The insufferable heat of the Indian hot-weather day was slowly abating, and the sun sank sullenly below the straight, misty horizon in a copper-coloured haze of dust raised by the cattle returning from the jungle. It was little enough that the poor beasts had found to graze on during many weeks past, for the rains were long over-due, and leaves and grass were alike scorched and withered till they crumbled at the touch. The ground, hard as iron, had cracked and split into gaping fissures; the powdery dust lay ankle-deep on the roads; the air was thick and stifling; and the very birds gasped for breath, holding their dry beaks despairingly open.
Still the tantalising clouds gathered heavily and dispersed again; still the hot, unhealthy east wind came in faint puffs, only to die hopelessly away without bringing the longed-for rain; still the heat grew and grew till business was at a stand-still, famine was daily drawing nearer, and long lists of deaths from fever and heat-apoplexy filled the domestic columns of the Anglo-Indian papers.
At Pragpur it seemed that matters must have reached their worst, for now that the rains had failed to come and wash away disease and dirt and fill up the miles of pestilential swamp along the widening river-edge, cholera of a particularly vicious type had made its way into the densely packed native city. Constant funeral processions filed towards the river; the air resounded with the wailing of mourners for the dead; the burning-grounds were crowded from sunrise to sunset; and in the Mahomedan cemeteries fresh graves were needed every hour. It was a time of misery, suffering, terror, and death, not only in the seething cholera-stricken city, but in Civil Lines and Cantonments also; when the white man, as well as his dark brothers, rose each day with the probability staring him in the face that he might be lying cold and stiff before the sun went down.
Only that morning Paul Vereker, the young joint-magistrate, had risen from his bed to all appearances a strong, healthy man; and now in the evening he lay dead in the empty, echoing bungalow, with not a living soul near him save an old blind punkah-coolie seated in the verandah pulling mechanically at the rope, and fanning his master’s lifeless body with the regularity of clockwork.
The old native did not clearly understand what had happened. He had heard the sahib come in and speak to the mem-sahib; then the doctor had been sent for; and he, the punkah-coolie, had been bidden to pull the bedroom punkah. This he had done for about an hour, and then he had heard a great commotion—the mem-sahib had screamed, and the servants had all begun to run backwards and forwards. Then the doctor had arrived, and after some time, perhaps another hour, had driven away again, and in a little while the mem-sahib and all the servants seemed to leave the house. Nobody had said anything to him, so he had continued to pull according to orders, and he would do so for any length of time in reason until he was,either relieved at his post or told to cease. The room inside was quiet save for the regular flapping of the punkah-frill, and the occasional cry of an inquisitive bird through a ventilator in the ceiling. The minutes passed and dusk came slowly on; and still he pulled, but more slowly now, for he was growing drowsy, and his wrinkled, sightless face drooped towards his knees.
Presently the sound of small, pattering footsteps on the paved floor of the verandah broke sharply on the stillness, and a little boy, dressed in a white sailor suit, ran into the house and pushed open the closed door. There was an expression of anxious inquiry in his large bright eyes; but he trotted confidently up to the bed and looked into his father’s face.
“Dadda!” he said.
Receiving no answer, he shook the cold hand that hung heavily over the edge of the bed.
“Dadda, arise!” he shouted in fluent Hindustani. “Mamma is at my grandpapa’s bungalow and the ayah and the servants also. She weeps and will not speak to me, and the ayah and the bearer forbade me to return here. What is the meaning of it all?”
He shook the hand again and called to his father repeatedly, till the echo of his shrill little voice rang up into the roof. Then he ceased, and glanced apprehensively over his shoulder. The room was growing dark, and his father lay so strangely still. There was nobody at hand to tell him what was the matter except the punkah-coolie, and the child felt afraid to cross the gloomy expanse of room that lay between himself and the door. A nameless terror crept into his baby mind. He burst into loud screams, and, with the self-abandonment common to Anglo-Indian children, he threw himself on the floor and rolled from side to side.
“Aree!” and the ayah poked a fat, nervous countenance in at the door. “May evil befall that rascal of a bearer for permitting the child to run back! Come hither sonny,—quick!—quick! See what is outside! The man with the performing monkeys has arrived and awaits thine orders.” Then in a low voice, under her breath, she added: “May Kali protect me! but I cannot enter the room with the sahib lying there dead of the cholera!”
The child stopped crying and sat up to listen, his mouth still puckered, ready to resume his yells should the ayah’s words prove false; but she reiterated her statement regarding the monkeys with so much emphasis that he was finally convinced; and also being rather glad than otherwise of her company, he allowed himself to be enticed through the doorway, where treachery awaited him, for there were no performing monkeys to be seen, and he was promptly caught up in the ayah’s stout arms and carried screaming and struggling to a house on the opposite side of the road.
The noise of his unwilling departure had hardly died away before the civil surgeon drove rapidly in at the gate and up to the bungalow. As he sprang out of his trap the utter silence of the house and the surroundings struck him significantly. He entered the deserted drawing-room and passed through into the bedroom beyond. Only a little more than three hours ago he had seen Paul Vereker die of cholera, and almost at the same moment he had been summoned urgently to another case of the same description. Before responding to the message he had told the terrified, hysterical widow that he would return to her as soon as possible; and now he had come back to find the dead man alone except for the old coolie pulling sleepily at the punkah rope.
The doctor looked down at the handsome, rigid face, with pity in his eyes.
“Poor chap!” he murmured. “Perhaps this was the best thing that could happen to him. Fancy her bolting off like that! I’m not surprised at the servants—but his wife! Well, if she’d had a little more English blood in her veins she couldn’t have done it.”
He folded the hands across the breast and drew the sheet over the white face, called to the coolie to cease pulling the punkah, and then, worn out though he was with days and nights of weary battle with death, he drove off to make arrangements for the funeral.
* * * *
For twenty-four hours after her husband’s death Mrs. Vereker lay on the bed in her mother’s best bedroom in a state of tearful untidiness, her rich black hair in wild disorder, and a crumpled dressing-gown loosely covering her ample form, for since the arrival of the boy, little Paul, Mrs. Vereker had “lost her figure.” Seven years ago she had been a really beautiful girl of eighteen, and was now still a handsome woman as far as features were concerned but the brilliant rose colour in her cheeks had faded, her skin had grown thick and yellow, and her chin had multiplied by three.
It was a pity Paul Vereker could not have had a vision of the future that fatal evening at the Pragpur band-stand, when he had fallen in love with the beauty of Una Jahans. Certainly her mother, a copper-coloured lady attired in apricot silk, and redolent of musk and onions, ought to have been sufficient warning; but young Vereker had only been eighteen months in India, and though he was clever, well-born, and promising in every official way, he was unfortunately convinced that he knew his own business best, which, as is frequently the case, meant the following of the inclination of the moment, and led to his espousing Miss Una Jahans, the daughter of an Eurasian auctioneer. This gentleman trafficked in second-hand rubbish of every description, from articles of furniture to damaged tins of fish and sausages; and he was a god-send to English officials when they were transferred from the station, for he either purchased from them litter that was not worth moving, or disposed of it on commission in the bazaar, realising astonishing prices for such things as useless lamps, worn-out clocks, old clothes, cracked crockery, and leaky kitchen utensils.
The ladies of Pragpur took it upon themselves to remonstrate with young Vereker on his engagement, and to tell him that the girl, though undoubtedly lovely, was by heritage “as black as his shoe,” and also practically uneducated; but vainly the well-meaning matrons talked, argued, and expostulated. It was useless for his men friends to chaff him on the subject of his pretty half-caste flame, or more seriously entreat him not to make an ass of himself. His nature was such that opposition and persuasion merely had the effect of making him more than ever determined to take his own line and to show that he had the courage of his opinions.
“I have no doubt,” he said to the Commissioner’s wife, when she frankly expressed her regret and vexation, “that you would like me better if, even now, I threw the girl over and broke her heart. In that case I should lose my own self-respect; at present it appears that I only lose the respect of my so-called friends, though I cannot see that I am doing anything more reprehensible than marrying to please myself without harming any one else.”
Paul Vereker was his own master, as he reminded himself and every one who interfered with him. His parents were dead and his only sister, who was ten years his senior, was married and independent; his other relations were distant and of little consequence in the matter. Accordingly he set public opinion at defiance in Pragpur, announced the date of his approaching marriage, drove the young lady about the station in his trap, and even appeared at the band-stand in the Jahans’ waggonette, sitting behind with Una and her two small brown brothers, together with Mrs. Mactarn, an elderly snuff-coloured aunt of the family, whose late husband had claimed Scottish descent; Mrs. Jahans, arrayed in all the glory of the apricot silk, triumphantly occupied the box-seat beside her husband the auctioneer, an important Spanish-looking person with handsome features and long dyed whiskers.
So Paul Vereker was given up in despair by all his well-intentioned advisers, and was allowed to pursue his downward course without further molestation. At first he was very happy with the wife he had chosen, but the time came when he began to understand that he had brought official as well as social displeasure upon himself through his marriage. A civilian with an impossible “mem-sahib” can hardly be selected for a transfer to places where there are social as well as official duties, and where the right description of hostess is necessary, or none at all. So he saw other men, who were his contemporaries, promoted to more important charges, or exalted to the secretariat, while he remained on in his old capacity at Pragpur, where everybody was aware of his wife’s origin, where her people constituted an unfailing and inevitable aggravation of his mistake, and where he found himself forced to depend almost entirely on Una and her relations for companionship.
Mrs. Vereker herself was a self-centred young person who had justly been considered a great belle in her own circle, with all the bachelor half-caste clerks, and subordinates in the Government offices, at her feet. She had an album, the pride of her leisure hours, wherein her admirers had inscribed their sentiments after the cracker-motto style. She knew the language of flowers by heart, and she kept a manuscript-book in which she made extracts from novelettes. She was an extremely pretty and brainless girl, but brainless Paul Vereker did not discover until it was too late. However, here his natural characteristics came to the fore. He would not admit by word or deed, or hardly to himself, that he had made a mistake. Una was the wife he had chosen; nothing should induce him to allow that his judgment had been at fault; and circumstances should not control him. Therefore he continued to live his life with Una as though he were absolutely contented, and made no outward sign of his secret mortification.
But with Una it was different. She had been honestly in love with the young civilian, but her love was as nothing compared with her ambition. When he had proposed it had appeared to her that all her dreams of a splendid match were to be realised. Certainly he was not so handsome and dazzling as the young officers who danced with her at the Volunteer balls, or ogled her at the band, but he was a member of the senior service in India and some day would be a Commissioner, even perhaps a Lieutenant-Governor! She would drive about in a lovely carriage, occupy an exalted social position, and have everything that represented happiness to her narrowed imagination.
So after her marriage Una became excessively “select,” and proceeded to neglect all her former friends and to barely tolerate her relations—but on this point her husband interfered. The fact of her having married into a different class was to him no reason why she should behave badly to her own people; and at Mr. Vereker’s instigation the Jahans, the Passanahs, the de Souzas, and all his wife’s other belongings were given to understand that they would be welcome at the house whenever they chose to visit their relative—and they took full advantage of the permission.
Regarding the “Upper ten” of the station Una was bitterly disappointed; a few of the ladies called on her formally and she returned their visits punctiliously, but there the social recognition ceased. Some of the subalterns came for a joke, and made cruel fun afterwards of her “chi-chi” accent and ridiculous little airs. Nobody came a second time, and when at last Una began to realise her position her exasperation with her husband for his calmness under such a state of affairs knew no bounds.
It was useless for him to argue that the coveted friendship of the station ladies could scarcely be worth having, since it was evidently of little value. Una received such moralisings with scorn. What was the advantage of her having chosen such an elegant English carpet for the drawing-room all over yellow roses; and such fascinating mirrors, what-nots, and black and gold tables, if no one was to come near her? Where was the pleasure of being a future Lieutenant-Governor’s lady if there were no visitors to recognise her success save her own relations, whose admiration was now becoming exceedingly stale? Una wept many angry tears, and finally commanded “Pahl,” as she called her husband, to take her to England, where nobody would know that her father was only a bazaar-auctioneer.
She relapsed into violent hysterics when he explained that furlough was not due to him, and that in any case he had no desire to go home just yet. To impart the truth, he felt inward qualms at the prospect of presenting Una to his sister, Lady Jardine. He had written to the latter announcing his engagement, merely stating his fiancée’s name, and adding that she was very handsome; and Lady Jardine, accustomed to her brother’s reticent nature, and being in no way inconvenienced by the marriage, had sent wedding presents and gushing letters of congratulation, serenely taking it for granted that Paul had chosen a wife from his own class.
So the years went by, Una falling back entirely on her old friends and admirers for companionship, and Paul becoming more and more impassive and reserved, until the day arrived when Death claimed him from the daily bitterness of his life’s mistake; and Una was left a fat, indolent widow, with a boy of five years old who had inherited much of his father’s obstinacy of character, combined with the strong strain of native blood from his mother’s side.
Two months had gone by since Paul Vereker was laid to rest in the Pragpur cemetery, and the heavens had been merciful. Rain had fallen, and continued to fall, the hard parched earth had spluttered and hissed beneath the welcome torrents of water, the air had been damp with steam in the intervals of the downpours, vegetation had revived as though by magic, and grass and plants had grown with a rapidity that was almost perceptible.
The Jahans’ compound, instead of being a desolate patch of bare, dusty ground, was now a tropical forest in miniature, with festoons of flaming creepers, and vivid green tangles of giant weeds. Within the low thatched bungalow everything was sodden and mildewed with the damp, small frogs hopped across the floors, fish-insects dotted the walls, the atmosphere smelt close and mouldy, and was strongly impregnated with the stale odour of native tobacco—for, in spite of the disapproval of his family, Mr. Jahans persisted in the indulgence of an evening “hookah.”
In the broad verandah sat Mrs. Jahans, packed into a comfortable rocking-chair, her front hair tightly screwed up in curling-pins, her feet thrust into yellow slippers made of antelope skin, and her body clothed in a garment that was apparently built of check cotton dusters. The verandah was crowded with rickety chairs and tables (mostly spoils from the auctioneering business), rows of plants in pots, and wicker cages imprisoning pet squirrels, tame doves, a talking myna, and two noisy partridges. The floor was covered with tattered matting, rotten with the damp, and eaten into holes by the white ants.
Stretched indolently on a cane couch opposite her mother’s rocking-chair lay Mrs. Vereker, and the two ladies were deep in a discussion over a letter Mrs. Jahans was holding in her fat brown hands; her broad face glistened with excitement as she expostulated with her widowed daughter.
“Oh no!” she cried, “do let me advise you. Don’t send the child all that way. He would forget us altogether in two weeks’ time. It would be a terrible t’ing!”
The letter which had thrown the good lady into such a state of perturbation was from the late Mr. Vereker’s only sister and nearest relative, offering a home in England to the widow and her child, and Mrs. Vereker had added considerably to her mother’s agitation by suggesting that it might be as well to accept the proposal on little Paul’s behalf, though she intended to decline it on her own. She was shrewd enough to have discovered during her married life that these relations of her husband’s were people of some importance, and she perceived how great an advantage it would be to the boy to have the rearing and education of an English gentleman.
At present she possessed nothing beyond her own pension and that of the child, and she knew that Sir Robert and Lady Jardine were rich even for dwellers in England, where she had a hazy notion that every one was well-to-do. She remembered the photograph in her husband’s possession of a stately massive house with pointed gables, mullioned windows, and stacks of chimneys, standing amidst wide sweeps of lawn varied with flower-beds and spreading trees. She had gathered that many servants were employed, and that the stables were full of carriages and horses. Undoubtedly the Jardines were great people, and, moreover, they were childless.
For herself the widow now shrank from the notion of leaving the country where she had been born and bred, and of which she was more than half a native. The thought of journeying to an unknown land and living amongst strangers terrified her—hence her suggestion that Paul should go alone, which had called down a storm of reproaches on her head. But she stuck to her point.
“It would be better for him to go,” she said, and continued to reiterate the sentence at the end of every argument put forward by Mrs. Jahans, who was unable to grasp the advantages of the proposal. To her it seemed a monstrous and unnatural proceeding that her adored grandson should be torn from the bosom of his family and sent across the “black water” to face unknown dangers and discomforts.
“It would be better for him to go,” Mrs. Vereker had repeated for the twentieth time, when the dilapidated family waggonette, drawn by a gaunt country-bred horse (both acquired years previously at one of Mr. Jahans’ own auctions), rumbled up to the verandah steps, and the head of the household clambered down from the vehicle. He had had a long day’s work conducting an important sale, had shouted himself hoarse, and exhausted his brain inventing facetious remarks to encourage hilarity amongst the buyers; and he called petulantly for his tea as he threw himself into a wicker chair that loudly resented his weight.
His wife eagerly handed him the letter under discussion, and he read it thoughtfully, while he caressed his straggling whiskers, and ignored the ceaseless and voluble explanations of his spouse. When he had finished reading the letter he handed it back to her, and looked inquiringly at his daughter, who monotonously repeated her opinion.
“It would be better for him to go—but not for me.”
“Una says right,” was the verdict of Mr. Jahans, delivered in a thick guttural voice.
“Well, I never!” screamed his wife, “you bad, selfish man. You don’t know what is best for the child. He cannot speak much English, he has a tender stomach, he needs to be rubbed every night with mustard-oil. Who would take care of him? There is no mustard-oil in England, and there is too much cold and rain! He would die; he shall not go—you cannot understand—you are a dull!”
Una placidly watched her mother weeping tears of distress, while Mr. Jahans stroked his whiskers and regarded with concern the black stain that came off on his fingers, until an interruption occurred in the shape of a disreputable Mahomedan servant in dirty white clothing who issued noisily from the house with the tea-things, which he proceeded to arrange on one of the wooden tables. Then Mrs. Mactarn appeared, half asleep after a recent siesta, and wearing a startling blouse of a tartan persuasion. She was immediately attacked by her sister, made to read the letter, and invited to give her opinion. But Mrs. Mactarn was in favour of the scheme from vague patriotic motives—only regretting that the Jardines did not live in Scotland, “though they go there, of course, for the hot weather, like all!” she added conclusively.
Una’s two brothers, who had now blossomed into their father’s assistants, next joined the circle, and, when appealed to by their indignant mother, unhesitatingly decided against her, for the child meddled with their belongings while they were safely out of the house at business, stole their photographs and love-letters, told tales of their misdoings, and made himself generally obnoxious.
Poor Mrs. Jahans was in despair.
“You are all against me!” she sobbed. “The dear child shall say himself if he wants to go away from this home.” And she lifted up her voice and shrieked discordantly in Hindustani for the ayah, ordering her to bring the boy hither without delay; and though neither ayah nor child were in sight, the ear-piercing accents had scarcely died away before the two appeared round the corner of the house together.
The little boy wore a battered pith sun-hat several sizes too large for him, which sank down on his ears, causing them to spread wide from his head. His small face was thin and pointed; his eyes were of a curious olive-green colour and unnaturally large, with a fretful expression in their depths; his mouth was dirty; and he clutched some sickly native sweetmeats in his slender hands. He ran forward and scrambled on to his grandfather’s knee.
“They want to send you away, sonny!” wailed his grandmother. “They are cruel, selfish people—your mother and your uncles and all! You do not wish to go, do you, my batcha?”
Little Paul preserved an inattentive silence; but Mrs. Jahans continued to assure him vehemently that, but for her, he would be sent away at once, until at last, becoming alarmed, he took refuge in her lap, from whence he scowled at the rest of the company, though he declined to speak in answer to his grandmother’s piteous entreaties as to whether he wished to go or stay.
“We will hear what others have to say,” she concluded at last; and with a gesture of determination she turned to the ayah and pointed to a small thatched bungalow in the next compound. “Go and tell Passanah Mem-sahib and the Miss-sahibs to come and drink tea!” she commanded.
The ayah arranged her clothing and shuffled off, and the next diversion was the arrival of Mrs. Passanah and two gaudily dressed daughters, thin, weedy half-castes, cousins of Mrs. Jahans, who fed from the crumbs that fell from their more wealthy relatives’ table, and clothed themselves on the earnings of the eldest girl, who went out as a daily nursery-governess. They seated themselves as near to the tea-table as possible, and were loud in their praises of little Paul—that being a safe short-cut to Mrs. Jahans’ favour. The party then attacked the meal spread on the table: the Miss Passanahs ate large slices of bread and butter, spread with coarse country sugar; Mr. Jahans had a dish of poached eggs with some dal and rice; and the others preferred cake and buns, Paul refusing to eat anything, but calling thirstily for lime-juice and water. Mrs. Jahans explained the dilemma they were placed in by Lady Jardine’s letter, whereupon the Passanah trio took the view expressed by their hostess, for they dared not risk endangering the supply of native vegetables they were accustomed to receive every other morning from the Jahans’ garden, not to speak of the eggs, goats’ milk, and clarified butter that found their way from the larger bungalow to the smaller one in the next compound.
So every one except Mrs. Vereker and her father talked at once, the boy screaming for things he was not allowed to have, and the myna chattering vigorously, while the two partridges became excited and called deafeningly from their cage.
While the hubbub was at its height, an ekka (or two-wheeled native vehicle) had approached the house unnoticed, and, halting in front of the verandah, attracted the attention of the party round the tea-table. Instantly the silence of an unpleasant surprise fell upon them, and they exchanged glances of impatient vexation as the frowsy cotton curtains that concealed the passenger inside were drawn slowly open.
An old native woman climbed painfully from her perch and stood gazing with piercing black eyes at the group of people before her. She wore a cotton petticoat, and a little white wrapper over her head and shoulders; her mouth was almost toothless, her skin wrinkled and seamed, and her back was bent with age and rheumatism till she looked as if she were making a perpetual obeisance.
Mr. Jahans rose and stepped forward to meet her, and with his assistance she hobbled up the steps, muttering to herself and casting sharp, suspicious glances around her.
The family skeleton had appeared at the feast. This was the mother of Mr. Jahans and little Paul Vereker’s great-grandmother.
The story of Mr. Jahans’ parentage was one that was common enough in the days when it took six months to reach England from India, when men settled down and made their homes in the East, and when English ladies were scarce.
In the compounds of some of the old official residences in out-of-the-way stations that have known better days, there may still be seen the ruins of square enclosures with high walls, and narrow rooms leading from the courtyard in the centre. Here in the old days dwelt the “Zenana” of the sahib, for high caste native women were known to have thrown in their lot with English officials, and to have lived respected and honoured in orthodox seclusion until death, or the man’s retirement to the mother country, severed the connection. Sometimes a real marriage according to English law took place, and there is at least one authenticated case of a native woman, undoubtedly the widow of a Bengal civilian, who, after many years, was suddenly enlightened as to her legal right to a pension from the Government, and claimed, with partial success, the enormous sum due to herself and her family.
Mr. Jahans’ father had been in the service of the old East India Company; he had spent over thirty years in the country without going home, and had lived in almost regal pomp and splendour—finally dying from the accumulated effects of spiced dishes, beer, and “brandy-pawnee,” and dinners that had lasted from three o’clock in the afternoon until midnight. He bequeathed his savings, which were considerable, to the handsome Hindu woman who, for the last ten years of his life, had ruled his household discreetly from behind the “purdah,” and had beguiled the long hot idle hours with her songs and blandishments, who had been no clog to his sports and pleasures, who had loved him with a combination of reverence and tenderness, and had never given him a moment’s uneasiness.
She had mourned his loss, but had accepted the inevitable in true native spirit, had settled her affairs, dismissed her small court of attendants, and betaken herself and her little half-caste son to her native city—Pragpur. Here she had lived ever since in the utmost retirement, occupying a handsome white stone house down by the river standing well away from the road in a garden of orange trees, pomegranates, limes and mangoes, which screened the dwelling from passers-by; and here she had applied herself to the propitiation of the priests, and by liberal donations to the temples and promises of future benefactions, had practically succeeded in re-establishing the caste-position she had forfeited through her connection with the Englishman. She was of a pious turn of mind, gave largely to the Brahmins, and fed innumerable beggars.
Mr. Jahans was fond of his mother and feared and respected her, but Mrs. Jahans resented the relationship as proof positive of her husband’s native blood. She had been a Eurasian girl with some fortune, and passively prided herself on her English extraction, and her contempt for “these black people,” as she called the natives. Her mother-in-law she seldom mentioned, and it was tacitly understood in the family that the old lady’s existence was a tabooed subject. In fact only the latent fear of her husband’s slowly provoked wrath, and the danger of losing the wealth they confidently expected to inherit, kept Mrs. Jahans from repudiating the relationship altogether.
On rare occasions “Bibi Jahans,” as she was known in the bazaar, paid her son’s wife a visit and always without the slightest warning, and had several times thrown the fastidious lady into an agony of shame and rage by putting in an unwelcome appearance when company of a high order was being entertained—such as the wife of the Deputy Collector, or Mrs. Watson, the missionary lady, who lived only a few compounds off and took a deep interest in little Paul. “Bib Jahans” was devoted to her great-grandson and since Mr. Vereker’s death and the widow’s return to her own people, the old native woman had been a much more frequent visitor.
This afternoon she chuckled maliciously as she glanced around her, well knowing the annoyance that her presence caused her son’s wife, and as she advanced into the verandah she cracked her knuckles over little Paul’s head, and devoutly muttered a spell against the spirits of evil. She embraced her reluctant daughter-in-law, said “Ram Ram” politely to the rest of the company, and refusing the proffered chair, squatted on her heels with many grunts, and inquired what they had all been discussing with so much energy.
“Truly thou wert as parrots making ready to roost in the branches!” she added, with a contemptuous flip of her fingers.
Mrs. Jahans looked inquiringly at her husband. She supposed the matter of the letter would have to be explained and the old woman consulted as to Paul’s future. At any rate she felt tolerably certain that for once her husband’s mother would uphold her opinion on the subject, and she proceeded at a nod from Mr. Jahans to relate in voluble Hindustani the contents of the letter and the subsequent disagreements in the family.
“I say he is too young to go to England now. When he is bigger and stronger then let him go—much better to wait.”
The crone listened and her sharp eyes blazed, she spat on the ground with vehemence, and her withered lips curled over the few remaining stumps of teeth with an angry snarl.
“Bah!” she cried in her shrill cracked voice, “thou doest things but by halves, woman. Keep the child in his own country if thou wilt, but give him back to the gods and his own people. With thy notions will he come to manhood like my son, thy husband, neither a Hindu nor an Englishman, despising his birth on the one hand, and despised by the white people on the other. Thou mayest talk and pretend and mimic the ways of the white ones, but thou art a kerani (half-caste) and nothing will make thee aught else.”
“My great-grandfather’s people lived in London—on the Hill of Notting,” began Mrs. Jahans indignantly, but the Bibi waved her to silence and turned to Mrs. Vereker, pointing at her with a crooked finger.
“What sayest thou, widow? Thy Lord was a white man and a sahib, even as was mine. Dost thou desire that thy son should strive to follow feebly in his father’s footsteps? Send him to his father’s country and he will in time curse the day he was born; keep him in this land and he will curse thee also; but give him back to the gods and to the dark race, yield him up to the stronger claim that is within him—then may he prosper and bless thy memory.”
“But he is an English boy,” protested Una angrily; “how could I give him over to the priests and let him become a Hindu? You are talking foolishness!”
At this the hag laughed loud and long with harsh crackling sounds, and pointed with derision to the delicate little face under the sun-hat.
“An English boy!” she mocked, and she laughed and chewed the betel-nut in her mouth till little red streams of the juice ran out at the corners and down her chin. She rose to her feet and stood swaying to and fro, leaning on her stick, and regarding her descendants with malignant amusement.
“Here thou sittest,” she continued, “and talkest. But thy words are as the wind and have no substance. Who is to lead thee and say the word? Thou, Jahans ‘sahib,’ as thou callest thyself—’Kuriva’ (dung-hill) was the name I gave thee at birth to protect thee from evil, seeing that my first-born was smitten with the small-pox and died—thou art afraid! Why permit the women to chatter and quarrel? It is better that they should listen than talk, for it is a sad house where the hen crows louder than the cock. Assert thy manhood. Give the order. Say, is the child to go across the black water or shall he stay in his native land?”
“But what can I say?” growled Mr. Jahans, rendered sulky by the reference to his protective name. “I wish to do what is best for the child, but how can I say what is best? I cannot tell.”
“Then I will decide,” retorted his mother in a voice of authority. “The boy shall stay with his people.”
Instantly a clamour of mingled assent and protest arose from all but Mr. and Mrs. Jahans, who remained silent, one with doubt and the other with satisfaction.
“But it would be better for him to go,” wailed Mrs. Vereker, raising her monotonous voice above all the rest.
“I have spoken,” said the old woman loftily. “My son, thou knowest my desire. Otherwise,” with significance, “the priests may benefit.”
And the unwelcome visitor drove away well satisfied, and fully aware of the discord she had left behind her.
Mrs. Vereker burst into tears, Mrs. Jahans was openly triumphant, and her husband fled into the house to find solace in his hookah.
“There you see!” said Mrs. Jahans, “now it is all right and settled. The Bibi is a wise woman, although she is black. If we go against her wishes she will not leave us one pice of her money. It will all go to the priests by the river in the Fort temple; ‘a bird in the hand,’ you know! Don’t cry, dear,” leaning forward and patting her daughter’s shoulder affectionately, “she will not live for much longer, and then, when Paul is bigger and we have got the money, you can send him home if you want, and he will not feel so strange and lonelee. Take heart,” she added, as though she herself had had no inclinations either way.
Mrs. Vereker’s desire to send Paul to his relations in England died hard, and she argued and complained for some days; but Fate in the shape of old Bibi Jahans had been too strong for her, and she knew that to send the child away now might ruin the chances of his great-grandmother’s wealth ever coming to the family. Finally she wrote reluctantly declining Lady Jardine’s offer, at any rate for the present, but hinted that she might be glad to avail herself of the home for the boy when he was a little older.
With all her heart she wished that the gods would be considerate enough in the near future to summon the old native woman to their presence for ever.
So little Paul’s life went on in the same groove as that of thousands of country-born children. He rose at dawn and played in the verandah or the compound until the heat of the day set in, and the heavy twelve o’clock breakfast was ready; and when this was over he went to bed in a darkened room and slept away the long hot hours, awaking fretful and languid, with no appetite for food, and only an incessant craving for iced water. Then, the air having cooled, he went out along the dusty roads perched on a weedy chestnut pony, escorted by the ayah armed with an enormous umbrella, and a groom leading the wretched little animal with as much caution as though it were a ferocious wild beast.
Sometimes Paul went into the neighbouring compounds to play with other Eurasian children, or they visited him, and they all squatted on a thick stripped drugget under a tree, and for the most part allowed the ayahs to amuse them, or they listened with precocious understanding to the women’s gossip among themselves. When bedtime came the child would be in no mood for sleep, and the evening toilet, which included the important rubbings with mustard-oil, was a prolonged affair, interspersed with fits of temper and gusty disagreements with the ayah; often a point-blank refusal to swallow the supper of bread and milk, and perhaps a visit to the dining-room, where his indulgent grandmother would allow him to taste the curried vegetables and chutney, and highly spiced mince boluses that constituted the Jahans’ late dinner. During the cold weather the child thrived better. The sharp mornings braced him, and he was able to be out all day, and the wood fires in the evenings made him sleepy and more inclined to rest; the food was fresher too, and he was able to ta1:e more nourishment.
But three years, which would have made so much difference in the appearance, habits, and constitution of a purely English child, brought comparatively little change to Paul; and though his skinny limbs grew longer, and his small face perhaps more preternaturally grave, he clung to many of his baby ways, screamed when he was thwarted, spoke but little English, and as the hot weather came round again might still have been seen riding the patient chestnut pony at a snail’s pace in the evenings, guarded by the ayah with the big umbrella.
“The Bibi Jahans sends her salaam. Her health is troubling her. She desires that the babba should be permitted to visit her this afternoon.”
The messenger stood in front of Mrs. Jahans’ bungalow in the strong morning sunlight—an old native dressed in grotesque imitation of a Government peon, with a red sash, turban of the same colour, and a brass badge. Paul, who knew him well, ran out of the house to greet him.
“I will come—I will come,” he piped shrilly, for he loved going down to the white bungalow by the river, where his great-grandmother gave him native toys and sweetmeats, and let him wander down to the fort walls and talk to the priests at the temple.
“Now! now!” called Mrs. Jahans from the depths of the verandah, where she was weighing out grain for the goats and fowls—“what is the matter, Piru Lal?”
The man repeated the message, while the child clung to his hand.
“He cannot come till late, then,” replied Mrs. Jahans testily at the top of her voice. She hated having to obey the summons, but dared not refuse
“What is wrong with her health?” she inquired hopefully, advancing to the verandah steps brandishing a pewter spoon.
“Again she hath fever. She is growing old and feeble.”
“Yes, that is true—we cannot stay young always. Well, say the babba can go, but not till the day cools.” She dismissed the man with a wave of her spoon, and, turning, encountered her daughter issuing lazily from the house. “Oh! there you are, Una! Paul is to go to the bhurya (old woman) this evening again. She is always sending for him. There is only one thing to be said—it is better than her coming here. Piru Lal brought the message, and he says she has fever again. She is often ill now. I think she takes opium—nasty stuff!”
“Very likely,” said Una languidly. “I must see that Paul goes in his best suit and that he wears his new hat.”
“A string of beads and a dhoti would please her better,” laughed Mrs. Jahans.
“I know, and I always take care when he goes there that he looks properly English! I wish she would not send for him; but it cannot be helped.”
Therefore Paul was made to look as aggressively European as possible, according to his mother’s notions (which meant red velvet with brass buttons, and a pair of kid gloves which the child tore off the moment he was out of her sight), and was started off with the usual cavalcade of ayah, syce, and pony down the dusty white road, which sloped a little as they neared the river.
Bibi Jahans’ compound felt close and stuffy, for the fruit trees kept the air away, though they effectually screened the house from view. The old lady was sitting in the verandah on a string bedstead, amidst a mass of dirty white pillows, trying to smoke a hookah, but in reality having little energy or inclination for anything. Her eyes were dull and listless, and her skin felt dry and burning to the child as she laid her hands on his head.
“Salaam, little one,” she said, drawing him to her side, “thy great-grandmother is very sick with the fever, but the sight of thy face will do her good. Sit here on the edge of the charpoy and relate to me all that thou hast been doing. Go, you people,” she added to the ayah and the syce, “go to the cook-house and smoke with the servants, and thou, Piru Lal also,” to the old messenger who was in constant attendance on his mistress, “I will call thee later.”
Paul perched himself on the edge of the rickety bedstead and dangled his legs, while his great-grandmother lay back amongst her pillows and closed her eyes.
“I have done but little,” said Paul, reflecting, “except that I killed a scorpion under the matting in my bath-room yesterday; also one day last week I drank some white water which I found in a fine mosquito net.” He felt under the pillow and found a brown carved box, which he carried to the old woman, who opened it with trembling fingers and invited him to inspect the contents.
“See thy father, little Kuriya,” she murmured, taking a picture in her hand—“thy father, the Englishman, who is just and kind and ever straight in all his dealings. Thou dost not resemble him, child. The little one that died of the small-pox was in his image: he had the fair hair, and eyes blue as the sky, of my lord’s people, and we called him Billam,’ after his father. When thou camest, little dark one, I gave thee a shameful name to avert the attention of the evil ones. Thou art of my folk and hast more of their blood than thy share—”
She bent whispering over the faded miniature, crudely painted by a native artist, of a stout bald man in a blue coat and brass buttons, whose light eyes glared without expression from his highly-coloured countenance.
Paul turned over the things in the box with eager curiosity, now paying no attention to his companion’s wanderings, which to him were meaningless. She was behosh (delirious) with fever, he concluded; he was quite accustomed to hearing people talk nonsense when they were ill with the common sickness of the country. A fat gold watch with a clumsy case took his fancy, and he held it up, dangling the bunch of heavy old seals that hung from the fob. A handsome silver mouthpiece for a hookah was also there, for in the old days native and European customs were not held so far apart as they are now; and an oblong gold snuff-box, which he opened, spilling the brown powdery contents that flew into his face and made him sneeze. Underneath these things was a bundle of faded yellow letters with franked envelopes, and addressed in sloping pointed writing, to “William Johns, Esquire—Of the Most Honourable East India Company’s Service”—but these he pushed aside, as they meant no more to him than they did to his great-grandmother, who, being unable to read English, little knew that she was treasuring love-letters written long ago by a young lady at Bath, who had subsequently disappointed the gentleman in the blue coat and brass buttons by espousing “another” instead of fulfilling her vow to join him in India; which cruel behaviour had possibly been at the bottom of his seeking the solace of an enclosed native dwelling at the back of his large bungalow.
At last Paul wearied of prying into the box, and leaving the old woman lost in the past over the relics of her lover, he slipped away down the verandah steps and wandered into the garden. The ayah and the syce were busy gossiping and smoking with the other servants on the far side of the house, and for the time he was free to dabble his hands in the water of the little stone aqueducts that irrigated the garden from the creaking well, worked by a pair of patient white bullocks. He could suck a lime which was forbidden, pull the heads off the marigolds and asters, try to catch the grey squirrels as they darted to and fro, and call to the green parrots as they rustled in the orange trees. Once he stepped hurriedly aside and watched a thin brown snake glide into a hole beneath a tree. He must tell his great-grandmother about this, and ask her to have a little saucer of milk placed beside the hole daily to propitiate the sacred reptile. He wondered that the gardener had not seen to the matter.
He rambled on to the edge of the compound, which was bounded by a hedge of tall dusty aloes, and presently he passed through the white pillars that guarded the entrance, though gate there was none. The ground across the road shelved down to the river bank, which just here was green with huge pumpkin leaves and dotted with fishermen and basket-weavers. Further away on the narrow stretches of sand that rose in islets from the river could be seen the thick brown forms of two or three crocodiles lying half in and half out of the water. Paul walked quickly along the side of the road till he came to the unmetalled track that led to the shrine of Hanuman, the monkey-god, beneath the towering red walls of the fort; and then he ran, for he was anxious to see his friend the priest before he should be overtaken and recalled by the ayah.
He skirted round the massive red walls of sandstone—Akbar’s mighty fort standing sentinel over the junction of the sacred rivers—and came upon a peaceful scene. The blue waters flanked by the yellow sand, a little group of huts hardly more than a few sticks and some matted straw, a gay patch of royal marigolds filling the air with their pungent scent, two or three idle pilgrims sitting or lying about the side of a curious sunken shrine that looked like a square tank, until, on leaning over the edge, could be seen the extended image of Hanuman, the monkey-god, “he of the long jaws.”
Paul did not quite like looking over alone, but holding the hand of the old attendant priest he had often gazed with awe upon the idol, painted a vivid scarlet symbolical of the blood sacrifice, lying on its back, a gigantic figure with arms and legs outstretched in a menacing attitude, the huge mouth reaching from ear to ear, and fierce staring tinfoil eyes. The child carefully avoided the edge of the shrine, and approached the little shelters, from which loud snores were issuing.
“Oh!—Baba-jee!” he piped. “Behold I am come.”
And letting his voice rise and fall in true native fashion he continued to call his friend until the bald head of an old Brahmin priest peered sleepily forth. The holy man wore a saffron-coloured wrapper, a string of carved beads round his neck, and the sacred cord over his left shoulder.
“Is it thou, little one? It is many days since I have seen thee,” he grunted, raising himself with an effort, for his limbs were stiff, and the proximity of the shrine to the river encouraged his enemy rheumatism in spite of all the goodwill of the gods.
Then he hobbled out into the mellowing sunshine, and throwing the saffron robe about his body, squatted down lazily on the edge of Hanuman’s resting-place, and sprinkled some holy water over the deity’s sacred person. Paul sat on his heels by the priest’s side and bombarded him with questions, feeling secure from the influence of the glaring eyes and war-like limbs while in the company of the Baba-jee.
“And so the fair-time is over, and will not come again for many months,” said Paul, regretfully. The annual pilgrimage in the month of January to the junction of the sacred rivers had always been a time of excitement to the child for as long as he could remember. He had never been permitted to mingle with the crowd, but it meant streams of people passing the compound-gates all day and all night, singing, tramping, and calling salutations to the gods; it meant curious toys and wonderful sweetmeats that the servants brought back for him from the scene of mingled holiday-making and religious observance; and once the ayah had taken him to the fort, and from the high parapet he had looked down on the seething multitude struggling in and out of the water; he had gazed over to the island where the fakirs congregate, while he listened entranced to the ayah’s stories of miracles and wonders, and had longed to join in it all himself.
“Nine moons from now must pass before the place will be filled with a multitude of pilgrims,” replied the old Brahmin, “and not for three years after that will the great festival be held.”
“And why not for three years?” asked the boy.
“Because the time cometh but every twelfth year, child, when the sun and moon are specially favourable, and the fakirs gather here, having completed their round of visits to holy spots. On the great day do they march in procession to bathe—a sight the like of which could not be seen anywhere else the whole world over. At the yearly fair-time have I beheld many thousands of pilgrims, but at the Koombh Mela have I seen as many as three millions come and go during the weeks of the fair-time.”
“And how many Koombh Melas hast thou witnessed, father?”
“Six have I known—the first when I was still a ‘batcha’ like thyself, and the last but nine years back perhaps one more, maybe two, shall I see if it please the great God to preserve this worthless life. When thou art a man grown and can do as thou wilt, thou shouldest bathe at the auspicious time in the holy water and shave thy head—so glorifying thy body and spirit—”
He gazed at the child’s eager face, and his eyes took a misty, far-away expression.
“And the monkey-god?” prattled the boy, not heeding the priest’s words, “will he be here for the next great fair? How long has he lain on this spot? How did he come here?” he continued, with childhood’s insatiable thirst for information.
“He will be here for all time,” answered the other, “and he hath been here since no man can say when; but in the olden days, when the gods walked the earth and were manifest to men, did a boat come down the stream bound for the city of saints—and the vessel bore the image of Hanuman, the great hero, who is also called Mahabir. But on reaching the junction of the holy rivers did the boat rest, and no human aid could move her on her way. Then was the god that thou seest before thee removed from the vessel and placed here on the river side. That was countless ages past; and then in time the great King Akbar built the fort. Though of the unclean faith, he was ever a man who respected and showed consideration for the true religion of the Hindus. He raised the fort around the temple of Siva, which was built thousands of years before the coming of the Moghuls, and is to this day within the walls. He also respected this shrine of Hanuman, and left it in peace, for which may his soul reap virtue and reward. He knew in his wisdom that there be many roads to heaven, and that each can enter in at his own gate but,” he concluded, with a change of voice and a rueful sigh, “I would that the god had been pleased to rest farther from the water, for, during the rainy season, the mud covereth the sacred being, and there is much trouble in cleansing and clearing it away. Also the damp of the river entereth my bones, and causeth pain and stiffness.”
Here a couple of stray visitors to the shrine advanced reverently and dropped their offerings of money on to the red figure, interrupting the droning recital of the priest, who, reminded of his duties, sprinkled holy water afresh, and chanted a hymn of praise.
The red glow of the setting sun enhanced the vivid colouring of the idol, and gleamed with a crimson glare from the wide tinfoil eyes. The flapping paddy-birds had begun to take deliberate flight across the flushed glowing sky, and the cranes and waders at the water’s edge screeched discordantly as they bestirred themselves to search for their supper of small fish. The wind had dropped and the old priest’s nasal chant sounded clear and resonant as it penetrated through the still, soft air. Little Paul sat dreamily silent, his eyes holding the mystic unworldly expression so characteristic of Oriental blood. Instinctive attraction and the sense of long custom filled his being with a calm contentment, though he could not have explained why he felt happier here, in the present atmosphere, than when he was at home, unconsciously torn both ways by the mingled habits of East and West.
The last notes of the Baba-jee’s chant died away, and were followed by the mellow tinkle of a bell from within the fort walls. Paul rose to his feet. “Listen, father,” he cried, “it is the bell of the Temple of Siva. Take me within and let me behold the undying fig-tree which they say has lived and put forth leaves ever since the temple was made. Come—I fear to go alone—and I wish so much to enter.” He pulled impatiently at the hand of the old man, who rose with many grunts and straightened his stiff joints. Paul plucked a bunch of yellow marigolds for an offering, and the pair, holding each other’s hands, made their way through the loose sand to a narrow entrance in the fort walls, opened for the convenience of the pilgrims who at the fair-time wish to pay their respects to the symbol of Siva, and to inspect the miraculous fig-tree.
Up the dark sloping entrance they climbed, the child holding tight by the priest’s fingers and breathing hard with excitement, then down a few rough stone steps which led to a long underground passage lighted by coarse wicks floating in saucers of oil placed in the niches in the wall, which shone black and clammy. The passage finally terminated in a square, vault-like chamber, where sat the silent meditative figures of two fakirs before a block of stone that glistened with the anointing of oil and butter. Surrounding it were little piles of money and bunches of sacred flowers.
“Bare thy feet—profane not the abode of the gods,” reminded the Baba-jee, and Paul hastily slipped off his shoes. One of the fakirs rose slowly; he was thin to emaciation, with wild locks of hair hanging on either side of his face. A greeting passed between him and the newcomer, who explained that the child desired to view the fig-tree.
“Behold!” said the fakir, pointing to the corner; and Paul saw what was little more than a rootless stump, with some withered leaves that had sprouted during the fair-time three months ago. This was supposed to be the identical trunk that had stood there since the founding of the temple—and only the most shameless of unbelievers held that it was secretly changed every year by the priests.
Paul was shown a square hole beyond the fig-tree, and was told that it led into a passage that connected the temple with a holy city nearly a hundred miles away; he also heard how, only a few days previously, the god had come to visit the shrine in the form of a cobra, and might even then be at hand, so that care must be taken in placing down the feet. At this he peered somewhat anxiously about, and felt an involuntary curling up of his toes, though he reassured himself with the reflection that in all probability the god would take very good care not to get trodden on.
“Thine offering, little one,” said the Baba-jee; “the flowers are in thy hand, and here is a silver piece of money for thee to give.”
“I have a two-anna bit in my pocket,” said Paul with importance. “I will make offering with that also.”
He did reverent obeisance to the idol and laid the coins and the hot little bunch of marigolds before it. Then he gazed about him with a feeling of awe and mystery, while the holy men murmured to each other, and the black surface of the lingam, the symbol of Siva, gleamed in the uncertain light of the primitive lamps.
The child felt drowsy, the misty glitter of the stone affected his eyes; the close atmosphere, the hum of hushed voices, and the thick heavy scent of sandal-wood and incense began to overpower his brain; gradually he yielded to the unfightable languor that crept over him, and, as in a dream, he sank upon his heels with his back against the damp wall. Then the voices of the priests grew louder and roused him, a blessing, sounded in his ear, something wet was placed on his forehead, and he heard the Baba-jee saying, “Come, child, thou hast received thy blessing, and the mark on thy forehead which is the sign that thou hast done thy pooja in the temple. The daylight is fading—we must depart.”
Paul started and looked round. He put his hand to his forehead and found the half-dried caste-mark of sandal wood and ashes. He drew a long breath, tried to control himself, and then burst into tears. Still weeping, he was led concernedly by the old priest, who spoke soothing words, along the passage into the daylight; across the sand they saw the ayah running distractedly, and calling to her truant charge in shrill tones. She swirled towards them, her petticoats flying, the silver bangles on her wrists and ankles jangling, her face puckered with anxiety, and a scolding torrent of words pouring from her mouth.
Suddenly she checked herself, and stood staring at the child’s face, then salaamed and looked with respectful inquiry at the old Brahmin, who pushed the boy gently towards the woman.
“Go, my son,” he said. “Go with thine ayah. Maybe thou wilt return—if not soon, perhaps later—but if the gods have need of thee thou wilt obey.”
He invoked blessings on Paul’s head, and slowly made his way to the shrine of Hanuman; and the child, hurried along by the ayah, turned often to look at the bent figure, the saffron robe deepened to orange by the dying sun, until the walls of the fort hid the scene from sight.
“Come, sonny, hasten,” said the ayah, “it is late, and the syce and pony wait on the road. The mem-sahib will be angry that we have tarried so long, and we must not return to the dwelling of Bibi Jahans, but go straight home.”
Paul, still dazed with the sudden change from the dimness of the temple and his own unaccustomed violence of emotion, laboured over the dusty ground in the ayah’s wake to where his steed awaited him. He rode in silence till they reached the Jahans’ bungalow, which was already lighted up with oil-lamps, for darkness was rapidly approaching.
Mrs. Vereker was alone in the drawing-room when her son came slowly in, dragging his weak loose ankles, and a fretful complaint of weariness on his lips. She looked up from her novelette.
“Come to mamma, sonny,” she said affectionately, and as he shambled towards her she gave a little cry.
“What have you got on your face, child? Where have you been?”
Paul put up his hand to the now dry mark on his forehead. He rubbed a little of the powder off and looked at his finger. Then he was true to his descent.
“I have only been to my great-grandmother’s,” he lied glibly in Hindustani.
“And did she put that mark on your forehead?” asked Mrs. Vereker sharply.
“Yes, without doubt,” said the child, knowing he should get into trouble and the ayah too, should his visit to the temple be discovered. Then he called the ayah who was loitering in the verandah.
“Did not the Bibi Jahans mark my face?” he demanded, and the ayah silently acquiesced. “She hath fever, and it pleased her, so I said no word against it. She was without sense by reason of the sickness, and I expect,” he added thoughtfully, “that she will die.”
“I wish she would!” cried Mrs. Vereker vehemently, “she is making a regular little native of you. It is too bad. And if I had had my way you would have been with your uncle Sir Jardine now, who would have left you all his money and his title, and made a great man of you. Now you are growing up a kerani like the rest of us,” she admitted bitterly, “and I cannot stop it! Go to bed, and see that the ayah washes those dirty native marks from your face.”
Mrs. Watson, the missionary’s wife, entered her house by the back verandah and threw her large pith sun-hat into a chair with a gesture of weariness. All the long hot morning she had been expounding the Gospels to her class of native Christian women and girls, teaching them to sing new “bhajans” (Hindustani hymns) and, with Tabitha the half-caste Bible woman, going over accounts of sales in the Zenanas of Testaments and tracts.
“John!” she called, “are you back?” She looked into the sparsely furnished bedroom of he little bungalow, and, seeing no one, passed on into the front verandah where a table was laid for the late breakfast. Her clever face with its rather prominent features, and clear grey eyes, was prematurely aged and lined from exposure to the heat, overwork, frugal living, and the constant uncontrollable longing for the presence of her children, who were being educated in England by comparative strangers, while she and her husband toiled and struggled in exile to reclaim the soul of the “heathen.” For the last month her eyes had held a glow of anticipation, for the separation would soon be over, and her heart’s desire was to be granted. Mr. Watson had been asked to go home for the purpose of undertaking a series of mission sermons to be preached at various centres, and the tour was to occupy six months. When the rains broke they were to start, and to the yearning mother, counting the days that were yet to pass, it seemed that each week grew longer than the other. Here was the end of March and they were not to start till the middle of June.
She stood on the steps and watched her husband’s tall thin figure, with the slightly stooping shoulders, walk up the drive.
“You are very late,” she said, trying to keep a fretful inflection out of her voice as he approached, “you must be tired.”
“Yes, a little,” he owned, raising his hat from his hot forehead as he came into the verandah. “I have had a busy morning in the school, and also preaching in the bazaar. I trust I have been privileged to touch one heart at least this day. I was rejoiced to notice that the old grain-merchant at the corner shop of the chota-bazaar, who you know is generally so rude and obstructive, came and listened quietly to the Word, and finally bought a New Testament—though I am bound to confess that he haggled for it shamelessly and got it at a reduced price. Still I feel that the good seed has been sown, and the knowledge is very uplifting.”
The man sat down with a sigh of bodily fatigue which was instantly checked. His face was thin and narrow, the eyes deep sunken, with the expression of a visionary, a saint, a martyr. His faith burned strong and clear, his hope was unquenchable, and frequent discouragement and disappointment merely made him more zealous for the fight, while the slightest progress in the right direction raised him to a pinnacle of confident enthusiasm.
“And you, my dear?” he said affectionately, laying his hand on her shoulder.
“Oh, my usual work,” she replied in a matter-of-fact voice as she measured out the tea—“singing hymns, teaching, accounts, and one or two worries. You know that pretty little low-caste woman who came to us a few days ago?”
“Yes, of course. She sought the protection of the mission because she was so cruelly persecuted by her husband and people for listening with eagerness to our teaching. What of her?”
“Well, it seems that she had fallen in love with some worthless bazaar loafer, and that that was much more at the bottom of the ‘persecution’ than anything to do with our teaching. She came here because she knew perfectly well that sooner or later her jealous and suspicious husband would cut her nose off. This morning she implored me to persuade you to baptize both her and the man and marry them according to Christian rites, and then allow them to live in the compound safe from the vengeance of their families!”
Mrs. Watson related the sordid little history with a dry comprehension. She was an excellent wife, a sound Christian, with a colossal sense of duty, and was a good, practical mission worker; but her common sense and sharp powers of observation sometimes stood in the way of her sharing Mr. Watson’s optimistic views on the subject of conversion.
“O Julia! how very distressing!” said the missionary, “and I felt so confident that her protestations of belief were genuine! What have you done?”
“Of course I told her at once that you would never consent to such a thing. She was apparently under the impression that we would gladly shut our eyes to anything as long as we could add another so-called convert to our list of baptisms. If you had heard her language you would have been astonished! She collected her belongings, abusing us the whole time, and took her departure, the little wretch! and none too soon either. She had a distinctly bad influence in the compound, and I suspected her from the very first.”
“You are generally right, my dear,” said Mr. Watson dejectedly.
“I am,” returned his wife. “But here comes breakfast, and don’t worry about the girl any more. She was a naughty little thing, and only came to us because she thought it would be a convenient short cut to wickedness, and I dare say, if the truth were known, your old grain-merchant only bought the Testaments to use for wrapping up packets of spice. You are too trusting, and it’s lucky I am here to open your eyes sometimes!”
They sat down to breakfast, and Mrs. Watson began to make plans for the journey home and the temporary breaking-up of the establishment, as she had done every morning since she had known that they were to go to England.
“We must store everything,” she said, with satisfaction at the thought of what the packing-up signified. “We have nothing that it will pay us to sell except just the rubbish, which can all go to old Jahans to be auctioned in the bazaar. What a useful person he is, to be sure, and his fat, stupid wife is most good-natured. I ought to go and see her, by-the-bye, for she sent me a large basket of guavas the other day, and I made them all into jelly to take home to the children. That poor little Vereker boy is growing up absolutely neglected and ignorant—they ought to send him to school or get him taught somehow.”
“They don’t take him to church at all,” said Mr. Watson plaintively.
“No. You see, the rest of the family go to the cantonment church—I suppose more to look at the soldiers and to show off their extraordinary costumes than from any particularly religious motive, and probably it never occurs to them that the child ought to go too. I wonder what the poor little man believes in—the Hindu gods, I expect! I had him over here the other day, and he is rather an intelligent boy—only quite undeveloped. Good gracious!” she added, screwing up her eyes and peering into the blazing sunlight outside—“here is his mother coming in at the gate dressed in apple green and trailing her skirt in the dust! What can she want?”
The usually placid Mrs. Vereker was panting with agitation. She blinked her eyes and swallowed hard as she put a limp, damp hand into Mrs. Watson’s.
“You are going home soon, are you not—to England—when the rains break?” she began abruptly.
“We start in less than three months, God willing,” said Mr. Watson—“We hope about the middle of June. What is wrong, Mrs. Vereker? I am afraid something has occurred to upset you.”
Mrs. Vereker sank into a chair, and the Watsons politely left their breakfast to get cold while they gave their attention to her story. She never thought of begging them to continue their meal.
“Yes, it is true, something has happened, and we are all very much annoyed. My grandmother is dead. She died two days ago, and her body was cremated by the priests at the burning ground. You know who I mean—you have seen her at our house, Mrs. Watson—there is no use for me to pretend to you. She was a very rich old native woman, and we always counted on getting all her money when she died.”
Mr. Watson shook his head in silent reproach at this worldly utterance; but his wife inquired with interest whether they had inherited the old lady’s fortune or not.
“No I indeed!” continued Mrs. Vereker, half crying with angry mortification. “She has left thousands and thousands of rupees to the Brahmins to build a temple and endow it to her memory—wicked old heathen that she was!” — turning for sympathy on this point to the missionary—“and nothing is left to us”—she threw out her hands towards Mrs. Watson—“we are left out in the cold! My father and mother they are raging! They say she was mad—she was always mad! But we can do nothing. The will is all straight and correct. Oh! it is enough to make one die of anger! My friend Mr. Alexander Christian”—a half-caste apothecary, who had lately been showing signs of admiration for Mrs. Vereker—“he says it is quite criminal to raise hopes and then shat—ter—” Two oily tears trickled down her cheeks, for the widow feared that Bibi Jahans’ outrageous will had “shattered hopes” that had been flourishing in the heart of Mr. Christian regarding herself.
“And then there is Paul!” continued Mrs. Vereker, sobbing. “His uncle and aunt would have taken him and brought him up; and I only refused them because the old woman was against the plan, and we thought she would leave all her rupees to the priests if we did not keep him out here. But I will send him to England, after all!” her voice rose fiercely—“just what she would not like! I have some money in the bank, and I will borrow more. I will write to my sister-in-law and ask if she and Sir Jardine will take Paul and bring him up as their own boy. I will tell her how I am poor, and so I can only pay for his passage and his outfit, and she can have his pension to spend as she likes on him. The India Office can arrange it all, and I will wash my hands! This is just what I have come to you about. Walking I came, in all the dust and sun the minute I thought of the plan. You are going home. May I tell Lady Jardine that you will take Paul if she consents to have him now? Everything will be paid, and I will give you some rupees for your trouble.”
“We could not think of that,” interposed Mr. Watson before his wife could answer, “but a donation to the mission instead would be ample repayment for any trouble we may take.”
“We shall be going second-class and all the way round by sea,” said Mrs. Watson doubtfully, “and the voyage is very trying during the rains. Don’t you think it would be wiser to wait till the cold weather, and send him home with some one else? Are you not going yourself?”
The poor lady had been looking forward to the rest and peace on the voyage, and could not bring herself to consent fervently to the charge of a spoilt little half-caste boy, though she liked the child well enough, and was interested in his future. Still she knew so well what children could be on board ship, the constant anxiety they caused, the heat of the bath-rooms when they had to be washed, the early hours for their meals, their hatred of the cabin, and their reluctance ever to go to bed.
But Mrs. Vereker was not to be put off; she explained carefully why she had no intention of accompanying Paul to England, giving several contradictory reasons, and sat immovable in her chair until Mrs. Watson had resignedly promised to take charge of the little one on the voyage, and to hand him over to Lady Jardine or her representative on arrival.
“Well, then, that is a relief,” said Una, getting out of her chair with an effort. “I shall go home now and write to my sister-in-law, and in plenty of time I shall have her answer. I will bring it over to show you. I shall be lost without my boy, but it is so much better that he should go. My mother cries, and is very vexed at the thought, and says I should go too—but I am not strong enough for the climate,” she concluded, with an air of complacent martyrdom.
She returned to the house, which for the rest of the day was a scene of tears and disputes, but in spite of all opposition she wrote her letter to Lady Jardine, reminding her of the previous correspondence concerning Paul, and asking if the home was still open to the boy without his mother; “for I cannot leave my parents—they are getting too old,” she wrote pathetically, much to the indignation of Mrs. Jahans.
She explained vaguely, and without going into details, that the prospects of her family as regards money matters were considerably altered, that beyond the Government pension, which would be paid through the India Office until the boy was of age, he would have nothing—and that his only chance of receiving the education befitting a gentleman lay in the hands of his father’s people.
* * * *
April passed, and May arrived with its fierce heat, burning winds, and clouds of stinging white dust.
In the centre room of the mission bungalow the long glass doors were tightly closed to keep out the wind and the heat, and Mrs. Watson sat in the midst of a group of native Christian girls patiently practising with them the “bhajan” that was to be sung in church the following Sunday. The quaint Hindustani words rose and fell in a nasal chant with monotonous regularity:
O soul, thou forgettest thyself in the world!
O soul forgetful
This world, O soul! thou must surely leave and go away.
Jesus, forget thou not!
This body, O my soul! trust thou not in It!
Dust, it will go to dust!
Hear, O sinner! listen with heart and soul;
Jesus is the root of the world!
Mrs. Watson’s voice led the melancholy minor refrain, but her thoughts wandered perpetually, in spite of all her efforts to keep a fixed attention on the semicircle of dark faces, and the shrill echoing voices. She could not prevent herself from dreaming of the subject that was now always uppermost in her mind—the meeting with her children. It was four long years since they had clung to her, a sobbing, despairing little group, beseeching her not to leave them, while the youngest, still a baby, had laughed and applauded, convinced that they were playing a new game for his special amusement. Now they would all look so changed, and the little one would not recognise his mother; and then, when she had gained their confidence once more, and reestablished herself in their hearts and lives, it would be her stern duty to leave them and return to India that she might carry the message of the Gospel to ignorant native women, sing “bhajans,” and teach needlework, and keep her husband from killing himself with overwork.
In spite of her brave nature the tears began to cloud her eyes and a lump to gather in her throat, and in another moment she must have brought the practice to an abrupt conclusion when suddenly one of the doors burst open, letting in a blast of hot air, and the singing ceased, as, with an excited rustle, the pupils all turned to stare at Mrs. Vereker standing on the threshold, with a letter in her hand.
“She consents!” cried Una, “She consents!”—not making the smallest apology for the interruption. “Oh! Mrs. Watson,” impatiently, “do send all these people away, and see what Lady Jardine says—it is so important.” She advanced into the room as she spoke, and Mrs. Watson obediently dispersed her congregation, well knowing her visitor’s powers of persistence. Then she gave Una a chair, took one herself, and proceeded to examine the contents of the envelope that had been unceremoniously thrust into her hand.
Lady Jardine wrote cordially, even gushingly: “A warm welcome, my dear Una, will be given to my poor brother’s little boy,” she began; “he shall be treated with every care and kindness, and I am sure you will never have cause to regret your unselfish and heroic decision to send him to England. In my opinion you are wise and good in remaining behind to devote yourself to your dear parents” (perhaps Una’s letters written on thin blue-lined bazaar paper, ill spelt, and jerky in construction, had helped Lady Jardine to form this opinion), “but, of course, should you ever wish to take a run home and see your boy you will be very welcome at Farm Park. I am indeed distressed to hear that your family circumstances have been altered for the worse, but you may rest assured that no efforts will be spared to give Paul a sound education and every chance of an excellent start in life. More than this I cannot promise for I have no personal private means, and the property being entailed, goes with the title to my husband’s nephew, a boy who is now fourteen, and who spends most of his holidays with us. I hope he and Paul will make friends in spite of the difference in their ages. I am thankful that you have found some kind people willing to take charge of Paul on the voyage, and I shall hope to hear from you, in answer to this, exactly when to expect the child, and by what ship. It is as well that he is coming home in the summer, when he will not feel the change of climate so keenly. Indian children are often so delicate—” The letter rambled on, but was eminently satisfactory, and was highly approved of by Mrs. Watson.
“The boy will be well treated—that is the letter of a woman with a kind heart,” she said, handing the document back to Mrs. Vereker. “Now there will be many details to settle and talk over, and you will have to write all particulars of his arrival to his aunt by this mail. I am very busy to-day and cannot spare you the time, but can you come and see me to-morrow?”
“To-morrow is Sunday,” said Una.
“Yes, and a very busy day for us always, but I am free at tea-time. Will you come to afternoon service at the Mission church and bring Paul, and then we can come back here to tea?”
Una agreed to the plan. Under the circumstances she could not offend Mrs. Watson by refusing to go td the Mission church; the afternoon service there could be tolerated for once; and was not long enough to make Paul fidgety and tiresome.
“Yes, thanks, I will come,” she said with apparent indifference. She was not going to betray her gratification at being asked to tea by a missionary’s wife—she who was the widow of a civilian.
So the next day the ayah was bidden to wake the child early from his mid-day sleep and dress him in a clean suit.
“Thou art to go to the girjah” (church), she informed him cheerfully, as, heavy with drowsiness, he objected to being disturbed, and let his feet double up limply when the woman tried to put his boots on—“and there thou wilt learn the faith of thine own god, whom thou hast hitherto neglected. It is well to offend no gods of whatever faith, and it is for this reason that I do pooja to the tomb of the Mahomedan saint at the wayside when I go to make offerings at the Hindu temple, for gods be powerful all the world over—” She chattered on till the child was fully awake and his toilet completed, and a certain amount of interest had been aroused in his mind.
He followed his mother’s broad back up the aisle between the rows of sleek native Christians, men on one side and women on the other, to the strains of the wheezy harmonium played by Mrs. Watson, and it was not until they had taken their seats in the pew that Mrs. Vereker discovered Paul’s sailor hat to be still on his head. She seized it and dragged it off, snapping the elastic, which stung the child under the chin, and an unseemly disturbance was only nipped in the bud by the entrance of Mr. Watson, tall and gaunt, in his surplice, and the commencement of the service which was conducted in Hindustani.
Then Paul sat still and gazed in wonder and curiosity at the “padre-sahib,” and tried to understand what the reading was about, though he could make but little of the words sonorously pronounced by the Missionary. The brass lectern fascinated him—a large bird with a prominent beak and outstretched wings. Surely this would be Gurud, the good god whom the ayah had told him was Lord of the Birds. He had seen Gurud before, many times, down by the Fort at the little brass shop where the deities were sold by hundreds. He stared at the stained glass window which represented the visit of the Wise Men from the East, and his face brightened. Here were pilgrims dressed in much the same fashion as those he so often saw by the river side, and apparently they were doing pooja and making offerings to Krishna, the holy child, of whom the baba-jee and his great-grandmother had often spoken—only Paul knew him best in his character of a young man either playing the flute or carrying a ball of butter in his hand. The mother and father of Krishna were also in the picture, and others whom he could not name at that distance, and he could also make out the head of a sacred cow; but he felt disappointed that his favourite “Ganesh-jee” was not to be seen anywhere. He loved the elephant-god with the round paunch and kindly disposition, and never omitted to murmur words of welcome and recognition to him whenever he came across the cheerful trunked visage. He felt sorry that his friend had been forgotten, and he determined to ask Mr. Watson to remember the good Ganesh, and give his image a place on the altar since he had not been included in the picture.
Then Paul grew weary with the monotony of the Padre’s voice, the slow droning singing, and the strong smell of cocoanut oil in the atmosphere, and fell asleep, waking with a cry of remonstrance when the service was over and his mother pulled him to his feet.
Mrs. Watson joined Mrs. Vereker outside the church door and they all repaired to the Mission house, where they settled down to home-made bread and butter and biscuits, Cape-gooseberry jam, and tea with fresh goats’ milk.
“Now, about Paul’s clothes,” suggested Mrs. Watson, when other matters concerning the approaching journey had been discussed, “he will want warmer things for the last ten days of the voyage, for though it ought not to be cold at this time of the year it will be a great change from the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. And then it may be bad weather when we land, you can never be certain. Suppose you let us make some things for him in the Mission? Our girls work so well!”
Una disdained the suggestion.
“Native work when he is going to England!” she exclaimed, “Oh! no—everything shall be English, and of the very best. I will send to Calcutta to the English shops for price-lists with pictures and patterns, and then I can choose. My mother has a cousin in one of those big places and he will see that I have all good and handsome.”
“But you will let him wear his old things going down to Bombay and during the hot part of the voyage?” suggested Mrs. Watson.
“Oh I well, yes, he might do that, and then you can throw them away—but for England he must have English clothes.”
“Of course, it is as you please,” said Mrs. Watson politely, but inwardly she shuddered at the prospect.
“Well, now I must go home and write all these letters,” said Mrs. Vereker at last, rising reluctantly, and calling to Paul, who had wandered across the compound to the servants’ quarters, where he was surrounded by an admiring crowd.
“I am afraid she will make a terrible spectacle of that unfortunate child,” said Mrs. Watson to her husband, when mother and son had taken their departure; and three weeks later, when she was invited to inspect Paul’s outfit, the sight filled her with even greater dismay than she had anticipated.
Mrs. Vereker had provided him with plush and velvet suits of various shades, with jockey caps to match, and wide frilled collars of embroidery; he had patent-leather elastic-sided shoes stitched with white, and ornamented with rows of little pearl buttons; a supply of ginger-coloured silk gloves had also been laid in, and the socks, which were to come half-way up his thin brown legs, were of many hues and patterns. Mrs. Watson was given particular instructions by Mrs. Jahans that his hair was to be well moistened with cocoanut oil, and rolled into a tunnel on the top of his head.
“And this he must have when he gets to the landing-place,” continued his anxious grand-mother, producing a large umbrella with a glass ball for a handle, “for it rains too much in that country. And Una would never have remembered an overcoat; but see what a beauty Mrs. Mactarn has bought for him! “She shook from its stiff folds a thick overcoat of a large plaid pattern, with big white bone buttons. “This is the very thing to protect him against a climate that all say is so treacherous!” The yellow tin box that was to contain this extensive outfit was also proudly displayed; it was secured by a broad iron padlock, and had “Mr. Paul Vereker “painted on it in bold lettering.
“Oh!” groaned Mrs. Watson to herself as she walked home, “what will his aunt think of him?”
* * * *
At last the moment of departure arrived. The mail train for Bombay left at nine o’clock in the evening, and Paul was escorted to the railway station by his mother, Mr. and Mrs. Jahans, his uncles, and auntie Mactarn, in the roomy familiar waggonette. A “ticca-gharry” followed containing the Passanah family and the De Souza cousins, who overflowed on to the box-seat and even on to roof of the vehicle, which presented the appearance of a moving heap of human beings; and they all flocked on to the platform, an excited chattering crowd, bearing parting gifts of sweets, biscuits, and fruit, to sustain their young relative on the journey.
Mrs. Vereker and her mother wept loudly and without restraint, Mr. Jahans was silent and important, the two lads in their dust-coloured cotton suits and pith hats watched the proceedings with good-natured interest, and auntie Mactarn repeatedly assured the child that she should be coming “home” one day to live, and then he must pay her a visit in Scotland.
Sadly in the background lurked old Piru Lal, also the syce and the ayah, the latter mopping her wet face with her chudder, and, amidst all the noise and confusion, little Paul himself stood with a dazed look on his face, and his large eyes full of apprehension and bewilderment. He had risen to an unexpected height of importance; they were all imploring him not to forget them; he was loaded with presents and endearments; he was going to England to be a sahib—and yet he would rather have returned to his little iron bed under the comforting protection of the ayah, to wake up in the morning and find that all the change and excitement was only a vivid dream.
He allowed himself to be kissed repeatedly, and it was not until he had been pushed into the carriage and felt the train moving that he realised his situation. He was leaving his mother and his home, and all the old lazy familiar life behind, and a sudden terror of the future seized him. He gave a wild cry, like that of a frightened animal, and sprang to the window, his eyes blurred with tears, his heart torn with the agony of separation. But Mrs. Watson held him firmly; the lights of the station swam before his face; he caught a fleeting glimpse of his grandmother’s fat, dark countenance, swollen and shapeless with weeping, her red plush bonnet tilted to one side; the clamour of the natives on the platform sounded confusedly in his ears, and he threw himself into Mrs. Watson’s kind arms in an abandonment of sorrow and regret.
The speed of the train quickened, the missionary’s wife soothed and petted the sobbing child, and held out encouraging prospects for the voyage and the future, and as the metallic clang of the wheels presently told that they were crossing the great iron bridge that spanned the sacred river, he raised his tear-stained face and looked over the quiet darkness of the water. He caught the twinkle of lights in the Fort, from whose high red walls on the day of his great-grandmother’s cremation had he and the ayah watched with interest and regret the blue smoke curling up from the distant burning-ground indicating that the ashes of Bibi Jahans were soon to float away on the bosom of the sacred river.
Down below the Fort there shone a row of tiny lamps, and Paul waved to them in a silent farewell, for he knew that they illumined the shrine of the monkey-god, and that close at hand the Baba-jee might be sitting watching the glare of the passing train. Oh I should he ever, ever come back? The Baba-jee had said that some day the gods might call him, and he would obey, but—England was a very long way off, and who could tell what would happen in the future?
A hot, still, July afternoon in an old-fashioned English garden. The air full of the scent of sweet-pea, mignonette, and the drowsy hum of bees hovering over the sun-baked blossoms. A blaze of flowers massed together without border or design, divided at intervals by strips of emerald turf; mounds of purple clematis, trails of crimson rambler and, above them, flitting white butterflies; close clipped yew hedges, and creeper-draped stone walls that decently obscured the necessary kitchen-garden.
One side of the house, which was a square Georgian Rectory with rows of tall windows, looked on to a flagged terrace where musk pushed its way up between the slabs, and stone urns at either end overflowed with scarlet geranium and royal-blue lobelia. A few shallow steps, splashed with yellow lichen, led down to the lawn, where a fine cedar spread its moss-like branches wide and low, and shielded the guests of the Rector of Alconburt from the sun.
The annual village flower-show was being held in the Rectory meadow, and as this was only divided from the front garden by a sunk fence, the usually calm, orderly precincts now wore an air of animation that almost amounted to revelry. Vehicles of many descriptions were ploughing up the neat gravel drive, gaily-dressed figures strolled about the paths, and in the field were loosely pitched tents with flapping flags, a whirling, squealing merry-go-round, a strident band, and a jumble of excited villagers in their Sunday clothes mingling with the “nobility and gentry” of the surrounding neighbourhood. Most of the latter had driven for miles along dusty lanes and the bare high road, and after conscientiously visiting the stuffy tents filled with drooping flowers and unnaturally gigantic vegetables, hastened to seek rest and refreshment in the cool of the Rectory garden.
Under the tree on the lawn the parish doctor’s wife, who had a local reputation for sarcasm, was apologising for the dulness of the entertainment to the friend she had brought with her—a lady recently returned from India, who was paying a condescending visit to her former schoolfellow in “the real country”; and who had just observed carelessly that she supposed her companion “knew everybody here.”
“Oh I yes, everybody. And they all go on year after year just the same. Hardly any one seems to die, marry, or be born. Look at those two middle-aged women with grey hair—they are known as the ‘Tucker girls,’ and the youngest Miss Frost, though she is at least forty-two, is always called ‘Baby,’ and what is worse, she behaves like one! This gathering is the great event of the year for Alconburt parish, and every one puts in an appearance because it includes the Rectory garden-party.”
“And why is that so attractive?”inquired the other, with supercilious good humour.
“The Rector is the attraction! The Reverend Herbert Neale is popular in all quarters. Men like him because they say he is tolerant, sociable, and a sportsman in a modest way. Women adore him because he is so sympathetic and believes everything they tell him, and girls run after him because he is a handsome widower with one child—that little girl you saw when we arrived—who is just at age to need a good step-mother!”
“Really?” commented the listener, with indifference, “and the Rector’s wife?”
“She died when the child was born—somewhere about six years ago. She had money, and was well connected. The Rector has private means, and comes of a good old family too. That little girl will be worth marrying when she grows up.”
“What if the Rector takes another wife?”
“Well, he has shown no inclination that way yet. He lives here in solid comfort, and has an excellent cook as well as a rigidly respectable housekeeper, who acts also as head nurse to little Selma—such an ugly name, but it was her mother’s. Shall we go and have some fruit? The fruit is the only attraction to me at these entertainments—that is, if there is any left! The company generally settle themselves resolutely at the tables and devour everything, like locusts.”
They rose and walked towards the house. “It’s my belief,” continued the doctor’s wife thoughtfully, “that as far as matrimony is concerned the Rector is waiting for dead men’s shoes!”
“What do you mean?” The apathetic lady was roused to interest at last.
“I mean that the Squire of the neighbourhood is old, disagreeable, and rich, and that his wife is a well-preserved woman twenty-two years his junior. Why she ever married such an old horror I can’t understand, except that they say she had a disappointment in her youth and could never make up her mind to settle down until she found herself on the shelf, and then she was glad to take even Sir Robert Jardine, who after all, though he was fifty-five at the time and a most obnoxious old person, had a title and several thousands a year. She’s the kind of woman who loves clergymen, and I have no doubt that when Sir Robert breaks his neck out hunting or succumbs to gout in the stomach Mr. Neale will try his luck—but whether she would marry him or not remains to be seen.”
“It depends on how much she would lose by making a second marriage, I should say. Are there no children?”
“No, none. Hush! Here she comes, and Sir Robert too, and that must be the child who was coming to them from India—Lady Jardine’s nephew. What a little misery!”
Crossing the lawn was a woman middle-aged but graceful, and by her side, as though he had neither knees nor ankles, stumped an old gentleman with cheeks and nose of heliotrope hue, and bristling white eyebrows. While his wife bowed and smiled and shook hands, he looked as if very little would cause him to acknowledge the polite greetings of friends and acquaintances by shaking his stick in their faces.
Behind them lagged little Paul Vereker, who had been in England exactly a week; he was now valeted by an experienced attendant, who was much more relentless with brush and sponge than had been his beloved and regretted ayah. His fine brown hair was properly cut and arranged the plush suits were replaced by correct Etons, the jockey caps by the orthodox straw hat. He looked an interesting child, with his lithe, well-proportioned body and supple limbs, his straight features and luminous eyes; though the expression on his thin, pointed face at present denoted alarm, mistrust, and bewilderment.
The boy was miserable. His English was yet halting, though it had improved during the voyage, and nobody at Farm Park (or apparently anywhere else in this puzzling country) could understand a word of Hindustani or knew anything about India. There was no dal and rice for his breakfast; he woke and wished to dress at five o’clock in the morning, but was not permitted to do so; he had his bath when he rose instead of in the middle of the day; he missed the ayah and his grandmother and Mrs. Watson; he was always doubtful whether the people about him were servants or sahibs, and he felt convinced he should never grasp the difference. His aunt perplexed him and he feared his unpleasant old uncle. And now here he was, brought to a big tamasha after a drive early in the afternoon (quite the wrong time to go out according to Paul’s ideas), and he felt desperately sleepy and stupid.
The Rector came forward with cordial greetings. “And this is the little foreigner, eh?” he said, looking at Paul with attention. “How do you like the change from black to white, young man? Feel it cold? We must find Selma. I’ll be bound she’s in the tea-room foraging for cakes. Come, Lady Jardine, and have some tea—and you, too, Sir Robert.”
“What?” said the latter loudly; but neither his wife nor the Rector paid any attention, for the Squire always said “What?” and Lady Jardine declared that, if she wished particularly to speak to him, she usually began with an inarticulate mumble in order to hasten the inevitable query. But Sir Robert had no desire for tea; he was anxious to inspect his own flowers and vegetables which had been sent to the show by his head-gardener, and the Rector escorted Lady Jardine to the house, talking of certain parish matters in which she was much interested, while Paul followed passively in their wake.
The Rector was right. Selma was in the tea-room, but she was under the vigilant eye of Pritchard, the housekeeper, who, with her ash-coloured hair plastered to her head, was established behind the table serving out tea and coffee. Selma, in a starched white frock and blue ribbons, her fair curls falling over her shoulders, ran about among the guests, unsteadily handing plates of eatables, and enjoying the notice she attracted. She was in the act of presenting a dish of pink and white erections to an old lady who, smiling benignly on the child, had extended her hand to take one, when the plate tipped forward, and an avalanche of cakes descended to the floor, just as the rector entered the room with Lady Jardine by his side.
“Here is dear little Selma!” cried Lady Jardine, treading on the cakes. “Give me a kiss, darling; and see this little boy—he has come all the way from India to live with me, and you must be very kind to him, for he has no brothers or sisters—just like you.”
She turned to Paul and pushed him gently towards the little girl, and the two children shook hands awkwardly and unwillingly. They formed a curious contrast—the boy with his impassive Arab-like face, and eyes of an uncommon greenish hue—and the girl with her fresh tender colouring, innocent gaze, and glinting yellow hair.
“Well,” said Lady Jardine to the Rector, and moved towards the tea-table, “what do you think of my nephew?”
“He looks a nice little fellow. I wander what young Bob Jardine will say to him?”
“Thank goodness Bob is not coming to us these holidays. I am sure he would have terrified this poor little wretch out of his seven senses. Mrs. Jardine means to take all her children off to Scotland this summer, so we shan’t see Bob till Christmas. Of course, as he is the heir we like him to spend a certain amount of time at Farm Park, but I never know whether I am glad or sorry when his visits are over. He’s so vigorous and noisy, and makes such a mess, though of course it’s only natural in a boy of fourteen.”
“That small boy looks quiet enough—he ought not to be any trouble.”
“Yes, he seems resigned now, though he was rather difficult at first. I hope he will be happy, poor child. I think he feels very strange in such different surroundings. You never saw such an object as he looked when he arrived! I feel so thankful Bob Was not at Farm Park to laugh at him. Some missionary people handed him over to me in London, extraordinary-looking beings, with luggage all bundles. They seem to have been very kind to him, for he cried dreadfully when he left them. He was so tiresome all that evening at the hotel, shrieking for limejuice-and-water, and anchovy toast!—and things he couldn’t possibly have. But he has given all that up now.”
“Selma must make friends with him,” said the Rector, looking with kind eyes at the small wistful face; “she is younger than he is, but she is a precocious little monkey, and I daresay they will get on very well—at any rate till Bob comes on the scene again!” he added with a smile, for Selma adored Bob Jardine, the Squire’s school-boy nephew and heir, and looked forward intensely to his visits to Farm Park. He gave her rides on his back, cut things out of paper for her, made her wooden boats and dolls, and was a hero to the little girl.
While the Rector and Lady Jardine were talking, Selma had been the first to recover from the mutual fit of shyness that had descended upon the children, and with a friendly gesture she held out her hand to Paul.
“Come,” she whispered, “I will show you the black currants.”
She glanced cautiously at Pritchard, safely attending to the refreshments, and at her father engrossed with Lady Jardine; then she dragged Paul through the hall and out across the drive to the gate in the high stone wall, on the other side of which lay the forbidden land of currants. They entered the kitchen garden, and Selma plucked a tight handful of the fruit for the benefit of Paul, though she conscientiously abstained from them herself.
“They are not so nice as ‘leechies’ or ‘loquats,’” he said. “Nothing is so nice here,” he continued wearily; “I have nobody who can say Hindustani words, and I do not understand the dastur’” (customs) “of this England.”
“Eat plenty of currants,” suggested Selma consolingly. “Can you ride? and can you play cricket?”
“I can’t play cricket, but I can ride.” And with a sharp mental pang he suddenly thought of the shaky chestnut pony, the ayah, the syce, and the long white roads shaded by enormous trees. He felt stifled in the trim kitchen-garden bounded by high walls, with nets over the fruit bushes, and little borders of clipped box round the vegetable beds.
“Bob can play cricket and ride too,” said Selma. “He is such a big boy—much bigger than you, and in the winter he goes out hunting, and once he brought me the brush—it was all bloody! I shall go out hunting with Bob when I am older.”
Paul had heard a great deal about Bob Jardine, and he had already begun to feel sensitively alive to the elder boy’s superiority to himself. Bob was heir to Sir Robert, the servants had told him; also he was said to be big, strong, and clever; everybody praised him, even this little girl seemed to look up to him as some one quite out of the common—and jealousy smouldered in Paul’s heart.
“Bob will teach you lots of things,” went on Selma, patronisingly.
“I shan’t learn them,” replied Paul, “I know plenty by myself. He cannot speak Hindustani and I can; he has never shot a leopard, and I have shot lots.” Paul’s imagination waxed and glowed. “He cannot take up a cobra without being bitten, and I can. I have frightened thieves that came in the night, and I have seen ghosts— heaps of them—and I wasn’t afraid. Has Bob ever seen a ghost?”
“I will ask him,” said Selma, somewhat unwillingly impressed; “but you ought not to boast,” she added.
“I shall if I like,” said Paul.
“Bob never does!”
“He has nothing to boast about, he has not done things like me.” He moved to one side and gave her a malignant glance from under his eyelashes, a trick he had learned from the native servants.
“Oh! you look like the snake in my Bible picture-book!” cried the little girl, half fascinated, half alarmed.
“Ah! you have no snakes here in England,” continued Paul contemptuously, “no poisonous ones. You have never seen a cobra or a karait. They are snakes which kill you in two minutes if they bite you, but I,” with arrogance, “am not afraid of them!”
He turned his attention to the currants again, and at that moment a large black poodle, which had been brought by one of the guests and had escaped from the stables, dashed into the garden searching for his mistress. In his wild hurry the dog cannoned against little Selma and knocked her backwards into a currant bush. Paul took to his heels, and ran from the garden across the drive and into the midst of the company on the lawn, his face blanched with terror and his eyes open wide.
“A devil! a devil!” he cried in Hindustandi; “it is in the garden, a black devil—surely the ‘masan’ from the burying-ground over the wall” (pointing to the churchyard on the slope beyond the house); “it hath killed the little one. Ai! ai!”
Every one turned to look at the terrified child, (the doctor’s wife and her friend among the spectators), and Lady Jardine, who had come from the house on to the lawn, hurried forward with outstretched hands.
“Paul, what is the matter?” she asked soothingly, trying to quiet the flow of unintelligible language that poured from his lips; but Paul could do nothing but point to the churchyard and gabble his explanation in a foreign tongue. The mystery was not cleared up until Selma appeared without her hat, her hands and face scratched, and her smart white frock stained with earth. She looked aggrieved and rueful, but was quite self-possessed. She pointed at Paul with a small pink finger.
“He Was afraid of Mrs. Blake’s poodle!” she announced in shrill, derisive tones. “He says he is not afraid of thieves or ghosts or snakes, but when Sambo came and tumbled me down he ran away! He was afraid, and he never stopped to pick me up. Bob isn’t frightened of poodles, and he would have beaten Sambo for being so naughty.”
“But perhaps he had never seen a poodle before,” said the Rector. He picked her up in his arms and stroked the bright hair from the flushed little face; at the same time he caught Lady Jardine’s eye and laughed. Then the two excited children were handed over to Pritchard for tea, and peace was outwardly restored between them, though Selma indulged in a few scathing remarks over her cake and bread and butter, and a lengthy and exasperating account of Bob’s virtues.
The result of the afternoon’s events was that Paul drove home with his uncle and aunt, silent and thoughtful, and consumed with a deadly hatred of Bob Jardine. He was still uncertain in his mind as to whether the poodle had not been some kind of English devil from the churchyard; and he yearned more passionately than ever for the warm languor of his Indian life, and the familiar liquid sound of the Hindustani tongue.
* * * *
The doctor’s wife and her friend walked home together across the fields when the rectory garden party was over. “That little boy came from India, you said?” inquired the visitor.
“Yes, he is the son of Lady Jardine’s brother, who died out there.”
“Well, I shouldn’t be surprised to hear that her brother had married a native, or precious near it. I believe that child has black blood in his veins.”
“But he has lightish eyes and brown hair, and his skin isn’t dark. He doesn’t look like it.”
“Not to you, perhaps, and very likely not to many people who have been in India, but I happen to know a great deal about half-castes, for my sins, and I have seen them with those odd green eyes. Also I noticed his nails and the palms of his hands when he came running on to the lawn. Of course I shouldn’t like to swear to it, but I should say the child was a Eurasian.”
“I wonder if the Jardines know it?” said the other lady with lively interest.
“Probably not; and if they do they would not realise or understand what it means. The boy will be all right as long as he stays in England, but Heaven help him if he ever goes back to India!”
Farm Park had begun its existence as a substantial farm dwelling, and had continued it in the same capacity for over a hundred years, until Sir Robert Jardine’s great-grandfather, on being created a baronet for military services in the East, had returned to England with a comfortable fortune, and had purchased from a needy relative the house and surrounding land. To both he had added considerably, and his son after him had followed his example, so that the result in the time of the present possessor was an irregular, picturesque building, standing amidst pleasant grounds and well-timbered land—the whole forming a compact property which yielded a satisfactory return and capital shooting. The latter was strictly preserved, for the Jardines had always been a race of sportsmen.
Little Paul Vereker’s new home was an enviable one as far as comfort, care, and surroundings were concerned, and, as time passed, his recollections of India became blurred and indistinct. The creeper-covered bungalow, his mother’s indolent affection, his grandmother’s shrill solicitude, the old Bibi Jahans, the river, and the Baba-jee gradually became dream-like to his child memory. Mrs. Vereker wrote to him at long intervals on very thin paper ruled with close blue lines. Sir Robert declared, with some reason, that “the woman seemed to write with the feather end of a quill pen,” and as Paul was literally unable to decipher these epistles, and as Lady Jardine generally had to give up the attempt in despair, the child’s laborious answers grew rarer and the blotted letters from India became shorter, until a more than usually bewildering document arrived which apparently contained the news of Mrs. Vereker’s second marriage, and after this the communication between mother and son ceased altogether. But, vaguely, India was ever in Paul’s mind, and sometimes a rich scent, a glorious noon-day, or a brilliant moon would suddenly bring to him a rush of vivid recollection; then the child would cry despairingly though, with truth, declaring when questioned that he could not explain his grief. On one occasion during the harvest-time he joined a gipsy encampment, attracted by one or two familiar words, the dark faces, and gay colours. But the chief of the caravan promptly took him back, and received substantial compensation for the trouble, while Paul was severely reproved for his low tastes, and was sent to bed sobbing and rebellious.
The child’s health improved with the nourishing English food, regular hours and bracing climate, his nervous system grew stronger, and his gusts of rage and emotion less frequent. He quickly learned to read, under the guidance of Lady Jardine’s maid—a superior and scholarly person, who also was particular to teach him to say hymns and the catechism, being inclined to regard him as a foreigner and a heathen. He proved a satisfactory pupil, for he was always happy with a book, and took a deep interest in religious matters.
He saw much of Selma Neale, for there were few children in the neighbourhood, and the two formed a tolerant friendship, as though accepting one another’s company in default of anything better. Selma unwillingly admired the boy’s mental gifts and despised him for his lack of physical power. He would tell her stories, which Bob had never done, stories about snakes and demons, and spirits of the trees and hills, adventures and escapes, He would sing funny little Hindustani songs with curious plaintive lilts, though this became less easy to him as the Western atmosphere cleared the glamour of India from his mind, and he forgot the meaning of the words. Fact and fiction were hopelessly blended in his brain, and he would tell impossible and weird anecdotes of his life and experiences which delighted the servants at Farm Park, and caused his uncle to roar with apoplectic laughter.
Lady Jardine would listen absently to the child’s chatter, and remark that “India must be a dreadful place to live in.” She saw that he was properly clothed and fed, that he was treated kindly, and that he went to bed early, and she always heard him say his prayers. But she never grew really fond of him, and the fact troubled her.
One afternoon she confided her difficulty to the Rector. Mr. Neale had called to consult Lady Jardine about Christmas arrangements in the village, and he had brought Selma with him. She and Paul had gone to the playroom, and the Rector and his hostess, after deciding various questions concerning beef and blankets, settled themselves in low chairs on either side of the fragrant wood fire in the boudoir. Lady Jardine held up her delicate hands to the warmth, and the fingers shone pink and transparent in the light of the flames. The talk turned on Paul Vereker.
“I do all I can for the boy,” Lady Jardine said, “and I try to be fond of him for my poor brother’s sake, but I am sure I shall never understand him; he is such a queer child. Robert says he is like a little hobgoblin.”
“And Pritchard can’t endure him,” said the Rector ruefully. “Selma and I are always in disgrace when Paul has been to the Rectory. Matters reached a climax the last time he came over, when he asked why she did not shave off her moustache!”
“What did she say? It’s a question I have always longed to ask Pritchard myself.”
“She said that what the Lord had given her He would not wish her to remove,” replied the Rector drily; and then they both laughed.
“Pritchard bullies you dreadfully, dear man, and you will never escape from her thraldom. I believe old retainers are a mistake. No matter how excellent they may be, the trail of the servant is over them all, and one generally ends by being afraid of them.”
“There is no denying that I am terrified of Pritchard, but what should I do without her? She takes such care of Selma, which is just what I want for the child now. Later on Selma will be a great deal with my sister, who will see to her education with that of her own girls, and I want her to have some years abroad when she is old enough. Tell me, what are you going to do with Paul?”
“Oh the boy will have to go into a profession that will take him out to India; he is always talking of going back when he grows up. We must think about sending him to school next year.”
“I am afraid,” said the Rector, stroking his chin, “he is the kind of boy who will have a bad time at school. He is not much use at games?”
“Really I can’t say one way or the other; the boy has had no chance of showing what he can do. Robert takes no notice of him except to laugh at his stories, and he hasn’t even got a pony for him yet. He never thinks of him in the same breath with Bob, and says the child comes from a land of niggers, and is only fit to be a woman’s pet. Bob will have to take him in hand.” She paused in thought. “I think Bob ought to turn into a nice man. He is honest and open, and kind to animals, and not greedy or selfish. He will make a good soldier. His mother very wisely insists on his going into a profession in spite of his prospects, and you know he is mad about the army already. Soldiers are nice people,” she added, with a little sigh.
In the silence that followed the Rector wondered whether Lady Jardine had carried her thoughts back to the past with her last words. He glanced about the room, now darkening; the polished furniture reflected the firelight, the pieces of rare china gleamed indistinct, the bold pattern on the glazed chintz covers of the chairs and couches was fading. The atmosphere was restful, and the scent of cut flowers stole out as the warmth increased. His eyes turned to the graceful figure of the woman leaning back in her chair, the effect of her years softened by the dim light which veiled the inevitable lines on her face. He only saw the delicate contour of features finely modelled, the contrast of the low white forehead and the dark hair parted and waving—the whole feminine effect of her personality. He thought with an undefined regret of how attractive she must have been twenty years ago, and how charming she was still. The Rector knew that Lady Jardine was not clever, that she belonged to a generation that bad considered brains to be unladylike; he laughed secretly, though kindly, at her dabblings in literature and art—(she wrote sentimental verses and stories very badly, and painted flowers and autumn leaves with a pretty touch)—but he was never more contented than when in her company.
“Sally Walker has taken old Job Hawkins to live with her,” he said presently, returning to village matters.
“It sounds very improper,” said Lady Jardine, “I thought Sally was an inconsolable widow?”
“So she is, poor soul, but from her point of view this is not a bad arrangement. Hawkins is past work and on the parish, and I was not quite happy about him in my own mind. When I called on Sally the other day I found him sitting in the late Walker’s chair in the chimney corner, and Sally’s explanation was short and to the point. ‘Stop alone I couldn’t,’ she said, so I’ve been and took this old gentleman.’”
Lady Jardine was amused. “Well, at any rate old Hawkins will be warm and comfortable till he dies. Sally was always a careful creature, and I think she has substantial savings hidden away somewhere.”
“Yes, partly for her funeral. She always tells me that when she is an angel she should like to watch her body being carried to the grave as expensively as possible. She gave old Walker a fine funeral.”
“It is rather difficult to imagine Sally as an angel,” murmured Lady Jardine. “How curious these village people are, they seem to have no respect for death—only for funerals! I remember so well when Walker was lying ill in that stuffy little bedroom I asked Sally whether it would be possible to carry him down those crooked stairs, and she said, before him, ‘La! Bless ‘e! we shall put he out er winder.’ She thought I meant after he was dead and in his coffin! But he seemed to take it as a matter of course.”
“She will be quite happy enough ‘minding’ old Hawkins, though how she can stand his cough passes my comprehension. I can feel for her loneliness, I hate being alone myself.”
The door opened and the butler brought in the tea-tray; almost immediately afterwards Sir Robert appeared with a great rattling of the door-handle, and stumping of thick boots, carrying with him an odour of damp earth. He greeted the Rector noisily, stirred the fire till he nearly extinguished it, cast himself into an armchair, and demanded his tea in the slop-bowl. “Never get a cup big enough,” he grumbled, and drank with grunts and uncouth noises mingled with abuse of the weather and the day’s bad shooting.
“What have you been doing?” he asked his wife, “stuffing over the fire and writing rubbish, I suppose.”
“Mr. Neale and I have been discussing village arrangements for Christmas,” said Lady Jardine serenely, “we think that the people with big families should be given a much larger share than the others.”
“What I”—the Squire paused, and then continued argumentatively—“why should they be encouraged to have large families, the less they can afford it the more children they have. It’s always the way; ‘a fool for luck, and a poor man for children!’”
“Talking of children,” said the Rector, with suppressed irritation, “may I send for Selma and order my dog-cart at the same time, please? We must be going home, or Pritchard will scold me for keeping Selma out in the cold.” He finished his tea while the bell was rung and the orders given. Selma and Paul came down together.
“Well, little nigger boy,” cried the Squire jocosely, and touched Paul as he passed with the toe of his boot. “What have you done to-day?”
“Not been out,” replied the child shortly.
“Then you’re still in!” shouted Sir Robert, catching the boy by the shoulder and pulling him back; and he laughed till Paul gazed at him in wonder and alarm expecting to see the old man choke and turn purple in the face. “You can’t see a joke, you little fool,” gasped the Squire. “Carrie, did you hear what I said?”
“Yes,” said Lady Jardine with tranquil untruthfulness, “and I laughed. but you did not hear me, you were making such a noise yourself.”
“You’re no cricketer of course, I forgot,” went on Sir Robert, keeping his hand on Paul’s collar, “we must get Bob to teach you all these things. You won’t be allowed to stuff in doors all day when Bob comes marching home, my boy. He’ll soon stop all that!”
Selma spread out her short skirt and began to dance lightly round the room. “Bob will be here in four days!” she chanted. “To-morrow, and the next day, and the next day, and then he will be here.” She stopped in front of the glowering Paul and made a curtsey. “He is much bigger than you!” she added with malice.
Paul looked away from the little figure with sullen resentment. He loathed the sound of Bob Jardine’s name and when, four days later, the young heir made a boisterous arrival for the Christmas holidays, the welcome he received from his uncle and aunt, the servants and the dogs, plunged Paul into the lowest depths of jealousy and depression. He lurked in the background like an offended animal, and glowered in disgust at the newcomer’s freckled face and well-grown, muscular figure. Bob’s presence seemed to pervade the house before he had been in it half an hour his voice, which sometimes squeaked in his head and then descended to his boots, could be heard from the attics to the cellars and caused Paul intense irritation, and what rankled with the younger boy more than anything else was the fact that Bob, after giving him a careless handshake in the hall, had paid no further attention to him. Young Jardine knew that a “kid” from India had come to live at Farm Park, but it was beneath his dignity as a public-school boy to make premature advances to one so much his junior. However, Bob was a large-minded, sensible person, and having duly allowed dinner and breakfast to pass without addressing Paul, he condescended to invite the gloomy little boy to walk with him to the Rectory.
Paul, at the time, was curled up on a large leather sofa in the hall near the fireplace, lonely and disconsolate: “Master Bob” was on every servant’s tongue, nobody had time to notice “Master Paul,” even the old fox terrier, who usually gave him the benefit of her company was now a fixture at the heels of his rival. The dejected expression on the little face touched the bigger boy, whose heart invariably went out to any living thing that seemed to be in distress.
He twirled his stick and said abruptly, “Come out, don’t stew in here. It’s splendid out of doors. I’m taking a note to the Rectory. Like to come?”
Paul’s first impulse was to refuse, but he was unwillingly flattered by the other’s notice.
“Is it cold?” he asked, to gain time.
“No, it’s boiling hot. Go and put your boots on and hurry up. I want to get back for luncheon.”
Paul rose slowly and went for his hat and boots. Presently the pair started off down the long avenue of elms in the pale crisp sunshine with an ice-blue sky above their heads, and against it the branches of the trees showed black and bare. The keen windless air, and the sense of health and strength which emanated from his companion insensibly raised Paul’s spirits, and before they had reached the lodge and turned into the road he had begun to respond more freely to Bob’s questions.
“What are you going to do when you grow up?” asked Bob, with patronage. This was a question from which he had suffered considerably himself when in the company of adults.
“I shall go to India,” replied Paul, without any hesitation.
“Yes, but what profession will you have? Going to India isn’t a profession. I shall very likely go to India too. I shall try because I want to shoot tigers and ibex and bears, but then I am going into the army, and I should go out there with my regiment.”
Paul considered for a few moments. “I shouldn’t mind becoming a missionary,” he said at last.
“Gosh!” exclaimed Bob.
“I should like to preach, I think. Sometimes I preach to Selma. I put on my night-shirt, or hers, it just depends whether we are at home or at the Rectory, and I stand in the clothes-basket for a pulpit. Selma thinks that I could easily convert the heathen.”
“What does Selma know about it? She is only a kid. If you become a missionary you will have to starve yourself, and be a teetotaler, and never smoke, and everything you like doing you will have to think is wrong!”
“Anyway I want to go to India,” said Paul, at a loss for support to his argument. “I have wanted to go back ever since I came here, but I have many years to wait. Aunt Carrie says I can’t go back there till I’m grown up. In India it was always warm and like summer, and it was very big and full of nice smells.”
He gazed before him at the cold pale sky like thin blue glass, at the bare brown fields closed in with stiff stone walls, at the straight road with heaps of stones at the sides, and he noticed dreamily the little ditches which Selma delighted to jump with mighty leaps when they were out for a walk. The chill unsympathy of the landscape faded into a confused memory of colour and warmth, and of long lazy hours; he heard the dry rattle of huge seed-pods in the hot wind, the monotonous, metallic note of the coppersmith bird—but only for a moment; in a flash the impression cleared away and left him puzzled, vaguely regretful, and silent.
Bob eyed him with attention. He considered Paul “a rum little beggar,” and wondered if he had “a tile loose,” and on the whole he was rather relieved when their arrival at the Rectory porch cut short the tête-à-tête. Selma came flying down the staircase to meet them. She threw herself at Bob Jardine and kissed him with enthusiasm, a performance which he suffered with patient indulgence. Then she capered round him, her blue eyes agleam with excitement, her fair curls floating.
“Oh I Bob, you are grown bigger than ever. And what do you think of Paul? He is thin and little, isn’t he? And will you come to my Christmas tree, and will you teach me to skate? The duck pond by the stables will bear to-morrow. Come into the schoolroom and see my new toys.”
She dragged her beloved Bob across the hall into the room where she wept over her lessons beneath Pritchard’s awful rule, and Paul was left standing alone. Selma had paid no attention to him at all; he was nothing to her now that Bob had appeared. Paul had expected this, but he had not expected to mind so much. He turned and went with slow steps out of the thick oaken door, and passed along the side of the house till he came to the schoolroom window, through which he peeped unnoticed. A bright fire burned in the grate, and, the day being still and dry, the lower half of the sash was raised a few inches. He saw Selma perched on Bob’s knee with one arm wound tight round his neck, while he endeavoured to master a puzzle as well as her curls, which fell in front of him, would permit.
“There, you have done it!” cried his worshipper; “you are so clever, Bob darling, and I am so glad you have come back. When you are grown up you will marry me, won’t you?”
“Yes, if I marry any one at all,” said Bob generously.
“But first I shall have to go and live with Aunt Flora, who has a big house in London, and I shall learn a lot, and then father says I shall go to school in Paris.”
“And I shall go into the army and ever so far away with my regiment, and you will forget all about me and marry some duke, or perhaps,” he added with a laugh, “you will marry Paul.”
“Oh no! I would rather be an old maid like Pritchard. She says she could have married hundreds of times, and could now if she liked, only she prefers to be single. Paul is quite different from you, Bob, and sometimes he frightens me. He goes away and sits all by himself and won’t let any one speak to him, and he says he sees ghosts, and knows everything that is going to happen!”
“What rubbish; don’t let him talk such rot to you, Selma. There are no such things as ghosts, and Paul is an ass.”
“I’m not an ass!” shouted Paul from the window; “and I hate you both!”
“Hullo, sneak!” said Bob, looking up, and Selma leant her head back against his shoulder and echoed “Sneak!”
“Get out!” continued Bob, “you’ve no business listening at window.” He put Selina down and walked towards the spy with a menacing air. Paul disappeared. Smarting with rage and jealousy he longed to do something to revenge himself, and to make the traitors within the schoolroom feel ashamed and unhappy. The Oriental instinct of self-destruction as a means of bringing sorrow and remorse upon the offender rose unconsciously in his mind, and, turning, he ran swiftly on through the garden to the back premises of the Rectory. He splashed through the mud that had been softened and trodden by the fowls, and reached the edge of the duck pond; over this was spread a thin sheet of ice, and as he pushed forward it crackled beneath his feet. He meant with dogged purpose to go straight into the freezing water, and he pictured with exultation the lifelong regret from which Bob and Selma would suffer after he had been taken out drowned and dead. He looked up at the grey walls of the stables and noticed that the hands of the clock over the archway pointed to the hour of one.
“Bob will be late for lunch,” he chuckled, with satisfaction, “and his holidays will be spoilt too.”
He banged his feet down on the surface of the shining pond one after the other, and in he went up to his waist; the cackling of the ducks and chickens seemed to echo the word “sneak” in his ears, and he pressed on, splitting the ice with his hands and body, all sense driven from his mind by the wild anger and jealousy that possessed him. Suddenly his feet shot upwards, and he struggled involuntarily to maintain his balance, but sank helpless into the ice-cold water. He heard an excited barking and thought of the faithless old terrier, then came a shout and a splash which seemed far away, and a strong clutch fastened on his collar; he was dragged through the pond and thrown on to dry ground like a newly caught fish. He looked up at the face of Bob Jardine, and beyond stood Selma crying. That she was crying was at least a satisfaction.
“You little fool!” cried Bob, pulling him to his feet. “What on earth were you doing? Lucky for you Selma insisted on running after you to make you come in and be friends, or you might have been drowned.”
“Then,” said Paul feebly, but with spite, “it would have been your fault and Selma’s.”
“Rot! Come along and get dried. You’ll have to wear Selma’s petticoats and stay here until your own clothes can be sent over. Run on to the house, Selma, and tell Pritchard we’re coming. My word! I pity you, Paul, when old Pritch gets hold of you.”
Paul limped by Bob’s side, wet and shivering, but by no means repentant or grateful.
“I hate you!” he whimpered, and his teeth chattered. “You try to make Selma nasty to me, and she liked me till you came. I wish I had drowned myself, and then you would have been hanged.”
“Rot!” repeated Bob, urging him on.
“It is not rot,” he screamed. “I hope the devil will torment you—I hope—” But the infuriated child never concluded his anathema, for he and Bob had reached the back door, where Paul was seized by Pritchard, who hurried him up the stairs with ignominy.
* * * *
When Lady Jardine went to Paul’s bedroom that night to hear him say his prayers, she found him lying wide awake, his eyes glowing like miniature lamps. He was not seriously the worse for his wetting, but was showing irritating signs of an approaching cold in his head. He refused to look at his aunt, or to say his prayers.
“You are very naughty,” at last said Lady Jardine, whose nerves had just been set on edge by her irascible husband. “You must not go to sleep without saying your prayers.”
Paul snuffled and was dumbly exasperating. However he finally signified his intention of saying his favourite hymn—“Shall I be with the Angels”—but not his prayers, and with that Lady Jardine was obliged to be content, for her patience was nearly exhausted. He wriggled about in the bed, and with many sniffs and snorts he began:
“‘Shall I’”—(sniff)—“‘be with’—Aunt Carrie, have you got a handkerchief?”
Lady Jardine produced a wisp of gossamer which was speedily converted into a pulp by her nephew.
“‘Shall I’”— (sniff).
“Paul, you have had my handkerchief,” said Lady Jardine irritably, “and you are not to sniff any more.”
“‘Shall I’”—(sniff) “‘be with the Angels’” (sniff).
“Certainly not, if you sniff like that!” cried the poor lady, and Paul flung himself, in a spasm of fury, beneath the bedclothes. Persuasions failed to call him forth, and Lady Jardine eventually descended to the drawing-room vanquished.
“Paul must go to school as soon as possible,” she announced, by way of relieving her feelings.
“Best place for him,” growled Sir Robert, without looking up from his paper.
“He’s rather a little beast,” said Bob critically, “but I don’t think he can help it, and somehow I feel sorry for the wretched beggar.”
During the following spring, just after Paul Vereker had been sent to a preparatory school, Sir Robert Jardine was stricken with paralysis. Absolute quiet being essential for the invalid, the boys were temporarily excluded from Farm Park for their holidays, and Bob Jardine remained with his mother and sister, while Paul was provided for at the seaside. But the banishment continued necessary for much longer than had been anticipated; Farm Park was closed, Sir Robert was taken abroad for various cures, and by the time he returned and was so far recovered as to be undisturbed by the presence of the schoolboys, Selma Neale had departed to the care of her aunt in London, and the trio met again as children but seldom. One or two holidays brought them together, but on these none of them looked back with any particular pleasure, for Bob had reached the stage when “flappers” possessed no attraction for him, and he treated Selma with lofty condescension; Paul regarded girls as a blot on the face of creation; and Selma despised boys, finding her greatest happiness in the diligent practising of classical music, and the reading of poetry and devotional literature.
With infinite labour and persistence Bob succeeded in passing into the army (very low down on the list), and his regiment was sent to Egypt very soon after he had joined. Paul was then at one of the less important public schools, and was destined for the Indian Civil Service; he was never popular, but he maintained an even standard regarding his work with apparent ease, and in the matter of games his true eye, supple frame, and lithe limbs gained for him comparative proficiency. Selma, meanwhile, was receiving the cream of educational advantages with her cousins in London, and was subsequently drafted to a superior school in Paris in accordance with her father’s programme for her mental development.
The old Squire never regained his former strength or the use of the stricken limb, but he lingered on for twelve weary years, a helpless, resentful invalid, characteristically truculent to the end, and it was only his wife’s calm courage and natural patience that saved her from preceding him to the grave, a victim to sheer exhaustion of mind and body.
When Sir Robert Jardine’s death took place the new baronet was in India, where he had but lately landed. He delighted in foreign service, and on the regiment’s return from Egypt he had, to his supreme satisfaction, obtained his company in the battalion under orders for Bengal, and at the time of his succession to the title he was engaged in assisting to quell a small rising on the frontier. This had made it impossible for him to obey Lady Jardine’s urgent entreaties for his immediate return, for leave, under the circumstances, was out of the question, and nearly twelve months elapsed before he found himself free to start for England.
On a chill April evening the widow sat in the drawing-room anxiously awaiting the arrival of the new Sir Robert. It was some years since she had seen him, for during his service Bob had spent but little of his leave in England, preferring sport in other countries to the more mild excitements of his native land. She listened attentively for the clang of the door bell, and when she heard it she put down her needlework and rose to her feet. The next moment the room seemed to be full of Bob Jardine, a powerful young man, with a big nose, a square jaw, and a dark red moustache.
“Good gracious, Bob! Dear boy, I should never have known you. Surely you have grown inches since you went away. There is no need to ask you how you are!”
He laughed and kissed her.
“I am afraid I have grown broader if not longer. But you haven’t changed very much, Aunt Carrie,” he kept his hands on her arms and looked into her face, “some white hairs, a few very small wrinkles, and what are these—pince-nez? That’s new, and then, of course—this,” he added in a lower voice, touching her black dress.
“Young people change so much more perceptibly than old ones. I am delighted to see you such a fine-looking man, Bob, and all your dreadful freckles have gone and your skin is nicely tanned instead. Your poor uncle would have been proud of you, though, of course, nothing would have induced him to say so!” She smiled with forgiving remembrance.
Bob Jardine walked to the fireplace and held his strong brown hands to the blaze. Then he began to push about the ornaments on the mantelpiece, and so reminded his aunt of his fidgety boyhood.
“There are so many things to ask you about that I don’t know where to begin,” he said.
“You ought to have come home sooner, Bob. you have no notion of all there is to be done. The estate has been going to rack and ruin ever since your poor uncle became such an invalid; he never would consent to have a proper agent, and of course he could do very little himself. I should think it would take at least two years of hard work to get things straight.”
He made an impatient movement.
‘You must know, Aunt Carrie, there are times in a man’s career, and particularly in a soldier’s, when he couldn’t ask for leave even to go to his mother’s death-bed.”
“Well, perhaps women don’t understand these things. At any rate, here you are now, and we have a vast amount of business to get through. There are my own plans to be settled too. We must have a long talk after dinner. You have only just time to dress; Trotter will show you which room you are to have—a large front one, not your old room, of course.”
“I don’t care where I sleep so long as there is a bed,” said Bob, and he went into the hall, oak-panelled and paved with stone, that had once been the farmhouse kitchen. Now it was sombre with carving, ancient armour, curious weapons, and a mellow dimness that no number of lights ever seemed to dispel. He looked up the broad shallow staircase; the polished carpetless surface glimmered mistily, and melted into the shadow of the first landing, where a suggestion of crimson drapery showed faintly.
The young man paused for a moment, and with a vague feeling of regret he realised that he was in his own house. He disliked the idea of ties and responsibility; he would have been glad if his uncle could have lived on for an indefinite time; he wished to follow the profession that he loved (for he was a keen and conscientious soldier), and to indulge to the full his passion for sport in foreign countries. Keenly as he had always appreciated the shooting and hunting at home, they had never stirred his blood in the same degree as did the sight of a wicked old boar with red eyes, and gleaming tusks, tempting the spear; or the glimpse of a yellow skin striped with black skulking through the jungle; the climbs up and down towering hills after mountain goat, or even the huge bags of duck and snipe in the cold weather evenings. These things were fresh in his memory and he hungered for them, and for a soldier’s life. He felt it hard that he should have to turn his attention for the rest of his days to prize cattle, crops, tenants’ grievances, and a circumscribed area for sport. He came down to dinner inclined to be depressed and silent, and resisted during the meal all his aunt’s attempts to discuss his future plans. Afterwards, when he felt fed and rested, and had smoked a good cheroot in the musty smoking-room, he joined her prepared to listen and respond, and even to initiate.
“What did you mean, Aunt Carrie, before dinner when you said something about your own plans? Don’t you want to stay on here?”
“I believe I ought to go to the Dower House—”
“What rubbish! Of course you will stay on here—unless you prefer to go.”
“You are very good,” murmured Lady Jardine, dubiously. “Of course if your mother had lived or your sister had not married, it would have been a different matter, you would have had your own people here.” She was conscious of an inward rebellion at having to thank, and be guided by an individual who seemingly but yesterday had been only a schoolboy to be scolded for his untidiness, and laughed at for his nonsense. “Of course,” she added, “you must now leave the army and settle down.” Her voice was involuntarily dictatorial, and he felt irritated.
“I don’t see that I must,” he answered, “but I suppose I ought if things are in such a mess. It will be a wrench to leave the regiment and I shall want time to think about it. I have got six months’ leave, and I sha’n’t send in my papers till that is up.”
“Well, I suppose you will please yourself men always do,” said Lady Jardine. She had no intuition of Bob’s state of mind. “And as regards staying on here, it will be a relief to have plenty of time in which to do my packing! The thought of the accumulation of things I must have makes me feel quite ill. Of course you will marry sooner or later, Bob,” she added, and glanced at him anxiously, wondering if he had kept free of sentimental entanglements; “and then I shall move, but I will stay until the happy event comes about.”
Bob stared at the fire. “Yes, I suppose I shall marry some day.” There was a long pause before he looked up at Lady Jardine. “I may as well tell you, Aunt Carrie, that ever since I was a youngster I have had Selma Neale in my mind as a possible wife. I don’t think I should care to marry any one else. But I shouldn’t have given a thought to matrimony at all just yet if Uncle Robert had lived.”
“Selma adored you as a child; I don’t see why the feeling should not have lasted. She would be a very good wife for you.”
“We shall see. There’s plenty of time. Where is she now?”
“She has come back to live at the Rectory with her father, and I have asked them both up to dinner to-morrow night. I haven’t seen much of her the last few years. Her aunt brought her out in London last season and presented her. She is very good looking, and her father is so proud of her. He, dear man, is just the same except that like us all he has grown a little older.”
“I shall see a tremendous change in Selma,” said Bob, beginning to walk up and down the long room. “By Jove! it makes me feel quite nervous to think of meeting her again now she’s grown up. I’m not sure that I shouldn’t be half relieved to find there was a rival in the field and no chance for me!”
“I have heard nothing about him if there is a rival. I believe she refused two very excellent proposals in London and is perfectly free. We shall be a nice party to-morrow night—Paul will be here too. He is coming down from Oxford for the Easter vacation, and I expect him in time for dinner. You know he has passed into the Bengal Civil Service, and goes out to India in the autumn.”
“Glad to hear it. Let me see, he must be two-and-twenty or thereabouts, isn’t he? What a rum little beggar he was! I suppose he is clever?”
“Yes, though perhaps talented would describe him better, but he has a curious contradictory nature, and I have never been able to understand him, he says he does not understand himself. Our party to-morrow night will be rather amusing one way and another; he and Selma Neale have never met of late years, and he will be as much a stranger to her as you are.”
“Do you ever hear anything of his mother now?”
“She has never written a line to either Paul or me since she married again, a year after the child came home I I couldn’t read the name of the second husband, her letters were always undecipherable — and I really haven’t a notion whether she is alive or dead. I suppose Paul will discover when he goes out there, but he has never shown any interest in his relations, and I think he has practically forgotten all about them. It is India he has harped on perpetually—always India!”
Bob sat down and played with his aunt’s embroidery scissors.
“There are many worse places than India, you know. Of course the natives are beastly and so is the hot season, but the sport is grand, and it’s a fine country for soldiering.” He sighed and snapped the scissors absent-mindedly. His aunt took them away from him, and he resumed his tramp up and down the room.
“Did you meet many nice women out there?” asked Lady Jardine.
“Oh! I don’t care much for women. They generally either frighten or bore me.”
“I wonder which Selma Neale will do?”
“We shall see,” he said again, with a short laugh; “but if she wants as much attention as she did when she was a child I shall have my work cut out for me. How she used to bully the wretched Paul too!” He halted in front of the fire, and his thoughts turned to his own situation in life as compared with that of Paul Vereker. He felt envious of the latter’s freedom to please himself, and vaguely prejudiced against him.
When dinner time came the following evening he stood in the middle of the big drawing-room in a somewhat perturbed state of mind, awaiting the guests from the Rectory. Paul Vereker had arrived only half an hour previously, and time being limited he had gone straight to his room to change.
Lady Jardine came through the doorway stately, handsome, and composed, in trailing garments of dull black.
“They are late,” she said, giving a touch to a bowl of flowers, and pushing an easy chair into a better position. She finally regarded Bob with kindly criticism. “How nice you look in dress clothes! Dear me, how I do like having a man in the house again. Hark! there they are. Now look your best and bravest, for I warn you that Selma Neale is no ‘bread and butter miss.’”
Trotter, the butler, shouted at the door, there was a slight pause, a soft rustle of skirts, and Lady Jardine advanced to meet the Rector and his daughter.
“So glad to see you,” she kissed the girl, and held out her left hand to Mr. Neale with a friendly gesture. Bob moved forward. “You two haven’t met since prehistoric days, have you!” concluded Lady Jardine.
Bob murmured something indefinite as he shook hands, and he suddenly felt shy and awkward, but Miss Neale was quite at her ease.
“I am so glad you have come back,” she said. “I hope you are never going away again.”
“For some reasons I am sorry to say that I am probably going to stay here for ever,” he answered.
She raised her eyebrows
“I should have liked to stick to the army,” he added. “I had practically only just begun my military career, you know.”
Her blue eyes glanced quickly over his strong figure.
“I can understand,” she said softly, “and you always wanted to be a soldier so badly. I think you must have been almost born one.”
“Yes, I love the army!” he laughed, as though in vague apology, a little surprised that she had so quickly divined his state of mind, and then the full perception of her grace and beauty thrilled him. He could hardly realise that this girl, with the exquisite finish of physical detail, and the well-bred assurance and ease of manner which gave her an air of maturity beyond her years, had once been the tyrannical, impulsive little Selma who had sat on his knee, ordered him about, and, more astonishing still to contemplate, had freely lavished her affection upon him. It seemed to the slow, thinking Robert little short of a miracle, and while he was silently turning over these wonders in his mind, the door opened to admit Paul Vereker.
“By Jove!” said Bob under his breath, “how people do change!” His eyes met Selma’s when the greetings were over and the slight dark youth had turned to answer his aunt’s inquiries.
“Who would have recognised that fellow as the queer-tempered little beast we used to know!” Bob spoke low and with a laugh in his voice. “He looks more like thirty than twenty-two, and he’s got the stolid expression of a graven image.”
Selma made no reply. The sight of Paul Vereker’s clean-shaven, impassive face, with the large eyes, green, melancholy, inscrutable as ever, and the straight, handsome features almost Greek in their severity of outline, seemed to have stricken her suddenly dumb.
She went in to dinner on Bob’s arm. As they sat down at the table she regarded her old friend attentively. He was certainly good to look upon; she admired his strength, his manliness, his bold honest face, and his evident simplicity of character pleased her. For some reason which she could not explain to herself, she felt reluctant to turn to her other neighbour, Paul Vereker, perhaps it was because she knew that he was looking at her.
“How did you like India?” she asked, speaking rapidly, as she drew off her gloves. She was anxious to start a conversation, and spoke somewhat at random. “Where did you come from— \what part?”
“From Meerut—that’s where my regiment is stationed now. A ripping place in the cold weather. I wish I was going back there in the autumn.”
“Yes, but you can’t shirk your duty here—can you?”
“No, of course not,” said Bob grudgingly, “but I am giving myself the satisfaction of not burning my boats for another six months.”
“Don’t you think a man has a right to do what he likes with his life?” asked Paul’s low voice at her side.
She turned to him abruptly, and was more than ever conscious of the contrast between the two men. It was like leaving a breezy healthy spring day for the stillness of a tropical summer.
“No,” said Selma, with decision, “I certainly don’t when it means deliberately turning his back on his duty.”
“But may there not be duty on either side? Our friend Bob was evidently intended by nature for a soldier—he makes a good soldier, and he may not make a good squire. Good soldiers are very much wanted, and in all probability the estate could be managed well enough by an agent for the next few years. I think myself that a man should follow his own instincts!”
His face hardened and assumed a dogged, obstinate expression. Lady Jardine, looking at him, repressed an exclamation; he suddenly reminded her strongly of his father—her brother.
“Bravo! Paul,” said Bob heartily, “you have put it exactly. Yes, I shall make a jolly bad squire I daresay, but something tells me I ought to stay here; perhaps it is my instinct, in which case, according to you, I am right to follow it; or perhaps it is a tradition of my childhood clinging to me still, that what we don’t want to do must be the right thing.”
“Well, it may be hard luck, but I’m sure you are right, whatever Mr. Vereker may say.” Selma felt she could not call him Paul, he seemed so much more remote from her than Bob Jardine. “But to return to India. How did you get on with the natives? I think they must be the great drawback. Fancy always being surrounded with black faces I should hate it.”
“Oh, I had as little to do with them as possible. Nasty, lying, dirty brutes, you can’t trust one of them.”
“So I have heard people say,” chimed in the Rector, “and then others have told me they are faithful and trustworthy when you treat them properly, and get hold of the right sort a great many people owed their lives to their servants during the mutiny.”
“I can’t say I’ve come across many of the right sort, and perhaps I didn’t treat them properly, but I haven’t had much experience yet. Anyway I didn’t like ‘em, and I couldn’t get my tongue round their infernal language. The only time I regretted that was when I was out shooting, and wanted news of game.”
“So I suppose you licked them when they couldn’t understand you?” asked Paul, with a smile.
Bob Jardine flushed. “Well, I’m afraid I have done, sometimes,” he admitted shamefacedly. “But if I ever lost my temper and hammered a nigger too hard, I always gave him a baksheesh afterwards to make up for it. Money will compensate them for anything.”
“I think you have met my uncle and aunt out there—Colonel and Mrs. Everard?” said Selma, “He has some civil appointment, I believe, although he is a soldier. When they were home on furlough last summer I saw a good deal of them in London, and they talked about you.”
“Oh, yes, I know them—rather!” replied Bob with animation. “Ripping people, and great ‘shikaris.’ They were awfully kind to me when I first got out and was seedy, and my knowing you and the rector was a great link between us. We’ve had some capital shooting together. I saw Mrs. Everard just before I started for home, and she sent you all kinds of messages.”
“She used to say that the native servants were treasures, and she was always lamenting her cook and butler and the native tailor, and particularly the washerman; she said she missed him terribly, and she was quite glad when the time came to go back. They want me to go out and stay with them next winter, but I don’t fancy I should care about it.”
“No,” agreed Bob; “I’m sure you would hate the life. The sport is the attraction for me, that and my regiment being out there.”
“Do you remember much about India?” said Selma, looking at Paul.
His long thin fingers fidgeted with the crumbs by the side of the plate. “Nothing very definite,” he answered, his eyebrows drawn together as though he were perplexed. “I think I must have been a terribly backward child for my age when I came home, or else the sudden change of surroundings blotted a good deal out of my mind, for I only have the most confused and elusive memories about my life out there, and sometimes it worries me not being able to recollect things more distinctly. It is curious that I have the most vivid dreams of the country and always in Hindustani, but five minutes after I am awake I can’t remember anything about them or a word more of the language than I have learnt at Oxford. I still suffer from my old craving for the East, in spite of its being a vague and shadowy land to me now, and I read ‘India’ for all I am worth.”
“Well, you will soon be going back, won’t you?” she said, with sympathy.
“Yes,” he said quietly, “only—” He hesitated and looked full into Selma’s blue eyes.
She experienced a quick sense of emotion which startled her, and she turned hastily to Bob to counteract the sensation. She plunged into a conversation about dogs and horses but she was conscious all through it that the other man’s gaze was upon her, and she felt relieved when dinner came to an end and she passed with Lady Jardine into the large old-fashioned drawing-room with the white and gold wall paper, the rows of family portraits, and the striped chintz on the chairs and couches.
“Open the piano, Selma dear, please, and light the candles, we must make Paul sing to us when he comes in—he has the voice of an angel!” Lady Jardine settled herself by the fire and took up a skein of wool.
“Really, Lady Jardine, Paul is so changed I feel as if I could remember nothing about him, and as if I had only met him this evening for the first time. It is curious that though he is so much younger than Bob he should give one the impression of being so much older.”
“He is an odd creature, I often think myself that he is not quite canny. He has such peculiar ideas about things.”
“He looks as if he could be very obstinate, ‘determined’ I suppose he would call it.”
“His poor father was as pig-headed as he could be,” said Lady Jardine, with a sigh of reminiscence, “and Paul inherits it, I suppose. His love of art and music and his dreamy poetic temperament he must get from his mother’s side, my brother never went in for anything of that kind.”
Selma began trying over the accompaniments of some songs, evidently Paul’s property, that she had found in the music rack, until footsteps sounded on the stone floor of the hall. The Rector came in first and seated himself by his hostess; he removed the skein of wool from the back of a chair to his own hands. Bob Jardine walked straight to the fire and Paul Vereker crossed to the piano.
“Sing something,” he said persuasively.
Selma shook her head. “I have no voice unfortunately, I can only play”—her fingers rippled over the keys, and stole softly into “The Moonlight Sonata.” Paul listened as though he were asleep. Bob talked to the Rector and Lady Jardine, and paid not the smallest attention to the music. When Selma ceased playing he asked her to give them “The Moonlight Sonata.”
“You were learning it the last time I saw you,” he said, throwing a sentimental inflection into his voice.
“But,” she laughed, “I have just played it! How attentively you must have listened!”
“By Jove!” he said, not at all disconcerted. “Well, play it again then.”
“Indeed, I shall do nothing of the kind. Mr. Vereker, it’s your turn to sing. It is seldom one hears a man sing now, even at a concert. Shall I play your accompaniment?”
“Yes, please,” he placed a song before her and she held up her hand and said “hush” to silence Bob’s chatter. She felt sure she had a treat before her. Paul’s voice was a rich full baritone, with a curious plaintiveness in the notes. He sang “The Love Song of Har Dyal,” and the passionate despair in the words and music brought the tears to her eyes; she heard it with the sensation that at times was aroused in her by the scent of honey-suckle or jasmine; she was sensible of a vague elusive longing for something unattainable, as though regretful memories were stirring in her heart:
“Alone upon the housetops, to the North
I turn and watch the lightning in the sky,
The glamour of thy footsteps in the North.
Come back to me, Beloved, or I die.
“Below my feet the still Bazaar is laid,
Far, far, below the weary camels lie,
The camels and the captives of thy raid.
Come back to me, Beloved, or I die.
“My father’s wife is old and harsh with years,
And drudge of all my father’s house am I,
My bread is sorrow and my drink is tears.
Come back to me, Beloved, or I die.”
In the silence that followed she recovered herself with an effort, and thanked Paul appropriately for his song, while Bob loudly objected to the melancholy tendency of the words, and at his own suggestion proceeded to sing “John Peel” and “We’ll all go a-hunting to-day” with much enjoyment. The party broke up later with laughter and talk, and the two young men promised to walk over to the Rectory for tea the following afternoon.
“Perhaps I will come, too,” said Lady Jardine, “but in the pony carriage—I detest walking.”
Selma Neale dressed with even more attention to detail than usual the following afternoon, and as she arranged her bright hair, that was hardly darker now than it had been ten years ago, she crooned to herself the air of “The Love Song of Har Dyal.”
When she was ready she descended the stairs to find Lady Jardine in the hall struggling out of her wraps.
“The east wind is odious!” she said, holding out the sleeve of her coat for Selma to pull, “and I am perished!”
The Rector emerged from his study. “Come into the drawing-room, Lady Jardine—a nice fire there, and a lovely view over the valley from the windows. There’s nothing like an east wind for giving one a clear day.”
“And a sore throat,” added Lady Jardine as she followed him into the narrow room which she remembered in the days when the Rector’s late wife had been a bride. Now the carpet was worn and old, the damask upholstering was faded and dim, the wool-work on the footstools and the fire-screens had Jost its brilliancy, and the once rose-coloured silk panels on the cottage piano were brittle with time. To Lady Jardine the room was restful and home-like, and she loved it. Here she had confided many of her secret difficulties to the Rector’s sympathetic keeping; here she had spent many unruffled hours; and now she seated herself in an arm-chair with a contented sigh. Selma went out into the garden to look for violets at the foot of the garden wall until the young men should arrive, and the Rector and Lady Jardine watched through the window the slender figure with its grace of movement.
“Selma reminds me so much of that portrait of your grandmother, Lady Elizabeth Neale, in the dining-room. Don’t you see the likeness? She has that beautifully finished appearance which I think is even more fascinating than actual beauty. Her ears and her hands are so perfect, and her little arched feet, and her head and neck are so well set on her shoulders. Then she has your dignified self-possession and agreeable manners! She is much too attractive to be buried in the country.”
The Rector answered rather argumentatively, “She will go and stay with her relations as often as she likes, and I suppose sooner or later she will marry.”
“Sooner or later Bob will propose to her,” said Lady Jardine placidly.
Mr. Neale turned to her with a sharp “What?”
“Oh! don’t say that! It reminds me so painfully of poor Robert! You heard perfectly well what I said.”
“But he has hardly seen her since she was a schoolgirl—”
“All the same, Bob has got to marry now and settle down. He mustn’t neglect his tenants any longer, and he told me soon after he arrived, when we were discussing the subject, that he had always thought of Selma as a possible wife, and that he should not care to marry any one else. I daresay he will take his time about proposing—Bob is never in a hurry, but I thought I would warn you. It would be an excellent thing for them both if Selma would marry him.”
“Dear me, how helpless a widower feels with a grown-up daughter! I am sure I hope with all my heart that she will accept him if he asks her. She is naturally reserved and so am I, and I feel that perhaps I have lost touch with her in sending her away from me to be educated—but I thought it was for the best.” He walked restlessly to the far window, then to the absurd little writing-table, which twenty years ago had been the height of elegance, and finally returned to Lady Jardine’s side. He was thinking deeply. “I am very grateful to you for telling me,” he said presently. He rested one arm on the mantelpiece, and looked down with affection on the familiar, comely face, flushed pink with the windy drive, and the warmth of the fire.
“What should I do without your friendship?” he said softly.
Lady Jardine smiled. “I think we should miss each other now,” she answered with understanding.
“I want,” he said, speaking with earnest deliberation, “and I have wanted for a long time, to ask you if you will follow Sally Walker’s example, only with a slight difference! Do you remember? it was a long time ago.”
“What on earth are you talking about, you foolish man? Of course I remember Sally’s unorthodox conduct. What would the parish say if it could hear you!”
The Rector laughed. “But I said ‘with a slight difference,’ didn’t I?” Then his voice grew tenderly courteous, and his kind eyes were grave. “Would you object very much to ‘taking this old gentleman,’ Lady Jardine? Would you give him the proud honour of being your husband?”
The tears welled up into her eyes, and gently she held out her hands to her dearest friend; he clasped them in his, and the silent devotion of years found voice at last.
Later they agreed that the matter should be kept a secret for the present, even from Selma. “We will first see how the two young people behave,” said Lady Jardine, going to the window, and then judiciously choose the right moment for springing the news on them. It might prove a trump card! There they all are, they must come in at once, or they will catch their deaths of cold standing on the lawn in that wind. I shall have those boys laid up with influenza, and then I shall catch it!” She tapped on the window-pane and gesticulated wildly, with the result that the trio outside walked towards the house; but Bob Jardine strode on in front whistling, and Paul loitered behind, purposely keeping Selma back. She saw Bob disappear into the hall through the porch, and heard the flat notes of his whistling die away.
“I haven’t had a word alone with you yet,” said Paul, and stopped in the pathway. “With the egoism of man I am longing to talk to you about myself.”
“Whatever you do I hope you won’t ask me for advice I I don’t know what is good for myself, much less for other people.”
“I won’t ask you for anything you don’t wish to give me,” he replied, and looked at her intently. Selma hurried forward. A sudden nervousness possessed her; the low seductive voice and handsome Arab-like face beguiled her against her will. She felt as though attracted by some forbidden luxury, by something pleasantly wrong and prohibited; she was almost afraid of him. She made an effort to brush away the mental spell that she felt was enveloping her judgment like a mist, and she threw a flippant remark over her shoulder in a high cheerful voice as she gained the hall door. He did not answer, but a dark red flush stole over his cheeks, and he was very silent for the rest of the afternoon. Bob, on the contrary, was more than usually sociable and hilarious, and insisted that Selma should take him upstairs to the old nursery that still retained its quaint wall-paper of little Dutch pictures in squares, with elaborate blue borders; he chaffed the rigid Pritchard till her stern features relaxed into an unwilling smile; he reminded Selma of many trivial happenings of their childhood’s days, and took from the old dolls’-house the little chairs he had made for her out of corks, the beds contrived from pin-boxes, and the cardboard tables with matches for legs. He looked through the contents of the book-shelf, taking down the battered volumes, and shouting with laughter over Lear’s “Book of Nonsense”; while Selma stood by his side, carried back into the past by his reminiscences, and feeling almost as though she were once more a little girl delighting in the presence of the wonderful Bob.
* * * *
On a morning several weeks later Mr. Neale and his daughter sat at the breakfast-table in the Rectory dining-room, the windows open wide, and a perfume of newly-cut grass fanned in by the warm June breeze. From the frame above the mantelpiece Lady Elizabeth gazed at her descendants with eyes like Selma’s, blue and deep and bordered with dark lashes, the mouth, like that of the girl, curved at the corners a little disdainfully. A bee was buzzing round the room, and the snipping of the gardener’s shears sounded harsh and distinct as he clipped the edges of the turf.
An hour ago Mr. Neale had received a note from Lady Jardine, sent over by hand, (she was in the habit of writing her letters before she rose in the morning), issuing the fiat that Selma should be informed of their engagement at once. “— Bob told me last night that he had made up his mind to propose to Selma on the first opportunity,” she wrote; “so I think the time has come for her to hear our news, as it might just turn the scale in Bob’s favour. I shall tell him myself this morning, and also Paul, who arrived last night for one of his flying visits from Oxford. . . .”
The Rector had promptly acted on his lady’s suggestion. By the time breakfast was over Selma was no longer ignorant of her father’s future plans. She had kissed him and wished him joy, she had asked him kindly questions, and dwelt on the genuine affection which existed between Lady Jardine and herself; all the time she had smothered her first involuntary feeling of rather resentful astonishment; and the Rector, who had been nervous and testy under the ordeal of breaking the news to his daughter, had become once more cheerfully at ease, and manifestly grateful to Selma for her considerate sympathy.
“I think she will be a stepmother that no one could grumble at,” he said with proud satisfaction. “We will ride over to Farm Park this afternoon for you to offer your congratulations.”
“Yes, certainly; and I can see those spaniel puppies afterwards. Bob is always bothering me to choose one of them.”
“Ha!” said the Rector, thinking of Lady Jardine’s letter in his pocket. Then he looked keenly at his daughter, and wondered if it would be wise to ask her the question that was on the tip of his tongue.
“What is the matter?” she asked, amused at his scrutiny.
“Well, my dear, there is something I was thinking I should like to ask you; but perhaps you might consider me interfering—and—well, the fact is, you have seen a good deal of Bob Jardine since he came back.”
Selma flushed rose-colour. “I know what you mean,” she said with a trembling laugh, and went to the window, so that she stood with her back to her father.
“Well?” with pleasant interrogation, “is there going to be nothing between you?”
“There is nothing between us now, at any rate.”
“Selma,” urged the Rector, anxiously, “don’t shut me out of your confidence, child. I have thought once or twice lately that something is troubling you—”
She paused: then turned impulsively towards her father. For the moment her pent-up reserve was swept aside by the kindness and affection in his voice.
“I am worried and puzzled, dad,” she said, “but there will seem very little to tell if I try and put it into words—it is only that I know Bob is going to ask me to marry him sooner or later, it is no use pretending I can’t see it,” she gave a deprecating little laugh; the Rector was judiciously silent. She went on, “Bob is the man I ought to marry. I always meant my husband to be just like Bob; good, and big, and manly, and reminding one of cold spring water and fresh air, and everything wholesome and clean—” She broke off with a sob, biting her lips.
“But then, Selma, dear girl, why—?” The Rector was perplexed and distressed, until a sudden realisation came to him, “you are thinking of some one else? Is it Paul Vereker? But he is only a boy, and surely you haven’t seen him more than once or twice since the end of the Easter vacation?”
She brushed her hand across her eyes. “I can’t help it, father,” she said, in a low, hurried voice. “I can’t explain why he attracts me so strangely, and against my will—unless it is because we are so unlike one another. If it were not for him I would marry Bob, perhaps I shall do so in spite of him, but he fascinates me when I am with him, and he haunts me when I am not—”
The Rector looked alarmed. This was so unlike Selma. “My dear child,” he soothed, “why distress yourself like this? I think you are making a mountain out of a molehill. Of course we would all much rather you married Bob Jardine, but if you like the other man better why shouldn’t you please yourself? I wish he was older, and you had seen more of him, and that he had been in a profession that would keep him in England; but his pay will be good, I understand, and of course your mother’s money comes to you when you marry. I have no doubt he is a good fellow—he is Lady Jardine’s nephew.”
She laughed rather unnaturally, but she had now recovered her self-control.
“We are going ahead rather too fast, I think,” she said, in her ordinary voice; “I don’t know that Paul will sever ask me to marry him, or that he even wants to. He has only talked to me about himself and his difficulties more freely perhaps than he does to other people. Please don’t think any more of what I said. I don’t know why I was so silly: your news must have affected my brain.”
She leant out of the window and called the gardener to her, and while she gave the man some unnecessary directions, the Rector sat thinking, and feeling far from satisfied. A vision rose in his memory of the meeting between two children in this room so many years ago; he seemed to see them again as he saw them on that hot summer’s afternoon—the sullen little boy with the wistful luminous eyes, and the fair little girl with her yellow hair falling about her shoulders, and an eager curiosity on her rose-pink face.
Selma released the gardener and turned back into the room. “Father,” she said, with a laugh in her eyes, “who is to tell Pritchard about you and Lady Jardine?”
The Rector rose from his seat in sudden haste. “I think you had better do it, my dear; you have so much more time”; and he left the room hurriedly, mentioning parish matters and urgent letters.
That afternoon, when Selma was at Farm Park, Sir Robert Jardine asked her to marry him, and he selected the loose-box, where the spaniel puppies were quartered, as the scene of his proposal. The sun poured into the stable court-yard, and all was quiet with a warm, pungent stillness, broken sometimes by the rattle of a chain, or the stamp of a hoof. A low, monotonous hissing came through an open door from where a horse was being groomed, and as Selma and Bob passed under the archway the sound of their voices and footsteps echoed from the four walls. The foxhound puppy that was being “walked” at Farm Park followed them with loose, unsteady gait, and now and then he blundered heavily against their legs.
Bob opened the door of one of the loose-boxes, and from the gloom within they were greeted timidly by a tender-eyed little mother-spaniel with anxious, over-driven manners, who rustled from a corner where her exacting family reposed in a heap of straw. The foxhound puppy pushed himself forward and immediately fled with a yelp as she turned on him with a fierce snarl. Bob lifted one fat brown-and-white bundle after another, until Selma had made her selection according to his advice, and then he stood gazing absently at the squirming little group.
“I suppose this marriage of your father’s with Aunt Carry will make a lot of difference to you, Selma?”he said, with apparent irrelevance.
“Well, of course I shall have to take a back seat with a Mrs. Neale at the Rectory, but I shall make the very best of it.”
“I wonder—” he stammered, “I wonder—”
A round-eyed stable boy entered with a bowl of bread and milk for the puppies.
“Put it down—put it down,” said Bob, crossly. He turned to light a cigarette, and by the time he had stamped on the match the intruder had disappeared.
“I wonder,” he began again, taking the cigarette from his mouth, “what sort of fellow you will marry.”
He watched the colour deepen in her cheeks and thought what an exquisite skin she had, so clear, fresh, and transparent.
“There are plenty of other more interesting things to wonder about,” she answered, and turned towards the door.
“Don’t go, Selma, wait a minute. I want to say something.” He kicked some straw into a heap at his feet. Selma regarded him with forced calmness; she had divined what was coming.
“Do you think you could marry me?” he blurted out diffidently. “I would make you a good husband, upon my soul I would!” He flung the cigarette out of the door, and then went on with nervous haste, “I simply can’t tell you how much I have come to care for you.” He caught her hand and kissed it.
Selma did not speak. The spaniel came and sniffed round her habit-skirt, the little family began to waddle out of the straw, the sun streamed through the door in a dusty column like luminous smoke. She saw the frank, manly face with the tanned skin, and red-brown eyes, bent eagerly towards her. Bob’s wooing might be more persuasive than passionate, but she could not fail to realise that he was honestly in love.
“I should like to think about it, Bob,” she said at last, a little sadly. “I can’t decide now or here.” She looked into the yard, and noticed the round-eyed boy gaping at them from the harness-room door. “Will you wait and give me time to make up my mind?”
“Of course,” said Bob considerately. “You must take your own time. Only remember what a splendid business it would be for me if you said ‘yes’; and don’t say ‘no’ if you can possibly help it. At first I hated the idea of having to give up the army and settle down, but you have put all that out of my head, and I can imagine nothing better than life at Farm Park with you as my wife. That would make all the difference, and I should be more than happy and contented. If you won’t marry me, Selma, I shall go back to India.”
“Oh! nonsense!” Selma moved out of the door as she spoke, and Bob followed, shutting it after him.
“You see,” he urged as they crossed the yard, “we are such old pals, aren’t we? And then you know the place so well and everybody about here. Don’t you think you could be happy?”
“I don’t want to decide in a hurry,” she said, with slight impatience. “I told you I must have time to think about it.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, quickly penitent—“I won’t bother; but tell me how long I shall have to wait. You can do a lot of thinking in a few hours. Will you tell me to-morrow?”
“I don’t know—perhaps.” Then she added wistfully: “Bob, I really wish I could say yes to you now, but there is something I must think out for myself before I can decide what is best.” She glanced at him, almost wishing that he would take her in his arms then and there, and refuse to listen to any objections or delays. “I will write to you, and please don’t try to see me until you have got my letter.”
He looked despondent, but answered readily, “All right—of course I will do what you wish.”
They had now left the stables behind them, and were walking through a shrubbery that led to the flower garden. Bob stepped nearer to Selma’s side. “Would you let me kiss you—just once—that I might have something to remember, whatever happens?”
It was the time in the afternoon, when in summer, the air seems charged with a fragrant hush, when living things are only just about to bestir themselves lazily after the heat of the day. The little pathway was cool and secluded, and Selma yielded with hesitation. But she only allowed him to touch her cheek with his lips, and then instantly quickened her pace.
“Come, we must go in,” she said abruptly. “Father will be ready to start.”
“I don’t expect he will,” said Sir Robert, with a grin, but he hastened obediently.
Neither of them noticed that Selma had dropped one of her gloves in the pathway, or were conscious that a moment later Paul Vereker had picked it up.
That night when dinner was over and Selma had seen the Rector comfortably dozing over The Guardian in his study, she opened the long window that led from the drawing-room on to the terrace and went outside. She leaned against the stone parapet that was still warm with the day’s heat, and deliberately set herself to make up her mind that she would marry Robert Jardine. She dwelt on his sincere and unmistakable devotion, his manliness and simplicity, his kind and loyal heart, even on his wealth, position, and title. Nevertheless, the perfumed summer night, the sky like dark blue enamel scattered with crushed diamonds, the sweet sad note of a nightingale in the distance, the tender scents that hung in the air, all cried softly to her of Paul—Paul, with his strange deep eyes and beautiful voice.
She thought of the few quiet talks they had had together in the past weeks, when he had confided to her his vague unsatisfied longings, his futile resentment towards the difficulties of his own temperament; his strivings, never fulfilled, after an ideal, whether embodied in work, religion, or art; she knew that to no one else had he spoken so freely, and the remembrance delighted her. Yet analysed without sentiment what did it all mean? That Paul Vereker was a type with which she was not familiar, and that in consequence he held an attraction for her which she suspected was not altogether wholesome. He was perhaps deficient in stability of character, most certainly his was a complex nature and difficult to understand; he reminded her of moonlight, of ball-rooms, of sensuous music, of all that appealed to the senses; and with a clearness of perception perhaps rare in a girl of her age, the leaven of his fascination was apparent to her, and she condemned, the while she was acutely sensible of its allurement.
She flung out her hands impatiently, resentful that an indefinite dreamy attraction should have power to tinge all her thoughts, influence her judgment, and render her reluctant to accept a man for her husband who would make her life secure and happy, and for whom she had a genuine affection. She turned sharply and re-entered the house, and with resolve in every movement she sat down at the little writing-table, where in days past her mother had indited polite epistles with a pen that had resembled a pin. She wrote hurriedly, and then put the letter into an envelope.
“It shall go the first thing in the morning,” she said aloud, as she wrote the address, and there was a ring of triumph in her voice, for she had taken command of herself and had accepted Robert Jardine as her future husband.
She turned down the lamps, and went to the window meaning to fasten it, but instead she threw it open, and the soft air seemed to move to meet her. Gradually, reluctantly, almost guiltily, she passed out again, and then she ran down the terrace steps on to the cool thick turf, looking like a restless spirit in her trailing white gown. She walked the entire length of the lawn, and back towards the carriage drive, pausing by the cedar-tree beneath which two basket-chairs, which had been forgotten, showed dimly from the darkness. Suddenly the click of the gate from the end of the drive startled her as it divided the quiet of the night. Her pulses throbbed into an immediate premonition, and her heart beat fast as even footsteps drew near on the gravel and a figure became visible.
“Who is it?” she asked breathlessly, stepping forward; but she knew it was Paul Vereker before the answer came, she had known it instinctively when the click of the gate had struck on her hearing.
“Such a night!” he said calmly, “I could not rest within four walls, and neither could you, it seems. I had a good excuse for a stroll, I picked up your glove this afternoon, and I have brought it with me.”
“But it is a long walk for such a trifle,” said Selma, feeling dazed. “I missed my glove, but I couldn’t think where I dropped it.”
“I found it in the shrubbery. Will you let me rest for a little after this long walk? Are those seats I see under the tree? Let us sit down.” He spoke as if they both understood that the mention of the glove, the walk, the needed rest, was but a means of covering time till he should unfold the real purpose of this unceremonious visit.
He led the way; they sat down on the chairs in the shelter of the silent cedar, and a thousand fragrances seemed to enwrap them from its braaches. The bird was still singing in the distance, and the plaintive, passionate song floated towards them.
All at once she realised that Paul was kneeling by her side, She felt the approach of his face to hers, the vague warmth of his breath; she could hear his heart beating quickly with a passion that was not to be governed. The sense of a coming emotion held her spell-bound.
“Selma, I have come to you to-night to tell you that I love you—”
“Don’t,” she said desperately, “don’t;” and she covered her face with her hands. His touch on her wrists was warm and strong as he drew them down.
“My beloved,” he whispered. She tried to rise, but he held her fast. “You must listen, you must hear me. I meant to wait, to make certain that you cared for me before I asked you to come with me so far away; but to-day I saw you and Bob in the shrubbery, and after that I could not keep silent any longer, for the dread that I might lose you. I saw him kiss you; but, Selma, you only gave him your cheek—not your lips—you were cold and reluctant—you do not love him—I defy you to tell me that you do!” He hardly waited for her answer, but went on with low, tense utterance: “I loved you from the moment I came into the room that evening, and saw you standing so sweet and slender with the light upon your hair. I sang only to you that night, dear love—did you feel it and know it? Ah your hair, your lips, your sweet warm neck”—he kissed each with frenzy as he spoke, and held her in his arms—“mine is more than love—it is idolatry! Selma, speak to me, tell me that you love me.” He paused, breathing through his teeth.
She pushed him away from her and stood up. Then she took a few uncertain steps, and leant, trembling, against the trunk of the tree. “Oh, Paul!” she sobbed in helpless surrender, “oh, Paul!”
Early September had brought clear and settled weather to the lower ranges of the Himalayas; already the wooded slopes of the hill-sides were glowing with autumn colours, the ferns and mosses on the tree-trunks and branches had yellowed and were falling, and the air was keen and radiant with sparkling sunshine. But this probably meant a depressing outlook for the winter crops in the plains of Northern India, for the monsoon clouds, that rise from the sea and travel up-country till they strike the mountains, had been unusually light this season, and the rains were over alarmingly soon.
Mrs. Everard, wife of Colonel Everard, R.E. Secretary to Government, sat in the verandah of her house in a popular and important hill-station; and looking out over the smoky haze of the plains that stretched vast and endless in the misty distance, she thought with compassion of those hapless individuals who were being steamed in the hot vapours that mark the end of the rainy season below. Mrs. Everard was an experienced Anglo-Indian lady, who had spent a great portion of her life in the East, and who possessed a large share of that ready sympathy and kind-hearted tolerance towards her fellow beings which is a conspicuous feature of English communities in exile. She would carefully nurse a sick subaltern through typhoid or dysentery back to health and strength, mother a young bride who came helpless and ignorant to the country, gather the ayah-ridden children about her, and was ever ready to provide a home for animals whose owners were retiring, or going on furlough. She was a practical, downright memsahib who always had the best cook in the station, and whose house was famous for its solid comforts; but she knew the price of country produce to the lowest coin, and he was a misguided native who attempted to cheat her. She was quite indifferent to her personal appearance, and despised the minor affectations of life: she considered the bazaar tailor fully competent to manufacture suits for “the old man,” as she called her husband, and dresses for herself; and the result, though adequate enough for the purposes of decency and protection from the weather, was hardly in the height of fashion. It had been remarked by a station wag that the Everards invariably looked “as if he made her clothes and she made his.”
But homely as their outward appearance may have been no two kinder individuals existed in the whole of India, and the couple were popular with all sets; though, socially speaking, Colonel Everard’s present appointment was rather wasted on them. What they really enjoyed was a small station in the plains, where the shooting was good in the district, and where Mrs. Everard could have an extensive poultry-yard, and a herd of cows, and plenty of leisure for superintending her household; where also her medicine-chest and nursing experience were appreciated. In a head quarters hill-station space is limited; there are military doctors as well as a civil surgeon, an excellent hospital, and a staff of professional nurses: also, the social duties are heavy for the senior officers and their wives, and though the Everards were genuinely hospitable they were not society people, and they found the enforced gaiety somewhat irksome.
At present Mrs. Everard was busily knitting thick woollen socks for the Colonel, seated in a capacious wicker chair, with a small table at her elbow, whereon lay her pith sun-hat of enormous dimensions, worn by her in all its primitive baldness, with neither pugaree nor muslin covering, and generally tied on with a piece of pink office tape. At her feet were grouped six dogs—a hill-mastiff with bushy tail and handsome neck ruff, an Afghan greyhound with lean, cunning face and rough, slate-coloured coat, three terriers of doubtful pedigree, and a brindled bull-dog. Outside in the sun the horses were having their mid-day meal under her watchful eye, their buckets held steady by the squatting syces, and the sounds of their munching and stamping mingled with the raucous voices of coolies on the road below the house passing to and from the bazaar. Mrs. Everard’s own mount was a Bhootiya pony with slit ears, shaggy fetlocks, and ewe neck. She rode him in her ordinary costume to pay her calls and get about the station, and she even went out to dinner on his back, for she strongly objected to being carried in a seat slung from men’s shoulders, the ordinary mode of progression for a lady in the hills.
A servant appeared round the corner of the house with two cards on a salver.
“Bother!” said Mrs. Everard. But when she had laid aside her knitting and read the name on the cards, her broad, blunt-featured face brightened. “Young Jardine—title and all!” she exclaimed, and sent a hasty summons to the waiting visitor, who was presently ushered through the drawing-room and out into the verandah.
“Well, to think of your returning to the ‘shiny’ so soon!” was Mrs. Everard’s greeting. “We thought you had probably gone for ever. My good youth, what is wrong?—you look starved! Have you a very bad mess khansamah?”
Bob Jardine put down his hat and whip and seated himself wearily. “I got back to the regiment in August, and when the rains stopped I went out for a couple of days’ shooting too soon. Result, a bad go of fever and a fortnight’s sick leave to the hills.”
“Which, of course, you will spend with us. You want good plain food and plenty of it, and early hours, which you won’t get at the club. We’ll send over for your things at once.”
She gave the order with brisk promptitude, and Bob thanked her gratefully and without protest; but he added that he hoped to be fit enough to get a few days out in the hills after chikor (the hill partridge) before his leave was over.
“So you shall, if you are up to it—the best thing for you; and I only wish I could come too,” said Mrs. Everard. “I hear the birds are very good this year; but there’s no chance of much shooting for us of any description for the next three months. We shall be marching too quickly on our cold-weather tour of inspection. We mean to have a camp for our own amusement at Christmas time and do some small-game shooting, and we shall expect you to join us.”
“Thanks, delighted!” said Bob, inertly.
Mrs. Everard glanced at him with attention and speculated afresh, with interested curiosity, as to what had brought him back to India. She knew he had gone home with the prospect of having to retire from the army altogether, though he had made no secret of the fact that he did so with reluctance. But the young man was evidently not in a communicative mood, and Mrs. Everard never forced confidences, which was, perhaps, the reason why so many were entrusted to her keeping.
“So my niece is going to marry a connection of yours,” she said, and assisted one of the terriers to scramble into her lap; “I suppose she has married him by now, we expect the news of the wedding next mail. Of course I have heard all particulars of the engagement from Herbert Neale, my brother-in-law, and about his own forthcoming marriage with your aunt, Lady Jardine. We shall be almost relations, Bob! Herbert has never given me any idea as to what this Vereker creature is like to look at, and Selma has never sent me the photograph she promised me. In my unasked opinion he is much too young to marry at all, and Herbert says every one tried to persuade them that it would be wiser to wait a couple of years, or at any rate till the young man had been out to India and gained some experience; but of course it was no use. Who can convince two young people who are desperately in love? and Selma would please herself, whatever anybody said; she is like her poor mother, my little sister, in that way.”
“I don’t see why she should not please herself,” said Bob, rather petulantly. It was torture to him to have to discuss the marriage at all. “Why should they wait when they can very well afford to marry at once? The fellow is young certainly, but he’s all right or she wouldn’t have taken him, and he looks a lot older than he is.”
“What a hopeless description! I want to know if he is dark or fair—has he curly hair or straight—does his nose turn up or down—has he a fluffy moustache or none at all?”
“I can’t remember if his hair curls or not; any way I know he ought to keep it cut shorter than he does. His nose doesn’t turn up, and he’s clean-shaven and rather dark. He’s a fellow who can sing and play, and paint and draw, and spout poetry—all the sort of things I suppose women like. But you’ll probably see him for yourself soon. They are to start for India the middle of October.”
“So I understand. Mr. Vereker has been appointed to this Province, and Selma wrote to ask if the old man would use his influence with the Government to get them sent to Pragpur, where it seemed his father was stationed, and died. They thought it would be a link for them at the beginning. I believe it is all settled that they are to go there. I am sorry we can’t go down and meet them, but we shall be just starting on our tour about the time they will arrive. Mr. Goring will be their ‘boss’; he has lately gone to Pragpur as Collector. I have never met him or his wife, but I believe they are nice people, and I shall write and ask them to look after the young couple.”
Bob said nothing; he apparently took but little interest in the plans of the bride and bridegroom.
“And who was Mr. Vereker’s mother?” inquired Mrs, Everard, resuming her knitting.
“I really don’t know,” replied Bob, repressing his irritation with an effort; “the mother sent the kid home to my aunt when he was about eight years old, and then she married again, and nothing more has been heard of her.”
“I hope to goodness his mother’s people weren’t half-castes,” said Mrs. Everard; “it sounds rather suspicious.”
She was engaged in reclaiming a truant stitch when she spoke, and therefore failed to notice the expression of alarm and concern which her words had called into the face of her companion. Bob was completely prejudiced where “the nigger” was in question, and regarded the native as merely a necessary evil. The bare notion of Selma’s husband having dark blood in his veins caused him unspeakable disquietude.
“Why should they be half-castes? There are plenty of pure European families living out here.” As he spoke he tried to recollect Paul’s colouring, which previously had never arrested his attention. He had hitherto given no thought to the young man’s parentage beyond being aware that his father had been Lady Jardine’s brother, who had married and died in India. The dreadful suspicion, now awakened for the first time, grew heavy in his mind and outweighed the heart-sickness and disappointment which he had never been able to shake off, and which had driven him back to the regiment surly and resigned.
From the moment when he had read Selma’s letter telling him she could not be his wife because she loved Paul Vereker, he had been dumbly miserable. The revelation had been a severe mental shock to him, for Bob, who was not far-seeing, had never for one moment dreamed of Paul as a possible rival. He had promptly decided to return to the life that suited him best, and all Lady Jardine’s entreaties and persuasions had been of no avail; he had booked his passage and departed, relentless, to rejoin his regiment, trusting that sooner or later the feeling of despondent regret would grow lighter, and that the memory of Selma would become less bitter to him.
He had since made heroic efforts to rise above his trouble and to defy Fate, but the malarial fever, brought on by his own imprudence, had lowered his spirits and weakened his will, and now the possibility suggested by Mrs. Everard’s words was almost more than he could stand in his present dejected condition. He proved anything but a lively visitor in the house, but his hostess strongly suspected that something in addition to the effects of malaria was causing his depression, and she exerted all her powers to bring the young man into a more cheerful frame of mind and body. She so far succeeded that in a few days’ time Bob was sufficiently strong to be able to start on a mild shooting expedition in the hills with an enthusiastic companion selected for him by Mrs. Everard; he betrayed an awakening interest in the arrangements and the prospects of sport, and once away in the keen crisp air, with a cloudless sky and a sun that lightened the heart with its glory, Bob began to feel alive again, and even glad to be living.
The chikor behaved in a manner calculated to raise the spirits of any ardent sportsman, and the scrambles and climbs up and down the hill-side wooded with oak, pine, and rhododendron, the dense foliage flecked with vivid blossoms and brilliant creepers, resulted in highly satisfactory bags; and Mrs. Everard received daily consignments of plump birds with red legs and gaily patterned plumage, sent in by runners in the early mornings. Bob loved the sport, and he was also unconsciously soothed and cheered by his surroundings; the blue misty valleys where the little mountain deer barked in the still night time; the terraces of cultivation climbing up to the clusters of huts cuddled against the hillsides; the people who came out of these hamlets with stunted frames and Mongolian faces, but hardy, robust, and ready to chatter and laugh; the large black monkeys that leapt and crashed down the precipices; and the distant panorama of the eternal snow mountains white and glistening, that in the evening glowed crimson with the sunset, and then turned slowly into great grey ghosts; while in the dawn when the opal flush of the sun’s approach crept over one group of snowy peaks and domes, the silver moonlight could be seen still lingering on another.
Bob found it easier to think calmly of Selma here in the freedom of the endless glorious stretch of Himalayas; and by the time the last day of his leave had come, and he again passed through the station, he felt that his love for the girl had been to his good rather than to his hurt, and he was only thankful that if trouble and vexation should be in store for her in this country, he would at least be near enough at hand to help her if she needed him.
The mail train from Bombay roared along the dusty track through level yellow country with bare plains, cultivated areas, huddled villages, and clusters of mango-groves; it paused on its way through great cantonments with racecourses, straight avenues of monster trees, lines of severe white buildings, and vast resounding railway stations, where the European passengers bolted their meals in the ill-ventilated refreshment-rooms; it halted at little wayside places that were steeped in sun and dust, where languid natives droned on the platforms, and all around waved tall bunches of scorched yellow grass with grey squirrels darting about the roots; it clanged and clattered over an iron bridge with the smooth waters of a mighty river below, and drew up at three o’clock one afternoon in the station at Pragpur.
Selma Vereker stepped out of the train on to the platform weary with the dust and noise, cramped with the long journey up country, and inexpressibly thankful that her travels were over at last. She stood aside while her husband extricated their belongings from the compartment with the help of the servant they had engaged at Bombay; she watched the crowding coolies squabbling over each package as it appeared, and she looked with amused wonder at the two mingled streams of yelling struggling native passengers, one leaving the train, the other making for it, all raising a clamour that was deafening. She smiled as she remembered a description Bob had once given her of such a scene, with the added comment that Government ought to make it a criminal offence for a native to open his mouth in a railway station, and she certainly now agreed with him. Her attention was next engaged by a smart-looking Mahomedan dressed in dark blue and gold livery, who forced his way through the excited crowds and with a low salaam presented a note to her husband. Paul read it, then handed the letter to Selma with an expression of pleasure.
“From the Gorings,” he said. He and Selma had heard of his superior official from Mrs. Everard. “We are to go straight to them and stay until we have found a house. I am so glad. It will be ever so much nicer for you than an hotel, I’m sure.”
Selma glanced at the note, and felt relieved to have the practical certainty of comfortable quarters at once after the trials of three weeks in cabins and railway carriages. They then followed what appeared to be a collection of skinny brown limbs surmounted by boxes and bags, and outside they found a neat open carriage and pair of bay horses sent by the Gorings, together with a bullock cart for the luggage.
It was the time of year when the climate of the plains of India is at its best, and the vivid sunshine, bracing air, flaming creepers, and splashes of bright colour on every side were all cheering and reviving in their effect. Selma glanced about her with keen interest, and Paul talked with an eager rapidity that was somewhat unlike him—indeed, he had been curiously elated and excited all the way up country, gazing as though entranced from the windows of the railway carriage, declaring that he recognised the words of the language spoken around them when they stopped at the stations, and as they crossed the iron bridge over the river he had greeted the fort with a cry of remembrance and pleasure.
“It is all coming back to me,” he said, as they drove along the level white road, “only dimly and in little bits. When I was in the station I recollected a dark night and tears and good-byes. My mind has been seething with memories ever since we landed. I feel as if at any moment the whole of my forgotten childhood might come back to me in a flash. I seem to know all the sights and sounds so well. Even the very smells in the air are familiar. I am answering to the atmosphere with every bit of my nature. I am sure I shall understand and speak the language in no time—and what a pull that will be to me in my work!” He slipped his fingers into her hand under the soft loose glove. “Having you with me just makes it all perfect,” he added, as though he feared that for the moment he had neglected her presence, and the look that passed between them would have ended in a kiss had they been alone.
“Darling! are you tired?” he asked with tenderness. “You must go to bed and rest directly we arrive. You can’t sleep in a train as I do.”
“I feel as if I could sleep for the next six months if I had a comfortable bed!” said Selma. But all the same she looked marvellously fresh and alert, for she had one of those bright complexions that no dust or travelling appears to soil, and the young husband noted adoringly the glint of the curls on her neck and temples, the delicate ears, like pale pink shells, and the well-bred poise of the little head.
“You always look clean and cool and delicious!” he exclaimed, and she laughed happily.
Now they were entering a large compound through white gate posts, and the house, a long, blue building with a deep verandah, lines of pillars, and a square porch, was in sight. Mrs. Goring stood on the steps, a woman of about thirty-five, with a cold, pale face, handsome eyes, and a reserved manner. She had a low, cultivated voice and was unmistakably a lady and a woman with experience of the world. Her greeting to the travellers was quiet and sincere, and she led them into an enormous drawing-room that was comfortably arranged with a mixture of English furniture and Indian manufactures.
“I am not very fond of Indian things,” she said, in answer to Selma’s involuntarily expressed admiration; “but it looks out of place in these high, colour-washed rooms in the plains to have nothing but English belongings. All my rugs and curtains are Indian, and the carved screens and brass tables, but I hate the gaudy rubbish so many people seem to admire.”
“And which one can probably buy cheaper at the Army and Navy Stores than out here,” said Selma.
“Exactly! Now you would like some tea.” Mrs. Goring pressed a little hand-bell, explaining that she had always held out against the usual custom of shouting for the servants.
Conventional conversation followed regarding the voyage, their fellow passengers, the journey from Bombay. Tea was brought in, and afterwards Mr. Goring appeared, a large man with a shy manner and a look of over-work in his deep-set eyes. He hastily swallowed a cup of tea and carried Paul off to his study for a smoke and a talk.
“Now,” began Mrs. Goring, as the two men left the room, “would you like to lie down and rest in your room till dinner time, or would you rather come into the garden?”
“Oh, the garden,” said Selma, who felt a different being after the drive and her tea. So presently she and Mrs. Goring strolled over a wide grass lawn, where some scantily clothed natives were marking out tennis and badminton-courts; further on were masses of flowers, brilliant shrubs, and groups of large trees, where parrots, jays, and mynas wrangled in the branches.
“How lovely it is!” Selma felt elated with the cloudless sunshine, the clearness of the atmosphere, and the wealth of colour. “Why are they marking out such a lot of courts? It looks like a tennis club!”
“I am giving a garden-party to-morrow, and you will have your first glimpse of what is called Anglo-Indian society. We have our good points, and for you, at any rate, we shall possess the merit of novelty for some time.” She paused and threw a critical glance over the lawn. “I wish the grass was better, but everything is so dried up, and water is becoming scarce—we had such bad rains this year. If we don’t have a deluge this cold weather it will mean terrible distress in the province, and the officials will, many of them, literally be worked to death.”
Selma, standing in the gay garden, with its atmosphere of peaceful leisure and prosperity, caught a momentary impression from her companion’s words of the stress and turmoil of the great country she had come to, of the vast responsibility and endless drudgery that worked the machinery of administration underlying the tranquil surface of Indian official life. She said nothing, and Mrs. Goring regarded her thoughtful face with attention. “I wonder,” continued the latter in her low, even voice, “how you will like being out here? For my part I am one of the few women who detest the country.”
Selina opened her blue eyes, and Mrs. Goring laughed. “I don’t mean to croak!” she said reassuringly. “There is no reason why you shouldn’t be very happy; it is a capital place for young people. But, you see, when I married and came out I was much older than you are now, and perhaps I am not of an adaptable nature; I miss the pictures, music, theatres, lectures, and the wider interests. I hate having native servants, which is foolish, I know, but I can’t help it; and it bores me to be obliged to know everybody in the station, whether I want to or not. I’m afraid I have earned for myself the reputation of being ‘stuck up,’ when it is simply that I am not interested in local topics and the doings of other folk, and I get so heartily sick of for ever watching polo, playing badminton, and going to dinners and dances.”
“I suppose one is entirely dependent on other people for one’s amusements in India,” said Selma, “but I hope I shall like the country for my husband’s sake if not for my own. He was born in India—in this very station—and his father, who was a civilian, died and was buried here. Paul was quite a little boy when his aunt adopted him and he went home, but he has always wanted to come back.”
“Well, fortunately it is the other way about with my husband; he wants to get away as much as I do. We scarcely live in the present, we are always remembering what we did last time we were at home, and planning what we will do next time we take leave, and the moment his pension is due off we shall go for ever. I have no doubt it is entirely my own fault that I don’t appreciate the East, and I think there are luckily not many like me.”
Selma hoped there were not for the sake of the many others whose lives and future, like her own, were linked with the great foster-country; but Mrs. Goring puzzled and interested her, and when she went to bed that night she lay awake in spite of her weariness, thinking over the conversation in the garden. Her white-washed room was large and lofty, and two beds occupied the middle of the floor, which was covered with cocoanut matting; her boxes were ranged along the wall and raised on bricks to protect them from the white ants, and tall glass doors opened on to the verandah and were hung with print curtains. Mrs. Goring’s ayah had proffered her services as maid, she could speak a little English, and was small quiet woman, dressed in a white skirt and wrapper, a short black cloth jacket, silver bangles, and a gold stud in her nostril; but Selma found that the touch of the cool soft hands, and the silent creeping manners made her shudder, and she had dismissed the woman politely, saying she could manage for herself.
She was dozing off to sleep when Paul came in on his way to the dressing-room beyond, and sat down on the edge of her bed. He began to talk, and as she opened her eyes sleepily she thought how handsome he looked.
“I shall never go to sleep to-night,” he said. “I feel as if I could never sleep again. I keep saying to myself ‘this is India! India!’ I remember things I had quite forgotten. I used to ride along these broad white roads when I was a child, with the ayah and the syce walking by the pony, and I used to go down by the river to see an old woman who was some relation, I think, but I can’t get her quite clear in my mind yet. I am sure I could find my way about the station, and I believe I should know the house we lived in. Selma, have you thought that my mother may possibly be living here still? We never heard what became of her after her second marriage. Fancy not knowing what my own mother’s name is now! I asked Mr. Goring if he had ever heard of a Mrs. Vereker who used to live here, but he has only been in the place a few months and knows nothing about the people who lived here formerly. We must find out somehow. Selma, are you listening?”
“Yes,” smiling at him slowly, “but I own I’m desperately sleepy.”
He went on as though he had not heard her answer. “This evening I went out with Mr. Goring for a turn before dinner, after he had been explaining to me about my work, and the smoke from the native fires in the compounds as it hung about in the air seemed to curl up into my brain—it was an old, old friend! And then the jingle of the ekkas on the road, and the creaking of the cart-wheels, and when a jackal howled across the parade-ground I knew in a minute what it was. Why do I love India like this? It is almost an obsession.”
“Well, dear, you see you were born out here, perhaps that is the reason,” murmured Selma, her eyelids drooping.
He rose and walked to one of the long glass doors, pushing aside the light curtains, and flung it open. “Look at the moonlight; you could almost see to read by it if it were not for the smoke in the air; and hark! there is some one playing a little stringed instrument. It reminds me of the air of ‘The Love-song of Har Dyal.’ No, dearest, I can’t come to bed just yet. I must go outside and look, and listen, and remember; I can’t rest. I think I am drunk with India!”
His voice roused his tired wife, and she lifted her head to see Paul standing with rapt gaze before the open door. Vaguely she knew that for him at the moment she was non-existent, that his mind was far away from her; and she stretched her hands towards him with a little involuntary cry, but without heeding her he stepped through the door and closed it gently behind him. She raised herself on her elbow, and saw him standing motionless in the misty moonlight; his handsome head was thrown back, the nostrils dilated, the lean, finely cut face was flushed and quivering—he looked like a young Lucifer. Through the shut glass the sound of plaintive minor singing and the steady thrum of strings came faintly to her ears. Yes, there was something about the strange monotonous music that recalled “The Love-song of Har Dyal”; the words floated through her brain, “Come back to me, beloved, or I die,” and she wished with an unaccountable disquietude that Paul would return. Then she tried to realise that she was foolish and exacting. It was natural that he should like to go out for a few minutes if he felt restless, he was not overpowered with drowsiness as she was; and so, gradually soothing her tired nerves with reasonable arguments, she yielded herself to a dreamless slumber.
The following morning Mrs. Goring took Selma to inspect the two most favourable of the bungalows that were then standing empty in the station.
“There is a third that might do,” she said, “but I should not advise you to think of it, for it’s enormous and very expensive. Remember another thing—you must not spend more than you can help on your furniture. India is like existence—you are here to-day and gone tomorrow; and if you wish to remain in a place for any length of time, you will have to try and hoodwink Providence by pretending you anticipate a move at a moment’s notice. A man I know always starts an elaborate garden when he wants to be transferred. He sows English flowers and vegetables in large quantities and goes to real expense and trouble, and he assures me he has never found the plan to fail! I really think there must be some truth in the native theory of the jealousy of the gods.”
“Oh I don’t!” said Selma half seriously. “I shall be afraid to acknowledge my own happiness!”
“Well, let us protect it as far as we are able by buying second-hand furniture when we have examined the empty houses,” said Mrs. Goring with a laugh, as they climbed into her smart little bamboo cart.
The pony took them down the drive and along the broad public road at a rapid pace, the syce standing up behind them and holding a large umbrella over their heads; he yelled without consideration for their ear-drums when anything appeared to be blocking the way. After a time they turned into a bare compound which surrounded a square, low-thatched, white bungalow, and the syce was despatched to summon the chowkidar, or caretaker, from his lair in the tumble-down out-houses. The doors were opened, and the building proved to contain a long room, which had evidently been divided by a curtain, for the iron rod still remained. There were two other rooms on either side of this, and the whole place smelt of dust and bats. Selma’s face fell.
“Could it ever be made comfortable?” she asked doubtfully.
“Oh, yes—in a simple way, certainly, though a good deal would depend on your own taste and ingenuity. The last people who lived here were a subaltern and his wife and child, in the Native Infantry. Their pay was about half what your husband’s will be, and they had nothing of their own, yet the house was always neat and pretty and home-like, though I often wondered if the poor dears ever had enough to eat. The tenants before them were a colonel and his wife, quite comfortably off, but you never saw such a pig-stye as they made of the place!”
“It looks to me rather hopeless; but I am not easily discouraged. This would be the drawing-room, and the dining-room would be the other side of the curtain. Our bedroom and dressing-room would be there, and Paul’s study and a spare room opposite. Then I suppose the pantry—”
Selma became hopeful and animated over her plans, and was already picturing the little home where she and Paul were to be so happy. However Mrs. Goring carried her on to see the other empty house, which was certainly more roomy, but in a much worse state of repair. The compound was in direct contrast to the one they had just left, being an almost impenetrable jungle; the walls within and without had deep green dados of mildew-stain, the ceiling clothes were discoloured and dilapidated; the floor was crumbling; white ants had tunnels everywhere, and in the corners hairy spiders moved sullenly.
“This is dreadful! I prefer the other house,” said Selma, holding up her skirts and standing on tip-toe.
“Yes, and here you would have the additional disadvantage of a Eurasian landlord.” Mrs. Goring picked her way back into the verandah. “They are rather worse than natives, as they so seldom have any money to spend on repairs, even if they were willing to do them; and they will never take anything in time, and are hopelessly dilatory, lazy, and difficult.”
“Why? You would think a mixture of English blood would give them some backbone.”
“It doesn’t appear to. The half-caste generally has all the drawbacks of both nations, and the virtues of neither, though I must say I don’t think they are often vicious; they don’t seem to have enough character for downright wickedness, but they are shifty and unreliable, and have no enterprise. Some people say they are not nearly so bad when the English blood comes from the father’s side, but I don’t know how far that is true, and I have no desire to find out. I dislike them all too much. I really prefer a native to a Eurasian, which for me is saying a good deal.”
“Well, then, this house is altogether hopeless. It will have to be the other one.”
“I don’t think you will do better. Now let us go to old Jahans’ shop in the bazaar, and see what he has got in the way of second-hand wardrobes and tables. You can get very good wicker chairs and couches and have them painted white.” “Who is old Jahans? A native?” asked Selma as they drove off again.
“No, a typical half-caste, but quite an institution here. He buys everybody’s old things when they go away, and sells the best of them to the newcomers, and auctions the rubbish to the natives. I found him very useful when I came here, and I really picked up some quite nice things from his lumber-heaps—things that must have been there for years and years, bits of nice china and old brass. He hardly knew he had them, and was quite ignorant of their value. The old man is getting on in years now and does very little himself. I believe his two sons carry on most of the business, such as it is. Look! this is the way these people do things. I can’t imagine how they ever get on at all—no attempt at any order, or method, or arrangement.”
They had driven into an enclosure bounded by mud walls, and overgrown with weeds, at one end of which stood a thatched building with the interior apparently stacked with furniture. Outside were piles of broken tables and legless chairs, wheels of carriages, mountains of old iron, empty kerosine oil-tins, and shattered packing-cases. In one corner of the compound a man in a baggy brown suit and large sun hat was standing on a bench auctioning some tins of damaged stores to a group of natives; in the verandah of the shop another individual sat at a rickety table writing on coarse yellow paper; wandering about from one to the other was an old man with bent back and tottering footsteps, supporting himself with a stout bamboo stick.
Mr. Jahans had borne his years badly, and only his whiskers appeared to have grasped the secret of perpetual youth; they were as long, black, and glossy as in the days when his wife had screamed and scolded at him in the verandah of their private dwelling-place about the future of their little grandson. The old man’s hair showed white and scanty above his brown forehead and sloe-like eyes, as he raised his battered pith hat to the two ladies descending from the smart trap.
“Good morning, Mr. Jahans,” said Mrs. Goring graciously, “I have brought you a new customer. This lady and her husband have just arrived from England, and they want some furniture to begin with.”
Mr. Jahans grunted amicably. “Anything I got you can see,” he said, shuffling towards the building. “There is one cheval-glass cheap; Mrs. Colonel Todd , she leave it with us to sell.”
“Fancy starting furnishing with a cheval-glass!” murmured Selma, much amused.
“Here you—Norman,” said Mr. Jahans to his son, the scribe in the verandah. “Get up man, and see to these la-dees. You are always writing, writing, never doing anything else, you are so slow—”
“How you chat-ter!” retorted Norman crossly to the old man, as he pushed aside his papers; but he turned a bland and smiling countenance, with fat, pock-marked cheeks and a snub nose, to the would-be purchasers. He was gaudily dressed in a loud check suit of cotton material, aggressively yellow boots, and a flaming necktie. He smelt strongly of some musky scent, and wore rings set with coral on his third fingers. He led them into the crowded dusty rooms, and displayed wardrobes made of teak thinly stained and varnished, clumsy dining-room chairs with wide cane seats and arms, and tables of every size and appearance. He talked incessantly in a thick staccato voice until Mrs. Goring and Selma had selected a few necessaries in good condition, and had yielded to the seductions of the cheval-glass, which showed a fairly unspotted surface. To Selma’s amazement Mrs. Goring calmly offered considerably lower prices than those quoted by young Mr. Jahans, and she was still more surprised when he permitted himself to be beaten down and made but little protest, smiling indulgently, with an air of being far too good-natured to drive a hard bargain.
As they emerged into the verandah they were met by old Mr. Jahans in company with his other son, who had just finished auctioning the stores. This gentleman was almost the exact counterpart of his brother Norman, but looked a year or two younger and was addressed as Ulick.
“We have got what we wanted, Mr. Jahans,” said Mrs. Goring; “your son has shown us everything, I think. You will have to keep the things for a little while till Mrs. Vereker is moving into her house—she is staying with me for the present—and we will let you know when to send them over.”
“What name?” said the old man sharply, “what name?”
“Vereker—Mrs. Paul Vereker,” said Selma, who had hardly yet outworn her pride in her married name. “My husband is the new assistant magistrate.”
Mr. Jahans opened his mouth and stood staring at Selma, and when he had watched the two ladies get into the trap and drive away he turned to his sons.
“Did you hear?” he inquired eagerly, “she said Wereker—Wereker!—and Paul too! Norman, Ulick, can this be Una’s boy come back? Now we shall see—now we shall see!”
“Oh, my!” said Mr. Norman Jahans with an incredulous laugh, “Cracky Billy!”
“Yes, now we shall see,” repeated Mr. Jahans with excitement. He ignored the facetious remarks of Norman and Ulick concerning his conjecture, settled his pith hat firmly on his head, and turned his back on his two sons. Thoughts of the past were slowly stirring in his mind, for the sudden possibility of Paul having returned to India had wakened a host of sleeping recollections. His wife had been dead for many years, but the old man still missed her more than he realised himself, and the memory of her love for their little grandson came back to him sharply. He was filled with a strong desire to satisfy himself as to the identity of this Paul Vereker who had just arrived from England, and with unwonted energy he shuffled out of the compound and along the dusty road at a pace that was extraordinary considering his loose slippers and distaste for any exertion; but when he reached the gate of the mission bungalow he was obliged to lean up against one of the plastered pillars and gasp for breath.
Mrs. Watson, the missionary’s wife, who was crossing the garden at that moment on her way from the church, perceived the exhausted figure and hastened forward.
“Why, Mr. Jahans,” she said kindly, were you corning to see me, or only resting at the gate? Do come in and let me give you some lemonade or a cup of coffee to refresh you.”
“I came to see you,” jerked out the visitor breathlessly, “to tell you one thing that I think.”
“Well, come along by all means, and let me hear what it is.” She led the way, and Mr. Jahans hobbled after her till they reached the sparely furnished centre-room of the mission bungalow. He took off his dingy hat and laid it on the floor as he seated himself.
“Mrs. Goring she giving a tamasha this afternoon,” he began abruptly, “her servant came to my place to hire some tables for tea in the compound, so that is how I know. You are going, h’n?”
“We have been invited,” replied Mrs. Watson, “but I don’t think —”
“Then go,” interrupted Mr. Jahans; “I ask you, please, to go. And when you are there, look and see if this Wereker—Paul Wereker—is Una’s boy come back, and then tell me.”
“Mr. Jahans, what are you talking about?”
“Mrs. Goring, she bring a lady to my place to-day to buy furniture. Just come from England. Her name Mrs. Wereker, her husband Paul. So now!”
“And you want me to meet them to-day at Mrs. Goring’s garden-party and find out if this Mr. Vereker is your grandson?”
“Yess, yess, that is it!”
“But he was a tiny boy when he went home. I should have to ask him point-blank if he was the same individual. And surely if it was Paul he would come and see you!”
“For why? He was so little, as you say, when he left us, and people who go across the black water they forget quickly. Una never wrote after her mother died, and she married Mr. Alexander Christian. She said, ‘Better let Paul forget us, and his uncle and aunt will do all for him.’ Now she has other children, and she will not mind much if it is Paul or not; but I should like to know. Mrs. Jahans loved the boy. He would remember us if he saw us, but, perhaps, not before.”
“Supposing this Mr. Vereker turns out to be your grandson—?”
“Then let us know, and it will be all right.”
“But what is he doing out here?”
“He is the new ‘stunt sahib.’ I heard in the bazaar that one had come, and then his wife said it.” “His wife!” repeated Mrs. Watson, aghast at the thought of the complication she might be about to witness; but Mr. Jahans, unconscious of her perturbation and blandly confident that she would carry out his wishes, proceeded to pick up his hat and prepare for departure as though the matter were now satisfactorily settled.
“Well, now I will go and tell Una, and if you find out it is Paul, you can let him know that his grandmother is dead, and Auntie Mactarn, and that I now live with Una and her husband; and how Norman is just married to his cousin Irene Passanah and lives with us as well, and Ulick, too.”
In a petrified silence Mrs. Watson shook hands with the old half-caste, and stood motionless whilst he shambled across the compound. She stood so still that two large black crows hopped up the steps of the verandah and calculated their chances of getting past her into the house in search of plunder. She raised her hand to her forehead and they danced back on to the gravel, eyeing her resentfully.
The last fourteen years had dealt hardly with the little woman, her hair was grey, her face shrunken and wrinkled, the look of anxious care had deepened in her patient eyes. She and her husband were still toiling submissively at Pragpur in the service of their Master, and now the children were all grown up and out in the world except the youngest, who had died in his mother’s arms during one of the rare visits she had paid to England. Mrs. Watson was brave, practical, kind as ever, and now her sympathies were largely stirred by the possibilities involved in Mr. Jahans’ visit. She could enter into the old man’s feelings and his anxiety to know if the boy had really returned; but the prospect of such a contingency filled her with misgiving. How would a man coming straight from years of English life, customs, prejudices, and ideas accept these people as his relations? What would his wife think of them? How would matters arrange themselves? She felt keenly interested in the situation, and made up her mind that nothing should prevent her from attending Mrs. Goring’s garden party that afternoon.
Meanwhile Mr. Jahans had hailed a passing gharry, and, after haggling with the driver for fully ten minutes, was conveyed home for four-pence to the hideous square bungalow standing in a barren area of dusty ground on the outskirts of the prison, for Mr. Alexander held the post of apothecary to the district jail. A dirty servant, attended by a group of mendicant crows, fowls, and pariah dogs, was squatting outside the front Verandah washing up plates and dishes, and within the house the Christian family lingered over the remains of their mid-day breakfast in a shrill clamour of conversation. Una had grown enormous, and her once handsome features were nearly buried in rolls of flesh; she wore a loose dressing-gown with no waistband, and her arms filled the sleeves, giving them the appearance of monster sausages. A crowd of dusky children surrounded the table, Mrs. Norman Jahans (née Passanah) was reading a book while she languidly finished some curry and rice, and opposite his wife sat Mr. Alexander Christian, attired in white drill trowsers and check coat. He Was almost as ponderous as Una, and certainly a good deal darker in complexion; but while his wife’s expression tended to apathetic good nature Mr. Christian’s countenance denoted a mixture of cunning and pomposity that was far from prepossessing.
Mr. Jahans entered, full of the events of the morning.
“What!” screamed Mrs. Christian, “you say Paul has come back?—and married, too? Are you silly in your head?”
“Noh,” replied Mr. Jahans, relapsing into his usual taciturnity, being hurt by such an unsympathetic reception of his news. He took a seat at the table and called for some food.
“Well, if he has come back I do not want to see him,” continued Paul’s mother resentfully; “he never wrote all these years, his aunt never took any notice.”
“You did not write,” answered Mr. Jahans, argumentatively.
“Well, there were many things in the way there was poor mama’s death directly after Paul went home, there was my Marriage, and Alexander jealous; the boy was far away—and—all.” he might have added that her inclination to write to her son had never been very strong, and that she had dropped the correspondence with relief. “But if he has come back let him call.” She put on an air of great dignity.
“No, no,” said Mr. Christian magnanimously, “the best way will be for me to call on him.”
“But I told you,” interposed Mr. Jahans, “Mrs. Watson will find out to-day at Mrs. Goring’s ‘tamasha,’ and she will come here after and tell us if it is Paul. Do not make plans till we know.”
“You would let a missionary’s wife make inquiries about our familee?” said Mr. Christian, “that is not at all becoming. I am the right person to ascertain these facts, being Una’s husband. I will go myself this afternoon, and send in my card to Mr. Goring and ask if I may interview the new assistant magistrate on a matter of importance.” Mr. Christian twirled his large black moustache fiercely, and swelled himself out like a bull-frog. Mr. Jahans looked at his daughter helplessly, he was always overpowered by his son-in-law’s blustering manners, though Mr. Christian was civil enough to his wife’s people, for Eurasians are seldom actively disagreeable.
“Well, do as you please, of course; but if it is not Paul you will look a silly.”
“Do I ever look a silly?” demanded Mr. Christian, appealing to the company in general, who giggled good-naturedly while Mr. Jahans ate his breakfast in a gloomy silence. “If it is not my stepson then there will be no harm. If it is, then it will be a very good thing for me in my official position to have the assistant magistrate as my relative. I may rise to be the civil surgeon of a small station; such things have happened. I am an A1 physician, and in the mixing business,” suiting the action to the word, “I am pucca, though I am not fond of surgery, and when it comes to the cutting and hacking—um-m-m.” Mr. Christian waggled his thumbs to indicate disgust and aversion, stuck out his under lip, and shook his head.
“Shall I come too this afternoon?” inquired Una. She would have enjoyed the excitement and importance, but felt reluctant to undertake the trouble of putting on her best clothes.
“No, no; you wait till we know if it is Paul, yes or no.”
Una agreed. “Yes, better, better,” she said. “I will look just now if your black clothes are all right, I think I saw a tear in the coat last Sunday. You must put a clean cover on your umbrella, and Irene can fix a new puggaree on your helmet. And do not forget your gloves, dear, you often forget them and your hands are getting so burnt!”
Later in the afternoon Mr. Alexander Christian drove up to the collector’s bungalow in his shabby bamboo cart drawn by a lean piebald pony the garden-party was at its height, and from his halting place under the porch he could see the tennis and badminton players darting to and fro over the smooth lawn; he could hear their cheerful cries and laughter mingled with the regular beat of the native band in the distance under the mango-trees; he could distinguish a group of individuals standing beneath the striped canopy that sheltered the refreshment tables; and he recognised Mr. Goring, the General commanding the station, the civil surgeon (with whom Mr. Christian was at perpetual warfare), the district judge, the wives of some of the officers of the English regiment, and many other people of comparative importance. His heart glowed, for if the new civilian who was at present the Collector’s guest should prove to be Una’s son the whole of this distinguished company would soon know it, and what glory would be reflected on himself and his family visions of speedy promotion rose afresh in his mind, he saw himself taking a recognised position amongst Government officials, and dining at the same table as the Lieutenant-Governor.
He hailed a scornful peon who had purposely ignored the half-caste.
“Here you—son of a pig!” he shouted in fluent Hindustani, “take my ticket to the Collector-Sahib at once, and say I wish to speak to the Chota-Sahib” (junior sahib). He held out a greasy square of paper on which was inscribed in a clerkly hand “A. Christian.”
The chuprassie took it in his finger and thumb, a piece of impertinence that was lost oil Mr. Christian, and wandered off in search of a salver. Presently the jail apothecary watched the man moving across the lawn towards his master, bearing the card on a silver tray, and it was perhaps as well for Mr. Christian’s feelings that he was out of ear-shot.
Mr. Goring was deep in a conversation with the General and took the card absently, twirling it in his fingers while he finished his argument. When he glanced at it his short-sighted eyes failed to distinguish the stop after the letter A.
“Some wretched native Christian,” he said; “why on earth could he not have gone to the Cutcherry this morning instead of invading us here? I suppose he’s begging on the strength of his religion.”
“But he has driven up in a trap,” said Selma, who was standing near. “Is that the man under the porch? I’ve heard of a beggar on horseback but not driving himself in a cart!”
“Tell him to go away,” said Mr. Goring to the chuprassie, and put the card back on the salver. “I can’t see him now. He will find me at the Court House to-morrow morning.”
“It looks to me like Alexander Christian, the district jail apothecary,” said the Civil surgeon, putting up his hand to his eyes to shade them from the sun, “I know he possesses a piebald pony of sorts.”
“By Jove I perhaps it is. I’d better see what he wants.” He hailed back the chuprassie, who had already begun his return journey across the lawn. “What does he want? Do you know?” he inquired of the man.
“He wishes to speak with the Chota-Sahib,” returned the peon, who had not before troubled himself to deliver the message.
“The Chota-Sahib? Why, that is your husband, Mrs. Vereker! What can he be driving at? Well, perhaps I’d better go and see him.”
He walked across the lawn, and Selma approached Paul, who was deep in conversation with an elderly dowdy little woman.
“Somebody has just driven up and has asked for you, Paul. Mr. Goring has gone to find out what he wants.”
“Perhaps it’s another old friend,” said Paul. “This is Mrs. Watson, Selma, the lady who took charge of me on the voyage home when I was a little chap. Mrs. Watson, this is my wife—perhaps she will not thank you for having prevented me from falling overboard.”
Selma smiled and shook hands with the missionary’s wife, who, she thought, looked the kind of person eminently fitted to take charge of children—patient, homely, reliable.
“I am so glad to meet you. I suppose you and Paul have been talking over old times, though he can’t remember them very clearly.”
Mrs. Watson said nothing; she was in a state of dismayed perturbation. This beautiful girl, with the graceful carriage, little society air, and charming manner was Paul Vereker’s wife—Paul Vereker, who though he might be handsome, cultivated, successful, was the grandson of old Jahans the Eurasian auctioneer, the son of Una Christian, the stepson of the jail apothecary at that moment complacently waiting beneath the porch to introduce himself as a relation. Mrs. Watson seeing him drive up had rightly guessed what had happened.
During her talk with Paul after making herself known to him, she had quickly discovered that he recollected little or nothing that was clear and definite about his mother or her people, and that he was entirely ignorant of the fact that they were half-castes. She glanced nervously at the bright face of the girl, and then at the handsome figure standing near, and she realised that no one to whom the idea had not been suggested would suspect Paul of having native blood in his veins. He did not look quite English perhaps, but she had seen many men of Celtic origin who were far darker. The two made a splendid picture in their opposite types of beauty, and Mrs. Watson’s kindly heart sank low with pity. She could hardly bring herself to speak calmly to Selma for the impulse that possessed her to cry out a useless warning of the approaching disclosure, and she was relieved when the young man drew his wife to one side.
“I asked her about my mother,” Mrs. Watson heard him say, “I find she is still living here. Her name is Mrs. Alexander Christian.”
Selma started. “But that is the name of the man who has just come to see you, he is there under the porch now,—he—he—is the jail apothecary!”
They gazed at one another in silence, with a sudden and simultaneous sense of foreboding.
Mr. Goring came slowly back across the lawn, his hands in his pockets, and a puzzled, disturbed expression on his face. He beckoned to Paul, who joined him, and the pair returned together to the porch. Selma watched them with eyes full of anxiety; she anticipated some discomforting revelation concerning her husband’s mother, and she stood waiting, in the midst of the gay company, in forlorn apprehension. Her uneasiness deepened when presently she saw Paul get into Mr. Alexander Christian’s trap and drive off beside him, and as Mr. Goring made his way towards her again she felt instinctively that there was reluctance in every step he took.
“Your husband won’t be away long, Mrs. Vereker,” he said, with a curtness born of embarrassment, “he will be back soon; he had to go and see some one an—on business.” He hurried away from her with a masculine dread of awkward questions, and Selma, understanding, made no attempt at inquiry. She looked round for Mrs. Goring, but that lady was for the moment concealed by a group of leave-taking guests, and instead she caught sight of the worn face of the missionary’s wife, who was standing near. Selma turned swiftly to her with a sudden vague sense of comfort.
“Mrs. Watson,” she said in a low, hurried voice, “you were kind to Paul when he was a little boy; you know his mother—will you tell me if the man he has just driven away with has anything to do with his people?”
Mrs. Watson looked straight before her, over the lawn; she could not bear to meet the troubled eyes. “Yes,” speaking steadily, “he is Paul’s step-father.”
“But I heard them say Mr. Christian was the jail apothecary! Was Mrs. Vereker’s second marriage not—I mean was it out of her own class of life?”
“My dear, do you want me to be quite frank with you?” She laid her hand, in its coarse brown cotton glove, on the girl’s arm, and Selma nodded; she could not speak for the throbbing of her pulses.
“Then let us go down this path where nobody will disturb us, and I will tell you everything. Perhaps when your husband comes back he will be relieved to find that you know.”
They turned and walked up and down between rows of oleander bushes that were hung with clusters of pink and white blossoms. The “seven-sister” birds quarrelled and fussed amongst the roots, and indulged in dust-baths almost beneath the feet of the intruders; grey squirrels danced across the path, and sweet odours of wet earth and responsive flowers rose from a neighbouring plot that had recently been watered; in the near distance sounded the ring of voices and laughter, the rattle of tea-things, and the rhythm of a waltz played mechanically by the native band. Keeping her hand on the round warm arm in its dainty lace sleeve, Mrs. Watson gently spoke the truth concerning Paul’s maternal relations, and when she had finished she waited in silent trepidation. What effect would it have upon the girl? What would be her first impulse? Selma’s face was white and her eyes were glazed with tears.
“Oh, poor Paul!” she said, hardly above her breath. Her first thought was for her husband, and Mrs. Watson felt relieved. Paul Vereker’s wife would need a brave, unselfish heart to carry her through the coming difficulties.
“Thank you very much,” said Selma, trying to steady her voice, “I am glad I know, for it would have been very hard for Paul to have to tell me. Now I can be ready to help and comfort him when he comes back, and we can talk it all over quietly. The difference in class on his mother’s side will be a dreadful shock to him, and the other drawback— Mrs. Watson, why should it be considered such a terrible disadvantage to have—not to be quite European? I can understand the aversion to negro blood, that is so low in the scale of humanity, but surely”—her tone was plaintively persuasive—“the people of India have as much to be proud of in their own way as ourselves? When we were naked savages this was a highly civilised country!”
“Yes, yes, I know,” Mrs. Watson spoke doubtfully, in spite of her efforts to do otherwise, “and of course that is what we missionaries are always preaching—that the native is the equal of the white man when he embraces the true religion, and then sometimes his superior.”
“But do you think so yourself? I am asking for your own private opinion.”
Mrs. Watson hesitated. By acknowledging her own private opinion at that moment she could only add to the girl’s distress.
“You cannot, with any justice, compare East and West,” she said with evasion, “the points of view are so utterly different; it is the polarity of race, and the two were never meant to mix—” she checked herself abruptly. “My child,” she added, “I am afraid you will both have many trials to face, and please remember that if ever I can help you in any way you may rely on me.”
Selma thanked her companion abstractedly, for her mind was in confusion. She hardly knew what she was doing, and as they passed from the shelter of the oleanders back to the lawn she almost fell over one of the garden coolies, who, in slovenly puggaree and scanty clothing, was squatting on his heels watering a row of seedlings. Instinctively she drew away her skirts in shrinking repugnance at having so nearly touched him, while the man rose and salaamed in dull-witted respect.
Selma stood still, gripped by a sinister, creeping dismay. She had suddenly recognised the same sense of antipathy that she had experienced when Mrs. Goring’s ayah had tried to assist her, and she realised slowly, strickenly, that in her husband’s veins ran the blood of these dark people from whom she recoiled with involuntary aversion. Forgetting the missionary’s wife and urged by a necessity for solitude she walked quickly towards the house. During her progress she had to steer her way amongst the little native boys in bright uniforms who were frantically chasing the tennis-balls. She had to pass the refreshment tables, in attendance about which were grouped rows of servants With white garments and dusky faces. Under the trees the members of the band grinned and peered in an interval of their performance. Fringing the drive were squatting syces in charge of horses and carriages. In the verandah three or four peons rose and ceased their chatter as she passed. Everywhere black faces. She had once said she should hate to be surrounded by them, and now that the instinct had asserted itself she must fight against it all her life long, she must never betray it, must always be on her guard, because the man she had married was partly “black” himself.
She raised her hands to her forehead with a gesture of despair, and hurried into her bedroom. Selma and helping her to recover self-control more than any emotional sympathy could have done. She shook out her skirts and pushed back the hair from her face.
“I must dress for dinner,” she said nervously; “of course I am rather upset—it was all so unexpected.”
“Yes, I could hardly believe it when my husband told me. Neither of you had any idea of it before?”
“Certainly not. Even now I can’t realise what it will mean, or what difference it will make. Have you ever heard of such a situation as this?”
“Not quite the same, but something near it. The man knew about his relations—they lived in the bazaar and were much worse than the Jahans people—he went home and married, and brought his wife out.”
“Without telling her?”
“Paul would never have done that!”
“When she found out she went back to England. She left him.”
“I shall not do that either,” said Selma flushing. “That is a case quite different from ours, Mrs. Goring.”
“My dear Mrs. Vereker, I can see that you have pluck and spirit, and common sense. The best thing you can do will be to persuade your husband to go home and begin life again in England if you can afford it; if you can’t you must get a transfer to another province and try to keep the story quiet.”
“I shall do exactly what Paul wishes,” said Selma with dignity.
“He may not realise what a terrible difference it will make to him both officially and socially if he stays on here. You are the only person who has a right to argue with him on the subject, and I speak to you plainly because I feel you are worth it, and that you will understand my motive. Officially there must be a prejudice against a man who has a herd of half-caste, almost native, relations living in the place where he holds a Government appointment. The authorities would fear his being biased, and the distrust which arises from experience in many such cases would be a serious handicap to your husband, though no doubt he would live it down. Socially, the drawback of your connections being here could not be ignored, and you would find it most unpleasant. People would not wish to be unkind, but they would not care to run the risk of meeting the Jahans contingent at your house; they would always be terrified of saying something in your presence that might cause awkwardness and hurt your feelings, and therefore they would never be at ease with you. Probably you would find many people anxious to befriend you because they might be sorry for you to begin with, and have a genuine liking for you as well, but you would always be conscious of the barrier and feel uncertain of your ground, and your position would be a false one altogether. In every-day life the situation would probably affect you personally more than it would your husband, though I have already told you that it might handicap his career. For your own sake and for Mr. Vereker’s I advise you to go as far away as possible from Pragpur, and believe me, I know what I am talking about.”
Selma’s face was very white, and she turned away with an uneasy movement. “Thank you,” she answered a little hoarsely, “it is better for me to know what to expect if we stay. But I cannot urge Paul to run away; he must do as he thinks best.” She paused, and as Mrs. Goring went towards the door she added, “I am no longer surprised that you hate India!”
* * * *
The gong was clamouring the dinner hour when Paul came back. Selma was dressed, her hair carefully arranged, her eyes freshened with cold water, all traces of agitation subdued. Her husband’s face was quite impassive as he hurried into the room, and she could form no opinion as to how the interview with his relations had impressed him; she met him in distressed anxiety to relieve him of the burden of explanation.
“Paul, I know everything—Mrs. Watson told me,” she began with quick nervousness. “I am so sorry for you, dear—I will help you all I can—I shan’t mind a bit—it will make no difference”—she stopped, fearing that she had insisted on her loyalty to the verge of betraying her recent feelings.
His strange green eyes shone in the lamplight as he caught her hand and kissed it; then he pushed her gently towards the door. “Go and say I shan’t be long; we must talk afterwards.”
She understood that he wished her to behave as if nothing unusual had occurred, and she chatted in the drawing-room with Mr. Goring, who she perceived was supremely uncomfortable, until Paul appeared ten minutes later and offered his arm to his hostess with apologies, but not excuses, for his unpunctuality. During dinner Mrs. Goring and Selma kept up an artificial conversation concerning books, pictures, and plays; Paul joined in it, and also tried to lead his superior official to talk a little “shop.” The only person who seemed to be thoroughly ill at ease was Mr. Goring himself, who failed to grasp the psychological aspect of the situation, and marvelled privately how some people could be so confoundedly thick-skinned.
The evening was unexpectedly prolonged, for dinner was scarcely over when some near and intimate neighbours, who had been absent from the garden-party, strolled across from their bungalow to explain their non-appearance, and were persuaded by Mrs. Goring to stay—their presence being a relief to everybody. Consequently it was nearly midnight before Paul and Selma found themselves alone. She moved to the dressing-table and began to take off her rings, bracelets and necklace. He followed, and as he stood behind her their eyes met in the looking-glass. She lowered hers, for they were full of a dread that he might guess the state of her mind; she tingled with a shrinking, sensitive reserve, which she was making desperate efforts to overcome.
“Tell me what happened, Paul,” she said gently; “you went to see your mother?”
“Yes; it was all so sudden and unexpected. That fellow Christian came to find out if I was his step-son, and to stop his chatter I volunteered to go back with him; I thought it the best thing to do. I asked Goring to tell you I had gone to see some one on business, because I didn’t want you to be worried before it was necessary.”
“I asked Mrs. Watson, and she told me the whole story. She is a dear, kind soul. How did you get on?”
“Well, I can’t deny that the visit was very trying. My mother and I are practically strangers—I think she lost all interest in me after she married again—and then to find that she and her people belong to such a different class from what we have been accustomed to is very humiliating and disagreeable. But I mind that far more for your sake than I do for my own. I feel as if I had married you under false pretences.”
“Oh don’t, Paul!—what nonsense!—you didn’t know, and besides, if you had it would have made no difference to me.” Her heart gave a little accusing throb. Would it have made no difference? She hoped not. He began to pace restlessly up and down the room.
“There is another thing,” he went on in the rapid nervous tone which was always noticeable when anything excited him. “I understand now why India has always drawn me—why she has always held such a fascination for me. Why, I don’t think I could bear to leave her now that I have once come back. It is because I belong to the country.”
“Yes,” said Selma, pretending to search for something on the dressing-table.
“But there is no disgrace in that to me—none whatever. The whole difficulty of the situation lies in the unfortunate difference of class. That must be a very hard trial for us both, for either we shall have to acknowledge these people, who certainly are my relations, or I must take you away altogether. The thing is, what would you like to do?”
“Oh Paul, don’t put it on to me!” she said piteously. How could she urge him to take her away—to shirk a disagreeable position—especially when, if Mrs. Goring’s words were true, the brunt of the unpleasantness entailed by their remaining at Pragpur would fall on herself? But there was also Paul’s career to be considered. “Mrs. Goring talked it over with me before you came in,” she added; “she was very kind, but she told me plainly that you might suffer officially here because your people belong to the country. Of course in that case perhaps we ought to go, but personally—”
He threw out his hands, palms upward. “That decides me!” he said fiercely; “I will stay here whatever happens.” If Lady Jardine could have seen him then his likeness to his father would have struck her again, just as it had suddenly done that evening at Farm Park when Paul had fallen in love with Selma Neale. “Because a man has the blood of India in his veins, is he to be treated differently unless he proves himself incompetent? This is a country that is old in original wisdom, she is steeped in knowledge, and beauty, and mystery! I tell you, Selma, I am glad I belong to her—I am proud of it!”
The morning after the garden-party Mr. Goring stifled his natural aversion to dealing with disagreeables not entirely official, and “talked to” his new assistant; but with no more effect, as he subsequently told Mrs. Goring, than if he had addressed the gate-post. “The fellow is a mass of obstinacy and self-confidence,” he said, “the only thing to do is to let him have his head, and if he runs it into the wall it won’t be my fault.”
“What did you say to him?”
“I advised him to ask his wife’s uncle, Colonel Everard, to get him transferred to another province where his origin wouldn’t be known. I pointed out that if he stayed on here where the natives could see all his half-caste relations his official authority wouldn’t be worth much. I also told him that his people would be constantly trying to bring undue influence to bear on him to get subordinate appointments for themselves and their friends—which is fair enough to the Oriental mind, but an abomination to the English Government—and that he would find himself in a very difficult position.”
“Then he began talking a lot of rot about India and its ancient civilisation, and clap-trap about British prejudice and indifference, until I had to be brutally frank and tell him he was only a youngster, and that he had come out here to work as an Englishman. I said he would never do well from an official point of view in a place where he was known to be black.”
“Well, he brought it on himself. I explained that as a general rule Eurasians were not to be depended on in an emergency; that in a serious riot or a tight place they couldn’t be trusted not to lose their nerve. I also mentioned the fact that they were not proof against corruption; and that for these reasons they could hardly ever be placed in positions of responsibility. Of course I said that all this would not necessarily apply to him with his English advantages and predominance of white blood, but I impressed on him that if he stayed in the same province with his people, not to speak of the same station, it could only result in a case of give a dog a bad, or rather a black, name and hang him!”
“Did he understand?”
“If he did he wouldn’t own it. I believe he’s cracked, and he seems rather to like being dark than otherwise. As to his mother’s position in life he said he had no particular feeling about that except for his wife’s sake, and as she was willing to accept the circumstances he thought it was nobody’s business but their own. I’m sorry for Mrs. Vereker.”
“She is a brave soul, and has more character for her age than any girl I have ever met. I hate girls as a rule, but she is one in a thousand. What could have induced her to marry that youth besides his beauty?—which is certainly undeniable. I tried to make her see reason again this morning, but though I am sure to a certain extent she does see it, nothing will persuade her to retreat from the situation. It’s a high-minded, self-sacrificing attitude that could only be produced by extreme youth and inexperience. All I can do is to help her to settle into her new home, and stand by her as much as she will allow me. I am letting them have the trap this afternoon to go and call on the Christians.”
“Oh Lord!” said Mr. Goring.
“Yes; and I must confess that I would give a great deal to know how the visit goes off, but I am sure Mrs. Vereker will never let out a word.”
She was right. Selma never described the visit to her.
Mr. and Mrs. Vereker started early in the afternoon (feeling this to be a less formal proceeding than to call between the orthodox visiting hours of twelve and two) and they drove up to an apparently deserted dwelling. They sat in the trap in the blazing sunshine, patiently waiting while the syce ran round the bungalow emitting discordant cries which failed to call forth any human response. The doors of the servants’ quarters were all shut, and the only sign of life on the premises was a black and white goat that was nibbling at a dusty rose-bush, and that bleated protestingly every time the man shouted. The white-washed building glared in the strong light; a little soapy water was trickling from a drain-pipe that protruded from the wall a few inches from the ground; now and then a cloud of dust from the thoroughfare behind them arose and blew against the “chicks” (blinds of split cane) that were lowered all round the verandahs.
“Don’t they expect us?” asked Selma. “Are you sure you told them you would bring me today?”
“Yes, but I didn’t mention any particular time—I did not think it would matter.”
At that moment the sallow face of a little girl peered cautiously round one of the chicks. Selma suspected, with a sinking heart, that this was a half-sister of Paul’s.
“Is your mother at home?” she inquired gently.
The chick was promptly dropped, and they could see the child’s black eyes gazing at them through the cracks.
“What on earth are we to do? Shall we go into the house?” suggested Selma.
Paul lifted up his voice in a final despairing shout, and at last an old ayah, dilapidated, yellow, toothless, came round the side of the house and stood on one leg, while Selma (who had been primed by Mrs. Goring in the calling customs of the country) gave her the visiting cards; but as the ayah had coyly covered her face with her wrapper on beholding Paul, it was like endeavouring to hand something to a blind person. The old woman eventually grabbed the cards and disappeared, whereupon the little girl, gaining confidence, emerged from her ambush behind the chick. She was dressed in red merino, and her hair was plaited into a tight, slippery pig-tail.
“What is your name?” asked Selma pleasantly.
“Wi,” blinking her eyelids.
“Because I should like to know,” replied Selma, somewhat astonished at what she mistook for an ungracious counter-question.
“Wi, I said Wi!” cried the child in shrill impatience, “my name is Wiolet!” Then she added more calmly, “My mamma she washing her head in the gussel-khana” (bath-room), and she pointed to the water soaking into the ground from the pipe.
“Look here, Selma, shall we give it up now and write and fix a time to come?” said Paul in a distressed voice.
“No, no, dear—it will be all right, I expect; at any rate wait till the ayah comes back, we can’t go away now after sending in our cards.”
The ayah returned, and, after standing like an image of Lot’s wife swathed from head to foot in her limp white garments, announced in a high cracked voice, “Salaam” which meant that the visitors were to enter the house. They crossed the broad verandah that was crowded with odds and ends of clumsy furniture, and enlivened by plants in kerosine oil-tins. A talking myna (the Indian starling), hanging up in a roomy wicker cage, began to show off his accomplishments at sight of them. He neighed like a horse, coughed like a night-watchman, with ghastly hollow sounds, and chattered volubly in Hindustani. The room within seemed to be pitch dark by contrast with the glare outside, and the Verekers groped for chairs until their eyes became accustomed to the change.
The furniture was dusty and decayed, and seemed to display a patient air of resignation, as though anticipating the day when the final and inevitable breakdown should take place. A large round table leant humbly towards the floor; a mouldy “suite” was arranged around it; some black and gold what-nots and two marble-topped chiffonniers propped themselves against the wall—remnants of the household possessions that had given such delight to Una in the early days of her first marriage. Some tattered Japanese fans were nailed to the harsh white-washed walls, which were spotted and stained by the excavations of white ants.
Paul and Selma sat in silence, listening to the subdued bustle in the next room, sounds that suggested the hasty pattering of bare feet, the rummaging of cupboards, and occasionally a sharp reprimand. At last Mrs. Christian sailed in; her plentiful black hair had been insufficiently dried, and formed a wet heap on the top of her head; she was panting loudly, for she had just pressed her enormous proportions into her best gown, a mustard-coloured silk, profusely adorned with gold beads. She had left the body open at the neck, very wisely preferring untidiness to strangulation. She wore a heavy amber necklace, with bracelets and earrings to match, and her loose heel-less slippers clapped on the ground as she walked.
For a moment Selma hesitated. How could she bring herself to embrace this dun-coloured mass of perspiring flesh? She glanced at Paul, and one look at his troubled face gave her courage. Had she not undertaken to uphold him in his desire to acknowledge his people and remain at Pragpur? She must not fail him at the very first trial of her strength. She rose and held out her hands to her mother-in-law, who kissed her with noisy welcome, but was evidently a little nervous and excited.
“Well, I never!” exclaimed Mrs. Christian in high staccato tones, “fancy you being Paul’s wife!” She stepped back and gazed admiringly at Selma. “So grand you are! and pretty! and such beautiful clothes! When you did not come this morning I thought, ‘Now, they will not be here till five o’clock or six,’ or else I would have been ready. We have all been wondering and wondering what you would be like ever since Paul came yesterday. My what a shock I got to see him again! And to think that now he is back in the same place as his father, and in the Civil Service, and so like him, too! Ah, well it was a terrible thing that cholera year!—but it was all a long time ago, and we get over our worst troubles—h’n?”
Paul began to walk about the room with restless, irritable steps.
“I am afraid they kept you waiting outside in all the sun,” continued Mrs. Christian, sinking into a chair and inviting Selma to do the same. “The servants have all gone off to the bazaar without orders—they are so troublesome, these people! I have told the ayah to call the children—they are in the next compound with their cousins, the De Souzas , but my big boy, Cyril, he is not well—he is in bed.”
“I hope it is nothing serious?” said Selma politely.
“Oh I no!—he has only a pain in his stomach—he will be all right just now. He went out to tea yesterday, and I think he indulged too much. He is very fond of going out, and he is quite a drawing-room man already, though he is only thirteen! Paul was quite different when he was little.” She regarded her eldest son with amiable reproach. “He was never a talker, and so shy, and no appetite.”
Paul stopped in front of his mother.
“I wanted to ask you,” he began, ignoring her reminiscences of his childhood, “whether you have anything of my father’s you could give me—any belongings, or photographs, books, or pictures?”
Mrs. Christian shook her head. “It was all such a long time back,” she said in plaintive excuse, “and in moving house things get lost. There was his watch and chain — well, I let Alexander have that. But one night a thief stole it, and the studs and the ring and the pin, too! Such a pity! The pictures and books they were all eaten by the white ants when I was a widow, and my property was stored in the go-down. Such another pity! But if you want things of the past—there is the old sandal-wood box which belonged to Bibi Jahans, with some relics. Your grandfather keeps it. Some day,” with a knowing nod at Selma, “you must coax it out of him. He will not give it to me—but I do not want her rubbish! She was an old rascal, and left all her money to the priests to build a temple instead of to us. I feel quite ashamed when I think of her!”
“Oh! I believe I remember that box!” said Paul suddenly; and a confused recollection returned to him of the house by the river, the old woman, with eyes dimmed by age and sickness, propped up on a bed in a nest of pillows, and the large garden full of native flowers and fruit trees.
“Well, here is your grandfather at last!” as Mr. Jahans shuffled in. “He has had fever, and did not go to the auction-place to-day.”
Selma, remembering that she had last seen the old man respectfully attending to herself and Mrs. Goring at the auction rooms, felt her cheeks grow crimson. Mr. Jahans looked feeble and shaky and was evidently much embarrassed by the presence of his grandson’s wife. His manner to her was anxiously deferential, and he seated himself in silence, fondling his long whiskers and gazing at Paul with an expression of pride in his dull, black eyes that touched Selma’s heart. She tried to talk to him, and had almost succeeded in starting a conversation, when Mr. Alexander Christian blustered in.
“I am glad to see you in my house—both of you!” he said, shaking hands with effusion. “I hope you will be often here, and that you will run in when you like. Una, where is tea? Where is your orange wine? Do you mean to say you have offered no hospitality? Fie — for shame!”
The Verekers protested that it was too early for tea, but Mr. Christian remarked that it was never too early for orange wine, and Selma was obliged to swallow and praise some of the sickly mixture that had been brewed by Mrs. Christian’s own fat bands.
Then Irene Jahans, the bride, came languidly through the door from which Mr. Christian had just emerged. She was a slight, pretty-looking young woman, with pale brown hair and a dark tint under her colourless skin. She had assumed the role of a semi-invalid with her marriage—the correct attitude, according to Eurasian etiquette, for a married lady. The Christian children followed—three little boys dressed in brown velveteen and pith hats much too large for them, and Wi, the only daughter. (Cyril being unable to appear was represented by his tame mongoose, that ran furtively round the room and caused Selma agonies of apprehension that it would come in her direction.) They stood by the dejected-looking table and stared at their new relatives, and Selma wondered how so many people managed to find room to live together in the bungalow, She did her best to be pleasant, telling them of the house she had taken, and actually laughing with old Mr. Jahans over the fact that she had already bought some of her furniture from him without knowing who he was.
“And now you need not pay!” he chuckled, much amused. “What a lucky thing—h’n? and you can come and choose what you like from my place. Anything I got you can have!”
“What will Norman and Ulick say to that?” warned Una.
“I do not care what they say!” answered Mr. Jahans, who was now completely enslaved by Selma. He shuffled round to her side, and laying his hand on her shoulder, besought her to apply to him for whatever she required for her house; while Mr. Christian clamorously pressed her to take more orange wine.
“It is so weak!” he urged, “you can drink a whole bottle and yet you will be able to walk!”
In the midst of Mrs. Christian’s shocked laughter at this remark, Paul signalled to his wife, and they rose to take their departure. The move was received with noisy protest, and the subsequent farewells occupied considerable time. The entire family escorted the visitors into the verandah, where the myna added to the din by pouring forth a flood of Hindustani.
“Oh my! what language!” said Mr. Christian in pretended horror, “where could he have learnt such words!”
“What does it matter?” said Mrs. Christian indulgently, “he is but a bird.”
She stood smiling, and nodding, and waving her hands, while Paul and Selma got into the trap; and having seen them drive away Mrs. Christian sent to the bazaar for a “ticca-gharry.” She felt that since she had gone to the trouble and exertion of making an elaborate toilette she might just as well take the opportunity of paying a round of visits, in order to apprise all her friends, and even her enemy, Mrs. Lightowler, the station-master’s wife, of the wonderful position to which her son had attained, and the beauty and superiority of her daughter-in-law.
* * * *
“This isn’t the way we came,” said Selma, when she and Paul had driven for some distance along the dusty road. Since leaving the Christians’ bungalow neither of them had spoken till this moment, and now they were passing through an unfashionable suburb of the great bazaar: naked brown children rolled in the gutters together with the pariah dogs, and refuse of fruit, vegetables, and rags; natives strolled along in the middle of the narrow street apparently indifferent to the danger of being run over; beggars whined, and crawled, and lifted up their hands for alms; the shops were little more than slabs of musty thatch supported against the walls of the houses by bamboo poles, and the wares exposed to the sun, dust and flies were in keeping with the general squalor of the surroundings.
“No,” answered Paul—his voice sounded depressed—“I know it is not the way we came, but I don’t want to go back yet. I should like to go down to the river, and I think this road ought to take us there. I must get that room out of my mind. You can’t think how I felt seeing you sitting there amongst those people, and knowing they were my nearest relations! I hadn’t realised before what it would mean and what a gulf there is between you and them. I am wondering if, for your sake, I hadn’t better follow Goring’s advice and chuck the province.” For a moment Selma’s heart leapt with hope. “Of course, if I had only myself to consider I shouldn’t hesitate to stay after what Goring said to me this morning—if it was but for the satisfaction of proving myself the exception to his narrow rule.”
“What did he say?”
“Oh, a lot that made me feel more than ever determined to hold my own. He is full of prejudice. Here he is, a man in authority over thousands of people, ruling a district larger than two ordinary English counties put together, and yet he seems to know nothing of the wisdom and truth underlying the life of the country. He looks on the native as a ‘black man,’ as a conquered slave, as an ignorant, degraded, corrupt member of the human race; never to be believed, never to be trusted; to be governed without sympathy, and without understanding. He hates the country and only looks upon his office as a pathway to a pension, and a means of saving money to spend when he gets out of it.”
For a moment Selma was tempted to take advantage of his hesitation. A little persuasion and complaint would free her from a position that must only become more intolerable with time; would put miles between her and the Christian family; perhaps release her from India altogether, and so help her to forget that Paul belonged to the country. She looked around in revolt against the dirt, the apathy, the disease visible on every side as they traversed the narrow street. The close, unwholesome smells in the air sickened her; she failed to find any consolation in the effect of rich and vivid colouring caused by the sunny atmosphere, the irregular lines of the flat white house-tops against the brilliance of the sky, and the many-hued garments of the indolent crowd of loiterers by the way. She thought of her mother-in-law, and of the half-caste family herding in the little bungalow, with their narrow, vulgar outlook and uncongenial habits that belonged neither to the East nor to the West. She shrank from the prospect of the months and years of self-repression that lay before her, and she was on the point of crying out that she could not bear to face such a future; that, like the Gorings, she, too, hated India, recoiled instinctively from the natives, and would be thankful never to see the country again.
“I feel torn in two,” continued Paul, so checking the words on her lips. “You know well enough how devoted I am to you, my dearest; how can I be selfish and keep you here with these relations of mine in a lower class of life hampering you at every turn? Yet it seems to me rather a coward’s part to turn my back on them and sneak away; and I long to show my respected Collector that I can face what he considers to be my disadvantages and rise, triumphant, above them; I feel so strongly about it.”
“I know!” The sympathy in the girl’s nature welled up and drowned her own fears and inclinations; also she honoured Paul’s point of view. “I can understand; and believe me, I mean it, Paul, when I say that I choose to stay here with you. I do it of my own free will. We will face it together; and after all, if we find that other people are right and the situation becomes impossible, we can but own ourselves beaten and run away. Luckily, with your brains and my money, we never need fear the future.”
She smiled up at him bravely, and the loving gratitude in his eyes seemed to lighten her dread of the time to come. He shifted the reins to his right hand, and with his left he grasped her fingers lying in her lap, and held them for a moment so tightly that she almost cried aloud.
They had passed out of the narrow crowded street into a broad white road, where a sign-post directed them to the fort; then came a plantation of huge trees shrouded with dust, and afterwards the way began to run down hill, with the ground on either side bare, and split into gaping ravines. A sharp turn brought them to the edge of the metalling, the pony’s hoofs sank deep into a sandy soil, and they found themselves in the shadow of the grim towering fort. Leaving the trap, they plodded past a collection of squalid huts, hardly more than temporary shelters for fishermen, and silently rounded the great red walls just as Paul had done so many years ago when a little boy. Before them in wide tranquillity lay the sacred waters glittering in the sun, streaked with yellow sand-bars, melting into the opal haze of the opposite shore. To the left rose the rugged red grandeur of Akbar’s fortress, strong against the clear blue of the sky; to the right a little white temple had been built on the edge of the river bank, with a flight of steps leading down to the water.
A shaven priest in salmon-tinted robes wandered to the edge of the stream, and with his head thrown back he chanted a hymn of praise. The curious minor notes echoed across the water with a ring of triumphant independence of the world, as the words, more shouted than sung, were flung into the air. Further along the shore there arose a curl of gauzy smoke, showing that a cremation was taking place, and the group of mourning relatives could be distinguished crowding round the funeral pyre.
Paul and Selma moved on till they reached the shrine of the monkey-god. The Baba-jee of the old days no longer sat on the edge of the deity’s resting-place—he had not lived to see another Great Festival; a young, clean-shaven Brahmin, with a high-caste dreamy face was in attendance, and as Paul dropped a silver coin on to the recumbent red figure of the idol the priest salaamed in dignified acknowledgment. Paul made a gesture of salute in return, and then, taking Selma’s arm, he pointed to a tongue-shaped island in the near distance, where work of some kind was evidently being carried on.
“They are preparing for the great religious fair already, I think,” he said. “Goring told me that all the priests will be quartered on an island, and that my work would be down here looking after the arrangements. It comes off in January, and I shall have to superintend details, and carry out executive orders connected with the building of huts, and the locating of the shops. It will be such an opportunity for studying the religious thought and feeling of the country, and I mean to make the most of it. Fancy two or three millions of people all impelled to the same spot by a sense of religion—what a wonderful atmosphere How can any one dare to judge it from a conventional standpoint? Think of these people who three thousand years ago evolved the Laws of Manu—one of the grandest systems of ethics that has ever been known—remember the culture, thought, and philosophy that has lasted through all those centuries!”
“But, Paul,” said Selma, rather diffidently, “perhaps it is better for them now to be ruled from a Western standpoint; it must mean progression for them, and you forget how much there is in their faiths that is false and corrupt—you must not idealise India too much.”
“I don’t want to,” he said quickly, “but behind all the falseness and impurity, behind the gross ugliness of that idol, for instance,” pointing to the grinning red figure, “I see the worship of the great invisible forces that regulate the world—”
Selma looked at him half alarmed; his voice sounded strange and unnatural. He had taken off his hat, and his dark hair fell in rings on his forehead. There was an abstracted expression in his eyes glowing with a green light, and for one moment she traced a resemblance that frightened her to the young Brahmin priest seated impassive on the edge of the shrine, gazing with what seemed to her the same rapt far-away look out over the holy river.
A sudden depression clutched her. She felt painfully alone, standing here on the yellow sands surrounded with the atmosphere of what to her meant idolatry. She could not follow her husband’s thoughts—he was as much apart from her as if she had been still in England and he in India. The East had claimed him from the moment of his return; she could only bow blindly to the mysterious power which she was too sensitive not to recognise, but which she was unable to understand.
From the fort behind them came the tinkle of a bell sounding sharply through the peaceful quiet. Paul turned abruptly.
“I am going into the temple,” he said. “I went in once, I remember, when I was a child. Will you come too?”
She shook her head; then held out her hand on a sudden impulse. “Yes, I will,” she said desperately. She would follow him in person if she could not do so in spirit.
They walked to the narrow opening in the massive walls and entered. But half-way down the dark passage Selma stopped. The glimmer of oil-lamps ahead showed her the outlines of grotesque idols in the niches of the walls; they seemed to be watching her with malign amusement. At the end of the corridor she could see the altar, and on it the great polished stone—the symbol of Siva—damp, and shining. Before it the shadowy forms of two priests, their almost naked bodies white with paint and ashes, sat in silent, ghostly contemplation. The air was heavy, brooding, sickly with the scent of burnt sandal-wood and dying flowers.
The girl shuddered and turned back. “I can’t go on!” she cried; but Paul continued his way alone. She watched his figure merge into the gloom, he had made no attempt to lead her on; indeed she knew that he had not even missed her from his side.
A week later Selma was in her own house. Mrs. Goring helped her to engage suitable servants, to make out lists of necessaries for her store-room, to unpack her wedding presents and offered valuable counsel concerning the many trifles so bewildering to a new-comer, but which go towards the whole comfort of Anglo-Indian existence. Mrs. Christian was inclined to have “feelings” over what she termed the meddling of the Collector’s wife; she was at an uncomfortable disadvantage when in that lady’s superior presence, and the probability of encountering Mrs. Goring restrained her from visiting her daughter-in-law as frequently as she would have liked. So she bombarded Selma with slatternly aspirants for employment, who skulked in the compound and rushed at the “memsahib,” tendering their “chits” (written characters) and requesting service every time she appeared outside the doors. When Mrs. Vereker politely intimated that she was suited with regard to her domestics, Mrs. Christian declared contemptuously that the Goring’s head butler must certainly be making his fortune out of the Vereker establishment, since she knew for a fact that each one of Selma’s servants was in some way related to him.
“Of course they are!” said Mrs. Goring, to whom Selma laughingly repeated the remark. “Every native tries to provide for his relations, and no native ever does anything for nothing. But my old butler comes of a highly respectable family, and that was why I told him to find servants for you. I don’t think he would let you in for any bad bargains. ‘A devil you know is better than a devil you don’t know,’ and if you were to engage any of these disreputable creatures of Mrs. Christian’s they would probably have to pay her a percentage on their wages for getting them the situation, and you would be disgraced by them at every turn. They are not sahibs” servants at all.”
Selma understood after this why her husband’s mother was so keenly anxious also to recommend the tradesmen who supplied the Christian family—the baker, who brought small discoloured loaves of bread and specimens of weird biscuits, and could hardly be induced to leave the premises; the confectioner, who proudly produced pink and white balls of sugared cocoanut and odd brown twirly sweetmeats from a dusty tin box; the butcher, an evil-looking Mohammedan with a cast in his eye, bearing dark stringy joints of goat’s meat. Half-naked men arrived balancing on their beads baskets filled with pomegranates, limes, oranges, and sticky country vegetables for sale, having been directed to the bungalow by “Kristarn memsahib.” A native tailor established himself in one corner of the verandah and demanded immediate occupation, asserting that he had been sent from the house of the jail apothecary under promise of service with the new assistant magistrate’s lady.
Selma gradually contrived to put a stop to this kind of annoyance without hopelessly offending her mother-in-law, but she was hardly ever permitted to forget the fact that the Christians were her close connections. Cyril, having fully recovered from his indisposition, spent all his spare time in the Verekers’ compound. He watched and hindered the workmen who were repairing the stables and out-houses; he superintended the stocking of the garden with flowers and vegetables and appropriated half the seeds; he loitered aimlessly about the servants’ quarters; shot at the fowls with a little native pellet-bow; penetrated into the kitchen and larder, and frequently helped himself to eatables without permission. Whenever Selma heard his shrill voice or caught sight of his lanky figure she instinctively glanced under the furniture, for Cyril thought nothing of depositing his white rats, mongoose, squirrels, or tame snake in the drawing-room while he amused himself outside; and on one memorable afternoon his sister-in-law had discovered a young pig in her bedroom.
Old Mr. Jahans would occasionally stroll over, supporting himself with his tall bamboo stick, and would sit stolidly gazing at Selma with an expression of benign admiration that would have been somewhat disconcerting had there been anyone else to witness it; he often brought her little gifts, mostly Brummagem rubbish from the Parsis’ shops that might have delighted a young child; and he actually gave into her keeping the Bibi Jahans’ sandal-wood box and its precious contents (without any “coaxing” on her part), a proceeding that, had she but realised it, was the crowning mark of his esteem and affection.
Irene, the bride, paid languid visits to Mrs. Vereker in the early mornings or late afternoons—the intermediate hours she passed in slumber—and she usually borrowed as a pattern some article of dress that happened to catch her fancy. The things were faithfully returned, but often crumpled and spoiled beyond recognition, and this fact was sufficiently accounted for when Irene one day admitted that though the tailor she now employed could copy anything, he was, unfortunately, obliged to pick it to pieces first.
“But he always sews it up again afterwards,” she added reassuringly, having no doubt observed the look of dismay on Selma’s face. Mrs. Norman Jahans not only attired herself in native-made replicas of Mrs. Vereker’s clothes, but she passed on the patterns to her friends and relations, the consequence being that Selma was continually meeting grotesque travesties of her prettiest costumes worn with complaisant triumph by half the Eurasian young women in the station. Irene lived in secret hopes that Selma would eventually take her to the Club, and principally for that reason she was overwhelmingly gushing and attentive; therefore her vexation and disappointment were not to be concealed when she discovered that Selma was not even a member.
“Not joined the Club when you would have no difficulty?” she cried, astounded at this non-appreciation of such an enviable privilege. For to “get into the Club” is the Eurasian’s notion of complete social success; a parallel to the Royal enclosure at Ascot. “And for why not?”
“I don’t want to,” said Selma briefly. Indeed Mrs. Vereker had no intention of mixing in Pragpur society. She was unwilling to lay herself open to the chance of slights, real or imaginary, intentional or otherwise. Most of the station called, partly from curiosity, partly from official etiquette, and she returned the visits in the evenings when she was practically certain that every one would be out. She declined invitations and allowed it to be generally concluded that she desired to be left undisturbed. She saw much of Mrs. Goring and of Mrs. Watson, and she was never dull, for her resources in herself were many, and she had brought a piano out from England. She ordered a weekly consignment of books from Calcutta, took in the best magazines and reviews, and applied herself to the task of enlarging “Wi’s” education, for though Mrs. Christian was always talking of sending the child to school in the hills she had never yet got beyond the contemplation of the plan. The little girl, who was precociously intelligent, made rapid progress in her reading and writing under Selma’s guidance, showed a marked aptitude for music and drawing, and consented to keep her face and hands and, as far as possible, her clothes free from dirt.
In addition to these occupations Selma began to explore the enormous half-caste colony in the station, among whom she had discovered, through Mrs. Watson, that charity was often badly needed. She was appalled at the squalid lives led by some of the very poor Eurasians, the dirt, the ignorance, the idleness, sometimes the deplorable immorality. Freely she gave of her sympathy, money, time, counsel. Occasionally she was rewarded by gratitude and efforts at improvement, more often she was baffled by the curious falseness of their pride, their want of energy and backbone, their morbid dread of forgetting the drop of white blood which, far from elevating them, was the excuse for their ridiculous reluctance to do anything that might be mistaken for a form of labour, and kept them perpetually on the defensive an attitude that amused Selma intensely when it did not exasperate her beyond all patience.
Paul was unconscious of the life of isolation that his wife was leading, and she never enlightened him. He was absorbed in his work, which was heavy, and he spent the greater part of the day down by the fort assisting in the preparations for the fair, now drawing near. In his spare moments he worked with a munshi at the language, though in a surprisingly short time he was able to speak Hindustani as fluently as though he had never left the country. Selma was always ready to listen to his theories and arguments, to take an interest in his work, and often she accompanied him in the mornings and evenings down to the river-bank, though the increasing assemblage of pilgrims and holy men possessed no attraction for her. She was better pleased when Paul drove her to the English cemetery, where they had ordered a cross to be erected to the memory of his father; or when he dropped her at the creeper-covered archway of an old garden near the river—once the pleasure-ground of a Mogul Emperor—where she loved to linger in the shade of a group of handsome mausoleums that had there been erected to the memory of some ill-fated members of the Royal House of Timur. She enjoyed the sense of rest and peace that seemed concentrated under the quiet trees and around the silent tombs—such a contrast to the growing turmoil on the sands—and she always contemplated with pleasure the Arabic inscription on the principal monument, translated for her one day by a wandering visitor: “His mighty Soul fills a court of Paradise.”
She wished that Paul’s love of research had attracted him to the investigation of the Mohammedan religion rather than to the probing of Hindu faiths. It seemed to her more practical, clearer, stronger, simpler, and more applicable to the daily needs of life. She wondered at his eager inquiry into the incredible tangle of Hindu creeds and practices; his impatience for the comparative leisure that would be his after the fair was over, when he intended to continue his study of Sanscrit (begun at Oxford), which he declared was the only true key to these mysteries. She sometimes feared that she was drifting away from his inner life and thoughts. He appeared to be as devoted to her as ever; she knew that he was passionately grateful to her for voluntarily staying on at Pragpur; he gave her a free hand in all money matters, and she could see that he was unaffectedly relieved to find her apparently contented with her life. But she was conscious that her lack of interest in the country and its worn-out history, her indifference, or rather dislike, to the native element vexed and distressed him; and one morning, when she was standing in the porch of the bungalow seeing him off to his work, he even lost his temper because, dazzled by the sun, she thoughtlessly inquired: “Are those people or natives coming along the road?”
She was dismayed at his sudden outburst of reproach, and she watched him in silent wounded astonishment as he got into the trap and drove away, an angry frown clouding his handsome face. Selma expected that he would turn almost at once and come back to her remorseful and self-accusing, but the vehicle disappeared in a cloud of dust without his having even waved her a conciliatory farewell, and she went slowly into the house with a heavy heart. She glanced round the pretty drawing-room, and thought vaguely of the day when she had first seen it—the dust, the dilapidation, the emptiness. How long ago it seemed! She felt she had lived a life-time since that morning. Now there were clean bright hangings before the numerous doors, a carved screen broke the straight monotonous length of the room, and a handsome embroidered curtain hid the dining-room from view. There were books, pictures, knick-knacks, a writing-table with silver accessories, a deep, inviting couch piled with various coloured silk cushions; there were flowers, sketches, photographs—she idly straightened one of the latter framed in silver, then picked it up and examined it attentively. It was one that her father, who dabbled in photography, had taken of Bob Jardine in his riding clothes, standing at his horse’s head, his whip under his arm, and his favourite spaniel lying at his feet gazing up into his face. Selma could almost fancy she saw the dog’s tail wag, and as she looked at the picture it called up a mental vision of a long blue shaft of sunny dust penetrating a loose box. She heard the snuffling whine of puppies struggling in the straw; listened to Bob’s kind manly voice asking her to be his wife. She flung the picture down with a stifled sob, and went hurriedly to her bedroom. She could not remain alone with her thoughts, and she pinned on her muslin-covered sun hat with trembling fingers, took her large umbrella, and started out to visit Mrs. Watson. She had an excellent excuse, for she wished to enlist the sympathies of the missionary’s wife in the case of a young Eurasian girl who was dying of consumption in the bazaar. It was a fairly long walk to the Watsons’ bungalow, but it calmed her mind and steadied her thoughts, though she arrived covered with dust, and longing for a rest in the cool clean sitting-room of the mission bungalow.
Selma found Mrs. Watson cutting sandwiches and tying them into neat packets for the padre, who was just starting for the fair-ground.
“Such a large number of pilgrims are arriving every day now, Mrs. Vereker,” he explained, while his wife stuffed the little parcels into his coat-tail pockets, “that I go down every morning to the river after my bazaar work, and take my stand where I can preach to the people as they pass. Yesterday we sold a most encouraging quantity of coloured pictures illustrating the Bible. The people are ready to listen; they buy books eagerly. If I could think it no sin to baptise all who accept the teaching of Christ as true, our list of converts would indeed be a heavy one, but so many of them do not clearly comprehend that baptism means the absolute renunciation of the blackness of idolatry; they wish to worship Christ along with their own gods and demons. But I do not think the blessed time is far off when all these difficulties will be conquered, and we shall penetrate the stronghold of the Evil One.”
“Remind the padre to eat the sandwiches, Abraham,” said Mrs. Watson to the native Christian Bible-man, who stood by smiling cheerfully through his horn-rimmed spectacles, and clasping a Testament, bound in shiny black American cloth, under his arm.
“Yess, ma’am,” he replied with respect, “but the reverend will never listen to any mention of food that is earthly.”
“Nonsense! It is your duty to see that he keeps up his strength or he will break down, as he did at the last fair-time.” She raised her voice and addressed her husband much as if she were admonishing a child. “Remember, John, you are not to preach and sing for hours at a stretch— you can’t do it and live. I shall expect you back for some luncheon at two o’clock, and I shall have a good meal ready for you because you ate no breakfast, and I’m sure you’ll forget the sandwiches. Mind you are not late, there will be boiled mutton and turnips.” (“That is what he really likes when he knows what he is eating,” she added aside to Selma.) “Did you hear me, John?”
“Yes, my dear,” turning over the leaves of his Bible and speaking mechanically, “you said boiled mutton and turnips.” His pale blue eyes stared absently out of the door as he considered how best to deliver his message that morning to the idolatrous crowd by the river-side. Then, with a kindly nod to the two women, he passed down the verandah steps into the compound, the Bible-teacher at his side.
“Put up your umbrella!” called Mrs. Watson after the retreating figure. Abraham seized the umbrella from the padre’s hand, put it up and returned it to its owner, and looked back to Mrs. Watson for approval with a self-satisfied grin on his dark countenance.
“Oh dear!” sighed the little woman, as she and Selma turned into the house, “how I wish the fair was over. I always dread this time of year. The place fills with fanatics, even some of our best converts become demoralised by them, and John completely overworks himself. Then there is the difficulty about preaching at the fair. John has such strong feelings on this point, and I am always nervous lest he should cause trouble through his zeal. Of late years the Government has allotted sites to the various missions on the outskirts, instead of allowing them to preach in the thick of the fair, because it sometimes led to disturbances which, of course, is very undesirable with such an enormous concourse of people to keep in order. I am so relieved each day when I see John come back, for I know if a row took place he would make no attempt to save himself, and you can never tell what the people may not be incited to do by these awful fakirs! Well, my dear,” she added, changing her tone, and proffering Selma a chair, “have you come about anything in particular?”
Mrs. Vereker explained her errand, and Mrs. Watson promised what help was in her power. “Though I’m afraid I can’t do much,” she said. “We are sadly in need of more time, more money, and more strength for our own work as it is.”
“The things one sees and hears amongst these half-castes are perfectly dreadful,” continued Selma, “I can’t help wishing that you mission people would turn your attention more to them instead of expending all your energies on the natives—who, after all, seem to disdain our ways and our religion.”
“Yes, I know there is a vast amount of work to be done among them,” said Mrs. Watson frankly, and if only more people like yourself, with means and time at their disposal, would voluntarily help them, it would be a grand thing. But you must remember that they are supposed to be Christians from their birth either Roman Catholic or Protestant—and that a great deal is done for them by the priests and the chaplains, only they are so numerous and their foolish pride and laziness makes them so difficult to deal with. No, I don’t think we ought to desert the native for the half-caste. Our society was founded for the conversion of the heathen. We are sent forth into foreign lands to teach the natives Christianity, and we can only carry on the Work to the best of our ability.”
“But do you really think you make any headway against Hinduism?” asked Selma with some diffidence.
“Undoubtedly,” said Mrs. Watson firmly, “the progress may be very slow, but it is sure. At one turn we meet with the greatest encouragement, at another with bitter opposition; but the village people would be easy enough to convince of the truth, and are genuinely eager to hear it, were it not for the influence of the priesthood. With these latter it is difficult to say which of their two attitudes is the most discouraging—their degraded conception of a higher power, or their sublime opinion of their own sanctity and immunity from evil. Many of the peasant class are inclined to accept in simple faith the Revelation of Jesus Christ, and gradually whole villages are being converted; but then again, others come and profess belief, and when they find that Christianity is not synonymous with highly-paid employment, they express their doubts and walk off. The work is sometimes very hard,” she added wistfully, “particularly to practical members like myself; and if it were not for my conviction that our Saviour will triumph in the end, I don’t know how I could go on. My dear John’s ardour and enthusiasm seem to carry him over every difficulty, and my constant fear is that his strength will fail him. He is looking so worn and fragile now.”
She wrinkled her forehead distressfully, and began to set the room to rights with nervous haste. She removed the traces of the sandwich-making, pushed the chairs into their places, dusted the tables, shook out the thin, dyed muslin curtains—for she kept the minimum number of servants, and was obliged to do a great deal of housework herself.
Suddenly she stopped and looked at Selma, who was leaning back in a low basket-chair. “What is the matter with you, my child?” she asked with blunt directness “you are thin, you have lost your colour, your eyes look heavy—are you doing too much amongst these half-caste people?”
“Oh! I could never do enough,” said Selma feverishly. “I am so sorry for them, and yet I can’t bear them, and I often wonder if I shall ever do any permanent good. I feel as if it were a case of ‘if seven maids with seven mops.’ They are so hopeless, and their indolence is almost beyond belief. I suppose it is in their nature and they can’t help it, for it is the same in all grades. Fancy what my own mother-in-law did yesterday when I went to see her—she sat and called for a servant at intervals during at least a quarter of an hour while she was talking to me—I couldn’t think what she wanted and she wouldn’t tell me—and when at last the man came in she only ordered him to give her a glass of water. Would you believe it, the jug and glass were actually on a table at her elbow, and yet she wouldn’t pour it out for herself? Then this morning I asked Irene Jahans to leave a basin of soup on her way home for that poor old woman who lives opposite the Christians, and who, I am afraid, is dying, and all she said was: If you like to send one of your men I will see that he leaves it, but I could not carry it myself in my position.’”
“Oh, I know them well!” said Mrs. Watson with a short laugh. “But you must not go over-doing all your charities, or you will have a break-down. Aren’t you going away for Christmas?”
“We have promised to go to my aunt, Mrs. Everard. They are having a camp in the Batapur district—a shooting party, I believe—and it has been arranged all along that we should join them. But it seems very doubtful if Paul will get the leave; he thinks he won’t himself, with all this fair work going on.”
“Then if he can’t, you ought to go without him,” decided Mrs. Watson. “He will be much too busy to have time to miss you, and it will do you all the good in the world to see some of your own people.”
“Oh, I shouldn’t go without him.”
Mrs. Watson shook her head and smiled, but she little guessed how passionately in her heart the girl longed to get away, if only for a week—away from the Christians—away from Pragpur and the restless atmosphere of the coming fair—away (and, in spite of her struggles to ignore it, a consciousness of the truth rose insistently in her mind)—away from Paul.
“Do your people know about the Christians?” asked Mrs. Watson, who possessed a blend of human curiosity in her kindly nature. She was now busily preparing the materials for her sewing-class of native Christian girls.
“Not that I know of. I daresay it is cowardly of me, and I suppose they must hear it sooner or later; but I can’t tell them. Mrs. Goring wanted me to tell the Everards, and Paul himself was anxious that we should not try to keep it a secret; but I begged him to leave things as they were for the present. I have hitherto written all our private letters, to save Paul what I could in the way of extra writing, and I haven’t mentioned the subject of his people. Mrs. Everard has evidently heard nothing yet. You see, they have been in camp on a tour of inspection ever since we arrived in India, and I don’t mean to tell her until she drags it out of me. What would be the good? Nobody can alter the circumstances. It would only cause unpleasantness and worry Paul.”
“But it must come out if you go to your relations for Christmas.”
“Perhaps. And, to tell the honest truth, I should be rather relieved on that account if we don’t get the leave—which is disgustingly selfish of me. Now, you have got your class to attend to—I can see the girls coming across the compound. I must go.”
She stooped and gave the missionary’s wife a sudden, swift kiss, and the tears stood in her blue eyes as she took up her gloves and umbrella and left the bungalow. Mrs. Watson looked after her with concern.
“That poor girl’s nerves are strung up to snapping point,” she thought anxiously. “I wonder how much longer she will hold out! It’s a cruel situation!”
* * * *
Paul came back from the fair-ground much earlier than usual that evening. He longed to make his peace with Selma, for the look of pained surprise on her face that morning had haunted and reproached him throughout the day. He wanted to obtain her forgiveness—to show his contrition for his hasty words and behaviour; and therefore he was anything but pleasantly surprised to find on his return that his mother and Mr. Christian were established in the drawing-room, having tea with his wife.
“Hullo!” cried Alexander, with jocose familiarity, not attempting to rise from his chair. “We did not expect you so soon. Selma said you would not be back for some long time. But I wanted to talk to you on a matter of importance, so we waited, and now here you are. How lucky that you only found me and Mrs. Christian! Suppose we had been two gay young bachelors from the regiment”—he winked at Selma—“and you had come home too soon! My!—what a kafuffle there would have been!”
“We have been shopping and calling,” said Una, fanning herself and speaking peevishly, “and I am quite tired! The people at the Europe draper’s are such dulls! I wanted stockings for Wi to go with her new pink frock, and when I asked for flesh colour, the young man gave me tan I told him he was colour-blind. Then there is that Mrs. Lightowler! I called on her, and she always upsets me. She is my enemy—I know it. I hate her! and she is so proud and stuck-up!—just as if she was not quite black, though she will not own it! She is black all over—except her clothes. Give me another cup of tea please, Selma dear; I am quite exhausted and worn out.”
“What did you want to see me about, Christian?” asked Paul shortly, paying no heed to his mother’s flow of conversation.
“Well,” began Mr. Christian; his manner was ingratiating, he spread his knees wide apart, put his head on one side, and smiled engagingly, “you know my capabilities and my position. There is a post to be obtained on special duty at the fair under the officer for sanitation. If you put in a word for me to Mr. Goring, he will recommend that I should be appointed, and it would get me promotion and recognition.”
“Yes,” put in Mrs. Christian, and her tone was dismally martyr-like, “Alexander, with all his talents, has been so badly treated and neglected!”
“I have no influence with Mr. Goring or any one else,” said Paul. An uncomfortable recollection of the collector’s warning words made his manner harsher and more unapproachable than he intended it to be.
“But you can mention,” replied Mr. Christian with confidence. “Do not forget that I am the very man for the place. Having experience of the jail, I know many of the rascals who give trouble at the fair-time, and I could warn the Government.” The jail apothecary did not add that once in a position of responsibility at the fair, it would be well worth his while to wink at the doings of many of the “rascals” in question.
“You had better send in an official application,” said Paul.
“Of course. But these things are brought to a successful termination through interest, and am I not your own step-father? You tell Mr. Goring what I say about the budmashes (rascals). It is quite true. This will be a very big fair you know, and he cannot find out everything. If there is a row, it may be a bad one.”
“I expect the police know their work well enough”—Paul spoke in a dry, incisive voice—“and it is out of the question that I should try and coerce Mr. Goring for any personal reason. I should not dream of it for a moment.”
“Oh my!” cried Una bursting into tears, “and we all thought you were such a gentleman Pahl!—but you are like all the rest who come out from England, you are cruel and selfish, and do not care one pice for your own familee! If you will not do it for Alexander or for me, perhaps you will do it for your pretty wife. Selma, you ask him you are kind and good, surely you could not bear to deny.”
Selma looked helplessly at the dark angry faces of Mr. and Mrs. Christian, and then at Paul standing sullen and impassive by the mantelpiece. A sudden inclination to yield to hysterical laughter seized her, but she stifled the unseemly impulse, though her voice trembled as she answered that of course Paul must do as he considered right under the circumstances.
“You too!” said Mr. Christian loudly, “you, who with all your fine clothes and grand airs, and mimicking mincing manners, never visit with the other ladies in the station, and cannot show your face at the club because you spend your time in the bazaar with low, common people. Oh! I know the places you go to, nothing is hid from Alexander Christian!”
“Look here!” Paul advanced menacingly, the Englishman was rampant within him. “Hold your tongue and get out of my house. I don’t care whether you are my step-father or not—if you were my own father I’d break your neck if you said another insulting word to my wife.”
Mr. Christian’s whole demeanour changed. “Now, now,” he said in deprecation, “do not show violence. I am a poor man and peaceful and I do not wish to fight. I am going, and Una too; we do not stay where we are not wanted.” He scuttled to the door, glancing at Paul as though in trepidation of a sudden onslaught. Outside, the piebald pony was waiting with the bamboo cart, and Mr. Christian climbed with undignified haste into the vehicle. Mrs. Christian followed in injured silence, without a word of farewell, and once safely out of his step-son’s reach the jail apothecary shook his whip and shouted spitefully as he drove away, “You will be jolly sorry for this! You wait and see!”
Paul stood in the doorway till the sound of the wheels had melted into the murmur of traffic in the roadway. Then he crossed to the low, luxurious couch and sat down, his face buried in his hands.
“Don’t, Paul,” said Selma, and knelt persuasively by his side; “don’t be distressed, dear, what does it matter what they say or do?”
He raised his head and suddenly kissed her with a vehemence of remorse, perplexity, and despair.
“I’m not fit to touch you,” he said hoarsely. “I’m a selfish beast—all this time you have been putting up with these people because they belonged to me; you are leading a life that is utterly unsuited to you, and you never complain. You have borne with my moods and tempers—oh! when I think of how I spoke to you this morning I could hang myself—and you never said a word Selma, darling, say you forgive me.”
“Of course,” she answered, and at the same moment she wondered why her voice sounded so unnatural, and why Paul looked so curiously far away, “there is really nothing to forgive.” She struggled to her feet and, swaying, clutched at her husband’s arm.
He held her firmly, and gazed into her face with distressed anxiety.
“Selma!—you are ill—what is the matter? Why, you are looking thin and white, so different, and I have never noticed it? By God, I will take you away! What do I care for India or for anything else in the wide world as long as you are well and happy! Dearest—”
“We can’t go away,” she said with trembling lips; “we must see it through, Paul—you and I.” She laughed breathlessly, then began to cry with a quiet hopelessness—like a child that has unwittingly done wrong. The snapping-point had arrived, and in less than half an hour Mrs. Vereker was in bed shivering and burning alternately with a sharp attack of malarial fever, and talking nonsense at the top of her voice.
On Christmas eve Sir Robert Jardine rode through the village of Batapur with a tired pony between his knees, and the dust of a twenty-five-mile ride clinging to his person. Behind him glowed the evening sky, washed from deepest crimson to palest orange by the sinking sun; the mists hung low over the swampy land—part of an old river-bed deserted by the Ganges—and crept up to mingle with the pungent smoke of the village cow-dung fires; the damp, chill thickness of the atmosphere was pierced every few minutes by the harsh, resonant cries of the Sarus birds from the neighbouring marshes.
A little crowd of children and half-grown youths followed the rider at a cautious distance through the narrow street, for the sight of an Englishman was still an event to the inhabitants of the remote jungle hamlet which was far from any line of rail, and which consisted of little more than a collection of mud hovels, redeemed here and there by a few better-class buildings of small, rough bricks. The chattering group followed him to the outskirts of the village, and watched him plunge into the dusty cart-track that led to where, in the near distance, the white tents of the Everards’ camp contrasted sharply with the dark green of a fine old grove of bamboos and tamarinds, planted, perhaps, some centuries back by a pious seeker after religious favour.
As Bob rode under these trees he found the camp lively with evening preparations. A string of horses returning from exercise neighed at the sight of the row of buckets containing their supper of soaked grain, and their open-air stables—bamboo stakes surrounded with patches of fresh bedding. Fowls were being captured, much against their will, and placed in safety from the nocturnal prowling of wolves, jackals and foxes; the dogs were greedily devouring their food; bright fires blazed from the kitchen quarters, and from where the mahouts were cooking the elephants’ evening meal; and a lamp already burned in the large double-poled tent where the dinner-table was laid with all the luxurious appointments and observances of the most civilised station dwelling. Flowers, plate, linen, glass, shone out of the open entrance, and the glow of a lighted stove at the further end of the tent showed low chairs, a couch, convenient tables—and Mrs. Everard, clad in a short, khaki-coloured skirt and Norfolk jacket, seated, reading a paper, with a fox terrier on her lap. Bob walked in unannounced, confident of his welcome.
“Well, this is nice.” Mrs. Everard threw down the Field and held out both her hands, while the dog rolled to the ground, sleepy and resentful. “I thought you couldn’t be here till to-morrow morning yourself, though your man has arrived with your things; and your tent is all settled, and there’s plenty of hot water. Sit down, Bob, And have a peg, you must want one.” She called to a table servant, and the newly-arrived guest was soon provided with whisky and soda-water and a choice of cheroots.
“How’s the colonel?” he asked. “Had any sport yet?”
“Oh, the old man is full of beans, but we only arrived here yesterday, and he has had no shooting yet, for he was obliged to start off at once to go and meet my niece, Selma Vereker, who, of course, you know. None of us have seen her yet since her marriage. They were to drive from Patra—thirty miles—and I expect them every minute. What a ride you must have had over all that boggy country! Did you see many birds as you came along? It seems a splendid year for them, they came in so early.”
“I could hear them feeding and dabbling in the mud on all sides, and I put up no end of snipe. If I’d had a gun with me I should never have got here to-night. I heard shots in the distance once or twice. Who was out?”
“Major Barton and little West. They arrived this morning, and have been shooting all the afternoon; they are changing in their tents now. Of course two guns couldn’t do much over all this chain of jheels, but they brought back several snipe, some teal, and a few spotted bills. I hope young Ross will turn up to-morrow, but I’m afraid Colonel Prowse is going to throw us over. We asked no other women besides Selma Vereker; they are generally such a responsibility in camp.”
“And Paul?” said Bob slowly, staring at the fire. He longed to see Selma again, though he knew well that the meeting must only renew his soreness of heart.
“Selma is coming alone, that is why the old man went to meet her. I am sorry Paul couldn’t get leave, for I want to make his acquaintance; but it seems that the Pragpur fair next month means a lot of extra work. At first she wouldn’t come without him, but she has had a sharp attack of fever lately, and the doctor said the change would do her good, so Paul very wisely insisted on her coming. He is evidently devoted to her.”
“So he ought to be,” said Bob savagely. Mrs. Everard looked at him with quiet attention; then she turned away and took up her inevitable knitting. “By the way,” she said after a pause, “Selma has never mentioned her husband’s people. I asked her about his mother in one of my letters, but, as she forgot to answer the question, I conclude they have heard nothing of her, and that she can’t be living in Pragpur now. Hark!” dropping her knitting, “there they are.” She rose from her chair and went to the entrance, where the dog was already barking violently.
Bob remained in his seat. He was dismayed to find himself uncomfortably agitated and nervous; his heart was beating quickly, he clutched the arms of his chair, and made desperate efforts to be calm. The rattle of harness outside and the clinking of a tonga-bar came to a sudden stop; there was the sound of voices—one so painfully familiar to the man who sat biting his lips by the fire. The tonga-bar jingled again as the ponies were driven off to the stables, and the next minute Selma had entered the tent with her uncle and aunt.
As Bob caught sight of her face in the lamp-light all his personal perturbation was merged into an anxious concern. What had happened to her? An attack of fever might have pulled her down and would account for her loss of flesh and colour, but it could never have caused that hint of sadness in her delicate face—that pathetic shadow in her blue eyes. Could it be that Paul had disappointed her? That she was not entirely happy in her new life? The blood surged into Bob’s brown face, and a strange sensation caught at his throat as he held her hand in his—a fierce, almost primitive desire to work destruction in his lady’s cause, mingled with a tender yearning to take her in his arms and soothe away her sorrow.
Selma was weary with the long journey and the tedious drive over rough roads and heavy ground, and she made no opposition to Mrs. Everard’s prompt commands that she was to go to bed at once and have her dinner sent in to her tent. She was glad to be alone, for though she had known that Robert Jardine was to be in the camp, she had found the sudden sight of him distinctly disturbing. He recalled to her so vividly the calm, tranquil existence at the Rectory, and the time preceding her hasty engagement. She was seized with a nostalgia for England which depressed and discouraged her.
Mrs. Everard was also dissatisfied with her niece’s appearance and the condition of the girl’s spirits.
“There is something wrong,” she told the old man as they dressed for dinner. “Selma is not like herself.”
“She’s had fever,” said Colonel Everard, “and that’s enough to give any one the blue-devils.”
“Yes, but that is not all—and the worst of it is that I’m afraid she won’t tell me or any one else what is really the matter. All we can do is to give her plenty of rest and good food. She must keep quiet to-morrow in spite of its being Christmas Day. I’ll stay with her in the morning and join the guns after luncheon. She won’t mind being left with a book, and the dogs, and a comfortable sofa.”
And, indeed, the next afternoon Selma was almost thankful to see her aunt’s broad figure, mounted on an elephant, disappear through the trees, for no sooner had Mrs. Everard concluded her housekeeping parade than she had settled down with her knitting by Selma’s side, and had demanded information concerning Paul’s people.
“And have you heard anything of your mother-in-law?” she began.
Selma had expected this. She knew it was inevitable; also that it would be impossible to parry direct inquiries. So she had made her preparations.
“Paul’s mother lives at Pragpur,” She said calmly, feeling brutal. “She married again many years ago, and she and her husband are not exactly of our class. Paul and I accept the situation, and make the best of it. I get along very well with them.”
Mrs. Everard gasped, and stared at her niece in horrified astonishment. “My dear girl! What a dreadful thing! Did Paul know it before he married you?”
“Of course not, or I should have known it too. I don’t pretend that it was a pleasant surprise to either of us, but there it is. And it really doesn’t matter much.”
“What class do they belong to? Who is your husband’s step-father?”
“His name is Christian—Alexander Christian,” said Selma slowly, wondering with a certain grim amusement what would happen if Mrs. Everard could encounter the gentleman. “He is the district jail apothecary. Paul’s mother was a Miss Jahans, and her father is an auctioneer. Mr. Jahans is a very nice old man in his way.”
“Good heavens!” Mrs. Everard dragged a very large white pocket-handkerchief from a capacious pocket and blew her nose with concerned energy. “Selma—for mercy’s sake don’t tell me that they are black!” he dropped her knitting in her agitation and distress. Selma stooped and picked it up.
“Well, yes, I suppose they are a little,” she said, restoring the half-made sock bristling with needles and the ball of wool to her aunt’s lap.
“But this is awful! What would your father say? What is to be done?”
“Selma, I can’t understand you! Don’t you feel the situation horribly? Aren’t you unhappy? I knew, directly I saw you last night, that there was something wrong.”
“Dear, please don’t distress yourself,” said Selma, patting her aunt’s knee; “Paul and I understand one another, and we want to go our own way without any interference however kindly meant. Don’t talk about it any more if it bothers you, and I would much rather you did not tell the uncle while I am with you. I want to enjoy my visit, and he would only make a fuss, though if I don’t mind the situation I don’t see why any one else should.”
“But I must tell the old man!”
“Then do please ask him to keep the subject to himself until I am gone. I don’t want to discuss it with anybody.”
“Oh dear!” groaned Mrs. Everard—(and Selma felt as remorseful as though she had caused pain to a child or an animal for its ultimate good—she knew how much more troubled would the good lady have been could she have known the actual truth)—“Oh dear! how frightfully unfortunate it is that Paul should have gone into the Indian Civil Service! He would have been all right at home, and now neither of you seem to have grasped in the faintest degree what a dreadful position you are placed in.”
“Perhaps when we do we shall flee the country,” said Selma, flippantly. Then she added in ‘a low changed tone, “There is one thing I hope you will promise me—”
“Don’t tell Bob Jardine.”
Mrs. Everard suddenly remembered the expression on Bob’s face the previous evening, and the passionate vehemence in his voice when they had spoken of Selma and her husband.
“Very well,” she said quietly.
She had begun to suspect that Selma was wearing a mask, and that beneath her niece’s apparently indifferent acceptance of circumstances lay the elements of tragedy. Her strong, almost masculine nature appreciated the girl’s valiant reserve, her proud shrinking from pity, her dread of sympathy.
Nevertheless Mrs. Everard departed to join the sportsmen in a very disturbed frame of mind, and she only left her niece in solitude because she realised that for the moment it was the kindest thing she could do.
Selma settled herself on the couch after her aunt’s departure, and took up a novel, but she found it impossible to follow the story. How could she take any interest in the actions of fictitious people when her own life’s history was so full of difficult situations? She closed the book, and gazed dreamily out of the tent door. Two mynas were fighting in the dust, springing into the air with widespread wings and cheeps of rage; a little further on a white goat was complacently browsing with a large black crow seated on its back; the camp was peaceful and quiet, and the very stillness made her restless. At last she put on her hat and strolled about amongst the tents; she fed the horses with carrots, supplied with indulgent condescension by the Everards’ old head-groom; she ventured towards the village, but the crowd of interested spectators that immediately appeared drove her back to the tents; finally, she called the dogs and started for a walk along the cart-track behind the camp.
She picked her way by the side of the primitive road, avoiding, as far as possible, the dust that lay coarse and deep in the ruts and holes, and every few minutes she was obliged to stop and call to the dogs, who were in the wildest spirits and ready to tear off across country on the least suspicion of any living movement in the low, scrubby jungle. Selma began to wish she had not brought them, particularly when, a moment later, they raised a chorus of excited yelps and rushed towards a clump of trees standing some distance from the cart-track. Shouting and scolding had no effect they were deaf to orders, and the more Selma whistled and called, the more violently and incessantly did they bark. Clearly the only thing to do was to follow them.
The reason of this unruly behaviour was explained when it became apparent that the trees stood in the middle of a Mohammedan graveyard, now evidently the favourite haunt of a troop of brown monkeys, for grinning faces and whisking tails flashed from the agitated branches and from the domes of the crumbling monuments. Crowds of little hairy figures crashed and chattered and leapt, and flung down bits of stick and bark and masonry, which rattled like hailstones on the ground. One of the terriers kept springing half-way up the trunk of a tree in his frantic endeavours to reach a patriarch of the tribe, who, with prominent jaws and long, pointed teeth, sat glaring from a branch only just out of reach. Selma began to feel a little nervous. She had heard of monkeys coming down in hundreds and attacking dogs and even people, and she had almost decided to run back to the camp and send the dog-boy to fetch his unmanageable charges, when, to her relief, she saw Robert Jardine advancing towards her from the direction of the cart-track. She went to meet him, wondering at his presence.
“The dogs won’t listen to me, and I’m terrified of the monkeys. How like you, Bob, to turn up just when I wanted help! Why have you come back?—has anything happened?”
“No, we had a capital morning; but just after luncheon I got a spike into my shin right through my putties, and it bled like blazes; so when Mrs. Everard joined us she insisted on my going back and doctoring the place. I didn’t think it worth while to go out again, and the servants said you had taken the dogs along the cart-track, so I changed and followed you. I must have come in just after you left. By Jove! what a row those beggars are making, I could hear them all the way from the camp. Come here, you!” he roared throatily to the culprits, and rapped his stick against his leather gaiters. The dogs ceased their clamour and turned in guilty surprise, then one by one they approached, wagging their tails apologetically, and trying to look as though they had never barked at a monkey in their lives. Bob threatened and scolded, and reduced them to a condition of abject penitence, and they lay submissively at his feet watching the monkeys with wistful eyes, while he and Selma sat down on a solid slab of stone that had covered for many years the remains of some faithful follower of the Prophet.
“You’ll be so tired, Selma, if you don’t have a rest, you look as white as a sheet now. We’ll sit here for a bit. Those beastly dogs will behave themselves now.”
For a few minutes there was silence between them. Occasionally a monkey gave a guttural remonstrance from a tree, a flight of green parrots flew shrieking overhead, two grey partridges scuttled behind a tall clump of grass and called persistently to a friend who answered in the distance. The rough tombstone was warm with the sun, and as Selma laid her bare hand upon it she suddenly thought of the terrace at the Rectory, and of the night when she had leaned against the balustrade persuading herself to accept Robert Jardine as her husband. Bob was digging a hole in the ground with the point of his stick, and she wondered what he was thinking about. Presently he looked up, and their eyes met.
“Look here, Selma,” he blurted out impulsively, “I must ask you something, I can’t keep it to myself.”
“Well?” She looked away from the red-brown eyes so full of affection and solicitude.
“I may as well say it straight out now I have begun. I want to know if you are really as happy as you expected to be? With all my heart and a soul I hope you are; and, believe me, I don’t ask out of idle curiosity or in any spirit of petty jealousy—indeed, I should thank God and be contented if you could look me in the face and tell me that there is nothing in your life to trouble you.”
Selma’s heart beat rapidly. Bob was a difficult person to deceive, and yet the truth would only make him miserable; besides, for her own sake, she felt that it would be safer to keep silence over her difficulties. If Bob knew now, might not his sympathy be more dangerous to her than his ignorance? She hastened to answer, fearing that hesitation would betray her.
“Why should there be anything to trouble me? Of course there isn’t!”
Bob looked at her searchingly; she felt her cheeks grow red beneath his honest gaze.
“You are not speaking the truth, Selma,” he said gently, “I know you are not. But if there is something you don’t want to tell me, of course I respect your reserve. I won’t ask you what it is, but oh I my dear, remember one thing—that I would give my life for you, and if ever I can help you, if ever you want a friend, I beseech you turn to me. Selma, will you promise?”
“Yes,” she faltered, and she battled bravely with an infinite longing to tell him everything, to claim his sympathy, his advice, his tenderness; but it was impossible, she could not do it because she knew that Bob loved her more than ever, and would love her to the end of his life. They sat together for a few moments longer, and neither spoke; then, as the warmth of the afternoon sun began to give place to the chill of the cold weather evening, they rose and went back to the camp.
Selma seemed as cheerful as her anxious aunt could possibly desire that night at dinner. She talked and laughed till the colour glowed in her thin cheeks and her eyes regained their old brightness. She and Bob and the Everards had much home news to compare, and the marriage of Lady Jardine and the Rector, which had just taken place, to discuss.
“Poor Aunt Carrie threatened to break off her engagement if I wouldn’t go home and settle at Farm Park,” said Bob. “She thinks the end of the world will come if the place is allowed to stand empty.”
“Fancy clinging to this hole of a country when you could stop at home and hunt and shoot and fish as much as you liked,” put in Major Barton enviously. He was a man who only remained in India because he could not afford sport in any European country.
“Well, I don’t know,” argued Mrs. Everard, “I can fancy few more delightful places than the neighbourhood of an old Indian river-bed in the cold weather, when the ducks are all in and have recovered their long journey across the Himalayas. I love pottering along on an elephant watching you men squelching through the marshes, hearing the ducks rise in thousands, and their different calls as they wheel about overhead, and then the heavy splashes when they fall shot into the water. Remember one’s feelings when the geese come cackling over at twilight—it’s equal to anything of the kind that you can get in England.”
“Hear, hear!” cried Little West, “you make me thirst for the dawn of another day, Mrs. Everard. How could Christmas week possibly be spent better than within reach of a chain of Indian jheels!—and,” helping himself from a dish that was being handed to him, “what could be a finer finish to an excellent Christmas dinner than fresh trail toast? By Jove!—the snipe here are nearly as big as chickens.”
“Batapur is a paradise for small game shooting,” said Colonel Everard, “and luckily it’s just too far off the rail for Thomas Atkins to be able to penetrate and harry the birds. There don’t seem to be any other parties out here this year, and I believe we have got the whole place to ourselves. Are you going to let Selma come out with us to-morrow, my dear?” addressing his wife.
“I don’t think it would hurt her, she looks more like herself now she has had a good rest. She can come on my elephant with me, and we’ll see how she gets on.”
So the next morning Selma climbed on to an elephant’s back for the first time since the visits of her childhood to the Zoo, and found herself perched in a howdah with Mrs. Everard. They lurched along the outskirts of wide tracts of shallow water that were darkened with reeds and rushes, they could see the sportsmen in the distance and hear the muffled shots followed by the rising of clouds of birds that wheeled off to further swamps only to be patiently pursued. When luncheon time came the whole party gathered under a group of palms, and the morning’s bag was sorted. There were pintail and mallard—(the aristocracy of the duck-world) teal, snipe, widgeon, the red-headed pochard with his jet-black neck and scarlet head, gadwalls, sheldrakes, one or two vulgar shovellers, and an unpopular Brahminy duck shot by accident.
Later on the shooting continued, the men wading through the soft marshy soil, and the air seeming to be thick with birds; they were zig-zagging against the sky, shimmering over the flat country, rising close at hand and in the distance, singly, in small companies, and in masses, and the various notes of their clamouring cries of alarm resounded over the water. At last the slanting rays of the setting sun hinted that it was time to stop shooting, and the men, handing their guns to the attendant natives, climbed on to the elephants, muddy, wet, and tired, but cheery and satisfied with the day’s sport.
Mrs. Everard elected to go home on a pad elephant for a change, and Bob Jardine took her place in the howdah with Selma. He turned sideways in his seat that he might the more conveniently talk to his companion, and he had pushed his sun hat back from his brown forehead showing the edge of his dark red hair. He was a very attractive specimen of the well-bred healthy British soldier, with his tanned skin, chestnut coloured eyes, bold features, and tawny moustache, and Selma looked into the strong frank face with a very positive sense of pleasure. She was remorsefully conscious that she felt happier than she had done for weeks past, but she argued with herself that it was only the effect of her freedom for the time from the difficulties and falseness of her position at Pragpur, that it was because she enjoyed the relief of hearing nothing about natives except in the character of domestics, of never seeing a pilgrim or a holy man, of being able, temporarily, to forget the existence of the Christians, and the Jahans, and the squalid miseries of the bazaar Eurasian.
They swung along in the sharpening air with the crimson of the sunset staining the miles of level country as far as they could see, and they talked of the Rectory, of Farm Park, of the Rector and Lady Jardine (now Mrs. Neale), of the horses and the dogs, of Bob’s regiment and his shooting. He pointed out to her the little dab chicks, water hens, and coots, running and paddling into the shelter of the jheel plants, the paddy birds, and the graceful waders, herons, ibis, green shanks, picking their way delicately along the water’s edge.
Then as dusk fell heavily and the swampy ground was left behind, the rustling of startled animals could be heard in the patches of grass and thorn bushes, above the regular padding swish of the elephant’s footsteps; while the clanging cries of the cranes and geese in the distance rang through the still air from over the cold, quiet sheets of water.
The ten days in camp passed quickly and happily for Selma; she loved the long, bright hours in the open, the picnic luncheons, the leisurely rides home on the elephants, the cheery evenings when “Little West” made music on his banjo, and they played cards and told stories—and she realised with a feeling of almost painful regret that her last day in the camp had come. Colonel Everard was obliged to continue his cold weather tour of inspection, and though he and Mrs. Everard pressed their niece to accompany them, Selma refused; she felt that her place was with Paul during the coming stress of the fair-time. When that was over she knew that the question of their future plans would have to be decided, and she dreaded the crisis. It would be hard to hold out against Paul’s desire to remove her from the disagreeables of her life at Pragpur, and yet how could she accept from him the sacrifice of his pride if they went to another province, and of his enthusiasm if they left India altogether? Besides—and she shrank mentally from the thought—wherever they went, could she ever school herself to overcome her repugnance to the fact that Paul belonged—not only in body but in soul—to India?
On this last morning she tried to put all thought of the future from her mind, as the elephants strode in single file through the narrow village street, where the flat roofs, hardly higher than the howdahs, were crowded with an excited audience, who commented shrilly on the peculiarities of “the Feringhees” as they passed. The spirits of the shooting party were more than usually lively, tinged, as it would seem, with that desire to make the most of every moment, which may be noticed when “a good time” is drawing to a close, and an inevitable dispersion of pleasant companions is at hand. On they went through the open country, followed by groups of servants carrying guns, cartridges, and game sticks, till a swamp was reached, when the men descended from the pads and howdahs and a few couple of snipe were killed. Then a dry tract of low jungle was traversed in a successful beat for quail, black partridge, and hares; and when at last a shallow, sandy watercourse barred the way, a halt for luncheon was called.
When it was time to start once more, Mrs. Everard made the first move.
“Now, then, wake up all of you,” she said briskly, rising, and shaking the crumbs from her lap; “remember, we’ve got to cross this stream and work round by the jheels before dark, and we shall only just do it. You people are like natives, you have no sense of the value of time.”
“If I wasn’t such a perfect gentleman,” murmured Mr. West, who was lying full length on the ground smoking a cigarette, “I might say damn.”
“I value nothing but my cheroot and my digestion at the present moment,” protested Major Barton lazily. “You shouldn’t bring out such royal luncheons, Mrs. Everard. I want to go to sleep. If I snore please wake me.”
“If I snore,” said Little West, “please don’t wake me.”
The Colonel got up stiffly. “I am not going to walk across that nullah—down one steep bank and up another,” he said. “Could you do it, Barton?”
“I could,” replied the Major, “but I sha’n’t.”
“Get on the elephants then, you lazy wretches,” cried Mrs. Everard. “Let them go on ahead, Selma, and just help me pack up this basket like a devoted niece. Mr. West,” she called presently to the last straggler, as the men sauntered off to the waiting elephants, “have you such a thing as a piece of string in your pocket? Nothing will induce the lid of this basket to shut.”
“My pockets are empty,” said Mr. West, looking back with airy impudence, “except for my handkerchief which I couldn’t spare, and my pride which I always keep there.” And he continued on his way, heartlessly indifferent to the struggles of his hostess with the refractory basket lid. Therefore Selma and her aunt were not able to start till the others had reached the opposite side of the watercourse and were again on their feet.
“Now where on earth does this man think he’s going to?” said Mrs. Everard, peering over the side of the howdah as the mahout guided their elephant further down the bank. “What are you doing?” she added in Hindustani, touching the man with the point of her umbrella. “Why don’t you cross where the others did?”
The native explained that the bank was less steep further along, and that he could take the elephant across over a patch of sand without jolting “the memsahibs.”
“What a thoughtful person,” said Selma.
“I don’t know,” replied her aunt drily. “When a native begins to think he generally does the wrong thing. Probably he will get us into some tiresome difficulty, but I suppose he must be allowed his own way.”
The elephant seemed strangely unwilling to take the route chosen for him by his mahout, and for some moments he backed, and shuffled sideways, while his driver abused him hoarsely and jabbed him with the heavy iron driving hook. A shout from the opposite bank made them turn their heads; one of the other mahouts was trying to attract their attention and was pointing excitedly to the smooth strip of sand on to which the elephant had just reluctantly placed his feet.
“Stop!” cried Mrs. Everard to their own man, and her voice was full of alarm. “Stop, you fool—it’s a quicksand!”
The mahout suddenly realised the danger, and with violent blows and shouts of command he tried to turn the elephant. But it was too late, the sand on every side quivered and undulated, the animal sank up to its knees and trumpeted in terror. The natives on the bank called and gesticulated, the sportsmen who had already walked on ahead turned and came running back. The Colonel shouted to his wife to make Selma keep her seat: he was sure of Mrs. Everard’s nerve, but he feared that the girl might jump. However she sat still, though her pulses throbbed with apprehension, and she held Mrs. Everard’s hand tightly in her own. The elephant rolled from side to side in its desperate struggles to gain a footing, and the mahout was crying and babbling like a child; the next moment he sprang up with a yell and scrambled into the howdah, and Selma saw the long black trunk of the elephant feeling along the empty seat—the man had only just escaped being dragged off and trampled into the sand. On the bank bushes, boughs, and grass were being cut with frantic haste, and soon bundle after bundle was thrown to the floundering, exhausted animal for a footing, until at last with a final mighty effort the great beast heaved itself up, and slipping, trembling, faltering, reached comparatively safe ground.
Selma could never afterwards remember exactly what then happened. She had a confused recollection of the elephant being made to kneel, of seeing Mrs. Everard climb out of the howdah from one side into the middle of an agitated group of people, and of her own descent from the other towards a solitary figure that stood between the elephant’s bulk and the shelving bank, holding out strong eager arms to catch her. She looked up into Bob Jardine’s face; it was white with relief and emotion, and in his eyes flamed uncontrollably the love he might not utter. For a moment she was in his arms, for a moment she allowed herself to realise that her old conviction had been a true one—that Bob Jardine was the man she ought to have married. Then she drew away from him, the elephant got up, the rest of the party crowded round, and Bob stood apart looking over the stream in silence.
In the fading sunshine of the late afternoon the train by which Mrs. Vereker was travelling back to Pragpur rumbled slowly over the great iron bridge that crossed the river. The third-class compartments were densely packed with pilgrims, who simultaneously raised the fervent cry of praise, “Victory to Mother Gunga,” as they found themselves above the holy waters. Looking from the window of her carriage Selma could see the fort, red, massive, inveterate, with a sea of human beings surging at its base: the fair had begun—and she listened to the distant hum of the multitude, the harsh braying of conches, the ceaseless ringing and beating of bells and gongs; all along the river’s edge bathers were moving in and out of the water, and swarming on to the little temporary platforms erected by the Brahmins, who were busily conducting their clients into the sacred stream, or assisting them out of it.
Selma speculated as to Paul’s whereabouts on the fair-ground; she hardly anticipated that he would be at the station to meet her, and she was not surprised to find only their head peon, who forced a way for her through the crowd of pilgrims that poured out of the train on to the platform. How they pushed and clamoured and struggled, all so eager to reach the healing river, to join in the great religious festival!
It was almost dark when she arrived at the bungalow; a solitary lamp had been lighted in the drawing-room, and the place betrayed the neglected, unlived-in appearance which is generally the result of “the memsahib’s “absence. The atmosphere was stuffy, the furniture seemed to have backed against the walls, there were no flowers, and the books and ornaments were stiffly set out. Selma could not resist the inclination to right things immediately; she shook up pillows, pushed tables and moved chairs, called the bearer and scolded him about the dust, and re-arranged the knick-knacks; but—when she altered the position of the silver frame containing Bob Jardine’s photograph she purposely refrained from looking at it, and answering to an inward prompting she carried it, face downwards, to her writing table and put it away in an empty drawer.
She interviewed the head table servant, ascertained what he had provided for dinner that night, and inquired if the sahib had been well during her absence. The man entered into a long explanation, most of which Selma was unable to understand, for her knowledge of Hindustani, though she took infinite pains to pick up the language, was still very limited; but she gathered that her husband had been working very hard, had been out early and late, had sat up at night over his books, and had not done justice to the excellent catering of his humble servant the khansamah. This made her feel anxious Paul’s letters had been hasty and impersonal, he had never mentioned his health, and now she feared that he had not been taking sufficient care of himself, and she felt remorseful for having left him to solitude and work while she had enjoyed the camp at Batapur. She went out into the verandah to listen for the sound of his returning trap, and as she stood in the shaft of lamp-light that shot out from the drawing-room, straining her sight and hearing, a figure suddenly emerged from the darkness, and “Wi” Christian stood before her, panting and dishevelled.
“Ah! you have come back,” cried the child, in the shrill staccato tones that Selma had been so thankful not to hear during the last ten days, “I have come running, running, in all the dark, not even taking a lantern or any one to protect me, that I might fetch you to our place.”
“Why? What has happened?” And Selma drew the little girl into the lighted room.
“My grand-pappa Jahans—he is dying. And he cries for Selma! Selma! Oh! come quickly or he may not be alive. Mamma and pappa, they would not send for you or for Paul—they hate you now and they said they would not tell you, and Cyril he was afraid of the dark. I was afraid too, but I ran and ran, I could not bear that my grand-pappa should not say ‘Good-bye’ to you when he wanted so badlee!” She was trembling all over and the tears streamed down her little brown face.
Selma did not hesitate. She called for a man to bring a lantern, and in a few minutes she and Violet were rapidly following the light along the dusty road; they had gone some considerable distance before she remembered that she had left no message for Paul, and she stopped suddenly in vexation and doubt.
“He will wonder where I am; and he ought to know about his grandfather—he ought to see him.”
But the child urged her forward with impatience.
“No, no, Paul does not mat-ter—they do not want him, or you—but I called you because of my grandpappa, and if we do not make haste they will ask where I have been, and then my father will give me put-put” (a slapping).
They hurried on, and Selma consoled herself with the reflection that Paul could be sent for when she arrived. They found the house in confusion, the servants were lurking in the verandahs, lights shone from every opening, and, inside, Una sat at the rickety round table in a loose dressing-gown, crying noisily, with Irene and the children huddled about her. Through an open door Selma caught sight of the dark face of old Mr. Jahans, with its crown of white hair, moving restlessly on a dingy pillow.
“You!” ejaculated Mrs. Christian, as Selma came towards her. “We do not wish for your company. Why did you come?”
Vi pulled a warning at her skirt, and Selma evaded the question.
“I had just got home,” she said, “and I heard that Mr. Jahans was ill, so I came to see if I could be of any use.”
“No, you cannot be of any use. Alexander says that he will soon be dead—to-night most likely—and then I shall be an orphan!” Mrs. Christian wept afresh.
“Paul ought to know; won’t you let me send for him?” persuaded Selma. “He had not come back from the fair when I left, but I was expecting him every moment. I have a man with a lantern outside who could take a note.”
Una shook her head. “We do not wish,” she said with sullen obstinacy.
Thinly from the other room came a feeble call: “Selma, where is Selma? I need her.”
“May I go in to him?” she asked.
Mrs. Christian waved her hand towards the open door. “Goh!” she said indifferently, and Selma entered the sick room.
It was crowded with heavy teak-wood wardrobes and long cane chairs, and was evidently shared by other members of the family, for two beds were placed parallel with that of Mr. Jahans in the centre of the room. On one of them sat Alexander Christian watching his father-in-law. He rose with a mutter of surprise when he saw Selma, and stalked past her with pompous dignity. Norman and Ulick were standing at the head of their father’s bed, and they at once entered eagerly into particulars of his illness.
“He was too much in the sun yesterday, and he conducted a sale himself this morning—he is too old, you know. Then he came back and smoked his hookah; but he said he felt seedy, and then he fell down in a fit. Now he is dying.”
“Oh hush!” said Selma; “don’t, he can hear you Have you sent for the doctor!”
“Send for the doctor when there is Alexander?” they chorused. “My brother-in-law is a physician There is no more that any one can do—this is a very old man, and he cannot live for ever.”
Selma approached the bedside and bent over the restless, muttering form. “Mr. Jahans?” she said gently.
He looked up into her face for a moment with a vacant stare, then smiled, and put out his wrinkled hand with a painful effort; she clasped it in hers, which seemed to soothe and satisfy him, for he lay quiet, but presently he pointed to his sons and then to the door.
“Perhaps he wants to be alone with me for a few minutes,” said Selma apologetically, and the two men went out of the room in apathetic acquiescence.
She sat waiting patiently for the words that fluttered on the dying lips; the air of the room was close and unwholesome; outside in the verandah the myna, disturbed by the lights and the unusual movements, began to chatter excitedly; and Cyril’s mongoose was running round the walls of the bedroom with pattering feet and little chirruping noises.
“You came when I needed,” whispered Mr. Jahans, “you have always been kind to the old man and patient with us all; but now they hate you.” His eyes turned slowly to the door. “Alexander has talked and talked, till now Una thinks like him, and when I wanted to see you they refused to send—” He stopped exhausted, for even in health this would have been a long speech for Mr. Jahans to make. His face looked ghastly in the light of the single wall lamp, and his eyes had sunk deep into his head. “Water!” he said feebly in Hindustani.
Selma put her arm under his neck and raised his head; he drank feverishly from the enamelled iron cup that she took from the bedside table and held to his lips, and then he sank back on to the pillow. She feared that the end had come, and she was about to call Mrs. Christian when he began to speak again in a low murmuring voice. He babbled of his wife, of his mother the old Bibi Jahans, of Paul as a little boy; then he fancied he was conducting a sale, and his thin fingers beat on the bed-clothes. Once Mr. Christian came to the door and stood watching and listening with his hands in his pockets, but when Selma looked up he turned and went back into the sitting-room. Presently the old man raised himself, the low chattering ceased, and he clutched at Selma’s arm.
“Tell Paul to go,” he stammered hoarsely, “tell him to take you back again across the black water, to take you from this country and from his people. At first I was proud when I knew he had come back, and when I saw you, his pretty wife; but now, like all people that are going to die, my eyes are open, and I can see nothing but trouble—and tears—and death—” His breath failed, and he struggled distressingly.
Selma held the water to his lips again, but he could not swallow.
“Another thing,” he whispered, almost inaudibly, “perhaps there will be mischief at the fair. Alexander—he knows—he could warn—” He stopped abruptly, his head fell forward, and the utter stillness that followed was sad in its significance.
At Selma’s hasty call the whole family flocked into the death chamber. Una uttered a succession of piercing shrieks, Irene had hysterics, the children howled in sympathy, and through the hubbub the shrill whistling of the myna cut sharply.
Selma touched Mr. Christian on the shoulder: “I am going,” she said coldly, “but first I want to speak to you—come into the sitting-room, please.”
He looked for a moment as though he meant to refuse with defiance, but her steady gaze held him, and he followed her unwillingly, away from the noisy lamentation in the bedroom.
“Well?” he said disagreeably, as they stood facing one another on either side of the round table on which stood a black bottle and some long tumblers, “what did the old man say to you, h’n?”
“He said that there might be trouble at the fair, and that you knew about it. You must tell me at once what he meant.”
“How should I know what he meant? An old man just dying and behosh (delirious), who would at-tend to his words?” He poured out a liberal quantity of the cheap bazaar spirit and drank it, regarding her with cunning over the top of the glass.
“Listen to me,” she said, though she felt a practical conviction that appeal was useless, “if you possess information of any trouble that is brewing I implore you to tell me what it is that I may warn my husband.”
“Oh! yess you think if there is disturbance then there may be blame for him; but if he could say ‘See! from my own relations I have discovered this plot, and could prevent,’ then there would be praise and promotion for Pahl Wereker, Assistant Magistrate! Whatever happens, Alexander Christian, who is only the jail apothecary, he is to get nothing, h’n?”
“Then if there is anything to tell, which I am inclined to doubt, you refuse to speak?” She could hardly control her fury and disgust as she looked at the man standing smiling and insolent before her. “Remember that if anything happens the Government shall know that you held your tongue when you might have warned them.”
“First you would have to prove that I knew anything to tell!” he answered, with an exasperating laugh; and as Selma went from the house in angry despair he stood in the doorway and chuckled maliciously.
She was very weary when she got back to her own bungalow; the long day in the train, preceded by the tedious drive from Batapur to the station, had given her a headache; the death of old Mr. Jahans and the scene through which she had just passed had tried her nerves severely, and the uncertainty as to whether Mr. Christian did or did not possess knowledge of impending trouble at the fair caused her acute uneasiness. She stumbled blindly up the verandah steps, while the man with the lantern hurried round to the servants’ quarters eager for his belated evening meal, and when Paul moved forward out of the shadow and laid his hand on her arm she started, all unnerved as she was, and screamed.
“Why, Selma,” said Paul, half laughing, half alarmed. “Where have you been? what is the matter with you?”
“Oh!” she cried and shuddered involuntarily, “for a moment I thought you were a native!” She followed him into the lighted drawing room, but she still trembled, and as she stood looking into his eyes, with his arm about her, and his face bent to hers, she found herself struggling horribly with a desperate and unexpected sense of revulsion. He had not changed his clothes and it seemed to her that he smelt like a native, indeed it was probable that he did, from having mixed throughout the day with the crowd at the fair, but to her excited imagination the strong spicy odour belonged to him personally, and she thought that he resembled more than ever the young Brahmin priest at the shrine of Hanuman. By sheer will effort she prevented herself from running back into the dark verandah, away from his touch, away from his eyes she felt that her moral courage was deserting her, that her sense of duty, her loyalty to the man she had chosen as her husband, her desire to do the best by her life’s responsibilities, were all slipping beyond her reach. In the realisation of her own helplessness she drew her breath sharply between her teeth as though she had received a physical hurt.
“I have just seen poor old Mr. Jahans die,” she said unsteadily. “He was only taken ill this morning, and I suppose I was upset, you startled me coming out of the shadow so suddenly—and I was afraid —I mean I thought—I didn’t know who—it was—” She shrank from him almost perceptibly.
Paul made no comment on the news of his grandfather’s death, indeed he had scarcely noticed the words, but his arms dropped to his sides, and his face grew set and haggard, for, all at once, looking at his wife, listening to her voice, he had perceived as though by mental flashlight the abhorrence in which she held his Oriental blood.
He made no sign of his impression, or of the cold despair that fell upon him, only he moved away that he might not touch her again, he so dreaded to see her shrink and shiver; and in his ordinary voice and manner he asked her about her visit and her journey, insisted that she should eat and drink, listened to her account of old Mr. Jahans’ illness and death, agreed that it would be better, under the circumstances, not to force his presence on the Christians, and soothed her suspicions with regard to Alexander’s insinuations.
“It’s all nonsense, the fellow was bluffing,” he said reassuringly. “I’ve no doubt he boasted and bragged to his own people, and of course he was anxious to give you the impression that he held a trump card, but even if a disturbance is brewing the police are strong enough to cope with it and manage the people. Anything in the shape of a riot could be put down at once.”
“I am so afraid he knows there is going to be a row and won’t warn you, because he thinks he owes you a grudge about that appointment,” said Selma doubtfully.
“If I had tried to get it for him a hundred times over it would have been no use, and he knows it, or he ought to. I assure you the fair people are all quite orderly and well behaved, there is nothing whatever to fear from them or from the priests. To-morrow is the big day when the fakirs march in procession to bathe, and I haven’t the least doubt that it will all go off as quietly as possible. By the way, Mrs. Goring suggested that you should go on an elephant with her and see the fair at its height, she is coming to ask you about it in the afternoon. If I thought for a moment that anything was likely to happen I should tell you to stop at home: you mustn’t worry, dear go to bed, and go to sleep, you are quite worn out. Don’t wait up for me, I have some work I want to finish—”
Far into the night, while Selma slept, Paul sat at his office table staring before him in dumb trouble it might be that Selma’s feeling of aversion was more abstract than individual, he hoped it was, but he knew now that even though he should get a transfer to another Province, though he should take her away from India altogether, though he should devote to her his whole being—this must always stand between s!them. Of what avail to speak and argue the matter? No amount of reasoning could make any difference; the gulf lay between them for ever, wide, impassable; it would be best to look across it in silence.
When Selma awoke the next morning she found that Paul had already started for the fair; he had given orders that she was not to be disturbed, and she had slept late. Now she arose rested and refreshed, with the dark depression that had clouded her mind the previous evening lightened almost to dispersion.
She ordered a ticca-gharry after breakfast and drove to the Christians’ bungalow. She did not mean to turn her back on Paul’s relations however badly they might have behaved, and she intended to suggest that Vi and the younger children should come to her until after the funeral of their grandfather was over; but when she reached the house she found as much bustle and excitement in the atmosphere as though a wedding were in prospect. Groups of hired vehicles were waiting in the compound, knots of people were standing in the verandahs, and disappeared hastily as Selma drove up; loud chattering came from the interior, and Mrs. Vereker had begun to contemplate abandoning her visit when “Wi” came running out clad in a black jacket of her mother’s which concealed the red merino frock, and with a piece of black crepe twisted round her sun-hat. She was in a state of flurry and agitation, and informed her sister-in-law with shrill rapidity that all the relations and connections of the family were in the house, and that the funeral was to take place the following day. “And there will be such a crowd!” she added, with gratified pride, “we are all going!”
“Would your mother care to see me, do you think, Vi? Run and ask her.”
But Mrs. Christian returned an ungracious message, without doubt dictated by Alexander, whose voice Selma could hear above all the noisy tones of the rest of the company, that “she would see no more at present,” and taking the hint Mrs. Vereker drove away with considerable relief, affecting to be unconscious of the furtive, peeping faces that had crowded to the doors and windows.
Early in the afternoon Mrs. Goring arrived in her bamboo cart at the Verekers’ bungalow, and announced that she had come to take Selma down to see the fair.
“No, I won’t come in,” she said, “you go and put on your hat and we’ll be off at once. We can have a bird’s eye view from the fort walls, and then go into the crowd on an elephant with my husband. It will be rather worth seeing for a short time. How are you after your change? All the better? You look a little fagged—from the long journey yesterday, I suppose.”
Selma hesitated. She had no particular wish to see the fair, but she thought that Paul might be pleased if she went and could talk over the events of the “big day” with him in the evening, so she finally agreed. During the drive she told Mrs. Goring about Mr. Jahans’ illness and death, but she made no mention of the old man’s warning and Alexander’s hints. It would have entailed an explanation of Mr. Christian’s attempt to persuade Paul into coercing Mr. Goring for his benefit, and Selma felt that this would give her companion every right to think, even if she refrained from uttering, that most exasperating of sayings, “I told you so.”
“Poor old man,” she added, “I shall really miss him, for he was the only one of the lot, except perhaps Vi, with whom I had any sympathy. I went there this morning to see what I could do to help them, but I found I was not wanted, and my good intentions were wasted.”
The road as they neared the fort was covered with people, and progress was unavoidably slow. Many pilgrims had commenced the return journey, being unable to spare the time from their farms and villages to wait for the crowning ceremonies and to see the great day through; these carried, slung from their shoulders, baskets in which were packed green glass bottles containing the holy water of the Ganges, that they might convey the precious liquid to their homes for the cure of disease, the forgiveness of sin, for use in forms of worship and sacrifice, and for the benefit of the dying.
Selma was struck by the expression on the faces of the departing pilgrims in contrast with the look of those who were still on their way to the river; the one denoted peace, satisfaction, the sense of accomplishment of purpose—the other strained anxiety, eager expectation, an utter disregard of everything but the desire of achievement. She remarked on it to her companion.
“Yes,” replied that unromantic lady, “the pilgrims who are returning imagine that they are purified in body and spirit, and that their sins are washed away; yet even on the way home they will lie and cheat and push each other out of the best places in the train, and commit their old transgressions all over again. With the ordinary native religion has nothing to do with conduct; he performs these ceremonies to propitiate the gods and protect himself from misfortune; he may be a criminal of the deepest dye, a thief, a murderer, a swindler, and yet remain so holy as to be almost a saint.”
The crowd grew denser, the dust was suffocating, for as yet no cold-weather rains had come to satisfy the dry earth. As they approached the fort they passed a tent belonging to an American mission, where a man with flowing beard and large sun-hat was handing pictures and tracts to the passers-by and crying aloud against the blackness of idolatry and superstition, while behind him his wife energetically plied a portable harmonium, and two or three assistants sang hymns with fervour.
The two ladies entered the fort by the great gate which was well away from the pilgrims, and a few minutes later they emerged on to the ramparts. Selma looked down upon a scene that made her wonder: she was gazing over the spot where in countless ages past, according to the orthodox Hindu, the mighty Vishnu had sat and meditated, and where now a solid mass of people covered the river-bank for nearly a mile; most of them were clothed in spotless white, but occasional splashes of colour, blue, green, red, varied the monotony; the gay triangular flags of the Brahmins, with their different devices, flapped and floated in the gentle breeze, and their canvas booths and light umbrellas of cane and leaves lined the shore. In the middle of the throng below the fort walls a track was kept clear for the fakirs’ processions, which had been crossing the bridge of boats from the island and winding down to the river’s edge since daybreak; and on either side of the narrow space two streams of figures came and went incessantly, the one making for the water, the other returning from it, and the din that rose on the dry air was like the restless roar of a city.
It seemed almost unreal to be viewing from these high red walls a scene that had been enacted year after year for many centuries, and that was now as much alive with religious belief and enthusiasm as it had been two, or perhaps three, thousand years ago. As Selma watched the seething concourse of human beings, and listened to the ceaseless clamour of prayer and praise, she felt a dim understanding of the spell of this wonderful country that had laid so strong a hold upon her husband; and a sense of the mystery of far-off ages touched her spirit, but she shrank from the sensation, and rebelled against it involuntarily, much as she had tried to resist the fascination of Paul himself when he had first drawn her with the curious attraction of his eyes and voice, and the magnetism of his personality.
She turned away abruptly and followed Mrs. Goring to where, further along the walls, the Colonel commanding the fort was entertaining a party of people at tea outside his quarters. Groups of women in pretty clothes, and men in comfortable flannels, were talking and laughing and looking at the fair through field-glasses; some of them chatted politely to Selma while her companion was occupied with friends; the Colonel brought her some tea and, at Mrs. Goring’s request, invited her to look into his rooms where once the ladies of the Moghul dynasty had lived and loved and intrigued.
Then the Collector came toiling up the steps, hot, dusty, weary, and thirsting for a whisky-and-soda, and it was well on in the afternoon before he and his wife and Selma Vereker descended to the fort gates where the elephant was waiting to take them into the crowd. Most of the processions were over, but as the great beast pushed leisurely through the turmoil the route was once more being cleared, and presently with a blast of trumpets and a steady swinging march a long line of almost nude, ash-coloured figures, numbering nearly a thousand, began to wind its way from the bridge of boats towards the river-side. The fakirs were a hideous sight, and it was difficult to believe that some of them could be human; on most of the heads the hair was piled in masses, caked with mud that had been applied while wet and allowed to dry; the bodies of others were enwrapt with long tresses that hung over their shoulders down to the ground; their eyes were either fierce and fanatical or else held the remote ascetic expression of those who are raised, almost to stupefaction, above earthly considerations. Their skins were smeared with dust and ashes, their features daubed with paint; some had heavy rosaries of beads hung about their necks and reaching to their knees, and they carried various emblems of their religious offices, tridents, tongs, bowls of wood or brass. Some were crowned and draped with wreaths of sacred flowers, and some had leopard skins flung over their shoulders; a great mass of holy men, representatives of various forms of the Hindu faith, and at sight of them the crowd of pilgrims swayed and roared with the fervour of religious excitement. Some of the people ran forward and touched the bodies of the priests and then their own foreheads, with cries of “Ram! Ram! Sita Ram!” and as the procession went by they hastened to scrape up fragments of the soil that had been pressed by the sacred feet.
“Isn’t it extraordinary?” said Mr. Goring. “Look at that chap scraping up the earth and putting it in a brass vessel—he’ll take it home and use it as a charm against evil spirits, or as a gift for his local godling and that fellow in the salmon-coloured clothes” — as they passed a seated figure surrounded by an attentive cluster of pilgrims—“is praying for the ancestors of his congregation in return for the offerings they have heaped before him. He’ll stick a caste mark on each of their foreheads presently, and they’ll go away delighted. A nice easy method of earning a living!”
“Where is Paul?” asked Selma, scanning the crowd.
“Oh, somewhere about we’ll find him presently and send him up to the fort to get a drink. It has been a most fatiguing day for everybody, but thank goodness it has all gone quietly.”
They pressed on through the people, witnessing many curious devotional exercises and some revolting devices for the mortification of the flesh—devotees buried up to their necks in the sand, gaunt figures with arms that had been held high in the air for so long that they had fixed and withered in that position. Mendicant fakirs that furiously demanded charity, others who received in lofty silence whatever was offered to them, preachers that declaimed passages from the holy book, ascetics that sat and called unceasingly on the names of the gods. There were stalls and booths where idols, toys, and sweetmeats could be purchased an enclosure filled with mounds of human hair (for it is incumbent on the pious pilgrim to shave his head and body clean before coming in contact with the holy waters), and everywhere through the moving mass of humanity there crawled and whined beggars innumerable—blind, diseased, crippled, deformed.
Suddenly the elephant stopped. A native police officer had pushed his horse through the crowd and was holding up his hand to attract the “Collector sahib’s” attention. He shouted something, and Mr. Goring, leaning forward, called back instructions to the man, who then hurried away.
“Get on quickly,” said Mr. Goring to the mahout, “straight on to where you can see the tents of the padre sahibs.” He turned to his wife and Selma. “I don’t suppose it’s anything much, but some beastly fakir has started preaching cheek-by-jowl with Watson, and he must be stopped. I’ve no doubt he’ll shut up directly he sees me, but I’ve ordered some police to the spot in case there’s any trouble. I wish I hadn’t got you ladies with me, but I can’t put you down in the crowd, and it would take me so long to get through on foot.”
They moved on with difficulty, till, over the multitude of heads, from the vantage of the elephant’s height, they caught sight of Mr. Watson standing in front of his tent, preaching vigorously, the faithful Abraham by his side. A few yards from the missionary were grouped some sullen-looking Bairagi priests, a sect that is often recruited from the scum of the population, and who mostly follow their religious calling merely for the sake of gain, so constituting themselves a burden to the country. One of them, a repulsive object, nearly naked, with painted face, filthy matted hair, and long heavy necklace of carved beads, was shouting in opposition to the English padre, waving his long arms, rolling his blood-shot eyes, and pointing with menace at his rival.
Mr. Goring swore below his breath. “I know that brute!” he exclaimed. “He’s a mischievous devil, and was put in jail last year by my predecessor for making himself a nuisance at the fair; but I thought he and his followers were pretty well subdued.”
He ordered the mahout to urge the elephant on, but the crowd, attracted by the noise and gestures of the fanatic, had increased in density, and it seemed impossible to force a way through the people without causing disaster. The Bairagi threw up his arms and advanced towards Mr. Watson, uttering a torrent of excited words. The missionary settled his spectacles firmly on his nose, took an open Bible from the hands of Abraham, and, pointing to the pages, held it out to his opponent, who seized it with defiant contempt, and flung it high into the air. There came an ominous swaying movement from the crowd, and a low growling murmur.
“Good heavens!” cried Mr. Goring, “we shall have a row in two minutes;—if only! could get forward. Ah, thank goodness there’s Vereker.”
Paul had just appeared, edging his way round the corner of the tent. Mr. Goring stood up and shouted to him.
“Vereker!—Vereker!—mind that chap! Keep him off till the police come up. I’ve sent for them, and I’ll be with you myself in a second.”
Paul stood between the still preaching missionary and the fakir; he looked from one to the other as though doubtful what steps to take.
Mr. Goring hurriedly bade the mahout drive the elephant on, irrespective of the people.
“If he moves another inch”—he yelled to Paul “threaten him with your cane!” The fakir brandished his brass begging-bowl. “Strike, you fool!—keep him off— My God!” his voice suddenly changed—“what’s the matter with the fellow?”
The words, angry and indignant, rang in Selma’s ears with a horrible distinctness; and a vague, forgotten memory brushed past her mind of a summer evening, an English garden, an excited black poodle, and a little boy running as though for his life. For a moment she saw Paul’s face, white, hesitating, irresolute; he glanced quickly behind him, took an uncertain step backwards, and instantly the crowd, heaving like a wave, poured over the spot where he was standing. The air was full of the trampling of feet, of the yells of thousands of voices, of the dull scuffle of struggling bodies. She knew that the elephant was still moving, that Mr. Goring was shouting orders, that Mrs. Goring was trying incoherently to reassure her. As through a mist she saw the surging, straining mass waver, and then split as a band of police rushed forward striking, pushing, shouting; there was a terrible backward crush, screams, and thuds of blows, clouds of dust, confusion, horror, bewilderment —
She clutched Mr. Goring’s arm. “Paul!” she cried, “what has happened to Paul?”
The man in his vexation and excitement answered her brutally. “Nothing would have happened to him if he had kept his head; now he has probably got it broken in the crowd.”
Suddenly the uproar lessened, and the space around the elephant cleared. The ringleaders of the disturbance were being led off to the police-station, Mr. Watson and Abraham, covered with dust, and with their clothes torn to rags, limped from the debris of their tent shaken and bruised, though apparently otherwise unhurt—but still there was no sign of Paul.
At last one of the policemen came running up. “The Sahib is over there. He was knocked down and swept away—he is hurt “—and the man pointed to where, on the outskirts of the still excited crowd, a group of constables were surrounding a prostrate figure.
* * * *
They carried Paul Vereker, limp and unconscious, round the base of the red walls where he had laboured ankle deep through the sand as a little child, and up into the Colonel’s quarters in the fort; and there Selma was told that her husband had been fatally injured, and that he could not live for many hours. She sat by his side holding his cold hand, praying for one word of recognition or farewell, seeing around her as in a dream the figures of Mr. and Mrs. Goring, the Colonel, and the doctors, until as daylight began to fade he opened his eyes. She bent to catch the first faint sounds that hovered on his lips.
“Outside,” he whispered beseechingly, “out into the light—”
They bore him as he lay, on the narrow camp bedstead, out to the fort walls; the sunset was crimsoning the waters, the noise of the multitude rose on the still air, the clang of bells and conches, the cries of prayer and praise. The dying man raised himself slightly. His eyes strained towards the river.
“Oh! Baba-jee!” he cried in Hindustani, with a full strong voice, and held out his arms, “Behold! I am come!”
And in the atmosphere of the faith that by heritage was in his veins, Paul Vereker’s spirit answered to the call of the gods.
On a warm summer evening, between two and three years later, Robert Jardine opened the door of the long drawing room at Farm Park, and looked inside expectantly. The room had been considerably altered and improved—panelling replaced the white and gold wall paper, deep couches and comfortable chairs supplemented the old-fashioned furniture; there were palms, screens, quantities of books and flowers, and a new grand piano stood open littered with music. Some one had evidently but lately left the room, for a magazine lay face downwards on a sofa, and a silk cushion had slipped to the floor. He picked it up, and rang the bell.
“Where is her Ladyship?” he asked, when Trotter appeared.
“In the garden, Sir Robert. I took tea and the second post out to her under the chestnuts a few minutes ago.”
Bob passed through the open French window on to the lawn. Long shadows had flung themselves over the grass from the house, and the scent of flowers, heliotrope, jasmine, petunia, rose strongly in anticipation of the coming dew. He strolled along in his cool flannels, his straw hat tilted back from his sun-burned face; and a look of blissful contentment came into his eyes as he caught sight of his wife’s figure seated under the trees. She was reading a letter, and the tea-table with its polished silver, steaming urn, and plates of dainties, stood unnoticed at her side.
“Who is it from, Selma?” he said, coming noiselessly behind her in his soft, white boots.
“Oh! Bob, how you made me jump!” She held up her hand to him over her shoulder, and he lightly kissed the cool, pink tips of her fingers; then threw himself into a chair.
“Tea, for mercy’s sake! I have just seen the last load of hay carried, and I’m hotter than blazes and dying of thirst. While I eat and drink you can read me those letters, as you seem to scorn bodily refreshment yourself!”
“It’s the Indian mail.” She laid the closely written sheets of paper on her lap while she poured out the tea. “The Everards have been for a shooting trip into the hills, and you will be glad to hear that the dogs enjoyed themselves very much, and are all the better for the change. She is sending you six pairs of socks which she has knitted for you herself, and there’s a note for you from ‘the old man’ telling you all about the sport. I have also got a long letter from Mrs. Watson.”
“Oh?—what does she say?”
“As usual, she encloses a most business-like receipt for the last remittance I sent her. How good she is to do proxy for me in my charities when she has so much work of her own to get through! Poor thing, she writes in very low spirits this time; she says she does not think her husband can go on much longer, he has already broken down twice this year, and the Mission authorities are urging him to take a pension.”
“Look here,” said Bob, “do you think he could be induced to accept the living of Little Alconburt? It’s not worth much, but there’s a nice vicarage, and it’s in my gift. I heard from the present vicar only yesterday that he wants to chuck.”
“Oh, Bob! the very thing for them. But will Mr. Watson consent to come home, I wonder? Anyway, he might be persuaded that a change is absolutely necessary for his health’s sake, and we could put them in there temporarily so that he need not feel that he was idle, and then it might end in his staying in England altogether. I’ll write to them about it this next mail. Poor Mrs. Watson, what a haven it would be to her, and how she would love it, dear soul; a home for her sons and daughters to come to, and such a rest for the Padre.”
“What else does she say? Fancy any one writing such a long letter except under threat of instant decapitation.”
“It’s principally an account of the use she is making of my money among the poor Eurasian families at Pragpur. If she comes home I hope she will be able to find some one to carry on the distribution for me judiciously, though no one else would ever understand so well how to do it. She says the Gorings have taken furlough and are starting at once, in spite of the horrors of a voyage during the monsoon; but I don’t suppose they would care what they faced, provided they were on their way home. I’ll read you the rest: The Christians are in a great state of excitement over Ulick Jahans’ engagement to the eldest Miss Lightowler, and Mrs. Christian cannot make up her mind whether she herself is more gratified or annoyed; one day you would think that Mrs. Lightowler was her dearest friend, and on the next the station-master’s wife is again ‘her enemy.’ However, I hear that the young couple mean to set up for themselves in a little bungalow behind the auction-rooms, so let us hope that they will be independent of the family feuds. Violet is still at school in the hills; what a vast difference you have made in that poor child’s life by paying for her education! She is growing into quite a nice girl, and when she was at home for her Christmas holidays she confided to me that her great ambition was to join the Mission when she was old enough. I hope she may carry out the idea instead of making an improvident marriage with some boy of her own age, which seems to be the usual habit of most Eurasian girls. Cyril has gone into the auctioneering business with his uncles, and is more of a ‘drawing-room man,’ his mother tells me, than ever. I sometimes see him in the evenings driving past our house on his way to the bandstand in the bamboo cart with the piebald pony, and a dreadful looking girl of about fifteen seated by his side. Irene Jahans’ last baby is a girl; the twins can now walk, but the family continue to live with the Christians, and the state of the bungalow is beyond description. Una is becoming almost too stout to walk, and Alexander is still the jail apothecary; I should fancy he is likely to remain so till the end of the chapter. I believe he still hints darkly that he could have prevented the trouble at the fair had he chosen, but we all know how hopelessly untruthful the man is, and one can only trust that in this case he may be lying. We have had a terrible hot weather, and the sickness in the district is appalling; the people have not yet recovered that awful year of scarcity when the rains failed. I don’t know when I have felt the heat more than have done this season, but now that the rains have broken it is a little less distressing, though the mosquitoes are maddening, and we are. all covered with prickly heat—’”
“Oh! Stop!” cried Bob, “I shall have a go of fever if you read any more of that. India is an accursed country—except for the sport of course.” He rose to his feet, stretched himself and yawned. “I’m going up to have a cold tub. Aunt Carrie and your father are coming over to dinner, aren’t they?”
“Yes, they said they would be here early because father wants to talk to you about those cottages, and something about the village school-master; so be ready, and then you can get the business over before dinner. Aunt Carrie will like to come up and talk to me while I dress.”
“All right,” and Bob sauntered off across the lawn whistling.
Selma watched his fine figure with the square shoulders and easy carriage moving towards the house, and a smile of satisfied appreciation curved her lips. Bob was an ideal husband; he was even-tempered, considerate, sensible, and he loved her very deeply. They had been married nearly four months, and already the stormy days of her first marriage seemed like the painful memory of a vivid dream; her present life was full of a calm, secure happiness, and all she asked or desired of the future was that children’s voices might some day bring an additional thankfulness to her heart.
She sat quiet, in dreamy contentment, for some minutes after her husband had disappeared, then she blew out the flame under the urn, gathered up her letters and went into the house. As she passed through the drawing-room she paused at the piano and began to set the music tidy. She collected it into a neat heap, and consigned it to the depths of the square, old-fashioned ottoman which still held bound volumes of “pieces” that had been played with amazing execution by the former Lady Jardine in her youth. Selma wondered if her step-mother would care to take the old books back to the Rectory; idly she lifted one of them out, and felt amused as the pages opened at “Love’s Ritornella.”
A few loose leaves fluttered to the ground; she stooped and picked them up, then found that she was holding in her hand a tattered copy of “The Love Song of Har Dyal.”
She laid it on the piano, and stood gazing at the frayed, discoloured sheets. Her whole being vibrated with remembrance: she seemed again to hear the words sung in the passionate seductive voice—“Come back to me, Beloved, or I die!”—that before had brought tears to her eyes and regret to her heart here in this very room. She saw the handsome impassive face, and the strange green eyes that had spoken dumbly of the soul torn and tortured by the mingling of East and West; that had held in their depths the tired emotions of an ancient people—the tragic “something” that had drawn Paul Vereker to his fate. Simultaneously she was conscious of her peaceful English surroundings, the mellow room, the smooth, well-kept garden seen from the tall open window in the drowsy haze of the summer evening, the correct figure of the man-servant in livery carrying the tea-table across the lawn from beneath the trees. She knew that her life’s great trial was over, that her lot had returned to pleasant places, but the smarting tears clouded her eyes, and she bent her fair sunny head over the song lying on the piano:
“Oh! Paul!” she whispered with a sob, “poor Paul!”