The red, lantern-like glow of the Indian hot-weather sunset sank sullenly over the flat landscape; a smell of hot dust, and the heavy perfume of mango blossom thickened the atmosphere; it was as though Nature paused, breathless, resentful, awaiting darkness....
A man and a girl rode at walking pace, side by side, along the broad, white road—the age-old Grand Trunk Road fashioned by conquerors, preserved and extended by yet other conquerors, main artery of the great continent, ever beating with life and movement; still the chief means of transport for representatives of every creed and caste and race, despite the rapid rivalry of railways. And the railway being yet remote from this particular region, a never-ending procession filed steadily along between the avenue of mighty trees, planted with precision at equal distances.
The two English riders passed low bullock-carts packed with families bound for religious fairs; scantily clothed pedestrians tramping doggedly, silently, their goods slung over their shoulders; hooded vehicles with swaying scarlet curtains from behind which peeped dark, almond shaped eyes; staggering, over-burdened ponies; elephants laden with sugar-cane; groups of people camped at the wayside to cook an evening meal. All enveloped in a veil of dust that cobwebbed the trees, rose and fell and spread, smoke-like, stifling, relentless, in the heavy evening heat.
It was not exactly the time and place for a proposal of marriage, as Pat Everest, Executive Engineer, Roads and Buildings Department, recognized ruefully. He had enticed Miss Wylde out for this ride, mounting her on his best pony, solely for the purpose of asking her to be his wife; and so far he had let slip one opportunity after another through sheer dread that she would refuse him. Finally he had meant to speak out when they halted before the temple and tank he had escorted her across country to view; the words had been actually on his lips when the old priest of the temple had suddenly appeared on the steps and started chanting and shouting at the top of his voice ... and Miss Wylde had been so obviously fascinated by the scene, the little white temple, the broken, rose-coloured flight of steps, the dark background of trees, all mirrored in the smooth water of the tank, and the ancient-Egyptian-like figure in a salmon-coloured robe with shaven head and lean, high-caste features, flinging forth his hymn of evening praise. The moment was impossible.
Then, as they had turned their horses’ heads homewards, panic assailed him; if he spoke now and she were offended, annoyed, how could they ride back with such an awkward mental barrier between them!
Meantime, à propos of the old Brahmin priest of the temple, they drifted into talk of Indian religions, and he confided to her his interest in the history of Buddhism; his ambition to get his services lent to the Archeological Department of the Government of India, particularly to the section concerned with the survey and exploration of Buddhist remains.
“There’s a big mound in the far corner of this district,” he told her, “with the usual humps and ruins and rubbish, and buried stuff all round about it. I’m pretty certain it must date from the earliest days of Buddhism. I’d give anything to have the opening of that mound!”
“And what would you be likely to find in it?” she inquired; she knew nothing of the subject, but his enthusiasm roused her curiosity.
“The relic chamber, of course. Think of the excitement—coming on to a small brick-built vault, and then caskets, one within the other, till at last the real relic case, maybe of crystal or gold, containing something—”
“Perhaps a tiny bit of charred bone, or a few fragments of pottery—or———”
“How disappointing!” she interrupted.
He laughed. “What?—If there was reason to suppose that the bone had once been a bit of the Great Lord Buddha himself, and the scraps of pottery part of his begging-bowl? Shame!”
“I see,” she said, but doubtfully. “Then why don’t they open this old mound of yours?”
“Partly, I suppose, for want of funds; money is needed for so many other purposes that produce revenue and benefit the people. And then the land on which it stands belongs to an old Burmese woman who may have been obstructive—I don’t know.”
“An old Burmese woman! Why is she living there at all?”
“Oh! I believe it was just one of those curious little Anglo-Indian histories that date from pre-mutiny days. I know very little about it, and my work doesn’t take me in that direction, no roads or bridges or buildings to look after thereabouts. But not long ago I made a pilgrimage on my own account to have a look at the remains. I didn’t include the old lady in my inspection, though I’m told she’s a fine old survival herself, in an excellent state of preservation!”
She smiled; the slow, sweet smile that was one of her many attractions for the man who rode at her side. To some men she might have appeared too self-composed, almost too mature for her years, but to Everest she was the perfection of womanhood. Once he had heard Mrs. Bowyer, the magistrate’s wife, say of her: “I believe Leila Wylde must have been born grown up!” He had astonished the lady by exclaiming defensively: “She looks as if, all her life, she had been taking care of other people.”
Now, as she smiled at him, he thought he had never seen anything to compare with the quiet charm of her expression, the sweetness of her soft blue eyes.
She said: “I feel very ignorant, and as if I had wasted my time out here—two years!—done nothing but play tennis and learn to ride. You know my stepfather has to retire next month and we are going home for good. Sometimes I wish we weren’t.”
Here was his chance! He held his breath, gazing at her. Why on earth had he been preaching priggishly of Buddhist buildings all this time, when quite another matter filled his mind and heart? They were within sight of the station and very shortly there would be an end of all privacy, bound as they were for the Club... The Club would be full of people; and to-morrow he had to go into camp to meet a superior officer, who was due to inspect a half-built bridge, far off in the district; he might have to be away for days.
He swallowed a mouthful of dust, coughed, edged his horse nearer to that of his companion, and flushing to the roots of his red-brown hair, he blurted out hoarsely:
“I must tell you! I can’t help it!”
“Tell me what?” she said without suspicion, yet obviously surprised at his agitation.
He felt so clumsy, so futile. How could he hope that she might care in the least for such a commonplace individual as himself, one who, in addition, had so little to offer, no private income, nothing much in the way of official position;—naught but a sincere devotion, a few thousand rupees of hard savings, and a not unclean past. Were there not countless other fellows in India who could offer her as much, and a great deal more in the way of social and official advantages.
“Haven’t you seen—haven’t you guessed?” he blundered on. “I love you—that’s all!”
“Oh!” she gasped distressfully.
Now that he had begun he could not stop himself.
“When I was transferred here to Khari last cold weather, I never thought, I mean I had never met any girl that I—I had never loved anyone before I met you. And I’ve been out of the station so much, I suppose you couldn’t have been expected to look on me as anything more than a passing acquaintance—and now you’re going home next month—if only you weren’t!”
“But I didn’t guess,” she pleaded in gentle self-defence. “I hadn’t seen. Believe me, it never entered my head.”
“I know, I know. I’ve been such an ass! But you needn’t go, if only”—he brought out the final words with a jerk—“if only you would marry me!”
There!—it was said. He had asked her point blank, and he trembled for her answer. Yet, when it came, it was no more than he had anticipated.
“Is it quite impossible?” he supplicated, gazing ahead, not daring to look at her.
What a useless question! Of course it was impossible. She said so again, kindly, regretfully, yet with unmistakable decision; and they rode on in silence, for Everest a silence of despair, for Leila Wylde a silence of painful surprise. She had seen so little of the man; how could she possibly have divined his feelings towards herself when, until now, he had never, to her perception, betrayed them? She had regarded him merely as a “good sort,” a capital tennis partner, an excellent rider, but not a very lively companion, indeed rather awkward, not to say taciturn, shy. That he should have asked her to be his wife filled her with amazement. Surely it could be no more than a passing infatuation, due to the fact that she was the only girl in the station and he the only bachelor. Perhaps it was more or less natural in the circumstances that she should have attracted him for the time being.
But the whole thing was very upsetting; she wished so much that it had not happened. Could she have prevented, guarded against it? Was it, in any way, her fault?
When they reached the low thatched building, glorified as the station club, he helped her to dismount, and for a space held her hand, looked into her eyes. For the first time she recognized the sincerity of his character and his physical advantages; the firmly knit figure, broad shoulders, the healthily tanned skin and steady chestnut coloured eyes. A sound type of English man! And suddenly she felt honoured by his homage, regretful that until now she should have so lightly regarded him. Why had he behaved so unobtrusively, with such reserve, leaving her in ignorance of his intentions until now. She had not “seen”; she had not “known”; and who was to blame?
To her dismay tears rose to her eyes.
“Do try to understand,” she said with an effort, “—to forgive me.”
“I do understand, and there is nothing to forgive. Now good-bye. I will send your saddle over to-night. To-morrow morning I am off into camp. I shan’t come back until—until you are gone. There’s nothing more to be said.”
Leila felt confusedly that there was more to be said, if she could only command her voice sufficiently to say it: she wanted to tell him she hoped they might meet again in the future, that she would like to hear from him sometimes; to give him her home address so that perhaps when next he took furlough . . . little empty trivialities though they would sound! But as she strove for self composure to utter them, he dropped her hand, remounted and rode away, leading the pony he had lent her. Previously she had arranged to drive home with her stepfather.
Now she turned towards the veranda steps, saddened, dispirited, yet in a measure relieved by the knowledge that she was not to see this unexpected suitor again before her departure for England. Had there been time, had she thought of such a thing before, was it possible that she might have grown to care for him? Again she might not; she knew next to nothing about him. As she paused at the foot of the veranda steps the fact struck her as rather strange that at twenty-three years of age she should never have been in love!—though indeed until she sailed for India two years ago with her stepfather, she had encountered few marriageable men. Coming out on board ship a colonel had proposed to her, quite a personable widower, who had said, naïvely, how certain he felt that she would make him happy. (No!)
At Khari every one was married, with the exception of Mr. Everest and herself. Was it so strange, after all, that she should never have been in love? At any rate, she assured herself, she had no yearnings in that direction, marriage to her was no particular goal; it was just as well that Mr. Everest should have taken her refusal so sensibly, as so altogether final, since, of course, she had meant it to be final.
Quickly she ran up the steps and entered the building.
Hari Club, supported by the scant and fluctuating English community of a small and isolated civil station, could hardly have been described as a brilliant pleasure resort. The premises comprised a rough compound boasting a couple of mud tennis courts, a low deep-veranda-ed bungalow with no more than a couple of rooms, the thatched roof whereof harboured snakes, bats, owls, vermin innumerable. It was an aged, shabby little building; sufficient funds had never been forthcoming for enlargement or improvements, all surplus from subscriptions being absorbed by the frequent and imperative need for repairs.
But at least the club provided a meeting-place for the usual complement of officials and their women-folk; and at the close of this burning May day the whole station had collected beneath the stained and sagging ceiling cloths in order to pass an interval of time before returning to a meal inevitably untempting at this season of the year, to be followed by a night of unrelievable heat. One or two of the limited assemblage had turned into the club after rides or drives along dusty tracks when work was over; the more energetic had played tennis on the hardened mud courts, until the swift Indian dusk had descended, putting an end to the games.
Now the male portion had congregated about the decrepit billiard-table in the first room, while in the second the women sat talking, and turning over last mail’s papers laid out on a long, narrow table, under a punkah that swayed reluctantly.
Leila Wylde avoided the feminine gathering, that looked like a meagre committee meeting with Mrs. Bowyer, the magistrate’s wife (who, quite unintentionally, ruled the social life of the station), seated as “chair” at the head of the table. The girl waved a comprehensive greeting and made for the low book-cases that wainscoted the walls. As usual a discussion was in progress on the all-important topic of housekeeping, and she intended to escape it for this evening, though she had learnt that in a remote Indian station, with supplies an endless difficulty, it was indeed an important question. Did it not closely concern the health and well-being of the men who were doing their duty and their willing best for the country?
Delving among the books, the conversation at the table reached her ears, and she listened, alternately amused and pitying.
“A cobra got into our quail-pit last night and killed all the birds! Our cook says he can’t get any more in the bazaar, and in this heat my husband will eat quail when I can’t get him to eat anything else.”
“Our man is very good at getting them. Shall I tell him to try for you?”
The offer, as Leila knew, was prompted by that readiness, so prevalent in the East, to help a fellow-exile.
“Oh! that would be kind! Sometimes I feel in despair about meals—nothing will keep, and the ice supply is so uncertain. But what can one expect with the railway station fifty miles off? It’s a wonder we ever get anything at all. I ordered a load of English potatoes from the hills ages ago, but if it ever arrives probably they will all be rotten.”
A more cheerful voice with a strong Scottish accent asserted that country potatoes were “attanyrate” not so bad if you cooked them this way: and the speaker recited a recipe in which the native vegetable seemed to be lost amid the multitude of other ingredients. She finished up with extraneous remarks concerning “chickuns,” laying hens, and guinea-fowl; upon which someone said sadly that guinea-fowls always flew up trees and made such a noise that no husband could be expected to tolerate them when he was at work.
At this juncture Mrs. Bowyer planted her fore-finger on a paragraph in a ladies’ weekly periodical. “Talking of cookery,” she said, and silence at once ensued. “Listen to this. I ask you, as sane women, how anyone in ordinary circumstances at home, much less out here, could hope to achieve such a dish. ‘Cocks’ combs, mushrooms, chickens’ livers, a slice of pâté de foie gras: the whole to be blended with well-made béchamel sauce, and served in a case of the best puff paste!’” She paused dramatically. “And if you’ll believe me, the column in which this recipe is included is headed ‘Simple and Economical Cookery.’ Bah! It makes me sick!”
“It would, if you ate it, of course,” said the lady who had ordered English potatoes. “But how delicious it sounds! Oh, how I long for fried soles, and really grilled chops! That’s what I should order for our first dinner when we get home, only we always have to go straight to my husband’s people, who give us curried beef cut in little squares with rice sticking together all round it, and we have to eat it with a knife and fork. Then because we don’t yell with joy they say Indian people are so tiresome about their food!”
“What we can’t stand when we get home,” contributed another complainer, “is that the bath water is never hot enough, not what we call hot. And then the early tea! if they let you have it at all—a tiny teapot and teacups. And they expect you to go out with them directly after luncheon.”
The cheerful Scottish voice rose again. “But don’t ye think when we arrive home we’re all forgetting the drawbacks we made the best of out hee-re, and recollect only the comforts which, affter all, are necessities, though maybe they would be considered luxuries at home?”
“Very likely,” said Mrs. Bowyer. “And perhaps it’s a clever ruse on the part of Providence, since if the drawbacks and trials of Indian existence were too vividly remembered and related, no one would ever come out here. I know when I mention India to women at home who know nothing of the country they generally declare they should hate the insects and the snakes and wild beasts and feel afraid of the servants. And I always find myself sticking up for India, making no mention of the everlasting trials, or how diabolical a place like this can be in the hot weather. How do you account for it? It’s either political cunning on the part of Providence or else in our bones we really love India and the people who pretend they hate us.”
She turned towards the figure by the book-cases, and called out: “What do you think, Leila? You must have heard all this feast of reason and flow of soul.”
The girl looked round, then advanced a few steps, a pleasing picture in the mellow lamplight, white habited, straight and slender; she had removed her hat, and her fair hair shone.
“I’ll write and tell you when I get home,” she said pleasantly, “but I expect I shall find myself, like you, sticking up for India. Honestly, I should like to think I might come back some day, but I don’t see the smallest prospect of it.”
“What?” rose an incredulous chorus from the group at the table: and the poor lady whose quails had been destroyed by a cobra sang a determined solo.
“Fancy, after two years in this awful little place, wanting to come back! It isn’t as if you’d been living in a big station, or had seen anything of the best side of Indian life!”
“Anyway I’ve been very happy here. You’ve all been so kind and nice to me. I shall be really sorry to go, though I want to see the family at home.”
“But haven’t you missed pictures and theatres and concerts and all that kind of thing?”
“I can’t say I’ve thought of it—the life has been so different—interesting in other ways. The only thing I miss much is something new to read. I am trying for the hundredth time to find something in the book-cases that possibly I mayn’t have read before.”
“Then you may try!”
Leila smiled a friendly acknowledgment and returned to her quest. Hitherto she had only discovered bound volumes of “Punch,” “Chambers’s Journal,” the “Illustrated London News,” all of ancient date; together with a sprinkling of classical fiction, among which were first editions that would have been of value, but that fish insects and white ants had partially devoured them and they all smelt evilly of dust and decay when opened. Being fairly well read, she was familiar with the fiction, and now she groped again diligently in the hope of finding something that might prove of fresh interest.
Quite unexpectedly she came across a stoutly bound volume that appeared to have been neglected by the book lovers of the insect world; only the margins of its pages had been nibbled, and the binding was intact. She had not observed it before, but lately, she knew, the club attendant had been seized with an unnatural impulse to turn out the shelves, which would account for its resurrection. Probably it had been reposing for years behind the bulkily bound periodicals. The book was entitled: “The Life and Teaching of Gautama Buddha.”
Thrilled with the coincidence, she dipped into it and quickly became absorbed, deaf to the chatter round the newspaper table, to the click of billiard-balls and the sound of masculine voices in the next room.
The next room was thick with cheroot smoke, the heat oppressive; and Colonel Livesay, civil surgeon of the station, stepfather to Leila Wylde, perspired grievously as he leaned over the faded green cloth to make his stroke. He was a stout, bald-headed being with a bristling grey moustache, artless, kind-hearted, the soul of integrity, painstaking in his profession, but alas! no tactician, no scientist, else the approaching end of his service would hardly have found him in medical charge of an unimportant station, passed over, unrewarded by any final plum of office, even in those days when officials were often left for long periods at their posts, unharried by frequent transfers.
Bad luck, he considered, had ever pursued him; it did so even now, preventing him from making the stroke that he did not doubt would have won him the game, for at the critical moment the club bearer appeared at his elbow, handing him a folded piece of coarse country-made paper. Consequently he foozled his shot; and while his opponent settled down to a long break he examined the document with resigned resentment. Then he bade the bearer tell the messenger who had brought it that he would “come to-morrow morning”; and beneath his breath he said “Damn!”
“Who is at the point of death now?” inquired Bowyer the magistrate facetiously. “At any rate we are all here this evening, though the whole boiling of us may be gone to-morrow.”
“It’s the Bibi Jâsan,” said Colonel Livesay sulkily. “She doesn’t say she’s ill, though I suppose she must be. She asks me to go out and see her as soon as I can. It’s a good twenty miles drive to Jasâni Estate,” he grumbled, replacing his cue in the stand, “and I must be off to post out a couple of ponies on the road.”
“Comfort yourself, old chap,” said the magistrate blithely. “The crone’s as rich as a bunia, and it means a fat fee. You’ve attended her before, haven’t you?”
“Not since I came out to finish my service.”
“Didn’t she tip you well enough last time?”
But Colonel Livesay was looking for his hat and did not reply.
“Now I,” continued the magistrate aggrievedly, “had to go out there in the middle of last hot weather, and could claim nothing for it. Whereas you doctor-sahibs can take fees from natives without being bowled over on a charge of bribery and corruption. I had to witness her will, and a queer document it was! but Shahamat Ali, the native pleader, had got it down all correct, according to her wishes, and the will is ‘to be kept in charge of the magistrate of the district, whoever he may be, so I’ve got it now, and if you kill her you’ll have to come and tell me!”
“I expect she’s only suffering from a surfeit of rich curry,” said the Civil Surgeon, “she’s too old a female to die just yet! Now where’s that girl of mine?—we must be getting back.”
He bustled into the ladies’ room, and startled his stepdaughter by laying a fat hand on her shoulder.
“Come along now, Leila,” he fussed, with kindly impatience, as though she had been keeping him waiting. “No time for more reading. I’ve got to start at cock-crow to see a patient a long way off, and the ponies must be sent on ahead.”
“One moment, dear,” she protested. “I want to take this book back with me and I must enter it in the loan book.”
“Nonsense! Nobody ever checks the library catalogue—if there is one. A lot of rubbish. Come along, now, come along.”
He hurried her off. The women at the table accorded her an amused smile and sympathetic farewell. They all knew the dear old doctor-sahib’s fidgeting little ways. And as the pair left the club, the talk turned on the dear old doctor-sahib’s stepdaughter. Such a nice, sensible girl, she would be much missed when she went home next month; of course it had been an excellent arrangement for Colonel Livesay that she should have come out to India with him for the last two years of his service, and comparatively a nice change for the girl herself; they all knew about the delicate mother and the two young stepsisters living quietly in a London suburb.
Some one said: “She isn’t exactly pretty, but there’s something about her: she looks such good style, so well bred.”
“So she is, I believe,” answered Mrs. Bowyer, as one possessed of inner information; and she went on to explain that her sister-in-law had lately settled at Ealwood, where she had met and made friends with Mrs. Livesay.
“My sister-in-law asked me in her letter last mail if I had come across Colonel Livesay and Miss Wylde at Khari! Aren’t people too stupid about India; they will ask you if you have met someone, say at Bombay, when they know you are stationed at Peshawar! And just as idiotically my sister-in-law asks me if I know people who are actually in our own station!”
She paused, enjoying the interest of her audience, then continued: “She says the ‘on dit’ at Ealwood about Mrs. Livesay is that her first husband was the younger son of a very old family, that he was something of a rascal and left his widow and child with next to nothing, and that somehow or other the widow met our old Livesay man and married him, much to the disgust of the Wylde family, who would have no more to say to her.”
Various opinions were expressed.
“What brutes the Wylde people must have been! Who could blame the unfortunate widow—and probably Colonel Livesay was quite good-looking when he was young and thin.”
“Those old families are often so snobbish; it was very hard luck on poor Leila.”
And so on.
Mrs. Bowyer shrugged her shoulders. “Well,” she said, “there it is. I can tell you no more.”
She rose, and in consequence a general movement of departure ensued. Husbands were retrieved from the billiard-room, and soon the dreary little club was given over to darkness and silence, save for the scrambling and squeaking of the dwellers in the roof.
Meantime Colonel Livesay and his stepdaughter were driving rapidly towards the bungalow that had been their home for the past two years.
“Who is it you have to go and see, Dad, to-morrow morning?” Leila inquired.
“An old Burmese woman,” he grunted; he hardly liked to admit that the anticipation of a substantial fee was more than partly the reason that urged him to respond to the summons: he was not bound ofiicially to respond to it. But the establishment at Ealwood had not conduced to savings, and shortly he would be in receipt of a pension that to his mind could only be described as “better than nothing.”
“An old Burmese woman?” echoed Leila for the second time that evening. “How odd! Mr. Everest was tell ing me about one to-day who owns property out in the district. It must be the same, I suppose?”
“Of course. There aren’t two of them.”
“But do you know her, have you seen her?”
“I attended her once or twice before I went home last time. She hasn’t sent for me since we came out, and from her message now there doesn’t seem to be much the matter with her. But I’d better go. Besides,” he added, rather shamefacedly, “you know, my dear, that grist is more than welcome to our mill, and the old lady stumps up handsomely for medical attendance. So she ought,” he contended, “living all that way out.”
“I wish you would tell me about her. Mr. Everest said there was a history?”
“There’s nothing much to tell. They say that Heaven knows how many years ago she married a British officer in Burmah of the name of Jason, and came with him when the regiment was moved to India; that he died on the march up-country and she buried him on the spot, and took possession of a deserted bungalow. Why a bungalow should have been there at all I don’t know, some planter people may have built it, and left it. Anyway, there she has been ever since.”
“Oh! Dad, couldn’t I go with you to-morrow?”
“No, no—certainly not, what are you thinking of? You’d get sunstroke driving back in the heat of the day, and there’s nothing to see. The Bibi Jâsan, as the natives call her, is no beauty, the house is filthy, and there’s no landscape, only miles of crops and a lot of ugly humps and ruins, perhaps Buddhist remains.”
Leila fingered the book in her lap. “They are Buddhist remains,” she asserted thoughtfully, “very important remains. Mr. Everest said so. I’d like to see them.”
With clumsy diplomacy Colonel Livesay changed the subject, ignoring her last remarks.
“The English mail goes out to-morrow,” he said in a loud, cheerful voice. “I got my letter done this morning. What about yours?”
Leila sat silent, vanquished. Never, since her arrival in India, had she omitted to send lengthy letters every week to her mother and stepsisters at home; thus giving pleasure to the loved ones at Ealwood, and at the same time relieving her stepfather’s mind, for though he seldom failed to send an affectionate scribble to his wife each mail, he had little time, and, man-like, no inclination for letter-writing. She had remembered of old her mother’s plaints over the briefness of his letters from India, and she well knew how these “diaries” of hers were welcomed. Therefore it was her custom to cover pages with descriptions of her own and “Dad’s” daily doings, however trivial, making a point of writing separately to her mother, and to each of the two girls.
This week, owing perhaps to the heat which weakened her energies, she had neglected her mail, and, as her stepfather rather pointedly reminded her, to-morrow was mail day. For this reason alone she must have stayed at home, even had he been willing to take her with him on his coming expedition.
But, at least, she reflected, if the letters were begun to-night and finished next day in time for the outgoing mail, she would have long hours to herself in which to study the book that lay in her lap.
That night Colonel Livesay went to bed earlier than usual, and despite the heat and the insects that beat suicidally against the punkah-proof lamp, dropping with loud taps on to her writing-paper, Leila wrote and wrote till the lamp burned low; and only when the flame threatened to go out altogether did she rise with a feeling of relief. There was but one more letter to be written, the one to her younger stepsister; and that need only contain anecdotes of the dogs and the monkey, the kind of news for which, she knew, Hilda, aged fifteen, thirsted each week.
Though she never grudged the time, and often the fatigue of writing these budgets, the fact that only two or three more mails need be posted before she and her stepfather sailed for England caused Leila an involuntary sense of deliverance.
It was midnight before she got to bed; nevertheless she was up next morning with the dawn to superintend her stepfather’s “little breakfast,” and to watch him drive off in the bamboo trap with a well-filled tiffin-basket beneath the seat. At that hour the air held a faint freshness that was reviving, and she took advantage of it to get through the bulk of her domestic duties; she saw the goats and the fowls fed, made a round of inspection, including the garden and the cookhouse. The stables were excluded, for one pony had been led out last night to Jasâni Estate, another had followed it half-way; the third was between the shafts of the bamboo cart.
The sun was well up by the time she had finished, and it was the hour when doors and windows must be closed against the heat and the rising west wind; when screens of sweet-scented grass roots must be damped and placed in the most favourable positions that the fierce blast might blow through them, cooling the atmosphere within the bungalow, though merely cooling it to a degree that in England would have been condemned as only just bearable. Then, beneath a punkah, tugged by a nearly naked individual seated on an upturned packing-case in the veranda, Leila wrote her letter to Hilda and dispatched a peon to the post ofice with her completed mail.
Drying the palms of her hands and her forehead with her handkerchief, she threw herself into a low bamboo chair to rest for awhile before reading the book she had borrowed from the club.
The hypnotizing sway of the punkah, the scent of the wet “khus-khus” grass roots, the heavy stillness of the house, though soothing to her bodily senses, seemed to liberate the little gnawing regret she had lately kept prisoner at the back of her mind, regarding it as a species of disloyalty towards her people in England—regret that so soon she must leave India! Fight it how she would, it drove her to visualize almost with repulsion the suburban villa, with its pretentious white balcony and two lower bow-windows; an iron gate that refused to shut unless banged; a patch of grass on either side of a short gravel path; the single laburnum tree in one corner, only golden and green for a brief space, for the rest of the year a twiggy skeleton. And at the back of the house a strip of garden where Hilda kept rabbits, and Maimie, the elder girl, slaved diligently that the pebble-edged borders might make some sort of show at all seasons—expended sedulous care on the rose trees, took a pride in the decoration of a shed she called “the summer-house.” Simple, good children they were, as Leila reminded herself hastily, adoring their parents and their stepsister, innocent of envy towards those of their school-fellows whose circumstances were superior to their own, finding pleasure in every trifle, in such pitifully small excitements.
Her thoughts strayed back to the first clear recollections of her own childhood; a great hall, a crowd of daintily dressed children dancing around a tall Christmas tree burdened with costly toys; a park, endless gardens; again, the dignity and gloom of a great house in a town. But there were other remembrances too, unpleasant, alarming, though shadowy, in which figured two old people and a tall man, all angry, quarrelling; the tall man, she knew, was her father, and he used to make her mother cry! Then suddenly he was there no longer; someone who wore a white apron had said he was dead, “and a good job, too.” An unhappy period followed; she and her mother had seemed to be in disgrace with the two old people. How long that period lasted Leila could not have told, but she had a distant vision of a furtive “packing up” and a secret departure, “not telling anybody.” Then a house at the seaside, where they had meals with a lot of other people at a long table; there were heaps of china ornaments in every room, very attractive, only she was not allowed to touch them. Later, a kind and amusing gentleman had appeared, who took her and her mother to concerts on the pier, to tea-shops and performances. This delightful friend turned miraculously into “a new father,” and they had all gone to live somewhere else; until, to her grief and consternation, mother and the new father went away to India, leaving her in the charge of a strange lady whom she was bidden to call Auntie.
Several other children whose fathers and mothers were in India lived in the same house, and they too called the lady Auntie.
After a very long time mother and dad came home, bringing with them a couple of fascinating baby girls—her sisters, as Leila was informed—to her joy. A heartless farewell on her part to the weeping auntie, and the whole family went to a place called Ealwood, where they lived in a house with a white balcony. Leila attended a day school, and all was happiness, except that poor mother was often ill, until the day came when dad had to go back to India, and, on account of her health, mother could not go with him; the doctors had said she must never go to India again. It had been terrible, the parting, the tears. . . And from that moment Leila felt older. She became a power in the little establishment, saving her mother exertion, looking after Maimie and Hilda in the intervals of her school hours, until rather prematurely her education was considered finished; she was “grown up.”
So the time had passed peacefully, uneventfully. Dad came and went, until he had only two years to “put in” before his compulsory retirement.
Meantime, Mrs. Livesay had grown stronger, more fit to cope with domestic affairs and such small difficulties as presented themselves, though her health still remained indifferent. It had been at her wish that Leila went out with her stepfather to India at the end of his final leave home; she had said she would feel so much happier if he had someone to look after him, and that dear Leila deserved the change—she had always been so good and unselfish.
Leila had gone to India reluctantly, and now that the two years were practically over she felt, guiltily, that she was equally, if not a great deal more, reluctant to return.
Seated in the half-darkened room, the silence only broken by the swish of the punkah, the occasional splashing of water over the fragrant grass screens, doubt and self reproach continued to torment her. Could she ever settle down again with placid contentment in the cramped little villa—could she ever feel quite the same, dearly as she loved her mother and the girls, and the kind, good-hearted man who was her stepfather? Yet, there was no alternative. She knew her own family history on the father’s side, all about his extravagance, his ill conduct to her mother during his lifetime, and how his people had apparently seized on the excuse of her mother’s flight and re-marriage to sever all connexion with his widow and child. On her mother’s side there had been singularly few relations; they had come of a middle-class stock, and the last of them, an old widowed aunt, had died a few years back, bequeathing a small legacy to Leila, which at least was sufficient to pay for her clothes and personal expenses, though she could not have lived on the income. No, there was no alternative.
“No,” she repeated half-aloud, as if to emphasize the truth, “there is no alternative.”
At the same moment, suddenly, against her will, she visioned a man’s sun-tanned face, with firm chin, honest chestnut-brown eyes; and resentfully she realized that in some unaccountable fashion Everest’s proposal had tended to quicken her distaste for the future, had spurred her discontent into an activity that would be hard to quell.
With an impatient determination to distract her thoughts, she picked up the book and opened it.
The “doctor-sahib” climbed ponderously from his bamboo cart, puffed, lifted his hat, and wiped his bald forehead; a twenty-mile drive over rough, unmetalled roads on an Indian hot-weather day was no trifle to a man of his years and stout build.
The veranda of the bungalow was deserted save for the presence of a parrot in an iron dome-shaped cage; the bird screamed rude words in Hindustani at the visitor, who stood for a few moments at the foot of the steps, stretching his stiff limbs and regarding the unattractive outlook. First a low mud wall that bounded the dusty sweep in front of the building. Beyond, a stretch of rough land, barren but for clusters of thorn bushes, strewn with broken brickwork and chunks of masonry: this led on to a confused huddle of shapeless hillocks round about the base of a stupendous pile—a crumbling erection, scored and defaced with time, overgrown with coarse grass, tufted with weak trees, a melancholy landmark for miles around.
The bungalow itself was a big rambling dwelling, flanked by numerous outhouses and ramshackle shelters crowded together, the whole resembling an unkempt village in miniature; and from it rose the chatter of native voices, yapping of dogs, bleating of goats, the cackle of fowls. The interior of the bungalow was hardly less peaceful; Colonel Livesay became aware of shrill expostulations, above which rose the sound of an angry, cracked voice. Evidently a row royal was in progress, and the civil surgeon questioned if his presence were needed at all. The Bibi Jâsan could have little the matter with her if she had the strength to scold with such vigour.
He bade his syce take the trap to the stables, and mounted the steps; as he did so an old native, clad in crumpled white muslin, with a shabby red puggaree, appeared round the corner of the veranda. Colonel Livesay remembered him, Gunga, the Bibi’s head servant—“ruler of the household.”
“Your Highness, salaam!” quavered the old man in respectful greeting.
“Salaam, Gunga-ji,” was the equally courteous re sponse. “What of the Bibi Jâsan’s health?”
“Her health?” with a shrug of bony shoulders. “Her health be good enough. Listen.” He paused, a twinkle in his eye, as the rasping voice rose again above the tumult within. “But by reason of a dream of ill-omen her desire is to have speech with thine honour. The Wise Man of the village hath declared it to be a portent of her death. And why not?—since she is old, very old. I also am old, but do I not remember when I myself was but so high how the Bibi was a grown woman, and how——”
Exasperated, Colonel Livesay cut short the threatened reminiscences with an impatient exclamation. It was a little too much that he should have been dragged all this distance in the heat and the dust just because an old woman had been afflicted with nightmare. Well, she should pay for her lack of consideration. He strode quickly across the veranda, while Gunga held aside a cane blind that hung in the nearest open doorway.
“The Bibi is angered,” remarked the old servant with a chuckle, “because a duster is missing.”
At first, by contrast with the blinding white glare out side, the room he entered appeared almost pitch dark to Colonel Livesay. Faint shafts of light slanting from ventilators set high in the lofty walls scarcely penetrated the thick atmosphere, which smelt of camphor, musk, garlic, tobacco, the indescribable odour that seems inseparable from Oriental habitations. Sparrows were bickering on the ledge that ran close beneath the ceiling, dropping scraps of lime and rubbish. As the “sahib” entered, the hubbub ceased abruptly and a cluster of figures at the farther end of the room parted with haste, disclosing a divan, heaped with cushions, upon which was enthroned the Bibi Jâsan.
She was an enormously fat old woman; a little biretta like cap concealed her bald scalp, and she was wrapped in a dark coloured shawl. She resembled a venerable monk save that a long cheroot was stuck behind each of her ears. In her youth she might have been comely, as the black eyes that still glittered, and the line of the toothless mouth and jaw gave evidence. Even now it was a face that denoted remarkable force of character.
With an air of command she dismissed the crowd of retainers, and they melted away, reluctantly, through the curtains of the numerous doorways that broke the monotony of the vast wall space. Only a vacant-faced youth remained, who was fanning his mistress with a large hand punkah, and a girl of about fourteen years of age, clad in a blue garment with a length of rose-coloured silk bound about her thighs, the ends falling straight below her knees. She slid behind the divan as the doctor-sahib approached and stood gazing at him with large, long-lashed eyes.
The old lady made a polite movement, albeit half-hearted, as though to rise, graciously accepted Colonel Livesay’s gesture of protest against any such effort on her part, and the two salaamed, then solemnly shook hands.
“Bring a chair!” shouted the Bibi into space. Immediately there came a returning rush of footsteps, and a clumsy cane-seated arm-chair of English make was produced and planted in front of the divan.
“Now go!” glaring ferociously at her attendants. “Do not dare to listen behind the purdahs, but make haste to find the duster that hath been stolen.”
And as the little crowd again retreated, murmuring denials of the accusation, the Bibi addressed herself with a sigh to her visitor.
“My troubles are great,” she complained, “day and night am I surrounded by liars and rascals. That duster was a good one, strong and whole; once did I possess a dozen, now only two remain, and one of the two has been stolen. All their pay shall be stopped until it is found. Always the same, robbery, lies . . . However, the end of my time in this life draws near, and for this reason did I ask thee to come, Doctor Sahib Bahadur.”
“But you are not ill,” said Colonel Livesay, regarding her with reproachful attention.
“True. But who can live for ever? and a few nights back did I dream—”
“Oh! a dream,” he interrupted. “What matter a dream? Do not be foolish, Jasâni-lady. To send for me in sickness were wise, but I do not drive for miles, particularly at this season of the year, because of dreams!”
“I ask pardon; but it was no ordinary dream, and the Wise Man from the village is of opinion that it should not be disregarded. Never yet have I known him to be wrong in his foretellings, and there is a matter I wish to have arranged, in order that when I die I may die in peace.”
Upon this the girl, lurking behind the divan, set up a tearful lament.
“Peace, child, be silent!” reprimanded the Bibi. “Else go forth and aid in the search for the duster.”
At the same time she held out her hand and the girl climbed on to the divan to nestle beside the old woman and stifle her sobs.
“Therefore “(as though there had been no interruption) “did I ask thee to come, Doctor-ji, having faith in thy word, knowing I should do well to place a certain matter concerning my affairs in thy hands.”
“But I understand”—Colonel Livesay spoke in some alarm, having no desire to be mixed up in the conduct of the Bibi’s affairs—“that the Magistrate-sahib and Shahamat Ali—”
She held up a puffy, snuff-coloured hand to arrest his speech.
“The Magistrate-Sahib and Shahamat Ali are not, like thyself, going to England so shortly,” she said, with a cunning look.
Livesay made no reply; he was wondering how the old lady had obtained such accurate news of his pending retirement. To his relief she suddenly changed her tone.
“Shame overcomes me!” she exclaimed, slapping her forehead, “that refreshment should not have been forth coming! What is that wretch Gunga about that he hath not seen to it; the old fellow grows careless and inattentive.”
But, as though in refutation of this denouncement, Gunga now appeared, thrusting aside one of the quilted curtains with a tray on which was set a bottle of brandy, soda-water, a tumbler, and a box of cheroots. Another servant followed bearing a tin of mixed biscuits and a pile of freshly made native sweetmeats. Perforce Colonel Livesay accepted a drink, though he helped himself sparingly—(doubting the quality of the spirit)—nibbled the plainest biscuit he could select from the tin; the while his hostess partook of the sweetmeats, to keep him in company. She explained to him that the brandy and the biscuits and the soda-water had long been in her store room; she feared they might not be of the first excellence, but at any rate the cheroots were to be recommended . . . they had come straight from Burmah!—and she proceeded to light one. Had he ever been in Burmah? No?—that was a loss to anyone, of whatever nationality!
“Never,” she went on confidentially, “would I have left my own country but for the great love I bore for my dear man, and his kind love for me. We made marriage in Burmah according to his faith; and soon after came the order for the regiment to move to India; we marched and marched, many falling by the way, but my dear one kept his health till we reached this spot, and then he died of the pestilence that ever pursued us.” She half closed her eyes. “Maybe,” she continued sadly, “the Lord Buddha decreed it; had I not forsaken my faith and my country!—for here within sight of one of the great memorials to his Blessed Memory was my love taken from me. Wherefore did I stay, in this dwelling that was empty, unwanted, to be bought for a mere trifle, and raised a tomb over my dear one’s body, yonder in the mango grove”—she waved her hand towards the back of the house—“and there, when I die, shall I rest beside him. . . .”
What with the lack of air, the heat, and the sound of the sing-song old voice repeating a story he knew already, Colonel Livesay began to feel drowsy; unless he made an effort to stop the droning recital he might fall asleep. In order to rouse himself he shifted his position in the uncomfortable chair, watched for an opportunity to interrupt as she maundered on, lost in the past.
“Yes, here did I stay with a few faithful followers and one dear companion of mine own blood, who for love of me had also forsaken our country; but she is long ago dead—the grandmother of this little Anatta.” The old woman glanced down fondly at the girl crouched by her side. “I bought land, sending for my money from Burmah, much land.” All at once her voice changed, dreaminess vanished; again she was alert, vigorous. “Much land with good soil, crops, many villages; all prospered, and for many years now have I amassed wealth. Wealth!” she repeated loudly.
Colonel Livesay nodded sympathetically, and as the Bibi began fumbling among her cushions he wondered what was to come next. Presently she produced a bundle of papers wrapped in a wax cloth cover, put on a pair of large horn spectacles, coughed and spat, preparatory to business.
“Here,” she said, “is a copy of my—what you sahib-folk call ‘veel’—tes-ta-ment.”
“Yes—a will?” He lit another cheroot, helped himself to another small portion of the brandy, for after all it was not too poisonous, and resigned himself to listen, with newly awakened interest.
“Shahamat Ali, the pleader at Khari, whom I trust, though lawyers are more often rascals than otherwise, hath made, according to my instructions, this veel. Bowyer-sahib, Magistrate, whom also I trust because he is reported to be just, as an Englishman should he, hath seen and appended his name to it. In his keeping is the first writing, and should he leave Khari before my death he will give it into the charge of the next Magistrate-sahib. Shahamat Ali has also a copy. But the favour that I desire to ask of thee, Doctor-ji, is not written down in this veel directly as concerns thyself, though I have arranged that a good price be paid for the service.”
Her bright, oblique eyes shot him a stray glance, which Livesay ignored, gazing over her head.
“And what is this service?” he inquired indifferently.
“It is this. As I have said, I am a rich woman and for many years, owing to the rents of my villages and the sale of my crops, have I put by many rupees. The money is well protected in the big English bank at Calcutta, and it is my desire, as I have stated in my veel, to bequeath it, together with Jasâni Estate, to one of my husband’s own people—his nearest male relation who may be living at this day. If none can be found within a year after my death, all is to go to the head priest of the temple in the place where I was born, for the benefit of the poor, other than sufficient to provide for this little one, Anatta, who is of Burmese descent. Clarke-sahib the planter and his wife—who dwell by the river but a few miles distant, will take charge of this child and see that she marries suitably, for she will not be poor.”
“But what,” asked Colonel Livesay, mystified, “do you wish me to do?” He would be here all day if the old lady did not come to the point more quickly.
She took a long pull at her cheroot. “My desire,” she said slowly, “to bequeath my riches to my husband’s kinsman, should one be living, can only be accomplished with the aid of a sahib who is soon to be crossing ‘the black water,’ one who can seek out the family, one whom more over I trust; like thyself.”
“But I——” began Livesay, aghast.
The old lady ignored the implied protest. “Is it not truth that mine honoured and respected friend the Doctor-Colonel-Sahib will very soon be journeying to England, there to remain?” she asked suavely.
“It is truth,” he agreed, “but how could I discover your husband’s people, even were I willing to undertake such a quest? England is a large place,” he argued helplessly, “and Jason is not, as far as my knowledge lies, a name of importance. The difficulties might be endless.”
He saw himself involved in a most tiresome and perhaps unpleasant business should he consent to the Bibi’s extraordinary demand; at the same time he felt touched by her confidence, her anxiety for his help; also her desire to benefit some relation of her English husband appealed to him. Never, in the course of his simple, well-intentioned existence had he withheld from his fellow creatures, whether English or Indian, such assistance as lay in his power. Now, if he refused the Bibi’s request, would he not be acting unkindly towards her, perhaps unfairly towards some being who might be thankful to inherit her wealth? And as for himself, in view of her plain hint, what about perhaps earning a welcome reward for some effort on her behalf? He recognized the Bibi’s strong wish for more or less immediate action in the matter, as well as the faint possibility of benefit to himself and his family; but the whole business appeared to him so intangible, so in the air, that he hesitated to take part in it.
Perturbed by his silent hesitation, she thrust the will into his hands. “See for thyself,” she entreated him. “See! Whoever shall find my lord’s kinsman within a year of my death will receive the sum of five thousand rupees.”
He glanced over the document. Yes, it was as she had stated.
“You understand?” she asked anxiously.
“I understand,” he said, handing her back the paper, “and in any case I thank you, Jasâni lady, for your kind trust in me, but as it is so unlikely—”
She burst into tears, bitter tears, drawing her fingers backwards and forwards across her eyes.
“What is to do!” she wailed. “Whom else can I turn to? I know of none else going to England so soon. It is my soul’s desire. Shortly shall I be dead, as my dream has revealed to me. Only thou of all the sahibs at Khari art going now to the land where dwell my lord’s people. I would send a letter to Shahamat Ali and to the magistrate sahib charging them to insert thy name, so that all should be right according to law.”
Still he hesitated.
“-Ai—ai! my heart breaks!” She wept loudly, and Anatta, the child, cuddled half asleep against her, raised her head and joined in the lamentation.
Colonel Livesay deliberated; once having given his promise, he would feel bound to embark on this wild goose chase. Well, what matter? if it came to nothing he would be no worse off; if (wild improbability) he should succeed, the reward would be extremely useful. Meantime the Bibi’s mind would be eased, strange mixture as it was of sound business capacity, guileless superstition, and sentiment.
Watching him closely, her fat face lighted up. “It is agreed?” she cried triumphantly. “My wish is granted?”
“It is agreed,” he said, yielding, yet with reluctance.
“Ah!” she drew a long sigh of relief. “Now in peace shall I join my dear lord to await our next incarnation together on earth! See, Anatta, are we not happy again? Say thanks to this good Sahib in his own tongue.”
The girl looked shyly at the sahib and smiled—a pretty little creature, fairy-like, perfect in form, with a bright colour in her nut-brown cheeks, intelligence in her big dark eyes.
“Tank—you,” she said slowly and distinctly.
“Wah!” exclaimed the Bibi with pride. “Is she not clever? She goes frequently to visit Clarke mem-sahib, with whom later she will dwell. Of her kindness Clarke mem-sahib teaches the child. Already can she read and write a little English.”
Emboldened by this praise, Anatta snatched a handful of sweetmeats from the tray and began stuffing them into her mouth.
“Villain!” said the Bibi, making no attempt to stop her. However accomplished, Anatta seemed to be well spoiled in her own home.
Then the child suddenly held out the rest of the sweetmeats in her hands to the vacant-faced punkah boy, who grinned with embarrassment and delight.
“Nay,” said the Bibi in dignified accents, “keep the sweetmeats for Maru until his duties be over.” But she looked to Colonel Livesay for appreciation of her darling’s unselfish intention.
“‘All beings desire happiness,’” she quoted to Anatta, “‘Therefore to all extend benevolence,’ but at the right time.”
“Then extend your benevolence to me, Jasâni-lady,” said Livesay lightly, “and permit me to depart, for the way back to Khari is long, and the roads are rough.”
Smiling salutations were exchanged, farewells. Nothing further was said on either side regarding the English man’s promise to the old Burmese woman. Gratitude on her part, faithful intention on his, was understood between them. She bent over his hand with a muttered blessing, then shouted for Gunga, who already stood at the door, holding aside the cane blind that the sahib might pass forth; and there was an end to this curious, and, as it came about, fateful and far-reaching interview.
Soon Colonel Livesay, in his bamboo cart, was bumping along the vile track that led him away from Jasâni Estate: until he came to a large and isolated peepul tree, and in its shade enjoyed the contents of the tiffin basket packed for him that morning by his stepdaughter. He only remembered afterwards that he had charged the Bibi no fee for his visit!
The old lady, however, had not forgotten. Next day a sum reached him by hand—a sum far in excess of what he would have demanded himself, together with a letter penned by her own hand, partly in English, partly in the vernacular, conveying her gratitude, concluding with a reminder of his promise and an assurance that not until his name had been duly included in her last instructions would she feel free to depart from this world in peace.
Reading this pathetic little missive, the Civil Surgeon smiled; there was no reason, he considered, why the Bibi Jâsan should not continue to exist for some years to come. But he had not reckoned with the force of Oriental superstition; the dream of ill-omen and the Wise Man of the village had done their work; and on the eve of Colonel Livesay’s departure for England with his stepdaughter, the Bibi Jâsan went forth to join her “dear lord.”
Leila Wylde glanced about the dining-room of No. 26 Borrodaile Road, Ealwood, with a feeling of unfightable depression as the family sat down to the midday Sunday meal.
A joint of roast beef (surrounded by squares of Yorkshire pudding) faced Colonel Livesay at one end of the table; at the other his wife was confronted with two covered vegetable dishes. An ill-favoured parlourmaid, whose unapt surname was Joy, waited with an air of hostility. She had given notice the moment she was told Colonel Livesay and Miss Wylde were expected from India, her excuse being that in her “last place but three” she had lived with “people from India,” and had no intention of doing so again. They gave too much trouble, rang the bell when they needn’t, forgot to put out lights, left taps running, besides throwing their clothes about, and so on. No assurance on the part of Mrs. Livesay that her husband and daughter were not “Indian people” of that sort, no bribe of higher wages, would induce her to stay. And when the previous afternoon the “Indian people” had arrived, and demanded hot baths, which for some unaccountable reason delayed the kitchen tea, she made no concealment of her triumphant disapproval, remarking loudly on the landing: “There—what did I say!”
Now, during her absence from the dining-room in quest of the apple tart that was to follow the Sunday joint, Mrs. Livesay bemoaned the unfeeling behaviour of Joy. “I’ve been abasing myself at registry offices ever since she gave me notice, but without success. And to-morrow she is going! She told Elizabeth she liked me well enough, but wasn’t going to look after anyone accustomed to black slaves, especially as she had found another situation on double the wages.”
(A statement, by the way, that Elizabeth the cook who, for reasons of her own, “stood by” Mrs. Livesay, had delicately pronounced to be “a ontruth.”)
“Never mind, my dear,” said James Livesay blithely. “Here we are, all together again for good. Nothing else matters. I’ll clean the boots and the knives, and Leila and the children can dust and sweep until we capture someone else. At any rate we seem to have a cook, and quite a good one, too.”
“Yes,” admitted his wife, “Elizabeth has her points, but I’m sure she only stays because of Tomkins, the cat. She’s so fond of him. I live in terror that he may get run over or eat poison or come to a bad end somehow, though he certainly deserves it, for he steals so frightfully. At least Elizabeth says he does!”
“Then for Heaven’s sake believe her.”
Colonel Livesay was so unaffectedly delighted to find himself at home once more that domestic grievances seemed to him of small account. But Leila thought regretfully of the white-clad, soft-stepping servants in India, of their usually faultless service and obedience; also of the space and loftiness of the bungalows. The little dining-room reeked of roast beef and “greens,” was overpoweringly close despite open windows and sun blinds. She felt she would have given anything for a punkah and the cool perfume of wet khus-khus. The Scottish lady, on that well-remembered evening in the Khari club, must have been right in her theory that once in England the trials of Indian life were forgotten, and that only memories of the alleviations remained!
She sat silent as her stepsisters consumed large helpings of food with healthy appetites. Maimie was growing into an extremely pretty girl, very like what her mother must have been at that age, crinkly brown hair, recently “put up,” limpid hazel eyes, and rose leaf skin. Hilda, yet unfledged, with a sharp little face and quick darting movements, rather self-assertive, inclined to pertness. Both chattered of their separate interests. Maimie was full of a charity bazaar at which she was to be one of the sellers, attired as a French peasant; she gravely reproached her mother, who declared, if she came to the sale at all, she should bring a large parcel with her in order to guard against persecution and expenditure. Hilda was excited over the prospect of acting in a “piece” that was to be the chief feature of the break-up party at the day school she attended. Such fun!—she was to take the comic part, an old gentleman! And she demanded money of her father with which to purchase a wig and spectacles, also the loan of a pair of his trousers and his dressing-gown . . . Dad laughed and said he would see.
The heavymeal was over, they trooped into the drawing room, which, being flanked by a small greenhouse, seemed hotter, if possible, to Leila than the dining-room; and soon Maimie and Hilda betook themselves to the back garden and basket chairs under “the tree” to read magazines.
“Now then,” began Mrs. Livesay, “let us talk over this interesting business about Jasâni Estate! I have said nothing to the children since you told me about it, James; and you haven’t either, have you, Leila?”
“Of course not,” said Leila, “why should I?” She felt as if she had hardly spoken a word to anyone since her arrival. “But I should think it was all a sort of mare’s nest.”
“But why?” Mrs. Livesay leaned forward argumentatively in her chair. “It seems perfectly simple. We have only to do our best to find the old creature’s heir, and if we find him, I am sure four or five hundred pounds would be a godsend!”
Leila, regarding her mother, thought how handsome she looked, her delicate face flushed with eagerness, her plentiful brown hair hardly touched with grey. She must have been such a beautiful girl!—and Leila wished she herself had resembled her mother more than her renegade father. Had she realized it, she was not like her father; she might have been the original of a portrait, a famous portrait, of her great-grandmother on her father’s side—the same long neck and low brow, with the soft yet fearless blue eyes, and firmly cut features, the colourless, transparent complexion.
And Mrs. Livesay, on her side, unconscious of her daughter’s silent admiration, suddenly remembered this picture with a little contraction of her heart. How long ago lay those days when the portrait of Leila’s ancestress used to meet her gaze at the head of a great staircase. Not that she regretted those days on her own account, but she sometimes felt sorry that Leila should have been excluded from a world that was hers by right of birth.
Neither of the two was aware at the moment that each was thinking of the other; and Mrs. Livesay broke the little silence by repeating her query.
“I rather agree with Leila myself,” confessed Colonel Livesay, who desired nothing so much as peace, now that he had bidden a final farewell to India and all things Indian, “though sooner or later I suppose we shall have to do something, according to my promise.”
“There must be some male member of the Jason family still living somewhere,” contended Mrs. Livesay.
“Perhaps,” said her husband drowsily, “but there’s plenty of time. We needn’t bother just yet.”
“—if you will only set your mind to it, James.”
“Plenty of time,” he repeated, closing his eyes. He was inclined to slumber after the Sunday dinner, combined with the treat of a bottle of English beer.
Mrs. Livesay glanced at her daughter, laid a finger on her lips, rose stealthily from her chair. “Come upstairs with me,” she whispered; and tip-toed from the room, followed by Leila.
Her bedroom presented an example of the species of environment that clings to past glories. More often than not human beings, especially women, who have, so to speak, “known better days,” contrive to uphold a certain atmosphere approaching to luxury, in their personal surroundings, at comparatively little cost. The dressing-table, though draped only with cheap pink and white muslin, was set at exactly the right angle and sported an opulent air—ivory-backed brushes, an important pin-cushion bristling with brooches, silver trifles in profusion (somewhat dulled with neglect). The bed spread was a fine old piece of Afghan embroidery picked up years ago for a song in India. A comfortable couch, a couple of deep arm-chairs and a writing-bureau, together with a round table for books and a work basket, all helped to form an enticing refuge. It was a room, as Mrs. Livesay was wont, rather ambiguously, to describe it, “that one could be ill in.”
She stretched herself on the cushioned couch, her arms behind her head, while Leila sank listlessly into one of the easy chairs.
“Now, darling, tell me. Is there anything solid in this affair Dad has got himself mixed up with? If it’s really worth while, we must tackle it at once; you know how dilatory Dad can be when he likes.”
“As far as the old lady’s will is concerned I believe it’s all right. The only vague part, it seems to me, is her having selected Dad to find the heir instead of putting some lawyer on to it. But if he can’t, practically everything goes to a priest in Burmah for the benefit of the poor.”
“And if he does find the heir it will benefit the poor too—like my accounts!” said Mrs. Livesay with a laugh. She never made any secret of her custom, when “out” in her accounts, of entering the sum to “a poor person.”
“What shall we do?” she continued. “Shall we advertise?”
“We can but try,” said Leila doubtfully.
“Well, then let us try. Give me a pencil and a piece of paper from the bureau.”
Supplied with writing materials, Mrs. Livesay composed an advertisement, which she read aloud with much satisfaction.
“‘If a family of the name of Jason, whose relation married a Burmese lady and died in India a long time ago, would communicate with Colonel Livesay, late Indian Medical Service, 26 Borrodaile Road, Ealwood, S.W., one of them may hear of something to his advantage.’ What do you think of that, Leila? ‘One of them’ and ‘his’ protects us from being attacked by a swarm of females.”
Her mother’s admiration for her own composition was so disarming that Leila refrained from criticism. She merely suggested a little alteration, also that in place of Dad’s name and address initials and “Box So-and-so” should be substituted; or else that it might be wiser to put the matter into the hands of a solicitor.
“Oh! no,” argued her mother against this last proposal, “that would be too dull for words. It will be so amusing if men turn up in crowds—though I don’t know who is to answer the bell. I’m sure Elizabeth wouldn’t. We might hire a Boy Scout? And just think of the expense of a lawyer, perhaps all for nothing. It would be quite easy to sort out the claimants ourselves. There can’t be more than one family of the name of Jason whose great-uncle, or whatever relation he was, married a Burmese woman and took her to a place in India where he died; I suppose it was cholera. No impostor would have a chance. Of course Dad dislikes the whole business now, but he’ll be delighted to get the money.”
“If he ever does,” murmured Leila.
“And when we do get hold of the man,” went on Mrs. Livesay, ignoring her daughter’s pessimism, “you had better marry him, darling, and then we could all come out and spend a winter with you in India. It would be so nice for the girls.”
“That is looking rather far ahead,” said Leila with a smile.
The whole thing was absurd, she reflected. She felt little interest in the undertaking that had been foisted on to her stepfather by the Bibi Jâsan; yet now that her mother was so set on immediate action, partly for the excitement it afforded her, partly in view of the possible reward, there was nothing for it but to give what help she could without further debate.
“We’ll send the advertisement to-night,” chirruped Mrs. Livesay, “that is, if we can find the place in the paper where they tell you where to address such communications and how much it costs. I wish you’d go and look for to-day’s paper, dearest, though probably Elizabeth has burnt it.”
“But to-day is Sunday,” Leila reminded her mother.
“Of course, so it is. It’s always Sunday when you want to do anything. Well, get hold of the paper to-morrow morning before Dad begins to read it, and then rush out and buy a postal order.”
According to Mrs. Livesay’s instructions Leila intercepted “The Times” the following morning, discovered the necessary paragraph, calculated the cost of the advertisement, and had posted the document by the time Colonel Livesay had begun to complain crossly that the paper shop’s lazy habits were a disgrace to the Empire—where was “The Times”?
“Yes, they are lazy,” said his wife, putting the paper into his hands. “An American friend of mine who took the next house for a few months used to have endless rows with them, and one day she said to the man: ‘Oh! of course we all know that you’re own brother to the King of England, but I’m going to have my papers sent in before breakfast.’”
“And did she get them?” inquired Colonel Livesay absently, unfolding the paper.
“Of course not. He said that if he was own brother to the King of England, he could get up when he liked.”
Monday had not begun very well, and the day was further disturbed by the departure of Joy, who drove off in a cab with much display of pride and independence, so “upsetting” Elizabeth that the dinner that night was deplorable; the soup tasteless and cold, the potato pie untempting, and the custard pudding that accompanied the remains of the apple tart might have been “own brother” to a slab of Gruyère cheese—all holes.
Mrs. Livesay did not mind; she said cheerfully that she was never hungry and was positive she could go with out food altogether, if necessary. At the same time she apologized for the non-appearance of a savoury she had ordered—herring roes on toast. According to Elizabeth, Tomkins had stolen the roes.
“Why do you believe the woman, my dear?” Colonel Livesay protested irritably; whereat Maimie and Hilda laughed, which annoyed him still further, especially as they were all obliged to wait on themselves in order to save the single-handed Elizabeth trouble.
The next two or three days were a nightmare of discomfort, unrelieved by answers to the advertisement, which duly appeared and was read aloud over and over again to the family by Mrs. Livesay.
“We ought to have had it repeated every day for a week,” she said, mortified by the lack of response. “Everybody doesn’t read the Agony Column regularly, though to me it’s the most interesting part of the paper.”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” adjured her husband testily, “there’s plenty of time.”
By now he had either forgotten or repented his good resolutions concerning boots and knives. At any rate he found his boots cleaned after a fashion, for Elizabeth was one of those domestics who will perform such offices for the man of the family while the female members may go neglected. As for the knives, he made no comment on stains and spots; and he betook himself to London each day, where he lunched at his club.
Maimie helped her stepsister with the housework as far as her time, which was chiefly absorbed by prepar ations for the bazaar, would permit; Hilda was still at school all day, for the holidays, though imminent, had not yet begun, and she spent her spare hours privately rehearsing her part in the coming play, attired in a pair of her father’s trousers and his dressing-gown, plus the wig and spectacles she had persecuted him to pay for.
Mrs. Livesay could not tear herself away from the front windows; any figure that approached along the road she felt sure would stop at No. 26 and ask to see Colonel Livesay with reference to an advertisement. Her disappointment was acute as each passed, with perhaps just a glance at the handsome, middle-aged woman gazing from the casements. She could settle to nothing, while Leila swept and dusted, cleaned the silver, rubbed up the brass. As to the marketing, Mrs. Livesay said that if she went out Leila must stay at home and vice versa, in case anyone called. Maimie, if at home, would be sure to make some muddle, and Elizabeth might not answer the door unless she happened to be “dressed.” The two girls, now let into the secret, took little or no interest in it; to them it was not half so important as bazaars and theatricals.
Then, of course, on the only afternoon when Leila had managed to entice her mother forth that they might visit some old friends together, a stranger did call; and the door was opened to him by Hilda in her famous “get up.”
“I really hadn’t time to change,” explained the child, not in the least agitated by her mother’s vexation, “and I’m sure he had nothing to do with the advertisement. I asked him if his name was Jonas, but he couldn’t speak for laughing and just went away. I saw him go into a house farther down the road, so I expect he had only mistaken the number.”
But nothing would convince Mrs. Livesay that the caller had not come in answer to the advertisement. She wept with annoyance.
“And what possessed you,” she wailed to the unrepentant Hilda, “to ask him if his name was Jonas. It’s not in the least like Jason!”
“Quite near enough, Mummy. If he had been Jason he would have corrected me. His amusement when he saw me was a very good sign. I expect I shall bring the house down. Of course he wouldn’t have gone away if his name had been Jonas—I mean Jason.”
“Of course he thought you were mad, and that the advertisement had come from a home for lunatics! Go upstairs at once and take off those ridiculous things.”
As Hilda obeyed her mother, stumbling up the stairs, clutching at the trousers, Mrs. Livesay turned to Leila: “Really, I feel quite ill,” she said, her hand to her side. “We shall have to advertise all over again, and put in something to explain about this afternoon.”
Leila made up her mind. This state of affairs could not be tolerated any longer. She herself felt worn out; she pitied her stepfather, who was practically driven from his home; feared a nervous breakdown for her mother, delicate and excitable as she was. Having dosed the poor lady with brandy, forced her to lie down, and persuaded her that the caller was no Jason, she laid down the law.
“We really must set ourselves to find another servant,” she said firmly. “It’s no wonder Dad goes to the club all day if he isn’t as comfortable as he might be at home. Of course, sooner or later, he will do his best to find the old woman’s heir, he won’t fail her, having promised, if he can help it. But if I were you, dearest, I should let him alone about it now till after the holidays.”
“I do so want him to get the money,” whimpered Mrs. Livesay.
“Naturally, so do I. But it’s no use making yourself ill over it.”
“No, that’s true. What a comfort you are, Leila. I should like to go to Maimie’s bazaar and see Hilda act, and if I’m ill I shouldn’t be able to do either. Besides, there are lots of old friends I ought to take Dad to see, and I can’t, if he won’t stay at home. Will you go and hunt for a slave for Elizabeth, or somebody, to-morrow morning? I always have bad luck over servants. I know I demoralize them; perhaps I’m not strict enough; they either do no work at all, or give notice at a critical moment like that horrid Joy . . . and you know as well as I do that even Elizabeth would desert me if I didn’t shut my eyes about Tomkins. And, to tell you the truth, I’m sure I’m not nearly so strong as I was before you went out to India.”
With a sinking at her heart Leila felt, too, that this was the truth, though she uttered reassurances; and next morning, having persuaded her mother to sit in the garden instead of watching from the front windows, she set off in search of some being who might be willing to help ease the domestic difficulties.
The result was that a strong, well-mannered girl was installed whom Colonel Livesay christened “the cooly,” since she appeared to regard Elizabeth as her mistress, which perhaps was just as well; at any rate all went smoothly; boots and knives shone, the husband and wife went out happily together to tea parties, and Leila, who contrived to establish a reputation for “not caring to go out much,” found herself at liberty to haunt an excellent free library where she discovered several books on the subject of Buddhism.
The subject had laid hold of her imagination; she went so far as to make acquaintance with a hungry looking spinster, encountered at the library, who proclaimed herself a member of “The Buddhist Community,” who persuaded Miss Wylde to attend a lecture in her company and finally to become a member of the said Community, not that Leila found the lecture particularly enlightening, but the membership gave her a right to borrow books from a collection that, though chiefly appertaining to the religious and sentimental aspect of the question, contained works of the description she was seeking; works on Buddhist archaeology, explorations, discoveries, inscriptions, that proved, historically, the power of the Great Teacher, whose precepts and example were so curiously akin to Christianity.
One fact that she gleaned excited her interest to burning point; she read that Strabo, the Greek historian, had recorded having seen a number of ships ready to sail from a Red Sea port—ready to sail for India—the date coinciding with the disappearance of Christ from Biblical history; while seventeen years later He had reappeared in the Holy Land to preach a doctrine that was strange and new. Was it possible that He had spent those lost years in India, to return to His own country, having absorbed the best that lay in the teaching of Gautama Buddha, so to give it forth to the world in a purer and higher form? Who could say?
It was well into Hilda’s summer holidays before Leila and the Livesays started for a seaside resort that was not ultra-fashionable, nor so far from London as to render travelling expenses too terrific an item for such a comparatively large party.
The delay in getting off, Mrs. Livesay said, was due to there being “so much to do.” Elizabeth claimed her holiday, and Tomkins was to go with her as a paying guest; “the cooly “could not be left alone in the house, and must be dispatched to her home for the time being. Therefore a reliable caretaker had to be sought. The plate must be counted and conveyed to the Bank, treasures locked up, dust sheets and newspapers spread everywhere; all might have been arranged and accomplished much sooner by Leila had she been given a free hand, but that her mother, being far from well, became peevishly obstructive, and persisted in directing, and incidentally delaying, matters herself.
Truth to tell, Mrs. Livesay did not want to go away, neither did her husband, neither did Leila; but all three felt it would be inhuman to deprive the two girls of a pleasure they anticipated so keenly at this time of year. Maimie and Hilda “adored” beaches and bathing, the open-air “shows,” the general atmosphere of amusement; and as their parents and stepsister agreed in private, both girls were looking rather washed out and needed sea air.
So in time they all arrived at the private hotel (née boarding-house) at Littlepool-on-Sea that Mrs. Livesay had frequented for the past few years. The Proprietors approved of these visitors as confirming the character of the establishment, which catered, professedly, for “refined families only”; and good rooms were allotted to “Colonel and Mrs. Livesay and party” on suitable terms.
Mrs. Livesay went out every day in a Bath chair, her husband stepping dutifully beside it; but after a while he complained that no human being could gauge the pace of a Bath-chair man. They seemed, he said, either to crawl or to race, and even when they appeared to crawl it was difficult to keep level with them; moreover, when a halt became necessary in mercy to “the man,” the latter would sit beside him on the bench and converse upon the weather and the scenery, combined with heart-rending laments concerning the bad times that had befallen the profession.
One of Colonel Livesay’s few peculiarities, shared perhaps by a good proportion of his sex hailing from India, was a horror of what might be termed the “expectant brigade” in England. He would go yards out of his way, or cross streets quite unnecessarily, in order to evade the attentions of organ-grinders, crossing-sweepers, vendors of matches and boot laces, etc. It was not that he grudged the coppers he invariably produced when he was caught, but he shrank from expectant or grateful salutations which, being a polite person by nature, he felt bound to acknowledge. And he would do so by emitting a curious sound, something between a cough and a grunt, which when Leila was with him convulsed her with suppressed laughter. Then he would hurry on, as though guilty of some culpable action. It was this weakness that caused him to abhor Bath-chair men; and, when he could contrive to do so, he left it to his wife to pay fares and tips, keeping her well supplied with cash for the purpose. Thus it came about that gradually Colonel Livesay shirked attendance on his wife with her chair-man of the day, making plausible excuses that only Leila, with secret amusement, saw through. She took his place with compassionate understanding, agreeing that a long walk with an energetic fellow visitor at the Private Hotel was far better for him than parading up and down the front; that it was “so nice” for him to watch the County cricket matches with an old Indian friend he had encountered, who was also a member of the best Bowling Club, and conveniently anxious for company—most of his friends among the residents having fled inland to escape the holiday crowd.
Then sometimes Mrs. Livesay elected to go on the pier (which her husband abominated); such heaps of funny people to look at, and the spectacle afforded by the Mixed Bathing Club was so amusing!—though of course she would not permit Maimie and Hilda to join it. They must be content to bathe circumspectly from a machine on the shore.
On a particularly hot morning Leila followed her mother’s Bath chair on to the pier, progressing between rows of knitters and readers and idlers, till they discovered a spot where they could anchor in comparative shade, and hear the band that brayed valiantly in the Concert Hall. Close beside them was also located a Bath chair occupied by a lady whose appearance was so striking that Leila found it difficult not to stare at her. She was attended by two men, one presumably her husband from the manner in which he addressed her, the second man was either a relation or a very familiar friend.
Leila, in the intervals of answering her mother’s remarks, and retrieving her crochet work and books, both of which seemed to prefer the boards of the pier to her lap, observed the trio with interest. They did not look quite the sort of people to have chosen Littlepool-on-Sea for change of air (though, for the matter of that, hoped Leila, neither did she nor her mother!). From their conversation they were evidently not residents. Perhaps the lovely lady had been ill, and had sought the nearest procurable sea breezes; her appearance was hardly that of an invalid, but judicious “make up” might convey a false impression of health. Leila could not decide whether the exquisite complexion, the dark lashes and eyebrows, and the shining hair, were absolutely natural or not; but at any rate there could be no illusion about the eyes, which were exceptionally large and brilliant and of an uncommon colour, a mixture of green and brown.
When presently “the husband” rose and strolled off to witness the performances of a professional lady diver who, in addition to other remarkable feats, was expected to undress in the water, the bright, peculiar eyes glanced at the man who remained by her side with an expression that could not be mistaken for anything save fervid relief. The look was returned but with scarcely a like fervour; indeed Leila thought she detected a touch of self-conscious protest in the man’s demeanour, as though fearing observation from their neighbours. At the same time he moved his folding-chair nearer to his companion, lazily fondled the little yellow dog that lay on her knee—whose coat matched the shade of its mistress’s hair—bending his head over the small animal, as he and the lady whispered together.
The man was a well-set-up individual, somewhere about thirty years of age; he reminded Leila of a pictorial advertisement, with his clean-cut features, small dark moustache, and correct clothing—a type that had always struck her as savouring of idleness, careless indifference to the convenience of others, with a smack of self-conscious conceit; in other respects no doubt a gentleman, with a certain code of behaviour, unaddicted to actual vice, agreeable, attractive, not wholly contemptible!
As she composed this estimate of his character (why she was so engaged she could not have told, except that she was bored with the pier and the heat, and slightly, per haps, with her mother) the man suddenly looked up and caught her gaze fixed on him.
Leila flushed with annoyance, hastily paid attention to Mrs. Livesay, who needed no attention, for she was half asleep. But even though she had removed her gaze so swiftly, she was conscious of the smile on the man’s face, humorous, provocative; he knew as well as she did that she had been observing him closely!
Ardently Leila wished for the husband’s return—indeed she felt inclined to rise and mingle with the crowd about the barrier overlooking the professional swimmer’s performance. But at this juncture Mrs. Livesay woke up, once more dropped her crochet, and the little white ball went skimming beneath the man’s chair. Instantly alert, he jumped up and dived for the ball, handing it back, not to Leila, who held out her hand, but to Mrs. Livesay, who received it with an amiable smile.
“Oh! thank you so much!” she said. “I am afraid I am a nuisance to my neighbours.”
“Anything but—!” he exclaimed, raising his hat and disclosing a smooth dark head; then he looked at Leila expectantly, so that she felt forced to accord him a stiff little bow of acknowledgment.
The lady in the other Bath chair now leaned forward and spoke to Mrs. Livesay.
“The heat is awful, isn’t it? And what a place, and what people! Have you ever been here before?”
“Yes, often,” was the calm reply; Mrs. Livesay was never pretentious.
“Indeed? I suppose the air suits you? The doctor ordered me here; he declared there was no air like it for nerves, though I believe some people complain that it’s too strong for them. All the same, I detest the place. It’s so vulgar.”
“What is ‘strong air’?” interrupted the man.
None of the three ladies could explain.
“There’s hardly a soul one can speak to, continued the detractor of Littlepool-on-Sea; and was playfully reproached by her friend.
“Oh! come now, Lady Acwell!” he said—” and after all I’ve done for you!”
Mrs. Livesay assumed a distant expression (she rather shrank from familiarity with strangers) as Lady Acwell retorted: “What a fool you are, Noddy!” and turned again to Mrs. Livesay.
“You remind me so much of someone I know,” she remarked in charming apology. “I hope you don’t mind my saying so?”
“Of course not. I am always being told I am like somebody else!” And Mrs. Livesay began to roll up her crochet-work and look for her book as though in preparation for departure.
“Oh! you’re not going yet?” protested Lady Acwell gushingly. “Here is Langton, my husband, coming back from that silly diving-show. Mayn’t I introduce him?”
She had noted the nice-looking girl who was possibly the other woman’s companion; if so, and she could contrive to fraternize with the pair, Langton might attach himself to the girl; young and well-favoured female dependents always attracted him—he considered them fair game. That would be very convenient for herself and Noddy.
Mrs. Livesay, a little dismayed, submitted to the introduction, there was no help for it without discourteous behaviour; and after all, she reflected, there could be no harm in a sort of pier acquaintanceship with these people, though she did not much care for the look of them: they were too palpably opulent, too free and easy for her taste. She yielded her name and Leila’s, as Sir Langton Acwell was presented to them.
He was a big man, a good deal older than his wife, coarsely handsome, rather flashily dressed, and looked, so Mrs. Livesay decided, as if he betted and drank. But when he sat down beside her and began to talk she was agreeably surprised. His manner and conversation were perfectly correct, and he spoke with becoming concern of his wife’s recent illness.
“She doesn’t take enough care of herself,” he said confidentially, “always on the go in London, and knows far too many people. They take it out of her, and she’s too kind-hearted to snub anyone. This sort of a place is just what she wants for a bit, no going out at night, no theatres and supper parties and race meetings—all that, you know! But she misses her women pals. Our friend Stanford has been kind enough to come down with us to help cheer her up, but it’s not quite the same thing, eh?—and if you and your young lady would take pity on her sometimes—” He paused suggestively.
Mrs. Livesay, somewhat touched by this appeal, said civilly: “We often come on the pier in the mornings.”
“Then we shall look out for you. This particular spot is just the right place. You’re sheltered from too much sun and not deafened by the band inside. How anyone can sit inside that stokehole this weather beats me—yet there it is, chock full!” ‘
“I hope your wife is recovering satisfactorily?” inquired Mrs. Livesay.
“Oh! she’ll be all right if she does what the doctors tell her. ‘Rest before meals’—‘rest after meals,’ they might all be parrots, which reminds me that it’s time she went back to the hotel to rest before luncheon. Rose hates the very word rest.”
He looked round and whistled to attract his wife’s attention, pointing with his stick towards the shore. “Time’s up,” he shouted; and presently, after cordial “au revoirs” the little procession started, Lady Acwell’s Bath-chair man pulling his burden along with bent head and rounded shoulders, Sir Langton by her side, their friend following.
As the friend passed Leila’s seat he looked over his shoulder with a lingering glance that was clearly intended to convey regret at the compulsory parting. Leila ignored the little pantomime, glanced at her watch, and remarked to her mother that there was no need to move yet. “We don’t want to overtake those people,” she said; and made up her mind to manoeuvre that they did not visit the pier next morning.
“The woman seems very pushing,” was Mrs. Livesay’s verdict, “and her husband looks horrid. I suppose he is a knight, or something of that sort, but I must say he is nicer than he looks. The other man is quite different. I should say he belongs to a different caste altogether.”
“Let’s avoid them,” suggested Leila. “I didn’t like any of them.”
“Well, if they want to talk to us on the pier it won’t matter, and at any rate they are a change from all those dull people at our hotel.”
Leila said no more, but next morning as it happened she awoke with a blinding headache, due perhaps, she thought sardonically, to “strong air”; and as nothing would induce Maimie and Hilda to forego bathing, Colonel Livesay, with a good-enough grace, set out beside his wife’s conveyance.
At luncheon time they returned to find Leila limp and exhausted, but free from pain. The pair were full of the new acquaintances; Lady Acwell had kept seats for them, and was extremely disappointed not to see Miss Wylde—had sent her sympathy over the headache. Colonel Livesay had found Lady Acwell very agreeable, not to say captivating, and the husband, he opined, was not at all a bad sort of fellow, though he did contrive to look rather a bounder. Mrs. Livesay was now veering round to James’s opinion; anything that found favour in his sight found favour in hers; and certainly they were entirely agreed concerning the Acwells’ friend, Mr. Stanford—he was the best of the three.
There was a good deal more to report; Sir Langton, it appeared, was a partner in a big brewing business, and not so long ago had been knighted. He had confided to Mrs. Livesay that the title had cost him a pretty penny, but that he had gone in for it because he wanted his wife to be “my lady”; she “looked it,” and as so many of her friends had titles it seemed hard on her not to have one. Then Lady Acwell had told Colonel Livesay that she felt so dull here, had seen no one until yesterday with whom she felt she could be on speaking terms, that his wife and Miss Wylde were so charming, and she hoped this was not to be the end of their friendship, since the Livesays’ home was so near London. .
As for Mr. Stanford, it seemed he lived in rooms near his club and was much interested to learn that Colonel Livesay and his stepdaughter had but lately returned from India.
“He sent you a message,” Leila was informed, “to say he would so much like to hear your impressions of India. We are all going to meet on the front after tea, and he hoped you would be well enough to join us.”
“Then he may hope,” said Leila crossly, “for I am not going out to-day.”
All the same, she wanted to go out, the hotel was so stuffy, smelt of cooking, and was so crammed with old ladies and their faded daughters whose lives had been sacrificed to their widowed mothers. But she was not going to meet again that insolent creature whose name was Stanford, before she could possibly help it. Now that Dad had cottoned to the Acwells perhaps walks and cricket and bowls might not prove so compelling to him, in spite of Bath-chair men, and she might find herself more free to go her own way.
During the next few days her hopes materialized. The Acwells and the Livesays became inseparable; in the mornings on the pier, in the afternoons on the esplanade, while Leila bathed with the girls, took them to kinemas, and went for strolls by herself in unfashionable regions. Consequently Colonel Livesay’s old Indian friend grew restive, wrote ‘chits’ of invitation couched in reproachful language. The lonely hotel visitor took offence, missing his pedestrian companion, and proceeded to cut “the Colonel,” who remained unaware of the punishment, neither did he catch muttered remarks relating to changeable people and the airs of the military.
The Indian friend, however, was of a more forgiving disposition; he turned up one morning, just as breakfast was over, and told Colonel Livesay that if he really wanted to miss the great cricket match of the season he need not accompany him to-day, and he chaffed Mrs. Livesay for tying her husband to her apron strings, otherwise to her Bath chair.
“You had better let him pull it,” he concluded, with an undercurrent of spite. “Much cheaper. But just for this once, dear lady, I think you might let him off. The County is playing the Australians, and it’ll be a match no one calling himself a man ought to miss, especially if he is given the chance of witnessing it from the Members’ Pavilion.”
The gentleman swelled with indignation at the very idea that such a favour could possibly be flouted.
“Oh! do go, darling,” Mrs. Livesay urged her husband, “you know I shan’t mind one bit; have I ever minded anything that would interest you? And Leila will come with me this morning, won’t you, Leila? We can explain to the Acwells—”
There was no need for this wifely persuasion. Colonel Livesay expressed his desire to see the match, and the matter was settled.
“I’ve been rather occupied lately with some friends down from London,” he explained, in excuse for his truancy; and if the explanation held a measure of untruth, it served to pacify the Indian friend, who said: “Quite all right, quite all right. I was only wondering what had become of you.”
Later, Leila started, reluctantly, for the pier with her mother, who noted her disinclination.
“Didn’t you want to come, Leila?” she asked of her daughter plaintively.
“I like to come with you, of course, dearest, but I can’t say I look forward to joining the Acwells.”
“But, my dear, they are perfectly harmless people, and really improve on acquaintance. I think Lady Acwell might be kind to Maimie and take her out a little in London next season. Girls in the suburbs have no chance.”
Leila recognized with a pang that her mother had grown to regard her as almost a contemporary; she visioned herself in the future as one of the innumerable gang of elderly daughters whose whole attention was claimed by a more or less helpless mother; and for the moment she rebelled at the prospect. Then, remorsefully, she stifled what seemed to her an unworthy feeling.
“Yes, I know,” she said hastily, “I know exactly what you mean. I don’t mind Sir Langton and Lady Acwell so much—after all, I’ve only seen them once—but I took such a dislike to that friend of theirs, Mr. Stanford.”
Mrs. Livesay opened her eyes wide. “You are an extraordinary girl! Why, I should have thought he was just the kind of man to have attracted you—really a ‘sahib,’ as we used to say in India, besides which—” She hesitated.
“You see, I am sure he belongs to the sort of people I used to know in the past—in my old life. He has even mentioned names. But of course,” she added, in hasty apology, “I haven’t said a word, he hasn’t an idea. And I don’t want to hear anything about them.”
“Then why—?” began Leila.
“It was only,” her mother interrupted, “that I thought perhaps—Well, I had better say it straight out. I thought you and he might take a fancy to one another. You belong to that world by birth, Leila, and I always feel I shut you out of it.”
“Nonsense; you didn’t!” maintained Leila stoutly, “it was they who pushed us out of it, and I don’t want to get back any more than you do, darling!”
Despite her vigorous speech tears rose to the girl’s eyes, though not on her own account. Poor mother! Even now she looked back with a sense of ostracism, however little she might deplore the breach with her first husband’s people, whatever compensation she had found in her second marriage: and she would rejoice to see her daughter drawn back into that aristocratic fold!
“I don’t mean for one moment—” quavered Mrs. Livesay: but Leila interposed, though she had no notion of what her mother “did not mean for one moment”; only did she feel bent on putting an end to the discus sion.
“Of course you don’t,” she said cheerfully, “I quite understand; but you must get rid of the idea once and for all, that I could ever think in that way of this Stanford man. At first sight I disliked him; and if you want to know, that is the real reason why I have avoided the Acwells. Perhaps you didn’t notice that I have been ayoiding them purposely? Anyway, here we are at the pier.”
Of course the Acwells were already in possession of the chosen spot; it seemed to be miraculously reserved for them. But Mr. Stanford was strolling about, gazing through binoculars at vessels in the distance.
“Noddy!” called Lady Acwell possessively, “come here!”
He turned, lowering the glasses, and raising his hat as he saw Mrs. Livesay and her daughter approaching; and he took care, as Leila divined intuitively, to stand with his back to Lady Acwell while shaking hands with herself. To her annoyance his eyes expressed a good deal more than the words he uttered.
“At long last, Miss Wylde! Where have you been all this time? and what have you done with the Colonel?”
Mrs. Livesay, catching the last question, said: “He has gone to watch the cricket.” And she directed her chair to be drawn up between that of Lady Acwell and the seat occupied by Sir Langton.
Leila settled herself next to Sir Langton, perceiving with relief that the seat next her own was already “engaged”; a stick and a newspaper lay across it. But next moment Mr. Stanford removed these objects.
“Mine!” he announced, smiling triumphantly. “Did you think they weren’t?”
“I didn’t think about it at all,” was Leila’s frigid and untruthful reply.
Then, just making sure that the rest of the party were deep in conversation, he crossed his legs, tilted his hat over his eyes and began in a low voice:
“I’ve been looking for you every morning and every evening, you don’t know what disappointment I have endured.”
“Please stop!” said Leila, between her teeth.
“Rather!” he rejoined with a wicked pretence of misunderstanding. “Now tell me the truth—was it because of me that you kept away?”
“Of course not,” lied Leila angrily.
“Oh! then you don’t mind meeting me?”
“Why should I?”
“I’ll tell you—shall I?”
“All right. Silence gives consent. But you know as well as I do—h’m?”
She turned her back to him; he leaned towards her and whispered: “A word of four letters, at first sight!”
Leila touched Sir Langton’s shoulder and invited him to come and see the bathing; he rose, delighted, and Stanford calmly took her seat, guarding his own again with the newspaper and the stick.
Lady Acwell watched the pair go off together with mixed feelings. Miss Wylde, as she now knew, was no “companion,” and Langton seldom amused himself with girls who were in their own class of life, or with other men’s wives; neither distraction would she have tolerated; as a rule Langton’s little “affairs” were only a matter of time and money, not worth her notice. But this Miss Wylde was a remarkably attractive young woman. At any rate she should not be permitted to flirt with Noddy!
She beckoned him to the other side of her chair, and, as Mrs. Livesay had begun to doze, they were practically alone.
“Why did you go and sit by that girl?” she asked him petulantly.
“I didn’t She came and sat down by my chair.”
“Do you like her?”
“I don’t dislike her.” He wondered if, with a woman’s sharp instinct in such matters, Rose Acwell smelt a rat; if so, he must conceal the rat, at least for the present. He continued: “Why are you bothering about the girl? She isn’t anything much to look at—not like you.”
“There’s something uncommon about her: but I can’t say I admire her style and I’m glad you don’t, either, Noddy—but if you did, I could trust you, couldn’t I?”
“Not if you liked some other fellow better than me, and I know there are plenty of them hoping to take my place when you get back to London.” He infused jealousy into his tone.
She laid her hand for a moment on his, reassuringly. “Don’t be a silly boy. Have you no confidence in me?”
“Not too much. Who am I to compete with the great ones of the world, who tumble over each other for a word from you.”
“You are the man I care for,” she said softly, lowering her voice.
“Look out!” he whispered. “The old lady’s waking up and here comes your husband and the girl who looks to you so uncommon. I’m going to talk to her for a bit, she’s so ill-mannered I long to give her a lesson. Do you mind?”
“Not a bit!” She smiled at him trustfully. “And I wish you joy of her conversation.”
But the “lesson” did not come off. Leila, on her return, invented some plausible excuse (which did not deceive Stanford) and prepared her mother for immediate departure. Mrs. Livesay was too sleepy to rebel successfully, but as they began to move off, Stanford, who meanwhile had been scribbling stealthily in his pocket book, tore out and crumpled up the piece of paper, bent down as though to pick up something and pursued the retreating Bath chair.
“You dropped this, Miss Wylde,” he said loudly, slipping the note into her hand.
Taken aback, her fingers closed on it, and not untll they reached the pier gate did she dare to examine it; to her fury she deciphered a few impassioned words Nervously she tore the scrap of paper into shreds and put them into the pocket of her sports coat. What a devil the man was!
Three days later, to her profound relief, Leila was told that the Acwells and their satellite were returning to London next morning. Meantime she had dodged them with success, behaving ruthlessly towards her stepfather; she paid no attention to his hints regarding the cricket ground, trumped up one excuse after another for her own defection, at the same time impressing upon him that her mother ought not to go out unaccompanied. Suppose she should faint, or any thing happened!—until poor Colonel Livesay felt a brute for having suggested that his wife might quite well go out alone, and gave up the struggle.
But when, to-day, Mrs. Livesay expressed an offended hope that Leila would at least join them all on the esplanade that evening to bid their new friends farewell, she decided to confide to her mother the true reason of her apparently perverse conduct. She did so while Mrs. Livesay was resting in her bedroom after luncheon.
Hardly knowing how to begin, she first lingered about the room, then at last said abruptly:
“You must have thought me very tiresome about the Acwells!”
“What did you say, dear?” came a drowsy response from the bed.
Leila repeated her remark more distinctly, and with a spice of irritation.
This roused Mrs. Livesay. “Well,” she said, “you certainly have seemed rather unreasonable, but I suppose as you dislike Mr. Stanford so much, for no cause that I can see—”
“Can’t you guess why I dislike him?”
“Is it because I said—”
“Not because of anything you said, Mother. It began before that. The man tried to start a flirtation on the first day of our meeting, and on the last he wrote me an impudent note. He pushed it into my hand!”
Mrs. Livesay raised her head. “Good gracious, Leila! I never suspected anything of the kind. Why didn’t you tell me before?”
Leila flushed; she felt she could not explain that in the first instance Mr. Stanford had caught her gazing at him, so that perhaps, though unwittingly, she had been in a measure to blame for his behaviour.
“I didn’t want to make a fuss,” she replied evasively, “but you must see now why I don’t want to meet him again.”
“What did you do with the note?” Mrs. Livesay inquired with lively curiosity.
“I tore it up, of course!” Then suddenly she remembered that the scraps of paper must be still in the pocket of the sports coat she had been wearing that day—which, as it happened, she had not worn since.
“What did he say in the note?” persisted Mrs. Livesay.
“Oh! I can’t remember—a lot of insolent nonsense. And he’s Lady Acwell’s lover; anyone can see that!”
“Leila! How can you—what a shocking idea! You must be mistaken. I have never noticed—they are all such friends!”
“Well, whether I am mistaken or not, I don’t intend to see that man again. You must help me to get out of going with you this evening. Say you wanted me to take Maimie and Hilda to something, say anything you like.”
Mrs. Livesay brightened; she was rather an adept at fibs.
“But your father will think it so odd!”
“Never mind; you know he’ll accept anything you tell him, and I don’t want this tiresome business to go farther than between you and me. After to-morrow there will be no more bother. I shall be able to go out with you at all times. This evening I can’t, and I won’t. I can depend on you, can’t I, dearest?”
“Of course you can depend on me, though generally it’s the other way round, isn’t it? I depending on you in any difficulty! I often wonder how I got on without you for those two years.”
The girl kissed her mother fondly, rearranged the pillows, drew down the blinds, and left the room, comforted.
That evening, in collusion with Mrs. Livesay, Leila waited till she had seen the Bath chair with its occupant, and her stepfather beside it, start for the rendezvous on the esplanade. Luckily Maimie and Hilda had been invited to tea by a school friend they had encountered unexpectedly on the beach; and she was free to go where she pleased.
With a book under her arm—a book on Buddhist history that she had brought with her from home, she made for the pier, knowing it to be a safe refuge at this hour, and strolled to the extreme end, where she could look straight out to sea and enjoy the cool breeze.
There she seated herself; but instead of the mental peace she had hoped for, depression assailed her. She felt disinclined to read, unable to control thoughts that filled her with doubts of the future and a disturbing regret for the past two years in India—India! with its freedom and space and strange fascination. Had she been foolish to refuse Pat Everest? Marriage without love on both sides had hitherto seemed to her unthin able, but now she wondered. Had she accepted him, she might have been at Khari with a home and a husband of her own, and he would have taken her to see the crumbling Buddhist remains at Jasâni—it was curious how the longing to see them had remained with her. Supposing Mr. Everest should drop from the skies and propose to her again at this moment, would she say “Yes” or “No”? With an effort she tried to stem these absurd reflections, but she could not conceal from herself that her mind was thoroughly out of gear. How she hated this tiresome “holiday,” and how she dreaded the return to Borrodaile Road; Maimie with her feeble accomplishments, Hilda with her rabbits and school gossip; her mother and stepfather happy in their own small way together, and she herself a sort of buffer for the lot of them!
Yet, there lay her life and her duty, and her affections; it was base of her to cavil, as she was doing, at the home where they all loved and needed her. She wished she had never gone to India, the experience had unsettled her, given her fresh ideas, a new outlook, raised a demon of discontent that would not be suppressed.
“Run to earth!” exclaimed a voice behind her; and she looked round, startled, to behold Mr. Stanford, jubilant, triumphant, showing his even white teeth in a smile that awakened her wrath.
“Why have you come here?” she demanded, and instantly repented having spoken at all. She should have preserved a cold silence, risen, and walked away from him.
“To see you, of course!” he answered, and calmly took a seat beside her. “Now, look here, Miss Wylde— I watched you go out, followed you here, because I want to apologize. I can’t go back to London to-morrow, knowing you’re in a rage with me.”
“I’m afraid you will have to,” said Leila stiflly; yet she recognized, to her mortification, that his surprising presence was a sort of antidote to her previous depression and discomfiting thoughts. There was an undeniable element of excitement in finding herself alone with this unsnubbable person.
“Well, just for this evening then, won’t you make friends? I promise not to say anything to annoy you. Then, perhaps, when I have gone, you may think a little more kindly of me. By the way,” he added, breaking his promise at once, “did you read my note?”
Leila gasped. The shreds of the note were in her pocket at this moment. She had intended to throw them into the sea.
“Of course,” he went on, “I know I oughtn’t to have written it. But you wouldn’t let me talk to you, and I got riled—though I meant what I wrote all the same.”
Leila felt a sudden longing to ask him how he had escaped from the Acwells!—such a question was of course taboo; but to her dismay he answered it as though reading her thoughts.
“Perhaps you wonder how I got away?” He leaned sideways that he might look into her face, regarding her with quizzical attention. “Let me see—I had a headache, or some important shopping to do, or was it that I wanted above all things to bathe? I can’t remember what excuse I made; I don’t keep such a stock of them as you do.”
Leila controlled her inclination to laugh. The creature was incorrigible. What was to be done? If she rose and walked haughtily away, he would only follow her. And now he settled himself more comfortably, producing a handsome cigarette-case that, could she have known it, was a birthday gift from Lady Acwell.
They were virtually by themselves. Few people were about on the nose of the pier; it was a Wednesday, and no crowd of week-enders disturbed the peace. With the coming sunset the breeze had died down, and the sea was a vast glitter of blue-white; the sky, flushed with soft, changing little clouds, was a marvel of blending colours; pigeons, whose plumage shone purple and green and warm grey, peeked about fearlessly around them. Enchantment was in the air; and weakly Leila succumbed to it. The man at her side, polished, well groomed, exuding vitality, became less objectionable, she felt a captive to his human presence, combined with nature’s beauty before her eyes, and on an impulse she turned to him frankly.
“I don’t understand you,” she said desperately. “What is your object in pursuing me like this? You are in love with Lady Acwell, can you deny it? And yet you are ready to flirt with anyone else who comes along.”
“I was more or less in love with her, I don’t attempt to deny it. But it wasn’t, isn’t, the right kind of love, and though it may sound to you beastly, I’m sick to death of the whole business. I can’t help it. I’m simply telling you the truth. The instant I saw you I said to myself, ‘ There is my fate!’”
“Don’t be so ridiculous!” scolded Leila, “I am not what you call your fate, and most certainly you are not mine.”
“Then you are engaged to some other damned fellow!” he exclaimed.
At first she felt tempted to say that she was; but his very boldness, his shameless plain speaking, urged her to veracity.
“I am not engaged,” she told him; “I am not even in love with anyone. But that makes no difference.”
“Sorry to contradict, but it makes all the difference. If you would be my friend I might hope for something better than friendship one of these days.”
“No, you mightn’t,” said Leila irately. “If I ever marry at all it will be a man I can respect and look up to, as well as love.”
“Then you can’t know much about love, my child!” he declared, mockery in his tone. “I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve been in love without a trace of respect, as you call it; there doesn’t come a chance in every man’s life, or in every woman’s either, of combining respect with love, and most of us have to do without the respect.”
“Then I shall await my chance,” replied Leila, “or not marry at all. Your chance doesn’t interest me in the east.”
“Doesn’t it, honestly?—not if you knew I was tangled up in a rotten affair, and that only you could pull me out of it?”
“What nonsense! No doubt there are plenty of girls who would be ready to ‘pull you out of it,’ and swallow the ‘rotten affair,’” scoffed Leila, “but I am not one of them, if you really imagine I might be!”
“But, listen—Suppose I were an immaculate being—”
“I can’t suppose anything of the kind,” she snapped. “I wish you would go. I want to be alone.”
“How cruel you are! You must know that it’s very good for me to be with you—like finding myself in a cool, sweet garden after being shut up in a hothouse full of tropical plants! That’s rather well put, eh? Do let me stay: be unselfish, and kind. I want to tell you about myself. I am extremely unhappy.”
“Then it must be your own fault. I have no sympathy with your unhappiness.”
Her inclemency had no effect; nothing appeared to discourage him.
“To begin with, I’m an orphan.” He sighed theatri cally, glancing at her from the corner of his eye. “Perhaps if my mother had lived instead of dying when I was born—”
“Probably it was just as well for her that she did. You might have broken her heart.”
“What a horrid thing to say! But, seriously, I’m fed up with the sort of life I’m leading. When my father died, about ten years ago, I came into a good deal more money than I had ever expected, and it was the ruin of me. I’ve spent the best part of it, and I hang about among a rich crowd, dancing and eating and drinking and gambling, and making love to other fellows’ wives. So far I’ve escaped the divorce court, but now I confess I’m in an infernal hole.”
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself!” exclaimed Leila, aghast at this confession.
“So I am; haven’t I said as much? But that doesn’t improve the present situation. I’ve gone too far with Rose Acwell, and she’d bolt with me to-morrow, if I gave her half a chance.”
“But surely,” said Leila, interested in spite of her distaste for the whole sordid story; “she wouldn’t want to bolt, as you express it, with a man who has no money?”
“Oh! she’s got heaps of her own. That’s the worst of it. And when a woman like that falls in love—” he moved uneasily. “Sometimes,” he added, “I’m half inclined to think it might be the best way out.”
The unmistakable despair in his tone roused Leila’s pity, which fought with her contempt. The man was a victim to his own weakness, he was his own worst enemy. She gave him credit for certain good qualities and no lack of will if he chose to exert it; but he had deliberately elected to sacrifice the better side of his nature to the worst that was in him, and now—could he ever pull up? She could not but believe that he was ashamed of his present mode of existence, and whether or no his declared infatuation for herself was genuine, she felt a strong desire to aid him. If her friendship would do so, she might bring herself to extend it to him; but in the circumstances she could not see what use it would be.
After a pause, he said: “You see, I’m in such a fix. I can’t get away from her. She insisted on my coming to this hole with her and Acwell—who really is fond of her, though he plays about sometimes with a certain class of female. She makes the most of that grievance! The one thing he never does, though, is to meddle with his friends’ wives. He’s a much better sort than I am in his way. He doesn’t mind her having a crowd of followers, rather likes it, he thinks it does him credit in some weird fashion, he’s so proud of her; but if he thought she was really gone on any one of them, there’d be the devil to pay! It’s a devilish situation altogether.”
Leila considered for a moment. “Why don’t you go abroad?” she suggested, “to Africa, or Canada, or somewhere, and get something to do?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Well, I might, but it requires capital, and I’ve got precious little left. The income doesn’t do much more than cover my diggings and my valet, cabs and clothes and so on. Food hardly counts,” he laughed bitterly. “I can lunch out and dine out every day of my life, and pay visits to country places, because I’m useful, I suppose, as a man!”
“But how about down here?” inquired Leila, knowing that the trio were staying at the most expensive hotel in the place.
“Oh! Acwell pays my bill. I’ve fallen pretty low, haven’t I?”
“Indeed you have. I don’t know what to make of you at all!”
“I don’t know what to make of myself. If I went out of the country I might lose what money I’ve got, and I don’t fancy beating carpets in New York, or begging in the streets of Johannesberg. When I saw you that first day on the pier, I thought: ‘If only that ripping girl would take pity on me, I could chuck the whole silly show and settle down somewhere, keep pigs and poultry, or breed dogs, and be happy ‘. Of course there’d be a hideous row with Rose Acwell, but if I was really going to be married I think she’d know it was hopeless.”
“Well, I’m very sorry, but I can’t take pity on you to that extent,” said Leila grimly. “You’d better try and find somebody else.”
“But I never meet any nice sort of girls, and if I did, they wouldn’t be you. At least, will you be my friend, let me see you sometimes? If you will, I swear I’ll think of your advice to clear out of England, and in the end, if you urged me enough, I expect I should go—even if you wouldn’t come with me. Otherwise I know I shall go on as I am doing till the crash comes.”
The ring of hopelessness in his voice touched her heart. Yet she hesitated. She believed him to be in earnest—for the time being; but she doubted if any influence she might gain over him would be likely to last. The notion of plunging into such a friendship that sooner or later might land her in some awkward situation alarmed her.
She resorted to a time-honoured refuge: “I will write to you,” she said guardedly, “after I have thought it all over.”
“Will you? do you promise?” He extracted a card from a recess in the cigarette case. “Here’s my address. I shall live for your letter.”
In silence she accepted the card. His demeanour conveyed that he took her silence for consent, that he regarded the matter as settled, and obviously his spirits rose. With confident familiarity he picked up the book from her lap and opened it.
“What on earth is all this about?” he asked, turning over the pages.
“About a man ‘who went forth,’” she quoted gravely, “‘to seek the way of escape from palaces, riches, and the delights of the world, striving so to conquer the flesh that it might become the servant of the spirit.’”
“Do you mean Christ?” His voice was subdued; was she about to preach at him? Well, he would stand even that from her.
“No; this man lived five hundred years before Christ. Have you never heard of Buddha?”
“Now I come to think of it, I have. My father had a little crystal image he used to call The Buddha—a god of some sort. I don’t know what became of it; he sold most of his possessions before he died.”
Again he turned over the pages of the book, examining the illustrations. “A lot of old carvings and graven images,” he commented. “There—that’s like the one I remember.”
He pointed to a picture reproduced from a photograph of a figure carved in stone—the Teacher, seated with hands and feet crossed, in the attitude of contemplation, the face calm, passionless, remote, as of one everlastingly freed from earthly considerations.
“Why do you read about this person?” he inquired, with a species of respectful curiosity.
“The history of his life and teaching interests me so much,” said Leila dreamily. “There is such a strange resemblance in it to Christianity, as if it was a sort of forerunner.”
He continued to gaze at the illustration. “At any rate he looks as if somehow he had found peace. I envy him!”
Leila put out her hand to take the book from him, but he held on to it.
“Lend it to me, won’t you?” he pleaded. “I’d like to get interested in anything that interests you.”
Leila wavered. She suspected him of trapping her into excuses for meetings and correspondence, yet should he happen to be bitten by the subject, he might benefit by the study. She knew that many people who never opened a Bible readily became enthralled with the history of other religions, and at least here was a record of example, self-sacrifice, precept and practice that could not fail to kindle his imagination—if he had any at all—and perhaps give him to think? The book was her own property, she had bought it, and though unwilling to part with it, she did not feel altogether justified in withholding it from him.
“Very well,” she said, “you can take it, but only on condition that you promise to read every word of it.”
“I promise you faithfully.”
“Are your promises worth anything?” She could not help betraying her general distrust of him.
“You can set me an examination paper on it if you like—but give me, say, a fortnight. Do, for goodness’ sake, try to believe in me as far as you can.” He turned to the fly-leaf. “Here is your name, in your own hand writing?”
“Then how could I fail to read any book with your name in it, written by yourself?”
“I don’t want you to read it simply for such a reason,” protested Leila.
“All right, don’t worry. I’ll read it because you wish me to read it. Isn’t that enough?”
“I suppose it will have to be.”
He still re-examined her signature on the fly-leaf. “What pretty writing! I ache to see it on an envelope addressed to me. Don’t you know the feeling before you open a letter, whether you recognize the writing or not, that it’s from someone you like or dislike?”
“I can’t say I do. I’ve never thought about it——per haps I’ve never had a letter from anyone I dislike.”
“When you get one from me I wonder how you will feel. You have seen my handwriting—though it was only a scribble.”
Leila put her hand in her coat pocket. “The scribble is here,” she said, producing a palmful of torn paper, “and I want you to throw it into the sea as a pledge that you won’t take advantage of our—our friendship, if it ever develops.”
He grabbed the bits of paper from her, his eyes alight.
“You had kept them!” he cried.
“Only by accident. Now, do as I tell you; throw them into the sea.”
He rose, reluctantly submissive, walked to the railing, and opened his hand. Most of the scraps fluttered down over the water, to the excitement of a party of gulls, who swooped after them; but a few bits floated back on to the boards of the pier, and the pigeons, disgusted to find that they were not portions of cake or biscuit, waddled away to seek something more delectable. Stanford gathered up the white atoms.
“I shall keep these,” he said, returning to Leila’s side. “They are mine, so you can’t object; but if I ever send them back to you, it will mean that I’ve gone under!”
“If you go under it will be your own fault, not mine.” She looked at her watch and rose. “I must go back; the farewells on the esplanade must be over by this time. I hope you will be able to explain your absence satisfactorily.” ‘
“I don’t care either way! But do give me your address before we go.”
“You can ask Lady Acwell for it,” said Leila maliciously. “My people are sure to have given it to her.”
Nevertheless she gave him the address, and he wrote it on the fly-leaf of the book below her signature. Then they dawdled to the pier exit.
“You had better go on ahead,” he advised. “I’ll wait till you are out of sight. You can rely on me to account for my doings, and you have only to say you’ve been sitting on the pier with—a book!”
Taking her hand, he looked yearningly at her. “Good bye, my good angel,” he murmured, “remember I depend on your friendship. Don’t, for mercy’s sake, turn me down and forget me!”
Leila returned to the private hotel a prey to misgivings. That she had behaved unwisely she knew well enough; but the man’s appeal for her pity and help had been irresistible, and since she had not altogether withheld her sympathy, and had practically promised him her friendship, she would feel a traitor if she failed him—provided he had meant all he said. She could only await what the future might bring forth, though she doubted if it would produce aught save disappointment, and probably some awkward predicament as well.
A smell of furniture polish pervaded the house in Borrodaile Road, dust sheets had disappeared, ornaments were released and restored to their places; everything shone; all was in order, and Leila surveyed her surroundings with satisfaction. She had volunteered to return three days ahead of the family, and the offer was thankfully accepted by Mrs. Livesay, whose health had so benefited by the sea air that it would be a pity, she said, to risk a relapse over all the bother of “getting straight.”
The servants, revived by their holiday, had worked graciously under Miss Wylde’s directions, and Tomkins looked well, though decidedly thinner.
“You should have see’d him, Miss, when we come back,” said Elizabeth, “he went up and down stairs and into every nook and corner, sniffing and talking. He missed the fambly, that’s what he did, the clever lamb! But I’m ashamed to tell you, Miss, that he took the rest of your fish after dinner last night, though I got him some scraps from the butcher a-purpose, and he eat ’em into the bargain. That’s why there wasn’t no fish cakes for your breakfast this morning, as you may have noticed, Miss? Upon my word, his appetite is that awful!”
Elizabeth paused, regarding Miss Wylde with wary attention, and she was obviously relieved when Leila remarked that Tomkins might really be a cormorant rather than a cat.
All the same, Leila’s thoughts were not concerned with Tomkins and his false witness; the absence of fish cakes for breakfast had escaped her notice. What had absorbed her mind as she sat at the table was a letter from Noel Stanford. She knew his handwriting well enough by now, for she had received a couple of letters from him before her return to Ealwood. The first she had replied to shortly, his own was too fervid to please her; the second had transgressed still further; therefore she had left it unanswered. Now here was a third, an agitated outcry; was she annoyed with him—why had she not written? Perhaps his second letter had missed her—he was sending this to her home address, and if he did not hear from her he should run down to Ealwood in search of her. But, better still, if she was at home, would she send him a wire agreeing to meet him in London next day, twelve o’clock at Hyde Park Corner, and they could lunch somewhere together. He was free, or at any rate could cancel any engagements, and a “certain lady” would be out of town, spending the day with some friends in the country. He wanted his friend’s advice so badly, had so much to say; he should go mad if he didn’t hear from her, didn’t see her; besides, he had finished the book, and if she would meet him, he would bring it, though at present he couldn’t think about Buddha or anything or anyone else but herself.
His persistance, as well as his incoherence, was annoy ing to Leila, but at least this absurd letter showed a path etic reliance on her good will, and rather than he should present himself at the house, as he threatened, perhaps to clash with the Livesays’ return next evening, she decided to meet him next day as he suggested; she could easily be back before the family arrived, and a stop must be put to these wild letters.
She sent the telegram, bitterly regretting the results of her visit to the pier on that fatal afternoon. Yet, when next morning the omnibus in which she was seated drew up at the spot appointed for their meeting, her heart softened as she beheld him standing on the pavement with a look of feverish anticipation on his attractive face. His appearance suggested a well-bred, well turned out man of the world, who might be counted on to possess a clear conscience—to be leading a responsible life; instead of that, on his own confession was he not a waster, a deceiver of women, too idle to work, self-indulgent, undependable. What had induced her to encourage him at all? She worked herself into a fit of exasperation as a sort of antidote to her weaker feelings on seeing him standing there, so eager, so anxious for her arrival, and she descended from the humble vehicle with astern demeanour.
Instantly he rushed forward, regardless of the crowd of passengers battling to leave and to board the omnibus, almost dragged her out of it amidst angry remarks and remonstrances.
“At last!”he cried, guiding her to a comparatively empty space at the back of the pavement. “At last!” he repeated, with a sigh of relief. “I’ve been in an agony, waiting here, thinking perhaps you weren’t coming after all.”
She glanced up at the clock. “But I’m not late,” she protested.
“I’ve been here since half-past eleven. And now,” he added, ruefully, “you’re not a bit glad to see me.”
“I thought it better to come,” was her lukewarm response.
“Anyway, I’m thankful for that much. But I did think you’d have smiled, or—or something!”
His voice was so charged with disappointment that Leila felt she could not maintain her attitude of severity. She threw him a crumb of comfort.
“Well, of course I shouldn’t have come if I hadn’t wanted to see you.”
Somewhat mollified, he suggested that they should sit in the Park until luncheon time. “We won’t go near the crowd; I should meet a lot of devils I know who’d be only too poisonously pleased to tell Rose they’d seen me. She thinks I’m at Ranelagh, playing golf for the day.”
How like him!—thought Leila, as they strolled to an unfashionable quarter; she felt divided between a certain appreciation of his candour towards herself and condemnation of his treachery towards Lady Acwell. He chattered ceaselessly, defending his position, blaming Rose Acwell, impressing upon his unresponsive companion his delight in her presence until they arrived at a couple of isolated seats beneath a tree.
“Now,” said Leila, once they were settled, “tell me why you want my advice in such a huny.”
“Things are going from bad to worse,” he stated, vaguely.
“How could they be worse?” she inquired.
“Rose is more hot on our bolting than ever. I simply don’t know what to do. This time last year I would have done it like a shot, but then she wasn’t so keen—it was only a flirtation on her part. Now it’s quite different.’ ‘
Leila preserved an unsympathetic silence.
“Oh! don’t rub it in by saying nothing!” he implored. “I never thought I should find myself in such a hole. There were plenty of others before Rose, but they played the game; none of them were out for a scandal. As you know, Rose is such a deuced pretty creature, and when I first met her lots of other fellows were hanging about. Then most of them cooled off when they found I was first favourite, and when she showed she liked me better than all the rest of them and couldn’t do enough for me You can understand—”
“No, I can’t understand,” Leila interrupted, with some impatience. “And I don’t see how I can help you. There seems to me nothing new in the situation since we met last.”
“But I’ve told you—it’s a thousand times worse! ”
“Then take my advice, and clear out of the country. You must have any amount of friends who could help you to get something to do abroad.”
“All very well, but you don’t realize the sort of set I’m in. They’ll ask one to dinner and lunches and dances and bridge and all the rest of it, but only laugh if they were asked for any serious help. They aren’t friends at all in the true meaning of the word.”
“Have you no relations you could appeal to?”
“None, as far as I know; my mother’s family seemed to have dwindled down to herself and an old cousin, who left me his money on condition that at my father’s death I took his name. He was a fairly rich old bachelor and I believe was in love with my mother before she married my father. He paid for my education at Harrow and Oxford, but I didn’t know it; perhaps if I had I might have played up out of gratitude at the time. He left my father the income from his money, and I only found out the truth when I came into the capital at my father’s death. I never saw the old chap except when I was quite a kid.”
“Then what was your father’s name?” asked Leila, little suspecting the thunderbolt that was to fall.
“Jason—” And turning to look at her he was startled by the expression on her face. “Why, what’s the mat ter?”
“Nothing’s the matter,” she said, hastily controlling her astonishment. Could it be possible that he was the heir to Jasâni Estate?
“Jason,” she repeated abstractedly.
“Yes, nothing much of a name; neither is Stanford, if it comes to that. The old man had made his fortune by his own exertions, and was very proud of the fact, though it wasn’t anything huge. Anyway, I’ve got through the best part of it, and I suppose if he knew he’d turn in his grave.”
“But your father’s people?” probed Leila.
“Nothing doing there. He was an only son, like myself. There was a daughter, but she died as a child, so I’m the last of the family. The Jasons came of an old Indian lot, but the last one connected with India was a great uncle, and he left his bones out there goodness knows how long ago.”
Partial conviction held Leila silent. Possibly it was not the right Jason family at all. But supposing Noel Stanford was the man her stepfather had been commissioned to find, what would become of his inheritance?
‘Would he sell it, think no more about it, spend the money as he had spent his other old relative’s fortune? There was nothing to be gained at present by imparting to him the little history of a Jason whose Burmese widow had charged Colonel Livesay with the task of finding her husband’s nearest male living representative, in order that the said representative might inherit her cherished estate.
She inquired carelessly: “Do you happen to have any old letters or papers connected with the great-uncle who died in India?”
“I don’t know. There are a lot of old documents in a despatch box, that I think belonged to my grandfather, but I’ve never bothered to go through them. Why do you ask?”
“Anything about that period in India interests me.”
“Oh! I thought you were only keen on ruins and remains, hundreds and thousands of years old! By the way, here is your book,” he produced it from his pocket, “I’ve taken great care of it. Don’t let me forget to give it to you before you start back.”
“What did you think of it?”
“To tell the truth, as I always do to you, as you may have noticed, I thought Buddha was a bit of an ass to chuck away all that makes life worth living; and it seems to me that he behaved very selfishly towards his wife and his own people!”
Leila could not help laughing. What an anomaly— Noel Stanford, the personification of egotism, accusing the Buddha of selfishness!
“Why do you laugh?” he went on, aggrieved.
“You of all people—” she began.
“Oh! of course you think it’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black. I’m selfish, I’m an ass, I’m everything that’s bad,” he burst out with resentment, “but I’m hanged, if I was married and loved my wife, if I’d go off and leave her like that. Charity begins at home,” he concluded sententiously.
Leila sighed; he really was hopeless. “I thought you might have admired his self-sacrifice, and all the good he did in his lifetime for humanity—good that has lasted so long after his death.”
“How do you know it’s all true?” he argued.
“It has been proved by inscriptions and writings, though no doubt a lot of myth has been mixed up with it all.”
She spoke absently, for her mind was absorbed with the question was he or was he not the right Jason? The first thing to do was to get hold of that box of letters, or induce him to go through them that he might give her some knowledge of their contents.
“What are you thinking about?” he asked, quick to note her abstraction. “I can’t go wandering about in rags, with only a stick and a begging bowl, telling people they are sinners—now can I?”
Such a spectacle moved Leila to mirth. “Don’t be silly. But if I tell you of any other books on the subject, will you promise to read them?”
“I’ll read anything to please you,” he agreed dolefully.
Here was her chance. “Buddha bores you, I can see,” she said with calculated sympathy. “I won’t bother you about him any further. At any rate you have read this book and you know something about him, quite enough for the present. But I’m going to make you read something else, not about Buddha at all.”
“All right, anything you like.”
“Would you go through those family letters in the despatch box?”
His face fell. “It would be such a job—pages, written apparently with a pin, and crossed and re-crossed. I just looked at them once, but shyed off.”
“They might be valuable.”
“You mean I might be able to sell them to some writing chap for—what is it they call it—copy?” he asked eagerly.
“Perhaps. But apart from that, all kinds of queer secrets have come to light from old family letters, and, as I told you, I am interested in the John Company period as well as in much more ancient Indian history. If you don’t feel like going through them yourself would you lend the box to me? I could tell you in a moment if the letters were worth anything as memoirs.”
“What a question to ask! As if I wouldn’t lend you or give you anything I possessed in the world.”
“Then you really mean that I may examine the letters?”
“Really you may,” he said, with mock patronage. “Shall I send you the box, or bring it to you? I’d prefer to bring it, unless you would come up again and fetch it. Anything to see you.”
Leila considered. “Couldn’t we call for it at your rooms after luncheon?” she suggested.
“And would you come up and see my lair, or would you be scandalized at the idea? I’ve got quite nice little quarters, and the man who looks after me is the soul of discretion.”
She swallowed her disgust at the implication. But if he sent the box the whole family might see it and ask questions that would be difiicult to answer.
“I don’t see that your man’s discretion need be exercised in my case,” she said huffily.
“No, no, of course not,” he agreed with haste, conscious of the many times that such discretion had been welcome. “I only said it just because—you know—you see—” In some confusion he looked at his watch. “It’s time for luncheon. Where shall we go?” He named various fashionable restaurants.
“Wouldn’t you run the chance of meeting poisonous acquaintances at any of those places?” she queried, sarcasm in her voice.
“That’s true,” he said, crestfallen. “But I know of a capital little place not far off where we should—” he checked himself—“where we could get a first-rate luncheon.”
“Let’s go there, then,’ and she rose. “We haven’t too much time. I must be back at Ealwood before the family arrives. I expect them this afternoon.”
Within a few minutes they were seated in a taxi which deposited them at a modest entrance in a side street off Piccadilly. Leila observed that the manager seemed well acquainted with her escort. They were speedily allotted a table for two in a sequestered corner, and the menu presented to them fulfilled its promise. The cooking was beyond criticism, and Stanford’s only grievance was that his guest refused anything but aerated water to drink. Firmly she vetoed a bottle of champagne, and when her host grumbled that if she drank “nothing” he must do likewise, she paid no attention. All the same he ordered a double whisky for himself.
They lunched cheerily, contentedly, enjoying the French dishes (though could Leila have seen the bill she would have felt horrified) talking more as acquaintances than friends—of theatres, topics of the day, society scandals as revealed by the newspapers, of which Stanford had a good deal more to impart, betraying inner knowledge. And the meal over, they walked to his rooms, located near by.
Leila hardened her conscience as they ascended in the lift. What would she have said, had she heard of any other girl outraging conventions as she was now doing herself! Quite possibly Stanford might misunderstand her; she was giving him every reason to do so. But get hold of that despatch-box she must and would, whatever the cost.
She need not have felt apprehensive, as she very soon realized. Stanford behaved with the utmost propriety; he drew forward a deep leather arm-chair for her in his comfortable sitting-room, and without any attempt at delay proceeded to rummage in a cupboard. She waited, observing the numerous invitation cards stuck into the frame of the mirror over the mantelpiece, and staring her in the face was a large silver-framed photograph of Lady Acwell, with “Rose” scrawled across one corner.
The despatch-box, when produced, proved to be a shabby object, covered with what once had been bright scarlet leather, stamped with faded gold initials, N. W. J.
“Here it is!” He banged it down on a table. “But it’s heavy. You can’t carry it back with you.”
“Why not? I’ll take a taxi to Victoria, and our house is no distance from the station.”
Leila yearned to have the box in her own keeping, to hide it in her bedroom, until she could examine the contents undisturbed. Unless she started within the next few minutes she would run the risk of reaching home at the same time, or even after the Livesays’ arrival.
She glanced apprehensively at the silver clock on the mantelpiece. “I must go. Is there a key to the box?”
“Yes, here it is—in the lock. Lucky! or you’d have to break it open—not that the box matters, but the bother for you. Must you go so soon?” he added grudgingly. “Anyway, I’ll see you off at the station.”
Which he did, despite her expostulations, paying the cab, buying her a first-class ticket, lingering at the door of her compartment until the train began to move.
“Remember,” were his last words, “I am going to do my damnedst to get out of this mess. How, I haven’t a notion. But if I do, I shall owe it to you!”
Instinctively she touched the box at her side; perhaps within it lay the means of his salvation, if he would but take advantage of it in the right spirit. As the train left the station she put her head out of the window, but quickly withdrew it, for he had not moved, and deliberately he kissed his hand to her.
It was of no use to think ill of him, or to hope that mere good counsels might prevail without some solid inducement. If he proved to be the Jason they were seeking, he would have his opportunity; if not, she had little doubt that he would remain a slave to his weaknesses, and probably end by “bolting” with Sir Langton Acwell’s wife for the sake of her money. What a prospect!
She arrived home in good time. The house was silent, peaceful, and having hidden the despatch-box in her wardrobe, she saw to the preparation of tea, and awaited the coming of the family.
For the rest of the evening Leila was occupied with the business of unpacking. Maimie shirked her share, rushing off at once to consult friends as to the dates of drawing and music classes. Hilda devoted herself to the rabbits, suspecting the caretaker of having neglected them. Mrs. Livesay went to bed, exhausted with the journey, and her husband strolled about the garden, smoking his pipe, accompanied by Tomkins.
Dinner was a successful meal. Elizabeth had taken extra pains with the cooking, and a tempting tray was sent up to Mrs. Livesay’s bedside. Colonel Livesay made no secret of his relief at finding himself once more at home; Maimie and Hilda chattered happily of their various plans and interests; there seemed every prospect of comfort and peace for the present.
But it was close upon midnight before the house was quiet, every one in bed and asleep, with the exception of Leila, who sat in her room, the door locked, poring over some yellow, brittle old papers. Dawn was breaking before she replaced them in the shabby despatch-box, and got into bed, convinced once for all that Noel Stanford was actually heir to the Jasâni Estate. Among other proofs she had found a letter written by the Bibi’s English husband to his only brother, Noel Stanford’s grandfather, on the eve of his departure from Burmah with his regiment, his wife, and her fellow countrywoman, the faithful friend who had gone forth with her into exile. That clinched the matter, as far as Leila could see.
Therefore, next morning, having waited till the two girls were out of the house, and the orders given for the day, so that there was little fear of disturbance, she carried the box downstairs, and called her mother and stepfather into the drawing-room.
“I’ve got something extraordinary to tell you,” she began, unlocking the box.
Mrs. Livesay turned pale. “Oh! anything dreadful?” she cried, her hand on her heart.
“Nothing dreadful. Keep calm, both of you, but I believe I have discovered the Jason man!”
“Good Lord!”spluttered Colonel Livesay.
Mrs. Livesay gazed at her daughter incredulously, eyes and mouth wide open.
“It sounds unbelievable, I know,” Leila went on, rather nervously; it would be awkward having to explain how she had come by the proofs! “It’s Mr. Stanford, the Acwells’ friend.”
They both stared at her, dumbfounded.
“But,” gasped Mrs. Livesay, “how can his name be Jason when it’s Stanford?”
“He had to change his name when his father died, and he came into some money from a cousin on his mother’s side. There doesn’t seem any doubt that he’s the great nephew of the Bibi Jâsan’s husband.”
The excitement caused by her statement preserved Leila for the moment from discomfiting inquiries, but of course they were bound to come.
“Look at those letters, Dad,” pointing to the open despatch-box. “Read that one, on the top—”
Colonel Livesay seized the letter. “I suppose,” he said, as he unfolded it, “the fellow came here during the last day or two, bringing his proofs? Funny he shouldn’t have spotted the advertisement sooner. Evidently he knew nothing about it when we met him at Littlepool.”
“The advertisement!” echoed Mrs. Livesay triumphantly; but as Leila flushed, she formed a shrewd guess that her husband’s supposition was incorrect. What had been going on? Was it that Mr. Stanford had followed up his attentions to Leila? If so, the clever girl had made good use of them. Perhaps, after all, she was not so averse to the man as she had tried to make out. Mrs. Livesay looked meaningly at her daughter, and made signs behind her husband’s back, with the object of conveying her readiness, if necessary, to support Leila in allowing Colonel Livesay’s assumption to stand.
“Some one must have told him about the advertisement when he got back to London,” she said in the unnatural, slightly raised voice of a well-meaning deceiver.
Leila was in the act of frowning and shaking her head at her mother when Colonel Livesay looked up, and with astonishing quickness Mrs. Livesay accounted for her daughter’s grimaces.
“All right, Leila, I didn’t mean to disturb him,” and she added, apologetically to her husband: “I won’t speak again, dear, till you’ve finished reading the letter.”
“I have finished it,” he said, quite unconscious of this pantomime. “There seems no doubt—that is, if Stanford’s name really was Jason, and if all he has told Leila is true.”
“He could hardly have stolen the box of letters,” put in Mrs. Livesay, “and he certainly did not give me the impression of being an impostor.”
The thought of the reward filled her with joy, and visions returned to her of Leila settled at Jasâni as Mrs. Stanford, or Mrs. Jason, and of their perhaps all going out to stay with her—at least, the two girls might go, and have such a good time! Needless to say, she had not the faintest notion of what Jasâni Estate was like, nor of how remote was the spot from a station, gay or otherwise.
“You say it was Stanford himself who brought the box?” Colonel Livesay inquired.
There was a pause. Then Leila said quietly: “He didn’t bring it, Dad. I brought it down from London myself yesterday.”
“My dear girl, what on earth do you mean? Do, for Heaven’s sake, explain.”
“Well, you remember the Acwells’ last evening at Littlepool?”
‘‘ Yes, I do, and that for some reason or other Stanford wasn’t with them.” He looked at her with dawning suspicion. “You don’t mean to say he was with you?”
“Exactly—on the pier. I went there to read and be quiet, and he followed me, to apologize, he said, for having annoyed me.”
“Annoyed you? But you had hardly seen him!”
“Never mind; all that has got nothing to do with his being the man we were looking for.”
“Don’t worry her about that part of it, James,” interposed Mrs. Livesay, hastily.
He rubbed his bald head, perplexed. “Well, go on, then, Leila. Tell me how you got the box—how you found out who he was.”
Her explanation was sufficient to cover the important points; she had accepted Mr. Stanford’s apology, he had confided to her that he was in a difficulty, and had asked for her friendship. Unwillingly she had accorded it to him, and yesterday she had gone up to lunch with him in London; in course of conversation her suspicions had been aroused—he had mentioned a box of old letters, and, no matter how, she had extracted the loan of it from him.
“You were always so clever, Leila darling,” murmured Mrs. Livesay, doubtful as to how much Leila wished, or did not wish, to conceal in the matter.
But the explanation had been sufficient for Colonel Livesay; his mind was now occupied with the question as to what must be done concerning the man’s right to Jasâni Estate.
“It will be no end of a business,” he said, rather ruefully. “Does he know he’s the man we’re after?”
“He knows nothing about it, so far,” Leila assured her stepfather.
“Then he must be told, and we shall have to get hold of some dependable lawyer to see the thing through. You’d better write and say I’ll go up and see him?”
“Oughtn’t you to write yourself? The whole thing is in your hands now.”
“How would it do if I wrote, “suggested Mrs. Livesay airily,” just inviting him here to tea, and saying nothing of the wonderful surprise we have in store for him.”
She was all agog that he should come to the house; such a good opportunity for Leila to see more of him at once; and perhaps, if Leila would have nothing to say to him matrimonially, he might take a fancy to Maimie, who was so much younger and prettier than her step sister.
“No,” decided Colonel Livesay, bestirring himself. “I will write to the fellow and ask him to make an appointment to meet me in town—at my club.”
“And not tell him why?”
“Not till I see him,” decided her husband, forthwith seating himself at the writing table. “Now why,” he grumbled fractiously, “are the pens in this house so atrocious? They might have come straight from a post office.”
It was the one item Leila had overlooked in her house preparations; pen-nibs had not been remembered. She left her stepfather scratching irately on a sheet of note paper as though with a tin-tack; her mother seated smil ing, complacent, in an easy chair, building air-castles; and escaped to her room, there to compose a private letter to Noel Stanford informing him that papers of importance had been discovered in the despatch-box that in consequence her stepfather was anxious to see him, and from her heart she hoped he would take the way out of his difficulties that in due course might be presented to him.
When Colonel Livesay returned from his interview in London with Noel Stanford, he was instantly bombarded with questions from his wife, Maimie and Hilda. There had been no object in concealing the present developments from the two girls; indeed it would have been impossible to do so, since Mrs. Livesay could talk of nothing else, though with laudable effort, according to a promise extracted from her by Leila, she had refrained from divulging the part their half sister had played in the business. All they knew was that “Jonas,” as they persisted in calling him, had at last been discovered through some papers that had come into their father’s possession; and their lack of interest in Jonas had changed to excited curiosity. To think that they had seen him, spoken to him, without knowing who he was! The whole thing was too thrilling—like a novel!
Now only Leila kept silent, listening for her stepfather’s replies to the voluble queries; and, as she anticipated, his answers were not sufficiently expansive to satisfy his clamouring audience.
“Oh! James, how tiresome you are!” exclaimed Mrs. Livesay. “You tell us nothing we really want to know. So like a man!”
“I have told you. I can only repeat that we met at my club as arranged, and went through the papers. There doesn’t seem any doubt about the fellow’s claim to the Bibi’s property.”
“But wasn’t he awfully surprised and delighted? What did he say about it?”
“Do begin from the beginning. Did you get to the club first or was he waiting for you?”
“He kept me waiting,” said Colonel Livesay, affrontedly; a statement that caused Leila no surprise, and evoked no sympathy from the others, who continued their catechism unabated.
“Will he go straight out to India, do you think, or what?”
“I imagine he will please himself about that. I didn’t ask him.”
“I suppose,” from Mrs. Livesay, “he isn’t married by any chance, or engaged?”
“That I didn’t ask him either.”
“Well, does he like the idea of leaving England?”
“I don’t know,” grunted Colonel Livesay restively; and the climax came when Hilda inquired how Jonas was dressed.
“For mercy’s sake,” shouted her father, “don’t pester me with any more silly questions He’s coming down here to-morrow afternoon, so you can all set on him for yourselves.”
“I hope you asked him to tea?” said Mrs. Livesay, unmoved by his irritation.
“No, he asked himself.”
“How nice of him! Elizabeth must make fresh cakes, and order some cream.”
She hurried off to give directions in the kitchen; and Maimie and Hilda, realizing that to worry Dad any further would be useless, also disappeared. Leila was left alone with her stepfather, who “poof-ed “with relief, and lighted a cigar.
“Don’t go, Leila,” he said, having recovered his temper; it was seldom that he lost it. “I want to ask you one or two questions.”
Leila stepped forward; all this time she had been lurking in the background.
“I expected you would,” she replied serenely.
“Now, tell me. Can you see that fellow living at Jasâni and looking after the place?”
“Candidly I can’t. But I hope he may try.”
“Why do you hope so? He’d much better sell the property straight off; he’d only make a mess of everything, even if he went out and stopped there for a bit. Of course he’d never remain there altogether. I told him it was miles from everywhere and that for some time he’d have to depend on a manager. Also that he’d have to learn the language and put up with no end of discomfort. He’s not that sort, my dear. Work and comparative hardships wouldn’t suit that gentleman at all!”
Then he reverted to his question—why did Leila hope Stanford would go out to Jasâni? Was it because she wanted him out of the way for some reason of her own?
“No, not that kind of reason,” she said, half-laughing. “I admit he thinks he’s in love with me. I suppose you must have guessed it, or else he said something? But it’s only that I’m rather sorry for him. He’s in a pickle, entirely of his own making, and it seems to me that Jasâni is his best chance of getting out of it. I believe there is some good left in him, much as he has done his best to destroy it, and it’s just possible if he went out there he might take to the life and become more of a man than he is now. He likes riding and shooting, and even if he didn’t stay there, he’d be out of mischief for a time, and perhaps come back all the better for it.”
“Really, Leila, the way you talk, you might be his mother, or his maiden aunt!”
“I’m thankful I am neither. But what I feel is that we can’t let him chuck away this chance for want of a little persuasion and influence. If he won’t take it, we can’t blame ourselves.”
“Then you would like me to put my oar in on the side of his going?”
“All right. I’ll do my best, but I can’t paint Jasâni in glowing colours!”
“I wish I had seen the place,’ she said, thinking of that Indian morning when she had watched her stepfather drive off in the bamboo cart to visit the old lady of Jasâni Estate.
Colonel Livesay smiled. “Apparently you could go and see it with him, if you chose.”
“It’s the last thing I should choose,” responded Leila in a huff.
“No, no—of course I was only chafiing,” he apologized; “but what a pity he isn’t a steady-going, dependable sort of fellow you could have taken to.”
In her heart the girl agreed with him; but she only said lightly: “It’s quite clear you want to get rid of me!”—kissed her stepfather on the top of his bald head, and went out of the room.
She dreaded Stanford’s visit, knowing as she did the aspiration that still lurked within the mind of her mother, who doubtless would encourage him to come to the house whenever he pleased. There would be no peace until he was either on his way to India, or had made up his mind to remain at home. In the latter event, she would feel justified in refusing to see him again. But had she been altogether honest in her declaration to her step father that she had no selfish reason of her own for wishing him “out of the way”?
Stanford arrived a little before tea-time the following afternoon, and at first he was closeted with Colonel Livesay in the diminutive “third sitting-room” at the back of the house. Then, as Hilda flippantly put it, “the band began to play.”
Mrs. Livesay, Leila and the two girls were gathered in the drawing-room, together with Tomkins, who smelt excitement in the air as well as cream on the tea-table. The guest entered, debonair, agreeable, well turned out, entirely at his ease as usual.
“Here you are!” was Mrs. Livesay’s cordial greeting. “So glad to see you. Come and sit down. Tell me, how do you like your tea, strong or weak? and sugar? Who would have thought of our meeting again under such interesting circumstances! And how are the Acwells?”
“The Acwells are flourishing,” he replied calmly, “they sent you their love.” Which was untrue, as neither of the Acwells was aware that Mr. Stanford was spending the afternoon with the Livesays. “As you say,” he went on, “who would have imagined—” and he made a gesture, significant of his feelings.
“And what are you going to do?” Mrs. Livesay inquired; whereupon her husband shot Leila a glance of secret amusement which meant: “Questions again, and this time, thank goodness, I am not the victim.”
“Well, I haven’t had time yet to make up my mind,” said the victim.
“Don’t you want to go to India?” put in Maimie shyly. “I should think it would be lovely.”
“But rather dull going alone, wouldn’t you say?” He turned with charming attention to Maimie, gazing into her pretty brown eyes till she blushed; and Leila felt she could have slapped him, not, of course, from any jealous motive, but because the rascal could not resist a flirtation, however mild. It would never do for poor little Maimie to lose her heart to this unscrupulous philanderer. She came to her stepsister’s aid with a question of her own which she trusted might divert his attention.
“I suppose at least you will go out and see your property before you make up your mind whether to keep it or sell it?”
It was the first time she had spoken to him, beyond how-d’ye-do greetings, since his arrival; and her voice was so cold, so formal, that he gave her a swift look of reproachful surprise.
“That is your advice, Miss Wylde?” he said with equal chilliness. “It coincides with Colonel Livesay’s. He has been talking to me like a Dutch uncle! Perhaps you both think that all my friends would be only too glad if I made myself scarce!”
“Oh, no!” protested Mrs. Livesay, shocked at such an idea.
At this moment, to Leila’s relief, the subject was changed, unexpectedly, by Tomkins, who sprang without warning on to the knees of the guest, rubbing a sleek black head against his waistcoat, purring, kneading, and dribbling.
“Tomkins!” scolded Mrs. Livesay, “what behaviour! Get down at once! Push him off, Mr. Stanford, he’s such a rude cat.”
Maimie and Hilda made a united rush to dislodge Tomkins, who resisted stoutly, spitting and swearing, and Mr. Stanford defended him; declared he loved cats and patted Tomkins heavily on the thigh, drew his hand firmly along the muscular tail; and when Tomkins rolled over on his back, pretending to bite and scratch, Stanford kept his hand still, thus displaying his knowledge of the tribe.
“What I call hard cats,” he said, smiling, “have so much more character than fluffy ones, who are often as senseless as Pekinese dogs. Have you ever noticed that when you hold a cat’s tail he pulls—not you?”
This led to an animated discussion between the two girls and Mr. Stanford concerning dogs and cats, while Tomkins sat up, glaring defiance—(traitor that he was)—at his own belongings.
“And do you care for rabbits?” Hilda inquired eagerly. “I don’t mean to eat. I’ve got four! great big ones, white, with pink eyes.”
“I should like to see them,” proclaimed the guest with tact, “won’t you show them to me?”
“You must see my garden too,” chimed in Maimie, who was determined that her horticultural achievements should not be eclipsed by her sister’s “stupid rabbits.”
With the result that they all rose from the tea-table; and a procession started, led by the two girls, and followed sedulously by Tomkins, his tail in the air—which was just as well for the sake of the cream-jug. They traversed the narrow passage floored with black and white linoleum, and passed through a door embellished with coloured glass panels; ignored the space, screened by trellis-work, devoted to domestic requirements—a dustbin, a collection of empty bottles, tins and boxes, household cloths drooping and drying on a slack string, the kitchen window from which two capped heads observed the party with furtive interest. Thence on to the strip of lawn, broken by rose beds that held lingering blooms, and borders that still displayed a fair exhibition of a number of herbaceous plants. It was yet early, as Maimie explained, for the Chrysanthemums, of which she hoped later to have a fine show.
Throughout the inspection of rabbits and plants Stanford made subtle efforts to obtain speech with Leila, unheard by the rest of the company. She was conscious of his attempts, but gave him no help, avoiding his proximity, until just at the last, when with decency he could hardly prolong his visit, he contrived to manoeuvre her into the ramshackle shed, called by courtesy the summer-house, at the end of the garden. Mrs. Livesay had gone to fetch a wrap from the house, her husband had followed her; Maimie and Hilda were engaged in an argument over the position of rabbit hutches which threatened to interfere with some gardening scheme, and for a space the pair were alone.
“This is awful!”said Stanford. “When can I hope to get a talk with you?”
“Is it necessary? You know what I think.” Leila would have left the shelter, but that he restrained her, laying his hand on her arm.
“For Heaven’s sake listen to me,” he pleaded. “I will do whatever you wish, go to the ends of the earth, if only you will give me the smallest grain of hope. I tell you I love you, I love you with all my heart and soul!” ‘
She clasped her hands in despair. “If only you were different! You have no self-respect, you think of nothing but yourself.”
He seized on her words. “But I could be different. I could make you proud of me; I’d slave in the desert, anywhere, give up everything, I swear it, if you’d put me on trial. I ask nothing else.”
His face was white, his voice shook. There was no sort of pretence about his feeling.
“But it wouldn’t be fair!” cried Leila, distressed beyond measure. “I don’t love you; how can I give you any hope? Aren’t you man enough to take this opportunity of freeing yourself from bad influences without any bribe?”
“No,” he admitted simply. “It’s no use my pretending to you that I am.”
“How selfish you are!” Tears of vexation rose to her eyes.
“I don’t see that I am so selfish. All I want is that if I go to this infernal place, instead of selling it, and can prove that I have some grit in me, I have your permission to ask you to marry me. Is it unreasonable?” He paused in dumb supplication.
Leila felt desperate, torn between her genuine desire to help him along the right road and her conviction that never could she regard him in the light of a possible husband. Surely she would be doing wrong if she permitted him to leave England buoyed up with an empty hope, that might be regarded by him as tantamount to an engagement?
There they stood, both of them miserable, looking out over the commonplace little garden, that in another month or so would be dank and drear with the winter season. And in India, thought Leila, the sun would be shining, the roses a-bloom, the cold weather a-sparkle, exhilarating. How gladly would she go with him were he a man she could trust and love!
“After all,” he said self-defensively, “I am not quite such a beast as you make me feel. I don’t drink—or rather I never get drunk; and I don’t gamble to any serious extent. I like sport, when I can get it. It’s true I’ve never done any work to speak of, but I’m quite willing to set to and do my best, if you’d back me up with the promise I want. I’m not altogether disliked by my fellow-creatures, and animals always take to me—look at Tomkins—which I believe is considered a good sign.”
Leila clicked her tongue contemptuously. What next would he bring forward as a proof of his merits?
“And that pretty little girl,” he went on, indicating Maimie, who was flitting about the garden. “I bet you, if I saw enough of her, she wouldn’t need much persuasion to come with me to India—or to stay at home with me, if it comes to that!”
Leila regarded him with horrified suspicion. Could he mean this as a threat that if she failed to give him the promise he demanded, he would trifle with Maimie’s affections? She could hardly believe him capable of such malevolence; yet her heart sank. And just then Maimie came dancing across the lawn towards them, a fairy-like vision with her bare, curly head, and bright complexion, her red lips parted in a self-conscious little smile as she halted before the summer-house.
“You look like a wild rose!” Stanford told her. “Would you die if I picked you and put you in my button hole?”
Maimie simpered and blushed. “Do you want a rose for your buttonhole?” she said archly. “Shall I pick you one?”—waving her hand towards the late roses left in the garden.
“Of course I want one, if you’ll give it me. I’ll come and choose.”
He stepped on to the grass, and the two made a round of the rose trees, talking and laughing. He took some time making his choice; when they returned to where Leila still stood in front of the summer-house, a yellow bloom was in his coat, and raising the lapel, he bent his head to sniff at it, drew a long breath and said: “How sweet!” with a sidelong look at the fluttering Maimie.
Then he declared, regretfully, that he must be going; and the three walked back to the house, Maimie keeping close to his side. She was too young, too unsophisticated, to preserve her dignity, and she stuck to him till farewells had been said all round; not only that, but she flung on a garden hat, which she took from the rack in the hall, and accompanied him to the little front gate. Leila trembled lest she should even offer to walk with him to the station! But if such an idea was in Maimie’s mind she lacked the courage to utter it, and apparently Stanford had no thought of inviting her company, for he shook hands with her again, shut the gate, and strode off, turning once or twice to wave his stick to the slim young figure that stood looking after him until he was out of sight.
Leila went up to her bedroom, burning with anger. What a shame it was! The poor child was half in love already. Dared she warn Maimie? To do so might only make matters worse; but at least she would speak seriously to her mother, entreat her, for Maimie’s sake, not to encourage the man’s visits.
All that evening she had to listen while Mrs. Livesay and the girls sang Mr. Stanford’s praises. Hilda said it was simply wonderful what a lot he knew about rabbits; she wished to goodness he would not go to India but take the house next door, which was to let, and give her daily advice. She had never been told before that rabbits ought to have water to drink—how heartless the poor darlings must have thought her all this time! Anyway, he had promised to bring her a book about rabbits when next he came.
“Personally I think him delightful,” Mrs. Livesay kept repeating. “I always did at Littlepool.” And each time she said it she looked at Leila as though anxious to impress her opinion on her eldest daughter, who sat provokingly silent.
Maimie could not resist talking about the rose she had fastened into Mr. Stanford’s buttonhole, smirking affectedly as she did so. “It was the last William Allan bud. I’m so glad it was there; and he said”—she paused pensively—“he said ‘How sweet!’”
“James, dear,” Mrs. Livesay addressed her husband loudly, for he was drowsing over an evening paper. “How long will it be before Mr. Stanford has to start for India?”
“Can’t say.” He looked at the clock. “Now, if you’ve all done talking about him, it’s time to go to bed.”
Leila, as she bade her mother good night, whispered to her:
“Come to my room for a few minutes before you undress?”
Mrs. Livesay nodded, in hopeful acquiescence. She felt sure Leila was about to confess that her unreasonable antipathy for Mr. Stanford had transformed itself into appreciation, if nothing warmer. She hustled the younger girls off to the bedroom they shared, then followed Leila upstairs, leaving Colonel Livesay, according to custom, to put out the lights and “lock up.”
“Well, dear—what is it?” She spoke under her breath, closing the door softly behind her; she adored secrets, though it was rarely that she could keep one.
The furtive movements, the lowered voice, rasped Leila’s nerves. She had small doubt of what was in her mother’s mind.
“Do sit down and remember nobody can hear what we say, unless we shout.” Her usual remorse followed swiftly on her impatience, and she added in self-excuse: “I’m all on edge to-night. I’m worried about that man and Maimie.”
Mrs. Livesay almost started from the chair she had taken. “Oh! darling—surely you are not jealous? He did seem to pay her a little attention, but of course it meant nothing.”
“Certainly I am not jealous. I am thinking only of Maimie. I hate the idea that he may make the child unhappy.”
“But why on earth should he? I quite thought you were going to tell me you had changed your mind about him yourself.”
“Well, I haven’t,” said Leila emphatically.
“Then why should you mind if he has taken to our dear little Maimie? It would be quite a nice marriage for her, and you are the last person I should have thought of as a dog-in-the-manger! I really don’t know what has come over you, Leila. You are often so unlike your self nowadays. I’m afraid India must have—” She broke off, in search of the words she wanted; Mrs. Live say’s vocabulary was not large; and having failed to find them, she concluded lamely—“must have disagreed with you somehow.”
“I tell you,” said Leila, ignoring all this, “he will only flirt with her if you let him come here—if you give him the run of the house. He can’t help it; it’s his besetting sin. And Maimie would never understand until it was too late.” She turned and faced her mother. “I know what he is!”
“You are prejudiced against him. I don’t believe there is anything in your suspicion about him and Lady Acwell. You must have picked up these horrid ideas in India.”
“Ideas are no more horrid in India than anywhere else,” retorted Leila, “but that is neither here nor there. Mr. Stanford would marry me to-morrow if I were willing to accept him.”
“Then I think you are very foolish not to be willing; and selfish as well. You don’t want to give your sister a chance either way. If you had accepted him she could have gone out to India to stay with you later on and have met plenty of nice men. Here,” she said sweepingly, “there are no men at all, and never will be. As you say you don’t want to marry him yourself, I can’t see why you should grudge him to Maimie. It will end by your all being old maids!” Mrs. Livesay produced her handkerchief and wept.
Leila’s face hardened. She knew she had failed to influence her mother; she feared that if once Stanford divined her apprehensions for Maimie’s peace of mind and heart, he would take full advantage of such a lever; and clearly her mother would make no effort to check the flirtation, rather would she encourage it, blinding her self to his motive. She spoke out vigorously to this effect, but like all weak natures, Mrs. Livesay was obstinate, incredulous, impossible to persuade or convince.
Then, with sudden and angry determination, Leila made up her mind. She would give Noel Stanford the promise he desired of her. She did not doubt that his infatuation at present was sufficiently strong, if he got his own way, to enable her to make the condition she intended to impose on him—that he would get off to India just as soon as it was humanly possible for him to do so. At the very least she would then have done all in her power to start him in life afresh, and Maimie would quickly forget him.
She patted her mother’s heaving shoulder. “Don’t cry, dear,” she said, trying to feel sympathetic, “you’ll only make yourself ill.”
“You are so unkind,” sobbed Mrs. Livesay, “so hard. I don’t know what to do.”
“Suppose you trust me to make everything right?”
Mrs. Livesay looked up, drying her eyes. “How?” she inquired, like a child whose attention has been distracted from some trivial upset by the bribe of a sweet or a toy.
“I’ll tell you when it’s done. Now do go to bed, and don’t worry any more. I’m sorry I bothered you.” And as Mrs. Livesay left the room, puzzled and only partially comforted, Leila added to herself: “When I might have known it would be useless!”
Afterwards, for some minutes, she stood in deep reflection before she began to undress. It was impossible to pretend that she did not shrink from the course she had decided upon; yet she had no thought of going back on it. After all, what did it matter? She might as well attempt to do some good in the world, and if Noel Stanford even tried to play fair she would have that much to her credit. At the same time she realized with a sense of dismay that should he stand the test, prove his mettle for her sake, she must feel more or less bound in honour to marry him!—All that, however, lay far in the future, was too doubtful to be seriously considered at this juncture. She had little anticipation that he would come through the ordeal successfully, or even that his declared devotion to herself would last long enough to strengthen his will to do so. Then again, supposing he stuck to his side of the bargain? Well, it would mean that a miracle had happened, that a very changed character would hold him to his promise!— And perhaps?
The odd little nostalgia for India that at times assailed her crept back into her heart with almost painful intensity. In a valiant effort to shake it off she took up a book and flung herself into an easy-chair. But it was not, as she imagined, the novel she had brought up with her from the drawing-room; it was the book she had lent Noel Stanford on the pier at Littlepool. Was it an omen of the future, did it mean that for some mysterious reason her life was fated to be linked with Buddhist history? As though under a spell, she found herself tracing the curious connexion. First her ride with Pat Everest on that hot-weather evening in India; the interest he had awakened in her mind concerning the great teacher and the dead memorials to his life and work. Then the finding of the book in the club at Khari on that selfsame evening—the book that had enlightened her, fired her imagination, driven her to seek further knowledge of the subject. In addition her stepfather’s link with the Bibi Jâsan and her own surprising part in the discovery of the man who was legal owner of a property on which stood ruins dedicated to the mighty creed and example that had influenced half the world, until a mightier and purer faith had come after it.
Was it her fate that she should go to this spot—that, do what she would, nothing could prevent it?—if so, why— why?
It was Christmas Day; and at the back of the bungalow a crowd of Indian visitors had assembled that they might pay their respects to the new owner of Jasâni Estate.
The more well-to-do neighbours, landlords themselves, had arrived on prancing, high-crested stallions, piebald or white, mostly wall-eyed, with manes and tails dyed according to taste. Mercifully the number of these circus-like creatures was small, for, tethered in the mango grove, they neighed and raged unceasingly at each other. Petty farmers and tenants came on undersized ponies that looked spiritless, half-starved, yet occasionally they too squealed and stamped in imitation of their superiors. The air rang with equine bad language.
The villagers squatted in groups, a mass of brown blankets and bare limbs, recognizing as a matter of course that their turn for reception must come last. Was it not custom? Indeed, every one must wait for the departure of the local rajah, who had just driven up to the front of the bungalow in an antiquated conveyance of strange and uncertain shape; it might once have been a victoria, or a barouche, or a landau, but at present it appeared to be a combination of all three, the result, no doubt, of frequent restorations in the past.
The rajah himself was an old man who lived in a tumbledown fort, composed of mud and bricks, some miles distant from Jasâni. He was of very high caste, and as poor as he was proud. Never before had he condescended to visit Jasâni, for the reason that, until six months ago, his landed neighbour had been a woman. Circumstances having altered, and his curiosity being strong, he now felt justified in lowering himself to call on the Bibi’s successor who, though not a Government representative, and therefore of no account, was at least a white man, if not actually a “sahib.” Therefore he had sent notice the previous evening of his intention, fixing a time, and here he was—purposely a couple of hours late.
Noel Stanford, prompted by his manager, Mr. Norman Serrano (an energetic person with a porridge-coloured, pock-marked countenance), acquitted himself as well as could be expected in view of his short experience of the country. He received the disdainful old gentleman with becoming courtesy, touched the rupees held out to him on a cloth by one of the rajah’s attendants, and invited His Royal Highness into the dwelling-room, where the visitor seated himself gingerly on the edge of a chair, two of his suite standing behind him, prepared to join in the conversation. To Mr. Serrano’s relief his employer remembered the right mode of address when inquiring in his halting Hindustani after the rajah’s health, and having replied to a like question concerning his own, there followed a silence. Mr. Serrano came to the rescue.
“The sahib wishes to know,” he said, addressing the rajah deferentially, “if the condition of your highness’s crops be satisfactory?”
The old man turned his head slightly; and one of the turbaned figures behind him replied. It was beneath the dignity of “His Highness” to converse as an equal with a kerani (Eurasian). Swallowing the insult, Mr. Serrano interpreted the reply to Stanford, who signified his pleasure at hearing that never before had crops been so promising, and that immense wealth, as usual, would accrue to the owner.
“Ask him,” said Stanford desperately to his factotum, “if he would like anything to eat or drink.”
Mr. Serrano shook his head and frowned, substituting some other question, which the rajah’s attendant repeated to his master, who nodded, as Stanford thought, sullenly, but it was merely an exhibition of pride.
A happy thought struck the embarrassed host. “Say I hope soon to be able to converse with him in his own language—that I shall work hard with that object!”
This speech, having been translated, the old man made a fairly polite gesture, and shuffled his feet, that were encased in white cotton socks.
“Now tell him he can go,” whispered Serrano. “It is right manners,” he added, as Stanford hesitated. “Say ‘Ab ruksat.’”
“Ab ruksat,” repeated Stanford, and rose; though it seemed to him a very rude proceeding, and as the visitor rose too he held out his hand. For a moment the rajah regarded the outstretched hand of the Englishman; then he took it limply, and dropped it at once. Every one salaamed and repaired to the veranda, where lay a row of embroidered Indian shoes; these were quickly slipped on, and in a few seconds with a clatter the carriage drove off, raising a cloud of dust. It had hardly gone a quarter of a mile when it stopped; one of the occupants alighted and appeared to be searching for something under the seat.
“What can have happened!” exclaimed Stanford. “Have they broken down?” He had a dismal vision of their all returning for assistance.
Mr. Serrano picked up a pair of field-glasses that lay on the veranda table. “No breakdown,” he said with a laugh, “only washing his hands.”
“Washing his hands!” repeated Stanford incredulously.
“Yes—because of touching yours.”
“Good heavens! What harm could that do him?”
Mr. Serrano shrugged his shoulders. “Some of these people are like that. Ignorant, old-fashioned. It is caste.”
“Well, he shan’t come into my house again, nor will I go into his!” declared Stanford indignantly; and he added, with a groan: “Shall I ever understand this country!”
He now felt inclined to refuse audience to the crowd of other callers who were straggling round the side of the house—to depute Serrano to receive them; but it was too late. Moreover, he was already acquainted with the gentlemen who had arrived on the neighing steeds; genial individuals, who had no prejudice against him or his manager, and were obviously pleased to be accommodated with chairs in the veranda while their presents were deposited on the steps—round, open baskets, filled with fruit and vegetables, cones of sugar, and tight little bouquets of flowers. They talked and gesticulated, grinned and paid compliments, and accepted their dismissals with graceful salaams.
Then Stanford went out to acknowledge the attentions of the humble, and in accordance with his manager’s directions baksheesh was liberally distributed among them. It was some time before the concourse cleared off, well satisfied with their reception and the acceptance of their various offerings, for, to the native mind, the refusal of a gift means disgrace, while its acceptance in some mysterious fashion is supposed to bring benefit to the giver.
Stanford’s servants were allowed to annex the eatables; and Mr. Serrano was not above selecting one or two of the well-filled baskets for his own use. He occupied a wing of the big bungalow with his staff of domestics, apart from the quarters Stanford had reserved for himself, and the two were by way of sharing an “office” in which Serrano kept the estate accounts and initiated his employer into the management of the property.
“That’s over!” said Stanford with relief, as the compound settled down. “Many thanks for all your help, Serrano. I don’t know what I should have done without you.”
“For next Christmas you will know,” encouraged Mr. Serrano. It was understood between them that directly Mr. Stanford felt himself capable of undertaking his own affairs, Mr. Serrano was to be free to go off and espouse a prosperous widow who owned property in a hill station.
They parted, Serrano to have his midday meal of curry and rice, the odour of which already pervaded the atmosphere, Stanford to throw himself exhausted into a long veranda chair, while he awaited his own breakfast.
“Next Christmas!”—What would have happened by then? His thoughts strayed back over the last three months; the time had passed so swiftly that it seemed but yesterday he had arrived at Khari and stayed with the Bowyers—kind people—until all was in order for him to take up his residence at Jasâni. Owing to the Bibi’s forethought and Shahamat Ali’s exertions, joined to those of the magistrate on his behalf, the business had soon been completed. He had bought three good horses, a trap, and a fair amount of furniture from a homeward-bound ofiicial, and on the whole he had hitherto rather enjoyed his exile; it was not half as bad as he had anticipated. There was plenty of small-game shooting within easy reach, quail, partridge, hares; most evenings he strolled out with his gun. And not too far off was a string of swampy lakes covered with duck and teal, snipe also, in abundance along their edges. A few miles beyond that again lay dense jungle, which harboured big game. The morning rides with Serrano, inspecting crops and villages, making plans for the reclamation of waste ground, were to his liking; and he had acquired a mixed pack of dogs, so that the coursing of jackals and foxes could be combined with business.
Serrano was a bad shot and an indifferent rider, but he regarded himself as a sportsman, and was ready enough to career, in moderation, over the plains in the wake of Stanford and the dogs, though he sometimes fell off; and when they went out with their guns he was careful always to fire when his companion did so, with the object of claiming half the bag.
Serrano amused Stanford; also Serrano was an excellent man of business and a willing teacher. Though he had never been out of the country and was not without a strain of dark blood, he came of a good stock and was inordinately proud of his British descent. He knew a vast deal about native customs and habits, and had made a special study of folk-lore; so that often in the evenings, when Stanford invited his company, he would pour forth a stream of strange facts and stories, awakening the other’s interest in ghosts and godlings and weird superstitions. One of these days Mr. Serrano intended to publish the results of his investigations, but not until after his marriage with his wealthy widow, when, as he said naïvely, he would have money and leisure to devote to his hobby.
As yet Stanford had hardly had time to feel lonely. Every week there was the English mail, brought out by runners from Khari. Before leaving England he had arranged for a plentiful supply of papers, magazines, and novels, and—there was always the letter from Leila! How he looked forward to those letters! She never missed a mail, and though she merely wrote in friendly fashion, were not the letters a proof that she meant to abide by her promise? He wrote to her daily, posting the budget each week—filled pages (he who had always hated letter-writing) with descriptions of his work and his recreations; he drew thumbnail sketches on the margins of the old munshi he had engaged at great expense to teach him to read and write the language, of the dogs, the servants, Serrano out shooting, or chasing his pony after a spill. And he did not forget her interest in the Buddhist ruins and remains that were ever before his eyes.—“Though I hate them,” he had written once in a fit of depression, “I try, for your sake, not to wish that the earth would open and swallow them up. They are a blot on the landscape; one beastly great mound that looks as if it had been there since the Creation and meant to remain till the Day of Judgment, and all round about it a lot of hillocks and bits of walls, and almost up to the front of the bungalow the ground is strewn with fragments of brick and stone. The other day I picked up rather a good bit of carving, a group of figures, and I’m sending it to you. Serrano says it ought to be in the British Museum. You and Serrano would love each other! He’s always poking about among the ruins and rubbish, and at the end of last rains, before I came out, he found a lot of beads, crystal and cornelian, and all kinds of stones, according to him the remains of Buddhist rosaries. I wanted to buy them from him, for you, but the devil wouldn’t part, and I hardly liked to remind him that, as a matter of fact, they belonged to me! Perhaps I shall find some myself some day, but it’s no use hunting till the rains have washed them from the soil. I got some books up from Calcutta about Buddhist ruins, but I confess I find it difficult to pin myself down to them. If you were at my elbow to egg me on, it would be different. Serrano reads them, and he says he wonders the archaeological people haven’t attacked this place long ago. He believes they once tried, but that the old lady wouldn’t have it at any price. There are signs of some attempt at repairs having been made on the big mound, perhaps by the Bibi’s own orders, but there is no record, and nobody knows anything about it. If I should ever be approached by the Department, I shall feel inclined to hold them off till I know—you can guess what I mean! Wouldn’t you like to be here to see the mound opened, and the relic case, and all the rest of it?—even if you had to put up with my company?”
He had told her also of his nearest European neighbours, planter people of the name of Clarke; but they lived a deuce of a way off, by the river, and there was no road between Jasâni and their indigo concern. Serrano had dragged him to call on them, but they were away at the time on a holiday, and so far he had only seen Mr. Clarke, who had returned his call, unaccompanied by his wife, in a hooded sort of tonga, drawn by bullocks. The gentleman had not proved interesting, a middle aged, rough sort of beggar, who hadn’t a word to say for himself. It was a tedious visit—probably on both sides! According to Serrano, Clarke had come out from England as a boy, and had never since left the country, going as an assistant on miserable pay from one factory to another, until, twenty years ago, he had scraped up enough money to buy his present concern cheap, and had worked it up profitably. His wife had been the daughter of a missionary; and her father, who had gone dotty, now lived with them. Rather hard luck on Clarke!
Stanford felt idle that day; the morning’s turmoil had been enervating, and his breakfast over, he snoozed in the veranda until the compound began to stir after the midday rest, and he was disturbed by his old schoolmaster, the white-bearded munshi, who presented himself, armed with pen-box and papers, prepared for the lesson. He stood at his pupil’s side, coughing gently to attract attention.
“Big Day!” murmured Stanford, in sleepy rebellion. “No work!” and waved him away.
“Sahib! Sahib!” exclaimed the patriarch reproachfully; but he shuffled off, not ill-pleased to return to his hookah and the pickings that had fallen to his share from the baskets of “Big Day” offerings.
Once the old fellow had disappeared, Stanford roused himself lazily, strolled into “the office” to see what Serrano was about, but Serrano was not there, and loud snores from the adjoining part of the building betrayed the manager’s occupation. He put on his hat and wandered out, inhaling the crisp, sun-drenched air that dispersed his drowsiness. The sky was sapphire blue; no hint yet of the rain due at about this season, and anxiously awaited by Serrano on account of the winter crops. A light, dusty haze lay over the landscape, softening even the objectionable mound and its barren surroundings; and to the right stretched a vista of pale green and yellow fields, unbroken by hedges, but patched here and there with the darker shade of the lentil crops, or the huddled huts of a village. How quiet, not to say stagnant, it all was! The monotony, the silence, suddenly made Stanford feel restless, and he walked on round the side of the bungalow towards the mango grove, passing the back premises.
Two fox-terriers were being groomed by the dog-boy in front of the servants’ quarters; they broke away from their valet and rushed yelping to their master. Buster and Brown were the aristocrats of the little pack, and by reason of their superior birth held themselves aloof from their hunting companions in private life, would have no social truck with such a pariah crew who went out with the dog-boy on leads for exercise, except when they were required for purposes of sport; whereas Buster and Brown were their master’s close friends, slept in his room, and accompanied him everywhere.
Leaping and barking at his side, they had spent their effusive greeting by the time Stanford entered the mango grove, and their attention was diverted by the little grey squirrels that whisked tantalizingly up the great trunks of the trees. Hither and thither dashed the two dogs, breaking the solemn silence of the grove with their yaps, disturbing families of flying foxes that hung, black and revolting, like rotten fruit, from the branches. The creatures squeaked as they flapped to further resting places.
Stanford halted. The gloom was oppressive; he wondered who had planted those mighty trees that must be centuries old—recalled some of Serrano’s stories about tree worship; and his imagination peopled the grove with hideous beings, bent on secret rites and observances, perhaps human sacrifice. He felt that anything might have happened in such an atmosphere!
And this was the spot where his great-aunt by marriage had buried her English husband, where she herself now lay by his side. There was the tomb—a stone canopy, raised on a low platform, the shape of an umbrella, symbol of the Buddhist faith. Serrano had said that when the great mound was in its glory it must have been topped with a golden umbrella; how ridiculous!
Involuntarily he made his way to the tomb, that showed white in the semi-darkness among the tree-trunks, and stood before it. There was no inscription, nothing to denote who lay there beneath the dome. Stanford felt that if anything had been written, it should have been: “In their death they were not divided.” The story of their love was buried with them; it must have been a great love, a great and tender love, that had led to such a marriage—for the man to take to wife a woman of the East in face of all difficulties, differences, and prejudices on both sides, for the woman to leave home and country, adventuring forth into strange surroundings, with but little hope of seeing her own people again. And then to establish herself on the spot where her man had died, that when her time came she might be laid beside him! Perhaps the ruined memorials of her faith, whose glories had so long passed away, had comforted her during the years of her patient exile? Why had those two people of opposite colour and custom and code of existence fallen in love with each other? Love was a mystery, a thing that came to one without rhyme or reason, not to be explained or understood. For example, why did he love Leila? Not entirely because she was so good and unselfish and true, not entirely because she was so attractive physically; he had loved her at first sight, knowing nothing about her, and he had seen countless other women who surpassed her in charms. It was just fate, the real thing, she was the one woman in the world for him; and to win her he meant to stick to Jasâni, do his best by the place, serve his time with patience, and prove himself worthy of her. Seldom had he thought of his wasted years since his arrival at Jasâni; it was the future that mattered, though now and then little regretful recollections had stolen upon him, and for a moment or two he had thirsted for streets and theatres and gay crowds; but only for moments, and, ashamed, he had brushed the hankerings aside as though they were poisonous insects.
Yet now, without warning, like an evil spirit of the grove, the face of Rose Acwell came before him—her face as he had seen it when breaking the news to her that he meant to leave England. That had been a terrible interview; he shivered at the remembrance of her tears, her pleadings, her reproaches; all the same, he had felt no remorse, she was just as much to blame as he was for all that had happened. The scene slid through his mind; at least he had been honest with her up to a point—said he was sick and tired and ashamed of the life he was leading, and returned all the presents she had given him. She had opened the packet and flung the contents on the floor—he could see them now, lying on the priceless French carpet of her boudoir; the cigarette-case, the pearl pin, the heavy gold ring with her name engraved inside it. In her rage she had looked more beautiful, more beguiling than ever, but she had said the most hateful things, the more hateful because they were true.
How thankful he was that he had been careful to keep secret the true reason of his desertion—his love for Leila Wylde; else if Rose had thrown mud at the name of his beloved, he might have felt tempted to strangle the words in her slim white throat. Poor Rose! In a way it was hard luck on her; but he had small doubt that by now she had consoled herself, installed some other fellow in his place. She could never live without a lover! He wondered what she had done with the cigarette-case, etc.—given them to the other fellow most likely! Two letters had followed him to India, but he had destroyed them unopened; he rather wished now that he had read them.
He was standing so still that a large lizard shot boldly up on to the platform of the tomb and lay motionless. The sight of the yellow body, speckled and bloated, with the snake-like head and tail, and beady black eyes that seemed to regard him with sinister understanding, checked the trend of Stanford’s thoughts. What on earth had come over him that his mind should be attacked by such memories?—this horrible old wood, and the tomb, the atmosphere of age and decay, the melancholy dimness, must have affected him banefully; he would clear out of it.
As he moved, whistled for the dogs, the lizard slipped out of sight through a crack in the masonry; that crack ought to be seen to, stopped up, and if the reptile was buried alive in the process so much the better. Perhaps it was the old Bibi reincarnated, a punishment for having married a Christian! He grinned at the fantastic notion as he left the grove, the dogs at his heels grunting complaints over the iniquities of squirrels and their lightning activity, which had baffled Messrs. Buster and Brown so completely.
At least the rift in the tomb of his ancestors afforded Stanford a definite excuse for disturbing Serrano; but he found his manager in no mood for discussing anything, neither was Serrano to be tempted out of doors on foot or on horseback. He reminded Mr. Stanford with querulous politeness that this was a holiday, and hinted that he wished to take advantage of it in attending to his own affairs, which meant reading and correcting his notes on folk-lore, and writing to his fiancée. Privately Mr. Serrano considered it a pity that Mr. Stanford was not more studiously inclined; Mr. Stanford was always for action, never happy unless taking exercise.
“I feel at a loose end to-day, somehow,” grumbled Stanford, fidgeting about the sparsely furnished room. The only ornament on the mantelpiece was a gilt-framed photograph of a stout lady in evening dress, displaying a vast amount of jewellery—necklaces, bangles, brooches in abundance—the portrait of Serrano’s rich widow, as Stanford knew. Often had he been treated to a description of the lady’s attractions, both physical and financial. He almost envied Serrano, not of course his possession of this particular lady’s affections, but his sure prospect of marriage to the woman he wanted, while he himself had not the certainty of winning the girl he loved.
“You’re a lucky dog, Serrano!” he said with a wistful sigh.
“Oh! yess, luckee; and she is luckee too!”
At times Mr. Serrano was not so careful of his accent; and when that happened it was a signal of irritation or excitement. “If you have not’ing to do,” he added loftily, shuffling his papers, “why not ride and call at Clarkes’?”
“Anything to get rid of me, eh?” Stanford laughed good-temperedly and looked at his watch. “Well, it’s not a bad idea. Thanks for the suggestion.”
“Oh! no offence meant,” protested Mr. Serrano apologetically.
“Of course not, and none taken,” replied Stanford, feeling as if he had said “Granted” to “I beg your pardon”; and using the same trite mode of speech, he added: “Expect me when you see me,” nodded, waved his hand and left the room.
He felt sorely in need of human intercourse this afternoon, and though the little he had seen of his planter folk neighbours had not interested or attracted him, they were at least English-speaking, and no doubt would welcome his Christmas visit. He ordered one of his horses to be saddled, changed into riding kit, and rode out of the compound.
The Clarkes’ bungalow stood within sight of the river and its shelving banks: a home-like dwelling-place, fronted by a well-kept garden ablaze with flowers, and backed by an extensive orchard of fruit trees. The veranda, full seven feet deep, was bordered with pots in which flourished violets, mignonette, stocks, and other familiar English annuals; kerosene oil tins, painted grass green, overflowed with hydrangea and nasturtium; wire baskets, sprouting ferns, hung from the beams of the thatched roof. Perfume and peace filled the air, a peace that, as Stanford rode up, was rudely disturbed; a monkey chained to a pole that was topped by a little shelter, sprang to the ground, gibbering, prancing on all-fours, at sight of Buster and Brown who, but for their master’s stern warning, would have flown to the attack. Their self-restraint, however, did not extend to silence, and they barked piercingly: the noise they made was copied by a myna bird in a cage hung on the outside wall, and a parrot from somewhere within the veranda set up a raucous screech. Then an old liver-coloured spaniel waddled down the steps, smiling and shaking his ears as though in good-natured protest at the hubbub; and even Buster and Brown were shamed into respectful behaviour by his age and good manners. They wagged their stumpy tails, walked round him with how-d’ye-do growls, scratching up the dust with their hind legs. The monkey, now forgotten, shinned up the pole to chatter abuse from his “gazebo,” and throw down bits of fruit peel and stones with insulting intention. No servant was to be seen, and Stanford proceeded to shout the orthodox announcement of his arrival, incumbent on callers in India, the while feeling in his pocket for visiting-cards.
A split-cane blind was pushed aside, and a tall, thin Englishwoman emerged; she had a pale, tired face and faded, scanty hair; something—the climate, trouble, ill health?—had washed the light from her large grey eyes and the colour from her skin; yet it was a sweet face despite its weariness. Mrs. Clarke, of course. Stanford raised his hat, dismounted, and introduced himself.
“Oh! Mr. Stanford!”she said in kindly welcome. “Send your horse round to the stable. Why, you have no syce!” She looked about in surprise at the absence of a groom on foot.
“I’ll take him round myself,” said Stanford, throwing the reins over his horse’s head; but at that moment a native came running round the side of the house, hastily binding on a turban, and to him Stanford relinquished his mount.
“Do you mind my dogs?” he asked his hostess, wishing he had left Buster and Brown at home; he felt he could hardly answer for their conduct, what with the monkey, and the myna, and the parrot.
“Not in the least. Nelson”—indicating the spaniel— “won’t fight, and Alfred”—looking up at the monkey— “can take care of himself. I love animals.” She held out her hand, and the two fox-terriers ran to her, recognizing the truth of her statement. So that was all right! “My husband will be here directly,” she went on, patting the two hard little heads. “Would you care to come round the garden before we have tea? By the way, I suppose I ought to wish you a Merry Christmas!”
“And I suppose I ought to say ‘The same to you!’ But it’s difficult to realize Christmas out here. I wonder what it’s doing at home—snowing perhaps!”
He felt, as they moved towards the garden, that he should like to make a friend of this gentle creature who was so unlike what he had imagined she would be; somehow he had pictured a stout, commonplace person, perhaps a bit “dark.” She was immeasurably superior to her husband—what could have induced her to marry such a dull, uncouth being? As a girl she must have been quite pretty. It was evident that she loved flowers as well as animals, judging by her interest in the garden; and she filled him with a sudden desire to make a like garden of his own at Jasâni. He had never thought of such a plan before; it might prove an antidote to the desolation of his surroundings, to the depressing view of those abominable Buddhist ruins, the melancholy of the mango grove. Perhaps he could persuade her to come over sometimes, and help him with her advice and experience.
“What a contrast this is to my own beastly place!” he said wistfully, intent on enlisting her sympathy. “Of course you have seen it?”
“Oh, yes. I knew the old Bibi quite well. She was rather a wonderful character. The last time I went to Jasâni was just after her death, to fetch the little girl she left in my charge—and the parrot!” she added with a smile.
“What little girl?” began Stanford; yet as he uttered the question he remembered that Mr. Bowyer and Shahamat Ali had told him something about a protegée of his “great-aunt’s” for whom the old lady had made provision; he had paid little attention at the time.
“Her name is Anatta, she is a dear little creature,” went on Mrs. Clarke, “the grandchild of a woman compatriot the Bibi brought with her from Burmah. Who were her grandfather and parents we don’t exactly know, but she is alone in the world. I promised the Bibi to look after her, and to bring her up as far as possible in the Buddhist faith.” She paused. “Perhaps that sounds odd to you, if you know that my father was a missionary?”
“It doesn’t seem to me odd that you should carry out the old lady’s wishes. From all I have read and been told by a—a great friend of mine at home, Christianity and Buddhism appear to be extraordinarily alike.”
“In many ways they are, but not in the chief essential. Buddhism is a religion of fear. Certainly it teaches self-sacrifice, charity, humility, clean living, everything that Christianity teaches, but all from dread of being born again in some lower form. Take my advice and don’t study it from a religious point of view; it is fascinating and interesting historically, if you keep to that side of it, but for a lonely human being I have reason to look upon it as a spiritual danger. It may become an evil obsession to anyone not born and reared in the faith. ”
Stanford stared at her. There was sorrow in her voice, and her face was troubled. “I hardly understand—” he said tentatively. “Personally I can’t say the subject interests or attracts me from any point of view; and as for those horrible ruins in front of my house, I detest them. They’re an eyesore. Nothing would induce me to stop at Jasâni but for one reason. . . .”
He waited, hoping she would encourage him to reveal the reason; he felt a longing to tell her about Leila; but to his disappointment she gave him no opening, only shook her head apprehensively.
“Yes, the ruins,” she said. “I hate them too. Mind you don’t let them get hold of you, poison your mind and your brain!”
“They are not likely to do that!—unless it’s with aversion and boredom,” he assured her.
“Buddhism isn’t meant for Western people. It served its purpose at the time, was a forerunner of something far higher and better, preparing ‘the way,’ perhaps. But for anyone to become a pervert to it—” She shuddered. “It made my father insane; can you wonder that I look upon it with horror?”
“How sad!” murmured Stanford uncomfortably. “Has he been like that long?”
“I came out from England twenty years ago to join him in his work. I was full of enthusiasm, longing to help; and I found him buried in Sanskrit and Pali writings, translating from morning till night, neglecting his mission work, thinking of nothing but how he could get nearer to Buddhist doctrine. He had shut himself up, keeping barely alive on rice and vegetables, and was regarded as mad by his colleagues, who were kindness itself to me and to him. But of course it came to his being relieved of his charge; he wouldn’t let me take him to England, and to desert him was out of the question. Here he has a home, and every comfort we can give him. He teaches little Anatta; the two are devoted to each other. The old Bibi Jâsan knew what she was about when she appointed me as the child’s guardian!”
So that was the explanation, reflected Stanford. The unfortunate woman had married the planter in order to give her tiresome parent a home. What a curious history; and how much he would have to relate in his next letter to Leila. He would tell her, too, that Mrs. Clarke had warned him against the study of Buddhism! That would be an additional excuse for his lack of interest in the ruins, and in the books he could not force himself to read.
“Here is my husband,” said his companion.
Mr. Clarke was approaching from the orchard, a clumsy, thick-set figure, his head buried in a sun hat; and after formal greetings the trio moved towards the bungalow, where tea had been laid in the veranda. They seated themselves at the table; and Mrs. Clarke filled a large cup and piled a plate with bread and butter, which a servant carried off on a tray—fodder, no doubt, as Stanford guessed, for the aged student of Sanskrit and Pali, who, he felt thankful, was not forthcoming. But where was the ward, the little girl of Burmese descent? He was agog to see her, hoped she would appear, as he enjoyed scones and cream, and a wonderful Christmas cake, expressing his appreciation of these delicacies.
“My wife,” said Mr. Clarke, “made everything herself!”—and Stanford noted the covert pride in the man’s voice. Good old Clarke! for all his roughness he was apparently devoted to and proud of his spouse; rather hard luck on him, though, that he should be obliged to harbour a mad father-in-law!
One of the cane blinds was dashed aside, and a slim, vivid little figure stepped into view, hesitated at sight of the stranger, would have run back but that Mrs. Clarke bade Anatta, in English, come forward; and with shy reluctance the girl obeyed, making a rush for her adopted mother’s side. She was dressed curiously, in a mixture of native and European fashion; her rose-coloured frock reached to her ankles, and was bound about her hips with a sash; English shoes and stockings; and her silky black hair was cropped short to her neck. A red rose was stuck behind each ear, matching the glow in her cheeks and in her delicately cut mouth. Indeed, the little face itself was like an amber-pink rose from which shone the dark, long-lashed eyes, slightly tilted at the corners, sole sign of her Mongolian blood. Stanford gazed at her, entranced with her beauty, and that his admiration was not lost on the young minx he quickly divined. She glanced at him sideways, and her lips parted in an engaging little smile as she extended a brown-tinted hand in obedience to Mrs. Clarke’s prompting.
“Grandpa having his tea?” Mrs. Clarke passed her arm fondly about the dainty figure.
“Yeth,” lisped the girl. “Grandpa good. Anatta good too, always.”
Mrs. Clarke raised her eyebrows and smiled; by which Stanford inferred that Anatta was not invariably “good.” Was it likely, with that fetching, mischievous face! He did not envy the Clarkes their responsibility; surely there would be trouble sooner or later. With pleasure he watched Anatta help herself to a cake, dig her white teeth into it, feed Buster and Brown and old Nelson who crowded about her; she laughed gleefully as the two terriers leapt for the tit-bits she held aloft. But presently there followed a different scene; Mrs. Clarke had poured some milk into a cup, but Anatta would not drink it. She ran round the table, shaking her head and looking over her shoulder in impish defiance.
“Now then,” put in Mr. Clarke savagely, “stop it!”
There was an ugly gleam in the man’s eyes; and Stan ford perceived in a flash that he was jealous of this alien inhabitant of his house—to whom his wife gave such care and attention; threateningly he made as if to rise.
“Leave her alone, dear,” said Mrs. Clarke; “she will be sorry soon enough. Don’t pay any attention.”
Mr. Clarke muttered, sat down again. His wife turned to Stanford with some ordinary remark, and the two conversed artificially for the space of a few moments in mutual understanding that Anatta’s behaviour should be ignored. Stanford enjoyed the game, suppressing his amusement as Anatta backed slowly and provocatively along the veranda, expecting to be recalled, and ready to give in. She halted beneath the parrot’s cage, looked up at the bird and chanted:
> “Pret-ty Pol-1y,
> Pret-ty de-ah,
> All de vay from
> Kashmir. . . .”