The bedroom door creaked with the irritating perversity peculiar to inanimate objects, and Fay Fleetwood said something angry under her breath. Being a door in an old-fashioned Indian bungalow—albeit the bungalow was one in a popular hill-station—it had no lock, only long bolts at the top and the bottom, and the lower bolt scraped on the floor in defiant accompaniment to the squeak of the hinges.
Fay listened, anxious, intent. Across the passage her father’s snores resounded loud, long, regular. She marvelled how her mother could rest with such a noise in the room—but then it took a good deal to disturb mother either sleeping or awake. In the present circumstances this was fortunate, for had Mrs Fleetwood heard movements at such an early hour in her youngest daughter’s bedroom she might have arisen to investigate the cause, and would certainly have prohibited Fay’s expedition to the top of the hill to see the dawn break over the snows. Mother would forbid “such mad nonsense” once she knew of it, and add the usual things that so bored Fay to hear: “You must recollect that you are sixteen—no longer a child. We really ought to have left you at home. We really ought not to keep you in India,” etc., etc.
Father would probably remark that only a lunatic could wish to get up in the middle of the night unless for purposes connected with sport. Marion and Isabel would be sure to laugh and tease and “say things” before people about their little sister’s queer ways, till Fay would feel hot and prickly with self-consciousness as though ginger-beer were running in her veins. She knew it all so well!
Therefore was she most careful and cautious, and crept like a little slim thief out into the dark, gravelly compound. Above her, against a glimmering background, towered the fir trees, gloomy, fragrant. A steep track that climbed to an upper road in the hill-side made a wavering, uncertain streak, like a column of rising mist in the dimness. She paused, and drew deep breaths of the keen, cold air already quick with expectance of the dawn; then, nervous as an animal, she drew back into the darker shelter of the wall, for a sudden light shot out from the servants’ quarters and told her the establishment was stirring.
With a high yawn old Gunga, the bearer, came out of his little room and squatted on his heels before the open door. As he leaned over the brass water-vessel in his hand to wash, noisily, his mouth and teeth, the light from a primitive oil-lamp behind him silhouetted his shaven old Hindu skull and the curve of bare neck and bony shoulder.
Fay trusted he might not espy her. Gunga was a veritable old lynx, and she knew he would condemn her conduct. Previously she had escaped him by starting even earlier;—this was not the first time Fay had crept out in secret to meet the dawn. She fluttered furtively between the tree trunks. Then, once on the narrow track that cork-screwed up the hill-side, she mounted with the swift, confident activity of youth.
By the time she reached the public road, the Upper Mall as it was called in Pahar Tal, the feeble light in the sky had strengthened, and her spirits rose in sympathetic exultation. She could smell the dawn, feel the advent of the sun; and the very silence around her, the solitude, the spaces of darkness that lingered yet, enhanced the ecstasy that filled her being. She did not question why this sense of fellowship with Nature should cause her such keen pleasure. She only knew that she was happy; and she danced gaily along the narrow road—a road trodden by the feet of hill people for countless ages just as a mere goat-track, until ennobled into a Mall by Western purpose some eighty years ago.
Now she left this main thoroughfare, and the sleeping villas resting on hill-side platforms above and below it, and climbed a steep, narrow way that wound up and up, and zigzagged and curved, till it brought her almost to the summit of the mountain. Just the high crest of the hill rose behind her as now she stood on a level path supporting herself by a stout railing—sole barrier between her and a drop of thousands of feet into the abyss below.
But there was nothing horrible about the depths into which Fay would have gazed had there been sufficient light. The descent was lined with vegetation, thick and dense, with a tangled sub-tropical growth, out of which rose oak, and pine, and rhododendron, and blossoming shrubs whose perfume came up with the night mist already dispersing.
At first Fay could see nothing very plainly. The shimmer of light seemed to come from so far away—to be but a reflection of some greater radiance. Dark masses of trees and hill-tops stood up in fantastic shape, without perspective or proportion, still muffled by the night. The hint of mysterious pause around her made her heart beat quickly. She felt solitary, almost afraid.
There came a sharp rustle in the undergrowth directly below her. Another a little distance away. Then a hill partridge rose with a startling whirr of flight, a barking deer called from across the first valley; and at once birds and beasts were awake to make ready for the day. No longer did Fay feel lonely. She was part of the living multitude that awaited a coming pageant. Her ringers tightened on the railing as a subtle change crept over everything.
A snow-peak, infinitely grand, gleamed out like a gigantic spear-tip stained with blood, piercing the heavens. Then another, and another, again and again, till all the shadows rolled away, and grey light grew rosy-golden, spreading across “the Snows.”
So the topmost heights of the Himalayas, the Roof of the World, the abode of the greater gods, shone forth wondrous, resplendent, terribly majestic, before this little girl, this atom of life, who gazed on the age-old marvels of the hills with quivering nerves and throbbing throat, and tears dimming her tender grey eyes.
Now the air became charged with cheerful sound. Birds were calling, the bleat of goats rang through the valley. Overhead, in the sky that melted from rose-colour to crystal blue, an eagle soared and swung and dived, screaming, as he tested his flight for the day. A troop of big black monkeys crashed, chattering, down the precipice. Human voices echoed here and there. A shout long-drawn, refined by distance, came up from the tiny hamlet below, balanced on ledges of the mountain. The hill people were awake. And across the deep purple of the valleys, against the exquisite blue of the sky, the whole range of dazzling white mountains shone deceptively, startlingly near, with no softening haze to cloud the boldness of their glory. A grand completion, overwhelming in its perfect, desolate finish.
“Aree! Miss-baba!”—a cross, quavering voice dragged the dreamy little girl’s attention from the absorbing vista. She turned with human impatience to see old Gunga, panting from his climb, reproachful, querulous, altogether exasperating.
“What rashness is this!” he said. “The morning air is bad for an empty stomach, and the Miss-baba has had no tea and toast. What will the Mem-sahib say, and the Sahib? Moreover, besides the fear of fever-mist from the valleys, are there not such things as stray leopards and evil characters to be regarded as dangers? It is unsafe for children to be abroad at such an hour.”
Gunga had helped to tend the young Fleetwoods from the time of their birth. Fay, in particular, he had guarded and diverted and consoled in her babyhood, till the mail train for Bombay bore her away, howling in her mother’s arms because Gunga was left behind, weeping on the platform. And from the moment of her return to India he had claimed to regard her as his special charge.
Now the ungrateful Fay made a gesture of annoyance. It was more a native gesture than English, and she clicked sharply with her tongue.
“Be silent, Gunga! I am not a child. I will do as I please,” she said in fluent Hindustani, “and if you tell the Mem-sahib that I came out to see the day break, will I also tell her about the wood, and the charcoal, and the grain—all the discount that goes on in the compound which is for you to oversee and prevent. Aha!” she concluded, with impish malice, as the old man betrayed discomfiture.
“Well, well,” he deprecated. “It is ever a hard matter to control others. But if a chittack of grain goes here, and an ounce of charcoal or a bundle of wood there, or a measure of meal finds its way into the stomach of the sweeper’s wife instead of into the crops of the fowls—what harm? The Sahib and his lady receive good service, there is no discontent in the compound, and all is well. Percentage is the custom of Hindustan, and custom is a hard master with us people and bad to disobey. Custom cannot be changed,” he added doggedly, “and the Sahib would say the same whatever was told him.”
“But the Mem-sahib might make a disturbance, eh?” Fay said shrewdly, “and then there would be trouble in the compound, and therefore much worry for Gunga, bearer. Very well, old man, if you remain silent so will I also, for you value peace and I like to get up before dawn now and then to see the sunrise on the snows. So that is arranged. And now tell me how did you know I was out? how did you know I had come up here?”
Gunga laughed. “How did I know?” he repeated, and his eyes, deep-sunk in his fine old head, twinkled with amusement. “Am I blind yet? Did I think the white thing climbing the hill behind the house was a cat, or a dog, or a ghost? It is the Miss-baba, I said, who else? and she must be followed to make sure that she meets with no harm, being young and therefore without sense.” He laughed again, a soft little cackle, and turned away that he might spit into the hill-side without the young lady’s knowledge, for betel-nut juice had accumulated inconveniently in his mouth.
Fay seated herself on a piece of rock. It was still very early; there was plenty of time. Gunga seemed in no hurry either. He lifted the tail of his blue cloth coat and crouched comfortably on his heels at a respectful distance. He found it pleasant enough up here in the fresh morning air now that the sun struck warm on the sheltering mountain-side. The old servant glanced with furtive attention at the little miss, who gazed towards the holy heights as though blind and deaf to all else. He thought, vaguely, that like her might be the hill fairies who are said to dance on the distant mountain-tops at dawn and sunset, and only come down in the night-time to play in the valleys—so slim she was, so light, with just the lightness of a moth or a cobweb or a sprite, full, too, of a sprite’s mischievous leanings.
“Gunga,” she said suddenly, “have you ever heard that hill-god—I forget his name—calling to his dogs through the valleys and over the mountains?”
“Wah!” said Gunga, with evasive contempt. “How should I hear such things? That is the talk of the common hill-folk.” Nevertheless Gunga did not sound so incredulous as he endeavoured to look.
“But without doubt gods, and demons, and spirits are to be seen and heard,” argued Fay, “spirits both evil and benevolent. Did you not once tell me yourself that there were two kinds—those who are related to the greater gods and therefore of kindly disposition, and those who are devils with power only for harm? You know very well that the washerman met a ghost one night on the road at the back of our hill; it had no feet, but a huge face, and teeth like a dog’s, and bleeding eyes! It gave him a rupee, and in the morning the money had turned to a piece of bone. Why, ever since he has been asking for leave to go to his home, he is so afraid of meeting it again. But of course the Mem-sahib will not listen to such a reason, though he showed her the piece of bone!”
Gunga flipped his fingers. “Coolie talk! Coolie talk!” he repeated with scorn.
But, all the same, he presently proceeded to relate a story that had been told to him the other day by an old hill villager, who declared it had actually happened to his own cousin’s wife’s uncle! This famous individual happened to be returning to his home one night when he heard a most terrifying noise—the baying of hounds, and the ringing of bells, and there swept past him a troop of hideous demons each of a different shape, barking, yelling, laughing. Behind them, borne on a litter, came a monstrous figure that spat from side to side, and had but one eye in the middle of its forehead, by which the trembling villager recognized that he was in the presence of a god at whose shrine he had often assisted in sacrifices and propitiatory dancing. He knew also that whoever sees, or is seen by, this solitary eye has small chance of life, so that fear rendered him desperate, and he stood in the path demanding mercy in the name of his offerings, and prayers, and sacrifices—with mention, too, of the time when he had danced around the sacred fire on a moonlit night, and finally cast himself into the flames without injury to his flesh, thereby proving himself to be one of the god’s true slaves. And the god being impressed by the man’s great courage and piety relented, and did not slay him. Moreover, according to his custom towards those who should survive such a meeting, he showed the villager a spot where treasure was concealed—much gold, though mingled thickly with human bones; so that the man returned wealthy to his village, where he lived in comfort, he and his people, for many a year after. And when he died his neighbours piled up loose stones as a shrine to his memory and for the propitiation of his ghost, which memorial can be seen by anyone who travels through that village.
Gunga concluded his story with satisfaction. He had enjoyed the telling of it, and he knew by the manner in which the Miss-baba had listened that the telling had pleased her also. She would ever attend closely to stories concerning fairies, and gods, and ghosts. And because, in his hidden heart, Gunga believed them all, Fay could not help being fascinated and impressed by them too; wherein lies the spell of true romance, for if the tale be not alive to the teller, how shall it hold the hearer?
Now the pair sat silent in the crystal clearness of the morning, and listened idly to the voices of the hill people who climbed the steep tracks with incredible burdens on their heads and shoulders; to the distant strains of a regimental band busy with the daily practice; to the occasional reports of rock blasting that echoed away, lazily, among the mountains.
Breaking into the immediate silence, quick footsteps rounded a jutting knuckle of the hill. Gunga rose; Fay turned her head. They both knew, by the sound and measure, that it was the tread of a European, and into their view came a tall figure dressed in white flannels, a knitted silk muffler around a sunburned neck, a straw hat tilted forward on a sleek, dark head that showed a premature dusting of grey. Under the hat-brim were eyes alert, watchful, direct, having curious colouring like the green-brown of moss agates; then a prominent nose, a small, crisp black moustache, and a determined chin.
Gunga salaamed with deep respect to Captain Somerton, who stopped and looked down, smiling, at Fay’s serious face.
“Hullo, little lady!—you are up early,” he said; then acknowledged with courtesy her attendant’s salute.
Fay rose and said “Good-morning” with polite embarrassment. She did not know Captain Somerton very well, and had not spoken to him many times, though he was often at her father’s house and she saw him nearly every day riding with the young Rajah of Rotah, whose “bear-leader” he was, teaching the boy to play cricket and tennis in the compound that could be viewed from the Fleetwoods’ garden; inducing him to take walks, a form of exercise openly detested of the young prince. Fay rather wondered that the Rajah was not a breathless, unwilling follower of his guardian this morning.
Evidently Captain Somerton had been walking up and down hill with violent speed, and seemed rather glad of an excuse to halt than otherwise. “And what has brought you up here at this time of the morning?” he inquired with friendly interest.
Fay hesitated. She disliked being laughed at, and whatever she said to Captain Somerton he might repeat to her sisters, disconcerting chaff being a certain consequence. She raised her shy, yet eager eyes, and met his straight, kind gaze. Impulsively she said, “I came up here to see the dawn.”
“And are you glad you came up here, now you have seen it?” Something of surprised respect entered into his careless friendliness.
“Oh! I have seen it often before,” she said softly. “Last year very often, but this year only two or three times. Have you seen it? Did you see it this morning? Isn’t it—isn’t it—” she stammered, her enthusiasm blocked by youth’s inarticulateness.
Captain Somerton looked at the glittering panorama of snow-peaks. He also had seen the dawn break from another part of the hills.
“Yes,” he said slowly. “It is!” Then he turned to her, and they smiled at each other in comfortable understanding.
Now he observed, with new attention, the “Fleetwood Flapper,” as he heard her called by her sisters’ subaltern friends. He had never before noticed her very particularly. When he went to the Fleetwoods’ house she was always there, though more or less in the background—reading in a corner of the veranda, playing with the dogs or a black kitten, doing needle-work with obvious reluctance in the drawing-room, running errands for her sisters. Occasionally it had occurred to him as a pity that she was not in England; surely her education must be shockingly neglected. The elder Miss Fleetwoods, he knew from their complainings, were supposed to teach her; an undertaking intended to combine, incidentally, the upkeep of their own French and music, drawing, and study of English literature.
The child startled him by saying, without preamble: “They don’t know I came to see it. If they did I should be told not to—” There was entreaty in her eyes.
For a moment the man was puzzled. Then he understood. “Oh!—your people!”
“Perhaps you won’t mention that you met me up here? You see, they would be afraid about fever and all sorts of things that would never happen, and they would say I was too old to get up and go out at such an hour—though Gunga, here, objects because he thinks I’m too young!” She gave a little laugh of amused exasperation.
Somerton laughed too. “All right. I won’t give you away, little lady of the dawn. But I’m rather inclined to agree with both objections myself! Anyway, you are wise to bring this old gentleman with you.”
Somerton, with his knowledge of things Indian, felt assured that no active harm would ever come to her while in the old man’s keeping. Gunga was of the order of Indian servant now almost extinct—loyal, devoted, jealously tenacious of the honour of his master’s house and name, never doubting but that his own rights, traditions, customs would also be considered, understood, and respected.
“I didn’t bring him,” said the “Fleetwood Flapper,” defiantly. “He followed me up here—interfering old thing!”
Somerton refrained from retort. He laughed again, raised his straw hat, and continued on his way. Gunga looked after him with approval. One of the best houses in the station had been rented for the Rajah and his suite during the hot season, and the inevitable rabble of native retainers and their parasites in the out-buildings, their night-long feasts and festivities, and irregular existence, delighted and demoralized the servants that dwelt in the neighbouring compounds, and therefore caused sore aggravation to their English employers. The Rajah’s house stood just below that of Mr Fleetwood, and Gunga, as controller of the Commissioner-sahib’s domestic staff, had his own trials in consequence. He could realize how many were the difficulties, small and great, inseparable from Somerton-sahib’s position—intricacies that might scarcely be credited by the European unversed in Eastern custom, or by the Oriental unused to Western ways. The old Hindu, in service with the English from his boyhood, recognized and admired the firmness of this sahib’s dealings with delicate questions on either side.
Clive Somerton walked on, taking with him a slight feeling of concern. That child, he reflected, ought to be at a good school in England, not wandering about the Indian hills with only an old bearer, however reliable, for company. In spite of the mass of hair still down her back, and her short skirt that displayed her slim ankles, she was quite as tall as her two very grown-up sisters. Her pale little face, so delicately cut, and the rapt expression of her grey eyes haunted him. How odd that she should be so keen on seeing the dawn! Though unquestionably the most glorious of beholdings, it was not the kind of spectacle that usually attracts young people, girls or boys, and not always adults either. She must be of a different temperament from her sisters who, if he were not mistaken, would never walk a step to witness any Indian sight, however magnificent, unless a pleasant party were made up for the purpose.
Then Somerton remembered that he had promised to take the Rajah to Mrs Fleetwood’s At Home that afternoon. It would be rather sport to meet the little girl again with this dark and dreadful secret between them!
Mrs Fleetwood enjoyed her own parties unaffectedly. She loved entertaining, “getting people together” she called it, and to see her friends and acquaintances laughing and talking, and eating and drinking, as her guests, gave her the serenest satisfaction.
This afternoon she sat smiling and hospitable in a comfortable veranda chair, with just the kindly importance of manner becoming in a Mem-sahib of her age, experience, and official rank. Was she not the wife of a mightily senior civilian? In appearance she was an admirable advertisement for Anglo-India. Thirty years of married life, and many hot weathers in the plains, had not withered her skin nor drained her health; she was plump and pink, with little features that were placid and regular, her teeth were white and her eyes very blue. She herself came of a well-known Anglo-Indian family, whose sons for four generations had governed, and soldiered, and distinguished themselves in various branches of Indian service—whose daughters came out to marry in the country, sending their children again to be soldiers, and civilians, and wives in the land where most of them were born and had spent their early childhood. Surely they are to be acclaimed, these time-honoured Indian families, inheritors of history, true to tradition, doing their duty without question, almost unconsciously, towards their great foster-mother, India, often at the expense of health and home, sometimes of life itself, giving her their children to do likewise in their turn. Normal, self-reliant people, hallmarked with hereditary faculty for work in exile.
Mrs Fleetwood looked round the pretty hill garden devoid of turf yet full of English flowers, then turned to the lady enthroned at her side on another veranda chair. For the moment the two were alone together.
“Captain Somerton promised to bring his little Rajah to my At Home this afternoon, but I think they haven’t arrived yet. I don’t see them anywhere.”
“A curious creature, Captain Somerton! He doesn’t care to go out, won’t play bridge, and I really believe he can’t dance. A most unsatisfactory person from a social point of view; but he’s very nice all the same.”
“He is often here,” said Mrs Fleetwood, comfortably.
“Is it Marion or Isabel?” Mrs Bullen inquired with affectionate interest.
The friendship between Fanny Bullen and Emily Fleetwood was old and stanch. They had come out to India together, had been brides in the same station. When Mrs Fleetwood’s first baby died her friend was with her. Bobbie Bullen was born in the Fleetwood bungalow because the Fleetwoods were in a large station at the time, whereas the Bullens were in a remote jungly place without an English doctor; and when the positions were reversed Georgie Fleetwood arrived in the world as a guest of the Bullens. The two ladies had shared houses in the hills, nursed each other through illnesses; and whether in the same station or not, whether at home or in India, their friendship remained unaltered—sound and undemonstrative. Often they laughed and sighed together over old days when the families were young—oh! those awful voyages home with babies and small children, the bother about their meals and their baths, the terrific heat in the Red Sea, the horrors of “coaling days,” the cold when they all landed! Days when pay had been low for juniors, and dull little stations only to be expected, and the hot weathers were so long, and weary, and exhausting, with the scorching winds and hot-house rains, and flies and mosquitoes, and fever, and monotonous food. But after all, as “Fanny” and “Emily” always agreed at the end of a bout of reminiscences, there had been many compensations, and both had been very happy in those young days—on the whole.
Now Mrs Fleetwood looked over at the gay throng about the tennis and badminton courts where Marion and Isabel were busy making up sets and helping people to enjoy themselves.
“I wish I could say it was either, my dear!” She said it with genuine regret. “But as far as I can tell there is nothing of that sort between Clive Somerton and either of the girls. You know what men are—they like nice, cheery young women to talk to, and to be able to come and go, and Captain Somerton knows he is always welcome here. I only wish he would take a fancy to one of the girls, though they both declare nothing will induce them to marry men who have to live in India! Such nonsense. They seem to despise the idea of good, solid civilians, or Indian Army men, as husbands!”
“And young men in smart English regiments don’t marry out here, as a rule,” Mrs Bullen said relentlessly. “When there’s no active service in prospect they look on their time in India as just a tiresome necessity, only to be rendered bearable by shooting and polo. Except from a purely soldiering point of view they don’t take Indian life seriously in any way. Men like that marry at home in their own circle and leave the Army to settle down on their properties, or else devote themselves to spending their fathers’ money in London.”
Her sharp brown eyes followed Marion and Isabel resentfully, each girl attended, as she moved about, by men whose names were well known, whose regiments were conspicuous for either wealth or birth among their officers, whose appearance certainly outshone the homely, work-worn civilian, and the sun-baked, fever-furrowed Indian Army man.
“Yes, that’s the trouble,” said Mrs Fleetwood, simply.
Mrs Bullen sat silent. She knew, though she never said so, that a difficult time lay ahead for the Fleetwood family when they should find themselves in England, pensioned, unimportant, with three unmarried daughters and two soldier sons who required allowances, with nothing considerable in the way of savings, and no realization of the cost of living at home. Officers in cavalry regiments would not be everyday visitors then! Here in India it was quite another matter, where the Fleetwoods were people of consequence and could live luxuriously and entertain with lavish generosity. Mrs Bullen’s good heart ached for her friends, but well she knew that no words of hers would open their eyes, or preserve them from their fate.
The Bullens, in spite of four boys to educate, had always saved money; the Fleetwoods, with two sons and three daughters, had always spent money. The Fleetwoods would talk, like all Anglo-Indians, with sentimental affection of “Home,” of the day when their exile should end, but never did they seriously consider the very changed conditions that must ensue for them with permanent residence in England. They contemplated their retirement by the rosy reflection of past furloughs. “Home” had always stood for ready money, long visits to relations (hospitable enough to birds of passage), new clothes, all the theatres, the delightful companionship of the children in the holidays. Then the return to India after harrowing farewells from which there was leisure to recover on board ship; and a re-settlement in a roomy bungalow with willing servants, good living, good horses, none of which, it must be noted, cost more in India than the upkeep of a very moderate household in England.
It all passed through Mrs Bullen’s mind now as it had passed so many times before, and she sat quiet, abstracted, her quick eyes fixed with apparent attention on her friend’s placid countenance as Mrs Fleetwood rambled on about the girls.
“It was that visit to their aunt in London, just before they came out here, that did all the mischief,” she sighed. “I suppose I ought not to have allowed it, but how could I foresee that it would make them turn up their dear noses at Indian society and Indian husbands! It sounds dreadful”—a little moisture dimmed her blue eyes—“as if they were snobs! But it’s only that they have such a craze for English life, and for everything English. Actually, they won’t let me have my Jeypore brass tables and Benares pots in the drawing-room, or phoolkaris, or anything Indian that can be avoided! It’s ridiculous. And I’m so fond of all that sort of thing. Anyway I shall take as much carving and brass and embroideries home with me as possible. Perhaps Marion and Isabel will appreciate them there.” She paused. “It’s so unlike most girls,” she added plaintively, “but then,” with a touch of exculpatory pride, “most girls don’t have such a good time before they come out here, and so look upon India as a kind of paradise. Marion and Isabel had a taste of the best side of English life.”
“Well, it’s to be hoped Lady Landon will be as kind when they go home as she was before they came out,” observed Mrs Bullen, dryly.
“That remains to be seen, of course. Beatrice is not a bit like my husband though she is his sister. I always thought her rather capricious, and peculiar. She is more like his mother’s side of the family—I shall never forget the first time I saw my mother-in-law. She was like a lion with a cap on. We had just arrived from India and I had no clothes and felt so shy, and so ill after the voyage. You know what an abominable sailor I always was till I was cured by taking a child home without a nurse. Do you remember that terrible voyage when there were eighty-nine children on board?”
And off went Mrs Fleetwood, light-heartedly, into various recollections. She possessed a particular faculty for dismissing unpleasant problems from her mind, and was never uneasy or despondent for long; this kept her placidly cheerful, and preserved, unimpaired, her benevolence of disposition, and a generosity towards her fellow-beings that frequently merged into improvidence. Her parties and picnics, dances and dinners, were always the most popular entertainments wherever she might be. She was ever ready to take a case of illness into her house—enteric, malaria, dysentery—to be nursed back to health; to put up impecunious youths, and poverty-stricken young married couples, either civil or military. She rejoiced that her beloved John should indulge his passion for big and small game shooting whenever possible, to acquire trophies and “bags” that should eclipse all previous records. She would gather the children of the station about her with their little suites of governesses, ayahs, bearers, and delight them with games and biscuits, and fresh lemonade—a beverage beloved of all Anglo-Indian children. Her cricket-matches for little boys on the gravel tennis-courts were regarded as events, and most of the station as well as all the parents would come to look on and applaud and have tea. And her entertainments always ran smoothly, the oil in the machinery being complete understanding of her servants of whatever caste—of their speech, their customs, their virtues and failings; also was she an excellent housekeeper judged by Anglo-Indian methods, though she had no notion of dispensing with comfort or reducing expenditure.
Now she mentioned the ball she intended to give that should wind up the season before they all went down to the plains to spend the winter months chiefly in camp.
“Why should you give it, Emily?” There was a hint of impatient remonstrance in Mrs Bullen’s voice. “You’ll want all the money you can scrape together when you have to retire next spring.”
“Oh! it won’t cost such a fabulous amount, my dear! And the girls would be so disappointed if we gave up the idea. Besides it’s our last season, and I shouldn’t like to go away and say good-bye to all our friends without doing something.”
“But on an average you’ve given a large dinner-party every week, as well as an At Home, not to speak of luncheons and picnics, and the children’s fancy ball. Surely that’s rather more than something?—and I suppose you’ll go on like that down in the plains till the last moment. People staying with you the whole time you’re in camp, parties at every place you pass through, a big house kept going all the time in the station, a huge camp for Christmas—”
Mrs Fleetwood laughed good-temperedly. “Well, Fanny, it’s our way of being happy. We’ve no other expensive tastes, I’m sure! John’s shooting costs nothing—”
“Oh! doesn’t it!” Mrs Bullen interrupted.
“Well, not like shooting at home, anyway. And a man must have some relaxation when he works so hard. He has never raced or gambled or kept hounds, or done anything really extravagant, like that foolish Colonel Dashard, for instance, who came to such grief, poor fellow. And you can’t deny that I’m a good manager, though I will have the best of everything—it’s cheaper in the end.”
“Well, well—” said Mrs Bullen with resignation.
But Mrs Fleetwood had not finished. “I don’t spend much on clothes, and the girls are very good and manage on their allowances, so do the boys now they’re once started. It was the starting them we found so expensive. You know what it is—Sandhurst for Georgie and Woolwich for Walter, and outfits and one thing and another. Then the girls’ passages and clothes when they came out. But that’s all done and paid for, and it’s lucky I had my own little bit of capital to help with it all. I feel it has been well reinvested in the children.”
Just then a slight figure dressed in white camel’s-hair cloth, with a blue belt and turquoise buckle, crossed the path in front of the veranda. Fay’s hair, tied back with a blue ribbon beneath her wide straw hat, fell in a thick shining mass to her waist. On her shoulder, clinging and mewing, was perched a fluffy black kitten.
“And then there’s Fay,” murmured Mrs Bullen, feeling a brute as she saw Mrs Fleetwood’s plump face flush, and her pretty fat hands move restlessly in her lap.
“Well, yes, Fanny. I confess I do feel guilty about little Fay sometimes; but you know when I went home to fetch Marion and Isabel there were so many expenses and it was just time to move Fay to a more advanced school. I thought a year out here might do her good—she was not over-strong, and we had the hills for the hot weather. And you know I fully expected Marion and Isabel would marry quite soon, and Fay would have gone home directly their weddings and trousseaux were paid for—”
“And so they could have married—well and happily, if they’d chosen, and hadn’t been such geese!” put in Mrs Bullen, crossly; and she felt it was perhaps fortunate that the wife of the Lieutenant-Governor should arrive at that moment, whirling up the path in a highly-polished jinricksha propelled by smart red-coated runners whose bare brown legs shot nimbly to and fro, so that her conversation with Emily Fleetwood had perforce to cease.
Behind the rickshaw rode an escort composed of the Lieutenant-Governor’s private secretary, a brainy-looking young civilian with spectacles and a beard, and the aide-de-camp, a gay youth from a dragoon regiment whose debts had caused him to clutch at the post as a means of retrenchment. In all, it was quite an impressive cavalcade, particularly as the great lady’s appearance was entirely in keeping with her position of state—upright, portly, richly caparisoned, perhaps, rather than dressed, with a dignified manner and an emphatic voice.
And while Lady Hobson and her suite consumed tea and cakes Captain Somerton arrived with the Rajah of Rotah.
The young prince was well dressed in native costume. He was slim and graceful, and the warm brown of his skin might easily have been the bronze of sunburn—indeed he was no darker than many an Irishman or Cornishman. His long, almond-shaped eyes were of a clear, bright hazel, his nose straight and fine, his lips though rather full were well shaped and sensitive. A handsome deer-like creature, having the blood of generations and generations of aristocratic ancestors in his veins, linked back and back till it touched the pure fount of his Aryan progenitors, whose racial stamp was still apparent despite periodical admixtures of lower blood, and the influence of the soil on form and character.
Rotah was not yet well acquainted with English society. Only in the past few months had he inherited his petty principality, quite without warning or expectance—had found himself exalted from comparatively humble circumstances to be head of the ancient family to which he belonged. It was a difficult position for all concerned: difficult for the English Government whose task it must be to fit him as a wise and just ruler before he came of age; hard for the boy himself whose habits and ways and mental outlook must be revised and changed and disciplined. That he was married complicated matters still further, and already had there been a child.
Captain Somerton, selected from the Indian Army to inculcate British notions of manliness and self-control into a being whose tendencies had been fostered in an opposite direction, found he had undertaken no easy duty. Rotah, though seventeen years of age, had profited by little beyond religious education even on Oriental lines. He was a stranger to Western ideas; he believed that self-indulgence was the right and prerogative of princely rank, that to be able to read and write was, if anything, derogatory to one in a position to command a hundred people to do so for him; and he regarded interference with his inclinations as an insult to the dignity of his calling. But in this he only thought and felt according to the immemorial perceptions of the East; it could scarcely be condemned as an individual failing, though it was none the less hard to eradicate.
In spite of every discouragement Somerton had confidence in Rotah who, if bewildered as well as somewhat resentful, yet applied himself diligently to his lessons with Mr Maitland, his English tutor, and was learning to comport himself as a man and a gentleman, though there were frequent scenes of rebellion; and if only the trammels of the zenana did not hamper him too fatally he promised well for the day when the Government should hand over to him the management of his State and people.
This afternoon, it must be admitted, the Rajah was not in a good humour. He looked sullen and injured, for he had desired to bring with him a retinue of native attendants and officials, and this Captain Somerton had prohibited, since Mrs Fleetwood’s party was a private entertainment. Also he had wished to arrive on horseback, which was not permitted either, the distance between the two houses being trifling. Rotah felt bitterly humiliated. What must all these servants think, who were standing about by the tea-table, to see him arrive on foot and unattended! And the English people, who were running and laughing and behaving in such undignified fashion, would not be in the least impressed. He determined that when once he became his own master he would never go anywhere except on an elephant.
Then he was obliged to answer Mrs Fleetwood’s kindly welcome, which he did in laborious broken English, but her motherly manner and appearance, and her smiling face, soothed his outraged feelings. He stood beside her willingly enough while Captain Somerton deserted him and went off to play some game. And now be began to feel annoyed with himself as well as with Captain Somerton, who had advised him to wear his new suit of English flannels so that he might join in a set of tennis or badminton, both of which he had learnt to play sufficiently well. But he had wilfully clung to his gold and purple brocade coat and his fine muslin turban, and would have worn his diamond aigrette, too, had he dared. He longed for a game with all the other young people, but he certainly could play nothing but the part of a princelet in his present costume, picturesque and handsome as it was.
The boy drew nearer to his hostess of the benevolent countenance, and presently found himself trying to tell her of the new pony he had bought, and how he had begun to play polo. Then he confided to her that he would like to learn to dance too, “English way,” but that Captain Somerton said, “No, not yet”—to which in her heart Mrs Fleetwood said, “Quite right, too!” She had no ignorant prejudices where Indians were concerned, but she disapproved of their adopting Western customs beyond a certain point, just as she would have disapproved of an Englishman adopting certain Eastern ways. To her it was “not suitable” that Orientals should dance with English girls considering their present attitude towards the Feminine, just as she would have deemed it unsuitable for an Englishman to sit on the floor or eat with his fingers. “What is right for one is wrong for the other,” she would say profoundly.
She talked kindly and without a trace of patronage to her Eastern guest, sometimes using a Hindustani phrase or word, helping the stammering youth to express himself in both languages. So she learned that after this cold weather, when he had been sufficiently instructed by Captain Somerton in manners and morals, and by Mr Maitland educationally, he was to go to the College at Ajmere. Then he would not arrive there “too much stupid,” and might feel at his ease with his College companions. After that, when he had finished his time at College, he was to go to England. He was longing to go to England and see what it was all like.
“We shall be off there ourselves very soon, Rajah-sahib,” said Mrs Fleetwood, “and we shall miss India very much I am sure, and our pleasant life out here.”
“Oh, no,” said the Rajah, politely puzzled. “In England all as you like—your own place—what is it—country!”
He captured the word triumphantly. The cloud of sulky distress cleared away from his beautiful face, and he smiled happily, still sheltering by Mrs Fleetwood’s side as now she received some late-comers, introduced one or two people, and made pleasant little farewells.
It was just then that Fay came up, the black kitten still clinging to her shoulder uttering little mews of protest. It spat irritably at the Rajah as Fay shook hands with him; and the eyes of the two young people met—the grey eyes of Europe and the brown eyes of the East—in simultaneous laughter.
“This cat is a villain,” said Fay in high-flown Hindustani, “he will do nothing that I wish, and he is rude to everybody.”
Mrs Fleetwood turned from the Chaplain’s wife, who was making a voluble departure, to the curiously-contrasted couple who had begun an animated conversation concerning cats.
“Fay dear,” she said sweetly, “you should talk to the Rajah in English—he is learning it so fast and getting on so well.”
“He understands his own language best,” said Fay, perversely, “don’t you, Rajah-sahib?”
The boy laughed, showing exquisite, china-white teeth.
“I—like—to—talk—anything,” he said slowly, with infinite pains, “if I—talk to—Miss!”
Mrs Fleetwood nipped the budding compliment like a sudden touch of frost on an early seedling.
“You had better go to the rescue of that set of badminton, my dear,” she said, and pointed to a wrangling group of people. “Apparently they can’t arrange it amicably among themselves, and they are one short in any case,” she laughed easily.
Fay was ready. She enjoyed taking part in home entertainments. But just for a second she hesitated. Then, as if on an impulse, she tossed the black kitten to the astonished Rajah, and left him standing awkwardly, watching her, the spitting, scratching, swearing little animal clutched heedlessly in his arms.
It is possible to be sharply aware of a sensation, pleasant or otherwise, and at the same time powerless to define or account for its cause. When Fay saw Captain Somerton arrive at her mother’s party embarrassment assailed her, embarrassment for which she could supply no valid reason, though a more experienced human being might have recognized it as that old-fashioned affliction termed shyness. She endeavoured to overcome the unwelcome feeling by encouraging the annoyance it produced, and then felt further exasperated because there was nothing in Captain Somerton’s polite greeting, when they met on the outskirts of the gravel tennis-courts, with which she could possibly find fault.
But a moment later, as she raised her eyes with reluctance to his face, he actually winked at her, winked unmistakably—an outrageous proceeding that gave her immediate and sufficient excuse for such furious antagonism as would vanquish the discomfiture of self-consciousness. She displayed her feelings after the manner of girls of her age—avoided his quizzical glance, put up her nose, swung her thick tail of hair with an angry jerk of her head, and turned her back, abruptly, on the smiling, unrepentant offender. So that one of the guests remarked in a low voice to another that the youngest Fleetwood girl was growing insufferably uppish and conceited—just look at her absurd airs and graces!—and it was a thousand pities to have kept her in India so late.
But it was only that for some mysterious, inexplicable reason Fay felt at a disadvantage, and tried to cloak her unease with a show of angry defiance. She left the badminton set to its fate and fled to the house, to the empty drawing-room, where no one could look at her and make her feel uncomfortable, and where, as she put it with lofty indignation to herself, no one could wink at her, or stare her out of countenance.
The drawing-room was long and narrow, with large bow-windows and deep window-seats. A white fur rug lay before the broad grate in which a wood fire burned with noisy good spirits. There were bright, fat silk cushions in the low chairs, the room smelt of chrysanthemums—yellow, copper, white, pink—clustered in tall vases, a wealth of vigorous growth and decided colour. Fay sniffed their wholesome fragrance, and recalled a remark of Marion’s—that there was so much fresh common sense about the smell of a chrysanthemum. Then she wandered to the shelf that held her father’s collection of Indian books, chiefly volumes on sport, a subject that fascinated Fay, but among them were also Bishop Heber, and the Abbé Dubois, Bernier’s Travels, Forbes’ Memoirs, and Colonel Skinner, besides one or two books concerning the European adventurers in Hindustan. She loved them one and all.
As an imaginative, impressionable child of twelve she had come back to India, bringing with her shadowy, exaggerated recollections of her life in that country up to nearly five years old; recollections that were more like vague, delightful dreams of long sunny hours and a kind, fat ayah whose clothes smelt of sandalwood, who sang sing-song, nasal chants about parrots, and squirrels, and crows. Bearers and khidmutgars also moved across the scenes, all ready to pacify her when she cried, anxious to amuse and obey her. There had been a chestnut pony, and a black-and-white dog, and a little chocolate-coloured native boy who used to come and play with her, timorously, on the drugget that was spread in the shade of a great tree. Overhead in the branches doves would coo, and squirrels darted up the thick trunk, turned chirruping half-way, and raced down again to scamper over the ground with fluffy tails waving high defiance. India had stood to her almost as heaven itself during the long, grey years in England—first with a family who took charge of “Indian children,” then at a school for little girls; and as these recollections dimmed in her child-mind, fancy brightened them, till she scarce knew, herself, if she were inventing or speaking truth of her baby days to those about her ignorant of the facts.
How exquisitely it all came back to her when she returned to her paradise, no longer as a baby but with observant, susceptible mind—the language, the surroundings, the mode of daily life. How she revelled in the sunshine, the perfumes, the sounds, the long, quiet hours, the space, the open doors. Yet with the curious caution of extreme youth she took trouble to conceal her love of all things Indian because she had heard it said that to keep her out in India at her age was a mistake. Therefore she strove to prove that she was in no way deteriorating, dutifully submitted to the erratic teaching of her elder sisters, practised diligently on the long-suffering piano of German make that journeyed with them up from the plains and down from the hills twice a year. She read French with a dictionary and a pin, tried to draw, and really contrived to teach herself far more than she ever learned from the superior and presumably “finished” Marion and Isabel. It was all for the sake of India—that she might not be banished from India back to school life in England where there was no romance, no room, no time, no colour.
Now, at least, she knew she could not be sent home before they were all obliged to go, when her father retired, next spring; and then, perhaps, with her own people, in a nice house in the country such as they talked of taking, with Indian things around them, and Indian friends, and old Gunga—for Mr Fleetwood declared he could not do without Gunga—it might be bearable until she was old enough to marry some man who would take her back to India. Marion and Isabel were always avowing that they would never marry “Indian men “; Fay had long ago determined she would marry no man whose profession did not bind him to the East.
With a little sigh of pleasure she drew a thick, green-covered book from the shelf, Forsyth’s Highlands of Central India, and settled herself on the sofa behind the upright piano, so that if anyone should look in she might escape observation and disturbance. With ever new delight she turned the pages, caressingly, lingering over stories of tigers and wild buffaloes, elephants, bears, panthers; descriptions of curious jungle tribes and their ways, their legends and ghost-beliefs. She flew in fancy above the marble rocks by moonlight, through the mysterious, mighty forest, over rugged ranges of low hills, and tracts of jungle that held deserted cities.
Enraptured she read. The gay crowd outside was nothing, she did not notice the sound of talk and laughter, did not even hear two people come into the room till one of them spoke. Then Fay recognized the voice of Marion—the throaty, careless voice of the modern girl who yet is educated and refined.
Marion said, “Are you sure you left it in here? I can’t see it anywhere,” and a man’s voice answered.
Fay could not see either speaker; they were hidden from her by the piano, but she knew it was Mr Gray who answered, a man in the police, personal assistant to the Inspector-General, and therefore on duty, not on leave, in the hills. His voice sounded odd, shaky and vehement.
“No, I didn’t leave it in here at all. Why should I put my tennis-racket in the drawing-room? I only said I had because I wanted to see you and speak to you alone.”
Fay knew that if she moved Marion would be very much annoyed to find her there. She was a little afraid of Marion, who was so brisk and decided and intolerant; therefore she thought only of the consequences to herself and made no sign.
“Well, it’s no use,” Marion said, with annoyance. “I’ve told you so before.”
“Yes, and you’ve told me why, too. You don’t want to marry a fellow whose work keeps him in India; you want to live at home and belong to what you think is the world. India is petty, and narrow, and second-rate; people are too simple and commonplace out here. There’s no life, only existence. That’s what you’ve told me, haven’t you?”
There was silence for a moment. Fay could hear Mr Gray’s breathing. She could feel Marion controlling herself.
“I hardly put it as crudely as that, I think,” Marion said presently, “but it was more or less what I meant. I wonder a man can want to keep a girl out in a country like this if he really cares for her! Now, if I married you what should I have to look forward to? You’ve got this appointment, certainly, for another year or two, but they don’t like married personal assistants and you’d probably have to take a district at once. You’d get a little sweltering station somewhere miles off the railway. The hot weather would be unspeakable, the cold weather would be spent in touring about among the villages, with no one to talk to and nothing for me to do. Sometimes you might take leave to the hills or go home, but there would never be enough money to do things comfortably. Your life and your wife’s would be one long grind, with transfer after transfer from one odious place to another, and if you did get a big station the living would be expensive and the position indifferent. A girl would have to be crazy about a man to do it. I like you very much, you know I have always liked you, but not well enough to lead that kind of life. You put things very disagreeably just now, so you can’t blame me for doing the same!”
Fay felt exasperated with Marion. Mr Gray was “a dear,” always kind and amusing, and so fond of India. He knew everything there was to be known about natives and their tendencies, good and bad; he could tell such lovely bazaar stories, and really did almost believe that snakes guarded treasure, and that hidden treasure “spoke.” There was that case he once told her about, where the old woman called in the police because the treasure concealed in the wall by her next-door neighbour made such a noise all night that it kept her awake, though the neighbour denied having treasure to hide anywhere; and sure enough when they cut through the wall between the two houses there was a pot full of gold mohurs dating from the days of Shah Jehan! Then Mr Gray rode and shot and danced and played games so well, and had such a marvellous collection of Indian birds’ eggs. How could Marion be so horrid to such a man!
What were the two doing now? There was complete silence between them. Very cautiously Fay stretched herself and peered round the side of the piano. She saw Marion staring out of the window and Mr Gray sitting on a bamboo chair, his elbow on his knee, his chin in his hand, and his eyes fixed on Marion with a look in them that made Fay feel very unhappy. Vaguely it reminded her of the eyes of Moti, the Tibetan mastiff, when he was left chained up and not taken for the walk he longed for and expected. From outside came clear sounds of voices and footsteps on the gravel, the thud of tennis-balls and the sharp tap of shuttlecocks driven to and fro by the players. Mrs Fleetwood was saying good-bye to somebody just outside the window; how little she knew what was going on literally behind her back!
Mr Gray got up. “So I suppose that’s final,” he said in a business-like tone. “You don’t want to marry me, and you would rather I never asked you again?”
Marion turned impulsively. She looked very fair and frank with the light on her small head that she carried with such pretty dignity. The glow of the late afternoon sun just touched her hair and made it sparkle as though atoms of gold-leaf were sprinkled on its waves. She held out her hand to Mr Gray.
“Tom, do try to understand. I don’t like anybody better than you, but I can’t face the life out here. I don’t want to—”
Marion really looked as if she might be going to cry! Marion, who was always so severe and self-possessed, and so down on other people who dared to show their feelings—unlike Isabel, who cried for nothing.
“Tom” took the hand she held out and patted it. “All right,” he said kindly—Fay thought his voice sounded beautiful—“don’t worry. I understand, my dear, and I know there is much to be said from your point of view. It is good of you to be honest with me. But I ask you to tell me one thing, Marion, the last thing I shall ever ask you of the kind—if you loved me would you risk the life?”
“Oh! Tom—I don’t know,” she cried painfully—and just then people came trooping and clattering into the veranda and looking in at the window, so that with one accord Marion and Mr Gray left the drawing-room and joined the throng outside.
Fay sat thoughtful, her attention drawn from her book for the moment. What a fuss people made about wanting, or not wanting, to marry each other. She could perhaps understand Marion not wishing to marry Tom Gray in view of her extraordinary desire to live in England; but it rather puzzled Fay to account for Mr Gray’s extreme anxiety to marry Marion. She pondered for a little while, then returned wholly to the jungles.
But not for long. Very soon someone else came into the room. Fay kept quiet that she might again elude discovery, but presently a face looked over the top of the piano, and to her sore vexation it was the face of Captain Somerton.
“Hullo! there you are,” he said, and his curious eyes were laughing. “I’ve brought you back your property.” He held up the black kitten by the scruff of its neck, and it spread out its legs and mewed, showing a pink mouth with teeth like tiny fish bones. Lightly the man dropped it on to his shoulder with gentle handling, and the little creature rubbed its head, purring, against his cheek. Fay’s heart softened towards him. Anyone who was kind to animals commanded her respect. She almost forgave the offending wink, almost forgot the provoking discomfiture the sight of him had caused her. She put down her book, but before she could rise from the sofa Captain Somerton came round the piano and seated himself beside her.
“The Rajah was rather afflicted by the kitten’s company, it clung so tight. I think he was afraid it would tear his best coat. So as it’s nearly time for us to be going I brought the little person back to you. What do you call it?”
“Akbar,” said Fay, rather stiffly, and Captain Somerton re-offended her by laughing.
“Such a big name for such a small thing! Why did you choose it? What do you know about Akbar?”
“I know he was one of the greatest men that ever lived,” she returned hotly, as though her companion had abused the great emperor as well as doubted her knowledge of him.
“So he was, in his own times and way, but I suppose nowadays he would be considered a tyrant and a savage. What do you think? How about the sweetmeat box he offered his friends with poisonous sugar-plums in one side and harmless ones the other, so that nobody knew which they had taken till five minutes afterwards?”
“Well, I am sure he was careful only to let the poisonous people take the poisonous sweets,” argued Fay. “He punished, he didn’t murder; and he could always forgive. I think he was very brave and wise and kind—he really hated killing people and animals, and he was so fond of dogs. How different he was from his horrid sons and grandsons!”
“So Akbar is your idea of a hero? A dreamer yet a fighter, tender-hearted yet just and stern.” He said it reflectively, looking at her with attention. It seemed to him curious that the child should have studied with such interest a subject and period that most young people would regard with indifference as “just history.”
“And how about Western heroes—” he began, but she interrupted him.
“Oh! they don’t interest me in the same way,” she said, with nervous haste. “I don’t know why—I can’t imagine them with gorgeous clothes and jewels and great armies; there wouldn’t be the sun or the tents, or the women’s camps with their guards—and—oh! I can’t put it as I mean.” She moved impatiently, and began to play with the kitten, that had sprung from Captain Somerton’s shoulder to her own.
“Why are you so fond of India and all things Indian?” he asked rather abruptly.
She turned startled eyes towards him. “Oh! how did you know?”
He smiled. “Well—people who get up in the dark to go and see the dawn on the Himalayas, and who only like heroes who are Indian, and,” he took the green volume from her lap to see the title, “books that are about India—” He paused, looking at her with friendly insinuation.
She gave a little sigh. “I can’t help it. I love India. I love the people and the language and the life, and the sun and—and—the very smell of it all. I do hate the thought of going home next year. It will be so cramped and so cold, and stuffy.” She laughed apologetically and looked out of the window.
He followed her gaze and saw the clear sparkle of the sunshine, the cloudless blue of the sky, the pine trees standing up sharp and dark, and between their trunks a vista of the still, deep waters of a Himalayan lake. Voices and laughter rang in the windless quiet of the air. It all seemed so rarefied, so far from turmoil, so secure. He wondered if, this time next year, Fay’s outlook would be on a noisy London street with chimney-pots instead of pine trees, a sullen, murky sky instead of the exquisite blue before her now—and he found regretful interest in the suggestion. What was the future to bring for this queer little girl whose whole being was obsessed with India’s mysterious spell, who shrank from the very thought of Western life?
Again he picked up the book she had been reading. It was a favourite of his own, and presently they were discussing it with enthusiasm, also others that were on the book-shelf. He promised to lend her more that she had not read—books on Indian folk-lore, history, problems of races and religions. Despite her youth and her lack of education he found her singularly intelligent, her imagination was keen and vivid, her intuition almost abnormal for her age.
Afterwards they sat silent for a space. The kitten clambered and clung along the back of the sofa, sometimes reaching out a soft paw to pat their shoulders, thereby endangering its own balance. The wood fire crackled and the chrysanthemums gave forth their “sensible” aroma.
Mrs Fleetwood came into the room, conducting the General’s wife and Lady Hobson, and a few other ladies too senior to play games, for the sun meant soon to set behind the mountains, and the air was sharp already.
“Oh! Captain Somerton, here you are!—and Fay too. I wondered where the child had got to. Captain Somerton, don’t encourage her to moon away by herself and read books that are no improvement to her mind. She is much too fond of poring over all those Indian books my husband has collected, though he never seems to read them himself and they had much better be sold or packed away till we get home. Your little Rajah was looking for you just now, but don’t let him drag you away yet—we are all coming indoors to get warm and have some sloe-gin.”
Somerton started up. He had forgotten the Rajah, forgotten that he had only come in to the drawing-room that he might restore the kitten to Fay—not to sit for half an hour talking to her on the sofa! He gave a slight laugh of wonderment.
“Good heavens!” he exclaimed. “I’d forgotten the time. Rotah’s tutor will be swearing. He takes the boy for something every evening before dinner—we shall be late, and I shall be in disgrace with Maitland. Rotah will come in and say good-bye, Mrs Fleetwood. I’ll go and fetch him.”
He went out and presently returned with his charge, who made an awkwardly ceremonious farewell, shaking hands elaborately; had he only salaamed his departure would have been natural and graceful. His brilliant eyes glanced with quick flashes about the room till they rested on Fay still sitting, doubtful, on the sofa, and he hastened towards her.
“Good-a-bye, Miss,” he said, and held out a supple, brown hand, lean and cold. He bowed and bowed again. “A cat will come,” he added.
Fay stood up and shook hands with him. She nodded and smiled and pointed to the black kitten that was clinging to the drapery half-way up the back of the piano. But Rotah shook his head and wagged his hand from the wrist in protest.
“Noh—noh!” he stammered. Then burst into his own language, smooth and rich and liquid, telling her that a Persian kitten of the purest breed should be sent to her as a gift from his humble and worthless self—a white kitten, three times as beautiful as her present pet, with eyes blue as the sky, and fur two inches thick. Fay clapped her hands.
“Oh! you are kind, Rajah-sahib,” she replied in Hindustani. “I shall be so pleased.”
Later on when all the guests had gone Mrs Fleetwood called Fay into her bedroom. It was a homely, comfortable room, pink and white, and clean and restful like its occupant. A well-filled medicine cupboard stood in one corner, for among the natives Mrs Fleetwood was credited with possessing “the healing hand,” and therefore her bedroom veranda was frequently besieged by sufferers. Not only did her own servants rush to her when they were ill, but their friends and relations came also, as well as other people’s servants, stray coolies, and wandering pedlars. Remedies administered by her hand were accounted a miraculous and certain cure.
She sat now in a chintz-covered chair, a warm dressing-gown wrapped about her; on her feet were quilted satin slippers, and she was knitting something with long wooden needles and loose, soft wool—“having a rest” after the exertions of the afternoon.
“Fay dear,” she inquired, “what was the young Rajah saying to you before he left?”
“He said he was going to send me a lovely white Persian kitten, mummy. Won’t it be a joy! Do you think I could take it home with me when we go next year?”
She went to the dressing-table and put on all her mother’s rings and brooches and bracelets, contemplating the effect, with satisfaction, in the mirror.
Mrs Fleetwood ceased to knit. “My dear,” she aid a little constrainedly, “you have a kitten already. You don’t want another.”
“Oh! but this will be such a beauty. The Rajah said so. And I do love cats; you know how I love them!”
“Yes, but Fay—listen to me, darling. I don’t think daddy would like you to accept presents from the rajah.” She hesitated, distressed, puzzled as to how he should convey her meaning.
Fay’s eyes opened wide. They looked almost black instead of grey in the lamp-light. “Why not?” she demanded.
“Well, you see, it doesn’t do for English girls to take presents from—from men—”
“But Marion and Isabel are always taking flowers and sweets and puppies and things—”
“Very likely, but from men of our own country and from bachelors.” She caught with relief at a sudden plea. “The Rajah is a married man, you know. And his ideas about age in a girl are not quite the same as ours. You would seem to him quite grown up.”
“Oh! should I?” said Fay, and she preened herself, rather gratified, shaking the bracelets on her lists and flashing the rings in the lamp-light, “All the same I don’t see the harm in his giving me a kitten. What am I to do if it comes? Send it back?”
“Well, well, for once I don’t suppose it can matter,” said Mrs Fleetwood with reluctance. “But you must not let him give you anything else—”
“All right,” agreed Fay, “but I wish somebody would give me rings and a pink topaz necklace.”
She opened her mother’s jewel-case and, fingering the contents, forgot the Rajah and the kitten.
When the heat declined in the plains below and the unhealthy after-steam of the rainy season no longer likened the atmosphere to that of a forcing-house—when, in the Himalayas, coming winter shortened daylight and bit the air with chill sharpness, Pahar Tal became deserted by the majority of European sojourners. Only a very small proportion remained in the hills, on duty, after the summer was over.
Now the roads were thronged with moving crowds of coolies bearing packing-cases, luggage, pianos, every conceivable form of burden, bound for the railway station at the foot of the mountains. The air resounded with their vociferations as they “loaded up” in the various compounds. They would argue, expostulate, quarrel and bargain, in loud, shrill tones; while distracted servants cuffed and pushed and bribed and remonstrated till pandemonium seemed everywhere. Most of the coolies were Mongolian in type, some were true Tibetans, with flat faces and slits of eyes, dangling black locks and ruddy cheeks, their clothing loose, filthy wraps, and little round caps peaked like a jelly-bag. With harrowing groans and cries the lightest as well as the heaviest burdens were lifted, there were piteous complaints, much ostentatious staggering, yet eventually the most incredible loads would be carried off as though no more than mere paper parcels, the muscles of stout, sturdy limbs standing out like twists of iron.
In the Fleetwoods’ compound Gunga held supreme and fierce command. For the past two days noise and tumult had continued here just as it had continued in other compounds, according to the amount of luggage to be conveyed down the hill, but at last there remained only the coolies required for the conveyance of personal belongings. Mr Fleetwood had left a fortnight ago for his headquarters in the plains. He never travelled with his family if he could avoid doing so, and his wife on such occasions was glad of his absence. She said he only lost his temper and upset everybody, and exacted more attention than the whole of them put together. Mrs Fleetwood accepted the fact that coolies were notoriously exasperating, and she expected nothing else; whereas her husband would either dismiss them altogether, which entailed the trouble of replacing them, or else he would alarm them into flight, from which no blandishments would recall them, probably rendering it impossible to collect others in their stead; for there is a subtle and mysterious method of boycott all over India that can cause infinite inconvenience and annoyance once it is set in motion.
Therefore Mrs Fleetwood sat patient and imperturbable in her “dandy,” a canoe-shaped conveyance with wooden frame, cross-poles and comfortable seat, ready to be borne down the hill when the last coolie-load should have started. Gunga knew better than to allow stragglers behind the party. Over her head she held a green-lined tussore umbrella, and a book lay in her lap. It was pleasant in the sunshine of the autumn morning, though an icy sparkle pervaded its golden light. The very air was a-glitter, the sky glacier blue; there seemed a sense of brilliant, heartless farewell in the atmosphere, a sort of dismissal to those who had come to India not to encounter cold and frost and snow, such as here would presently reign, but to meet conditions of life in the vast, teeming plains, to have contact with that multitude below, the people of India, who are India itself—who are as an army to an individual compared with the dwellers in hill regions.
Marion and Isabel also sat in their canoe-shaped conveyances, counterparts of Mrs Fleetwood’s. White veils over their large hats shielded their pretty skins and bright hair from sun and dust; but their umbrellas moved restlessly, they fidgeted in their seats, impatient to make a start.
“What on earth are we waiting for?” Marion twisted herself round and looked behind her at the debris of straw and paper that littered the ground, at the two ayahs sitting awkwardly in their dandies, at Fay’s brown pony waiting ready saddled, at old Gunga who had just started off the last coolie with a tiffin-basket balanced on his head. The coolie waltzed round and round on his way down the path to shout final objections and protestations at the severe old bearer.
“Gunga, what is the delay?” demanded Marion. “Where is the Miss-baba?”
“Hai-ai!” said Gunga, and hastened towards the back of the house. “In seeing to the tiffin-basket and that fool of a coolie did I forget the Miss-baba and her cats—tch! tch!” He disappeared behind the bungalow.
“There now,” grumbled Marion, “those beastly kittens of Fay’s are keeping us all sitting here in the sun, and probably we shall have to hurry to catch the train. What a nuisance children are with their pets!”
“You’re just as bad about that mangy puppy Captain Dacre gave you,” Isabel said peevishly.
“Oh, that’s different; and anyway I sent him on ahead with the other dogs. He hasn’t got mange—it’s only that he’s so well bred his skin is irritable.”
“The effect is the same—he looks moth-eaten,” persisted Isabel.
But the argument between the sisters was stilled by the sound of Fay’s clear young voice calling “Louisa! Louisa! Louisa!” and piteous mews came from the high branches of a cypress tree, where clung a white Persian kitten, having rushed frantically aloft in a spasm of fear caused by the general noise and confusion. Gunga’s hoarse old voice chimed in also. “Billi, Billi—ao, ao” (cat, cat, come, come).
“It’s hopeless,” said Marion. “Louisa will have to be left behind. I wish the Rajah had never given her the creature. And Louisa too—such a name for a cat!”
“Oh, we couldn’t leave Louisa behind,” objected the gentle Isabel. “Fay would cry her eyes out, and besides it would be so cruel. Look at mother. I believe she’d sit there till Doomsday and hear nothing. Mother!”
“Louisa has rushed up a tree. What are we to do? We shall never get her down.”
“How tiresome!” said Mrs Fleetwood, placidly. “Perhaps if someone fetched a saucer of milk—”
But just then Fay and Gunga came round the corner of the house in breathless triumph, the white kitten perched on her mistress’s shoulder; and soon “Louisa” was safe with Akbar in a basket which was consigned to one of the ayahs’ dandies.
“You ought to have seen that both cats were caught and shut up last night,” said Marion, severely.
Fay was flushed and agitated. She had begun actually to fear she might be forced to leave Louisa clinging to the tree, far out of human reach, mewing and terrified, to die of starvation. Also her heart was sick and sore with leaving Pahar Tal for the last time. The reproaches of Marion afflicted her as a dire climax. Poor Fay shed tears involuntarily.
“No, no, Miss-baba, do not weep,” soothed old Gunga. “Do not be troubled. All is well. Get on the pony and we will start at once.”
He obtained some last instructions from Mrs Fleetwood, gave the word for the men to lift the dandies, and himself fell back to the rear of the procession to mount a small, cow-hocked pony hired to carry him down the hill. Gunga’s horsemanship always amused Fay. His skinny brown legs stuck out on either side of the clumsy native saddle, and his loose shoes looked as if they must drop off. He kept his balance precariously and waved a stick aloft in a threatening manner. The saddle almost turned round as he mounted. Gunga saved himself by a miracle, and Fay, seated lightly on her pony, laughed now instead of shedding tears.
Then they all filed down the hill-road—Mrs Fleetwood leading the way, Marion and Isabel following; Fay behind them on the brown pony; the ayahs being jolted purposely by their coolie-bearers, for in India, as all the world over, the lower classes dislike doing service for their own kind. Finally came Gunga, wobbling on his mount, looking anxiously ahead to make certain that the coolies in charge of the personal luggage were not lagging or concealing themselves round corners.
Fay’s heart grew more sad as they left the station behind them. She gazed back at the rippling lake and the white houses clinging to the mountain-sides, and the rough hill-peaks rising into the bright blue heavens. Would she ever see it all again? The fairies would still dance on the hill-tops, spirits and ghosts would sweep through the valleys, the sun would rise wondrously over the snows—and soon she would be so far away from it, cut off from India altogether. She nearly cried again, but Marion kept calling questions to her—where had she packed this? what had she done with the other? was she sure she had left nothing behind? So that Fay was forced to control her tears, and find comfort in the reflection that six months still remained to her before the final severance from the beloved land.
The progress downhill was consoling also. The softer, warmer air as they descended, the tangle of creepers, the yellow and bronze of the mosses and ferns growing on the tree trunks and branches, the changing colours of the foliage—it all filled her with pleasure. There was the melody of water falling, the sun slanting across the roadway, and the shrill song of the cicala that caused a silence almost startling when for a few moments it ceased. They had a picnic luncheon spread on moss-covered boulders, and Marion did not scold and Isabel made no complaints; and Fay was hungry, so that she found the meal pleasant, too, and it helped to hearten her.
In less than a week they were all settled in their big plains bungalow, settled as completely as if they had never been away. It was a fine old building that had seen many Commissioners come and go since days long previous to the Mutiny—raised on a high plinth, with a flat roof and deep verandas supported by massive pillars; an imposing portico; and a small village of stables and servants’ quarters. There was a swimming-bath in the vast compound, an orange-grove, and the ruins of an elephant stable. Down at the far end, in the shade of some splendid shisham trees, rested a group of white masonry tombs of different sizes, decayed, neglected, inscriptionless, their histories long ago forgotten—a sad little corner, relic perhaps of some bygone tragedy of sudden death in the old helpless times when India claimed her English victims wholesale, without mercy, unhindered by the alleviations of modern progress.
The house, within, was comfortable and well furnished; rich jail-made carpets were permitted by Marion and Isabel, but rather counteracted by English beds, tables and chairs, and fenders with fire-irons to the grates, unnecessary as well as unusual since the fuel was always wood. Mrs Fleetwood’s favourite resting-place was the drawing-room veranda. She sat there a great deal, read, wrote letters, knitted, saw what was going on in the garden, and tended her plants that stood in a bright row along the edge of the plinth, scenting the air deliciously.
She was reading the advertisement columns of The Pioneer this morning, as was her usual habit, not that she wished to buy anything, but she always declared the perusal gave her so much information concerning the movements of her friends that she invariably looked at the advertisement columns after the English telegrams. They told her who were going home, by the list of household effects, tents, horses, saddlery, etc., for sale; who had just come back from furlough by the lists of wants; who were retiring or only, maybe, extra hard up by the advertising of such possessions as would be retained, ordinarily, whether the owner were taking leave or not. It was absorbing, also, to note the value people put on their property, especially if one knew the articles!—and anonymous advertisers could generally be guessed at, or suspected.
This was Mrs Fleetwood’s hour of peace and relaxation after her housekeeping duties were over and necessary letters had been written. She had visited the kitchen—it is a fallacy to suppose that the Anglo-Indian lady never enters her kitchen, though doubtless there are many exceptions who would neglect such duties in any country or climate; who are too fatally anxious to boast, when they return to their natural surroundings, that in India they lived the lives of princesses, so conveying an erroneous impression of the English woman’s tendencies in the East. Whereas the conscientious “mem-sahib” has no easy task in exacting cleanliness, regularity, and order throughout her household arrangements.
Mrs Fleetwood had also inspected the fowl-house, the stables, the dogs, the cows, and the garden, displaying experience and interest in each department, so receiving excellent and willing service from people who, left to their own responsibility, would allow everything to deteriorate. Fay accompanied her mother on these daily rounds. She enjoyed the bright mornings with all the long door-windows open, the wide lawns sparkling with dew, the animated atmosphere in the compound, the gathering of flowers for the house—masses of roses, brilliant creepers, sweet-scented English blossoms, and tall grasses of delicate shape and shade.
There was to be a dinner-party to-night, and the flower-vases were all placed ready, filled with fresh water, for the young ladies to arrange. Fay and her sisters were busy with them now, at what they called the “scrag end” of the veranda, while Mrs Fleetwood read The Pioneer advertisements undisturbed at the other, the “best end.”
But it was nearly twelve o’clock, and presently people would be calling, after the senseless Anglo-Indian custom ordaining that visits shall be paid during the hottest portion of the twenty-four hours—a relic of John Company manners which, oddly, did not disappear with blue coats and brass buttons and dinner in the afternoon. The Fleetwood ladies were accustomed to hold a species of levee at this period of the day.
Mr Fleetwood usually came back from his office for luncheon. This morning he brought a man’s visiting-card with him into the veranda where his wife and daughters were recovering from two hours of polite but exhausting conversation with an uninterrupted stream of callers. He threw the card into his wife’s lap, then stretched himself, yawning wearily, for work was exceptionally heavy just now. He was a distinguished-looking man, with plentiful grey hair and a sun-dried skin; he stooped a little from long hours at office tables and in the saddle, but he was well-preserved, and his blue eyes, like his wife’s, were keen and bright.
Mrs Fleetwood picked up the card. “‘Sir Rowland Curtice,’” she read aloud. “He lives at Batch Hall in Norfolk, and belongs to Arthur’s Club. Who is he, John?—and why have you brought us his card?”
“A globe-trotter?” said Marion, and looked at the card, over her mother’s shoulder, with interest.
“Yes. He called at my office this morning with official introductions, and I’ve asked him to dine to-night. We’ve other people coming, didn’t you say?”
“It will make us thirteen!” said Mrs Fleetwood.
“Never mind, send a note over to the Taylors,” was Marion’s prompt suggestion, “and ask them to come and to bring one of the girls. What is he like, dad?”
“Oh! just like anybody else. One nose, two eyes, and, I think, a beard.”
“Well, I’m not sure. I didn’t look at him much. I was so busy. Anyway we must be civil to him.”
“Of course,” said Mrs Fleetwood, amiably; and after luncheon she sent for the butler and the cook, and made necessary additions to the dinner and the table.
That evening, as they waited in the drawing-room for the guests to arrive, Mrs Fleetwood remarked that she hoped Sir Rowland would not feel uncomfortable facing a lot of people he had never seen before and knew nothing about.
“Why on earth should he!” scoffed Marion. “He will probably consider himself far superior to any of us, or indeed to anybody he could meet in India, and will expect us to feel awkward in his presence!”
“Don’t be silly, dear,” was her mother’s mild rebuke. “If he is like that most people in India would certainly be far too good for him!”
So Mrs Fleetwood received her stranger-guest with cordial consideration (“As if,” whispered Isabel, “he was a shy child at a party!”), with the kind geniality of manner that gained for her so much popularity and so many friends.
To the girls’ disgust there was no mistake about the beard, but it was quite short and trim and inoffensive, and of a nice golden-brown. Then he wore pince-nez, too, which was a pity. Otherwise, they decided, he was not bad-looking, though he gave an impression of exaggerated sleekness. His skin had the smooth shine of wax, his hair, lying flat to his head, reflected the light, his collar and shirt had obviously been “dressed” in London, his eye-glasses glittered, there was neither speck nor flaw upon his person. He arrived into the midst of a typical Anglo-Indian gathering with interested curiosity, and began to say so to his hostess.
“I have to thank you, dear lady, for giving me my first opportunity of seeing the real Anglo-Indian at home! So far, my experience has been confined to Bombay, where I am sure one might as well be in England—the yacht-club, taxi-cabs, millionaire merchants on Malabar Hill for one’s hosts—natives in European dress! I hardly felt I was in the East at all.”
Mr Fleetwood came forward. “I hope we shall not strike you as being too much of a contrast,” he said, with mock humility. “I am afraid our ways are very rough up-country.”
Sir Rowland looked round the spacious, comfortably furnished room. He saw a grand piano and a beautiful carpet, deep chairs covered with chintz, tall palms and flowers and plenty of ornaments, new books and the latest weekly papers.
“Apparently not!” he said with indulgent good-humour. “I should say you are almost as bad as Bombay! Ha! ha!—though certainly I drove here from the hotel in an extraordinary vehicle resembling a box, drawn by the most wretched ponies, and driven by a dilapidated creature who shouted the whole way at the top of his voice whether there was anything blocking the road or not!”
They all laughed politely, and Sir Rowland irradiated benevolence. He seemed a little crestfallen, though, when he discovered he was not to take his hostess into dinner, but only her eldest daughter. Marion observed his covert disapproval and proceeded to explain, as they sat down to the table, that in India people went in to dinner according to their official rank only, and that as the General and his wife were present only the General could take in the hostess, as being the most senior official guest. This mollified Sir Rowland somewhat, and he found further comfort in abusing the hotel at which he was staying.
“The beds,” he said, “are most peculiar—without springs or wire mattresses; there is prickly matting on the floors, and the bathing arrangements are, to say the least of it, primitive! The food, too, is anything but appetizing!” He picked up the menu and scanned it greedily. The soup, at any rate, had promised well for the remainder of the feast.
“And may I ask why you have come out to India?” Marion inquired with civil interest.
“Oh! I wished to do a little travelling,” he replied airily, “and I had been reading a great deal about India—so I thought I should like to see the place, also to ascertain for myself the truth of the assertion that the country is crushed, the natives ill-used, and the officials corrupt and cruel, living in the lap of luxury. Certainly in Bombay luxury appeared to be paramount, but then I only saw Government House, and the houses of the rich merchants—box wallahs, as I find they are called—who have nothing to do with the government of the country. They seemed to consider that soldiers and civilians have a very poor time of it compared with themselves! Now, here, I am in a place full of soldiers and civilians, so perhaps I shall be able to judge impartially.”
“I hope so,” said Marion, feeling angry with him; yet still respecting his close association with English life.
He settled his pince-nez more firmly on his faultless nose, and looked round the table. All these good people seemed to be enjoying themselves very whole-heartedly. There was nothing striking about any of them, none of the women wore jewels of any value except perhaps the General’s wife, who had a diamond pendant; yet they were obviously ladies and gentlemen, and the sociability and good-fellowship, the lack of stiffness without vulgar familiarity, was certainly conducive to a pleasant atmosphere. Sir Rowland felt inclined to like Anglo-Indian society, especially as he was consuming good food such as he had not tasted since he left Bombay, and had a pretty companion beside him. He considered Marion’s profile, and decided that she was “quite a good-looking girl.” She hardly answered to his preconceived notions of an Anglo-Indian young woman. She did not appear to be spoilt, conceited, or lazy, nor, as far as he could tell, fast in a dangerous, designing manner.
She turned to him and met his eyes shining like polished marbles through his glasses.
“Are you fond of riding?” she inquired.
For a moment he did not answer. He was repeating to himself: “Yes—she is slender and well-mannered, with an air of youth and vitality about her, and not a hint of fastness.” Then he said aloud:
“Oh! I like it well enough. I ride most mornings n London for the sake of my liver.”
“Then you live in London?” Marion’s heart warmed towards him. “How delightful!”
“Well, I suppose it’s the best place, if you’ve no particular object in living anywhere else. I’ve let my house in the country.”
“My sister and I had one season in London before we came out to India—we were staying with an aunt, Lady Landon. We loved it!”
“Lady Landon? I’ve met her, I think.”
“Oh! have you?” Marion responded eagerly. “Isn’t she nice? She was so kind to Isabel and me, and we are so looking forward to seeing her again when we go home next year. She is not a good correspondent so we don’t often hear from her, but she was all right last time she wrote. She wrote from Monte Carlo last spring. Do you ever go there?”
“To Monte Carlo? Yes, when I’m bored with London, or have got a cold I can’t shake off.”
He cut into the breast of a delicious quail, a ball of fat, tender, and juicy, and sweet.
“The food at the hotel is most unappetizing,” he complained again, fretfully.
“So it would be anywhere in India if one didn’t take a lot of trouble. You’ve no idea how mother housekeeps, or what a bother it is to run the most ordinary establishment out here.”
“But,” protested Sir Rowland, after a draught of champagne, “I thought ladies in India had such an easy time, with nothing whatever to do but amuse themselves.”
“Yes, I know that is the popular impression,” said Marion, with impatience, “but the women who are like that have awfully uncomfortable homes, bad food, and dirty servants, and the constant risk of illness. Of course girls have a good time if they are in a big station, but once they marry their troubles begin. I always made up my mind I would never marry in India—and you see I’m going home an old maid, for my father retires next year.”
“It must be entirely your own fault,” said Sir Rowland, clumsily; and trusted she would not imagine he was proposing to her!
In spite of this risk he sought her after dinner when the men went into the drawing-room. She was standing near his hostess.
“Mother,” she said, giving him a mischievous glance, “Sir Rowland thinks you lead a very idle life, and have nothing to do but amuse yourself!”
“Really?” said Mrs Fleetwood, innocently. “I wish you were right, Sir Rowland; but looking after about thirty servants is not very amusing, though I am sure I shall miss them all dreadfully when I get home and have to get along with perhaps only half a dozen.”
“But—forgive me, dear lady, if I seem rude—is it really necessary to keep so many servants?”
“Good gracious, yes!—because they won’t do each other’s work,” explained Mrs Fleetwood. “It’s on account of their castes and customs. For example, each horse has to have two men, because the groom won’t cut grass or look after more than one horse, and the grass-cutter is not efficient as a groom. So however dear grain may be, or however high the price of horses, you still have to keep two men to each horse, and their wages go up with everything else. It is not for our own convenience at all that we keep so many servants, I assure you, but for the convenience of the servants themselves!”
“Well, I suppose as far as the stables are concerned the only remedy would be to have fewer horses?” suggested Sir Rowland with a nasty little laugh.
“Oh! I don’t see quite how we could,” was Mrs Fleetwood’s artless reply. “We are a large party, and they all ride in camp except myself, and I must have a carriage to get about in wherever I may be. You see, walking is impossible to any great extent out here—the distances, and the sun, and the dust, and all that. But I declare I walk quite a lot in camp, in the evenings, with the dogs, you know—”
When Sir Rowland said good-night to Mrs Fleetwood he took the opportunity of confiding to her how uncomfortable he found the hotel. “The food,” he said, “is most unappetizing, and as for the beds—”
This was sufficient. “Oh! but of course you must come and stay with us, Sir Rowland!” she cried. “Come over early to-morrow morning and bring all your things. A room will be quite ready for you; and we are not going into camp just yet. We shall be delighted to have you!”
And Sir Rowland accepted without a moment’s hesitation. It was no more than he expected. Indeed he would have felt much put out had he not received the invitation in face of all he had heard in respect to Anglo-Indian hospitality!
Sir Rowland moved from the despised hotel to the Commissioner’s bungalow together with a Portuguese servant of repulsive appearance whose name was Alphonso, and a good deal of expensive-looking luggage—the latest improvements in the way of tin boxes and suit-cases designed for travel in the East.
He found himself in such agreeable quarters as a guest of the Fleetwoods that he felt in no hurry at present to continue his tour of India. In the early mornings he rode with the elder young ladies—there was always a horse to spare for him—though he was seldom their sole escort, and he did not entirely appreciate having sometimes to form one of a considerable cavalcade of young men. Occasionally they would follow the “bobbery pack,” and career over hard, treacherous ground that was riddled with holes and fissures, in the wake of a miscellaneous collection of dogs pursuing various animals—hares, jackals, foxes, once even a hyena. Sir Rowland looked upon it as a dangerous form of diversion and disdained it as an idiotic imitation of English hunting. He was a good enough rider, but, as he pointed out to anyone who would listen seriously to such objections, it was not a matter of horsemanship but of sheer luck whether one came to grief or not over such abominable and ridiculous country! Also it was highly unsafe to approach the ponies ridden by the majority of the “hunt.” As often as not, being mostly country-breds, they would kick and snap and squeal fiendishly at all who came near enough. An attempt at a fight between two of these ill-conducted animals was not at all an uncommon incident; and if one of the brutes got rid of its rider there ensued a general stampede and danger for everyone. “The field,” too, behaved in a manner considered by Sir Rowland as “rank bad form”—raced, straggled, chaffed, rode in noisy, frivolous groups.
During the long morning hours, between breakfast and luncheon, Sir Rowland read, wrote letters, and made progress with his Indian Notes, which he intended to publish on his return to England, though he told Mr Fleetwood he had not as yet decided which of the leading publishing firms was to be entrusted with the production of the work.
In the afternoons there were tennis-parties, polo-matches, regimental sports, picnics—always some entertainment to which he was quite willing to accompany Mrs Fleetwood and the girls. He was interested and surprised to find that Mr Fleetwood seldom got away from his work in time for more than a sharp ride, or a men’s set of lawn tennis before sunset, and that it was the same with most of his fellow-civilians. The work of the soldier, so entirely different, was over earlier in the day always with the exception of frequent additions such as camps of exercise, inspections, field-days, and so on.
A tinge of patronage pervaded Sir Rowland’s sociability. “It all strikes one as rather footling after Ascot and Sandown, and Ranelagh, eh?” he would remark to Marion with good-natured contempt; and she was traitress enough to agree, laughing, and felt more intolerant towards Indian life than ever.
Often in the evenings there were dinner-parties and dances to go to, sometimes amateur concerts or theatricals, and Sir Rowland condescended to them all. He was now paying considerable attention to Marion Fleetwood, who knew that among a society accustomed to quick flirtations and sudden engagements the possibility of her becoming Lady Curtice must already be under hot discussion. But at first she would not allow even Isabel to suggest such a thing to her.
“He means nothing, of course,” she said with impatience; “probably he’s engaged, or even married, to somebody at home.”
“He’s not married, at any rate,” said Isabel. “He said, only this morning, he often wished he was!”
Marion’s feelings, to record the truth, were a curious compound of reluctance and eager inclination. She was not in the least in love with their guest, indeed she barely liked him, but she was allured by all he represented, and she coveted keenly the worldly advantages such a marriage would secure. She knew that, should he propose, she must be violently tempted to accept him.
She yielded, at last, to Isabel’s pertinacious endeavours to discuss the matter one night on their return from a dance. The sisters shared the same room, a room so large and lofty that the light of the oil-lamps, in brackets above the dressing-tables, barely penetrated to the further end. Even the two brass bedsteads, side by side in the middle of the floor, shone dimly in half shadow. Isabel turned the light higher and lit some candles. She looked at Marion, who had thrown herself into an easy chair and was flipping her long gloves abstractedly against her knees.
“Marion,” she repeated, “don’t be a pig! You might tell me if he said anything to-night. I can’t believe he isn’t in earnest, whatever you say. Why, he wouldn’t dance with anybody but you, not even me, except that set of lancers with Lady Hobson, which of course doesn’t count in that way.”
Marion stretched her white arms, with a yawn. She paused a moment. Then said deliberately: “There was nothing really definite at all. And I tell you I don’t know myself what is in his mind, though I fancy—” she broke off. “Oh! dear,” she added, in vexation, “you know I hate talking about it. I would rather ignore the whole thing. I don’t think I want to marry him—he’s so swept and garnished, body and mind. But I do want to marry a title and money and position! There now, I’ve said it. And after all it’s only what you and I have known for ever so long.”
She rose and stood beside Isabel, who looked like a misty reflection of her elder sister. Isabel’s hair was paler, her eyes less large and bright, her nose and chin not quite so decided; yet away from Marion she was definitely pretty. Both girls had inherited distinction of form and feature from their father; from their mother the excellence of their colouring and complexions.
“I suppose he really is well off, and all that?” Isabel suggested.
“Oh! yes, he’s all right.” Marion moved to her dressing-table to take off her jewellery. “The Taylors know about him. Mrs Taylor talked in the most abominably significant way when I went to tea with her the other day. I know I got scarlet in the face, I couldn’t stop myself. It seems that Mr Taylor has actually been to Batch—it was let to some people they knew, and he went over there to shoot when they were staying at Norwich. It’s a lovely place, he says. Sir Rowland’s father, the first baronet, bought it—he was a rich manufacturer.”
“Why does this man let it, then?” wondered Isabel.
“He told me why—he prefers London, and travelling, and hates the bother of an estate.” Then Marion forgot herself and said: “Of course I should insist on living there part of the year, and having people to stay—” She stopped abruptly, aghast at her own speech.
Isabel laughed, which was injudicious, for in Marion’s present plight of mental disturbance it needed but little to set fire to her wrath. She raged self-righteously and unjustly at Isabel, who listened with exasperating meekness to accusations of vulgarity of mind, to vehement protestations of indignant disgust that it should not be possible for a girl even to speak to a man without being suspected of designs to entrap him into matrimony. When she ceased, out of breath, Isabel offered, humbly, to “undo” her sister, and as Marion’s dress fastened intricately down the back, and it would be clearly absurd to go to bed angry, or otherwise, in a ball-gown, she consented with suitable coldness and permitted her annoyance to subside. In reality she felt ashamed of her outburst, and trusted that Isabel would now leave the subject of Sir Rowland decently alone.
However, after they were both in their beds, Isabel had the incorrigibly bad taste to remark: “Well, if nothing happens before he is obliged to leave us when we go into camp next week—”
“Oh! for pity’s sake,” cried Marion, almost in a spirit of supplication, “hold your tongue, or talk of something else if you must talk at all at three o’clock in the morning!”
“All right, I’ll talk of something else,” said Isabel, with a trifle of malice. “At the dance to-night—last night I suppose it is now—Captain Mickleham asked me to marry him.”
Marion raised herself on her elbow, and turned an astonished face, illumined by the candle-light, towards her sister.
“Isabel!—Captain Mickleham?—what did you say?”
Isabel moved restlessly. “I didn’t refuse him. He’s got to write home to his people, and it must be a secret till the answer comes. I am not going to tell even father or mummy. You see he’s dependent on his people for an allowance.”
“Yes, he’s a younger son—but Lord Boldborough’s a rich man; they live in Belgrave Square, don’t they? Probably they won’t think the daughter of an Anglo-Indian official good enough—”
“Perhaps if you were Lady Curtice it might help a little?” suggested Isabel rather flatly.
“Well, I’m not Lady Curtice, and never likely to be,” snapped Marion.
There was a long pause. They could hear the police guard outside changing with guttural exclamations and the rattle of accoutrements.
Presently Marion said slowly, doubtfully: “I didn’t know you liked him—Isabel?”
“He’s very good-looking—and he dances so well—” It sounded almost as though Isabel were excusing herself. Then she added desperately, her voice a little shrill: “Oh! I know what you’re thinking—but there was never anything really between me and Arthur Dakin—”
“No, of course not—you couldn’t dream of marrying an Army Chaplain! Fancy having to stay out here and look after Tommies’ wives and families, and visit among the poorer class of Eurasians, and run work-parties and bazaars, and have only a few hundred rupees a month to live on!”
Isabel sobbed—hard little sobs that she strove to smother in her pillow. “I wish,” she whimpered, “I had never seen Arthur Dakin, or that he’d marry somebody else.”
Marion put out her hand and touched her sister’s shoulder, huddled beneath the bedclothes. “Isabel,” she said urgently, “is it as bad as that?”
There was no answer. At the same moment both girls were picturing the young padre as they had seen him only the previous afternoon at a cricket-match—determined, tanned, athletic, in his loose white flannels, his honest, healthy face alight as he came up to speak to them, his eyes so wistful as he looked at Isabel.
They knew of his popularity among the soldiers, how excellent was his influence, how the men struggled with their failings at his persuasion and turned to him in their troubles, to find him always patient, just, and human. For two years had he shown Isabel plainly that he loved her, but to her credit must it be acknowledged that she had given him but mild encouragement. Sometimes she did a little “visiting,” and attended early service, once she had undertaken a stall at a sale of work, and it was doubtful if she would have troubled herself over any of these matters had not Arthur Dakin been the chaplain. But that was all.
She sat up and dried her eyes and felt relieved when Marion spoke first, without waiting for an explanation of her sister’s distress.
“Isabel—you know you’d hate it—being a parson’s wife in India, or anywhere else for that matter. You’ve got just the chance now that we’ve always wished for. Put Arthur Dakin out of your mind once and for all and don’t be a weak idiot.”
Since their childhood Marion had been the dominant spirit of the two—had always found it easy to influence Isabel. She now proceeded to draw a painful picture of her sister’s future as a chaplain’s wife—a worn-out, prematurely-aged woman, health, figure, looks, spirit all gone beyond repair, struggling to subsist on an inadequate income in a bad climate and to educate children as well; shabby lodgings when in England, and old age, without savings, in a cheap boarding-house. She even made herself shudder with the ghastly presentment, and Isabel now wept in horrified dismay to think what might have been her fate.
Marion was quite genuine in her anxiety concerning her sister’s well-being. She could not tolerate the possibility of discomfort, poverty, ill-health for Isabel, and no doubt she would have been angrily indignant had anyone suggested to her that, far in the background of her mind, a little poisonous spirit of selfishness was urging her to more vehement eloquence, had increased a certain unworthy reluctance that Isabel should follow the real voice of her heart, feeble and undeveloped though it might be. Seeing that she herself had crushed her own tenderness for Tom Gray without mercy, she desired feverishly that Isabel should be just as stoical over Arthur Dakin.
“India’s all very well,” she went on, “for unmarried girls and senior people who can afford to be comfortable and go to the hills in the hot weather, or have hill appointments. Here we are now with practically everything we can want, and I daresay more luxuries than would be possible if we were in England. But remember the other side of the picture for junior married people, horrible little stations miles off the railway—though it’s true you would be spared that as a chaplain’s wife—screwing and scraping on small pay—you know how seldom anyone has private means in India—years and years of it to go through—the weariness and strain of it all, and the dreadful business when children have to go home of deciding between separation from them or their father. You know I’m right, Isabel,” she concluded, “and some day you’ll thank me for the warning.”
Isabel choked down a sob. “Yes—of course I know it would be awful—and I’ll marry Lewis Mickleham, if there’s no hitch with his people—” She blew out the candle. “But I wish we were going into camp to-morrow instead of next week. I’m sick of men!”
Sir Rowland Curtice did not propose to Marion Fleetwood before they all went into camp next week, but, practically, he invited himself to accompany them.
“Is it true,” he inquired one morning at breakfast when camp arrangements were being discussed, “that a senior civilian’s cold-weather tour is a sort of royal progress?”
Mr Fleetwood looked up quickly, a piece of toast poised in his lean, brown hand. His eyes glinted a little, but the rest of his face was passive.
“I suppose,” he said politely, “you have also been told that the peasants are forced to contribute supplies for the whole camp, and that we never pay for anything?”
“Oh! is that true too?” Sir Rowland was brightly interested. “I remember in one of my late father’s speeches in Parliament he said he understood that an inspection tour by a big official in India was about as disastrous to a district as a famine—”
“John!” protested Mrs Fleetwood, “how can you allow Sir Rowland to sit there and believe such dreadful things?”
“It would only be my word against that of his late father’s informant, my dear Emily,” said the Commissioner with provoking calmness.
Sir Rowland glanced interrogatively from his host to his hostess. Fay, seated opposite, regarding him with grave, grey eyes, thought he shone in person more than ever—his hair was so sleek it might have been varnished, his polished skin, his glossy little beard, his marbled eyes, and as for his finger-nails, they reminded Fay of the pink topaz necklace reposing in her mother’s jewel-case. So that she felt she coveted it no longer.
“Perhaps,” she suggested hopefully, “Sir Rowland has got mixed about dates? It was the Moguls, you know, who used to go into camp with hundreds and thousands of horsemen and animals and followers, and of course none of them paid for anything—except Akbar who did try—”
No one paid attention to her. Sir Rowland was purposely deaf to Fay’s speech, suspecting her of intentional impertinence.
“I must confess”—he spoke with becoming hesitation,—“I should much like to be in a position to say I had seen for myself—”
“It’s quite easy if you care to come into camp with us for a week or two,” said Mr Fleetwood without cordiality.
Mrs Fleetwood supplied genial persuasion. “Oh! yes, Sir Rowland, do come. Then, in your Indian Notes you could correct such a mistaken idea!”
“I can lend you a horse and a tent,” went on the Commissioner, evenly, “and if, when you leave us, you are still under the impression that we govern India by a system of oppression and robbery—why, then I suppose it must be true!”
He laughed with good-humoured indifference. He did not care, personally, what this fellow might think or believe about India, but he would prefer, for the honour of her British servants, that Indian Notes should not contain too many misleading statements. Here was one misconception that might perhaps be removed by the exercise of a little further hospitality; and the bother of a guest in the camp would devolve on Emily and the girls, not on himself, a prospect that did not appear to depress them.
Sir Rowland accepted the invitation with gratitude. In the station he considered it only seemly that the Commissioner should “put him up”; but to invite him into camp, he knew, was a different matter, and it was an experience that otherwise he might have been unable to secure.
“You like shooting?” Mr Fleetwood inquired carelessly.
“Oh! well enough—but I’ve had so much of it at home. I’ve let my own shooting this winter with the place, while I’m out here. Big shoots nowadays are such a business. Should we have any chance of a tiger?”
“No—no tigers in this division. I hope to get a month in the Terai before I go home—a last taste of the finest sport in the world! When you’re after tiger you can stand such heat and discomfort as would probably do for you under any other circumstances. However, we shall get first-rate small game shooting, duck and teal and snipe, plenty of quail and hare and black partridge. Very good fun and the sort of thing you could never see at home. It’s a great advantage to be able to combine duty and sport so easily!” The Commissioner was now a little more expansive. “Camp life in India has no parallel in other countries—in England to go into tents means opposition to the conditions of existence and suggests trouble, discomfort, and bad colds.”
“Personally I loathe tents,” said Marion. “There’s no room for one’s clothes, and everything gets ruined in boxes with perpetual packing. You can’t see in camp looking-glasses, and the district officers and their wives are generally so dull, and uninteresting, and Indian. Most of the men can talk of nothing but their work, and the women’s conversation is all about goats and fowls and ayahs!”
“Marion, my dear, how you exaggerate!” Mrs Fleetwood looked mild reproach at her eldest daughter across vases of roses, and dishes of fruit from the garden—oranges, bananas, custard apples, pomegranates, loquats. Then she turned amiably to Sir Rowland. “I look forward to our time in camp more than to any other season of the year,” she said, “it’s so peaceful, and free, and the open-air life is delightful. My husband loves it too. He feels in touch with the people; and then of course the sport. It’s only these silly girls who don’t appreciate it.”
“And what about little Miss Fairy—does she like camp life or hate it?” Sir Rowland asked, smiling at Fay with the grown-up condescension that always enraged her. To be addressed invariably as “little Miss Fairy” was bad enough, but to be treated as though she were barely six years old instead of sixteen was intolerable.
Fay flushed and did not speak. Certainly she did not intend to tell Sir Rowland across the breakfast-table, or indeed at any other time, how ardently she enjoyed camp life; how, for her, the days were one long happiness from the early morning march from one halting-place to another, till she fell asleep in her camp bed in a tent that smelt of straw and canvas, to the sounds of servants’ voices murmuring outside, the grumbling of baggage camels, the barking of dogs in the nearest village, and sometimes the united yells of a pack of jackals hunting across the plain. How she delighted in the change of scenery through which they passed, from jungle of dry grass and mighty trees to bare and barren wastes patched with coarse salt and stunted bushes, through cultivated land and mud villages each with its tank and temple.
Instead of answering Sir Rowland by look or word Fay lost herself in a reverie, seeing again these Indian villages that so held her imagination. There was the patriarchal headman who came to visit her father, the hag-like old women, the bright-eyed girls bearing loads of fuel or jars of water on their heads, the children so solemn and precocious, the babies wearing skull caps, amulets and bangles—seldom anything more. And then the long quiet of the sunny days when she sat outside the dwelling-tent under great trees, with beloved book or detested sewing, the crows and mynas, the squirrels and lizards making small stirs and rustlings around her. Everywhere a sense of leisure, except at the further end of the camp, where the Commissioner’s office tent was surrounded by a throng of natives, and the machinery of administration was working at full pressure.
The facetious voice of Sir Rowland Curtice brought Fay back to reality with something of a shock.
“Miss Fairy doesn’t mean to tell us what she thinks of camp life, evidently!” he was saying.
“Fay, you are always in a dream!” rebuked Isabel, and Marion added, laughing: “Except when we are talking about something we don’t particularly want her to hear!”
The Fleetwoods had been more than a month in camp, and Sir Rowland was still of the party.
At first he was inclined to carp and criticize. Here was no approach to “roughing it,” no gipsy existence such as the word camp would lead one to picture. Undoubtedly there was a flavour of royal progress about it all! Long strings of bullock-carts and baggage camels conveyed everything that could be required in the way of furniture, stores and conveniences; the tents—a double set, too—were spacious and comfortable; and it seemed little short of magical how the camp settled down day after day. Except for the change of locality it was as if there had been no move whatever. With the big tents pitched in a shady mango grove, horses picketed, kitchen fire alight, servants, sheep, fowls, cows comfortably accommodated, the camp looked a permanent settlement; yet next day all would disappear, leaving only crows and vultures and pariah dogs quarrelling over rubbish, and little mounds of ashes scarring the hard ground.
Yes, there was an atmosphere of luxury about this Anglo-Indian camp life—though Sir Rowland was unable to suggest how it might be altered without loss of valuable time, or with any particular gain to the native population. Moreover, he was not blind to the fact that official dignity must be maintained, especially among a people who revere and respect ceremonial and state. It was necessary to carry a good deal of furniture, since the Commissioner was supposed to entertain when he passed through stations in his division. Mrs Fleetwood had a carriage and pair of horses—she could scarcely travel about in a dog-cart at her age—and indeed it struck Sir Rowland that the barouche must almost save the cost of an extra bullock-cart, so loaded did it always seem to be. Miscellaneous articles were piled on the spare seats, and an ayah was generally wedged in among them.
It was satisfactory, at any rate, to feel that the camp must give a great deal of employment; and Sir Rowland soon ascertained, beyond any doubt, that food, fodder, fuel and other necessaries were not wrung from the people—that they brought in supplies willingly, and were paid for them in cash by a responsible subordinate. At the same time it was rather disconcerting to learn that if such payments were left to be made by the servants, the correct sums would assuredly not be handed over to the villagers.
Mr Fleetwood explained, in a moment of expansion: “The people have to be protected from their own customs and from each other when necessary and where possible. Percentage, commission, extortion, bribery—call it what you will—is part of their social system, and is recognized among them as perfectly legitimate, ‘gift-giving, and gift-taking.’ It’s ingrained in the Eastern character, and etiquette, quite as much as avarice, is at the bottom of it all. They will give bribes just as freely as they will take them; and it’s unfair and unreasonable to blame them for it. But since we are ruling India at present, we must rule according to British notions of morality, not according to Eastern tendencies—though with this, as with many other customs of the country that would be considered indefensible at home, we can’t interfere beyond a certain point. ‘Custom’ rises up and defies us.”
Sir Rowland observed, among other things, that his host worked quite as hard in camp as he did in the station—if anything harder. Even during the ride from one encampment to another a great deal of duty would be executed, and often Mr Fleetwood and his subordinate officers did not get their breakfasts till midday. When this was likely to occur Sir Rowland rode with the Miss Fleetwoods and their tiresome little sister, who either followed close at their heels on her pony, distracting their horses, or else galloped ahead, sending clouds of dust into their faces—unless by a happy chance she stayed behind to trot beside her mother’s carriage.
If Mr Fleetwood were not proceeding straight to the next camp it bored Sir Rowland inexpressibly to wait about while the Commissioner attended personally to petitions, and inspected disputed boundaries, hearkened to complaints and grievances which, however petty or diffuse, never seemed to weary him.
A district-officer happened to mention to Sir Rowland that much of the people’s difficulties arose from usury and litigation. It perplexed the visitor to think that such a frugal, sparing individual as the native peasant should be so thriftless when it came to a matter of borrowing money or going to law, and he questioned Mr Fleetwood on the subject one morning as they rode slowly through well-cultivated country in the brilliant early sunshine. To-day no district-officers or subordinates were with them, for the camp was on the borders of a native state, that of the Rotah Rajah, and there was to be a short halt and holiday before passing into another portion of the wide area controlled by the Commissioner. Mr Fleetwood responded with his usual lack of effusion. Sir Rowland never found him very willing to impart information.
“Oh, well,” he said, “of course bad seasons will plunge them into debt, but it’s the native money-lender who ruins them because they will make such a splash over their weddings and funerals. They’ll spend a year’s income in one week over a marriage—all custom again—the only answer you’ll get from them, and the only argument they have. The more they spend, or are credited by their neighbours with spending, the greater the honour and glory. That’s how much of the land passes out of the farmers’ hands and gets into the clutches of a set of rascals and bloodsuckers—and of course under our peaceful rule it becomes the legal property of these sharks and can’t be recovered by force as it often was in the old days! But as long as the people will run into debt over their ceremonials, almost as a religious duty, they must put up with the consequences. And when they go in for litigation with each other, as they’ll do on the slightest provocation, the amount both sides will spend on bribing witnesses is often more than the value of the matter under dispute.”
Mr Fleetwood’s big waler mare, tickled by a fly, sidled off the path and gave trouble, requiring all her rider’s attention for the moment. Sir Rowland drew back a little—he distrusted the heels of all horses in India now, whether bred in the country or not, and while his companion was occupied in soothing his mount he looked about him over the flat, hedgeless landscape that seemed to have trees only on the horizon whatever distance one traversed. The cold-weather crops were divided into flat patches of vivid green and yellow, and more sober squares of taller growth; here and there were blots of low scrubby jungle—the level monotony of the distance was only broken by a mud village that looked like a grey mound with a few palm trees sprouting from it. A hopeless feeling overcame him of the impossibility of generalizing about this country that was such a mass of contradictions. He was tiring of it, losing his interest. As soon as he formed any theory to his own satisfaction it was weakened or overthrown by something in proof of the exact opposite; nothing could be positively asserted; a remedy for one part of the population would spell disaster for another. He was aware of an unwilling respect for such men as Fleetwood who did their duty, did their best, endeavoured to be just and fair and patient with the people in their charge, all the while thwarted by these very people themselves whose instincts and customs were in direct contradiction to Western codes of conduct—who had no mercy on each other!
Suddenly the sun seemed very hot, the glare insufferable—the ground so cruelly hard. It was all so vast, and there was such endless work for everyone. He felt oppressed by the majestic desolation around him, the sense of immensity, and he yearned for the atmosphere of company and ease to which he was accustomed—for acquaintances in crowds, for telephones, motor-cars and newspapers, and devices for saving time and trouble, for the life of London and the leisured rich. Marion Fleetwood was justified in her dislike of this country, in her anxiety not to spend her life out here. A spiteful hatred of India assailed him.
He looked at the watch set in a strap on his wrist. Surely Mr Fleetwood must be making an unusually long round. He overtook the waler mare, whose nerves were now calmed; she moved along loosely, her handsome head drooping a little as she picked her way over the uneven ground.
“Are we near the camp yet?” he asked.
Mr Fleetwood glanced about him. “I’m afraid not,” he said in light apology. “I wanted to have a look at a village somewhere about here. There’s a possibility of some bother with the Rotah people about a boundary, and it’s a bit out of the direct way. Perhaps you won’t mind a rather longer ride than usual as we are to have Europe mornings for the next day or two. The way my wife and the girls have gone was only about twelve miles, but I expect we shall have done nearer twenty by the time we get in.”
Sir Rowland felt that had he only known this he would certainly have elected to accompany the ladies—even had he been obliged to sit beside the ayah among the bundles in the mem-sahib’s carriage!
“I like to have the chance of a poke round for my own satisfaction sometimes, when I’ve no officials with me. There’s the place I want!” Mr Fleetwood pointed with his whip to the grey mound and the palm trees on the horizon.
They rode on, yet seemed to get no nearer. Sir Rowland’s head ached, already he was hungry and thirsty as well as tired, for a tom-tom in a village near the camp had kept him awake last night, and he had felt disinclined for his early meal, drinking his tea without the toast and butter. On they went past the crops and the patches of jungle where children were herding small lean cattle and ponderous buffaloes. Then they skirted a tract of shallow water around which Mr Fleetwood dawdled provokingly, watching the duck and teal that dabbled at the edges and floated in dense brown masses on the deeper water. At last they really came close to the village, and a crowd of youths, women and children, and old people, collected at their horses’ heels—almost the entire portion of the population that was not at work in the fields or jungle.
The sahibs dismounted, and Sir Rowland, in silent protest, followed Mr Fleetwood, first into the police-station and then into the village school, and found himself forced to stand about during long interviews, nauseated with unsavoury odours, disgusted by the proximity of interested and inquisitive spectators clothed in dirty rags, most of whom seemed to have sore eyes and diseased skins; for all he could tell they might be suffering from ophthalmia, small-pox, or other dangerous and infectious complaints! When they pressed too close the village watchman drove them back despotically, abusing them in a loud, authoritative voice. Next, Sir Rowland and Mr Fleetwood sat, as guests of honour, on the little platform of the head-man’s house, while the owner gabbled vociferously and with earnest vehemence to the Commissioner-sahib, who either nodded and looked grave, or smiled and shook his head, at intervals. Then Mr Fleetwood pottered and investigated, conducted by the headman and accompanied by an excited rabble, all over the village and its outskirts, and Sir Rowland had perforce to follow, for he was unwilling to be left alone with an audience that stared with unblinking curiosity, and made obvious though, to him, unintelligible personal remarks.
Even when, once more, they were in their saddles, and Sir Rowland’s spirits were about to revive, a tattered creature rushed out from some adjacent lair and clung to the Commissioner-sahib’s stirrup to shriek and rave of a grievance as though demented. And a prolonged examination of the circumstances ensued.
Finally came the ride back to camp, for miles in shadeless glare, till a canal was reached, when Mr Fleetwood galloped steadily along the grassy bank, pulling up to a walk within a mile or so of the halting-place to cool the horses down. He looked at his watch. “By Jove,” he said, “it’s nearly one o’clock. Sorry to have kept you out so late. I never thought of the time.”
Sir Rowland made a peevish reply, and Mr Fleetwood, turning to him, saw that he was grey with fatigue.
“How you can stand it!” the younger man complained. “You must be nearly double my age, and you haven’t turned a hair.” He spoke as if this were almost criminal on the part of the Commissioner, whose coppery face and lean figure showed no symptom of exhaustion despite his fifty-five years.
“Oh! I suppose I have become accustomed to this sort of thing—long hours of sun and exposure—what with work and shooting. I daresay it’s a case of the survival of the fittest out here. Lots of fellows die of it. But I ought to have considered you; I’m afraid you’re in for a go of fever. Never mind, the mem-sahib will put you to rights in no time. She’s a first-rate nurse and doctor.”
Sir Rowland’s weary face brightened as suddenly they came upon the tents pitched, like a group of little white mountains, a short distance from the canal in front of a grove of trees that cast mottled shadows on the gleaming canvas. As usual at this time of the day a settled peace lay over everything—servants and animals rested in the background, the peons dozed at their posts in the shade of the living-tent. Fay was stretched, reading, in a long chair by a great clump of bamboos, Akbar and Louisa curled up asleep in one furry mass on her lap.
A shout from Mr Fleetwood dissipated the languor. A couple of grooms appeared, running, from the servants’ quarters, the peons stood up—there was a rattle of belts and buckles from the police-guard rising to attention; and Fay threw down her book and sprang up, scattering the sleepy, indignant kittens, who flew up the side of the nearest tent and mewed from the top in piercing protest. Mrs Fleetwood came out of the big tent, in a black-and-white spotted dress, and a shady straw hat on her head, the soft white knitting, with the long clicking needles, in her hands.
One glance at Sir Rowland’s face as he slid limply from his horse and Mrs Fleetwood was all active concern. He was speechless and shivering by the time he was in bed beneath a pile of blankets, with aching head and limbs and chattering teeth, well embarked on his first attack of ordinary Indian fever, but despairingly convinced that he was stricken with nothing less than typhoid. She tried to reassure him as she tended him with the quiet deftness of long experience—dosed him, gave him hot lemonade to induce perspiration, prepared a cooling drink for the thirsty stage, instructed the sullen Alphonso to air a fresh suit of pyjamas, and sent Gunga for clean, cool sheets to replace those that presently would be tossed and crumpled.
“You’ll probably be quite well to-morrow, Sir Rowland, and able to come with us the following day to visit the Rotah Rajah. It’s only a six-mile drive. The Resident is away just now, unfortunately, but Captain Somerton, who looks after the young Rajah, is a friend of ours too.”
Sir Rowland only moaned for answer.
“It’s astonishing how quickly these little bouts of fever clear off. I know them so well! You just got over-tired staying out so long in the sun. You’ll feel a little limp to-night, and you must take quinine for the next few days—otherwise, I prophesy you will be none the worse. My husband ought to have remembered that you are not accustomed to India, as he is—”
“Your husband,” grumbled Sir Rowland, as distinctly as his quivering jaws would permit, “is made of cast-iron, Mrs Fleetwood!”
“Well, perhaps he is,” she soothed; “but there are plenty of men like him out here. All the same, he has had his share of fever and other things—cholera, for instance.”
“Good gracious!—how does cholera begin?” He recalled the dreadful smells he had endured in and around the village that morning on an empty stomach.
“Oh! not with shivering and pains in the limbs, I can honestly assure you.”
But when ague gave place to the feverish stage, Sir Roland felt he would almost have welcomed death itself. At any rate he was of opinion that he could not have been hotter, even in the infernal regions. If Mrs Fleetwood called this “a little bout of fever,” what must be the discomfort of a really bad attack! He decided that India was no place for him, and that he would leave the country as soon as possible. As for his being in a fit condition to join this expedition to visit the Rajah of Rotah, the idea was preposterous. Then everything became confused in his mind, and he talked nonsense for an hour or so, till his temperature lowered and he fell into a quiet sleep. At dinner-time he awoke, weak but refreshed, to enjoy strong chicken essence cooled to a jelly, with crisp toast and a pint of champagne.
At noon next day he came out of his tent, rather limp, rather pale, but otherwise perfectly recovered, and was made to swallow precautionary quinine tablets by Mrs Fleetwood just before the mid-day breakfast that, in camp, served as luncheon.
“Father feels very guilty,” Marion said as they all sat down to the table. “He is responsible for your go of fever—keeping you out so late in the sun like that!”
Whatever he felt, Mr Fleetwood did not look at all guilty, though he murmured apologies to which Sir Rowland did not respond with much indulgence. He felt cross and bored, and not a little alarmed concerning his own health.
“If I’m going to get malaria into my system,” he said defensively, “I shall be sorry I ever came to India. Are we by any chance within reach of a railway station?”
“Oh! you don’t mean to say you want to go off and leave us at once!” cried Mrs Fleetwood, who felt that species of affection towards her patient always evoked in her by any living creature she had tended through sickness or misfortune.
“There is a railway station at Rotah—where we are going to-morrow,” said Mr Fleetwood, cheerfully.
Marion and Isabel exchanged glances that were imperceptible to the rest of the company. Sir Rowland settled his glasses more firmly on his nose, and flicked an imaginary crumb from his beard with fastidious fingers.
“Well, really,” he said in an anxious tone. “It might perhaps be wiser, don’t you think, to take the opportunity? I could go straight down to Bombay, and catch the next mail so comfortably.”
Mr Fleetwood betrayed lively interest. “To be sure you could! Rotah’s an important junction on the main line to Bombay.”
“But it seems such a pity—” began Marion, then checked herself. She recognized that her feelings of relief and regret over Sir Rowland’s proposed departure were more or less equally balanced. He had puzzled, and annoyed, and flattered her considerably. His devotion seemed unmistakable, yet so far he had uttered no word that could be interpreted as a declaration. Now that he meant to leave India, the next twenty-four hours might bring about some definite understanding between them.
Her heart beat quickly with both dread and anticipation. If he said nothing she would feel humiliated, tricked, yet in a measure glad. If he asked her to marry him there was no question as to what her answer would be, but—but— To her annoyance she found herself thinking of Tom Gray, contrasting his blunt, kind face, his vigorous bearing, with this being opposite to her whom she was ready to accept as her husband, given the chance. A being of fads and conceits, bone-selfish, who had never worked, never sacrificed, who lived solely for himself and his own inclinations. Yet beyond the shiny, contemptible finish of Sir Rowland’s person she saw a great English house, a solid position in the world of Society, money, power, aggrandizement, all that she imagined she required to render her not only happy but exultant.
Mr Fleetwood looked at his guest with almost a genial expression on his face. “If you really do feel you would prefer to take advantage of being within easy reach of a railway station,” he said tentatively, “we could send your baggage ahead to-morrow morning with your servant, and drop you at the station on our way to the palace. But at the same time,” he added, with hasty politeness, “of course we don’t wish you to hurry away!” He had become aware that his wife was looking at him with reproof.
“You are exceedingly kind—indeed you have all been more than kind,” said Sir Rowland, including the whole table in a grateful inclination of his head, “but you start on the second part of your tour, I believe, when you march from here, and are going, I think you said, into much wilder country and still further from civilization? As I have had this warning of fever I am sure it will be more prudent for me to go home. I am sorry to give up the rest of my travels out here, but, after all, health must be the first consideration with everybody, and I can hardly hope to have such a pleasant time anywhere else in this country as you have been kind enough to give me.”
“Oh! but you really ought to see Rotah—a native state!” persuaded Mrs Fleetwood.
“I should miss the mail,” he said absently, and fixed his eyes on Marion with a pensive gaze. He regarded her in this way till her cheeks flushed nervously and she bent over her plate.
So it was decided. Mr Fleetwood sent for a railway time-table from the office and ascertained that a mail train left Rotah at a time that would be convenient for them to arrive there next afternoon. Sir Rowland went off after breakfast to give orders about his packing, and Marion and Isabel betook themselves to the shade of the great bamboo clump where Fay had collected chairs and tables and caused a drugget to be spread.
They formed a pleasing picture, the two fair young Englishwomen, no longer in their first girlhood, but so attractive in their fresh maturity of figure, face, and movement. They possessed an agreeable self-confidence which made for good manners—awkward or affected they had never been—and their attitudes, as they sat in their soft white gowns against the green background of feathery bamboos, were naturally graceful.
“How shall we go to-morrow afternoon?” Isabel asked. “I don’t want to ride, but we shall be such a pack in the carriage, with Sir Rowland and Fay as well. I suppose dad will take the dog-cart.”
“I shan’t go,” said Marion. “I don’t in the least want to see the Rajah of Rotah and his horrid palace or his stupid little wife. And I haven’t the admiration for Captain Somerton that mother always professes. I’m sure he positively dislikes girls, if he ever thinks about them at all!”
“I wonder—” began Isabel. She wanted to say she wondered if Sir Rowland meant to “speak out” before he went away, but Marion looked so cross she had not the courage to continue.
They sat silent, pretending to read, in the sleepy lull of the afternoon; servants fed or snoozed in the back regions of the mango grove—it was their special hour when to disturb them would argue a lack of the consideration which is almost invariably shown towards natives by Europeans accustomed to India—and there would be little movement in the camp now till tea-time, when the goats would be milked and the sahibs’ guns got out. Then, as the sun slackened, and when tea had revived the party, they would start for the evening stroll, with the dogs, to the nearest swamp where game was known to be congregated.
The afternoon hours seemed longer than usual to Marion Fleetwood. She felt restless and irritable, and Isabel observed covertly that she often glanced up from her book towards the tent where their guest was, presumably, making his preparations to leave them. Could they have looked inside the tent they would have seen Sir Rowland sound asleep on his bed, while his servant sorted clothes and packed boxes noiselessly, though with a will. Alphonso disapproved of camp life. He had quarrelled perpetually with Gunga, who found him an exacting and troublesome guest, and he was enchanted at the prospect of an immediate return to Bombay, where he would pick up another employer directly his present master was safely on the homeward-bound steamer. It was lucrative work, this temporary service with Englishmen who came out to India for short periods and had no notion of the correct price of anything in the country. It did not suit Alphonso to be attached to the private camp or establishment of an official where there were no bills to be paid or purchases induced. When presently a message came to say that tea was ready he returned an arrogant answer that the sahib was resting and could not be disturbed.
Therefore when Sir Rowland did open his eyes he found the sun sinking, and the cold nip in the air he so much disliked already established. He ordered some tea, which was served to him promptly. The celerity with which food could be prepared in India, no matter at what time it was ordered, surprised him continually. Indian kitchens seemed to be worked by magic. One had only to ask for breakfast, dinner, tea, as the case might be, and the meal was ready, whether in advance of or beyond the proper hour; and nothing was ever underdone or overcooked, as assuredly would have been the case at home in the same circumstances.
After the tea he felt refreshed and put on his great-coat to stroll about in front of the camp. He concluded that the rest of the party were out shooting, for he heard frequent shots in the distance, and it gave him satisfaction to feel that he had seen the last of these evening expeditions with dogs and guns—that kind of sport did not appeal to him. To be sure small game abounded but it was all too pottering; it was a nuisance getting wet feet and legs, as often happened, and he was constantly in fear of stepping on a snake since the day he had seen the Commissioner kill a cobra at the edge of a swamp. When he shot at all he liked the entire day to be devoted to sport, with the accompaniment of plenty of beaters and loaders and spectators, and a champagne luncheon in a marquee, and motors to convey the sportsmen out and back again.
He felt quite cold as he left his tent. A blue smoke floated in the air and curled about the branches of the trees, a pungent smell of burning wood mingled with the intangible aromatic odour that seemed everywhere in India. Something rustled in the bamboos near by, and a flying fox lurched out and flapped heavily away like an elephantine bat, with a curious plaintive squeak. Someone came from the living-tent towards him—Marion Fleetwood.
“Do you think you ought to be out?” the girl said easily. “The mist is rising from the canal—it’s not very safe after fever. There’s a nice fire in the tent.”
“Oh! I feel I must stretch my legs a little.” He spoke with genial friendliness. “I’m ashamed to say I have been asleep the whole afternoon. Alphonso ought to have woke me long ago. I’d like to wander about a bit if you won’t feel cold.” He seemed to take it for granted that she would be his companion.
“Oh! I never feel cold,” said Marion, and paced at his side over the hard ground that was patched with coarse grass. She wore no hat, and in her neat tweed coat and skirt she looked the embodiment of health and energy.
There was a pause before Sir Rowland said wretchedly:
“Sometimes I think you never feel anything.”
“Why?” She turned to him in genuine surprise.
He kicked a little piece of dry soil into fragments. “Well, you don’t care two pins about my going away to-morrow. And we have been such friends.”
Marion felt confused. What was to be said!
“I am very sorry you are going,” she managed to tell him, without a tremor in her voice.
He laughed artificially and took a cigarette-case out of his pocket. “May I smoke?”
“No,” he said peevishly, “you won’t miss me at all. And probably when we meet again in England you will have forgotten all about me.”
“You must think I have a very bad memory, Sir Rowland.”
What could be the man’s purpose in talking like this? Did he wish to extract from her some assurance that she cared for him before he actually proposed?
“I know what girls are,” he said darkly.
Marion felt paralyzed. Short of saying she was ready to throw herself into his arms she could only remain silent.
Sir Rowland sighed. “All the way home on board ship I shall be thinking of you,” he said, “and you will be laughing and talking and riding and dancing with other men. I don’t make friends very easily, and when I do the friendship means a great deal to me.”
“So it does to me,” said Marion, lamely.
He caught her hand. “Then we really are friends—you won’t forget me—Marion?” he said with fervour.
“No.” Marion spoke slowly, and, hating herself, she returned the pressure of his hand. “I won’t forget you—unless you wish it.”
“Wish it?” He lifted her hand and put it to his lips. “I shall count the hours till we meet again in England—in London! Imagine how delightful it will be to go together to theatres, to suppers, to picture-galleries, to meet at things everyone goes to! I shall look out for you—when?—about May? I shall see you coming towards me in the Park or perhaps at Ranelagh, or at some evening crush where I shall have been bored blue till I catch sight of your face.”
Then Marion, who was no fool, realized the situation and met it.
“Yes,” she said gaily, “and I shall remind you of our rides with the bobbery pack, and your first, and let us hope your last, attack of Indian fever. You mustn’t forget India, Sir Rowland. Though I shall be glad to say good-bye to the country I shall always remember very pleasant times out here—your visit among them.”
Sir Rowland executed minuet steps at her side. “Dearest girl! say good-bye to me kindly, here, now—Marion, give me a kiss to take away with me, to remember.”
He bent his head towards her, smelling of flowers of honey and scented soap, and the oil he put on his beard and moustache.
Marion slapped his face with swift determination. “You will remember that,” she said briskly, as he cried out, his hand to his cheek.
Voices and footsteps echoed through the trees. A dog rushed up to them—a native followed carrying a game-stick laden with birds, and then the remainder of the Fleetwood family appeared, Fay and the Commissioner, his wife and Isabel, talking in cheerful tones, hungry, in the best of spirits.
Clive Somerton idled in the veranda of his bachelor bungalow, awaiting the arrival of his friends, the Fleetwoods. He looked forward to their visit. Life at Rotah was monotonous despite the privileges of his appointment, and a pleasant break was welcome in the daily routine of schooling the young Rajah in ethics of sport and pastimes and general behaviour. Only in the evenings, when the zenana claimed the youth’s company, was Somerton supposed to be free to commingle with the few other English officials of the State, most of whom were at the present time in camp.
He stood there, in the shade of the veranda, dressed in grey flannels, easy of figure and bearing, his hands in his pockets, his eyes narrowed between their black lashes gazing into the dusty glare outside.
To the right of his bungalow, some quarter of a mile away, stood the royal dwelling, half palace, half fort, the more modern portion gleaming white, a medley of pillars and porticoes and elaborate carvings, doors and lattices, crowded together without purpose or design, huddled against the ancient citadel of Rotah’s ancestors. The old fort, built of massive masonry, rose in gloomy pile behind it, mellowed and defaced by time and the assaults of enemies in bygone, turbulent days—crumbling on the surface but solid as ever beneath. Here were to be found narrow passages and courtyards, out of which led countless little rooms, windowless, untenanted save by reptiles, bats, insects; underground chambers, vaults, sinister places of darkness and decay. Within the high walls that enclosed the grounds of the fort and palace were the bungalows occupied by Mr Maitland and Captain Somerton; also accommodation for servants and guards, for priests, friends and relations, with all their parasites as well.
There was noise and movement on every side. At this moment a clumsy, hooded vehicle rolled by, a species of “four-poster” on wheels, jingling noisy bells, hung with crimson curtains and yellow fringe; large red and gold tassels swung from the ornamental trappings of the pair of white bullocks that drew the conveyance—beautiful specimens of the northern trotting breed. As it passed a lean brown hand, like a little claw, crept out and parted the curtains ever so narrowly, and Somerton caught a glimpse of a small figure within—a female figure wrapped in a white shawl. He knew it for that of Rotah’s mother—the Ma-ji—who was generally to blame for any trouble that might arise in the zenana—who was distrusted and detested by the Rajah’s English guardians, because she gave her son bad advice, and endeavoured to influence him in the wrong direction through the Rani, his wife. She was undisguisedly obstructive, and determined to spoil her little grandson, sole heir at present to his young father’s possessions.
“Old viper!” muttered Somerton. Then he speculated as to what could be her object in taking the air just at this time, when the whole zenana was aware that English visitors were expected—when Mrs Fleetwood and her daughters would assuredly be conducted to the women’s quarters to exchange civilities with the Rani and her ladies, to see the baby boy, and pretend to eat sweetmeats and sickly cakes. Surely it was rather strange that the old lady should absent herself when such an excitement was afoot. She must be intent on some important mischief; but time alone could disclose what, if it ever transpired at all.
The bullock carriage rumbled and jingled and fluttered on its way, but before it passed quite into the distance Captain Somerton saw it swerve to one side, for an open barouche and pair of bay horses swept past it, dangerously close. The native driver, in his haughty position of coachman to a sahib of high estate, dashed contemptuously near the wheels of the despised vehicle; but the sahib himself returned the salaam of the attendant on the box-seat of the humbler conveyance and shouted an angry rebuke to his coachman for driving so recklessly, and for appropriating the whole of the road in such a manner.
Then the barouche drew up at the steps of Captain Somerton’s veranda—Mr and Mrs Fleetwood and Fay, their youngest daughter, seated within it.
“Hullo!” Somerton exclaimed to himself with inward amusement, “‘the flapper,’ the friend of Akbar!” He had not expected her, and felt surprised that her sisters were not of the party, but he was conscious of pleasure at sight of her face and thought how sweet the child looked as she stood up to follow her parents from the carriage. There was a fragile grace about her young figure that pleased his rather austere fancy, her slender neck was so fair and delicate, rising from the low muslin collar of her blouse, her grey eyes were innocently serious with a touch of aloof independence in their gaze, the defensiveness of youth; and her hair fluffed in such a soft cloud beneath the frill of her hat—a flapping, baby head-dress edged with lace, having a touch of something blue amid its white folds and gathers.
She walked in sedately behind her father and mother, and a little smile of pleased interest parted her lips as she noticed the heads and horns and skins, and the shelves full of books, that seemed chiefly to furnish the sitting-room. Mrs Fleetwood sat down and with placid deliberation unwound the gauze veil tied over her hat to protect it from the dust. She said as she did so: “The girls asked me to give you all sorts of messages, Captain Somerton. They were so sorry not to come, but they both felt they wanted a rest. We have marched very hard lately, and I really think they were rather worn out with entertaining a man who has been staying with us—a globe-trotter.”
The Commissioner gave a grunt of unmistakable disgust.
“Oh! John dear, he meant very well, poor man! However, he got fever and thought he had better go back to England, so we dropped him at the railway station on our way here.”
“Don’t talk about him,” said her husband, and began an inspection tour of the sporting trophies on the walls and floor. Each had a history that enthralled Fay to hear, and she followed, listening in silence to their host’s reminiscences. That was the head of a bull buffalo, the terror of a district, that had charged viciously from behind a clump of bushes, like an express engine, and fallen literally at Captain Somerton’s feet, shot between the eyes. That beautiful cold-weather tiger-skin had belonged to a full-grown fellow he met face to face quite unexpectedly on a forest path. The leopard by the window was a man-eater in his lifetime—diabolically cunning; he had killed seventeen people, to Somerton’s knowledge, before he was cornered in a rice-field and killed. The two men agreed that once a leopard took to man-eating he was infinitely worse than any tiger. This one, for example, had gone into villages and dragged its victims from their beds, but finding that the people often followed with sticks and stones and disturbing noises, so that the prey had sometimes to be dropped, it took to first crunching the head of the sleeper so that the senseless body could be borne off in silence, unresisting. Then there were heads and horns of deer and antelope, boars’ tushes, a rhinoceros horn, a hoard of tigers’ teeth and claws and “luck bones”—no novelty to the Fleetwoods, for the Commissioner had also made such a collection during all his service, and his wife and girls possessed various ornaments of claws and bones set in silver or gold.
“All my best heads and skins are at home,” Somerton told them. “These are only what I’ve shot since I came out last time. Leave seems more difficult to get out here every year. The worst of this billet is that there is so little sport round about—good small game shooting, of course, in the cold weather, and a few black buck, but nothing more exciting. Rotah doesn’t really care for shooting, worse luck, though I’ve no doubt he’d delight in a big drive such as his forbears used to go in for—every animal in the jungle tearing past platforms in the trees, as if a great fire was behind them, and pot shots taken at everything.”
Fay said suddenly: “Where do you keep your things at home—in England?” She felt a strong curiosity to know something about Captain Somerton’s people. Was his mother alive?—had he any sisters?—and where did they live? Her mother and Marion and Isabel were always saying it was so rude to ask questions, but surely there could be no harm in a “feeler” such as this, and perhaps it might draw forth all she wished to hear.
“I send them to my brother,” he said, rather absently, for he was examining a glass eye that seemed loose in a tiger’s head. “He’s married, you see, and lives in our old home, in Gloucestershire. That’s a picture of the house, just behind you.”
Fay turned to the enlarged photograph of a fine old country house of the west-country type, with pointed gables, tiled roof, deep mullioned windows, and a terrace with a stone balustrade and urns placed at intervals, filled with plants; stretches of lawn with cypress trees and tall elms beyond.
“I suppose your brother is taking care of your things till you want them for a home of your own?” said Mrs Fleetwood, with motherly interest.
He answered her with a careless laugh. “Oh! I don’t suppose I shall ever settle down. I can always make my headquarters there,” he looked towards the picture, “when I’m in England, and they give me as much shooting and hunting and fishing as I want; but it would be a different thing altogether, I expect, if I were married. My sister-in-law isn’t particularly devoted to her own sex.”
“Has she any children?”
“No, it’s a pity, especially as the money is nearly all hers.”
“Then does the place come to you eventually, if there are no children?”
Who was asking questions now!—Fay thought with malicious triumph.
“I suppose so—and with precious little to keep it going. But my brother’s a comparatively young man, I’m glad to say, and I shall probably die long before he does, killed by an elephant or a tiger, or a fall down a precipice or something equally abrupt!”
Mrs Fleetwood stifled a sigh. What a pity Marion had not taken the fancy of this nice young man—well-bred, good-looking, bound to rise in his profession, having prospects, too, though, of course, remote. But Marion would only have said, as usual, that she couldn’t live in India, silly girl, and Captain Somerton was not the kind of man to be contented at home without money, even had he not belonged to the Indian Army, which bound him more or less to India.
Her reflections were scattered by the sight of the tea-tray, brought in by a neat table-servant in spotless garments. They ate good bread-and-butter (Mrs Fleetwood noting with approval that the butter was excellent—most unusual in a bachelor’s establishment!) and there were light sponge cakes, squares of chocolate toffy, and some wonderful sweetmeats of cocoa-nut, which Fay consumed, much to the relief of her host, who knew how eagerly the cook desired to please his master’s guests. The old servant had been for years with Somerton—an anxious, aged person in a white petticoat, who could turn out a capital dinner of four or five courses from a hole in the ground and three bricks, however far removed from civilization, and would follow his sahib without complaint through jungle and forest, to Himalayan heights and desert land, accepting such incomprehensible tastes and habits with philosophic devotion.
When tea was over they all drove in the Fleetwoods’ carriage to the palace. The distance was insignificant, but to arrive on foot would not have been quite in keeping with a visit that was semi-official. The young Rajah, very simply dressed in white, received them in a long room that seemed lined with looking-glasses and oleographs in gay frames, and hung with crystal chandeliers. A full-sized billiard-table stood at one end, and a large crimson velvet divan of English manufacture at the other. A magnificent Turkey carpet covered the floor, and there were a few gilt chairs upholstered in coloured brocades. Rotah’s predecessor had taken particular pride in this room, and in the curious collection of objects it contained in addition to the furniture—musical boxes of all sizes, gramophones, mechanical toys and contrivances. The former Rajah had been famous among his compeers as a being of remarkable taste—had he not actually caused little watches encircled with diamonds to be set in the toes of his best English patent leather shoes!
At first all these marvels had astonished and fascinated the new heir—indeed he still considered them very wonderful, though familiarity had by this time tempered his respect. He also greatly admired the decorations and furniture of this room and the suite adjoining it, though it would never have occurred to him to live in them himself. He occupied special quarters in the old fort, where he felt natural and at ease; poky little chambers with bolsters and pillows piled on the floors, and silver drinking vessels and hookahs lying about. Now, when in company, he smoked cigarettes, but he infinitely preferred the bubbling native pipe and its acrid flavour. He had lived too long in purely Eastern fashion, youth though he yet was, to adapt himself very readily to English surroundings and habits in private life.
His pleasure at seeing Mrs Fleetwood and her youngest daughter was undisguised and spontaneous—of Mr Fleetwood he was obviously rather in awe—and he smiled, showing his beautiful teeth, flashing his great brown eyes, bending over their hands as he uttered his welcome in English that was vastly improved though still halting. He was much gratified to learn that Louisa, the white Persian cat, was in good health; he was naively eager to display one of his most cherished possessions—a bird that piped in a gilt cage when wound up, moving its wings and tail and opening its yellow beak; he turned on the big gramophone, which bellowed out a deafening sea song in the voice of a famous bass opera-singer; and he showed the ladies all the various European treasures acquired by his kinsman the late Rajah, among them being a penny-in-the-slot machine.
“When I go to England,” Rotah informed his visitors, “I bring back with me many much more new things. And I bring also a motor bicycle, and a life-belt, and a—a—bull-dog,” this last with real effort, for curiously enough among natives of India there is a natural inclination to pronounce bull-dog as “gul-dânk,” just as champagne is universally called “simpkin.”
“Oh, no, Rajah-sahib, not a bull-dog—bring out a nice black pug!” adjured Fay, who ardently desired one herself.
“A pug?” said the Rajah, with interest; “what is a pug?”
“A sort of dog,” Captain Somerton told him, laughing, “and let me warn you in time that it is an animal no self-respecting sportsman would be seen with in public.”
Rotah laughed too, without understanding; then observing that Fay evidently was not amused he hastened to entreat that he might at once procure a pug for her from England, if they were not to be bought in India. Mrs Fleetwood interposed and said, “Certainly not,” very kindly but firmly. They had far too many dogs already, and would be obliged, as it was, to leave them all behind when they went home.
“But I shall take Louisa and Akbar,” said Fay, rather truculently.
This was hardly the time or place to argue such a question, so Mrs Fleetwood wisely ignored it and suggested instead that she and her daughter should visit the ladies of the zenana, if convenient to everyone.
“It gets dark so early now,” she said, “and if you and Captain Somerton are going to take my husband over the stables while we visit the Rani, there isn’t any too much time.”
So Fay and Mrs Fleetwood were conducted by the Rajah to the threshold of the women’s apartments, where he handed them over to a group of female attendants, arranging to meet them again in the reception-room when the tour of the stables should be over.
Fay had been into zenanas before, and Mrs Fleetwood was well used to such interiors. They were both familiar with the sickly perfumes, and the half light, and the airless, heavy atmosphere, the whisperings and tinklings and swish of clothing, and the excited faces that clustered from every corner.
The little Rani herself rose from a pile of rugs and richly-embroidered cushions heaped on an inlaid bedstead. She must have been rather younger than Fay, but her small oval face was dull and expressionless, her skin was pitted with smallpox, her solemn eyes, their lids painted with kohl, looked immense, out of all proportion to the size of her button nose and pouting little mouth. The parting of her glistening black hair was stained red, as were also the tips of her fingers and toes and the palms of her hands. A gauze veil embroidered with gold threads framed her face and enveloped her plump body.
Two clumsy English chairs with cane seats were produced for the visitors, and a swarm of women gathered around them, staring and listening and making remarks, as well as frequently taking part in the conversation. There were several children, too, odd, pulpy little creatures, silent and apathetic, loaded with silver ornaments, bangles and anklets, necklaces and charms.
Mrs Fleetwood conversed cordially with the Rani according to zenana etiquette. Fay permitted the women and girls to examine the blue enamelled watch that had been a birthday present from her father—it was passed from one to the other amid a chorus of interested admiration. A tray of sweetmeats was handed to the guests, and inquiries were made as to whether Fay were married or not—the answer causing a moment’s silence of puzzled disapproval. Then Mrs Fleetwood asked for the baby, and was surprised and concerned to see two large tears gather in the little mother’s eyes and roll, unhindered, down her cheeks. The elder woman leaned forward kindly and touched the small hand, hardly bigger than a child’s, that rested, quivering now, in the Rani’s lap.
“What is the matter, my daughter?” she inquired in her colloquial Hindustani, which, after all, was the speech best understood of the princess, who had been raised, so to speak, from the gutter.
The Rani glanced round—a nervous, hurried glance, and an old woman in the background volunteered the information that the Ma-ji had not yet returned. “But,” she added significantly, in a croaking voice, “she may be here at any minute.”
Mrs Fleetwood realized that here was some zenana intrigue or disagreement—that the Rani was not happy, that something was wrong. The Ma-ji, she realized, must be the Rajah’s mother—the grandmother of the little prince.
The Rani’s tears increased and dropped on to her pretty draperies with sharp little taps. She caught at the Englishwoman’s arm. “Lady—come and see the child. Have we not all heard of thy skill in sickness, of the magic healing of thy hand. For these three days hath the baba been ailing through trouble in his gums, and the spells and charms and remedies of my mother-in-law, the Ma-ji, avail not, though she also be deeply learned in such matters.”
“But, Rani, there is the English doctor. Why not ask the Rajah, thy husband, to let him see the little one?—though I will come now, willingly, as well.”
There was a movement of hesitation among the concourse of females, beginning with the Rani herself. “My mother-in-law,” she admitted, “does not credit the English doctor-sahib with knowledge; and but now hath she gone to procure a remedy from a wise man in the city who is said to have power that is miraculous. Yet do I fear—oh, mem-sahib, come and see my little boy before she returns; maybe thy hand is more healing than the magic of our people. Quick, let us go at once before she is here. Her anger is so swift—she would not permit that we summoned the foreign doctor-sahib. She told us it was but simple indisposition, and that he would only bewitch the baba—and the English Government would uphold him so that we should have no redress.”
She waved aside the officious swarm of attendants and uncurled herself from her perch. Mrs Fleetwood stood up, and looked at her own daughter. For aught she could tell the baby might be suffering from some complaint that was infectious. She had no wish to run risks; if she went to see the child Fay had better not accompany her.
“Fay,” she said, “stay here till I come back. I don’t suppose I shall be long.”
Fay nodded. She was content to remain where she was, being rather amused by the tricks of a performing bird that one of the women had brought forward—a little parakeet that drew a tiny carriage, and turned somersaults, and made a salaam.
But presently she tired of the performance—repetition does not bore the Oriental as it does the Western mind—and her enamelled watch told her that her mother had been absent for nearly ten minutes already. She began to feel oppressed by the stifling atmosphere, to long for a breath of fresh air. Politely she requested that she might be allowed to repair to the garden or the balcony to await her parent’s return, and a dozen eager guides conducted her to a door that opened into a square courtyard, where zinnias and asters and everlasting flowers were growing in company with highly-scented herbs—dry, sacred plants, pungent of odour. High walls shut out the air, though the sun blazed down, converting the enclosure into a veritable oven. Fay turned back in haste, followed by her companions, preferring the dimness and comparative cool of the place she had left. She looked about her and espied another door. Perhaps this led to more airy regions. She approached it, and a clamour of protest rose from the throng—That was the door used by the Rajah himself when he wished to eat the air, but none of the women ever passed through it from within for it led into the public gaze. If the young lady crossed that threshold none of them might accompany her!
This appeared to Fay rather an advantage than otherwise. She hastened towards the door, and with conciliating assurances that she would return to bid them farewell when her mother should summon her, she passed out into the sunny air that was stirred with a faint, fleeting breeze.
Fay found herself on a broad terrace, or rather rampart—a portion of the old fort that looked down on gardens and villas and groves of trees, and the busy bazaar beyond—then a great plain on which troops were being drilled and horses exercised. It all appeared prosperous and content, and there were miles of flat, cultivated land spreading to the dusty horizon. She gazed over the Eastern landscape with a thrill at her breast. The city dwellings, and walls, and temples, huddled and irregular, lay veiled in a primrose mist; people on the flat roofs moved indistinctly, like figures in a dream, and a drowsy hum rose from the streets crossed and interlaced, and thronged with human beings.
She moved to the edge of the terrace. Immediately below the height on which she stood a group of camels squatted, munching food, and a curl of blue smoke went up from a fire near by, where the camel-men prepared their evening meal; warm, aromatic scents, now sweet, now almost bitter, floated to and fro in the fitful little wind; lizards darted out from crevices in the walls and lay motionless, watching her. The girl felt enraptured, yet sorrowful. She could have cried with this strange emotion that came to her always when, as she tried to express it to herself, she was “alone with India.” It moved her when she watched the dawn rise over the hills; at evening in the plains when she saw the sun set red behind the palm stems, staining crimson the flat country and the shallow stretches of water; during long afternoons when peace and silence were profound beneath the heat of the sun and the strong white light that filtered through the trees.
A sound of footsteps awoke echoes from the massive wall behind her, and she turned, startled, disturbed, in expectation of the summons from her mother, to see Rotah moving along the terrace, unattended.
“I come to fetch you and Mrs Fleetwood,” he explained. “Captain Somerton and your father say time to go.”
His eyes, lustrous and liquid, rested on her face for a moment, gravely, with lingering attention. He stood by her side, slender and boyish, clothed in purest white that deepened and warmed the smooth duskiness of his skin.
“My mother has gone to see your little boy.” Fay spoke in Hindustani. “I came out here to wait for her—it was rather hot inside. I am so sorry the baby is not well.”
“Oh! it will be nothing,” he said carelessly, “just tooth trouble that cannot be helped. The women know what to do.”
Fay glanced at him furtively, as now he looked out across his domain, and it seemed absurd to her that this boy, not much older than herself, should be married and the father of a son! She felt amused as it occurred to her that were she of his race she also would have been married by this time and perhaps a mother!
What a bother it must be for Rotah to have a wife and baby at his age—she did not wonder that he took small interest in the child’s teething. At the same time she remembered the significant mention of the Ma-ji in the zenana, her power and her temper; and Fay felt vaguely uneasy. Were these women purposely keeping the Rajah in ignorance of his child’s real condition that they might be free to deal with it after their own fashion, without reference to English medical aid? She remembered with comfort that her mother was investigating the case, and of course she would know at once if outside interference were advisable. There was no need to feel troubled over the matter.
The Rajah pointed out to her his parade ground where horsemen were galloping about, rather, it seemed to Fay from that height and distance, after the manner in which flies will disport themselves in a room—moving rapidly now in wide, now in narrow circles, meeting and parting abruptly, again to sail round and round with aimless persistence. She supposed it was a form of training and exercise.
He waved his hand towards the city, then turned to her with a light of triumph in his eyes.
“It is all mine!” he said loudly, and with exultation in his voice. “It is all mine!”
For a moment the girl was astonished, but as he stood before her, his head held high, his right hand resting on his hip as though to grasp a sword hilt, breathing fast through his thin nostrils, the sense of his coming power for evil or for good, his vast responsibility, stirred her with a vague excitement in which apprehension mingled. The spirit of despotism was in him by inheritance, and he would have dominion over a multitude, the welfare of a people in his keeping! She felt dimly how severe would be the temptations and difficulties of his position when given his independence. An intense desire that he should not fail, should do well and wisely, took hold of her; and a knowledge born of quick mental perception told her that he might value and remember anything she said now, in this intimate moment. They were here alone, a boy and girl, fellow-creatures though of different race and colour and religion—surely she might try to tell him what was in her mind?
“Yes,” she said earnestly, “it is all yours, Rajah-sahib, and the happiness of the people will depend on you. Oh! do be kind and just and unselfish—whatever it may cost you! Promise me you will.”
Lightly she laid her fingers on his left hand, lying on the parapet—all unwitting of the fierce flame of passion that surged through his being at her tender touch. His eyes blazed, he trembled. Then, husky and stammering, he vowed in mingled English and Hindustani that to his death he would obey her and remember—a quick, incoherent outpouring that Fay hardly understood. But she knew he was giving her his promise, and she mistook his obvious emotion for enthusiasm. She was filled with a glad triumph.
“Shabash! Rajah-sahib!” she cried, and clapped her hands together.
The door behind them opened with a hideous noise. They turned to see a figure that beckoned and called, summoning Fay. As she went towards it she looked back over her shoulder, smiling, her eyebrows slightly lifted, question in her air. “Aren’t you coming too?” she asked the Rajah.
Silently he shook his head; and she passed into the dim interior. The door closed on her light figure, and Rotah stood motionless, gazing at the iron-studded panels that had shut her from his sight.
After a heavy pause Rotah walked slowly along the terrace and down a flight of steep steps that led to the more modern buildings. In the vast reception-room, gorgeous and gloomy and dusty, with its fly-blown mirrors and dull crystal chandeliers, he found Mr Fleetwood and Captain Somerton awaiting the ladies. Rotah felt miserable, and he looked it. Orientals do not always conceal their feelings as is commonly supposed. Amusement they will hide politely, for their sense of humour is not strong enough to overcome their natural good manners; but disappointment, vexation, anger, they will betray involuntarily in their expression.
“Ladies come soon,” Rotah said sulkily.
“Hullo! anything wrong?” inquired Somerton.
Instantly the Rajah accounted for his mood with the first reasonable subterfuge that presented itself.
“The child not well,” he said, simulating an air of anxiety.
Just then Mrs Fleetwood and her daughter were ushered through the heavily-embroidered curtains at the end of the room. Mrs Fleetwood made straight for the Rajah.
“I have been giving the Rani advice about the baby,” she said, and, for her, spoke quite severely.
“I think you should let the English doctor see the little boy, and not permit the Ma-ji to employ magic to get his teeth through his gums as she appears to have been doing.”
Somerton came forward. “What’s that?” he said.
Rotah spread out his hands. “What can I do,” he protested in his own language, “against the women and their customs? Until but now I had no knowledge that the little one was ailing—he cries and cries—but it is his teeth, they tell me, and always young children have such troubles.”
“You had better see about it,” said Mrs Fleetwood, conclusively. “I don’t like the look of the child at all. He certainly has fever and his gums want lancing. The Ma-ji came back from the bazaar while I was in the zenana bringing some foolish remedy that was half a spell. She had got it, I understood, from some sort of fakir! If you don’t take care they will kill the poor little fellow between them. Really, Rajah-sahib, the Rani should know better by this time.”
To the embarrassment of the company the Rajah burst out: “She knows nothing—nothing—and she will not learn!”
Mrs Fleetwood patted his shoulder with soothing intent.
“Well, well, never mind. I daresay there isn’t much the matter—but don’t let them have it all their own way. Get in Dr Bray, and have the child’s gums lanced properly. That is my advice. Now, John,” turning to her husband, “we ought to be going. Is the carriage there? Come along, Fay. Good-bye, Captain Somerton. Shall we see you again before we go home? Can’t you join us for Christmas?”
“I’m afraid not,” he said, and followed them to the pillared portico, “but may I let you know?”
Then there was hand-shaking and polite speeches, and the bustle of departure. The visitors got into their carriage and swept away with a clatter in a cloud of dust, leaving the Hindu and the Englishman standing together to watch the vehicle till it passed from their sight. How little either imagined that the same pure little face and soft grey eyes haunted the mind and memory of each! Rotah did not know why Captain Somerton, usually so cheery and good-tempered, should sigh and strike the hard veranda floor with his stick—he fancied it must be something to do with the obstinacy of his mother, and the foolishness of zenana women in general. Captain Somerton for his part was shocked and astonished when, as presently he expressed a hope that there was nothing serious the matter with the child, Rotah held out the tip of his little finger and said viciously in Hindustani: “If he die—if all die—I that much sorry and,” with a comprehensive wave of his hand over his person, “whole body glad!” Then he turned with a movement unnaturally abrupt for one of his race and left his friend speechless with surprise.
In a fever the boy sought the zenana, bursting in upon the Rani and her satellites with lowering countenance, and anger at his heart.
A farmyard-like flutter arose, runnings to and fro, little cries of perturbation, swirling of draperies, counter-orders, confusion. It was not often that the Rajah presented himself without warning—and only to behold his face at this moment told that something had occurred to vex him.
“Where,” he demanded, “is the Ma-ji?”
A little old woman came forward. She was like a plucked bird, all beak and claws, and barren of feathers—otherwise hair—no eyebrows, no lashes, her head beneath her wrapper obviously bald. She advanced as the aggressor, having no intention of awaiting an attack.
“So thou hast come fresh from the influence of the white woman, the interferer, the busybody, who would rejoice to see us, and all our people, exterminated! Is not plague introduced into the drinking wells by means of a red powder? Does not vaccination cause diseases worse than the smallpox? Is not famine brought about wilfully? And is there not everywhere tyranny and oppression and defiance to the pleasure of our gods?”
She spat the words out in a long string without pause or breath.
“Silence!” shouted Rotah, but without the smallest effect save to increase the old woman’s excitement.
“Oh, yes, silence, silence,” she mocked. “Thou who hast been flattered and deceived by the foreigners, and cannot tell true from false, who cannot see the cataract in thine own eye but can see the sty in another’s! Thou, who cannot put trust in thine own priests and gods, to say ‘Silence, silence!’ to thy mother as though she were dirt beneath thy feet! Very well, abuse me once and I will abuse thee ten times!”
There followed such shrill maledictions and outrageous invective as filled Rotah with a wild indignant agitation combined with a helpless feeling of bewilderment. In spite of the purdah system and the popular Western belief that the women of the East are slaves downtrodden, crushed, at the will and mercy of their husbands, the head of the household loses much of his independence of mind and judgment once he is on the zenana side of the curtain. The Eastern woman’s influence, given the force of character many of them possess, is more subtle, far-reaching and irresistible than that of her Western sister. She can bring pressure to bear through the weapons of caste and custom that is almost impossible to contend against, can intrigue and manoeuvre and burrow underground to accomplish her ends. Well do British advisers and rulers understand that often the chief obstacle to progress on native territory lies hidden away, invisible, out of their reach, strong and insidious as poison itself. Little business of any description can be transacted that the dominant power in the zenana does not know of or discover for herself; she will have spies and gossips in her pay, she is in close touch with the priesthood that binds her in iron fetters of superstitious fear.
In the women’s quarters of Rotah’s household all was conducted on the most unenlightened lines; education was opposed, innovations discouraged, changes, except in the way of increased expenditure over religious observances, dress and jewels, were regarded as evils. And it was all because Ma-ji was the real ruler of the zenana, “the snake in the sleeve,” jealous, arrogant, vindictive; and the little Rani, together with the entire concourse of female relations, attendants and slaves, were as clay in her mischievous old hands. Rotah knew it, to his cost, but he himself feared and dreaded her displeasure. And he was not yet firm enough of will or purpose to combat the tyranny of custom and ignorance, and unscrupulous feminine determination embodied in the person of his widow-parent.
But to-day his frame of mind rendered him recklessly irritable. He waited till the Ma-ji gasped for breath, anger increasing within him, and then for the first time in his life he defied her, with set jaw and furious gaze.
“Who is master here?” he said violently. “Thou or I? Begone from my sight. I am weary of women. No longer will I brook thine interference. Why was I not told that the child was sick? The concealment was thy doing. If the child die the fault will be thine.” He pointed with a shaking hand to the door by which he had entered. His voice rose to a scream. “No more mischief shalt thou work—no more, I say.” His throat worked, his face became convulsed, his eyes suffused.
There was a shriek from the Rani who throughout the scene had cowered trembling among her rugs and cushions—cries from the frightened women huddled in the corners—as Rotah fell to the ground, choking, writhing, with foam at the corners of his mouth.
The palace was soon in an uproar. Captain Somerton and the English doctor were summoned. The Rajah was ill, the Rani demented, old Ma-ji silent for the time. And in a narrow, stuffy chamber, neglected and forgotten, the baby lay wailing on his pillow, till at midnight Somerton recollected that the child was out of sorts and caused him to be brought from the zenana that Dr Bray might ascertain if anything serious was wrong with the infant heir.
There followed a trying period for all concerned. Rotah’s indisposition, the result of anger and excitement (since any form of tribulation works physically on the native constitution), left him irritable and morose, and opposed to all attempts to distract his mind and induce him to resume, with his old interest, his daily tasks and recreations. The Rani fretted continually, badgered and coerced alternately by her mother-in-law who went about triumphant, because once the stimulus of the moment had evaporated Rotah did not renew his displeasure with her. Indeed he knew well enough how difficult was his position. The Rani, urged by his mother, would have wept and appealed and starved herself. The priests would have interposed; life would have been rendered intolerable. So the Ma-ji continued to rule, and the sickly little baby pined and dwindled despite the English doctor’s treatment, because this was persistently thwarted by measures and remedies prescribed by the grandmother. To do the old woman bare justice she truly believed she was, in her turn, counteracting the harmful effect of English ideas and customs. She was hopelessly convinced that Dr Bray’s advice was prompted by wicked intentions—that he was paid by the British Raj to bring about death and disaster to Hindu households; and she imbued the Rani and her women with the same pernicious opinions and prejudices.
At last, one night, there arose a piercing wail of many united voices from the women’s quarter of the palace. Somerton heard it as he sat smoking after a solitary dinner, writing his English mail letters. At once he hurried across to the palace, for the sound, he knew, denoted some grave disaster; and on the way he was met by a scared messenger who threw himself on the ground and cried out that the son of the Rajah of Rotah was dead—dead—dead! Somerton did not pause to interrogate the man, but ran on through the gardens and up the steps into the big hall of audience which seemed filled with echoes of mourning—dismal, depressing, woeful—the peculiar, heart-rending expression of grief that is common to the East when calamity befalls a house.
It was true—the child had been seized with convulsions, had died before help could be summoned or remedies administered, whether English or Indian—the little weakly child, offspring of immature parents hardly more than children themselves. The great dark eyes in the tiny wizened face had closed, never to open again in the flesh.
Rotah met his guardian in the audience hall. He was nervous and unstrung. “It was not my fault,” he said excitedly. “The child is dead, and the Ma-ji says it is Dr Bray who has killed him—”
Somerton laid his hand kindly on the young man’s arm. “My dear fellow,” he said, “you know as well as I do that such an accusation isn’t true, or just. Bray did all he could. The poor little chap was delicate from the beginning and I suppose teething was too much for him. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
Rotah threw himself on to the crimson velvet divan at the end of the room. He had come straight from a scene of sudden death, and confusion and despair—from darkness and weeping and reproaches.
“And now,” he said querulously, “there will be the priests to feed and propitiate, and all the pooja and the burning; and the days of mourning, and eating bad food off leaves.”
Somerton did not answer. He knew how tedious and exacting were the elaborate ceremonials which attend birth and marriage and death according to Hindu rule and rite. At the same time he realized, with something of a shock, that the young man was not so much overcome with grief at the loss of his offspring as with resentment at the prospect of the irksome obligations and duties the event must entail for himself, until the orthodox period of mourning was at an end! Also from a religious, as well as from a sentimental point of view, a serious misfortune had overtaken the Rajah of Rotah, since, if he should die before another son were born to him, his spiritual future must be wrecked; but this did not seem to be oppressing him either.
“I am sick at heart and in darkness of mind,” went on Rotah in his own tongue, with bitter petulance. “Without doubt do I benefit in a sense by all this teaching and study that the British Raj decrees is necessary, even though it level me with the babu class whose profession is scholarship. But nowadays they tell me the tiger and the goat drink at the same stream! On the other hand, by the new manner of life and thought am I placed in disagreement with the old ways, to which I was born and reared, while not yet in full understanding of the new. And there is weariness and vexation for me in the zenana by reason of it all. Ever will there be discord now and differences, and matters will grow worse instead of better as the women remain faithful to the old order, and I—go forward.” His voice broke. “Both ways am I drawn, and I would that I had never become Rajah at all.” Now the unhappy boy wept without restraint.
Somerton paced to and fro, concerned, perplexed. The hardship of the youth’s position was vividly apparent to him, his sympathy with Rotah was heart-felt. Yet what remedy could he suggest short of advising that the Rani should also be educated on English lines? But even as he thought of it he knew how rigid would be the opposition to such a course in the zenana. The elder women of the household, the priesthood, the Rani herself would all combine to frustrate such an intention. Poor Rotah was the victim of circumstances. Had he been direct heir to his little kingdom, or succeeded to it as a child, everything would have been easier for him, more natural. Probably his bride would have come from a better class, the marriage must have taken place much later, the girl might have had training and education to develop her intelligence. As it was, Somerton felt disposed to agree with Rotah in his regret that he had ever become Rajah at all.
“Listen,” he said, pausing before the dejected figure on the divan. “Would the Rani learn willingly if an English lady were engaged to teach her?”
Rotah scoffed at the notion. “What can she understand?” he answered hopelessly, “except such matters as sweetmeats and trinkets and clothes? She has not the wit of a mouse! Did not Maitland-mem-sahib try her best and find it useless?”
For the moment Somerton had forgotten, but now he recalled how the tutor’s wife, formerly a Zenana-mission teacher, had endeavoured, with the Rajah’s approval, to cultivate the mind of Rani. Earnestly she had persisted in her object, despite every form of obstruction—excuses, bad temper, inattention, stupidity, often real insolence combined with spiteful tricks and clumsy practical jokes. Finally she was defeated, admitting with regret and reluctance that it was hopeless to attempt any reform of existing conditions.
“It might be worth trying again,” Somerton said, though in his heart he knew it would not.
“No, no, leave it.” The Rajah rose wearily, “What is the use of sowing seed where there is no soil? And after all,” he added with a sneer, “is it not written in our holy books that it is sin to teach a woman anything?”
He left the room moodily, with dragging steps, and Somerton stood for some moments listening to the dismal sounds of grief that rose and fell on the still night air. A vague depression weighed on him. It seemed a thankless business this mingling of old and new civilizations, this attempt to graft West on East, of which Rotah was a suffering example. He remembered words concerning new wine and old bottles, new cloth and old garments, till they sang a dirge in his brain to the wailing accompaniment of women’s voices. Hastily he left the palace and returned to his own dwelling.
Christmas came, and, as prophesied by Mrs Bullen, the Fleetwoods entertained a camp full of guests in a locality famous for wild duck. The Bullens themselves were of the party, though Fanny condemned the extra expenditure incurred over a Christmas camp by her old friends on the very eve of their retirement.
“Rubbish, my dear Fanny!” argued Mrs Fleetwood. “What difference can it possibly make—feeding a few people more or less for the week?”
“A difference,” replied Fanny, with some asperity, “that, added to the cost of champagne and whisky and wine and liqueurs, would probably furnish your bedroom quite nicely when you settle at home!”
“Oh, never mind my bedroom at home—things of that sort are so cheap in England. Do stop croaking about money and the future, and allow us to enjoy our last Christmas week in India.”
It was impossible to help enjoying the week. The bright, cloudless days in the crisp glory of the cold weather; the picnic luncheons out shooting; the expeditions on elephants and horseback to more distant hunting grounds; the cheerful evenings in the big tent, half dining, half sitting room, with a blazing wood-fire at one end; the excellent catering and abundance of good fare; the stories, the jokes, the games and the more serious business of bridge. There was general good-fellowship and gaiety of spirits without any approach to rowdiness, for the average Anglo-Indian is, on the whole, an extremely well-mannered, self-respecting individual.
To his real regret Captain Somerton was not free to join the camp. He wrote to Mrs Fleetwood that, since the death of the child, matters had taken a turn of perversity in the palace at Rotah. The Rajah was restless and refractory; and the Resident was of opinion that it might be best for the youth to begin his College experience earlier than had been intended originally. In consequence there was much to be done and arranged between now and the date of Rotah’s departure, and already in the zenana outcry and opposition to this plan had commenced. The Rani was in despair, the Ma-ji openly furious; every day some subtle objection was proffered, ill-omens discovered, excuses invented for delay—“and I really think,” Captain Somerton concluded, “that Rotah himself will be as relieved as anybody once he is actually off!”
Fay was sorry Captain Somerton could not join the camp for Christmas. Her visit to his bungalow at Rotah had dispelled her resentful shyness of him, and she now felt that he was her friend; she considered he had been exceedingly nice and polite, treating her as a young lady—so unlike the odious Sir Rowland Curtice, who had tried to be jocose at her expense.
However, the presence of Tom Gray in the camp more than compensated her for Captain Somerton’s absence. And another Christmas guest who also claimed her interest was Captain the Honourable Lewis Mickleham. He attracted her attention not so much as an individual as on account of the understanding that appeared to exist between him and Isabel. Otherwise Fay found him rather a dull person, and she did not admire his thick red moustache, which he was for ever twirling between his finger and thumb. From his behaviour it would seem that he wished to be engaged to Isabel, but mystery clouded the situation, and Fay was much concerned until she discovered the truth.
She heard all about it as they came home one evening on the elephants after a long day’s sport. Mrs Fleetwood, Mrs Bullen, and Fay were in the same howdah—the matrons seated in front, the girl behind them. As she gazed over the howdah-side into the low, scrubby jungle, watching for possible glimpses of reptiles and wild animals disturbed by the elephant’s progress, the low, confidential murmur of talk between her mother and Mrs Bullen became less guarded, and Fay realized that the affair of Isabel and Captain Mickleham. was under discussion. The words reached her ears quite plainly.
“John doesn’t like it. He feels it puts Isabel in a false position. It seems the man proposed to her just before we came out into camp, but she was very secretive and told us nothing till the other day. Had I known about it I shouldn’t have asked him for Christmas. It was very wrong of Isabel to allow me to do it, considering there can be no open engagement at present.”
“Why didn’t he write to his people before he proposed, if he must have their consent?” Mrs Bullen inquired with sympathetic resentment.
“I don’t know, I’m sure. Young people are so extraordinary nowadays. And it appears he hasn’t written even yet. He says he thinks it would be more satisfactory to wait till the autumn, when he will be able to get leave, and speak to his father in person. It looks to me as if he feared opposition from his people—in which case, of course, we should insist on the whole thing being at an end.”
“Girls are a nuisance! If the young man is dependent on his father I should say there certainly would be opposition, seeing that Isabel hasn’t and never will have a penny,” was Mrs Bullen’s uncompromising opinion, “though, of course, it’s possible Lord Boldborough may be pleased that his son should wish to marry a nice girl, who is at least a lady, instead of a barmaid or an actress! Young men of that class seem to marry such dreadful people.”
“I should be very sorry if poor Isabel were disappointed and made unhappy,” said Mrs Fleetwood, distressfully. “I suppose we can only agree to the arrangement of having nothing definitely decided till he comes home and we are all in England together. But of course under any circumstances we can’t allow a secret engagement—there can only be an understanding.” She sighed. “I rather hoped at one time she would have listened to dear Mr Dakin. He would make such a good husband! I invited him to join us for Christmas as a sort of last chance, but he wouldn’t come. He wrote me a very nice letter, and of course I could read between the lines.”
Mrs Bullen glanced at her friend in pitying appreciation. Dear Emily!—she was so unworldly, so without sordid ambition—only so anxious that everybody should be happy, always recognizing the best in others, having no mean motives, no petty aspirations. Fanny felt she could beat those two silly, selfish girls with the fullest satisfaction.
So now Fay knew how matters stood concerning the Isabel-Mickleham affair; but she still remained mystified with regard to Marion and Tom Gray. Tom came for the whole week and, without question, enjoyed himself entirely. He seemed no longer troubled because Marion would not marry him. Therefore Fay decided that he had ceased to care for her sister; she observed that he did not manoeuvre to be alone with Marion as had been his tendency at Pahar Tal. His manner towards her was friendly and frank, just as he was friendly and frank with the rest of them. And when his day of departure came—he was the last of the guests to leave—his good-bye with Marion did not seem to affect him more than did his parting with any other member of the family. They all stood outside the tents after breakfast and saw him ride away, a very workmanlike figure in his riding kit, his breeches and gaiters, loose coat and old sola-topee that he waved in farewell. The sun shone on his close-clipped head and blunt brown face, he smiled and shouted last words—repeated to the end his intention of spending the Christmas after next with them in England when his furlough would be due.
Urged by the mischievous spirit of a younger sister, Fay followed Marion into the tent when Tom Gray had disappeared through the trees of the mango grove. She was agog to note if Marion betrayed the least regret over his departure. But Marion picked up the last copy of The Queen and studied the advertisements, humming a waltz tune carelessly. Then she said something to Fay about French translation, which caused the younger sister to recollect that Akbar and Louisa had not been fed—that they might die of starvation if not tended immediately—to make vague proposals concerning time for French translation later on in the day.
Christmas week now being over Fay was tormented intermittently during the remainder of the tour by educational attentions from her sisters. When the camp was guestless, or there were no stations to pass through, Marion and Isabel found time to contemplate with shocked astonishment their pupil’s ignorance and lack of ambition, and they became energetically anxious that she should recover lost ground. Fay endured it all with patient self-control and recognized that matters might have been worse. The lessons were usually conducted out of doors—she would be set tasks and left to complete them under a tree or in the tent veranda, where she could dream and muse and bask in the sensuous tranquillity of the atmosphere, and accomplish only barely enough work to preserve her from serious fault-finding.
At the end of February, when the heat increased perceptibly and tents were not altogether pleasant in the day-time, the return to headquarters again brought about an indefinite holiday for Fay. Marion and Isabel agreed that as there was so much to be done in preparation for leaving India, Fay’s lessons must be neglected for the time—she would soon pick up everything, they said, once she got home and had regular teaching from professionals, could attend classes and lectures, etc.
Once back in the station, life became a whirl compared with the calmness of camp. Everybody seemed anxious to crowd as much amusement and as many social obligations as possible into the last few weeks, before the hot weather more or less emptied the place and rendered many forms of exercise and entertainment impossible for those who remained in the plains. The days were dusty and the heat increased, though it was yet nothing to the heat that must come later; the evenings were warm and voluptuous, scented with lime and mango blossom; the nights just now radiant with moonlight, the wonderful moonlight of the East, so bright, so strong, that one can almost see to read by it.
The Fleetwoods were engrossed with final duties and preparations for departure. For various reasons, official and otherwise, the Commissioner found it impossible to carry out his scheme of a shooting expedition before his retirement. His disappointment was severe. Mrs Fleetwood, for her part, had planned to pack and sell and auction the household effects during his absence. “Because,” she told the girls, “your father will probably want to take everything we possess with him to England!” It was a trying period. Already there had been a falling out over old Gunga.
“He would be no use whatever in England,” Mrs Fleetwood protested. “He would only get ill and die.”
“So shall I,” returned her husband, crossly, “with nothing to do, and nothing to ride, and nothing to shoot. And how am I going to manage about my clothes without a bearer?”
“You always managed very well when we were on furlough, dear,” soothed Mrs Fleetwood, at the same time recollecting that she herself had acted unobtrusively as bearer on those occasions. “And parlour-maids make very good valets. Besides, I don’t think for a moment that Gunga’s family would allow him to leave the country. It might be different if we were going home just for a few months, or even a year, but you see we are never coming back again.”
She sighed. So did Mr Fleetwood; and the two pairs of kind blue eyes met in a sad little smile of sorrowful understanding. They were sitting in the veranda, alone for a wonder, looking out over the green lawns and luxuriant growth of tree and shrub and creeper—the husband and wife who both had been born in India, as their parents were born there before them; had met and married in India; had passed thirty years of wedded existence together in India, save for rare intervals in England. And now they were about to leave this country for one where the conditions of life were entirely dissimilar; where settled habitation was the rule instead of the constant locomotion and frequent change of dwelling-place to which they were so accustomed; where space and time and income must all be differently apportioned. In spite of sentiment concerning “home” and “exile,” a little fear, a little doubt lay in the heart of each as to whether the future could ever be so happy, so congenial as the past.
The Commissioner broke the significant pause. “Well,” he said with an effort, “what about Gunga? Perhaps you are right, and he might only be a nuisance. Old as he is he might make love to the maids, or they to him! And there is his caste to be considered. I suppose we could hardly expect him to give up his country and his people and his customs at his age—though the dear old fellow is miserable at the thought of parting from us, and swears he means to come.”
“He doesn’t in the least realize what it would mean,’ said Mrs Fleetwood.
And to her relief, as well as according to her expectations, the question was finally decided by Gunga’s own family, who travelled from their village in the district, a considerable party, all crammed into a bullock-cart driven by a relation, in order to protest and remonstrate in person against this outrageous proposal of their kinsman to desert them. Gunga’s wife came too—a buxom person many years his junior, for Gunga had been a widower more than once. She was supported by several members of her own family, her mother and her grandmother among them; also came Gunga’s brother and sister, and nephews and nieces, as well as some relatives of his former wives. They all lamented loudly in the compound throughout an entire night, till the old servant presented himself mournfully before his beloved master and mistress, crestfallen and distressed, to admit that the ties of blood were too powerful, and he must yield to the wishes of his people and the claims of his property—for the village from which the throng had journeyed was owned in part by Gunga himself. It is a remarkable fact how little the possession of land or money will affect the outward position of the average native of India. A domestic servant may be, and very often is, a comparatively rich man; the half-naked shopkeeper squatting on his heels in the bazaar weighing out grain and spice may be an actual millionaire.
After this Gunga went about his duties looking as though he were about to be hanged; but how Mrs Fleetwood would ever have managed without him at this juncture she often afterwards wondered. He obtained astonishing prices for rubbish, he produced articles long ago forgotten from remote corners and cupboards—all jealously and honestly treasured and guarded as household property that might some day prove of use. He made himself the terror of the compound—no irregularities, no petty pilferings that might deprive his master of even an anna were permitted to pass, and storms and quarrels were perpetual in the back premises. He packed indefatigably and forgot nothing—for had not these English people, in the language of the East, been “his father and his mother” these many years past? He loved them with the faithful, loyal devotion of which the right sort of native is capable when his lot is cast with the right sort of European. “Like master, like man,” is a proverb that probably applies more nearly to India than to any other country in the world.
Perhaps the only member of the household who was more unhappy than old Gunga was the Commissioner’s youngest daughter. Poor Fay wandered about the bungalow and compound the picture of disconsolation, and to add to her grief it was decreed that Akbar and Louisa were not to accompany her to England. The head ayah petitioned that she might have Louisa. “Such an excellent cat, Miss-baba,” the woman pleaded, “and I will give her a great deal of food.” But Fay distrusted the good faith of the sweeper, the ayah’s husband, a domestic bully and tyrant; she had hideous visions of curried Louisa should the family fortunes fall, or the “billi” prove too expensive a possession. Her suggestion that Louisa should be returned to the Rajah of Rotah met with derision, and eventually a home was secured for her with some children who were soon to be dispatched by their parents to the hills—who were enchanted with the beautiful white cat that had one eye blue and the other yellow. Akbar was committed to Gunga’s charge, who swore he should want for nothing till he died, which, of course, under such care and protection, could only be years hence and only of old age.
The retirement of the Fleetwoods was a social event of melancholy importance in the station. Everybody deplored their departure, even those who had obtained astonishing bargains from the list of articles for sale circulated by Mrs Fleetwood among the European community. It was everywhere agreed that the family would be a great loss socially as well as officially. There was a rumour that the new Commissioner did not intend to take a house at all! His wife was at home, he would live at the Club for the hot weather and in tents for the winter; so that the big bungalow and compound were likely to stand empty and neglected. There would be no more pleasant gatherings in the drawing-room or on the lawns, for the present at any rate.
Mrs Fleetwood undertook countless commissions to be executed the moment she arrived in London; she promised to go and see girls and boys at school all over England, to call on mothers and aunts and “people,” and wives who were at home with the children, to select and dispatch a dress for one friend, a hat for another, drawing-room curtains for somebody else—even to superintend a trousseau; all with the readiest goodwill and sincerest intention.
The regret was universal when the train bore the Fleetwoods out of the railway station, waving from the windows of the saloon carriage that was choked with superfluous luggage and the farewell offerings of friends. To the last the family travelled in comfort, for Mr Fleetwood had procured an inspection carriage to take them down to Bombay, so that with a kitchen attached to it, their own cook and butler to attend to them, as well as old Gunga who was to see them sail, the journey was likely to be as pleasant as heat and dust would permit.
Among the multitude of Indian pictures that Fay carried in her memory to England was this departure from headquarters on the first stage of their travels. The railway station thronged with friends, both English and Indian, to bid the family farewell; the servants a weeping group with pathetic parting presents of fruit and tight little nosegays—all from the Commissioner’s own garden, but none the less appreciated as tokens of good feeling; agitated bands of native officials and clerks tendering boxes of grapes from Kabul, nuts of various kinds, and remarkable sweetmeats that glistened and oozed, attracting swarms of flies. Mr Fleetwood silent, self-controlled; his wife tearful, overcome, exchanging last words with people who all assured her they meant to look her up at once directly they got home themselves.
Captain Mickleham was not at the station, some regimental duty had claimed him unavoidably, but he sent a large bunch of violets and a note for Isabel. Just as the train was moving a tall, slim figure in black clothes dashed on to the platform and ran along by the carriage windows attempting, dangerously, to shake hands with each of those inside. It was the Reverend Arthur Dakin, the young chaplain, but the only person in the compartment whose hand he could not reach was Isabel’s, because at sight of him she shrank back into a far corner; and when she did start forward from her seat it was too late; the train had almost cleared the station. She could only wave her hand to the black form that stood hatless, motionless, among the moving native crowd that still covered the platform.
The long, lofty drawing-room of a quiet London hotel located in a highly respectable, though not ultra-fashionable quarter; the usual row of tall windows facing the street, veiled with imitation lace curtains; massive furniture, ugly, upholstered in stamped yellow and purple velvet; walls covered with an embossed paper, and a smell of new carpet everywhere.
The Fleetwoods were collected in a corner of this room by one of the windows. It was their first morning in England. Mr Fleetwood had already condemned the dinner last night, and the breakfast they had just eaten.
“Why did you listen to Fanny Bullen and come to this place, Emily?”
“Well, dear, it’s clean and inexpensive, and we are such a large party to stay in one of the big hotels till we’ve found a house.”
“That oughtn’t to take long. There seem enough to let.” He pointed out of the window to the houses opposite—tall, handsome houses with balconies and porticoes and enormous basements. Nearly all were disfigured by boards announcing that they were convenient or commodious family residences, to let either furnished or unfurnished.
“Of course there are plenty to let about here,” said Marion, with scorn.
“Where are we going to take a house then?” asked her father, helplessly.
“Well, anyway I don’t see that we need come out as far as this. It isn’t as if it was to be for long; a furnished house while we look about for what we want in the country isn’t like settling down altogether in a more expensive neighbourhood.”
Marion was in high spirits, delighted to be once again in England. She wished to forget India and tiresome Tom Gray as soon as possible. It provoked her that she could not rid her memory of the sight of Tom Gray riding away through the mango trees, waving his shabby sola-topee, not at all the disappointed lover; in fact, his behaviour throughout Christmas week had been incomprehensible, and he had never taken leave to come and see them off—though, as Marion felt bound to argue with herself, why should he trouble to travel for a day and a night to bid good-bye to a girl who did not want to marry him?
It was Marion who had arranged the family plans. They were to take a furnished house in London for six months, by which time they would have discovered a suitable place in the country—“not too large, with some fishing and good rough shooting, in a sociable neighbourhood within easy reach of London.”(!) It would amuse dad to run about house-hunting. He could take up golf, too; and somebody would be sure to offer him some fishing in the summer and some shooting in the autumn until they were settled. Meanwhile she and Isabel would make heaps of new friends through Aunt Beatrice, friends who would be useful afterwards for visits to London and country house-parties, and help them to have a capital time now.
Marion glanced into the gilt-framed mirror at the end of the room, and noted with satisfaction that she and Isabel were a couple of very good-looking young women who should experience no difficulty whatever in enjoying themselves at home. For them there surely need be no cry of “hating England after India.” Of course the question of new clothes must be considered at once. The whole party were very shabby—people always looked shabby when they first arrived from India, even if they saved up perfectly new clothes to land in, or even got them from home on purpose.
“Dad, you had better go to your tailor this morning,” she suggested, “and the rest of us must get some clothes somewhere without delay.”
“Hadn’t we better wait and see what is being worn?” said Mrs Fleetwood.
There was reluctance in her voice. She felt disinclined to hurry over anything. All her adult life she had been so accustomed to sufficient leisure. “And it looks rather cold out of doors?” She turned her gaze to the prepared but unlighted fire, and thought wistfully that perhaps a match—and one of those deep, stamped-velvet chairs that looked comfortable—and those illustrated papers on the table? Outside the April sunshine gleamed with watery effort, the chill sunshine of a backward spring that has something indifferent, almost heartless, in its pale light, exposing the dirt and destruction of winter, yet offering small amends. Evidently there was a high wind, for dust and grit and rubbish were being swirled along the street, people were clutching their hats, and turning now and again as though to avoid the gusts that pounced on them from the side streets.
“We can’t go and see Aunt Beatrice as we are, mother. You know she wrote that she would be back from the Riviera next week. It takes a long time to get clothes, and Fay wants a respectable coat and skirt and a new hat very badly.”
Mrs Fleetwood resigned herself. “Very well. Suppose Fay and I go together and you and Isabel are independent?” which was exactly what Marion desired, but had not liked to propose. “And you go your own way too, John? We can meet here for luncheon.”
“I shall lunch at the Club,” said Mr Fleetwood. “I must have one good meal during the course of the day.”
“Yes, dear,” his wife agreed, with sympathy; “and we will get into a house with servants of our own as soon as possible. Certainly the food can be very indifferent in England, though you would imagine there was literally no excuse—what with fish and vegetables and things you can’t get really good in India without endless trouble and expense—”
Presently they all left the hotel together; then separated to go their several ways. Mr Fleetwood walked. In his tweed suit and Homburg hat set slightly to one side on his grey head he looked a distinguished, efficient personality. There was nothing in his appearance to suggest that he had done his life’s work, nothing weary or worn out. His lean figure, hard brown face and firm step argued capacity for years to come of energy and work. He felt rather cheerless as he walked along in the wind and dust. Since last he was at home the traffic seemed to have increased a thousandfold; the noise was bewildering; the crowd irritated him—hurrying, heedless people who jostled and pushed, people who muttered to themselves as they went along, lagging people who blocked the pavements without consideration. And all the faces looked sad, preoccupied or sulky, which, thought the ex-Commissioner, as he grabbed his hat, was not surprising in this infernal wind.
Then a horse fell down a few yards from him in the street, and a crowd collected from nowhere as if by magic—a crowd of unwholesome-looking men in dirty clothes, all apparently of the same age and size and type, strangely alike, equally repulsive. He wondered vaguely what they would look like washed and trimmed and deprived of their filthy coverings. Surely it was chiefly their clothes that made them so disgusting? He thought of an Indian crowd, clothed in white or bright colours, picturesque, polite, quiet perhaps to apathy or noisy with a naive, childlike excitement. What a contrast to these rough, squalid human beings who gaped and pressed round the fallen animal.
He moved away and an omnibus passed him packed with people, who all turned their heads to look at the accident. He recognized the profile of a fellow-civilian, rather senior to himself, who had retired two or three years ago after holding a very high appointment. Grimly Mr Fleetwood smiled. Logan was on a state elephant last time he saw him, going to open some show or other—now here he was in a ’bus, squeezed up in a row of very ordinary people, looking very ordinary himself; paying a penny for his fare! Mr Fleetwood walked on, and all the time his heart was heavy with a vague restlessness which he did not recognize as a tinge of nostalgia for his old life, for the power, the purpose, the sun and the space. He imagined he was only annoyed with himself because he found the crossings dangerous and was forced to be very careful.
Marion and Isabel got into a taxi-cab and were whirled away rejoicing. Mrs Fleetwood and Fay walked humbly to the nearest Underground Railway station, bound for a shop familiar to Mrs Fleetwood. When they met again at luncheon they were all tired.
“Shopping wears one out when one isn’t used to it,” Mrs Fleetwood said wearily, “and the crowds of people make it worse, though I suppose the shops weren’t really so full, and the want of air. Buying things for an hour or two is bad enough, so what must it be for those poor girls selling all day in that atmosphere!” She pushed away the plate of roast mutton before her. “I can’t eat this,” she said fretfully.
“I believe that German waiter has given us all nasty helpings because dad will speak to him in Hindustani,” said Fay.
Marion inquired what her mother had bought for herself. “Fay’s coat and skirt looks very nice,” she added critically. “I wish I could wear ready-made things—but I’m just over stock size, they tell me.” All the same she was complacent in a new and very becoming hat.
“Oh! my dear, I got nothing for myself,” said Mrs Fleetwood, guiltily. “It was past one o’clock by the time Fay was finished. There seems to be no time in England between breakfast and luncheon. I really think I must lie down and have a rest this afternoon, though I suppose I ought to go and see your Aunt Charlotte at Norwood?” Aunt Charlotte was Mrs Fleetwood’s sister, whose husband had retired from the Indian Army many years ago.
“Isabel and I will go, and Fay can come with us,” suggested Marion. “Dad said he might get tickets for a theatre to-night, so you had much better keep quiet for the present. We saw two or three people we knew, this morning,” she went on. “Mrs Dunn, in an electric brougham! She looked awfully smart. She didn’t see us. And we met Mr Forbes, who said he was just going back to India stone broke after six months’ leave. And Isabel said she was sure she saw the Taylors in Knightsbridge—they are at home now, I think.”
“It’s an odd thing that for about the first fortnight after arriving in England you seem to see more people you know in the streets than you ever do afterwards!” observed Mrs Fleetwood. “I’ve always noticed it. It may be because at first one stares about and looks more at everybody. It seems so unnatural not to know every face you meet!”
“Well,” said Isabel, with her soft laugh, “the more friends we come across the better, so we must continue to stare about in case we shouldn’t see them. Marion was quite ready to run after the Taylors and speak to them this morning, if we had been sure it was the Taylors, and in India she was always trying to avoid them!”
Marion flushed. “When we have been at home a little time we shan’t be dependent on our Indian friends for society, I hope.” She knew as she said it that it was an unworthy speech.
Mrs Fleetwood looked up from a plate of unattractive rice pudding. “Marion,” she said reproachfully, “I trust you will remember that our old Indian friends will always come before any new acquaintances—at any rate with your father and myself. New acquaintances can so easily kill old friendships.”
Marion said nothing. Her mother was seldom annoyed with her, and she was conscious herself that she deserved rebuke for her breach of good taste. She changed the conversation to the subject of houses.
“It’s no use looking at small houses,” she said. “We are too large a party. Dad will want a study, and Isabel and I ought to have some sort of muddle room. Then, you see, bedrooms—yours and dad’s, and a dressing-room; two for Isabel and me, and something for Fay. And a spare room if George comes home from China or Walter from South Africa this summer. How many servants do you think we shall have to keep?”
“We must have a cook,” said Isabel, “and I suppose a housemaid and a parlourmaid?”
“And which of them will do the front-door steps and the boots and knives and that sort of thing?” queried Mrs Fleetwood, with dismal recollections of harrowing difficulties over such matters when, at one time in England for the winter without her husband, she had taken a furnished London house.
They all looked at each other blankly. “Oh! probably one can purchase peace at the price of a daily slave for the other servants,” said Marion, hopefully. “Anyway it’s clear we can’t fit into a small house, and I’m afraid big ones in a central position would be prohibitive as regards rent. We shall have to content ourselves with the best part of South Kensington after all, I expect.”
“Well, we might do worse,” was Isabel’s opinion. “We should get big rooms, and gardens at the back, and be able to have all our boxes unpacked, and dad would be much happier.”
“Oh, yes,” said Fay, plaintively, sitting trussed up in her new clothes, “do take a house with gardens at the back. When the weather gets warmer the streets will be even more awful than they are now. Just something with green and flowers, and no people tearing along!”
There was a little choke in her voice, and she turned supplicating grey eyes towards her mother, who understood intuitively that her youngest girl’s heart was sick for India, for the tranquillity and warmth, and the idle, sunlit spaces. Indeed her own mind looked back with wistful regret to the comfortable ease of her life out there; details might have been vexatious and exasperating at times, no doubt, but she felt sure they were trifling in comparison with the domestic struggles that now, in all probability, lay before her.
A strenuous week ensued, full of restless activity. Shopping, house-hunting, visits to and from old Indian friends encountered continually in the streets or shops—who were always invited to some meal at the Fleetwoods’ hotel with apologies for the indifference of the catering. Exhausting expeditions were made to see members of the family on both sides—mostly old and uninteresting relations living on pensions in the suburbs. Lady Landon was the Fleetwoods’ only relative who actually possessed a house in London. That lady’s return to the said house from the South of France was duly announced in The Morning Post, and on the Sunday following her arrival Mr and Mrs Fleetwood and Marion went there to luncheon. “Both of you come,” Lady Landon wrote to her sister-in-law, “and bring one of the girls with you. Two o’clock luncheon.”
Marion was the one to go as a matter of course, being the eldest. Fay and Isabel stayed behind.
“We couldn’t expect her to ask the whole pack of us,” said Marion.
“Why not?” argued her father, who was not deeply attached to his only sister, and always said she was a snob. “The house is quite big enough.”
“Probably she has a luncheon-party.”
“Oh, I hope not,” exclaimed Mrs Fleetwood. She had never felt quite at ease in the presence of her fashionable sister-in-law, nor among the company she had met when at the house. She was conscious, too, that the toque and costume purchased during this turbulent first week at home was not of the style to excite Beatrice Landon’s approval. Marion worried her dreadfully about it, and was most discouraging even as they were actually on their way to keep the Sunday engagement.
“I can’t help it, Marion,” she protested. “There has been simply no time. We seem to live as though we had just come up to London from the country for a fortnight!”
“That is the way most people do live in London, I fancy,” Mr Fleetwood interposed.
“Well, at any rate you look all right, which is the main thing!” And the mother gazed fondly at her eldest daughter, who even in so short a period had contrived to liken herself to the young women one saw driving about in motors and carriages, or emerging from houses that could only be inhabited by the wealthy world.
“I don’t know how I’m going to keep it up, all the same,” said Marion, with a laugh that had no apprehension in it. “I know I’ve almost got through my year’s allowance already.”
“Oh! well, of course you and Isabel must have extra money for setting yourselves up. None of your Indian clothes can be much use till we get into the country.”
Marion would have replied, “And not then!” but that they were now on the threshold of her aunt’s house, and the polished mahogany door with its handsome “furniture” sprang open to disclose two tall footmen and a short butler with a fat, red face.
“Do footmen never become butlers, and do butlers never begin as footmen?” Mrs Fleetwood wondered to herself as she passed into the hall—a hall paved with black and white marble scattered with Persian rugs. The light, reflected through a stained glass window, gleamed on old oak and shining brass, gilt picture frames, and a huge bronze Burmese gong.
They followed the broad back of the butler up a handsome staircase and were conducted into a double drawing-room crowded with valuable ornaments and expensive furniture. Crimson and gilt and the glitter of looking-glass gave an impression of splendour that reminded Mrs Fleetwood vaguely of the Rajah of Rotah’s reception hall. She sat on a deep, luxurious sofa while the butler went “to tell her ladyship,” feeling a little envious, a little bitter, that this woman without ties or responsibilities should have so much, such a preponderance of this world’s goods to be spent on pleasure and servants, and hospitality towards people who could afford hospitality in like manner, while her own pretty daughters must have a struggle to dress becomingly, and her dear husband would be stinted in the recreations that he loved.
Marion walked over to a beautiful buhl writing-table to examine with respect a rack of invitation cards that stood upon it, dozens of cards, for every imaginable form of entertainment.
Then two people were ushered into the room—a stout, elderly lady in resplendent garments, whose hair was astonishingly auburn, whose faded skin an artificial complexion obviously concealed. Mrs Fleetwood was dazzled by her appearance—all satin and feathers and jewels and chains. She carried a gold bag with clattering appendages, and under her arm was a degenerate-looking little dog. A man followed this vision, a very old man, who surely ought to have been in a bath chair if out of his bedroom at all; but he also was pressed into smart, tight clothes, his eyebrows and moustache were carefully coaxed and waxed, his scanty white hair arranged with art to modify the baldness of his palsied head, his nose, naturally purple, was powdered and possessed a surface bloom that recalled heliotrope velvet shot with pink.
The situation is inevitably awkward for people unacquainted with each other who meet like this on door-steps, or in drawing-rooms. The new-comers and the Fleetwoods exchanged uncertain salutations, and looked supremely reserved. Marion took upon herself to make the first advance. “My aunt will be down in a moment,” she said politely.
The old lady widened her mouth till she resembled a frog. “Oh! you are Lady Landon’s niece?” she said, and turned to the old gentleman. “This is Lady Landon’s niece,” she told him; he jigged shakily and made affable though inarticulate sounds.
“Yes—Lady Landon is my father’s sister”—and a species of universal introduction ensued.
“We have just come home from India,” Mrs Fleetwood volunteered, with a desire to be pleasant.
“Oh! indeed—how did you like India? It must be very disagreeably hot. Don’t you find it very cold in England?”
“I think when you first come home you don’t feel the cold so much as you do later when you have been home for some time—just as at first you don’t find the Indian hot weather so unbearable. One seems to bring home a supply of heat and take out a supply of cold!” explained Mrs Fleetwood, sociably smiling.
An uninterested, uncomprehending stare was the response, and the entrance of Lady Landon, voluble, apologetic, was an immense relief to the Fleetwoods.
Lady Landon looked like a rich widow—which she was. Her glance was genial, but self-absorbed. The affairs of other people save as an interesting subject of conversation did not affect her. She appraised her friends according to the size and quality of their social circles—their incomes, establishments, and entertainments; and those with whom she chiefly associated did the same. Anything that did not cost more than it was worth they despised; they overpaid their servants and tradespeople, and were afraid of them, they preferred to be robbed rather than risk a descent from their golden pedestals in the estimation of the inferior classes.
Yet, despite her failings, Lady Landon had her own charm. She was handsome and vivacious and looked years younger than her age. Gracious, good-tempered, agreeable, she was in a manner fascinating, especially to elderly gentlemen who had nothing to do but cultivate acquaintances of a useful description, and to “know everybody.” Two of these beings were announced as Lady Landon was gushing over her relatives from India, declaring that John looked so young he ought not to be allowed to go out alone—that no one would suspect dear Emily for a moment of ever having been near India—dreadful place!—and as for Marion, well—looking her up and down with flattering insinuation—it was a mercy she had not thrown herself away on some impecunious youth in that horrible country, full of snakes and tigers and sunstroke!
“Make up to Mr Prowne—immensely rich,” she whispered, pinching the arm of her niece playfully, then introducing the gentleman, who was at least sixty years of age, with a bald head and a prominent stomach.
Other guests came in—ladies of the type of Mrs de Wick, the first arrival, mostly with titles and mummified husbands; one or two younger couples, very modern, very careless in manner, talking of the parties at which they had met last night, eyeing their hostess’s Indian relations with inquisitive regard.
Besides Marion Fleetwood only one other unmarried woman was present, an American girl, Miss Van Bart, beautifully garbed, exquisitely finished in physical detail—finger-nails, hair, lips, eyelashes and eyebrows carefully tended, with effective and pleasing result. With yet a slight accent, her voice was neither strident nor harsh, her manners were easy and self-assured, she was brilliant, overpowering, and made Marion feel almost like a schoolgirl, though probably Marion was the senior in years.
They all went down to luncheon, to a table covered with silver and cut glass and flowers and fruit; and these people of Beatrice Landon’s world ate through course after course of rich, wonderfully-cooked food, drank champagne and liqueurs and coffee, and said good-bye directly afterwards—by which time it was nearly four o’clock in the afternoon.
As the Fleetwoods walked away from the door, bound for their modest hotel which, by the way, Lady Landon declared she had never heard of before in her life, Mr Fleetwood denounced the luncheon and the guests and his sister and her whole mode of existence.
“They’re a bloated brigade!” he concluded.
“Dad, you’ve eaten too much,” said Marion.
“Yes, I have. And if that’s the kind of meal those people eat twice a day I wonder any of them are alive. They all look as if they had fatty degeneration of the heart and mind and morals.”
Marion sighed. “I should love to be able to entertain like that!” she said enviously. “Such well-trained servants and everything so easy, and so well done. One felt quite out of it—knowing none of the people they were talking about, or what was going on.”
“They gossiped abominably, if you ask me!” said Mrs Fleetwood, who nevertheless secretly agreed with Marion. How delightful to be in a position to give such parties!—but the company would be different, of course.
“Don’t ask me to go to any more tamashas of that kind,” said Mr Fleetwood. “I like good food, as you know, but gluttony is not in my line.”
“Oh, dad, if Aunt Beatrice could hear you!” said Marion, shocked.
“A pity she can’t, but she shall some day,” said her father.
When they got back to their hotel Marion described the people they had met, and the luncheon they had eaten, to her sister Isabel. She had also something else to tell her, but waited till after tea when they were alone—Mr Fleetwood and Fay safely out for a walk, their mother resting upstairs. The two girls had the large drawing-room to themselves, save for one old lady dozing over a magazine at the far end.
“Well—what is it?” Isabel asked. They sat down side by side on a sofa.
“That American girl I was telling you of—Miss Van Bart—”
“Yes—what about her?”
“I heard her say at luncheon that it was the dream of her life to go out to India, ‘to see something of the mystery and occultism of the East!’—and she was having lessons in Hindustani because she hoped to go out this autumn for a few months with some friends. I felt inclined to laugh till she went on to say who the friends were—” Marion hesitated.
“Who were they?” Isabel’s voice was apprehensive. She felt sure Marion had something unpleasant to impart, but had not an idea of what was actually coming.
“Lord and Lady Boldborough! They are going to tour through India, and mean to make their son go with them as he is out there already and knows the country. They have asked Miss Van Bart to go too.”
Isabel’s fair skin flushed pink. She was greatly surprised. “I am sure Lewis doesn’t know anything about his people’s intention of going to India. He has never mentioned such a thing, neither before we came home, nor in his letter this mail. I suppose they have only just thought of it.”
“Perhaps,” said Marion. “But if they do go he won’t be able to come home as he intended.”
“No, it would mean six months’ delay, I suppose,” said Isabel, doubtfully.
“But, Isabel—this American girl—she’s very attractive and very rich, an heiress, the man next me at luncheon told me so.”
“You mean the Boldboroughs are taking her out to try and marry her to him?”
“Yes, and if you can’t persuade him to come home they will probably succeed!”
Isabel’s eyebrows drew together in distress. “Oh, Marion, I’m not like you—I can’t make things happen or prevent their happening. If Lewis’s people really are going out I don’t see how he can come home.”
“Tell him to come now.”
“He couldn’t get leave.”
“He could for anything really urgent. It can always be managed. Isabel, are you just going to sit down and lose this chance of making a nice marriage?”
Isabel fidgeted. “I must wait and see what he suggests himself when he knows they are going out.” Then, with a petulant movement: “Oh, Marion, don’t worry me! I believe—I think—I really believe I shouldn’t mind if he didn’t come home, and if he did marry this Van Boot girl or whatever her name is!” She got up and went to the window, holding the lace curtains apart with each hand.
Marion said nothing. She felt exasperated with Isabel, provoked by her lack of enterprise and ambition, her blindness to the social advantages such a marriage would bring. Surely it was worth fighting for? Yet Isabel would do nothing, would let it slip through her fingers like a helpless idiot! What was she staring at so intently in the street? Marion rose and looked over her sister’s shoulder. A young clergyman was walking quickly along the opposite pavement, a broad-shouldered, bronzed young man, who looked as if he could row and bowl and bat, as well as preach and pray and exhort. He was rather like Arthur Dakin. So that was why Isabel was gazing so intently out of the window, instead of heeding her sister’s counsel! Marion gave a gentle sigh of despair and returned to the sofa and a novel.
A house was taken—a large house passably furnished in, according to the house-agent, the most desirable quarter of South Kensington. The house-agent also assured his clients that he had secured for them an unprecedented bargain—so handsomely appointed, so replete with conveniences, and only eight guineas a week! Servants were left by the owner, the tenants of course paying wages and the extras included in that mysterious phrase “all found.”
Altogether the family considered they were lucky. Mr Fleetwood had a large smoking-room opening on to well-kept gardens where children and nurses played and strolled, and ladies exercised little dogs. Here he tied flies, and sorted his papers, and tried not to think about tiger-shooting. Without much enthusiasm, but for the sake of air and exercise, he “took up” golf, god-fathered by a fellow-pensioner from India, a near neighbour who played badly and was enchanted to find an opponent who played worse. The two passed long hours on a course within easy reach of London, losing their tempers and innumerable golf balls; but though Mr Fleetwood with keen eye and active limbs could soon beat his disgusted friend, he never truly appreciated the game. He found the days more tedious when he did not play. A walk in the morning, not in the Park, because he liked to go out in comfortable old clothes, and the girls bothered him to “make himself look decent if he was going where he would see people.” So sometimes he changed the books at the library or wandered into a museum. Once actually, for something to do, he volunteered to go to the fishmonger’s and select the fish for dinner. But, as Mrs Fleetwood complained afterwards, of course he bought soles which that day, according to fishmongers, were “scarce and dear.” In the afternoons he went to his Club and talked with men he had known in India, smoked and read the papers, and found he looked forward to seeing The Pioneer Mail. Sometimes he went to a race-meeting.
He longed for the autumn when they could get into a house in the country with a little shooting, where at any rate fields and woods would be around him. Sorely he missed his work, his guns, his horses; but he said little, hardly yet understanding how greatly he was bored. He accepted and endured the situation without complaint, somewhat as a child will accept adverse conditions of life with unconscious fatalism. At least there was one unexpected palliation of the circumstances—the parlourmaid proved almost as excellent a valet as old Gunga.
Mrs Fleetwood, for her part, was fairly content. She liked her big bedroom, and found the back drawing-room a pleasant refuge wherein to write letters and to rest when tired, though she missed the veranda. The cook seemed an amiable individual who was willing to “manage,” and who proclaimed that she always “laid herself out” to please her ladies. Nevertheless the housekeeping books appeared to her present lady alarmingly high—but then of course they were a large party, five of themselves and four servants and “help,” not to speak of people always coming to luncheon or dinner. Whenever a member of the family met a friend, that friend was instantly invited to a meal as a matter of course.
During the season they gave quite a large At Home, using the gardens, hiring a string band and a fortune-teller. Lady Landon lent her presence to the party en route from, and to, half a dozen entertainments of a like nature. Also came a crowd of Indian friends, and many new acquaintances acquired by the two elder girls. And all the relations attended from the suburbs, henceforward regarding the Fleetwoods as millionaires.
Marion and Isabel lived strenuously, and might be said to enjoy themselves, though certain vexations and drawbacks rather qualified their pleasures and thwarted their aspirations. Lady Landon, for example, was not all the social help they had anticipated she would be. They did not realize that some six years back, at the time of their visit to her in London, it was her whim to take two pretty girls about with her—to pose as the kind-hearted matron who “loved to see young people enjoy themselves.” It was the fashion just then to make much of girls, just as at another time it was “the thing” to drive in the Park with children, instead of dogs, on the back seat of the carriage, with a discreet nurse in attendance.
Girls were not fashionable this year, and Lady Landon now rather affected young married women. So, though she was good-natured enough to her two pretty nieces because people admired them and asked who they were, and sometimes said they were surely her sisters, not her nieces, she did little more than take them to Hurlingham now and then, have them to luncheon occasionally and of course to all her immense At Homes.
However, the Fleetwood girls, handsome and with pleasant manners, were patronized by some of Lady Landon’s acquaintances—principally those who regarded the nieces as a possible stepping-stone to the aunt’s greater favour. Mrs de Wick, for example, sent them constant invitations. Therefore Marion and Isabel went out considerably, after a fashion—that is to say they went to Sandown and Ranelagh and Hurlingham, to Lords and Henley, and innumerable luncheons and At Homes. Of course it all cost money for clothes and cabs and so forth, money disbursed ungrudgingly by their parents, who also endeavoured to make return to all these people “for their kindness to the girls.” Then, naturally, when men called, they must be asked to dinner, though these all seemed to be either mere youths or more than elderly bachelors. Mrs Fleetwood was delighted to see her daughters’ friends, and did not mind how many people she invited to the house. In addition there was a large circle of old Anglo-Indian friends whose hospitality she loved to return—she and John were always dining out among them. The result was that the servants began to say they were run off their legs, and though increased wages and extra help soon supplied them with fresh energy, the turmoil continued till the end of the season drew near and it was time to think of leaving London.
One evening, before dinner, Mrs Fleetwood and her two elder daughters were in the smoking-room discussing this question. Outside it was still daylight, the French windows at the top of the short flight of steps leading into the garden stood open, and the air was languid with the smell of dry earth and exhausted flowers. Isabel, who had been at a concert all the afternoon, leaned back, tired, on the sofa, clad in a loose, cool tea-gown, and felt rather relieved than otherwise that she was not going out to-night. She did not envy Marion her summons from Aunt Beatrice to do “stop-gap” at a dinner-party, somebody having failed at the last moment. “Come smart,” was scribbled at the end of the note, and certainly Marion looked exceedingly “smart,” standing ready in a shimmering green gown that enhanced the sparkle in her hair and the creamy smoothness of her neck and arms.
“It will be a long, hot, dull dinner-party!” said Isabel.
“Yes, just a lot of tag end of people left over in London,” agreed Marion. “Everybody is clearing out as fast as they can now,” she added to her mother, “and we are no nearer definite plans than we were a fortnight ago!”
“Well, dears, what do you want? Your father has worn himself out lately, looking at places to settle in, but all the houses we should like seem so dreadfully expensive, and I really have not had the time yet to go into the matter properly myself.”
Mrs Fleetwood stood at the open window looking back into the room, a kind little figure, yet not quite so plump as when she left India, her blue eyes not quite so serene.
“Why need we actually settle anywhere yet?” argued Marion. “Why shouldn’t we take another furnished house somewhere in the country and make it our headquarters while we pay visits? We’ve all had invitations of sorts. Mr Taylor has asked dad to take a share in that shoot he goes in for, hasn’t he? and there are plenty of people Isabel and I can stay with for a few days at a time, on the river, and about the place.”
“Well, really,” said Mrs Fleetwood, “I don’t see the necessity of taking another house at all, for the present. We’ve got this one anyway till the end of October, and Fay and I could stay here quietly and keep it open while you people go backwards and forwards. It would save a lot of money,” she concluded persuasively.
Marion trailed to and fro restlessly in her green gown. “Everything at home seems to be a matter of birth or money,” she complained with bitterness. “Unless you can afford to entertain properly, or are so well born that poverty does not signify, you are of no account at all.”
“Oh! I don’t think it’s quite as bad as that!” Mrs Fleetwood interposed mildly. “Of course there can’t be the same sociability here as there is in India, where we all knew each other and amused ourselves together in the same way and with the same things.”
Marion continued as though her mother had not spoken. “If we settled in London we might eventually have almost as large a circle of acquaintances as Mrs de Wick, or even Aunt Beatrice; but we should not really be ‘in’ things. Who should we know worth knowing? Where should we go except through the good-nature of other people or by cadging for vouchers and badges and tickets? We are people with ‘ no money, and nothing particular in the way of connections, except Aunt Beatrice, who, after all—” She shrugged her shoulders with meaning. Then added petulantly: “And if we go into the country it will be just the same, probably worse!”
“But, Marion, my dear, we must consider your father. He can’t bear London,” Mrs Fleetwood said in some alarm.
This Marion also ignored. “I do think,” she went on, “that Aunt Beatrice might have played up a little more, considering that she has no daughters of her own.”
“But the people she knows best are mostly so old, or else so impossibly smart,” said Isabel, “and they all seem to live for nothing but their food, and calling on each other.”
“All the same,” said Marion, with frank significance, “those people must surely have male belongings who are not old or stuck-up or greedy—though I must admit that the unmarried men in England all appear to be either patriarchs or puppies, with no happy medium!”
“We certainly haven’t met much else,” agreed Isabel, “and I’m sure I don’t want to marry a very old man or a very young one. They seem to me equally odious.”
“My dear Isabel,” put in Mrs Fleetwood, “you appear to have forgotten that Captain Mickleham will be home the beginning of this cold weather!”
Isabel flushed and looked uneasy. She threw a glance of appeal at her sister.
“Winter you mean, mother, not ‘cold weather,’” Marion corrected promptly. She spoke with a certain asperity in order to divert attention from Isabel, though indeed her mother’s habit of using Indian words and phrases was a perpetual small irritation. Mrs Fleetwood persisted in calling an entrée a “side dish,” alluding to luncheon as “tiffin,” to kitchen pots and pans as degchies, and so on. She seemed unable to dislodge from her mind the idea that empty soda-water bottles were of value, as in India; and she could not endure to see ice wasted.
Isabel stood up now. Her weariness seemed gone. “Lewis Mickleham is not coming home yet, mother. His people are going out to India for the winter, so he can’t get away till the spring.”
Mrs Fleetwood said “Oh!” in sympathetic surprise, but she did not ask questions. Provided this alteration in Captain Mickleham’s plans did not fret Isabel she herself was glad to hear of it. Neither she nor John cared for the young man; he seemed to them weak and uninteresting in character, and it was more than likely that his people would oppose his marriage with a penniless girl who was, moreover, not quite of their own world.
Marion looked at the clock and wished it were time to start, wished she had not dressed so early. Into her heart had crept a little teasing regret for the old friendly Indian life, for the social uniformity, the bond of common amusements and topics of interest. None of those difficulties existed in India that made life so complicated in England for those who had not the advantage of recognized family claims, or an assured monetary position. In India no English official people were wealthy, and the same recreations, the same meeting-places were open to one and all. While here, Marion continued to reflect, recreation was a matter of trouble and expense for the ordinary human being. Unwillingly she admitted the truth—that, after all, life in India was not so much to be despised.
Mr Fleetwood and Fay came into the room, and a few minutes later Marion drew on her gloves, put on her cloak, sent for a taxi-cab, and went off to dine with her aunt—to help consume a dinner the cost of which would probably have kept a whole family from destitution for a year.
“It seems to me,” remarked Mrs Fleetwood, as the front door closed behind her eldest daughter, “that we are no nearer making plans. I really do think it would be more sensible to use this house as long as we are paying for it, don’t you, Isabel?”
“I suppose it would,” said Isabel, lazily; “but isn’t it rather appalling to think of being in London at all during August and September?”
That night, after dinner, Fay went out into the gardens alone. She moved like a phantom in the warm darkness, a slender figure in a white gown that swept the dry grass beneath her feet, for Fay was now seventeen, no longer the “flapper” of the family. Her skirts were of orthodox grown-up length, her soft dark hair was gathered into a knot at the back of her neck. During these last few months she had developed both physically and in character. Lessons from competent teachers had awakened her to the value of knowledge. She read more than ever, and now with definite purpose; music was a delight to her, and she practised on the piano for hours together. Perhaps she was more silent, more dreamy than before; the sprite-like perverseness in her nature that had so distracted old Gunga seemed dead or dormant—sometimes her gravity was such that it troubled her mother. It was not natural for Fay to like to be alone so much, that she should be absorbed to such an extent in books and music, should care so little for amusements and the small gaieties available for a girl who was not yet “out.”
Fay seldom spoke of India now. Mrs Fleetwood once asked her if she were forgetting India, and Fay did not answer. Her mother’s attention being attracted elsewhere for the moment, the question was not repeated, but to herself Fay answered it with yearning. Forget India!—when the sights and sounds and perfumes of India were with her in her memory night and day! The ticking of a certain clock in one of the rooms reminded her of the note of the coppersmith bird in the compound at the beginning of the hot weather, and Mrs Fleetwood sometimes wondered why Fay was so fond of sitting in that room. The smell of burning wood, the cooing of pigeons on a hot, sunny day, made her heart contract with pining recollection. If she saw an ayah with English children in the streets she could not pass the woman without speaking to her. On one memorable day, when with her father on the platform of an underground railway station, she spoke in Hindustani to a Mohammedan youth in a frock coat and a turban, so bringing severe reproof upon herself. At first the youth had laughed, then, seeing Mr Fleetwood’s face, the insolent grin became fixed as a mask, and he hastily jumped into the wrong train to escape from the wrath of those glittering blue eyes in an unmistakably “old Indian” face.
“If I hadn’t been with you,” said Mr Fleetwood sternly to his daughter, “that fellow would have been rude, but though I could have kicked him at the moment he was not nearly so much to blame as you were for speaking to him. You brought it on yourself. You wouldn’t speak to a strange Englishman in an underground railway station or anywhere else—why on earth should you speak to a native? What will he think and say of the manners of English ladies?”
Poor Fay! She repressed her tears all the way home, and appeared becomingly repentant and ashamed. How could she explain that it was India, India she had spoken to—not a low-class Mohammedan youth? It was useless to attempt explanation. Nobody would ever understand or sympathize.
To-night she wandered listlessly in the bluish darkness of the gardens, up and down the lawn. The shrubs behind the border were shapeless and shadowless, the gravel path around the plot of grass showed faint and dim. Beyond the iron railings the traffic rolled unceasingly. A huge dray rattled past, shaking the ground, filling the night air with thunderous clamour. To Fay there seemed everywhere a sense of contraction. Since the first day of her arrival in London she had felt herself in prison—a noisy, feverish imprisonment—inactivity without peace, restriction without rest. She moved on, vaguely sad, overwhelmed in spirit with hopeless longing for the years that were over.
A warm, dry wind arose and rustled among the shrubs, and touched her face with its dusty breath. In a measure it was reminiscent of India. She closed her eyes, covered her ears with her hands to shut out the harsh sounds of the streets, and gave herself over wholly to seductive delusion. The tall, crowded houses were gone, there was no street, no traffic, no hurrying passers-by. She was in a moonlit garden, in a wide quiet. There were hanging creepers, waxen flowers gave out their scent, perfumes of India wafted about her. Far away a little stringed instrument was thrumming softly, and a tom-tom beat with faint, monotonous rhythm. Beneath a cluster of great shisham trees lay a group of white tombs, peaceful, melancholy, and the moonlight quivered on them through the trees.
Then pictures of India crowded through her mind in dreamy procession without special reference to period or place. A sun-soaked bazaar, humming with the deep, sonorous murmur of voices, full of lazy movement, of excess of colour, and trivial human happenings; a scene so alluring despite the dust and the dirt and the flies, pervaded with that strange admixture of odours—the indescribable smell of the East, revolting yet attractive. Again—white tents with a heavy background of mango trees, parrots flashing overhead in streaks of emerald green; air, space, freedom; and, all around, the great, wide country, so vast and old and dry. Morning rides in keen cold air that was aerated with sunshine; evenings so serene and still, with marvellous sunsets; the wonder and the glory of the hills!
And among such pictures one lingered before her mental vision—perhaps a little longer than the rest until it slid away to make room for yet another and another—the picture of a rampart overlooking a city and a dusty plain. She saw the tall mass of masonry behind and the deep drop below, where the camel-men sat beside their munching beasts, and the plume of blue smoke curled up from their little fire. On the rampart stood a young figure dressed in spotless white, with burning eyes and proud pose, waving a slim brown hand over the outstretched view, crying exultantly, “It is all mine! It is all mine!”
At the time of Fay’s exit into the garden her parents and Isabel were discussing Marion’s suggestion of a furnished house in the country for the next two or three months. She came back to the smoking-room to find that circumstances had definitely decided the question for them. By the last post came the South African mail and brought bad tidings. Walter Fleetwood, stationed with his battery at Capetown, wrote to confess wretchedly to his people that he had exceeded his allowance, indeed was seriously in debt—unless he could be cleared without delay he must send in his papers.
Walter could, and of course must be cleared, his parents agreed, consulting together till late into the night. A portion of Mrs Fleetwood’s own money still remained, and they had brought home something with them from India—but a house in the country for the present was certainly not to be contemplated.
Therefore, throughout August and September, Mrs Fleetwood and her youngest daughter stayed in the South Kensington house, just with the exception of one or two week-end visits to the aunts in the suburbs, from which they returned, with relief, to the independence of time and action that can never wholly be claimed by a visitor. Marion and Isabel paid lengthier visits in various parts of the country, and were actually for three weeks with Mrs de Wick, who, truth to tell, found a difficulty in securing girls (who had any other choice) to join her house-parties. Girls in general do not care for old men, or protracted meals, or perpetual bridge, but Marion said, “Any port in a storm,” since it would be dreadful to stay in London. After all, the grounds of the de Wicks’ place were pretty, the house was comfortable, plenty of novels lay about, and there were garden-parties in the neighbourhood to which they all went in carriages and motors. Marion appreciated the physical luxury, the easy hours, the numerous servants, the unquestionably good living, everything except the company, who were nearly all members of what her father had contemptuously christened “the bloated brigade.”
She and Isabel were astonished to discover that the only man of the party who had any pretensions to comparative youth was, so to speak, a “professional visitor”; an over-dressed individual who gave himself intolerable airs, and was paid many guineas weekly to arrange the bridge tables with tact, to set the right people down to picture puzzles, to gossip without shame about actors and singers, and dukes and duchesses and the Royal Family, to tell amusing and often scandalous stories at appropriate moments, to organize expeditions and games of croquet. In short, to do master of the ceremonies. Cynically he confided the nature of his trade to Miss Fleetwood, adding that he held London Society in the hollow of his hand, hinting that if he chose he could make or mar a woman’s reputation. He owned valuable rings and pins, and chains and links and studs, which he implied had been presented to him either as tokens of gratitude or as bribes to secure his silence or his favour. Marion disliked and despised him utterly, nevertheless she concealed her feelings, assuring herself that to betray them would be bad manners towards her hosts—the true reason being that she feared the man and his vaunted powers, never having encountered a specimen of the breed before. He appeared to know everybody, and from him she heard tell of Sir Rowland Curtice.
“I wonder if you ever met him when he was out in India?” he inquired.
Marion was thankful she had not answered when the gentleman continued, hardly pausing:
“I saw him just after he got back. He’d been dangerously ill out there, a bad case of typhoid, and he was obliged to come home without finishing his tour. And not only did he have a narrow squeak of snuffing out, but of being married as well! Some girl made a dead set at him, he told me, and would probably have caught him if he hadn’t been taken ill! You say you didn’t meet him?”
Marion suspected the man of deliberate malice—of being aware that it was she whom Sir Rowland had accused of having tried to marry him. Even so, of what avail to defend herself and reveal the truth concerning the “bad case of typhoid”? She merely answered with careless evasion that she had heard of Sir Rowland, and inquired what had become of him. She would have rejoiced to hear that he was dead, or ruined, or crippled for life. But he had only gone to Japan and America to re-establish his health, and as coal had lately been discovered on his estate he was richer than ever!
Mr Fleetwood went North in time for the twelfth, to join two friends with whom he had taken a modest shooting. The trio stayed at an inn, and enjoyed themselves in what might be considered marvellously economical fashion. But though they certainly obtained a very fair amount of sport for a reasonable outlay, Mr Fleetwood’s share of the shooting and expenses represented more than his income could meet in view of all other and unavoidable claims upon it—the house, the girls, the sons’ allowances and so on. He came back to London in splendid health and spirits, only to be surprised and depressed by the unpleasing discovery that his banking account was seriously overdrawn.
He sat at the big writing-table in the smoking-room, his pass-book and the bank-manager’s letter open before him; but he looked out of the window with troubled gaze instead of at the words and figures on the pages. What a curse this question of money could be! It was rather rough luck after thirty-five years of hard work to come home and find one couldn’t afford to enjoy oneself! He reviewed the past, and wondered rather guiltily if he had always spent too much money on himself?—only over the shooting perhaps, and it had not seemed much at the time, there had always been the pay to meet expenses. And it was a fact that he and Emily had come home free of debt, which was more than could be said for many retired Anglo-Indians with average families, who had lived like gentlefolk and not disgraced their service by sordid habits and hospitality that was obviously grudging, if they entertained at all. He remembered with grim amusement a certain individual whose official position had been equal to his own; throughout his service the beggar had lived like a plate-layer, in the cheapest houses he could find, with few and bad servants, scanty and revolting meals, his wife for ever haggling over coppers, his children in the charge of slovenly ayahs till they could, for very shame, be kept out in the country no longer, and so were dispatched to relatives at home and second-rate day schools. These people had, of course, saved money, but at what a price!—and now they were living in North Kensington broken in health, without pleasures or friends, still screwing, and saving, and bargaining, because now they had got their money they could not endure to part with it, even to be comfortable in their declining years.
Mrs Fleetwood came into the room, and with her Fanny Bullen, just arrived in England, six months ahead of her husband whose time was up next spring, to prepare a home in or near London. Naturally she was staying with the Fleetwoods till she went on a round of visits to relations in the country next week. Mr Fleetwood, in his present difficulty, felt thankful for her presence. “Old Fanny” had a sound business head. He and Emily might do worse than consult her and follow her advice. Last night he had suggested this course to his wife, who gave her glad acquiescence. And now they were to have their little conference, their “panchyat” they called it, and, with Fanny’s assistance, endeavour to make practical plans for the future.
Mrs Bullen’s daxk eyes looked sharper than ever in her thin, sallow face. Her wiry figure and alert bearing formed a complete contrast to Mrs Fleetwood’s complacent indulgence of manner, her comfortable plumpness of figure, and her clear blue eyes that yet were not so smiling and cloudless as of old; lines, too, lay about her sweet-tempered mouth that were new to Fanny Bullen. It was evident that Emily had been worrying, and no wonder, thought her friend, when she was shown the pass-book and read the bank-manager’s letter.
“Of course,” she said intimately, “things wouldn’t have been as bad as this if Walter had behaved himself. What you’ve had to pay up for him doesn’t reduce your income so very materially, but it means you have practically no surplus to fall back upon now; very little to spend on settling down permanently.”
Blank silence fell upon the Fleetwoods, who could not contradict the statement because they perceived it to be true.
“Now, just face it,” continued their adviser. “There’s your pension, of course, minus deductions and income-tax. But what will you have left in the way of savings or private means after clearing Walter and meeting the over-draft at the bank?”
Mr Fleetwood made calculations on a clean piece of crested notepaper.
“Why didn’t you use that half sheet?” cried Fanny.
“Good gracious, what can a sheet of notepaper matter when one’s almost in the workhouse?”
Mrs Bullen allowed this argument to pass. “Well?” she said presently.
“Roughly speaking, we should have about five hundred pounds.” He threw down the pen and leaned back in the revolving chair, a picture of despondency.
“Then by the time you have set yourselves up in a house there won’t be much left but the pension—”
She looked iat Mrs Fleetwood, who proposed going abroad and not settling anywhere just yet.
Mr Fleetwood left his chair to stroll moodily about the room.
“You’re a large party to go to hotels abroad,” said Mrs Bullen, cautiously. “You’d find it expensive, I’m afraid.”
“Oh! I refuse to go abroad!” Mr Fleetwood spoke with impatience. “Now we are in England we’d better stay here. The question is where and how we are to settle? I suppose we must make up our minds to a small house, wherever it is.”
“We must reduce the boys’ allowances,” said Mrs Fleetwood with a helpless sigh.
“Why should you give them allowances at all?” Mrs Bullen demanded almost fiercely, “when you’ll find it difficult enough to live yourselves except in a way you’ll all hate! Walter must go into the Garrison Artillery and Georgie into the Commissariat.”
“Even then they’d want a little help till they’re more senior. I shouldn’t like to dock them altogether,” said Mr Fleetwood, wistfully. “I’d sooner give up other things. Emily and I don’t want amusements at our age,” he added, with a laugh that was not quite natural, “we only want food and warmth!”
“The girls want amusement; you can’t content three grown-up girls with food and warmth!”
“Well, I must get something to do—why not?”
“What is there for a man like you?” argued Mrs Bullen, without mercy. “You didn’t retire with a title or decorations. You’d be no good on companies. At any rate, for Heaven’s sake don’t put your remaining cash into any rotten scheme for the sake of a directorship. Very few Anglo-Indians understand business, and so many of them get let in. That’s the worst of the Indian Civil Service—it’s all very well as long as you’re in it, you get better paid than other services to work hard in exile and in a trying climate, and to represent the Crown wherever you are, but once out of it, though you may have years of work and energy left in you, what remains for the ordinary man but to settle down to dull idleness? An engineer, a doctor, a parson, or even a soldier has more chance of employment when he comes home, but then he hasn’t been treated so well financially out there.”
“Yes, look at the Taylors,” said Mrs Fleetwood, much interested; “at Pahar Tal I remember they were rather in the background, and now here they are at home, with a small pension it’s true, but on the other hand with an excellent appointment in some firm—ever so much better off than we are! Mr Taylor was an engineer—just what you say, Fanny. How clever you are!”
“Shall I write a book?” suggested Mr Fleetwood in cynical spirit. “‘Crams by a Commissioner; or the way to govern India, by John Fleetwood, Bengal Civil Service, retired.’ Anything you like.”
“Yes, I know the kind of thing,” said Mrs Bullen. “Twelve and sixpence net, illustrated with photographs that haven’t much to do with the letterpress. Long, laudatory reviews in The Times, The Morning Post, The Spectator, and so on. Then a row with the publisher because you only make seven pounds, if he doesn’t say he has lost over it heavily. I know! My brother wrote a book when he came home from India.”
“I remember it,” said Mr Fleetwood, not without malicious emphasis.
Mrs Bullen laughed. “Well, dear John, I don’t suppose yours would be any better or more successful. At any rate writing a book would give you something to do. Try a History of India!”
Here Mrs Fleetwood interrupted plaintively: “But what are we going to do? and where are we to live? We’ve only got this house till the end of the month, and then we are homeless.”
“Can’t you take it on for a little while longer?”
“No, and even if we could it’s rather expensive perhaps—eight guineas a week?”
“That’s at the rate of four hundred a year! Of course it’s too expensive. Look here, Emily and John, you must make up your minds to settle at Ealing, or one of those places where Anglo-Indians most do congregate—for a common reason that they’re cheap to live in and close to London. Many people consider Ealing is London.”
“Oh! but surely the depths of the country, somewhere in Wales, or Cornwall, would be nicer and cheaper!” wailed Mrs Fleetwood.
“What would the girls do in the depths of Wales or Cornwall? And how would you finish Fay’s education? She hasn’t overmuch to boast of as it is, poor child. Living within reach of London, the girls would have the advantage of seeing their friends, John would still have his Club, and Ealing, or say Norbledon if you like, aren’t at all bad places. Plenty of young people, and you’d know half the inhabitants. We are thinking of Norbledon for ourselves.”
“Oh! if you were going to be there, Fanny—” said Mrs Fleetwood, hopefully.
“I think it’s more than probable. The boys like to be near London when they come home. We might house-hunt together.”
Mrs Bullen determined she would preserve her old friends from further disaster if possible. Left to themselves they would probably take a house much too large for them, one that would require more servants than they could afford to keep, and the remaining nest-egg might quickly disappear.
“You must remember,” she added, “that after the girls are dressed and paid for, and what you decide to allow those wretched boys is deducted, you won’t have many hundreds a year left to live upon. Everything costs a good deal of money at home, wherever you live! You must have a margin, too, for illness, and journeys, and unexpected emergencies.”
All this time Mr Fleetwood was silent. He had returned to his chair and was making scratches on another clean piece of writing-paper. Fanny Bullen longed to grab the pen from his hand; at the same time her heart ached for the man. She knew his temperament so well—always kind yet quick-tempered, generous yet thoughtless over ways and means, unselfish at heart yet lacking initiative; a faithful husband, an affectionate father, sincere and honourable—a gentleman if there ever was one—and she guessed that her ruthless exposure of his financial position, far from arousing his resentment, only awoke in him a sense of self-reproach and a keener recognition of his responsibilities towards his family. Secretly Fanny blamed Emily, whose indulgence of her love of hospitality had been just as reprehensible as her husband’s indulgence of his passion for sport. Between them over their respective hobbies they had spent money that would have made them comfortable enough at home, might have rendered possible the place in the country with a couple of horses and a little rough shooting. Giving their children all that those children wanted, they had yet gone without nothing that they wanted themselves. Naturally Walter had got into difficulties, when money had seemed of no particular account at home; he was a “scatter-brain” though a good enough youth at heart. His letter home about his follies had moved even herself, Fanny Bullen, to tears by its genuine distress and repentance! She had no fear that he would repeat his indiscretions. Georgie, on the other hand, had always been steady, but he took his allowance as a right, and of course would continue to do so as long as his father gave it to him without full explanations. In the meantime the Fleetwoods must be induced to settle as though the allowances were still to be paid, and the margin, when the allowances ceased or were reduced, would prove of incalculable benefit to the establishment at Ealing, or Norbledon, or wherever it might be set up.
Scratch, scratch, went Mr Fleetwood’s pen, aimlessly, over the paper, making circles and dots and hieroglyphics. His simple, generous mind was busy with the problem of the future. His main thought was that Emily and the girls must be considered first. Plainly, he could see, Fanny Bullen was right, good, tiresome soul! He felt incensed with himself for not having looked ahead before. It was entirely his fault—this humiliating situation. From the first he ought to have realized that earned income was a totally different matter from income that was derived from capital, instead of which, as long as money was forthcoming at the moment, it had been spent. They had lived regardless of the future. It was all a case of carelessness, of lack of forethought, not of blameworthy intention, for never had they defrauded anyone but themselves, always had they paid their debts—but undoubtedly they had enjoyed life as well!—at any rate thirty years of pleasant existence lay behind them with no real evil in it save blindness to future needs.
Stoutly the man determined that on himself he would spend nothing but what was reasonable and necessary. He would keep his Club subscription (he must have something) and a small sum for clothes and pocket-money. The rest should be for Emily and the children. Sport he would think of no longer, it must be a dream of the past; and he fully concurred in Fanny Bullen’s scheme of settling in a suburb—where at least he would have no temptations to spend money on shooting; dogs, a keeper, pheasants’ eggs and food, the laying down of birds might all be pitfalls in the country. He would endeavour, late as it was, to make up for the heedlessness of past years. There should be no grousing, no brooding; somehow he would occupy himself, find interest in a life shorn though it must be for him of its two main pleasures—work and sport.
He threw down the pen and turned to the women. His face was composed, his manner perhaps a little authoritative, but his blue eyes were very tender as he looked at Emily who sat, dejected and tearful. The day when first he met her came back to him—what a sweet little girl she had been, so gay and kindly, and warm-hearted. She had never changed in nature, though the slim waist had disappeared, the soft, abundant hair was grey, the oval face had lost its pretty contour—there was no denying that Emily had a double chin. Yet he loved her just as much as when they were bride and bridegroom so many years ago—if anything his affection was deeper; and he knew that it was the same with her towards himself.
“Fanny’s perfectly right,” he said rather abruptly. “We must consider the girls, and it’s plain we haven’t enough money to give them a good time in the country, or to settle down in London in the way we’ve always been accustomed to live. We’ll do the best we can in the suburbs. Now—what about Norbledon?” he concluded, in business-like fashion. “Someone said it was the only possible place of the kind?”
“That must have been Sir George Palmer,” said Mrs Bullen, “but they have a large house with beautiful grounds—both of them had considerable private means, which makes all the difference. Still, Norbledon is very nice—they say it’s as high as the top of St Paul’s.”
“Oh, how cold!” shivered Mrs Fleetwood at the bare notion, in spite of the mellow autumn atmosphere.
“Bracing,” corrected her friend, severely. Really, it was exasperating of Emily to suggest drawbacks when John was “playing up” so bravely. “I am very much in favour of Norbledon myself,” she continued loftily. “Suppose we make investigations. Lots of old Anglo-Indians have settled there, and there’s golf, and it’s so easy to get into London—”
“I went to see the Crofts one day early this summer,” said Mrs Fleetwood, a little less mournfully. “They have settled at Norbledon. The roads looked very pretty with trees all along them, and lilac and laburnum in the gardens. I remember thinking I shouldn’t so much mind living there. The Crofts have such a nice kitchen and larder, and they said the shops were excellent. But Mary Croft was rather cross, because she said it seemed to depend so much on where you lived whether people took any notice of you.”
Mr Fleetwood sputtered with indignation. “A lot of snobs!” he said. “Look here, Emily, let’s go down to Norbledon to-morrow. Fanny, you come too, and we’ll house-hunt. If we find anything to suit us we’ll take it and be damned to the situation. What we want is room, not locality or people. The girls have their own friends in London, so have we.”
“Now, John dear, don’t be cross,” said Mrs Fleetwood. “I was only repeating what Mrs Croft said, and you know what she is. She likes to be first everywhere.”
“Well, let her.” Then John Fleetwood went into the question of pounds, shillings and pence with his wife and Mrs Bullen, displaying an unexpected grasp of what money could and could not do domestically, listening to details of housekeeping which he had never known to exist till this moment. He considered trifles, made estimates, till rent and wages, food and washing, coal and lighting, sundries and etceteras were all entered under separate headings, reduced or expanded, with margins for emergencies and the unexpected, till the budget was scheduled like an official estimate, and tucked away into Mr Fleetwood’s pocket-book for reference on the exploratory expedition arranged for the following day.
It was felt, tacitly, by all three to be just as well that Marion and Isabel were away from home for a few days at this juncture. “I wonder how they’ll take it?” said their mother, feeling rather like a conspirator.
“They will see the sense of it—they’re no fools,” was their father’s opinion. “We will put things before them without reserve when they come home.”
“I should, certainly,” said Mrs Bullen. “It would be only fair.”
Mrs Bullen rose with a feeling of comfortable satisfaction in her heart. “Now I must be off to the Stores,” she said in a matter-of-fact voice. “Are you coming too, Emily?”
Mrs Fleetwood glanced tentatively at her husband.
“No, I don’t think I will—this morning. I don’t want anything.”
She glanced furtively towards the door. Fanny understood—Emily wanted to be left alone with John! She put on her gloves (useful dog-skin gloves bought at the Stores before she went out to India last time) and took her departure briskly. She wondered, as she waited in the street for an omnibus, what was passing between her old friends. Could she have spied upon them she would have seen nothing very much—only Emily got up and John got up, and they kissed each other with all the love and confidence that could exist between two people who were sound in heart and morals, who had lived together without a serious cloud in their affection for thirty years.
Even during the trying day they spent with Fanny Bullen on the morrow, house-hunting at Norbledon, they did not wrangle or snap at each other as really might have been natural under the circumstances. The house-agent, they all felt, was a provoking person. He had fat cheeks, a snub nose, and a harsh, prominent moustache that gave him the appearance of a walrus. The moment he discovered that his clients were Anglo-Indians he offered them a house called “The Howdah,” which nearly had the effect of driving Mr Fleetwood from the office without another word. He only retained his self-control because the next house on the list was named “Combe Down.” It struck him as being so ludicrously appropriate!
“‘Combe Down,’ Emily,” he said, and laughed with real amusement, “that’s the house we ought to take. It exactly describes our position.”
“If the house suited us we could change the name?” Mrs Fleetwood suggested. Her sense of humour was not very strong.
“Certainly not!” replied her husband, his blue eyes twinkling. “It would make up for a lot!”
Fay Fleetwood, alone in the dining-room of Combe Down, sat by the fire that burned in a very modern grate designed to give the greatest heat with the least possible consumption of fuel. It was the Fleetwoods’ second winter in Norbledon, and they had learned that it saved a great deal of coal not to have fires burning in all three sitting-rooms from morning till night. Further than this it “saved the servants”—that insecure foundation on which rested the family contentment, a foundation that so often gave way, that indeed proved itself a sort of sliding bog. When servants stayed they were usually incompetent; when they knew their work and did it they either had illnesses, or did not like something connected with the situation and gave notice. They came and went, principally went, as Marion said; and at this moment Fay was studying a cookery book because the cook had departed that morning in a passion, for the reason that “there was too many fiddling things to do in this house.” She mentioned various duties she had cheerfully agreed to undertake when engaged by Mrs Fleetwood a month ago.
Mrs Fleetwood was in London this afternoon “cook-hunting.” Meantime a person of the char persuasion was conversing diffusely in the kitchen, and lighting on iniquities in every hole and corner that had been perpetrated by the deserter. Marion and Isabel were with friends at Prince’s skating rink for the afternoon; and Mr Fleetwood had fled at once to the Club when the kitchen disturbance arose, agreeing, for his own as well as for the household convenience, to spend the day there.
“We shall be able to manage dinner all right if I can get Mrs Hikkup,” his wife told him, “but you had better have an extra good luncheon in case of accidents. And don’t come home too late, dear,” she added anxiously; “your cough seems so bad.”
She watched him with wistful eyes from the dining-room window as he set out for the station, and noticed, not for the first time, that his shoulders, always a little bent, had now a definite stoop, that his face was thinner, rather weary, though his smile was just as cheerful and his spirits did not seem to flag. But in her heart she knew that the rust of inaction and restraint was wearing into his soul, deadening his mind, telling on his bodily health. At the end of the road he turned and waved to her. Energetically she waved to him again, thankful that he could not see the tears filling her eyes.
Later she sent Fay to commandeer Mrs Hikkup. The name had long since ceased to amuse the family, for the owner’s presence in the kitchen at Combe Down betokened domestic upheaval. Fay had offered, in her mother’s absence, to confer with Mrs Hikkup on the subject of dinner that night, and more or less to tell her how to cook it.
“I can do anything I am told,” she would say with colossal confidence, though the statement was quite untrue. However, thank goodness, there she was—an honest, good-natured body, entirely without a sense of method, but able to roast and boil, if she could do nothing else.
This afternoon Fay had been helping her to prepare a savoury, had also been tidying cupboards, and noting with despair how much was missing or broken. There seemed so few saucepans, and those that remained were minus their lids. Saucepan lids always disappeared at once, and what became of them was a mystery that quite interested Fay. She imagined there must be some obscure and remote region where saucepan lids retired to die, as in the case of elephants—a place that had never yet been discovered. Milk jugs, too, were scarce, everything in the way of crockery was badly chipped or cracked. A new dinner-service was an absolute necessity.
Fay sighed as she sat by the dining-room fire and turned over the pages of the cookery book, which, like books on gardening, omitted all details that would be most useful to one ignorant of the art. “Take a cupful of cream—a cupful of bread crumbs—a cupful of this, that, and the other.” What cup? A coffee, breakfast or tea cup?—and of what use in a small household were recipes that bade the cook “take” a pound of good puff paste, or a gill of good white sauce as part of some dish?—two things notoriously difficult to achieve. It was not as if you could buy good white sauce and puff paste as you would sugar and flour—or even “take” them dishonestly!
She threw down the book, and leaned back in her chair. Outside it was foggy, bitterly cold, dark and raw. People stumped along the pavement as though their feet and boots were made of wood. The opposite houses were barely visible in the gloom, and yet it was only four o’clock. In India now there was brilliant sunshine, everybody was out of doors in the light and air and warmth. In India nobody had to think of sitting in the dining-room to save fires in other rooms. There were no Mrs Hikkups, or violent cooks, or unwilling parlourmaids. Fay realized that in recalling all the joys of life in India she was liable to forget the drawbacks, yet, if the situation were reversed, she felt sure the worries of existence in England would remain in her mind to the exclusion of all other recollections. There were no nice things to be remembered—speaking from her own experience.
This last year had been a species of nightmare to Fay—the winter so cold, so cheerless, so unsettled. Her mother harassed by housekeeping difficulties that were so new to the poor lady. The ending of Isabel’s engagement to Captain Mickleham, who had behaved abominably and married Miss Van Bart. Marion and Isabel snatching at every straw of gaiety that floated within their reach. Her father quiet, resigned—yet no martyr. Fay knew that he was too “game” to repine. Then the spring, windy and wet and callous, when everybody seemed out of sorts and small ailments were rife, chills, indigestion, liver attacks. At least in India, thought Fay, with savage impatience, people were either quite well or dead! The summer had been pleasanter, but even so it was what is called “no summer”—constant rain, unseasonable temperature, the hay spoilt, the fruit crop ruined, the harvest a failure, grumbling everywhere. Autumn she enjoyed; they managed to let the house for a month by a lucky chance, and all went away with the Bullens to Cornwall, to a little place where clothes did not matter, and there was deep-sea fishing and a colony of friendly people, who attracted the contempt and derision of Marion and Isabel. Now here was the winter again, the horrible, dark, devastating winter, when misfortune seemed to collect in clouds, and illness was not to be resisted, and one could almost wish to be bedridden in order to secure warmth and peace.
Fay rose and went to the window. The dining-room was in the front of the house, and she gazed with disgust at the little patch of garden with iron railings and sodden, empty flower-beds, and a few dismal shrubs. How cold the people looked who hurried along the asphalt pavement! The fog was deepening, frost prevented it rising—black, cruel, invisible frost. Shadowy figures passed and re-passed, footsteps beat in monotonous repetition; sometimes there was silence for the space of a minute or more, and then stamp, stamp again, at the end of the road, growing louder till it passed the house, echoing away faintly into the fog. Fay found herself counting the paces that were passing now, rather long, leisurely paces that paused once or twice, then to her surprise stopped at the iron gate of Combe Down, a gate that made an excruciating noise when it was opened or shut. The familiar screech set Fay’s teeth on edge as usual, and also gave her the disturbing intelligence that a visitor was imminent. The man’s figure that passed through the gate was not that of her father; so much was obvious despite the gloom and mist.
Two minutes later Captain Somerton was announced, not, providentially, by Mrs Hikkup, who had a habit of rushing to the front door whenever the bell sounded, but by the fairly presentable parlourmaid just now “obliging” Mrs Fleetwood. He came into the room, and stood, uncertain, for a moment. The flickering firelight was rather confusing, and the fog had crept inside, blurring all outlines. He made out a girl’s figure standing before him, a slim, serious creature in a black gown, whose grey eyes contrasted curiously with her dark hair and thick black lashes. He hesitated. This was neither of the two Miss Fleetwoods he had known at Pahar Tal? Then all at once he realized that she must be the youngest one, grown up—grown up, too, into all she had promised to be when last he saw her with her hair down her back, and a babyish white hat on her head! Grown up graceful and interesting and undeniably attractive; still a little aloof, but the touch of defensiveness he remembered had developed into a pretty dignity. She held out a small, cool hand, supple and soft.
“Oh! how nice to see you! We didn’t know you were at home,” she said; and added hungrily, “Have you come straight from India?”
“Not quite. I had to come home unexpectedly. My brother died. Directly I arrived I went to my sister-in-law, and I’ve been there ever since—for the last month.”
She observed then that he wore very dark clothes and a black tie. “I am so sorry!” she murmured.
“There was an awful lot to settle up and see to,” he went on. “I’m in London on business now, and I must go back to the country to-morrow till just before I sail again. I could only get three months’ leave.”
She indicated one of the arm-chairs on either side of the fireplace. “Do sit down. You don’t mind being in the dining-room? The fire isn’t lighted in the drawing-room yet. Everybody is out except me, but some of them ought to be back soon.”
“Where are you going to sit?”
“Here—my favourite seat.” She pointed to a fat round stool on the floor by the fender; then rang the bell and bade the parlourmaid draw the curtains and bring tea.
“How did you know where to find us?” she inquired.
“I met Mrs Taylor in Victoria Street this morning. She gave me the address. I hadn’t seen her since I was at Pahar Tal with the Rajah, but we recognized each other at once. People who have lived in India seem to change very little, I always think!”
He did not add that Mrs Taylor’s rather dubious description of the Fleetwoods’ circumstances had decided him to call on them at once, though it would take a whole afternoon and his time in London was limited. He had not forgotten their kindness and hospitality, their friendly interest in his work with the young Rajah, and because, according to Mrs Taylor, they had “subsided into a suburb” and were “having a loathsome time,” he felt far more impelled to seek them out than if they had been living in the same prosperous manner as when he had known them in India.
She looked into the fire and her grey eyes grew gloomy. “You would think mother and dad were altered,” she said, “especially dad. He hates this life,” she went on in an involuntary outburst of bitterness, “he hates it as much as I do, only he is old and it will kill him, and I am young so I shall survive it, I suppose!”
The sense of awkwardness that assails most Englishmen of the type of Clive Somerton when confronted with any emotion fell upon Fay’s companion now and sealed his lips. Moreover, confidences always embarrass a reserved person, however sympathetically inclined. Somerton was convinced that any words he might bring himself to utter at this moment would sound hopelessly banal if not ridiculous. Sorry as he was for the girl, he wished she had spoken less frankly. After all, he had not been a very intimate friend of the Fleetwoods. There were lots of people in India he knew far better, yet he was aware that in some unaccountable way the thought of this family had never been very far from his mind. He began to search his mind for the reason, then interrupted himself, for Fay still sat gazing moodily into the fire, and it behoved him to make some acknowledgment of what she had said to him.
“You don’t like being at home, then?” he asked lamely and with an effort.
“How could anybody like it who lived as we did in India, and who have to live as we do at home?”
She turned her head and looked at him earnestly. Crouched there on the stool in the glow of the firelight, her grey eyes in strong relief below the black brows and soft cloud of hair, he thought she resembled a pastel sketch, delicately tinted, as if rough handling would instantly blur and destroy the effect. Again he recalled Mrs Taylor’s tattle. Doubtless the Fleetwoods had means sufficient to keep them in ordinary physical comfort, but, by Jove! there could be precious little margin for pleasure or luxury!
“And how about your sisters?” he asked tentatively, feeling curious to hear how these two superior young people accepted such conditions.
“Oh ! they grumble,” said Fay, with an affectionate laugh, “but on the whole I don’t think they have such a bad time. People are very nice to them, and they go about a good deal, and they have a rich friend.”
She meant Mrs de Wick, but of course he assumed the rich friend to be a man. “And you?—have you a rich friend too?” he asked in chaff. Then straightway wondered why on earth he should hope in his heart that she went nowhere and knew no one! What could have come over him? The fog must surely have affected his brain.
With men of natural, wholesome tendency the instinct of sex jealousy will oust all finer considerations; but Somerton was far from realizing the cause of the selfish humour that suddenly beset him. His indignation would no doubt have been fierce had anyone accused him at the moment of wishing Fay Fleetwood to enjoy no pleasure that he could not give her himself—more especially pleasure she might owe to some other man!
“I?” she said dreamily, looking again into the fire. “Oh! I don’t want to go to parties and dances and skating rinks particularly. I expect, for girls who like that sort of thing, it’s lovely, but personally I’d exchange it all for just one sight of the dawn on the Himalayas, or even, I really believe, for a sniff of the bazaar! I suppose that sounds dreadful, but it would mean that I was back in India!”
He heard the suppressed sob in her voice, and there slid into his mind the memory of her reading a green book in the drawing-room at Pahar Tal; of how she had spoken to him then, shyly, of her passion for India, how he had wondered what the future would bring the child, infected as she was with the country’s magic spell.
“I know,” he said gently. “I can understand. I want to get back there myself.”
“And you are going very soon,” she said enviously.
“Yes. My sister-in-law wanted me to stay at home altogether and look after the place, but I couldn’t give up my freedom and my profession, and live on her generosity. We almost had a row about it. But I think we’ve come to an amicable settlement. The place belongs to me now, and she’s to live in it rent free and keep it up in return.”
“Then you won’t come home again for years?”
“Yes, I shall be in England this next summer on duty. The Rajah’s coming home, and I’m to look after him.”
“What—Rotah? Just fancy! Of course, he was always so keen on coming to England. I remember. How has he been getting on all this time?”
“The child died, you know, and then Rotah got restless and unsettled—the women led him such a life. So we sent him off to College, where he’s doing remarkably well. I always knew that boy had grit in him. I believe when he takes the reins into his own hands he’ll be a model Indian prince! It’s a pity his state is a comparatively small one and of no great importance. He might be a shining light among the big native rulers.”
Fay remembered the moment on the fort walls when Rotah had stammered out his promise to her that he would do his utmost by his people. She saw him again in the light of the afternoon sun, the warm brown face and liquid eyes, the white turban folded low on his forehead, the sensitive, boyish mouth and snowy teeth. She hoped with fervour that his rule would be just and humane—that he would consider his responsibilities before his personal inclinations. She knew she had done her little best to urge him in the right direction. It might be that her influence, though so remote and indirect, would work towards the fulfilment of all Rotah’s high resolves. The idea kindled her spirit.
“And the Rani?” she asked. “Is she coming to England with him?”
“I expect she will, but I hope and trust the Ma-ji will stay in India. Oh! that old woman!” he lifted his shoulders significantly. “So few people in England realize what a power for good or evil the women of India hold in their little brown hands!”
There came a silence. In this narrow room, the door and windows tightly closed against the cold and darkness outside, the man and girl were deep in remembrance of that vast old country steeped in sun, a country in some ways so terrible yet so alluring, where the happiest days of both their lives, so far, had been passed.
“Sometimes we have letters from old Gunga,” said Fay, presently. “He says his wife is most kind to Akbar, who has grown very fat! Gunga doesn’t mean to go into service again since we are never coming back. He seems to think that will be a great comfort to us, poor old dear! Oh! how we do miss our Indian servants!” she added regretfully. “Mother can’t make up her mind which she would choose to have if she were allowed even one out of the number we had to keep in India. On Monday mornings she bewails the dhobie; she says her life is wasted in fighting with laundry people. When the woman who does odds and ends of dressmaking for us fails to come after solemn oaths, or keeps things for weeks and weeks, she longs for the durzey. This morning, of course, it was the cook she regretted most bitterly because our lady left in a rage at a moment’s notice. That’s why mother is not at home this afternoon, she has gone up to London to try and capture another one. She also thinks life would be so much easier if only she had a chuprassie to do up parcels and go messages. I have heard her say she feels she ought to go back to India to shake hands with her old servants and apologize to them for ever having been cross about anything!”
Clive Somerton laughed. “Poor Mrs Fleetwood! This pensioned existence in England for Anglo-Indians is a difficult question. After a lifetime of experience in one direction the guillotine of completed service severs the past from the present completely. A new head, almost a new body, has to be grown before there can be real contentment under the new conditions. Haven’t you noticed how restless Anglo-Indians are at first—some even for the rest of their lives? They often change houses and localities several times before they finally come to anchor, if ever they do. I believe one reason why they generally move from their first perch is that it doesn’t always strike them what an important part neighbourhood plays in English life. In India, of course, wherever you go you have friends about you or within reach, unless you are absolutely isolated in the jungle; but in England it’s no use taking a house, however roomy or delightful, if you can’t know your neighbours—if it’s a locality given over to a different class from your own.”
“And I suppose we’re too apt to think of housing and feeding ourselves and our friends before all other considerations,” said Fay, rather ruefully.
Tea came in, the lights were turned up. They talked on, easily, intimately, for another half-hour. Then Somerton looked at the clock on the mantelpiece, and rose with an exclamation of dismay.
“I’d no idea the time was going so quickly,” he said, and held out his hand. “I shall be late for an appointment I have to keep before dinner. I’m afraid I must be off at once, Miss Fleetwood. Will you tell your people how sorry I am to have missed them? I expect I shall only be in town for a night or two before I sail, but if I can’t run down then we shall meet again later on, in the spring.”
“Yes, when you come home with the Rajah. We shall look forward to seeing you.”
They parted with formal friendliness; but as he stepped out into the choking fog he was uneasily conscious of a longing to turn back, of an acute desire to see the girl’s face again, to touch her hand, to bid her good-bye once more. He even considered for a moment whether an excuse were possible—his gloves, his umbrella? No, he could hardly pretend he had forgotten either, for she had seen these possessions in his hands as he left the narrow hall! Then a wave of self-impatience chilled the impulse, and a sense of alarm drove him forward in the light of the road lamps, blurred and enfeebled by the fog. Could it be possible that he was in danger of loving this girl? he who never intended to hamper his life with the responsibilities of matrimony—who had always thought of marriage as a hindrance to the kind of existence he preferred?—an existence made up of sport and congenial duty, and personal independence, free from all domestic care. To a bachelor, with his notions of enjoyment, India could be a very Paradise; to a married man it might easily become the reverse, what with anxieties about health and money and children, and the everlasting self-sacrifice that a family must needs entail.
Emphatically he insisted to himself that he refused to submit to such a visitation as threatened to fall upon him—much as though it were some tiresome complaint to be checked, or staved off at all hazards, that it might not interfere with plans and arrangements!
All the way to the station he argued fiercely in his brain. He felt it was like struggling in a dream to gain one’s own ends—much mental clamour with no relief; and the horrible fog, the cold and the gloom, strengthened the simile. In his present circumstances he was free to spend his leave and his money just as he pleased—trips into the Himalayas after ibex, gooral, musk deer, after heads and horns of all descriptions; tiger-shoots in Nepal, the Terai, the Dhoon, expeditions, such as his soul adored, in search of big game; he glowed at the thought of it all. And yet now it was leavened by the haunting memory of blue-grey eyes, shaded with dark lashes, a pale, clean-cut little face, and a slender, almost boyish figure. Then all at once he knew that the image of Fay Fleetwood had set itself up in the background of his mind and heart from the moment of his watching her drive away from Rotah’s palace, as little more than a child, some two years ago!
The revelation amazed him. He felt a detached wonder, an astonished curiosity towards his own mental condition. Who ever heard of a fellow realizing that he was more or less in love, yet being angrily unwilling to admit the fact or to go further in the matter? By the time he was seated in the train his resolve was made—he would not risk further upheaval and disturbance of his peace by a second visit to the Fleetwoods before he sailed again for India. Perhaps now that he was alive to his danger he might succeed in stifling the tender attraction he felt for the girl, or, in the meantime, she might marry someone else. Perhaps she was already engaged. If not, when he came back he would see. Yes, he would see. And then, he thought with perverse pessimism, if he did propose probably she would refuse him, or, worse still, she might marry him just as a means of returning to India, since her fancy for the country seemed to dominate all her inclinations!
He felt it to be an altogether exasperating, unnecessary state of affairs. Damn!
The day before Clive Somerton was to sail for India he broke faith with himself. Despite what he had regarded as an irrevocable resolve he telegraphed to Mrs Fleetwood: “Are you at home this afternoon?” and prepaid the reply. “Yes, do come,” was the answer, and then perversely he wished it had been “No.”
His defeat was brought about by a letter from a brother officer, received by that week’s mail, full of a threatening of trouble on the frontier and the regiment’s chances of selection for active service should an expedition prove necessary. Of course, in such an event his projected visit to England next spring with the Rotah Rajah must be abandoned, and all idea of leave relegated to the uncertain future. And in face of his reasoning and calm decision he caught at the excuse for capitulation, vindicating his own weakness with sophistries that carried no inner conviction, till finally he met the truth—that a strong desire for one more sight of Fay Fleetwood’s face was the sole reason that impelled him to make this tiresome little journey, on a bitterly cold afternoon, even though, as is ever the case on the eve of a voyage, he had a hundred small matters yet to settle. While still vowing to himself that no hint of the tenor of his feelings should escape him, he felt reluctant to leave England, now that his absence might be indefinitely extended, without bidding this girl farewell. After that he would count upon time to dispel the inquietude she had evoked in his breast.
When he was shown into the drawing-room he hardly knew whether he was relieved or disappointed to find only Isabel and her mother seated there. In any case a dull depression descended upon him, and he responded with conscious effort to Mrs Fleetwood’s cordiality. As he entered she threw aside a letter she was reading and rose with evident pleasure.
“This is good of you, Captain Somerton! I am sorry to say my poor husband is in bed with what the doctor thinks may be influenza if it isn’t Indian fever, so I didn’t even tell him you were coming. I knew how disappointed he would be not to see you. He was very restless all last night, but he is having a comfortable sleep now.”
Somerton expressed his regret, and they all abused the English climate, which they blamed for Mr Fleetwood’s indisposition.
“And Marion, too, was dreadfully sorry to be obliged to keep an engagement this afternoon. It was one she could not very well break.”
“Of course not!” he said conventionally.
Isabel now rescued the letter that had fallen inside the fender. “And I ought to have been in London ‘taking up’ a cook’s character for mother this afternoon! But I couldn’t resist staying in to see you!” she said, and added smiling: “Now we shall probably lose the chance of securing a perfect treasure, or be obliged to engage the writer of this”—she held up the sheet of paper scrawled with illiterate handwriting—“which begins, ‘Dear Madman, This comes hopping you are not sooted,’ and ends, ‘Yours respectively’!”
Somerton laughed, but Mrs Fleetwood sighed. “No one knows what I suffer with these people!” she said. “But don’t let us mention them. Now tell me—” and she began to ask questions.
He replied patiently, and inquired politely in his turn, without voicing the one question he really wished to hear answered. He regarded Isabel and thought her altered in appearance; she was surely thinner, a little faded, what is described as “going off.” Mrs Fleetwood, too, had aged perceptibly, but then it was more than two years since their last meeting, and people must be expected to change with time. Then he glanced round the room, receiving an impression of comfort and colour due in part to the beautiful Indian carpet and to Mrs Fleetwood’s cherished native embroideries, carvings and brasswork. In England she was permitted to display them without opposition from her elder daughters; and indeed so handsome of their kind were these possessions that to banish them would have seemed inexcusable.
The talk continued. Mrs Fleetwood was interested as well as concerned to hear of the possibility of what her visitor called “a scrimmage on the frontier.” She was sorry he might not be coming home in the spring with the young Rajah, and she and Isabel wondered if the Rani would accompany her husband.
“I expect he will bring her with him, especially as I hear the Ma-ji is dead!” said Somerton. “I am sure nobody will regret her. I don’t know what she died of. I should think probably somebody poisoned her. I wonder it did not happen long ago.”
“It will do the Rani good to come home,” said Mrs Fleetwood. “Poor little creature, she was sadly behind the times. Of course it was a great disadvantage to Rotah having inherited so unexpectedly, and when he was no longer a child—and she suffered too. I always felt sorry for them both.”
“Well, at any rate Rotah is doing his best to make up for lost time. He’s working hard at College, and shaping just as well as I always hoped and expected he would.”
Then Somerton grew restive, wondering if Fay was on guard in her father’s room, remembering that last time he was here he had sat with her in the dining-room. Perhaps she was in the dining-room now, busy over something. He watched the door, while Mrs Fleetwood made further remarks and the time ticked away in the warm drawing-room.
Finally he said: “Where is Miss Fay? Is she out too?”
Mrs Fleetwood and Isabel both looked at the clock.
“Oh! Fay ought to have been back by this time,” Isabel told him. “She said we were to be sure and keep you if she was at all late. She goes up to London every day over her stupid typewriting.”
“Typewriting? How do you mean?”
“Fay has taken a craze into her head to train for a secretaryship!” It was still Isabel who answered him. “We think it such ridiculous nonsense, but she will have her own way. She is doing a course of typewriting and shorthand. She began it a few days ago.”
Annoyance at the thought of Fay, dainty, dreamy, fastidious, slaving at a typewriting machine, scribbling shorthand, held the man silent—the very words called up for him, living as he had done so far from the busy London world, visions of “dreadful girls,” “not ladies,” who would probably be her companions in work, and he was filled with disapprobation. Surely such a proceeding was totally uncalled for, most unwise. What were her parents about to allow such a thing?
“She says she must have occupation,” went on Isabel, of course unconscious of his feelings, “and I daresay she is right in a way. You see, she doesn’t care much for going out. She’s not like other girls in that respect.”
“Nowadays so many nice girls do a little something for pocket-money, though that’s not exactly Fay’s object,” said Mrs Fleetwood in plaintive apology. “I pointed out that there was no need for her to do anything of the sort. We aren’t so poverty-stricken as all that!”
She smiled in her old placid manner, but there was little response in Somerton’s face. He drank his tea in discontented silence, then said rather abruptly that he feared he could stay no longer; it was much later than he thought; he had to dine at a Club with a couple of friends—men of his regiment who were also at home; he had business letters to write and various things to do before he dressed.
Mrs Fleetwood went to the window and drew aside the blind. “I can’t understand Fay being so late,” she said anxiously. “She wanted to see you, Captain Somerton.”
“Well, it’s no use looking out into the back garden, mother!” observed Isabel. “She must have been delayed at the office for some reason. She’s so keen on the work she forgets all about time.”
Mrs Fleetwood turned again, troubled, into the room. Somerton was standing as though to take his leave. “I must go—really!” he said with genuine regret.
“It is a pity! Still, I know what it is when one is just starting for India. Good-bye, then, Captain Somerton. Come and see us when you get home again, won’t you? I expect we shall be here. The house suits us, and we like the space and the fresh air. Anyway the Bullens will always tell you where to find us. They have bought a house here and are quite settled. So nice for us! Good-bye. You may meet Fay on your way to the station.”
“I hope so. I will look out for her.” And with further speeches on both sides he went.
He did meet Fay on his way to the station. They met face to face under a road lamp that illuminated her charming, clear-cut face and eyes of soft grey-blue. Fur came up to the pointed chin, and touched the little pink ears, and round her toque was fur that mingled lightly with her hair.
Her right hand came out of her muff. “Oh! Captain Somerton, then I have missed you after all!”
“Not quite! I stayed as long as I dared, hoping you might come in.” He held her hand in his. “I hear you are hard at work.” He said it grudgingly though he smiled down at her, and his eyes reminded Fay of the morning when he had come round the shoulder of the hill-side and halted, looking at her, saying, “Hullo, little lady! You are up early!”
Oh! how that morning, and others like it, came back to her as she stood on the damp asphalt footpath beneath the lamp in the biting chill of the winter evening; frost and fog in the air; people hurrying homewards to their firesides on foot, on bicycles, in tramcars, passing and re-passing like ghosts in the gloom. Again she saw the sparkling sunshine, the wonderful sky, so blue, so clear, the blinding glory of the snows, the purple, sultry valleys. And this man before her was going back to it all—how she envied him!—back to the light and the warmth and the independence, to the reality of sights and sounds and scents that haunted her dreams. She fought against the wave of yearning that surged through her heart.
“Oh, yes,” she said cheerily. “I’m hard at work, and I like it. I like the regularity and the purpose. I believe I’m a born servant! I hope, when my course is finished, I shall get an interesting billet.”
He hated the thought that she should work for a wage. It appeared to him unsuitable, altogether wrong. He said crossly, “It seems very unnecessary!”
She gazed at him in reproach. “Oh! how unkind of you. Why shouldn’t I work if I want to! You are as bad as Marion and Isabel.”
He felt provoked with himself and with her, goaded because he loved her and did not want to love her.
“I suppose it’s difficult to realize that you are grown up and can take care of yourself,” he said rather petulantly.
She retorted with mischievous intent: “Yes, I daresay from your point of view I am not much more than a child, just as from my point of view you are very nearly an old man!”
He laughed, recovering his temper, repenting his impatience, regretting most sorely that he had to leave her.
“All right, we’ll continue the quarrel when I come back from India, though when that will be I don’t know now. I may not be coming home next year after all.”
He paused, scanning her face with wistful attention, but he saw only frank, impersonal concern for his own inconvenience, nothing more.
“Oh! what a pity!” she said with ready sympathy. “Why is it?”
He told her, and as he spoke a clock somewhere near chimed out the hour. It was imperative that he should hurry. Oh! why could he not take her with him, out of this cold and darkness and dullness of life! It was too late, he could say nothing; he could see she had no thought of him save as a pleasant acquaintance. He must wait—wait and take his chance.
A tram came rolling by, ablaze with light, filled with people. In a moment his farewell was over, cut short most unromantically as he darted forward, together with other desperate passengers, to clutch the brass bar and to struggle inside the car through a resisting mass of knees and boots whose owners seemed to prefer the risk of any injury rather than budge one inch further up the seats.
Fay went on her way smiling. Captain Somerton was a dear man. She liked him so much, and remembered his curious agate-green eyes, and thought how nice and friendly he had always been. Lucky creature to be off to-morrow for India! She envied him; though, thank goodness, she had at last discovered a palliative for discontentment and depression in work, work—work with a definite purpose, not merely the maintaining of an accomplishment that could lead to no useful end. Since pursuing this line for herself she had been conscious of mental refreshment, a bracing of spirit, a hopeful feeling of security against the heart-hunger for India that threatened at times to cloud her whole existence. She began to recall to-day’s happenings—her success at one point, her failure at another, the ill-temper of her instructress over nothing, the woman’s patience over real aggravation. How one handsome, red-haired girl had of a sudden revolted and cried out against a future of drudgery, had flung her papers on the ground, pushed aside her typewriting machine, and babbled tempestuously concerning theatres, and suppers, pleasures and pretty things only awaiting those who had the pluck and the sense to take them. And when she was gone, and the bang of the door and the echo of her resentful yet triumphant voice had died away, a blight seemed to fall on some of the girls—those who in all probability could look forward to nothing better than a slow sacrifice of looks and health and laughter in return for such wage as would enable them just to live—certainly no more. A sad, feeble murmur of discouragement had rumbled round the room before the machines began to tick again and close work enforced the silence of concentration.
That evening Marion returned in high spirits from a large tea-party given by Mrs de Wick at a fashionable and expensive hotel-restaurant. She changed into a tea-gown and sat with her father until dinner-time, giving him a lively description of the afternoon, though purposely she omitted one incident.
She asked, when she came downstairs, if the Indian mail was in. “Dad says it’s due to-night, and he’s longing for The Pioneer Mail.” No, it had not come. Isabel thought it would probably arrive by the last post. “I brought him a late paper,” said Marion, “that will keep him going for the present.”
As they finished dinner the postman knocked with his customary violence and pushed something into the letter-box. It proved to be the Indian paper—no letters, nothing else. Mrs Fleetwood took the paper upstairs, unopened, to her husband. She would sit with him, she said, and read him all the Indian news. Fay elected to go to bed; she was tired. Therefore Marion and Isabel had the drawing-room to themselves. The fire burned brightly. They did not trouble to turn on the lights, and Marion, in her amber-coloured tea-gown, stretched herself with lazy contentment on the sofa that had a carved sandal-wood screen for background. The firelight burnished her bright hair and made flickering reflections in the brass tea-table beside the couch. Had she put down her feet they would have rested on a tawny tiger skin. Isabel, regarding her sister with affectionate admiration, was reminded of an Alma Tadema painting.
The warm silence of the room was very peaceful. Marion broke it with the sort of question that, like a riddle, few people attempt to answer. “Who do you think I saw to-day?”
Naturally Isabel demanded “Who?” with no intention of guessing.
“Sir Rowland Curtice.”
“Oh! the pig. What did he say?”
“I didn’t give him the chance of saying much!” was Marion’s somewhat vicious reply. “He came with the Crambs, you know, those people who give such enormous dinner-parties at the Carlton and all that sort of thing, to everybody they meet. Mrs de Wick rushes at them whenever she sees them anywhere. She pushed me into the thick of the Cramb party this afternoon, and I found myself sitting next to Sir Rowland Curtice! He said, ‘I think we met in India.’ I stared at him and said, ‘Perhaps in India I should recognize you again’—as if I had never seen him before in my life. Then I got up and sat in another place well away from him. Then Aunt B. turned up and was very gushing and confidential, and would you believe it, Sir Rowland came forward and joined us, and told her that he had stayed with us in India, and how kind we had been to him! Afterwards Aunt B. gave me such a scolding because she said I had snubbed him, and she thought it so stupid of me when he was a real catch, and so evidently taken. I was so amused!”
“Did you tell him where we lived?”
“Good gracious! I should think not!”
Marion gazed into the fire, musing, with a contemplative smile. The situation that had arisen with regard to Sir Rowland Curtice was sharply apparent to her, and it promised some entertainment. She felt sure he would make an attempt to follow up their meeting sooner or later. Attraction that battled with reluctance had shone in his pebbly eyes, and she divined that though no doubt he still preened himself on having eluded her wiles in India, he yet felt drawn towards her, beholding her once more, allured again by all that had pleased him in her formerly—her handsome face and figure, her calm self-possession, her ready tongue. Though the remembrance of their last interview must surely rankle in his mind, perhaps at the same time it lent spice to the re-encounter! She felt that her present attitude towards him had stirred his sluggish emotions. Probably he had expected her to be more than friendly, seeing that here she was in England and still Miss Fleetwood! Purposely Marion had balked and provoked him, even apart from her indignation at his insolence, displaying an indifference towards him that was indeed most genuine.
Perhaps in consequence of this afternoon’s event Marion’s thoughts now turned, and turned more warmly, to the memory of Tom Gray. Tom Gray was coming home for Christmas, as he had promised he would do when he rode away through the mango grove that bright Indian morning. How long ago that seemed! It would be nice to see him again. At any rate nobody could accuse Tom Gray of being worldly, or heartless, or selfish. How refreshing after the company to which by this time she was accustomed, to which she had deliberately attached herself, trading on her good looks and attractive manners, yet feeling mean, and small, and unworthy all the time.
Isabel dozed. The fire burned low. Marion was so wholly given over to her own thoughts that time, at the moment, hardly existed for her, and she did not know that her mother had come into the drawing-room until the lights were turned up without warning, and Mrs Fleetwood said: “Why are you sitting in the dark?”
She came towards the fireplace with the newspaper from India in her hand.
“How’s dad?” said Isabel. She sat up and blinked in the glare of the electric light.
“Better, I think. But we’ve both been so upset by a piece of news in The Pioneer Mail, and you will be shocked too, both of you. Poor Mr Gray is dead—Tom Gray! I can hardly believe it when I remember how well and cheery he was that last Christmas when we were all in camp together. And he was just coming home, too!”
“Oh! mother, how dreadful! What happened—does it say?” Isabel rose swiftly and put out all the lights but the one behind the carved sandal-wood screen. Marion had not spoken; she lay quite still on the sofa.
“Why have you put the lights out?” complained Mrs Fleetwood.
“There was such a glare. It hurt my eyes after the darkness.”
Mrs Fleetwood sat down on the chair Isabel had left.
“It is so sad about poor Mr Gray. It was a fall from his horse, poor fellow.” She turned over the pages of the paper. “Where was it? I can’t see with so little light. Isabel, turn up the one near me.”
Marion moved. Then she got up from the sofa.
“I am going to bed,” she said, and walked out of the room with slow, even steps.
When the door closed behind her sister, Isabel turned on the lights. Mrs Fleetwood found the paragraph and read it aloud. Tom Gray’s death had been commonplace and sudden. The horse had put its foot into a rat-hole and turned head over heels. Tom Gray’s neck was broken when they picked him up.
“Poor fellow, poor fellow!” Mrs Fleetwood repeated, her kind blue eyes full of tears. “How sad! Isabel—” She paused.
“Marion did not seem to mind. Did you notice it? Strictly between ourselves, dear, I have now and then wondered if she did care for him a little? Marion is not of a very affectionate nature, I know, but she always seemed to me to like him better than any of the other men. He would have made a very good husband, though of course the Police is not a very well-paid service. I must say I was surprised at the way she took the bad news.”
Isabel was not at all surprised. She knew her sister better than the mother knew the daughter. She knew that the one soft spot for any man in the world in Marion’s heart had all at once become an aching, tender wound that now only courage and the years could heal.
To the Fleetwoods’ disgust this their second Christmas in England arrived in thoroughly old-fashioned order. Heavy snow fell and weighted the branches of the trees and shrubs, lay freezing immovably on the roofs and along the gates and palings; the sky resembled grey cotton wool, and a bleak silence brooded everywhere. Pipes froze, boilers burst, provisions arrived too late, or were not delivered at all. General inconvenience prevailed.
At Combe Down it could hardly be regarded as a merry season, for in addition to domestic disasters due to the severe cold and its shrivelling effect on Anglo-Indian susceptibilities, Mr Fleetwood was far from well, if not seriously ill. Influenza had aggravated his cough, and left him in a melancholy humour, which, unused as he was to the handicap of ill-health, he seemed powerless to combat. And in a mood foolishly perverse he had brought about a relapse by going out before sanction to do so had been wrung from the doctor.
Therefore Christmas Day found Mr Fleetwood in bed, exceedingly annoyed because he was unable to dine with the Bullens that night, and irate with his wife because she refused to leave him to accompany the girls to the dinner-party.
“He won’t do a thing he’s told,” Marion complained to Mrs Bullen when she and her sister arrived in the drawing-room, “and he’s so cross and unlike himself. He behaves exactly as if it was all our fault—his being ill!”
“He’s fretting,” said Mrs Bullen.
“What for?” inquired Marion, inclined to be aggrieved.
“For something to do that would interest him, and also for the jungle, my dear.”
Marion protested. “But he’s had a lifetime of interesting work and sport. He can’t expect to live at home as he lived in India. None of us can!” she added ruefully. “Look at Colonel Bullen—he’s perfectly contented!”
Mrs Bullen did look at her husband, standing spruce and spare with his back to the fire-place in the room full of guests awaiting the announcement of dinner.
“You can’t compare the two men,” was her answer. She knew how entirely different was his nature from that of John Fleetwood. He did not pine for the riding and the shooting because, though not a “muff,” he was no sportsman at heart. Any form of exercise satisfied him, even the dull tramps he took along suburban roads, tramps on which John Fleetwood refused, flatly, to accompany him. Colonel Bullen said these walks kept him in health and cost him nothing but shoe leather. Then he was a card-player, though nothing of a gambler, whereas cards without fairly high stakes bored Mr Fleetwood, for which reason he now did not play at all. As for work, Colonel Bullen was always busy over local councils, boards, and committees, enjoying such voluntary duties, unaffected by association with colleagues whose methods would have exasperated Mr Fleetwood beyond all power of self-control.
Marion said no more on the subject; but that night when she looked into the sick-room on her return from the Bullens’ Christmas dinner-party, the words of her mother’s old friend repeated themselves in her brain.
The bedroom was of an ordinary English type—a flower-patterned wall-paper and carpet, light oak furniture, dark serge curtains now close drawn before the bow window; a gleaming brass bedstead whereon lay Mr Fleetwood with closed eyes, breathing rather noisily. Mrs Fleetwood sat by the fire in her dressing-gown. She held up her hand as Marion stole in.
“He’s asleep,” she whispered, “but I’m afraid he’s very feverish.”
Perhaps the slight movements reached his consciousness. He stirred in his sleep and muttered. The two women watched him anxiously.
He spoke again, said something about an office file and a report—then murmured intermittently of guns and game. In his dreams he lived again the life that was gone from his reach for ever; perhaps in fancy he was perched on a platform in a tree, waiting for snuffling, prowling noises beneath; perhaps swaying in a howdah through seas of dry grass the height of a man; perhaps watching for the duck and wild geese to come overhead at sunset.
Marion listened. Her throat throbbed, tears rose to her eyes. Now she understood what Mrs Bullen meant—she realized, in those moments, her father’s hankering for the old days; the restiveness, repressed so valiantly, against the cramped, villa existence of the present; the limitations, the sense of stiflement and captivity. She perceived how his whole being must miss the freedom, the power, the responsibility that had been to him as second nature throughout his adult years. How cruelly hard must have been the wrench, the change, the “Combe Down” literally to a house in a row of other houses; just the daily visits to the Club, the return home to a diary of domestic vexations—all the lack of means, and recreation, and sport.
Presently he woke, inquired drowsily of Marion about the Bullens’ party, swallowed with resignation the dose of medicine his wife at once measured out for him, and fell into a peaceful sleep.
John Fleetwood never got up again. There followed a period of suspense and fear; then, in January, he died, quietly, without question, as obeying orders from head-quarters—died with a smile on his lips, and peace on his face, and happy memories in his mind.
Just at the last he asked “Emily” if it would bother her to find out if Gunga had put everything ready?—just to see that the boxes of cartridges had not been forgotten? “I want to start on the march very early in the morning,” he said, as though in apology for troubling her, “and I must get to sleep as soon as possible.”
He went to sleep and started very early in the morning, marching to regions of freedom and space, and light everlasting.
The next few months moved evenly, without particular incident for the widow and her daughters. They remained on in the house at Norbledon, though Marion made a desperate bid for a flat in London. Mr Fleetwood’s pension perforce was gone, but they found themselves in no worse circumstances than during his life-time. The sons of course no longer looked for help, and the pensions of Mrs Fleetwood and the three girls, together with a modest sum of insurance money, sufficed to keep the household in ordinary ease. It all continued much as before, save that Mrs Fleetwood became a little querulous, rather drab-coloured physically and mentally. She lost to a great extent her cheerful complacence, and might have sunk into a spiritless apathy had it not been for Fanny Bullen, who contrived to see her old friend daily, advised her on financial as well as on domestic matters, insisted that she should take a reasonable amount of exercise, and made every endeavour to stimulate her interest in life.
After the first period of mourning was over Marion went abroad with Mrs de Wick, who had been ill. Isabel devoted herself to her mother, and Fay, after completing her course of secretarial training, secured a temporary post in the office of an illustrated weekly paper, which kept her occupied from morning till night. It seemed as if the Fleetwood family had drifted into some still backwater, as if the present order of affairs might continue indefinitely, without alteration or disturbance.
Then spring came, a late spring that was more like a precocious summer, forcing buds and blossoms into bloom, filling the air with clean, sweet fragrance, converting commonplace suburban gardens into fairy enclosures with lilac and laburnum, forget-me-nots, wallflowers, London pride. Change and hope were in the very atmosphere, and at Combe Down things began to happen.
One morning Mrs Fleetwood came to breakfast with a letter from India in her hand—a letter from her husband’s old friend the Resident at Rotah. She had a plaintive air.
“I don’t know why he should ask me to do such a thing. Read what he says, Isabel.” She handed the letter across the table and began to make the tea.
“May I see too?” said Fay. Without waiting for permission she leaned over her sister’s shoulder.
The commencement of the letter contained nothing more moving than inquiries concerning the welfare of Mrs Fleetwood and her daughters, information as to the doings of the writer and his own family; but towards the end there came a tentative, apologetic request—perhaps Mrs Fleetwood might be so kind as to undertake the selection of a lady, with a fair knowledge of Hindustani, who would consent to act as guide and companion to the Rani of Rotah during her stay in London on her forthcoming visit to England with the Rajah? If Mrs Fleetwood could get this matter settled without delay it would be a relief to all concerned.
“Oh! I see he says Captain Somerton is coming home with the Rajah,” said Isabel, her eyes still on the letter. “I suppose the frontier trouble has blown over.”
“Yes, I suppose so. But how on earth am I to find anyone to look after the Rani? I don’t know a soul who would be suitable.”
Fay looked at her mother. Her eyes were eager, her cheeks delicately flushed with excitement. “Oh I mother, do select me! I should simply love it. And I haven’t forgotten my Hindustani at all. I often even dream in Hindustani!”
Following her first feeling of astonishment, Mrs Fleetwood’s instinct was to object. Yet she could think of no valid argument against Fay’s desire—she was only conscious of repugnance towards the idea. For the moment she sat in perplexed silence.
“You wouldn’t really like it, Fay,” Isabel said in soft reproach.
“I should! Of course I should enjoy it most thoroughly!”
“I don’t know what your father would have said,” Mrs Fleetwood put forward uneasily.
“I am certain he would have said ‘Yes,’” Fay decided. “A good salary for the time being, a unique experience—all most interesting. I wonder what the Rani will think of London!—and the Rajah too. What fun for Captain Somerton and me!”
Mrs Fleetwood still felt troubled and in doubt, but the mention of Clive Somerton by Fay gave her a certain comfort. A little secret idea, born in the maternal mind during Captain Somerton’s farewell visit last time he was at home, now gained vitality and became a decided hope. That time—when Captain Somerton asked particularly for Fay—she had allowed herself to wonder—? Then nothing further came of it, no letters, except one of condolence to herself on her husband’s death. Fay never mentioned him except quite casually, and the poor little idea had dwindled and shrunk, almost died altogether, until revived now by the prospect of frequent meetings between the pair should she consent to this, Fay’s eager wish. Her heart fluttered with gentle pleasure. Perhaps, after all, one of her girls was to find the right sort of husband and go back with him to India to carry on the family connection with the country; to write long letters home every mail about the housekeeping, and the servants, and the old familiar life; to bring home babies! Dear little Fay with her sweet, true nature, and her inherent love for the land where her forbears had lived and loved, and governed and fought, for generations back. What an admirable wife she would be for this man with the dark, determined face and conquering character! Mrs Fleetwood always had liked and esteemed Clive Somerton. So as far as she was able she stifled her disapproval of Fay’s engagement to the Rani during their London visit, and felt there was no more to be said or done at present save write to her husband’s old friend and tender the services of her youngest daughter, knowing full well that acceptance without question would follow.
It was just at this juncture that Marion returned from the Riviera. When Marion came home, or went away, the establishment was given over to her convenience for the entire day. She was one of those people who have the knack of commanding undivided attention, when they require it, from those around them. It is a mysterious faculty, not easily to be defined, for selfishness is not always the correct explanation of it. All selfish people have not the power of eliciting service from others. But whether selfishness was the secret of Marion’s influence or not, the housemaid invariably packed for her and prepared her for a journey, often to the unavoidable neglect of the woman’s other duties; the parlourmaid was incited to polish to perfection her toilet silver and her patent leather shoes, to mend gloves and stockings and iron blouses during her busiest hours, and as often as not the cook was commandeered as well. Now on her return from abroad a fire had been airing her bedroom all day despite the mildness of the weather, a tea-gown hung over a chair before the fire, the bath water was hot, tea could be sent in at any moment. The very cabman made no complaint at finding he was expected to carry the lady’s heavy luggage upstairs for a very small addition to his fare.
Directly Isabel saw her sister she was conscious of a subtle change in Marion, who looked handsomer than ever, yet older, harder, more self-contained. Marion had the air of one in possession of some knowledge that rendered her at once superior to her surroundings, yet in no way elated thereby. Something must have happened! Isabel observed that she was very gracious to them all—said she was quite glad to be home again, admired Isabel’s improvements in the garden, pronounced her mother to be looking much stronger, was interested in Fay’s agreement to act as cicerone to the Rotah Rani, and did not deride the plan as they had all half anticipated she might do. But throughout she was quite impersonal, just as her letters had been impersonal during her absence. Yes, Nice was delightful; Mrs de Wick was much better though she would probably be obliged to go to Aix in July to get quite well. No, they had not been very gay; at first Mrs de Wick’s health had stood in the way, and lately people had been leaving the place as the season was nearly over. So on, and so on—not a word of her own intimate doings or interests or affairs. Certainly, thought Isabel again, something had happened! She hung about Marion furtively all the evening till they went to bed; then she could endure it no longer, and followed her into her bedroom.
“Marion—do tell me!” she urged.
Marion laughed spontaneously. “Why? You don’t mean to say I look like it?” and she regarded her reflection in the mirror with critical attention.
“Like what?” Isabel inquired breathlessly.
“As if I was engaged to be married?”
“Oh! Marion, who is it?”
“Sir Rowland Curtice,” was the petrifying answer.
Isabel sat down on the bed and stammered. “But when, how—when did it happen?” She was confused, bewildered by Marion’s news.
“It happened just before I came home. He has been at Nice all the time. I refused him soon after we got out there. I refused him again, later on. The third time, when he was sufficiently abject, I said ‘Yes.’ He will not be home just yet. He was going on to Russia and I made him keep to his engagements, but I shall marry him in the autumn before our year of mourning is over because it will be cheaper for mother. A quiet wedding, as the papers will say, owing to mourning in the bride’s family.”
“But, Marion, are you—do you —?” Isabel hesitated. She feared the answer.
“Am I in love with him?” Marion turned out the electric light with slow deliberation, went to the window and threw it open, then drew up a chair and sat resting her arms on the sill.
Isabel came behind her and looked out. A waft of damp, scented breeze swept her face. “Why, it’s raining!” she said. “You’ll get wet, Marion.”
“It isn’t much, and I like the air.” She put her hands to her face as though to cool it. Outside the gentle rain pattered on the leaves and flowers, otherwise everything was curiously quiet, not even a footfall resounded along the road. There was a faint grey light as of a rising moon behind vapoury clouds.
Isabel sat down again on the low bedstead. A sense of desolation oppressed her. A shrinking from a future without Marion—the sister and companion she so loved and admired, whose actions and precepts she had never questioned since as little girls together the one had led and dominated, while the other copied and followed in slavish acceptance of the elder’s word and example. A host of affectionate recollections crowded into her mind, remembrances all darkened by the dread of separation, by the dread, too, that Marion might find no real happiness in this step she seemed so firmly determined to take. It was almost the deepest moment of emotion in Isabel’s passive life.
“No, I am not in love with him,” said Marion, calmly, “but I have brought him crawling and begging to my feet, and he can give me money and position and social power. Why shouldn’t I take it all? One can’t have everything. I refused of my own free will to marry the only man I could ever have cared for, and now he is dead.” She caught her breath and held it for a moment while she mastered the sob that threatened to shake her. “I am not rushing blindly into this marriage, Isabel. I know what I am doing, and I think it is worth doing. I don’t mean to allow my own past folly to spoil my life. If Tom had come home and asked me again to marry him I think I should have done it, and gone back to India a more humble-minded person than I left it! As it is, there is a great deal to live for still, from my point of view, and I might as well live for it. I suppose I may consider myself lucky to get the chance!”
Isabel only cried.
Marion came and sat beside her sister on the bed. “Don’t, Isabel dear. What’s the matter?”
“Oh, supposing he is unkind and horrid to you!”
Marion laughed. “I’m not at all afraid,” she said confidently. “I am much more likely to be unkind and horrid to him, though I shall try not to be. Listen, darling”—she kissed Isabel tenderly—“there is no need whatever to be miserable. I’m going to enjoy life as far as possible. Perhaps if I had married Tom Gray I shouldn’t have been happy, and there would have been no riches or luxury to fall back upon by way of consolation. I don’t fear the future for myself at all. But there is something that worries me—that has worried me ever since that horrible evening when mother brought The Pioneer Mail into the drawing-room and I realized what Tom’s dying meant to me.”
Isabel was tearfully interrogative.
“It is the feeling that I influenced you all wrong, Isabel, about Arthur Dakin. Long ago, if it hadn’t been for me, you might have married him and been happy in your own kind, unselfish way. I only saw what I had done that night when—”
“Oh! Marion dearest, don’t! You only wanted to save me from trouble and hardship and anything disagreeable. And there was really nothing between us, he never really said anything—”
Isabel’s quiet weeping turned into shattering tears and sobs. The sisters held each other tightly.
In a little while Marion withdrew herself from Isabel’s convulsive embrace. “Isabel,” she said, “you must stop crying. Mother will hear you. Besides, I want to tell you something else.”
In the enforced calm that followed Isabel listened to a scheme unfolded by her sister—that when the living at Batch fell vacant, which it was to do this autumn, Sir Rowland should offer it to the Rev. Arthur Dakin. Marion in the meantime would write to him, tell him of her approaching marriage, and sound him on the subject of accepting the living that was in the gift of her future husband.
“That is, if you’d like him to have the living, Isabel. Of course he would jump at it. I believe it’s a very good living as livings go nowadays.”
At first Isabel was speechless with gladness and gratitude. Then she began to apprehend obstacles. She feared Mr Dakin might think his duty lay in India. In that case, Marion decided, they would all go out to India after she had become Lady Curtice—in order, ostensibly, that Sir Rowland might complete the tour that was interrupted by fever, and finish his ridiculous book. But perhaps, persisted Isabel, Mr Dakin had forgotten all about her, and cared for, or was already married to, somebody else? To this Marion replied that at any rate he was not married or even engaged—she knew this, for she had made it her business to find out from some Indian people who were breaking their homeward journey at Nice, people who were intimate friends of Mr Dakin’s and had actually come direct from the very station where he was at present the chaplain. “And now, after all this,” said Marion, prosaically, “I should like to go to bed. You seem to forget that I’ve been travelling for the last I don’t know how many hours!”
It was June, the beginning of June, and London knew no peace by day or night. Turmoil, clamour, haste continued without pause. The machinery of business, duty, pleasure driving ceaselessly at highest speed. The streets were like streams whose eddies and undercurrents kept variegated masses of wreckage and litter for ever on the move.
It was a cheerful energy that filled the air this morning. A light breeze blew snow-white clouds across a clean blue sky; piles of flowers, bright and sweet, decorated the street corners—such a contrast to their dingy vendors; window-boxes blazed with colour, trees in the parks and squares swayed, freshly green, undulled as yet by dust and grime. It was all invigorating, optimistic, confident, as though drenching rain, poisonous fog, cold and darkness were evils never to be endured or apprehended.
The Rani of Rotah looked out of the window of her spacious bedroom in a hotel that specialized in accommodation for Eastern visitors of wealth and rank. Dully she marvelled at the moving scene below, then turned in confiding fashion to Fay Fleetwood, who, just arrived at the hotel, had been conducted to the Rani’s private suite of rooms.
“So many people come and go,” she said in Hindustani, for, owing to her late mother-in-law’s prejudices, she could speak nothing else; “come and go so quickly, run, walk, sit in gharry. London is a very, very big bazaar.”
The party from India had been a week in London, but the Rani required time to recover from the effects of the voyage, which had really affected her health, and she was only now beginning to take note of her strange new surroundings. With her in the room were a couple of waiting-maids who looked like ordinary ayahs; also a stout aunt of the Rajah’s, with iron-grey hair and a foolish face who chewed betel-nut industriously and, it must be admitted, now and then spat the juice on to the carpet; this lady’s grand-daughter, too, a merry, eager little person called Munia.
The room was in hopeless confusion, littered with clothes and cushions and rezais (native quilts), portions of hookahs delicately worked in silver, ivory or ebony. There were pân-boxes of different sizes and shapes, and articles and cosmetics taken from toilet boxes and not put back again. But despite all the rubbish and the chaos, and the smell of musky perfume and cardamoms and camphor, Fay’s heart warmed to these Indian women—to their naive simplicity and childlike attitude towards life, their gentle movements and graceful garb. How pretty was the Rani’s costume of soft draperies in various yellow shades, and a fine silk muslin veil embroidered in gold thread—a fashion that had never been changed since first it was introduced, no one could say how long ago—a fashion elegant, feminine and wise, that gave freedom of limb and organ.
Fay caught sight of her own reflection in a large cheval glass placed at right angles to the window, and it struck her that a hat was really an absurd erection! Hers was a pretty hat, and she knew it became her, but, when you considered the question, how ridiculous to sew artificial flowers and scraps of material on to a sort of straw basket turned upside down to place upon your head? That was what it came to, literally, after all! Then she remembered her other hats, one in particular that was of rather ultra-fashionable shape with feathers that stood up at the latest angle. And yet people laughed at head-dresses, hardly more grotesque, assumed by savage tribes.
Unconsciously Fay turned, till now she faced the mirror, gazing thoughtfully at the picture of herself wearing a large black hat and a white coat and skirt with black facings; and presently beside her own reflection appeared that of the little Rani, preening herself, drawing the delicate wrapper further on to her sleek dark head, then throwing it further back till it caught on the tight knob of hair at the nape of her neck. The two stood side by side—one tall, slender, fair-skinned, grey-eyed, in Western dress that yet could not minimize her beauty; the other small, dark, plain, but picturesque, almost pleasing, thanks in great part to her clothing. Fay might have looked charming dressed as the Rani was dressed, yet what a spectacle would the little Rani have presented in an English hat and a coat and skirt! Fay could have laughed as she imagined such a transformation; yet the Rani, draped as she was in delicate fabrics of lovely hues that suited the darkness of her skin and her mouse-brown eyes, was an arresting vision, a little Indian princess, though she possessed in fact a button nose, coarse lips, and a face that was deplorably homely in outline.
“Why do you not wear pretty colours?” inquired the Rani, regarding Fay’s black-and-white raiment with disfavour.
“Because my father died not long ago,” explained Fay, gravely, “and with us black means mourning.”
The Rani nodded. “Yes, I understand,” she said with sympathy, “to scare away the ghost.”
To turn the subject Fay inquired when they were to go out. She knew that a carriage and pair had been hired for their use.
“To-day,” said the Rani, vaguely, “or perhaps tomorrow. Hitherto my health has troubled me, so that I could not go. Yes, to-day we will eat the air, and I will buy some English clothes.”
Fay’s spirits sank. “Oh! Rani,” she protested, “do you mean to wear English clothes when you have such lovely Indian things and look so charming in them?”
“Of course!” cried the Rani. “What else? I will buy shoes and stockings, red, blue, white. And a hat like thine own, only of a pretty colour—not black. And a long rope of feathers to put around my neck.”
She considered for a moment, then added: “And a cloak such as the English ladies wore in the evenings on the deck of the ship.” She gave an involuntary shudder. “Ai! but how ill I was on the ship. I thought I was surely about to die. And Munia too and old Leela. We were all very ill.”
“Sea-seek,” said Munia, laboriously and with pride.
She laughed, displaying exquisite teeth, sound and perfect and milky white, not stained, as were the Rani’s and Leela’s, with disfiguring betel-nut juice. Intelligence, refinement, character were apparent in the oval face, firm little features and brilliant eyes. Healthy too the child undoubtedly was, whereas the Rani lacked stamina, and had an unwholesome appearance.
“With thy help and advice I shall buy many things,” planned the Rani, with satisfaction. “And then thou wilt take me to visit all the great ladies in London? To-day doth the Rajah go with Captain Somerton to behold some horse-racing. We can see them start from the window. They will go in a gharry that runs by itself with no horses. To-morrow shall we go and pay visits to the burra-mems?”
Fay endeavoured to make her understand that it was not the custom in England to call upon people one did not know, though English people did so in India; but the Rani only became puzzled and inclined to be sulky. Fay turned over in her mind the names of Anglo-Indian and other friends in London who would be pleased if she brought the Rani to visit them, who would be kind and sympathetic and willing to help the little lady to enjoy her stay in London; but she felt distinctly reluctant to take the Rani anywhere if arrayed in coloured shoes and stockings, a hat, and an evening cloak! What was to be done?
She reverted to the question of clothes, and tried to explain that people in England admired the dress of Indian ladies. She advised the Rani to remain faithful to the costume of her country.
Munia came forward with covert mischief in her eyes though her speech to the Rani was humbly respectful. “Why not put on the hat and coat of the Miss, your Highness?”
“Wah! wah!” applauded Leela, who had seated herself on the floor with her back to the wall and was combing her grey locks.
The Rani’s dull eyes brightened. She clapped her tiny brown hands laden with rings. Then began to unwind her veil and fumble hastily with hidden strings about her waist. Her bracelets and anklets made a quick, tinkling noise.
“Here, you!” she called to the two ayahs who stood looking and listening with grins on their faces. “Come and render help. The Miss-sahib will put on my clothes and I will put on hers!”
Fay perceived that expostulation would only cause offence. Moreover, she reflected, it might be just as well for the Rani to realize how grotesque would be her appearance in European garments. Smiling, she submitted to the change, and presently there stood in front of the looking-glass a stumpy little figure enveloped in Fay’s coat and skirt, and Fay’s hat trimmed with black roses wobbling on an oily round head. The poor little woman looked like a Eurasian nurse-maid, and Fay found it difficult to keep her gravity. Then over the Rani’s shoulder she caught a glimpse of herself—a tall ghost shrouded in yellow, with two grey eyes paled by the vivid colour of the wrapper, staring from under ruffled dark hair. She was uncomfortably aware that the Rani’s little silk coat refused to meet across her chest, and that the skirt did not reach very far below her knees.
Munia, Leela, the Rani and the ayahs shrieked unrestrainedly with laughter, in which Fay joined. The hat fell off the Rani’s head but she picked it up and crushed it on again, gathering up the white skirt that lay in folds on the ground and holding it behind her with the important air of a child “dressed up” for a treat in the clothes of an adult. The Rani was enjoying herself more than she had done since she left India.
“No, no,” she cried, surveying the English girl, “that will not do. The clothes are too short and too tight. Leela is long and has a broad breast. Bring out the blue wrapper,” she commanded her maids, “and the blue jacket and skirt that were bought for Leela before we began to travel—which she hath never yet put on.”
Amid excited chatter and bustle the garments in question were produced, and Fay was attired in a native woman’s costume of a soft, dull blue. A muslin wrapper with a silver border was draped over her head and wound in correct fashion about her body. A string of large, irregular pearls was fastened round her neck, and wide pearl rings were hung in her ears. Then there were exclamations of approval, and Fay was made to turn this way and that, to show herself off to advantage. The Rani, apparently, was equally satisfied with her own appearance, for she returned again and again to the looking-glass to gaze at her reflection, and balance the hat at different angles on her head.
It was a curious little scene, and Fay was tiring of it when, without warning, the door opened and the Rajah of Rotah stood on the threshold.
Framed in the doorway he made an admirable picture, dressed in fine white cloth with touches of blue and gold, an aigrette fastened with an uncut diamond rising from his turban. Since last Fay saw him his shoulders had broadened, his face was leaner, his moustache was that of a man. It was a good face as well as handsome, but lines were ruled on it already, left there by many a battle between hereditary instincts of evil, and knowledge, for the most part acted upon, of right behaviour.
Speechless, he gazed at Fay as though she were a figure in a dream, standing there before him dressed as his own women were dressed, the blue sari framing her fair face, the colour warming the soft grey of her eyes. Hastily she moved forward.
“Oh! Rajah-sahib,” she said, “how are you? You see we have been dressing up—amusing ourselves!”
Her manner was natural and pliant, and she put out her hand. He held it for a moment—a form of salute so unnatural to an Oriental, and at the back of the Oriental mind regarded as uncouth, even distasteful—then he salaamed with courteous ceremony.
“Miss Fleetwood,” was all he said in a low voice. And Fay drew back into the room where Munia was hiding her face and shaking with silent laughter. The Rani stood in front of her husband, stood solemn and important, conceitedly complacent in Miss Fleetwood’s clothes. Rotah’s face darkened with angry contempt.
Fay’s heart was sore with pity for both wife and husband.
“It is not my wish,” he said slowly and with obvious self-control, “that you should dress in the English manner.”
Evidently he had divined the Rani’s aspirations and thought it wiser to damp them without delay. In a moment the Rani had flung Fay’s hat to the far end of the room. She tore at the coat, wrestling distractedly with the buttons. Then she attempted to advance towards her husband, but stumbled over the skirt that wound itself about her feet and ankles, so that she collapsed, a tangled, helpless heap upon the floor.
Rotah turned quietly from the room, and closed the door behind him. Fay felt angry with him, but she had no time now to think of anything but the rescue of her clothes, which she feared would be torn to rags before her eyes by the aggrieved, resentful little Rani, who wept and stormed and vowed she would throw herself out of the window or down a well, would take poison or dash out her brains against the wall. Old Leela did her best to pacify her august relative, and murmured apologetically to Miss Fleetwood, who realized that beneath the apathy and the childlike impulses of the Rani’s temperament there lurked a revengeful spirit and untutored passions.
In time the Rani exhausted herself with emotion and anger, and tea had to be brewed, and native restoratives produced, before it was possible to reason with her. She listened sulkily as Fay pointed out with all the tact at her command that evidently the Rajah admired his Rani most in the costume of her own land, adding that for her part she quite endorsed his taste; therefore, she argued, was it not best to please him in such a small matter—to decide to purchase only such things as would harmonize with her beautiful saris and petticoats, and so render herself more pleasing in his sight than ever?
Then the Rani grew interested, and heard with gracious attention of all the pretty trifles to be found in London shops—embroidered bags, and painted fans, and dainty scarves and handkerchiefs. Fay mentioned numberless articles at random, with the result that in the afternoon, after considerable delay and much unnecessary fuss and discussion, the Rani and Leela and Munia went out with “Miss Fe-litter-vood,” as they called her, in a closed landau, a native orderly, gorgeous in gold and scarlet, perched uncomfortably on the box beside the imperturbable English coachman. Fay felt relieved that the rather unhappy condition of her hat and coat mattered little, for as they drove along the streets, and trailed through one or two shops, public attention was attracted to the strange veiled figures, not to the appearance of the English girl who accompanied them. She brought the Rani back to the hotel in excellent humour, the carriage blocked with parcels—toys, purses, vases, artificial flowers, sweetmeats and cakes, to enumerate a few of the purchases—and for the rest of the evening Fay was free to remain in her own rooms, while her charges in their adjoining suite of apartments examined and admired their new acquisitions and chattered over them endlessly.
That evening Fay Fleetwood saw Clive Somerton. He was not staying in the hotel but presented himself there most days to supervise the Rajah’s plans, to go out with him, and escort him to entertainments and sights of interest. To-night Rotah and his retinue were to be taken to the theatre, and Captain Somerton arriving at the hotel half an hour too early, of intention, asked to see Miss Fleetwood.
He found her reading in her sitting-room, where a table was laid ready for her solitary dinner. She wore a thin black gown with transparent yoke and sleeves—a charming vision, cool, fresh, fragrant. There was something of fairy fragility in the finish of her small head and slender neck, in the curves of her sensitive features, and the lines of her feet and hands—a buoyant delicacy, as of butterflies or thistledown, that gave no suggestion of weakness or debility. She sprang up, unfeignedly pleased to see him, as he came into the room, well-dressed, well-groomed, bronzed and wiry—looking rather older than his actual age by reason of the grey in his hair, and the lines imprinted on his face by exposure, rough living and danger.
“Do you remember the last time we met?” he said, when greetings were over—“under a gas-lamp, on an asphalt pathway, and on such a cold night!”
He hardly heard her answer, so engrossed was he in rememoration of his own frame of mind at the time to which he referred. He was recalling how violently he had resented her subtle attraction; how he had clung to the belief that his delivery lay in the future; how afterwards, back in the midst of the old satisfying life, he had done “all he knew” to cure himself of the unwelcome visitation that disturbed his thoughts and made restless his nights and days. Between the claims of his work, his books, his guns and hard exercise he had allowed himself no leisure for sentimental remembrance; so that, gradually, a pair of soft grey eyes came less often between him and the interests of the moment, the little rasping hanker in his heart almost ceased to interfere with his daily contentment. He thought and hoped he had forgotten. Then when he heard that Fay was to companion the Rani while in London it seemed as if Fate had determined to test him—and now it was with a sense of doubtful curiosity that he had deliberately sought her presence, deciding that should his pulses beat faster at sight of her he would manage to avoid her, as far as was possible, during the short period that they would both be on duty with the Rajah and the Rani. Such a course would not be difficult, seeing that the Indian couple seldom went anywhere together in public, and during private companionship had only their native suite about them.
Retribution for his arrogant self-confidence fell on Clive Somerton’s head. The moment he again beheld Fay Fleetwood, in the soft evening gown, her graceful neck rising bare from the filmy folds, he recognized that a fresh battle lay before him, that resistance to her charms could only be a matter of the severest self-discipline. For the present, however, he put all thought of the struggle away from him, and the pair talked easily, telling each other of their doings since their last meeting; they touched intimately on Mr Fleetwood’s death, discussed with sympathetic humour Marion’s engagement to Sir Rowland Curtice; dwelt on Fay’s pleasure at this unexpected opportunity of reviving her associations with India. She described to Captain Somerton with a feeling for comedy the scene that was interrupted by Rotah in the Rani’s bedroom.
“What I must have looked like!” she said, and laughed. “And the Rani, poor little thing, was the most extraordinary object. Rotah was quite angry with her, and no wonder!”
Somerton rose and stood by the mantelpiece, fingering a china ornament. The fact of her having been surprised by Rotah in native dress annoyed him vaguely.
“Don’t let them worry you,” he said; though he knew that no such thing was probable.
“Oh! they won’t, of course,” said Fay, rather surprised at his tone; “they’re all very nice to me, only one has to be patient with them and remember that they are not much more than children in their ways and ideas—children with grown-up bodies, which makes it more difficult. That cousin of Rotah’s, Munia, is a dear little soul. I should like to see her educated. She ought to be sent to school.”
“I’ll suggest it to Rotah. You know,” he added significantly, “if there are no more children Rotah will have to take another wife. The State would demand it, as well as Custom and Religion.”
“And you think Munia —?”
“Oh! well—perhaps in time. It sounds rough luck on the Rani according to our notions, but of course she’d accept it, and she would always hold her official position as first wife. I don’t think Rotah’s the kind of fellow to slight her in any way. Poor little woman—I believe she was very seedy all this last year. How does she look now?”
“Not really well,” said Fay, with concern. “And she has no self-control—stuffs herself with sweets and cakes. She asked to be taken to the biggest sweet-shop in London this afternoon, so we went to Buszard’s; she bought pounds of such things, and ordered a replica of an enormous wedding-cake that took her fancy. By the way, she is very anxious to see the Queen and asked if we couldn’t go to Buckingham Palace to-morrow morning! She thought if we sent word to Her Majesty this evening it would give plenty of time for all the menkind to be cleared out of the way before we arrived! I found it rather difficult to make her understand that she must have permission first before paying her respects, and that the Queen would choose her own day and hour. What am I to do about it?”
He told her, and dictated a rough draft of what she should write in the matter. She was to explain to the proper intermediary that the Rani had never before been further than her husband’s own domain in India, that she had braved what, to her, were terrible risks by land and sea in order to visit England, and now were she obliged to return to her own country without having seen her Queen Empress the disappointment would be keen.
“Then,” continued Fay, “she is very anxious to go to a theatre, and see English acting. What about a melodrama? or do you think a Gaiety piece would please her better?”
“Try the latter to begin with,” he advised. “Shall I get you a box for one evening next week?”
“Yes, please do. And can you suggest other entertainments that might appeal to her?”
“Oh! the Zoo and Madame Tussaud’s, and drive down to Hampton Court. That kind of thing. Rotah and I did it all most religiously while the Rani was recovering from the effects of the voyage. Don’t you think Rotah is enormously improved? Though of course he has his College training as well as his own good sense to thank for his development, it was I who helped him over all his early stiles when he was a rebellious, angry little wretch—though I must say he always had a generous heart. I’ve been with him in his holidays and I’ve seen him shaping well from the beginning, and I’m rather proud of my share in the result!”
“Yes,” said Fay, slowly, and she recalled Rotah’s face and bearing during the brief moments when he had stood in the doorway of the Rani’s room that morning. “He looked to me ‘grown up,’ and as if he had grown up in the right way.”
She listened, interested, as Somerton talked eagerly of the being whose mind and character he had helped to mould and train. He told her of the youth’s desire to learn all that would tend to make him a judicious ruler of men, of his acts of self-control, and his studious leanings—how he read and absorbed the ancient writings of his people, with their ethical wisdom and grand ideals.
“Rotah’s a real good boy,” said Clive, with affectionate enthusiasm, “and I only wish his State was one of the big Native Territories. When you see how some of our Indian princes behave it’s enough to make one sick.”
“Do you think Rotah was happy at College?” asked Fay.
“Yes, I think so, on the whole, though it couldn’t have been an altogether easy time for him. Now and then he talks to me about it. He liked his tutors, and apparently they fully appreciated his efforts to follow their precepts and example. In some ways he’s very reticent, and he thinks a great deal more than he says. One day he confided to me that though he owed so much to his College training, and to my influence, there had been one other factor in his life that had urged him to take advantage of his opportunities more than anything else could have done. He wouldn’t explain or enlarge on what he meant, and I’ve often wondered about it. But whatever it was it’s likely to be a real blessing, not only for himself but for his State and people.”
Fay looked out of the window, into the dusty glow of the sunset that was merging into twilight, and her heart quickened with a sudden, silent question. Could it have been the words she had spoken to Rotah on the fort walls that afternoon when he and she had stood and looked over the teeming native city, and he had given her his stammering assurance that he would do his best?
After Somerton had gone she sat and thought very kindly of the young Indian ruler—speculating as to how he might regard the customs of his own people in the light of his Western education—whether he could ever hope to alter or even modify usages that were so old, ways that had so obstinately resisted progress, that had paralysed an ancient and marvellous people for so many centuries? She thought with sympathy of his loneliness when, a few months hence, he would be “placed upon the Cushion,” with powers given over to him of life and death, and prosperity or oppression for others, when the supreme trial of his life was full upon him. How would he stand it? Was he strong enough to win or would he sink beneath the weight of age-old tendencies, beliefs and habits?
On an evening in the following week the Rani and Munia visited the theatre with Miss Fleetwood. They were guardianed by Heera Lal, the solemn, elderly individual who acted as a species of aide-de-camp to his young relative the Rajah of Rotah. At the last moment Leela declared she was afraid to go, though what it was she feared nobody could elicit from her—probably she did not know herself—and she was left in the gossiping company of the ayahs, contented enough with their talk, her hookah, and a goodly supply of betel-nut.
The ladies occupied a box, while Heera Lal sat in the stalls below. To Fay’s amusement he rose at the end of the first act and stationed himself at a point where he could view his charges until the lights were again lowered, when he marched back to his seat.
“He is afraid we shall go out by ourselves!” said Munia, and mischievously she endeavoured to persuade the Rani to hide before the next act was over, so that Heera Lal might be terrified by the awful suspicion that Miss Fleetwood had allowed them to leave the theatre! But the Rani crossly declined to be led into the undignified prank. She sat very far back in the box that she might raise her veil to watch the performance, which at first appeared to interest and amuse her, while Munia was on wires with excitement, and at one moment so far forgot herself as to clap her hands and cry “Shabash!” (bravo) to the great entertainment of both audience and players. But later the Rani grew fidgety and morose, and finally requested that Heera Lal should be bidden to summon the carriage.
“But the tamasha is not nearly at an end!” protested Munia, almost crying.
The Rani paid no heed to her, and even when Fay inquired with solicitude if she were feeling indisposed she would not answer, but sat mummy-like in her wrappings till the carriage was announced, and left the theatre still without a word. Not until they had started homeward did she give any hint as to the reason of her action.
Then she burst out indignantly: “It is a shameful thing to see women kick up their legs and kiss men openly and behave like mad people.”
“They are nautch-girls,” said Munia, as if in explanation.
“Pff!” said the Rani, and flipped her fingers. “In truth are the English a strange race where women-folk are in question. Is it no disgrace to a man that his wife and daughters should bare their necks and arms for all men to gaze upon, and sit thus to view a shameless tamasha such as we have beheld but now? Their wives and daughters are also without shame.”
She used the last word in its relation to modesty—a virtue ingrained in the nature of the Eastern female despite the lack of confidence in her purity displayed by her menkind—or is it that the male Oriental is too nervously conscious that were his ladies free from purdah imprisonment he could not rely on the honour and integrity of his own sex?
At first Fay burned to argue with the Rani on the subject of social systems—to point out that every country has its own views which call for different treatment of the female, to remind her that Eastwards the “nautch-girl” holds a high position in public estimation, whereas in the West she occupies the very lowest. Fay longed to remind the Rani that in India if a girl is not married before she is fourteen she is generally regarded as a disgrace to her home; that when a daughter is born it is counted as a misfortune; that when a widow dies there is relief if not actual rejoicing; that a man may espouse more than one wife if he can afford the expense, so reducing women to the level of cattle, or at best comparing them to an indulgence that can only be measured by income.
Yet she checked her tongue and sat silent. Of what avail to parley on the particular point of sex when on almost every item of existence the East and the West are diametrically opposed in thought and outlook? Despite such anomalies as Fay quoted to herself, she recognized impartially that on the whole the Eastern was more patient, more tolerant in his own fashion than his Western brother, that he acted as to him seemed right, blindly, according to centuries of rule and rite; whereas the Western, so individual in his outlook, more often outraged the moral standards of his country in face of what he well knew to be the claims of the majority.
It all came to this—what was virtue in the East might be regarded as depravity in the West, and what was harmless enough in the West might be looked upon with horror and astonishment by the East. And efforts to convert the moral convictions of the one to the moral convictions of the other could only result in chaos and bewilderment. Therefore Fay made no attempt to defend her countrymen or women from the little Rani’s censure, being uncomfortably aware that according to Indian interpretation the censure was not unjustified.
“Never again will I behold, or be seen at such a tamasha,” declared the Rani, and her decision was welcomed by Fay, who had no wish for a repetition of the evening’s unpleasant experience. But Munia uttered rebellious protests and was sharply rebuked by her superior. A quarrel between the two seemed imminent when happily their attention was diverted by a fire-engine that thundered past on the other side of the street with ringing shouts and the clanging of bells, and the desperate, exciting racket of harnessed horses speeding at full gallop.
June days passed. Fay with the little Indian group of ladies and liveried attendants made various expeditions, and visited innocuous places of amusement; but often the Rani preferred to remain in her rooms, complaining of the bad effect on her health of English air and water, and on these days Munia would steal to the apartments of Miss Fe-litter-vood and beg for a lesson in English, or for interesting information concerning the world in general. Fay enjoyed the company of the Indian child, who picked up scraps of knowledge so readily, who was so quick to perceive and comprehend. In these brief hours of instruction Munia made astonishing progress, and Fay was surprised to discover how shrewdly and wholesomely her little pupil reasoned and thought for herself.
Fay found she had ample time to spare, though her hours of freedom were necessarily irregular. Now and again she wondered how it was that she saw so comparatively little of Captain Somerton. She had anticipated pleasant conversations with him, such as she had enjoyed on the first evening of her arrival at the hotel, perhaps to occasional little outings in his company. Often she longed to relate amusing episodes to him; sometimes she would have been glad of his advice in small matters connected with the Rani. A suggestion crept into her mind—was he avoiding her purposely for any reason? But she dismissed the idea as absurd. He could have no possible object in keeping out of her way—it was merely that he and Rotah were fully occupied. They had been out of London on visits to Oxford, to Cambridge, to Paris, for week-ends to one or two great country houses; and when in town they were always busy sight-seeing, or attending fashionable functions.
The Rajah Fay saw even less often than she saw Captain Somerton. Very occasionally they met in the Rani’s sitting-room, or in the hall of the hotel, when he would linger with her for a few minutes in polite, commonplace conversation. Invariably he said how much he was enjoying his visit to England; but to Fay he appeared grave, brooding, as though a weight were on his spirit, and the fire seemed to have gone from his handsome eyes.
One afternoon as she came down the staircase she saw Rotah standing by a window in the hall, looking out into the street with weary gaze. For the moment he was quite alone, unconscious of any scrutiny, and involuntarily she stopped to contemplate the high-bred, melancholy profile with the full line of eyelid, and the dusky fringe of lashes. The white-clad figure, so unusual in the prosaic hall of an English hotel, reminded her acutely of burning sunshine, and strong perfumes, and vast dry spaces—reminded her of India; and she lingered, revelling in memories. He stood immovable, in the same dreamy attitude, and she felt a great pity for him, suspecting that he was heavily oppressed with apprehension of the future. She knew that soon he was to assume a weighty responsibility, rendered all the more onerous by the training he had received and the moral discipline he had assimilated. Also that in all probability he must stand in mental solitude, surrounded by influences that no longer appealed to him, bound by obligations that must revolt his reason. How sincerely Fay wished that his Rani could have been different, could have entered as a true companion into his mind and heart and ambitions! The girl’s Western instincts recoiled from the idea of a second marriage for him under the present circumstances—and yet it might bring him happiness, especially if little Munia—Fay controlled her thoughts and went back again up the staircase, reluctant to encounter the Rajah at that moment.
As for the Rani, Fay grew uneasy about her. Each day she seemed less inclined to exert herself, and now that English surroundings were no longer a novelty, she tired of drives and mild expeditions. Even shopping failed to please her after a time. She refused invitations without a semblance of excuse, and would lie for hours, idle, on her big brass bedstead, eating sweets or puffing listlessly at her hookah. She obtained her wish to meet the Queen Empress, and was presented privately by the wife of the Secretary of State for India, and for a day or two the event roused her from her apathy. She returned from the interview agape with curiosity and wonder, and plied Fay vigorously with extraordinary questions concerning Royal customs, many of which it was impossible to answer. But the excitement subsided, and the Rani sank again into lethargy and sloth.
For some time back a visit to Mrs Fleetwood had been talked of; the Rani and the Rajah were to visit her together. But until lately Fay’s mother and sisters were away—Marion on visits to Sir Rowland Curtice’s relations, Isabel and Mrs Fleetwood for a change to the seaside. Now the two latter were at home again, and Fay was anxious that a day should be decided upon, hoping that the effort might act as a fresh mental stimulus to the Rani, who betrayed a certain amount of interest in Miss Fleetwood’s home. She inquired how many servants they kept, how many rooms there were in the house, what kind of carriage they drove about in. But as Fay replied to these queries the Rani’s manner grew more distant, till it seemed as though she were debating within her mind if she should condescend to visit such an obviously humble establishment. Eventually, however, a day was fixed, but on the previous evening the Rani proposed that the arrangement should be reversed—that she should receive Mrs Fleetwood at the hotel instead of travelling herself to Norbledon.
“There is much to do,” said the Rani, languidly, and without truth, “and my health troubles me.”
“If you do not feel well enough to go, my mother will be sorry not to see you. It is as you please,” said Fay, stiffly, for she realized that the Rani was giving herself airs. Otherwise, had the little woman been really ill, she would have answered for her mother’s agreement to the change of plan without hesitation.
Clearly the Rani was in a mood perverse this evening and Fay was not sorry to part with the veiled group at the door of their suite of rooms after a drive in the Park, rendered wretched by the little lady’s peevishness and arrogance. And when she bade them good-night, Fay was still in doubt as to whether the visit to Norbledon arranged for the following afternoon was to take place or not. Next morning, not altogether to her surprise, she received a polite message excusing her from attendance on the Rani for that day. Her Highness was indisposed, repeated one of the ayahs like a parrot, and desired to remain undisturbed since to leave her room was out of the question. If the excuses and apologies of Her Highness might be conveyed to the burra-mem-sahib the Rani would ever pray for the welfare of the entire Fleetwood family, etc.
Disheartened, Fay went home that morning; and in the afternoon Captain Somerton with Heera Lal and the Rajah of Rotah drove down to Norbledon in an electric landaulette. From the dining-room window Fay viewed their arrival with some amusement. A crowd of errand-boys, loafers, and nursemaids with children had collected unaccountably—perhaps the news had been spread by the Fleetwoods’ maids that Combe Down was to be honoured by a visit this afternoon from a “black prince.”
As the party alighted Rotah looked surprised, Heera Lal undisguisedly contemptuous—evidently they had not anticipated that the widow and daughters of a Commissioner would have inhabited this description of dwelling. Presently they were all seated in the drawing-room: Captain Somerton talking to Fay and Isabel, Heera Lal balanced on the edge of his chair, his patent leather toes awkwardly turned in, while Mrs Fleetwood and Rotah made civil converse, much as they would have done in the drawing-room of an Anglo-Indian bungalow.
“How do you like England, Rajah-sahib?” Mrs Fleetwood inquired. She sat with a tangle of knitting in her lap, and spoke with some effort. Her visitor recalled to her mind so vividly the old days in India when a Rajah’s equipage with outriders would sweep up to the front veranda with pomp and clatter, and halt noisily under the great portico, and all the servants would rush to receive the important guest who might be of the highest possible caste yet barely able to pay for the food of his horses, whereas another might be a millionaire and yet unalterably the social inferior of even certain of the Commissioner’s servants who conducted the visitor into the bungalow. Truly has India been called a land of contradictions! Again Mrs Fleetwood visualized the sunny compound through long open doors, heard the drowsy murmur of native voices outside, saw her husband’s tall figure seated opposite his Indian friend, with grey head courteously inclined as he discussed orthodox topics—weather, crop prospects, local matters of agricultural interest. Whimsically she remembered an occasion when a very stout Rajah had come to grief in her drawing-room owing to his choice of a chair unable to support such an unaccustomed weight. How the fallen gentleman had sat silent, sedate, on the floor till his host and his attendants helped him to his feet and to another seat that was more secure—when the conversation was continued as though nothing had occurred to interrupt it.
All those old days were gone, with their happy contentment, and varied scenes, and the sunshine, the work, the pleasant social intercourse. Almost she doubted sometimes if they had ever really been. She sat and smiled vacantly as Rotah described what he had seen and done and bought since he came to England, till, mindful of her guest’s feelings, she exerted herself and inquired how the Rani liked London, expressed regret that she should be ill, promised to call upon her, though adding that now she herself seldom went to London, which was true. Rotah, recalling her sympathetic friendliness towards him as a boy in India, felt newly drawn towards this motherly, gentle lady, and told her how deeply he appreciated the attention and kindness shown by her youngest daughter towards his wife and his wife’s companions, said how much she had done to reconcile the Rani to surroundings that were inevitably so strange and bewildering. Otherwise the visit was correctly conventional, and of course Rotah and Heera Lal would have sat for ever had their hostess not been familiar with Eastern etiquette. As it was, when she gave them the orthodox permission to take leave, Heera Lal was already rubbing his eye with his forefinger, and Rotah was remaining on his chair with palpable self-control.
Fay went with them to the little iron gate. She was not returning to London till next morning. Captain Somerton raised his hat, Rotah and Heera Lal made profound salaams. Then, as the motor moved smoothly away, Clive Somerton turned his head to look once more at Fay Fleetwood standing hatless in the commonplace gateway, one slim hand guarding her eyes from the glow of the afternoon sun. And in that moment Fay saw something in the man’s face that sent a strange thrill through her being—as if a mist had rolled back suddenly from her understanding and given her a glimpse of some wondrous possibility hitherto unimagined. Amazed, even alarmed, she turned hastily and went back into the house; and the motor disappeared round the corner at the bottom of the road.
The drive back to London was not a lively one. Rotah seemed moody, and discouraged remarks from Heera Lal. Somerton was deep in his own thoughts. The future was a blank to him; his mind circled aimlessly around the fact that love was not to be controlled by human will, though its fulfilment could be thwarted, deliberately eschewed, at a cost that might or might not be worth the price to the one strong enough to pay it. He did not doubt his own strength to resist the sweet insistent call; he only questioned whether once ignored irrevocably he might not still hear it to the never-ending disturbance of his peace—or, on the other hand, should he succumb, declaring his love, and meet with rebuff and refusal, would not his condition be more than ever painful?
Somerton resented the situation, resented also his own indecision, resented his entire ignorance of Fay’s feeling towards him, and his reluctance to test that feeling. He believed that if he felt assured of her reciprocation he would delay his love-making no longer—but he was too old now to risk disappointment, to endanger the contentment and tranquillity of life that his tastes and pursuits had hitherto secured to him. If he did not marry Fay Fleetwood he knew he should never want to marry anyone else, and he could count on sport and work and egotistical independence to take the place of domestic joys and satisfactions. Never having experienced the latter it should be all the easier to do without them.
When the car stopped at the hotel Somerton was about to direct the chauffeur to take him on to his own rooms when Rotah asked him, with a certain diffident hesitation, to come inside for a few moments.
“I want to talk a little,” said Rotah, “if you don’t mind?”
“Certainly,” and with readiness Clive accompanied the Rajah to his private rooms.
Rotah, on entering the sitting-room, evicted the pundit, who sat cross-legged on the floor with an open book of sacred writings before him—also dismissed an orderly, and a nondescript person who was neither servant nor equal. Then he invited his friend to be seated, offered him a cigarette which was accepted, and a whisky-and-soda which was declined. Rotah lit a cigarette himself, and moved restlessly about the room.
“What’s wrong?” asked Somerton in a tone of friendly encouragement. He could see that something disturbed the youth’s mind.
Rotah drew in his breath quickly. “That house!” he said, with what was practically a sob.
“What house?” inquired Somerton, puzzled.
Rotah gazed with tragic eyes. “Mrs Fleetwood’s house. Why do they live in it?”
“Because it suits them, I suppose. They are not at all well off.” Somerton wondered if Rotah had suddenly gone crazy.
“But so small and inferior! and of no account. No compound, no stables, only women-servants. And this, after all they were used to in India, the honour, and the comfort, the—the izat”—he used his country’s own word for prestige.
Somerton looked away and sighed. He felt unwilling to meet the concern, the distress, the indignation in the boy’s countenance, because he knew how hard it would be to appease and reassure him, to explain away such apparent hardship and disproportion, such lowering of social status, as judged by Oriental standards.
“Yes,” he said with reservation, concealing his true comprehension of Rotah’s disquietude. “I daresay it appears extraordinary, but you must remember that people don’t expect to live in the same way when they come home as they did in India. You yourself might as well expect to live in India as you are living now in London, with electric light and telephones and every description of Western contrivance to save time and labour. Labour is so cheap in the East and so prohibitively expensive in the West! The Fleetwoods were officials in India, too, with a position to keep up,” he concluded, conscious that it was a lame conclusion.
“Then are Mrs Fleetwood and her daughters of no consequence in England?” inquired Rotah.
“Of no particular consequence, I suppose,” admitted Somerton. “But picture the position of a widow of your people living alone with unmarried daughters,” he added in unwise comparison.
Suddenly Rotah lost control of himself. He beat on the table with clenched fists, his dark eyes were ablaze.
“Always this contrasting of our customs with the customs of England!” he stuttered, lapsing under pressure of the moment’s emotion into colloquial Hindustani. “With us, in our class of life, what woman has to work, to submit to loss of dignity, whether she be widow or maid, to live in a manner unbefitting to her birth and caste, to take money for services in the manner of the working women of the people? Where are the men of England that they should permit such infamy! With us, when a man has the means, or even when he has not, would he suffer the most distant of his kinswomen to earn her bread? As long as he has food and home and money, however much or less, at his command, is it not all available to the women of his house and family? Need any one of them sink in the eyes of the world? Such a state of affairs, with us, would be utterly unendurable—a shame and disgrace to our manhood!”
He ceased, breathing loudly, and gazed with feverish excited eyes at Captain Somerton, whose face flushed red beneath the tanned skin. For the second the Englishman was speechless with conflicting sensations, with amazement, perplexity, even dismay; and, before he could find words to answer, the boy began again, and betrayed, more definitely, the real clue to his outburst of indignation.
“The daughter of the Commissioner has to work, to take money from me, or from anybody who will buy her services. Her home is of no account, and her people live like people who are beneath them. She, the little lady with the pale hands and the eyes like moonbeams, who should have jewels and servants and all that wealth and homage could lay at her feet—”
The shaking, excited voice stopped again abruptly and the silence was almost as startling to Clive Somerton as had been the torrent of words preceding it. Like many Englishmen, notwithstanding his genuine comprehension of, and affection for, the Oriental character, it had never previously occurred to him that the Oriental of any class or position might be capable of an attitude similar to his own in relation to women. Unconsciously he had drifted into the same blind indifference which Englishwomen are prone, unfortunately, to permit themselves over such questions in India—an ignoring of sex that will allow of a mem-sahib perceiving nothing indecorous in the fact of an Indian man-servant making her bed and tidying her room, who will appear before her male domestics, serenely, in dressing-gown and curling-pins; whereas she would condemn such laxity in England without mercy. That such carelessness may tend to lower Oriental respect for the English female in general does not always appear to enter into the calculations of educated women who might be credited with clearer mental perceptions.
Now here, before Clive Somerton, was an unexpected complication—a case of an Oriental who, by reason of the Western teachings he had imbibed in the right spirit, and the tendencies of his own rather exceptional temperament, was threatened definitely with the danger, if indeed the mischief had not already been done, of “falling in love” in the highest meaning, intellectually as well as with heart and senses—the object of his attachment a girl whose race, religion, belief and social outlook must place her hopelessly and for ever beyond his reach.
In a flash of realization Somerton remembered Rotah’s mysterious hint regarding an influence for good that no other guidance could ever quite equal. Was it this that he had meant? Yet, when, where, how could such an influence have had the chance to become tangible—to become more than the vaguest shadow of a dream? Clive Somerton’s first feeling as he realized the significance of Rotah’s outburst was one of almost maniacal antagonism, for, unconsciously, he was in the grip of that primitive sense of repulsion innate in white-skinned humanity towards the notion of race admixture with a dark-skinned people—a repulsion arising from Nature’s tendency to breed upwards, not downwards. It was this instinct that impelled the Aryan to preserve his caste, otherwise colour, that he, the fair-complexioned invader of higher type and “perfect” language, might avoid complete absorption into the dark, aboriginal races of the country he had colonized and conquered.
Consciously, all that Somerton recognized for the moment was that Rotah represented a people whose domestic system might be summarized in the words “ladies last,” that though these same people were of high and ancient origin and civilization, it was yet, according to British views, a civilization devoid of trust in the fidelity of women under conditions of personal and social freedom, a civilization that could allow of honourable intercourse with the courtesan yet deem the wife an indelicate subject of inquiry, and prohibit her from sharing a meal with her husband.
That from an Eastern standpoint such notions had a different aspect, an opposite application, Somerton was, temporarily, too impatient to consider. In other circumstances he would have remembered that, to the Oriental, women are possessions of value, representing the moral wealth and honour of his house, and as such must be guarded, protected, secluded from public gaze, not to be shared in the very smallest degree with “the man in the street.” To the orthodox Asiatic the fact that the Western feels no reluctance in permitting his womenkind to mingle freely with the opposite sex—feels no shame that they should expose their faces, not to mention neck, arms and bosom to the general gaze—is simply proof positive of the coarseness, barbarity and indifference of his attitude towards the female, and of the immodest propensities of the Western female herself. What is regarded as moral elevation in one hemisphere is despised as moral degradation in the other, each outlook having its own excellent value; and, so far, no comfortable medium has been struck between the two.
Therefore Clive Somerton was hardly to be censured for his wrathful feelings, quickened as they were by the personal element in the situation; for him the question at issue was not so much a review of the sex problem judged by the inverse views of East and West, as of the connection in such a question of the name of Fay Fleetwood—the only woman in the world who had power to stir his heart and affections.
He took command of his impulse with a supreme effort that entailed hard self-restraint, while Rotah stood by the table in sultry silence, superbly, exasperatingly handsome in his native dress and jewels, like a prince in a fairy tale—indeed Clive Somerton tried hard to convince himself that the whole position of affairs was a description of fairy story, unreal, not to be taken seriously, a mole-hill not to be converted by ill-balanced thought into an unscalable height.
He affected carelessness. “I don’t think you need feel disturbed on Miss Fleetwood’s account,” he said. “She works from choice, not from necessity, and you don’t quite realize that conditions of existence in England are entirely different from those in India. What Mrs Fleetwood pays for the house you saw this afternoon, which appeared to you so insignificant, would rent a large bungalow in India; and the wages and food of her three or four women-servants would about equal the cost of a full establishment out there—” He maundered on, to gain time to conceal his perturbation, to evade, if possible, the plain speaking he feared was Rotah’s determined intention.
Rotah’s face was set, his eyes sombre. “If a Hindu lady were to marry an English gentleman would she be expected to conform to his customs and ways, and the laws of his country and caste?”
“Yes,” said Somerton, reluctantly.
“And if an English lady married a Hindu gentleman—what then?”
Somerton, now in complete mastery of himself, looked at the other steadily. “Rotah,” he said, “can you imagine an English lady conforming to the customs of your caste and country? And suppose, for the sake of argument, you had an English wife yourself—what would your people think of a woman who went about unveiled as your consort, who expected to meet men more or less on an equality, who would tolerate no rivals, legal or otherwise?”
Rotah winced, and Somerton continued without mercy, “It’s the question of sex that brings about what a certain section of your countrymen and mine denounce as lack of sympathy on the part of the British in India towards Indians. Since the beginning the East has relegated women to the level of possessions entirely subservient to man’s convenience. Every right-minded Briton would want to pommel the Oriental who expressed his true views on the subject of sex, just as no self-respecting Indian of the orthodox school would permit his ladies to conduct themselves as our ladies may conduct themselves in public. No Indian can stand by and see his wife making friends with an Englishman without being rendered acutely uncomfortable, and no Englishman is pleased to see his wife making much of a native of India if he understands the Oriental attitude towards the feminine world. It’s a wide gulf, Rotah my boy, and how are we going to bridge it? Are we to shut our women up and practise polygamy, or are you to let your women loose and practise monogamy in order to bring about equal social intercourse and ‘sympathy’ between the East and the West, such as idealists rant of? I tell you, as long as there’s an immeasurable difference of feeling over women there never can be true sympathy, or whatever anyone chooses to call it, between two races. Polygamy is lawful with you, and it’s unlawful with us. After that, there’s very little more to be said!”
Somerton rose, trusting he had skated successfully over a hazardous spot, but to his embarrassment and consternation Rotah broke down. Still standing; he covered his face with his arm, and his shoulders shook.
“Why was I not let alone!” he said in piteous protest. “Why was I shown a different side to everything, so making me unsatisfied with the ways and customs of my ancestors! Why should desires have been put into my heart, when at the same time I am forbidden to fulfil them? How miserable I am—how miserable must I always be—”
He raised his head. His face was drawn and wet. Somerton went to him and laid a kind, firm hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Come, Rotah, pull yourself together—be thankful you are capable of seeing the different side to everything—that you aren’t a stupid, vainglorious mass of self-indulgence, but a real good fellow, with a heart and soul and brain you can be proud of.”
Rotah straightened his shapely figure. The emotional tears were gone, his lips met firmly, no longer tremulous and parted. He moved away from Somerton’s touch—yet courteously, without a hint of petulance—then looked straight into the other’s eyes.
“You understand?” he asked, with deliberate significance.
“Yes,” said Somerton, quietly, “I understand. And I am sorry.”
The pause that followed lasted but a few seconds, yet for Somerton they might have been hours, judged by the importance of the mental crisis through which he passed during this brief space of time. For in those moments all his own doubts and vacillations left him—left him possessed by firm, clear purpose and resolve. He knew that he was going to ask Fay Fleetwood to be his wife, that should she consent his happiness would be supreme, without flaw or regret, that should she refuse he would relinquish hope and endeavour only when he saw her the wife of another man. He was conscious of an exultant excitement, something of the same description of feeling he experienced when riding for a high fence on an eager horse. It might mean ignominious downfall, it might mean triumphant achievement.
Then he became aware that Rotah was regarding him intently—and he found himself a little disconcerted. So vivid, so emphatic had been his thoughts that it seemed almost as if they must have been audible. Indeed he was scarcely surprised to hear Rotah asking him the question, “You are going to marry her—Miss Fleetwood?” And he answered, unemotionally, “That is my great hope.”
With his last words there came a loud knock at the door, the abruptness of its demand dispersing the mental tensity of the atmosphere. Somerton went to the door and opened it. A veiled figure confronted him.
“Her Highness the Rani feels worse,” came a squeaky, affected voice from beneath enveloping folds of cotton. “She desires that a doctor-sahib be summoned.”
Instantly custom laid her iron hand on Rotah’s spirit. “What is that? A doctor-sahib?” he said, and frowned as he came forward. He turned to Somerton. “Are there not lady doctors of high repute in London? Can it be arranged to send for the best one known?”
“Certainly,” said Somerton. He left the room at once to make inquiries and give necessary orders; and as he went he remembered that it was not so much the Rani’s health that had been Rotah’s first thought as consideration for his own Eastern honour.
Fay returned to duty next morning to find the Rani’s rooms in a more than usually chaotic condition. The Rani herself was in bed, morose, depressed, feverish. Leela and Munia were tearful and helpless; the waiting-women ostentatiously overcome with concern. The moment Miss Fleetwood arrived the Rani turned the four of them out of the room, and besought her friend to sit beside the bed and give her comfort.
“Truly, sister, the gods be wroth with me for coming to this accursed country!” wailed the little woman, who had brought a bad bilious attack upon herself by her indulgence in unaccustomed sweetmeats and her unhealthy mode of life. She was already weak with sickness and a high temperature, and her face had become a sickly brown, the colour of liquorice powder. She looked very uncomfortable too, in the English bed with its high, thick mattress. Fay felt sure she would have preferred to curl up outside on the quilt in a nest of pillows and blankets.
“I wish I had never crossed the black water,” she continued peevishly. “The air and the water of England do not agree with my health.”
“But, Rani, I think you are only a little upset, and you just have a touch of fever, which you know you get so easily. Remember how ill you were all last year in India, and how much better you have been since you came to England. I expect the change has really done you good.”
“Yes, it is true I was ill in India. I know that. I was ill from the time my little boy died. Since he was born I have had no happiness—it was because he was called by his right name instead of by a name to deceive the spirits of evil; so in jealousy they took him.”
“Rani, don’t be so silly—you know what he was called could not have had anything to do with his death,” said Fay, gently. “And if you take care of yourself, and go out more and cease eating so much, perhaps another baby will come to comfort you.”
“Ohi!” whimpered the Rani. “If only I had another baby all would be well. It is a disgrace to have no son, and the Rajah is vexed and maybe he will love me no longer and take a new wife.”
She cried pitifully, like a child, with loud sniffs, rubbing her eyes and nose with her little ringed hands.
Fay learned presently that on the previous evening the Rani had felt sure she was dying, just as she had felt sure she was dying on board ship, and had requested the Rajah to send for a doctor.
“And a doctor-mem came,” went on the patient, reviving as she talked, “but by then I felt better and I would not permit her to enter. I bade them dismiss her and tell her to come again in the morning when you would be here to understand what she said.”
The Rani was well satisfied with her own action in the matter, but Fay wondered privately how the lady doctor had viewed such cavalier treatment. However, she said cheerfully: “Well, I hope she will come. She will give you something to make you well, and then you will feel happy again.”
She stayed with the invalid, telling her stories and distracting her mind from her woes, till, rather to Fay’s surprise, the lady doctor was announced—a tall, thin woman with a clever, sympathetic face, and a strong personality that inspired the Rani with confidence, as well as reducing her to humble submission.
“No stamina whatever,” was her verdict, afterwards given to Fay in confidence. “And as to the question she asked so persistently, I was obliged to prevaricate as you probably perceived; but frankly I think it is extremely unlikely that she will have any more children.”
“I’m glad you didn’t tell her,” said Fay. “It means such a frightful lot to a woman of her race and position.”
“Does it?” Like many other clever, capable people who have never been to the East, the lady doctor knew nothing of the religious customs and inner history of India. The country held no interest for her. “Well,” she said, indifferent to that side of the case, “the tonic will pick her up directly the temperature is normal. She must regulate her diet, and I think the sooner she gets out of London the better.”
She mentioned a famous “cure place” on the Continent, and advised a course of baths and waters.
“I will suggest it to the Rani,” said Fay, “but I don’t for a moment imagine she will agree to go.”
Fay was right. The Rani declared that nothing should persuade her to travel anywhere but back to India—not even when Fay hinted that perhaps the treatment might improve the prospect of a successor to the little dead boy.
“No, no!” she protested with vehemence. “It would only kill me. If I bathe in any water or drink any water for my health, it shall be the water of the holy Ganges river. How could any other water do me good? I will return to Hindustan, and when I get out there safely will I make a pilgrimage to a certain sacred shrine and obtain a charm that has never yet been known to fail. This year would I have gone had it not been for this evil journey to England which I was so loth to make.”
She flung herself from side to side, and Fay tried to pacify her, fearing a return of fever, but the Rani would listen to no persuasions or advice and only joined her hands together in pathetic supplication, beseeching Fay to ask Captain Somerton to tell the Rajah she wished to go back—to induce him to persuade the Rajah to leave England without further delay.
“What is there left to wait for?” she argued. “He has made his salaam to the King, I have made my salaam to the Queen. We have spent a great deal of money, and have acquired many beautiful things and wasted much time. I do not like this country, there is too much noise and there is no room and the sun is not the same sun. There is no sweetness in the air and the water, and—and I miss so much—I die of longing for my home and the life that I know and love.”
She worked herself into a frenzy, even suggesting that the lady doctor should be recalled and bribed with jewels and money to tell the Rajah that the life of his wife depended on an immediate departure for India. Finally she fastened upon the idea that Fay should be her intermediary with Rotah, and endeavour to obtain his consent to the return of the entire party at once.
At last, to quiet her, Fay promised to do her best, though how she was to convince the Rajah of the wisdom of such a course she could not imagine. It was hardly likely that her persuasions would have the effect of causing Rotah to alter his plans unless she could give him a more definite reason than that of a sudden whim on the part of the Rani. Especially as Fay herself felt it to be altogether selfish and unreasonable of the Rani to wish to curtail what might be her husband’s only visit to England—to drag him back at a time of year when travelling to India must be particularly inconvenient and uncomfortable.
The relief of escape from the Rani’s presence was definite, albeit Fay had only obtained her release in return for a solemn undertaking that she would at once approach the Rajah and lay the Rani’s petition before him, employing every persuasion she could devise that might induce him to agree to his wife’s desire.
Fay felt in no great hurry to fulfil her promise, and she lingered in the corridor for a few moments in order to compose her thoughts and consider how best she might attack the Rajah. The morning had been far more of a strain than she realized at the time, and she felt the necessity for a pause. A window stood open at one end of the long passage, and she went to it, breathing the purer atmosphere with appreciation, though the outlook was not exhilarating—walls and chimneys and mysterious back premises, at present wet and shiny as well as uninteresting, for a drizzle of rain had begun to fall. Disreputable-looking sparrows cheeped and wrangled on the surrounding window-sills—there was nothing bright or beautiful to be seen. And as Fay observed the damp piles of brick and mortar, the glimpse of sullen sky, and the vulgar little birds that cared nothing for green fields and fragrant woods, she sympathized with the Rani’s acute longing to get away from it all, back to her own land and her old familiar surroundings.
Yet she felt that her mission to the Rajah was unsound. It was not as if she were in a position to approach him with a serious request, one with excellent and reasonable purpose behind it. The Rani was not dangerously ill, she certainly would not die if she remained another three months in England; it was only a matter for a little patience and good-humour on the part of the Rani as against the upheaval of all Rotah’s plans. She could do no more than tell him that she had consented to act as the Rani’s mouthpiece, not, as the Rani had expressed the hope she would do, beg for his acquiescence as a personal favour to herself!
Fay wished she could consult Captain Somerton; but at this time of day he was seldom in the hotel. At thought of Clive Somerton her heart gave a curious little quiver. If the Rajah granted his wife’s request, and returned to India at once, Captain Somerton would probably have to go too! Surprised at her own sensations, she loitered by the window, remembering the look on his face that had set her nerves and pulses aflutter yesterday afternoon when he drove away from Combe Down in the motor-car. She knew she wanted to see that look again. If he went away now perhaps she would never see it again… .
She stood by the window as though in a dream. How long she stood there she did not know. The rain grew heavier, the sky darker, and the harsh noise of abrupt shutting of windows echoed against the dingy walls outside. She heard it vaguely; the sound of footsteps coming along the passage behind her she did not hear at all, but the subtle consciousness of a near presence penetrated her dreamy mood and caused her to turn involuntarily. The Rajah of Rotah stood beside her, and she realized in hasty confusion that now was the time to keep her promise to the Rani—that it would no longer be necessary for her to seek out Rotah since here he was, conveniently at hand. Yet she wished he had not appeared just at that moment, a merciless interruption to a reverie that was sweet as it was vague.
Then the appearance of the youth claimed her quick attention. He looked excited, overwrought, with twitching of his thin nostrils that reminded her of a young, nervous horse; his sensitive mouth trembled and his eyes were restless. What was the matter? Could it be anxiety concerning the Rani? Fay feared not! Nevertheless, prompted by a curious and, to her, an unaccountable instinct that was of the nature of self-protection, she assumed outwardly that this was the case.
“Oh, Rajah-sahib,” she said without hesitation, “I was just going to try and find you to tell you what the lady doctor thinks about the Rani. You need not be troubled or alarmed about her, I assure you. She is in no danger. Only she is fretting dreadfully, and she is very anxious I should ask you to do her a great favour—”
She waited, her gaze on his agitated face, but he made no answer. In truth the boy could not trust himself to speak for the fear that he might lose his hold upon himself and burst into tears. He bit his underlip to stop its trembling, and his eyes grew bloodshot with the effort at repression.
Fay turned back to the window and opened it a little wider. She looked out again at the wet walls and roofs, so that she might not embarrass him by her scrutiny, if what she had to say should cause him annoyance. She understood so well the dislike of Orientals to any observation of their emotions.
“What the Rani wants,” she said airily, more to the sparrows than to the Rajah, “is to go back to India at once. And I believe she really may make herself seriously ill if she stays much longer in England.”
She heard him breathe quickly.
“As you know, the lady doctor came again this morning and saw her,” Fay went on in a matter-of-fact tone. “I was just going to find you to tell you what she said and give you the Rani’s message, when you appeared. The doctor thinks her very delicate.”
She paused. But there was still no answer, and suddenly Fay, standing in front of the window, with her back turned discreetly to her companion, was assailed with a feeling that something was about to happen that would affect her whole existence. She heard Rotah breathe quickly, then again came silence, as though he were no longer behind her, and when, perforce, she looked round, he was still there, but his face had become mask-like, expressionless. On it was no hint of concern or trouble; all agitation had been blotted out, removed completely.
Now Fay felt incensed with him, the kind of anger aroused by a sense of championship for her own sex. It stirs in most women at a display of indifference on the part of a man towards his wife’s wishes and well-being. She decided that Rotah was a selfish brute to care not one jot how his wife was, or what she wanted, however uncongenial she might be to him.
“The Rani has very little stamina or strength,” she continued, rather aggressively, “and very little upsets her. She may be better when she is taking the tonic, but I’m convinced she won’t be well till she gets back to India. She is fretting her heart out for India.”
“She will soon be back there in any case,” he said monotonously.
“But she wants to go now, at once. And she wants you to go with her.” Fay said it boldly. “She asked me to tell you so, to beg you to consider if it would not be possible for you all to go back earlier than was at first intended.”
She looked at him urgently. He was gazing out of the window in cold reflection, as though his thoughts had flown far away beyond the roofs and the chimney-tops, to be lost in the murky mist of the sky.
“Well?” said Fay, sharply.
Without moving his body or turning his eyes he said in Hindustani, “It is as your Highness pleases.”
Fay laughed in spite of herself. The phrase was conventional, truly Oriental, one that issues from the lips of native servants a hundred times a day. She thought he was joking—or was he evading a direct refusal with Eastern aversion to seeming ungracious?—with, at the same time, every intention of pleasing himself only. But there came no responsive word or smile to her amusement, and the feeling of resentment towards him again possessed her.
“It is certainly not as I please,” she said, with a touch of asperity, “except that I should be pleased if you considered the Rani. I am merely asking you to do something for her. She is out of sorts and miserable. It is in your power to make her feel well and happy. I hope you are going to do it.”
This time he turned his head towards her. His eyes were mournful, pathetic. He looked tired, as though exhausted with some mental struggle.
“Yes,” he said wearily, “I will do it. I, too, shall be glad to go back to India.”
Now Fay regretted her annoyance with him. He was only a boy, so young, so anxious to do right, so alone amid a multitude of difficulties and burdens. She was about to applaud his good-nature, to express her own approval of his accedence to the Rani’s desire, when he said something that had the moral effect of a bomb explosion at her very feet.
“If we all go at once—will Captain Somerton agree? You would not wish him to go so soon? Perhaps it can be arranged by the Government that he stays in England for the present.”
Fay stared in mute amazement at the dark, weary face, at the liquid, beseeching eyes that seemed to be holding back tears. What could Rotah mean? For a moment the wild suggestion occurred to her that perhaps he possessed thought-reading powers—some occult Eastern sense that laid bare to him the minds of others—that enabled him to perceive ideas that were yet hardly formed. How else could he possibly tell that she would regret Clive Somerton’s absence, that she would not wish him to go back to India so soon? She felt bewildered, alarmed, indignant, uncertain what she ought to say. And all the while the sparrows chattered exasperatingly on the window-sill, and the rain trickled and tapped and hissed as though finding a fiendish satisfaction in her discomfiture.
“What do you mean?” she faltered, painfully conscious that the blood had rushed to her face; and directly she had spoken she regretted she had not left the question unanswered, that she had not simply ignored Rotah’s incomprehensible speech, or at least passed it by with evasive words. But now it was too late. She must hear the explanation.
“But of course,” returned Rotah in languid surprise, “you would wish him to stay, since you are to be his wife?”
Fay clutched the window-sill in desperate endeavour to conceal her amazed excitement. She felt the rain spattering her hand and arm, but it would have made little difference had she found herself drenched through and through from head to foot. Then common sense restored her mental balance. Of course Rotah had “jumped to conclusions,” had imagined that a secret understanding existed between herself and Captain Somerton. She must hasten to undeceive him. But before she could speak he went on in the same listless voice.
“Captain Somerton told me himself,” he informed her simply. “He told me yesterday afternoon after we came back from Norbledon. I asked him, ‘Are you going to marry her—Miss Fleetwood?’ and he said, ‘That is my great hope.’”
He paused, and his head drooped. Then he raised it with a proud little tilt that reminded Fay of the afternoon on the fort walls; now he looked strong, determined, almost radiant, with eyes that shone beneath the fine black brows, lips that were firm, shoulders thrown back with masterful grace in the pose of his slim figure.
When he spoke again it was in high-flown, polished Hindustani: “It gives me happiness to know that the two people I most esteem in all the world should mate together.” He salaamed with profound courtesy, then held up one slim, slender, brown hand. “And it shall be my proud endeavour to be worthy of them both. Do you remember on the fort walls at Rotah the vow I made to you that I would strive to be true and just in my dealings with my people? I have prepared myself to keep it so far—I hope to keep it till the end.”
Fay, in the first warm rush of ecstatic wonder and emotion, scarcely heard him, scarcely saw him. She was deaf to all words but these: “That is my great hope. That is my great hope.” She was blind to all but the vision of Clive Somerton’s face as she had seen it last, had seen it but yesterday—the rapt, lingering glance that haunted her memory. Now she yearned yet feared to meet it once more, and all at once she felt as one suddenly awakened from a trance to the realities of life, definite and determined. She knew that the old enchantment of the East would hold her in its grip no longer to the same absorbing, overmastering extent—that the craving for India and the sun, the spell of the wonderful country, had yielded to a recognition of human possibilities, of eager adventure, of a happiness salient in the future instead of a dreamy nostalgia for the past. Pure joy flooded her tender heart, enveloped her senses, and with reluctance she turned from the window, smiling, blushing, radiant—to find herself alone. Rotah had gone—quietly, silently—and Fay Fleetwood knew nothing at all of the darkness and despair, and the blind resignation he had taken with him.
Her intoxication of happiness received a check. The rain still spattered her hand that lay on the window-sill. She drew it in and looked at it vaguely. The sparrows made more noise than ever, but there was less complaining in their cheeps and twittering—a note of hopeful anticipation. And presently a gleam of sunshine struck the wet wall and roofs and chimney-pots, suffusing the murky atmosphere with a yellow radiance, beautifying the hideous outlook. To Fay it seemed a miraculous reflection of the golden glow in her own heart.
Yet she felt mystified, wondering. Could it be true? Had Captain Somerton really told Rotah he wished to marry her?—and if so, why had he told Rotah first—not herself? Oh! if she only had someone to confide in, to talk to, who would understand and give her good counsel—would tell her what it all meant, what she ought to do. She took a few steps along the passage, on the thick carpet, enclosed with richly-papered walls and rows of numbered doors. Then she paused, realizing that she was in a very curious position.
Surely it was most extraordinary that Captain Somerton should have spoken to the Rajah as, apparently, he had done! She began to suspect some plot, some scheme or intrigue on the part of the Rotah people. Yet what possible advantage could any of them gain by telling her that Captain Somerton wished to marry her if it were untrue?
A chambermaid hurried past her in stiff print gown, with keys on a chain, and flying cap-strings. The little incident recalled to her the fact that the routine of existence was continuing just the same, whatever her own mental predicament—that the luncheon hour was long past, and she had had nothing to eat. Not that she was hungry, but the fact of her having completely forgotten that such a meal was due brought home to her how vital had been her preoccupation in her own affairs.
She struggled with herself, half angry that she should have so succumbed to this new and strange emotion that had so violently assailed her, here, at the end of the passage, by the window!—and again she felt angry with Rotah. What business had he to come and say such things to her? In all probability the whole thing had arisen solely in his imagination. Native-wise, he had assumed that what would afford him gratification must be the case. Of course it would suit Rotah excellently if she and Captain Somerton were to marry each other, so that they could continue, indefinitely, their attendance on himself and the Rani! Was that the simple explanation of the situation?
Poor Fay hurried, agitated and uneasy, to her own room and put on her hat mechanically. Also mechanically she looked into the mirror to see if she had placed the hat upon her head at the correct angle. She saw a drawn little face, white with conflicting emotions, eyes unnaturally large, their blue-grey colour deepened almost to black. Impatiently she turned away from the looking-glass and left her room, went down the broad staircase with its handsome banisters and thick carpet, into the marble-paved hall, only to find that the rain was streaming down in more vigorous torrent, that the effort of sunshine had been vanquished, that to venture out of doors, unless in a closed vehicle, could only mean a soaking. With a sense of injury, as though everyone, even including Nature, were against her, Fay went back to the foot of the staircase. The hall seemed full of people, and they all stared at her—or was it her fancy? Of course they were all wishing, like herself, to go out, and had been disappointed.
She took the lift and returned to her room, discarded her hat and gloves, and remembered that the Rani must be waiting to hear the result of her interview with the Rajah. At any rate it was satisfactory to feel that she could give the unhappy little woman good tidings. The Rajah had definitely agreed to return to India now. He should not be allowed to go back upon his word. Again she looked at herself in the mirror, and her spirits rose a little. Her cheeks were flushed pink, her eyes were bright, she was not such a scarecrow as before she went downstairs. The little journey had roused her, done her good. She would get those photographs of London that the Rani wanted, which had come this morning. They were on the sofa in her sitting-room.
She passed from her bedroom into her sitting-room, intent on the photographs—and saw Clive Somerton standing by the round table.
The vision of him as she saw him then was stamped for ever after on her mind. He stood with bare head, sleek and close-cropped and tipped with grey, dressed in well-fitting London clothes, his attitude having the reposeful ease of an excellently proportioned frame, his face holding the calm strength of expression gained by a life of wise self-ordering, his whole air that of a man of sense and good breeding.
The muffled roar of traffic came in at an open window, the rumble of wheels, the clatter of hoofs, the rush of motor-driven vehicles and the sharp warning of their horns. Fay stood in the doorway, and all her romantic, sensitive soul went out to this man in a glow of worship, which she would never grudge even if it were not to be given back to her. What if he were nearly twenty years older than herself, with a lifetime of experience behind him in which she could have no share? What if, after all, the Rajah had misled her—if Clive had no thought of her in any way save as a friend? Whatever might happen, to her he was a hero, almost a god, the most perfect, the dearest of men, and if he bade her she would follow him anywhere, anywhere.
He looked up and saw her standing in the doorway. She did not realize, girl that she was, how her eyes and lace revealed her secret, even though her parted lips gave no sound; how tenderness irradiated from her dainty presence, betraying that in heart and spirit she had come to meet him, ready for his avowal, glad to be his, overwhelmed with the first wonder of young and innocent love. Somerton, waiting there, had tortured himself as to how best he might commence his wooing; he had intended to be prudent, cautious, perhaps to take a week or more feeling his way, ascertaining whether he had the smallest chance of winning her. And then, if the outlook seemed favourable, he would press his suit ardently, with fervour, to carry her off her little feet, allowing her no loophole of doubt or indecision.
Instead, when he looked up and saw her face, he threw his gloves into his hat that he had placed on the table and came towards her.
“Fay!” he cried involuntarily, passion in his eyes and voice. “Darling—how did you know!”
Later on, as they sat side by side on the stiff hotel sofa, rendered indifferent to the discomfort of its angles by Love, the great magician, who disregards all physical annoyances, Somerton repeated the words with which he had greeted Fay’s entry into the room.
“How did you know? Fay—tell me how you knew I was going to ask you to marry me?” He bent and kissed her neck.
With her clear, pale face and tender eyes, and the soft, fluffy cloud of dark hair, she reminded him again of a pastel drawing, so delicate, exquisite, almost impermanent. He caught her to him as though in very fear that she might fade before his gaze. She looked up, smiling, at the firm, keen face of her lover.
“It was Rotah who told me,” she said; and as she said it her heart warmed to the young Indian prince who, all unwittingly, had hastened her hour of bliss. She thought of his dark sad eyes with pitying sympathy, and wished he could feel even one quarter as happy as she felt happy now. She was sorry she had let him leave her without a word, had ignored his touching outburst of devotion towards Clive and herself—though she had done so unintentionally.
“Rotah!” exclaimed Somerton, interrupting her reflections. “Good Heavens—the young rascal!”
He recalled his interview with Rotah the previous afternoon, and perceived that the boy had misunderstood his admission that he hoped to marry Miss Fleetwood—had taken his words as an announcement of their engagement. And at the same time he realized that it was through Rotah that his own decision had been made so swiftly and so surely. It was Rotah who had released him from all self-argument and doubt, and possibly spared him long days and nights of mental disturbance and unrest, had shown him his own heart beyond all question or uncertainty. Yes, he owed a lot to Rotah; and Rotah’s secret should be kept religiously. Fay must never know it.
“He said you had told him,” Fay went on. “He repeated his own words: ‘Are you going to marry her—Miss Fleetwood?’ And then yours: ‘That is my great hope.’” She leaned her pretty head against his shoulder, and sighed in vast contentment.
“Are you glad he told you?” demanded Clive, with the fatuous tendency of a man in love to ask superfluous questions of his beloved, that her superfluous answers may thrill him again and yet again.
“You know I am glad,” she said softly.
Then presently she thought of the Rani with a little shock of remembrance, and explained in haste to Somerton what had happened that morning, told him of the lady doctor’s visit, and of her own promise to the patient that she would interview the Rajah and try to obtain his consent to the immediate return of the whole party to India.
“I met him in the passage,” she added, “and asked him to do what the Rani wished. That was how it all came about, you know.”
“Surely he didn’t consent?” was Somerton’ s anxious query.
“He did. He gave his word, and he must keep it now—whatever it means to us. Will you be obliged to go too, Clive?”
“I suppose I ought,” he said with reluctance. “I don’t see how I can very well desert him till he’s safely installed. The time isn’t far off now.”
Fay rose from the sofa. She stood before him, both her hands held in his.
“I shouldn’t be much good to you as a wife if I tried to keep you back from duty, should I?” she said with cheerful courage. “Of course you must go. And—and—when you can leave Rotah—shall I come out to you?”
He stood up, seizing her in his arms. “Heaven forbid!” he cried in laughing, happy irony.
Lady Landon waited in her electric brougham in front of her sister-in-law’s house at Norbledon, while her chauffeur left his seat and pushed open the little iron gate that screeched its usual discordant greeting to all arrivals, whether beggar-people or ladies of title.
Fifteen months had passed since the date of Fay Fleetwood’s engagement to Clive Somerton. The time was early September. A pleasant odour of bramble and bracken tinged the air that was wafted from the Common half a mile away. Little opalescent clouds flicked the thin, sharp blue of the sky; the insignificant patch of garden behind the noisy gate was gay with yellow and bronze chrysanthemums; and Lady Landon looked about her with gracious approval. The autumn air was crisp and exhilarating though she found it a little chilly as well; she noted that the soil was gravel, or appeared to be, that the road and gardens were surprisingly well kept, imparting a sense of order and self-respect to the surroundings. It all looked very sober, and clean, and correct. Most sensible, she considered it, of the Fleetwoods to settle in such a place. And then it struck her as rather singular that though of course she had visited Combe Down several times previously, the advantages of the locality for people of limited incomes had never before been apparent to her.
Then as the bell was rung and the knocker banged disdainfully by the chauffeur, Lady Landon realized with a slight feeling of self-reproach that it must be a whole year since she last came to see Emily Fleetwood. Was it possible! Yes, there could be no doubt about it, for Marion had been married from Mrs de Wick’s house in Queen’s Gate on the first of September a year go, and a few days later—with a supreme effort—he had motored down to see the bride’s mother as well as to gather any news that might have arrived concerning the newly-married couple. What an excellent hing that marriage had been for poor John’s eldest daughter! Lady Landon was serenely convinced hat it was she who had brought about the match by giving Marion such a straight and sensible harangue at a time when the foolish girl was inclined to flout the desirable suitor. “Aunt Beatrice” recalled her own scolding clearly—it was at that dreadful tea-party when those odious hotel people had charged such a fiendish price per head for an infamous tea! Of course she never minded paying exorbitantly for the best of anything.
And then the youngest Fleetwood girl, the skinny little creature with eyes like saucers, had gone off to India to be married the following November—which, by the way, had entailed another wedding present, though of course not nearly so handsome a gift as had been necessary for the future Lady Curtice. Really, Emily Fleetwood had been extraordinarily lucky to get two of her girls taken off her hands so easily and so soon. Most satisfactory! There only remained the middle one, who always looked so washed out, but no doubt it was better that one of them should stay at home to look after their mother. It was not likely that anybody would want to marry Isabel.
Now the hall door was open. Why on earth couldn’t Emily teach her servants not to hide behind the door and peep round the edge when they opened it to visitors! Mrs Fleetwood was at home; therefore with deliberate movements, and much ceremony connected with the rug and the chauffeur’s arm, Lady Landon descended from the brougham and sailed up the narrow pathway and thence into the house.
She found Mrs Fleetwood in the drawing-room. She also found a bright little fire, and tea, and a chair that was high yet comfortable, and she began to feel that she did not regret having made another supreme effort, at an interval of twelve months, to visit her sister-in-law at Norbledon.
“Well, my dear Emily, so you see me at last!” The ladies kissed each other delicately. “It is an age since we met. I was only reflecting as I waited at the door in my car—my man had to ring three times, dear, I thought you would like me to tell you—that it must be at least a year since I came down to see you last. It was just after Marion’s marriage, wasn’t it? You know I was only passing through London then, just as I am now, between visits. I remember I fitted in my dates so that I might be at the wedding. I went abroad for the winter and of course I have such a terribly busy time all the season, knowing such thousands of people. Then visits in the country for the autumn and so on. Time does fly!”
Aunt Beatrice should have known that Emily was not the woman to bear malice or take offence, and so might have spared herself the trouble of plausible excuse-making. It would never occur to the kindly, simple-hearted widow of John Fleetwood that anyone would willingly neglect her—she only considered it extremely nice of Beatrice to come at all; and she was hospitably glad that the tea and cakes were fresh and hot, and that the first fire of the season should have been lighted that particular afternoon. She knew Beatrice was very susceptible to temperature, and Norbledon paid for the proud distinction of being on a level with the top of St Paul’s Cathedral by having a correspondingly frigid climate.
“Yes, indeed time does fly,” Mrs Fleetwood agreed cordially, “and I am sure with you it must fly more rapidly than with most people. You lead such a busy life. Now I just sit here and look forward to letters, and see very few people except my dear old friends the Bullens. Now that Marion and Fay are married, and Isabel engaged—”
“What?” interrupted Lady Landon. “Isabel engaged?”
Dear me! that meant another wedding present—but whether an expensive one or not would of course depend on the fiance’s position and means.
“Who is the man?” she inquired. “I had no idea there was anything of the kind in the air?”
“He is a clergyman,” said Mrs Fleetwood. “He was an Army chaplain in India, that was how we knew him”—Lady Landon privately decided that a biscuit-box would do—“but Rowland Curtice has very kindly given him the Batch living—of course at Marion’s instigation!”
Lady Landon looked doubtful. This was rather different. Perhaps it had better be a silver cake-basket. It might be awkward, staying as a guest at Batch Hall, to go to tea at the Rectory and feel ashamed of one’s present. Then she brightened as she remembered that she possessed among her store of plate a handsome cake or fruit basket, she was not sure which, that she never used and would never miss.
“How very kind of Rowland,” she said, “and what a relief to your mind, dear Emily! Has he private means?”
“Not much now, but he will have enough when his mother dies. He is a very nice man. I always liked him, and he was always fond of Isabel, I believe. You know she went out to India with Fay last winter to be at Fay’s wedding, and then paid some visits for a couple of months among old friends before she came home. She met Mr Dakin again then, but nothing was actually settled till he arrived from India last month. She is very happy and will make an excellent parson’s wife I am sure. At present she is staying with his mother in Devonshire.”
Lady Landon drank her tea and enjoyed it. “Well,” she said affably as she put down her cup, “I suppose very few women in your position, Emily, could boast of marrying off three daughters so quickly—and one of them so exceedingly well!”
Mrs Fleetwood gave a little sigh. “I am so sorry to part with them,” she said simply, “and yet I am very glad they should have homes of their own.”
“But surely you are very proud of Marion’s brilliant marriage, my dear?—or you would not be human. A baronetcy and at least fifteen thousand a year, and a man who worships the ground she walks on!”
Mrs Fleetwood thought of poor Tom Gray with a tightening of her heart-strings. “Well, Beatrice, to be perfectly candid, I can’t say I have ever liked Sir Rowland Curtice!”
“Good gracious, Emily—what does that signify as long as Marion has everything she can want, and is able to twist the creature round her little finger? I can only tell you that Mrs de Wick, whom I met only yesterday in Sloane Street, assures me she never saw anything like the way he gives in to her over everything. He is her meek and humble slave. Mrs de Wick said it did one good to see them—they’ve been staying with the de Wicks in Scotland, as of course you know—and that it was really quite pretty! And the presents he has given her, and is always giving her!”
“Oh! yes—” said Mrs Fleetwood, without enthusiasm, though a dazzling vision of exquisite ornaments passed through her memory.
“He simply adores her,” went on Lady Landon, emphatically, “and he was a man who might have married anyone.”
“I consider,” said Mrs Fleetwood, with spirit, “that he was very lucky to have prevailed upon Marion to marry him. I know she refused him more than once.”
“You don’t say so!” ejaculated Aunt Beatrice, rather disconcerted. She knew that Emily Fleetwood was not in the habit of telling lies, else she would hardly have credited the statement.
“Well, it’s all very satisfactory, I’m sure,” she said easily, “and quite counteracts the very ordinary marriages of the other two.” She allowed herself this little scratch as compensation for the shock of Emily’s unexpected information.
“Fay hasn’t done so badly either,” Mrs Fleetwooi could not resist proclaiming. “Clive Somerton is a major now, and he has a very nice old place in Gloucestershire which only needs time to bring it round. A rich sister-in-law keeps it up for him till he can afford to live there himself.”
“Oh, yes, yes—now I think I remember. You did tell me something about it at the time of the marriage. But so many men have places they can’t afford to live in nowadays. It is quite sad. Well it’s all very cheering, anyway, about the girls. Fay with her soldier, and Isabel with her parson who will have more money when his mother dies, and in the meantime has secured the Batch living, and then Marion! I congratulate you heartily on your luck with your dear girls. Now I must be going.”
She rose and collected her white kid gloves, and the gold chain bag with clattering appendages of golde trifles studded with gems—a vinaigrette, a powder box, a folding mirror, and such like. She embraced her sister-in-law affectionately and departed, leaving a sickly perfume as of satin sachets in the air, and sense of relief in Emily’s breast.
When the car had rolled away Mrs Fleetwood sat idle, gazing into the fire. She felt weary, listless in mind and body; and as the slow minutes passed away and the light faded she fell into drowsy retrospection. The evening of her life had come, and soon she would be left alone. Both sons were out in the world; only now and then, at long intervals, would she see them. Georgie had been home on short leave this summer, but he had not spent much of his time in the dull little Norbledon villa, nor had his mother expected him to do so. She knew masculine nature, as do most women who have spent long years in exile; she understood, too, the value of every moment spent in England after a long spell of duty abroad. Walter wrote vaguely about coming home next year, and hinted at a love affair that might or might not prove hopeless, seeing that the young lady’s father was a diamond merchant of fabulous wealth—only that the dear girl seemed to like her humble suitor, and it was a well-known fact that her father had never yet denied his only daughter anything she fancied! Then Mrs Fleetwood recalled Marion’s marriage, a year ago, fixed purposely by the bride at an unfashionable season and while the family were still in mourning. Though Mrs de Wick had insisted on defraying most of the expenses it was curious how Marion had shrunk from the idea of anything but a very quiet wedding with only an informal reception of relatives and intimate friends, and she had been married in her travelling dress. Certainly Rowland Curtice was a very polite son-in-law; Mrs Fleetwood had stayed at Batch Hall after the return of the couple from a prolonged honeymoon to Japan and America, but she could never “take” to him as she knew she would have taken to Tom Gray, or feel towards him as she felt towards Clive Somerton, little Fay’s husband. Last winter Fay had gone back to India to be married to Clive, and Isabel had gone with her. The doctor had advised Mrs Fleetwood not to undertake such a journey, and indeed she knew he was right, her strength was not equal to the strain, much as she had longed to be present at her youngest girl’s wedding, much as she would have enjoyed another glimpse of India where the happiest years of her life had been spent. There Isabel had met Arthur Dakin again, and now here he was at home, and the Rectory at Batch was being improved and done up, and he and Isabel were two very happy people.
Emily Fleetwood dozed. The fire smouldered, the golden light of the autumn evening sank to a grey twilight, for the days were shortening. Her small plump hands, wrinkled now and rather shapeless, that had tended her babies and soothed the sick, and knitted, and written letters, and welcomed so many friends to her Indian dwellings, lay limp in her lap. Her pleasant, placid face with closed eyes looked peaceful and pink against the dark cushions behind her head. The room was very still, and the scent of sandal-wood from the carvings, and of bazaar cloth from the embroideries, floated out in the warmth and the deepening dusk.
She dreamed that she and John were riding over the vast yellow country, past villages and mango groves, and wide sheets of shallow water where the duck and teal floated, and dabbled, and preened themselves in thousands. The two of them were riding towards the sunset, and presently against the crimson and orange of the sky rose up the peaks of white tents. A little crowd came out to meet them from the camp as they neared it—a fat ayah walking ponderously, swinging her voluminous petticoats, bearing a precious bundle in her arms; Gunga solemn and important, holding a small figure in white tightly by the hand; a pony, rather like a young calf, carrying another little person seated in a ring saddle on its back; a syce in attendance and a Government peon pompously escorting the party. Mrs Fleetwood heard herself call out, “John, look! the children. They have come out to meet us.” And she waved her whip in greeting.
Then she awoke with a start to see Fanny Bullen standing before her in felt hat and serviceable jacket, and with quite a colour in her sharp thin face from a brisk walk with her husband in the evening air.
“Good gracious, Emily!” she said, “why are you asleep in the dark at this hour?”
She turned up the lights relentlessly and poor Mrs Fleetwood sat blinking, for all the world, as Fanny told her, like an owl suddenly disturbed in the hollow of a tree!
“I suppose I was asleep,” she admitted superfluously. Then she added, in plaintive protest, “Oh! Fanny, I was dreaming of John and the children in India when we were young, and you came and woke me up!” Quietly she began to cry. “It all seems so long ago, and it can never, never come back.”
Mrs Bullen drew down the blinds and made up the fire, saying no word. It was better to let Emily get over her moment of heart sickness, poor soul, without taking too much notice of it. What she required was to be cheered up; she must not be encouraged to mope. And all the time Emily knew quite well that Fanny understood and was sorry, though she let the blind down with a crash and made a dreadful noise putting coal on the fire, and then actually said she wanted cup of tea, though it was past six o’clock, and rang the bell without asking permission! So of course Mrs Fleetwood was obliged to dry her eyes and sit up, and compose her voice that she might give the order to the parlourmaid when she appeared.
“There now!” said Mrs Bullen, when fresh tea was brought, and Mrs Fleetwood thought she would like another cup too, “you are all right. You mustn’t get so depressed, my dear, the girls would be furious with you. Come back and dine with us to-night. I’m sure you’ve got no dinner at home.”
Mrs Fleetwood smiled. “Oh, yes, I have. A very nice dinner, too. But I will come back and dine with you with pleasure. I should like to very much.”
“What’s your news from India?” inquired Mr Bullen. “The mail was in this morning, rather late this week. I heard from Bobbie, and he’s to go up to the depôt at Pahar Tal. He must be there by now The winter up there will do him good.”
“Oh! then he’ll see Fay and Clive—that will be nice. They were taking leave for September and were going up to Pahar Tal. Fay stayed down all the hot weather, you know, so Clive thought she ought to have a change and a little bracing air. You remember how lovely it is up there at this time of the year!”
“Yes, I know—just after the rains. The air is so beautifully clear and pure. And the views of the snows! Whenever I hear people talking rubbish about Switzerland I always know they have never seen the Himalayas and don’t know what a real mountain is like. And of course I tell them so!”
Mrs Fleetwood rambled on. “It is so nice for Fay that Clive could get away to go with her to the hills. Dear child, she seems so absolutely happy. Clive is such a devoted husband and they are both so fond of India. She was enchanted when she got back there. I was rather amused at Gunga sending his eldest son to be their bearer! I don’t think I told you?”
“Yes, you did!” said Fanny to herself, but she shook her head mendaciously.
“Of course it caused dreadful complications with Clive’s man, who has been with him for years, and they are obliged to keep them both for the present. Fay said she couldn’t possibly hurt Gunga’s feelings by refusing to engage his son! She was only thankful he had not come himself, as he is far too old now for a young couple who want to rush about, and are obliged to rough it to a certain extent. They’re with the regiment now, you see.”
“Yes. And the Rotah Rajah—do they ever tell you anything about him since his coming of age and installation?”
“They told me in one letter that he was doing very well. But he has no children—the little boy died, you know, before we left India, and there have been no more babies. They think he will probably have to take another wife eventually, and Fay hopes it will be the little girl who was at home when Fay looked after the Rani. She is being educated on modern lines by the Rajah’s wish, and she writes to Fay constantly, giving account of her progress.”
“And I daresay she writes quite as well as Fay does herself,” said Fanny Bullen. “Natives learn so easily. Do you remember what funny letters we used to get sometimes from bazaar people? I have always kept the one I got that ended ‘Your affectionate butcher’!”
Mrs Fleetwood smiled. “Yes, I was with you when you got it. I remember that morning quite well. Isn’t it odd how trifles cling to your mind when so often quite important things fade altogether from your memory? I remember we had been laughing because we overheard the ayah pretending to teach Marion to read English, and she kept saying ‘C, A, T—billi’!”
“I’d forgotten that!” said Mrs Bullen, laughing, “but I can hear our old ayah singing to one of the boys:
“‘My dear darling, my dear son,
Dadda got plenty money, Mamma got none.’”
“Dear things!” said Mrs Fleetwood, tenderly, including children and servants in affectionate reminiscence.
They sat talking of old days till it was nearly time to start, and Emily Fleetwood changed her gown, and put on a hat and cloak, and went back with Fanny Bullen to the comfortable house on the edge of the Common, and to a dinner from which chickens were rigorously excluded. The Bullens had not yet been long enough in England to have recovered from the satiety of fowls that is one of the burdens of the Anglo-Indian.
“This is like the time when we were at Agra together,” said Mrs Fleetwood as they trudged along by the light of road lamps in the chill dimness of the autumn evening. “When John was in camp without me I used to dine with you, and when you were alone you used to come to us.”
“Yes,” said Fanny. And with their minds full of the past, the two women who had come through the difficulties, often the hardships, the pleasures, and the makeshifts of long years in India, continued in silence on their way, recalling that past, in spite of its drawbacks and anxieties, with fond regret.
While the West was wrapped in midnight the dawn broke over the heights of the Himalayas.
Again Fay stood on the spot where she had watched the Indian sunrise on the morning when Clive Somerton rounded the knuckle of the hill and found her there with old Gunga; and now her husband stood with her. Together they had climbed the steep, zigzag pathways that Fay had so lightly mounted as little more than a child; and together they beheld the snow-peaks gleaming crimson, and the mighty army of glittering mountains stand forth glorious and grand.
Somerton quoted from the fine old Sanscrit lines:
“‘In a thousand ages of the gods I could not tell thee of the glories of Himachal. As the dew is dried up by the morning sun, so are the sins of mankind by the sight of Himachal!’”
Yet, magnificent as was the spectacle before him, his eyes rested more willingly on his young wife’s face, so true, so pure and tender. She was gazing towards the hills in rapt enchantment, her hands resting on the wooden rail that edged the path; her lips were slightly parted, her eyes soft and dreamy, a faint colour like that of a pink petal was in her cheeks.
“My little lady of the dawn!” he murmured.
At once she turned to him, smiling.