried. And then somebody came and caught hold of my arm to pull me up. It was the lady at the station in white serge, and her face was so pretty and kind. She gave me her arm, but somehow we did not get on up hill, and in despair I began to cry, and then I woke up.”
She turned her eyes from the lamp to Mark’s face. “That was my dream,” she said, “and I am wondering what is the meaning? The Bibi could tell me, or Chandi, if they were here. They know all about dreams, and what is good and bad meaning in them. I think I will write to Saucy Joseph and get her to go out to Krabganj and ask the Bibi—”
“It means nothing, of course,” said Mark testily, “except that you are tired and ought to be in bed. Call your ayah, and get some of this mess cleared away.”
But Teresa had not the smallest doubt that her dream held some special significance, and, of course, the portent became perfectly plain when, next midday, the visiting cards of Colonel and Miss Lancaster were brought to her. She was lying on her bed looking at a fashion paper, and hastily she put on her dress and attempted to tidy her hair. Then hurried into the private sitting-room Mark had engaged, a bare little apartment with coarse matting and a cheap drugget on the floor, a large round table that sloped drunkenly, and half a dozen wicker chairs.
Miss Lancaster was sitting there alone. With diplomacy and difficulty she had eluded her cousin and set out to make this particular call by herself. Eve had neither resisted nor questioned the incentive that led her to visit Mark Rennard’s wife in defiance of Anglo-Indian custom which decrees that the newcomer should pay the first call. She only felt, after she had seen Teresa at the station, that it would be an act of consideration towards the man; also she had an unconquerable desire to know the worst!
“I hope,” began Eve in friendly apology, “you won’t think it strange of me to call first, like this? But I daresay your husband has told you we are old acquaintances—we knew each other on board ship, though we have never met since till he came here.”
“Oh! yess,” said Teresa vacantly, and the other perceived, with relief, that Mark had not revealed the true extent of their “acquaintanceship” to his wife.
“I thought you might be glad to know somebody to begin with. Your husband told me you had no friends here, and a big station can be very lonely till one begins to know people. You will find Mr and Mrs Jackson very kind.”
But Teresa did not listen. She was absorbed instead with all the details of Miss Lancaster’s attire, wondering how she contrived to look so distinguished the while she was so simply dressed. Then she stared admiringly at her visitor’s face.
“I saw you,” she interrupted irrelevantly, “at the railway, yesterday.”
“Yes,” Eve said, feeling slightly embarrassed, “my cousin, Miss Metcalfe, and I called to fetch a parcel.”
She went on to try and make pleasant converse about houses and transfers and journeys, till she realized that she was simply soliloquizing, for Mrs Rennard made not the smallest attempt at rejoinder. She just sat inertly and gazed.
In truth Teresa was not attending to a word of the small talk Miss Lancaster was kindly exerting herself to produce. All the time she was recalling what Mark had said to her the previous evening, remembering her own subsequent thoughts, retracing her curious dream.
There was a pause, and Eve Lancaster prepared to go. She felt impatient with this woman who seemed so hopelessly dull and apathetic, though undeniably she was handsome in spite of her slovenly appearance. Teresa continued to sit still, even after the visitor had risen. Then she held up her hands in a gesture of entreaty, and out came a rush of incoherent sentences.
Bewildered and astonished Eve stood and listened to an unintelligible appeal that apparently was connected with a dream, with clothes, with the way to behave! But presently she put down her parasol, and drew a chair close to Teresa’s side; she had recognized distress and misgiving and supplication in the extraordinary outburst, and she was ready to comprehend, if this were possible, and to give sympathy. Then Teresa began to cry, and it was a long time before Eve could discover exactly what it all meant. Patiently she listened and asked questions. She heard all about the dream, and about Mark’s goodness, and Teresa’s qualms as to her own shortcomings. Gradually she understood, and before she went away she knew a great deal more than Teresa had been able to tell her in words.
She guessed how Mark’s marriage had come about; she realized his position and deplored it deeply. Also she pitied Teresa, suffering dully in this new consciousness of incapacity and disadvantage, so pathetically and helplessly intent on becoming, if only in a measure, more worthy of her husband in the sight of other people. She divined, too, the strength and passion of Teresa’s love for Mark Rennard, and that, as yet, no fear of his alienation had entered her heart.
Eve drove away from the hotel in the hard, midday sunshine, thoughtful and oppressed. She had committed herself—promised her guidance and friendship to Mrs Rennard, and except where proposals of marriage were concerned Eve Lancaster did not break her promises. But she was ruefully aware that in all probability a most tiresome ordeal lay before her; she was aware, too, that she was willing to meet it for the sake of Mark Rennard, not merely out of good-will towards Teresa his wife.
Koranabad society was vaguely perplexed by the cordial relations that appeared to arise betweens the Rennards and the Lancasters; not that the Colonel himself favoured the newcomers in any active fashion, but his daughter and his niece seemed obviously disposed to “take up” the young civilian’s wife, and so preserve her from the complete obscurity that otherwise must inevitably have overtaken her, seeing that she had no accomplishments, did not ride or play games, and was very dull company. Also that her beauty was of the description that may well be admired but is seldom envied in India.
Two months had passed since the day of Eve’s first call on Teresa in the Koranabad hotel, and people had begun to realize that it was Miss Lancaster who had arranged Mrs Rennard’s drawing-room so tastefully in the little house down by the native cavalry lines; that the two had been seen, not once but several times, shopping together at the chief English emporium—the one that received consignments of the latest fashions every month from London, and, for the hot weather, migrated haughtily with its European staff to an important hill station. It was noticed, too, that Mrs Rennard was occasionally included in Miss Lancaster’s exclusive little tea-parties at the Club. And sometimes she was bidden to other select reunions principally because she often chanced to be at Miss Lancaster’s elbow at the moment of invitation, and the girl seemed in some intangible manner to prompt the courtesy.
Mr Rennard was not often seen at the Club. He belonged, evidently, to that order of Anglo-Indian male who, when not kept late at work, seeks violent exercise, and prefers a subsequent hot bath and comfortable change of garments to loitering at tea-parties or sitting at the card table.
At first Mrs Rennard was accepted without much comment or interest as an inoffensive addition to the official community. She outraged no particular conventions. So her calls were returned, though leisurely as befitted her junior position, and she and her unobtrusive husband were invited to garden-parties and such like mild entertainments with the general crowd. No special notice was taken of them one way or the other.
But in time it was discovered that Mr Rennard was actually an acquisition. He danced and rode well, played polo, was good at tennis, and cricket, and racquets. Both sexes found the man congenial and his wife a difficulty. Then, when they realized that whatever advantages—negative though they were—Mrs Rennard seemed to possess she owed practically to Miss Lancaster’s influence, they felt they had somehow been outwitted. They felt that if anyone was required to god-mother Mrs Rennard it should be the wife of a man in her husband’s own service; Mrs Jackson, of course, for choice. A lively unmarried girl was certainly not the right person for such an undertaking.
Aggie White concerned herself particularly with the problem. She considered that the unapproachable Eve Lancaster would have done far better to extend her intimacy to Miss White, her contemporary and equal, whose father commanded the native infantry at Koranabad, rather than to a stupid creature some years her senior who was obviously not of her own class and had never been out of India!
At the Government House garden-party Aggie sat by Mrs Jackson after a game of badminton, and commented on the fact that Mrs Rennard had just arrived in company with Eve and Miss Metcalfe.
“I can’t understand what Eve sees in that woman,” the girl added with resentment. “People won’t tolerate it much longer. She’ll have to chose between the station and Mrs Rennard.”
“Oh! I expect Eve only wishes to be kind,” said Mrs Jackson good-naturedly, “or Mrs Rennard may be interesting or amusing and the rest of us haven’t found it out yet. I must admit she bores me to death, and how anyone can put up with her company for any time passes my understanding. If I were that nice husband of hers I am sure I should beat her, or desert her. I really do think that the patience and virtue of most men in this world is nothing short of astonishing. My husband now—what a life I lead him! and yet he adores me!”
She looked round complacently, and laughed as she caught Captain Dustand’s gaze fixed on her with quizzical gravity.
“I agree with you,” he said, and took the nearest empty chair. “And I, also, applaud Rennard’s exemplary behaviour towards his wife. Did you observe that he danced with her nearly the whole evening at the Civilians’ ball?”
“And she certainly can’t dance,” said Miss White.
He shrugged his shoulders expressively. “That’s just it. I danced with her once, to my cost, and I shouldn’t have done that only Miss Lancaster wouldn’t dance with me herself unless I promised to ask Mrs Rennard.”
“You don’t say so! Well, I never!”
“At any rate,” interposed Mrs Jackson, “the poor lady’s drawbacks seem to be all negative as well as her virtues. As far as I understand she can’t dance, can’t ride, can’t talk, can’t do anything—”
“Except hang on to Eve Lancaster,” said Miss White.
“And on the other hand, nobody can say she is rude or disagreeable, or pushing, or fast, or anything that really matters.”
“She’s not clever enough to be fast” said Miss White. Then, with a spiteful little laugh, as if the last word had suggested her following remark: “I should think Eve Lancaster would try the patience of any man she married, and I suspect Colonel Troy thought so too, for apparently he went off on a long inspection tour without having proposed after all.”
“How do you know he didn’t propose?” inquired Captain Dustand truculently. “It’s much more likely he was refused and rushed away to try and recover from the blow.”
Miss White shook her head and pursed up her thin lips. “I have my own opinion,” she said darkly.
“I’m sure nobody wishes to deprive you of it,” was Captain Dustand’s not very polite retort.
Miss White pretended she had not heard and turned to Mrs Jackson apparently unruffled
“Talking of the Rennards,” she said brightly, “I do so admire Mr Rennard, don’t you? He has such a delightful mouth and chin, like the smart young men in Punch. “I love a clean-shaven man,” she added with emphasis—Captain Dustand having a thick moustache.
“Do you?” he said eagerly. “What is his name?”
“Now don’t spar, you two,” interrupted Mrs Jackson. “And talking of moustaches instead of the Rennards I must tell you of a most extraordinary thing I heard the other day. A man had one side of his upper lip destroyed somehow, and they patched it up with chicken skin so that you could hardly see any difference. But after a little while, to his horror, feathers grew one side and a moustache the other.”
“I suppose he didn’t fly, by any chance?” asked Captain Dustand innocently. And Miss White, having suppressed her slight irritation, laughed in such whole hearted fashion as could not fail to be agreeable to any author of a facetious remark.
So it was an amicable little company that received Miss Lancaster, Miss Metcalfe, and Mrs Rennard when this lately arrived trio halted beside Mrs Jackson. Captain Dustand brought forward more basket chairs, and they sat idly talking and watching the various games that contributed movement, and colour, and life to the wide green lawns.
A little band of badminton enthusiasts presently joined them, discussing the game they had just finished, intent on securing Mrs Jackson’s co-operation in a proposed tournament. These people were of the more senior community in Koranabad—the General, a Judge of the High Court and his lady, the Commissioner’s wife, Colonel Lancaster, and Aggie White’s father, who was considered the Koranabad champion, and one or two others. All of them rather too elderly, rather too heavy, perhaps, for the violence of tennis, yet active enough to play badminton with zest, serving with ferocity into each other’s faces, jumping and smiting with unquenchable energy. They intermingled now with the semi-circle already established, and there was fetching of extra chairs, and a good deal of bustle and talk before they were all settled.
“I always like these semi-official entertainments,” Mrs Jackson remarked, to nobody in particular. “They are so amusing, and I’m sure it ought to give one a sense of reflected pleasure to see how the “betwixt-and-betweens” enjoy themselves. They do so delight in putting on their best clothes and their company manners, and trailing about in gangs. They simply exude satisfaction. Do look at the Maleet crew—they have all come. Aren’t they a picture!”
A large family party was progressing laboriously across the lawn. An old man with a dark, wrinkled face and a snow-white beard shuffled along in badly-made clothes, yet with a certain alert self-confidence in his bearing. His wife waddled beside him, very fat, very magnificent in purple silk, with a large, expressionless face the colour of porridge. There was a middle-aged female in brown velveteen. And two girls dressed alike, in blue, making self-conscious conversation one with the other. Behind them came a truly dreadful youth, flashy, self-satisfied, who escorted a girl in a vivid pink frock and a hat that was overwhelming.
An ill-assorted crowd of flowers, feathers, lace, ribbon, tulle, velvet, paste ornaments, etc., seemed to have been taking refuge on the top of the young lady’s head as though unexpectedly united by some common danger.
“I believe I danced with one of those blue girls at the Volunteer ball the other night,” cried Captain Dustand. “We went through the most amazing antics in a dance I had never heard of before. I forget now what it was called, but the correct thing was to scrape on the floor with one foot, at intervals, “like a fowl, and then turn slowly round and round—”
“Old Maleet is really quite a dear old man,” said Mrs Jackson, not attending to Captain Dustand’s recollections. “Everybody likes and respects him. He was in Koranabad at the time of the Mutiny and I believe behaved splendidly.”
“How unlike a kerani! You can’t be sure of them as a rule, though, of course, like this old hero, they have been known to play up in a tight place. I think it’s timidity of nature rather than actual cowardice that makes them unreliable—”
Captain Dustand checked his speech abruptly, for Mrs Jackson had moved her foot as though to give him a surreptitious kick. He stared at her in helpless dismay after one swift, uneasy glance in Mrs Rennard’s direction. But Teresa had not stirred. She was gazing intently at the Maleet party.
“Heavens!” he murmured, “I forgot! But I don’t think she heard?”
Mrs Jackson felt that at least, as a precaution, speech might be more tactful than a guilty silence. “Oh! well,” she said naturally, ignoring his whisper, “of course timidity, or cowardice, or whatever you like to call it, is a failing to be found all over the world. It isn’t confined to one race.”
Unluckily Norah Metcalfe had been listening to the conversation, though the moment of embarrassment had escaped her notice, and cause for discomfiture had not occurred to her any more than it had occurred to Captain Dustand previous to Mrs Jackson’s dumb warning.
“Oh! dear Mrs Jackson,” she cried impetuously, in her high, assertive voice, “how glad I am to hear you speak like that! I do so loathe the injustice of race prejudice. Surely one human being is equal to another in God’s sight, and just because a person may happen to have Eastern as well as Western blood in them it is shameful, yes, nothing less than shameful, to look down on them, to handicap them with contempt, to brand them as cowards and liars and pariahs—”
Colonel Lancaster broke in hastily. “It depends entirely on the quality of the Eastern as well as the Western blood, and the effect of intermingling on individual character—”
But nobody heeded him. Involuntarily they all looked with deprecation at Mrs Rennard, realizing her presence. She sat immovable, and then Norah Metcalfe made matters infinitely worse.
“Oh! Mrs Rennard!” she exclaimed regretfully. “What must you think of us! I am sure nobody would ever dream—”
She stammered and gasped, as Mrs Rennard turned with an uncertain smile that had in it a pathetic mingling of unconscious apology and ill-assumed ignorance. Teresa’s principle feeling was anxiety to create by her manner the belief that she had not heard, or at any rate had not understood. But though Teresa perhaps suffered actually less than the rest of the company, she produced a most painful impression; for she looked like a child craving pardon for some fault committed unwittingly.
“Oh! Lord!” groaned Captain Dustand under his breath, “why can’t the woman laugh it off, or get into a rage, or do anything but look like that!”
Relief came unexpectedly from the Maleet quarter, for at that moment the young lady in pink deserted her companions and darted towards Mrs Rennard holding out both her hands—encased, by the way, in crimson silk gloves. Teresa rose nervously from her chair.
“Oh! my!” she said, breathless and confused. “Why—Saucy!”
Yes, it was Saucy Joseph on a visit to her friends the Maleets at Koranabad. She had arrived only that morning, as she informed Teresa in shrill accents. “And I did not write because I thought I would surprise you!”
The young lady gazed interestedly at Mrs Rennard’s companions, seated in a row with stony faces; even Norah Metcalfe was petrified by the invasion. The Maleet party approached diffidently. There was silence save for the piercing voice of Mrs Rennard’s friend.
“Oh! Teresa. Oh! my! You have got a swell. Irene will be ready to burst with envy when I describe. Dressed in new fashions, sitting with all the select—a regular burra-mem, h’n?”
She laughed affectedly; then looked with unmistakable approval at Captain Dustand, who got up and hastened towards the refreshment tent. Mrs Jackson also left her chair and went forward to speak to old Mr Maleet, and as she exchanged civilities with him the rest of his party surrounded Mrs Rennard and Saucy Joseph to listen in smiling, gratified silence to their conversation.
“You must come and see me,” said Teresa, her disconcerting dignity dissolving beneath Saucy’s blandishments. The girl’s laudation was consolatory, the sight of her familiar face a real pleasure—the more so because poor Teresa was aching with a dull resentment against “the select,” among whom she had felt at such a disadvantage since her arrival at Koranabad, and this afternoon more definitely than hitherto. It was a treat to speak with someone who would accept everything she did and said with appreciation instead of with silent criticism. Teresa surrendered to the enjoyment of the moment.
“Yess—yess—I will come!” cried Saucy. “And tell you all the news from Krabganj and Usapur. You know know Howard and Irene have got a new baby? Such a little frog,” Saucy laughed loudly and threw out her hands. “Howard is so cross because it is another girl, and so is Irene. I think they are calling it Teresa, after you! Usapur is more dull than ever; there is not much to tell you from there.”
“Koranabad is a gay place,” observed Teresa carelessly. Not for the world would she have had Saucy guess how lonely she felt in “the gay place,” or how irksome she found the observances of official life in a large station. “We go to a great many parties and things.”
“But Lovey Maleet said you were not at the Wolunteer ball! I was asking her, just now, were you at it, before saw you. Were you seedee? or what? Saucy could not credit that anyone would willingly forgo such treat. For herself, she had bitterly regretted being unable to time her visit so as to include the ball.
“No,” said Teresa limply, “we did not goh!”
Involuntarily she glanced towards Eve Lancaster, who had been the means of preventing Teresa from attending the ball in question. Almost had there been war between them on the subject; for Teresa had hankered after a festivity that would savour of old days in Calcutta, where well-remembered dances would form the programme. Mazurkas, Valseviennas, “Valeetas” d’ Alberts (pronounced Dee-Alberts by Teresa’s old partners) and so forth—where people would be really gay and friendly. She felt so awkward at the entertainments provided by the class to which she was now supposed to belong. And this meeting with Saucy revived the vague rebellion she had felt against Miss Lancaster’s disapproval of her attendance at the ball.
In truth Eve had found it a delicate matter to manoeuvre. She could hardly explain directly to Mrs Rennard that of all people she should be the last in the station to appear at such a mixed assemblage. In all probability she would meet old acquaintances; she might forget herself—forget what was due to her position as Mark’s wife; for him a hundred little humiliations might ensue. But Eve could do no more than give her advice without very definite reasons, and to her relief, Mrs Rennard had followed though plainly under protest.
Teresa’s glance attracted the attention of Saucy towards Miss Lancaster.
“Who that?” she inquired, “she looks very stuck up!”
Then Saucy giggled, and whispered, and winked till Eve thought it time the scene was ended. She approached Mrs Rennard. “Are you coming to have some tea before we go?” she said easily.
Teresa hesitated. She wanted to talk to Saucy, yet she knew it would be more judicious to remain in Miss Lancaster’s company; at the same time she divined that the latter was trying to influence her with regard to Saucy as she had influenced her about the ball, intangibly yet firmly.
“Oh! stay with us, Teresa dear!” urged Saucy with an impudent look at Eve. “We aren’t going to have tea, or going away yet. It is better to walk about first and see all the games and the people. Then tea and go.”
She put her arm through Teresa’s and drew her into the thick of the Maleet group. Eve made no further effort; she joined Mrs Jackson and the badminton players in a quest for refreshment.
Norah Metcalfe hung back. She had always believed that it was she alone who had prevailed on her cousin to countenance Mrs Rennard, and now she desired to display her approbation of what appeared to her to be an example of courage and loyalty on Mrs Rennard’s part in refusing to neglect old friends. She stepped towards the Maleet party.
“Now here is another of them interrupting!” said Saucy, so loudly that Miss Metcalfe could not fail to hear the words. “Do not mind her—fat thing!” And then actually Teresa laughed!
Indignant and mortified Norah retired to the shelter of the marquee where tea was laid out. Eve had observed the incident, though she was too far away to catch Saucy’s remark.
“Well?” she said with a smile, “were you snubbed too?”
“An ill-bred creature—that girl in pink!” sniffed Norah.
“Girls of that type, whether in England or India or anywhere else, can never be taught manners, though out here they are often too limp to be actively rude,” said Eve. “It’s the greatest pity Mrs Rennard has come across her, but I suppose something of the kind was bound to happen sooner or later. For goodness’ sake do look at them all!”
Teresa, Saucy, and the Maleets were now almost the only people on the lawn. Everyone else was either still playing games or having tea. Saucy was busily introducing her friend and family connection (almost relation) to Mr Maleet and his belongings. Young Maleet was making every effort to be ultra-fascinating—his attitudes were acrobatic. The two Miss Maleets were also shrilly eager to ingratiate themselves with Mrs Rennard, and Saucy kept up a continuous fire of talk and laughter, holding on to Teresa’s arm, giving her playful pushes, bending herself almost double in the exuberance of her spirits. Teresa’s self-conscious gratification was patent.
Eve regarded the picture with angry humour, and her heart felt sore for the man who had so rashly made one of these people his wife. No doubt they were all well meaning, harmless, good in their own fashion, but it was a fashion that could never by any possibility do aught but rasp the susceptibilities of those who had been born and bred on different lines.
“You may now perceive,” said Eve caustically to her cousin, “that it is not solely because they are semi-Oriental that we don’t care to mix much with the Maleet class? Would you feel anxious to be on intimate terms with English people like that? There are plenty of them!”
Norah was uneasily silent. She had felt so convinced that the “Eurasian question” was entirely one of arrogant race-prejudice, and now her faith in her own judgment was disturbed.
As the two girls watched the noisy group on the lawn the Lieutenant-Governor himself came down the veranda steps of the substantial official residence escorting a slender figure draped in soft-hued garments—an Indian lady whose gait was grace incarnate, whose clear, coffee-tinted skin and starry eyes and little oval face, made a pleasing picture framed in fine silk of a dull rose colour. From out the marquee the hostess advanced to greet the newcomer, and the meeting indicated pleasure on both sides. Several other prominent officials and their wives seemed eager to welcome this dainty little being whose manners were charming, whose voice, uttering in excellent English, was low and sweet, whose beauty was undeniable though in no way insistent.
“Now look,” said Eve, who did not mean to spare Norah to-day, “there is a native lady. Can you imagine anyone in their senses objecting to her as a friend? She is an aristocrat, educated, refined. She has just come back from a visit to England, and isn’t everyone pleased to see her? She and her husband, who is a Judge of the High Court, are liked and respected and welcomed everywhere. What price race-prejudice there?”
Then Eve straightway forgot Norah Metcalfe, and her exasperating attitude towards the rulers of a country of which she had no intelligent understanding—forgot her because the next figure to appear on the lawn, as the latest arrival, was that of Mark Rennard. A long day’s office work had delayed him; hurriedly he had driven home, changed into clean flannels, and come on to join his wife at the Government House At Home. He carried a tennis racquet under his arm.
In the shadow of his straw hat Mark’s eyes looked dark and a little sunken. Eve saw that he was weary, mentally and physically, and she remembered, with longing and remorse, the former laughter in his face, and the glow of youth and happiness that could never come back again whole and perfect. As she watched him cross the lawn she conquered a wild impulse to run forward and prevent his catching sight, without warning, of his wife. She knew how his face would change when he saw Teresa in the centre of the Maleet group. Already had she learned to recognize the controlled distress in his eyes, the patience, and the lurking sense of shame of which again he was ashamed because he could not overcome it. She knew intuitively how lonely he must be, how sometimes his courage must fail.
Rennard looked about him as he advanced; then hesitated, for he had seen Teresa. Eve observed that he glanced nervously towards the tent, at the people who were swarming in and out of it. She felt passionately sorry for him, and the more so when the girl in pink burst from the Maleet group and rushed towards him with crimson-gloved hands outstretched. Instinctively Eve knew that he was mastering his vexation and dismay, endeavouring to make no outward betrayal of his sensations. She herself shrank and shuddered in sympathy—longed to turn away, yet was held by a painful fascination. She must watch, must know. Her fair little face grew strained as she followed every movement, every expression, of the man she had lost through her own vanity and ignorance. The pink girl drew him into the midst of the little crowd of which his wife was the centre. For a few minutes he was engulfed; then he and Teresa emerged side by side, Teresa looking rather sulky, Mark grim and determined.
At the same time, though apparently he had succeeded in detaching his wife from her new acquaintances, he had not been able to shake off the old friend, for Saucy followed them and ran at his side, talking, gesticulating, with no notion of being ignored.
Eve waited. She perceived that here she might step in and be of further help to Mark. As the trio entered the tent she said in a low but peremptory voice to Norah Metcalfe: “Talk to Mrs Rennard for all you are worth. Take her away if possible.” And Norah responded to the note of command though mystified as to its purport.
Then Eve greeted Mark and forced from him an introduction to the limpet in pink. She conducted Miss Joseph to the refreshment table, and left the man free to balance his confused senses. And Saucy, under the stimulating influence of her surroundings, aided by champagne cup and chocolate creams, became exceedingly communicative. She told Miss Lancaster all about herself, and Irene and Howard; also how surprised and enchanted they had all been when Teresa Nottage contrived to “hook” Mr Rennard, and so not only made a grand match but escaped from the clutches of “old Mr Macintosh”! She discoursed of Teresa’s first marriage, of Junksie, of the Bibi. Eve had heard much of this already, though vaguely, from Teresa herself, but now Saucy filled in spaces and blanks, and supplied details that made everything more cruelly clear and definite to her listener.
At last Miss Joseph expressed the apprehension that her friends might be missing her. She had eaten and drunk, and talked and enjoyed herself, till she really felt slightly exhausted, and when her party came pressing into the tent she made awkward and elaborate excuses and joined them readily.
Meantime Norah was dragging the reluctant Teresa round the garden. She accepted Mrs Rennard’s vague replies, and attempts at escape, as proofs of her appreciation of Miss Metcalfe’s kindness, as the result of a delicate desire not to be exacting.
Eve now being accessible Mark approached her. “Are you going to play tennis?” he asked, for the sake of speaking to her rather than from any desire for a game.
He had seen her take possession of the outrageous Saucy, and he knew she had done it from kindly motives, just as she had given her help and support and protection to Teresa. How he honoured her, how he yearned to voice his gratitude; yet how could he say anything that savoured of intimacy without betraying his true feelings, without dispelling the reserve that was his sole safeguard! He felt in sore need of comfort and encouragement himself; the appearance of Saucy Joseph had been an unpleasant surprise; of a certainty a difficult time with Teresa lay before him.
Eve shook her head. “I didn’t come dressed to play,” she said. “But there’s plenty of light yet for a game—those men over there are looking for a fourth. Why don’t you join them?”
He answered almost peevishly, “I don’t want to play. Come for a stroll round the garden, will you?”
She was sharply conscious that it was the first time he had attempted to monopolize her since the night of the fancy ball. Always had he seemed to avoid her, to be uneasy, restless, to have a sense of awkwardness when in her presence. But now he was turning to her as though for consolation, and she knew that in this attitude there was hazard for them both. Yet, after the disheartening incident she had just witnessed, that she had just alleviated for him as far as lay in her power, how could she refuse him the solace that he sought? She said she should like a little stroll; said it with friendly intonation, eliminating, with an effort, all trace of self-consciousness from her manner.
In silence they went out of the tent and moved over the shaven turf; they passed between great clumps of flowering shrubs that scented the evening air, sharpened now with the setting of the sun.
Mark’s memory turned to the garden at Krabganj—the sight of Saucy had recalled the place vividly to his mind—and he contrasted its untidy luxuriance, its truly Eastern atmosphere, with the order and formality of his present surroundings—the amalgamation of natural beauty with the sense of official discipline that makes a Government garden in India a place of rest and security, combining self-respect with the satisfaction of the senses. Here were no weeds, no waste, no evidences of neglect and procrastination; yet here also was the scent, the colour, the space, the suggestion of leisure and ease which is the prerogative of the East, which the West can utilize but can never attain alone. There was a bracing yet sensuous influence in the still atmosphere, like a mingling, so to speak, of incense and ozone.
The man and the girl walked slowly, still silent. A band was playing, hidden from them by the shrubs; it had just finished a selection of Irish airs, and the echo of the melodies lingered in the after silence. Eve was conscious of approaching danger from which nothing but her own restraint and reason might preserve her. Mark felt desperate, at the limit of his durance. Either he must open his heart to Eve and so end the daily struggle, or he must insist on being transferred from Koranabad, ask for leave on urgent private affairs, sick leave, anything that meant removal and escape.
They rounded a thick clump of bamboos; among the foliage a multitude of little birds rustled and twittered in preparation for the night. On the other side they saw Norah and Teresa ahead of them, and simultaneously Eve and Mark halted—mastered for the instant by their desire to be alone, to avoid, of all people, Teresa! In unspoken accord they turned hastily, almost guiltily, down a path that would lead them in the opposite direction, and then, screened by a rose-hung pergola, they stopped and looked at each other.
It was a hard moment, harder for the girl perhaps than for the man, seeing that she bore the double burden of the knowledge that she loved him and that his love was hers—had never really ceased to be hers. Of what avail to strive to deceive herself any longer? Of course she had known the truth with certainty, acutely, ever since they had met again!
A crisis must be avoided. The words that she felt were on Mark’s lips must never be spoken or the situation for both of them would be impossible. She could not trust herself to play a part once the barrier was down. And so, wildly, she clung again to the refuge that had offered itself on the night of the ball, that, ever since, had galled her with remorse and regret because she knew she had taken advantage of it selfishly, for her own security, without thought or consideration for the one who gave it. Until this afternoon she had honestly intended to confess the whole truth to the man she had promised to marry, confess it the moment he returned to the station from his tour of inspection, and so end an unworthy bargain. But now her resolution failed her. She clutched again, desperately, at her promise. It was a defence, a protection: she was not strong enough to do without it.
She turned from Mark, away from his haunting eyes, away from the unhappiness in his face. With cold, trembling fingers she plucked at one of the full red roses that glowed in clusters, and held some of the fragrant petals to her quivering lips. She wanted to cry out: “Don’t speak, Mark. Don’t speak. Leave things as they are.”
Instead she said with careful words: “Now that we are alone I may as well tell you what I suppose the whole of Koranabad will know in a few days, but I’d rather you didn’t mention it before—”
He did not answer. He had no suspicion of what she might be going to tell him, he hardly cared. All his being seethed with his own unhappy outlook, little guessing what lay towards him in the heart of Eve.
She looked at him again. Why should that hateful band choose this moment of all others to play the waltz to which she and Mark had danced at the ball! She listened to it miserably; then again quickly dragged her shelter about her—the news of her engagement to Colonel Troy.
She said rapidly: “I am going to be married to Colonel Troy. I have been engaged to him for some time, but he was just going away on duty when it happened, and we thought it better to wait till he came back before we gave it out. Now he is coming back—next week.”
And then, as she met his eyes, she realized with despair that she had but precipitated the very climax she had striven so hardly to avert. It had needed only this to scatter the last remnants of Mark’s self-control, and words broke hotly from his lips urged by his starved love for this girl at his side, by bitter, hopeless jealousy, by the sense of all he had battled with and borne, and must yet endure.
“It’s no use pretending any more. You are the only woman I have ever really loved—it nearly broke my heart when I got your letter. I’ve never got over it, and never shall. I wish to God I had waited. Perhaps if I had only waited I might have won you now.” He came nearer to her, love concentrated in his eyes. “Do you care for the man, Eve? If I had been free would you have chosen him before me, or should I have had my chance again? Tell me. I must know—I must know.”
He stood before her, mutely vehement, waiting for her answer. The waltz swung softly on, scent from the clusters of roses, heavy perfumes of India, seemed to mingle with the music; the sweet quiescence of sunset was over everything.
“I—it would have made no difference,” she said strenuously, and then despite her courageous spirit, her pride, her resolution, all at once she faltered, flinched. Scorching tears blinded her she thought the painful throbbing in her throat was surely audible.
To hide her face she raised her hands, but he caught them recklessly, and gazed with yearning at the closed, quivering eyelids, and the lips tight pressed in the struggle for self-mastery. He knew he could have kissed her then without repulse, held her for few intoxicating seconds in his arms. Almost did he fail her.
But the very quality of his love for her gave him strength and so he let her go, turning from her, while racked with longing, till her moment of weakness should be passed.
Now there was small use for words between them. Each knew the truth. They stood dumbly, crying in their hearts: “What are we to do!”
The refrain of the waltz became intolerable to Eve. The fragrance of the roses, the still, cool silence of the air, the hopelessness in Mark’s attitude. She could bear it no longer.
“Oh! help me, Mark, help me!” she sobbed. Instantly he turned to her in tender consideration, effacing his own suffering. “You know,” he said quietly, “there is nothing I would not do for you.”
She twisted her handkerchief in her hands till she tore it. “It is all my fault!
“It is all so cruel, so dreadful. We can’t go on now as if nothing had happened. One of us ought to go away. I don’t see how I can manage—what excuse I could make. You can’t get leave, suppose, having only just come here.”
“I will get the leave somehow,” he answered doggedly, “but probably shall have to come back here afterwards.”
“Oh by that time—”
“Yes—by that time?”
“We can’t look ahead.”
“We must look ahead, Eve. Do you mean to marry Troy—all the same?”
“I don’t think I ever meant to marry him,” she said hopelessly.
“He is a good fellow.”
“I know he is.”
“Perhaps you would grow to care for him, and so forget, and be happy.”
“No,” she said simply and he made no answer. They stood in unhappy silence among the roses, each with no thought but to do what was best for the other, to do what was right. They looked piteously young and wretched, the man in his well-fitting flannels, with his tennis racquet and his straw hat, and his straight vigorous form full of youth and health, yet lacking, alas! youth’s careless buoyance; the girl slender and dainty, a little gentlewoman from the crown of her fair head to her delicate finger-tips and slim, arched feet. She was made for light-heartedness, and now she looked like a pretty bird with a broken wing.
“I will do all I can to get the leave,” Mark repeated mechanically, “but it can be only leave—I’ve no furlough due yet.”
The band stopped. There came the sound of voices approaching from the other side of the rose garden. Hastily the two composed themselves, and with pretended indifference strolled towards the refreshment tent where guests were already departing.
Nothing more was said between them. They mingled with the moving throng on the lawn, and presently Eve went home with Norah not waiting for Colonel Lancaster, who was determined to finish a game of badminton before it was too dark to see the shuttle-cock.
Mark was left with Teresa standing by his side. She said: “Don’t go just yet, Mark. I want to settle with Saucy about spending a day with me.”
He heard the words but they conveyed nothing to him. His mind felt numb. It was only when he found himself surrounded by Maleets and saw Saucy and Teresa deep in conversation, that he remembered his annoyance at finding Miss Joseph on the lawn when he arrived that afternoon.
In spite of her protests he hurried his wife away, walking so quickly towards the drive where their trap awaited them that Teresa could hardly keep up with him.
“You did not say good-bye to anybody!” she panted.
Teresa could never move fast and keep her breath at the same time. “What is the matter, Mark dear? Do you feel ill?”
“Yes,” he said in desperation, and then repented the untruth sincerely, not from any moral qualms but because of Teresa’s immediate agitation and solicitude.
“It is fever from that nasty damp garden!” she exclaimed, as they found and got into their trap. “It is watered too much, with all that grass to keep green. You must take quinine just now when we get home, and go to bed. I knew it was bad luck when I saw the dhobie (washerman) this morning through the window when I woke—the first thing I looked at! Do let us stop at the doctor’s bungalow, and if he is out leave a message to come. Do you feel very bad?” She attempted to feel the palm of his hand under the reins.
“Oh! For Heaven’s sake be quiet, Teresa,” he said in irritation. “I’m not ill. I meant to say No, not Yes, when you asked me. I made a mistake. I am only tired after a lot of office work, and I’ve had no exercise to freshen me up to-day. That’s all.”
Teresa sat in offended, incredulous silence till they reached their bungalow, a modest dwelling with one large centre room curtained into two, and a couple of bedrooms on either side. Lamps had been lighted, a wood fire burned brightly on the wide hearth. Thanks to Miss Lancaster the drawing-room looked pretty and comfortable.
On a small table lay the English mail; the Times weekly edition, and a couple of fashion papers for Teresa. Mark seldom received more than one letter by the English mail, generally none at all, and of course the only person who wrote to Teresa from England was Junksie. Apparently when he did so it was under compulsion, for his letters invariably began: “Mr Eastwick says write and say—”
In the hope of arresting Teresa’s anxious attentions which he knew were again imminent, Mark took up the paper. But before he could break the wrapper his wife resumed the attack. She felt his forehead and his hands, and besought him to put out his tongue.
“I am so frightened that you are ill and will not say! And I told Saucy Joseph she could bring the Maleet girls to see me to-morrow, and perhaps they could go with me to the gymkhana. But if you are not feeling right I will send a note and say not come?”
Mark’s patience gave out. He was overwrought, mentally and physically exhausted by the strain and emotion of the scene in the rose garden. Teresa irritated him beyond bearance.
He said sharply: “You can’t have those people here, or go about with them in public.”
Teresa drew back in dismay. “Oh! but Mark, I have invited! Now how can I prevent, unless you are ill? At Usapur Saucy always came—”
“Koranabad isn’t Usapur. Haven’t you learnt at least that yet?”
For the first time Teresa flew into a passion with her husband. She, too, had had a disquieting afternoon; the meeting with Saucy had excited her, and ripened her growing resentment against the restrictions and obligations of life in a large station as the wife of an official. The uneasy consciousness of her own defects and drawbacks had been quickened by the unfortunate conversation that had taken place in her hearing on the lawn, previous to Saucy’s arrival with soothing and welcome appreciation.
“I have learnt that I hate Koranabad, and all the nasty, beastly people in it!” she flamed. “There is no good in trying to please you or copying Miss Lancaster. She does not like me to be happy any more than you. She would not let me go to the Volunteer ball just because she knew I should enjoy. She is a cold, proud thing, and interfering! Saucy was right when she said!”
“Teresa! After all her kindness to you!”
“Yess, yess, I know she has been kind, but I do not care. I can never be like her. I will not try. And now, after all my trying and trying, and reading dull books to please you,”—she pointed disgustedly to a pile of books on the table—“and wearing clothes as if I was still a widow—no colour, and sitting ‘chup’ when there is talking, and all, and all—you are still ashamed of me, and now you are angry too—” The words ended in a choking gasp and Teresa was gone from the room.
Mark stood silent. His impatience was over, remorse took its place, for he suddenly realized Teresa’s point of view—realized how she had striven in her dumb, limited way to do what was required of her, and apparently with no success and certainly no reward. He understood now how she must long for the relief of Saucy’s society, how happy she would be with the Maleets and their kind. What a real disappointment it had been to her not to go to the Volunteer ball! The whole situation for both of them was beyond remedy as it stood at present, and he alone was to blame. It was unfair, cruel, to feel angry with Teresa. He had that feeling of compunction with which one atones to an animal one has punished unjustly.
He followed her to their bedroom, expecting to find her weeping violently on the bed, but she had taken off her dress and hat, and was standing before the looking-glass in the crimson dressing-gown that always seemed to heighten the glow in her cheeks, and add lustre to her eyes and hair. She turned as he entered, and something in her attitude reminded him of an animal at bay.
“Look here, Teresa,” he said, the appeal of self-condemnation in his voice. “I am more than sorry for being such a brute as to lose my temper just now. I understand how you feel, indeed I do!”
But now the worst side of the Oriental nature was uppermost in Teresa—the side that cannot appreciate generosity or the attempt at reparation contained in a conciliatory attitude, that regards such an attitude as but a symptom of weakness or fear. She felt a fierce satisfaction that Mark should, so to speak, be at her feet, and she pushed her advantage to its utmost limit.
“You do not know how I feel!” she contradicted fiercely, “and if you did you would not care, you would only judge, and judge. I am all wrong, of course, and I am not clever enough to be different. I know that now. And I know it is no use you or Miss Lancaster or Miss Metcalfe trying to make me different. I have tried all ways to make myself more English, but it is no good. I am a kerani, and I will not go on trying any more; I will just stay a kerani. You can go your way and I can go mine. I do not care what happens to either of us!”
Mark felt he really did not care either, and clearly it would be useless to argue with his wife in her present mood.
Hopeless and heart-sick he moved again to the door-way.
With his hand on the curtain, he looked back and said gently: “Well, at any rate, try and remember that I didn’t mean to be unjust, though no doubt I was. I want you to be happy, and if you can only be happy in your own way, I won’t interfere. Do as you like, Teresa.”
“I will!” she said vindictively, and laughed.
The gymkhana held next afternoon, on the race course, attracted all Koranabad. The European contingent strolled about, sat in their conveyances, sat in the little grand stand, or attended on horseback. A host of natives assembled to watch the sports with eager, child-like interest, and their brightly-dyed turbans produced the effect of a bed of zinnias in the sun. How unlike an English crowd, this silent-footed, picturesque concourse of dark people without a woman among them!
The sun blazed, the ground was hard, the grass coarse and harsh; dust hung in the air, the entertainment was amateurish and badly organized. Superior people lately out from England looked amused and disdainful, and spoke regretfully of Hurlingham and Ranelagh, recalling the green, and the shade, and the rich, well-dressed crowd.
Yet here, in spite of all disadvantages, was a spirit of intimacy and simple enjoyment, a sense of personal interest in every event. The very ponies were as familiar to the onlookers as were the riders and owners.
Items on the programme were many and various—pony races, tent-pegging, lime-cutting; tilting at the ring for which some of the ladies had entered; besides the comic element supplied by a Noah’s Ark race and a sack race. Sporting civilians, officers, soldiers, both native and English, took part with good-humoured zest, though certainly the proceedings appeared likely to continue till midnight, in such leisurely fashion were they conducted.
“This is what you might call Intervals with Gymkhana between!” Captain Dustand remarked to his Colonel’s daughter. He was to be Eve Lancaster’s partner in the combined tilting and tent-pegging competition, and they awaited, on their ponies, the signal to gather at the starting-point. The course had been empty for the last ten minutes.
Eve rode a young fourteen-hand chestnut; the breeding in his lean little head was emphasized by the single bridle rein and large ring-snaffle. A white webbing breast-plate set off his clean fore-quarters, and his mistress, in her neat brown habit and straw hat set low over her blue eyes, and her fair hair gleaming in neat coils, made up a pleasing picture. She smiled and nodded as friends passed by, and no one would have guessed how heavy lay the heart beneath the brown coat, how dreary to her appeared the outlook, how bored and unhappy she felt.
The chestnut was restless. He flung his head about, danced a little, tried to provoke his neighbour, Captain Dustand’s sober grey, by laying back his ears and pretending to nip. The attention he required was a relief to Eve rather than an annoyance; she was glad not to be able to look about her too much, for she dreaded, while yet she yearned, to see Mark Rennard among the spectators—that he was not among the entries she had long since ascertained. But she knew her pony’s tender mouth so well, and could judge so accurately how far he might be permitted liberties without serious correction, that soon she had controlled and soothed him, and then, turning in her saddle, she suddenly saw Teresa arriving in a waggonette that seemed to overflow with gaudily-dressed females.
There was Miss Joseph, and the Miss Maleets, and two other girls Eve had never seen before—brown, monkey-faced little creatures attired, apparently, in evening-gowns of the brightest magenta. And Teresa was chaperoning the party! She looked flushed, excited, and important; she was wearing a vulgar purple hat that Eve had noticed only yesterday in one of the second-rate shops. Teresa must have purchased it this morning!
Eve felt apprehensive. Dissension must have arisen between Mark Rennard and his wife, or surely he would never have permitted Teresa to appear in public like this with the Maleets and their friends! Had there been a dispute between the Rennards after they left Government House on the subject of the terrible Miss Joseph? and had Teresa declared a war of independence? Eve had anticipated trouble of the kind when Teresa grew restive over the Volunteer ball. Now perhaps the arrival of Miss Joseph had precipitated difficulties.
She watched the Maleet party clamber from the heights of the old-fashioned waggonette, assisted, theatrically, by young Maleet who had acted as out rider on an ill-shaped, ill-mannered piebald pony. This animal now set up shrill neighs that demoralized all the other horses in the vicinity, and soon answering peals of equine bad language shook the air. Everyone turned to see the cause of the uproar.
“Good gracious!” said Captain Dustand, “look at Mrs Rennard and her companions. What is her husband thinking about? This sort of thing won’t do him any good!”
Eve said nothing. Her eyes followed Teresa surrounded by her parasites who beamed with gratification that they should appear in company with Mrs Rennard on such an occasion. A gymkhana to them was what Sandown would be to their social counterparts in England. As they advanced they bumped against each other, grinned and giggled, and exclaimed in self-conscious glee. They were all quite well-intentioned, yet so hopelessly discordant when brought into contact with a higher class.
Saucy at once remarked “the gentleman” she had seen among Teresa’s grand companions at Government House. He took her fancy; she hankered to know him, and here was an opportunity.
“Look, Teresa, there is your friend that dear angel Miss Lancaster, bowing, and bowing, and you cutting all the time!” she asserted, entirely without truth, and as Teresa naturally turned to discover Miss Lancaster’s whereabouts she met Eve’s eyes, and they exchanged salutations.
“Help! Help!” said Captain Dustand. “There’s that appalling girl who turned up as Mrs Rennard’s long lost relative yesterday, and she’s making eyes at me again. I wish to Heaven they’d begin the tilting!”
Saucy put her arm round Teresa’s waist. “Let us go and speak to Miss Lancaster,” she urged. “You wait here for us,” she adjured the rest of their party. First Teresa hesitated; then she stepped out defiantly. She would show Miss Lancaster, as she had already shown Mark, that now she intended to please herself, that she desired no further social help or guidance. Saucy greeted Miss Lancaster with effusion, and at the same time smiled so amiably at Captain Dustand that he was forced to raise his hat to her.
Whereupon Miss Joseph abandoned her hold upon Mrs Rennard and approached the grey pony. She patted his shoulder and opened a conversation with the rider, not awaiting the formality of an introduction. Teresa talked to Eve in friendly fashion yet with a new air of independence, almost of patronage. After a few observations she said:
“Mark could not come to the gymkhana to-day, he said he would be too busy. But now, you see, I have my own friends to go about with. This morning Saucy Joseph and I went shopping, and I bought this new hat. They all say it suits me; what do you think?”
Teresa had not intended to ask Miss Lancaster for her opinion, but a lurking misgiving drove the question from her lips.
“Well, frankly, I can’t say I like it,” Eve replied, as agreeably as she could. “But it’s impossible to please everybody, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Teresa with sudden sharpness, “that is just it. I cannot please everybody, so now I am going to please only myself, and I have told Mark that is what I will do. I will wear what I like, and say what I like, and go about with my own friends who are good enough for me, though he does not think they are good enough for him!”
“Oh! Hush!” said Eve, involuntarily, for the colour had risen in Teresa’s cheeks, her voice had grown loud, her eyes flashed.
At Eve’s rebuke she tossed her head, and turned away to avoid the questioning concern in the other’s expression. At that moment Captain Dustand called out: “Come along, Miss Lancaster, we’re wanted at last”—and they moved their horses off in the direction of the starting-point.
“Thank goodness!” he added, as they left Saucy and Teresa behind. “I couldn’t have endured that young woman a moment longer. She had just begun asking riddles! ‘How would you make a slow man fast?’” He copied Saucy’s jerky accents. “Of course I said, ‘Introduce him to you!’ But ‘Oh, noh, noh, you cheekee man! The answer is, Do not feed him!’”
Eve was not listening. An immense sadness oppressed her to think that Mark’s life must be passed with Teresa, that always he must be solitary in mind, lonely in affection, that she was powerless now to help him, for even had Teresa remained amenable to influence that hour of revelation between herself and Mark in the garden must have debarred her from further intimacy with the Rennards. She could never again deliberately meet the man she loved—it was as though she must stand by and see him drown before her eyes.
They trotted briskly past the stand where sat the Jacksons with a group of friends.
“There goes the winning couple, wouldn’t mind betting anything,” said Mr Jackson.
“Rubbish” said his wife. “How can they win with Eve Lancaster riding a wild animal that probably won’t let her get near the rings, and Dustbin on that stupid old grey of his? I never heard such thing!”
“You’ll see I’m right,” bluffed the little man, now feeling very doubtful. “I’ll bet you fifty to one, if you like.”
“Witness” said Aggie White, promptly; she was sitting behind the Jacksons. Then she opened her parasol, for the afternoon sun was streaming into the stand. “How abominable the glare is!” she added.
“Surely the hot weather seems to be coming on most unnaturally early?”
Mr Jackson admitted that it was hotter than was usual for the time of year. “Because the winter rains were so miserable; did no good at all!” he said ruefully, for it meant coming distress in the Province and anxiety and over-work for the officials.
“Yes, I suppose the cold weather’s gone,” his wife said in a resigned voice, “and punkahs and flies and mosquitoes and unbearable heat are drawing nearer every day!” She put up her lorgnettes. “Oh! don’t tell me that’s Mrs Rennard over there in the purple hat, with the Maleets and the station-master’s daughters!”
“Yes, indeed it is!” said Miss White with relish.
Mrs Jackson turned to her husband in genuine distress. “Tom, you really will have to speak to Rennard and tell him he shouldn’t allow it. Everybody is staring and making remarks. It’s a perfect scandal.”
Mr Jackson regarded the gaudy little group for a moment with grave attention. Then he spoke in a low voice to his wife; “I fancy that may be the explanation of young Rennard coming to me this morning to ask for leave. Probably he wants to get his wife away from these people—”
“Will he get the leave?” Mrs Jackson inquired.
“No. I told him I couldn’t recommend it. We’re short of men and there’s a threatening of scarcity in the district already. As I pointed out to him, he isn’t justified in causing Government inconvenience unless he has some very good reason to give, which he said he hadn’t! Of course he could insist on urgent private affairs, but he knows that’s a foolish step to take early in a fellow’s service unless he can’t help himself, and to go rushing off now, in the present circumstances, might give him a serious throw-back officially. I told him all that.”
“What did he say?”
“Nothing. I couldn’t make him out, but now I begin to understand. All the same it makes no difference about the leave. He’s wanted here.”
“Oh! look!” interrupted Miss White, who, to her annoyance, had not been able to overhear this conversation between the Jacksons. “Here’s another excitement. Colonel Troy has just ridden up. I thought he wasn’t due for another week. Now we shall see!”
“See what?” asked Mr Jackson in all innocence, wondering why Miss White seemed so viciously interested in Colonel Troy’s premature return.
“Well, surely you heard he was supposed to be engaged to Eve Lancaster? But he went off, all the same, without anything being announced, which seemed queer. For my part I don’t believe he ever proposed at all. And now here he is back again several days before he was expected. If there is any engagement perhaps he wanted to take the young lady by surprise, and see what she was doing, and who she was flirting with. He must know it was bound to be someone! Do look at him, scowling at poor Dustbin, though I should have thought no man in his senses could be jealous in that quarter. If ever Colonel Troy does marry Eve Lancaster what appalling rows they will have. Wouldn’t ‘Fast and Furious’ be excellent nicknames for them?”
But Colonel Troy was not scowling at Captain Dustand. He was watching with some anxiety the behaviour of Eve Lancaster’s chestnut pony. He realized that it was a trying situation for a young, high spirited animal—that the restraint till he might race in his turn along the course, the sound of galloping hoofs, the applause, the movement, the excitement all around was more than might be endured by the pony with calmness. He bucked; then, for the first time in his life he reared, and moreover reared badly, senselessly, staggering from side to side with fore feet striking the air. It was just then that Eve caught sight of Allan Troy, saw the tall figure in grey dismount and advance from out the crowd of spectators. There was apprehension, alarm in his usually passive face. Perhaps the surprise unnerved her, she may, unconsciously, have tightened the rein—certainly she was too good a rider to make such a fatal mistake wittingly—or the chestnut pony may simply have lost his balance, but, with a futile, sickening effort to right himself, he swung over backwards, and fell heavily, without hope of recovery. The horror in the eyes of Allan Troy as he rushed forward was the last thing Eve knew.
And it was into his face she looked again, some twenty minutes later, when consciousness returned, and instead of horror she saw relief, thanksgiving.
His arm supported her, in his free hand he held a handkerchief that dripped with water. Vaguely she heard familiar voices; as through a mist she saw faces that seemed to fade and grow—Mrs Jackson’s for one, and surely it was the doctor of the Regiment who was kneeling close by? and that was Norah speaking somewhere behind. She was saying some thing in a professional voice about “only stunned” and “a broken arm.” Did she say a broken arm?—and Eve became aware of pain, pain so acute below her elbow that it made her cry. She could not control herself. And then a deadly faintness blotted out everything once more.
Intentionally Mark stayed late at his work that afternoon. He had no wish to attend the gymkhana in company with Saucy Joseph and the Maleet girls, and for another thing Eve would almost certainly be there. It was the least he could do for her at present—to avoid all likely places of meeting, though sooner or later he would have to make an opportunity of telling her how he was situated with regard to leave.
He went back to the bungalow when the evening had begun, and after a solitary tea and a change into riding clothes, mounted his favourite pony—the same little bay mare he had chosen so long ago for Eve. He set out in the direction of the river, away from the English quarter, that he might think in security without chance of interruption.
A sense of rest was in the air, a warm tranquillity that brought a vague consoling to Mark’s misery of spirit. He passed again through the little village into which he had wandered by moonlight on the night of the fancy ball, when he had met and danced with Eve. The fakir was still there, beyond the collection of hovels, seated by the road-side with crossed legs and ash-smeared body.
“Ram! Ram!” he shouted as Mark rode by, and the modern, active Englishman came near to envying this grotesque, unnatural devotee of an ancient cult, his withdrawal from human conflict, human emotions, and desires. Surely it was the tyranny of these age-old emotions and sorrows, and painful joys, that had created the need of such material sacrifice as was typified before him now, seated motionless in dust and ashes and desolation. It seemed to Mark the expression of his own mental condition, that yet was perforce denied the relief of such outward declaration.
Irresistibly his thoughts dwelt upon Eve, disregarding for the time all practical and ethical considerations. As in a dream he rode along the ill-kept, crumbling road, avenued with great trees that filled the air with the various odours of their blossoms, some bitter, some sickly, some overpowering in their sweetness. There was a wide silence, even the yapping of the village dogs was no longer to be heard, and just at present little traffic was upon the roadway that led to the fort and the sandy brink of the sacred river. Then when he came in sight of the massive pile of red masonry, one of the mighty records of Akbar’s power, recollections of his studies of the great builder and his times drew his memory back to the days of his honeymoon; those demulcent, soulless days, that had benumbed his heartache and given him a spurious content.
He stopped the mare and dismounted. Bathed in the serene light of sunset he watched the fort turn colour—from rose-madder to garnet-red; the sand change to orange from palest yellow; the blue of the broad, quiet river mingle with a pink radiance.
By the water’s edge a curl of gauzy smoke rose soft and languorous from a dark patch—a funeral pyre, and a few native figures moved leisurely around it. In a tree near by some doves began to coo with tender, liquid notes.
Mark endeavoured to turn his mind to the future, to force himself to consider his own situation. He reviewed all that Mr Jackson had said to him on the subject of leave that morning during their interview.
If he claimed “urgent private affairs” in defiance of his chief’s good counsel he certainly would not be reappointed to Koranabad, or appointed to any other such important station. Some official backwater would be his destiny—probably he would fill a vacancy caused by the promotion of some contemporary or junior in the service. That consideration in itself was nothing to him if, by his absence, Eve could be spared but a fraction of unhappiness. But there was his loyalty to the Government to reckon with. He knew he was not justified, as Mr Jackson had hinted, in allowing his private concerns, unless of life or death urgency, to interfere with his sense of duty he knew he was wanted at his post.
Then his harassed mind refused to reason further; for a long time he stayed quiescent, hardly thinking, hardly feeling, while the mare drooped her head and dozed, and the light faded. Akbar’s fort, and the sand, and the distance, no longer glowed and burned; the river now was grey, the smoke from the cremation was invisible. Myriads of birds passed overhead in swift, purposeful flight, homeward to roost, and the sound of their flying was like the winnowing of great fan high up in the heavens.
It was dark when he got back to the bungalow, but the doors were open, and he could see into the lighted drawing-room. Teresa sat on the sofa; she had not yet removed the new hat, and the sight of the purple erection on his wife’s head filled Mark with dismayed astonishment. He had not seen Teresa since this morning, when she was still defiant and resentful, and he knew nothing of the shopping expedition with Saucy Joseph. That young lady was sprawling on the sofa beside Teresa, and the Miss Maleets occupied easy chairs in careless attitudes. Could Mark have known it, the station-master’s daughters were only absent because a previous engagement to sing duets at a railway concert had prevented their acceptance of Mrs Rennard’s pressing invitation to stay to dinner.
The sight, on Teresa’s head, of the repulsive hat that made her look a different being, the familiar bearing of her guests, the affected laughter and shrill tones that reached his ears, transformed Mark’s patience, or perhaps growing indifference, into angry irritation. After all, he had really done a vast amount for Teresa! saved her from a hateful marriage, or its possible alternative, starvation; he had given her money, position, luxury, care, affection; exerted himself to raise her to the level of his own class, and this was how she repaid him—with rebellion, with a perverse disregard of all his wishes. She knew he would hate that awful hat; she knew he would dislike having Saucy and the Maleet people to the house on intimate terms. Certainly she was acting on her threat to please herself!
He went in at the back entrance—to his dressing room, and changed into dinner clothes. Now Teresa and her friends collected in her bedroom. They were taking off their hats, he could hear Teresa giving ostentatious orders to the ayah. Evidently Saucy and the Maleets were fixtures for the evening. He decided to endure the trial with good nature; after all what was to be gained by making himself unpleasant? Had he not told Teresa she might be happy in her own way without fear of obstruction? Therefore he shook hands politely with his unwelcome guests, and escorted the elder Miss Maleet to the dinner table with quiet courtesy. He sat with as cheerful an expression as he could assume while they screamed, and laughed, and made personal remarks.
The topic of daily occupation found favour for the moment with the young ladies. It appeared that Miss Maleet liked making cream toffee, when she was not socially engaged, better than accompanying herself at the piano which was Saucy’s avowed delight.
“I could sing ‘Nancy Lee’ all day and all night,” Saucy informed the company. “I know it is old-fashioned, but then it is so prit-tee!”
“And what do you do with yourself?” Mark inquired of the younger Miss Maleet, a plump little person with a skin like a flushed mushroom.
“Me?—Oh! I just loll,” she said contentedly.
Teresa looked excited and was unnaturally talkative. Every now and then she glanced at her husband as though in expectation of some mark of his displeasure, but his countenance was expressionless, and Teresa became puzzled, also somewhat disconcerted, which made her the more boisterous and aggressive.
“And how did the gymkhana go off?” Mark inquired blandly.
“Oh!” cried Teresa with a shrill laugh, “I nearly forgot to tell you—Miss Lancaster came to grief!” In truth her mind had been so full of her own daring and independence in bringing her companions back to dinner that she actually had, for the time, forgotten the accident.
Mark felt as if he had been struck over the heart. “An accident?” he said quickly, looking at Teresa. “Was she hurt?”
“She was hurt,” said Miss Maleet, “but not too badlee. It was not mortal—the hurt. She was stunned and arm broken. The pony got bobbery and fell back rearing, but I heard the doctor say not die.”
Then Mark realized how truly bitter a thing it is to be shut out from the life of one we love—to have no cause, no claim to help or serve. Nothing could he do for Eve, no little thing that the merest acquaintance had not also the right to perform—kind inquiries, messages of concern and sympathy, offerings of flowers, books, papers. And while the being who was dearest to him lay suffering and ill, he was obliged to sit here at the table and express no more than conventional regret, and listen to silly talk and laughter that jarred his senses till he could have shouted aloud in his suspense and exasperation. One thought only brought a modicum of consolation—Thank God he was not in a position to press for leave!
When dinner was over he made false excuses concerning work that must be finished, and shut himself up in the room that he used as smoking room and study, there to sit, idle and wretched, far into the night.
After this a spirit of sullen antagonism seemed to hold Teresa in bondage. Mark did not recognize the nature of her attitude towards him because he did not think to analyse it. He only realized that he found Teresa rude and perverse when they were alone together—which was seldom, for she spent her afternoons with the Maleets, or with other people whose acquaintance she made in their company, and Saucy usually passed her evenings in the Rennards’ bungalow. Mark was indifferent. He no longer wished to influence or interfere with Teresa’s inclinations; he had bidden her please herself, and be happy in her own way, and apparently she had taken him entirely at his word. In truth he did not regret that she showed no sign of capitulation.
But he failed to notice how hungrily she followed him with her eyes; he did not know that she suffered, suffered pitiably, with helpless, inarticulate self-condemnation that drove her to further flauntings and defiance, and more ostentatious mingling with the class to which, as Mark’s wife, she did not belong.
The effect of this, her behaviour when in public, only confirmed Mr Jackson’s suspicions concerning the reason of young Rennard’s ill-timed request for leave. So, with every good intent, as well as in the cause of duty, he ordered the young man into camp—into a portion of the district that most required attention in view of probable distress.
“It ought not to be too hot in tents yet for the mem-sahib,” he said with the careless cordiality that denotes some further meaning, and he was not at all surprised to see Rennard flush slowly and turn away without an answer to this unofficial postscript. How could Mr Jackson possibly divine that Mark had no desire to take Teresa into camp!
Mark felt he needed the solitude, the relief, that a spell of camp life without Teresa would secure for him. Eve, he knew, was getting better; no complications had arisen after the first anxious days of pain and fever. He could go away tranquil in mind on that point at least, and, once away, he must set himself to write to her—to write a conventional letter, yet one that would tell her, incidentally, that he could not hope for leave. She would understand it.
And when he came back?—ah! when he came back—what would have happened! He tried to shut the future from his mind, but again the station was echoing with rumours as to Miss Lancaster’s engagement to Colonel Troy. The Colonel’s behaviour at the time of the accident had at least left no doubt in the public mind regarding the man’s feelings and intentions, and Mark heard talk on the subject in the racquet court, on the polo ground, at cricket and tennis, till he began to feel a miserable persuasion that for Eve the most expedient termination of the unhappy position must be marriage with this estimable man.
He came home on the evening of the day when he had received his orders from Mr Jackson, and was faintly surprised to find Teresa alone in the bungalow. She was reclining in a low easy chair, her hands idle in her lap, “lolling” as doubtless Miss Maleet would have described her inoccupation, and she looked as if she had not moved for hours. Mentally, however, she was busy with her own troubles. A tormenting reluctance held her from seeking open speech with Mark, yet at a sign from him would she have cast herself at his feet, sobbing and protesting, praying for his pardon, vowing complete compliance with his every wish. She ached for reconciliation with her husband; yet she was consumed also with a dull, unreasoning conviction that she had a sore grievance, that she had been very badly treated—a belief that Saucy fostered vigorously and in good enough faith.
It was to Saucy that Teresa owed the suggestion that now was churning in her mind—a scheme for testing Mark’s affection. If he cared for her still, which in her heart she did not doubt, it should force him to give her the signal for which she craved. When he entered the room she assumed an unvanquished expression, and did not even trouble to turn her head.
“Oh! is that you, Mark?” she said, with affected indifference.
“It is,” he answered civilly, and came forward. “What are you doing here all by yourself?”
“Oh! I was just plan-ning.” She looked up at the ceiling and round the room, then glanced swiftly at his face and drooped her eyelids.
“What were you planning?” he spoke without real interest, and in the same breath he called to the table servant, who was moving about in the dining-room on the other side of the curtain, to bring tea quickly.
Teresa waited. She did not wish her great manoeuvre to be spoiled and interrupted by the kitmutghar. That Mark should not have pressed his question caused her both relief and disappointment. While he drank his tea and ate bread and butter, and looked over a file he had brought back with him from the office, she sat silent and apparently inert.
At last the soft-moving, white-clothed servant bore away the tea-table. But still Mark was entirely engrossed with his sheets of typewritten manuscript.
“I was thinking—” began Teresa. Mark did not hear her. “I was thinking—” she repeated in a louder tone. He looked up.
Then she said, rather breathlessly: “I was thinking perhaps I would go and stay for two weeks or so with Saucy Joseph. She is going home just now, and she is mad for me to go back with her for a visit.”
In reality Saucy was leaving Koranabad by the early train to-morrow morning, but since Teresa had not the smallest intention of accompanying her there was no need to state that fact.
Teresa stared before her, not meeting Mark’s eyes, and her heart beat very quickly. She felt as if she had been running fast. Now Mark would be startled, penitent; he would beg her not to go away and leave him, ask her if she was tired of her husband, say he should miss her too much. At the first word, at the first look, she would be safe in his arms, all would be well between them; never, never again would she think of anything but how best she might contrive to please him.
Excitement almost choked her. In another second she must have broken down, discarded all pretence, if Mark had not spoken.
“Rather a good idea, perhaps,” he said easily, “especially as Jackson told me this morning I must go into camp for a bit. You might have found it lonely without Saucy. By all means go back with her if you’d like to. When does she start?”
He was lighting a cigarette as he spoke, and therefore he did not see Teresa’s face, did not perceive her dismay, her painful amazement which turned her white and dumb. Could she believe it? ... that Mark did not want her … that he could do without her?
“Then you would not have taken me with you into camp?” she cried shrilly, all on one high note.
It sounded to Mark as if an angry exhibition were impending on Teresa’s part; he felt doubtful if he could endure a scene at this moment with his customary calmness. So he rose and collected his papers.
“No,” he said, with a weary impatience that he could not control. “I should not have taken you with me into camp.” And he went out of the room.
Not since that Sunday morning, long ago, when Junksie had brought her Mr Banister’s note saying that Mark was unable to keep his engagement at Krabganj, had Teresa felt so utterly despairing. Her first impulse was to rush after Mark and demand wildly, fiercely, to be told if he had ceased to love her, but she was actually so overpowered with emotion as to be almost helpless. She slid to the ground blinded, suffocated, with her tears, and Saucy coming in unannounced found her crouched a quivering heap before the chair, her face buried in the pink silk cushion.
“Hi—my! Teresa—what is all this?” cried Miss Joseph in surprised alarm. But it was some little time before Teresa could explain coherently how the scheme for reconciliation had failed, also how Mark had intended to go into camp without his wife, and how Teresa wished herself dead.
“Now, now, do not talk in such a wicked way,” said Saucy, feeling most important. “If you will only believe me it will be all right. Listen now, pretend you do not care one snip, and just come away with me to Usapur to-morrow morning. At once he will be writing, writing, and saying, ‘Come back, come back,’ like a guinea fowl! Of course he did not believe you would go. He was trying it on. Oh! I know these men and their ways—all rascals, and only wanting when they cannot get!”
Limply, miserably, Teresa dragged herself up from the ground. “Oh! how I have head-ache!” she wailed. “I will go to bed. And to-morrow, yes, I will go with you to Usapur. And I will not come back till he writes to beg me. But he will never beg—”
She wept afresh, and permitted Saucy to guide her into the bedroom.
“Now do show spirit,” urged the worldly-wise Saucy. “Bathe your eyes with rose-water, get ayah to mull your legs and arms, and rest a while, and then dress in pretty clothes and come in to dinner, and we will say we are starting together for Usapur to-morrow morning by the early train, and how you are quite excited to think of the journey, and the change, and no housekeeping, and seeing old friends and all—h’n?”
Teresa reminded her that Mark was engaged to dine to-night at the Native Infantry Mess. “So that would all be no use,” she added, and threw herself wearily on the bed.
Saucy reflected for a few moments; then she began to caper about the room, snapping her fingers and chanting “Oh! what a surprise!” till Teresa inquired if she had gone out of her mind. She petulantly halted beside the bed, flushed and elated.
“Oh! I have thought of such a good thing. It will make him sit up and no mistake. It is this, Teresa dear—when he has gone off to his old dinner party, thinking you are his slave and not caring—we will pack your clothes and start for Usapur by night train instead of to-morrow morning early! My luggage is all ready—we will pick it up, and just say to the Maleets that you are coming back home with me for a visit, but cannot travel by day because it is too hot, and you are feeling see-dee—and so I go by night train for your sake. That will be all right? And Mark he will come back and find you gone and he will tear his hair!”
Teresa protested feebly that she could never do such a thing. Nevertheless Saucy talked and argued and urged. The plan appealed to her sentimental imagination. It would be like living in a novel. Teresa would fly without a farewell; Mark would assuredly follow post-haste, smitten with repentance and remorse, owning himself a brute; there would be a touching scene of embraces and mutual forgiveness like a final chapter. And it would all be owing to the benevolent intervention of one Saucy Joseph!
So Saucy continued her enthusiastic persuasions till she began to infect Teresa with the idea that it was the only way in which she could hope to awaken Mark to a sense of his wife’s value. Once Teresa was actually away, actually gone without immediate warning, he would wish her back again. And then, thought poor Teresa, how gladly she would return, how differently she would behave!
Accordingly she gave a half-hearted assent to Saucy’s adventurous project, and almost at once the ayah was pulling out drawers and opening boxes, paper was crackling, and packing was in full progress.
Presently, giving no reason, Saucy ran out of the room. She went to the door of Mark’s study that communicated with his dressing-room on the opposite side of the bungalow, and pushed it open.
“Mr Rennard,” she called softly, “are you there?”
Mark was seated at the writing-table, dressed in his evening clothes. He was adding corrections to the papers he had brought with him from the office this afternoon. As he rose Saucy put her finger to her lips, and looked mysteriously over her shoulder.
“I came just to say Teresa has gone to bed. Her headaches. So perhaps you had better not disturb. Just go, and not say Good-night when you start.”
“Oh! very well,” agreed Mark without suspicion. “I hope she’ll be all right to-morrow. Has she decided anything about going back to Usapur with you?”
“Not decided,” said Saucy airily, and with polite speeches they parted, Saucy assuring him kindly that she would stay in the bungalow for the present—that certainly she would not dream of leaving till Teresa was safely asleep!
A little later Teresa heard the trap drive away, and her distress was increased because Mark had not even come to the door to bid her Good-bye! (and of course Saucy suppressed the reason of such apparent neglect).
“It is a good thing,” she said. “If he had looked in he would have seen all this mess and packing and asked why for. He will be coming soon enough after you once you are away at Usapur, you will see!”
So, close upon midnight, Mark’s bearer admitted him to a deserted bungalow. Carrying a lamp, the man followed his master through the drawing-room, and he coughed apologetically several times, after the manner of native servants when they have news to deliver that they fear may cause displeasure.
Mark recognized the well-known signal. “Well, what is it?” he said, turning as they reached the curtain.
But for the lamp Kishna would have put his hands together in supplication. “Sahib,” he said with the utmost diffidence, “sahib—the mem-sahib hath departed.”
So sharply did the sahib exclaim “What?” that Kishna nearly dropped the lamp. Had he not felt in his Hindu bones, and heart, and liver that the sahib would be exceedingly angry?—though that son of an owl, the Mahomedan butler, had laughed at him and declared it was more likely the sahib would rejoice that she had chosen to return to her own kerani-people from among whom he had so graciously exalted her! Now, maybe, the sahib would dismiss his faithful slave Kishna for having permitted her to go without protest. Women were ever a cause of trouble, alike to the innocent and the guilty.
“The mem-sahib gone! What do you mean?” asked Rennard, and the bearer noted with relief that there was rather more of astonishment than anger in his master’s voice. “Put down that lamp or you’ll drop it. Say what you mean. Where is the mem-sahib gone?”
“Protector of the Poor, the mem-sahib bade thy slave say she had gone to Usapur with the Miss-babba. They departed together, having with them boxes and the ayah. They bade me say also to thine honour that they departed thus by night for fear of the heat in the rail-gharry during the day-time.”
“Well, I’m damned!” said Mark vehemently, in English, and the bearer salaamed in obsequious response.
After a moment’s pause Mark seized the lamp and went into Teresa’s bedroom. It was very untidy, strewn with paper and the kind of litter that only packing seems to convoke—all sorts of remnants, an odd pair of shoes, old gloves, little empty cardboard boxes, tufts of cotton wool, and his eye caught a worn-out hairbrush lying on the floor. The bed had not been slept in, though it was slightly rumpled. Surely Saucy had said that Teresa was in bed with a headache? What on earth did it all mean? Why had Teresa gone off in this preposterous fashion, giving him no warning? It was not as if he had forbidden her to visit Usapur as the Josephs’ guest. He searched for a note; looked into all the rooms by turn. But there was nothing to explain matters beyond the message already delivered by the bearer.
He went back to Teresa’s room. A musky scent still hung in the air. It was so reminiscent of her that he could hardly believe she was not present. Troubled and perplexed he put down the lamp and stood by the dressing-table, and then he recalled how, on this very spot, she had turned and laughed and defied him when, feeling pity for her difficulties and remorse for his own failure of patience, he had tried to make his peace with her. His heart had hardened towards her then; he felt it harden again now, and he told himself he was glad she had gone like this. Let her stay away as long as she pleased, and welcome. For himself—he would get off into camp and forget her for a while, if he could. A disgust seized him, disgust of his own life, of the waste of youth that lay behind him, of the future stretched ahead, arid and endless as a desert.
He left the close, dishevelled room and went to his study. To sleep he knew would be impossible; he would smoke and work until the dawn came and he could go for a gallop on the race-course to brace his brain and body. But though for some time he examined documents sedulously, he could not fix his mind on their contents. His thoughts wandered persistently; now to the arrangements he must make for his move into the district—he decided he would send his camp off after breakfast, and ride out and join it in the evening—then, with pen in hand, he felt an overmastering desire to write to Eve, to write her such a letter as would tell her all his heart, pour out to her his love, his longing, and all his unuttered misery.
In an intoxication of surrender to the impulse, he wrote and wrote spontaneously, without restraint, finding a fierce relief in the written words.
Suddenly the lamp flickered and went out, and Mark started to his feet as though awakened roughly from an absorbing dream. A faint yellow light crept in through the windows; he could hear the clamour of birds in the compound. The dawn had come.
He gazed at the pages he had written, while the light deepened and grew stronger, and the white washed walls of his room seemed to be stained an orange-pink. The day brought sense and reason.
Mark knew this letter never could be sent, never must be read by Eve, and with reluctant yet relentless ringers he tore the sheets across and across, then took them to the empty hearth and set them alight with a match.
He wrote to Eve again, when he was out on his first stage away from the station, but it was an ordinary letter. He told her his wife had gone back to Usapur for a change, with Miss Joseph—that he had tried to get leave for the hot weather but found that Fate was against him; he entered into a few official details, and said he expected to be very busy and might have to remain in camp for some little time. Also he expressed hopes that she would soon be well again, and would feel no serious effects from her accident.
He almost laughed, as he concluded, to think of the difference between this commonplace little note and the impassioned pages he had written first, that now were only cold, dead ashes.
Late in the afternoon, a week after Mark Rennard had left the station, Colonel Troy rode in at the gate of the Lancasters’ compound. The place was very quiet, barricaded from the road by a narrow plantation of flowering shrubs. Lawns, flower-beds, clusters of plants in pots, had just been freely watered, and the hot, dry soil offered up its incense of fragrant evaporation. The perfume and the peace, and a sense of release in the cooling air, made a welcome change from the dusty thoroughfare outside that buzzed with the noise of native travellers—the tinkle of anklets, the squealing of cart-wheels, the rattle of ekkas; voices that sang, and shouted, and argued.
Eve Lancaster, lying on a long cane chair in the veranda, liberated from her room for the first time since her accident, saw the visitor ride in at the gate on his handsome brown waler. Regretfully she acknowledged to herself how distinctive, how reliable he looked—a sincere personality, having nothing of the dreamer or the sentimentalist about him; a brave, generous type of man with clear judgment, and a life-time of hard experience to his credit, that produced a kindly, philosophical spirit towards his fellow-men.
Each day since Eve’s accident he had called at the bungalow to receive Norah Metcalfe’s report on the progress of her patient; Norah, in her element, garbed in a severe blue gown, with white linen apron, collar, and cuffs, only deploring that Eve and Uncle John had prohibited the cap that would have rendered the uniform so complete. She complained to Colonel Troy that Eve, as she got better, was inclined to be rather exasperating; for example, she would shut her eyes and lie quite still, and when Norah bent over her to ascertain if she were nicely asleep she would give a sudden and disconcerting shout into her nurse’s ear! “In a hospital,” said Norah, deeply aggrieved, “such conduct would never be tolerated for a moment!”
Also was Norah much concerned because Eve refused to send messages to Colonel Troy that surely would have only been natural and appropriate. She might at least have said, “Give him my love,” instead of “Thank him so much.” Norah was almost inclined to say the right thing on her own responsibility, but she was too conscientious to deviate by a fraction from the literal truth.
This afternoon she purposely left Eve alone in the veranda when Colonel Troy was due. Uncle John was playing badminton at the Jacksons’; Norah could easily absent herself.
It was characteristic of Troy that he did not speak till he was actually in the veranda and had taken a chair by Eve’s side, but she knew by his face the thankfulness and pleasure that was in his heart.
“This is good!” he said, and laid his hand on hers. But he looked with concern at the other hand, stiff and helpless still, the bound arm concealed by a silken scarf. “My poor little lady,” he murmured, and raised the free hand to his lips.
Eve moved uneasily. She flushed and paled. Then, without warning, in a way that was unlike her, she began to cry.
“I must tell you…. I must say it… It isn’t fair—” she faltered.
Colonel Troy sat silent, waiting. He knew she was yet weak and tired from all the pain she had suffered and the shock of her fall—this alone would account for her present break-down. But also did he feel that something troubled her mind. From the moment that Eve had accepted him, during all the weeks of his absence from her, he had known instinctively that the girl was not really happy. The few letters she had written him were not the letters of a woman in love, however reserved and undemonstrative her nature. Eve was bound to be honest sooner or later; such a moment as this was inevitable. He must make it as easy for her as was in his power.
“Darling, don’t cry so—you’ll make your head ache,” he said intimately. “Look here, there’s something troubling you, isn’t there? I knew it all along. Tell me about it. I was sure things weren’t absolutely right between us that night at the fancy ball! It was cursed bad luck my having to go off at once, and for such a time, or we might have put it all straight long ago.”
“I have behaved so badly!” she sobbed, and gazed at him with wet blue eyes, her little face so white and thin from illness, full of piteous distress, and it was all he could do to keep from kissing the pathetic, quivering mouth. If only he could comfort and caress her back to happiness!
But intuitively he felt what Eve was trying to say; she was trying to tell him that she had never loved him, though she had promised to be his wife. She was going to ask him to free her from her promise.
The sun sank, like his own heart, as he sat and listened now to Eve’s unhappy story. No sounds came from the house or compound to disturb them. The veranda seemed isolated, secluded, holding only themselves and their inquietude of soul.
She withheld nothing from him, and Troy understood. With his large-hearted grip of all the circumstances he did not censure Mark, as a younger man would probably have done, and Eve came near to forgetting that he loved her himself, that she was clouding his life with the history of her trial. She only felt that here she had a rock of strength and judgment to support her, and she threw her burden upon it with out reserve, without consideration, so boundless was the comfort, the relief of its firm, compassionate presence.
“What am I to do?” she besought him. “Tell me what I ought to do.”
“Listen, child,” he said with gentle urgency. “You must go away before Mark Rennard comes back to the station. You have every excuse; after being ill you ought not to face the hot weather, your father would be the first to wish you to go to the hills.”
“I know you are right,” she admitted helplessly.
He recognized her hesitation, the reluctance to separate herself so completely from all chance of meeting Mark Rennard again for months to come.
Years ago he also had struggled and despaired; yet had risen victorious over a great temptation.
“Eve—supposing you stay, what will happen? You may succeed in hiding what you feel yourself—a woman is often stronger than a man under such conditions—but can you be certain that Rennard won’t betray himself sooner or later? His wife must suspect something. Imagine her jealous of you—with every right to be jealous of you!”
Eve shrank. The suggestion filled her with a stinging shame. Hotly her pride rose up against the very notion of such a humiliating position—pride, mingled with a sense of guilt. And in that moment, thanks to this man at her side, who loved her, Eve realized, baldly and to the utmost, how strong was the necessity that Mark Rennard should be excluded altogether from her life, and even, if it were in her power, from her thoughts.
“Courage, Eve,” said Troy gravely. “You are not the sort to funk a bad fence.”
Her spirit rose, brave and resolute. “Yes,” she said, firmly, “I will go away.”
And Troy knew that now she would not waver.
It was the third morning of Teresa’s visit to the Josephs at Usapur, and so far she had watched and waited in vain for Mark’s summons to return to him. Despite Saucy’s confident predictions she hardly anticipated his pursuing her in person; she knew he could not leave his work without difficulty at present, even for a day or two, and work was ever the foremost consideration with Mark. Many a scene had taken place between them in the old days, before Teresa could be brought to recognize that official duty must prevail against inclination.
But at least she had expected appeal, expostulation, even perhaps anger by letter or by telegram, and the silence filled her with acute misgiving. Suspense had visibly affected her. The colour in her cheeks was dulled; her eyes were sunken and sore with tears; her hair looked faded and dusty. As yet she had not written to Mark, so positively had she counted on hearing from him; on his making the first advance, which she was so ready to welcome with unconditional surrender. Willingly would she return to the bondage of books and etiquette; ungratefully, and without hesitation would she renounce the Maleets and all their kind; humbly would she submit to the irksome guidance of Miss Metcalfe and Miss Lancaster. Anything, anything was she ready to do that might melt Mark’s cold indifference, might bring back the considerate affection and human passion she naturally mistook for genuine love.
Saucy felt provoked because she had been unable to persuade Teresa to go beyond the garden since her arrival.
“You see, a telegram might come,” objected Mrs Rennard, “and if I was out I should perhaps not get it for two-three hours? How then can I go?”
“Such foolish!” said Saucy, who had hoped to improve her own position in Usapur society by means of Teresa’s acquaintanceship with the station officials and their wives. None of them had been transferred from Usapur since the Rennards’ departure except Mr Banister.
“And he is the only one I would care to see of them all, even if I had good spirits,” Teresa argued, when Saucy urged her to meet her old friends at the Club, or “pay calls round the station.”
Now the two were standing under the shade of a great shisham tree, waiting for the morning letters. They both held green-lined umbrellas over their heads, and wore large, muslin-covered pith hats; for the semi-Indian, and the European bred in India, of all things holds the sun in abhorrence. And assuredly the hard blaze out of doors was daily growing fiercer; very soon the hot, cruel wind from the West would transform the warm blue sky into a copper-coloured ceiling pressed low over the thirsty land—would suck every drop of moisture from soil and plant, would roar and rattle and destroy till the blessed “Rains” marched up from the ocean with thunderous challenge to bring generous relief to the parched and panting earth.
Teresa gazed with strained attention towards the gateless entrance to the drive. She knew Saucy was speaking but she did not listen to the words.
“You know, Teresa, you will have to go out to Krabganj and make your salaams! Irene is so touchy; you remember how we used to quarrel—she and I? I wrote and told her you were here, and I expect we shall get a letter from her just now. Of course she is not strong yet to come here and see you. I think she may be still in bed. The new baby is little. It will not do for her to think you don’t want to go and see her, or that I am preventing.”
Saucy also watched anxiously for the postman, since, in a measure, she shared Teresa’s uneasiness. Was she not more or less answerable for the flight from Koranabad? That the manoeuvre should fail, after all, was not to be thought of.
Then a crumpled-looking figure came shambling up the drive—old Narain Singh, the Josephs’ messenger, who was derided by the Government peons as a servant of kerani-people, and reverenced by them as a Brahmin, when they all met at the post-office to wait for the mails. He extracted two letters and the daily paper from a brown canvas bag slung over his shoulder, and Teresa snatched them from him. With a little gasp she tore open one of the envelopes, allowing the other letter and the paper to fall into the dust at her feet.
Saucy picked them up, but instead of opening them she looked unceremoniously over Teresa’s shoulder to read for herself the words that Mark had written.
“Oh! oh! my!” cried Saucy—“Stay till he comes back from camp if you like—No sorrow, no hurt, not upset! Being without you is no matter to him?—h’n? Why, Teresa, I would not go back at all, I declare!”
Teresa stood staring into the sunshine. She felt deadened by the disappointment. Here was no letter of entreaty or conciliation such as she had allowed her self to look for, but a calm communication with mild forbearance in its tone. Mark expressed surprise but not annoyance that she should have left Koranabad for her visit to Usapur with such unnecessary abruptness, but he concluded she must have had her reasons, also he supposed it would suit her to stay away until he returned from camp. He would let her know the date when he knew it himself. He hoped she was all right and enjoying the change. Should he send her some money? Then he gave her small items of domestic news, and asked a few questions about the people at Usapur. Quite a friendly, amiable letter, but it threw Teresa into unintelligent despair. She succumbed helplessly to her own incapacity of mind; what sense of initiative she possessed forsook her. She neither thought nor reasoned; merely mentally prostrated herself, and suffered.
She heard Saucy saying in a loud argumentative voice: “You see what he says about stopping here? Well, take him at his word and we will have a run into Cawnpore and enjoy ourselves finely, h’n? Stay with my aunt and be gay Cawnpore is a much gayer place than your old Koranabad, I can tell you.”
Saucy talked fast. She was rather apprehensive that Teresa might turn round and blame her for this unexpected development of affairs. Still chattering she opened the other letter and glanced through it. Then put her arm about her companion’s waist ingratiatingly.
“Well, Teresa dear, at any rate do not trouble now about that stone image of a man, but listen to what Irene has written. She is quite astonished to hear you are with us, and she is annoyed because I did not tell her you were coming, and so stop on the way here. But you know you would not stop, Teresa. It was not my fault. You said, ‘No, no—let us get on to Usapur and write from there.’ Irene is sure not to believe me when I tell her. Any way she would like you and me to drive out to Krabganj to-day and stay all night and back to-morrow. It will cheer her up. She is feeling weak herself and the new baby is ailing, and the Bibi has got fever.”
Suddenly Teresa felt that she would like to see the Bibi. She found a curious consolation at this moment in the remembrance of how the Bibi had hated Mark before they left Usapur. Never, she knew, would the old woman forgive him for having returned the nau ratana jewel on account of the object of its gift—for having refused to employ his official interest on her behalf. Teresa had been furiously indignant, at the time, when the Bibi abused Mark with such vigorous resentment, but now, should the maledictions be repeated, she felt she could almost bring herself to applaud them. She said flatly:
“The poor old Bibi ill too? Very well then let us go out to Krabganj this afternoon and see them all, and back to-morrow.”
So, when the heat of the day began to lessen and the sun relaxed his sway, Saucy and Teresa drove out to Krabganj in the Joseph’s old victoria with the red baize lining, and splash-boards like gigantic ears.
The sight, as they passed it, of the little thatched bungalow behind the Club gripped Teresa with yearning pain, as once the sight of it had pierced Mark’s heart when he also was on his way, though he did not know it, to Krabganj. In that garden Mark had asked her to be his wife under that low thatched roof she had spent such blissful married years. Poor Teresa! She was so miserable, so confused, so mentally adrift. It frightened her to look forward; it hurt her to look back.
They rumbled along, enveloped in clouds of yellow dust. Saucy chattered. Teresa was sunk in cheerless apathy. A hot haze lay over the flat landscape, nothing moved across the drab-coloured ground on either side of the road; the twelve miles seemed interminable. They arrived just as the sudden Eastern dusk, the only thing that comes suddenly in India except Death, dropped like a snuffer over brickfield and bungalow.
How the flat-roofed house brought back the past to Teresa! And there was the cross old parrot hanging in his dome-shaped iron cage—he screamed deafeningly as they got out of the carriage, and went up the veranda steps. She thought of Junksie, and the scissors, and the seven-sister bird. It seemed a hundred years ago! Would Junksie ever come back here? She did not care whether he came back, or stayed in England for ever. Nothing mattered.
Howard came out to meet them. He looked fatter, but his face wore a peevish, harassed expression.
“Well, Teresa,” he said, and kissed his sister. “You will not find us a very lively house, but you are welcome.”
What a different greeting from the one she had received that day when, with Mark to support her, she had arrived poor and lonely and helpless to ask her brother’s charity for herself and her child.
“Irene does not pick up,” said Howard gloomily; “and the baby with trouble at stomach, and now the Bibi sick with fever. All going wrong!” He spread out his hands and raised his eyebrows.
He left Teresa and Saucy at the door of Irene’s bedroom, a high spacious chamber, yet indescribably comfortless and untidy. The lamps, just lighted, burned badly; the bed-clothes were tumbled, and not very clean, and the remains of a meal had not been cleared away. Indelicate baby-garments hung over chairs, and an unpleasant odour pervaded the atmosphere.
On the floor, by the bedside, an ayah squatted rocking in her lap the feeble little being whose life flickered so uncertainly, who wailed without ceasing. Irene herself lay fretful and ill, like a brown shadow on her dingy pillows—her skin looked much darker with ill-health, as is always the case with the semi-Oriental; the pure Indian grows lighter, ashen-hued with sickness. Her black eyes were dull, her hair lay in dank streaks upon her forehead.
“Oh! Teresa,” she said weakly, “fancy you being here again. I thought you would never come near Krabganj any more. I am sure I wish we could see the last of the place. It is all trouble and worry, and the Bibi ill too. And look at that poor mite there, not strong enough to live, and little Stephanie and Albert delicate and always cross.”
The voices of Stephanie and Albert could be heard in the next room raised in shrill complaining.
Teresa felt vaguely shocked by her sister-in-law’s appearance. “You should have a nurse, Irene,” she said.
“Oh! I could not stand a nurse. I had one when little Stephanie was born, and she gave such dik (worry). Ayah is much better, and Chandi—she knows all. But now the Bibi is ill too and Chandi stays with her.”
“Shall we stop here two-three days and look after you?” suggested Saucy, loudly, and at the same moment she banged against the table by her sister’s bed, and upset not only a bottle of medicine but a cup of milk as well.
Irene gave an angry cry. “Oh! you careless—see what you have done! You stay here and look after? You would be more bother than all the house together. Noh—tank you!”
“You ungrateful!” cried Saucy, tears of rage in her eyes. “Do you think I want to stay and give up my time to babies and sick people?—though you and Howard are such stingees you would let me, and save a nurse.”
The sisters began a noisy quarrel, calling each other names, raking up old grievances and discords till the miserable baby wailed louder, the ayah tried to sing to it, and the din was dreadful. It at last aroused Teresa who had been sitting on rocking-chair, an inert, uninterested spectator.
“Oh what kafuffle!” she said wearily, and left her chair to approach Irene’s bed. “You two could never agree, you were always bad friends. Saucy, you had better go and leave Irene, or all this row will only make her more ill.”
“Yes, go—and do not come back!” added Irene furiously.
Saucy bolted towards the door, and collided with Howard who was entering the room.
“Let me pass, Howard!” she cried. “I am going out of this house. I am told to go and never come back. Irene said go—Teresa too!”
“Now, now, what is all the matter?” Mr Klint endeavoured to detain his sister-in-law, but she broke from him, and they heard her run into the veranda, and call excitedly for the carriage.
Irene sat up in bed and rolled her eyes. Then she slid back fainting among her pillows. Howard flew for brandy; Teresa dabbed water on the inanimate face; the ayah deposited the baby in the cot, and fluttered aimlessly about the room whimpering that the mem-sahib was surely dead.
Saucy was forgotten. But by the time Irene had revived, and Howard and Teresa were free to think of her affronted sister, they heard the rumble of the victoria driving out of the compound gates.
“And no rest for those old towel-horses!” said Howard, otherwise undisturbed by Saucy’s behaviour. “She is a headstrong girl and foolish, and there are always upsets when she comes here. But who can help her tantrums? Do not let us worry about her. She will have a nice long drive home in the dark with horses already fatigued. That will teach her, perhaps!”
Indeed Teresa felt too weary, too spiritless to agitate herself over Saucy’s impetuous departure, but when Howard asked her presently, with quite humble diffidence, if she thought she could make it convenient to remain at Krabganj for the present, and help with the stricken little household, she felt a dim sense of satisfaction. Here she was really required, and could be of use and comfort; to remain would be a kindly act of condescension, and her importance would be duly recognized—an antidote to the humiliations and mental discomforts of her existence at Koranabad! Therefore she assented graciously, and Howard said he would send for the rest of her things from the Josephs’ bungalow early to-morrow morning—“and a note go too telling why to the old Josephs,” he added, “and then they will not be offended.”
Howard’s attitude towards her acted as a palliative to Teresa’s condition of mind, sycophant though she knew him to be. He was extravagantly grateful and deferential; so solicitous for her comfort, professing apprehension lest she should find the accommodation at Krabganj distasteful after the different life to which, of course, she was now accustomed as the wife of a rising, indeed an already prominent, official!
After dinner, when Irene had fallen asleep, Teresa went to see her grandmother. Though the room was long and lofty, the atmosphere felt stifling, poisoned as it was with the fumes of charcoal burning in an iron basket, and all the door-windows were tight shut. The oil lamps smoked, and the light was dim and yellow. Huddled up on the lacquered bedstead was the Bibi wrapped in a camel’s hair shawl, and she moaned softly, rocking herself to and fro.
For as long as Teresa could remember the Bibi had always been small, but now she seemed to be half her usual size. She looked so curiously altered that Teresa felt half frightened of the shrunken figure and wizened face from which the restless black eyes still glittered and mocked. Chandi was in attendance; she had thrown off her wrapper, and her bald head gleamed oily and black in the lamplight. Her hideous old face with the flattened nose wore a grotesquely harassed expression.
“Ar-ee, babba!” she croaked, as Teresa came into the room. “Thy grandmother, the Bibi, is very sick. An evil spirit hath laid hold upon her, and were it not for the cunning and wisdom of Nattoo would she surely die, but with spells and charms will he scare away the evil one, who is even now growing less powerful since Nattoo plucked on a Sunday the fruit of the dhatura tree and bound it about her right wrist.”
The Bibi peered out from the folds of her shawl. “So! Once more art thou come back alone?” she said with feeble interest, “not this time as a widow and poor, but rich and well married, and therefore welcome to the master of the house! Well, well,” her voice grew a little stronger and she gave one of her old malicious chuckles, “it is the way of the world. ‘Without pence how shall one smell perfumes.’”
“So the sister of the wife of the sahib hath departed in anger, and orders have been given to fetch thy belongings at dawn to-morrow from Usapur?” put in Chandi conversationally.
“Yes,” said Teresa, “and I stay here for a time, since there is so much sickness in the house, and the mem-sahib needs more help.”
That the old women should already be acquainted with all that had occurred since her arrival did not surprise Teresa. News flies through an Indian household with the speed of magic. Chandi grunted; she was mixing something with great care in a little brass saucer.
“I am very sorry you are ill.” Teresa drew forward one of the clumsy chairs and sat at her grandmother’s bedside.
“For a time,” said the Bibi indifferently, “may the cunning of Nattoo prevail against the evil influence, but even then shall I die before long, for I am old, older than anyone can say, and why should I desire to live longer than others?” A mischievous gleam came into the deep-sunken eyes. “Is there not a saying that ‘An old woman is a packet of evil’?”
“See,” said Chandi, coming forward with the saucer held out, “here is the remedy Nattoo bade us apply, in addition to the dhatura berries—a fly bruised up with black pepper, assafoetida, and water. It should be smeared on the eyes, when its bitterness and smell will afright the demon, and cause him to depart in company with the spirit of the fly—”
But the Bibi waved her away. “Enough,” she said. “If I die, I die. If I get well, I live. In any case is it not open to me to count all the leaves on a neem tree if I desire a further remedy? Now do I wish to have talk with my grand-daughter.”
Then, in a high, thin voice with grunts and groans and pauses for breadth, the Bibi asked Teresa questions. She demanded a description of the house at Koranabad, and wished to hear how the Rennards passed their day. She inquired about the bazaar prices, and the rate of wages, and the quality of the air and the drinking water; she displayed a curiosity—not by any means to be confounded with kindly interest—concerning Mark’s work, his pay, his prospects, his health, his present whereabouts, and did her best to drive Teresa into a corner on the subject of her reason for returning to Usapur. And all the time her animosity towards Teresa’s husband was implied though not expressed. Teresa was no match for the Bibi’s sharp intuition and powers of observance, and when, finally, exhaustion alone silenced the old woman, Teresa felt that the burden on her heart was not entirely unsuspected.
She left the room, giddy from the unwholesome atmosphere, uncertain in her mind as to how far she had betrayed her unhappiness to the Bibi; not that it would greatly matter even if her grandmother knew the truth so long as Howard was not enlightened also—Howard, whose attitude towards his sister would certainly change if he discovered that she was not on the best of terms with her husband—and Teresa now wished to remain at Krabganj until Mark was back in the bungalow at Koranabad. The inactivity, the lack of routine, the purposeless mode of daily life in the disorderly bungalow would be mental relaxation to her—would permit her to sort her confused ideas till she could look ahead with some degree of confidence. Instinctively she yearned for a spell of freedom from all social regulations, for idleness of mind and body, just to eat and sleep when she liked, to wear comfortable untidy clothes all day (the red dressing-gown for choice); to keep Irene unbusied company, and talk sometimes with the Bibi in faultless Hindustani; to feel that there was nothing she must do at any particular hour.
Now, instead of going to bed in her old room which had been prepared for her, she went out on to the veranda steps. There was no moon, but the stars were brilliant, as if regilded by the fierce golden sunshine of the day. Behind her the bungalow was silent and dark. Howard had gone to bed; Irene and the children, even including the baby, were asleep. Before her lay the blackness of the orange-grove; to the left the outline of the servants’ quarters showed dimly irregular, and from thence came a murmur of voices, the flicker of a fire, and now and then a laugh—the Eastern laugh, heard so seldom, which never sounds quite natural.
An unreasoning restlessness drew her down the steps on to the hard, dry path in front of the house. Involuntarily her hand sought the bunch of charms that hung from a chain round her neck, and her fingers closed on the lump of turquoise given her by the Bibi on the day when she and Mark had returned from their honeymoon. Her main idea in seeking it was the protection it would afford her against snakes. Snakes were just awakening from their winter torpor, but would yet be hardly lively enough to glide away at the sound of approaching footsteps. However, that the turquoise would safeguard her she felt assured.
She stepped into the fragrant darkness of the orange grove, guided by the white stones bordering the walk. Among the leaves above and around her the fire flies sparkled and floated, stirred by gentle puffs of warm, fitful wind. Her thoughts turned to Mark with passionate longing; his image haunted her—the grave grey eyes, the firm well-shaped lines of head and feature. She could almost hear his voice, feel the touch of his hand, and she held out her arms in helpless hunger for his presence.
Sobbing softly she stumbled along the invisible pathway till she found herself in the open space before the pipal tree; she could hear the shivering whisper of the leaves above the spot where, with his first kiss, Mark had awakened her love for him, her love imperishable.
For a moment she wavered, then ran across the piece of clear ground that showed ghostly-grey in the star-shine.
Under the old tree she sat down, just on the spot where she and Mark had rested on that fateful evening. How sharply she remembered! He had not loved her then, she knew, but afterwards he had loved her, and surely, surely he loved her still? A dreadful panic seized her that perhaps his love was dead—that perhaps nothing could ever now restore it to her! Agonized she threw herself on her face, lying along the rough masonry of the platform, clutching at the tree roots that twisted in and out among the stones.
The faint breeze, sweeping through the branches, loosened a few thick, flat leaves that came twirling down and fell upon her hair. She started up with the wild fancy that Mark had followed her after all, that he had touched her, but she knew, even as she peered into the dimness, that she had but deceived herself.
As she gazed and listened, trembling in every nerve, she heard a sound on the further side of the great tree, and saw a thin flame shoot up as though spurting from the ground. It illuminated the figure of old Nattoo, the cunning man, seated in his squalid little shelter. He had just lighted the coarse wick that floated in a shallow bowl of oil beside him.
Teresa, as though hypnotized by the meagre unsteady light, crouched close against the tree-trunk, motionless, watching. Nattoo began to chant monotonously, swaying to and fro. Once or twice he looked about him with crazy, bloodshot eyes, and shouted and rattled the little drum that lay in his lap. Teresa knew he did this in order to scare away demons, who fear and dislike noise. She thought Nattoo himself resembled nothing human squatting there with his old face lit up by the sickly flame, his long matted hair, his bone necklace, and ragged clothing. In vague connection there ran through her mind memories of terrible things she had heard long ago—stories of murder and sacrifice, of communion with powers of darkness, and the summoning of the dead; of hideous rites still practised secretly in the depths of the jungle.
In horrible fascination she watched him, and saw him swinging a little pendulum from his thumb, the while he gazed intently at something on the ground before him, something that looked like a semi-circle of leaves with grains of rice upon them, and the chanting invocation never ceased. Was he trying to divine the name of the evil spirit that was supposed to have attached itself to the Bibi? Teresa shuddered and shut her eyes. When she looked again he had discarded the pendulum, and was laboriously making marks upon scraps of paper with a reed pen.
Then, as though one of the ghosts dwelling in the pipal tree had descended from the branches and whispered in her ear, the suggestion came to her—Could Nattoo supply her with a charm that might help her to hold Mark’s love if still it were hers? to call it back if it were gone from her?
All the credulous superstition in her blood, the heritage of ages, rose up and overpowered her reason, “possessed” her. It kindled her latent belief in the power of magic to active conviction; it filled her with the mad excitement of a hope that though fantastic was none the less actual.
In another moment she would have called aloud to Nattoo—but that, suddenly, the light went out. And the utter silence that followed froze her with palpitating fear. She felt herself surrounded by ghostly forces. She could not move. And when at last she raised her voice, uttering the old man’s name, there came no answer but the clattering of the leaves above her head.
Beside herself she sprang from the rough little platform, and ran across the open space; through the orange-grove and the garden; up the veranda steps into the house as though pursued by something evil.
But all the time the thought of the charm clung to her, went with her, and once safely in her room she resolved to seek the Bibi’s help. She knew she had not the courage, after to-night, to consult the “devil-priest” unaided.
But more than a week lagged by, and Teresa had not yet spoken to her grandmother of what was in her mind; though daily the notion that had presented itself to her under the pipal tree grew more definite, nourished as it was by the atmosphere of her surroundings and mode of life. The veneer of English custom acquired with her second marriage wore away when brought into close contact with habitual superstition, with early associations and strong Eastern tendencies. The food, the talk, the hot weather sounds and scents in the house and compound acted narcotically on Teresa’s intellect, and she fell back into old habits and thoughts and indulgences, losing count of time in the long sleepy days, during hours of heat and inaction.
Irene got better. The presence of her exalted sister-in-law in the house stimulated her languid health. It pleased and interested her to play hostess, to parade her very indifferent house-keeping powers, and she never tired of asking and hearing about Teresa’s gay doings and grand existence at Koranabad. The baby still wailed and dwindled, and Stephanie and Albert were a torment with their lamentations and fretful rebellion against all rule. But it seemed that Howard had arranged to remove his wife and children to the hills next month, and then “at once all would flourish.” Saucy, after writing sarcastic letters alike to Teresa and Irene, betook herself to the prosperous aunt at Cawnpore, not deigning to call at the Klint’s bungalow on her way to the station even to insult the household. Doubtless she would have informed Howard and Irene that Teresa had run away from Mr Rennard, but that an uneasy conscience concerning her own furtherance of the flight from Koranabad held her silent on the subject.
The Bibi continued much the same. One day she would sit up, and converse, and smoke her hookah apparently without great effort. The next she would be shivering beneath her blankets in the cruel grip of ague, brought about, of course, by demoniacal agencies—according to the native conviction that neither sickness nor misfortune can ever be traced to natural causes.
It was after one of these attacks, fiercer than usual, and its subsequent hours of exhausting fever that Teresa, watching by the lacquered bedstead, proposed that the Civil Surgeon from Usapur should be asked to attend the Bibi. But the patient refused stubbornly, and only argued that if Nattoo’s skill proved unavailing against the influence that beset her, was it likely that an English doctor’s magic could be more successful? Nattoo came of her own tribe and race, her own people down country; she knew him to be a true medicine man; he was the one being who could cure her if cure were possible.
“However, may be it is the will of the gods that I die,” concluded the Bibi with faint voice and closed eyelids, “and in that case what could keep me living?”
“See, Maharani,” coaxed Chandi from the other side of the bed, “here be another charm that Nattoo hath prepared. Take it and thy strength will surely return. By means now of grain and a sieve hath he at last discovered the name of the devil that afflicteth thee, and this will compel the wicked one to depart.”
“And is it kids, or fowls, or a goat that must be offered this time?” grumbled the Bibi. “Truly brother Nattoo must be growing fat as my purse grows lighter.”
Nevertheless she put out a shrivelled claw and took the pellet of paper offered her by Chandi, stuffing it into her mouth with all four fingers and her thumb. Soon afterwards she subsided into her nest of blankets and pillows and seemed to doze peacefully. Chandi withdrew, stepping cautiously, and she looked back at Teresa from the doorway with hopeful nods, and smiles that might have been mistaken for grimaces.
It was afternoon, and the sun scorched the heavy cane blinds lowered between the veranda pillars—pierced them through in long rods of dazzling light. The birds in their cages that hung against the wall—the little lalls and the talking myna—twittered sleepily. For a long time Teresa sat staring out into the hot veranda, her mind scarcely moving.
Then her thoughts gathered with sluggish deliberation around the swallowing of the charm that had looked like a wad of paper. Apparently the Bibi was soothed and relieved by it almost at once! Perhaps the explanation was that Nattoo had administered medicine concealed in the piece of paper—on which, of course, a powerful spell had been also inscribed. In addition to their so-called magical powers people like Nattoo possessed secret knowledge of remedies to be obtained from plants and vegetables. But this practical suggestion retreated before Teresa’s recollections of many strange happenings—the undoubted effect of spells and talismans, “possessions” and “sendings,” cures and curses; of charms to bring happiness; of charms to avert bad luck and to work good or evil, and love charms—love charms—A sob caught her breath. Her heart ached for Mark: and soon she was crying disconsolately, though making hardly any sound.
“What is thy trouble, daughter?” the question came with wonderful vigour considering the Bibi’s condition, and as Teresa quickly dried her eyes and cheeks the old woman emerged from her wraps and sat upright in the bed.
She yawned noisily, cracking her fingers at the same time to scare away lurking demons that might profit by the opportunity to fly down her throat. Afterwards she sneezed, and looked expectantly at Teresa who fortunately remembered to say, “May you live a thousand years!”
“That is well. Doubtless the charm of Nattoo hath succeeded, and with the sneeze the evil one hath departed—”
And indeed the Bibi seemed to revive miraculously.
Her skin looked moist, her voice was stronger. There was vitality in her expression, and the sight of Teresa’s tears seemed to cause her the most animated interest.
“There is sore sadness in thy heart, daughter,” she said. “I have beheld it since thy coming. Do not forget that ‘One hint is enough for the wise’!”
And now, her unhappiness oppressing her more heavily than ever and her mind dwelling upon sorcery, Teresa told the Bibi all her dread. To explain the precise situation she felt would be impossible, the half of it would not be understood—so she made no attempt to relate a connected story. But the Bibi, listening with close attention to her grand-daughter’s disjointed sentences, grasped the main fact. Teresa’s fear that she might lose, might even have already lost, her husband’s love!
“Oh! Bibi!” finished the miserable woman, now sobbing without restraint. “Is there nothing that will recall his love—bring him back to me—bind his heart to mine? What charm is there that will help me?” Teresa’s Hindustani phrasing was infinitely superior to her English.
The eyes of the old native woman glinted, and Teresa, engrossed with her own feelings, did not perceive or suspect the malicious satisfaction she was affording the Bibi, who paused for a moment to compose her countenance.
“Well, well,” she said presently, “it is ever the same with men-folk. ‘Four days of moonshine and then comes again dark night!’ No easy thing is it to retain the favour of a sahib. Deceive not thyself. Remember that ‘the dweller in brick weeps while she of the hut sleeps.’ The sun is not hidden by throwing dust at it, and it is expedient to keep in mind that the Feringhees are a strange race. It has been said, and perhaps with truth, that a demon took a monkey to wife and the result, by the grace of God, was the English!”
The Bibi maundered on, quoting sayings and proverbs that depressed the heart of her listener. And then, capriciously as seemed to Teresa, the old lady expressed desire for some tea and Teresa had to set about making it, since Chandi, who needed food and sleep, was not for the moment available.
The tea was drunk out of brass bowl, with plenty of sugar, but no milk, and the Bibi smoked her pipe placidly for at least ten minutes afterwards. Teresa sat dejected and silent, half repenting her outburst, yet conscious that voicing her trouble had brought her a certain relief. She sat and gazed inertly into the veranda, and allowed her thoughts to wander sadly to her husband. Did he ever think of her?—did he miss her? What was he doing at this very moment?
The voice of the Bibi, speaking suddenly, startled her.
“A love charm? Well, it is a thing that is not so easy to obtain. And to employ it without the knowledge of the sahib would also be difficult—”
“Yes, yes, no doubt,” Teresa responded eagerly. “But how can I get one—a charm that will be powerful and fail not—”
“That is to be considered,” said the Bibi.
She took the pipe from her mouth and looked at Teresa critically. Then of a sudden she began to praise Mark Rennard with Eastern exaggeration. Was he not great, and good, and wise, and handsome? and was not Teresa favoured among women to have obtained such a man as her husband?—though assuredly she could hardly dare hope to hold the love of so superior a being!
“Thus do I share thy fears, daughter!” said the old woman gloomily, “seeing that thou are not so beautiful according to English taste, nor now so young, and have neither learning, nor wit, nor accomplishments wherewith to enslave a man when youth and beauty fade—ai-ee! ai-ee!”
The Bibi rocked herself to and fro as though in sympathetic grief, and Teresa gazed at her grandmother with large, tearful eyes, feeling both puzzled and despairing—despairing because she was miserably conscious of the truth of the Bibi’s disparaging remarks, puzzled because she was unable to account for the old lady’s sudden commendation of Mark. In view of her previous revilement of him it seemed incredible that she should now be lauding him with almost equal vehemence! Could it be that Nattoo’s charm had changed her heart? or was it that the evil spirit, or whatever was the cause of her sickness, had also affected her reason?
But the Bibi’s lively mind was neither crippled by illness nor converted by a charm. In a moment had it leapt at a possible opportunity for retaliation, for revenge upon the man who had thwarted her despite their family connection—of all ties the most exacting and imperious in the sight of the Oriental. For a few minutes she nestled down like a marmoset among her blankets; then emerged to take a pull at her pipe, and to regard her dejected descendant with impish interest.
“Consideration shall be given to thy wish, daughter, but in such a matter there can be no haste. However, be comforted. Rest assured that thy grandmother will befriend thee as far as lies in her power, and take courage—”
Teresa did not feel quite sure whether it was a chuckle or a cough that ended this speech. She sat in doubtful silence till the Bibi again fell asleep, her hookah still clutched in her hand, and then Teresa went out of the room, softly, with high hope in her heart that would not be repulsed, though yet she mistrusted it vaguely.
It was this same sense of mingled doubt and credulity that held her from saying more to the Bibi during the next few days on the subject of the charm. At times she wondered if the Bibi had forgotten her promise, but she waited for her grandmother to speak first, to say she had consulted Nattoo, to report the cunning man’s opinion, and the price he named for his advice and the charm itself. As a precaution she wrote to Mark for more money, knowing that a liberal sum would be sent without delay or question.
The days went by in warm, dreamy monotony. Outside, the atmosphere grew burning, and doors and windows had to be closed during the mid-day hours, for dust and west wind had begun their united campaign of torture. The evenings and mornings still brought refreshing coolness, but soon there would be hardly even this alleviation from the heat.
The old Bibi seemed to grow feebler, though since the administering of Nattoo’s last remedy the fever had not returned. Irene made fitful plans for the migration of the family “up hill,” but so far the plans remained inactive.
Late one night Teresa, wrapped in a white muslin dressing-gown, sat brushing her hair listlessly before the looking-glass. The sweep of the brush down the long length of her hair, and the tip-tap of the moths and flying beetles that collected about the oil lamps hanging on the walls, were the only sounds in the room, and when, suddenly, a voice called her name in a low cautious tone she started nervously, and felt afraid to look round. Then in the mirror before her she saw reflected Chandi’s bald head protruding, like that of a tortoise, round the curtain that hung before one of the numerous doors.
“What is it?” she asked fretfully, and turned in her chair.
“The Bibi sends salaam, and will the mem-sahib speak with her, now at once?”
“I will come,” said Teresa. And in her white muslin wrapper, and her magnificent dark hair flowing around her, “with red beneath it, like unto the fur of the black panther,” as her grandmother used to describeit, she followed old Chandi to the Bibi’s room.
The doors were open, the cane blinds in the veranda were rolled up as far as they would go, admitting the night air which yet seemed powerless to disperse the indescribable smell of musk and spice and garlic and general stuffiness. It all hung heavy, stagnant in the air like an invisible fog about the Bibi’s bed, and her quick difficult breathing increased the sense of ill ventilation.
The old woman was sitting up, supported by her pillows, and her eyes seemed the only living part of her. They gleamed and glittered deep in her head, reflecting the sickly yellow light diffused by the smoking oil lamps. Otherwise she looked corpse-like, literally skin and bone.
“Oh! Grandmother!” cried Teresa in alarm, “are you worse? Let me call Howard, let me call Nattoo, send for the doctor—”
“Peace, peace, girl!” the Bibi spoke in gasping, impatient whisper. “Be silent and listen to my words, for soon may I be silent altogether myself.” A flicker of mockery passed over the Satanic old face. “Suffer not anxiety for the health of thy grandmother to overcome thy discretion, or we shall be disturbed and have somewhat to say to thee that of importance.”
Then she ordered Chandi from the room and beckoned Teresa to her bedside. “Come nearer, nearer. That is better. Now bend thy head and listen.”
Obediently Teresa stooped, though she felt alarmed, and would have preferred to rush from the room calling for Howard and Irene. She was alone with her grandmother who was, perhaps, dying! Probably the Bibi divined her sensations, for she grabbed at Teresa’s white wrapper with skeleton fingers, and pulled till her unwilling granddaughter was constrained to kneel down.
“To thy child,” wheezed the Bibi, “to Junksie-babba, the male child with the hair of brass that thou didst bear to thy first man, have I bequeathed all that is mine. And so that none might quarrel or make dispute did I go secretly, months back, to Banister-Collector-Sahib before he departed from Usapur. He it was who wrote my wish on Government paper with his name, and another sahib who was with him also wrote his name, at the end of the paper, so that all should be secure.”
“Oh! but Bibi,” protested Teresa, “what need is there to do such a thing? does not my husband look upon Junksie as his own son, and grudge no money for him? and will he not ever provide for the child? Besides, you will live long yet—”
“Thy husband,” interrupted the Bibi, with a rally of elaborate politeness, “Rennard-sahib, the handsome, the brave, the good and clever! Is it meet, is it fitting that he should be burdened with the offspring of another man? Moreover, who can say what may come about? Children may yet be born to him—or death,” her voice quavered and sank again, “or death—death—”
“No, no!” Teresa tried not to scream. “Mark will not die, he will not die—”
“Pish!” said the Bibi. “Hold thy noise. Is he god that he should live for ever? Be not a fool and wail like a jackal, but give me water to drink, and hearken once more to my talk.”
She drank from the brass bowl that Teresa held to her lips. Then rested for a few minutes with her eyes shut and her breath coming quickly. A bat flew in at the open door and flickered round the room, swooping and turning, now disappearing in the height of the ceiling, now skimming low over the bed. Teresa shuddered; she had heard so often that devils will sometimes take the shape of bats and fly about persistently where death is present. The hot silence was only broken by the elastic flitting of its wings, and the Bibi’s hissing breath. Teresa felt cramped and stiff from kneeling on the hard cement floor that was covered only with the striped drugget, but she dared not move. The Bibi, if disturbed, might begin to talk again and say terrible things. The mention of death in connexion with Mark had already filled Teresa with a frenzy of apprehension. Supposing, while she were away, if Mark should die? if he should be taken from her for ever while they were still at cross purposes—before she had heard him say again that he loved her—before she had felt his arms about her once more!
Stealthily she drew her handkerchief from the pocket of her wrapper and wiped the blinding tears from her eyes, and as she put it back again she saw that the Bibi was watching her with a hard, bright stare.
“Wherefore weep?” The old woman was moving now, fumbling in the folds of blanket and shawl and pillow. “To weep dims the eyes. It is bad for beauty. And when a woman’s eyes are sad and dull will a man turn from her to the smiles and brightness of other eyes.” Still the uncertain fumbling went on, to the accompaniment of disjointed murmurs. “Yes—the land and the villages—they are for thy son. So will he be rich. All will be his save the jewels buried beneath the hearthstone. The jewels are for How’d, thy brother.” She paused as though to gather strength, then went on very slowly: “One jewel did I set aside to be given to thy husband, daughter—it is—the jewel of the nine planets that was despised of that great and good man. It is here, could I but find it, with the box for thee that holds the thing of great value—the thing most precious that was thy wish—the charm to keep the love—to keep the love—”
Then exhausted she slipped down among the bed clothes, though still she groped and fumbled with weak, convulsive effort, making faint sounds that just fell short of words.
“Yes, yes—oh! Bibi, let me feel. Tell me where to find it.”
In tremulous excitement Teresa thrust her hand about beneath the pile of pillows and huddle of quilt and blanket, until her fingers struck something hard. Agitated and palpitating she drew out little round silver box, chased and carved and wonderfully wrought, an exquisite piece of workmanship. Tied to with a twist of red thread was the nau ratana jewel, which came off and dropped to the floor as Teresa stood upright. With shaking hands she forced open the lid of the box; was half full of a fine yellow powder, like sand. Anxiously she bent over the bed—over the shrivelled little form that now had ceased to grope, and move, and murmur.
“The charm, Bibi, the charm. Listen to me. I have found it. I have got here in my hand. Look—the box! Tell me how to use what within—how much to give. Oh Bibi, try to speak—drink water to gain strength.”
She picked up the brass bowl from which the Bibi had drunk a few minutes ago, and raised the fleshless body, but the water trickled away when Teresa held it to the open mouth, from which came neither breath nor sound. The whole miserable little frame seemed to collapse, to crumble. Teresa in horror drew away her arm, and what had been the Bibi dropped down among the pillows again for the last time.
For a few moments Teresa gazed, sick and dumb with fear and dismay, at the dead face, so aged, and small, and puckered, with the open mouth and half-closed eyes. Something fanned past her forehead, almost touching her hair, and she looked up. It was the bat wheeling low, backwards and forwards, over the bed. And simultaneously she saw, peering in at the doorway, a long, thin face, haggard, with blood-shot eyes, and stiff grey hair flowing on either side. The yellow lamplight shone on the eyeballs and the lines of bony features, giving the effect of a head with out a body; Teresa, standing with the silver box clutched in her hand, and terror chilling her veins, lost control of herself. She screamed, and screamed again, and sank, shaking and shivering, down by the bed, down by the little dead body of her grandmother.
Then the room began to fill with people. Chandi rushed in first, and once convinced that her beloved mistress actually lived no longer, she beat her breast and her forehead, tore her clothes, and made the most unearthly noise by way of lamentation. Howard, in pyjamas, gave orders which no one obeyed. Irene, shivering in her nightgown, clung to her husband and sobbed hysterically. The children awoke and shrieked on the opposite side of the bungalow, and every servant in the compound crowded into the dead woman’s room chattering and exclaiming.
All that time Teresa crouched on the floor, moaning, half unconscious, the silver box clutched tightly in her hand.
Later in the night, when all the tumult had subsided and Teresa was supposed to be in bed, she crept out of her room, and down the veranda steps. She still wore her muslin wrapper, and in one hand she carried a lantern; in the other she held the silver box. Her face was grey with trepidation; her heart beat so fast she could hardly breathe. But her purpose drove her out into the hot darkness where the dust that had hung all day in the air now seemed to obscure the star-shine—drove her on through the garden and the orange grove, across the open piece of ground, and round the great trunk of the pipal tree.
There was no light in Nattoo’s hut, and she stood for a little time before it in hesitation, but heard no sound. Then she raised the lantern, and saw that the squalid little shelter was empty. Moreover, the patched and filthy quilt that formed the old man’s bedding was gone, and only the larger of his cooking vessels stood in a corner with a heap of rubbish undescribable.
Teresa felt hopeless. She knew that when Nattoo took his quilt it meant that he had gone away on one of his mysterious expeditions, which sometimes lasted for days only; sometimes, on the other hand, for weeks. She remembered how once he had disappeared for three months, and where he had spent the time no one ever knew but himself.
He could only have started to-night; for it was his face, of course, that had startled her in the open door way at the moment of the Bibi’s death, she knew that.
But why had he been there, just at the moment of death? Teresa’s knees shook again, her throat closed with the terrifying recollection of that moment, and Nattoo’s sudden and passing presence.
She turned to go back to the house with slow, timid steps. It was no use waiting here now. Perhaps Nattoo might return before she left Krabganj, but, if he did not, who was to tell her how to use the charm? She thought of Chandi.
Next day she attempted to take counsel with the old woman, but found it useless. Chandi knew nothing. The Bibi had told her nothing.
Teresa and her ayah drove up in a ticca-gharry (the cab of the country) to the little house down by the Native Cavalry lines at Koranabad.
Mark’s bearer, who was conversing with a peon in the front veranda, ran forward with astonished alacrity, for he felt positive the mem-sahib was not expected this afternoon. True, the sahib had been back from camp these last two days, but no orders were yet given to prepare for the mem-sahib, no trap sent to the station to meet her, and moreover, the sahib was dining out to-night. So here was a nice complication!
However, he set to work with the willing interest that is such an inestimable virtue of the good native servant; gave orders, forestalled wishes, bustled hither and thither making preparations, incidentally dusting and tidying so that any negligence in the house-work should not be too obvious.
But had the whole bungalow been one mass of dust and disorder Teresa would hardly have observed it, so absorbed was she in the prospect of seeing her husband again. On the receipt of Mark’s letter giving her the expected date of his return to the station, she had arranged, without telling him, to arrive on that same afternoon. But now, it appeared, he had come two days earlier, which perhaps, for domestic reasons, was just as well. The servants were all here, the house was aired, and things had been got straight after a fashion.
A fortnight had passed since the death of the Bibi, and Howard, and Irene, and Chandi, and the children were now on their way to the hills. They and Teresa had all started together last night from Krabganj, leaving the house in charge of those servants not required in the hill station; leaving the brickfield to the care of a responsible overseer; leaving the Bibi buried in a far corner of the compound (“like a Christian,” as Howard had said), with a few big stones to cover and protect her grave. “When we come back,” Howard had announced magnificently, “I will cause a fine and handsome monument to be erected over the remains of my grandmother.”
Nattoo had not returned when Teresa left her brother’s house, but the little silver box with its powdery contents was safely preserved among her valuables.
On her arrival home it was the first thing she unpacked, and she hid it beneath a pile of clothing on a shelf in her wardrobe. Then she had a hot bath, and dressed herself in white. Mark liked her best in white. And she brushed the dust from her masses of hair with particular attention. When she was ready she looked long at herself in the glass, with a faint pleasure in the glow of her own beauty.
She could not help recalling how, once before, she had dressed herself for Mark’s approbation, though at that time all she had to wear was an old and despised blue garment. She had dressed then with such eager expectation of seeing him, such tremors of joy, and how little she had dreamed she could ever become his wife.
Yet the wonderful thing had happened. She was Mark’s and he was hers. And after all—after all—she had failed him; she had been stupid, ill-tempered, defiant; had opposed his wishes and made him unhappy. What wonder if she had lost his love? Her own foolishness and ingratitude were to blame, and nothing else.
Now all the torture of regret and remorse and dread returned to her overwhelmingly, subjugating the hopeful anticipation that had supported her throughout the journey, that had risen higher with the sight of her home and the knowledge of Mark’s proximity.
Wearily she turned from the glass and went into the drawing-room, ordered tea to be placed ready, and with a trembling heart sat down to await his return from the Court House. She sat motionless, waiting. Would he be at all pleased to see her? She felt she would know at the first sight of his face. Yet, even if he were, what could she do now to restore matters quite to their old footing? Here in Koranabad she was a drag on him. The other ladies did not care for her; they only liked him, and probably wished he were not married—at any rate to her!
Miss Lancaster had been very kind, and how had she repaid her kindness? By rudeness and petulance. She wondered how Miss Lancaster was, and when the butler brought in the tea-tray she asked him if he knew.
“The Colonel Sahib’s Miss?” said the man— “but two weeks back did she with the other Miss-Sahib depart for Simla hills, and the Colonel-Sahib’s bearer was saying this morning in the bazaar that they will not return till the rains be over and the cold weather begun.”
Teresa felt damped. She had intended to take Miss Lancaster into her confidence once more, as she had done on the occasion of their first meeting at the Koranabad Hotel; to say how she feared that Mark’s love had grown cold, to ask for help to win it back again. But Eve was gone-—no longer available, and there was no one else to whom she could turn in the same way. She must rely upon herself, and Teresa felt no confidence in her own powers.
Then, with a sense of reassurance, she thought of the little silver box, safely hidden in her bedroom. It contained something that perhaps would enable her to kindle and keep her husband’s love; might do more for her than all the guidance and advice and example of Miss Lancaster, or anyone else! Yes—the box was there, and in it the mysterious sand-coloured powder, which alas! she did not know how to use aright. If only the Bibi had not died just at the wrong moment! If only old Nattoo had not chosen to go off on one of his journeys just when she wanted his advice!
She looked at the clock. Mark was not likely to be back for another ten minutes at the earliest. She rose from her position behind the tea-table and wandered about the room. Then as though drawn by some invisible attraction she went again into her bedroom, and from under the little heap of clothes in the wardrobe she drew out the silver box. It gleamed dully for it needed cleaning, but its fine workmanship was none the less evident, though on Teresa it was wasted.
She raised the lid and looked at the yellow powder inside, and of a sudden it seemed to her ridiculous to imagine that anything of this kind could possess magical influence over the affections! But only for the moment was her Western judgment uppermost; the next she was again remembering miraculous changes and mysterious cures, spells lifted, and spells laid—all such cases as she had heard of, or been familiar with from her childhood upwards—and she returned the box to its hiding-place with a sense of satisfaction that at least it was at hand should she ever feel that she could dare experiment with its contents. For a little while she fidgeted about the room, then, with furtive, uncertain fingers, she took out the box again and hid it in the front of her dress.
Nervously she wandered back into the drawing-room and sat down by the tea-table, but still Mark did not come. The suspense drove her to wild imaginings—perhaps he had met with an accident, perhaps he had heard in some way of her arrival and would not come home because he did not wish to see her! She worked herself into an almost demented condition. Tea-time passed, but she neither ate nor drank. Indeed, since she left Krabganj the previous night she had swallowed nothing but a cup of tea and some biscuits. She was not hungry, but her pulses beat feverishly from excitement as well as from exhaustion-and she felt rather dizzy and confused.
The room seemed to rise up and spin round her when at last she heard the sound of wheels outside, and she walked towards the door with faltering steps. Before she looked through the transparent cane blind she pressed her hands over her eyes to clear her sight. There was Mark getting out of a carriage—the Jackson’s carriage. So Mrs Jackson had driven him home from the Club? With wistful yearning Teresa gazed at the slight though strong figure of her husband; at the kindly attractive face, the excellent line of head and shoulder. Greedily she listened for his voice. He had taken off his hat and stood with one hand on the carriage door, the slanting rays of sunset shone on his close-cut dark hair, and the wholesome red-brown of his skin deepened now by exposure to sun and wind in camp. Her love leapt out to him in passionate adoration.
Mark was thanking Mrs Jackson for his lift home, and Aggie White, who was with her in the carriage, leaned over and said something that made him laugh before they drove away. He watched the carriage go out of the compound, and both women turned to wave him a farewell.
Teresa, watching restlessly, unstrung, distraught as she was, felt a flame of jealousy scorch through her veins—the fierce Eastern jealousy that seldom knows reason or restraint. He missed her not at all! He could be quite happy without her—in the company of other people—it would give him no pleasure to find she had come back. She retreated into the room, dimly fearing she might lose all command of herself and scream out something foolish.
She stood with her back to a screen that was covered with a bright red material, her hands held down before her, clasped tight, and as Mark came in, still smiling over Miss White’s witticism, he saw her facing him, and for the first moment he hardly recognized her. Was this crazy-looking creature, with the drab-coloured skin and wild eyes, Teresa? And why had she returned like this, without warning, just in the same senseless fashion as she had departed!
It was small wonder that his face clouded—that it expressed vexed astonishment rather than pleased greeting.
“Good gracious, Teresa!” he said, after the first involuntary hesitation. “What a fright you gave me; I thought you were a ghost! When did you arrive? I’d no idea you meant to come back to-day. Well, how are you?”
He advanced towards her and kissed her cheek. She neither spoke nor returned his caress, and he regarded her with anxious concern.
“My dear girl you look awfully ill. What on earth’s the matter? Why, your hands are quite cold.”
She moved with an effort. “I think perhaps I am tired,” she said stonily, “and perhaps I want something to eat and drink. It has been a long journey and fatiguing. You said you were coming back to-day, so I thought I would come too.”
Her hands went up to the front of her dress, and closed on the silver box lying round and hard beneath the cambric folds. Then she walked unsteadily to the tea-table.
“Here, sit down,” said Mark, and he pushed her gently into a chair, arranging a cushion at her back. “Haven’t you had any tea?” He glanced over the plates of eatables that evidently had not been touched.
“No,” she said, “I waited for you, and I could not take much on the journey.”
“Well, let us have some fresh tea now, that will pick you up,” he said, in the encouraging tone one uses towards an invalid or a child. “I shall be glad of some more myself. The tea at the Club was abominable.”
He went to the curtain, and called his order to the servant who lurked on the other side. Teresa’s gaze followed him with painful intentness, but when he returned she looked sideways, avoiding his eyes. Mark sat down puzzled, and rather perturbed. He was quite prepared to ignore the way she had behaved before leaving Koranabad—to make no resentful reference to her ill-considered departure, or in any way to vex or disturb her. He hoped his tone and manner conveyed this intention. But apparently Teresa had come back with the same feeling of antagonism towards him with which she had gone away, and her attitude seemed to him very unreasonable and provoking. However, he could only meet her mood with patient good-humour and trust that it would pass. Certainly she looked ill; she had had a long journey, she was tired, and on her own admittance had eaten next to nothing since she started. Of course she was feeling cheap and out of temper. What fools women were about feeding themselves.
He tried to talk to her pleasantly, affectionately, inquiring after her people at Krabganj, and all she had been doing. She told him, inertly, that the Bibi was dead, for she had not written to him since her request for money. Even had there been no estrangement between them this would hardly have been remarkable, for to write a letter of any description was always a nightmare of difficulty to Teresa, and, knowing this, Mark had not wondered at her silence.
The entry of the servant with the tea was to Mark a welcome interruption. He got up.
“I won’t be a moment,” he said, “I just want to get out some fresh cigarettes.” And he hastened from the room to his study.
There he paced up and down distractedly, battling with a wild impulse to play the coward, to disappear, to cut himself adrift from the life that had become intolerable to him. In his own words, “to chuck it.” But all the time he knew he must go on, must master his despair, his rebellion against the lot that he had chosen for himself; must endure it as a man.
Teresa was not in the drawing-room when he went back, but his tea was poured out ready for him and he drank every moment expecting her to come in.
He noticed that she had touched nothing herself—neither tea nor eatables. This was absurd. He waited. She did not come. Then he went to the door of her room and called her.
“Teresa—aren’t you coming to have some tea?”
He pushed open the door and looked in. She was standing by the dressing-table in her red dressing-gown, and as she turned her head he was reminded violently of the night when she had laughed and defied him and elected to go her own way. The mental recoil of the remembrance drained his voice of cordiality.
“How foolish you are to starve yourself like this. You’ll be really ill,” he protested.
“Ayah will bring me something. I am going to bed,” she answered monotonously. “I am tired, and Kishna was saying you are going out to dinner.”
It flashed across him that this might be the reason of her persistent ill-humour. She was annoyed because he was going out the first evening of her return home? But surely he was blameless in the matter, since he had not known she would be back to-night! Until now he had not thought of the engagement. He came farther into the room.
“Yes, I did promise to dine at the Club to-night with some fellows. I had no idea you would be back, or of course I wouldn’t have accepted. You must know that, Teresa. Of course I won’t go now. Did you imagine that I should? Is that what is wrong? Do tell me!”
To his consternation she burst into tempest of tears. Never had he seen her so shaken, so overcome, and all the chivalrous tenderness of his nature went out to her. He took her in his arms, and soothed and caressed her, and she clung to him, sobbing, incoherent, humbly helpless.
He guided her, unresisting, to a low chair, and then he knelt and took off her shoes. Her feet were pitiably cold. As he rubbed them between his hands she leaned back and closed her eyes—the length of her black lashes looked almost unnatural against her colourless cheeks. Teresa was so seldom colourless! He lifted her in his arms and put her on the bed, wrapping the coverlet about her, and he sent for hot soup and toast, and fed her as if she were a sick child.
Soon the warmth returned to her cheeks, and the light to her eyes, and the Teresa who presently vowed with tearful gratitude that in all the world there was nobody so kind and good as himself, was a very different being from the sullen, resentful woman who had stood glowering with her back to the screen but a little while ago! With her arms about his neck she tried to put all her contrition and remorse for the past into words, to tell him how wretched she had been, to make promises for the future.
But Mark stayed her with considerate authority.
“There—never mind all that—go to sleep,” he said, and kissed her.
But then, it seemed, she was distressed that he should forgo his dinner engagement on her account, and he could not release himself from her clinging arms until he had consented to keep it. Very well—but she must promise to go to sleep, and when he came back he would stay in his dressing-room and not disturb her.
So Mark went off to his dinner party, but when the sound of the trap-wheels could no longer be heard Teresa got up, and from a drawer in her dressing-table she took the silver box. Almost lovingly she fingered held to her ear and shook gently, that she might listen to the soft rattle of its contents. Then she opened the box and looked inside, recalling, with smiles, how she had put just little of the yellow powder into Mark’s tea when he was out of the room—how, peering through the crack of her bedroom door, she had watched him drink it! At the thought of what she had done her heart beat madly. He had come to her—almost directly afterwards he had come to her and taken her in his arms, and tended her so gently, and was the same to her as of old! When only just before he had shown so little pleasure at sight of her. Was it possible—could it be that the charm had really done this? She yet half believed, half derided the idea, and still she stood with the box in her hand, smiling down at turning about with tender touch.
Almost at once, when she got into bed, Teresa fell asleep. And so she did not hear the trap come back singularly early, or hear Mark in his dressing-room speaking to his bearer. What did wake her, some two or three hours later, was her husband’s voice in the next room, loud, unnatural, harsh, as though talking in his sleep.
She listened for moment then rose, put on her dressing-gown, and went into his room. The lamp was turned low, but she could see his face by the dim light that fell on the narrow bed in the middle of the floor. Over the punkah hung clean and ready for use; next week they would have to begin punkahs.
She could hear the “pinging” of the mosquitoes round about the bed and in the corners of the room and some small animal, probably a musk rat, scurried and squeaked along the matting by the wall.
Teresa turned up the lamp a little higher, and looked at her husband. His face was deeply flushed, his eyes half open, but he did not seem to notice her, and still he talked fast and loud. She could not understand a word he was saying.
Then his voice sank, and he only muttered beneath his breath. For one furtive moment Teresa thought of evil spirits and demoniacal influences—all that was supposed to have caused the Bibi’s illness. But she felt ashamed of the sinister suggestion, while yet it frightened her. Quickly she moved to the bedside, and laid her hand on Mark’s forehead. The skin felt hot and dry. Of course, she told herself, it was a sudden “go” of fever, and he was delirious from a high temperature. She must fetch blankets and pile them on him to induce perspiration; rouse the servants, and get lemonade made for him to drink. She went to the door.
Just then he began to talk again, this time quite distinctly.
”Eve!” he cried in piteous entreaty. “Eve!”
Teresa paused at the door; then slowly she came back to the bedside, and stood there listening.
In a high, unnatural voice Mark talked and pleaded as though to Eve. He went back over those halcyon days on board ship; he recalled his misery when her letter ended the engagement; he excused yet blamed himself for his thoughtless, hasty marriage; he betrayed Eve’s secret with his own.
He raved on; now sitting upright with outstretched arms, now throwing himself face downwards as though in an abandonment of trouble.
Teresa stood there listening, she knew not for how long. Bodily she felt benumbed by this thing she had just learned; yet her mind was preternaturally alert.
She knew it was all true. She understood everything; she had a curious consciousness of having known it always.
But in her heart there rose no anger, no fierce jealousy such as had swept through her being that afternoon in the drawing-room. Only was there a tender, passionate pity for Mark himself, and an agonizing sorrow that she should be powerless to help him; that always and through her must he suffer! She did not think of Eve Lancaster at all.
With a little helpless cry she sank on her knees by the bedside, while the delirious voice still poured out its tragic revelation. And in that dreadful hour poor Teresa’s limited soul came near to perfect prayer. In her devotion to Mark had always burned a spark of the Divine, and now it flamed up into the pure fire of sacrifice and self-effacement, lending her a noble strength.
With an effort that almost snapped her reason she rose and braced herself, and set about her ministrations with calm and careful purpose. The servants were roused. A message was sent to the Civil Surgeon.
It was nearly dawn when the doctor came, and by that time Mark was sleeping quietly.
The balmy air of early day floated in through the open doors of the drawing-room; cheerful morning sounds and the cool, sweet scent of flowers entered too. So early was it that the room had not yet been swept and dusted; it still held the indescribable air of disorder that night always seems to leave behind, and formed an accordant background to Teresa’s weary dishevelment of person. The Civil Surgeon, a thick set, determined-looking man with a bald head and a stiff moustache, stood there with her, his hands in his pockets, a rather perplexed expression on his face.
“I’ll come in again this evening,” he was saying, “and if his temperature hasn’t gone up again he ought to be all right, I think, to-morrow. You say he came in much sooner than he was expected last night, and complained of headache and drowsiness?”
“That was what the bearer told me. I did not hear him come. I was asleep,” explained Teresa. “It was his talking woke me—delirious.” She shivered and her face looked pinched.
“You ought to have a hot cup of tea and rest for a bit,” said the doctor, regarding her with kindly attention. “You needn’t worry about him. He’ll probably be drowsy all to-day, and practically himself to-morrow. A curious little attack. I should like to get to the bottom of it. I suppose”—he hesitated, and looked behind him into the veranda to make sure that he was not overheard— “I suppose you’re sure of all your servants?”
“How do you mean?” Teresa asked vacantly.
“Well, he hasn’t had a row with any one of them lately?” persisted the doctor.
Teresa shook her head. “I have been away. I do not know—”
“Because,” he continued, “it seems to me just possible that somebody’s had a shot at giving him poison—probably only with the intention of making him ill. The sudden drowsiness and delirium—and his eyes. A servant might do it who thought he had a grievance, but it would be awfully difficult to prove. There’s no doubt these natives can get hold of poisons the properties of which we know little or nothing about—poisons that leave no trace whatever. On the other hand this upset of your husband’s may quite as well be due to some stray microbe, or something in the food last night—anyway, it isn’t an ordinary go of fever.”
He took a few paces up and down the room before he looked at Mrs Rennard, and then her dusky pallor shocked him.
“I’m sorry if I’ve given you a turn, Mrs Rennard,” he said. “I may be quite mistaken, but one’s bound to consider every possibility, and it was better to warn you. Your husband is in no danger now at any rate,” he added reassuringly, “and I don’t think you need worry yourself that anything further of the kind will be attempted—if it was attempted at all—which, remember, is only a supposition. But keep your eyes open!”
He did not know what it cost his listener to control her face and her trembling limbs—to answer with coherence that she would make secret investigations and be on her guard.
“You see,” she repeated lamely, in conclusion, “I have been away. Only yesterday I came back.”
“Yes, quite so. Well, take care of yourself, too, as well as your husband, Mrs Rennard. Have a good rest in a long chair in his room if you don’t like to leave him, or have your bed moved in there. But he’ll do all right now. You’ve got all the directions?—and I’ll have the medicine made up and sent down to you at once. I’m going that way. This evening then—” He hurried down the veranda steps, and summoned his trap that waited in the shade of a tree.
For some moments after he had gone Teresa stood rigid. Then she went into her room with slow, dragging steps. In her mind was a horrible conviction that turned her sick and faint. She pulled open the drawer in her dressing-table, and took out the silver box she had found beneath her grandmother’s pillows. She could not blind herself. She knew—she knew now that the Bibi had given her poison for Mark in the guise of charm; of course one of those mysterious, untraceable poisons alluded to by the doctor !And she—silly, ignorant, credulous fool that she was—she had allowed herself to be tricked and betrayed by the astute old Bibi’s revengeful purpose. Mercifully Death had stepped in and hindered the worst; had the Bibi lived but few minutes longer she might have compassed the murder of Mark through his wife—her tool!
The horror of all paralysed ‘Teresa—that and all she had learned from Mark’s unconscious lips in the night time. She felt like an automaton, guided by some wholly extraneous influence. Mechanically she put the box back in the drawer. Mechanically she dressed herself.
Throughout the day she tended her husband, who slept and took nourishment and medicine with the docility of weakness, until the doctor came again—came late because he had been detained by a more serious case.
He pronounced Mark to be “doing excellently.”
“And as for you,” he said to Mark’s wife, “you are a wonder. This morning you looked as ill and miserable as if you were going to be hanged—and now might be going to get married all over again!”
She laughed. She had put on a spotless white gown, her beautiful hair was glossy, her skin gently flushed and flawless, her eyes shone with a luminous radiance.
“How that woman adores that man!” said the doctor, half grudgingly to himself, as he drove away in the warm evening air.
All that night Teresa sat by her husband’s bedside, still in her white dress, guarding his rest of recovery and recuperation. Now and then she arranged his pillows and coverings with tender care. Once he half awoke and asked for something cool to drink. He smiled at her, sleepily, over the edge of the glass, and as she took it from him he touched her hand with his lips.
“How good you are to me, Teresa,” he murmured; “I wish you would go and rest yourself. You must be so tired.”
“Oh! yess,” said Teresa, cheerfully, “I am going—just now.”
A few minutes afterwards she leaned forward and kissed his forehead gently.
“Good-bye, Mark,” she whispered.
He heard her. “Good-bye, Teresa,” he answered with drowsy voice and closed eyes.
But when Teresa went to her room, just as the sky was lightening, she did not undress. She put on her hat, and wound a scarf about her neck and shoulders. Then she left the bungalow, and walked along the quiet, dusty road in the yellow dawn-light to the railway station. All she took with her this time, besides some money, was a little silver box concealed in the bosom of her white gown.
The light of the newly-risen moon pierced the foliage of the old pipal tree in the Krabganj compound, and gleamed on something white that lay below—something that lay so still on the broken masonry platform that the ghosts in the branches grew curious, and whispered and peered and hovered furtively, with the moths and fireflies, above the white patch that since its coming had hardly stirred. Maybe it was the ghosts that awed the solitary jackal who came prowling and snuffling round the tree, and prevented him from lifting up the dismal cry that would have summoned hundreds of his brethren to a ghastly feast.
The moon grew larger, more molten, more serene, and illuminated the vast empty plain beyond the brickfield, blackening the shadows of the stunted thorn bushes. About the pipal tree the silence was profound, save for the feeble squeaking of a bat, the fitful rustle of the leaves, and the careful, pausing footfall of the jackal. But presently, very faint and thin, from the far distance, came a sound—now nearer—now louder—the rattle of a little drum, and over the moonlight-flooded ground came striding the cunning man—the “devil priest,”—his quilt slung over his shoulder, his small brass cooking vessels within its folds. In his hand he carried his little drum, clattering which he beat with quick, monotonous rhythm.
On he strode till he was near the pipal tree and his own squalid shelter, when, at sight of the white patch lying on the platform, he halted abruptly. After a moment he went close, closer—and bent over the quiet form. His bare foot struck against something on the ground. He picked it up. It was a little silver box, open, empty.
Then he sprang back, and rattled his drum, and howled, and danced hideously in the moonlight, to scare away the malevolent spirit of the dead that he feared would haunt the spot.