Mrs. Lynex lived in a private hotel: to her numerous friends and acquaintances she was wont to describe it contemptuously as “a boarding-house in the jungles of South Kensington.” Alas! having no private income, her pension as the widow of a general (Indian Army) would not permit of residence in more congenial quarters unless diversions and smart clothes were to be sacrificed. Any suggestion of a flat or a small house of her own she ruled out as impossible on her miserable means; and as for lodgings (thus she brutally translated the more refined word apartments), she hated the very idea. In addition, Mrs. Lynex hated various things that any well-behaved old lady might be expected to love, such as clergymen, Christmas, black garments, charities, children, and so forth. Mrs. Lynex, however, made no pretence of being a well-behaved old lady; she lived shamelessly for pleasure as she understood it, revelled in race meetings, card parties, theatres, bright colours, gay crowds. All disquieting reminders connected with old age she removed resolutely from her thoughts, avowing that she lived up to the only text she could ever remember: “Sufficient unto the day,” etc.
This morning, when on the point of starting for Sandown, arrayed in royal blue satin, she was summoned to the telephone. With an exclamation of annoyance that caused the hall porter to grin, she entered the telephone-box and raised the receiver to her best ear.
“Who is it?” she demanded sharply.
“Annabel, Annabel Heath. When can I come and see you?”
“Not now. I have an important engagement out of town. What do you want?”
“Heavens! Have you had a proposal?”
“No such luck. But being honest, sober and industrious, I’ve had the offer of a job in India.”
Mrs. Lynex laughed. “Well, at any rate I know something about India. Come and eat garbage here with me to-night and tell me all about it.”
She rang off, looked at her watch and muttered: “Tiresome girl! Now I must have a taxi, or miss the special.
It was pleasing to blame another for the extravagance, though in no case could Mrs. Lynex have caught the special train without it. She drove away in excellent humour, to return at the close of the day somewhat physically fatigued but elated in spirit because luck had been kind. As she entered the hotel lounge, peering expectantly through her lorgnette, a slim figure in mourning rose from a settee and came forward to meet her. Mrs. Lynex extended both hands.
“Ah! here you are, my child. Not that you are a child, though I must say you look nearer seventeen than twenty-seven. Mark what a memory I possess.”
“And you,” said Annabel Heath, “might be twenty-seven instead of---but my memory isn’t equal to yours!”
She knew better than to embrace Mrs. Lynex, who “hated” demonstrations of affection, though she was not averse to flattery.
“There I can’t help you, for I declare I don’t know how old I am! Now we’d better go straight in to dinner, or the liquid they call soup will be cold.”
The pair threaded their way among the “separate tables,” pursued by the stares of the company, to whom the amazing Mrs. Lynex was a continual source of scandalized interest. Miss Heath caught comments from the lips of an austere-looking female who was entertaining a guest of like forbidding appearance: “A wicked old woman. Never goes to church . . . takes in vulgar papers . . . uses disgraceful language. . . . To think of that lady-like girl——”
“Did you hear?” inquired Miss Heath of her hostess when they were seated. “You are a wicked old woman.”
Mrs. Lynex chuckled. “I bet the scarecrow in the corner said that.”
“And I,” went on her guest composedly, “am a lady-like girl.”
Mrs. Lynex removed the vase of stale flowers from the centre to the side of their table. “Now we can see each other. You would look less ladylike if you had some colour in your cheeks and more flesh on your bones. When I think of my dear, dead friend, your grandmother, at your age!---you might be her ghost. What a picture she was, with her eyes and her hair that we used to tell her were like tortoise-shell, all brown and gold; and her complexion---even India couldn’t ruin it. Ah! the times she and I had together out there a hundred years ago, the mischief we got into!” She sighed, then added briskly: “You must feed up, Annabel. If you weren’t so thin and pale you’d be very like your grandmother in her youth. Meantime pad and rouge.”
“Well, if I don’t pad and rouge I hope soon to feed up at somebody else’s expense.”
“A pity it isn’t a husband’s. Now what about this job in India?”
“It’s to go out with a Mrs. Cardale, to help her generally, and teach her small boy, aged eight.”
Mrs. Lynex raised her eyebrows in horror. “Otherwise as a nursery governess? My good girl, don’t think of it!”
Annabel’s delicate yet firm little face flushed. Like most of us when in need of advice, she had come to the person she considered most likely to administer it in accordance with her own inclinations. She wanted to go to India; and so often she had heard Mrs. Lynex acclaim the country as “the best place in the world for young people and poor people.”
“Then you think I should be a fool to accept the offer?” Annabel asked, dismayed.
“Certainly I do. You’d be out of everything, and have no friends beyond the other nursemaids in the station. A most humiliating position for a girl in our class.”
“But I must do something,” the girl argued, “and I’m sick and tired of England.”
“Oh, poverty, poverty!” groaned Mrs. Lynex, “what a curse it is. If only your parents hadn’t lived so lavishly in India!”
“At any rate they gave me a good education, and if my father hadn’t come to grief out pigsticking just as I was leaving school——”
“——you would have gone out and joined them, of course,” interrupted Mrs. Lynex, “and no doubt have married well enough, though eligible husbands don’t grow on every bush, even in India;” She paused reminiscently, then continued with merciless candour: “As it was, your mother came home a malade imaginaire and spent every farthing she could of your pensions and the insurance money on chemists and quacks. Darned hard luck on you, my dear. Nine years of your life wasted.”
“Not entirely wasted,” said Annabel calmly, “considering that I learnt to nurse and cook, and make both ends meet. Incidentally I kept up my education, and at one time, if you remember, I took daily pupils, horrid little boys and girls, until mother got worse and I hadn’t the time to spare; so I know something about children as well. All useful attainments to be turned to account now.”
There was no hint of grievance or sentiment in her tone. Mrs. Lynex, she knew, was incapable of realizing the mutual devotion that had sustained the courage of mother and daughter throughout those hard nine years. All the same, she appreciated the fact that this worldly old family friend had always been kind after her own fashion. At intervals Mrs. Lynex had paid flying visits to the little flat at Barnes, bearing parcels of discarded garments that she “thought might come in useful somehow”---as indeed they did, if only for the few shillings they fetched at second-hand clothes shops. While on rounds of summer visits she would post them boxes of flowers robbed from her hosts’ gardens. And at Christmas time she preserved all the cards she received that were not written upon, also any useless or duplicate gifts, to pack the lot off to Mrs. Heath with “kind love.” She had sent quite a nice wreath (from a shop) when Mrs. Heath died.
“Well, well,” Mrs. Lynex said now, “it was wise of you not to let the grass grow under your feet, but in my opinion you’ll be making a gigantic mistake if you go out to India as more or less a menial.”
“If I took anything of the kind, which is all that I’m fit for, in England, I should only be bottled up in a schoolroom. And as for friends, I can do without them. I’ve very few left; there was no time for friendships. I should like to go back to India; remember I was born there, and wasn’t sent home till I was about seven. I can remember a lot---the sun and the colour, the sounds and the scents——”
“Pooh!” scoffed Mrs. Lynex, “you mean the noises and smells!” She had appreciated life in the East solely for the amusements and advantages it afforded that were prohibitive on the same income in the West. “All very well as you may remember things. Your people were in a good position. But to go out there as practically a servant would soon disillusion you. Who are these Cardale people? What do you know about them?”
“Nothing, except that Mr. Cardale is some sort of official. His wife came home on account of her health. I answered her advertisement and she’s willing to engage me.”
“Is she a lady?”
“Very nearly; and she seems amiable. She’s delicate, so my nursing experience would be useful; rather of the helpless order, so my strength of character wouldn’t be wasted. The child has been horribly spoilt, therefore what I know about children would come in there.”
“Dear me!---nothing like self-confidence, not to call it conceit!”
“Nothing,” agreed Miss Heath; and they both laughed.
“But seriously now, consider,” went on Mrs. Lynex. “It would be a most dangerous leap in the dark. You don’t know how these people might treat you; and suppose you were smitten with some horrible disease common to India---typhoid, cholera, small-pox, anything---where would you be? And if the husband made love to you, you’d be kicked out without a character.”
“That might happen anywhere.”
Mrs. Lynex shrugged her shoulders. “Well, if you’ve made up your mind to go, why did you come and consult me? I’ve told you what I think. Better go to the colonies if you must leave England. In India you wouldn’t be treated as one of the family: the native servants would regard you as one of themselves, you’d hate the position and feel horribly lonely. And if any man paid you attention it would probably be on the sly, with no notion of matrimony. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about.”
Miss Heath sat silent, dispirited but unconvinced.
“Look for something at home,” urged Mrs. Lynex. “In India without friends, and without money to pay your passage back if you found yourself in a tight place, you’d be helpless. Find some rich old woman who wants a companion and might leave you money; or some affluent old man who wants a lady housekeeper and might marry you: you can always give me as a reference. Or is there nobody you could marry now? A girl with your looks, in whatever circumstances, doesn’t reach the age of twenty-seven without love affairs of some sort. Isn’t there any man you could whistle back?”
“No man I should care to; no one worth while,” said Annabel, as a little procession of suitors filed through her memory: an elderly, obese vicar; a quarrelsome little schoolmaster; a widower who had reminded her of a bear walking on its hind legs; the prosperous owner of the grocery stores where she and her mother had dealt; all impossible, as even Mrs. Lynex must have admitted had they been described to her.
Mrs. Lynex fumbled in her bag. “I can see you intend to please yourself,” she said, exasperated by the other’s silence. “Your grandmother over again---obstinate, self-willed when she’d set her heart on something foolish. However, I’m going to be very kind and give you five pounds. I had a good day at Sandown or such extreme generosity wouldn’t be possible. In the circumstances I should feel more uncomfortable if I didn’t give you something than if I did; so you needn’t be too grateful.”
Annabel squirmed. “Really,” she protested, “I’d rather not take it, though it’s awfully good of you. I’ve got a fair amount of cash in hand from the sale of the furniture, and there’s my pension——”
“A beggarly forty pounds a year! Don’t be a fool. Always take what you can get and be thankful.” She pressed a five-pound note into the girl’s reluctant hand. “Being thankful is quite different from being grateful---a much pleasanter feeling.”
“Then I’m both. But I wish---I mean I never expected——”
“Oh! of course, you didn’t come to consult me with any ulterior motive, I know that; so make your mind easy. Now having done a good deed, I shall feel justified in counteracting it with several bad ones. What a filthy pudding! Don’t eat it. Let us go into the lounge and have our coffee. The only redeeming point about this pot-house is the coffee.”
At that moment the hall porter clumped into the dining-room and handed a visiting card to Mrs. Lynex. Looking at it she exclaimed: “Gracious! I’d no idea he was in town!”
To the porter: “Say I’m coming.”
To Miss Heath: “The son of another old Indian friend. He’s done well for himself lately by marrying a rich widow, though I hate her.”
As they rose from the table Miss Heath said tactfully: “I think I’d better be going; I’ve a lot of business letters to get through to-night.”
“Oh! must you? What a bore!”
Annabel stifled a smile, well aware that “What a blessing!” would more truly have expressed Mrs. Lynex’s feelings.
In the centre of the lounge stood a tall, middle-aged man with a clean-shaven face, strongly cut features, eyes deep set and extraordinarily blue; the finely poised head covered with slightly waving grey hair, the little lift of nostril and upper lip, together with an air of self-composure, all contributed to a pleasant and distinguished appearance. While he and Mrs. Lynex exchanged greetings Annabel remained humbly in the background, to become conscious that the penetrating blue eyes were regarding her with attention. But Mrs. Lynex made no introduction; she turned to Miss Heath, patted her shoulder and actually kissed her.
“Good-bye, my dear. So sorry you must go, but I know how dreadfully busy you are. Take care of yourself and think over my advice.”
Miss Heath responded suitably, passed Mrs. Lynex’s friend with a swift glance of interest, again meeting for one moment the intent gaze of his blue eyes, and as she reached the front door she heard him ask: “Who is that?”
Of course, it was raining. Hastening disconsolately along the wet pavement, Annabel wished she had made no attempt to consult the old lady. No longer did she feel either grateful or thankful for the gift of five pounds. The advice she had received disturbed and disappointed her. Mrs. Lynex’s behaviour filled her with fury, entirely characteristic though it was, and recognizing as she did that had she been banished before the unexpected visitor’s arrival she would not have cared---that, in fact, what she really resented was having been dismissed without an introduction to him. Again---had he been short, stout, bald, commonplace, would she still have felt enraged? Truth compelled her to admit that she would not! And with the admission she pictured the man’s easy, gracious bearing, the slightly whimsical expression on the lined, distinctive face, and the eyes---so charming, so intensely blue! . . . Just the type she had sometimes dreamed of as a lover, a husband; experienced, reliable, attractive, to her mind the more attractive because no longer young. . . .
Well, at any rate she had beheld her dream-hero in the flesh; it was a remembrance to cherish, though he was married and she did not even know his name! Perhaps on some wonderful day his double might cross her path in life, halt, turn towards her, free, if so he willed, to make her his wife.
Then, seated, chilled and damp, in an omnibus, she derided these romantic fancies as school-girlish, absurd; told herself with bitter petulance that she was merely one of a host of lonely females whose lives were of no particular account save for what paid service they could render to other people. Her looks, she considered, were no more than average, despite the resemblance traced by Mrs. Lynex to the beauteous grandmother. The bloom of youth was gone; she was only a pale, thin, practically penniless woman, dependent upon her own exertions. And doubtless Fate held nothing good for her in the future, just as Fate had withheld boons in the past from that black day when news had arrived of her father’s accident and death. Nine years of existence in a cheap flat with her stricken mother; nine years of screwing and scraping, nursing and teaching, without hope or relief! Not that she had been actively unhappy, not that she had rebelled; it had been love’s labour, and could she have recalled and continued the life she would have done so.
As it was, she made up her mind with a sort of vindictive defiance, in which was mingled a certain sense of adventure, to reject Mrs. Lynex’s warnings and advice, to take all the risks enumerated by the old lady, and go out to India with Mrs. Cardale.
For Annabel the trials of that voyage to India might have been greater. She proved a good sailor, and children of Billie Cardale’s age seldom suffer from sea-sickness, though indeed she was sometimes tempted to wish that they did; at least the affliction would have subdued the spirits of Billie and his contemporaries when storms raged in the Channel and the Bay. She pitied those unfortunate mothers who had no one to help them as they struggled against nausea that their offspring might not go unwashed and unfed. Even the few whose means permitted them to take out nurses were little better off, for mostly the nurses succumbed, lay groaning and helpless. Often Mrs. Cardale’s soft-hearted companion could be seen herding flocks of noisy, troublesome children to meals and the bathrooms, together with her own turbulent charge.
There came breathless days and nights in the Red Sea with no head wind, when nothing would induce Billie to sleep on deck, or anywhere but in the stifling three-berth cabin, which his mother seldom quitted, declaring she hadn’t the strength to move. Being early in the season, the passengers were chiefly staid, married people, officials and their families, returning to India more or less depressed and hard-up after furlough, and such diversions as took place were of a mild character; but when Annabel found leisure to join in them Mrs. Cardale raised no objection, and they refreshed her. With one or two exceptions that were merely amusing she encountered none of the social ostracism predicted by Mrs. Lynex, and, moreover, gained a real friend in a Mrs. Harrison. It was all an antidote to Mrs. Cardale’s constant repinings. Mrs. Harrison knew the Cardales, she and her husband had at one time been in the same station with them, and her verdict on the couple, though cautious, was not cheering.
“They get on so badly,” she told Annabel, “that it used to be quite unpleasant to go to their house. Mr. Cardale ought never to have married; he thinks of nothing but his work, and she is utterly unsuited to Indian life. She should have married a prosperous business man, one of the sort that expects all wives to nag and doesn’t mind. It’s partly her health, no doubt; but she’s a grumbler by nature.”
Annabel had long since discovered that! A victim to self-commiseration, Mrs. Cardale was for ever bewailing her lot in life; and though at times she spoke of her husband with a certain chary affection, at others she complained of him bitterly.
“He doesn’t believe that India is killing me,” she confided to Miss Heath. “And I can’t persuade him to retire and get something to do at home. Apart from that our tastes are so different. I am sociable and he is not. There we are---stuck in a horrible little station, miles from the railway, and he won’t even apply for a transfer to some more civilized place. It has been the same ever since we married---one isolated spot after another, and, of course, Government is only too delighted to find a man who likes such unpopular headquarters. Men are so selfish, even the best of them. I really think I should die of boredom, let alone anything else, if it weren’t for my darling birds. I always had a passion for birds. I only trust I shan’t find they have all died when we get back to Bijapur. Jacob was the only one I could very well bring home with me, and I know he would have pined away if I’d left him behind.”
Jacob was not the least of Annabel’s trials during the voyage. He was a handsome Amazon parrot whose travelling cage hung in the cabin, and his adoration for Mrs. Cardale was almost painful to witness. Never was he happy unless cuddling against her cheek, nibbling her ear, heaving up morsels of food as love-offerings; and his jealousy was diabolical. Though Annabel waited on him, cleaned his cage, supplied him with food and water, he did not fail to peck her viciously if he got the chance; and it was a business to protect Billie from his attacks should the little boy happen to enter the cabin when he was at large. Frantic scenes would ensue, the terrified Billie diving and ducking, Jacob flapping fiercely above the child’s head, Mrs. Cardale shrieking orders from her berth, until Annabel contrived to capture the angry bird in a towel and manoeuvre him skilfully into his cage. Unfortunately Jacob knew better than to fly out of the porthole.
Confidences increased on Mrs. Cardale’s side. One day Annabel made bold to inquire how it was she had come to marry a man whose temperament seemed to be so opposed to her own.
“Oh! one can’t account for these things,” was the fretful reply. “For once in his life Will was obliged to come home on sick leave, and my father, who was an estate agent, rented him a client’s fishing in our neighbourhood. My father died soon afterwards, and Will came to offer his condolences to my mother. That was how we met, and he fell in love with me. I was quite pretty then, although I don’t deny I was getting on. I’m sure,” she added tearfully, “nobody would think I had ever been pretty to look at me now!”
“What nonsense!” said Annabel, attempting consolation; and indeed, though faded and worn beyond her years, Mrs. Cardale was still not unattractive with her round, dark eyes, albeit marred by a captious expression, her neat little features and silky fawn-coloured hair.
She smiled wanly, shook her head. “I must say,” she continued, “I never wanted to marry anyone else, and I can tell you there were plenty of others! Somehow he was different. But if I’d known what India was like and how tiresome he could be, I should certainly have refused him.”
Annabel’s interest increased with the belief that she understood the situation. Here were two people no doubt unsuited to each other, yet held together by custom and genuine affection. Mrs. Cardale was not so ill and unhappy as she would make out, and probably her husband, knowing this, treated her complaints, both physical and vocal, with somewhat natural impatience. All the same, whatever his feelings, Mr. Cardale did not meet his wife and child at Bombay. Instead he sent a letter that was delivered by a grave-looking Mohammedan servant who wore an immense turban and a well-fitting cloth coat fastened with brass buttons.
“There you are!” cried Mrs. Cardale triumphantly, having read the note. “Will writes that he couldn’t get away. I told you all along, Miss Heath, that he wouldn’t come down to meet us.”
She had told Miss Heath nothing of the sort, but Annabel refrained from contradiction.
Billie rushed at the servant, clung to him. “Abdul!” he shouted joyously. “Abdul!” And the man’s dark, dignified face relaxed with pleasure.
“Billie, come here at once!” commanded his mother, while to Annabel she added sharply: “I wish him kept away from the servants, and you mustn’t allow him to speak Hindustani.”
She dragged the child away from his friend to hand him over, screaming, to Miss Heath, who felt distressed by the unpleasant little scene, also surprised that Abdul appeared to bear his mistress no malice. The man calmly set about collecting the luggage, seemed to know precisely what to do, and, thanks to him, the whole party was soon on shore. At first the bustle and the noise, the dust and the glare, confused Annabel; she could only hold on tightly to Billie, who pulled at her hand, kicked her shins and wept furiously.
“Oh! how I hate it all,” groaned Mrs. Cardale. And certainly this first glimpse of Bombay filled Annabel with disappointment. Such crowds, such a mixture of squalor and magnificence, everyone seemed in such a hurry! Where was the glamour, the tranquillity of the East?
The few hours spent in an hotel before their departure up-country were a misery. Mrs. Cardale was more than usually fractious, and Billie would not rest; he kept escaping, half-clothed, into the veranda, looking for Abdul. Mosquitoes tormented them all, and it was a relief at last to enter the train after a difficult progress along the platform amid a pushing, yelling, malodorous Indian throng. Mrs. Lynex’s contemptuous words recurred to Annabel’s mind----”the noises and the smells!”
But, of course, it would all be different once they had arrived at Bijapur, which she felt thankful to remember was a small and isolated station. No doubt there she would find peace, recognize again the scenes and the sounds and the scents that were connected so pleasingly with India in her memory. Already the language seemed familiar; she had spoken it fluently as a child, and she fancied she half understood the talk between Abdul and the memsahib. Mrs. Cardale was now better tempered, and as Abdul stood at the door of the saloon-like compartment she was asking him questions, all about birds, as far as Annabel could gather---parrots, doves, mynas. The answers appeared to be satisfactory.
“Abdul is a good servant,” conceded Mrs. Cardale when the man had gone to find a seat in the third-class portion of the train, and they slid out of the great echoing station into the darkness of the Indian night. “He looks after my birds, or, rather, sees that they are looked after whenever I am away. Will would never bother about them! But I detest all natives; I can’t help it.”
It was a weary little group that finally arrived at Bijapur after two days and nights in the train, and the best part of twenty miles by road in a tonga, the heavy luggage to follow in a cart drawn by bullocks. “And when it will arrive goodness knows,” remarked Mrs. Cardale. “Probably it will all be upset into a ditch!”
Dawn had broken when they drew up before a substantial bungalow, and a troop of servants ran down the veranda steps to meet them, salaaming, to be greeted by Billie with ecstatic shouts. But no master of the establishment was visible.
“I suppose Will is out,” said Mrs. Cardale resentfully. “Forgotten all about us! We’ll have breakfast and go to bed.”
The interior of the bungalow was spacious and held an atmosphere of neglect. Dust was thick everywhere. They passed through a lofty room furnished with basket chairs and bamboo tables, presumably the drawing-room. The whitewashed walls were dotted with clusters of insects; limp muslin curtains hung in the many doorways, and for ornament a few framed photographs and bits of dull brass stood on the broad mantelpiece above a cavernous fireplace. The dining-room was no more inviting; just a large table covered with a stained, crumpled cloth on which a servant was hastily placing tea and toast; a dozen clumsy chairs and a makeshift sideboard, with coarse matting under foot.
Mrs. Cardale looked about her with a hopeless air. “It will take ages to get the place right,” she whined. “I put away all my nice things; they would have been ruined if I had left them out; as it is they have probably been eaten by white ants. Will doesn’t appreciate the refinements of life. I really believe that if women were to disappear from the face of the earth men would revert to barbarism and eat off the floor.”
“Eat off the floor!” echoed Billie. He cut capers, enchanted with the idea.
Then he and Annabel followed Mrs. Cardale into the back veranda, where they found Abdul transferring Jacob into a roomy cage on a stand; and instantly shrill whistles and cries arose from various cages that hung from the pillars and the walls. A couple of mynas, bumptious and important, several country parrots whose long green tails protruded through the bars of their prisons, a tame partridge that emitted piercing calls, and a congregation of tiny birds with bright plumage twittering and hopping excitedly. One and all seemed to recognize Mrs. Cardale, whose weary face beamed as she passed from cage to cage. Then she went down the veranda steps, stood bareheaded in the hard morning sunlight, and in a few seconds a flock of white doves appeared as if by magic. They perched on her outstretched fingers, her arms, her shoulders, circled about her, cooing softly.
It was an engaging picture---the frail, still graceful woman surrounded by the gentle doves. Annabel, gazing, wondered at this curious attraction between a human being and the bird world. Love of dogs she could understand, but birds seemed so senseless, unsatisfying. The idea occurred to her that there was something bird-like about Mrs. Cardale herself. Believers in the doctrine of reincarnation would no doubt hold that she had been a bird in a previous existence---perhaps a linnet or a wren! Presently she trailed into the house attended by a slovenly ayah who glared with suspicion and dislike at the “miss-sahib,” as a stranger, an interloper. Mercifully Billie soon fell asleep in the big, bare room that had been allotted to him and Miss Heath. Two low bedsteads, minus head or foot rails, stood in the centre, and except for a dressing-table and a teak wardrobe the size of a shed, there was little other furniture; bathing arrangements were relegated to the cell-like adjoining bathroom.
For her part Annabel could not rest. Everything was so unlike what she had expected; the discomfort within---and there was nothing to be seen from the open doorways on either side but a dreary expanse of compound, a sort of miniature desert, no trees, no garden. In front was an evil-looking cactus hedge, broken by two gateless pillar posts; at the back a row of servants’ outhouses and stables. She began to repent having accepted Mrs. Cardale’s offer of employment, wished reluctantly that she had given heed to Mrs. Lynex’s advice. . . . Then, taking courage, she tried to dispel her depression, put it down to the effects of the long journey, reminded herself that during its mistress’s absence the house had been obviously neglected. Once Mrs. Cardale’s “nice things” were produced it would no doubt assume a more habitable aspect, though nothing short of a miracle could improve the vista outside! She began to unpack, moving about stealthily not to disturb Billie, who lay stretched on his bed in a careless attitude, his cheeks flushed, his thick curly hair tumbled. He was a handsome little boy, and Annabel’s heart went out to him in pity for his slipshod upbringing that rendered him always on the defensive, quick to grab his small pleasures, ever ready to oppose any form of order or discipline. Assuredly a difficult time lay ahead; she could only meet it for the present with fortitude, and if things became unbearable she must look for some other situation in the country. All English mothers and children in India could not be like Mrs. Cardale and Billie. As for Billie’s father, she had yet to learn what manner of parent he might be.
She bathed, brushed the dust from her hair, put on a white cotton dress and regarded her reflection critically in a large, old-fashioned mirror that was steadied by a brick on the dressing-table. The voyage had agreed with her, despite all the harassments; her face had filled out; to quote Mrs. Lynex, there was more flesh on her bones and more colour in her cheeks; certainly she looked younger; and it was pleasing to recognize that her eyes and her hair really might be compared, like her grandmother’s, to tortoise-shell, “all brown and gold.” Then her thoughts strayed on to that fleeting vision of Mrs. Lynex’s friend in the lounge of the private hotel. Would she ever meet with a man of that type in India? And if she did, nothing could come of it in her circumstances. Oh, if only her father had lived! She might have been the happy wife of a rising civilian or a brilliant soldier, with children of her own and an unassailable position. Whereas here she was humble, dependent, subservient to a woman beneath her in birth, education and character. Well, she must make the best of an unpalatable present and put what trust she could in an uncertain future.
Now, what was she to do with herself while Billie slept, until the next move should take place in the establishment? She looked at her watch; it was eleven o’clock. Perhaps she could find a book; there must be books somewhere in the house. Venturing forth, she found her way into the silent, melancholy drawing-room that seemed to mock her quest. Not a book, not a paper, was to be seen. Parting a pair of limp curtains, she peered into an adjoining room. Well-filled bookshelves lined the walls, a large writing-table and a couple of comfortable chairs imparted an air of habitation; piles of office papers tied with pink tape littered the floor, were heaped on side tables and spare seats; a strong smell of stale cheroot smoke hung in the atmosphere. Of course---Mr. Cardale’s sanctum! Tempted, she advanced with some hesitation towards the nearest bookshelf to read the titles of works on folk-lore, anthropology, religions---a fascinating collection. Would it be considered a liberty if she borrowed one of them? Absorbed in contemplation of the books, she was startled by the sound of heavy footsteps, and turned, all confusion, to find herself confronted by a big, dour-looking man whose light grey eyes regarded her from beneath a shock of black hair with nervous amazement. For a moment they stared at each other; then he smiled, and the smile made all the difference to the heavy-featured countenance, rendering it almost attractive. Annabel felt sure he could be kind, but that his tendency was to smother his feelings, and, like his son Billie, to live on the defensive; perhaps, as in Billie’s case, this was the fault of Mrs. Cardale.
“Oh! how d’you do?” he said, holding out his hand awkwardly. “You must be Miss Heath. I’m so sorry; I’m afraid I mistook the date, or I shouldn’t have been out. What an idiot I am! I thought it was to-morrow “
“No,” said Annabel, unable to help laughing. “It’s to-day. We all arrived at cock-crow.”
“Good gracious! Where’s my wife?” He glanced about vaguely.
“She’s resting in her room. Billie is asleep, and I wanted a book. I hope you don’t mind “
“Not at all, not at all,” he interrupted with haste. “Please take anything you like, though I’m afraid nothing here would suit a young lady. At the club there are novels.”
“But I should love to read these books; they are all about India.”
“You would?” he said eagerly. “You are interested in India?” The stiff manner had melted.
“Very much. I was born in India, and I always longed to come back. Now I want to learn all I can about the country and the people.”
“That’s good!” He drew a book from the shelf. “You couldn’t do better than read this to begin with. It’s written by a man who knows more about India than anyone in the country or out of it. I only wish I had been blessed with a twentieth part of his brains. But I can’t write, worse luck! Do read this and tell me how it strikes you. He’s the governor of the province.” He gave her the volume and took down another, handling it with the tender touch of a book-lover. “And here’s a first edition, signed, of Monier Williams’s ‘Indian Wisdom.’ Great old fellow he was! Listen to this, now.”
He read out a forceful extract, descriptive of the Hindu religious creed.
“How’s that for clear thinking and power?” he concluded, his stone-coloured eyes alight with enthusiasm.
Had he forgotten that his wife, whom he had not seen for six months, was in the house?. Annabel felt constrained, interested though she was, to remind him of the fact; but how to do so without appearing to reproach him!
He was turning over the leaves in search of another passage. “Here, again——” he began.
“Listen,” interposed Annabel artfully. “Was that Mrs. Cardale calling? Perhaps she heard you come in.”
“I thought you said she was asleep,” was the unmoved reply; and as he raised his head to listen, one finger still on a paragraph, all expression left his face; it was as if he had clapped on a mask.
“No,” said Annabel firmly, shocked at his indifference. “I said Billie was asleep. Thanks very much; I will read this.”
She escaped from the room with a suspicion that instead of hastening to his wife he was capable of remaining immersed in the book he was holding when she left him. In that case it was to be hoped that Mrs. Cardale was asleep! Seating herself beside the still slumbering Billie, she opened the borrowed book. It was of comparatively recent date, and the writer’s name was Rochford, Temple Rochford, followed by a string of letters betokening honours. He was the author of several other books, all, judging by their titles, connected with the same subject---the peoples of India, their customs, habits, castes and beliefs.
The man’s style was enchanting; from the first page she became enthralled; it was all so lucid, so discerning, unprejudiced, imbued, too, with a fine sense of humour, romance and the picturesque. He must be a delightful creature himself, she reflected, to be capable of writing like that. Here at any rate was something to compensate for the difficulties and disagreeables she might have to endure---the enjoyment of all Temple Rochford’s works; there had been a whole row of them on Mr. Cardale’s bookshelf.
And he was actually in the country, governor of the province. Some day she might behold him---from afar.
Billie stirred, awoke fretful, perverse. It required all Annabel’s patience and self-control to get him dressed and into better humour. As a precaution she hid the book out of his reach in the mammoth cupboard, knowing his propensity to annex and destroy anything that appeared to be of special value to his seniors. His powers of provocation were fiendish. Failing to keep him amused and quiet in the bedroom, she yielded to his demand that they should “go and play” in the front veranda. Never once had he asked for his father, and when Mr. Cardale joined them the child clung shyly to Miss Heath. The man seemed equally embarrassed, unable to make advances to his son.
“He’s grown a good deal,” he remarked to Annabel, “and he looks very well. But he ought to be at school at home.”
“So he would be,” said Mrs. Cardale, appearing at this moment, “if we could all be at home together. But I am not one of those mothers who like to be parted from their children!”
Evidently the meeting between husband and wife had already taken place. Mercifully just then a servant announced that “tiffin” was on the table, and they all proceeded to the dining-room. The meal was a curious combination of breakfast and luncheon, beginning with boiled sago and milk, continuing with réchauffés of meat, concluding with a vegetable curry, eggs and fruit. Mrs. Cardale ate little, but drank quantities of tea.
“Your appetite doesn’t seem to have improved, my dear,” said her husband, but there was more criticism than concern in his tone.
“The food is so horrid. I ate well enough at home and on the voyage, didn’t I, Miss Heath?”
Annabel murmured something about the benefit of the sea air and the ill effects of a long railway journey. She herself felt untempted by most of the dishes. Mr. Cardale rose from the table directly he had finished, carrying a cup of tea with him. His wife wandered about, haranguing the servants, attending to her birds, and superintending the unlocking of a small chamber she called a go-down; it was filled with packing-cases.
“We shall have to wait to get the things out till the servants have had their time off,” she explained to Miss Heath. “The whole compound will be eating and sleeping for the next two hours. Such a nuisance; but it can’t be helped. I must go and lie down again; my head aches. You will see to Billie, won’t you, and keep him out of mischief?”
Oh! those next two hours! Annabel worked hard to keep the child at her side amid the somnolent silence that descended upon the domain. She told him stories, invented games, resorted to every kind of device. The voyage was a joke to it all, for on board ship Billie had other children to play with. She felt exhausted by the time Mrs. Cardale appeared again, refreshed, ready to excavate her “nice things” with the help of the domestic staff and Miss Heath. The treasures were a heterogeneous collection of china ornaments, electro-plate graven with storks and bamboos, innumerable articles indicative of Mrs. Cardale’s taste. “So English!” she said proudly, as with surprising energy she directed where they were all to be placed. Everything smelt of camphor and naphthalin; shrunken white balls fell from the folds of linen and rugs and curtains till the veranda might have been visited by a hail-storm.
The result of this strenuous unpacking delighted Mrs. Cardale, though to Annabel it appeared pathetic. There was no method in any of the arrangements. House linen was crammed haphazard into a cupboard, curtains were hung and rugs scattered about regardless of suitability; and to her ideas the drawing-room looked hopeless---like the parlour of some artisan couple whose substance permitted indulgence of their uncultivated fancy. Was it a wonder that William Cardale took small interest in his home and his wife’s predilections, that he sought refuge in his own intellectual pursuits!
The long day wore to a close. Mr. Cardale went for a solitary ride before sundown; Mrs. Cardale said she did not feel up to a drive, but she sent Billie and Miss Heath forth in an antiquated landau drawn by a pair of bony Australian horses. They jogged along a broad white road avenued with giant trees shrouded in dust, on either side of which the country stretched flat and hedgeless to the misty horizon, patched here and there with green and yellow crops. Bijapur was indeed a desolate spot even at this, the best season of the year. What could it be like in the hot weather!
Comparative calm succeeded the interval of commotion caused by the unpacking and Mrs. Cardale’s erratic efforts to bring about some kind of order. Meanwhile, despite his wife’s protests, Mr. Cardale went off into camp. When accused of an utter lack of consideration, seeing that some of the servants must be spared to go with him, he declared that he could not possibly alter his official plans. Whether the declaration was false or true, Annabel secretly sympathized with the man’s determined departure.
Her days were now dull, without the compensation of peace---spent in combating Billie’s faults, mending his clothes, endeavouring to teach him. By means of tact and endurance she acquired influence over the child, though Mrs. Cardale constantly undermined it with foolish indulgences; and Chunia, the ayah, behaved like a reptile, enticing Billie into the compound, regaling him with native sweetmeats that upset his digestion, doing her utmost to harass the miss-sahib. Abdul, on the other hand, was a stand by; he would bring the little boy back when he strayed into the servants’ quarters, urge him to learn his lessons and (when his mother was out of the way) devise harmless amusements that took the place of forbidden joys.
In face of all difficulties, Billie grew to trust Annabel’s word, and seemed to rely on her ministrations; with more regular habits and the awakening of a primitive sense of self-respect, his health, his temper, and his appearance improved. Mrs. Cardale so far appreciated the improvement that she became anxious to arouse the envy of Mrs. Watson and Mrs. May, the two other English mothers in the little station. They could not afford a governess-companion! Consequently she sometimes of an evening took Billie to the Club, where, while she played bridge, he would romp with the Watson and May children, returning fractious and dishevelled to seek “Ann’bel,” as he called her, and recount with a half-covetous, half-self-righteous air various bad habits indulged in by his young friends.
“Rosie blows her nose in her frock . . . Jim licks his plate . . . Georgie and Tiny run about naked after their baths. . . .”
Then he would agree reluctantly with Annabel that such behaviour was unworthy of sahib-people.
Never once did Mrs. Cardale offer to take her English governess to the Club. In that respect, certainly, Annabel was not treated as one of the family; but to her it was no grievance, she was only too thankful for occasional hours to herself, during which she was at liberty to read and to rest.
It was on one of these afternoons, when she was seated with a book in the front veranda, that quite unexpectedly Mr. Cardale returned. He came up the steps, his shoulders hunched, his head lowered, but on catching sight of her his weary face brightened.
“Hallo! What are you reading?” he asked, without preliminary greeting.
“You see,” she said, holding out the volume. “I’ve been helping myself.”
“Of course. Didn’t I tell you to? Where’s Ethel?”
“At the Club; she took Billie with her.”
He gave a sigh that sounded suspiciously like a sigh of relief, threw himself into a long chair at her side, clasped his hands behind his head and began to talk of his tour and his work. He told her many strange things about the underworld of India that interested her profoundly. The way in which he let himself go was surprising; it was as though the door of some tightly closed cupboard had been unlocked to reveal stores of rare information.
Suddenly, in the midst of this pleasant intercourse, Annabel became aware that someone was lurking behind the split-cane blind in a doorway, observing them furtively.
“Just a moment,” she said, “I think I am wanted.” As she rose and advanced quickly towards the doorway she heard the hasty swish of petticoats, and snatching aside the blind she beheld Chunia, the ayah, disappearing through an opposite exit of the drawing-room. Why should the woman have been spying unless with some treacherous motive? All along Annabel had guessed that Chunia meant mischief; now she felt seriously disturbed, realizing that to indulge in long talks with Mr. Cardale might prove unwise, though to cut this one short at the moment would be a mistake. Therefore she returned to her seat in the veranda and purposely kept her companion in conversation (no difficulty about that!) until Mrs. Cardale and Billie came back from the Club.
Then she bore Billie off to his supper and bed, in which ceremonies the ayah was supposed to assist her; but to-night Chunia was not forthcoming. She sent word by Abdul that she was suffering from an attack of fever, and for the next two days she remained concealed in her quarters. After that she resumed her duties together with an elusive and teasing system of espionage. Whenever Mr. Cardale sought Miss Heath’s company, Chunia would hover near by, watching her chance to lure Billie into mischief that she might report the child’s misdoings with an artless air to her mistress, and claim credit for having discovered them “while miss-sahib talk-talking with the sahib.”
At first Mrs. Cardale paid little heed to these attempts at tale-bearing, but in time her suspicions became aroused, and an unpleasant scene took place in her darkened, untidy bedroom, where for twenty-four hours she had lain, complaining of nervous exhaustion. And, indeed, when Annabel hastened to her side in response to a summons impudently conveyed by Chunia, she thought she had never seen Mrs. Cardale look worse. The poor thing lay limp and white, her fair hair in disorder, her eyes sunken, her little nose and mouth pinched. Jacob was perched on her pillow, and on a chair by the bedside stood a cage of small birds.
“I feel I must speak to you, Miss Heath,” she quavered, “though I’m not at all fit for it.”
Jacob coughed like an aged person, and slid down the pillow eyeing the visitor malignantly.
“Well, what have I done?” inquired Annabel with an assumption of cheerfulness, though her heart sank.
“I can’t ignore it any longer.”
“Parrot!” shrieked Jacob.
“The dead set you are making at my husband. . . .” Mrs. Cardale put out her hand and caught Jacob in the act of rushing at Miss Heath, and it was some moments before he was safely imprisoned beneath the bedclothes, while Annabel collected her thoughts and prepared for battle.
“Chunia tells me——” began Mrs. Cardale again.
“Oh! Chunia!” interrupted Annabel scornfully. “That explains it. You know the woman hates me. Of course, she is out to make mischief between you and me.”
“But isn’t it true that Will talks to you as he never talks to me? Isn’t it true that he meets you in the mornings when you are out with Billie?”
Certainly Annabel could not deny that Mr. Cardale talked to her, whenever he had the opportunity, as he never talked to his wife!---and more than once, on horseback, he had overtaken herself and Billie in the mornings at some distance from the house, had dismounted and accompanied them until they turned to go back. Either the groom in attendance or Billie must have mentioned these accidental meetings to Chunia, and clearly the woman had made malicious use of the knowledge. “I think,” Annabel said boldly, “that if you suspect me of making love to your husband the sooner I leave you the better. Luckily I can refund you my passage money and expenses.” Then she held her breath. Should Mrs. Cardale agree she must find herself in a serious difficulty; “kicked out without a character!” But to her relief Mrs. Cardale began to cry weakly.
“How can you be so unkind,” she sobbed, “when you know I am ill and unhappy!”
Annabel pursued her advantage. “Well, can you expect me to say nothing if you will listen to an ayah’s spiteful gossip and believe it?”
“And can you expect me to say nothing,” retorted Mrs. Cardale with a sudden flash of spirit, “if my husband follows you about and you encourage him?”
“Do you honestly imagine I am capable of such conduct?” asked Annabel severely.
“Oh! I don’t know what to think! Will despises me, and you are both so clever, I suppose it wouldn’t be any wonder if——” Another flood of hysterical tears. “Even Billie likes you best. I wish I was dead. The only creatures who care twopence about me are the birds.”
It was pitiful to witness the poor thing’s misery. Annabel could only set about attempting to console her. By degrees judicious sympathy and a strong dose of sal-volatile soothed Mrs. Cardale, who now listened without further protest while Annabel urged her to banish groundless suspicions from her mind---and above all to get rid of Chunia.
Yet she doubted if she were making any real headway, and on an impulse born of exasperation she added: “If it makes any difference I should like you to know that there’s not the smallest danger of my flirting with your husband because, to begin with, I’m not that kind of woman, and to end with, I’m more than half in love with somebody else.”
Mrs. Cardale raised herself on her elbow, disturbing Jacob, who screamed and swore, while the crowd of small birds in the cage set up a frightened commotion.
“Oh! why didn’t you tell me before?” she exclaimed. “How interesting! Who is the man, Miss Heath? I’d love to hear all about him!”
“There’s very little to tell. No engagement, no real understanding so far.”
“But you write to each other?”
“Not even that.”
What a pity! Is he good-looking?”
“I think so, of course.”
“Where is he?”
“Last time I saw. him he was in London. Perhaps nothing will come of it; but now you know my secret I am sure you will keep it.”
“Yes, I will. And thank you for telling me. It makes all the difference. I’m sorry I was so silly. Of course you felt annoyed, and if you insist upon it I’ll send Chunia away, only she’s been with us such a long time, and she knows where I keep all my things.”
“Chunia doesn’t matter as long as you stop her when she tries on her games.”
“I promise she shan’t do it any more. You are such a comfort with Billie, dear Miss Heath, and if you were to go he’d get quite out of hand again. I’m not strong enough to cope with him in this hateful country. Oh! how I wish we were all at home.”
“But if you were, Mr. Cardale would be miserable, and it seems to me that nothing can go right if the man of the family feels like a fish out of water.”
“Yes, that’s just it; but you can understand, can’t you, how I detest this sort of existence. If only my health were better! I have a feeling that I shan’t live much longer, and I don’t want to die out here. Fancy being buried in the horrible little English cemetery. There’s not even a church or a real clergyman within miles. I don’t count Mr. Veal, the missionary; and if Mr. Veal were out in camp Will would have to read the burial service over me as magistrate of the district! He’d think it such a bore——” She broke off half laughing, half crying.
“Come, you mustn’t talk like that,” said Annabel persuasively. “Let me make you a cup of something, and then try to get to sleep. You’ll wake up feeling quite different.”
Mrs. Cardale yielded, took a drink, permitted Annabel to remove the small birds, and by means of the time-honoured towel-manœuvre to restore Jacob to his cage. Then with plaintive murmurs and sighs the patient settled down, and presently sank into sleep.
When Annabel tiptoed from the room the bungalow was silent save for the bird sounds in the veranda; even Chunia was not to be seen, and where was Billie? She searched for him everywhere except in Mr. Cardale’s sanctum, which she dared not enter, looked into cupboards and behind doors, for Billie was in the habit of hiding and bouncing out suddenly emitting ferocious yells, to evoke a pretence of alarm on her part. She inquired of a sleepy orderly on duty outside if he had seen the child, and heard with astonishment that the sahib had taken him out in the dogcart. Mr. Cardale so seldom concerned himself with Billie---unless she were present! At any rate, now she could review her position relieved from anxiety as to the child’s whereabouts; and she went to her room to sit troubled, disturbed over her own affairs. Though she had triumphed for the time being in that humiliating scene with Mrs. Cardale, there might be others to follow. All her ingenuity would be required to retain the wife’s confidence in face of the husband’s predilection for her company. She believed that predilection to be entirely mental; the man yearned for intellectual intercourse, for the interchange of ideas with someone who could understand and share his interests; he wanted to talk, he wanted a sympathetic listener. But a woman of Mrs. Cardale’s calibre could not be expected to realize this point of view. Annabel smiled grimly to herself as she remembered the ruse she had employed in order to divest Mrs. Cardale’s mind of any thought that on her side she might be attracted amorously by William Cardale! It was a harmless enough fiction, and not without a slender foundation; if she was ever to fall in love at all it would be with someone resembling Mrs. Lynex’s friend. She could never forget the impression the man had left on her mind and her heart---his forceful personality, the charm of the keen blue eyes and fine head, the self-assured carriage: surely an incarnation of chivalry. How exquisitely tender such a being would be to the woman who held his devotion!
Dusk began to fall, the sudden dusk of the East. The cactus hedge and the two white gateless posts looked like a huddled array of ghosts in the desolate expanse that she viewed from the open doorway of her bedroom. The gloomy silence increased her depression; she longed to escape from this unhappy household; yet for the present all her energies must be concentrated on remaining within it if she were not to find herself stranded and helpless, without means of subsistence. The limited amount of cash in her possession would hardly more than suffice for refunding her passage money should she break her compact with the Cardales; and though that compact had been verbal, entirely unbusinesslike, she regarded it as binding. Even were she to be dismissed unjustly she would feel morally obliged to offer repayment. Further employment would be difficult to obtain without, as she quoted bitterly to herself, “a high recommendation from her last place.” . . . What an idiot she had been not to follow Mrs. Lynex’s counsel. Then she thought of Mrs. Harrison as one who might possibly suggest some way out. They had agreed to correspond, but, as usually happens in the matter of such boardship promises, neither had so far fulfilled the intention; and now, in her present mood of despondency, fearing that Mrs. Harrison had forgotten her, Annabel felt reluctant to be the first to write, especially with nothing but a tale of woe to impart that might appear like an appeal for financial assistance.
The padding of bare feet about the house roused her from this unpleasant reverie. Abdul was lighting the lamps. There came the sound of wheels and quick-trotting hoofs, and presently the shrill voice of Billie calling: “Ann’bel, Ann’bel! Where are you?”
Dinner that night alone with Mr. Cardale was for Annabel rather an ordeal. He showed no concern when she told him she felt anxious about his wife and thought the doctor ought to be sent for.
“But she won’t see him,” he said, “because he’s a Parsee. Quite a capable fellow, but you know what Ethel feels about natives. She often gets like this; it’s nothing to worry about---just nerves. She’ll be better to-morrow.”
“She has eaten next to nothing all day, and look at that——” as a tray came from Mrs. Cardale’s bedroom, the eatables on it untouched.
He simply shrugged his shoulders. “What can I do?” he asked. “She listens to nothing I say.”
Annabel almost hated him as he sat there eating heartily, indifferent to the appearance and the quality of the food; and to-night the meal was more than usually ill-served and unappetizing. Towards the end of it she rose abruptly.
“If you’ll excuse me,” she said, “I’ll go and see if I can persuade your wife to have something.”
Not waiting for an answer, she went to Mrs. Cardale’s room to be met with a peevish outcry that nothing fit to eat had been brought to her.
“The soup was like dirty water. I loathe chicken cutlets. And it seems there’s nothing else but banana fritters and sardines on toast. I can’t digest either. And Will hasn’t been near me---he doesn’t care! Did you tell him, Miss Heath, how ill I am feeling?”
“Yes, I told him,” said Annabel, “and also that I thought you ought to see the doctor.”
“Never!” cried Mrs. Cardale. “No native man shall see me in bed. I’d rather die. I know Will can’t or won’t understand. To him there’s no difference between white people and black, except that he prefers the black. Oh! I’ve got such a pain in my head. You said I should wake up feeling all right, but I didn’t. I feel worse, much worse.”
“Shall I ask Mr. Cardale to come to you?” suggested Annabel.
“No; if he can’t come of his own accord I don’t want to see him.”
This was not unnatural, yet Annabel returned to the dining-room impelled to remind Mr. Cardale of his duty.
But he had finished his dinner, and she heard the clicking of the typewriter in his office. For a moment she hesitated, then, spurred by indignation, she entered the office. He was typing laboriously with one finger and looked up, frowning, his hand poised above the machine.
“What is it?” he asked, impatience in his voice.
“I wish you’d go to Mrs. Cardale——” she began in friendly persuasion. “Only don’t say I asked you.”
Now she wished she had left matters alone; but anger overcame her inclination to retreat.
“Wouldn’t it be better that she should think you went of your own accord?”
“I’m no actor,” he said crossly. “If I go I shall say you sent me.”
“Then don’t go!” snapped Annabel. “It would only make her more miserable.”
That touched him up. He sprang to his feet, ran his hands through his hair and paced the room.
“Am I never to be considered?” he demanded. “I took the child out this afternoon instead of finishing this report, that he mightn’t prevent you from looking after my wife.”
Annabel made no answer, and he went on, more as though he were talking to himself than to her.
“I deny her nothing in reason. . . . She knows I could never stand a big station, yet she’s always worrying me to apply for one. I don’t grudge her the money to go home when she likes. I only wish she’d stop at home altogether.”
“It’s her health that makes her seem unreasonable,” argued Annabel, dismayed by this outburst. “You must know she’s really very fond of you and likes to be with you. Can’t you recognize that and try---and try to be nicer to her.”
He laughed harshly. “Perhaps you think I ought to give up my work, all I care for in life, to retire and live at home in some suburb? I might reconcile myself to a cottage in the country, but Ethel would hate that as much as she hates small stations in India, and there would be no escape from her everlasting complaints.”
“You could still read,” said Annabel helplessly.
“Oh! could I?” he scoffed. “With no privacy, no refuge, and hampered by small means! At least out here my pay is substantial enough to send Ethel and the boy home or to the hills for the hot months; and for me there’s camp in the cold weather. If I retired now my pension would be negligible, and there’s no hope of employment in England for men of my service without powerful friends which I don’t possess. . . .” He halted, regarding her with an air of challenge. “You can’t shut your eyes to my side of the question?”
“No,” she said at last. “But, on the other hand, you might try to enter into Mrs. Cardale’s feelings more than you do. She can’t help being ill, and she can’t help resenting your aloofness and detachment. When I asked her just now if she would like to see you, she said not unless you went of your own accord. . . .”
“I’m in no mood for recriminations to-night. I might retaliate. Remember, I’ve stood years of this kind of thing, and there’s a limit to a man’s patience. It’s only by keeping apart from her as far as possible that I’ve been able to get along at all.”
“But I assure you she isn’t up to much talking,” pursued Annabel with a final attempt to soften his heart. “If you saw her now you’d realize how weak she is. Perhaps I might tell you that I feel partly to blame.”
“In what way?” he interrupted with a sharp look of suspicion.
“Well, I told her that in certain circumstances I would rather go than stay on here, and it upset her.”
“So you want to ease your conscience at my expense?”
Annabel felt that her well-meant interference had done more harm than good: the man was impossible. Unhinged by his behaviour, she turned to leave the room.
“Miss Heath, wait a moment!” he called after her as she reached the door.
She glanced at him over her shoulder, and he came forward.
“You didn’t mean what you said just now about leaving us, did you? What are the certain circumstances? Surely Ethel hasn’t been making a grievance of our friendship, our talks?”
That he should have scented the truth alarmed her; there was no knowing what he might do or say if he got at the facts.
She answered quickly: “Nonsense! It was nothing; merely a disagreement about one of the servants; but Mrs. Cardale understands. I’m sorry I mentioned it.”
“Is there anything I can do?” His manner was now appealing, apologetic.
“Oh! let it alone! If I don’t mind, you needn’t. If you’d only go and see your wife, be kind and forbearing, not think entirely of yourself——”
“All right, I will!” he exclaimed in sudden capitulation. “Anything to please you, and if she asks me whether you told me to go, I’ll lie.”
Thankfully she moved aside to let him pass. It was only when she heard him enter his wife’s bedroom that she recalled the reason he had given for agreeing to her request: “Anything to please you.” Not that he could have meant more than “Anything for peace.” Thus she allayed a vague sense of disquietude.
But whatever his real reason, whatever passed between the ill-assorted couple, he succeeded in establishing a more comfortable atmosphere, for next morning Mrs. Cardale was almost herself again. She told Miss Heath how sorry she felt that she wasn’t up to camping with her husband just yet, but that he “quite saw” and though it was unfortunately imperative that he should start off on tour again at once, he had promised to come back, if it were humanly possible, for Christmas.
“And if he can’t,” she added amiably, “perhaps we might join him if he should happen to be halting anywhere within reasonable reach.”
Mr. Cardale came back for Christmas week and, moreover, seemed bent on avoiding discord at any price. Even when his wife proclaimed provocatively that she had not included the Parsee doctor in the invitations issued for a dinner party, he made no protest. With unwonted forethought he had ordered gifts from Calcutta, produced a ring for Mrs. Cardale which delighted her, toys for Billie, a book for Miss Heath---to whom, by the way, he remained distantly polite, an attitude she accepted with relief.
He displayed interest, whether genuine or assumed, in the preparations for the dinner party, viewed the big carcase of the turkey, and approved his wife’s scheme of decoration for the table: dried moss in which night-lights under coloured glass shades were to be embedded. To Annabel it suggested a grave mound illuminated by glow-worms.
The party was to be necessarily a small one: only the Watsons and the Mays and the missionary couple, Mr. and Mrs. Veal, were expected, the policeman and odds and ends of bachelor assistants being on leave or in camp. Up to the last moment Mrs. Cardale was all nervous excitement. She harried the servants, altered arrangements, distracted Miss Heath with contradictory directions about crackers and candles, the coffee tray, card tables. Twice she changed her dress, wept because she declared she couldn’t do her hair, was certain Will would never be ready in time, and went in and out of his room until Annabel marvelled at the man’s patience when she found him alone in the drawing-room. She herself felt exhausted, out of temper, after her efforts to get Billie to bed amid perpetual interruptions, and as the two of them stood before the blazing wood fire, awaiting Mrs. Cardale’s appearance and the arrival of the guests, she could have welcomed some signs of corresponding harassment on his side.
When he looked at her calmly, and observed: “That is a very pretty frock you have got on,” it was all she could do to refrain from crying out: “Don’t be a humbug---there’s no need to try and propitiate me.”
As it was, she made no answer to the complimentary remark. She did not believe he knew the difference between a dress and a dressing-gown. Though his exemplary behaviour since his return had kept things going smoothly enough, it was to her so palpably artificial that she had been in no way deceived, and she hardly knew whether to condemn or appraise it. She had begun to feel that something almost sinister lay beneath his veneer of good conduct.
Then, to her consternation, he moved close to her and said intimately: “Well, when are you going to give me a pat on the back?”
Involuntarily she looked round, fearful lest Mrs. Cardale might have entered the room to overhear this indiscreet appeal, the tone of which placed her in an awkward position, whether overheard by his wife or not.
“It’s all right,” he added; and the reassurance made matters worse, for it proved he had understood her apprehension.
She took refuge in hackneyed evasion: “I don’t know what you mean. But,” gaining courage, “I think you’d better not try to explain.” The veiled hostility in her voice had its effect. He saw she had no notion of permitting any acknowledgment that the improvement in his domestic observances might be due in the smallest degree to her influence, so establishing a secret understanding between them.
His face fell, he looked abject, but she dared not relent, for now instinct warned her definitely that his feelings towards herself were on the way to something warmer than friendship---that his new line of action had been animated solely by a desire to win her approval, with no real regret behind it for his former lack of tolerance where his wife was concerned.
In came Mrs. Cardale, flustered, her hand on her heart. “Oh, dear!” she panted. “I thought I should never be ready in time. I feel I look like a scarecrow.”
Annabel thought she looked more like a half-starved canary, dressed as she was in light yellow silk, preening herself, moving her small smooth head from side to side, inviting opinion on her appearance. Her thin arms and little claws of hands increased the resemblance.
“My dear, you look charming,” said her husband mechanically, and turned towards the outer door through which now, thank goodness, came sounds of arrival. . . .
The six guests appeared almost simultaneously, brimming over with good spirits; and soon the whole party trooped into the dining-room, Mrs. Cardale leading the way. “No use our pairing,” she said, “because there aren’t enough gentlemen to go round.”
Annabel was placed between the missionary and his wife, a diffident pair who had little to say until she began to ask them questions about their work, when they both talked at once, relating anecdotes about their converts, and bewailing the difficulties they had to contend with owing to the terrible power of idolatry and the devices of the devil. They had but lately returned from a preaching tour, “itinerating” they called it, among neighbouring villages where they had attracted congregations by means of a magic lantern, and had distributed many tracts translated by Mr. Veal into the vernacular.
“Shall I tell her about the old woman who cried so when you were preaching?” said Mrs. Veal archly, after one or two unaccustomed sips of champagne. “It’s rather a sore point with my husband, quite a joke against him!” she tittered. “When I spoke to the old creature after the gathering, and told her not to weep because her sins would all be forgiven, she said she wasn’t crying on account of her sins, but because the sahib reminded her of her son who had also gone mad and was a great talker!”
Mr. Veal sighed sorrowfully and shook his head. “It is uphill work,” he said; “but at times we feel greatly encouraged. In one village nearly all the people expressed their readiness to become Christians, and they were so touchingly grateful for our little gifts of quinine and tea.”
“Aha!” interposed Mr. Watson, leaning forward on the other side, of Mrs. Veal. “Bribery and corruption, eh?”
“Not at all, not at all!” protested the padre, annoyed.
“Well, and did they all become Christians?” Mr. Watson inquired cruelly.
“If I could think it right to baptize all who receive what I preach to them as true I might count my converts by scores. But, thankful as I am for this stage, it is not enough. We can only sow the seed, and I feel sure the day is not far distant when a magnificent harvest will be reaped in this district.”
“A harvest of riot and bloodshed more likely! Don’t you make any mistake, padre! The sedition-mongers are as busy as you are, and your efforts to interfere with the people’s religions places a useful weapon in their hands.”
Mr. Veal ignored this attack. He addressed Annabel in a low, confidential voice: “That is not the least of our obstacles---the utter ungodliness of many officials out here. Now our host is quite different.” He glanced towards Mr. Cardale, who was making conversation with Mrs. Watson and Mrs. May. “He understands and sympathizes with the position. More than once he has come to our aid. He knows we must obey the Great Command to preach the faith in all lands, and never have I heard a word from him of contempt or antagonism towards our Cause. A fair-minded, sterling soul! The people know him for what he is; they love and trust him.”
Annabel also regarded the heavy, rough-cut face at the head of the table, and the conception came to her sharply of the contrast between the man’s material and mental existence that were so entirely separate. On the one hand an empty, irritating daily existence devoid of sympathetic companionship and understanding; on the other, high aims and interests that detached his mind, removing him into a world of his own that nothing physical could touch. She found it in her heart to forgive him his transgressions, but at all costs his home life must be kept clear of illicit compensations, and she feared that, unhappily, it rested with her so to safeguard it, not only for his protection but for her own as well.
The little passage of arms between the missionary and Mr. Watson went no farther. Annabel contrived to hold Mr. Veal’s attention while Messrs. Watson and May shouted official shop at each other across the table, and the dinner passed off well, concluding with inane jocularity over the pulling of crackers. Paper caps, masks, false noses, were donned by the company; even Mr. Cardale submitted to a tinsel crown being placed on his head by Mrs. May. Annabel pitied him, sensing his feelings as he sat there scowling, looking like the pictures of King John in children’s history books. Mrs. Cardale collected all the trifles that fell from the crackers and bestowed them with a generous air upon Mrs. May and Mrs. Watson that they might take them home to their children.
“Billie has plenty already,” she said when on Billie’s account they demurred politely, “though these crackers weren’t cheap, I can tell you!”
Annabel winced in fellow sympathy with Mr. Cardale over the bad taste of this remark. All the same the rubbish was greedily accepted, the recipients even scrabbling among the débris of mottoes and coloured paper and tinsel in search of further treasures.
Afterwards in the drawing-room Mrs. Watson and Mrs. May patronized Miss Heath, while Mrs. Cardale patronized Mrs. Veal, so that at least three of the five ladies enjoyed themselves until the men appeared; and while two card tables were being made up, the Veals absolved at their own request from playing for money, Annabel escaped from the room.
She found Billie awake and in tears. Chunia, who was under orders to sit with him until he fell asleep, had deserted her post.
“I did promise you, Ann’bel, I wouldn’t get up,” sobbed the child, “and I didn’t---even when Chunia ran away because the ghost came and I was frightened. Even then I didn’t call out!”
He held up his arms to her, and she soothed him lovingly. The contact of his little body as he clung to her, his curly head cuddled against her neck, was comforting. Billie loved her, depended on her; it was the one bright spot in the cheerless situation, and she vowed to herself that for his unhappy little sake she would stand her ground for as long as was possible, even should she see a favourable opportunity of escape. She had little doubt that Mr. Cardale would abscond into camp at the end of the week; once he was away again all would be easy enough---for the time. But when he came back!
“The ghost came,” whispered Billie, “the bird ghost, and it flew round and round. Chunia ran away; she said it had come for Mummy. Why did it come to my room if it wanted Mummy?”
“Nonsense, darling. Of course there was no ghost. There aren’t any ghosts. You fancied it, or perhaps a bat flew in.”
“No, it was a big white bird, Ann’bel---truly, truly!”
“Well, then it must have been one of the doves; nothing to be frightened of.”
“Doves don’t fly about at night. They go to sleep,” asserted Billie unconvinced. “Stay with me, Ann’bel; do please stay.”
“Yes, I will stay, petkin. Now lie down and go to sleep.”
“But if I go to sleep you will stay? I might wake up. Promise!”
She promised, settled him down comfortably, sat beside the bed, crooning to him, patting his shoulder, till his limbs relaxed and his even breathing told that he slept. The dim light, the quiet within the room, soothed and rested her; it was very cold, but that was nothing; her bodily senses seemed of no account so long as she might remain here undisturbed. Anything was preferable to mingling with the party in the drawing-room. Now and then she could hear voices and occasional laughter; outside, the servants were also merry-making; the beat of a tom-tom, the sound of a nasal, monotonous song, floated in through the closed doors, the upper parts of which were slatted like Venetian blinds.
Farther away across the bare plain swept a pack of jackals, hunting, with long-drawn, hideous howls, now close, now distant, as though moving in a circle to surround their prey. The unearthly yells turned Annabel’s thoughts to things weird and unaccountable. What about Billie’s bird-ghost? How could any bird, large or small, have flown into the room seeing that all the outer doors were shut? Could it possibly be that some evil spirit in bird form had made its appearance, scaring the ayah and the child? At the moment anything seemed possible to her in India; and she could almost fancy she heard the flapping of wings above her head. . . . Then, as she gazed up into the lofty darkness, she remembered the ventilators placed at intervals just below the ceiling; of course, that explained the matter. Something had disturbed the colony of doves that lived in a cote in the compound, and one of them had by accident flown through a ventilator and out again. How could she have been so silly as to entertain the idea of a supernatural solution? She only wished she had remembered the ventilators in time to reassure Billie. . . . Anyway she would see to it that Chunia was reprimanded for disobeying orders and for terrifying the child with her ridiculous beliefs. No doubt the woman had truly believed that the bird was some form of ghost, but she had no business to say so to Billie or to leave him.
Annabel recalled a conversation she had had with Mrs, Harrison on board ship with reference to the harm Oriental servants could work in the imagination of English children committed to their charge, even while acting according to their lights in all loyalty and faithfulness to parents---implanting subconscious impressions that the children could seldom remember, yet that remained to hamper them in after life. . . . On the other hand, wasn’t it the same all the world over, whether in the East or the West? Permit children at the most impressionable age to be in too close companionship with primitive minds, and the result must be more or less deleterious, difficult to eradicate. It was all a question of early influence, that rested with the mother---and Billie had suffered from an ill-educated mother who, though professing to object to native companionship for her child, had made no real effort to prevent or counteract it until she hired an English servitor; and that she had done not so much for Billie’s benefit as to relieve herself of trouble. Billie did not count with her seriously, except in as far that he was alternately a nuisance and a source of vicarious pride.
Next, morning, when Annabel retailed Chunia’s behaviour to Mrs. Cardale, the latter fastened on to the bird incident to the exclusion of all else.
A white bird!” she exclaimed. “Good heavens! that’s a bad omen. It’s a sign of death! The doves never come into the house. Now that does frighten me!”
She called Billie and questioned him. Annabel had no chance of stopping his mouth, and he repeated with zest that Chunia had said the bird was a ghost and had “come for Mummy.”
“But then, Mummy, why did it come into my room?” he complained.
“Oh! go away, you heartless little wretch!” cried his mother. And the child trotted off unaffected by her angry perturbation, while Annabel perforce remained to listen while Mrs. Cardale gave vent to her feelings.
“It only bears out what I told you when I was so ill before Will went into camp---I know I’m going to die. The bird was a warning——”
She collapsed into a chair, white and trembling. Nothing Annabel could say about ventilators and superstitious nonsense could persuade her to the contrary; it was only when Annabel threatened to summon Mr. Cardale that she made an effort to control herself.
“No, no; for goodness’ sake don’t tell him; he’d only laugh at me, scold me. Let us keep it to ourselves. And Billie must be made to promise not to say anything about it to him; Miss Heath. Let Will go into camp in a good temper. He’s off again to-morrow, and if I should die before he comes back it will always be a comfort to him to feel we parted good friends. He has been so different to me this time, so much more like he used to be in old days. I mustn’t upset him.”
This sense of heroic martyrdom sustained Mrs. Cardale agreeably throughout the day. She prevailed upon her husband to visit the club with her in the evening, and he did so with a good grace. During dinner she positively sparkled, talked gaily of the party, and even said how sorry she felt now that she had not invited the Parsee doctor, adding mendaciously: “But I thought Mrs. May and Mrs. Watson mightn’t like it. One never quite knows how people feel about meeting natives at social entertainments.”
This was dangerous ground, but Mr. Cardale merely replied: “Quite so,” with a flicker of his eyelids that betrayed to Annabel his determination to keep the peace. At least his impenetrable attitude deceived his wife, who evidently considered that she had explained away an omission on her part with success, however late in the day; and she chatted on complacently, supported by Annabel, and encouraged by her husband’s apparent interest in her remarks.
The false atmosphere was maintained after dinner in the drawing-room where they played three-handed bridge until Mr. Cardale said he had work to finish off.
“I shall be starting at daybreak, so I’ll say good-bye now. You mustn’t be disturbed; you want all the sleep you can get,” he told his wife with an assumption of tenderness. “You have worn yourself out over the dinner party and Christmas. Mind you take a good rest.”
“I promise I will!” she replied angelically, and held up her face for his kiss.
As he gave it his eyes met Annabel’s, and the expression in them of mingled impatience and sufferance turned her cold. It was terrible. Poor little Mrs. Cardale! How providential that she could delude herself into the belief that she was playing a noble part in repressing her own feelings and permitting her husband to depart with a mind at ease on her account. She rushed from the room theatrically, her handkerchief to her face. Annabel made to follow her, but Mr. Cardale barred her way.
“Just a word, Miss Heath. I won’t keep you. I only want to say that I shall be out in the district for some considerable time. It’s perfectly true that a long tour is unavoidable officially, though, of course, I could break it; but that I don’t intend to do. The hot weather begins early in these parts, and when I come back it won’t be too soon for my wife and child to get up to the hills. Can I count upon you to go with them? It will mean seven months. I shan’t take any leave this year.”
He avoided her gaze; his face, with lowered eyelids, might have been that of a stone image.
“Of course I will go with them.” Annabel answered him with forced ease, in the tone of one comforting an anxious husband. “And you know you can depend on me to help Mrs. Cardale and look after Billie to the best of my powers, now and at any time. Good-bye, Mr. Cardale; you needn’t worry.”
He held out his hand. She just touched it and slipped past him.
Just as dawn broke she was awakened by the sounds of his departure: the clatter of crockery in the dining-room, the grumbling of camels being loaded in the compound, servants’ voices and footsteps; then the stamp of hoofs as his horse was led round and he rode away. At last he was gone. She felt thankful.
His absence, together with that of Abdul, who this time accompanied the sahib, seemed to liberate an extra spirit of laxity in the household. Meals were more unpunctual, work was more neglected, Mrs. Cardale abandoned all effort to enforce any semblance of discipline. She spent most of the day in bed or wandering about listlessly in a dressing-gown, Jacob perched on her shoulder. What energy she had possessed appeared to be dwindling. She visited the club much less often, seldom complained or scolded the servants, and made no protest when Chunia truculently demanded a long holiday with the excuse that a wedding in her family necessitated the leave. Annabel suspected that more probably Chunia had come to realize the futility of attempting to oust her rival, the miss-sahib. No doubt she felt her position to be insecure, also missed the excitement of spying and tale-bearing, and had no intention at all of returning. . . . Whatever the truth, she contrived to wheedle a month’s pay in advance from her mistress on the grounds of unavoidable expenses. Was it not two days’ journey to her home? she whined, and would she not be forced to sacrifice the bulk of her savings when she got there?
A humble substitute for Chunia was found and installed, a timid, inexperienced creature who scuttled about, her wrapper over her face, and did nothing. Annabel tidied and straightened, only to find all her work undone; interviewed the cook and the head table servant, who accepted her orders with respectful demeanour but failed to carry them out; and finally, in despair, she let domestic matters slide, short of a point that was consistent with physical support. She ministered compassionately to Mrs. Cardale’s comfort, companioned her in the intervals of teaching Billie, playing with him, maintaining the improvement she had brought about in his health and behaviour. Though Abdul was no longer at hand to give his aid, at least Chunia’s baleful influence was removed.
Now the ayah had outstayed her leave (no surprise to Annabel); but Mrs. Cardale kept up the fiction of believing that either Chunia must be dead, or had been prevented by her relations from returning, or else had felt the ghost-bird’s warning so acutely that she could not bear to come back and see her mistress die!
“Chunia knows as well as I do that I’m doomed!” Mrs. Cardale would reiterate whenever the subject cropped up between her and Annabel.
Thus weeks slid by; the cold weather bite left the morning and evening air; a scent of mango blossom floated from the giant trees along the grand trunk road; the doors of the bungalow stood open all night. Climatically it was not an unpleasant period, and all too short. No rain had fallen to prolong the winter, daily the temperature rose, the sun grew fiercer, and when the west wind began to blow, raising clouds of hot dust, it seemed to extinguish the last spark of Mrs. Cardale’s vitality.
One evening, after a drive in the landau, she fainted and took so long to revive that Annabel, on her own responsibility, sent for the Parsee doctor, only to learn that he was absent, inspecting the dispensaries in the district. All that night she sat up with Mrs. Cardale, fearing to leave her. In the morning she wrote to Mr. Cardale urging his speedy return, though, in answer to her anxious inquiries, no one could tell her when or where the sahib would be likely to receive the letter. It must be entrusted to the orderly whose duty it was to convey the official post-bag on camel-back to some distant point where the man would be met by another messenger, and so on. . . . There was nothing else to be done.
She saw the camel lurch out of the compound with its red-turbaned, red-belted rider, and then returned, heavy-hearted, to Mrs. Cardale’s bedside. Chunia’s successor was useless, but the head table servant volunteered, unexpectedly, to look after Billie and attend to the birds, and Annabel accepted his offer of help with gratitude. It set her free to devote her whole time to the frail little form lying so white and inert in the hot silent room, to all appearances hardly alive.
The long day dragged to its close; a sultry calm enveloped the house and compound as the tempestuous wind died down, and the hard white glare outside yielded to the red glow of sunset. Doors were thrown open, a man sprinkled water on the area of broken brick that surrounded the building. A sense of release pervaded the atmosphere; Annabel, languid and weary, welcomed it. The smell of damp dust refreshed her, but relief for her mind seemed no nearer. Mrs. Cardale still lay only half conscious, muttering incoherently at intervals, her little skeleton hands clutching the sheet.
Now and then Billie peeped in, but Annabel waved him away and he disappeared stealthily.
Later she saw him go off on his pony, heard him conversing glibly in Hindustani with his attendants, the ayah and one of the grooms. She hoped vaguely that they would not take the child to the bazaar. The sound of their voices grew fainter, ceased. Her eyelids drooped, drowsiness assailed her again---she had been fighting it for hours, must continue to fight it until it was safe to leave Mrs. Cardale for more than a few minutes. When would that be? When would that be? The question beat to and fro in her brain like the monotonous ticking of a clock, till the words became meaningless; sleep was overpowering her will.
A sudden, swift sound broke the spell; at once she was awake, still somewhat dazed but awake. What she had heard was the flapping of wings, and it was no fancy, no dream. One of the doves had flown in and was circling above the bed. Another, and another; they followed so rapidly that soon the room seemed to be full of hovering white birds. They perched gently on the backs of chairs, ranged themselves along the bed-rails, on the tops of the doors, wherever they could find foothold; and when Annabel tried to drive them out they eyed her with indifference, did not move, began to coo softly.
She knew they were accustomed to forage for themselves, therefore they could hardly be in search of food, and even were they missing Mrs. Cardale’s daily treat to them of grain and breadcrumbs, it was extraordinary that they should invade the house like this; never had she seen them do such a thing before.
The liquid sound continued persistently, rose and fell in soft, musical waves, while Annabel stood helpless, amazed, with a feeling that here was something beyond rational explanation. What could it mean? The cooing went on, it was like some sort of incantation, but so far it had not disturbed Mrs. Cardale; on the contrary, the gentle monotonous sound seemed to soothe her, she ceased to mutter and clutch the sheet.
Light was failing, the red sunset glow gave place to the swift Indian dusk that so soon becomes darkness; still the doves cooed and cooed till in harsh contrast raucous screams rose from the adjoining veranda. Jacob was yelling fiercely. That roused Mrs. Cardale; she opened her eyes.
“Oh, Jacob!” she whispered reproachfully: and as Annabel bent over her she spoke again: “Tell him---to be---quiet. Tell him he can’t come home with me this time.”
Hateful bird! It was so like him to raise a clamour at the wrong moment. Already his shrieks had set the other parrots off, started the mynas whistling shrilly; the partridge called; the rest of the aviary cheeped and piped. It was like a small string band gone crazy. Annabel hurried out to fling cloths over the cages, and a disconcerted silence ensued.
As she returned, a dove brushed past her head through the door, and in smooth orderly flight the rest of them followed---one by one. She saw the whole flock rise singly, high in the air, join up in a floating white cloud, melt away in the distance.
Within the shadowy room was a peaceful silence; and a few moments later Annabel discovered that Mrs. Cardale had “gone home”--- without Jacob. Had the doves known? Had they come that they might bear her on their wings over the border?
Less than twenty-four hours after Annabel had silenced the noisy birds and seen the doves fly away, Mrs. Cardale was buried in the desolate little English cemetery amid its crumbling monuments and graves neglected, forgotten, or obliterated altogether.
It could not be helped that all was over before William Cardale got back to Bijapur in response to Annabel’s summons; and she felt that perhaps, for his sake, this was just as well. The Parsee doctor had returned from his tour in time to make arrangements that in the East on such occasions must be cruelly hastened. Padre Veal was on the spot to conduct the funeral service; everyone in the station attended the sad ceremony, everyone was kind.
A little controversy took place between Mrs. Watson and Mrs. May as to which of them should move over to the Cardales’ bungalow with the object of keeping Miss Heath company. Each was secretly eager to do so, but each paraded her desire as a kindly act of self-sacrifice; and Mrs. Watson, being the more masterful of the two ladies, came off victorious; while Mrs. May found herself forced to enact the good Samaritan by taking charge of Billie in her own house.
On the morning after the funeral Annabel, unable to rest, rose at dawn, leaving Mrs. Watson sound asleep in Billie’s bed; and as she wandered forth aimlessly into the compound it struck her as curious that not a single dove was to be seen about the place, that the dove-cote stood empty, deserted. Then remembering Jacob and the rest of poor Mrs. Cardale’s pet birds, she retraced her steps---to find Jacob huddled up on his perch, a picture of misery, his gorgeous plumage ruffled and dull. Sentiment impelled her to let him loose at the risk of attack from beak and claw, but to her surprise he climbed meekly on to her shoulder uttering plaintive little cries that touched her heart. She tempted him with tit-bits, but he regarded her offerings with indifference, refused them. Even when she put him back in his cage, though he squawked and resisted, there was no vicious retaliation as of old. In some mysterious bird-fashion he seemed to realize that his adored one had left him for ever---nothing else mattered. Well, at least, one living creature had loved Mrs. Cardale wholeheartedly!
Annabel loitered about. At any moment Mr. Cardale might arrive. How she dreaded his arrival! She would have to break the news of his wife’s death to him unless one of the servants forestalled her, and she wished to prevent that. Finally she decided to wait in the front veranda. Half an hour later he came, walked up the steps covered with dust, dishevelled, palpably fatigued.
“I got your note,” he said, his voice hoarse with the grit in his parched throat, “and I started at once. How is she?”
Annabel drew a chair forward: he sank into it, flung his sun hat on the floor, mopped his wet forehead, too exhausted at the moment to notice that she did not answer his question.
“I’m just about cooked!” he explained in unwilling excuse for his plight.
“You must be,” she faltered nervously, “and---and there’s no need for you to do anything now but have a rest.”
He looked up at her, startled inquiry in his tired, bloodshot eyes, and sprang to his feet.
“What is it? Tell me!” he cried sharply. “Speak out!”
She told him, with what gentle tact she could muster. He listened in silence, and to her dismay when she ceased speaking he laughed. The harsh, unnatural sound echoed along the veranda as he turned abruptly and vanished into the house.
She saw to it that food and drink were taken to him in the office, for, as she anticipated, he did not appear at the midday meal.
All through that long hot day, behind doors and windows closed against the heat, she and Mrs. Watson (at Mrs. Watson’s insistence) busied themselves sorting and going through Mrs. Cardale’s clothes.
“A painful but necessary job,” said the self-invited guest, who, though all anxiety to be of practical assistance, could not entirely cloak her enjoyment of the “job.” “It’s no good leaving this kind of thing to a man when there are women at hand to see to it for him. We’d better get to work without delay.”
Vigorously she divided the garments into heaps; this and that Mrs. Veal would be glad of for the mission school; the actual rubbish ought to fetch something in the bazaar; the rest would certainly find ready purchasers among the ladies in the station, especially all that had so recently been acquired at home. She selected what she fancied for herself, and by proxy for Mrs. May.
“Don’t say anything to Mr. Cardale about it just yet,” she adjured Miss Heath. “He’ll be only too thankful, poor man, when he finds it has all been done. I’ve seen so much of this kind of thing out here. I often wonder what would happen if I were to die suddenly! George would be helpless. I expect he’d send the kiddies home somehow, and feel so utterly miserable that he’d marry again as soon as possible. By the way,” she added, pausing in the act of disentangling a mass of old veils and gloves, “of course, you can’t stay on here, you know, under the circumstances. Appearances must be considered.”
“I hadn’t thought about that,” said Annabel with truth; but now she felt, appearances apart, that she would rather not remain on alone with Mr. Cardale.
“I only wish we could afford to engage you!” There seemed no doubt in Mrs. Watson’s mind but that Miss Heath would have jumped at such a chance. “Unfortunately we can’t run to an English nursery governess. However, I suppose Mr. Cardale will pay you a month’s salary and the equivalent of your keep. The best way would be for you to come to us for the month; we could have Billie too. That would give you time to look round for another engagement.”
Annabel murmured polite though hardly genuine appreciation of this proposal; the prospect was not alluring.
“And mind,” continued Mrs. Watson, “if Ellen May offers to put you up, don’t listen to her. They live anyhow, and it would suit her very well to make use of your services for a bit without expense to herself!” (It would also suit Mrs. Watson, as Annabel recognized.) “If you like I’ll have a talk with Mr. Cardale about you.”
“Thank you, but I think I’d better talk to him myself,” said Annabel cautiously, “he may want me to take Billie to the hills.”
“Ah, that’s an idea!” exclaimed Mrs. Watson, delighted. “If he does, then you and Billie could come with us as paying guests. We’ve taken a house at Almora.”
This proposition put Annabel on her guard; she did not see herself as nursery governess to the Watson “kiddies” in addition to Billie, and moreover without extra emolument, though she was prepared for a short interlude with the Watsons at Bijapur. She temporized, and was thankful when Mrs. Watson, after refreshing herself with a cup of tea, decided to cease operations for the present, and drove off to her home, taking with her a tin box filled with Mrs. Cardale s best clothes.
“We shall expect you in time for dinner tonight, Miss Heath,” were her parting words.
Annabel nodded, waved her hand, watched the trap swing out of the compound; for a few moments she lingered in the veranda collecting her wits, then she went straight into Mr. Cardale’s office.
He lay stretched in a long chair, asleep, his legs thrown over one of the paddle-like arms, his head turned limply aside. He had not changed his clothes; the food on the breakfast tray was untouched, though he had drunk some tea. The room was stifling, and he breathed heavily.
Annabel regarded the travel-stained, unkempt figure with compassion. What had been his thoughts, his feelings, during all these hours of solitude? And now was he dreaming? Dreaming, perhaps, of the time when he had first seen and fallen in love with the little woman who had brought him no real happiness. On the whole, he had behaved well enough according to his nature, had grudged his wife nothing material that lay in his power to give her, humoured all her fancies and requests save the one---and he could hardly be blamed for refusing to retire, if only on the score of ways and means.
So she framed excuses for him, felt glad that he would be able to look back on the last few days he and his wife had spent together with the knowledge that he had rendered them happy for her, whatever his motive. But the motive! With a mental recoil Annabel recollected those moments alone with him in the drawing-room while awaiting the guests for the dinner-party. Every incident of that detestable evening sprang up in her mind---his appeal: “When are you going to give me a pat on the back?” The vision of him seated at the head of the table, a morose, long-suffering host, the ridiculous paper crown on his head. Mr. Veal’s estimate of his character: “A fair-minded sterling soul!” This, no doubt, was correct in the abstract and from the missionary’s point of view; but for her part she felt she knew little of what might lie beneath the man’s churlish reserve. So far she had only guessed at his longing for human sympathy; suspected that unfortunately he had permitted that longing to become tainted with a foolish physical attraction towards herself. She put it down as a passing weakness, to be forgotten, wiped out, by the shock of his wife’s death.
She was about to leave the room noiselessly that he might sleep on undisturbed, but he moved, opened his eyes, stared at her for a moment without recognition, then stood up, taking difficult command of his senses.
“Oh, it’s you, Miss Heath. I’m afraid I’ve been asleep.”
“The best thing for you,” she said, “but,” with a glance at the tray on the table, “you ought to have eaten something first.”
“Haven’t I? I suppose I was too fagged out.”
For a short space both stood silent. Annabel doubted if the full realization of what had happened had yet taken possession of him. She knew from her own experience how impossible it seemed at first to grasp a tragic personal event; she had felt like that when her mother died, though long prepared, as Mr. Cardale had not been, to face such a climax. Mrs. Cardale was dead, buried, and he had not been in time, through no fault of his own, to see her alive, to bid her a last farewell. Annabel was not even in a position to say that his wife had spoken of him, left him any message to comfort his presumably sore heart. It had all been so sudden; there was nothing to bring forward beyond the fact that the end had been painless and peaceful---of that she had already assured him in the veranda on his arrival. And he had laughed! She made allowance for that horrible laugh, shock had evoked it; but how was he going to behave now? Watching him, she could not control a species of curiosity as she waited for him to speak first.
He went to each of the door-windows and opened them, letting in the warm evening air that in a measure relieved the closeness of the room.
“That’s better,” he said, filling his lungs. “It’s time we had punkahs and tatties; they should have been started ten days ago.”
“Ought I to have seen to it?” Annabel asked apologetically. “But I didn’t know.”
“Oh, it wasn’t your fault——” he began testily, and checked himself, as if he had been about to blame his wife and had only just remembered in time that she was dead.
“Abdul will make the necessary arrangements,” he added; “he ought to turn up with the camp things to-morrow evening. You see, I had to race ahead. The other servants should have had the sense to order grass screens for the doorways and get the punkahs hung. Have you found it awfully hot?”
“Only lately, since the wind began.”
“Well, it will be better soon.” Then he said: “Where’s Billie?”
“Mrs. May very kindly took charge of him. It seemed as well that he shouldn’t be here.”
He nodded, moved about the room restlessly. Annabel saw her chance of discussing future plans.
“Mrs. Watson has been very kind too. She came over at once, and only left a short time ago. There were certain things she thought ought to be seen to.”
“What things?” he asked, objection in his tone.
“Well, Mrs. Cardale’s clothes “
“The woman’s a busybody,” he interrupted captiously. Then he shrugged his shoulders, sighed. “After all, what does it matter!”
“Exactly,” said Annabel. “She meant well in her way, and it saves you trouble. Also she wants me to go over to them to-night, and stay there for the present. She will have Billie, too, to-morrow.”
“What rot!” he ejaculated, taken aback. “Why shouldn’t you stay here with the child until you take him to the hills?”
“She thinks appearances ought to be considered,” said Annabel with an air of detachment.
“Oh! I see. It wouldn’t be proper for you to stay here with me?” He grinned sardonically. “What if I asked you as a favour to stay, made a point of it---would you?”
I don’t see how I very well could, do you?”
“Oh, curse conventions! What nonsense it all is. But I suppose for the sake of your---your reputation I must agree.”
“It seems,” went on Annabel evasively, “that the Watsons have taken a house at Almora for the summer, and she intends to propose that I and Billie should go with them as paying guests.”
“Would that suit you? Do you like Mrs. Watson as much as all that?”
Their eyes met in faintly amused understanding.
“If anything else could be arranged,” said Annabel with calculated diffidence.
“Of course it could. All I want is your consent to take the child to the hills. And it needn’t be Almora. Ethel always went to Pahari, the Government hot-weather quarters. She had a pet pension there, run by a friend of hers, a Miss MacTarn. In fact, I believe Ethel had already been in communication with Miss MacTarn about accommodation. Provided you are willing?”
Annabel hailed this speech with relief. Here was an excellent way of escape from Mrs. Watson’s domination if it meant nothing else; and it did mean much else---a period of independence and security, time to look about at her leisure for another post, since it would be obviously impossible to remain in Mr. Cardale’s service once the hot season was over.
“Yes, I am willing,” she agreed. “I suppose you will be sending Billie home in the autumn?”
“I don’t know,” he said vaguely. “But meantime I’ll make it worth your while to stay with the Watsons until you can get off to Pahari with Billie, and worth your while to look after him there at Miss MacTarn’s.”
Annabel flushed. How odious of him to insinuate that she could only be bribed into doing as he wished!
“Thank you,” she retaliated, “but I’m sure if you made it worth Mrs. Watson’s while she would be quite pleased to take Billie to Almora with her own children, and in that case I need only ask you for a month’s salary besides a--- recommendation, or let us call it a character while we are about it!”
He stepped aside, almost as if she had thrown something at him, and stared at her in amazement.
“Oh, don’t talk like that! I suppose I put it badly; I know I’m a blundering fool. But can’t you see I’m all on edge, I hardly know what I m doing or saying——”
Contrition for her flash of temper moved her to make atonement; he looked so broken, so wretched.
“Never mind, it’s all right,” she assured him. “I do understand, of course, and I can’t say how much I feel for you. I’ll do anything you like.”
“My God!” he cried suddenly, and beat his clenched fists on the table. “The horror of it all is that I’m glad---glad, do you hear? What is the use of pretending! There’s no need to pretend any longer, and I’m not going to do it, at any rate to you. You know what I’ve suffered, put up with. In mercy can’t you pity instead of blaming me because I’m not broken-hearted?”
“But I haven’t blamed you,” protested Annabel, aghast at this conflicting confession.
“Not in so many words, but I can tell from your face what you think. You might at least give me credit for realizing what a beast I am!” He seemed to relinquish all attempt at self-control. “It’s your fault---your fault,” he raved, “that I can’t grieve, that I can’t help feeling glad. If I had never met you, if you hadn’t come into my life with your sweetness, your quick, clever mind, I might have been able to wish that my poor wife was still alive. As it is, I can think of nothing beyond the fact that I’m free—free to try and win you. I love you with every atom of my soul and brain and body. It’s not often that a woman can command such a combination from a man---the whole of him!”
The violence of his emotion, her own agitation and distress, struck Annabel dumb; yet she found herself wondering why she was not more shocked and astonished. She had always felt drawn towards him intellectually, had always sympathized with his mental solitude, but in no other way had he attracted her. Not that she found him repulsive. With all his heavy appearance, his rough black hair, his sombre grey eyes, his clumsy movements, there was something forceful, very masculine, about the man that redeemed him from ugliness and inspired confidence.
Standing before her, his face transfigured with a passion that held nothing of baseness, unseemly though it was of him to declare it at such a time, he looked almost handsome; and feeling lost to all shame Annabel faced a temptation to take advantage of his desolation, to secure a safe anchorage with a companion whose object it would be to make her life happy. Liking William Cardale as she did, there was no reason why they should not get on together exceedingly well; she could give him loyal affection if that would content him; and there was Billie. Why, if he loved her, and she were willing to accept his love, should convention preclude honest speech between them at this juncture? They were alone; there was no necessity for any display of false sentiment.
Cardale mistook her disquieted silence for a signal of disgust; his violence left him, despair took its place, and he turned away with a spiritless sigh.
“Well, now you know the truth, though I suppose I’ve only made matters worse in your view. But I couldn’t for the life of me help it.”
Annabel forced herself to speak; either she must give him some inkling of her thoughts, or leave him to assume that she was irretrievably shocked.
“It isn’t that I resent your telling me the truth,” she began haltingly with an unpleasant sense of guilt.
He wheeled round, confronting her again, immense hope in his demeanour. “But you mean---do you only mean that it was too indecently soon for me to speak out? Is that what you mean? For Heaven’s sake tell me!” Annabel dropped into the nearest chair, limp and weak, feeling she had outstepped all bounds of good taste, let alone decency. “Oh I don’t let us talk about it now,” she implored him.
“Very well, then, we won’t,” he said, quiet confidence in his voice. “I am content to wait.”
He evinced no desire to hinder her as she rose unsteadily and left the office. Mechanically she packed some clothes, and was conveyed to the Watsons’ bungalow in the landau---the last time she had driven in the ramshackle vehicle was on the evening when Mrs. Cardale had fainted on their return from the drive . . . now that seemed aeons ago, but it was only three days, four days! She had lost count of time. And what had she done during the last couple of hours? Practically engaged herself to a man she did not love, whose wife had been barely a night and a day in the grave; what madness could have possessed her!
Somehow she got through the evening with the Watsons, sat outside with them on the circular platform in the compound after dinner, making artificial conversation until bedtime. And when, hours later, she did fall asleep, worn out, it was to dream she was walking along a perilously narrow ledge; on the one side rose a rocky hillside, on the other was a precipice, a sheer drop that went down, down. . . . Rounding a sharp turn of the ledge she came face to face with a man; one of them must turn back, there was no room to pass. The man stood still, gazed at her with gleaming blue eyes. It was Mrs. Lynex’s friend. She awoke with a sense of shock, trembling, perspiring.
Annabel’s next meeting with her would-be fiancé took place in the Watsons’ bungalow two mornings later. She and Mrs. Watson were hemming dusters in the veranda, the children playing about their feet, when he appeared, calm and purposeful, quite self-contained. Mrs. Watson hastily banished the children, and poured forth condolences which he acknowledged with a few suitable words. Then he announced shortly that he had arranged by telegram with Miss MacTarn, of Springfield, at Pahari, for the reception of Miss Heath and Billie at once.
“But, dear Mr. Cardale,” cried Mrs. Watson, visibly put out, “Miss Heath has never been to a hill station. How will she manage such a journey alone?”
Annabel deplored his want of tact when he addressed her, ignoring Mrs. Watson. “Abdul will go with you,” he said, “and he will stay with you as your servant.”
“Then, how about an ayah?” persisted Mrs. Watson. “The creature you’ve got now isn’t worth the fare, let alone her clothes and her pay.”
“She needn’t go. Abdul can engage an efficient woman at Pahari.”
“Why Pahari? Miss Heath knows nobody there. It will be so lonely for her---a great big place filled with officials, when she could come with us to Almora and you’d know she and Billie were absolutely all right---no need for you to spare Abdul. Why on earth didn’t you consult me before making this arrangement with Miss MacTarn!” Mrs. Watson was almost in tears with vexation. “Have you no consideration for Miss Heath?”
Annabel trusted he was not going to refer the question to her. She was relieved when he answered easily: “I dare say Miss Heath will put up with the drawbacks you mention. I shall want to run up and see Billie now and then; Pahari is much more get-at-able for me than Almora.”
He added that a couple of tongas would be in readiness for the travellers and their luggage next night, and that Abdul would be well supplied with cash for the journey. As for himself, he was off into the district again at once. The only consolation he meted out to Mrs. Watson was a formal expression of thanks for the kind trouble he understood she had taken in the matter of his wife’s clothes; and as he took leave of her and Annabel he placed an envelope on the table.
“Just a small recognition of all you have done, Mrs. Watson,” he said, and hastily descended the steps to drive away without a glance backward.
“Selfish creature!” exclaimed Mrs. Watson, when indignation permitted her to speak. “I never heard of such a thing. Just fancy his bundling you off all alone like this! I call it simply disgraceful. It would serve him right if you refused to go. He’s heartless! I don’t believe he feels his wife’s death one scrap, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s never even been to look at her grave.” She opened the envelope and drew out a cheque that seemed to mollify her, though she continued her diatribe against Mr. Cardale. “I suppose he thinks money means everything; a man like that would. Well, I shall take his horrid cheque. If I sent it back, it wouldn’t make him understand my feelings---or yours.”
“I shall have to go over to the bungalow and collect the rest of my belongings and Billie’s, said Annabel.
“I’ll come and help you. As he’s going into camp the coast will be clear by to-morrow morning. I feel as if I never wanted to set eyes on the man again!”
The bungalow when they entered it the following morning presented a forlorn appearance. Mrs. Cardale’s bedroom had not been touched; the toilet things lay on the dressing-table, the heaps of odds and ends intended by Mrs. Watson for the mission house were undisturbed.
“I’ll have them sent off,” she said, “while you get your things together and the child’s.”
Annabel left her to this task, and with Abdul’s assistance she packed and closed boxes. The bearer was a solid comfort with his active intelligence, the way in which he gave the miss-sahib to understand that he realized his responsibilities and was anxious to carry out the sahib’s orders for her convenience.
“There will be no trouble,” he assured her; “all will be ready to-night.”
Annabel made a last tour of the premises. Would she ever come back to them? The future was a blank. One thing that saddened her soul was the discovery of Jacob dead in his cage. The bird lay on his back, stiff and stark, his claws outstretched.
“He has died of sorrow,” said Abdul, “his heart was broken.”
Springfield was a commodious, double-storied house standing in its own park-like grounds, remote from the more fashionable and crowded portion of the station---too remote for visitors intent on gaiety, but exactly suited to the requirements of sober-minded, economical wives, with or without families, whose husbands could “run up” at intervals on ten days’ leave. Parents spending the hot weather in the plains blessed the place as a happy haven for their children, consigning them to the care of Miss MacTarn with complete confidence and relief. Miss MacTarn kept her own cows and poultry, grew her own vegetables, provided excellent plain food, looked after the health of the little people committed to her charge. If the children were liable to return with a chi-chi accent after six months’ sojourn at Springfield, that was universally regarded as a minor drawback in comparison with the solid advantages; one could not expect everything; and, though “country-bred,” Miss MacTarn was undoubtedly a gentlewoman, sensible, high-principled, and quite white.
Her grandfather, General MacTarn, of the Honourable East India Company’s Service, had acquired the land, built the house, and settled there with his Scottish wife and numerous progeny long before Pahari had been selected as the headquarters of the Provincial Government; and to this day there were MacTarns holding appointments in every branch of the Indian services. Nevertheless, the family had dwindled in the direct line, until finally a solitary spinster remained as sole possessor of the property on which she had been born and brought up. Times had changed; means were not sufficient to permit of idle residence in the ancestral halls; but, being a capable woman, Miss MacTarn soon devised a scheme by which the place might be rendered profitable. Her exertions met with success: from March to October, Springfield was invariably crammed with children, grass widows, fluctuating husbands; and for years past Miss MacTarn had been in a position to pick and choose among countless petitioners for accommodation.
“You see, I endeavour to favour old friends,” said Miss MacTarn to Annabel the morning after she and Billie had arrived. They had been allotted one of the best bedrooms with a small enclosed veranda that answered the purpose of a private sitting-room. “Mr. Cardale was always sending his wife and little one to me, unless going to England like last year, and no grudging over best of everything. A kind man. Poor Mrs. Cardale, she was a one to grumble! But I paid no heed, I knew it was just her state of health.”
“There can’t be anything to grumble about here!” exclaimed Annabel with entire sincerity.
She felt refreshed by a good night in clean, comfortable surroundings, exhilarated by the sparkling air golden with sunshine, the perfume of roses and honeysuckle that twined about the trellis-work of the veranda. And the scenery! She gazed out over a wide valley thickly wooded, the varying shades of green splashed with crimson, mauve, pink and white. blossom; beyond rose the mountains, range above range, till they seemed to lean against a glittering rampart, “The Snows,” topmost heights of the Himalayas, Roof of the World, sublime, magnificent, terribly eternal. Oh! the wonder, the grandeur of it all!
Annabel could hardly prevent herself from laughing hysterically when Miss MacTarn, standing at her side, stout and homely, enveloped in a brown overall, kind little eyes twinkling above high cheek bones, said with a sort of possessive pride: “A prettee view---h’n?”
Then the good soul went on to explain about “extras,” the hours for meals, and the arrangements to be made in conjunction with Abdul according to Mr. Cardale’s instructions over the purchase of a pony for Billie, the engaging of an ayah, and the hiring of that canoe-shaped conveyance called a dandy for Miss Heath, with the necessary quartet of carriers who must be provided with uniform and blankets.
“But won’t it all be very expensive?” demurred Annabel, rather overwhelmed.
Miss MacTarn smiled. “Nothing to worry about; we just follow orders”---ticking them off on her fingers: “a pony, an ayah, a dandy, four men. Leave it to me and to Abdul, Miss Heath dear. That Abdul, he is a treasure, never makes trouble in the compound like some people’s servants. I have to put up with a lot in that way, I can tell you! Just you settle down, Miss Heath, and feel at home.”
Annabel followed this pleasant advice, put all thought of the future from her mind as far as she was able, and gave herself over to enjoyment of the present, revelling in the climate, the peace, and the ease of her surroundings.
Billie was supremely happy, inclined to lord it over the other children who possessed fewer toys, no pony, no Ann’bel of their very own; but on the whole he gave little trouble and was a general favourite with the adult inmates of Springfield, as was also Miss Heath, for it was quickly discovered that she never minded keeping an eye on groups of children and ayahs in the garden, and was open to hints when mothers craved freedom from their offspring for shopping expeditions or occasionally to attend some festivity. She even volunteered, on the first Sunday after her arrival, to shepherd the bigger children to church, a proposal that was eagerly accepted. Miss MacTarn hadn’t time on this particular Sabbath morning to attend the service, because a family from the plains was momentarily expected; Mrs. Rice had a headache, though she felt she ought to take her little boy to church; Mrs. Taylor frankly proclaimed that she would be only too grateful if Miss Heath kindly consented to take her small daughter who clamoured perversely to go: “So tiresome of her, when I couldn’t even get her to say her prayers this morning. It’s only because she knows I don’t want to go to church myself.”
Therefore Annabel conducted a gay little procession down the hillside, the children all in such high spirits that they might have been bound for a circus. They descended a rough pathway among the oaks and the pines and rhododendron trees, and much excitement was created by an encounter with a party of big black monkeys with white beards that leapt chattering across the road and crashed down the slope among the branches. Once off the Springfield domain the church-goers passed houses of the Swiss chalet persuasion standing in gardens ablaze with flowers that scented the air; and as they approached the church, a severe-looking erection in stone, they mingled with a stream of dandies and rickshaws containing smartly clad ladies, accompanied by a sprinkling of men walking or riding. The interior of the church was in keeping with its outward appearance, very bare, unplastered, and with but one coloured glass window.
The Springfield party filled a pew near the door, from which Annabel watched the congregation’s arrival with interest. Soldiers clattered in from the depôt, while the organ, a crude instrument badly played, droned forth a voluntary that seemed endless; it continued after the chaplain, a portly red-faced being, had taken his place, as though awaiting some signal to cease, until through a side-door in the chancel came a group of people. First, a woman not in her first youth but remarkably good-looking and superbly dressed, with two little girls of perhaps eight and ten years of age, dainty little figures clad in expensive white frocks and hats. Behind them stepped a couple of young men, one of them in uniform, the other in a dark suit; this pair stood aside to make way for a tall elderly man, and Annabel’s heart seemed to turn over as she recognized Mrs. Lynex’s friend.
All through the rather dreary service in the intervals of finding places for her small charges, checking them when they whispered and tried to play, she could not keep her gaze from the dignified figure---the man whose image had haunted her memory since she had beheld him for a few fleeting moments standing in the lounge of a South Kensington Hotel regarding her so intently . . . was he the Governor of the Province, the author of those enchanting books she had devoured at Bijapur? Was his name Temple Rochford?
As the Springfield party started on their return journey, little Mollie Taylor supplied her with information in answer to her questions. Yes, that old gentleman was the Governor, the Big Sahib, and didn’t Miss Heath think Lady Rochford’s two little girls looked very conceited?
“Lady Rochford,” echoed Annabel.
“Yes, but their name isn’t Rochford, it’s something else. The Governor isn’t their real dad. Mummy told me; but Sir Temple is very kind to them, and lets them have parties. There will be a children’s fancy dress dance at Government House, and I hope I shall be asked. I should go as a fairy queen with a crown and a wand and gold spangles all over my frock “
Annabel remained deaf to the rest of the child’s chatter. To think that she was actually in the same station with her dream-hero, that she might see him often, though it would only be from afar; in her humble position how could she possibly expect anything else? With a feeling of futile and bitter execration towards her own social status, she started the subject of Government House during the midday dinner.
“What a handsome woman Lady Rochford is!” she remarked tentatively.
“Handsome is as handsome does,” said Mrs. Taylor. “She gives herself the most frantic airs. She’s supposed to be an American, which may account for it, though it’s a weakness not confined to Americans!”
She cast an accusative glance at Mrs. Rice, who had already dined at Government House, whereas Mrs. Taylor had written her name in The Book long before Mrs. Rice, and so far had received no invitation, even to a garden party.
“She didn’t give herself airs the night I dined with them,” said Mrs. Rice in such a supercilious tone that Annabel felt Mrs. Taylor’s glance to have been more or less justified.
“But, of course, your husband happens to be in the Civil Service,” snorted Mrs. Taylor, “while mine is only a planter. We all know what that means out here, where birth has nothing to do with position!”
“Is Lady Rochford very rich?. “interposed Annabel, an inquiry that stemmed the rising storm between the two ladies, and started a chorus of hearsay.
Lady Rochford was said to be the widow of a millionaire and had control of a vast fortune. No, she was not an American herself. On the other hand, rumour had it that the fortune really belonged to the two little girls---their name was Regent---and Lady Rochford held only a life interest. Whatever the truth, money was spent like water at Government House; such lavish entertainment had never before been known in the whole history of Pahari. Lady Rochford kept up such state as would put even Vice-Regal Lodge to shame. It was all her doing. Mrs. Rice, who claimed previous acquaintanceship with the Governor’s private secretary, declared she had it on that gentleman’s authority that Sir Temple himself was the simplest of beings and was heartily bored with all the fuss and the ceremony and the waste; still, if his wife chose to pay for it of course he could say nothing. . . . All the furniture at Government House had been brought out from home; there was an English governess and an English maid for Lady Rochford and the two little girls.
“I call it perfectly ridiculous,” exclaimed Mrs. Taylor, “and a very bad example for the natives.”
“There I don’t agree with you,” put in a little lady who was a recent arrival at Springfield. “Natives love show and respect it. Pomp and pageantry add to our prestige out here.”
“Oh my!” said Miss MacTarn. “It makes my teeth water to hear of all the tomashas, and the wonderful cooking and spreads. Only,” she added ruefully, “it does send up the bazaar prices---mutton, and beef, and all that.”
Here the conversation was interrupted by the arrival in the veranda of a messenger clad in scarlet and gold livery, bearing a satchel from which he was seen to be extracting a leather-bound book and a large square envelope.
“Talk of the devil,” remarked Mrs. Taylor. “It’s a chuprassie from Government House.”
The book and the letter were brought to Miss MacTarn, who signed the book and opened the envelope amid breathless attention from her guests.
“It’s from His Honour’s private secretary,” she announced. “He wishes to know the names of the children at Springfield, that invitations may be sent to each one of them for a fancy dress party, and the mothers who would like to come too. And here is my own card already! ‘Miss MacTarn and party.’ Now that is very thoughtful and kind. Excuse me, I must go and make out the list.” She rose and hastened from the room.
“I suppose I shall have to go,” said Mrs. Taylor, shrugging her shoulders. “Mollie would never forgive me if I refused, though I must say I feel inclined to give Lady Rochford a lesson in manners. The idea of herding us all together like that!”
Mrs. Rice laughed; and with mixed feelings the company dissolved to seek their own quarters, tiffin by this time being over.
Annabel was reading to Billie in their private veranda when a little later Miss MacTarn appeared full of pride, flourishing a paper.
I made out the list,” she said, “and here is a copy. I put your name down, Miss Heath, as governess to Billie---Master Cardale. That was all right, I suppose, h’n? You will like to go?”
“Very much; it was good of you to put my name down.”
“I thought---why not? A little fun is good for us all, and we will get a dirzee from the bazaar to make the fancy dresses for the little ones. What will you go as, my Billie?”
“I will not go,” said Billie unexpectedly, and to Annabel’s dismay; “it’s only for girls, dancing and dressing up!”
“Oh! come, come, you must not be so haughty!” remonstrated Miss MacTarn. “All the other boys in the place will be there, some clowns, and some pirates, and kings and soldiers---all sorts, and sure to be presents for each.”
Billie wavered. “Should I get a knife?” he inquired.
“Who knows? Anyway, no fear of getting a doll! How about going as a soldier, red coat and brass buttons!”
Billie assumed an obstinate air; he felt he was being tricked. “I will see,” he said loftily.
Annabel winked surreptitiously at Miss MacTarn.
“That won’t do,” she told Billie. “When people receive kind invitations they must accept or refuse them at once. We had better decide now that you don’t go to the party.”
“If you want to go——” he said, looking up guilefully at Annabel.
“Oh! I don’t mind either way,” she assured him without truth. “You and I could stay at home, and hear all about it afterwards from the others.”
This had the desired effect; Billie caved in ungraciously. “I shall go---and I shall go as a sahib in a black coat with tails, and a white shirt like dad’s.”
Miss MacTarn clapped her hands. “And call yourself a masher!” she cried. “A fine idea!”
Billie swelled with importance. “And a red silk handkerchief,” he added.
“And a buttonhole, and patent leather shoes and white kid gloves,” contributed Miss MacTarn. “My word---you will cut them all out!”
That finished it; Billie beamed, and Annabel felt abased by her triumph. It was humiliating to think that in order to gain her own ends she should have resorted to diplomacy with a child; yet the prospect of a visit to Government House was so tempting that it had been beyond her to let slip the opportunity from ultra-conscientious motives.
Miss MacTarn went off with an understanding smile. Billie scampered away brandishing a net in pursuit of a butterfly. Annabel sat watching him, assailed by an extraordinary conviction, however grotesque, that in spite of all reason and common sense the man she had seen this morning only for the second time in her life was to have some far-reaching influence on her fate; it was as if her very spirit had belonged to him from the instant she had met the steady gaze of his blue eyes. Useless to tell herself she was fatuous, a fool; no amount of such argument availed to shake off the impression, and the memory of her curious dream on that night in the Watsons’ bungalow came back to her---the meeting on the narrow ledge, the precipice, the danger if they had tried to pass each other. Something was at work, something she could not understand and from which there was no escape; at the bottom of her heart she knew she wished for no escape. That woman, his wife, was she soulless and brilliant as the butterfly Billie was chasing? Did he care for her? Did she care for him, or had she snared him with her beauty and her wealth to satisfy her own social ambitions? Annabel recognized that the wish was father to the thought: no matter; sooner or later she would arrive at the exact truth.
Days passed with outward tranquillity; inwardly she counted the hours to the children’s party. Her mornings were spent in teaching Billie, and often his particular friends as well—gorgeous mornings of sunshine and warmth and perfumes that made everything easy; and in the afternoon there were scrambles with the children, and those of their mothers who felt so inclined, up and down the hillsides, picnics, excursions. Two more Sundays came and went, repetitions of the first; the Government House party was royally regular in attendance at morning service, and Annabel feasted her eyes on her idol as he knelt and stood and sat, expressionless, self-contained, by the side of his consort in her exquisite toilettes.
One afternoon she and Billie accompanied Mrs. Taylor and Mollie to a fête organized by Lady Rochford in aid of a hospital for native women. It was held on the polo ground, and people flocked to spend money who would have contributed nothing had a simple subscription list been circulated. All was tents and stalls and amateur side-shows, palmistry, fish ponds, bran pies, gambling games---a fine opportunity, as Mrs. Taylor remarked cynically, for the bigwigs to display zeal in the cause of charity, and for the humble folk to curry favour with them by assisting with officious energy. Pretty girls darted about selling buttonholes, raffling useless articles; young married women pounced on every passer-by, calling attention to wares set out on their stalls; the whole affair was one excited effort, prompted by various motives.
A crowd surrounded one particular stall, the stall presided over by Lady Rochford, dressed in pale pink, radiant, smiling, speaking graciously to each purchaser. Among other things, she was selling signed photographs of the Governor. Annabel left Billie and Mrs. Taylor and Mollie rooting in a gigantic bran pie; she intended to buy one of those photographs.
“You want a portrait of His Honour?” inquired the august saleswoman affably. “But I’m afraid there isn’t one left.” Her voice held no trace of American accent. “Just wait a moment and I’ll make sure.” She delved and searched. “Ah! here is one---the last! There has been such a run on them. How proud he will feel! Five rupees---thank you so much.”
She placed the photo in a large envelope and handed it to Annabel, who laid the money on the stall, and as she did so something in her appearance seemed to arrest Lady Rochford’s attention. She fixed her brilliant dark eyes on the customer.
“Have we met before, or is it that you remind me of someone?” she asked, all smiles and kind condescension.
“No, I don’t think we have met,” faltered Annabel, taken aback; then perceiving her chance she hastened to add boldly before the other could turn her attention elsewhere: “But I believe we have a mutual friend in Mrs. Lynex?”
The finely marked eyebrows were raised as though with an effort of memory. “Mrs. Lynex? Oh! yes, now I remember; Mrs. Lynex, an old friend of my husband’s. I must tell him.”
She bestowed an agreeable little parting nod upon Annabel. Not even Mrs. Lynex could have surpassed such a tactful dismissal; but as Annabel drew back, making way for clamouring purchasers, she was aware that Lady Rochford’s eyes followed her. And of one thing she felt triumphantly certain---next time they met Lady Rochford would remember her.
There came a pause in the general babel. Somebody beat a drum, someone else shouted a command for silence that in time was obeyed; and into a hurriedly cleared space stepped the Governor himself, prepared to address the assemblage.
The strong cultivated voice, so well accustomed to public speaking, rang out on the still air; he held his hat in his hand, his head might have been that of a Roman Emperor, nobly modelled, severe; his well-proportioned figure was full of dignity and force. The short speech, rousing, appealing, held the audience, infused new life into the campaign; and business increased briskly as afterwards he progressed from stall to stall making purchases, followed closely by a pack of admirers, among whom was Annabel Heath drawn as by a magnet, forgetful of Mrs. Taylor and Billie and Mollie, intent on noting his every movement, listening rapturously to the sound of his voice, envying those fortunate beings with whom he paused now and then to converse.
It was only when he was persuaded to disappear, laughing, into the fortune-teller’s tent, and therefore was no longer in sight, that she, so to speak, “came to,” realized that she had allowed herself to yield beyond all bounds to something approaching obsession, had behaved like a hero-worshipping schoolgirl! She could find no sort of excuse when Mrs. Taylor, heated and aggrieved, discovered her standing alone as though in a dream.
“Where on earth did you get to, Miss Heath?” cried the irate lady; “we’ve been hunting for you all over the place. Billie and
Mollie are tired out; it will be long past bedtime when we get back. You owe me two rupees for Billie’s digs in the bran pie, and just look at the rubbish we got. An absolute swindle I call it! What did you buy from Lady Rochford? I took care to keep clear of her net!”
Annabel looked down at the envelope she held in her hand.
“I bought a picture,” she said absent-mindedly.
Annabel felt proud of her young pupil when on the great afternoon he stood in correct evening dress ready to start; even a miniature opera-hat had been contrived in the bazaar and was tucked under his arm. She thought the other children looked commonplace beside him; Mollie Taylor, a fat bundle of blue gauze and spangles, her gilt paper crown already crooked; Jacky Rice, an uncomfortable, self-conscious “Bubbles” in plush and lawn frills; there was a Swiss peasant, a hospital nurse, a Highlander, a sailor, and so forth---a pack of small people, all more or less upset by the lengthy business of preparation, some inclined to tears, others rendered unruly by excitement. Only Billie appeared calm and collected, as though still wishing it to be understood that he was gracing the “tomasha” with his presence under protest, chiefly to please Ann’bel.
As for the grown-ups, they all turned out in their best: Mrs. Taylor and Mrs. Rice wore garden-party confections recently acquired from England, the other mothers had competed locally to the limit of their purses. Miss MacTarn sported a tartan costume, the MacTarn tartan, of course, with a toque composed of feathers and flowers and paste ornaments, a truly astonishing collection; and Annabel felt a crow among the pheasants in her simple black muslin, black lace hat, pale grey gloves and parasol. At the same time, when taking a last look at her reflection in the long mirror fastened to the wall of her bedroom, the effect had not seemed so bad. The frock fitted well, which was more than could be said of Mrs. Taylor’s smart green and white silk straight from London; her hat was softly becoming, and, thank goodness, her hair waved naturally, no ragged wisps stuck out such as drove Mrs. Rice distracted in her efforts to imprison them with a net and invisible hairpins. On the whole, Annabel thought her own appearance would pass muster, even though Mrs. Taylor and Mrs. Rice surveyed her with an ill-concealed satisfaction that was far from encouraging.
Four o’clock---now they all moved off down the mountain-side, dandies ajolt and ajostle, the dandy-men shouting to each other, inclined to race, until the first level was reached; and then began the long slow climb up to Government House, which was an imposing pile on the summit of another hill, to be deposited amid a crowd of arrivals outside a pillared corridor ablaze with scarlet-liveried orderlies and flowering plants. The aide-de-camp received the guests, directed them to the cloak-room, and presently Annabel, grasping Billie by the hand, found herself on the threshold of an ornately furnished species of salon at the extreme end of which she could see Lady Rochford bending and smiling, shaking hands, a regal vision in cream draperies.
But since they made no attempt to push through the throng she and Billie were swept into the adjacent ballroom without having reached their hostess. The band had struck up, dancing had already been started by a few assiduous adults of both sexes, whose exaggerated assumption of jollity, as they pranced to and fro with small children, proclaimed their desire to aid dear Lady Rochford in making things go.
A precocious little girl, dressed as a Columbine, pounced upon Billie and dragged him into the mêlée, while Annabel secured a seat against the wall to watch him, with sympathetic amusement, being bumped about helpless and disgusted among the dancers by his determined partner. The crowd increased, the room filled to bursting; Annabel was soon wedged amid spectators on the long velvet-covered settee, till it would seem impossible for any of them to rise unless they should all agree to do so simultaneously.
“What a delightful picture!” exclaimed her right-hand neighbour, a self-satisfied matron. “There’s my little lot, those three over there; the boys are twins.” She pointed to a trio, Tweedledum and Tweedledee and Alice, who with linked arms were barging across the floor, regardless of the collisions they were causing. “Did you ever see such a sight as the Pratt child! What on earth is she supposed to be?”
A head protruded from the packed row of females. “She is supposed to be a mermaid,” acidly announced the Pratt child’s mother, who happened, unfortunately, to be seated near enough to have overhead the remark. “At any rate, thank goodness, she knows how to behave herself; she is never rough and rude.”
“Who said she was?” retorted the other; and to cloak her discomfiture began to whisper gossip concerning the Pratt family into Annabel’s ear.
“Common people! Papa Pratt is a terror, risen from the ranks, and they say she was a governess.”
Perhaps that accounts for her child’s good manners,” said Annabel serenely; “an ex-governess’s children ought to benefit by their mother’s previous experience.”
“But think of the class!”
“Are governesses necessarily confined to a class? For example, I am a governess myself, and I fail to see why it should put one beyond the pale.”
The parent of Tweedledum, Tweedledee and Alice gave a gasp. “But whose governess are you?” she inquired, as if that might make all the difference. “Not Lady Rochford’s by any chance?”
“No, not Lady Rochford’s. Excuse me, you are sitting on my dress.”
Annabel struggled to her feet; she could bear with this woman no longer; and skirting the ballroom, she made her way to an entrance where she could stand and keep an eye upon Billie, who, having also kept an eye upon Annabel, presently rushed up to her seeking refuge from the merciless Columbine.
“Oh, Ann’bel, do let’s go home!” he besought her.
“Why, Billie, aren’t you enjoying yourself?”
“No, not a bit. I hate dancing. I don’t want a knife. I want to go away——”
“But soon there will be tea,” urged Annabel, “and you’d like to have a balloon, wouldn’t you?” pointing to the ceiling, from which dangled countless coloured balls ready to be dropped at the right moment.
“No, no,” whimpered Billie; “I hate balloons. I hate everything.” Losing all control of his feelings, he set up a howl.
Annabel drew him through the doorway into an empty veranda and knelt down beside him. He flung his arms round her neck. “Take me away from this beastly place!” he roared.
Someone approached, stood looking down on the pair.
“What is the matter?” asked a voice that Annabel recognized, the same voice that had spoken at the fête, the same voice she had heard ask in the lounge of a South Kensington hotel: “Who is that?” And she raised her eyes to meet those of Sir Temple Rochford, deeply blue, concerned for the cause of his small guest’s tribulation.
There was a moment’s pause. Billie ceased wailing, hid his face on Annabel’s shoulder; and a sudden gleam of recollection crossed the Governor’s thin brown face.
“I remember you,” he said simply.
Annabel detached Billie and rose to her feet.
“Mrs. Lynex——” she began with a nervous smile.
“Yes, Mrs. Lynex,” he repeated as if in a dream.
They stood facing each other, Billie clinging awestruck and silent to Annabel’s skirt, while the noise of the band and the revellers in the ballroom poured through the doorway, surrounding them like a flood with an effect of complete isolation.
Again he asked: “What is the matter?”
“Nothing particular, but he thinks he would like to go home, back to Springfield, where we are staying.”
“Miss MacTarn’s boarding-house. This is Billie Cardale.”
“Cardale---of Bijapur---who has lately lost his wife?”
“And you----how do you come to be in India?”
“I came out last cold weather with Mrs. Cardale as Billie’s governess, and I am still looking after him for Mr. Cardale.” She gave the information with a sort of desperate defiance that she could not account for, adding: “My name is Heath, Annabel Heath.”
“I hadn’t forgotten you,” he told her.
An unsteady little laugh escaped her as she answered: “Then you must have a wonderful memory!”
“Not so bad,” he said smiling, and held out his hand to Billie. “Come, boy, and let us give Miss Heath some tea.”
The child yielded obediently, but still clung with his other hand to Annabel, so that the three of them walked abreast along the veranda, avoiding the ballroom, to turn a corner that brought them into a fragrant conservatory where refreshments were laid out; evidently it was a sort of royal enclosure reserved for the household and the more important parents present.
Lady Rochford was there, surrounded by a group of guests; all of them stopped talking directly Sir Temple and his companions appeared. Annabel felt embarrassed, an interloper, and Billie showed symptoms of panic as Lady Rochford came forward.
“Oh, here you are, Temple!” she exclaimed, “that’s all right. I was afraid you had forgotten all about the party.” She regarded Annabel and Billie with an air of benign surprise.
“Who is this dear little boy, and why has he been crying?”
“Let me introduce Miss Heath,” said the Governor. “I have discovered that she is a friend of my old friend, Mrs. Lynex.”
“But of course. So glad to see you again, Miss Heath. You and I met at the fête, didn’t we, when you bought my husband’s portrait, the last I had left! Sir Temple will get you some tea.”
This he did after greeting the rest of the company in turn. Billie was consoled with cakes and an ice. Annabel swallowed a cup of tea, and attempted to escape from the gathering, but Sir Temple intervened.
“Don’t run away,” he said, “I should like a talk---about Mrs. Lynex. Have you heard from her lately?”
Annabel took this as a benevolent desire to set her at her ease, and an unreasonable resentment mingled with the wild pleasure she felt at being in his presence.
“No,” she answered stiffly, “I haven’t heard from her since I left England. She advised me not to come out to India, and I often wish I had taken her advice.”
“Why? Weren’t you happy with the Cardales? He is a very sound sort, but I never met his wife.”
“Oh, I can’t explain.”
“Not at this moment, perhaps.” He paused, then added gently: “You must tell me another time.”
Annabel’s lips trembled; she could not speak; the genuine sympathy in his voice completely disarmed her. He turned away tactfully, giving her the chance, as she divined, to recover her self-control; and at that moment Lady Rochford made a move.
“Now, come along, everybody,” she cried. “We must go and look after the little people. Temple, remember we have to give the prizes for the best fancy dresses.”
She drove him before her; the company followed, eager, deferential, and Annabel was left with Billie at the tail of the procession. Billie, now fortified by ices and cakes, elected to remain till the end, and a delirious hour followed: a march past by all the children after tea, presents and prizes and balloons, games and more dancing. Annabel watched it all from among a crowd of parents and nurses and governesses in the background.
When the time came for farewells the children took turns by themselves, some propelled forward, coached to say thank you, others ready enough to display their good manners. The Springfield party found each other by degrees, gathered their tired, excited little flock together, and for a space a hectic struggle ensued, first in the cloakroom, then in the front premises---pandemonium---a seething mass of dandies and rickshaws, natives yelling abuse, buffeting, fighting in their efforts to get forward with their conveyances.
“Shocking bad management, I call it!” complained Mrs. Taylor. “That A.D.C. ought to be ashamed of himself. I feel quite faint with standing about like this.”
“After all, it’s no worse than a garden-party at Buckingham Palace,” said Mrs. Rice. “I remember the job we had to get away when I went to one.”
This reminiscence incensed Mrs. Taylor, who could not lay claim to a like experience. “But, of course,” she bluffed with a superior air, “the garden-parties are different from the Courts.” Thus effectually silencing Mrs. Rice, who was half led to believe that Mrs. Taylor might have attended a Court, in which case the less said on the subject the better.
Annabel listened to this little wrangle with faint amusement. How silly these women were; why should they want to get the better of each other in such contemptible fashion; what a narrow world must be theirs! Yet perhaps in a measure they were to be envied---it must be the result of smooth passages through life, no storms, no fears for the future, else surely they would not be so petty-minded! She stood wrapped in her thoughts, heedless of the noise and the delay, inhaling the scent of flowers, noting the stupendous view of the snows, so eternal, so endless, the tall fir trees etched against the mountainous background in the fading sunset. . . . Apart from it all she was conscious of an immense satisfaction; she felt there was something to come, something that might solace her for all the struggle and poverty and emptiness of her past life. The conviction was borne in upon her with the recollection of a man’s kind blue eyes, the echo of his voice: “You must tell me another time. . . .”
A touch on her arm aroused her from her dream; she looked round to behold the smiling countenance of her board-ship friend, Mrs. Harrison.
“So it is really you, Miss Heath! What a nice surprise! I thought I caught a glimpse of you in the throng, but wasn’t quite sure. I came up last week; I’m at The Grand.” She looked down at a small boy at her side: “This thing’s mother is ill, so I took her place and brought him to the show. Where are you staying? When can we meet?”
Annabel had only time to express her delight give Mrs. Harrison her address before the Springfield dandies were rushed up, and there was nothing for it but to pack into her own at once. With Billie on her lap she was carried off, caring little for the general stampede, the rough jolting, the perilous squash against the railings as the men raced down the hill still shouting, still endeavouring to outstrip all the others with their burdens. Had not the afternoon supplied sufficient compensation for bruised limbs and tired nerves to any extent!
Billie, though crumpled and dishevelled, was in high good humour; he had managed to obtain a knife by exchanging his present, a box of bricks, with another boy, and the success of this deal filled him with glee.
“I said if he didn’t give me the knife I would punch him!” he told Annabel. “He was smaller than me. But I’m sure he wanted the bricks, so that wasn’t selfish of me, was it, Ann’bel?”
Annabel had her doubts on this point, but she concealed them with a guilty knowledge that she did so because her own affairs were too engrossing to allow of argument concerning Billie’s conduct. He accepted her silence as a sop to his conscience, though he suspected that she had hardly attended to his question, and he took advantage of her abstraction to sharpen the knife on the sides of the dandy till he grew sleepy and passed the rest of the journey with his head resting heavily on her shoulder.
Once the children were in bed the elders sat down to their evening meal, during which every detail of the afternoon was discussed. Much interest was displayed over the fact that Miss Heath and Billie had been admitted to the conservatory.
“We saw you coming away with the Inner Circle!” announced Miss MacTarn, to whom such a privilege accorded to a Springfield inmate was a sort of reflected glory; there was no jealous afterthought in her tone.
“Sounds like the Underground,” said Mrs. Rice with an envious giggle. “Baker Street, via South Kensington, etc. How did you manage to get there, may we ask, or is it a secret?”
“I couldn’t help myself,” replied Annabel. “Billie seemed overcome, and I had to get him out of the ballroom. The Governor came along and found us in the veranda and just took us with him to the conservatory for tea.”
That was just like him!” cried Miss Mac-Tarn fervently. “He is kindness itself. You have only to look at him to know it.”
Annabel resisted a mischievous inclination to mention casually that she and Sir Temple had met in England, and allow them all to imagine anything they liked; on what a pinnacle of importance such a piece of information would have placed her!
“Oh, I see,” said Mrs. Taylor, much relieved. “Well, and did Lady Rochford take any notice of you?”
“Not much, but she was polite.”
“So she was to me. She noticed Mollie and asked her how old she was, and said she was just the same age as her own younger little girl. I shouldn’t be surprised if Mollie was asked up there to play with the Government House children. I’m not sure if I should let her go. I didn’t quite like the look of the governess, a nasty cross sort of creature. Did you spot her, Miss Heath?”
“No, I can’t say I did. Which was she?”
“A person with pince-nez and fuzzy hair. I feel sure the children are afraid of her, I noticed they kept out of her way. That is the drawback of English governesses and nurses out here, it’s so difficult to get rid of them if they aren’t satisfactory.”
“Perhaps,” said Annabel mildly, “it may be equally difficult for English governesses and nurses to get out of situations that don’t suit them.”
Mrs. Taylor refrained from retort, possibly because she realized that to get the wrong side of Miss Heath might curtail conveniences for herself. It would be tiresome if Mollie were debarred from sharing Billie’s lessons, or if Miss Heath refused to take charge of the child when her mother desired freedom to keep some social engagement.
“There are two sides to every question, of course,” she said sententiously with an ingratiating smile.
“Miss Gray, Lady Rochford’s governess, is leaving,” put in Mrs. Rice; “she told me so this afternoon. She and I had quite a long talk. My friend the private secretary introduced us. I think she is a nice woman.”
General attention was instantly diverted from Miss Heath; here was something of far greater interest, more satisfying to curiosity. Questions were shot from every mouth at the table save Annabel’s.
“Why is she leaving?”
Is she being dismissed?”
“Doesn’t she like Lady Rochford?” Are the children unmanageable?” Doesn’t she get on with the nurse?”
Mrs. Rice preened herself. “Well, she didn’t ask me not to repeat it——”
A pause holding such pressure of suspense that Mrs. Rice succumbed.
“She can’t put up with Lady Rochford’s temper. She said it was diabolical.”
“Oh, surely that is not true!” exclaimed Miss MacTarn.
Mrs. Rice shrugged her shoulders. “That was what she said, and she wonders how Sir Temple stands it; but he can’t escape, while Miss Gray can, and she means to. It seems there was a row this morning, something to do with the party. Miss Gray was asked by Lady Rochford to see to some matter that was altogether outside her duties. Poor thing, she almost cried when she spoke of it. She asked me if I knew of anyone who wanted a governess. I think I do---friends of mine at Simla, and I promised I would write to them.”
Mrs. Taylor remarked that for her part she should not care to undertake such a responsibility. Supposing Miss Gray did not suit Mrs. Rice’s friends at Simla?
Annabel did not wait to hear the end of this conversation which had supplied her with such an agitating idea that she felt she must ponder over it undisturbed; and as she sat alone in her little veranda, thankful for the darkness and the privacy, she began to picture herself succeeding Miss Gray at Government House---an extravagant scheme, but not altogether impossible though there was much in the way. . . . Miss Gray might change her mind and remain with the Rochfords; on her own side, it would be difficult to break with William Cardale; Billie could be taken over by Miss MacTarn till the cold weather, or indeed for any period, but what about the understanding she had rashly allowed herself to enter into with Billie’s father, who was “content to wait!” If only she had withheld all encouragement, kept free, resisted the temptation to secure solid safety. . . . Yet how could she have foreseen the meeting with her heart’s idol that now had rendered her reckless, indifferent to everything save the overwhelming desire to be near him, untrammelled, heedless of consideration for the future---it was a sort of toxin that she felt utterly unable to fight. . . . Next month William Cardale would be coming up to Pahari on ten days’ leave. He had written to her occasionally, bald businesslike letters, but she had read between the lines; she knew he was only sticking to their compact, leaving things to her she was terribly to blame. . . . And to whom could she turn for advice? No one, unless she attempted to extract it from Mrs. Harrison; in desperation she made up her mind to do so.
Therefore, next morning, after a sleepless night, Annabel proclaimed a holiday with the valid excuse that no child could be expected to settle to lessons after the previous day’s excitement; and taking Billie with her she set off for the Grand Hotel.
Mrs. Harrison was at home, cordial, genuinely glad to see her. Billie was soon provided with amusement, several other children were at play in the veranda, and the two friends were free to talk. But when notes had been compared as to their doings since the parting at Bombay, Annabel shirked the confidence she had come prepared to impart. Mrs. Harrison would only urge sensible action once in possession of the truth, advise her to conquer this mad infatuation, to marry William Cardale, or seek some post that would take her far from Pahari in another Province. Why ask for counsel unless willing to follow it? She shrank from exposure of her weakness, and found herself taking a mean advantage of William Cardale’s intentions.
“He wants to marry me,” she said after preliminary explanations that did not touch on the underlying truth, “and I was very stupid not to make it clear at the time that I could never accept him. He is coming up soon. I shall have to disappoint him, and that means looking out for some other engagement.”
“But why did you hesitate to begin with?” probed Mrs. Harrison. “Surely it would have been quite easy to tell him that though you were ready to take the child to the hills, you could give the man no hope?”
“He was in such a state of mind. And I must admit that at the moment I did consider the possibility of marrying him. It seemed a way out. But now I feel I couldn’t.”
“I see.” Mrs. Harrison wrinkled her forehead thoughtfully. “Couldn’t you write quite frankly? That might put him off, stop his coming?”
“I don’t believe it would, but I suppose I ought to write and warn him that it’s no good. If I could only get away from Springfield before he comes! Billie would be all right with Miss MacTarn and Abdul; he’d soon forget me.
“I’d ask you to come and stay with me, but I m only up here for a short time, and then we are going home. I came out just for the cold weather, to pack up and sell things. We were to have sailed in March, but Edward’s retirement was postponed for a few weeks, some official hitch, and the heat was so awful I bolted up here.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean to hint——” began Annabel apologetically.
“No, no, of course I understand. But I wish I could think of something.”
“Do you happen to know the Rochfords?” Annabel asked. To what depths of infamy had she fallen! “I believe their governess is leaving.”
“That would be the very thing!” exclaimed Mrs. Harrison. “I hardly know Lady Rochford, but my husband is an old friend of Sir Temple’s. I’m dining at Government House tonight. I’ll see what I can do.”
“That would be good of you. Of course, I don’t know for certain that Miss Gray means to go, but perhaps you could find out.”
“Yes, and put in a word for you if there’s likely to be a vacancy. At the same time, my dear, I can’t help saying I think you may be throwing away a lot in refusing Mr. Cardale. It isn’t as if you were a very young girl, or had prospects in the future to rely upon. What sort is he---the Cardale man---steady, dependable?”
“Yes, all that, and we are friends. He is uncouth, difficult in a way.”
“What does that matter? Minor drawbacks don’t count once a man belongs to you. Edward is bad-tempered and perverse, and he snores, but he’s faithful and kind-hearted and doesn’t drink or gamble, and I’ve never repented marrying him, though between ourselves I wasn’t in love with him. As long as there’s nobody else one decent man is as good as another. If you are heart-whole you’ll be a fool to let slip this chance; and even if you aren’t, provided the outlook is hopeless, better take what the gods offer, but once taken put your back into it, and play fair. That’s only cricket.”
It all sounded so judicious, so rational, if cold-blooded. Annabel could not pluck up courage to tell the truth, to admit there was someone else, someone far beyond her reach; that though the outlook was certainly hopeless she doubted her own power to take the course advised by her friend.
“But when you married your husband, was there someone else?” she inquired timidly.
“Well, since you ask me, there was.”
“And you have been able to forget?”
“No, I have never forgotten; one doesn’t. But one can leave it all behind, and make the most of present mercies. As I told you, I have never regretted my marriage, and I don’t think from what I know of you and from what you say about Mr. Cardale, that you would repent marrying him. The whole thing rests on one’s conception of ‘give and take.’ If you can’t have all you want, and are prepared to take what you can get, then you must also be ready to give---and do it all along the line.”
“But ought one to start by owning up that there was somebody else?”
“Not necessarily. Your past is your own, and you wouldn’t expect the man to reveal his.”
Viewing the situation in this light Annabel took thought, almost determined to do battle with sentiment and romance, however strongly arrayed against common sense. This communing with one who had gone through the mill and proved it worth while, gave her courage; everything seemed easier as she looked into Mrs. Harrison’s calm, handsome face, and saw how moral backbone and prudence had been rewarded. She thought of the few times she had seen the man she almost worshipped; he was ignorant of her homage which, even could it come to his knowledge, would seem to him merely a pitiable obsession to be ignored with perhaps kindly contempt. No doubt lots of women had adored him.
What a fool, what a fool to contemplate the sacrifice of solid advantages for the sake of a hopeless impossible dream---yet a dream that dominated and distorted her whole outlook. A sentence she had come across in some book floated through her mind: “The only temptations we have are those we yield to.” Why couldn’t she be strong enough to refuse yieldance? She had only to say: “Look here, Mrs. Harrison, I’ve not been open with you; the truth is, I’m in love with Sir Temple Rochford. I can’t help it. Don’t do anything about getting me Miss Gray’s place. I’ll marry William Cardale and make him a good wife, never looking back. Thank you for your advice, I’ll follow it.”
She braced her will to utter the words, and to regard them as a species of vow not to be broken; but even as she parted her lips to speak, clamour arose in the veranda and perforce she darted out to find Billie struggling fiercely with another boy for the recovery of his treasured knife, while an audience of small people danced screaming around the combatants. The raging pair were soon separated, the knife was restored to its owner, who, panting and crimson, was hauled into Mrs. Harrison’s sitting-room to be pacified. That put an end to private converse, moreover, time was getting on.
“We must go at once,” said Annabel, looking at the clock, “or be late for luncheon, and that is an unpardonable sin according to Springfield laws.”
“Why not stay and have luncheon with me?”
Annabel declined the invitation, making specious excuses---Billie was accustomed to have a rest after his principal meal, Miss MacTarn would fuss, and wonder what had become of them, and so on---the truth being that she wished to evade giving definite assurance with regard to her own future; and in all ignorance of this, Mrs. Harrison stood beside the dandy while her visitors settled themselves into it.
“Well, good-bye for the present,” she said. “I’ll find out about Miss Gray and let you know.”
The men hoisted the dandy to their shoulders, began to move. For an instant Annabel wavered; it was not too late to call out: “No, don’t do anything. I’ll follow your advice.” Instead, she nodded and smiled gratefully and was borne off.
All the way back to Springfield she argued falsely with herself that silence had not necessarily committed her to any decision, that it was only right to take time and think everything over before making up her mind. Mrs. Harrison’s inquiries could do no harm. Her thoughts seemed to jolt and jerk through her brain with every movement of the dandy. Supposing she were offered Miss Gray’s post, she could still refuse it. Why hesitate to marry William Cardale?
There was nothing in the way, nothing real, nothing that couldn’t be overcome---only a mad desire to indulge in a hopeless adoration unfettered by duty or obligation to anyone but herself. Nobody need ever know; she did not care what happened provided she could hear one man’s voice, look into his blue eyes. It was as if she had been smitten by some incurable malady through no fault of her own.
She felt exhausted by the time they reached Springfield, the strain of her thoughts seemed to have affected her physically as well as mentally; she had no appetite for roast mutton, rice pudding and stewed prunes, no energy left to join in the conversation. The company irritated her with their cheerfulness, their little natural interests. If only they would leave her alone. But Miss MacTarn was concerned because Miss Heath was “off her feed”; Mrs. Taylor wanted to know where she and Billie had been. “We looked everywhere for you,” she said reproachfully, “but you had disappeared off the face of the earth.”
“I went to see a friend at the Grand Hotel.”
“The friend who spoke to you when we were trying to get away from Government House? I noticed her, such a nice-looking woman.”
“Yes,” and forestalling further questions Annabel added rapidly: “We came out together on board ship, her name is Mrs. Harrison, her husband is retiring, and they are going home very soon.”
The nervous irritation in her voice caused Mrs. Rice to fix her eyes on Miss Heath with a certain sympathetic attention; and when they all rose from the table she pursued Annabel, overtaking her on the threshold of her room.
“My dear, don’t think me interfering, but you look played out. I know lately we have all been taking advantage of your good nature without making any return, and I’m sure it would do you good to have the afternoon to yourself. Let me take Billie off your hands for once; he can come and lie down in my room with Jacky, and I’ll look after him till his bedtime.”
Annabel choked; here was real kindness, the sort of kindness that drew people together in exile, irrespective of type or character. It was a tiny example, yet none the less indicative of the great spirit that throughout the centuries of British rule in India had upheld the ties of nationality.
“Oh, thank you,” she faltered. “But are you sure it won’t bother you.”
Luckily the programme met with Billie’s approval. Jacky Rice did not possess a knife, but he owned a box of tools which he guarded with jealous care. Billie had long ached to finger the contents, and here was an opportunity not to be lost. At the same time he had no intention of loaning his knife in return. The battle of the morning was still too fresh in his mind; he darted through the open door of the bedroom, thrust the knife under his pillow and returned grinning complacently. Billie had inherited his mother’s selfish tendencies, but Annabel, who had observed and understood this little manœuvre, was in no mood to preach virtue; it would, she felt grimly, be a case of the proverbial pot and kettle! Perhaps by the evening she would have schooled herself into righteous behaviour, and might then reproach Billie without consciousness of hypocrisy.
Mrs. Rice and the child went off together conversing amicably, and once alone in her room Annabel wandered about, setting things straight, unable to decide whether she would remain indoors or go out. The quiet of the room was no solace, rather it increased her distress; movement seemed necessary, and the space was not sufficient for her restlessness; an indescribable sense of solitude overwhelmed her, and with a desperate desire to walk herself weary she put on her hat and set off, making for a mountain path in the distance that led she did not know, or care, where. The afternoon was all before her; on she tramped, leaving every vestige of habitation behind her. The air felt hot and moist, angry black clouds were massing over a further range of hills, and the snows rose in a jagged white line above them like spurts of foam tossed up from the crests of great waves; a growl of thunder rolled echoing through the valleys. Was this a casual storm or a forerunner of the monsoon? Monsoon---to Annabel the word held a lurid clangorous sound, so much more descriptive of the coming deluge that would continue on and off for the space of three months than “the rainy season,” as Miss MacTarn termed it, and which she seemed to consider was an infliction designed by Providence to test the patience of housekeepers. “All so damp, servants down with fever, meat going bad, scorpions about, everybody staying indoors.”
The thought of such imprisonment at Springfield depressed Annabel still further. She hurried on regardless of the approaching clouds ripped with forked lightning, and the shortening intervals between the thunderclaps. The whole atmosphere fitted in with her chaotic state of mind; she almost welcomed the sharp pain caused by the little stones beneath her feet on the dangerously narrow path; one false step would send her hurtling down the precipice. But she felt no fear, and when presently she plunged into a thick mist and became drenched with rain that fell blinding, relentless, it was only the physical instinct of self-preservation that drove her to crouch against the rocky hillside. Cold and numb she submitted to the discomfort, to the roar of the storm, the heavy persistent downpour that soaked her to the skin. Until the mist cleared she must stay where she was; at present it was so dense that she could not even discern the edge of the track though it was only a yard or two from her feet---useless to try and grope her way back; if she fell over the ledge death was not certain, it might mean lingering in agony, maimed and defenceless, at the mercy of leopards, bears, the fierce birds of prey she had often seen soaring high up in the sky on the watch for carrion below. The beasts would tear her to pieces, the birds would peck out her eyes.
A petulant rage assailed her. There was no moderation, no balance in India; everything was so devastating, so extreme, on such a gigantic scale. Compared with the Himalayas even the Alps were mere hillocks! And this violent rain, this diabolical thunder and lightning; she could never have imagined anything so terrific. As she sank into semi-consciousness recollections of plates in an old-fashioned Bible slid through her mind; a struggling mass of human beings and animals, united by one common terror, collected together on the sides of a mountain, menaced by a vast flood; the scene illumined by an unearthly conflagration from, above---The End of the World.
Sheltering in a squat little forest rest-house built on a platform sliced from the shoulder of the hill, Sir Temple Rochford watched the storm’s progress. When he could claim the leisure it was his favourite walk---out to this remote spot---drawn by the solitude and the spell of the scenery; here he might feel free, for a space, from the problems of administration and could think of his private work. Many pages of the new book he was engaged upon had been penned in the silence of this blessed retreat. He was collecting legends, particulars of ancient Eastern rites, magic, bewitchments, endeavouring to throw new light on those mysterious inner beliefs that attribute nothing evil to natural causes, assigning death and disease and disaster to the caprice or malevolence of countless gods. An engrossing subject---the history of nature worship in India, from the advent of a warlike yet pastoral people to whom the elements as well as every material object were animated by some mighty internal spirit upon which their welfare depended. A lofty conception, free from idolatry, that yet became tainted with elemental practices and beliefs due to intermingling with aboriginal races until all purer thought and wisdom, handed down by word of mouth for centuries, remained in the possession of the few; while the rank and file sank corrupted by the influence of fear, culminating in the question---was it not wiser to propitiate devils that were not angered so much by disbelief as neglect, rather than pay attention to benevolent spirits who could be relied upon to work no evil?
Viewing the lightning playing over the mountain tops, the white mist rolling along the valleys, the great snowy summits reared high in the heavens, listening to the continuous cannonade of the thunder, Temple Rochford could well understand the feeling of awe and reverence that must have filled the souls of those early invaders; and as the storm swept by like a giant army in retreat, he could almost vision Indra with his mighty weapons driving the demons before him, whirling along in his chariot, overthrowing the piled-up masses of cloud palaces and cities, to vanish in a blaze of celestial splendour.
As the sun burst forth triumphantly he stepped out on to the ledge of level ground overlooking the valley; the air was filled with the sound of torrents arush down clefts in the mountain side, a pæan of rejoicing. Rocks and trees and vegetation dripped and sparkled in the victorious sunshine. Elated with the sense of glory in the atmosphere he started homeward, descending cautiously the rock-strewn zig-zag pathway that led to the track below; and as he reached the track below he came upon a drenched and shivering female figure, creeping forlornly along, hugging the hillside, exhausted by the violence and the terror of the storm.
At first he failed to recognize the soaked, bedraggled being so unexpectedly encountered; then a pair of golden-brown eyes set in the scared white face brought remembrance.
“Good Heavens---Miss Heath! What are you doing here?”
“I---came out---for a walk,” she stammered, her heart beating wildly with joy and relief.
“And got caught in the storm! I wish I had known. You could have sheltered with me in the forest bungalow.”
She followed his glance to the squat little building overhead. If only she had observed it sooner, could have passed the time safely and happily in his company, fit to be seen---not the pitiful object she knew she must present to his gaze. Her clothes clung wet to her limbs, her hair was in disorder, her hat a mere pulp; and now to make matters worse she turned faint, felt she was swaying helplessly. The sun blinded her, the sound of rushing water deadened her hearing, yet above it all she was conscious of a supporting arm, a blessed sense of protection, and she struggled back to self-control, gasping, ashamed of her collapse, revived by a kindly voice that bade her take courage, putting new life into her spirit.
“There, that’s better,” he said cheerily, “just sit down for a bit and get warm in the sun. Here’s a slab of rock---the very thing.”
In a space the two sat silent, steeped in the hot moist sunshine. From afar rose the song of some hill-man journeying to his village; an eagle pursued its tranquil flight overhead in the blue brightness of the sky that was flecked with fleecy wisps of cloud. A resinous odour floated from the pine trees; crickets shrilled from their hiding-places, rivulets made music apelt down the precipices. A vast spirit of serenity and contentment spread abroad; all was beatific, radiant.
Annabel took off her hat, ran her fingers through her damp hair that sprang up in shining waves responsive to welcome warmth. Temple Rochford noted its natural beauty as he watched the quick movements of her little hands; and when presently she looked up at him, half laughing, half apologetic, the light in her eyes stirred his heart with a curious sensation that seemed to blot out his past life, his public position, his responsibilities. He realized now that this same feeling had faintly assailed him when he first beheld her in the lounge of a London hotel, impelling him to inquire who she was as she had flitted towards the doorway to disappear from his sight; it had come upon him again when discovering her in a side veranda of Government House engaged in comforting a small boy---how sweet she had looked, how tender! And she had endured trials, struggle, poverty, loneliness; he recalled what information he had extracted from Mrs. Lynex concerning the girl’s history. The old lady, agog to probe into his own domestic affairs, had supplied a hasty outline of Miss Heath’s circumstances, adding that as an old family friend she had been warning the silly creature against proceeding to India in the service of people she knew nothing about. The conversation came back to him; Mrs. Lynex had said: “But nowadays you might just as well talk to the air as to young people. If she wants to go, she will. Anyway, I have given her sound advice and five pounds. I couldn’t do more. Perhaps your wife is on the look-out for a governess?”
But Zara, he had explained, was already suited with some protégée of her own, though if he heard of anyone else——
“Oh, there’s no need to bother your head about Annabel Heath, my dear Temple. With her looks and her spirit that girl will fall on her feet sooner or later. If she doesn’t, it will be her own fault. Now tell me——”
There had followed an avalanche of questions relating to Zara’s fortune, her late husband, the claims of the two children on their father’s estate, what his own financial position would be should “anything happen to Zara,” and so on---all of which he had parried more or less successfully, his thoughts the whole time centred upon the slim, black-clad figure that had passed him with a swift glance, impressing her personality on his mind, indelibly, unaccountably.
Now with a jerk he brought his attention back to the present. The girl was here, alone with him, tempting, disturbing, a menace to his sense of rectitude and discretion. At all costs he must overcome this humiliating weakness. That a man of his age and achievements should be mastered by an attraction such as he had never experienced in his life before was unthinkable, not for a moment would he admit such a possibility; yet had he not already recognized the danger, as if it were preordained, beyond his control? Annabel! For just a brief interval he yielded to the intoxication of his emotions; the pine trees lifting their perfumed branches after the storm seemed to breathe of it; the scent of moist earth, the joy of the keen mountain air, the sight of the snows in their glittering magnificence. His world seemed strangely transformed; no longer was he the Governor of a great Province, no longer the husband of a rich and beautiful woman devoted to his interests; his mind was in tumult; the only saving grace of the situation lay in the fact that his companion was totally ignorant of his mad feelings---and must remain ignorant, else should she find herself drawn to him as he felt drawn towards her, what hope could there be for either of them!
With a mighty effort he rose; his eyes were only kind, his voice no more than humane, as he suggested that they should start homeward. It was well for Annabel that no hint of passion lay in his look or his tone, that she could not know how his heart was throbbing, how beneath his calm exterior flickered a flame that firm resolution must quench. Well for him, too, that he could not divine the slavish adoration that filled Annabel’s being, causing her to revel in his presence, to forget everything else.
Side by side they walked along the narrow pathway, and he talked about the book he was writing, while she drank in his every word, feeling one with the beauty and the grandeur about her, uplifted from all petty details of existence into a plane of bliss. She told him how much she had enjoyed reading his books.
“When did you come across them?” he asked with that species of pleased interest aroused in the breast of an author by appreciation from an admirer, however humble.
“Mr. Cardale had them all, he lent them to me.”
The very mention of William Cardale clouded her happiness. Why should his name have cropped up in this hour of delight, reminding her of the decision that lay before her? She tried to thrust all thought of the future from her mind, walked on in mute rebellion, hardly hearing Sir Temple’s comments concerning Cardale’s value as a district official.
“There are too few of his sort out here nowadays,” he was saying, and his voice seemed to Annabel far away. “I’ve watched his work for years, he never shoves himself forward, just goes on quietly giving his heart and soul to India. He ought to have a big job, but I doubt if he’d take it. He’s refused more than one already, I know. That kind of man hates big stations; I can sympathize, for I hate them myself, but luckily I have a wife who doesn’t, which in my case eases matters considerably. What was Mrs. Cardale like? Was she a help or a hindrance to him?”
Surprised at Annabel’s lack of response, he went on: “I’m not asking out of curiosity, but, of course, don’t tell me if you feel it would be any breach of confidence.”
She forced herself to reply. “Oh, no; it’s only that it’s rather difficult to describe. She wasn’t suited to him at all, they never understood each other. He felt that so dreadfully when she died.”
“I see.” He relapsed into thoughtful silence; and an awful suspicion seized her that he might be imagining all sorts of things, picturing an illicit attraction between herself and William Cardale!
In truth the idea had entered his mind, causing a sharp pang of jealousy, yet bringing a certain sense of relief. Were she and Cardale in love with each other, intending to marry! that would effectually remove all temptation from his path.
“Is he coming up here?” he asked, and added hastily: “To see the child?”
“I think so, I don’t know yet.” Then she burst out involuntarily: “But I hope he won’t.”
He did not ask her why, and his silence convinced her that he divined some delicate situation, but had no intention of inviting her confidence. After all, what could it matter to him why she hoped that her present employer would not visit Pahari in order to see his boy? It would seem an impertinence on her part to reveal the facts, a taking advantage of this chance meeting and his kindliness, above all in view of the social gulf that lay between them. As it was she felt she had presumed, and in consequence had been gently snubbed. Now perhaps she had put a spoke in her own wheel should Miss Gray really be leaving Government House. Despite Mrs. Harrison’s recommendation Sir Temple might well consider her unsuitable as governess to his step-children were the matter referred to him---a woman mixed up in some discreditable affair with one of his most valued officials! What a fool she had been to utter those words! There was no recalling them, but desperately she essayed to efface the impression she feared they must have conveyed to him.
“When I said I hoped Mr. Cardale wouldn’t come up, I only meant that it might increase his sense of loneliness when he got back, make things harder for him.”
“Poor fellow!” he replied vaguely.
Reassurance stole into her heart; she had been making a mountain of a mole-hill, but the molehill remained to torture her imagination; and as they came within sight of Springfield all the glow and enchantment dropped away, the warmth and brightness seemed to die out of the sun, which indeed had begun to sink behind the hills. She shivered, felt feeble and wretched, bereft of energy and confidence.
Somebody was standing in front of the house that still lay some distance below, probably Miss MacTarn on the look out for her. Annabel halted resolutely at the point where the main paths diverged; no one could have recognized her companion at that range, and she shrank from any possible implication of a desire to flaunt the fact that the Governor had been her escort.
“Here is the parting of our ways, I think,” she said, holding out her hand. “I can’t thank you enough “
“What for?” He had halted too, and she realized with resignation that he was accepting her farewell as a matter of course. There was no need for him to see her any farther---unless he had wanted to do so! No doubt he was glad to get rid of her.
“For doing the good Samaritan, of course, and then for a very delightful walk and talk!”
He smiled politely. “I owe the storm thanks for your company, and I only hope you won’t suffer from the wetting.”
“I’m sure I shan’t,” she said with an artificial little laugh; and stepped past him and down the broader road that boasted railings and secure foothold, feeling that in a measure she had regained her pride, made clear that she had not expected him to trouble about her any longer, whether it had been in his mind to do so or not. She was glad she had taken the initiative at the right moment, guarded against the humiliation of dismissal. Not once did she look back, though the temptation was strong.
Had she yielded to it she would have seen him sauntering along apparently indifferent to her progress, but in reality he was watching it furtively ready, should she turn, to quicken his pace that she should not be aware of his observance. It was, he felt, an almost childish precaution; he tried to shake off the sense of perfidy it produced in him. Then he sped along, haunted by the vision of a slim solitary figure that he knew held a courageous spirit.
That night there was a large dinner-party at Government House. Sir Temple, of course, took in the senior lady, spouse to his Chief Secretary; she was a tiresome person, full of self-importance, bent on discussing political questions, yet while she professed to be in favour of Indian self-government, she was obviously annoyed to find a Mohammedan official seated on her other side, being one of those people who fail to practise what they preach. Aware of her views, it amused Rochford to notice the way in which she ignored her Oriental neighbour.
“Ask Mr. Mahommed Ishak what he thinks,” was his cunning reply to her question concerning the release of a Hindu agitator lately arrested, and left the lady disconcerted, silent for the time being, while he turned to the one on his left, who was the wife of an old friend.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Harrison, “we are retiring. Edward belongs to the old school, he feels he can’t cope with the reforms, he hates losing the confidence of the people, but he realizes that now it can’t be helped, and he would rather be out of it all before anything dreadful happens.”
“Well, he has done excellent service in his time, and no one can blame him in the circumstances for wanting to go.”
“Oh, Sir Temple!” she exclaimed, a catch in her voice. “What will happen to India? The future fills one with such awful misgiving.”
“It is partly due,” he said slowly, “to a form of insular conceit---to the ideas of certain people who cannot divest their minds of the conviction that we British are all powerful in the world, and these people, it seems to me, have fallen a prey to influences that have pandered to their blind vanity. Were we as paramount as they imagine, it would be right to concede independence to races we are supposed to govern; but other powers exist, and if we don’t guard against their strength and their aims they will destroy us, together with the races we have hitherto been able to protect.”
He pulled himself up, felt he had said too much, felt also that the wife of Edward Harrison might reasonably inquire why he remained the paid servant of such mistaken authorities. He followed her glance down the length of the brilliant dinner-table ashine with silver and cut glass and a wealth of flowers, to the figure of his wife, handsome, agreeable, exquisitely dressed; he wondered what Mrs. Harrison would think if she knew the truth---that in marrying Zara he had yielded to ambition, that affection, though it existed, had not been his chief motive; Zara’s money had enabled him to take the box seat of this particular official coach, rendering him independent of political pressure, free to pursue any course he might deem advantageous to the Province he ruled. It would have been quite a different matter had he married a penniless widow with two children. Zara and the children were financially secure in the event of his having to choose between resignation from office and the operation of some extreme policy opposed to his sense of justice and good faith. What a curse conscience could be, arguing, clamouring, for no concrete reason! It had been the same this afternoon when he encountered that girl on the hillside after the storm, blaming him for the interest he felt in her welfare, for the (of course) fleeting attraction she held for him. And then, as if in telepathic answer to this trend of his thoughts, Mrs. Harrison began to talk about unexpected meetings in India.
How the subject started he hardly knew, any more than he knew that Mrs. Harrison had started it designedly, with a question concerning the identity of some guest seated further down the table. He heard her saying: “It’s extraordinary how we all meet sooner or later. Only yesterday I came across a board-ship friend at your children’s party---Miss Heath, such a nice girl. Is it true that Lady Rochford’s governess is leaving? If so, I am sure she couldn’t do better than secure Miss Heath, who I happen to know is on the look out for another engagement.”
“Thank you,” he said, after a pause. “I believe there is some idea of a change. You might tell my wife about Miss Heath after dinner.”
Now what had possessed him? Why on earth hadn’t he thrown cold water on the suggestion at once, instead of encouraging it? If Zara fell in with the idea, if Annabel Heath became an inmate of Government House—— Then he began to defend himself. What reason could he have put forward against Mrs. Harrison’s recommendation of her friend? Why should he fear the consequences if the girl were under his roof? Surely he was man enough to resist her unaccountable attraction; indeed, it was more likely that propinquity would prove a remedy; the very fact that she occupied a position in the household would raise a barrier sufficiently strong to preclude the slightest intimacy. And even should he come to know her better, the chances were he would discover that her qualities fell short of the estimate he had formed of them. For all he could tell she might be shallow, frivolous, or, on the other hand, crafty, designing, only anxious to further her own fortunes by whatever means lay in her power; in that case she might try to make up to him, try to inveigle him into apparent delinquencies under cover of confidences. Undoubtedly there had been something between her and Cardale, but to what extent he could only conjecture; she had given him a hint of this, whether purposely or otherwise. Well, whatever happened he felt forewarned, though the very forewarning brought a sense of humiliation---that he, who had always been so austere, so aloof from sex-attraction, so much in command of his feelings, should fear the influence of an insignificant girl blown across his path by circumstances over which he had had no control! It was preposterous; he refused to fear; and fortified by this defiant resolve he reminded Mrs. Harrison, when they all rose from the table, of her promise to tell his wife that Miss Heath was available for the post of governess to his two little stepdaughters.
Encouraged by this reminder, Mrs. Harrison attacked her hostess in the great drawing-room on the first opportunity. Lady Rochford made a point of saying a few words to each of the guests, moving about among them with that object; therefore Mrs. Harrison took advantage of her turn when it came.
She said: “Sir Temple told me I might mention to you a little friend of mine who wants a situation as governess. I understand you are thinking of making a change?”
“Oh, you angel!” exclaimed Lady Rochford. “I should be only too thankful to capture a suitable person. Miss Gray has been such a failure, so full of feelings, so ready to take offence about nothing, that she has made my life a positive burden of late. We brought her out with us from home last autumn. I knew her people and she had excellent credentials, but now I can’t think what has come over her, she is all prickles! Nothing I can say or do is right, and the children can’t bear her. She says she can easily go somewhere else, but I can’t so easily find a substitute. If you really know of somebody who might at any rate consent to do stop-gap------ What is your friend’s name?”
“Miss Heath---Annabel Heath. She is looking after a little boy called Cardale. They are at Miss MacTarn’s boarding-house, Springfield.”
“Oh, yes, I have seen her---twice! Once at the fête when she bought a photograph of my husband. I noticed her particularly because she reminded me of someone I used to know, and I asked her name. And she was at the children’s party yesterday. She knows an old lady at home who is a friend of Temple’s. He brought her in to tea---he is always doing things like that. I thought it rather unnecessary at the time, now I wish I’d taken more notice of her! But perhaps she isn’t touchy, like Miss Gray?”
“I can assure you she is anything but small-minded. She behaved admirably under trying circumstances on the voyage out. Her birth is all right, and she has a small pension, though it’s not enough to keep her in idleness.”
“But could she get away? How about her giving notice, and all that?”
“I understood from her that she could arrange matters within a reasonable time. I suppose Miss Gray would have to suit your convenience?”
“Yes, of course she must do that, tiresome creature. Well, I’ll write to Miss Heath and ask her to come and see me. Salary is no object. I’d pay anything to get someone who wouldn’t rasp my nerves and upset the children. The only thing is she’s very pretty and might upset the A.D.C. and the private secretary! That would infuriate Temple, though I shouldn’t care. Now I must go and talk to that solitary snipe in the corner or she will accuse me of giving myself airs. I know I have incurred that reputation already in spite of my well-meaning efforts. Thank you again, Mrs. Morrison, for all your kind help.”
Mrs. Harrison smiled as Lady Rochford moved off in order to propitiate the unpopular guest. That her hostess had not even troubled to remember her name correctly mattered nothing; it was a mere detail, characteristic of the Governor’s wife, who struck her as an engaging example of human sophistry. While she congratulated herself on the success of her undertaking she questioned how Lady Rochford and Annabel would assimilate. It would lie with Annabel to recognize and adapt herself to the other’s temperament. But the girl, she felt sure, was quite capable of doing so.
It had come---the necessity for definite decision.
Annabel sat in her little veranda reading, and re-reading, a note from Lady Rochford delivered by hand. On the table beside her lay another letter that had arrived this morning through the post; it was from William Cardale.
Again she read Lady Rochford’s brief missive.
Dear Miss Heath,
I understand from our mutual friend Mrs. Morrison, who was dining with us last night, that you may shortly be free from your present engagement. Should you be willing to undertake the educational charge of my two little girls I should be so glad to see you that we might discuss the matter. Perhaps you would kindly let me know if you are free to come this afternoon to Government House, any time after 4 o’clock?
Annabel laid down the note and took up William Cardale’s, which was still briefer.
Dear Miss Heath,
I am starting for Pahari tomorrow morning on ten days’ leave to see Billie---and you. I have engaged a room at the Metropole Hotel.
She appreciated his motive in not seeking accommodation at Springfield; she knew it was because he wished to spare her embarrassment. But the result would be the same; any meeting between them must be charged for her with difficulty, and for him with sharp disillusionment if——
Once more she hesitated, her thoughts swinging this way and that in a maze of doubt and self-recrimination. Was she capable of this heartlessness towards an innocent child and an honest unworldly man when it lay in her power to benefit them both, and all because she felt drawn as though by a magnet in a direction that could lead to nothing save empty indulgence of her own fatuous folly, never to be excused or justified? Yet she knew she could not resist making the appointment with Lady Rochford, while William Cardale would be on his way to Pahari in ignorance of the treachery she contemplated. She would have to pretend that her sole reason for refusing to be his wife was because she felt she could not care for him; mislead him into believing that her refusal was due to lofty scruples, when all the time she would be playing an ignoble part.
An answer must be given to the messenger from Government House one way or the other without further delay. She had kept the man waiting long enough as it was; either she must write that she was not free to consider Lady Rochford’s proposal, or bang the door against material security for the future. Was the latter course worth it---quite apart from conscience and truth? She went to her writing-table, opened the drawer in which lay the photograph she had bought at the fête; the sight of it swept away caution, common sense, all better feeling, drove her to write that she would present herself this afternoon at Government House as soon after four o’clock as was possible.
There---it was done! It only remained to deliver Billie into the care of someone willing to look after him, which was easy to arrange. She told Miss MacTarn, in confidence, that Lady Rochford wished to interview her with some idea of her succeeding Miss Gray. That was quite enough.
“Oh, Miss Heath, dear, what a chance for you! Go, by all means,” was Miss MacTarns excited advice, “and don’t worry about Billie. I will look after him, you may be sure. Make your mind easy and put on your best clothes. But oh, my! what will poor Mr. Cardale say?”
Annabel put on her best clothes, but her state of mind and what Mr. Cardale would say was another matter. She felt distraught as, soon after four o clock, she stepped from her dandy into the plant-scented veranda of Government House, gave her card to a scarlet-clad peon, and awaited the summons to follow him into the presence of “the lady-sahib.”
The interview took place in a luxuriously furnished sanctum, all cushions and chintz, flowers, silver-framed photographs and costly bric-a-brac. Lady Rochford, graceful in black chiffon, wearing a broad lace hat, received the visitor cordially.
“Ah, Miss Heath, here you are. How nice of you to come. Now sit down and let us talk.”
It was Lady Rochford who talked. She confided to Miss Heath the trials she had endured from Miss Gray’s tiresome moods; how Miss Gray seemed to take a delight in getting the wrong side of the children, not to speak of herself, until at last there had come a climax.
“There are limits, you know, to one’s patience! I was obliged to speak my mind on the morning of the children’s party, and Miss Gray took offence. So there is nothing for it but a change. She wishes to go, and I have no intention of persuading her to stay; she seems to have some other post up her sleeve, so it will be only a matter of paying her to clear out at once. The question is, when could you come?”
Annabel had not anticipated being rushed into an agreement then and there; and it rather nettled her that Lady Rochford should take it for granted she was ready to replace Miss Gray without preliminary discussion or inquiries on her own part, while it argued small consideration for the children that their mother should be so anxious to engage a stranger of whose qualifications she was more or less ignorant.
“But you know nothing about me,” said Annabel, “and I haven’t quite decided——”
“Oh, don’t say you haven’t made up your mind to chuck your present billet!” interrupted Lady Rochford, “just when I thought we could settle everything. As to my knowing nothing about you, I flatter myself I’m a good judge of character. I believe in first impressions. I took a fancy to you that day at the fête, and when I saw you at the children’s party I wished to Heaven you were with me instead of Miss Gray. I said so to my husband afterwards. And then when Mrs. Morrison spoke to me about you it seemed almost too good to be true!”
Annabel repressed a smile; Lady Rochford could scarcely be a good judge of character if she took her listener for such a simpleton as to believe these transparent lies. Undoubtedly she was a woman accustomed to get what she wanted by fair means or foul; and it amused Annabel for the moment to let her think she was not going to get what she wanted so easily in the present instance.
“No, I haven’t quite made up my mind,” she said, careful apology in her tone. “I have to consider Mr. Cardale’s convenience---you can understand that, I am sure. I must wait till I have seen him.”
“But when will that be?”
“Probably to-morrow morning. He is on his way up to Pahari.”
“Oh, to-morrow!” exclaimed Lady Rochford, relieved. “What luck! Is he coming up because you think of making a change?”
“No, he knows nothing about it.”
“Well, do tell him you have a chance of--- of——” Annabel felt sure the words “of bettering yourself” were on the tip of the other’s tongue, and that only just in time she substituted: “of something more in accordance with your cleverness and capabilities, and you might add better paid! Whatever Mr. Cardale is giving you, Miss Heath, I’d willingly double. He could hardly stand in your way after that?”
Annabel rose, feeling mistress of the situation. “It isn’t exactly a question of bettering myself,” she said, “but of what seems to me the right thing,”
Good heavens! She was as much a liar as Lady Rochford, but with the advantage that her false speech sounded more truthful.
“You put me to shame, Miss Heath! Please don’t run away with the idea that I imagine you capable of not acting fairly by Mr. Cardale. I only meant that I hoped he would act fairly by you in setting you free. And if he does I shall feel deeply in his debt. Now I may take it, mayn’t I, that you will be kind enough to come to us in the event of your deciding to leave him?”
“Yes,” said Annabel, looking intently into the brilliant dark eyes. Did she not read selfishness, lack of soul, in their depths? What a mate for the man who was her opposite in every respect! How had she contrived to entrap him; was he so trusting as to be blind to her true nature? Charm was there, Annabel was conscious of it herself, something naive and human beneath all the superficiality---and her beauty, her wealth. No doubt she had caught him in her toils; and also she was an asset to him in his official position!
“Well, then,” said Lady Rochford, extending her hand with an engaging smile in which a certain wistfulness was blended, “you will let me know as soon as possible? If you can come I am sure we should be real friends!”
Annabel left Government House with an inkling that in some curious fashion Lady Rochford did crave her friendship, that the anxiety to secure her services went deeper than the mere need of someone to take Miss Gray’s place; and this intuition was not due to flattery. Perhaps, apart from all her self-importance, her satisfaction in her social pinnacle, Lady Rochford badly wanted someone at hand to whom she could talk freely without public loss of her dignity; a sort of repository into which she could fling confidences and know they were safe. She might be one of those people who seek such repositories and are miserable without them; instinctively she might have felt that “Miss Heath” was to be trusted, and in that case her judgment of character had not played her false; probably Miss Gray had proved disappointing as a species of moral dustbin!
Now for the next rash step on this path to a fool’s paradise. There could be no looking back, no looking forward; she meant to go ahead blindly, accept the consequences without remorse or regret; if she suffered she would have no one to blame but herself. Steeled with determination, she awaited Cardale’s visit next morning, she even slept well that night undisturbed by doubts and dreams, no longer harassed by indecision.
After breakfast she saw that Billie was presentable and allowed him to patrol the compound on the watch for his father’s arrival under promise of not spoiling his appearance; she paid no attention to her own, if she looked unattractive so much the better. She rose from her seat in the veranda as William Cardale walked up the path hand-in-hand with Billie, who was talking at the top of his voice.
“There’s Ann’bel!” the child shouted, and waved to her.
The man stood still for a moment and raised his hat, then hurried forward. He looked much the same, heavy and awkward, his hair wanted cutting, but he was better dressed than Annabel had yet seen him; evidently he had tried to smarten himself up, and the smile on his face, the gladness in his eyes, might have softened her heart had she not succeeded in hardening it beyond all compassion. Their greeting was conventional, though he held her hand for a second longer than he need have done, and she drew it away quickly, pushed forward a chair.
Yes, he had had quite a good journey; yes, he had been keeping well, very busy, of course, as usual---glad of a little rest and change. And how was she herself? No need to ask after Billie’s health, the boy was looking splendid.
“But you,” he added, in sudden concern, “you don’t look fit, you have lost your colour! Are you comfortable here? Do they”---he lowered his voice---”do they feed you properly?”
Annabel forced herself to smile as they both sat down, Billie standing between them. “Oh dear, yes,” she said, “almost too well---perhaps that accounts for it!”
He relapsed into one of his old silences, and she had to drag answers out of him about the people at Bijapur. No, there were no ladies left in the station except Mrs. Veal; he believed the Veals were going strong in spite of the heat, but he hadn’t seen much of them, or of anybody for that matter. The Parsee doctor had been transferred, and no one as yet had been sent in his place. In desperation she inquired about the birds, then regretted having done so; it stirred up too many memories. He looked away sulkily.
“Oh, I got rid of the birds. Mrs. Veal took them. With Abdul away—— That reminds me, how has Abdul been behaving? Looking after you properly?”
“I will go and fetch Abdul!” cried Billie; and he bounded off in search of the bearer, returning with him almost immediately, Abdul all smiles and salaams.
A little polite conversation followed in Hindustani between master and servant. Then Billie insisted on parading the dandy and the four men who had been cautioned by Abdul to present themselves in clean white clothes. The pony was brought round freshly groomed, to be regaled by Billie with lumps of sugar; and the child summoned the ayah, who appeared for a moment much against her will, salaamed shyly and scuttled away with much jingling of silver anklets and bangles.
Annabel welcomed these distractions, but they were too soon over, and Billie was bidden by his father to “go along and play with Abdul.” He waited till the two were out of earshot before he spoke again.
“That seems all right,” he said, “nothing wrong with the boy and the servants. But now tell me, what is wrong with you?”
His solicitude unsteadied her. She could not bring herself to meet his anxious gaze. To avoid it she turned and pretended to be searching for something in her work-basket that lay on the table beside her.
“There is nothing wrong with me,” she stated, composing her voice with an effort, “we couldn’t be more comfortable, and Miss MacTarn is a dear. She will like to see you; I’ll let her know you are here.”
She clapped down the lid of the basket and rose. He made no protest and she escaped into the house, found Miss MacTarn and allowed her to go chattering and exclaiming into the veranda while she took refuge in the common sitting-room wondering why she was staving off the inevitable moment like this, when it had to come sooner or later.
Now the house seemed to be alive with movement and voices; children were returning from their morning walk; she could hear the staccato tones of Miss MacTarn still welcoming the visitor. Mrs. Rice and Jacky were engaged in a contest somewhere at hand. Mrs. Taylor was scolding a hired seamster in the front veranda, and presently came into the room grumbling.
“I feel sure the wretch means to unpick my pattern if he gets half a chance! Miss Heath, I wonder would you mind keeping an eye on him while I go and see what Mollie is doing? I can’t think where the tiresome child has got to.”
Annabel agreed to mount guard over the dirzee. It was an excuse to hang about in public until Miss MacTarn and Mr. Cardale came in search of her, as no doubt they would do if she failed to rejoin them. Then it was to be hoped William Cardale would go.
She stood idly watching the old tailor, who, asquat on the floor, held one end of a length of material between his toes while he stitched away at the other. She heard her name called; Miss MacTarn stood in the doorway.
“Miss Heath dear, I just came to say Mr. Cardale would like to speak to you before he leaves; I haven’t been able to make him stay for tiffin.” As Annabel did not move she advanced and whispered: “You see, I felt I must say something sympathetic about poor Mrs. Cardale’s death, and he seems a little upset. And then about your going to Government House——”
Annabel gazed in dismay at the innocent betrayer of her secret; she had not thought of warning Miss MacTarn to say nothing about it.
“Oh, why did you mention it!” she exclaimed before she could check herself.
“But didn’t he know? When, to get his mind off his wife, I said what a good thing for you, and how I would take care of Billie, though we should all be missing you, he didn’t show any surprise. Of course, I never thought——” She clicked her tongue, vexed at her own indiscretion. “Dear, dear! I am a stupid!”
Annabel hastened to say: “It doesn’t matter. I’ll go and explain it all fully, if you will take my place. I promised Mrs. Taylor to see that the dirzee didn’t unpick her pattern.”
Now she was in for it! No use delaying the dreaded announcement any longer; and she passed Miss MacTarn with a reassuring nod and smile to walk resolutely into William. Cardale’s presence. The expression on his face as she stepped over the threshold of her room hit her hard; it held more reproach than distress.
“Well,” he said abruptly with a twist of his lips, as though he were tasting something bitter. “Is it a fact that you are in negotiation for another post?”
“I intended to tell you——” she began; but he interrupted her.
“Then it’s true! I understand. We needn’t go into particulars, but I think you might at least have let me know in time to prevent my taking this journey---for nothing.”
“It wasn’t easy to write,” she said feebly, “and there was Billie——” How mean and inadequate sounded her attempt at self- defence!
“When do you propose to move over to Government House?” he asked, ignoring it.
“That depends on you.”
“Not at all. Please suit yourself entirely. I shan’t stand in the way of your plans with any demand for the usual notice or claim on your salary, if that is what you are thinking of. It will be simple enough for me to arrange with Miss MacTarn about the boy.”
His voice was devoid of all feeling, his face mask-like, lifeless, impenetrable, just as she had seen it on occasions at Bijapur. Without looking at her again he put on his hat. “Good-bye, Miss Heath,” he said civilly, and strode off.
Shattered and shamed, acutely conscious of how badly she had behaved, Annabel watched the thick-set retreating figure. It had all come about so differently from what she had intended. On her part no pedestal of virtue, no pretence; on his no appeal, no persuasion, apparently no regret! Simply, he had found her out, and treated her accordingly---as she deserved.
She saw Billie dash out from behind a tree and make for his father, only to be waved, almost brushed, aside. The child stood still for a moment, staring, puzzled. Then he ran to her shouting: “Daddy’s gone. Now I can stay with you, can’t I, Ann’bel!”
Those days were long past when Billie had asked nothing better than Abdul’s companionship; now there was little room in his affections for anyone but herself. She felt such a traitor towards him! If Miss MacTarn had not precipitated matters, if she could have talked freely quietly with William Cardale, said all the things she had meant to say, would the outcome have been different? Possibly he might have worked on her feelings, broken down the barriers of her resolve, changed the whole course of her existence. As it was, she recognized how utterly she had fallen in the man’s esteem; that even now, were she to call him back, try to convince him that the whole thing had been a misunderstanding, he probably would not believe her. She had forfeited his faith.
Well, perhaps for his sake it was for the best; he would suffer less in being able to congratulate himself on a lucky escape; disillusionment was an excellent remedy for heartache! He would go back to his work and his books, in time none the worse for this unfortunate experience; and at least she had been spared all resistance either way. The die had been cast by Fate; in other words, by Miss MacTarn’s innocent intervention. Extraordinary that turning points in people’s lives should hang on such trivial chances!
Having worked herself into a fit of anger and defiance, Annabel sat down and wrote a businesslike letter to Lady Rochford; taking her at her word, she set forth her terms---double the amount she had been receiving from Mr. Cardale; also taking him at his word, she added that she was ready to move over to Government House whenever it might suit Lady Rochford’s convenience. It gave her a sort of vicious satisfaction to contemplate remaining on at Springfield at William Cardale’s expense for however short a time. If he considered her heartless and grasping she might as well act up, or rather down, to his opinion. She was a despicable creature, but she wouldn’t care; she didn’t care! Once under the same roof with the man for whom she felt she could die if need be, nothing else mattered, neither the past nor the future.
The schoolroom at Government House was provided with all that could disarm the most exacting and offendable of governesses; an excellent piano, a businesslike table, book-shelves stocked with educational works, an abundance of stationery. Bodily comfort was equally considered; there were easy chairs, a deep couch, a thick carpet, a bureau for the private use of the instructress. One end of the long room was reserved for the children’s playthings, outrageously expensive toys---a wicked waste of money, in Annabel’s opinion. Her pupils, Pamela and Elizabeth, seemed on a par with their extravagant possessions, selfish, vainglorious little beings conscious of their prettiness, which was undeniable, interested only in their tutelage so far as it enabled them to show off, and excite praise. Any hint of reproof or correction provoked temper and sulks.
Miss Heath’s bedroom adjoined the schoolroom; the children slept upstairs in company with Jenkins, their English nurse, who also acted as maid to Lady Rochford. Jenkins was a superior, stand-off person who kept strictly to her own duties, and made it clear by her manner that she would tolerate no interference from the new teacher, whose business it was to attend to the young ladies’ education; hers to look after their health and appearance. Annabel gathered from the two little girls, who were incurable telltales, that Jenkins and Miss Gray had been deadly foes; consequently she understood the nurse’s attitude (a kind of “beginning as she meant to go on”), and took care to respect it, especially as it suited her best to do so. The children fed with their governess in a small private dining-room in which Jenkins took her meals afterwards, and all were waited upon by an efficient Indian staff furnished for that purpose alone.
The machine-like order and regularity with which this department of the establishment was conducted impressed Annabel; she attributed it to Lady Rochford’s complete indifference as to the amount spent in purchasing domestic peace. The Indian as well as the two European employees received such wages and enjoyed such personal consideration as were not easily to be obtained anywhere. Of what went on in the other portion of the household she was, so far, ignorant. At stated times the children visited their mother straight from the hands of Jenkins, washed and brushed and decked for these occasions; now and then Lady Rochford looked into the schoolroom, smiled affably, said: “Everything all right, dears?” kissed her hand to them all and vanished. A full week had passed since Annabel’s arrival at Government House, and as yet Lady Rochford had evinced no further sign of desiring Miss Heath’s friendship.
At first Annabel marvelled how Miss Gray could have been fool enough to get the wrong side of Lady Rochford and thus lose such a valuable post; but by degrees she began to realize that the monotonous routine of the life, the lack of adult companionship, might have affected her predecessor’s nerves, causing her to quarrel with Jenkins if only for the sake of a little excitement and the interchange of even acrimonious words with a comparative contemporary of her own colour. No doubt the explosion on the day of the children’s party had been due to long-repressed feelings that demanded an outlet. Poor Miss Gray had no secret devotion to buoy up her spirits and enable her to withstand the tedium beyond a certain point.
After a fortnight Annabel felt she could hardly have borne it herself but for rare glimpses of Sir Temple, the ever-present possibility of a word with him; and there was always the consuming sense of his nearness. Once or twice she had caught sight of him setting out for a walk alone, and she had wondered if he were making for the forest bungalow; she had seen him riding off to an official function attended by his staff; again riding beside his wife’s rickshaw bound for some social gathering---always remote, unapproachable. Not once had he penetrated into the quarters reserved for his step-children and their governess; he might almost be unaware that she was beneath the same roof! What could be his reason for ignoring her so completely? Was it that he regarded her merely as one of his wife’s servants? Even so he might at least have sought an opportunity of welcoming her before dismissing her from his mind! However, as long as she was there on the spot a chance must surely come sooner or later that would oblige him to recognize her proximity; and this anticipation sustained her notwithstanding the gloom of the rains which now had set in, confining her and the children to the house, debarring them from outdoor interests and exercise.
The enforced imprisonment told on them all; it needed every ounce of Annabel’s patience and self-control to meet the fractiousness of her pupils, who fought and cried, were perverse over their lessons and would not amuse themselves. Both caught colds, not sufficiently severe to keep them in bed, when Jenkins would have had her share of extra trouble, but enough to render them doubly exasperating with their sniffs and sneezes and strange objection to blowing their noses. That first week of the rainy season was pure torture to Annabel; by the end of it she felt desperate, and despite the downpour she took advantage of her “afternoon off” to roll herself in her mackintosh with the intention of setting forth on foot. A dandy was at her disposal, but she felt the need of exercise. Jenkins pursued her with commissions; the ribbon for the young ladies’ underclothing had run short, and would Miss Heath be kind enough to order another supply of sweet spirits of nitre at the chemist’s should she be passing that way, some bath soap as well? Jenkins could have telephoned for all she required, but she seemed to consider that Miss Heath’s afternoon out should be utilized for the common good, and Annabel undertook the errands with an air of compliance, while allowing it to be understood that they entailed some slight inconvenience to herself. Jenkins had already begun to relax in her demeanour towards her superior colleague, having recognized that there was no desire on the part of Miss Heath to meddle with her domain; therefore the two parted amicably on this pouring wet afternoon, Jenkins with a feeling that she had made use of Miss Heath, Annabel with a sense of relief from responsibility for the next couple of hours.
She could hardly see any distance ahead as she descended the steep pathways, the rain and the mist obscured everything; native figures huddled in brown blankets passed her like ghosts; one or two hooded dandies went by, the occupants probably bound for bridge parties; but after the closeness of the schoolroom she found the chill damp air invigorating, and by the time she reached the Mall and the shops she felt a different being. In the chemist’s shop she encountered Mrs. Taylor, who pounced on her full of questions and Springfield gossip.
“We all miss you so much. How are you getting on? Do tell me what it’s like!”
“Quite comfortable,” said Annabel.
“I suppose you live on the fat of the land? Do you have luncheon with the Rochfords? Do you go into the drawing-room after dinner?”
“No, I’m glad to say that isn’t expected.”
“But you must find it rather dull! Can’t you ask friends to tea if you want to?”
“I hadn’t thought about it.” Annabel ignored the hint; the only people she knew in the station were congregated at Springfield, and she had no wish to keep up acquaintanceships that could only remind her of what was more convenient to her conscience to forget.
“They might at least allow you to have Billie up there now and then!”
“How is Billie?” she inquired reluctantly, stifling remorse.
“Quite well, but the poor child was miserable after you had gone. At first he cried every night, though Miss MacTarn took him to sleep in her room. Now he has settled down, though I must say I think his manners are going back very much. Miss MacTarn spoils him, and, of course, the ayah can’t keep him in order. Abdul went down with Mr. Cardale, who didn’t stay up for his ten days, as I dare say you know. Your leaving must have been a blow to him; but, of course, as we all agreed, he couldn’t expect you to give up the chance of getting into Government House.” She fixed an inquisitive eye upon Miss Heath, who said nothing.
“A lot of new boarders have come,” went on Mrs. Taylor, perceiving that the other was not to be drawn. “Nobody very much, only women with packs of children, and I think you are well out of it. I only wish I could afford to move to an hotel. Mrs. Rice is so disagreeable and pretentious; and the food isn’t as good as it was. Miss MacTarn overdoes quantity at the expense of quality. I long to tell her so, but she might suggest my making room for somebody else. She could fill my place at any moment. Is there to be a Government House ball at the end of the rains?”
Annabel said she had no idea, and proceeded to order the sweet spirits of nitre. Mrs. Taylor followed her to the counter.
“Who is it for?” she inquired.
“The Regent children.”
“Oh! Have they got colds?”
“Really, Miss Heath,” complained Mrs. Taylor exasperated, “you seem half asleep! You must have a bad cold coming on yourself, and if I don’t go home I shall catch one too. Good-bye. Come to tea with me some day.”
“Thank you. Good-bye.”
Mrs. Taylor left the shop resentfully. Annabel waited till she was out of the way and then strolled on in search of the ribbon. The tiresome meeting had lowered her spirits, churned up self-reproach; she could not help thinking about Billie whom she had deserted so hard-heartedly. True she had avoided a painful parting out of consideration for his feelings as well as for her own; she had packed and sent off her belongings while he slept, had slipped away with Miss MacTarn’s connivance while he was at play among the other children. She would never know what Miss MacTarn had said to the child or how he had taken the news that his “Ann’bel” was not coming back to him. Nothing should induce her to revisit Springfield. The Regent children seldom left the grounds of Government House, and Springfield was so far off that she was never likely to meet Billie out of doors. It was too annoying that she should have come across Mrs. Taylor just when she had begun to feel the benefit of a solitary walk and had expected to return fortified, refreshed. Now she would have to fight her conscience, harden her heart all over again. She forced back the tears from her eyes, bought the ribbon, and wandered on disconsolately in the rain, not even troubling to put up her umbrella; her hat, an old one, didn’t matter, nothing mattered. How horrible the lake looked, a dull, dirty brown, with the mist rolling over it, and the rain made such a noise hammering down on the corrugated iron roofs of the hotels and the shops.
It was as she was remounting the hill without heart to extend her walk that she met Sir Temple Rochford. He was alone and on foot, dressed in rough tweeds. Head bent, he strode by without observing her; irresistibly she turned to look after him, and at that moment he turned also, whistling to a spaniel that lagged behind. They were only a few paces apart, and he could not but recognize who it was standing facing him in the middle of the path. Annabel caught her breath. How attractive he looked! It was the damp air, she thought, that had brought such a glow to his tanned skin; tiny beads of moisture tipped the crisp grey hair above his ears; his whole appearance was that of a man well preserved by bodily exercise, by temperance, by self-command, and oh, the blue of his eyes!
He raised his cap and smiled, though it seemed to her that his smile held a certain discreet reserve. No doubt this was natural, circumstances had altered since their last meeting; the faint hope that he might invite her to join him in his walk flickered out. Were he to be seen in company with his stepchildren’s governess scandal would inevitably fly all over the station. Yet, at the back of his polite greeting, she sensed a desire to talk to her, a slight hesitation that made her feel sure he would have been glad but for conventions to suggest their walking together.
“Are you wise to be out in this weather? he asked pleasantly. “Where have you been?”
“Down to the shops,” she told him in a befittingly respectful voice, “ordering medicine and ribbons for Pamela and Elizabeth. I wanted a walk.” Lowering her eyelids, she added: “It’s my afternoon out.”
There was a pause of constraint. Then he said: “I hope you are happy and comfortable with us---that you have all you want?”
“Everything possible, thank you.”
“And,” he went on a trifle awkwardly, “that there was no difficulty with Cardale?”
“None at all, he quite understood the position.” She glanced up at him to ask on an impulse with a species of malice: “Why should there have been any difficulty?”
“Oh! well---a widower with a child, it would seem only natural——”
“That he should resent my deserting the child?” she interposed sharply, unable to help it. “I had my own reasons, apart from the advantage of a better paid post!”
“No doubt very good ones,” he said, as if repudiating any desire to know what they were. “And we are the gainers by your decision.”
“You are most kind to say so,” she murmured. “Perhaps I was selfish, but in this world——” she broke off with a nervous little laugh, and meeting his eyes again she saw in them a pitying solicitude that set her pulses beating fast. “I must be getting back,” she added hastily, “and you, are you on your way to the forest bungalow?”
“Yes. Do you remember that storm? When the rains are over we must have a picnic out there for the children. If you are going straight home, Miss Heath, would you mind telling my wife you met me, and that I’m off for a tramp---not to expect me for tea?”
Then he called the dog to heel and went on. This time neither of them turned to look back. Annabel breasted the hill, feeling almost lightheaded; the stiff climb was no effort, she might have been walking on air; her sole sensation was one of entrancement. Sir Temple’s sympathetic friendship was hers, of that she was now blissfully certain, though in view of custom and traditions that must be observed he could not grant it to her openly; he had used the word “home,” had said “my wife” instead of Lady Rochford, speaking to her as an equal, regarding her with real interest, not patronage. . . . Had there been just a suspicion of more than kindly interest in his eyes, had his expression bordered on tenderness? She endeavoured to quell the outrageous idea, to master her mad exultation and think coherently. It was in his nature to be kind; she had looked lonely and he felt sorry for her; how absurd to imagine anything else! It was enough for her that at last they had met again and would meet again now and then. She wouldn’t lose her head, she wouldn’t succumb to this infatuation; she had a stock of common sense to rely upon. Yet despite all her reasoning and resolutions she still found it impossible to kill the impression that she did hold some insidious attraction for the man, quite beside his human kindliness toward a dependent. She relinquished all attempt to analyse the impression, accepting it as a salve to her heart, an antidote to the blight of monotony and stagnation. Enveloped in a heavenly contentment, she looked forward to delivering Sir Temple’s message to his wife, and by the time she reached Government House she had more or less gained control of her emotions.
Jenkins was presiding over the schoolroom tea, much on her dignity; she offered Miss Heath a cup with the air of a pro-consul in power for the time being. Annabel accepted it in the same spirit, mindful of etiquette; then repaired to her room, changed her dress, and sent word by a peon requesting an audience of “the lady-sahib.” The man returned with a permissive salaam, and she followed him to the boudoir. Lady Rochford was seated by a fragrant wood fire, a tea-table in front of her, a novel in her lap. She looked bored and languid, unlike her usual animated self.
“Well, Miss Heath, what is it?” She pointed to a chair. “Sit down and tell me. Nothing very dreadful, I hope?”
Annabel smiled and sat down. “Nothing dreadful at all. Only that I happened to meet Sir Temple on my way back from a walk and he asked me to tell you he was off for a long tramp and wouldn’t be home in time for tea.”
“Is that all? What a relief! I thought you might be coming to say you couldn’t stand Betty and Pam and Jenkins and me for one second longer. Now, don’t go; stay and have tea with me, a good opportunity for a talk; and I shall be thankful for your company. Isn’t the rain odious? You and my husband are equally peculiar in wanting to go out in such weather. But perhaps you hankered to mingle with your fellow creatures, while his idea is always to get away from them. Do you find it very dull up here, Miss Heath?”
“I have nothing to complain of,” said Annabel primly.
Lady Rochford handed her a cup of tea.
“Help yourself to cakes. I hope the children behave themselves and don’t give you a lot of trouble. I know they can be awfully tiresome, and I suppose they ought to go to school in England. But it isn’t as if they were boys, and I do so dread change. I’ve had so much of it in my life.”
Annabel felt relieved that the question of the children’s behaviour was not to be pursued. Lady Rochford’s thoughts had evidently turned in another direction.
“I have gone through so much,” she continued, “that I can’t tell you how I value peace ---and safety!”
For a space there was silence. The room was full of perfume and warmth; light was failing and the red glow from the blazing logs flickered over the silver on the tea tray, twinkled in Lady Rochford’s diamond rings, the big brooch at her breast and the buckles of her shoes resting on the fender. She made an engaging picture with her beautifully dressed head and cameo-like face, grace in every line of her figure. It seemed difficult to believe that she could ever have known sorrow, yet there was bitterness in her voice, a brooding recollection in her eyes that told of past trials.
“We all have our occasional bad times,” said Annabel with genuine fellow-feeling, “and that makes happiness all the more precious when it comes.”
“Yes, yes; that is so true; but there is always the fear of losing the happiness.”
“Oh! don’t say that. Why should you of all people have any such fear?”
Lady Rochford sighed. “I get fits of it. I dare say it sounds morbid and absurd. I have such a lot to be grateful for, and that is what frightens me. Sometimes I can hardly believe it’s all true!”
She looked round the luxurious room, finally to fix her eyes on a large silver-framed portrait of her husband.
“To think of my luck in having married such a man,” she breathed softly. “Nobody knows what it means to me. He is everything that is adorable.”
“Indeed I can understand!” said Annabel, and the fervour she could not exclude from her voice seemed to please Lady Rochford.
“But it isn’t everybody who can appreciate him!” she exclaimed eagerly. “People think he’s a dreamer, that he neglects important official duties for his own literary pursuits. He does nothing of the sort. If anyone had a right to be jealous of his intellectual recreations it is myself, because he devotes so much of his spare time to them. I often wish I had the brains to share the interests he is always so careful to keep separate from his public responsibilities; but as I haven’t I stick to the job I do understand and,” with a little laugh of forced merriment, “make myself content to take a back seat. India first, of course; the study of old creeds and customs second; lastly me!”
Annabel, listening quietly, was conscious of a curious bond between herself and this beautiful woman apparently so favoured by fortune---they both loved the same man, who loved neither of them. The suspicion that Lady Rochford, while adoring her husband, knew in the depths of her heart that he accorded her no more in return than a sincere affection, drew forth every atom of the girl’s sympathy and kindled a liking such as she had never dreamed of entertaining towards one who, on the surface, would appear to value nothing but social pomp and prestige. She guessed now that all the extravagant expenditure, all the ceremony and state, had but one object---to increase and uphold the dignity and importance of a man’s position, not for the sake of the position alone, but for the man himself, who would never have attempted to uphold it by outward display.
“What I mean,” went on Lady Rochford, “is that if things can be done well, as in our case, it goes down so tremendously with the Oriental public, gives an impression of power, and commands respect for the Crown of which we are the humble representatives locally. Don’t you agree with me, Miss Heath?”
“No doubt you are right,” agreed Annabel, “but I hadn’t thought about it in that way till now.”
“Perhaps, like most other people, you considered I made an unnecessary splash! I know spiteful things are said, and for that reason I can’t indulge in friendships among the officials’ wives without running the risk of being accused of favouritism; and I should never feel sure that the friendship wasn’t tainted with sycophancy on the other side. For example, I couldn’t talk to you like this if you were the wife of some head of a department who might go about boasting that I had confided in her and then making mischief. I am lonely in that way. One wants another female to talk to sometimes, and I feel I can trust you.”
“I am very glad you do,” said Annabel simply. “I can assure you I should never make mischief even if it were in my power, or I had anything to gain by doing so.”
“That’s just it! You wouldn’t give me away or fake advantage; and you are on the spot. Such a blessing, so different from Miss Gray, who, I’m sure, loathed me; but as I loathed her perhaps it wasn’t so surprising. I took a fancy to you from the first when---do you remember?--- you were so keen on buying Temple’s photo at that stupid fête!”
Annabel accepted this flattering little fib for what it was worth and forthwith fibbed herself.
“I wanted the photo because I had read some of Sir Temple’s books. He is a wonderful writer.”
“Yes, I suppose he is, but he is more wonderful in other ways, noble and large hearted, yet with all his cleverness so simple and guileless that in some respects he is almost like a child. He has given up so much in his life, always sacrificed himself to his people, that I simply love to make everything easy for him now. I try hard not to feel jealous of his private work, of the interests I’m too stupid to share with him. I’m sure I worry his life out sometimes, keeping him up to the mark socially; but he’s an angel of patience because I let him think I do it all for my own satisfaction and pleasure! But for me he must have refused the governorship and gone grubbing along as an ordinary official. He isn’t devoid of ambition, but he shrinks from publicity.”
Annabel nodded in silent comprehension. The room grew darker; outside the rain was pouring down relentlessly. “He will get very wet,” she remarked with prosaic concern.
“It won’t do him any harm. I believe he rather enjoys physical discomfort. I tell him, he ought to have married a woman who liked getting her feet wet, and cold baths, and Sandow exercises; someone who preferred plain food and not sitting too near the fire, all the sort of horrors he practises, instead of a luxury-loving creature such as I am!”
“And what does he say?”
“Oh! he just laughs. Perhaps if he showed the smallest desire that I should mend my ways I might make an effort to do so, much as I should hate it. But he doesn’t, so why should I put myself out?”
She nestled deeper into her chair, stretched her slender feet nearer the fire, and took a chocolate from a dish on the tea-table.
Presently she said: “I suppose the children will be coming in soon. Do stay and help me to amuse them, Miss Heath, though I know it’s the time you ought to have to yourself. I can’t think why children bore me so frightfully. Of course I’m very fond of Pam and Betty and proud of them, but somehow I can’t play with them, and I always feel they are as glad to get away from me as I---I am ashamed to say---am glad to get rid of them! Isn’t that an appalling confession? Tell me frankly, what do you think of them?”
This was a poser. Annabel could hardly speak frankly, say she thought them selfish, phlegmatic, uninteresting though pretty little girls, and that she saw small prospect of improving them.
“They are normal sort of children,” she replied guardedly, “perhaps inclined to think too much of themselves and their own convenience; but they may grow out of that.”
“They remind me so painfully of their father. They aren’t a bit like me, are they?”
“No, I don’t think they are, and yet they are both——” Annabel paused, searching for the word that would rightly describe them. Pamela and Elizabeth possessed regular features, bright eyes, luxuriant hair, faultless complexions; but for the difference in size they might have been twins moulded in the same pattern. They were heartless, soulless---that was what rendered them so unattractive in spite of their appearance.
“I know, I know,” Lady Rochford interposed before Annabel could hit upon an inoffensive description. “My first husband was like that, handsome and hard and wicked!”
“Oh! but the children aren’t wicked!” Annabel, though she did not feel quite so sure.
“Not now, I dare say, but if we don’t look out they will be. I know perfectly well they have inherited all his faults, and he had no virtues to hand on. He was a devil; my life was a misery with him. If you could imagine what I endured even a fraction of it, you would realize how I treasure my present peace and happiness, how sometimes I feel it is too good to be true!”
“But it is true and nothing can alter the fact. Remember that,” urged Annabel, aghast at the agony of distress in the other’s voice.
Lady Rochford passed her handkerchief over her forehead and sat upright.
“I’m a fool. Of course I know it’s true, and I’m only too abjectly thankful. But when one’s nerves have been shattered, when one’s whole world has crumbled to bits in the past, it is difficult to shake off---fear!” She burst into tears.
Annabel rose, crossed the space between them swiftly, and knelt by her side, waiting till the storm of weeping should pass.
“You are devitalized,” she said when the sobs lessened. “You are always expending energy and getting nothing back in return.”
“Oh! for goodness’ sake don’t encourage me to grumble and give way. What I want is a good scolding, not sympathy. Do I look a fright?”
“Yes,” said Annabel; and they both laughed.
Then the children were propelled into the room by Jenkins.
That afternoon brought about a considerable change in Annabel’s daily existence at Government House. The rains had put a stop to big entertainments, and Lady Rochford sought the companionship of her children’s governess more and more frequently. She took to sending for Miss Heath at all hours with various excuses; sometimes simply to talk, at others to help her with letters and the study of reports in connexion with native women’s hospitals, schools, colleges, all the associations of which the Governor’s wife had been elected president.
“So tiresome!” she complained one morning, harassed with a sheaf of business papers. “Yet it must be done, and I never have the vaguest idea of what they all want except my money and my name, both of which I’m perfectly willing to give them. But I can’t compose addresses and appeals and exhortations. You must do it for me, Annabel. Tell them in burning language that I recognize how imperative it is that native girls should be sent home to study medicine and midwifery and all the rest of it--- that we must alter the people’s ideas and the customs they have followed for thousands of years. As if we could!”
Annabel wrote countless letters, replied to endless petitions, performed the duties of secretary when local committees had to be summoned, straightened out accounts, presented balance-sheets, and became indispensable to the distracted Lady Rochford, who hitherto had muddled along, helpless in such matters, at the mercy of self-interested advisers. Now she had the wit to seize upon the sound help that lay to her hand. The education of Pamela and Elizabeth was a secondary consideration compared with her own requirements.
Miss Heath was soon an important personage, not only in the establishment, but in the eyes of those who were anxious to curry favour with Lady Rochford. She received invitations to tea from the wives of chief secretaries and heads of departments. When these ladies assembled at Government House for committee meetings or small obligatory social gatherings at which Lady Rochford insisted that Annabel should appear (“to take the worst bores off my hands”), every civility was accorded by them to that delightful and clever Miss Heath.
“It amuses me, my dear,” said Lady Rochford when a batch of senior ladies had been seen off the premises one evening in a downpour, “to observe how they toady you! You really might be a sort of servant when she ruleth of whom her mistress lives in terror. They think you’ve got my ear, and they aren’t far wrong. You are such a standby and comfort that I’d do anything for anybody who was nice to you.”
“But I don’t care whether they are nice or nasty to me,” protested Annabel, sickened with all the petty intrigue. She would gladly have renounced these extraneous duties, gone back to the old seclusion of the schoolroom but that Lady Rochford had wormed her way into her affections. It was something to feel that one human being still depended upon her; a sop to her conscience for having deserted poor little Billie and Billie’s father.
It was not as if she had the compensation of seeing Sir Temple; he seemed farther away from her than ever; she might just as well have been at Springfield looking after Billie except that there was always the hope of a word with him. She could not clear her mind of the notion that he avoided her purposely, and from one point of view this notion consoled her; she fostered it, dreamed of it, hugged it to her heart, all the while blaming herself for a fatuous idiot caught in the toils of a hopeless passion for a man who was entirely beyond her reach as any star in the firmament.
“Yes, I know you don’t care,” agreed Lady Rochford, “but that makes it all the more amusing. I’m going to send you with Temple to do duty for me at Mrs. Swiverdale’s meeting about the education of Indian girls.” She picked up a pamphlet and read aloud from it: “‘A committee consisting of sympathizers, taking no initiative but ready to give all possible guidance when specific occasions arise in which Indians feel they wish to ask for assistance.’ Most conveniently vague. Temple must go, but I really can’t stand Mrs. Swiverdale and all her ‘future joy and pride and hope of Ind!’ How proud she will feel of Ind when we have cleared out and all the Hindus and Mohammedans are cutting each others’ throats. I hope she will stay and have her throat cut too.”
“How amiable of you!” commented Annabel. But she blessed Lady Rochford’s “amiability,” for it meant an afternoon in the Governor’s company, and she looked forward to it with high excitement. Yet when the time came she found she was to go ahead by herself, bearing papers and Lady Rochford’s apologies.
For an hour she sat at the end of a long table among the less important members of the committee while Mrs. Swiverdale conducted the business at Sir Temple’s right hand, and everyone agreed with everything they said. It all sounded very ideal and magnanimous, imbued with a spirit of “help” and confraternity, but as far as Annabel could judge, it seemed rather a case of one-sided advances. The desire of Indian girls for Western education would not appear to be so overwhelming as the desire of the committee to grant them the opportunity. Failures were reported with every conceivable allowance; no matter, the good work must go on, funds must be obtained; and it was an encouragement to hear that one student had taken a high degree even though it was feared she was devoting her talents to the publication of seditious pamphlets and poems.
The meeting concluded with the composition of an appeal to all patriotic Indian women urging them to utilize every opportunity for study and progress that might be available, and to work whole-heartedly for the good of their sex and their country, etc. etc.
Tea was then served, and amid the general stir Annabel found Sir Temple at her side.
“Shall we walk home?” he said in an undertone. “After this strenuous conclave a little exercise might refresh us both!” As she smiled assent he added: “You go ahead then, and I’ll overtake you.”
She understood. Though the gathering was informal and the Governor had attended it as such, without escort, it would not quite “do” for them to dismiss his horse and her dandy from Mrs. Swiverdale’s door and walk off together in public.
Annabel took her leave in due course and started, bidding her bearers go slowly. Various members of the committee passed her with friendly salutations; she guessed that Sir Temple was lingering until they were all out of the way. Easy enough to do that. Mrs. Swiverdale would welcome a little private conversation, and no doubt with this object had speeded the departing guests.
At the foot of the hill he overtook her, dismounted, told his groom to take the horse on. Annabel likewise got rid of her dandy, and then the two stood silent for a few moments on the road.
“I thought,” began Sir Temple half apologetically, “that a walk would be nice after all the talk and---and the stuffiness.”
“Very nice,” she agreed, and stepped out beside him.
Temporarily the rain had ceased, a thick stillness charged the atmosphere, white mist rolled about them obscuring the outlook, affording an odd kind of privacy and peace. Annabel rejoiced in it. Here they were quite alone; she could surrender freely to the delight of knowing that he had deliberately sought her company---if only as an antidote to the “stuffiness” of the afternoon!
He looked down at her, courteous, charming. “I am so glad,” he said, “to have this opportunity of thanking you for being such a help and comfort to my wife, and also of telling you how much I appreciate your”---he paused---“your presence in the house.”
“Thank you.” She spoke steadily, but her heart leaped. Was he pointing out to her tactfully how she could aid him while, as it were, putting her on her honour, depending on her loyalty? The notion was intoxicating; he was no longer “The Governor”; she cared nothing for their respective positions, only felt a wild desire to pierce his armour of civility because she was convinced that beneath it lay something else. The conviction was like religious faith, not to be explained or defined. In a sort of blind frenzy she stumbled. He caught her, prevented her from falling, but loosed his hold on her arm as she clutched the railings.
“Oh! why do you talk like that?” she cried, beside herself.
To her infinite amazement he answered quite simply: “Because I must, and I expect you to recognize that I must.”
“I do, I do!” she wailed contritely. “But it is hard.”
“No harder than most things in this life when one cannot consider oneself without causing suffering to others and without deviation from duty.”
“I know! But supposing---just supposing no suffering to others was involved, no deviation from duty, what then? Only tell me——”
She was frantically determined to drag the truth from his lips, feeling that once she had heard it her heart torture would cease; she could rest content with no more than a word of assurance that she did mean much to him.
She told herself: “I must be mad! But I can’t help it. I will make him say it, I will!”
“Why discuss it?” he asked with a sigh, “when nothing can make the least difference?”
“It would make all the difference to me just to know! And then we need never speak of it again. If you wish it I will go away, out of the country; but don’t let me go without without just telling me——”
“Annabel, dear child, be brave,” he urged in distress.
“I am brave. I don’t mind anything if only you will tell me the truth!”
“Very well then, hear it. Until I met you I was happy enough in my own way, with my work, official and private, and with Zara. But for Zara I shouldn’t be where I am. She cares for me and I am very fond of her. I owe her a great deal, but since you insist on the truth I won’t deny that had I been free—— There, that’s enough! It has all come too late and we must realize the fact.”
An immense ecstasy flooded her being. She gazed into the thick shroud of mist that seemed to her illumined with a magic radiance.
“Yes, we must realize that,” she echoed exultantly, “and realizing it, I claim to tell you that I have loved you from the first instant I saw you, standing in the lounge of that London hotel. . . . Then I read your books, not knowing it was you who had written them. Then I dreamed of you. Then I saw you again---in church, and again at the fête, and at the children’s party when you spoke to me for the first time. You came to me on the road below the forest bungalow after that storm. . . . Because of you I couldn’t marry William Cardale; because of you I schemed to get into Government House that I might be near you, under the same roof. Oh! believe me, I fought the Whole thing; but it was too much for me. I have never cared before, and I shall never care again like this. I don’t want to. It is enough for me to know——”
She pressed her hands to her eyes for a moment, then faced him almost joyously and with strong resolve. “Now go on by yourself,” she said, “and I will follow. We understand each other, and this sort of thing shan’t happen again. But remember---if you would like me to leave I am ready to go. I would do anything you might wish.”
Even as she spoke she knew it was unfair to saddle him with the decision, knew she ought to make it herself and clear out! Yet fiercely she enjoyed leaving it to him because she perceived painful hesitation in his eyes, a longing to bid her stay, of course on the clear understanding that they should each keep faith with moral obligations. For her part she felt positive she could now carry on as if nothing had happened, observing every item of decorum and propriety, but it gave her an unholy delight to sense his doubt of his own strength. With all his mature intellect his generous disposition, there was a weak strain in his nature. . . . From what Lady Rochford had let fall during intimate talks Annabel did not doubt that he had drifted into the marriage, partly swayed by material advantages, but chiefly because Mrs. Regent had set her heart on it and there had existed no particular reason why she should not have her way. She was lonely, so was he, and when she laid siege to his feelings he had put up no defence.
In a measure it was the same now. Annabel was well aware that had she controlled her tongue, had she not brought matters to a crisis, he would have kept silence, have walked home with her to-day finding an illicit pleasure in her company yet saying nothing that could not have been shouted aloud all over the station. The very vacillation he could not conceal endeared him to her further, filled her with a tender triumph. Let him fall from his high estate and bid her stay! Then he should see that she could be strong, preserving their secret, never betraying it by word, look or deed, while doing all in her power to aid him by proving a true friend to his wife.
“Well,” she said, breaking the tense silence, “what shall I do? There’s no question of ®y being thrown on the world. With a recommendation from Government House I could get other employment.” Then, prompted by the devil, she added: “Or I might marry William Cardale.”
That decided it! He implored her to stay, vowed she should never repent doing so as far as he was concerned, as though (which grimly amused her) he had been entirely to blame for the present situation. Thus she put him in the wrong, allowing him to cherish the false notion that he was enabling her to remain on at Government House free from all apprehension.
“Then I will stay,” she said, “as long as I feel it is possible.”
He turned abruptly, walking away from her into the mist. Her worship went with him as she stood rigid by the railings reviewing all that had passed, not speculating as to the future. The present was sufficient; he had asked her to stay, she had consented to stay. Let everything slip back into place, she an unobtrusive member of the household, honoured by Lady Rochford’s friendship to which she had no intention of being false; he The Unapproachable, the good husband and stepfather, whom no one would suspect of having fallen in love with the governess!
It was the least she could do for him short of making herself scarce; she was no snake in the grass; never would she raise a finger to cause trouble between him and his wife, quite outside the fact that should Lady Rochford’s suspicions once be aroused, ignominious dismissal must follow. For an instant she beheld herself banished from all sight and sound of her beloved! Such a prospect influenced her as much as any sense of rectitude. What a shameful mixture of motives!
She lingered long on the road, indifferent to the rain that now fell heavily again. The smell of rank vegetation and sopped earth was as perfume to her nostrils; the rush of water adown the drains, the drumming on the roofs of scattered dwellings made melody in her ears; she was full of false courage, victim to a delirious emotion that yet, deep down in her heart, she knew to be dangerous, unpardonable.
No sooner had she reached Government House than she was jerked from her lovesick reveries by the sight of Jenkins lying in wait for Miss Heath’s return, to report---with the species of resentment aroused in some natures by anxiety---that m’lady was feeling queer and had gone to lay down.
“But she’s that contrary she wouldn’t hear of me sending for the doctor,” fumed Jenkins while hurriedly divesting Annabel of a dripping coat and even stooping, in both senses, to unlace the pair of wet shoes. “And there’s Sir Temple not back yet---gone off, I don’t doubt, on one of his crazy rambles like a sleep-walker, caring nothing for nobody. Do see, miss, what you can do with her ladyship.”
It was the first time Jenkins had let herself go in the governess’s presence. The very fact of her omitting to add Heath after Miss, and that she should be acting lady’s maid where such services were not due argued genuine perturbation. Annabel shared the woman’s concern, and, once kempt, she hastened to the door of the big bedroom.
“Can I come in?” she called. And not waiting for permission, she entered the spacious apartment that was decorated ornately in a colour scheme of purple and gold. Lady Rochford was lying on a couch wrapped in a handsome brocade negligé to match; her face was buried in a purple and gold cushion.
“Who is it?” she exclaimed sharply, looking round. Then, seeing Annabel, she laughed hysterically. “Oh! it’s only you! Come in; don’t be frightened---I’m not dying.”
“Jenkins told me,” began Annabel, shocked at the other’s appearance. Lady Rochford seemed to have aged by at least ten years.
“Bother Jenkins, tiresome creature! though I know she means well. The truth is——” She gazed at Annabel with tear-stained eyes, hesitating. “Can I depend on you?”
“Of course you can depend on me.”
Lady Rochford stirred restlessly. “Don’t speak in that huffy sort of way. I can’t bear it.”
“I’m not huffy. Why should I be? I only meant——”
“Oh---all right, all right! I’m so distracted I hardly know what I’m saying. Do sit down; don’t stand staring at me.”
Annabel drew a chair forward and seated herself beside the couch. Clearly Lady Rochford’s condition was due to mental not physical suffering.
“Tell me what’s the matter,” she said gently, feeling like two separate persons, the one athrill with curiosity, the other moved by sympathetic concern for a fellow creature in distress.
“No, I can’t tell you what’s the matter.” She locked her hands and wrung them. “I can only tell you I’ve had hideous news. I’m driven nearly demented. I must keep it to myself and pretend to be ill. I am ill, with worry and shock.”
“Isn’t there anything I can do?”
“Yes, there is!” replied Lady Rochford eagerly. “You can head Temple off, keeping him away from me on any pretext till I have time to pull myself together. Tell him I’m nervy and cross and don’t want to be disturbed before dinner-time. He knows only too well that I’m given to moods. You can work upon that.”
“I’ll do my best,” Annabel assured her, “but I don’t quite see——”
“Never mind if you don’t; you’ve got to manage it somehow if you really want to help me. He’d never listen to Jenkins.”
Annabel did wish to help her, but how to set about doing so was a problem. Evidently this was no trifling predicament, but some ugly reality that the distraught woman felt bound to varnish over, at any rate for the present. Scraps of their conversation in the boudoir that evening, when Lady Rochford had hinted at vague fears, recurred to the girl’s memory. Was there some sinister secret in the background that, if brought to light, might wreck the concord between husband and wife?
“I’ll do my best,” she repeated.
“Then please go and do it. I depend on you.”
With a confident wave of her hand Lady Rochford dismissed Annabel, who, full of misgiving, repaired to the front premises, there to watch for Sir Temple’s return. When at last he appeared, drenched to the skin, he eyed her with a certain startled apprehension.
Instantly she announced: “Lady Rochford has asked me to tell you she has a bad headache and is lying down.” That sounded natural. “Just now she is asleep.” That might head him off. “This weather,” she continued in what she felt to be a Jenkins-like manner, “is enough to give anyone neuralgia.”
“Well, we can’t control the weather,” he grunted with a touch of weary impatience, avoiding her gaze. What a contrast to their last meeting such a short time ago! And while she knew that he was but endeavouring to keep their compact she could not stifle a sense of injury. At least he might treat her like a friend, a comrade, instead of snapping at her as though she were merely the governess, and a retailer of unpleasant information. Pique enhanced her desire to aid Lady Rochford, determined her to stick by the woman whose partial confidence she held, whatever the mysterious trouble. Yet, as Sir Temple disappeared without further parley, the understanding of his behaviour warred with this decision. She knew he was a prey to compunction, tortured with an honest hatred of duplicity. Now both husband and wife had something to conceal! And while still in ignorance of Lady Rochford’s secret, how could she judge as to which of the two she owed the most fealty?
Later she sat in the schoolroom, distrait, low-spirited, reading aloud mechanically to the children who were supposed to be occupied with needlework---embroideries intended as birthday offerings to their mother. All the time she was aware that Pamela and Elizabeth were no more interested than she was in the instructive adventures of a family cast away on a desert island; they were scribbling notes to each other, whispering, giggling, fidgeting, sniffing. She made no attempt to check them, only longed for their bedtime that she might be alone to think. But when Jenkins appeared with the welcome summons she also brought a message from Lady Rochford, which she delivered with a jealous incredulous air.
“Her ladyship feels a little better, but not well enough to get up. She wishes me to say she will be obliged if you will join the gentlemen at dinner to-night.” Then she rounded up the children and drove them off.
What else could Annabel do but get hurriedly into a modest black evening dress and present herself in the drawing-room at the correct moment. There she found no one but Mr. Prout, the private secretary, mooning about——a frail-looking, bespectacled individual with a bumpy, prematurely bald forehead, who stared at her as though she were an apparition.
“Lady Rochford isn’t feeling quite the thing to-night,” explained Annabel airily, “and has ‘commanded’ me to keep you company at dinner.”
“To see that we behave ourselves, I suppose!” he said with a languid smile, and continued his wanderings, picking up various articles from the tables and scrutinizing them absent-mindedly. At intervals he sighed.
Then Captain Alexander, the aide-de-camp, dashed in, a handsome young man, evidently put out about something. “Damn it all!” he ejaculated, “there’s a row on——” Then catching sight of Miss Heath he also stared at her in astonishment. Annabel repeated the reason of her presence.
“Well, I’m sorry Lady Rochford’s seedy, but glad you are here to do buffer. It seems I made a hash over the last dinner-party, sent the wrong people in together, and I’ve been all the afternoon thinking how to clear it up, instead of keeping an engagement I particularly wanted to keep. A senior old girl has written a complaint. I know what the Governor will say if I tell him: ‘What are you here for, why can’t you attend to your duties!’ All that kind of thing.”
“You’d better have owned up to him instead of trying to put it right behind his back,” advised Mr. Prout loftily. “He’s always down on any form of evasion or concealment.”
“How could I, when he was out? And it isn’t as if the fate of the Empire depended on it. What do you say, Miss Heath?”
Before Annabel could express an opinion Sir Temple strolled in. The light that flashed into his blue eyes at beholding her was balm to her heart; she hoped the other two men had not noticed it as once more she proceeded, parrotwise, to repeat her little speech.
“Oh, yes,” said the Governor suavely, offering her his arm, “I know. And it is very good of you to take pity on us.”
All through the meal Annabel was speculating---had he really known, had he been to his wife’s room? She made valiant attempts to talk, not to appear conscious of her humble position as she felt Mr. Prout, Captain Alexander and the servants might expect her to be; and Sir Temple played up, quite as much, she suspected, for his own sake as for hers. They discussed books, plays, spiritualism, the latest murder mystery at home. Sir Temple was jocular, cynical, serious by turns. Mr. Prout became argumentative which kept things going; Captain Alexander, with an uneasy conscience, was servile, agreeable anxious to tread on no corns. The atmosphere was difficult, yet Annabel could not help enjoying herself; the dinner was excellent, the wine of the best, and was she not seated beside Sir Temple, conscious that he was glad of her company? When the time came for her to make a move as the only lady present, she said: “Now I’m going to see how Lady Rochford is feeling.”
Sir Temple escorted her himself to the door. “Come back and tell me,” he said. “We shall be in the drawing-room.”
She found Lady Rochford writing a letter. “You’ve come to see how I am?” she asked calmly, raising a white, set face. “Go back and say I’m asleep.”
“I said that before, when Sir Temple came in.”
“Then say it again. He’ll be quite pleased to sit up half the night working at his book and then go to bed in his own room; he does it often enough. To-morrow I shall be able to face him as if nothing had happened beyond one of my nerve storms, and he’s accustomed to them. Then her lips quivered, she threw down the pen and held out her hand. “You blessed thing! Give me a kiss and tell me you like me enough to stand by me through a most horrible trial?”
Gently Annabel kissed the soft fragrant cheek, feeling she would do anything in her power to lighten the trial whatever it might be. While saddened and touched by the other’s faith in her friendship, she was torn with the knowledge that in essence she was a traitor. Here was the chance to make good, to balance her part in the drama. If only Lady Rochford would reveal the cause of her trouble it might make matters easier; but she could hardly press for further confidence now---perhaps it would come later.
Annabel returned to the drawing-room. Mr. Prout was seated at the piano playing a Chopin nocturne with sure delicate touch; the little creature was evidently a musician. Sir Temple and his A.D.C. were standing in front of the fireplace, the younger man rather red in the face. Annabel heard him saying: “It was a bit of carelessness on my part, sir. I’m awfully sorry.”
And Sir Temple responded: “Well, you’ll have to take the blame on yourself. We can give another dinner-party to rectify the mistake.”
“I thought I’d better tell you——”
“Oh, yes,” he smiled indulgently, “confession always saves trouble in the end---ethics apart! But don’t let it happen again, or you’ll find yourself in Lady Rochford’s black books! Better go now and compose your humble apologies so that they can be delivered first thing to-morrow morning, and follow them up with a call. Throw yourself on the injured one’s mercy.”
The youth fled; Annabel took his place. “Lady Rochford is asleep,” she lied.
“Good! Now sit down, and let us listen to our friend’s performance on the piano.” The performance stopped abruptly; Sir Temple called over his shoulder: “Don’t stop, my dear fellow, you have an appreciative audience.” To Annabel he added, as they seated themselves: “He plays divinely, it comforts one’s soul.”
Did it comfort their souls? As the notes stole out again through the vast room Annabel’s soul was racked with longing, every atom of her being wrung painfully in response to the call of the music. Sir Temple covered his eyes with his hand as though to shield them from the light. Both were captives to the disquieting charm of the nocturne, both hearts were overflowing with torment. It was almost more than the girl could bear, yet she sat there steeling her nerves, biting her lips to keep the tears from her eyes. How wrong she had been from first to last, yielding to selfish impulse, self-deception; she ought never to have wormed her way into Government House, yet how could she have foreseen the consequences? At the time the situation had appeared to concern no one but herself; why had she not realized that false conduct was invariably far-reaching, that no human being, however unimportant, could defy conscience without causing trouble to others. Surely this man of rare culture and gentle character whom she loved so completely must grow to hate her for having destroyed his peace of mind, lowering his standard of honesty, presenting an unworthy temptation--- all the more shameful to him in view of his position and his time of life.
It was not too late, she could still trump up some excuse to take herself off, release him from the canker of her presence. Why couldn’t she do it? He had his work, his home, his wife; while she had nothing to lose but a fool’s paradise; precious memories would always be hers, a sense of heroic sacrifice might uphold her; but how empty, how devoid of real consolation! And there, in the big purple and gold bedroom, was that harassed unhappy woman writing letters, depending upon her help and sympathy, ignorant of the true state of affairs. If she stayed might she not be the means of saving some worse situation at whatever cost to herself? She clung in all sophistry to this notion, allowing it to overshadow her leaning towards renunciation. As in a dream she became aware that the music had ceased; as in a dream she saw the baldheaded little man leave the piano, heard him tender his good nights on the plea that he had work to finish. She and Sir Temple were alone; the air seemed to vibrate with a perilous witchery. She made a vague gesture and both of them rose.
“Ah, my dear!” he exclaimed sadly; they looked into each other’s eyes, for a moment the rest of the world mattered nothing to them. Then they drew apart, recovering themselves speedily; the clock on the mantelpiece began to strike, breaking the spell.
They exchanged good nights as though in public, not daring even to shake hands; and Annabel went swiftly from the room. In the vestibule she paused to take breath. Rain was hammering on the glass roof of the veranda, a desolating sound; she felt crushed, despairing, yet at the same time curiously soothed. “Beloved!” she whispered to herself. “My beloved!”
Lady Rochford came into the schoolroom next morning; she was dressed to go out, and except for the heaviness of her eyes she looked much as usual.
It was one of those days that occur during the monsoon when the sun elects to blaze forth, clearing the air exquisitely, overpowering the clouds as if to proclaim his authority to keep them at bay just for so long as it pleased him, while they waited to roll up again or retreat altogether according to the word of command.
“I’m going to the post-office. Can the children come with me, Miss Heath?” she said with mock formality. “It’s a pity to waste a fine morning, and their colds seem better.”
Pamela and Elizabeth flung aside their copybooks, embraced their mother, and pirouetted from the room to make ready.
“Are you fit to be up?” asked Annabel.
Lady Rochford shrugged her shoulders. “Quite fit enough. Don’t forget there is nothing the matter with me now. My ‘nervous attack’ has subsided. I’m only getting over the effects.” She sat down suddenly at the strewn table pressed her hands to her face, and shuddered. “My God! what I suffer, and I’ve no one to turn to!”
“Oh, do tell me!” cried Annabel, “do trust me, if it would give you the smallest relief.”
Lady Rochford looked up at her with a sad yet whimsical expression. “Who was it said ‘Never give gratuitous information’? You know quite enough already; you know I’m in a horrible difficulty. No one can help me. I must just hang on and hope some miracle will happen. Praying is no use; my prayers are never answered. Perhaps if I will hard; some people have a theory that if you want a thing badly enough it comes to pass.”
“You can but try,” said Annabel, at a loss to know what else she could recommend.
“I shall. I’ve got a book about it. One moment it convinces me, the next it makes me laugh. But any port in a storm.”
The children rushed in, noisy, excited.
“Need we wear our gloves?”
“Need we take our umbrellas?”
The trio left the schoolroom in a whirl of expostulation and compromise, shepherded by Jenkins; and in the silence that ensued Annabel pondered over Lady Rochford’s words: “Some people have a theory that if you want a thing badly enough it comes to pass.” A dangerous theory! In her own case, up to a point, had not her desires materialized? Supposing she continued, deliberately, to put forth volition, was it possible—— In a panic she tried to banish the question from her mind, and failed; it clung to her imagination with devilish persistence. As she straightened the litter on the table, then seized a novel and threw herself into an easy chair, she found her thoughts concentrating on one single wish---that something might happen, something that would clear the way to complete fulfilment of her love. She cast aside the book, paced the room in an agony of remonstrance against the demon that seemed to be whispering close in her ear; she felt like a murderess, for what else could the removal of all barriers mean save the death of Zara Rochford! She did not want Lady Rochford to die; yet if Lady Rochford should die——
“Oh, don’t, don’t!” she cried aloud, as though appealing to some unseen power of evil. “Let me alone, give me a chance!”
Her love, her longing for supreme happiness, was an iniquity, and she held no concrete religious convictions to fall back upon, only her conscience that though painfully alive was not strong enough to support her; she felt unable to exert her will in the right direction. Life, up to the time of her mother’s death, had been so free from vital decisions; the path of duty mellowed, eased by mutual devotion and a willing endurance of hard circumstances. Nothing had ever happened to awake feverish longings; it had been just a monotonous round of common tasks devoid of temptations, leavened by tender understanding. She had taken things for granted, only dreaming now and then of the kind of man she could have loved, romantic visions that had taken no definite shape until she had actually seen him for the first time in the flesh. Then Fate had brought her to Pahari with a sort of spiteful pleasure in her weakness, leaving her mercilessly to fight her way along; and she was not fighting, she was taking the line of least resistance, laying down her arms in helpless defeat.
During the next fortnight she saw more of Sir Temple though never in private, and his attitude towards her was politely impassive. Lady Rochford constantly summoned Miss Heath to join the Government House party at meals when company was not expected, but now entertaining increased apace with the prolonged break in the rains, parties raged. Lady Rochford seemed to be living on her nerves, she was restless, excited, exacting; yet no further word did she utter to Annabel concerning the mental distress that was evidently devouring her strength. Captain Alexander confided to the governess that he was nearly off his head with the worry of invitations and contradictory instructions.
“I haven’t a second to myself,” he grumbled to her one day under his breath as they rose from the luncheon table; while Lady Rochford lingered to continue an argument with Mr. Prout on the subject of telepathy, and Sir Temple walked off to his study. “What’s the matter with her? She talks and talks, and half the time she seems hardly to know what she’s saying. I shall ask for leave if this goes on much longer. Hark at her now!”
Lady Rochford was standing in the bow window haranguing her patient listener.
“I don’t agree with you at all,” she was saying heatedly. “How can anyone tell what another person is thinking?”
“It does happen,” was the obstinate answer. “It’s a relic of some faculty before speech became easy---something some of us retain to our cost though it’s no longer needed, like the appendix! Animals communicate without the power of speech, we do it still on occasions, subconsciously, whether we want to or not. Perhaps it’s a fact that speech was given us to conceal our thoughts, but sometimes if our thoughts are sufficiently powerful they get beyond our control and become articulate to another mind ready to receive them.”
“That’s only what you think,” protested Lady Rochford, “but it don’t follow it’s true. Nobody knows anything of that sort. You can’t say you believe any more than you can say you disbelieve. The very word belief argues doubt.”
“Well, does it matter?”
“Not in the least,” she retorted abruptly; and she followed Annabel, overtaking her in the corridor.
“Do come to my room,” she said urgently. “That little wretch has frightened me. He’s so brainy and weird and cocksure. He may be right!”
She practically pushed Annabel into the boudoir, and once there she gave way.
“I can’t stand it, I can’t bear it. The strain is too awful. The cable I asked for may come any day now. And if Temple has guessed---if he has read my thoughts---I wish to Heaven I’d never started the subject. I wanted reassurance because I had a feeling that somehow Temple suspects, and now I’m more terrified than ever. Lately he’s been different, ever since that day he went to Mrs. Swiverdale’s meeting and I had the hideous news. Oh, Annabel, is it possible that thoughts can be transmitted?”
“Of course not,” maintained Annabel stoutly, “or else where should we all be! You yourself have been different for the last couple of weeks, and that has made Sir Temple anxious, worried about you; he’s afraid you’re not well. As to secrets, most of us have them. I dare say Sir Temple has his, but they haven’t been ‘transmitted’ to you!”
“One has, at any rate. I know it without his ever having put it into words. He has never been in love with me, he has never been in love in his life, he’s only fond of me. But when we met abroad in the same hotel I got to care for him so desperately that I stopped at nothing to make him marry me. It wasn’t very difficult. I told lies and deceived him; it all seemed quite safe at the time. I never imagined for a moment that there was the smallest danger. And now something entirely unexpected has happened “
She broke off, choked with despair.
“Tell him,” advised Annabel. “Tell him all about it.”
She suspected that Lady Rochford’s secret had to do with her reputed wealth. Perhaps she had exaggerated her fortune, perhaps in reality it belonged to her children and she had no right to expend it, or to have dangled it in front of the man with whom she had fallen in love. The day of reckoning had come.
“Tell him! My good idiot, don’t you realize what he is, the soul of honour and integrity! No, I can’t tell him, and as long as I’m certain he has no inkling of the truth I can hold on in the hope that I may find a way out of the tangle. When the cable comes I must decide what to do. I may have to go to America!”
“But how will you account for that?”
“I can account for it on the score of business. He has never interfered with my financial concerns. He isn’t that sort of man. I should only have to say it was necessary for me to go and settle up some intricate point connected with money and lawyers.”
“Then do try not to worry. You’ll break down altogether if you go on like this.”
“No, I shan’t break down. Perhaps I might if I hadn’t you to talk to---you’re a Heaven-sent comfort. But it’s not the smallest use telling me not to worry. I don’t repent having made a gigantic mistake, my motives condoned it, and now, as it happens, I’ve got to face unforeseen consequences.”
She stood silent, taking command of her mind and her body, looking splendid, a queenly courageous creature, tortured though she was with trepidation. Surely, thought Annabel, such grit must have its reward.
When Lady Rochford spoke again her voice was clear and firm.
“What I want to feel sure about,” she said, laying her hand caressingly on the girl’s shoulder, “is this---that you are willing to stay at your post looking after my children if I am forced for a time to leave them and my husband?”
Annabel looked into the trusting dark eyes. How could she refuse? Yet her heart sank.
“Yes, I would stay,” she promised slowly, “at any rate, until you came back. But wouldn’t it give rise to---to talk if I stayed and there was no——”
Lady Rochford supplied the word for which Annabel’s bewildered mind was searching. “No chaperon, you mean? I hadn’t thought of that. Of course, you are perfectly safe with Temple, but I quite see the possibility of gossip; all the cats miaowing: ‘Fancy Lady Rochford going off and leaving her husband with that pretty governess!’ There’s no denying you are a pretty governess, my dear, and Temple is such a darling old fool he’d probably make a companion of you, and so place you in an awkward position; nothing would convince him why he shouldn’t. We should have to find somebody to preserve appearances. How Mrs. Swiverdale would delight in it!”
Annabel shivered and marvelled when Lady Rochford laughed, how anyone so overwrought could feel even faintly amused.
Another day passed without, so far as Annabel knew, the expected cable having arrived. On the following morning Lady Rochford visited the schoolroom, this time to inquire with forced gaiety if the children would like to have a party in celebration of her birthday next week; if so, they must make out a list of invitations at once.
Annabel could scarcely believe her ears as she listened; there might have been nothing in the way, no burden on the mind of this laughing, indulgent mother whose faculty for pretence was truly amazing. Was it credible that even before her birthday she might be on her way to Bombay!
Neither Pamela nor Elizabeth wanted a party, invitations meant bother; instead, they demanded a whole holiday, with permission to do exactly as they pleased from morning till night, and, if it was fine, a tea picnic. The two pairs of bright eyes turned hopefully towards the windows---not a cloud in the sky, it seemed likely that the break in the rains would continue.
“Yes, if it’s still fine we’ll have a picnic,” agreed Lady Rochford. “If not, we’ll play hide-and-seek all over the house.”
The children clapped their hands.
Just at that moment the stout pompous head peon marched into the room with a salver on which lay a telegram. Annabel caught her breath. Lady Rochford took up the yellow envelope carelessly, barely glancing at it.
“There will be no answer,” she told the man, who salaamed and withdrew.
Still smiling at the two little girls, she said: “Now both of you run away and ask Jenkins to take you into the garden. You can finish your lessons presently. I want to talk to Miss Heath and make her tell me about all the wicked things you have been doing lately!”
They skipped off laughing, and for a few seconds Lady Rochford stood rigid, silent; all the artificial animation had left her face. Then she sat down and tore open the envelope. Annabel averted her eyes, waited, until she heard a slight sound as of paper fluttering to the floor. She looked round; Lady Rochford had fainted; the telegram lay on the carpet beside the chair, together with the envelope. Quickly Annabel retrieved both and concealed them in the front of her dress as she rushed off to her own bedroom for water and smelling salts.
To her unbounded relief it was not long before Lady Rochford revived; no need to call Jenkins at present, or do aught that might connect the collapse with the arrival of the telegram---the last thing, she knew, that the overwrought victim of ill news would desire.
“You’re better now,” she said, rubbing the cold limp hands as Lady Rochford opened her eyes and gave a long tremulous sigh, whispered between sips of water: “What did I do---did I faint?”
“Only for a moment. Shall I get you some brandy?”
“No, no; I’m all right. Don’t let anyone know. Thank Heaven I was with you. Where is the cable?”
Annabel produced it, gave it into her keeping. “You dropped it, I picked it up---in case anybody should see it.”
“And didn’t read it, I’m sure; you little saint!”
“No, I didn’t read it.”
“Oh! I’m all to pieces,” she moaned. “It’s reaction. I can’t realize it’s true. What mercy!”
“Then wasn’t the news bad?” Annabel could not refrain from asking. “You won’t have to go away?”
“No, I shan’t have to go away, but I feel so ill---it’s the strain, the strain, and now the sudden relief! I needn’t hold out any longer---I can rest---I must rest.” Her voice trailed off; again her eyes closed, again by means of the smelling salts and a wet handkerchief Annabel restored her to consciousness, and advised her going to bed if she felt able to move.
With Annabel’s help she struggled to her feet. Now her face was flushed, the pulses in her temples throbbed visibly; yet she got through the journey to her bedroom without further collapse, and providentially they met no one en route. Soon Lady Rochford was undressed and in bed; the telegram, according to her directions, was safely locked away in a dispatch-box, and the chain to which the key was attached rehung about her neck. Catching sight of a clinical thermometer on the dressing-table, Annabel said firmly: “I’m going to take your temperature.”
The patient submitted and fortunately did not ask to be told the result, which was alarming; she lay exhausted, in a sort of coma. Annabel glanced at the little gilt clock on the mantelpiece. It was midday. Sir Temple would be in his private room; she must tell him his wife was ill, the doctor must be summoned, perhaps a nurse would be needed. And Jenkins---Jenkins was somewhere in the garden with the children.
As she left the room she felt stupefied, oppressed with a sense that somehow she was to blame for this crisis; had she not allowed herself to wish---to wish Lady Rochford had also wished desperately, and it seemed had obtained her desire. Was she to pay for it with a serious illness, perhaps with her life? Had their desires clashed? Was it to be a demoniacal fight? If so, who would win?
In the corridor she encountered a servant, bade him find Jenkins and tell her to go to the lady-sahib’s room without delay. She was thankful to find Mr. Prout with Sir Temple; it made things easier. Both men looked round interrogatively, resentful of interruption.
“Lady Rochford has been taken ill,” she announced in a voice she hardly recognized as her own. “I’m afraid it’s serious, her temperature is very high.”
Mr. Prout stepped backward, glancing from Miss Heath to Sir Temple, who pushed away a pile of papers and rose.
“Telephone for the doctor,” he said abruptly to his secretary. To Annabel he added: “Is Jenkins with her?”
“I expect so by this time. I sent for her, she was in the garden with the children.”
Why explain that? What did it matter where Jenkins was to be found? But Annabel could not still her tongue. Sir Temple’s calm self-possession seemed to urge it to wag as together they hurried from the room. “Lady Rochford was with us in the schoolroom making plans for her birthday. She sent the children out because she wanted to speak to me about them, and then suddenly she fainted. For some time past she hasn’t been well.”
“I thought perhaps you hadn’t noticed,” she continued, unable to stop herself talking.
“I had,” he said curtly, as if to silence her.
Now they were at the door of the bedroom; she would have followed him inside, but on the threshold he paused and said over his shoulder: “Jenkins is here. You had better find the children and keep them quiet.”
At once she turned and fled to the schoolroom, clenching her hands, biting her lips. Control and smother her feelings she must and would. The children were still out of doors, and before seeking them she vowed from that moment to efface herself, to keep strictly in the background until Lady Rochford should have recovered. Then she would go, break away once for all from this fettering influence, have done with divided allegiance. Yet, as long as she lived, as long as she could breathe and think, would she ever be free from the passion that devoured her heart and her brain, her very nerves and her blood? Now she recognized how she had hoped that Lady Rochford might be obliged to cross the seas. What unlimited opportunities such obligation would have provided for the slaking of her thirst for Sir Temple’s company, even though the draughts must have been in the nature of poison! That chance was over; but another and more evil possibility remained in the background of her mind. Had not relief and reaction from despair been known to kill? Something very serious had been troubling Lady Rochford; the cable had removed a torturing fear, while at the same time it had acted as a physical injury from which recovery might be difficult, perhaps impossible! Detesting herself, horrified at these thoughts, Annabel went in search of the children, brought them in tractable and subdued by the knowledge that their mother was ill.
Late in the afternoon Jenkins called Miss Heath from the schoolroom with an air of secretive importance.
“The doctor’s been---it took a time to get at him, there’s such a lot of sickness about; but she slept on and off till he came. He said he can’t tell yet, but he thinks it’s only just that she’s overdone. That’s what I thinks myself. Always on the go, a wonder she’s held out so long! He wanted to send in a nurse, but she wouldn’t have one; got excited, and said she’d get up if he did. So he give way on condition she’s sat up with to-night. I told him you and me could manage that. If you don’t mind putting the young ladies to bed, miss, I’ll take the first half of the night and call you about two o’clock.”
Of course, Annabel agreed, despite her vow to keep solely to schoolroom duties. If Sir Temple had asked her to sit up with his wife she might have refused, reminding him that she was there merely to look after the children and keep them quiet according to his cold command given on the threshold of Lady Rochford’s bedroom. She knew perfectly well that she could not have done so, but the false notion that she was willing to help Jenkins, not Sir Temple, solaced her outraged feelings.
Therefore she took her place at the hour appointed by Jenkins, the two of them creeping, whispering, as they exchanged places beside the still form on the bed.
“Sleep’s what she needs,” breathed Jenkins. “If she wakes give her that,” pointing to a medicine bottle as she tiptoed from the room. And there’s the brandy.”
Annabel settled herself in an easy chair; the light was dim, no use attempting to read; she must watch and wait, fight all inclination to slumber. It would have been easier had Lady Rochford needed attention; as it was, she felt crushed by an intolerable feeling of helpless distress, a disgust with everything; her own life, her own dreams; above all, with the stillness of the perfumed room which had been shared by the man she loved. She thought of her long vigil beside Mrs. Cardale. How different! The heat and the dreariness, the dust, and the doves---then Death! Also of Mrs. Lynex’s warning: “and if the husband made love to you——”
One husband had made love to her; and (she could have laughed aloud cynically) she had made love to the other, forcing him to admit that he cared for her! She might have married the first, whom she did not love; she could never marry the second, whom she did, unless Oh, would nothing quench these horrible thoughts? They gathered about her like unclean birds attracted by carrion; she must sit here at their mercy unable to beat them off, fit food for their evil appetites.
A little ivory crucifix hung on the wall beside the bed. She gazed at it, tried to pray; no words would come, but presently as if in answer to her dumb supplication Lady Rochford stirred muttered something. Instantly Annabel was alert, ready to administer a dose of the medicine.
“That you, Annabel?”
“Yes, don’t talk and you will go to sleep again.”
“I want to talk. What time is it?”
“Nearly three o’clock.”
“Night or day?”
“Sit down close to me, give me your hand.” Annabel obeyed.
“You know so much already I should like to tell you the rest.”
“Not now, it isn’t good for you to talk now. In a day or two “
“Oh, don’t argue with me---only listen. I know I can trust you, I must get the whole thing off my chest, and I’ve no one but you. You will understand. That cable---you put it away so that nobody can see it?”
“Yes, don’t you remember? I locked it up in the dispatch-box, and the key is on the chain round your neck.”
“You take the key. If I should die will you promise me to burn all the papers in the box?
Her grasp of Annabel’s hand tightened, and she half raised her head. The medicine seemed to have roused rather than soothed her. “Don’t hesitate, promise! Take the chain off my neck.”
Annabel took it. “Very well, I promise,” she said, with the key in the palm of her free hand.
“I don’t suppose you’ll have to keep your promise, but one never knows. It’s best to be on the safe side.”
“I wish you wouldn’t try to talk. If you’re worse in the morning it will be my fault for letting you.”
“I shall be worse if I don’t talk! No one can hear us, and you needn’t say anything about it---in fact, you’ve got to give me another promise, that you’ll keep all I want to tell you entirely to yourself, always, for ever.” As if taking it for granted that the promise had been accorded, she went on rapidly: “Do you think if one wishes for a person’s death and that person dies one’s wish has anything to do with it?”
Annabel shuddered. “Certainly not,” she answered, steadying her voice, “but one would naturally repent the wish, feel remorseful.”
Lady Rochford’s eyes glittered. “I don’t repent and I don’t feel remorseful, yet I wished with all my might that my husband would die, and that cable yesterday told me he was dead.”
“Your husband!” gasped Annabel; surely Lady Rochford was delirious; beneath her fingers she could feel the pulse racing, the skin was hot and dry. “But, my dear, Sir Temple is alive and well.”
“Temple isn’t my husband. Ah! That has given you a shock? And no wonder. Never mind, he doesn’t know, and he never shall if I can help it. Now there’s no reason why he should.”
The whole room seemed to rise and whirl about Annabel’s head. She sat petrified, unable to believe that Lady Rochford had spoken the truth. If it was the truth Sir Temple was free, and in that case---in that case she was bound by an unspoken, yet understood, vow of silence.
“I can’t---I don’t,” she stammered. Of course, she ought to ignore this extraordinary statement, refuse to listen to further revelations that were probably the delusions of a disordered mind. Conscientiously she made an attempt to silence Lady Rochford, a half-hearted attempt, she was aware, but sterner measures would not have availed to stem the wild, impossible story that poured from the other’s lips; gabble, gabble, the words were mixed up but sufficiently coherent for Annabel, listening with strained attention, to follow the gist of what Lady Rochford was trying to relate, whether false or true. A girl with no home, no money, little education, shunted by a stepmother on to distant and unwilling relations in London, where eventually she had met Regent, a rich American; a more or less forced marriage; then some years of luxurious but unhappy existence in New York. How the man made his money his wife did not know; there was some mystery; and until a financial crash came she was ignorant that a large, fortune had been invested in England and settled upon herself and her children, no creditor could touch it, they were still rich though Regent was branded as a swindler, a fraudulent bankrupt. Before punishment could be inflicted he had gone mad.
“I had a good friend, a clever lawyer,” gasped Lady Rochford, nearing the end of her strength, “he helped me. We put my husband into a private asylum where he had every comfort and care---I could pay anything---I paid through this friend, and I ran away, took the children out of the country; we wandered about on the Continent---until I met Temple, and then---and then——” She burst into piteous weeping.
“Oh, stop!” cried Annabel. “Don’t tell me any more. Indeed, I understand; indeed, I sympathize. You really must spare yourself. Think of Sir Temple, think of his anxiety if you aren t better in the morning.”
Lady Rochford paid no heed to her entreaty; with a sudden renewal of vitality she went on: “I can’t stop, I can’t. I know you think I’m off my head, but I’m not. That day, when was it? I don’t remember, but the day you came and found me on the sofa I’d had a letter from the lawyer telling me my husband had recovered his reason, that he was going to be let out, but that it wasn’t likely he would live much longer. I cabled that I would come, and asked for further news. I hoped, and I wished and I willed that he might die at once, so that I needn’t go.” She sat upright, stared hungrily into Annabel’s eyes. “Did I kill him? Did I kill him?”
“No, no; of course you didn’t kill him,” soothed Annabel, “and it’s a mercy for his own sake as well as yours that he died. Drink this, and you will go to sleep.”
The brandy did its work. With a long sigh Lady Rochford turned on her side and closed her eyes; at first there were little restless movements, but soon she lay still, her breathing grew regular, her hand felt moist and cool. Annabel gently withdrew her own from the now relaxed grasp. Probably the worst was over; in a few days the exhausted creature might be herself again, relieved from dread, able to communicate with the good and clever lawyer friend who, well supplied with necessary funds, could no doubt be trusted to cover up the sordid story, bury the past beyond all danger of exhumation. Still, to Annabel the story seemed hard to believe. Could any woman of Lady Rochford’s class have dared to carry through such a deception, commit bigamy, run the risk deliberately of exposure and disgrace’? Yet, love was known to drive human beings of either sex to any extreme. She asked herself, had she been in Lady Rochford’s place, how would she have acted? Lady Rochford!---unless the poor thing had been wandering in her mind---she was not Lady Rochford.
Evidence lay in the dispatch-box, and the key of the box was in Annabel’s hand. Had she not promised to burn the contents in a certain event? Could there be any harm in looking now at the papers, just to know, to make sure? No breach of confidence was involved; she would be doing nothing technically wrong or treacherous. Cautiously she looked round the darkened room. All was silent, secure, no fear of interruption. She lit a candle and shielded the flame with a pile of books; then she unlocked the box.
Later, when she had locked it again, blown out the candle, she sat motionless at the table endeavouring to marshal her thoughts into some sort of order. The whole thing was true, true beyond any manner of doubt. If Sir Temple could know, what would be his decision? A secret re-marriage or, avoiding open scandal, a quiet separation from the woman who had tricked him into a false tie? It was in her power to open his eyes, to acquaint him with the deception that had been practised upon him. Affection, gratitude, respect must surely dissolve into anger and disgust on his part; but how about his sense of honour and duty, what he might consider to be the right thing to do; would love for herself, Annabel Heath, overcome that? The trend of her mental arguments swung round; she was in possession of a secret, imparted to her in confidence; no one but a double-dyed traitor would dream of betraying it! She was bound by all the laws of faith and tradition; she must stand aside and see every chance of happiness recede from her grasp without the smallest hope of fulfilment. It seemed as if one half of her being had become detached and was floating away beyond recall; lassitude overmastered her; she could think no longer, made no effort to do so, just sat listening supinely to the gentle breathing of the form on the bed, noting the light of dawn s coming, waiting for Jenkins and release from her watch in the sick room.
The break in the rains lasted. Lady Rochford’s birthday was heralded with sunshine. All had gone well, her recovery had been rapid; only as a precaution, explained the civil surgeon, had he kept his patient in bed for so long. Now there was no fear of relapse; she might get up to-day after luncheon, to-morrow after breakfast, then perhaps resume her ordinary mode of existence.
She was sitting up in bed looking radiant, dainty, in a rose-coloured silk jacket when Annabel came to tender her salutations and a little birthday offering which was accepted with exaggerated expressions of pleasure and thanks. The children’s visit, with their presents, was over; Jenkins had ushered them in betimes; paper and string bestrewed the coverlet.
“You’ve seen their work, of course; chosen by themselves, needless to say, poor darlings,” said their mother, displaying a grubby set of mats and a hideous cretonne bag. “So sweet of them, when I know they hate sewing as much as I do. You must have had a time of it getting them to finish these works of art!”
“They were quite keen about them,” Annabel assured her, not with entire truth, for there had been one or two scenes of rebellion, tears had fallen on the caricatures in coloured silks of forget-me-nots, pansies, rosebuds, etc.
“And look!” The convalescent held out for inspection a pendant of skilled Indian workmanship. “This is what Temple has given me. He said it was a ‘nau-ratana,’ the nine lucky jewels; he had it made specially, of the best stones procurable. It was sweet of him, wasn’t it? and so odd that he should have thought of a charm, for that is what it is---a charm against ill-luck.”
“Let us hope it will work,” said Annabel pleasantly.
She felt as if she had been living in a dream since that fateful night when she had learned the true state of affairs. So far Lady Rochford had not alluded to the subject again; either she was unconscious of having made the confession, or, with the buoyancy of her nature, had shelved the whole thing, banished all uneasiness from her mind. But now Annabel’s well-meant remark brought a slightly anxious look into the handsome face.
“Why do you say that? I needn’t ‘will’ or fear any longer. Have you forgotten what I fold you?”
“No. But I thought you might have forgotten having told me.”
“Of course I haven’t. Telling you relieved me beyond all words. If I had died, you would have kept your promise and destroyed all those beastly papers in the box. Now I can destroy them myself when I’ve finally settled things up, and that won’t take long to do. And as I didn’t die, and don’t mean to at present, I know my horrid secret is as safe as if I burnt you with the papers! You see, I thought perhaps I might die, and then if I hadn’t told you and got your promise, Temple would have found the papers, and I couldn’t bear to think of his knowing.”
The fact that further communications must have come from America to be opened by Sir Temple in the event of her decease did not seem to have occurred to the culprit, or, if it had, the thought disturbed her no longer. Why should it, she would have argued, had Annabel put forward the contingency. All was plain sailing for the future, according to Lady Rochford’s point of view; nothing to worry about, nothing to dread; she was safe. A curious attitude of mind, to Annabel incomprehensible. But there it was, and no object could be gained by voicing suppositions or doubts. She admired the pendant, agreed that it was “sweet” of Sir Temple to have thought of such an original and delightful gift, listened while the other pattered on.
“I quite expected he would have forgotten all about my birthday. You know what a dreamy old angel he is; and then he would have been so self-reproachful and apologetic, and I should have kissed him and declared I didn’t care two pins about presents as long as he loved me.” Then she whimpered suddenly: “Oh! my goodness, how true it is, that old French saying: ‘Il y a toujours un qui baise et un qui tends le main’” Then she laughed. “What a fool I am! I’ve got him, he’s mine, and nothing, nothing can take him away from me now.”
Tears mingled with her laughter; she dabbed her eyes with an absurd little coloured handkerchief. The subtle scent on it floated towards Annabel, and sickened her. Her own life was in ruins, empty, desolate; while here was this woman in illegal possession of all that would have been so precious to her heart. Lady Rochford sipped something from a glass at her bedside. “I didn’t mean to give way. I shan’t do it again. I’ve won, and I’m thankful. Don’t let us speak of it any more. Look here, I’m a little bothered about Temple; he’s seedy, not quite himself. What has he been doing since I had to stay in bed?---over-walking, over-working? It’s no use asking him questions when he comes to see me in here; he only stays a few minutes at a time, and behaves as if he was in church!”
“I’ve seen little or nothing of him,” said Annabel, “a great deal less than you have. I don’t know what he has been doing---probably walking a lot, the weather has kept so fine. Can the rains be over?”
“I hope they aren’t, because he said the other day that if this break continues he would have to run down to the plains. Why haven’t you seen anything of him?”
“The children have taken up my time.”
“Oh, nonsense! You could have dined with him. Didn’t he ask you?”
“How stupid of him. I suppose he didn’t think of it; so like him! It’s quite time I was up. Left to himself, he just dreams and works and walks, and eats nothing. And he didn’t go to church on Sunday; I got that much out of him. What did he do instead?”
“I didn’t ask. I took the children; Captain Alexander and Mr. Prout came too.”
“You and Temple haven’t got the wrong side of each other by any chance, have you?”
“Oh dear no. Why should we?”
“Then that’s all right. Now about the picnic for the children this afternoon. We promised they should have one for my birthday. Of course I can’t go, but I told Temple this morning that you and he must take them, or they’d be so disappointed.”
“And what did he say?” inquired Annabel, her spirits rising.
Lady Rochford looked slightly surprised. “Say?---of course he said ‘Yes,’ and suggested the forest bungalow; he always rushes to it when he can---he writes there, or something, and I dare say it’s a good spot for a picnic. Jenkins could go, too; it would be a treat for her and put her in a good temper. She has been wearing herself out looking after me, and is as cross as the tongs. Do go and arrange it all, there’s a dear soul. You can have my rickshaw and Jenkins can have your dandy, the children have their ponies, and Temple will walk or ride. I shall be all right. I’m to get up after luncheon, and Mr. Prout can come and talk to me, if I want anybody to talk to; he’s quite an interesting little freak.” She looked at the jewelled watch on her wrist. Be off now and give the orders; you’ll want sandwiches and cakes, and the servants must start ahead with all the paraphernalia.”
Annabel rose to obey orders, but before she left the room she said: “You’ll remind Sir Temple? He might forget.”
“Yes, yes, I’ll remind him. I’ll tell him he must be ready to start about three o’clock. If he isn’t, just send him a message.”
There was no need to do that. The cortège started more or less punctually. Miss Heath led the way in Lady Rochford’s rickshaw. Sir Temple handed her into it himself, his eyes lowered, his manner courteous but not cordial, and when the children were on their ponies and Jenkins installed in Miss Heath’s dandy, he mounted his horse and followed after.
Up and down the narrow pathways they went. The air was crystal clear, full of sunshine, full of the fragrance of luxuriant growth, green moss and ferns; crickets shrilled from rocky banks. For Annabel it was a joyous journey; at the end of it there must surely be some sort of human intercourse between herself and Sir Temple; they would have to play up, combine to make pleasure for the children; all stiffness must melt, even though the melting might go no deeper than the surface.
Arrived at the forest bungalow, they found tea prepared within, at which Pamela and Elizabeth protested. This wasn’t a picnic; picnics were always out of doors. They appealed to Miss Heath and their stepfather, opposing Jenkins’ opinion that tea would be more comfortable with tables and chairs.
Sir Temple consulted Miss Heath, who backed up the children, and the meal was removed to the level ledge of ground outside the bungalow.
“After all, it’s their show,” said Sir Temple, as he stood beside Annabel watching the transference; “they must be allowed to do as they like on their mother’s birthday, especially as she can’t be here.”
His tone was friendly; Annabel met it in the same spirit. “Yes, it’s such hard luck on you all, but thank goodness Lady Rochford is better, and she will be quite well in a day or two.”
She felt his eyes turned on her with a questioning glance, and she moved away to assist Jenkins and the servants with the setting out of the eatables. When they all sat down, supported with cushions, she placed herself purposely apart from him, listened while he made jokes with the children and Jenkins, joining in now and then with forced hilarity, all the time conscious that he was watching her covertly. Once when she had an opportunity she regarded him for a moment with close attention. Lady Rochford was right; he had altered in some indefinable way. Not that he had grown thinner or looked older; he was just as attractive, just as striking with his fine features, his crisp grey hair and remarkably blue eyes; but something was lacking. It was as if he had come through some mental conflict which had wearied his spirit. A passion of love and pitying sympathy flooded her heart; all the rancour caused by his coldness fell away, leaving her with but one longing, a consuming desire to help him, to save him from future trouble, to smooth his path in life so far as lay in her power. She of all people should not be the one to increase his suffering; rather she must do her utmost to lighten it.
The voices of Pamela and Elizabeth broke in on her thoughts. Might they scramble down the hill? Might they look for flowers? Might they climb trees? Though their appeals were addressed to Annabel, Sir Temple answered them before she could do so.
“Yes, anything you like, if Jenkins goes with you.”
Jenkins glowered, and the children demanded Miss Heath’s company.
“Miss Heath is tired, and so am I,” said Sir Temple lazily. “If Jenkins is tired too, then you must play about here. Are you tired Jenkins?”
The woman succumbed to his engaging glance and voice.
“No, sir; I will mind the young ladies.”
Her tone conveyed censure of Miss Heath’s vicarious evasion of duty, but if Sir Temple wished for Miss Heath’s company it was not for her, Jenkins, to stand in the way. Offended, reluctant, she disappeared with the impatient children among the foliage that clothed the hillside.
Sir Temple rose and stretched his limbs. “Oh, for a chair! Let us go into the bungalow while all this mess is being carted away.”
He gave orders to the servants in charge, who swooped down on the débris, glad to pack and start homeward without delay. Annabel followed him into the living-room, that was roughly furnished save for a couple of comfortable camp chairs; these he dragged to the doorway, and she seated herself, leaned back. It was a relief after the irksome picnic posture on the ground. Sir Temple lit a cigar; Annabel gazed out at the wondrous landscape, mellowed by a soft haze, so calm and serene, so grand and so vast. Yet she well knew how appalling it could appear, darkened, defaced, violated by tempest Had she not seen it that evening——
The dear voice roused her from the lethargy that had fallen on her senses. The man was bending forward, regarding her intently.
“Yes?” she murmured, hardly yet freed from the spell. Could it be a dream, was he really beside her---was he about to utter words that her whole being ached and yearned to hear from his lips? As if he read her longing, indeed only too explicit in her love-lit eyes, he looked away.
“Yes?” she repeated breathlessly.
“Do you know what has been the real cause of my wife’s illness?”
The reaction was shattering. This unexpected question, so entirely beside anything she had anticipated, fell like a lump of ice into the glow of her entrancement. To ask her this he had manœuvred to be alone with her, had in such wily fashion got rid of Jenkins and the children, even the servants! Then hope flamed up again, ran like fire through her veins. Was it possible that he knew---that, believing her to be ignorant, he meant to tell her he was free? If he would only look at her, give her the smallest clue, instead of sitting there, his face averted, smoking furiously---the only sign of agitation he betrayed.
“What did you say?” She could think of no other subterfuge in order to gain time.
“I asked you if you knew the real cause of my wife’s illness.”
“The doctor---the doctor said it was a case of nervous exhaustion.”
“Yes. But what exhausted her nerves to such a point?”
“She is like that, very highly strung.”
He threw away his cigar, stood up, walked into the narrow veranda, and after a few moments came back. Now she could see his face; it was harassed and drawn.
“You don’t answer my question,” he said, halting before her. “Do you know, or don’t you, what has been wearing her out body and mind?”
“Do you?” she counter-charged boldly.
“I’m not sure. I have thought, perhaps——”
“You have thought, perhaps——?” she echoed, catching at the respite of his pause.
“Look here, Annabel,” he burst out, gazing down at her with a sudden rough tenderness that set her trembling in every limb, “you must know what I mean. The time has come for plain speaking. Does she suspect, has it entered her head about you and me? Is that at the bottom of it?”
“No!” she cried. “No!”
“You are certain?”
“Yes, I swear it. She and I are friends. I am fond of her, she trusts me; and I have felt such a traitor---I would never, never do anything——”
Annabel stopped, confused by the turn things had taken.
“Neither would I,” he said resolutely. “We both know what she is: warm-hearted, generous, straightforward. It would break her heart to think——”
“She doesn’t think anything of that sort.”
“Then what is it? Something beyond the usual cry of ‘doing too much’ has been undermining her strength, and I feel I must know what it is. I believe you when you say it has nothing to do with---with you and me. Some difficulty connected with her unhappy past life may have cropped up; she has been through deep waters. I have never quite known all the circumstances; I have never asked for them. Has she told you anything that would account for her breakdown?”
Oh, how little he knew what had “cropped up”! And by all the laws of friendship and faith and honour she could not tell him. That was her first feeling; then came the tempting remembrance that she had given no pledge, was bound by no spoken promise. A fierce desire to enlighten him turned her hot and cold; she argued with herself that at any moment proof of the false position might fall into his hands; anything might happen to acquaint him with the truth; she did not share Lady Rochford’s certainty of security. Surely he ought to know, if only that he might rectify and condone the hideous mistake?
But in that case the two could never be happy together again. And (it was the thought that decided her) it would be worse, so much worse for him if it were she who opened his eyes. Best let him take his chance; it was conceivable that Lady Rochford’s quick wits would contrive to obliterate all danger of revelation---barring accidents. Temptation turned tail, leaving the field clear to her inherent sense of loyalty and fair dealing.
She even managed to smile, with every appearance of candour, and declared Lady Rochford had told her nothing beyond that she had suffered sorely in the past. But as she saw doubt and anxiety fade from his face she could not resist playing with the question. “And even supposing there had been anything serious to worry her,” she said tentatively, “she would only have concealed it for your sake.”
For a moment he glanced at her sharply; then, deceived by the assumed frankness of her expression, he was again obviously reassured.
“That is true. Her one thought is to spare me disturbance.”
Said Annabel to herself: “And that is mine too!”
“I should feel so sorry,” he continued. “if she was worried, keeping something from me. She must know I should understand and excuse anything unwise or impulsive that she might have done.”
“Of course,” agreed Annabel. “And do you think she would understand and forgive any secret on your part if it came to her knowledge?”
She knew it was a cruel suggestion, yet she could not help making it.
He started as if he had been stung. “Oh, I know what you mean,” he said miserably. “I have been false to her, and I have behaved abominably to you. I can put forward no self-defence except that when a man of my age falls in love for the first time in his life he is likely to lose his head as well as his heart!”
The bitter sorrow in his voice, in his eyes, destroyed every shred of Annabel s self-control. She held out her hands to him.
“Oh, Temple!” she cried, “don’t blame yourself. It was all my fault, not yours.”
She sprang to her feet, and before they could stop themselves they had kissed each other. Both knew it was a final farewell. Afterwards they banished sentiment, mutually faced facts.
“This settles it,” said Annabel ruefully. “I must leave Government House.”
“But you needn’t do it at once. I shall have to go down to the plains---I’ll go sooner than is really necessary.”
“And I”---Annabel wondered what on earth she would do---”I’ll go home and try---to forget all about India.”
“Have you anyone to go to?”
“Oh, yes, heaps of people.” She had told so many lies in the last half-hour, it could not matter how many more she uttered. “Don’t imagine me stranded.”
How thankful she felt that she had fought the temptation to tell him he was free, and had won! Now pray Heaven he would never know that Lady Rochford was not his wife, so that he could live only for her to the end. The brief interlude of his love for Annabel Heath, a madness, a regrettable incident, would fade from his mind; not entirely, perhaps, but as something to be remembered reluctantly with a hint of painful sweetness.
“Listen,” she warned him in a panic. “Jenkins and the children are coming back. I can hear their voices.” It would never do to arouse the smallest suspicion in the mind of Jenkins! “We had better go and meet them.”
She hastened out, fearful of any further surrender to feelings. It was an abrupt, almost ignominious ending to a great crisis in her life.
A dejected little group slowly ascended the pathway. Pamela and Elizabeth were in tears, their frocks and their persons the worse for climbing and scrambling; Jenkins looked hot and angry.
“Just see the state they’re both in!” she complained, as if Miss Heath were to blame. “It’ll take me hours to mend their clothes. It isn’t as if they was boys to be making sights of theirselves and getting hurt!”
Inwardly Annabel welcomed this outcome; it afforded sufficient excuse for a speedy return. Pamela displayed a nasty cut on her knee; she said Elizabeth had pushed her. Elizabeth hotly denied the accusation, and it needed all Annabel’s tact to restore peace. Meantime Sir Temple stood by; at least his presence acted as a stopper on Jenkins’ wrath. When the rickshaw, the dandy and the ponies were assembled, he saw them all off.
“I’ll come along later,” he said, and turned back into the bungalow.
Two days later Sir Temple went down to the plains. Annabel did not see him again before he started, which caused her to feel equally relieved and sore-hearted; she knew he had purposely avoided any further farewell, either public or private, for both their sakes.
Now it was for her to put the seas between them, to cut off all opportunity for future meetings; humanly speaking, their lives were severed, apart. She concocted an urgent excuse for “giving notice”; it was a difficult business, involving much thought and stratagem. The chance to declare it came the first evening after the Governor’s departure. That afternoon the English mail had been delivered, which afforded plausible support to the fiction she intended to impart. She and Lady Rochford dined alone together. Mr. Prout had accompanied his chief; Captain Alexander, being, as he himself expressed it, more “useful maid” to Lady Rochford than to Sir Temple, remained behind as such, but to-night he was out, having a dinner- and-dance engagement of his own.
The two were alone in the boudoir. So far they had talked intermittently of nothing in particular; now Annabel had a curious conviction that her companion was on the point of telling her something important, or was it a sort of reflex sensation due to her own purpose?
“I want to tell you——” she began, breaking the odd pause with an effort.
“Now isn’t that queer!” interrupted Lady Rochford. “I’ve got a ‘tell’ on my tongue, too. Here we have both been thinking hard, and yet neither of us knows what the other wants to say. At least, I don’t know what you have to say!”
“And I have no notion of what you wish to tell me,” said Annabel, bending over the piece of fancywork she had brought in with her.
Lady Rochford was reclining in her chair, her hands idle; she never touched a needle of any description. “Then that,” she exclaimed, “disposes of Mr. Prout’s horrid belief. How it worried me! It helped to make me ill. Annabel, do stop that silly sewing and listen to me.”
“I can listen better if I work.”
“Because then you needn’t look at me, I suppose, and you think I shouldn’t be able to guess your opinion of what I have done? Well, this time, at any rate, it’s nothing wicked---quite the contrary! Do you remember advising me to make a clean breast of---of everything to Temple?”
Annabel looked up, startled. Lady Rochford’s eyes were shining; a happy little smile enhanced her beauty. She was a picture in her yellow tea-gown, her dark hair low on her forehead, her lovely neck bare save for a long chain at the end of which hung the “nau-ratana”; the jewelled charm, emblem of good luck, lay on her lap glittering in the lamplight.
Annabel nodded; she could not speak, her throat felt paralysed.
“I took your advice. I couldn’t get away from the thought of it, and at last I came to see that just because I cared for Temple so deeply I could not go on deceiving him, even if it meant---losing him! So, last night---last night I told him. I told him everything. I kept nothing back.” She began to cry, humbly, happily; how different from the other tears Annabel had seen her shed! “And, oh!” she went on in the midst of them, “you can’t think what he was. His kindness, his forgiveness!”
Annabel’s silence did not appear to surprise Lady Rochford, revelling and rejoicing as she was in her own blessed release from the burden of double-dealing and concealment. Annabel was wondering grimly how things were going to be put right. A secret re-marriage could hardly take place at Pahari, or anywhere in India for that matter. Perhaps they would go home, possibly Sir Temple would retire, sacrificing the last portion of his service to the difficult circumstances. However, that point was no concern of hers; only one question she would and must ask before she spoke of her own plans. Forcing down the lump in her throat that threatened to choke her, she said: “You did right---I am glad, and you have your reward. You say you kept nothing back; did you tell Sir Temple that I knew?”
Lady Rochford gave a nervous little cough, moved uneasily. “No, dear thing, I didn’t tell him that. You see, I never thought of it. Does it matter? Perhaps I ought to have, especially as you were such a brick. If you want me to tell him, I will, when he comes back; but, though it does seem rather mean, I would really rather not. I’d rather he thought I hadn’t told anyone else. It’s such a little thing compared with all the rest, isn’t it? And I know you will never say anything to anyone.”
“Certainly don’t tell him. It makes no difference to me.” Her eyes wandered to the big silver-framed photograph of Temple Rochford, and she remembered how one glance at its small replica had swept away caution, common sense, better feeling; how the sight of it had decided her to present herself at Government House. Now as she looked at the portrait her heart seemed to freeze; nothing signified to her but a speedy escape from all racking reminders. Her desire to flee was just as violent as had been her desire to find herself established beneath this roof. She had got here under false pretences; she must leave telling lies. Not that she cared in the least what means she employed if only she could get away before Sir Temple returned.
“Now it’s my turn,” she said firmly. “Have you forgotten that I had something to tell you?” Lady Rochford was all interest. “Fire away ---what is it?”
“It’s that I’m obliged to go home.” She heard herself chattering about a letter, the English mail, relations; she hardly knew what she was saying, but it all seemed to convince Lady Rochford. The thought occurred to her that on the whole her news was more welcome than the reverse! Natural enough? No doubt it would be awkward for Lady Rochford to feel that someone else was on the spot, other than Sir Temple, who knew the truth!
“And you have to go at once? Lady Rochford did not quite succeed in expressing complete dismay. “What shall I do without you?”
“No one is indispensable,” said Annabel tritely. “I only hope you don’t think I’m behaving badly.”
Lady Rochford took refuge behind this hope. “My dear, of course not! But I’m so frightfully sorry---I’ll do all I can to help you. I’ll pay your passage home. I should have had to pay far more on my own account if things hadn’t cleared up, so I shan’t feel it one scrap. Now don’t be proud,” she added with eager persuasion; “do let me have the comfort of feeling I’ve done all I can for you.”
Annabel could not shut her eyes to the fact that the gift of her passage home would make all the difference to her financial position. Why should she not accept it? As it was, she had permitted her pride to sink so low that she might as well drown it altogether, and feel thankful, as Mrs. Lynex would put it, instead of grateful.
“It’s more than kind of you——”
“Then that’s all right!” exclaimed Lady Rochford. “Telegraph for your passage tomorrow, and don’t worry about expenses. Your journey shan’t cost you a penny from the moment you leave Government House till you arrive in London; and I owe you a great deal more than that!”
Annabel gathered up her needlework and rose. “It’s no use,” she said shakily. “I can’t put what I feel into words.”
“Don’t try. We’re both unstrung. I can only wish you were as happy as I am. Go to bed and try to sleep. Kiss me!”
She held up her face. Annabel kissed it, hating her, hating herself too, and hurried from the room.
Still the rain held off, still the sun shone victoriously; the air was clear as polished glass. It meant trouble and distress in the plains below, and prolonged absence for the Governor.
Annabel’s passage had been secured, the date was fixed for her start. Another twenty-four hours and she would be on her way down-country. She and Lady Rochford were on the best of terms, each pretending how much they deplored the necessity for parting. Jenkins went so far as to say it was a pity, and Annabel felt that she meant it. Pamela and Elizabeth were divided in their feelings; they were sorry Miss Heath had to go, but they secretly hoped that her successor, when appointed, might be less particular over such matters as not telling fibs, not being affected or selfish, ill-tempered, and so on. Miss Gray had been severe; Miss Heath, in a way, more kindly; perhaps, on a sliding scale, the next governess would let them do as they liked, which was the height of their ambition. If she didn’t, they could always give as much trouble as possible, quoting Miss Heath as their adored one, who had invariably said “Yes,” never “No.”
On the plea of last shopping, Annabel went out alone on this final afternoon; but she was not bound for the shops. She bade the dandy-men take her to Springfield. She wanted to see Billie, to say good-bye to the child who would always hold his place in her heart. What might happen to Pamela and Elizabeth mattered nothing to her, but she longed to hear what was to happen to Billie. As she turned into the familiar compound she looked about, expecting to see him among a gathering of children beneath the trees. He was not there. A small figure ran out from the group at her approach---Mollie Taylor, fat and rosy, triumphant at having been the first to recognize Miss Heath.
“Hallo! Hallo!” she shouted, and flung herself on to the visitor when the dandy was set down. “Come and tell us stories, come and play with us; do, do!”
“Presently I will,” Annabel assured her, “just for a little while. But first I want to see Miss MacTarn and Billie. Where is he?”
Mollie’s round face fell; she retreated a few paces and said solemnly: “Poor Billie’s in bed; he can’t come and play. Then she grabbed Annabel’s hand and trotted beside her towards the house. “For days and days Billie’s been in bed. Isn’t it a bother for him! He mayn’t eat anything but milk. I’ve been riding his pony. Abdul said I might, and so did Billie’s daddy.”
“Abdul! Billie’s daddy! Are Abdul and Billie’s daddy here?” asked Annabel dismayed.
“Yes; they came because of Billie being ill. Look, there’s Billie’s daddy in the veranda, and the doctor-sahib. Every day the doctor-sahib comes to see Billie.”
The two men were shaking hands, engrossed in conversation. Neither of them had yet noticed Annabel’s approach. Keeping firm hold of Mollie Taylor, she took refuge behind a convenient tree, near enough to overhear what they were saying.
“Don’t talk,” she whispered; and the little girl obeyed her, dimly intrigued. It was like hide and seek!
The civil surgeon’s voice rang out loud and cheerful: “Well, the boy’s out of the wood at last, but it’s been touch and go.”
“And you think I could safely go down this evening? Things are pretty bad in the plains. I mustn’t be away from my district longer than is absolutely necessary.”
“It isn’t necessary now. When we wired for you it seemed doubtful if you could be up in time to see the child alive; but these little people are extraordinary, they just either die or get well. It’s only a matter of careful nursing and feeding; he’ll have all that here. Our Miss MacTarn is one in ten thousand where sick women and children are concerned. Don’t worry, my dear fellow; you needn’t.”
The doctor stamped down the steps, mounted his pony, and rode away. William Cardale stood stock still in the veranda; he looked haggard, much older, but the scowl Annabel remembered so well no longer disfigured his rough features; a faint smile lent a kind of radiance to the deep-set, thoughtful grey eyes. Then he did love Billie! She shared his joy over the child’s recovery to the hilt.
Impelled by sympathy with his relief, urged by her affection for Billie, she sent Mollie Taylor back to her playfellows peremptorily, and stepped forth from her ambush. The sudden pleasure Cardale had not time to cloak with his astonishment, emboldened her. Their hands met. Annabel was the first to recover self-possession.
“I overheard the doctor’s opinion,” she said cheerfully. “I am so glad!”
“You hadn’t heard the boy was ill? I suppose you wouldn’t, all that way off.”
He paced from her along the veranda; when he turned back his face was once more sullen and hard. He would not look at her; and what wonder, reflected Annabel bitterly.
“What are your plans for Billie?” she asked in nervous desperation.
“I have made none. No particular reason why I should for the present.”
“But for the cold weather?”
“He can stay on with Miss MacTarn.”
“And afterwards---oughtn’t he to go home, to school?” she persisted.
Then he did look at her, with a gleam of anger in his eyes. “Why do you ask?” he burst out violently. “What does it matter to you? Each one for himself in this world, of course. I don’t blame you for taking a better paid post, but for Heaven’s sake don’t pretend interest now. Be honest for once in your life!”
His words cut Annabel to the quick, also roused her pride. “I admit,” she said, with what dignity she could muster, “that appearances were against me. I own that I behaved badly to Billie---and to you. I make no defence; it’s too late now. I suppose I ought to have told you the truth at the time, but I couldn’t.”
He shrugged his broad shoulders indifferently. “The truth is often difficult to tell.”
It was a deadlock; Annabel relinquished all effort at reconciliation. She left him standing there, dour, resentful, and went in search of Miss MacTarn, whom she found in Billie’s room, feeding the sick child with spoonfuls of jelly.
“Oh, Miss Heath, dear!” exclaimed the good soul. “How nice to see you.”
“Ann’bel!” cried Billie in a weak little voice, and held out his arms. The boy was wasted to a shadow.
“Dysentery,” whispered Miss MacTarn. “We have had a time, I can tell you, over saving him.”
“I wish I had known. Why didn’t you send for me?”
Miss MacTarn looked apologetic; it was not in her amiable nature to feel reproachful. “I did think about it, two-three times, when Billie was asking and asking for you and talking about a white bird. But he was light in his head, not knowing anybody, and how could you have left Lady Rochford’s two dear little girls? We sent a telegram for Mr. Cardale. Have you seen Mr. Cardale? He went out with the doctor——”
“Yes, I have seen him.”
“Ann’bel,” whimpered Billie, nestling against her, “do tell daddy to let you stay with me; then I shan’t think any more about the white bird. It came, really it did, just like that time at Bijapur, and I called you, but you didn’t come!”
“Now, now, duckie,” Miss MacTarn intervened, “you mustn’t think about that.” She put a spoonful of jelly into his mouth. “Miss Heath isn’t able to stop with us now, but she will come and see you as often as ever she can.”
Comforted, falsely reassured, Billie finished his jelly and settled down drowsily; his eyelids closed bit by bit until at last he was sound asleep. Annabel moved away from the bed cautiously, took a long look at the sleeping child, and beckoned to Miss MacTarn as she stole away. Once they were both in the next room she said rapidly: “I am obliged to go home; I am leaving to-morrow. I came to say good-bye to Billie. Oh, Miss MacTarn, do try to make him understand; say anything you like, only don’t let him think I wouldn’t have stayed if I could.”
Miss MacTarn gazed at her, puzzled, perturbed. “Nothing wrong, no upset at Government House, I hope?” she queried anxiously.
“No, nothing. It’s entirely to do with my own family affairs. Lady Rochford knows all about it. She has been kindness itself. I must go---but it breaks my heart to think of Billie!”
“Well, well, my dear, don’t worry about him. Children forget quickly, and so do grown-up people for that matter. I am so sorry you are in trouble; I can see you are in trouble. Is there anything else I could do besides making things all right with Billie?”
For one mad moment Annabel actually contemplated deputing Miss MacTarn to tell Mr. Cardale that if he asked her to do so, she would stay with Billie! Then the utter futility of such a message held her dumb. She shook her head in hopeless negation. Lonely and shamed, without hope, without spirit, she took an affectionate farewell of the kind, simple creature who followed her across the room.
“I will write to you, tell you how Billie is going on. Give me an address to find you when you land.”
For the first time it struck Annabel that she had no notion where she would seek shelter on landing in England. The only haven she could think of was Mrs. Lynex’s private hotel. Yes, she would go there to begin with; it was cheap and accessible.
Miss MacTarn inscribed the address in her pocket-book. “You will be coming back to India before too long time,” she said hopefully.
“I shall never come back to India.”
“Now, how can you tell? You are sad to be going, and I say you will be glad to come back. I am not a Highlander for nothing! We Scotch people have the second sight, h’n? Look I will bet you ten rupees you will be back in the spring, if not sooner, and that will buy me a pair of new blankets which I shall be wanting just now.”
“Done!” said Annabel, half laughing, half crying. “But you will lose.”
“Oh, I shall not lose.” Miss MacTarn placed her hands on Miss Heath’s shoulders and kissed her again. “There, do not give way. You must not go with tears in your eyes, or,” she added playfully, “Mr. Cardale he will think you are sorry instead of glad that our Billie is getting well.”
Annabel glanced apprehensively towards the veranda. “I don’t want to see Mr. Cardale again,” she jerked out. “I’ve said good-bye to him. He---you see, he hasn’t forgiven me for leaving Billie to go to Government House. You understand?”
“Oh my, that is too bad. He is a queer man, though so good and so kind. Just wait a minute and I will see if he is there still.”
She tip-toed to the cane blind, peered through it, and looked back. “It is all right. He has gone---I expect to his room. He is putting up here.”
The two of them made signals to Annabel’s dandy-men who were resting close by, and a few seconds later Miss Heath was being borne away swiftly from Springfield. A stream of children, headed by Mollie Taylor, rushed after her shrieking: “Miss Heath, come back! Come back, Miss Heath!”
She waved to them as they halted, disappointed, to watch her relentless disappearance among the fir trees.
So that chapter in her life was closed. Notwithstanding Miss MacTarn’s second sight, there was no chance of her ever seeing Springfield again, or Miss MacTarn, or Billie, or---William Cardale.
Annabel’s departure from Government House was of an entirely different character---a sort of royal send-off. Every description of thoughtful arrangement was made for her convenience. Lady Rochford’s own rickshaw conveyed her to the tonga depot; Captain Alexander escorted her so far. Instructions had been sent ahead to the railway authorities for a reserved compartment; a trustworthy peon was delegated to accompany her down to Bombay and see her on board. Nothing could have exceeded Lady Rochford’s generous consideration; it was almost overpowering. Annabel left Pahari with the vision in her mind of a glad, beautiful woman standing on the plant-lined steps of Government House, on either side of her an excited little girl, all three given over to a species of reluctant relief at seeing the last of Miss Heath; in the background, Jenkins, whose face expressed nothing at all, yet Annabel felt that Jenkins was the one person in the picture who really regretted her departure.
Being a slack time of year for passenger steamers, Annabel had the luxury of a cabin to herself. What a contrast to her former voyage with poor complaining Mrs. Cardale, the rebellious Billie, and a savage parrot. Yet then she had been comparatively happy and lighthearted; now no creature comforts could dispel the feeling that nothing mattered, she had no zest for life, the future held no brightness. The past, like a distressful dream, haunted and enchained her spirit, sapping her vitality. She made no struggle to conquer this inertness, and kept apart from her fellow-travellers, one and all of them bursting with the glad song of the East--- “Going Home.” Finding their friendly advances discouraged, they paid no further heed to the listless, unsociable spinster who, as she heard someone remark, ought to have been labelled “Not wanted on voyage.” She appreciated the cheap joke; it suited her frame of mind. In truth she was wanted nowhere, neither on sea nor on land.
Then at Port Said, amid the general excitement of letters and papers and telegrams delivered on board, the clamour of coaling, passengers leaving the ship hilariously for a few hours on shore, she received the shock of her life. Glancing indifferently at the news posted up from all quarters of the globe, one fatal message leapt out from the rest like a sudden stab through her heart---the brief announcement of Sir Temple Rochford’s death in India of cholera.
Sickened and stunned, she groped her way blindly to her cabin and locked the door. The porthole had been screwed down, yet a film of powdery black dust lay over everything, the atmosphere was thick and stifling. Above and below turmoil prevailed, shouts, trampling of feet, haste and confusion. But here in this hot, confined space she was safely alone. Her thoughts strained back along the road of memories; she was dimly surprised that no tears came to her eyes; her capacity for feeling seemed to have stopped.
Certain questions gradually presented themselves, as it were without her volition. Was it true? When had he died? Who had been with him? Where had it happened? Reason replied that it must have been in the plains during the official tour necessitated by the abrupt termination of the monsoon. Monsoon---lurid, clangorous word! A huge army of black clouds ripped with forked lightning, snow pinnacles reared above them, serene, mighty, eternal. . . . The close little cabin faded from her vision and the dream came back to her, the strange dream that had proved prophetic. Again she was face to face with Temple Rochford on a perilous pathway, no room to pass.
“Temple!” she called wildly. “Temple!”
The sound of her own voice frightened her; she clapped her hand to her mouth, once more conscious of her surroundings, and a faint gleam of consolation helped her to regain self-control. At least he was at peace, he had died in harness, as he would have wished; all his difficulties, private and official, were over. Best for him, best for the woman who had deceived him and made tardy confession of her guilt to ease her own mind, thus plunging him into a predicament that could only have been met by subterfuge and perhaps renunciation of his life’s work before it was completed. And what of herself, Annabel Heath? If Temple Rochford had lived, she could only have prayed, for her own sake as well as for his, that they might never set eyes on one another again.
A certain solace of soul, not far removed from philosophic resignation, restored her acceptance of realities. Humanly speaking, long years of life lay before her; she must face the future, not as a pitiful craven, but as a brave mortal worthy of her race, hardened by suffering, resolved to triumph over Fate. It was what he would have advocated, acclaimed; what he would have striven for on his side.
For the rest of the voyage she mingled with the other passengers, joined in their recreations, played accompaniments at concerts, and earned gratitude for help freely extended to the few women who were taking their families home at this unorthodox season. She gave herself no leisure to think, made a point of never missing a meal, and, tired out, she slept soundly each night.
In consequence she arrived at Mrs. Lynex’s private hotel with a respectable amount of flesh on her bones and a natural colour in her cheeks. Mrs. Lynex had just returned from a round of self-invited visits; her amazement when she encountered Annabel in the lounge was not unmixed with apprehension.
“Good God, Annabel! What are you doing here? I thought you were safely established in India.”
The old lady was decked out as usual, her auburn wig carefully tended, her wrinkled face recently massaged, her plum-coloured costume the last cry.
“How smart you look!” exclaimed Annabel, after Mrs. Lynex had submitted to a kiss. “And how nice to see you again. I’ve come home full of cash and beans, and I thought the best place to make for was your haven in the jungles of South Kensington---because you were here. Otherwise, I might have sought the Ritz or the Carlton.”
Satisfied that Annabel was to be no burden upon her, Mrs. Lynex welcomed her young friend. Here was someone to whom she could say what she liked when she wanted to talk, and who was snubbable when she didn’t; moreover, a lot of her clothes required mending. The girl would no doubt prove a useful and economical companion---so long as the savings held out.
“You can sit at my table,” she said graciously, “and, needless to say, I’m aching to hear all your adventures.”
Once more Annabel faced Mrs. Lynex at the small table in the centre of the stuffy dining-room. Everything looked the same; vases filled with cheap wilting flowers, elderly displeased females on every side, one or two family groups, pickles and bottles of lime-juice, little private stores of butter and oranges and bananas in evidence. A pretentious menu---haddock disguised as sole, an entrée composed of Heaven and the cook alone knew what, a joint that might have been either beef or mutton, christened lamb regardless of the season, a pudding, again pronounced filthy by Mrs. Lynex. Annabel almost expected the hall porter to clump in with a visiting-card as they neared the end of the meal, all through which she and Mrs. Lynex had talked and talked; questions and answers, questions and answers. The first portion of her narrative was easy enough, just a skim across the history of her time with the Cardales at Bijapur; a description of Mrs. Cardale’s sad death, an account that entertained Mrs. Lynex of Mrs. Watson’s subsequent game of grab over the clothes; the journey with Billie to Springfield, Miss MacTarn’s kindness to herself and the child. . . . Then a pause; the rest of the story stuck in her throat. To relate it with sufficient artlessness would be difficult.
“And after that?” inquired Mrs. Lynex, scenting hesitation.
“Well, after that,” said Annabel slowly, “I went to look after Lady Rochford’s two little girls at Government House.”
“Government House! The Rochfords! Why the devil didn’t you write and tell me? What a chance for you. But---poor dear Temple is dead--- I saw it in the paper. Then that’s why you’ve come home, because Lady Rochford didn’t require you any longer? I suppose she’ll go back to America, where she came from. The best place for her---nasty, conceited, rich creature. I hated her.”
Evidently Mrs. Lynex’s sense of chronology was weak. All the better; let the old lady surmise what she liked. Annabel did not trouble to correct the discrepancy in dates; it made no difference, and she shrank from too much conversation concerning the Rochfords.
Mrs. Lynex babbled on. “Just think of it! I am surprised. You may remember Temple coming to see me the night I had you to dine, when I advised you not to go to India as a nursery governess? I told him about you, but he said they’d engaged someone. Then the person they’d engaged proved a failure?--- couldn’t stick Lady Rochford, I expect, and no wonder! How did you get on with her ladyship?”
“Oh, quite well; in fact, we became very good friends. I liked her. She was very kind to me. She even paid my passage home first class.”
“I don’t admire your taste; but as she behaved so nobly you have reasonable excuse for saying you like her. I forgive you, as I forgave Temple for marrying her; nothing but her money could possibly have accounted for his doing it—a flashy, vulgar upstart! I rather wondered at his perception of the main chance; it wasn’t quite like him. How did they pull together?”
“Very smoothly. She was a splendid hostess, and she---she really adored him.”
Annabel dropped her spoon. Pouding au lait choked her; she could swallow no more.
Mrs. Lynex yawned. Her thoughts had flown to the evening papers, and presently she was installed in the lounge, deaf and blind to all else but the racing news.
Annabel fled to her room, bringing all her courage to bear in a fresh battle against desolation. Why had she made for this spot where she could not rid her memory of a blue-eyed, dignified form standing in the stuffy, commonplace entrance! Yet at least the squalid lounge was sacred to her, because it was there she had first beheld her ideal man, and, all unwittingly, had surrendered her heart to him.
For the next four or five weeks she made use of Mrs. Lynex’s company as a buffer against too much thought of the past or the future. Together they shopped, went to music halls, theatres. Annabel paid recklessly for seats and innumerable taxis, much to Mrs. Lynex’s satisfaction, shutting her eyes to the day that was bound to arrive when funds for frivolities would hold out no longer and a search for employment must be conducted.
Only once during this desperate pursuit after distraction did she lose grip on her feelings---when, by the Indian mail, she received a heartbroken scribble from Zara Rochford in belated answer to the difficult letter of condolence she had forced herself to write and post from Marseilles. No plans, no details, were mentioned; it was merely such an outpouring of grief as sent Annabel to her bed, unable to exhibit her tear-swollen face in public.
“It’s nothing but a sudden little cold,” she assured Mrs. Lynex, who, having a gambling engagement on hand in the afternoon, remained unaffected by her young friend’s slight indisposition.
When the old lady returned, Annabel’s “cold” had disappeared; she was ready for anything Mrs. Lynex might suggest to pass the evening. Mrs. Lynex suggested dinner at a marvellous little restaurant in Soho where the cooking was superlative for the price charged; and then the latest revue? As a result of good luck at the card party, she declared it was her turn to stand treat after the countless occasions on which dear kind Annabel had done so since her arrival from India. Dear kind Annabel took advantage of this offer; it was high time she began to consider expenses.
Driving home that night, she thought it as well to touch on the subject of advertising for a post of some kind. She added: “I shall have to do it sooner or later; perhaps I had better begin at once.”
“Yes, perhaps you had,” agreed Mrs. Lynex absently. She was feeling the effects of the long day packed with excitement after her own heart, but she was not too sleepy to reflect that if Annabel’s financial resources were dwindling the sooner they parted company the better. “We’ll talk about it to-morrow. Here we are. No, don’t pay the taxi. I told you this was my show, and when I say a thing like that I stick to it.”
While paying the fare she asked the driver what horse he thought was likely to win an important race on the following day. Annabel left them engaged in a lively discussion, and went on up the steps. All but one of the lights in the lounge had been extinguished; a stale smell of cooking and cigarette smoke hung in the air. The blear-eyed individual who did duty as night porter and watchman shuffled towards her.
“Name of Heath, miss?” he said drowsily, as if he had never beheld her before. “There’s a gentleman been calling to see you.”
Then he mumbled on about the gentleman having called much earlier in the evening, so Mr. Jones (the day porter) had left word. He couldn’t say exactly what time; anyway, it was long afore he come on duty; he thought it would be just about when dinner was finishing, from what Mr. Jones say. . . .
Annabel cut short the rigmarole impatiently. “Didn’t the gentleman leave his name or a card?” she inquired, wondering who the visitor could possibly have been.
“There wasn’t no card as I knows of. Mr. Jones, he did mention some name, but”---he scratched his head---“I can’t call it to mind, and when the gentleman come back I didn’t think to arst it. I said as you might be in any minute, and he’s waiting in there.”
He jerked his thumb in the direction of a door labelled “Smoking Room.”
As she paused, astonished, Mrs. Lynex passed her to climb stiffly up the stairs, calling “Good night.”
“Good night,” returned Annabel, “and thanks for a jolly evening. Happy dreams!”
Then, collecting her wits, she pushed open the smoking-room door and entered the shabbily furnished refuge reserved for male residents in the hotel. The sole occupant was William Cardale.
He came towards her, awkward, embarrassed, as for a moment she stood dumbfounded yet conscious of gladness at sight of the rough-hewn face and grave grey eyes. Neither of them attempted to shake hands; they met in mutual agitation, both reluctant to speak first. Cardale broke the silence.
“You must be surprised to see me——” he began.
How like him, thought Annabel, with a tinge of amused indulgence, to make no apology for seeking her at such an extraordinary hour.
“Well, of course I am!” She tried to utter the words naturally. “What has brought you home, and when did you arrive?”
“I got to London this evening.”
“But how did you know—”
“How did I know where to find you? I wrote to Miss MacTarn on the chance. She gave me this address.”
“Come and sit down.” Annabel made for a worn, sagging leather couch; her knees were shaking. What had he come to say? She looked at the hideous black marble clock on the mantelpiece. Five minutes to twelve. Were the lights cut off at midnight? She could not remember.
“How is Billie?” she asked, as they seated themselves side by side.
“Still with Miss MacTarn?”
Then he put his hands into his breast pocket and drew out a sealed envelope.
“This is for you,” he said quietly. “I sealed it. I promised my chief I would give it to you myself as soon as I could. I was with him. He died at Bijapur---in my house.”
He turned his back to her as, with shaking fingers, she broke the seal and drew out a scrap of paper. On it three words had been scrawled in pencil with obvious difficulty, a last supreme effort before Temple Rochford’s spirit had passed through the gates of death.
“Annabel, forget, forgive——” That was all.
She sat staring at the message. The hands of the clock moved forward; then it began to strike, went on and on; the hard, merciless sound was torture; when it ceased, the silence was torture. Forget, forgive! How could she ever forget? What had she to forgive? Mechanically she replaced the piece of paper in the envelope, and became aware of a movement beside her, then of a touch on her hand, a touch of infinite sympathy and comprehension.
“Listen,” said Cardale, and the note of tender understanding in his voice brought her a sense of comfort. “He couldn’t have recovered, though I don’t think he wanted to; but I know he liked to feel he was dying where you had once lived.”
She would have broken down utterly if at that moment the door had not been opened furtively. The night porter peered in, with a warning cough and a husky reminder about lights and the time. Cardale sprang up and made short work of the old fellow’s vigilance with a bribe.
“We shan’t be disturbed again,” he assured Annabel, looking down on her anxiously.
She straightened herself with a sort of weary determination. “It was just as well he came. Now I can speak, and I want to ask you something---I want to know if you realize why I behaved so badly to Billie---and to you? It all began long ago---on my side, before I agreed to go to Government House; it was what made me want to go to Government House. It was all my fault, not his. Oh, it’s so hard to explain——”
“Don’t try, never mind; I understand. How could either of you help it! I’m only so thankful I was there with him to take his last message and bring it to you. He couldn’t have given it to anyone else. He gave it to me because I told him---because I told him—— He checked himself and held out his hand. “Now I will go. I make no excuse for having waited until you came in to-night; that would be superfluous.”
She rose weakly. His firm, kind grasp was a help to her in every sense.
“Shan’t I see you again?” she asked, gazing at him with wistful wet eyes.
“Do you want to see me again?”
He hesitated, still holding her hand. “I’m going into the country to-morrow to see---to see Ethel’s people.” Again he paused. “I could be back in London next week. Shall you be here if I come?”
“Yes, I shall be here.”
He dropped her hand and went quickly from the room. The door swung-to behind him.
Annabel switched off the light and stood in the darkness pressing Temple Rochford’s last message to her breast. What had William Cardale told him, making it possible for him to send the message by this one man’s hand? She knew well enough! There had been no need to ask. And though she could never “forget,” she longed to mother Billie; she wanted to bring happiness to Billie’s father, and to find happiness in that way herself. . . .
So it happened that second sight triumphed. Miss MacTarn won her bet, and bought a new pair of blankets even sooner than she had expected.