Mrs. Partridge, the judge’s wife at Khanabad, came out of her bungalow this hot-weather evening in India, stout, elderly, deliberate, ready for her customary drive. She wore a brown tussore garment that, but for the occasion, might have been mistaken for a dressing-gown. Her wide pith hat, bare and somewhat battered, was hardly a necessary form of headgear now that the sun was sinking; but Mrs. Partridge preferred it to her black straw trimmed with geraniums that curled themselves up perversely, or the brown toque with the ostrich feather that refused to curl at all. Clothes bored Mrs. Partridge, and her wardrobe always appeared to recognise and resent the fact.
After the comparative cool of the bungalow the hot air outside smote her face as though she had stepped within reach of a furnace, and she reflected that never during her thirty years’ experience of life in India could she recall such a trying hot-weather; though it was true that of late, seasoned “old Indian” as she was, she had been conscious of feeling the heat increasingly. Sadly she reflected that she was growing too old for India—the India she had always known, of perpetual plains and small civil stations. Since the days of her girlhood the country had altered but little—India was not yet acquainted with motor-cars, electric light, English gold coinage, and a more “Europeanised” standard of living. Such changes and innovations were still in the far future on this hot-weather evening when Mrs. Partridge climbed into the venerable barouche and realised that retirement, now so near for herself and the judge, would almost be welcome, much as she dreaded the final wrench from the land she loved, much as she disliked the prospect of adapting herself to new conditions and surroundings at an age when habits have become crystallised and fresh effort must be exhausting.
Driving through the compound, she gazed with concern at her scorched garden. She was famous for her gardening, famous also for her poultry and her dairy, for her household management and spotless, well-trained servants, by whom she was regarded as a benevolent and all-powerful Providence. Out on the road the heat seemed still more oppressive; the horses’ hoofs sank deep into the dust—loose, powdery dust that rose up in a drab-coloured cloud behind the carriage, clung to the trunks and foliage of the great trees, and floated sullenly before subsiding. The barouche rumbled on its way, not rapidly, for the horses were sluggish with the heat and tormented by the flies; it passed a few dwellings on either side of the broad road, some low-thatched like beehives, others of solid masonry, white and stark, each within its own enclosure, screened thinly by varied vegetation, aloe, cactus, plaintain trees and oleander. Then came a gap of bare, empty plain, and farther on a solitary little bungalow, old, dilapidated, unattractive.
For some time past this bungalow had stood un tenanted, partly because immediately beyond it lay a patch of squalid, malodorous bazaar, and for the rest because Lalchand, the landlord, a Hindu merchant, was averse from spending money on its upkeep. Now Mrs. Partridge observed with interested surprise that this hitherto neglected dwelling appeared to be occupied. She leaned forward in her seat to behold signs of life in the unkempt compound—a bullock cart tilted on its pole, fowls scratching in front of the cook-house, packing-cases piled in the veranda. The doors of the house stood open, and Mrs. Partridge noted with concern that the apertures were unprotected by the customary split-cane blinds. “There must be a perfect plague of flies inside,” she thought; and her memory turned to a “transfer” she had endured one hot-weather in the days of her youth and early experience of Indian life. She remembered the trials and discomforts, the difficulties of “getting settled,” the torture of the cruel heat. With mingled curiosity and pity she wondered who the unfortunate new-comers might be, and was tempted to inquire of her coachman if he knew; but her sense of dignity, a sense that India fosters in the true-born British female, restrained her from shouting the question to him as he drove.
Then the carriage plunged into a sudden huddle of mud huts and grass shelters, one of those outlying hives of human habitation nearly always to be found in the vicinity of any big bazaar. Here were herded coolies, beggars, scavengers and a multitude of mangy dogs; in the heat of the still evening nauseous exhalations triumphed, and Mrs. Partridge put her handkerchief to her nose. It was impossible to avoid the unpleasant little transit, for by no other road could she arrive at the spot for which she was bound. This was a square, white building in the near distance, showing sharp and distinct against the dark background of a mango-grove as though fashioned out of chalk, flanked by a collection of thatched huts, the whole surrounded by a scanty thorn-bush hedge. The approach to this abode looked as uncompromising as the house itself, just bare, rough ground, with no attempt at lawn or garden, varied only by a border of broken brick around the walls, intended for the discouragement of snakes. A few goats wandered about, trailing their tethers, bleating disconsolately; and an old native servant was crouched on the veranda steps crooning to himself. The sulky heat seemed to press down and envelop it all in a heavy torpor.
The “padre-memsahib” was at home, and Mrs. Partridge entered a lofty room that re-echoed every sound. In the ventilators sparrows cheeped and wrangled, and dropped bits of twig and lime and rubbish on the furniture and floor beneath. From the back premises arose a twittering of native female voices. The punkah began to sway to and fro, wafting the air as though with reluctance.
While Mrs. Partridge waited for the padre memsahib to appear, she looked about her with attention. Periodically she had called on Mrs. Janvier, the missionary’s wife, but until today she had never found herself alone in this room, and therefore had not been able to observe its contents quite so closely as she might have desired—not that there was much to observe, but other people’s belongings and affairs always held a special interest for Mrs. Partridge. A clumsy dining-table occupied the middle of the room, attended by clumsy chairs with arms and cane seats; there was a bamboo couch and an old oak bureau. This latter piece of furniture, not being a very ordinary kind of possession in India, attracted Mrs. Partridge’s attention, especially as on the top of the bureau stood a couple of framed photographs that, though yellow and faint with time and climate, looked interesting.
One was of a woman, middle-aged, handsome, dressed in black velvet and Honiton lace. There was natural dignity in the pose of the figure, good breeding in every line of the self-composed countenance. The other was the photograph of the spacious, comfortable “English house, not a villa, not exactly a “residence.” Mrs. Partridge took it up for closer scrutiny, and perceived the figure of a man in clerical garb standing to one side of the porch.
“Of course—a rectory,” she decided; and she replaced the picture, satisfied on that point but still in doubt concerning the lady in black velvet, who did not look like a country clergyman’s wife, supposing, of course, that these people were the parents of Mrs. Janvier, and the rectory her former home....
Just then Mrs. Janvier came into the room. She carried a length of soft white material, which she laid on the table as she passed. She wore a limp cotton gown, her once pretty, rippling hair was thin and dull, and her grey eyes were sunk deep in her delicate face.
Resentful pity stirred the heart of Mrs. Partridge. Mrs. Janvier was still a young woman, she looked a being made for dainty surroundings, for a refined, if not luxurious, existence sheltered from toil and hardship; yet here she was, the wife of an ardent missionary, slaving out her days in exile for the sake of Indian converts, sacrificing health, appearance, pleasure, in a strict devotion to her husband and his calling. Mrs. Partridge well knew how hard life could be in India, even for those whose days were eased by customary alleviations and safe position; therefore she could understand what it must be for people like the Janviers, who were bound to sink material interests in the one stupendous struggle for their Master and their Faith. She had seen such people beaten in the fight, their health and courage gone; she realised the times of hopelessness and failure they must all endure—realised it all the more sharply this hot-weather evening as she noted the signs of strain and burden on the other woman’s prematurely faded face. And it must all, she felt, be so much harder for the woman than for the man, since on the wife devolved the duty of economising in the household, of combining with her share of missionary work the preservation of her husband’s health, the livening of his spirits, and probably the care of children too.
“Well, my dear!” She rose in kindly greeting. “What about the embroidery? I thought would just drive over and see what you thought you could do.”
They both sat down by the table, and Mrs. Janvier displayed for Mrs. Partridge’s inspection a corner of the material, fine Indian muslin, that she had brought into the room.
“I hope,” she said, “we shall be able to get it done in time for the sale. Do you think this stuff good enough? I got it rather a bargain in the bazaar. If only the pupils will work regularly!” She gave a little wistful sigh. “It is so difficult to keep them up to the mark. They idle in the heat, and seem paralysed when it’s cold, and we get on so slowly. They won’t realise that we can only keep things going by our own efforts. They think if they are supplied with food and shelter and clothes there is no obligation behind it all. Sometimes,” she added, with an apologetic laugh, “I feel almost tempted to let it all slide, which is too wicked and dreadful of me!”
“On the contrary,” said Mrs. Partridge briskly, “I think it is marvellous how you ever keep pace with the orders, not to speak of all the other work you get through!”
She examined the muslin that was to be converted into various embroidered articles of clothing by the willing fingers of the pupils; the profits would contribute to their own upkeep—the support and the training of out-caste girls and women and a helpless flock of orphan children.
“Yes, this muslin is just the thing,” she continued. “I won’t fix the date of my sale till I know exactly how much work you can promise me. There is no hurry, so don’t overdo yourself.”
In response to the sympathetic understanding in the other’s voice, a faint flush rose to Mrs. Janvier’s cheeks. She twisted a corner of the muslin in her thin hands.
“I am rather worried just now about something else,” she said with hesitation.
“Tell me,” encouraged Mrs. Partridge.
Mrs. Janvier fixed her eyes on the tinsel border of the muslin that proclaimed its Indian manufacture. “It’s about Ruth—my little girl,” she said in a low voice. “We have to make up our minds about sending her home.”
“Oh, dear! Oh, dear!” commiserated Mrs. Partridge, “it’s always such a terribly hard question to face. I know; I have been through it all myself.”
“You see, my aunt and uncle who brought me up have offered to take her, and would pay her passage and be responsible for her education and everything, if we let her go this autumn.” She moved restlessly and bit her lip. “I suppose we ought to agree without hesitation; but how can I bring myself to part with the child?”
“Let me see, how old is she now?”
“Just nine. Some years I have been able to take her to the hills for the worst part of the hot weather, or we have sent her to friends. But this year we could not afford to do either, and I am afraid next year will be the same. She has stood the heat very well so far, but at her age it is not only the climate that one has to consider out here.”
Mrs. Partridge glanced interrogatively towards the photographs on the bureau. Mrs. Janvier responded dully: “Yes, that is my aunt, and my old home.”
But she volunteered no further information, which Mrs. Partridge felt to be rather tiresome of her; evidently she did not care to talk about her people.
There was a pause, a pause of baffled interest on the part of Mrs. Partridge, and of preoccupation on the part of Mrs. Janvier.
“Well, if you feel the child would be happy and well taught, my opinion is that you should close with the offer,” pronounced Mrs. Partridge.
“She would be well looked after. But,” added the poor mother wretchedly, “she would be gone out of my life.”
“You could go home and see her now and then?”
Mrs. Janvier shook her head. “Eustace will never go home as long as he is fit to work; and when he is not able to work—I think he will die. I couldn’t go so far away from him. He is the one who needs me most.”
Another pause, broken again by Mrs. Partridge. “It’s a dreadful problem,” she said, “this inevitable choice between husband and children. Most of us have to face it sooner or later out here. Personally, I chose as I imagine you are going to choose. I sent my boys home and stayed with my husband.”
“And you feel you did right?”
“I do,” said Mrs. Partridge stoutly. “Other people can look after one’s children, whereas nobody else can look after one’s husband. At least, one wouldn’t appreciate such an arrangement!”
Mrs. Partridge’s clumsy humour was wasted on Mrs. Janvier.
“But your children were all boys,” she argued plaintively. “Don’t you think if you had had daughters—”
“I should have done the same, though it would certainly have been more difficult. After all, putting one’s own feelings on one side, the children don’t suffer so much from the separation. They learn to rely on themselves, it makes them independent—perhaps fits them better for the kind of life that usually lies before them as the children of people in Indian service; the boys for such service in their turn, the girls as the wives of such men as the boys become. They grow up without home ties and memories, with a sort of instinct of shifting for themselves, and they take it all for granted, which, for the sake of the Empire, is not altogether a bad thing.”
“But it is so much harder for missionaries than for Government people,” Mrs. Janvier protested resentfully. “We can’t go home at regular intervals, if at all. We know we must live and die out here, unless we fail in our work or are prevented by illness from doing it.”
“Yes, yes, my dear, indeed I know!”
Mrs. Partridge felt that there was little she could say to soften the inevitable for this unhappy little woman, torn between her sense of duty and her mother-love. The hardship of it all came home to her with painful understanding, and she thought with rancour of those who lightly scoff at missionary effort, who accuse these folk of narrow motives, selfish living, of meddlesome interference with the creeds of other countries, and of arrogance in setting up their standards of morality and faith in face of customs and beliefs that have survived, though fatally corrupted, throughout the ages. At the same time, she was conscious of a lurking doubt within herself. After all, was such sacrifice entirely worth the making? What could they really hope to do, this band of good and simple people, against these ancient creeds and cults that were so subtle, even so alluring, always so terrible in their recognition of the greater strength of evil; in their teaching that only by complete renunciation of all earthly needs and claims and duties could eternal peace be won?
She felt quite relieved when the curtain that hung in an open doorway of an adjoining room was dashed aside, and a little figure leapt across the threshold, then hesitated, checked by the unexpected presence of a stranger.
“Darling, you know Mrs. Partridge,” said Mrs. Janvier, rather uneasily, as though not altogether confident of her child’s behaviour.
But Ruth conducted herself sedately; she advanced, a slim, graceful little figure in a blue overall that left her limbs bare, and held out her hand.
“And what have you been doing?” Mrs. Partridge inquired.
Ruth looked down at her pink feet that were protected by deerskin sandals.
“We don’t bother about stockings or more clothes than we can help for her in this heat,” put in Mrs. Janvier apologetically.
“I have been dancing,” said Ruth, with a side glance at her mother, who murmured something about Daddy and disobedience; but the child only turned to Mrs. Partridge with a gleam of devilry in her brilliant eyes, and laughed, showing a row of little white teeth like blanched kernels.
“Imp!” thought the judge’s wife, perforce admiring the small creature, who looked as though a puff of wind might waft away her body, but as though no human force could daunt her soul. She was a beautiful child, with clear, golden-brown eyes and a crop of copper-coloured curls—a little Psyche, cleanly shaped and exquisitely tinted.
Mrs. Janvier drew her daughter closer to her, straightened the blue overall, and tried to smooth the curls. “Run away now, darling, and feed the chickens. Mother wants to talk to Mrs. Partridge.”
Ruth smiled enchantingly, and shook her head.
“Ruth! What will Mrs. Partridge think of you?” In reality Mrs. Janvier was wondering what Mrs. Partridge would think of her own lack of authority. The visitor, loyal to her hostess, assumed a shocked expression. “My little boys always did as they were told,” she asserted untruthfully; while half sad, half humorous recollections returned to her of screams and kicks, and struggles on the floor, with a sympathetic audience of native servants lavishly tendering persuasions and advice, advocating a bad policy of conciliation and indulgence, which she knew had but too frequently been followed for the sake of peace. “I think,” she added, “that you are an unkind little girl not to do what mother wants.”
Ruth pressed backwards against her mother’s knee. “Mother is unkind to want me to go,” she retorted with unconscious cruelty.
Mrs. Janvier’s face quivered; involuntarily she clasped Ruth close in painful anticipation of the time to come when actual parting must be faced and borne. The other woman felt that victory being uncertain, a humiliating scene must be avoided.
“We shall have to give in,” she reflected; and she hastened to voice the first idea that occurred to her, forgetting Mrs. Janvier’s murmured reproaches concerning Ruth’s recent recreation.
“Well, then, show me how you have been dancing,” she suggested, as though compliance with this request might be allowed to counteract resistance to the other.
“Oh! but she mustn’t!” cried Mrs. Janvier. “Her father has forbidden it. No, Ruth, no!”
But Ruth had already wriggled from her mother’s arms. She snatched the piece of muslin from the table, and threw it over her head. Placing her hands on her hips, she began to twirl and sway, shuffling her feet, and singing loudly through her nose in clever imitation of a nautch girl.
Despite her regret at being unintentionally responsible for Ruth’s defiance of her father’s orders, Mrs. Partridge could not control her amusement. The small figure presented such an absurd spectacle in the short blue garment and floating veil, ogling, posturing, in extravagant mimicry of what no doubt was a shocking exhibition according to Western notions of propriety.
“Oh, Ruth!” protested Mrs. Janvier again; and then the two women began to laugh helplessly as the dance grew more abandoned and the song yet more piercing.
The Rev. Eustace Janvier, entering the room at this juncture, stood amazed at the sight of his daughter conducting herself in such pagan fashion, and his wife and Mrs. Partridge, not only making no effort to stop the unseemly performance, but actually overcome with mirth! The mirth was instantly checked; but Ruth, with astonishing presence of mind, twirled and sang herself through the curtain behind her and vanished into the adjoining room. All that remained was the length of muslin, in a discarded heap upon the floor. Mr. Janvier, obviously suppressing his disapproval, advanced to greet Mrs. Partridge. He was a handsome, picturesque-looking man, with the luminous eyes that had descended to his child, the ivory skin and straight black hair that proclaimed his French extraction, and the expression of a visionary.
“I am afraid I am to blame,” said the embarrassed visitor in pleasant apology, “for it was I who incited Ruth to dance, though, of course, I didn’t realise—”
“Of course not,” he interrupted courteously. “Unfortunately she seems to acquire such undesirable accomplishments!” He smiled, then sighed and shook his head.
“She means no harm, dear,” soothed his wife, “only she is such a little mimic, and her spirits run away with her.”
Mrs. Partridge valiantly supported Mrs. Janvier. “And really,” she argued, “isn’t it better to see her like that than listless and fretful, and washed out with the heat? Children so soon forget what they pick up in India. It makes no lasting impression on them.”
“Not if they are sent home in time, perhaps,” agreed Mr. Janvier judicially. “I am afraid we cannot bind ourselves to the necessity of sending Ruth home.” He avoided looking at his wife as he spoke; he could not bear to meet the trouble that he knew would cloud her eyes. “You see,” he went on, seating himself by the bureau, “we have been in a difficult position as regards Ruth for the last two or three years. She is very precocious. To keep her from mixing with the orphans and converts would seem inconsistent and unchristian, but the little ones copy and adore her, which is bad for a child of her temperament, and from the elder ones she picks up tricks and ideas that cannot do her any good. Perhaps my wife has told you of her relatives’ offer to bring Ruth up at home? I feel that we must either accept the offer unconditionally, or else my wife must take the child home herself and stay with her for the next few years. I suppose,” he added with a forced laugh, “missionaries have no business with wives and families.”
“I imagine they would get on very badly without wives, at any rate,” said Mrs. Partridge bluntly.
Then she rose, and after a little further consultation with Mrs. Janvier over the sale of work and the number of articles required, she said good-bye; then hesitated, looking from husband to wife with understanding eyes.
“You must let me know what you decide to do about Ruth,” she said impulsively. “Perhaps, if you decide to accept the offer you have mentioned, I might take the child home for you? I am going myself this autumn, and my husband follows in the spring. His time will be up then, and I am going ahead to find a home and get settled before he arrives.”
Mrs. Janvier flushed and her lips trembled. “How kind of you!” she said unsteadily.
There was a catch in the father’s voice, too, as he added: “Yes, indeed!” and lifted the cane blind for Mrs. Partridge.
“Think it over,” she said to him as she got into her carriage. But as she drove through the parched compound and observed a blue wisp of a figure careering about by the fowl-house, escorted by chickens and a crowd of native children, she smiled rather ruefully to herself.
“What could have possessed me?” she thought. “The child will be a nightmare on board ship.” For she had no sort of doubt in her mind as to what the Janviers’ decision was likely to be.
In her dismay at her own lack of caution she passed the shabby bungalow on the other side of the unsavoury hamlet without a glance; and as she drove on in the hot, sudden dusk, the probable trials and discomforts of its inhabitants did not recur to her thoughts.
It happened next morning that Mrs. Partridge heard tell of Lalchand’s new tenants from the civil surgeon of the station, who would often refer to Mrs. Partridge, sure of her sympathy and support, when those of his junior patients’ appeared to be in difficulties combined with sickness. He now came expressly to inform her that a young married couple of the name of Bassett had taken the undesirable little bungalow; that they had been transferred quite suddenly from a more bearable climate at the foot of the hills; and that besides being supremely uncomfortable they were in helpless distress because their baby was ill.
When he drove up Mrs. Partridge was writing home-letters in the veranda; she laid down her pen with a sigh of annoyance at the interruption—it was mail day, and she was behindhand with her correspondence. But when she heard all he had to impart her homely grace grew interested and concerned.
“Then this young Bassett is the new canal man who relieved Mr. Cloud?” she inquired.
“Yes; there was some misunderstanding with Cloud. The Bassetts thought they would be able to take on his bungalow and buy his furniture, or perhaps rent the house furnished. But Cloud had sold all his belongings and the house had been snapped up, while Cloud himself had handed over charge to a subordinate and started on leave before they arrived. So there they are in that miserable hole of Lalchand’s with nothing but their camp things, and a sick child into the bargain—-though the child isn’t in any danger so far.”
“I noticed last evening that the house was occupied when I drove past on my way to see Mrs. Janvier, but thought some Eurasian must have taken it.”
“It’s the only bungalow they could get at a rent they can afford. Bassett’s a junior assistant. He oughtn’t to be married—he came out married. Wicked, I call it!”
“It always seems to me rather hard that a young man should be expected not to marry when he has to leave his home and people and serve in exile!” argued Mrs. Partridge. “It’s different for boys who stay and work in their own country, with all their relations and friends within reach. I think young men are much better married out here.”
“I’m afraid their pay isn’t likely to be increased on that score,” rejoined the civil surgeon drily, “and it’s rough on the wife and children when a youngster marries so early, unless he happens to have private means, which is seldom the case or he wouldn’t be in India.”
The doctor paused.
“To return to the Bassetts,” Mrs. Partridge suggested.
“Well, the baby has got a little fever and a threatening of dysentery. It was bound to happen in face of such discomfort and being dragged about in this heat.” He paused again, awaiting the suggestion he felt certain would follow, as next moment it did.
“They must all come over here. I can take them in quite easily.”
The man made no comment on this ready kindness. To one who had been many years in India it would seem the most natural proposal, especially when made by Mrs. Partridge.
“I think,” he said slowly, “it might be better not to press Bassett to come too. The fellow is overdone with work and want of sleep, and he’s worrying to get round his subdivision. A fortnight alone in camp would do him good and ease his mind. These irrigation fellows take their job in such deadly earnest.”
“Can you wonder, when you think what water means to the country and the people? I’ll remember what you say, if I can manoeuvre it without seeming inhospitable. How long have these young people been in the country?”
“Between two and three years, as far as I could gather. Mrs. Bassett hates India; she doesn’t appear to have got accustomed to the life even yet. I rather doubt if she is the sort that will ever try. But you’ll judge for yourself.”
“In the meantime, as you are going on there now, will you tell them to expect me about five o’clock to see what I can do to help them? I think that will be better than writing a note.”
The civil surgeon drove away relieved and satisfied. The judge’s wife finished her letters and gave directions concerning the preparation of spare rooms. After that the house was shut up, barricaded as it were, from the fierce, increasing heat of the day. The time of electric fans was not yet, but all the old alleviations were employed without stint—screens of wet, scented grass-root blacked the doorways, a thermantidote was set going, punkahs creaked and swayed. During the next few hours, except for the serving of the midday breakfast, there was little sound or movement within the darkened dwelling.
The memory of these hot-weather hours remains with the retired Anglo-Indian long after other details of the life have grown dim. So little recalls it—the quiet of a shaded drawing-room on a summer’s afternoon, a whiff of cedar-wood or musky plant, the echo of some faint metallic sound like the note of the coppersmith bird in the compound, the cooing of pigeons—and the recollection brings with it a feeling of affectionate regret, half longing, half relief, for few would willingly return to the trials of those long, hot days. Yet the trials had their compensations: peace, and privacy, and leisure, relaxation of the body and the mind.
Mrs. Partridge set out for Lalchand’s bungalow that afternoon in the barouche with the hood up. As the carriage stopped in front of the littered veranda a young man came forward to meet her; she liked him at once, liked his square, sun-browned face, and his eyes grey and direct; his manner, too, that was entirely unaffected. Despite her theories, she felt inclined to agree with the civil surgeon—that Mr. Bassett had no business to be married. He looked so young, so boyish to have the responsibility of a wife and child already.
She followed him into the bungalow. Coming from the blinding glare outside, everything for the moment seemed to her blurred; then she made out a disordered and comfortless room, rough bazaar matting on the floor, camp furniture, scanty at that, pathetic heaps of articles that had been turned out of boxes— framed photographs, little ornaments, books and flabby cushions. The whitewashed mantelpiece was crowded with miscellaneous objects, and dust lay thick upon everything.
“We had no time to get straight before Winnie was taken ill,” Bassett explained apologetically, and he went towards a curtain that, in default of rings, had been flung over an iron rod in a doorway. “Clara!” he called, “Mrs. Partridge is here.”
Mrs. Partridge did not catch a reply, but she was invited by Bassett to enter the adjoining room. In it she beheld a white, fretful baby of some eighteen months old lying on a cot beneath a shabby punkah, and a young woman standing by the cot in a pink dressing-gown—a handsome girl with masses of brown hair, fine blue eyes and a good complexion.
At first Mrs. Bassett gazed doubtfully at her visitor; then smiled in anxious relief. “Oh! I am sure you know all about babies,” she exclaimed. “Do tell me if you think she is going to be very ill?”
Mrs. Partridge perceived that the mother’s whole mind was concentrated on the child, that she herself was welcome merely as an immediate help in a time of distress. She leaned over the cot and pressed her lips to the baby’s forehead, a sure method, well known to the experienced Anglo-Indian mother, of detecting a high temperature.
“She is not feverish now, anyway,” she pronounced cheerfully. Then she glanced round the room, noting the makeshift arrangements—the packing-case used as a table, covered with bottles and cups and patent foods, the couple of trunks from which clothes were protruding, the sullen, untidy ayah lurking in a corner.
“I am sure she could stand a move perfectly well,” Mrs. Partridge went on. “We will take her over to my house—there is plenty of room. Suppose you tell the ayah to get the baby’s things together while you dress? The carriage is waiting outside, and we can send over afterwards for anything else you want.”
Mrs. Bassett assented eagerly. “Oh, thank you so much! That will be such a relief. This house is simply awful, full of rats and bats and white ants, and we are so uncomfortable. Winnie would never get well here, I feel sure. The very smell of the place is enough to make one ill.”
She slipped off the pink dressing-gown, and stood in her lace-trimmed under-garments, a white skinned, shapely being, calling in execrable Hindustani to the ayah to bring her dress, to find the “babba’s” clothes, to be quick and do everything. Mrs. Partridge soothed the whimpering child, that was weakened with fever and prickly heat, clearly in victim of ignorance; she bethought her that very young parents must be a terrible trial to a first baby! Presently, when she looked round, Mrs. Bassett was arrayed in a becoming white gown and a rose-decked hat that rendered her more attractive in appearance than ever.
“The ayah might put on clean clothes,” Mrs. Partridge suggested. “There is plenty of time.”
“She always looks like that,” said Mrs. Bassett. “I hate ayahs. I wish I had an English nurse, but they cost such a lot, we can’t run to it.”
The elder lady uttered a few words in Hindustani that caused the slovenly female to vanish from the room in hasty obedience. Then Mrs. Partridge and Mrs. Bassett prepared the child for the journey, a proceeding that was not altogether easy; various important possessions could not be found without strenuous search, Winnie herself was obstructive, and by the time all was in readiness, Mrs. Bassett seemed exhausted and inclined to tears. When at last they were assembled in the centre room, Mrs. Bassett called for her husband. He emerged from his office, a pen in his hand, and Mrs. Partridge remembered the civil surgeon’s hint.
“I am sure you are very busy,” she said. “Don’t bother about us. Come over in time for dinner.”
“Oh, Guy!” entreated his wife, “can’t you come with us now? You’ve been at that tiresome office work nearly all day.”
“I must get it done,” he said helplessly, and added with a touch of impatient despair, “I really ought to go out into camp tomorrow.”
“Oh! not tomorrow, surely? Only wait till Winnie is well and we can all go out together. She’ll get well at once in Mrs. Partridge’s house.”
“You can’t take the child out into the district at this time of year,” interposed Mrs. Partridge.
The young couple turned appealing eyes upon her: the husband torn between official responsibility and family claims, the wife with no thought beyond dread of separation, however temporary.
“I might put off going for a day or two,” said Bassett with obvious hesitation, “but ought to get round the subdivision without any further delay.”
“Then do it, my dear boy,” recommended Mrs. Partridge stoutly.
Mrs. Bassett’s blue eyes grew resentful. “I think I ought to be considered first,” she said pettishly. “What difference can a few days more or less make to Government?”
“There’s the travelling allowance,” Bassett reminded her, with somewhat shamefaced reluctance, but the argument had its effect on his wife. Travelling allowance appealed to her understanding, while the duty that earned it meant nothing.
“Well, he can come with us for to-night, at any rate, can’t he?” she said, addressing Mrs. Partridge as though the latter represented the tyrannical authorities.
“Of course, if he likes; the rooms are ready. Now, come along, the sooner baby is in bed again the better.”
She allowed no further opportunity for argument, and hustled mother, child and ayah out of the house and into the spacious barouche, only pausing for a moment before joining them that she might say a word of encouragement to the harassed young husband.
“Don’t worry,” she advised him in a low voice. “Get on with your work and go into camp tomorrow. As long as your wife and child are with me you need feel no anxiety about them.”
He murmured incoherent gratitude; she nodded sympathetically, and left him standing on the steps of the veranda, heavy-hearted yet relieved.
Guy Bassett’s parents were dead, and his remaining relations, all of them connected with the Army and the Indian services, had regarded his youthful marriage as suicidal, though they had been of opinion that an engagement, “provided the girl was all right,” might be countenanced on the ground that it kept a young man straight and made him work. Opposition in such cases, they said, merely provoked obstinacy, and this Miss Wakefield was certainly “all right” as far as she went, her mother being the widow of a clergyman and in fairly comfortable circumstances; but apparently there was no money to spare for the daughter, and as Guy had none of his own, marriage would, of course, be impossible at present ... the whole thing, let alone, would fizzle out, once Guy was safely in India.
Therefore it need hardly be recorded that these same wise relations were aghast and disgusted when Guy married the girl and took her out to India, hampering himself with a certain amount of unavoidable debt in order to do so—though it was true that the wife’s passage was paid by her mother.
Now, as Bassett re-entered the stuffy, squalid bungalow and flung himself into a chair for a few moments’ rest before returning to his office table, he looked back over the last two and a half years with a feeling of self-condemnation. If only he had listened to his people, had understood what India meant for a woman in the circumstances of a youthful and imprudent marriage at the outset of a man’s official career, he would certainly have prevailed upon Clara to allow him to precede her, to wait until his financial position was secure, till he had got used to the the country, and had discovered how to combat the difficulties and trials of the life. Not that he regretted his marriage with Clara for a moment, but he felt, guiltily, that he should have postponed it until he was in a position to make her more comfortable; and he now accused himself of being the cause of Winnie’s illness, and of Clara’s detestation of India. The thought of her anxiety about the child and the hardships of this their first transfer tortured his mind. Promotion was dishearteningly slow in the Department; he felt hopeless, overburdened, without confidence in the present or the future.
He rose wearily. Well, whatever the future might hold, he must get on with his work at the moment, and he would start into camp next morning. What on earth should he have done without Mrs. Partridge’s kindly intervention! Indeed, he wondered how he and Clara would have fared from the beginning had it not been for the kindness of other people. He remembered how, on their arrival at their first headquarters, they had been “put up” as a matter of course by an immediate official superior—a bachelor who suffered from an instinctive terror of women, and had few ideas beyond work and small-game shooting; then, when Winnie was born, a time he still shuddered to recall—when the nurse did not arrive, and the ayah ran away, and the doctor was ill himself—how infinitely kind and helpful had been the only other woman in the little station, a person with a dark complexion and a curious accent. And now here was this quaint old Mrs. Partridge, who had swooped down upon them, in the nick of time, with her sensible views and practical sympathy. Never could he feel sufficiently grateful to her.
It is one of Anglo-India’s brightest virtues, this good understanding between people who may have little or nothing in common with each other beyond the fact of exile, who, owing perhaps to difference of class or conditions, would never cross paths at home. In times of trouble such aid as might well be considered exceptional, even among lifelong friends or relations in England, will be rendered and received without hesitation by comparative strangers in India.
Later in the evening, when it was dark, Bassett walked over to the judge’s house, escorted by a peon who carried a lantern and thumped on the ground with a bamboo staff to scare possible snakes that might be lurking in the hot, dry dust. His orders had been given for a start into the district at day break, and he had decided to return for the night to his own bungalow as being the less troublesome plan.
The Partridges welcomed him in a lofty, comfortable drawing-room, and he was told that his wife was asleep and best left undisturbed for the present. He enjoyed his dinner as he had not enjoyed food for weeks, and afterwards he and the judge, a round-eyed, silent little man, smoked and listened while Mrs. Partridge knitted and talked—talked chiefly of India, the wise old country that had planted her roots so deep in the heart of this grey-haired woman and had already begun to lay firm hold on the mind and brain of the young recruit to her service.
At last there came a furtive, fluttering movement at one of the many doorways, and Mrs. Bassett’s ayah was heard proclaiming in a high, self-conscious voice that her mistress was awake.
Bassett went, into a vast, dimly lit bedroom, and Clara held out her arms to him.
“What is the time?” she asked, her head on his shoulder. “How long have you been here?”
“About a couple of hours. I came over for dinner. How are you feeling, dearest?”
“I don’t know. I was so tired when we got here that Mrs. Partridge made me go to bed. She gave me some biscuits and a glass of champagne, and I went to sleep. Where is Winnie?”
“Here,” he said, “sound asleep.”
The child lay on another bed close beside that of her mother.
“Did you bring your things over?” asked Clara.
“No. It didn’t seem worth while. I shall sleep at the bungalow and start from there in the morning.”
To his relief she made no protest, and for the next few moments neither of that spoke. The punkah swayed heavily, a brain-fever bird shrieked in the compound; the heat was frightful despite the night time and the open doors.
Then Clara said that Mrs. Partridge was very kind, but when with incautious fervour he agreed, she added that she hoped Mrs. Partridge was not going to interfere too much.
“I think she is rather an interfering sort of person. She scolded the ayah about her clothes. And when we arrived here she took Winnie away from me, but I was too tired by that time to say anything.”
“I expect she wanted you to rest,” he said, in gentle exoneration of Mrs. Partridge’s behaviour.
“Isn’t she funny?” Clara laughed a little. “A regular old ‘burra-memsahib’ out of ‘Curry and Rice.’ I suppose there is nothing about Indian housekeeping that she doesn’t know. But it must be easy enough to manage out here with thousands of rupees a month!” The speech that had begun with a laugh ended in a whimper.
Bassett kissed his wife tenderly. “Don’t, darling—-don’t distress yourself.”
“Probably,” went on Clara, “she will find she is a very bad housekeeper when she gets home and has so much less money to live on. It might be a case of my teaching her if we found ourselves in the same place together at home.”
“No doubt it would,” agreed Bassett; and he truly believed what he said, though certainly during his short engagement he had observed no special indication of housekeeping talent on the part of his fiancée. The question had never before occurred to him, but he was quite ready to accept the notion that his mother-in-law’s house off the Kensington High Street owed its orderly comfort to Clara’s exertions. Things were so different in England. In India the whole system of living must be disturbing at first to the housewife—the language, the coinage, bazaar prices, the ways of the servants. He honestly considered it marvellous that Clara had been able to manage at all during the time they had been in this country.
“You will be nice and comfortable here,” he said, glancing about the room that was usefully furnished. At that period people had not yet begun to look upon English appointments as a necessary of life; here were no brass bedsteads nor polished suite—merely strong, country-made furniture that served its purpose, from the stout, jail-made drugget on the floor to the wooden framed beds laced with webbing, and the teak wood wardrobes. The only English article was a cheval glass—the sole cheval glass in the station, and by kind permission of Mrs. Partridge it went to all the dances, and was visited by all the ladies, when they wished to view their dresses in the making, or new, raiment out from home.
At daybreak, next morning, Bassett stood on the steps of Clara’s bedroom veranda. The parting was over, he had left his wife weeping as though they were never to meet again on earth; and he was hesitating whether, after all, he would not go back and consent to a change of plans. But at the moment there rang through the hot morning air a song that maybe is as old as Civilised India herself. The half-naked individual who was urging a pair of white bullocks up the artificial little slope to the mouth of the well and down again, that the water in that great leathern sack might be emptied into the narrow channels that fed the garden, was bawling the ancient chant in praise of water with the whole strength of his lungs.
The spirit of the song stirred in the heart of Guy Bassett a feeling of enthusiastic devotion towards his work. He remembered the millions of lives that depended upon the judicious supply of water to the land, remembered his own share of responsibility, however small, in the prevention of pestilence and famine, in the preservation of the crops and the progress of the people—these patient people of India! From time immemorial water had meant salvation to the agriculturist—the real backbone of the country.
He ran down the steps, and as he rode out of the compound the sound of the song went with him, stifling the echo of Clara’s lamentations.
“This is the third morning since you went into camp,” Mrs. Bassett wrote to her husband from the veranda of the big bungalow, “but it seems more like three weeks. Winnie is quite well again and as sweet as she can be. She misses you awfully, too. Mrs. Partridge is very kind, but she bothers me about Winnie, about her clothes and her food, and the hours when she ought to eat and sleep, and says I ought to get her into regular habits, but I think it’s absurd to try to discipline a baby. I’m sure a child must know best when it is sleepy or hungry. Mrs. Partridge is really a most amazing person. You should see and hear her at her housekeeping in the morning—it makes me feel quite exhausted. Directly we have had our early tea in the veranda, and the judge has driven off in a sort of booby-hutch, the hullabaloo begins. She whirls in and out of store cupboards, jingling keys and giving orders, and seems able to do everything at once. The cream is skimmed and the milk boiled, and the butter made in her presence; she weighs grain and groceries, and looks at the dogs’ food, and examines all the lamps. The fruit and vegetables are brought up in baskets for her inspection, and yesterday all the kitchen pots and pans were spread out at her feet. This morning the washing was counted, and there was such a row because a duster was missing. You would have thought that the fate of India, at least, depended upon its being found. The servants all jabbered at once and told endless lies, and accused each other of having stolen it. Mrs. Partridge declared she would fine them all round if it wasn’t produced. Finally it was discovered under a sofa in the drawing-room. The bearer calmly remarked that it must have gone there by itself, and nobody had the strength left to contradict him. I suppose I am a brute to sit and do nothing when my hostess is so busy, but I simply can’t bring myself to offer to help, it all seems to be such unnecessary waste of time and energy. I used to feel the same when I stayed with some people in the country at home who were quite well off and spent the whole day weeding the garden. If I were in Mrs. Partridge’s position I should have an English maid who could speak the language well enough to see to it all, and then not bother myself.”
Though Clara cavilled at Mrs. Partridge’s activities, she appreciated their results. She enjoyed the cleanliness, the order, of the large, cool bungalow, the admirable cooking, the excellent service. It was pleasant now, as she finished her letter to her husband, to find a spotless servant at her elbow with a tumbler of iced mango fool, for the heat was increasing, and even the effort of writing had tried her. “Drink it up!” shouted Mrs. Partridge from the dining-room; then she came into the veranda. “Isn’t it good? I defy anyone to tell that it wasn’t made from English spring rhubarb. Have you ever tasted bananas mashed up with cream and strawberry jam? If you shut your eyes you wouldn’t know you weren’t eating real strawberries and cream. You shall have some tomorrow.”
She sank, hot and tired, into a chair, fanning herself with a palm-leaf fan. She knew that the episode of the duster had agitated her out of all proportion to its importance, and she felt again, as she had felt when she set out to visit Mrs. Janvier a few evenings back, that she was growing too old for India. Throughout her married life she had supervised every household detail herself, had been satisfied with nothing but the best obtainable for what she could afford to pay; she never wasted, yet she did not stint, and she waged everlasting war against dirt. The compound was her kingdom; woe betide the man who beat his wife or brought an undesirable female into the fold; the families were considered, doctored when ill, rewarded for cleanliness and respectability. Though she loved the labour, it had meant strenuous years, with but little relaxation or relief. Mrs. Partridge had seldom spent summer in the hills, and “going home” had resolved itself into a matter of holiday for the boys, transfers from preparatory to public schools, examinations, continual effort from the moment of arrival to departure.
Now the sons were well launched, the judge’s long service was drawing to a close, and Mrs. Partridge was sorrowfully conscious that her energies were on the wane.
She fanned herself and contemplated Clara Bassett, seated indolent and fair in her youth and inexperience, and wondered what the future held for this pretty creature who as yet had grasped so little of the meaning of Indian life for Englishwomen beyond its strangeness and discomforts. Would she come through triumphant, though perhaps at the sacrifice of her looks, her pleasures, possibly her health, that her husband and her children might fulfil their destiny as members of the fighting, ruling stock?
Clara sipped her mango fool and thought of spring rhubarb and strawberries—less than three years ago neither to her had been anything out of the common during their orthodox seasons, but here in India even a semblance of their flavours obtained by artificial means was considered a marvellous treat! And though Clara enjoyed the mango fool she held the imitation in contempt, just as, at home, she had always despised carrot jam or vegetable marrow converted into crystallised ginger. The reminiscence only stimulated the nostalgia from which she suffered more or less continually for England, for her mother’s house in Kensington, for the “at homes” that would be raging just now in London, with real strawberries and cream>in abundance, for the Park, and the river and the shops.
“The strawberry season is just at its height in England now,” she said wistfully. . Mrs. Partridge welcomed the remark. It gave her an opportunity for inquiries concerning Mrs. Bassett’s home and people. Hitherto her young guest had been reserved on the subject, and Mrs. Partridge had found herself forced to restrain her lively interest.
“Did you live in the country?” she asked.
“No, my mother has a house in London.”
“Your mother—tell me about your mother, my dear. What part of London does she live in?”
“Near the Kensington High Street.”
“Oh! yes, I know, close to Barker’s and Derry and Toms’.”
Clara smiled. She had already discovered that London to Mrs. Partridge merely meant shops, with the Army and Navy Stores as the grand centre.
“And your father?” pursued Mrs. Partridge.
“He died when I was a child. He was a clergyman of a London parish.”
Mrs. Partridge promptly pictured a young, over-worked martyr, sacrificed to toil in the East End; she felt sure the poor man had succumbed to his labours, probably by way of consumption. Whereas Mr. Wakefield had been a plethoric person who had held a comfortable living in the West End, had married late in life, and died from the effects of a chill contracted at a dinner party in Prince’s Gate. He had left his wife with an income sufficient for her needs, a good stock of furniture and plate, and a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, all more or less opulent, to whom Mrs. Wakefield invariably spoke of herself as “only a poor parson’s widow.”
“I expect your dear mother misses you very much,” Mrs. Partridge remarked with sympathy; and she wondered if young Bassett had to contribute towards his mother-in-law’s support.
“Yes,” said Clara, with dreamy inattention. Her memory had turned to the neat Kensington house—the white enamelled paint and red wallpaper in the hall and dining-room, the green casement curtains and glazed chintz on the drawing-room chairs and sofa, the correct parlourmaid in muslin cap and apron.... It all seemed so hopelessly far away as she sat in the hot Indian veranda gazing into the hard, white light outside, hearing the sounds in the compound—the murmur of voices from the servants’ quarters, the creak of the well-wheel, the cries of the birds.... Suddenly she realised that her companion had repeated some query more than once, and she roused herself to polite attention.
”And how did you occupy your time at home before you were married?”
“I liked music and novels, and we had a good many friends.”
“You play the piano, I suppose, or sing?”
“Oh! not now,” said Clara, with a little shrug of contemptuous resignation. “I haven’t touched a piano since I came out to India. There hasn’t been one to touch!”
Mrs. Partridge perceived the implied condemnation.
“Most of us have to give up our accomplishments out here,” she said. “There are so many other things to claim our time and attention. I have never had a piano myself, but then neither myself nor my husband is musical.”
Again Clara would have allowed the conversation to languish, but that Mrs. Partridge persisted.
“Were your people in any way connected with India?”
“Oh, no! Not at all!”
There was an echo of scornful satisfaction in the words that the old Anglo-Indian lady silently resented; but she inquired, in accents of forgiveness: “And what about your husband’s people?”
She felt it would be ill-natured not to persevere when no doubt the poor child only craved encouragement to talk freely of her life at home.
So, before the heat drove them both inside the house, Mrs. Partridge learnt that, so far, owing to Guy Bassett’s relations being scattered over the face of the earth in various services, his wife had met but few of them; that the uncle and aunt who had brought him up were extremely irate because he had married so early, and blamed Mrs. Wakefield for not having insisted that the young people should wait.
“But my mother was annoyed as well,” added Clara complacently. “She did not want to part with me, and she thought it a very bad match. She is dreadfully jealous of Guy, and is always longing for me to come home. But, of course, it will be years before we can afford to take leave.”
Mrs. Partridge felt deeply concerned for the youthful couple, who apparently had married in such heedless and obstinate haste. What would happen if the girl’s health broke down or the child had to go home, or if leave should be necessary for the husband? She wished with all her kindly, inquisitive soul that Mrs. Bassett would reveal to her their exact pecuniary position and allow herself to be instructed in the art of securing comfort in India with the least possible outlay. Her glimpse of the Bassett ménage, and what little she had been able to extract from her guest on the subject, suggested a condition of neglect and ignorance of domestic management that caused the good lady the keenest concern. Mrs. Bassett betrayed not the smallest interest in stores and charcoal, dusters and milk, and household routine. Actually she allowed her cook to contract for their meals at so much per head per day! No wonder the baby fell ill—indeed, it was little short of a miracle that typhoid or dysentery, or even cholera, had not exterminated the family! How unhappy she would feel if she saw one of her own sons with such a helpless wife; and yet young Mrs. Bassett was certainly not without intelligence and a modicum of good feeling. Her apparent familiarity with books and music impressed Mrs. Partridge, and clearly the young woman loved her husband and her child, even if she loved them without judgment or foresight. Her good looks were undeniable, yet she seemed to be laudably devoid of vanity; if anything, Mrs. Partridge considered that Mrs. Bassett did not pay sufficient attention to her personal appearance. Her magnificent hair ought not to be flapping and waving about her ears and her forehead; she was not too particular about buttons and hooks, and Mrs. Partridge had actually detected holes in her stockings. Delicately she had tried to draw Mrs. Bassett’s attention to this eyesore by asking her a riddle: “What is it that a woman is always looking for yet never hopes to find?” But Clara had only smiled politely at the answer and ignored the hint. Such details did not seem to trouble her, as they would have shamed and troubled Mrs. Partridge.
During one of these unsatisfactory duologues Mrs. Partridge endeavoured to insinuate that the wife of a Government servant in India might frequently further her husband’s advancement by judicious regard for appearances in accordance with his official standing; she was careful to add that unsuitable display on the part of a “junior” would be condemned just as much as would neglect of prestige and position on the part of the “senior.”
“Out here,” she explained, “the dignity of office should be upheld. When a man is a useful officer it undoubtedly helps him on if he is also a credit socially to his department.”
“But I hate and loathe Indian housekeeping,” groaned Clara. “It bores me to death.”
All the same, she began to recognise the value of Mrs. Partridge’s example and advice. Until now she had assumed that all native servants were dirty and incapable and that nothing could improve them. She had never attempted to remedy the nastiness of stereotyped Indian food and cooking—had put up with indifferent meat and half-starved poultry, bad butter, highly spiced réchauffés—anything that the cook chose to inflict on them. She had accepted dust and muddle and discomfort in her bungalow as part of the drawbacks of Indian existence that could not be fought with success.
“The first thing to remember,” Mrs. Partridge expounded, “is that unless you pick up something of the language you are helpless. You should learn enough to understand the servants and enable them to understand you. Bazaar Hindustani, as my husband calls it, is simple enough and goes a long way. Then you must get some grasp of market prices, so that flagrant overcharging can be checked—a certain amount of commission must be winked at, because it is the custom of the country; your cook is your tradesman, he buys wholesale and retails to you, and naturally he expects to make his profit. He does not understand, and would only resent opposition to this system. It would be just as if you blamed your fishmonger at home for charging you more than Billingsgate prices. As to food itself, it can always be wholesome, however simple. You can look after your own fowls and have new-laid eggs and well-fed chickens; you can make your own scones and cakes, and insist on decent toast, and you can have fresh cream and milk and butter, though I admit it all entails a vast amount of trouble.”
Clara’s soul revolted at the prospect of such effort. India appeared to her more odious than ever in face of this enlightenment. As long as she had imagined that discomfort was inevitable on small pay, she had borne with the life, though she did not conceal her aversion from it. Now the knowledge that it rested with herself to better the conditions which she bewailed left her positively aghast and rebellious.
She listened with silent resentment to Mrs. Partridge, whose housekeeping heart went out to this helpless girl, launched into Indian life without family traditions or experience to support her. Mrs. Partridge herself came of stout “old Indian” stock that for generations had been associated officially with the country; and were, so to speak, inoculated into its ways and customs, having no horizon save an honourable retirement at the end, with savings more or less, and a pension that at least would mean respectable existence, if shorn of importance.
“You must worry away, my dear,” lectured Mrs. Partridge, “it is all very trying to the temper, but believe me it is worthwhile. I have often been told that it makes a woman narrow-minded, and that if she isn’t careful she comes to think of nothing else. Perhaps that has been the result in my own case. I frankly confess that the running of my establishment out here has always been a great interest in my life—my mother was the same before me. I never had much teaching in any other direction. In my young days higher education for women was not considered so necessary as it is now, and, except for a few years at school, nearly all my life has been spent in India. I love the country and the people, and the way of living, and I hope I have been useful in my own line. You are young and have had intellectual advantages, so you will be able to keep up your interests and guard against losing your balance.”
She rambled on, alluding to various aspects of life in India, till she came to the subject of missionaries and the value of their work and teaching. “We have an admirable specimen of the missionary household here, in Khanabad,” she said. “I must introduce you to Mr. and Mrs. Janvier. They have practically decided to send their little girl home this autumn, and I have, perhaps rather rashly, offered to take charge of the child on the voyage.”
“Oh!” cried Clara, “how can they bear to part with her?”
A vague dread descended upon her, a premonition of the time that might come when Winnie would have to be left behind in England. But that, she assured herself hastily, need not be thought of for ages.
“The Janvier child will have to go home,” said Mrs. Partridge. “She is nine years old—a dear little thing, but rather a handful. I am very sorry for the parents; it is a trial most people in India have to face sooner or later.”
“If I had realised that such a sacrifice might be expected of me I should never have allowed Guy to take up an appointment in India,” declared Mrs. Bassett. “There is work to be had for engineers in England, and we could have lived on a small income in comparative comfort. Whereas, out here, we have discomfort as well as a small income, and the probability of separation as well. It is simply hideous!”
“But,” argued Mrs. Partridge, “the man’s life is wider, and his work more important. Without men like your husband, India would soon go to pieces. Remember that, my dear child, and do your best to keep your man well and make him comfortable. Always put consideration for him first, whatever domestic difficulties may arise. Let us hope you may not be called upon for some years yet to make the decision as to whether you stay with your husband out here or remain at home with your child.”
Bassett returned to the station refreshed in body and mind, despite the heat of canal inspection houses and the strain of arduous work. The subdivision was a stimulating little charge that included the regulation of water supply to lower divisions, in addition to the usual routine of duty; also, a certain amount of construction was in progress, the district was thickly populated, and the cultivation extensive. The locality being new to Bassett, extra application was unavoidable in order to obtain a grip of the work; moreover, he was short of subordinates; water was becoming scarce; and petitions and disputes from the villages were overwhelming.
He applied himself to it all with untiring energy, young and keen as he was; he felt he could have worked for weeks without a break, but that at the back of his mind lay constant concern for Clara, whose letters breathed depression and a constant craving for his presence. The last letter had told him that she and Winnie were back in their bungalow awaiting his return with sore impatience.
He rode into the compound this morning, hot and dusty from a double march, eager for the sight of his wife and child; and at once he noted the improved appearance of the dwelling. Walls and pillars had been whitewashed, the thatch repaired; plants lined the steps, and green cane blinds hung in the doorways. Even the garden had been tidied, though perforce it still looked bare and dry.
Clara herself was standing in the veranda that now was furnished with basket chairs, a useful table and a striped drugget. She was gazing out into the blinding sunlight, shading her eyes with her hand, watching for him—dear girl! With a pang at his heart he thought of the long hot months that must yet be faced before the cold weather brought bracing relief. For himself he knew that this Indian life was more to his taste than if he were earning the same income at home. Here he was no cypher grinding away in a city or Government office, never beholding the results of his industry, having no actual authority until he was past his youth. In India he found himself in touch with human beings whose very existence depended upon his labours; he could see the response of the life-giving crops; his brain was for ever busy with plans, designs and improvements that had definite value. Sport cost practically nothing, he could be on a horse—there was freedom and space and air, His was a nature that set small store upon permanence of abode, and being young and strong the sun and the climate hardly affected him. But he recognised the trials of India for Clara, who had never taken kindly to the country, nor to the unavoidable manner of existence. Not, he would assure himself with loyal affection, that she was unreasonably discontented, indeed he considered it wonderful that she put up as she did with all the inevitable difficulties....
Now he was enchanted with the improved condition of the bungalow, and glowed with pride in the achievements of his wife. In reality it was Mrs. Partridge who had bullied Lalchand, the landlord, into mending the roof and whitewashing the walls and clearing the compound; who had suggested that ordinary bazaar material, dyed to pleasing shades, made effective curtains, that white paint and a native carpenter could work wonders; also the respectable old gentleman with flowing white garments and a dyed beard, who had supplanted the incompetent cook, was a treasure obtained and installed by the judge’s wife.
“I have written home to mother to send me out some pretty cretonne,” Clara told him when he had observed and admired the improvements, “though probably by the time it arrives and I’ve had it made into covers and curtains we shall have to shut up the house and go into camp for the cold weather.” She sighed wistfully.
They were standing now in the dining-room that as yet was a barn-like apartment, with camp table and chairs, and an office stand for sideboard. Bassett looked about him with compunction. What would Clara’s mother say if she could behold her daughter’s dining-room? He recalled Mrs. Wakefield’s mahogany table and handsome “suite,” the Turkey carpet, the ormolu clock....
“Do you hate the life awfully, darling?” he asked on an impulse, with sudden depression.
“Hate the life?” repeated Clara, and her eyes filled with tears.
She was overwrought with the heat and her novel exertions, and the excitement of Guy’s return. She was missing the comforts of the judge’s bungalow, and all the morning she had been struggling half-heartedly with servants and accounts. Her nerves were on edge, and she thought it cruel of Guy to expect her to own the truth at such a moment. She turned from him in a dumb loss of self-control.
Instantly his arms were round her, and she wept helplessly on his shoulder. With fond endearments the two young people comforted each other, till the sound of a child’s wrathful scream reminded them of their offspring, and they flew to the bedroom.
Winnie was engaged in flinging a dilapidated toy rabbit from her cot to the floor that she might have the satisfaction of forcing the ayah to pick it up again. Whenever the woman protested Winnie screamed loudly. Her parents at once became her willing slaves and playmates, retrieving the toy from various quarters of the room, delighting in her pleasure and her laughter.
At last, hot and exhausted, they could play no longer. “This entertainment must now cease,” declared Guy, wiping his forehead, and he placed the toy out of his daughter’s reach. “No, Winnie, not any more. No!”
Winnie screwed up her face and yelled, beating with baby rage on the bars of her cot. Clara attempted to lift her, but the child stiffened her body and struggled.
“What are we to do?” said her mother in despair. “Guy, do give her the rabbit once more. Quick!”
Bassett put his hands in his pockets: he felt more inclined to place them to his ears, for Winnie’s protests were piercing.
“We oughtn’t to give in to her,” he said. She’ll only be worse next time.”
“Nonsense!” exclaimed Clara in agitation. “I am sure it is very bad for her to cry like this.”
She seized the toy and gave it to the child, who at once stopped screaming, and with vicious triumph flung it as far as she was able.
“I’m not going to pick it up,” said Guy, “and,” he advised, “don’t you, Clara.”
Clara hesitated; she knew that in theory Guy was right. Finally she resorted to bribery—a spoonful of sugar and Guy’s wrist-watch, that he had taken off when the game began, secured a dishonourable peace.
“She’s a spoilt brat,” said Guy in resigned disapproval. “Look out that she doesn’t fling my watch on the floor.”
“’She’s neither spoilt nor a brat,” snapped Clara, provoked by the heat and the situation. “What does it matter if she throws down the watch? It’s only cheap gun-metal—worth nothing.”
At another time Guy might have been ready with quick conciliation, but just then annoyance overcame prudence.
“It’s worth a good deal to me,” he said hotly, “considering that I couldn’t afford to buy a new watch at present.”
“I suppose you mean that Winnie and I cost you so much!” she cried, in senseless reproach, and faced him with angry eyes. At that moment the watch whizzed past her and fell with a thud on the floor.
Guy left the room, and Clara stood motionless, listening. She expected he would return; she was prepared, if he did, to express contrition, but she could not bring herself to follow him. She paid no heed to Winnie’s cries, until she heard her husband calling to the bearer for his bath. Then she turned and cuddled the child fiercely in her arms.
By the time he had bathed and changed Bassett was suffering sharp remorse. It seemed incredible that he and Clara should have quarrelled on the very day of his return, and, of all things, over Winnie. He could have kicked himself for having lost his temper. But all the time, behind his self-condemnation, he felt that sooner or later Winnie’s training must be discussed with Clara for the sake of the child herself, who ought not to remain undisciplined, unthwarted, until the smallest opposition caused a scene.
During the midday breakfast Clara was resentfully polite. Guy, feeling he had blundered yet that he had a modicum of right on his side, was awkward and restrained. Moreover, he observed that Clara ate nothing while he was very hungry, and it seemed dreadful to think that he should be able to swallow food with appetite when relations were so disturbed between them!
“Mrs. Partridge asked us to tea this afternoon,” Clara informed him with cold civility. “She has Mrs. Janvier, the missionary’s wife, coming, and their little girl.”
“What time? In this heat wouldn’t it be better to have tea first and go there afterwards?”
“I am not going—my head aches. Perhaps you will be kind enough to go and make my excuses?
“Is there any necessity for either of us to go? Couldn’t we send a note?”
“Of course we could, only Mrs. Partridge has been very kind to me, and it would seem the least you could do to go over and thank her. If you would rather stay at home I will go.”
He came near to losing his temper again, but succeeded in preserving a calm exterior. “Of course I’ll go if you really want me to.”
“Oh! please yourself,” said Clara with apparent indifference. She avoided meeting his troubled eyes, knowing that if she did she should burst into tears— that then reconciliation would quickly follow, and she did not wish to forgive Guy just yet. He deserved to be punished for his unkindness.
Bassett decided he would go to tea with Mrs. Partridge; perhaps when he came back Clara would be more disposed to “make it up,” and they might be able to forget the unfortunate little upset of the morning. Now she repulsed his solicitude for her headache, and when breakfast was over announced that she was going to lie down and try to get a sleep.
“I was up so early getting things ready for you,” she said pointedly.
And Guy, feeling restless and guilty, went to his office table and worked strenuously at official correspondence until it was time to start for the Partridges’ bungalow. He looked into Clara’s darkened room before he went off, but as she and the child were apparently still asleep he dropped the curtain noiselessly.
As he drove up to the judge’s house he saw the tea-party gathered in the garden on the round masonry platform that seems to have been indispensable to the old-fashioned dwelling in India. A couple of white-clothed boys with red belts and turbans were waving hand-punkahs to and fro with rhythmic precision to keep the air moving, and a grateful odour of watered earth pervaded the atmosphere. The fierce west wind had dropped, and a warm hush lay over the garden, a sense of tropical stillness that yet was refreshing, for it betokened peace and relief after the hot, tempestuous day.
The picture that Bassett beheld as he left his trap and approached the group remained in his memory long after he had ceased to work, even to the day of his death—just one of those apparently trifling scenes that stamp themselves on the human recollection, little landmarks of life that have their significance, even though at the time they seem almost too slight to be noted.
He saw the two Englishwomen, one stout, elderly, commonplace, the other small and frail and faded, seated against the background formed by the punkah boys in their red-and-white uniforms, waving the huge round fans that recalled native paintings of Mogul courts. And in front of the group was an airy-fairy child in a blue garment, with bare pink limbs and copper-coloured curls, and a small green parrot perched on her wrist. The little girl’s eyes were brilliant, her cheeks rosy with happy excitement.
It was not very long before the parrot was restored to an iron dome-shaped cage, and Ruth Janvier was romping with Guy Bassett, heedless of her mother’s gentle rebukes; and after tea the two went off together in the wildest spirits to visit the monkey that lived in the stables as guardian angel, or demon, to the horses.
“She is a little flirt!” ‘said Mrs. Partridge with a smile, watching the pair disappear round the corner of the bungalow.
Mrs. Janvier turned anxious eyes on her hostess.
“I have often noticed,” she said with some hesitation, “that Ruth prefers men to women. She seems so much more at home with them, and always makes friends at once. I hope it isn’t a bad sign. Eustace says I ought to discourage it. I’m sorry to say,” she added, with an apologetic laugh, “that her very first word was ‘boys’!”
“Nonsense!” pronounced Mrs. Partridge. “It’s a natural instinct. Nice young men will always appeal to her. I like to see it. Don’t let your husband put such prudish ideas into your head, or give the child the notion that men are in the nature of forbidden treats!”
“It’s the future I am thinking of,” said Mrs. Janvier; “living with my people at home she will come into contact with a world that is full of temptation.”
“But isn’t your uncle a parson?” inquired Mrs. Partridge with deep interest; she also remembered the lady in black velvet and Honiton lace.
“Yes, but the living belongs to his cousin, Sir Reginald Paxton, the rectory is close to the big house, which is often filled with the most undesirable people. Sometimes Ruth frightens me—she is so like that side of the family.”
“Then was your name Paxton?”
“Yes; my father was a younger brother of my uncle’s. He made what his relations considered was a very bad marriage. He and my poor mother died when I was a baby, so my uncle and his wife, Lady Harriet Paxton, brought me up.”
“Then how did you—” began Mrs. Partridge.
She had been about to ask how the niece of such people came to marry a missionary, but it occurred to her that the question might sound invidious.
Mrs. Janvier understood. “There was a good deal of trouble about my marriage,” she said tactfully, as though she had not caught Mrs. Partridge’s unfinished query. “Eustace was one of my uncle’s curates. The whole family was against our engagement, and then when he decided to become a missionary I felt I must go with him. We were married quietly in London without the consent of my uncle and aunt. After all,” she concluded defensively, “I was not a child, and there was no real reason why I should not marry him.”
She gazed wistfully out over the steaming garden. What centuries ago it all seemed! And yet it was not much more than ten years since she had left the rectory that early autumn morning and walked the four miles to the railway station to catch the London train. What a glorious morning it had been—still and soft, and charged with misty sunshine and the scent of lingering roses. She remembered the light veil of sparkling dew that looked like hoar frost on the lawn, and how a big thrush was hopping across leaving the three-cornered pattern of his footsteps behind him..... the trundling of a wheelbarrow on the gravel path that led to the kitchen garden had sounded abnormally loud... and outside the gate the smell of bracken, pungent and fresh, had floated across from the park... The memory of her flight that early morning always seemed clearer to Mrs. Janvier than the after events—her marriage in the dark, empty church, the few hurried days in London, and then the voyage, the unspeakable voyage, to India, second class on a cheap liner, in company with a crowd of other mission people, male and female.
Mrs. Partridge broke in on her guest’s reverie with a question concerning the mission needlework, and the two ladies were still deep in conversation on the subject when Bassett and Ruth returned from the stables.
As they approached the platform, Mrs. Partridge regarded them with kindly, smiling appreciation—the wholesome-looking young man with long limbs and broad shoulders, the child so exquisitely pretty dancing by his side, holding on to one of his fingers, gazing up at him with childlike worship. The pair paused to examine some insect on the path, Bassett poking at it with his stick, Ruth shrieking and shuddering with fearful joy.
“It’s a pity that boy married so young, remarked Mrs. Partridge.
“What is his wife like?” Mrs. Janvier inquired.
“Not half good enough for him, in my opinion—a self-centred girl who, unless I am very much mistaken, may be a drag upon him all his life.”
If Clara could have heard her! Clara—who at that moment was wandering disconsolately about her own bare, unlovely garden, feeling very ill-used and depressed, angry with Guy because he had left her alone, detesting India more bitterly than ever. She gazed around her at the hard yellow earth, at the few forlorn-looking plants of the everlasting-flower persuasion that had struggled up at intervals and seemed only to intensify the barrenness. She thought of green trees and grass, of sweet-peas and mignonette, and longed fiercely for England and her old, easy, contented life.
Then it was that a furtive scheme, long hidden in her mind, took shape, and as it were came out into the open—a plan that might result in an offer of work for Guy at home. It seemed to her that achievement ought not to be doubtful, seeing that her uncle, a half-brother of her father’s, was head of a firm of engineering contractors in London. If she wrote to Sir Joseph Morrow, or if she deputed her mother to ask of him the favour, he might find room for Guy in the City office. Any employment at home, however inferior, would, she felt, be infinitely preferable to this odious existence in India—an existence that, unless something drastic were done, must continue practically for the rest of their lives. Guy’s pension, and a wretched one at that, all things considered, would not be due till they were quite old people; and sooner or later Winnie would have to be left at home—an unendurable prospect!
Spurred by her hatred of the present and her dread of the future, she worked herself into a frenzy of mental distraction, until, remembering that tomorrow was mail day, she hastened into the bungalow and sat down at her writing-table. Feverishly she wrote to her mother, wrote a piteous appeal that she would move heaven and earth to rescue her daughter from India by prevailing upon Uncle Joseph to give Guy something to do, anything that would enable them to keep body and soul together in England. She exaggerated the dangers of India, enlarged upon Winnie’s recent illness, and declared she was ill herself, bewailed their poverty, their hopeless prospects, the misery of everything. It was not until she had put the letter into an envelope and fastened it down that she became conscious of qualms as to Guy’s approval of what she had done. She sat with the pen in her hand and the letter lying before her, thinking deeply. Finally she decided to say nothing to him on the matter until the answer arrived; and she stifled her feeling of guilt as she stamped the missive and sent it by one of the peons to the post.
Bassett little suspected the true cause of Clara’s more amiable attitude towards him on his return from Mrs. Partridge’s tea-party. She greeted him with smiles, hoped he had not been bored, declared that her headache was gone. Evidently she wished to ignore the unpleasantness of the morning, and he was only too relieved to find himself forgiven without having to apologise for his misbehaviour.
Together they strolled round the compound, then adored Winnie in her bath, and dined as happily as insects and the heat would permit. Afterwards they sat outside in the hot moonlight and talked.
“I got my letter to mother off my mind this afternoon.”
“That’s something,” said Guy lazily.
“Do you know, I have been wondering lately about her income? It seems odd that I haven’t a notion what it is. We lived quite comfortably, as you remember, though she always said we had to be careful, yet she has never sent us a penny since we came out here; and I’ve told her often enough how hard up we are.”
“She sends you hats and things, and she paid for Winnie’s trousseau, or whatever you call a baby’s rig-out.”
“Oh, yes; mother would always do that kind of thing. I’ve no doubt she’ll give me the cretonne I wrote for—anything but actual cash. She never would give me a dress allowance, for instance, after I grew up. I wish I knew what she’s got, and whether it will all come to me some day. She never talked business with you, did she?”
“Not a word. I didn’t ask her. I simply said I’d insured my life as far as I could, and that there was nobody in the world who was likely to leave me any money, and we left it at that.”
“It would be such a relief to feel that we need not look forward to spending all the best years of our lives in India!” sighed Clara, feeling a terrible hypocrite as she thought of the letter that had been posted a few hours ago.
Her calm anticipation of her mother’s death rather shocked her husband. “But Mrs. Wakefield isn’t an old woman,” he said. “She will live for many years to come—let us hope,” he added hastily as a salve to his conscience, for he did not love Mrs. Wakefield and was very certain that he never should. “Besides,” he went on, “it isn’t as if I didn’t want to stick to my job and get right to the top. I like my work, and I know I can do it.”
Her hand stole into his, and he kissed it like the devout lover that he was.
“But just supposing we could go home and all live happily together ever after! You would do just as good work at home, and better, away from all the drawbacks of this horrid country.”
“Well, I’m not at all likely to have the chance,” he said evasively, “so it’s no use supposing.”
He did not intend to argue the point with Clara. Nothing short of a fortune would tempt him to desert India; the country had already laid her spell upon him, and the cords she was fast winding about his heart and mind were strengthened by the call of duty and the sense of just administration, and personal ambition too.
With reluctance he acknowledged to himself that as yet Clara had not grasped his point of view; he could only hope that in time she would come to favour his intentions, give him credit for his purpose, hearten him through his failures. So far, poor dear girl, she had been sorely tried, but as their pay increased she would doubtless grow reconciled, if not attached to life in India. He had always imagined that women liked India, that when they found themselves at home they wanted to return. His own relations were forever grumbling, longing for their Indian bungalows and servants, abusing the English climate. Despite her objections Clara had kept very well so far, and Winnie had thriven until this unfortunate transfer took place—she was quite well again now.
He became aware that Clara was speaking.
“Isn’t it too awful to think that sooner or later we shall have to leaVe Winnie at home?” she said in a melancholy voice.
Bassett’s heart sank. Service in India certainly entailed hard sacrifice for married people—at the moment it struck him that he was perhaps self-centred in appreciating the life as he did, when separation from wife or child, or both, was some day inevitable.
“Don’t let us meet trouble half-way,” he said. “At any rate, we’re all together now, and next year I hope I shall have got my step, and things ought to be brighter all round.”
Clara did not reply. She was thinking that next year they might all be at home for good, and her spirits revived at the prospect.
The secret hope sustained her during the few weeks that followed while she awaited her mother’s reply to her appeal; by which time rain had fallen, though scantily, for the monsoon was not only late but alarmingly feeble. The heat was oppressive, the atmosphere that of a hot-house, damp and sticky and still, but at least the doors could be open by day as well as by night, and the ugliness of the Bassetts’ compound became softened by a thin veiling of green.
Someone who was away in the hills had lent Clara a piano, and she practised industriously, finding the occupation a solace while Guy was absent in camp, also a salve to her nerves that were continually irritated with housekeeping efforts, the eternal problem of food, and the shortcomings of native servants.
“I would sooner,” she told her husband, “have one miserable maid-of-all-work who could understand what I say and do as I tell her, than the whole lot of these wretches put together, who won’t help each other and are persistently disobedient.”
“You should try to learn the language,” he reminded her, having just overheard her up-braiding the cowherd because the milk was unaccountably scanty. She had intended to say that there was little use in keeping a cow if no milk was forthcoming, whereas she had unwittingly accused the man of being a cow himself and of giving no milk, a statement humbly accepted by the offender with an apologetic salaam.
“I can’t learn the language!” she replied impatiently; “and I shall never, never, as long as I live, be like your beloved Mrs. Partridge, who thinks of nothing but dusters and charcoal and cooking from morning till night!
“Well, you don’t do so badly, after all,” encouraged Guy.
This was during one of his periodical halts in the station, and they were seated at breakfast. He was enjoying chicken cutlets prepared with comparative success after one of Mrs. Partridge’s renowned recipes.
“I am glad you think so,” said Clara sceptically.
At that moment she caught sight of a peon ascending the veranda steps bearing a packet wrapped in a cloth. She rose from her seat with a fluttering heart—the English mail was due today, the mail that should bring her mother’s answer to the letter of which, as yet, Guy knew nothing. Hurriedly she went out and took the packet from the man; with nervous haste she turned over the envelopes and papers. There was a fat letter from her mother, one from a friend of her girlhood with whom she kept up an intermittent correspondence, also—a blue envelope addressed to herself in bold, businesslike handwriting with “Sir Joseph Morrow and Co.” printed on the flap.
She heard Guy call out: “Is that the mail?” Not that he was particularly stirred by the arrival of the mail beyond his interest in the papers. He had few private correspondents; the aunt who had mothered him sent him a précis of family news once a month, despite her continued disapproval of his early marriage, and cousins wrote occasionally from various quarters of the globe.
“Where is the Times Weekly?” he called again; and Clara, anxious that his attention should be occupied for the present, drew aside the cane blind and threw him the papers and some official envelopes. “Catch!” she cried. “I’ve finished my breakfast; I’ll read my letters out here.”
Then she hastened to the far end of the veranda, seated herself in a low chair, and with shaking fingers tore open the letter from Uncle Joseph. Dimly she was conscious that Winnie was lamenting in the bedroom, and she heard the ayah’s voice raised in persuasive protest, but for once she paid no heed. She was soon absorbed in Uncle Joseph’s terse communication, which contained an offer of a post in his office for her husband. The tone of the letter was at once grudging and patronising—the salary proposed was three hundred and fifty pounds a year, though it might have been three thousand from the magnificent manner in which the sum was mentioned. Clearly the writer was of opinion that his niece’s husband might consider himself a singularly favoured individual.
Clara remained quite unaffected by her uncle’s way of writing; to her the main thing was that the offer had actually come, and how it was couched did not matter at all. With a tremulous sigh of excitement she opened the letter from her mother.
Mrs. Wakefield had contrived to fill five large sheets of foreign paper in describing how she had written to “disagreeable old Joseph Morrow” on receipt of Clara’s request. It had taken her hours to compose the petition; indeed, it had made her quite ill to beg such a favour from a mere connection by marriage, one, moreover, who had never displayed friendly intentions towards his stepbrother’s widow. She had been obliged to send for Dr. Sparrow the following day, who had expressed himself seriously concerned at the condition of her heart. However, Joseph had come to see her and was less unpleasant than she had expected; it appeared that he was on the look out for a young man with engineering experience, and was willing to wait until Guy could get home. Of course, it was a splendid opening for dear Guy, and though the salary was not over-generous it would no doubt be raised in time if he made himself indispensable, and perhaps some day a partnership would follow, since Joseph had no near male relations of his own. As to expenses at home, there was room for them all in her house, with a little arrangement, until Guy’s position and prospects improved.
Mrs. Wakefield also expressed her delight at the thought of having her daughter with her once more, and of holding her grandchild in her arms; it was hard to be left alone at her age, and so on....
Clara read the letter carelessly, ignoring the sentiment. All she could fix her mind upon was the fact that a way of escape from India had come; India could now be laughed at, left behind, forgotten like a bad dream. She sat with the letters in her lap feeling as though her mind were detached from her body, uplifted with joyful relief. Until this morning she had hardly realised the strength of her desire to find herself at home once more, freed from a life that irked and disheartened her, to which she had been bound solely by her love for her husband; and now they could be together, secure from the penalties of exile and from perpetual dread of separation.
Then her rapture was checked by the sickening fear that Guy might make trouble, find solid objection, obstruct the plan! She knew that she shrank from the unavoidable explanations; she tried to ignore the sensation and failed. She was afraid of his vexation, his censure, his possible rejection of Uncle Joseph’s proposal, though she assured herself that he could not be otherwise than grateful and overjoyed. With a supreme effort she called him.
He came out, the newspaper in his hand, and strolled to the end of the veranda where she sat. “Got a good mail?” he said. “Aren’t you stewed sitting here without the punkah?”
So far she had not been conscious of any physical discomfort; now she became aware that her neck and forehead were wet with perspiration, that prickly heat was stinging her shoulders. She glanced up at the little frill that hung motionless above her head as her husband shouted for the coolie to pull the rope. Rain had fallen during the night, the sun was bursting through cotton-wool clouds, and the garden smoked like a vast manure heap.
“What news from mamma-in-law?” Guy inquired; he placed the paper, rather reluctantly, on the table, and seated himself by his wife.
“Guy,” she said boldly, though the words seemed to stick in her throat. “I want you to read this letter from my uncle, Sir Joseph Morrow.”
“What—the contractor fellow? Why is he writing?”
“Read it—read it,” she cried impatiently.
Bassett read the letter, read it through twice, while Clara sat silent, her breath coming fast. Then he looked at her, amazement mingled with anger in his eyes.
“Did you write to the man? His voice was indignant.
“No. I wrote to mother. I entreated her to ask him if he couldn’t give you something to do at home. It’s very little to ask of a relation who is so rich and powerful in his own line. Here is mother’s letter. She says we can live with her. Guy! we should all be together, think of the advantages. No man in his senses would dream of missing such a chance—even if he had no wife or child to consider.”
Bassett held up his hand. “Wait!” he interrupted, for in her nervous excitement Clara had begun to gabble loudly, and he could hardly understand what she said. All he realised at the moment was that she had played him a trick, had placed him in a hideously difficult position.
Clara was leaning forward, her comely face flushed, her eyes a-glitter, and her lips trembling. In the midst of his mortified astonishment he perceived that her own intense desire had blinded her to his position in the matter, and he knew that he must disappoint her sorely. His heart smote him. Ought he to make this sacrifice for her sake? Ought he to surrender all his dear ambitions, the life that was most congenial to his brain and body, to become the slave of a tyrannical old man? Once, during his engagement to Clara, he had met and talked to “Uncle Joseph,” and had hoped never to do so again. What on earth was he to do?
“Guy!” cried Clara plaintively, tears in her eyes and voice. “Aren’t you glad? Aren’t you thankful? Don’t you see and feel all that it would mean to me? Read mother’s letter—do read it.”
He read but made no difference in his view of the situation. His faith in the idea of an ultimate partnership was nil, and the prospect of living on his mother-in-law, which was what it would come to, revolted him.
“And how about me?” he said involuntarily.
“Oh! surely you aren’t going to hesitate! Don’t Winnie and I come before yourself in your life? I couldn’t bear it if you refused. Let us cable home at once before Uncle Joseph changes his mind, or finds somebody else he thinks would suit him better.”
“Nonsense! There’s no need to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ in a hurry. Anyway, we couldn’t go home till the beginning of the cold weather.”
“The journey down country and the voyage would be impossible for you and the child.”
“You could go ahead; you can retire from the service at any moment.”
“I shouldn’t think of doing that straight off.”
Clara burst into tears. “Oh, Guy, how cruel you are! What do you mean to do?”
“I really don’t know at this moment,” he told her truthfully. “I must have time to think. There are heaps of things to consider. You don’t understand.”
“I understand that you are ready to risk my life and Winnie’s for the sake of your own inclinations,” she stormed.
He laughed bitterly, goaded by her words. “Setting my own inclinations aside, I should be risking Winnie’s education, and the power of making provision for you both.”
“Mother would see to all that, if it became necessary.”
“You have said yourself you know nothing of her circumstances.” he reminded her.
Clara Sprang from her chair and ran, blinded with angry tears, into the bungalow, leaving him with Mrs. Wakefield’s and Uncle Joseph’s letters in his hands.
The punkah swayed above his head, pulled by the coolie whose thoughts were engrossed in the all important subjects of coppers and food—who paid no attention to the behaviour of the sahib-people as long as he received so much a month for keeping them cool. Bassett stared at the smoking garden; his heart was heavy, his mind confused. Again he read the letters, and felt more than ever entangled and uncertain. It was an odious situation. So far as he could see, at present he could only steer a middle course and abide by the results. Mercifully there was such a thing as “Leave on urgent private affairs” for six months, which could be taken once in a man’s service.
He rose wearily, and went to his office table to deal with a mass of official papers; but he worked half heartedly, oppressed and overwhelmed by this sudden cloud that had darkened the present and threatened to destroy the future.
By the evening Clara had fretted herself into a slight attack of fever, and for a couple of days she was in bed. Of course, Mrs. Partridge appeared with chicken jelly and beef-tea, which the patient could not but appreciate, though she suspected her benefactress of supporting Guy in his determination only to accept Uncle Joseph’s offer provisionally.
“I don’t imagine for one moment that my uncle will agree to Guy’s coming home on leave just to see if he likes the work,” argued Clara from her bed. “Do you, Mrs. Partridge? You haven’t said what you really think about it all, at least you haven’t to me! Doesn’t it seem to you wicked that he should run the risk of losing such a splendid chance, and that Winnie and I should be sacrificed?”
“Clara!” interrupted Bassett in angry distress.
“I think,” said Mrs. Partridge, “that you put your point of view rather too strongly. It doesn’t follow that you and the child would be ‘sacrificed’ if you stayed out here. Remember the thousands of people who come through their Indian service with comparative prosperity—the children suitably educated and the wives provided for. But there is more in it than that. If every man chucked on the first opportunity, or preferred inferior employment at home, what would become of India?
“Oh! India!” cried Clara in disgust. “A man ought surely to consider his family first. And aren’t they always clamouring that India should be allowed to run her own show without interference from us, and that we oughtn’t to be out here at all? Who cares at home what happens to India? There are plenty of others to take Guy’s place. It isn’t as if every man out here was lucky enough to have influential connections to offer him a way of escape from this detestable country. I know if I stay out here I shall die, and so will Winnie—and I can’t go home and leave Guy by himself. You are always saying that a wife should stay with her husband. Of course I should stay with him, whatever the cost.”
There was that much, at least, to Clara Bassett’s credit, reflected Mrs. Partridge. She felt painfully sorry for both these young things, whose very affection for each other rendered the situation more complicated and distressful. In a measure she could sympathise with the feelings of the girl, transplanted as she had been from an existence perhaps commonplace and limited, but at any rate secure and comfortable, to a life that often exacted endurance and courage, that entailed a complete reversal of established ideas and customs. On the other hand, here was the young husband, with his inherited instinct for adaptation to exile, belonging as it were to a different caste, the official caste that takes naturally to action and responsibility all the world over, holding everyday domestic observances lightly. was the boy to relinquish his birthright, to sink his independence and ambitions at the bidding of his wife? Yet, if he thought it his duty to do so, Mrs. Partridge had little doubt that he would face the blow, and go through without complaining to the end.
“Things ought to be reversed out here,” went on Clara, oblivious of Mrs. Partridge’s silence. “Young people ought to start at the top of the tree with big pay and a hill appointment, and everything that can make the life more endurable, and then come down gradually in the scale until their pensions are due. It would stop all this block in promotion at any rate!”
Mrs. Partridge laughed. “It would certainly go far to encourage retirement,” she said. “I suppose if my husband and I had been living on dwindling pay all these years we should be thankful instead of sorry to be going home. As it is, I don’t look forward to life in England without a carriage, and having to struggle with servants and tradespeople who won’t understand me, nor I them.”
“Clara imagines she would be perfectly happy at home without any servants at all!” remarked Guy, “though I don’t think she’d like being hard up there any more than she does out here.”
“Well, it comes to this—doesn’t it?” said Mrs. Partridge. “If the old gentleman won’t let you accept his offer on trial, you must either refuse it or give up India altogether.”
Give up India altogether! The words cut through Guy Bassett’s heart; and Mrs. Partridge, with her knowledge of loyal Indian service and ideals of work, understood his state of mind when he said dully: “If I had to chuck India altogether I believe I should feel as if I had lost a limb.”
“What rubbish!” said his wife impatiently. “If you are determined. not to retire at once, why tell Uncle Joseph about the leave? It would be much simpler to write and accept (as you won’t cable), and say nothing about the leave.”
Guy hesitated. Clara’s suggestion was a tempting way out, yet it seemed to him scarcely “cricket” and to savour of feminine strategy. He rose, feeling well nigh distracted.
“I’m going for a ride,” he said abruptly.
Slowly he walked his pony along the grand trunk road that was thick with a paste of dust and water. There had been a sudden downpour, and though for the moment the rain had stopped, the clouds hung low and the air was heavy with moisture and heat. The monotonous sucking sound of the pony’s hoofs in the mud seemed to beat time to the words that swung in his brain. “Give up India—give up India.” What of all the schemes that were in prospect connected with his work—the new distributary that was to irrigate a large tract of land and bring prosperity to a group of starveling villages; the widening of the canal at an important point; the waterlogged area that must be drained? He was to have carried all this out, could have left his little impress, permanently, on the subdivision by bringing these improvements to successful completion. And he had so looked forward to bigger charges later, to wider opportunities, advancement, recognition of his work.
On he rode, out into the country; the land lay wet and steaming on either side of the broad avenue of trees, here and there long streaks of water glimmered, pink and purple, in the setting sun that shone subdued through banks of cloud, massed like mighty armies in the sky. Tall, long-legged birds waded through the pools, with raucous calls, in search of food; already the fireflies were dancing mid the foliage of shisham, tamarind, and mango trees; frogs and crickets chorused madly, aware that time was short for concerts in view of the approaching deluge.
Bassett, in common with these musicians, felt that he must hasten, otherwise he might be drenched before he could get home. With a heavy-hearted consciousness that he was no nearer a solution of his difficulties than when he started, he turned the pony’s head and urged the animal into a gallop; and presently the exercise, the rapid movement through the air, seemed to stimulate his brain and will. All at once, as he reached the outlying portion of the station, his indecision dropped from him like a heavy, stifling cloak, and with a feeling of purpose and relief he made straight for the post office. There he cabled to Sir Joseph Morrow by the quickest route, prepaying a reply.
Just as he reached his bungalow the rain came down in torrents, thudding like bullets on the earth. The noise was deafening, and for a few moments he could hardly hear what Clara shouted to him as he entered her room. He saw that she was sitting on the side of her bed, with Winnie screaming in her arms. The ayah stood by in sullen protest.
She’s been bitten by something—she’s poisoned!” Clara cried distractedly, as he came close. “Look at her arm!”
The child’s wrist was slightly inflamed, and a tiny puncture showed red in the middle of a hardly perceptible swelling.
“It was naught but a villain of a black ant,” declared the ayah defensively.
“How can we tell what it was? It may have been a snake or a scorpion,” said Clara breathlessly. “Nobody saw a black ant.”
Bassett examined the wound, and for the moment Winnie ceased her lamentations, diverted by interest in her own injury. Then she began to shriek again, though with palpable ostentation.
“I’ve sent for the doctor,” Clara told him. “He ought to be here in a moment—unless he’s out amusing himself!”
“I really don’t think it’s anything serious,” Bassett assured her; and he went in search of a remedy that, when applied, seemed to bring instant relief, for presently Winnie was laughing and playing, evincing at least no symptoms of coma!
The civil surgeon arrived, and in Clara’s opinion his behaviour was scandalous. She ignored the fact that he had left a bad case of enteric, and in the midst of the downpour, to answer her summons, and she was slow to credit his prompt pronouncement that clearly the ayah was right; some innocuous insect had nipped the child’s wrist, and there was nothing whatever to cause apprehension. He departed abruptly, without concealing his impatience.
“There you are!” said Clara bitterly. “That is India all over. We may die of snake-bite, or cholera, or anything equally horrible, while these doctor men think of nothing but themselves. He was not in the least relieved to find that Winnie was in no actual danger—he only felt cross because I sent for him when it was wet. No doctor at home would have behaved like that, but out here they get their pay what ever happens. In England they don’t!”
“He said he had left Williamson’s bedside to come here,” Bassett reminded his indignant wife.
“People don’t die of enteric in five minutes as they do of snake-bite,” she retorted. “What was I to do? You were out, and when the ayah brought Winnie to me screaming with pain I wasn’t going to take any risks. I suppose I must make up my mind to it—danger of some kind for us all, every hour of the day and night, as long as we are out here; and it will be weeks before we know whether we are going home or not. I truly believe the uncertainty will kill me.”
“You won’t have to wait more than twenty-four hours, I hope,” Bassett said gently. “I cabled just now to your uncle and asked his consent to my taking the leave.”
To his utter dismay, Clara collapsed, almost fainting. Endearments and brandy revived her, combined with Guy’s humble acceptance of censure for not having told her beforehand of his intention. He did not attempt to explain that he had acted on impulse.
“Yes, dearest, of course I ought to have come back and told you that I meant to send the wire,” he agreed. “It was, as you say, very thoughtless and inconsiderate of me.”
“And then to tell me like that,” whimpered Clara, “all of a sudden, when I’ve been ill with fever and worry, and on the top of the fright about Winnie! I’m sure there is something wrong with my heart. It feels so queer and jumpy sometimes. If Uncle Joseph says ‘No’ about the leave it may stop altogether!”
“Well, if he does,” yielded Bassett, impelled by alarm and repentance, “I’ll accept his offer unconditionally.”
She clung to him wildly. “Promise me, Guy. Do promise.”
“Very well, sweetheart, I promise,” he said.
To Bassett’s relief, and to Clara’s rather regretful surprise, Uncle Joseph cabled: “Take the leave.” Clara would much have preferred that Guy should be forced to retire altogether. She could not conceal her apprehension that he might purposely make no particular effort to please Uncle Joseph. “And then,” she said, “he would kick you out, and you would feel free to come back to this horrible country that seems to have obsessed you—and Winnie and I would have to come too.”
He felt this to be unwarrantable on the part of Clara, but he answered with quiet sarcasm that he hoped he was not quite such a beast as all that.
“Perhaps you will be the one to want to come back,” he suggested; “it won’t be all jam on such a small salary, and it will take nearly the whole of my six months’ Indian pay to cover our journey. If I don’t like the life and the work I shan’t allow that to influence me as long as I can feel that the future is promising for us all.”
“And you won’t be a martyr?” she asked anxiously.
He could not trust himself to answer; he felt if he opened his mouth he should swear aloud.
“I shall write to mother,” planned Clara, “and tell her to be sure and have fried soles for dinner the night we arrive. I yearn for fried soles and English bread-and-butter, don’t you, Guy?”
“It will be very nice.”
“But you would rather eat goat and chupatties out here?”
“Have I ever eaten goat and chupatties?” he protested.
“Just fancy going in a hansom again, and even in a dear old ’bus!”
“It will have to be more ’bus than hansom, I’m afraid.”
“Anyway, it will be London. Oh! How glad I shall be to get back!”
Clara ignored Guy’s lack of enthusiasm. She convinced herself that once at home the absurd spell that India seemed to have laid upon him would be broken, that he would soon cease to think about irrigation and water supply, crops and canals, and become equally keen on Uncle Joseph’s work. Anyway, she meant to have confidence in the future; nothing mattered so long as they could all get safely out of India. Now that release was actually in sight the country to her seemed more evil than ever. So many things might happen in the comparatively short time that remained, people died so quickly, and of such horrible things that were hardly ever heard of at home. There might be another mutiny, you could not trust the servants, sometimes they poisoned their employers; and there was always the danger of snakes or mad dogs, not to speak of centipedes, scorpions, spiders, the everlasting white ants and flies, fish insects and all the rest of it. In her opinion there was nothing whatever to recommend India, and she could not conceive how any white human being could voluntarily remain in the country, once having experienced its abominations.
Gradually Bassett resigned himself to the prospect of leaving in the autumn. He tried not to contemplate the possibility of returning in the spring, indeed he endeavoured to shut all future possibilities from his mind. It might be that the work would suit him; on the other hand, Clara might not find existence so easy as she anticipated and be willing to return, or to follow him out later. It was all a dark road so far, and he could only go step by step.
The reluctant rains came to an end, the nights and the mornings grew cool and pleasant. There was a sense of change and energy in the air, work could be accomplished under exhilarating conditions, for the life-giving cold weather was at hand. Bassett made a last excursion round his subdivision, and returned regretfully to the station to give over charge to his successor. Clara sold everything they possessed, excepting their plate, such as it was, their personal belongings, and Guy’s gun, to which he clung obstinately. She made a list and sent it round the station, deaf to his warning that if they should come out again the purchase of everything afresh would be a serious matter. It was a good time to sell, he was told, and if by any evil chance they had to return, the beginning of the hot weather was a good time to buy, with everybody going home or to the hills. So he saw his two ponies led out of the compound, the bamboo cart was dragged away by coolies, the goats and the cow followed, and the remainder of the farmyard that Mrs. Partridge had collected for Mrs. Bassett—all were now the property of others. The furniture sprouted labels bearing the names of the purchasers, and finally an auction of rubbish was held in the compound and attended apparently by the entire bazaar. It brought in more cash in proportion, Clara maintained, than all the more valuable property put together. She went about carrying a coarse string bag of rupees, and was extremely busy and happy and excited.
Then the Bassetts moved over as guests to the judge’s bungalow, which was to remain undisturbed until Mr. Partridge’s retirement, six months hence, when his successor, a personal friend, had agreed to purchase livestock and furniture as all stood. Mrs. Janvier and Ruth were also the Partridges’ guests, in order that the little girl might grow accustomed to her travelling companions. Mrs. Janvier had engaged a sailing ayah who was to join the party at Bombay, that Mrs. Partridge might not be over-burdened with her young charge; and Mrs. Bassett readily agreed to pay a share of the woman’s fees and passage money that she might have help with Winnie.
It was not a joyful gathering. No one, with the exception of Clara, was in good spirits. The servants openly manifested their sorrow at the coming parting from their beloved memsahib, who herself grew obviously heavy-hearted as the last three days went by. Poor Mrs. Janvier looked as though she were about to be hanged; and Bassett was quietly wretched.
On the night of the departure Mr. Janvier dined at the big bungalow, as he had done each evening since his wife and child had deserted the Mission House. The mail train was due to leave Khanabad at the inconvenient hour of midnight, and after dinner the weary interval of waiting had to be endured. Everything was ready. There was nothing more to do, but none of them could sit still. Ruth could not be persuaded to lie down; alternately she clung to her mother and flitted about the house and veranda. She was hardly old enough to realise the true tragedy of the separation from her parents—as yet time and distance meant little to her; but she was tearful and restless, divided between a passionate desire that her mother should “come too,” and excitement at the prospect of fulfilling a long-cherished ambition to “stay awake all night.”
Mrs. Partridge made a last tour of her domain in company with her husband. Already groups of women and children, loudly lamenting, were gathered outside the house, the servants stood aloof from them, silent and sad. The kitchen precincts were deserted, and at one end of the veranda the sweeper had collected the dogs that whimpered and strained at their chains, affected, dog-fashion, by the prevailing sense of misfortune.
“I can’t believe that I am never coming back,” Mrs. Partridge confided to her spouse, as they stood together in the back premises overlooking the stables, the servants’ quarters and the kitchen garden, flooded now by moonlight, so still, so serene, tipping the plants and trees and springing crops with a touch like hoar frost.
“It’s got to be!” sighed the judge, “one wouldn’t wish to end one’s days out here, and it’s what we have always looked forward to—‘going home for good.’ I shan’t be sorry to say good-bye to it all later, knowing you are waiting for me at home, and feeling that my work is done and the rest well-earned—though I’m not worn out yet! I suppose I shall try to write books, and shall go to meetings of the Asiatic Society—perhaps read a paper now and then, and do no end of things that wouldn’t make the smallest difference if I didn’t do them, except that they might keep me occupied and amused.”
This was a lengthy speech for Mr. Partridge!
His wife linked her arm in his. “I know we shall miss India terribly,” she said, “but we shall have enough to live on, and a home for the boys to come to with their wives and children—a comfortable enough home, I hope. That will be our reward for all the years of work and care and saving.”
“Thanks to you, my dear,” rejoined the little man tenderly.
“Not altogether!” she reminded him, smiling. “Suppose you had gambled and been extravagant, and never given me a free hand—where should we have been?”
He laughed. “Well, by the grace of God I have never been tempted that way, though what would have happened if I had married a different kind of wife who can say?”
“Perhaps we have both been lucky,” she murmured, pressing his arm.
“Perhaps!” he echoed with affectionate significance.
And while they talked, Mrs. Janvier, in one of the big bedrooms, was steeling herself to take farewell of her treasure, her little Ruth, the comfort and consolation of her rather desolate life. She could hardly bear the thought of the future bereft of the child, yet she knew that the sacrifice was imperative, that to withhold it would be selfishness incarnate. She could not leave Eustace, she could not keep Ruth—how little she had realised, in yielding to her love for the child’s father, what trial she was courting in the future. Had she known—would she have acted as she did? Would she have stolen from her distant home on that dewy morning to join her life with that of the ardent missionary who was her husband? Yes, a thousand times yes, for without her how could Eustace have survived his labours, how could he have carried on the battle for his Master, how could he have done his duty—delicate, spiritual, unpractical as he was? She knew very well that long since he would have broken down in mind and health, have died, perhaps, neglected and alone, a martyr to his Cause. As it was, he had become a useful and invaluable asset to the mission, a power for good in his own small circle that was a part of the great whole, an influence that would leave its stamp on future generations of native Christians in India....
She was brushing Ruth’s curls, that were like burnished copper shavings, that rose again with elastic defiance each time the brush smoothed them down. She wanted to send the child from her perfect and sweet from top to toe—her little girl, her baby.
Ruth was alternately eager and depressed. She was under the comforting impression that Mummy and Daddy would follow her soon, and Mrs. Janvier had not the heart to undeceive her.
“Poor Mummy!” said Ruth, regarding the pale, pathetic face she saw reflected in the looking-glass; “not coming in the train. I will wait on the other side of the river for your ship!”
“Yes, darling, and wave your handkerchief.”
“And sing ‘Jesus lives, no longer now—’ She trilled the old familiar tune.
Mr. Janvier came in at that moment.
“And Daddy too?” Ruth turned to her father, holding out her arms.
“Yes,” lied Mrs. Janvier, choking down her sobs, “and Daddy too.”
“What is that?” asked Eustace Janvier sharply. His face was white and set, like his wife’s, as he gathered the slim little body into his arms.
“You and Mummy will come after me very soon?” queried Ruth, a chill of suspicion creeping into her heart.
“Very soon,” Mrs. Janvier interposed hastily.
“My dear,” said the missionary over his child’s head, “what does she think? Have you allowed her to believe—”
“Hush!” warned Mrs. Janvier; she feared that Eustace, with his passion for truth at all costs, might make the parting harder. And possibly he would have done so had not the child burst into a storm of frightened tears, clinging to his neck. The words that had been on his lips died away and he yielded to deception, stroking Ruth’s head, holding her close, reassuring her.
“Ruth must go first,” he said. “It is better for Mummy and Daddy to stay behind for a little while. Remember that.”
The spirit that had made the man what he was, a good and valiant man, if narrow and fanatical, now animated his child. It was enough for Ruth that her parents were somehow to benefit by her acceptance of their wishes, and she looked into her father’s face and smiled.
“I will be a good girl!” she said stoutly; and this little demonstration of courage and selflessness went far to help the man and woman in their hour of trial.
None of the oddly assorted party ever quite knew how they got through the first half of that night. To all but Clara Bassett it seemed like a bad dream. The Bassetts drove with the Partridges to the station, the Janviers followed in the low, old-fashioned pony-chaise that was a sort of heirloom of the Mission House; the luggage had been sent ahead in a cart. The travellers settled themselves in the saloon-like compartment reserved for them, that quickly became choked with miscellaneous baggage chiefly appertaining to Clara and the children. Winnie, mercifully, was asleep, and Ruth, sustained by the vague conviction that she was doing something really helpful for her mother and father, was self-righteously composed. But Mrs. Janvier noted the pressure of the child’s lips, the pucker in her forehead that told of painfully repressed tears. She and her husband stood on the platform controlling their grief for the sake of Ruth, and the judge fidgeted to and fro, wondering why on earth he had ever entertained the idea that his wife should go home ahead of him.
When the train moved heavily off, Mrs. Janvier groped her way out of the station like a blind woman, leaving her husband exchanging remarks with the judge on the platform—unconscious that she had left his side. Presently he found her seated, rigid and silent, in the little carriage, and as he stepped in beside her his foot struck against something beneath his seat. He stooped to investigate—it was Ruth’s doll “Maria,” an old and hideous object, hairless and battered, yet passionately beloved of its owner. He knew then that the child must have felt the parting far more keenly than, to him, she had appeared to do, else would the miserable Maria never have been forgotten and left behind. He kicked the thing farther under the seat that poor Mary should not also be harrowed by this knowledge, and later he smuggled it into the house and hid it in the bureau, quite unaware that the sight of neglected, forgotten Maria could tell his wife no more than she knew already.
The steamer was not over full, it being a time of year, with the English winter in prospect, that is not popular with the home-goer, and the voyage was unmarked by any particular event. No one went mad, or committed suicide, or had a baby, as will happen on voyages, nor were there any exciting scandals; though for the party from Khanabad it was not an altogether peaceful progress. Clara was a shocking sailor, condensed milk disagreed with Winnie, and it must be admitted that Ruth was a handful. Mrs. Partridge’s efforts to keep her in order were not always successful, and more than once the harassed lady recalled Mrs. Janvier’s apprehensions as to Ruth’s predilections for the opposite sex. The male passengers and crew, diverted by her wild spirits and powers of mimicry, encouraged her escapades; she was friends with them all; even the ferocious old captain was disarmed by her fearlessness and beauty, though it was known that he regarded children on board ship as unnecessary evils.
But Ruth’s first favourite was ever Guy Bassett; he could often control her when Mrs. Partridge failed, and she would attend to his admonitions, though their effect was not always long-lived. Clara did not concern herself with Ruth’s behaviour, but she was frankly jealous of Guy’s affection for the child.
“I believe you are fonder of her than you are of Winnie,” she complained fractiously, one stifling afternoon in the Red Sea. The heat was overpowering, no head wind, hardly a breath of air, and most of the passengers were feeling either ill or bad-tempered. Mrs. Partridge was prostrate with a headache.
“Nonsense!” protested Guy. “Of course I am fondest of my own child! But somebody must look after Ruth.”
He had thrown himself into a long chair at his wife’s side after extracting Ruth from the smoking room, and at the moment he felt far from liking her better than any baby that gave no trouble.
“She’s in Mrs. Partridge’s charge,” said Clara, “and I’m sure the ayah gives more than a fair share of time to her, considering that we are paying part of the woman’s expenses.”
Bassett did not feel so sure. As far as he could see the ayah’s time was chiefly occupied with Winnie, but he held his tongue on this point.
“Look at the little wretch now!” observed Clara. “She is teasing the Thomas child.”
It was true. Ruth had encountered her particular enemy, a little girl of about her own age. War was of common occurrence between the two children, and Mrs. Thomas was perpetually complaining of Ruth’s atrocities; she complained to the Bassetts, to Mrs. Partridge, to the captain, and, indeed, to anyone who would listen to her.
Tiny Thomas who, despite her pet name, was a large and heavy child, was now making futile grabs at Ruth who danced just out of reach, grimacing, with Tiny’s hat perched wrong-side-before upon her head. Presently Mrs. Thomas was seen advancing rapidly upon the pair from the other end of the deck, and to the horror of the beholders Ruth suddenly flung the hat overboard. In an instant Mrs. Thomas had pounced upon her daughter’s tormentor, and Ruth was violently shaken by the naturally infuriated mother. Both children screamed loudly, and Bassett had to go to the rescue.
“This child of yours is simply a demon!” cried Mrs. Thomas as she pushed Ruth towards him, and gathered the outraged Tiny into her arms.
“She certainly behaves like a demon, but she is not my child,” said Bassett. “All the same I apologise for her, as she belongs to my party, and she must be punished.”
He picked Ruth up and bore her, struggling, down into the cabin that he shared with another male passenger. Fortunately the cabin was empty. He meant to punish Ruth; he felt she deserved it. He deposited her on the red velvet sofa beneath the porthole, and wiped his forehead.
“You are a very naughty girl,” he said severely.
She looked up at him in mock humility, placed her hands together and whined in Hindustani like a bazaar beggar. “Protector of the poor! Forgive—this slave dies of fear—my liver is turned to water,” and she salaamed three times in rapid succession.
“Ruth!” said Bassett, exasperated.
“Oh, my soul! oh, my life!” She clicked her tongue and held up her hands palms outward. He slapped them smartly, and she swung them behind her back. Now her eyes gleamed no longer with persuasive mischief but with defiant rage, and her little red mouth closed fiercely. She regarded him without flinching, and Bassett began to feel helpless. He wished devoutly that Mrs. Partridge was available; he would certainly have summoned her—and bolted.
“I am ashamed of you!” he said. “What would your mother say if she could know how you have been behaving all day?”
He used this weapon in desperation, and felt a brute for attacking a vulnerable spot; all along he had known instinctively that Ruth was fretting in secret for her mother whom she never mentioned if she could help it. Now he saw the naughtiness and defiance fade from the child’s eyes, and in a moment she was crying bitterly. The straight little figure crumpled into a forlorn heap, and she hid her face in the red velvet cushions. His heart melted; he could not endure to see her sob so pitifully—poor little soul! She was brave and generous, without meanness or greed, sensitive and highly strung, and therefore the more susceptible to mental suffering. She had not minded the slaps, though he knew they must have stung pretty sharply, but directly he touched her feelings she was, undone.
He pulled her towards him. “There, Ruthie, don’t cry,” he comforted. “You’ll be a good girl now, won’t you, and do as you’re told?”
Her arms stole round his neck. “I’ll try,” she whispered. “And you won’t stop loving me, will you? Not even if everybody else does?”
“Nobody will stop loving you, if you are good,” he assured her, feeling a prig.
“I will be good—for you, when you tell me.” She nestled closer to him. Her soft, fluffy head was under his chin, and he could feel her heart throbbing fast, like that of a small, excited animal—still under the influence of the storm of emotion through which she had passed. He dared not argue her last words and preach the fallacy of being good only for the sake of someone else; in a way Ruth had worsted him, but at least she was now chastened and amenable, and he decided to let well alone.
He took her up on deck, and because he bade her she apologised prettily to Mrs. Thomas, and was permitted to kiss the cheek of the phlegmatic Tiny, though Mrs. Thomas audibly expressed her apprehension. that the kiss might be merely a pretext for a bite. So was tranquillity restored.
“Thank goodness we get off at Marseilles,” said Clara, when it was all over, “and Mrs. Partridge and that tiresome child go round by sea. Just imagine Ruth in the Bay! We shall be lucky if she doesn’t throw Winnie overboard before we leave the ship.”
But Ruth gave little further trouble, at any rate as far as Marseilles where the Khanabad party divided—the Bassetts travelling overland, Mrs. Partridge, Ruth, and the ayah continuing the journey by sea. The prospect of separation from her adored Mr. Bassett seemed to sober Ruth’s spirits, and during the last few days she hardly let him out of her sight. He took with him across the Continent the vision of a tear-stained little face and a small, sorrowful figure waving farewell from the deck of the steamer; but it was some time before he heard anything further of Ruth or of Mrs. Partridge. Of course the usual assurances were exchanged as to writing and meeting and keeping in touch. Such plans sound easy enough when made in India or on board ship, but more often than not they prove difficult of accomplishment on arrival in England, where at first the home-comer finds leisure distractingly limited, family claims and interests monopolising, the manner of daily existence so different. Addresses are lost or forgotten, intensions weaken, promised communications get postponed.
After all, Mrs. Partridge did not write to the Bassetts to say how Ruth had behaved in the Bay, nor how she herself had got down to her sister’s house in Devonshire after handing the child over to her relations at the docks; and after all, neither Guy nor Clara Bassett wrote to tell Mrs. Partridge how Winnie had stood the journey overland, nor how they had all arrived safely at Mrs. Wakefield’s house in Kensington.
Mrs. Wakefield glanced at her dining-room clock with a delicate uplifting of her eyebrows, and of her right shoulder. As a supremely refined human being she was almost a work of art. Her bearing was majestic, she wore caps that were fashioned in the form of a coronet, and her friends were agreed that her resemblance to the older generation of the Royal Family was remarkable—particularly in profile; also that her well-preserved appearance was miraculous. Certainly Nature had been kind to her in that her hair was yet brown and glossy, and her skin most marvellously smooth and pink—though secretly, and to his shame, it always reminded her son-in-law of boiled pig’s cheek.
“As usual, your husband is late for breakfast, my dear Clara,” she observed in a voice from which all trace of annoyance was ostentatiously excluded.
“He’ll be down in a moment,” said her daughter, enjoying fried bacon while engrossed in the study of an attractive advertisement that proclaimed, in the pages of the Sunday paper, a sale of innumerable Paris models at an “alarming sacrifice,” though exactly who was to be alarmed and who sacrificed was not divulged.
“Just listen to this, Mama,” and she read a tempting description aloud. “You might find just what you want and save yourself no end of trouble as well as money.”
“On what date does the sale commence?” Mrs. Wakefield was ever fastidious in the selection and pronunciation of her words.
“Monday next—that’s tomorrow. Doors open at 9 A.M.”
“The most occupied morning of the week. How inconsiderate! And, I ask you, could I be there at 9 A.M.?—especially when your husband makes a practice of being late for breakfast!”
“Why do you always call Guy my husband?” queried Clara with an amiable laugh.
“Is he not your husband? No, Clara, I beg that you will not put the bacon down by the fire—it destroys the dishes. If he cannot be punctual he must abide by the consequences. I have poured out his coffee.”
Obediently Clara kept her seat and continued her perusal of the advertisement. “What can be the matter with these models that they are offered at such apparently ridiculous prices? Listen to this now: ‘Very elegant gown by prominent Paris House in rich black-corded silk, trimmed handsome passe-menterie, cut on latest lines, original price nine hundred and fifty francs, reduced to five guineas.’ That would suit you exactly, Mama!
“I certainly need something of the kind, but it is clearly impossible for me to take advantage of the opportunity. Unless one can be among the first to arrive at the entrance there is small prospect of obtaining a bargain.”
“Shall I go for you?” suggested Clara. “1 know what you want and what you like.”
She was never provoked by her mother’s perversities, whereas to Guy Bassett they were a continual source of irritation. He entered the room at this juncture, tendering false excuses for his unpunctuality; he knew if he announced the truth, viz., that he had been obliged to clean his own boots, the result would be a polite row with his mother-in-law who never failed to support the servants if he made any complaint of neglect. She seemed to regard him with a curious animosity as the husband of her daughter, though apart from that he did not think she disliked him. He had come to suspect there was a very distinct foundation for the immemorial mother-in-law joke. Nature would appear to have implanted an instinctive antagonism in the female breast towards the mate of the female offspring, and this primitive prejudice had obviously survived the ages, though it might be frankly admitted only among the lower classes. Bassett was ruefully conscious that Mrs. Wakefield pestered him more or less on principle over trivial matters. What she called his “Indian ways” were perpetually brought up against him—his desire for a hot bath when he returned from his work in the evening grubby and depressed (the water was seldom even warm at the hour when he was permitted to claim the bathroom in the morning); his habit of spreading his clothes on the bed in his dressing-room; his love of open windows that encouraged smuts and dust to find unlawful resting-places; his failure to shut doors, and his carelessness in the matter of turning out lights on leaving a room. He made valiant efforts to improve his conduct, but when he did transgress Mrs. Wakefield’s disapproval seemed to him out of all proportion to his offences. He would recall with a certain grim humour the Hindustani proverb anent the trials of a guest: “In the house of another one may not even spit.” He saw little of Clara, and Winnie was usually asleep when he got home, or on show in the drawing-room with Mrs. Wakefield and her friends.
Sunday was the most trying day in the week. This was Sunday, a bright, frosty Sunday at the beginning of December, without wind, and he was guiltily conscious that having yielded to temptation and dressed with his window open, smuts the size of blue-bottle flies were reposing on his toilet cover. Undoubtedly the old housemaid, who was his enemy, would betray him. Without a murmur he swallowed congealed bacon and tepid coffee, both of which, if hot, would have been super-excellent (for Mrs. Wakefield prided herself on her “table”), promising himself a walk in Kensington Gardens afterwards as recompense.
“Shall we take Winnie out this morning?” he suggested to Clara.
“It is nurse’s Sunday evening for church,” said Mrs. Wakefield. “It would not be advisable to allow her the morning to herself as well.”
“Why shouldn’t she have both for once?” he inquired.
“It is inadvisable,” repeated Mrs. Wakefield. “Servants must be kept to rules, else they are prone to take advantage. Are you not coming to church yourself? You failed to go last Sunday, and in England these omissions are remarked. It is not as if there was no place of worship available, as I understand is frequently the case in India—more shame to our rule!”
Clara shot a warning, persuasive glance at her husband that kept him silent until Mrs. Wakefield had billowed from the room.
“You won’t mind coming to church, will you, darling??” she said when the door was safely shut. “It pleases her so tremendously when you come with us so that all her friends can see you.”
“I’ll go to please you, if you make a point of it—not to please her,” agreed Bassett sulkily. “And in return you might come for walk with me afterwards. I never get minute alone with you now.”
“All right, of course I will; but we can’t go far with luncheon at one o’clock.”
“Then come out with me this afternoon. It’s such a jolly day—like the cold weather in India,” he suppressed a sigh. “You aren’t going to a concert or a tea-party, are you?”
Clara hesitated. “I should love to come,” she said regretfully, “only it’s Mama’s ‘at home’ day, the third Sunday in the month, you know; and she likes me to help her with the tea and the people. You might stay in and help too; a man is so useful on these occasions.”
He refused firmly. “I’m hanged if I stay indoors on a day like this and listen to the chatter of a lot of old women. I shall go for a tramp by myself.”
Clara said no more at the moment, but when they had escorted Mrs. Wakefield to her doorstep after the service, and had turned their own steps towards Kensington Gardens, she reopened the subject.
“It’s rather a pity, I think, that you don’t try to please Mama more in little ways,” she began in gentle reproach, “you would get on so much better together.”
Bassett groaned. “My dear, haven’t I just been pleasing her by sitting on a hard pew and listening to drivel from the pulpit, not to speak of your mother’s voice in the responses, and her brave attempt to sing the psalms and hymns? Did you see the woman in front of us shake her little boy because he turned round and made a face at my excellent mother-in law? I sympathised with the child from the bottom of my heart!”
“Oh! Guy, I know she’s trying. But you must remember that trifles appear so important to her. You ought to make an effort to put yourself in her place.”
“Well, is it entirely my fault that we aren’t devoted to each other? She never tries to put herself in my place! I can’t do anything right in her eyes.”
“It’s only her way,” soothed Clara. “Just take no notice, as I do. I agree with everything she says and do what I like all the same.”
“But if I had agreed that I ought to go to church this morning and then hadn’t gone, wouldn’t there have been an unholy fuss? It’s all very well for you, Clara; you like this sort of life—shopping and calling and going to concerts and tea-fights, and you get all the companionship you want. Whereas I’m bottled up from one week end to another; I never see another man except in the way of business—and they aren’t my sort at all!”
“Why don’t you join a club?”
“My dear girl, have I the time to go to a club when I’m kept at old Morrow’s place doing babu from morning till night?—and a man doesn’t join a club for the purpose of making friends! I’m damned if I know how I’m going to stick it. My brains are rusting. I’ve no responsibility or initiative, no interest in the work. I’m simply a machine.”
“I think you are unreasonable, not to say ungrateful,” retorted Clara with some heat. “Owing to my connections you are able to live in England and keep your wife and child with you, and yet you do nothing but thwart and make fun of my mother, and grumble about your work; you are even horrid to me sometimes! I know lots of women are obliged to stay at home without their husbands or go back to India, leaving their children to be brought up by strangers, but how could you expect me to do either when we have the opportunity of being together, you and I and Winnie?—a chance in a thousand!” Clara swallowed her tears and walked on with quick, resentful steps.
Bassett recognised the force of his wife’s argument. He knew that either he or Clara must be called upon to make a stupendous sacrifice, and as far as he could judge at present he must be the one to make it. Things were going smoothly enough between himself and his patron, Sir Joseph Morrow, not that he often came in contact with his employer, but when he old the old man was gruffly civil, and his work, such as it was, appeared to give satisfaction; but any improvement in his position seemed exceedingly remote. The men ahead of him in the office were not likely to retire for many years to come, and as to a possible partnership in the future—he felt he might just as well hope to step into Uncle Joseph’s shoes at once!
Mr. and Mrs. Bassett paced along in an agitated silence amid crowds of perambulators and correctly dressed families carrying Prayer Books, out for an airing after church before their return to the orthodox meal of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and apple tart—hundreds of them, all living in the same manner, orthodox, contented, well nurtured; most of the men had a child holding on to each hand, men who were in a position to educate their offspring, to pay for their wives’ clothes, to take the healthy family away to the seaside every year—one adult male in a house full of women and children, untroubled by dreams of wider prestige or power. Bassett regarded them all with mingled esteem and contempt. Probably few of these men had ever handled a rifle or bestridden a horse, yet all must possess the natural masculine instincts of hunting and fighting and adventure, however stifled by their conditions of life. All credit to them that they should rest content to be respectable husbands and fathers and breadwinners first, regardless of anything beyond the immediate home circle and its interests. He recognised the value of convention—the virtue and restraint that was its outcome—and he felt ashamed that his own sensations should be those of a dog chained up in the existence he shared with these people around him.
“I think I must try to get a talk with your uncle,” he told Clara, breaking the unsatisfactory pause. “I feel I must get some sort of notion as to what I may expect in the future. Time is getting on—towards the end of my leave.”
“Oh, Guy! Don’t put his back up!” besought Clara in alarm.
“You see,” he continued, ignoring her protest, “I’m a young man, and I know I’ve got brains in my own particular line. How would you feel if you were set down to nothing but plain sewing for the rest of your life?”
“That’s exactly how India made me feel!” cried Clara triumphantly. “But I would willingly do plain sewing, or anything else as dull, if it meant staying in England with you and Winnie. I am not so selfish as to think only of myself.”
Bassett sighed hopelessly. Yes, he supposed he was selfish and unreasonable, at least his discontent would assume that character regarded from Clara’s standpoint.
“Let us sit down on this bench,” he suggested, “and talk the thing out. It’s no use attempting to do so in your mother’s house.”
“Why not in my mother’s house?” Clara demanded.
“Because she listens at our door.”
“It’s perfectly true. I’ve caught her.”
Clara seated herself angrily on the bench. “You make everything so much more difficult than it need be for everybody,” she complained, “and we might all be so happy!”
Guy stood before her, scraping the gravel with his stick; he felt he no longer wanted to discuss the situation—it would be of no use, nothing would ever make Clara understand, and her remark a little while back that he was “even horrid to her sometimes” distressed and disquieted him. He hated to think she was unhappy—-he had given up so much in order that she might be happy, and now it seemed that they were both miserable, and it was all his fault. He resolved that he would complain no more, that he would toady Sir Joseph and knuckle under to his mother-in-law—at any rate until his leave was at an end and he was obliged to make a definite decision. Perhaps by that time something might have happened to decide the future for him; he cast about in his mind for possibilities, but only the most improbable happening occurred to him. Sir Joseph might promise substantial promotion; Mrs. Wakefield might—he checked his thoughts, aghast at their murderous trend, realising that he was coldly contemplating the demise of his mother-in-law. Good heavens! if Clara could read his mind! He glanced at his wife’s troubled face and then at his watch, the same old gun metal watch that had caused a quarrel between them that morning in India. What ages ago that seemed! It was dreadful to remember that they had ever quarrelled, it was dreadful to think that they were on the verge of a quarrel now. He felt ashamed of his failure to adapt himself to new conditions, he ought to have the strength of mind to do the thing decently, or not at all.
“Well?” said Clara, with fretful impatience. “I thought you wanted to sit down on this bench and talk things over.”
“It’s nearly one o’clock.” He spoke as amicably as he could. “We’d better go back.”
She sprang up, relieved. “Good gracious, I had no idea it was so late! We must hurry.”
They hastened along in silence, and arrived at the house only just in time. A blast of roast beef and vegetables greeted them as they entered the hall; the joint was being carried into the dining-room, and Mrs. Wakefield was, as she would herself have expressed it, descending the staircase.
Bassett began to put his good resolutions into effect by returning from his walk after luncheon in time for his mother-in-law’s “at home.” He joined Clara and Mrs. Wakefield, who, both refreshed by “a rest,” were seated in the drawing-room awaiting the arrival of visitors, and his virtue was rewarded by surprised exclamations and an irritating acknowledgment of his proper behaviour. It was obvious that neither of them had put faith in his promise to be present at a function they knew he detested, and he felt tempted to retaliate by going out again at once, but at the moment a couple of visitors were announced—two timid old sisters, exactly alike and equally uninteresting. From Mrs. Wakefield’s manner towards them Bassett inferred that the fluttering old ladies were neither rich nor important. They were soon obscured by the vigorous entry of Mrs. Sparrow, wife of Mrs. Wakefield’s “medical man,” as she entitled her doctor—a matron renowned for her professional discretion. When Mrs. Sparrow was asked how dear old General Jenkins was progressing she was quite surprised to learn that he had been laid up for weeks with gout in the stomach; and she was apparently quite unaware until Mrs. Wakefield informed her that Mrs. Smyth had had a baby at last—after seven years! Mrs. Sparrow was, indeed, an ideal spouse for a “medical man.” She was eclipsed in her turn by the announcement of Mr. Congleton and Lady Potts—not so irregular as it might sound, for Lady Potts had been the widow of a knight, and on her marriage to Mr. Congleton had retained her title “because her friends wished it,” as Mrs. Wakefield afterwards explained to her son-in-law—not, of course, that Lady Potts herself had any feeling in the matter.
Next came Miss Finch, who, though no longer exactly a girl, was regarded as such by the elderly company she frequented. She kissed her hostess with tender effusion and gasped with delight on beholding her dear Lady Potts. Bassett suspected her of having tracked Lady Potts to Mrs. Wakefield’s drawing-room, as he heard her fishing successfully for an invitation to some party that the lady was about to give. Miss Finch could tell fortunes, was gifted with second sight, and by means of clairvoyance was acquainted with many exciting secrets that belonged to other people. These psychic powers made her a stimulating companion and an asset at social gatherings, and therefore Miss Finch received numerous invitations that otherwise would hardly have been extended to a spinster of uncertain age, who was neither good-looking nor an heiress. She confided to Mr. Bassett, dear Mrs. Wakefield’s son-in-law, that the desire of her life was to visit India; that whenever she saw the new moon, or a piebald horse, met a flock of sheep or a dwarf, her wish was always the same—that she might one day find herself in India. She had every hope that in time the wish could come true, for she had a brother in the Indian Medical Service who, sooner or later, might invite her to go out and keep house for him; more than once she had offered to do so, but unfortunately obstacles seemed ever in the way. However, later, no doubt— And Bassett, concealing his uncharitable amusement, responded politely, “No doubt.”
Several other more or less elderly females dropped in, and great disappointment was expressed by Mrs. Wakefield, and echoed by her guests, that for once the vicar of the parish was unable to join the assemblage, as was his genial wont. The room resounded with conversation, and the atmosphere grew stifling. Bassett worked hard; he handed tea and muffins and cakes and cream, and talked about the weather till he felt he must be just as inane as Mrs. Wakefield and Lady Potts who, seated together on the sofa, were exchanging polite remarks. Each accused the other of “doing too much,” each entreated the other to take more care of herself. Bassett listened as he allowed himself a brief rest by the window.
“And you will be going to the south of France, I suppose, after Christmas?” inquired his mother-in law of her friend.
“Not this year I think, if I can help it. I would rather stay in London if there are not too many fogs. After all, one can keep warm in the house with fires, and protect oneself out of doors with furs. Don’t you agree with me?”
“Yes, of course, quite so—fires and furs,” Mrs.Wakefield accorded. “What should we do without furs?”
“Fires and furs!” echoed Lady Potts.
“And your sables are so beautiful!” cried Mrs. Wakefield, and stroked the other’s muff. “Alas! sables are not for a poor parson’s widow, and I cannot afford to go abroad. But I am happy as long as my friends are around me. My friends are my warmth and my sunshine!”
“How pretty of you!” murmured Lady Potts. Then they began to talk about food.
Bassett felt he could have knocked their heads together
by, with the utmost satisfaction. Selfish old humbugs—all stomach and no heart, affected nothing but their personal convenience, interested in little beyond trivialities and other folks’ business. He glanced at Clara, who was looking very handsome, chatting affably to a stout lady with spectacles and a moustache, and his Wife’s physical resemblance to her mother struck him for the first time with a vague feeling of dismay. Mrs. Wakefield must have been a very handsome girl, even better-looking, perhaps, than her comely daughter. He prayed that Clara would not grow like her in mind as well as in body. He recalled his first meeting with Clara—at a dance given by the Indian Engineering College where he had received his training. Straightway he had fallen in love with her soft blue eyes, her exquisite skin and her feminine ways. From the first she had accepted his whole-hearted homage with a gentle grace that she did not extend to the other young men who crowded about her; and he had acquired an enviable importance among his fellow-students, because of her obvious favour. It was chiefly for her sake that he had worked so hard and passed out so well for an Indian appointment. And how he would have worked and succeeded in India for her sake, as well as for his own, if she would have adapted herself to life in that country! Yet because of her he was working now as a mere machine in a contractor’s office, dependent more or less on her mother; a parasite, with small hope of any advancement through his ability.
The door opened and with becoming importance the parlourmaid announced Sir Joseph Morrow. Mrs. Wakefield rose in a dignified flutter, regardless of Lady Potts’s last remark. Clara also stood up. The babel of voices lulled.
Sir Joseph was an old gentleman of striking appearance—quick, dark eyes, thick, white hair, a short beard and a prominent nose. He advanced into the room, his head thrust forward as though penetrating some invisible obstruction. It was the first time he had called since the return of his niece from India, and it was clear that his visit was intended for Mrs. Bassett, though he first shook hands with Mrs. Wakefield and nodded perfunctorily to Guy.
“Well?” he said, seating himself beside Clara. “You don’t look as if India had altogether shattered your health.”
Poor Clara coloured. “I have been back for some little time, you must remember. One soon picks up in England.”
Bassett came forward. He resented Sir Joseph’s attempt to disconcert Clara. “The Indian climate is trying for a woman and unsuitable for a child,” he said rather truculently.
Clara frowned at him, and Uncle Joseph, intercepting the frown, was odious enough to laugh. Guy turned away and plied an already replete visitor with buttered toast, shutting his ears to Uncle Joseph’s awkward questions and Clara’s inaccurate replies. Mrs. Wakefield then joined in with concerned inquiries as to her brother-in-law’s health, and expressed her cordial hope that he would dine with them on Christmas Day, to which invitation the disagreeable old man merely responded “No, thank you,” without an excuse; and when Clara volunteered to fetch Winnie from the nursery for her great uncle’s inspection he advised her not to do so, since children invariably screamed at sight of him’ and he ‘did not profess to know one baby from another.
Altogether Uncle Joseph was a trial, and Bassett wondered why he had troubled to call. Once or twice during the visit he caught the keen old eyes fixed upon himself with ominous attention, and it occurred to him that perhaps this was the prologue to his discharge; he only trusted that if such were the case his “warning” would be given him before his leave had expired, otherwise the situation would indeed be serious. He accompanied his employer down the stairs when the uncomfortable call was over, and to his perturbation Sir Joseph detained him on the doorstep.
“I want a word with you,” he said abruptly.
“Won’t you come into the dining-room?” suggested Guy.
“This will do as well as anywhere else. Look here, young fellow, do you intend to go back to India, or don’t you?”
“It depends,” said Guy boldly, “on what I have to look forward to in the future.”
“Did you want to leave India?”
“No, I can’t say I did.”
“I thought so. Your wife drove you to it, hey?”
“I did it because it seemed better for her. She couldn’t settle down, and there was good deal to be said from her point of view.”
“And I haven’t a doubt that she said it! Thank God I never married. Well, my boy, let me give you bit of stale news: you’re wasted at what you are doing for me at present; but it’s any satisfaction to you to know there’ll be a managership of one of our provincial branches vacant in the spring, and if you make up your mind to remain over here you can have it. The salary won’t be high to start with, and you’ll have difficult people to handle—but it’s a chance. Think it over.”
The old man suddenly stumped down the steps and disappeared into the frosty dusk, leaving Bassett standing dumbfounded on the threshold. He realised that he had not even said, “Thank you,” but was now too late to pursue Sir Joseph down the street. He stood in the crisp, cold air, collecting his thoughts; only this morning he had hoped that something might happen to determine his future; on the whole he supposed he ought to feel thankful; nevertheless his heart was heavy as he turned back into the house, and he lingered, disconsolate, in the narrow hall, gazing vacantly at the visiting cards strewn over the fumed-oak table. He could hear the gabble of voices upstairs, and he shrank from returning to the hot drawing-room full of uninteresting people; yet if he failed to do so Clara and her mother would suspect him of having said or done something to offend Uncle Joseph, and conclude that he was reluctant in consequence to reappear; their trepidation had been obvious as he and Sir Joseph left the room together.
Well, their feelings would be different when he told them the news, and he would have to feign greater relief and delight than he actually felt; of course, for Clara’s sake, he was relieved and glad, and in a way it was a comfort to know that now there was absolutely no question of having to make up his mind. But—he would never see India again!
The “back room” of Mrs. Wakefield’s Kensington dwelling was an uncomfortable apartment, reserved for the wraps of visitors and articles not required for the moment, for the unpacking of parcels and the arranging of flowers, and so on. It was furnished with a round table, a bookcase, four spare dining room chairs, and a particularly hideous gas-stove fixed in the fireplace.
Only in here was Mrs. Wakefield’s son-in-law permitted to smoke, and on an evening early in the New Year Guy Bassett was seated by the table finishing a pipe and absorbed in the Pioneer Mail. It gave him regretful pleasure to study the weekly news from India—agricultural reports from the various provinces, local events, religious riots, descriptions of sport, interesting articles on purely native subjects. Often he came upon familiar names in the “Gazette” among the transfers, promotions, and special appointments, and in the lists of homeward or outward bound passengers.
The paper was a link with India, with the life he loved and had forsworn, and he found himself anticipating its arrival every week with almost childish eagerness. Clara despised and ignored the Pioneer Mail; Mrs. Wakefield resented his hoarding back numbers, and until he took to concealing them in his dressing-room they were always sent down to the basement for the purpose of lighting the kitchen fire.
Now he was noting with concern that the crop prospects up country seemed anything but hopeful; unless the winter rains, already late, proved exceptionally good, disaster for the kharif crop was certain after the comparative failure of the previous rainy season. How busy the Irrigation Department would be! He thought of his former subdivision, and wondered what was being done; he felt he ought to be there, on the spot, to help fight the shortcomings of nature with human contrivance, and his spirit rebelled against the circumstances that kept him from his post, inactive, useless at present, whatever the future might hold in other directions.
The gas fire purred, no sound came through the shutters from the gardens at the back, the warmth of the room and the glare from the unshaded light made him drowsy after a wearisome day in the office, and his eyes ached. He longed for an easychair, and decided dreamily that he would buy one for himself and have it kept in this room whatever Mrs. Wakefield’s objections—it would be useful later for the house in the provincial town when he took over the promised managership. All the time he was conscious that he ought to go upstairs and dress for dinner, but he could not exert himself, and he sat, half asleep, allowing his mind to wander at will along canal banks, over sun-drenched spaces, through village, bazaar and jungle.... He could almost hear the call of the peacocks, and the camp sounds of animals and servants in the open air, could almost feel the crisp, clear sunshine of the Indian winter, and sense the blessing of independence, of time that was his own, and the pleasant lassitude distinct from laziness that comes to the willing official when good work has been accomplished in congenial surroundings.
A violent double knock on the front door roused him and footsteps passed quickly along the passage. He stood up with a yawn, and was about to leave the room when the door opened and a telegram was handed to him on Mrs. Wakefield’s handsome silver salver.
With mild curiosity he opened the orange coloured envelope, and read the message; the words seemed to strike at his eyes without reaching his brain, and he stood staring at them stupidly.
“Any answer, sir? The boy is waiting,” said the maid in a reproachful voice. He had forgotten her presence. Now he looked up and shook his head without speaking. He heard her leave the room, and still he stood gazing at the telegram trying to realise the fact that the Indian Government had recalled him from leave.
Such a possibility had never crossed his mind, not even when reading the apprehensions expressed in the paper that lay on the table before him. He understood now that the kharif crop had actually failed—-that famine was threatened, that he could no more refuse to return than if he had been a soldier summoned to his duty on the outbreak of war. A wave of excitement swept over him, followed by a chill dread of Clara’s disappointment and distress. Could he with honour have retired at once, rather than go back, he would have done so for Clara’s sake, but he knew this was out of the question. Nothing but illness could excuse him, and he was as sound in health as ever he had been. Moreover, he must start by the next mail, which meant only a few days for preparations. His heart sank at the thought of parting from wife and child. Clara certainly could not come with him, and it would not do for her to follow him just as the hot weather was at hand. She and .Winnie must wait till the autumn. How would she take the news? Thoughts jostled so rapidly through his mind that he felt bewildered, and then the gong boomed loud and aggressive close to the door, reminding him that he was not yet dressed for dinner. How annoyed Mrs. Wakefield would be!— though her disapproval mattered little to him now. He decided to say nothing about the telegram until after dinner.
Clara and her mother were standing in the drawing-room as he dashed upstairs past the open door; they were seated at the dining-table when he came down, and Mrs. Wakefield was ladling soup with much ceremony from a large silver tureen. She regarded him severely.
“What happened? asked Clara.
He admitted having fallen asleep in the back room, and made his apologies; they were received in silence by Mrs. Wakefield, while Clara looked at him with attention. “Is anything the matter?” she inquired. “You look so excited and odd!”
He put his hand to his tie, then passed it over his hair. “I dressed in such a hurry. Am I very untidy?”
“You got a telegram, didn’t you?” went on Clara. “What was it about?”
Evidently the parlourmaid had been interrogated. Bassett turned hot and cold. For the moment nothing seemed real—not even Mrs. Wakefield, who looked extra royal in black satin and beads, nor Clara gazing at him with anxious blue eyes, the red-shaded light touching her hair and her pretty white neck. The figure of the black-clad parlourmaid with snowy cap and apron showed dimly behind Mrs. Wakefield’s chair; his soup steamed untouched in the plate before him. was it possible that in a few days’ time he would not be here—that he would be on his way to India?
“What was the telegram about?” repeated Clara, recalling him to his senses.
“Business,” he said shortly, and swallowed the sherry that had been poured into his glass without his notice. He never drank sherry, though it was offered to him religiously every evening. Mrs. Wakefield prided herself on the correctness of her service; whatever her peculiarities, niggardliness in the matter of living was not one of them, she did not stint herself or other people in this direction. Now she looked round the epergne at her son-in-law.
“Was the telegram from Sir Joseph?” she asked.
“Do tell us,” urged Clara, her voice sharp with apprehension, “or I shall think it’s something awful.”
Suddenly he felt it might be better to make his announcement at once; possibly the presence of Mrs. Wakefield and the maidservant would modify the inevitable scene. He hesitated, then yielded to the impulse and took the fatal telegram from his pocket. “It is from India,” he said, handing it to his wife; “The winter rains have failed and there may be famine, so they’ve recalled me.”
“What is that?” uttered Mrs. Wakefield, in a deep voice.
He hardly heard her, he was watching Clara’s face as she read the telegram. She had turned very white, and now she looked up at him in horrified amazement. Then she caught her breath and clutched the edge of the table. Bassett rose quickly and went to her side; he thought she was going to faint. Mrs. Wakefield ordered the parlourmaid from the room. “I will ring when I require you,” she said, and produced a bottle of smelling-salts from a black satin bag.
“Guy! you are not going—you can’t go!” Clara cried hysterically.
He did his best to soothe her, to explain that he was powerless in the matter, that it was not only a question of duty but of obedience to Government orders. She pushed him away, she also pushed aside the smelling-bottle proffered by her mother, and fell into ungovernable anger. Guy heard himself accused of having volunteered to return, of having deliberately schemed to obtain the recall; Clara vowed she never would forgive him, she said many things that were unjust and cruel. Finally she got up from the table to leave the room, and when he tried to follow her she told him fiercely that she did not want him, and slammed the door in his face.
He turned in helpless distress to his mother-in-law.
“This is dreadful! Can’t you help me to make her understand that isn’t my fault? You see yourself that have no choice about going back, don’t you?”
Mrs. Wakefield blew her nose delicately. “It is all most lamentable,” she said, “and so regrettably sudden, but since you assert that you have no choice in the matter we can but bow to the inevitable. When duty calls, a man must needs obey! do not doubt that dear Clara will reconcile herself to the trial in due course, but naturally the shock has unbalanced her. It is a thousand pities that you did not comply with her wishes in the first instance and retire instead of taking leave.”
Bassett could not bring himself to agree with her. Despite all his distress on Clara’s account, and his own reluctance to leave her, it was impossible to banish a furtive thankfulness from his heart that he had not retired.
“It made a difference financially,” he said, still standing by the door; he felt he could not reiterate his other reasons, Mrs. Wakefield knew them well enough. “And nobody could have foreseen that this was likely to happen.”
He thought be detected a gleam of malicious satisfaction in his mother-in-law’s prominent eyes, and an insidious fear assailed him that once he was out of the way she would try to prevent Clara from joining him in India.
“Would you very kindly touch the bell?” requested Mrs. Wakefield politely. “The dinner will suffer by this unfortunate delay; and I think it would be advisable if you went up and prevailed upon Clara to return to the table. Sustaining food is most necessary in times of mental agitation.”
But Mrs. Wakefield was the only member of the trio to benefit by sustaining food that night. There followed difficult hours for Guy Bassett and his wife; both suffered keenly, and by the morning Clara was exhausted with weeping and emotion, though on the whole she was more reasonably disposed. Her love for her husband was selfish and tenacious, without consideration for its object, but it filled her heart, and apart from her hatred of India and the destruction of all her hopes and plans the prospect of the separation caused her genuine misery.
Uncle Joseph was the next problem, and his fury on receiving the news was significant. There was little doubt that he had been secretly elated by the knowledge that he had secured a man of Bassett’s class, socially and professionally above the work he intended to give him——one who had not been reared on the word “commission,” who could be trusted to guard his employer’s interests as he would guard his own.
“You needn’t expect me to keep the job open for you, or to find you another when it suits you to come back,” he shouted, lowering his head like an angry bull, and speaking as though Bassett were an office boy in disgrace. “You don’t suppose I was willing to give you such a damned good chance for the benefit of your health, do you?”
Sir Joseph seemed totally unable to comprehend that Guy had no option in the matter. He omitted, ostentatiously, to shake hands with his step-nephew in-law when they parted, and also deducted a month’s salary in lieu of “notice” from the amount owing to Bassett.
The young man went about his preparations for departure from England with a heavy heart. Clara remained in bed, on the advice of Dr. Sparrow, who, summoned by Mrs. Wakefield, paid a long and sympathetic visit (“So different,” as Clara remarked, “from doctors in India!”), and said that poor Mrs. Bassett was suffering from nervous prostration.
Guy took a second-class passage and bought nothing that was not absolutely necessary, yet it seemed to him that he lived in the Army and Navy Stores squandering money. At night he shared “sustaining food” with Mrs. Wakefield, who was suspiciously gracious, even indulgent; drew his attention to dishes ordered particularly with a view to his tastes, and actually accorded him permission to smoke a cigarette with his coffee. Only once, however, did she make any reference to his future plans.
“I am unaware,” she said with lofty consideration, “what you and Clara have decided between you, and I have purposely refrained from discussing the subject with the poor dear girl, upset as she is at present, but may I ask if it is your intention to return to England when opportunity arises, or do you expect Clara to join you in India as soon as circumstances permit?”
“Don’t you think that had better be decided when I can see my way more clearly?” he suggested evasively.
Mrs. Wakefield supported this proposal, saying it was very judicious—“and I may as well tell you,” she added, “that you need be under no apprehension with regard to the well-being of my daughter and my grandchild during your absence. I shall hold myself responsible for their bodily needs as long as they are under my roof.”
“Thank you,” said Bassett uncomfortably. “But of course I shall send Clara every penny I can.”
“Quite so.” Mrs. Wakefield poured herself out a glass of port. “Clara will need much care,” she went on. “I fear, from what my medical man tells me, that the dear girl is not over strong. She seems to have inherited my weakness of heart.”
With sudden alarm Bassett recalled Clara’s collapse in India when he had told her of his cable to Sir Joseph, and her statement that her heart sometimes behaved oddly; then there was her utter prostration at this present crisis.
“You don’t think there is anything really wrong with her heart?” he asked anxiously.
“Oh! nothing to be disturbed about unduly. Only, as I said, she requires care and consideration. There is no doubt that the life in India was a strain on her constitution, and she will need time to recover from its effects.”
“She had no bad illness in India,” Bassett ventured to remind his mother-in-law. “I thought she stood the climate remarkably well.”
“Things are not always what they seem!” misquoted Mrs. Wakefield sonorously. “In any case, you may rely upon me to take every precaution while you are no longer here to watch over her yourself. While I am alive my dear daughter shall want for nothing in this, her home.”
Bassett wondered if she intended him to understand that it would be a different matter if her dear daughter joined him in India. He felt that he and Clara were becoming entangled like flies in a web of this old spider’s weaving; he could only trust that Clara’s affection for himself would prove strong enough to defeat any attempt to separate them indefinitely.
Those last days were like a nightmare to Bassett. Uncle Joseph’s unjust behaviour rankled in his mind, his hasty shopping was complicated by an apparent conspiracy in the commercial world to prevent his obtaining what he wanted. “We could make it for you, sir”—“We could get it for you,” seemed to arise like a parrot cry from every counter; or else the assistant assured him with a shocked expression that they were never asked for such things, as though his requests were almost indelicate. He was worried by the suspicion that treachery lurked beneath his mother-in law’s amiability, and sorely distressed about Clara lying white and unhappy on her pillows. Winnie, too, was fretful with a heavy cold in her head; and the weather was abominable, bitterly cold and dark, and dispiriting.
The only alleviation was a chance meeting, on one of his last afternoons, with no less a being than Mrs. Partridge. He stepped out of a lift almost into her arms. How pleased he was to see her kind, homely face again! He quite missed the sola topee, though there was something black on her head not unlike it in shape, and for one mad moment he wondered if it could possibly be the familiar old sun hat, covered! A mackintosh that crackled concealed the rest of her attire.
How they talked, blocking the way, explaining why they had not written or tried to meet, and agreeing how oddly difficult it was to fulfil such intentions in England. They neglected their business and had tea together, and Bassett told Mrs. Partridge all that had happened, finding relief in the outpouring of his woes.
“All the same, I can’t say I’m sorry you have to go back,” she told him, “though it’s a pity your wife isn’t going with you. I suppose she will follow you at the beginning of the cold weather?”
“I hope so,” he said, rather doubtfully. “Clara says she is coming; but there’s the old lady to reckon with, besides the question of money and what to do about Winnie.”
“I don’t see why Winnie shouldn’t go out with her mother. Children get along well enough in India if they are looked after. Think of that Janvier child—she was all right, though she was kept out in the country much later than is usual.”
Bassett remembered little Ruth with amused pleasure, and was interested to hear that she had been extraordinarily docile for the rest of the voyage, though she had immediately fallen foul of the sour-looking individual who was awaiting her at the docks—“her great-aunt’s maid,” continued Mrs. Partridge, “and I should say a very disagreeable person, though most old servants seem to be more or less disagreeable in England; I shall never forget what I suffered from my sister’s old housemaid in Devonshire. This woman told me she had been with Lady Harriet Paxton for over thirty years, and had helped to bring up Ruth’s mother, though she evidently regarded Mrs. Janvier as a subject hardly to be mentioned with propriety! I dare say you know the poor dear ran away with Mr. Janvier.”
“I hope the child is happy with her relations,” said Bassett, and as he sat facing Mrs. Partridge in the hot tea-room, amid the clamour of voices and clatter of crockery, and the bustling of waitresses, the picture arose in his mind of a dainty child in a short blue frock holding up a little bird of brilliant plumage against the baCkground of her red-gold curls. He saw the dark-skinned punkah boys waving the big round fans. He smelt the hot fragrance of the newly-watered Indian garden.
“I had one letter from Ruth,” he heard Mrs. Partridge saying, “about a month after we landed, a pathetic little epistle, asking me if I knew when her father and mother were coming home. She seemed to think they meant to give her a surprise and might appear at any moment. I gathered that she was fretting for them, though the poor child couldn’t express her feelings on paper. She wrote that even ‘Granny’ did not know when they were coming home. I suppose ‘Granny’ is Lady Harriet, which sounds nice and affectionate, but Ruth was obviously at war with Morgan, the maid. I remember being amused with the last sentence in the letter: ‘The worst of Mrs. Morgan is that she worries me so.’ Can’t you imagine how Ruth worries Mrs. Morgan?”
“Indeed I can,” said Bassett, with lively recollections of Tiny Thomas and the scenes on board ship. “I wish I could have seen Ruth and taken news of her to her mother, though I don’t know if I shall be sent back to Kihanabad.”
“If you are, you can take news of me to my husband; he doesn’t leave India till March. How I wish I were going back to India this week instead of to Bath, where I’ve taken a furnished house to start with. It’s a comparatively warm spot, and I know people there—but oh! how I ache for India sometimes—for the big rooms and the garden, and the barouche and the animals, and above all the servants! Apparently servants do not like Bath!” she added ruefully.
Bassett sympathised with Mrs. Partridge. How well he knew that “ache” for India—for the space, and the bodily freedom, and the sense of usefulness that to him were sufficient compensation for the drawbacks! If only he were not leaving England in such distressing circumstances how happy would the prospect make him of returning to it all. The thought of the impending parting from his Wife and child oppressed him intolerably. He rose from the table.
“I hate leaving Clara!” he said wretchedly. “This separation is the curse of Indian service. I feel afraid of the future for us both.”
“Cheer up! encouraged Mrs. Partridge. “You aren’t the only people who have had to put up with it, and if she joins you in the autumn everything will work out all right.”
“Yes—if she does!” he replied, foreboding in his voice.
The years that came after Guy Bassett’s recall to India seemed divided for him into periods of alternate hope and discouragement. More than once Clara’s passage was taken only to be cancelled, though he could not but recognise that circumstances were as much to be blamed as her own irresolution. Unforeseen expenses absorbed what money he had been able to send home in addition to the reasonable allowance required by Clara for herself and the child. Winnie had measles, Clara caught the complaint and was seriously ill. Then Clara had trouble with her teeth, and Mrs. Wakefield did not offer to help with the doctor’s and the dentist’s accounts; neither did she suggest a loan that might have enabled her daughter to sail for India. Again the hot weather necessitated postponement of plans, and afterwards Bassett was sent on special duty to a remote and jungly region, where his wife could not join him owing to lack of suitable accommodation.
Finally, when promotion brought a transfer to civilised headquarters, and, owing to his careful living, there was money in the bank, he began to suspect that Clara’s always half-hearted intention to follow him had dwindled to vanishing-point. She wrote, distressfully it was true, that she did not feel free to come—she pleaded that Winnie was now just at an age when it would be positively criminal to take her to India; then Mama was not strong enough in health to have sole charge of the child, and never could Clara bring herself to trust Winnie with anyone else.
It seemed as though all Clara’s passionate if egoistical affection for himself, baulked by separation, had become concentrated on the child, like a stream that, checked in its natural course, cuts a fresh channel for itself. She wrote of little beyond Winnie’s welfare and progress, of her manners and sayings and clothes, and her wonderful abilities. Expensive photographs reached him at intervals—Winnie in fancy, dress; Winnie dancing in an accordion-pleated frock; Winnie on a pony; Winnie seated on the floor or in a swing; Winnie and her mother taken together in touchingly devoted attitudes. And then one that exasperated him to look upon—Winnie with her grandmother. Mrs. Wakefield sat enthroned on a carved, high-backed chair, robed in black satin and lace, her Georgian countenance turned graciously towards the child, who was presenting to her a palpably artificial bouquet of roses.
The picture raised his ire to such a pitch that he found himself quoting viciously from a Persian classic: “That old hag, the aunt of Satan; may God make her face black! The anathema relieved his feelings for the moment, but it was hardly likely to counteract his mother-in-law’s obstructive influence on his life!
The obnoxious photograph reached him on a morning shortly after he had taken over his new responsibilities at Isanpore, a place which was of little early historical interest, but which, under British rule, had become the centre of a busy and populous district and the site of one or two thriving industries conducted by Europeans. Isanpore covered a vast area, what with its civil and military lines, the racecourse, the park, the church and assembly rooms, and the straggling native city. It was an important station; and as Bassett sat working in the canal office where he had established himself and his servants for the time being, he felt solitary and depressed. As yet he knew no one in this prosperous, up-to-date spot that had such an active official and social atmosphere; and this sense of isolation, while in the midst of his fellow-creatures, seemed infinitely harder to endure than the peaceful loneliness of the locality whence he had come. In the jungle he had been contented enough with the occasional companionship of some canal colleague; moreover he had been able to live economically yet with a certain degree of rough comfort. He feared he should find Isanpore expensive as headquarters, and the prices in the district would, of course, be equally alarming. He supposed he ought to “call round” the station, but his late solitude seemed to have arrested his social inclinations, and he realised with self-contempt that he felt shy. A fear seized him, suddenly, irresistibly, of this imposing station and its big, white dwellings, broad, well-kept roads and gardens, and all the smart, superior people he saw riding and driving and forgathering in public places.
The canal office was a severely simple Government building forming an exact square, standing in the exact centre of a dusty enclosure, relieved only by one large peepul tree beneath which Bassett’s camp equipage was collected, awaiting his next tour of inspection. The adjoining house and compound were in direct contrast with his unromantic official surroundings, and he gazed enviously through the open doors of the living-room at a luxuriant garden, with wide expanses of bright green lawn and flowers in profusion; there were also lemon and orange and pomegranate trees, roses bordered the paths, and flowering shrubs were splashed with pink and white and flame-coloured blossoms. The house, raised on a masonry plinth, was heavily thatched; it had broad flights of steps leading up to deep verandas, and a prosperous air pervaded the whole domain.
The figure of a woman dressed in white moved leisurely among the flowers, followed by a little black object that looked not much bigger than a rat. Bassett neglected his work, watching her. She might be past her youth, or still a girl; she might be plain or beautiful, it was impossible to judge at that distance, but at least her outline had a slender grace that was attractive.
Bassett had heard from Dilawa, his old bearer, who was an unquenchable gossip, that the house belonged to a man called Frost, a partner in one of the industrial firms that flourished at Isanpore; he supposed the lady to be Mrs. Frost. It crossed his mind how different things might have been could he have provided a home like that for Clara in India. Frost must be a wealthy man, judging by the size and appearance of the bungalow and the beauty of the garden, added to the value of the string of horses Bassett had seen led from the next compound for their morning exercise. He imagined Clara in that house and garden, free from financial worries, with a host of well-trained servants, an English governess for Winnie, a nice carriage, able to go home or to the hills for the hot weather. How happy they would all have been! Illogically he blamed himself for going into Government service instead of into business. Probably Frost had begun his career with even less income than he himself now received as a Government servant. He worked his mind into a ferment of envy and discontent. These people had all they could wish for without being separated, while it was more than six years since he had seen his own wife and child. He remembered the back room in Mrs. Wakefield’s house, visualised again the arrival of the telegram and that painful scene at the dinner-table when Clara had fled from the room in angry distress. Poor Clara! Guy had not a doubt but that Clara would have made him the very best of wives could he only have given her a comfortable home to start with. He ought not to have married so early in his service. Again he took up the exasperating picture of his mother-in-law and his little daughter. Winnie was very like her mother already; some day she would be the image of her grandmother. It was a strong type. A wave of despair passed over his spirit—his domestic situation seemed so hopeless, the more hopeless now that he was back from the jungle and amid civilisation. It was not as if he were a bachelor, with his life and his income at his own disposal; he was a married man, with none of the joys and compensations of matrimony. All the time he was watching the slim, white figure that lingered amid the flowers and shrubs in the next door garden. He wished he knew the Frosts—almost he determined to call upon them today between the orthodox hours of twelve and two. He would be doing nothing unconventional; no more than his duty, according to Anglo-Indian custom. Naturally one would begin the round of calls with one’s next-door neighbour.
Of a sudden he became aware that something was moving beneath his office table, and he stooped to ascertain what it was. A weird little dog emerged cautiously, regarding him with watery, suspicious eyes. Its body was bald and black, like a mackintosh pin cushion, a top-knot tied with green ribbon rose from its head and a tuft sprouted from its tail, otherwise it was entirely hairless—and to Bassett revolting. He had seen pictures of the hairless Mexican breed, when fashionable in England, but hitherto he had never beheld a specimen in the flesh. He marvelled how anyone could wish to possess a pet of such unnatural appearance, whatever its value. At the same moment he heard the lady in the garden calling—calling for the truant. At any rate, here to his hand was a convenient opportunity of introducing himself to the Frosts without formal effort. He coaxed and propitiated the hideous little animal, and felt thankful that Matilda, his brown spaniel, was virtuously engaged with her litter of puppies in the stables. Had Matilda been present she would certainly have pounced upon and swallowed at a gulp the grotesque intruder. Stifling his repugnance, he picked up the lapdog without ceremony and went forth to restore it to its mistress.
It was characteristic of Bassett that he did not pause to ascertain if he was presentable in appearance. All the same, though unconscious of the fact, he was a pleasing example of the average healthy Englishman as he crossed the green lawn of his neighbours’ garden, fresh from a recent bath, well-favoured, well-built, clad in clean flannels, wholesome within and without. During the past five years he had matured mentally and physically. His shoulders were broader, more set, the crisp dark hair was thinning at the temples. Hard experience and self-control had banished the boyish expression from his eyes; in its place was a certain pathetic independence, a firmness of character, simple yet impressive.
Clutching the disagreeable little dog beneath his arm, he walked boldly towards the lady in white, who stood awaiting him with polite expectance; and he realised as he approached her that she was young, though by no means a girl, and that she was fragile and fair and oddly beguiling. She had deepset eyes of a misty grey, a rather large mouth with exquisite teeth, her face was thin almost to sharpness, without oolour save for the lips, and her mouse-coloured hair was fluffed low on her forehead. A string of green beads, carved jade, hung round her neck, enhancing the whiteness of her skin.
The dog began to struggle violently, and Bassett put it down on the grass, when it fled to its mistress with plaintive, explanatory yelps, as a captive unexpectedly set free. The two human beings looked at each other and laughed simultaneously.
“Oh, Lala! you little humbug!” The lady caressed her pet reproachfully. “That is what he does—-runs off on some voyage of discovery, and then pretends he was stolen.”
“I found him under my office table,” said Bassett, feeling almost amicably disposed towards the unprincipled Lala. “In the Canal bungalow, next door,” he added, as a sort of self-introduction.
“Then you are—” The lady paused, gazing at him with sweet, melancholy eyes.
“My name is Bassett. I have just taken over charge of this division.”
“And I am Mrs. Frost—nothing further!” she informed him. “Aren’t you very uncomfortable in that horrible building?”
“Well, perhaps I am rather,” he admitted, “but I’ve been so busy since I arrived that I haven’t thought much about it.”
“Won’t you come in and have breakfast with me?” she suggested. “I am all alone.”
She spoke with plaintive persuasion, and he followed her quite readily up the veranda steps and into a large, luxurious dining-room that gave an impression of English and Oriental appointments artistically combined—such a room as he had not beheld nor imagined during his service in India. The floor was paved with black and white marble, almost covered with rich Persian rugs; the furniture was of Bombay woodwork, black and lustrous, deeply carved; the dining-table was a vision of polished silver, cut glass and red roses, and the cloth was of the finest English damask. Mrs. Frost took him to see the drawing-room, that was fragrant with flowers, voluptuously restful—-deep couches and chairs, carved screens, gigantic palms in gleaming brass pots. Then they went into her “own little den,” as she called it, and whereas Bassett had been fervent in his admiration of the other two rooms, he now stood speechless, disconcerted by the bizarre effect of green and mauve hangings, sofas and chairs almost level with the green and mauve carpet, and a multitude of strange curiosities on the low inlaid tables. Cobras wrought in black metal wriggled up the walls, holding lamp sockets in their mouths; idols and reptiles fashioned in silver or jade or priceless enamel lay everywhere, and in one corner a stuffed python reared its pointed head from a mass of thick, repulsive coils.
Mrs. Frost laughed at his astonished silence. “Don’t you like it?” she asked.
“Well,” he said awkwardly, “somehow it doesn’t seem quite like you—” he paused, not knowing what else to say. And then, as he glanced at her apologetically, it struck him that in some subtle fashion the surroundings did suit the woman. He was relieved when she pointed to at large photograph of herself, bare-necked, bare-armed, graceful in floating draperies, signed “Angelica Frost,” and asked his opinion of it. At least he could praise and admire it truthfully.
She picked up a marvellously lifelike little model of a karait, yellow and Satanic, and Bassett shuddered to see it in her slim white fingers. “I bought this yesterday,” she told him; “I couldn’t resist it. Snakes fascinate and terrify me at the same time!”
“Do put it down,” he implored her. “It’s beastly.”
“Yes,” she said, “it is.” Yet she put it down reluctantly as a servant announced at the door that breakfast was on the table.
She led the way to the dining-room, talking lightly and easily of Isanpore and the European community. “We are among the oldest inhabitants,” she told him as they sat down to the table. “Soldiers and civilians come and go, while we remain fixtures. One advantage of being tradespeople out here is that you can really settle down and be comfortable; it’s worth while making things nice. On the other hand, officially of course, we are nobodies! I go in to dinner with baby subalterns and the latest joined civilian infants.”
“Do you mind?” he inquired, amused; there had been no hint of mortification in her voice, or he would not have asked the question.
“Oh! I don’t ‘feel my position,’ if that’s what you mean,” she laughed. “But sometimes it bores me and I bore them. I’m hardly old enough yet for boys!”
He wondered a little anxiously if she regarded him as a boy, and to convince her of his maturity he spoke of his wife.
She did not seem interested. “Oh! are you married?” she asked carelessly. “What have you done with Mrs. Bassett and all the little Bassetts, if there are any?”
He felt nettled by her flippant indifference to his domestic affairs, and was tempted to inquire what she had done with Mr. Frost, whom as yet she had not mentioned. Unaccountably he felt sure that there were no little Frosts.
“My wife and child are at home,” he said baldly; and for a few moments they ate quails poached in vine leaves without speaking. Both food and service were perfect, and Bassett enjoyed his breakfast. He appreciated good living when it came his way, but beyond a certain point he took little trouble over his own commissariat, except to keep down expenses.
“Does your wife come out to India, or does she stay at home?” Mrs. Frost inquired, apparently more to break the pause than from any desire to know.
“She stays at home,” grunted Bassett; and then he became conscious that the misty grey eyes were regarding him with new attention. It disturbed him a little, but at least it was more gratifying than her unconcern, though he did not intend to “give Clara away” to a stranger. All the same, he had done so before they got up from the table. He realised with a sense of dismay how deftly Mrs. Frost had drawn from him the truth—that his wife abhorred India and preferred to live at home—despite his loyal enumeration of the difficulties that so far had prevented her from joining him.
“And now, of course, the child can’t be brought out to India,” he persisted, “and there is no one she can be left with at present.”
They had wandered into the wide, plant-lined veranda that was stocked with comfortable cane furniture. Mrs. Frost stood leaning against a pillar, teasing the ugly little dog with her foot. Lala romped and worried in an ecstasy of grotesque playfulness. Bassett observed that the foot was very small and slender.
“I don’t think I should care to stay at home in any case,” she said thoughtfully.
“What about the hot weather and rains? Don’t you find it very trying, or do you go to the hills?”
“Oh! I love the hot weather and the rains! I feel much more alive between May and November than I do during the rest of the year.”
“I suppose it’s more bearable with a jolly house and garden like this, and everything in the world you can “want,” he said enviously.
“How do you know I have everything in the world I can want?” Her tone was provocative.
“Well—haven’t you?” He looked at her, and she smiled elusively, gave a little wave of her hand as though to brush away the subject, and suggested a stroll round the garden.
It was a pleasant season of the year in this part of India. The hot weather was over and the sharp winter bite had not yet crept into the atmosphere. The sun shone with languorous warmth, as though resting from the fierce activities of the past few months. Delicious scents of orange blossom and roses soothed the senses, doves were cooing from the trees. To Bassett work and worry and disappointment seemed remote as he dawdled among the flowers and shrubs with this strange little lady, who puzzled while she allured him so strongly.
When he left her, with reluctance, she asked him to dine the following evening, and he accepted gratefully.
“I daresay you are rather lonely,” she said. “I know what it is. I am alone a great deal too.”
He went back to his work, his mind full of his new-found friend. He was haunted by the conviction that she was not altogether happy, in spite of her luxurious surroundings. He felt an immense pity for her. Why was she not happy? was her husband a brute? Had she lost a child? Perhaps she loved children and longed for them. Yet somehow he could not picture her with a child, feminine and gentle though she seemed. There was just a streak of something hard and abnormal beneath her fragility; he had been aware of it, subconsciously, all the time. And why did she like idols and snakes, and the hot weather, and unnatural little dogs?
After such distraction Bassett found it difficult to settle down again to work. Again the indescribable sense of solitude oppressed him, also a sort of feverish excitement prevented him from fixing his attention on the official documents before him. He left them lying on his table and roamed restlessly from the living room to the side room where he slept, thence out into the drab-coloured compound. Early in the afternoon he called for his tea just for something to do, and felt disgusted with the homely earthenware teapot and its badly chipped spout. A tin of jam, raggedly opened, butter that looked like lard, and very thick toast revolted him today, and finally he ordered one of his ponies to be saddled and rode out for miles along the canal bank to inspect some work that was under construction. It was almost dark when he returned; as he dismounted he saw a smart little Victoria and a pair of cobs drive in at the gate of the Frosts’ bungalow. He wondered if Mrs. Frost were alone; he wished he could dine with her to-night instead of tomorrow night—it seemed such a long time to wait.
When his dinner was served it struck him as more unappetising than usual, the soup was sticky, the chicken cutlets seemed to be tied up in knots; the caramel pudding tasted bitter and was riddled with holes like Gruyere cheese, and though the sardine toast was hot and well served he sent it away, perversely, with a captious message to the cook. Afterwards he sat and smoked in moody ill-humour until Matilda came in to say she could spare him half an hour from her clamorous family, and, indeed, would be thankful for the rest. She laid her soft brown head, with its dangling ears, on his foot, and he found her affectionate presence a solace.
When she had gone the room seemed more dreary than ever; he hated the clumsy Government furniture, and bare, whitewashed walls. A craving for domestic comfort assailed his spirit—a craving for human companionship, for someone who belonged to him wholly and to whom he also belonged. Why couldn’t Clara come out to him—if only for a year? Of course he could not expect her to share such surroundings, but now, if they were together, his pay would allow of a small house in the station and camp need be no hardship during the cold weather with better arrangements than he could afford for himself after remitting to England all the cash he could spare.
Feeling stifled and weary, he went to the door and inhaled the soft night air. Outside it was still and dark, a faint smell of wood smoke and the murmur of voices came from the servants” quarters; he almost envied the servants—they at least were neither alone nor despondent. He could see the lights of the bungalow in the next compound, and he thought of Mrs. Frost, recalled her delicate pointed face and haunting grey eyes, the little white fingers that had fondled the odious metal karait. Her soft presence seemed to be hovering here in the veranda, beside him; he even put out his hands.
On an impulse he turned back into the room and went to his office table; sat down and wrote to Clara, wrote from his heart, told her he was lonely, confessed that the life and the work and the country, much as he cared for it all, did not make up for her absence. He missed her and needed her sorely. Had she forgotten that they were husband and wife? Were they to go on like this, divided, apart, with no link between them save money, for years to come?
Since the passing of that phase of boyhood when Nature prompts the youthful male to deck himself in fancy raiment, Bassett had paid but scant attention to his wardrobe, always provided that his clothes were in keeping with his daily existence. To find next evening, when he changed to dine with Mrs. Frost, that his dress suit was not only shabby and out of date but inclined uncomfortably to tightness caused him definite dismay; but the fact that these imperfections should so disquiet him perhaps annoyed him more. He called himself names for permitting such a trifle to interfere with his pleasurable anticipations, and as he left the bungalow he strove sternly to banish from his mind the consciousness of shiny seams and antiquated cut.
Once within Mrs. Frost’s drawing-room it was easy enough to think of nothing but Mrs. Frost herself, who stood, a shimmering vision in palest green, beneath a rose-shaded lamp. His spirits sank a little when she said that her husband would be with them in a moment. So they were not to be alone!
“Major Mullat is coming,” she also told him; “he a great friend of Joe’s—my husband. They like the same things—horses and cards and shooting.” She gave little sigh. “I often feel I am not at all the right sort of wife for Joe—I can’t ride, hate cards, and I’m positively gun-shy! Yet he kind enough to tolerate me.” She laughed sweetly. And I am very careful never to interfere with his amusements or his friendships.”
Bassett yearned to protest that in his opinion “Joe” was greatly to be envied the possession of such a wise and unselfish wife (not to speak of her physical attractions that worked on his senses like some perfume, potent as drug), but the words would not come, and he felt almost relieved when at that moment the two men entered the room together.
Mr. Frost was a thickset individual of middle age, with a ruddy, goodnatured face and curly black hair that shone—a pronounced contrast to his tall, loose limbed companion, who had a hard, clever profile and no particular colouring. His narrow eyes and tight-shut mouth, under a small moustache, gave Major Mullat a disagreeable expression. Bassett disliked him, whereas he felt drawn towards “Joe,” recognising a genial personality, leavened with self-indulgence—one ready to welcome a guest and credit his fellow creatures with the best intentions whatever their conduct. He was an admirable host, giving generously of his best in the matter of wine and smokes, while conceding all praise to his wife for the superiority of the dinner itself.
“This is Angy’s invention,” he announced proudly as some super-excellent dish went round. “You wouldn’t think to look at her, but she knows what’s what in the feeding line! It takes me all my time to keep down my weight against her housekeeping, I can tell you!”
And he ate and drank with a gusto that was infectious: a boisterous person, rather vulgar, yet not pretentious, simply keen that his guests should share his frank enjoyment of the good things he could so well afford to set before them. He did most of the talking—asked Bassett if he had discovered the splendid chain of swamps and lakelets that lay in the vicinity of Gopuri, the nearest canal rest-house, some seven miles out of the station; and when Guy explained that as yet he knew little of the district, Mr. Frost described with all a sportsman’s enthusiasm this happy hunting-ground that swarmed with wild fowl, duck and teal, geese and snipe, only regretting that he had not the leisure to visit it more frequently either alone, or in company with two or three other guns.
Major Mullat said little. Bassett observed that he drank a great deal, though apparently he remained quite unaffected in speech and demeanour by the amount of champagne and port and liqueur he consumed. He seemed to be on an intimate footing with Mr. and Mrs. Frost; they called him “Bill,” though he addressed his hostess as “Mrs. Frost,” and his manner towards her bore no trace of familiarity.
When dinner was over, Mrs. Frost stayed with the three men while they smoked; then, as she rose from the table with Lala under her arm, she said, looking at her husband and Major Mullat: “I suppose want to be off to the club as usual. If so, don’t mind us; Mr. Bassett and I will amuse each other.”
Mr. Frost hesitated; Major Mullat looked at his dessert plate. Mrs. Frost turned to Guy. “You will excuse them, won’t you, Mr. Bassett?” He assented with genuine fervour, and with equal wholeheartedness refused Mr. Frost’s invitation to accompany them to the club.
“Mr. Bassett would much rather stay with me,” Mrs. Frost pronounced gaily; and bidding Guy follow her, she led the way to her own sitting-room. There she waved him into a comfortable chair and curled herself up on the sofa with a flattering sigh of satisfaction.
“Now we are all happy!” she said. “At least I am, and they will be directly they get to their beloved old club. And what about you?”
“Personally, I want nothing better,” said Bassett. He would have liked to proclaim that he had not felt so happy for years, for he had a sense of being drawn into a haven of friendship; the atmosphere of the room was peculiarly soothing, his cigar was perfect, and Mrs. Frost, nestled in her glittering gown among the mauve and green cushions, was a feast for the eyes.
“It is nice to have someone to talk to,” she said contentedly, and clasped her hands behind her head; the loose sleeves of her gown fell away from her arms, leaving them bare, white and soft and slender.
Bassett, aghast at the desire that suddenly assailed him to clasp them in his hands, began to ask questions hurriedly, hardly heeding what he said:
“Don’t you go out a lot in the evenings? Haven’t you crowds of friends? What do you do with yourself when you are alone?”
She smiled at him slowly. “Oh! yes, I know plenty of people: everybody in Isanpore; but it doesn’t entertain me enormously to go to dinner parties, and concerts, and theatricals. Sometimes I go to dances; I like dancing, but other things interest me more deeply.”
“What sort of things?”
“I love my books and my needlework. Look—” She drew a bundle from beneath the sofa cushions, unrolled it, and displayed to his admiring gaze an exquisite piece of embroidery, half finished, on black satin. It was a faithful representation of Kali, the Hindoo goddess, in her character of Durga, the consort of Shiva, riding the tiger—exactly like the paintings to be seen on the walls of temples. Another square was produced, this time a finished picture in silks of the Mother of murder and mystery and death, with her four hands and her garland of skulls, and her ear-rings of dead bodies. It was marvellous work, but why, Bassett inquired with diffidence, had Mrs. Frost devoted her talent to such a repulsive and unworthy subject?
She laughed at his obvious concern. “Why not? Mother Kali is a very powerful and important person, and perhaps it is as well to pay her a little attention! I have worked her in most of her incarnations, both benevolent and malignant; she will make a screen or a bedspread. Kali interests me—we are all so like her, you know!—a combination of good and evil, with the evil predominant. What do you think?”
“I can’t think of evil in connection with you, at any rate,” affirmed Bassett stoutly.
She laughed again—a little indulgent laugh of appreciation, and said, “You are dear!” Then she went on: “My husband can’t understand what he calls my unholy interest in witchcraft and demonology and all the superstitious beliefs of the people. He has no feeling for that kind of thing—” She paused, regarding him plaintively.
“Perhaps,” said Bassett in matter-of-fact voice, “he looks upon it all as I am inclined to do, as so much hocus-pocus on the part of the priests and fakirs for the purpose of imposing on the people and getting money out of them.”
“I daresay there a lot in that.” Mrs. Frost spoke impartially. “But I’m convinced there is a vast amount of truth behind it as well. It’s something that we call the Devil, and the people of India know better than to neglect or offend Powers that may deal death and disease and disaster unless bribed and propitiated. After all, isn’t it more logical to try to placate an evil spirit than to spend money and time over a benevolent being who can be relied upon not to work mischief?”
Bassett remembered something he had lit upon one morning in] the jungle only a few months back—traces of what was undoubtedly some hideous rite, a sacrifice to a red-daubed idol hidden away in dense undergrowth. He shivered as he recalled the discovery, picturing the rough little shrine with the worn, shapeless image, and, among the debris of rude stone carvings scattered about, the skull and the skeleton hands and feet of a child. How abominable, how relentless, must be the belief that could justify a cruel slaughter in the certain faith that benefit would accrue to the living!
“Tell me,” he heard Mrs. Frost saying, “haven’t you come across queer things in your dealings with the villagers that you couldn’t account for on rational grounds?”
Bassett hesitated. “Well, perhaps I have,” he said reluctantly; and at her urging, he cited one or two instances that had come within his personal knowledge of curious happenings which, to all outward appearance, could only have been due to supernatural influences.
Then in the silence that followed he began to wonder if, after all, there could be anything in Mrs. Frost’s contention that behind the grosser forms of “worship,” with all their attendant horrors, their foolish charms and spells and exorcisms, there might not lurk some malignant force to be reckoned with, not to be lightly disregarded? It was like glimpse of a darker side of India that had never seemed to him of real account; and his reason revolted from such theories, whether true or imaginary. He had encountered people at home, chiefly women, who had prated of the occult mysteries of the East, of a superhuman knowledge peculiar to Oriental races; but to him it had all seemed contemptibly superficial, to savour of a false, sensational assumption of what, in fact, did not exist. He could easily understand that the study of India’s ancient writings, the wisdom of past ages, must be absorbing from a romantic and historical point of view, though he had no time, nor much inclination, for such a pursuit; but for the rest it would seem only necessary to recognise the superstitious beliefs of the people in so far as such beliefs affected his work. He took such beliefs into consideration when dealing with villagers and landowners and coolies, well knowing how often they account for otherwise incomprehensible behaviour—failure to keep important appointments, reluctance to carry out an order, absence from duty and so forth, could nearly always be traced to bad omens: the hoot of an owl, the sight of a widow or a one-eyed man, an inauspicious date, dozens of absurdities that could not be combated by Western common sense. He regarded them as delusions that had perforce to be accepted, though frequently they were tiresome and inconvenient.
But now this fair, fragile little lady seemed to be unlocking a door that led into a blood-stained chamber, a dim dungeon filled with strange and dreadful shapes that awed, yet revolted, his intelligence. She mentioned books and quoted from writers he had never heard of; he gathered that she looked beyond the sticks and stones and symbols, the shapeless lumps of mud, and the rags that fluttered from the trees—that she saw behind obscenities and horrors something that was vast and awful, greatly to be feared.
It disturbed his mind, caused him an uneasy apprehension which, as he listened to her, grew and pressed upon him in the softly-lighted room, with its musky atmosphere and bizarre crowd of curiosities. He struggled desperately to free his senses from the subtle spell, and again he began to ask her questions, abruptly, almost rudely this time, in order to drag her attention from the hateful topic: How long had she been in India? Where had she spent her girlhood? How often did she go home?
She accepted the interruption with forbearance.
“I was born in India,” she told him. “I was out here till I was ten years old. My father was a planter—-he shot himself one hot-weather night. I never knew why—perhaps he had lost his money, for after that we seemed to be very poor. My mother took me home and we lived about in lodgings at different seaside places. We hated it, both of us, and longed to get back to India. My mother, poor dear, was very delicate, and finally she went out of her mind. I was sent to school, and spent my holidays with dull relations or at the school. Miss Pope, the mistress, was some sort of relation of my father’s. I was always lonely and furious!”
The tragic little history harrowed Bassett’s heart; was it any wonder that Mrs. Frost’s eyes held a sadness that no laughter seemed able to counteract, that her nature inclined to morbidity?—her father had killed himself, her mother had gone mad, her early girlhood had been desolate, unhappy. And what of the years that followed—how had she come to marry Frost, a man so entirely removed from her in sympathies and outlook? She seemed to divine his thoughts, somewhat to his confusion.
“Joe was an old friend of Miss Pope’s, that was how I met him. He had come home from. India, and he brought presents for her—things I remembered— pottery and embroideries and brass. It was like a breath of the old life, it was India, and of course I married him, gladly, just to get back to the sun and the scents and the veranda. I didn’t know he was rich. I didn’t care. I thought of nothing beyond the fact that he would take me back to India—and I was barely seventeen!”
“Good God said Bassett below his breath. She told him that she went home now and then, but not more often than she could help, to see her mother, who was still living, and to get clothes. Joe thought she ought to go every year, but she hated England; she was far happier at Isanpore.
Bassett said suddenly: “What would you do if you had children—would you stay at home with them?”
“Oh! children!” she said with indifference. “Thank goodness, I never had any. People in India oughtn’t to have children. Dogs are much better—better than husbands and children and most human beings!” She cuddled Lala under her chin, and petted his horrible, naked little body.
Bassett felt utterly puzzled. At one moment she appeared to be a brave unselfish woman, who made the very best of an uncongenial marriage, and the next she was a cold-hearted creature devoid of natural feeling or affection. Yet the very fact that he found her so complex seemed to add to her peculiar charm.
It was getting late, and he rose to go with mingled feelings of reluctance and relief. Mrs. Frost went with him to the steps of the veranda and for a few moments they lingered, captive to the moonlit silence of the scene before them. It was enchanting—the white spaces, the long black shadows, the perfume of flowers, the peace profound.
“What a night for a drive!” said Mrs. Frost unexpectedly.
“Yes; I often go for a drive after dinner when there’s a moon and it’s warm—and Joe is likely to be late.”
“Then come now with me?” Bassett suggested eagerly.
She seemed to hesitate. Then she decided—“No, not to-night—perhaps tomorrow night, or the night after. I will let you know, or you can come over, and we will see.”
Just then the quiet was broken by the sound of wheels and fast-trotting hoofs; a dogcart rattled through the compound and drew up in front of the house. It was Major Mullat, and he was alone. He joined the pair in the veranda, explaining that he had promised to leave a message, on his way home, from Joe, who wanted the brougham sent for him somewhere about two o’clock in the morning.
“The old sinner!” said Mrs. Frost placidly. “Don’t you want a drink, Bill, before you go on?”
“Yes, I do,” said Major Mullat, and moved towards the open doors.
Bassett took his leave abruptly with a painful sense of estrangement that he knew to be unreasonable. He resented with equal inconsequence, Mullat’s intimacy with the Frosts, and more than ever he disliked the man, who made him feel such a stranger. Later, against his will, he listened for what seemed to him hours, until he heard a vehicle leaving the next compound.
For the next two days, perversely, he hugged his indefinite grievance. He saw Mrs. Frost several times in the garden; yet he could not bring himself to walk over and join her. Once, when he had almost made up his mind to do so, Major Mullat appeared at her side, and the sight of the pair, sauntering along, turning to each other in leisurely conversation, exasperated him further.
It was shortly after this, while he was still ruffled by the distasteful vision, that he received a note from Mrs. Frost asking him if he was still inclined to carry out their plan of a moonlight drive together? If so, she would be ready—waiting for him at nine o’clock that night.
They swung out of the compound in a light Calcutta-built cart drawn by a quick trotting pony of Norfolk descent. Bassett was driving, at Mrs. Frost’s request, and the syce, much to his own satisfaction, was left behind.
At first they were silent, soothed by the stillness of the hour, by the dry, sweet scents that floated from flowering shrubs in the gardens around. The moon bridged the road with sharp, black shadows that now and again the pony attempted to leap. Bassett glanced from his higher seat at the woman by his side. She had thrown a filmy wrap about her shoulders, but her head was uncovered, and her hair gleamed like raw silk in the moonlight. He could see the white nape of her neck as she leaned a little forward. The odd sense of grievance from which he had suffered gave place to a tender, intimate feeling towards her; he suspected that she was desolate, restless in heart and in spirit, possibly in sore need of a friend with whom she could be frank, on whose loyal allegiance she might safely count. That there was an element of disloyalty towards Clara in this feeling he did not pause to consider. Truth to tell, he had, for the moment, forgotten Clara; he did not think of her at all as he drove with Angelica Frost, first for some distance along the empty road between two lines of mighty trees, then unavoidably through a section of the native city.
Here was a crowd and a noise; a dull yellow light streamed from the cavernous little shops on either side of the street; fumes of charcoal mingled with the dust-laden atmosphere, a smell of condiments, of hot, rancid butter, of stale jessamine blossom. The hum of voices, a continuous drone, was broken by hoarse laughter, the cry of a child, and the high-pitched whine of a beggar. From storeys above came echoes of revelry, the tinkle of music, plaintive monotonous singing. Perforce they drove slowly—figures swarmed in the roadway regardless of traffic. Bassett shouted to a group of youths who stood wrangling almost under the nose of the impatient pony; thin, muslin-clad boys, wearing jaunty pork-pie caps, and marigolds stuck behind their ears. They seemed about to come to blows until Bassett’s warning suddenly diverted their attention, and they moved away with a cackle of laughter, holding each other’s little fingers, in amiable confraternity.
The pony plunged forward, only to be checked again by a bullock cart crawling complacently in the centre of the street, the driver enveloped in a cotton wrapper, apparently deaf and blind to his surroundings.
“I wish we were out of this,” Bassett remarked irritably. He disliked the inquisitive attention directed towards his companion—the fair, white woman with gleaming hair. He felt nauseated by the many conflicting odours and the stifling atmosphere.
“I love it!” Mrs. Frost answered. “Look at the light on their smooth brown skins and the Arabian Nights effect of the figures in the little caves of shops. To think that it was all just the same a thousand years ago! I never get tired of it. Isn’t it like a dream?”
“A bad dream!” said Bassett crossly, as he guided the pony past the bullock cart and all but knocked down an old woman, who screamed abuse of him and of all his relations, male and female, particularly female. He felt thankful when they emerged from the turmoil and found themselves on the edge of the vast open country that lay white and silent in the radiance of the moon.
Then he gave the pony its head, and they sped through the soft night air at a pace that was intoxicating; on and on through sleeping hamlets and scraps of jungle, past crops and groves, and desolate spaces sterile with salt that lay like patches of snow in fantastic whiteness.
“Are you cold?” Bassett asked anxiously. For himself he welcomed the chill that crept into the air as the moon rose higher, but he feared for the delicate being at his side.
“Cold? Not a bit. You don’t want to turn back, do you?”
“Certainly not. I was only thinking of you.”
“I am all right. Let us go as far as that line of trees in the distance.”
“That’s the canal... it’s miles away.”
“Never mind. You might do an inspection by moonlight!”
“I have quite enough of that kind of thing by daylight, thank you,” he said, with a contented laugh. He was willing to drive all night if she wished it.
“Don’t you like your work?”
“I love it; but everyone needs rest and recreation sometimes. I feel I have been getting rather stale lately. It’s years since I had a holiday.”
“You ought to have a thorough change. Why don’t you go home?”
It was then that he remembered Clara, with a sudden sense of shock; and all his pleasure in the drive, in the splendour of the night, in the presence of his companion, seemed to fall away, leaving him oppressed, despondent.
“Why don’t you go home?” she repeated with amiable curiosity.
Bassett hesitated. “My wife may be coming out,” he replied evasively.
“Oh? I thought she didn’t like India and wouldn’t leave the child.”
He said with helpless impatience: “Nothing settled yet.” And he flicked the pony quite needlessly with the whip. He was gazing gloomily ahead, and therefore he did not know that Mrs. Frost was smiling to herself.
At last they neared the line of trees. Arrived, they halted by the bridge that spanned the canal, whose waters, flowing almost imperceptibly, shone opaque in the moonlight. A wide calm lay over the flat, unbroken country. Nature seemed motionless around them.
Moments passed; them all at once, in violent contrast with the silence, there rose from the centre of the bridge a sound—the sound of a strong, young voice flung forth in song. A Hindu youth, impelled perhaps to wander by the beauty of the night, or rendered restless by a hopeless passion, had perched himself upon the parapet to chant of love. He sang with sensual fervour, driving his voice into the air with odd little catches and turns and unexpected pauses. The echoing cadences rose and fell, piercing the stillness, floating on the surface of the water that crept softly from beneath the bridge.
Even Bassett, with his close knowledge of the language, could not follow much of what was sung, only enough to make him feel devoutly thankful that the shameless wording of this serenade was not likely to be understood by his companion. Furtively he glanced at her upturned face and was startled by her pallor, by the rapt expression in her eyes. Her eyes shone strangely; they reminded him of something that he could not for the moment name. Afterwards he thought that they had looked like opals.
Then, with painful swiftness, the remembrance darted through his mind that she had spent her years of childhood in the East, might have understood and spoken Hindustani like a native, with all the forward knowledge of an Indian child. Ashamed of the suspicion that assailed him, he wheeled the pony round without asking her permission.
She put out her hands as though to grasp the reins. “What are you doing?”
He jerked her hand away gently. “We are going home,” he told her. She laughed, an unpleasant little laugh that jarred on him, but she made no further protest; silent, as though wearied, she leaned back in her seat. and again they sped over the miles of hard, white road, back through sleeping villages and the patches of jungle; the moon sailed high overhead, the silence was only disturbed by the sudden wail of a jackal, the hoot of an owl; once came the jingle of bells as a native runner, laden with post-bags, crossed the road and vanished into the scrub.
Bassett, as he drove, found his memory turning unaccountably to that early morning long ago when he had left Clara weeping her heart out in the Partridges’ bungalow. At first he wondered vaguely what could have evoked the recollection; he saw himself descending the broad veranda steps, hesitating, reluctant, torn between his sense of duty and compassion for his wife. Then came the clue—the song of the man at the well-wheel, the song that had summoned him back to his work, inspired him, restored his determination. What a difference between that primitive praise of a sacred element, free from all gross allusion, and the chant on the bridge that was simply a paean of animal passion!
Confusedly, the two songs now seemed to him symbolical of India—of India’s influence on those who came in contact with her subjective power. On the one side were pure ideals of thought and conduct preserved throughout the ages; on the other, forces of darkness, devildom and sin.
He shivered, hardly knowing whether his own thoughts, or the now really cold night air, had caused the chill feeling that crept, like a trickle of water, down his spine; yet whatever its source, it freed him from the spell that had held him dumb, as in a dream, since he had turned the pony’s head homewards.
“I wonder what time it is,” he said prosaically. “I do hope you won’t have caught cold, or your husband will blame me for letting you stay out so late!”
“You needn’t worry about that. I never catch cold. The drive has done me good. My husband would thank you for keeping me amused.”
He scented bitterness beneath the pleasant little speech, and once more he felt consumed with a desire to know the truth as to her real relations with her husband. “Won’t he mind—” he began with diffidence.
She interrupted lightly: “He won’t be jealous, if that is what you mean. We understand each other very well.” And Bassett felt snubbed.
Now they had reached the bazaar, and though the crowd had diminished and progress was comparatively easy, close attention was necessary in order to avoid stragglers, dogs, and various obstacles, for most of the lights were out, and the rays of the moon hardly penetrated into the narrow street. But once clear of the city, once more on the broad, empty road, he could not refrain from returning to the subject. Yet he waited till they neared the house.
“It is a great thing,” he said tritely, “when married people really understand each other.”
“It generally means,” said Mrs. Frost, with, calm deliberation, “that they are not in love with one another.”
The remark took him aback. He blurted out: “But that isn’t why you and your husband understand each other, is it?”
She laughed, as though genuinely amused. “I, at any rate, have never been in love. And if it ever happens—”
They pulled up in front of the house. The syce was awaiting them on the steps. Bassett helped Mrs. Frost out of the cart, and she did not invite him to come in, for which he felt disappointed, yet in a measure glad; neither did she give him her hand when she bade him good night, but ran up the steps and varnished like a wraith through the open doors.
The syce led the pony away, and Bassett walked back to the canal bungalow, his mind in chaos. What a strange evening! He hardly knew if he had enjoyed it or hated it. He was conscious that a disturbing element threatened to interfere with the tranquillity of his life, that there was danger ahead, else why should the words so persistently ring in his ears: “And if it ever happens—”?
He could not get away from them; they pursued him into the stuffy bungalow that smelt of whitewash and kerosene; stayed with him as he smoked cigarette after cigarette, reluctant to go to his bedroom fearing that he should not sleep; trampled on his better instinct, and held him an unwilling captive. “If it ever happens——-”
Desperate at last, he wandered into his bedroom and turned up the oil-lamp that hung on the wall. Something stirred and snuffled on the bed. He looked over his shoulder and beheld Matilda encamped on the coverlet, her family assembled around her. Profusely she apologised, yet with a certain confident pride. Had she not carried each fat, heavy pup in her mouth, one by one, from the stables to this comfortable haven that breathed of her beloved master—thus overcoming the odious necessity for separation?
Bassett could not bring himself to scold her—to turn her out. Good old Matilda! Her faithful presence, even with her squirming, smelly babies, acted as a sort of wholesome antidote to the cloying influence of the last few hours. He busied himself with the arranging of a rug for her on the floor, and as he did so he came to a sudden decision. tomorrow he would go into camp; he would stay out in camp in the district, as far away as possible from Isanpore, until he received Clara’s answer to his letter.
Without hesitation he roused Dilawa, and gave definite orders for a start next day at dawn. Then he slept.
Weeks went by: Christmas drew near. The cold weather set in bright, joyous, triumphant, and now the canal banks were at their pleasantest. Grassy tracks, flanked by healthy plantations, ran smooth and hard on either side of the gliding green water; the air held a buoyant sparkle; the sun shone with bland benevolence, as though blameless of the cruel heat that not so long ago had rendered human existence well-nigh insupportable.
Bassett cantered along the bank on a stout, little, country-bred mare; he had bought her for a song at a horse fair before she had ever been saddled, and had broken her in himself. As he rode he whistled and sang, his spirits uplifted by the glory of the morning and the prospect of a ten days’ halt, with rather less work than usual and capital wild-fowl shooting near by. He laughed as a chain of brown monkeys swung themselves from an overhanging branch across to the opposite side of the water; and as he passed a clearing in the undergrowth he called compliments to a gaudy peacock strutting with spread tail before his admiring hens. The reply was an undignified scuttle and discordant shrieks, followed by clumsy flappings in the trees.
Bassett was happier now than he had been since his abrupt departure from Isanpore, despite the knowledge that Clara did not intend to join him in India. Her answer to his plaintive appeal had merely been the same familiar story—reiteration of difficulties insuperable, all the old arguments paraded again, in combination with affectionate expressions of regret, and a hint of reproach that he should add to the hardships of her position by his complainings when, as they all knew, if only he had retired in the first instance—- Surely, she wrote, he could not imagine that she was any happier than himself in this unlucky separation? And she pointed out that, as furlough would be due to him shortly, it would be far cheaper for him to come home than if they started a temporary establishment in India, all the time sending home money for Winnie’s education as well.
The suggestion held reason and sense, and at first he resolved to fall in with it, hoping that he should find in the prospect as much relief from the restless discontent that had followed him from Isanpore, as if Clara had agreed to join him.
Then, gradually, he had become conscious that hard and congenial effort of body and mind, good sport, and the exhilarating cold-weather climate was healing his spirit, restoring his light-hearted satisfaction with life; also that now he did not honestly look forward to furlough in England and felt little inclination for a lengthy sojourn in the house of Mrs. Wakefield, which was what it would come to. If he and Clara and Winnie could betake themselves to a cottage in the country— But though doubtless Clara would ‘be willing, assuredly the “Aunt of Satan” would contrive to baulk such plans. He saw himself at a loose end in London, yet without freedom; later, in lodgings at some odious seaside place as a sort of useful appendage to his mother-in-law, his wife, and his child; again in the house off the High Street, Kensington, until his leave should be over.
Bassett realised that contentment had returned to him—had returned perhaps all the more completely as a result of that interval of mental unrest upon which he looked back with a shrinking of conscience, admitting its nature and its peril. He was well aware that he had hurried into camp—“bolted,” so to speak, from Mrs. Frost’s allurements; and while he despised his own weakness he blamed Clara also for exposing him indirectly to such temptation. Any possibility of unfaithfulness on his part, whether in thought or in action, would never, he knew, occur to her mind; but while in a way he appreciated his wife’s confidence, he resented its quality as being selfishly devoid of thought or consideration.
So it happened that this morning he rode over the Gopuri Bridge—the same bridge from which the Hindu youth had shouted his lurid love-song on the night of the drive with Mrs. Frost—without disturbing reminiscences, without a tremor of the senses. Mrs. Frost and her seductions, Clara with her just and unjust claims, Winnie, Mrs. Wakefield—all seemed remote from his present existence; and he dismounted in front of the Gopuri resthouse, eager for his bath and his breakfast, thinking chiefly of his intended raid that evening on the adjacent swamps and sheets of water that abounded with wild-fowl.
Gopuri resthouse took its name from the village that lay beyond the bridge. It was quite unlike the regulation shelters, the square, flat-roofed variety so unnecessarily ugly, that stood every ten or twelve miles along the banks of the canal. Once an indigo factory, long since deserted, the bungalow had been acquired and restored by Government solely with a view to economy, though had consideration for the comfort of the jaded canal official been the object of the transaction the authorities could hardly have been kinder. Gopuri was well thatched, the verandas were deep, the rooms larger and more numerous than those of the stereotyped resthouse, and the compound retained relics of bygone care and cultivation; rose bushes, oleanders, a big mulberry tree, the remains of a lawn, and farther away the old indigo vats, now choked with a mass of green growth and splashed with bright colour—a refreshing change from the baldness usually inseparable from Government property. True, the bungalow was ramshackle, infested with white ants, attractive to owls and bats, and to snakes in the rains and hot weather; small animals steeplechased perpetually on the other side of the ceiling-cloths. But at least it was cool and commodious, and successive canal officers, appreciating its advantages, had left various mementoes behind them—odds and ends of furniture, a few books and piles of old magazines—that helped to impart a more home-like atmosphere.
Save for the day and the night after his flight from Isanpore, when he had been in no mood to note or approve his surroundings, this was Bassett’s first halt at Gopuri; and later in the day, when files had been dealt with, a report completed, and a village deputation with a grievance interviewed, he proceeded to explore the house and compound with interest. Despite the garden and the peaceful aspect, it seemed to Bassett that an air of melancholy hung about Gopuri bungalow, the sadness of past prosperity, a resigned acceptance of the present when for weeks at a time the only human being who entered the doors was an old watchman.
As he strolled about the little domain this old caretaker followed him, garrulous and important—a picturesque patriarch with a white beard and an untidy turban. He said he could remember when Gopuri was a flourishing-concern, and the indigo vats were alive with coolies, and the sahib used to have great gatherings of other sahibs from Isanpore for pig-sticking, and hunting jackals and foxes and hares, and shooting birds. The sahibs would sit up late at night playing cards and drinking wine, and sometimes they made a great noise. He, Mohun Lal, who in those days was the sahib’s servant and had power in the compound, received much praise and baksheesh for the excellence of his arrangements on such occasions, and all went well; and things were just as they should have been until the trouble came that had to do with the memsahib.
Bassett paused to fill his pipe. “What trouble?” he asked presently. He felt no particular interest in the past history of Gopuri, but he was accustomed to listen when a native had something to tell, which was partly the secret of his success with the people, for he knew that next to justice the one thing appreciated by them was patient attention.
Mohun Lal cleared his throat with professional vigour. It was thus that he coughed at intervals all night when a sahib was in residence, to show that he was awake and alert.
“Without doubt was it all on account of the memsahib,” he grumbled. “Did not the Huzoor hear what happened? But for her would the sahib have remained at Gopuri amassing wealth and giving tamashas for his friends. It is a true saying that ‘Where there are women there is trouble.’ The memsahib was young and fair, and she angered the sahib continually. He would scold her, and she would lie on her bed and weep, but what it was all about who could say? Unless it had to do with a tall young sahib from a regiment at Isanpore who sent her letters, and met her when she rode forth in the mornings while her own sahib was busy with his work.”
Mohun Lal coughed again, a ghastly, hollow cough, and Bassett as he puffed at his pipe wondered how he managed it. Then the tragic little story continued—told in simple fashion, according to the old man’s recollection. Whatever the reason of the quarrels, one night there had been a greater disturbance than usual, and the memsahib had run forth in her nightdress and had hidden herself in one of the godowns, fearing the wrath of the sahib. But the sahib had pursued her and brought her back to the bungalow, and in the morning the memsahib was dead. There followed much coming and going of people from Isanpore, and after the body of the memsahib had been taken away to the place provided by the Government for the English dead, the sahib had also departed and was seen no more at Gopuri. By the mercy of God the Government had seen fit to take over the bungalow, and had appointed himself, Mohun Lal, as watchman, else would he and his family have starved, though the pay was little enough in all truth....
Bassett regarded the dwelling with a new and regretful attention, the echo of its history, as related by the old watchman, seemed yet to brood sadly over the thatched roof and whitewashed walls; the noisy gatherings, the sport by day, the drinking and gambling by night, the fair young memsahib and her lover, the final tragedy! What was the real truth of her sudden death at Gopuri, and her burial in the cemetery at Isanpore? As he mused, the old man babbled on—- now about the damage done to the garden by wild pigs, and the iniquities of the birds that robbed the fruit trees, and the amount of wood and charcoal required in order that the bungalow should be kept aired; the allowance was not nearly sufficient. Would not the Sahib give an order that it should be increased? And then the ghost of the memsahib gave such trouble in the matter of keeping the doors bolted at night. However careful he was to see that the doors were closed safely, she would open them when she came, and then the jackals got in, and the monkeys, and the wild cats; and when damage was done he was blamed and fined. Would the sahib also see that this worry was ended? He had more than once reported the matter; even had he engaged at his own expense the cunning man from the village to come and scare away the ghost, but without avail. As yet no sahib had attended to the matter; they but laughed at him for a fool, and the last canal-wallah-sahib had called him a liar and threatened to dismiss him unless he guarded the premises with better success. He, Mohun Lal, was a poor man with innumerable sons and daughters-in law and grandchildren who needed support....
Bassett interrupted the droning recital. “What are you talking about?” he said, controlling his impatience. “Of course, if you bolt the doors properly, nothing can get in.”
The old man put his hands together in supplication. “Protector of the Poor, Highness—with thief-people can I deal; has aught been stolen from the bungalow since I became guardian? But with a ghost, what can be done—moreover, an English ghost? This slave is helpless in the matter.”
Bassett waved him away with kindly contempt. He was accustomed to such excuses when things went wrong. As often as not if his carts were late he would be told that a ghost had descended from a tree on to the canal bank, scaring the bullocks so that they had bolted. Or if his laundry were lost, allowed to float away down the stream, it was solely because a ghost had so alarmed the washerman that his liver melted and he found himself unable to move. Prompt fining might procure immunity from such troublesome apparitions for a time, but they invariably cropped up again when obvious carelessness had to be explained.
Mohun Lal’s shortcomings could be attended to later. At present Bassett was impatient to be off to the region of duck and snipe. So was the faithful Matilda, who with relief had seen her two puppies, all that remained of the family, taken off for an airing by the sweeper. They were greedy and selfish, always in mischief, a scourge alike to their parent and their master.
The latter pair, attended by a peon carrying game sticks and a bag, now set off in peace, eager for the sport that awaited them. And what sport! After a mile or two of easy walking, up the canal bank, over the bridge and across country, passing the village with its tank and peepul tree and temple, they came within sight of the glistening shallow strips of water fringed with rushes. Brown masses of birds floated calmly on the surface, others splashed and dabbled round the edge; the noise of their calling and feeding was like music to Bassett as he approached with caution. Now and then a few birds rose, wheeled low in the air, and settled again with much conversation in some delectable corner.
To Bassett it seemed almost sinful that one gun alone should be approaching such a multitude of duck. When he fired into the brown mass they rose with a noise like thunder, darkening the sky, circling about in clamorous confusion as he shot and shot, until the majority made off towards a more distant lakelet. Matilda worked well, bringing back limp brown bodies from the water, tenderly, in her jaws, shaking herself joyously between each wetting. The bag was good—mallard, pintail, teal—and Bassett walked on, well pleased, over the marshy ground, shooting snipe and stray duck till the air grew chill and the palm trees, solitary and apart, looked as if they had been cut out of black paper and stuck on to crimson cloth. It was dusk when he turned towards home, hearing still the occasional whistle of pinions high overhead, and the conk-conk of wild geese coming in for the night. It was dark as he crossed the bridge, for dusk is of short duration in India.
He found it pleasant to lounge that night before a, blazing wood the after a dinner of snipe (so fresh that little snail-shells were still in the trails), and the marrow bones of a black buck he had shot on the march the previous day; feeling sufficiently tired to appreciate the big cane chair provided by Government that had arms like canoe-paddles, on which books and a tumbler and human legs could be rested conveniently.
Bassett read and dozed in comfortable contentment. The book was one of those left behind by some predecessor; he had taken it from the stone shelf let into the wall without paying much heed to the title or contents. It happened to be a bound volume of a periodical devoted to the collection of notes on Indian folklore, curious usages and convictions of the people, peeps at first hand into demonology, witchcraft, nature worship. Lazily he scanned the pages, reading at random of magical powers, of precautions against ill luck, preventives of disease; how to baffle the demons of cholera and smallpox and so on. There were descriptions of well-known ghastly apparitions, such as the masan that haunts cremation grounds, and the churel that walks with her feet turned backwards, and is the ghost of a woman who has died in childbirth. And concerning snakes, details were given of snake worship, proofs of the popular belief that they guard buried treasure, references to snake-women who go about at night. Sandwiched between legends of godlings, pure and impure, were accounts of one or two loathsome religious sects—the Aghoris, for example, who feed on the flesh of corpses and drink from human skulls.
Bassett was familiar with much of the information contained in the jumble of bald paragraphs interspersed with proverbs and sayings, songs and incantations, but now and then he lighted on some curious record that was new to him. He thought of Angelica Frost—how she would delight in this book! He would send it to her. And then, half asleep as he was, the pagan myths and mysteries set forth in every page seemed to intertwine themselves with visions—visions of the woman nestling among her purple cushions, of the sheen of her hair in the moonlight, of the rapture in her eyes as she listened to the love song on the bridge. Vaguely with it all was commingled the old watchman’s story of Gopuri bungalow and the restless spirit of the unhappy little memsahib.
Everything was very tranquil; the logs in the fireplace smouldered amid a heap of grey ash; even the dwellers in the roof no longer pattered and squeaked and scrambled on the other side of the ceiling-cloths. Then suddenly the heavy volume crashed from his hands to the floor, and Bassett awoke with a start, shivering; a waft of cold air passed behind him, and involuntarily he sprang to his feet, glancing quickly over his shoulder. One of the doors leading into the front veranda was open; for a second he thought he saw someone standing on the threshold. Only for a second. Cursing the carelessness of the servants, he banged and bolted the door noisily; unless the doors were properly shut, of course they would swing open, old and warped as they were. He stretched himself, yawned and picked up the book, putting it back on the shelf with a feeling of resentment—its horrors and nonsense had got on his nerves; tomorrow night he would read Baker’s “Sport in Bengal,” which stood next to it—all about men and beasts in the flesh, and stirring, wholesome adventure. As he went to bed he heard old Mohun Lal coughing with zealous ostentation in the compound.
Next day the ducks were left in peace. Bassett was kept late at his office table owing to an unexpectedly heavy post-bag; there was time for no more than a stroll after partridge and quail, combined with the inspection of a distributary. But the following morning he cut his work short and arrived just about noon on the shooting-ground, only to hear shots in the distance, to see, with disgust, birds rising in every direction, to catch sight of a little group of figures—a couple of “sahibs” in sun-hats, with three or four natives in attendance.
Some infernal fellows from Isanpore, soldiers from the cantonment, perhaps, were harrying the game, and now the birds would be wild for days to come! In his vexation Bassett fired petulantly at a rank outsider of the duck world—a “Brahmini” that at the moment flew low; over his head with strident cries.
The report caused the “trespassers” to halt; then, after a pause, they advanced, the sun glinting on the barrels of their guns. Now Bassett could hear their voices and the squelching of their footsteps in the slush. He shouted to them. After all (though with a sportsman’s jealous instinct he regarded this happy hunting-ground as his own) he had no desire to play dog-in-the-manger, and certainly three guns to such a game-crowded area must be better any day than one. Whoever the intruders, he would graciously, permit them to join him.
A few minutes later he was shaking hands with Mr. Frost and Major Mullat. Mr. Frost’s greeting was hearty. True, he did not at first recognise Bassett, which was natural enough, seeing that they had met only once on an occasion that was more arresting to the younger man’s memory as a guest than to that of the elder as a host. What surprised Bassett, fleetingly, was that Major Mullat should know him at once. For his own part Bassett remembered that he had disliked Major Mullat, though now, as they all stood talking, he regarded Mr. Frost’s friend with more tolerant feeling, a little flattered, perhaps, that Major Mullat should have recognised him so promptly. He was conscious of a latent force behind the man’s air of detachment, some sort of purposeful patience masked by the colourless, inscrutable eyes. He found himself puzzled concerning the friendship between Mullat and Mr. Frost; they were so obviously unlike in temperament though their tastes might lie in the same direction—that of sport and cards and good living. Certainly Major Mullat proved himself a splendid shot, as well as an untiring walker, during the next few hours, and he clearly appreciated the the luncheon, as did Bassett also, that had been provided by Mr. Frost; it almost amounted to a banquet. The pair returned with Bassett to Gopuri bungalow for a drink and a rest before their drive back to Isanpore; and Mr. Frost looked about him with genial interest as they sat at the table, with bottles and glasses placed before them.
“A rummy old place,” he said. “I’ve never been in it before. Wasn’t it an indigo concern years ago? And wasn’t there some story of a murder or a suicide that brought about the smash?”
“So I understand,” admitted Bassett with a reluctance that he could not have explained, “but my sole authority is the old chowkidar who was here in the service of the planter. Of course, he swears the place is haunted.” He laughed in half-apology.
“It feels like it,” said Major Mullat unexpectedly. Mr. Frost stared at him in amazement. “You don’t mean to say you believe in ghosts, Bill?” he inquired.
“Why not? You know the old definition of faith—believing in things you know aren’t true!” was the flippant rejoinder.
“My wife believes in ghosts,” said Mr. Frost, with a species of fatuous pride. “She says they are materialised emotion, whatever that may mean. Perhaps she’s right, she’s infernally clever, but all that kind of thing seems to me nothing but rot. What did the aged chowkidar tell you, Bassett?”
Bassett repeated Mohun Lal’s story. He thought, as he concluded, how unpleasant Major Mullat’s face looked in the yellow lamplight—the eyes narrowed and the mouth a little lifted at the corners; and the man’s voice, when he commented on the English woman’s fate, sounded odious.
“She was a fool, evidently, and much better dead.”
“A fool to go philandering with another chap,” agreed Mr. Frost. “Of course, the husband wasn’t going to stand that.”
“I meant a fool for being found out, which, I suppose, was what happened.” Major Mullat laughed and helped himself to more liqueur.
“My dear chap———” protested Mr. Frost.
“Then do you consider,” broke in Bassett, “that it doesn’t matter what any of us do in that way as long as we aren’t found out?”
“Doesn’t it just make all the difference?” said Major Mullat carelessly.
“Don’t believe him!” Mr. Frost spoke with cheerful good-nature. “He knows nothing about it. Women won’t look at him, he’s too ugly, and that makes him spiteful.”
He rose. “Come along, Bill, the missus will think we’ve been drowned in the ‘jheels.’”
He turned to Bassett. “What are you doing for Christmas? Come in and spend it with us. My wife will be only too pleased; she was wondering the other day what had become of you.”
“You are very kind,” said Bassett evasively. “May I let you know?”
“Let us know you are coming, that’s all!” was the hearty reply; and all three went out into the compound to where a dogcart awaited the sportsmen from Isanpore. The lamps had been lighted and the pony was fretting to start.
Bassett lingered outside in the darkness till all sound of departure had ceased. Then he turned back into the dimly-lit room, feeling restless again and unhappy. Somehow Gopuri pleased him no longer; it was naught but a dreary, depressing old bungalow, haunted with failure and sadness. Once more he was attacked by a nausea of his own existence that stretched barren before him. He was tempted to accept the Christmas invitation, telling himself that he needed diversion—also, with reluctance, he realised that he wanted to see Mrs. Frost. Nothing else mattered.
A fat lizard slithered down the wall and dropped with a thud at his feet; he heard the racket of vermin overhead, the commotion of some chase that signified life or death. He felt desperate, undefended, a prey to nature, and he made up his mind to spend Christmas with the Frosts, whatever the risk to his conscience.
To anyone fresh from England who might imagine that Christmas in a large Indian station meant a delirious whirl of gaiety, this particular season at Isanpore would have proved disappointing. Leave and a camp of exercise had thinned the military element; most of the senior civilians were entertaining parties under canvas in the district; the club in the evenings was comparatively deserted.
Certainly Miss Finch, the civil surgeon’s sister, was astonished to find so little going on when she arrived in Christmas week at Isanpore. Her “wish,” owing to her own vigorous efforts rather than to supernatural interventions, had “come true.” Here she was at last in India, with a satisfactory collection of clothes, an expensive false fringe, and an inexhaustible supply of “good nature.” The voyage, at least, had fulfilled her expectations: on board ship she had been greatly in request—she told everybody’s fortune by cards and by hands, and by means of clairvoyance was able to enlighten her fellow travellers as to what they were all saying and thinking about each other, with the result that by the end of the voyage most of the passengers had quarrelled, while somehow Miss Finch had not made a single enemy among them.
After two days in her brother’s bungalow she wrote a letter of many pages to her friend Lady Potts, describing her impressions of India. Oh! the flowers and the fruit (bananas in particular); the sunshine, and the adorable native servants! It was so delightful when she said to the butler, “Good morning, Juman Khan, what a lovely day!” to receive such a dignified obeisance as to make her feel she ought to return it with a Court curtsy! Imagine her, humble Hetty Finch, mistress of a huge house and spacious grounds and an army of servants, having a maid of her own and a carriage and horses at her disposal! She was looking forward, though terribly nervous at the prospect, to holding her first reception in her new rôle of the civil surgeon’s lady. So far, there was not much doing in the way of entertainments, no balls or big dinners, only friendly, informal gatherings; this afternoon, for example, her brother was taking her to a garden party at the house of some prosperous people called Frost who were connected with commerce. Mrs. Frost was said to be a beauty, with all the men at her feet—no doubt a typical Anglo-Indian woman, the sort responsible for all the disaffection and unrest among the native population; was it not the opinion of some well-known writer that if England ever lost India it would be entirely the fault of the Anglo-Indian women? For her part she intended to set a rigorous example in respect to her own conduct, also to avoid friendships with ladies who got themselves talked about; she hoped to make her influence felt in Isanpore, and to promote a spirit of friendship between the Indians and the English. Already she felt the Magic of the East, the occult influences in the air.
Miss Finch, in excellent mood, arrayed in a blue gown of the latest fabric, with red roses in her hat and a parasol to match, took her seat in the “carriage” (an ordinary bamboo cart) beside her brother, a stout, simple-minded person, who disliked social gatherings but could never resist the Frosts’ invitations to tennis, their courts being perfect and the game his passion. They were a little late, and she surveyed the gay crowd on the lawn with glee, certain of attracting attention as the latest arrival from home. Her response to Mrs. Frost’s welcome was a mixture of gush and patronage, and she glanced graciously at the man who stood by the side of the fair little hostess.
“Your husband?” she said agreeably, and held out her hand to Guy Bassett. Then as Mrs. Frost introduced them she gave a little shriek of recognition. “Why, I know you! How delightful! Of course it is Mr. Bassett—dear Mrs. Wakefield’s son-in-law! She turned to Mrs. Frost: “Mr. Bassett and I are quite old acquaintances. I know his wife and his mother-in-law and his sweet little girl.”
Bassett mumbled politely. As he came to think of it, Clara had said something in her last letter about a friend who was just sailing for India, her destination being Isanpore, but he had paid little attention to this item of news. Now, as Miss Finch chattered on, his memory turned to a hot London drawing-room packed with commonplace people talking trivialities and devouring cakes; he saw Clara sitting inert and handsome, heard his mother-in-law discoursing of fur and food, and Miss Finch toadying one of guests.
“Just before I sailed,” Miss Finch was telling him in animated accents, “I went to tea with your people. Mrs. Wakefield was looking so well; how wonderful she is! Hardly a grey hair, and such a complexion. She never seems to change—and how kind! wrapped up in little Winnie—what a clever child! You must ache to see them all again. Your wife told me she hoped to have you home before long. She keeps well, though, as you know, she is not over strong and she can’t do very much. She has grown little stout, perhaps, but not unbecoming, and some people have the tendency—”
Bassett felt he could haVe throttled Miss Finch, who had appeared like serpent in his garden of enchantment with her disturbing reminders and assumptions. For the past few days he had been living in a sort of pleasant dream as the constant companion of Angelica Frost. Frost himself was busy with his work, absent most evenings at the club. Major Mullat was away from the station on duty with his regiment. There had been no interruptions to the talks, the drives, the long lazy hours at her side while she worked at the Kali bedspread, or screen, or what ever it was going to be. By now there remained only one square of black satin to be decorated with some grotesque representation of the all-powerful goddess. He had ceased to struggle against Mrs. Frost’s attraction, and he did not think, did not ask, what her feelings might be towards himself. It was enough that she seemed to find pleasure in his presence, that she talked to him freely, gave him little confidences, ordered him about with sweet tyranny, was kindly concerned for his comfort as her guest. He dreaded the ending to his holiday; every hour was precious.
Now he moved away from Miss Finch, and from the company on the lawn, a prey to irresistible gloom. Even a hard game of tennis later did not dispel his oppression, nor did the gay little dinner party that night which led to an impromptu dance, when he held Angelica Frost, like a fragrant feather, tenderly in his arms.
He felt a little better next morning. On leaving his room he found her bargaining in the veranda with an old native who had the profile of an ancient Assyrian—who squatted before her displaying a jumble of curios heaped in a flat basket; brass incense burners from Ispahan, trays carved with portraits of Persian emperors and half-human figures, bits of enamel and jade, of crystal and carnelian, all mingled with obvious rubbish. He watched the proceedings with interest. What a picture! The filthy old man in loose garments reminiscent of the Scriptures, his brown, wrinkled face surmounted by a voluminous turban, his greasy grey locks meeting his beard, holding up his treasures one by one for the inspection of the little white lady seated in a low chair, with a black atom of an animal, unnatural in appearance as any of the carvings on the brass vessels, snarling from her lap. She bought the lot, paying down a price that to Bassett seemed exorbitant, and the old man began to place the articles, leisurely, from the basket on to the floor of the veranda. He fingered them affectionately, muttering to himself, glancing with deep-sunk eyes from his customer to her companion, as though suspicious of some conspiracy to cheat him. Presently he drew from the varied assortment a small image, composed of something that looked like black stone, polished, ugly, yet so solid, so smooth, so uncommon that it had its own attraction. At once Mrs. Frost held out her hand, but the old man hastily returned the idol to the basket, concealing it beneath a scrap of dirty cloth. He said he had forgotten that it was there; and when she protested, he offered to release her altogether from the bargain. In fluent Hindustani she told him he could keep the money and all the other curios as well—only she must possess the idol.
There was a pause of suspense. Then he placed the image in her hands and began to repack his basket. Next moment Bassett was scandalised to hear her go back upon her word; she said calmly and without shame that she had altered her mind—would hold to the original arrangement and keep the idol with everything else for which she had paid. The old man expostulated, argued, said some disagreeable things, even wept. Mrs. Frost was adamant. Finally she threatened to send for the police, and in the end she won. A dirty, dilapidated old figure left the compound sadly, with an empty basket; and Mrs. Frost laughed triumphantly, the idol in her hands, all the other curios heaped at her feet.
“Is the thing worth so much?” asked Bassett, taking it from her and examining with a feeling almost of repulsion towards its new owner.
“Oh! no,” she said, with a gesture of indifference. “I don’t suppose it’s worth anything intrinsically, though I’ve never seen one quite like it before. Probably it was precious to the old wretch merely as a talisman of some kind. It was all his own fault. He showed how much he wanted to keep it, and that made me feel I wanted it too; and I wasn’t going to lose the other things, though I paid far too much for them.”
“I wish you had let him keep it.”
“If you would like to know the truth, I kept it because it reminds me of you!”
“Of me?” Bassett gazed at her in amazement, and she laughed again, ruffling up her hair from her forehead with her fingers.
“Yes, because it’s so strong and solid and firm. I don’t mean to imply that there is any other likeness. You haven’t got bulging eyes and a wide mouth and a wicked expression!”
“Well, if I had, what would it matter?”
“Only that I prefer you as you are—with good features and nice, kind eyes that don’t bulge. Do you ever look at yourself in the glass, Guy Bassett?”
He flushed, feeling supremely uncomfortable; yet he would hardly have been human had he not thrilled in response to her flattery.
“Oh! never mind me,” he said, in an awkward attempt to evade personalities. “Let us talk about something else. Where are you going to put this abomination now you have got it?”
“You may have it if you like—a keepsake from Angelica Frost!”
“I’d rather have something else I’m to have a baksheesh at all. And didn’t you say you wanted to keep the little beast because it was like me?”
His spirits were rising. The cloud of depression began to disperse as well as the sense of repulsion aroused by her treatment of the old pedlar. She had behaved disgracefully, but, he assured himself, it was like the callous behaviour of a child whose ethical sense limited—who will get what it wants by any means in its power. Quite evidently she did not realise her own treachery.
She made him happy and miserable at the same moment; his feeling towards her was protective as well as dangerously near to passion; he was playing with fire as he sat bantering with her on the veranda this morning, and their surroundings encouraged the flame—the scents from the garden and the pots of violets, the sunny quiet that yet was quick with small sounds. A grey squirrel sprinted up the trellis work, shaking the creepers, a big, black crow hopped on to the steps, parrots were calling in the trees, and somewhere in the compound goats were bleating. It was all intoxicating to the man in combination with the presence of the dainty woman at his side, who was flirting outrageously with him. He knew it, found it vastly pleasant, and made no effort to resist. Emboldened, he leaned forward and touched the scrap of lace and cambric, her handkerchief, that was tucked into the bosom of her gown.
“—-I should like this as my keepsake,” he said. With a queer little laugh she gave to him, and for moment he inhaled its subtle, musky perfume before he placed it with tender handling in the breast pocket of his coat.
“Be careful,” she warned him, with mock concern, “that you don’t produce it by mistake before the eyes of Miss Finch, or she would certainly write to your charming wife and tell her you were wasting your substance on expensive handkerchiefs. You could hardly explain, you know, that you were only using mine!”
“Oh! curse Miss Finch!” said Bassett crossly.
The name damped his spirits, reminding him again that he was married man, that he had no business philandering here with another woman, that her scented handkerchief might be likened to a little poison pad upon his heart. And Miss Finch, as the newcomer, called on Mrs. Frost next morning in accordance with Anglo-Indian custom, interrupting a delightful hour when he was reading aloud to his hostess. It seemed to him that she stayed for an interminable time, talking persistently of Clara and Mrs. Wakefield and Winnie; and she told Mrs. Frost’s character and fortune almost by force.
“You are very unselfish,” she pronounced, looking intently into the pink palms held out rather unwillingly before her, “and people take advantage of that. You are often disappointed in your friends, for whom you sacrifice so much! Your whole life has been devoted to other people, and you have always been misunderstood. You are not at all vain, and you think nothing of your personal appearance—”
Here Bassett coughed rudely. Mrs. Frost laughed and Miss Finch looked at him in reproachful surprise. She continued her analysis: “You do not care for luxury, and could make yourself happy in a garret. Deception is entirely foreign to your nature—truth is everything to you. Unless it was to shield someone you loved you would never tell a lie!”
Bassett gazed mistrustfully at Miss Finch. Then it occurred to him that in suspecting her of the most flagrant humbug, he was hardly paying the highest of compliments to Mrs. Frost! He wished the woman would cease her tomfoolery and go. But Mrs. Frost had become interested: “Can you tell me anything of what is going to happen?” she asked.
There was a serious pause while the fortune-teller scrutinised the lines of the hand.
“—Be on your guard,” she continued presently, “against someone who professes to be your friend— be careful about a letter—there is a woman very far away who will think badly of you—I see an illness—-”
Then Miss Finch assumed a dreary expression and gazed into space over Mrs. Frost’s head: “A figure is standing beside you—” Involuntarily the other two looked round—“a tall man who is your spiritual guardian—do what he tells you—as long as he is there you are safe.”
She sighed, passed her hand over her forehead and said she could see no farther—all else was now a blank.
“You must come again,” urged Mrs. Frost, “and perhaps you will be able to see something more.”
This, Bassett assumed unkindly, was exactly what Miss Finch had intended. It would suit her to have the run of such a house, to worm herself into Mrs.. Frost’s confidence by means of flattery and fabrication. He felt he hated her plain face, her observant eyes, her ingratiating manner. She seemed to haunt him for the remainder of his visit. When he drove with Mrs. Frost they invariably met her on the road or else she waved to them from her brother’s garden as they passed; at tennis parties she attached herself to them; at the club she hovered near; the sight of her became a sort of nightmare to him, and he thanked Heaven that she could not follow him into camp. He had not a doubt but that she would write to Clara with the object of arousing jealousy of Mrs. Frost—not that she was very likely to succeed, for Clara would know from himself of his Christmas visit, and it would seem only natural to her that he should be about with his hostess—all the same, his conscience was guilty, he felt resentful, ill-used and altogether out of gear whenever he encountered the civil surgeon’s sister.
After his holiday at Isanpore he went for a prolonged tour, taking with him his “keepsake,” carefully concealed from Dilawa, besides many sweet remembrances. He had entreated Mrs. Frost to let him write to her, to give him the solace of an answer now and then, and to his pleasure she assented; she wrote him cheerful, prudent little notes, highly scented, which he treasured. Quite unnecessarily he marched down into the ravine country that he might shoot a panther and send her the luck bones; he had the skin cured and mounted for her sitting-room; and he knew himself for a helpless fool when, at the end of the cold weather, he returned to Gopuri, impatient to get into the station. The sun was now taking the offensive, having driven the pleasant sharpness from the air in the early mornings, the nights were no longer cold and signs of approaching hot weather prevailed.
Bassett had written ahead to tell Mrs. Frost the date he expected to be at Gopuri, and on his arrival at the bungalow he found a letter awaiting him that threw him into a fever of anticipation. She proposed to drive out and have tea with him the following afternoon! His feelings were divided between delight and dismay. How could he entertain her worthily at Gopuri! He thought of his worn country-made tablecloths, the enamelled iron cups and yellow electroplate, as he wrote a few lines expressing his delight at the prospect of seeing her if she would excuse his uncivilised arrangements. The note was dispatched by hand, and from that moment he gave himself over to anxious excitement. The compound was ransacked for flowers which, failing vases, had to be arranged in empty jars for the adornment of the room; he persecuted his servants with contradictory orders, he tidied and fussed and scolded until he reduced his private and official staff to a condition of hopeless confusion.
Only Dilawa, his old bearer, understood; the sahib was expecting a visit from a memsahib, and according to Dilawa’s experience in the service of other sahibs who lacked memsahibs of their own, such agitation was not surprising. He merely marvelled in secret that nothing of the kind had happened before. Calmly and systematically he went to work—borrowed a pony from the village, and journeyed into Isanpore, returning at a late hour that night laden with spoil—a red flower-vase, two painted dishes to hold the star-shaped cakes plugged with currants and the pink-and-white toffee that the cook proposed to make, a couple of ice plates for the butter and jam, all loaned by a friend who was butler to an unsuspecting bachelor official in the station. He also brought a tin of mixed biscuits, and had even remembered a cake of scented soap in case the memsahib should wish to wash her hands.
Dilawa’s sympathetic support was a comfort to Bassett in his restless desire to do all honour to his guest, and when the time came he awaited her arrival with better confidence. Really, the table looked almost attractive, and the old Gopuri bungalow seemed not so bad, well swept and dusted, with the wadded curtains let down before the countless doorways, and despite the stained and bulging ceiling cloth and the traces of white ants upon the walls.
Mrs. Frost drove up in her smart victoria, a pleasing figure clad in some cool, cream-coloured material that harmonised with her soft colouring. Lala was under her arm, and Bassett felt he had done well to banish Matilda and the puppies for the afternoon. The little dog yapped piercingly as they passed from the bright sunlight outside into the dim interior of the bungalow.
“You must be famished with hunger and dying of thirst after your drive!” he said, feeling nervous and artificial as he looked into her eyes. “Come and have tea.”
She seated herself in the big cane chair and leaned back. “I will have it here, in this prehistoric piece of furniture,” she decided. “It is very comfortable.”
She praised the tea, which at least was hot and fresh, and she actually ate one of the star-shaped sponge cakes. Bassett consumed several out of consideration for the feelings of the cook and Dilawa, but the toffee was beyond him. When he confided his difficulty to Mrs. Frost she declared with genuine concern that something must be done to deceive the servants.
“Get a large piece of paper,” she suggested, “we’ll make a parcel and throw it into the canal!”
Laughing, she collected various eatables, smeared two of the plates with jam, and disordered the table. Bassett stood by amused, admiring, holding a sheet of newspaper. Sometimes her fingers touched his as she dropped toffee and cakes and biscuits into the receptacle.
Then they went out of doors. He offered to carry Lala—what a proof of devotion!—in addition to the parcel, and was relieved when she said “No.” Lala, tucked under her arm, barked at him spitefully. Like a couple of conspirators, they sought the bridge and threw the parcel over the parapet; the paper spread open, the food- floated on the water, but not for long—a kite appeared like a speck in the clear blue sky, circled and sailed ever lower, finally swooped and helped himself freely. Crows followed, hovering over the spoil, and even the paper was borne away flapping in the beak of a bird.
Mrs. Frost watched the brief scene with smiling attention. “Where did they all come from?” she wondered. “A minute ago there wasn’t a bird to be seen. At any rate, we can’t be found out now!”
She leaned against the parapet, dreamy and content. The atmosphere was warm and still, scented with babool blossom, and the man standing close to her wished that the hour could last always. Lala, shrinking and shivering, was perched on the ledge before her. With one hand she held and caressed him, the other lay white, ungloved, on the rough surface of the stone. Basset gave way to an overpowering temptation aud placed his hand on hers.
For a moment neither of them moved or spoke; then a strange thing happened. She turned to him, her eyes shining as he had seen them shine on the night of their moonlight drive—in another second she would have been in his arms, but that suddenly Lala darted forward and bit him on the wrist. Instinctively he recoiled, and with a little cry of anger she pushed the dog violently over the edge of the parapet into the canal.
It all came about so swiftly that Bassett hardly knew what he was doing till he found himself running from the bridge and down the slope to the water’s edge. A little struggling, gasping object floated past—-out of reach. It crossed his mind as he waded into the canal that had Matilda only been present she would have saved him an unpleasant wetting; as it was, this clean flannels must suffer considerably. Damn women and their infernal lap-dogs!
There came a rush of powerful wings close above his head, a swoop and a splash, and the unfortunate Lala was borne high into the air in the claws of a watchful kite as easily as if he had been nothing but a cake or a biscuit. It was a very likely thing to happen. Bassett had often seen small animals carried off in like fashion. Nothing could be done. The kite grew smaller and smaller against the clear blue sky; soon it disappeared altogether. He returned to the woman on the bridge. She was standing in exactly the same attitude as when he had left her, she seemed to be in a sort of trance; and now he regarded her with disgust and bewilderment.
“Why did you do it?” he asked harshly.
“I did it because he bit you,” she said in a dull, level voice, “because he came in the way.”
She looked at his wrist; he noticed that it was still bleeding slightly, and he wrapped his handkerchief round it. Mrs. Frost laid her head on the parapet and burst into a tempest of tears. A feeling of deep distress overcame him, a mingling of pity and shame and remorse. He blamed himself fiercely, yet he had a lurking suspicion that she had expected him to make love to her. He knew very well that she had purposely brushed her hand against his when they were collecting the sweets and cakes from the table. He was but human, he told himself, any other man would have done the same. And now an evil spirit had been raised that would be hard to lay, for, as he looked at her fragile body, shaken with sobs, revolted as he was by her inhuman treatment of the little dog, he still wanted to kiss her. He could have crushed her in his arms and then flung her into the canal as she had flung her pet—“because she had got in his way,” in his way of right living and honesty of thought and purpose. He had desired no intrigue with another man’s wife, nor indeed with any woman. His work and his sport and his loyalty to Clara had kept his life clean, and now he was appalled at his own insensate folly. He swore to himself that he did not love Angelica Frost, could never love a being so neurotic and artificial, who, he even sometimes suspected, was not altogether sane; and yet she allured him, blinded his reason, enticed him with her milk-white skin, her cloud of soft hair, and her languorous eyes.
He resisted the inclination to lay his hand on her shoulder. “Don’t cry,” he besought her, “there are some natives coming from the village, and they will be crossing the bridge. It won’t do for them to see you like this.”
“I don’t care,” she sobbed helplessly. But she raised her head, dabbed her eyes with a wisp of a handkerchief. The scent from it provoked him; he thought of its fellow locked up in his dispatch-box, and determined to destroy it.
She looked small and woebegone. Bassett felt as if he had been scolding a helpless child. All the way back to the bungalow she talked and cried without appearing to notice that he made no response; it was more as if she was talking to herself. “Can’t you understand? Guy, do try to understand! I sacrificed Lala for you. Nothing is perfect without sacrifice. When you came towards me in the garden that morning with Lala in your arms—what ages ago it seems!—so handsome and strong and simple—I knew you were the man I had been waiting for all my life—all my empty, desolate life!”
“Don’t talk like that,” he implored her quickly. “What we have to do is to forget.”
“If you knew,” she interrupted. “If you knew how I have suffered.”
His heart softened, yet he argued, “How have you suffered? You have an indulgent husband, plenty of money, everything your own way. Look here, he went on abruptly, “it isn’t playing the game, it isn’t fair to your husband or to my wife, not to speak of ourselves.”
Angelica laughed hysterically. “Oh! my husband and your wife! They think of nothing but themselves!”
She laid her hand on his arm, and again her touch weakened him. He was glad to reach the bungalow, to leave her resting in the long chair while he hurried away to change his wet clothes.
As he came back to the living-room, just as he pushed aside the curtain that hung before his bedroom door and was stepping over the threshold, Major Mullat, in riding clothes, cap and whip in hand, walked unannounced into the bungalow, from the front veranda.
There are occasions in life when events may come about so unexpectedly, even with such violence, as to blunt the recollection of what actually occurred. In after years Bassett could never recall very distinctly the details of the scene that followed on Major Mullat’s abrupt intrusion, unannounced, into his bungalow; only impressions remained—the impression of Angelica’s frightened white face, and of his own amazement at her attitude towards the intruder, a kind of nervous ingratiation thinly veiled by ostentatious self-possession. He had heard her say with a high, artificial laugh: “How did you know I was here?” and the curt masterful reply: “I didn’t know; I came to see.” Then there was the fellow’s intolerable insolence towards himself. It was solely the sickening suggestion of something he had never for an instant imagined or suspected till now that kept Bassett from laying murderous hands upon Major Mullat—held him silent and contemptuous while the pair left the bungalow together, Mrs. Frost uttering foolish little excuses that he hardly heard and made no attempt to answer. Many significant trifles returned to Guy Bassett’s memory that night—a sleep ess night, during which he perambulated the compound, restless, disillusioned, enraged with himself, with the woman who had befooled him, with the man who had pursued her and claimed her without excuse or pretence.
Now he found himself unable to work, unable to concentrate his mind on his duties, even to make up his mind to leave Gopuri, with all its odious associations. In desperation he sent up an urgent application to headquarters for furlough; then he lingered on till the answer should arrive, feeling angry, unhinged, powerless to accept the situation in stoical spirit. At one moment he hated Angelica with every fibre of his heart and brain; at another he would excuse her, telling himself that she was the victim of a reprobate, that she had turned to himself in a hateful predicament caused by her own heedlessness and love of admiration, and that somehow he had failed her. What if she had really spoken truth when she declared he was the man she had been waiting for—waiting for throughout her “empty, desolate life”? His masculine vanity smiled on the notion; his common sense told him that the declaration was merely the outcome of a morbid, unwholesome temperament, and a craving for illicit sensation.
Afterwards he regretted his delay in leaving Gopuri, his weak inactivity, his yieldance to a mood of indecision and self-abandonment. True, he burned Angelica’s notes; also the little scented handkerchief; fought hard to free his mind from her image; yet all the time he was tormented with the thought that she might write to him, send for him, do something to obliterate the dreadful suggestion she had left behind her.
Then came the last act in the sordid little drama. It had been very hot day, one of those forerunners of the real thing that prepare the way, like an advance guard, for the mighty force to follow. The air was thick with a haze of dust and heat, the evening had brought no relief; all things alive at Gopuri seemed to suffer from an irritable lassitude. The servants quarrelled, and did as little work as possible; Dilawa was peevish, and hinted that he might require leave for his son’s wedding; Bassett told him with equal ill-humour that his services might no longer be required. Matilda lay panting on the floor, and snapped viciously at her puppies that were more mischievous and turbulent than usual—stealing the servants’ shoes, chasing the chickens and devouring their food, scratching up seeds that had been planted in the garden.
All day Bassett had been trying cases according to canal law; worried also by the presence in the compound of a crowd of cultivators demanding more water than their share, presenting involved petitions, airing their wrongs; and he had a nasty little headache with warnings of a temperature.
Now night had fallen, dark and heavy, with the curious sense of pause that presages a storm. It was just the time of year for sudden dust storms, and Bassett wished one would come and clear the air as he sat smoking, trying to fix his attention on a book, by the table in his living-room. It would have been cooler in the veranda, but he did not want to sit in darkness because he did not want to think, and a light in the veranda would only have attracted a multitude of insects; as it was they were beating and buzzing about the lamp, dropping with little thuds on to the table.
His mind wandered subconsciously as he read. He had little doubt that his furlough would be granted; the sanction might even come tomorrow, and he intended to start with the least possible delay. It disquieted him to think that he would have to go first to Isanpore, not only to start by train from there, but to sort out his clothes and various possessions stored in the canal office, and to make arrangements for Matilda. These obligations over he would find the voyage a welcome interlude; but when he got home—would Clara be glad to see him? Would the old feeling of affection and confidence between them ever return? He rose and paced the room, then went back to his seat and book. The atmosphere was stifling; instinctively he glanced at the doors; they were open, but the cane blinds were down. He would roll them up, and chance the invasion of moths and bats. As again he left his chair a faint wind arose and stirred the blinds, causing them to tap against the wooden framework of the doors. A fitful gust passed through the room like a long sigh. The lamp flickered. Then a door banged in one of the back rooms. Undoubtedly the dust storm was approaching; presently every door must be, bolted if the whole interior was not to be smothered in dust. It might pass off; but if it came it would, however disagreeable at the time, bring temporary coolness and relief.
Bassett rolled up one of the blinds, and stepped on to the dark veranda. Matilda hustled past him down the steps and into the compound. Presently he heard her barking; then she ran back, her tail between her legs, and hid beneath the dining-table. Matilda was a coward except where guns and game were concerned; therefore some human being must have startled her, or perhaps—the idea caused Bassett faint amusement—old Mohun Lal’s pet ghost might be abroad? If so, then let the little memsahib’s spirit claim protection from the storm when it burst.
Already the wind was gathering strength, and as he stood staring out into the darkness a little swirl of dust struck him in the face, telling him that it was time to blockade the bungalow. As he re-entered the room Matilda emerged from beneath the table, ashamed of herself, explaining elaborately that she had merely given way to a fit of nerves caused by the approaching storm, by something she thought she had seen, and so forth. Of course, she had not been really afraid. Bassett accepted her excuses, and she fussed round him apologetically while he shut and bolted the doors, and made a tour of the rooms to see that all was secure.
A blast of wind and dust flung itself against the walls, then retreated as though gathering force for a fresh onslaught; and in the intervening silence there came a faint, swift hammering on the glass of one of the doors. With a clatter the shaky bolt dropped from its socket, the door swung open, and a shadowy figure seemed to be blown into the room. The lamp went out. Bassett found himself groping in thick ‘darkness, hearing a little moaning sound that speedily was drowned by the frantic barking of Matilda and the clamour of the storm. It was all confusion and bewilderment, like a nightmare. Who-what was it that had drifted into the room with the wind and the dust? For one wild moment he actually believed that it might be the poor little ghost.
Then he heard a small, terrified voice crying: “Guy, Guy, where are you?” And he knew that Angelica Frost was in the room—Angelica Frost! He rushed to the door, fighting with the wind till he had closed it; then, having found and struck a match, he caught a vision of wild eyes and dishevelled hair, helpless hands outstretched. The match died; hastily he struck another and contrived to light the lamp. She ran to him, crying weakly, and he laid her in the big cane chair, gave her brandy, soothed and reassured her as he would have comforted a terror-stricken child.
It was some time before he discovered the reason of her strange arrival. How had she come to Gopuri? Where was the carriage? She told him incoherently that she had driven as far as the bridge in a ticca-gharry, and had sent the hired vehicle back. Sent it back? Bassett’s heart stood still. What could it all mean? He waited; and as he waited the storm ceased with all the abruptness of its beginning, and the quiet seemed ominous, unnatural. The heat of the room, the smell of dust became unendurable; he opened the door leading on to the veranda, and admitted a breath of air cooled by slow, heavy drops of rain. He looked back at the limp, exhausted form in the chair, and felt an overwhelming pity for the little woman whatever her treachery, her double dealing. He must find out why she was here—must take her back to Isanpore as soon as she was fit to make the effort. As he returned to her side she held out her hands to him as though confident of help and protection.
“Listen!” she whispered, drawing him close till he knelt by the chair. “You guessed—something— that afternoon when Bill came and took me away?”
Bassett nodded. What could he answer?
“I met him first on board ship,” she went on in a low, monotonous voice; “that was years ago. He spent all his leave with us at Isanpore, or at whatever hill station I went to. And he always went home when I did; and then the regiment came to Isanpore. I only knew what a mistake I had made when I saw you.”
Bassett could not bring himself to speak at the moment. He was conscious of acute astonishment that Angelica seemed to have no sense of shame, that she was only sorry for herself and expected him to feel nothing but pity for her too. He was still in ignorance as to why she had arrived at Gopuri in the middle of the night, and he awaited her explanation. When it came it filled him with consternation. There had been a terrible quarrel that evening with Mullat—she had broken with the man for ever. In return he had told her he meant to reveal the whole ugly story to her husband.
“He did mean it,” she concluded despairingly. “He always means what he says, and Joe would have killed me. Oh! Guy, do take care of me, take me away somewhere so that I can feel safe. I can never go back, and I should be so happy with you. If it hadn’t been for you I should have killed myself. I could do it so easily—”
From front of her dress she produced a little bottle filled with white tablets. Bassett tried to snatch the bottle from her, but she was too quick for him. In a moment she had hidden it again, and then she laughed hysterically.
Bassett felt desperate; the whole situation was preposterous, melodramatic. How could she imagine for a moment that he would be willing to bolt with her? He wished he had never seen her. What horrible sequence to a foolish infatuation that on his part had never been genuine! What a lesson!
Something must be done, and at once. He rose, making up his mind swiftly.
“You can’t stay here,” he told her in agitated distress. “You must know that it’s impossible.”
She sat upright, staring at him, looking like a white moth in the dim, dusty light.
“What do you mean? she gasped.
“I must take you back to Isanpore.”
“But I will not go!” she cried; and her hand went to the front of her dress where the little bottle was concealed.
Bassett felt himself caught in a net. If he held firm to his intention she might poison herself. If he allowed her to stay? In either case his career, his whole life would be ruined. And what about Clara and Winnie? He tried to reason with her, he scoffed at her fear that Mullat would fulfil his threat, but all to no purpose.
“I can never go back,” she repeated in shrill despair. “I can never face Joe any more. He believed in me so implicitly. I know what he thinks about such things. If he hadn’t trusted me this would never have happened. He ought to have known; he ought not to have left me so much by myself. What could he expect? I know I shall go mad.”
She raved on without pause, appealing to Bassett, heeding no persuasions, till he feared she was indeed going out of her mind. Every moment he dreaded that in her frenzy she might swallow some of the little tablets in the bottle; he had ghastly visions of her writhing in the agony of death!
But at last she wore herself out, and lay murmuring indistinctly, her eyes half closed, unobservant, as he edged towards his office table and scribbled a few lines on a scrap of paper to Mr. Frost.
“Your wife is here, Safe with me, but she is ill. You must come and fetch her without delay.”
He had no real belief that Mullat had made, or would make, his threatened disclosure; but, even so, it was Frost’s first business to fetch his wife back from Gopuri.
When presently she closed her eyes and was silent, he moved cautiously out to the back premises and dispatched the note by an orderly on a trotting camel, with instructions to deliver it to “Frost Sahib” wherever he might be, in his bungalow or at the club. He returned to find Angelica sleeping, but she was restless, starting now and then, sobbing, crying out. He kept vigil by her side, ready to soothe her if she woke, till her husband should arrive, as Bassett did not doubt that he would. If only he could gain possession of that sinister little bottle!
As time crept on she became calmer, her sleep deepened; then suddenly, with a sigh, she turned on her side, and the bottle fell to the floor from the front of her gown. Instantly he had it in his hand and placed it safely in his pocket. He breathed again, and waited with a lighter heart for the sound of wheels.
When the sound came, in the small hours of the morning, he went out, mentally and physically weary, hardly knowing if he expected to see Frost or Mullat, or even both as two men stepped from the carriage that drew up in front of the bungalow. But Frost’s companion proved to be the civil surgeon, Dr. Finch, and it was clear, as Bassett had expected, that the husband knew nothing of his wife’s perfidy.
Joe Frost was puzzled, alarmed, only anxious to get to his “Angie,” and he pushed noisily past Bassett into the room, waiting for no explanations. The disturbance of his entry caused the figure in the long chair to start up with a frightened cry. For a moment Angelica blinked stupidly at her husband standing before her in the dusky, uncertain light, then she swayed towards him, and he caught her in his arms.
When she revived under the doctor’s ministrations Bassett lied freely to Frost, and very distinctly also in order that Mrs. Frost might hear what he said—he felt he could do nothing else for all their sakes—declaring he did not know why she had come out to Gopuri; he could only suppose that, the night being so hot, she had fancied a drive and had got caught in the storm. She had been far too unnerved, when she took refuge in the bungalow, to tell him anything.
Meantime Mrs. Frost lay back on the pillows Bassett had brought from his bed holding her husband’s hand, and when she began weakly to whisper in his ear Bassett withdrew. Following on this first sensation of relief at Frost’s ignorance of the reason as to his wife’s flight to Gopuri, came one of annoyance that Dr. Finch, of all people, should have been brought upon a scene that was so difficult of explanation. It had never occurred to him that Frost might bring the doctor with him, though it was a natural proceeding, since he had stated in his note that Mrs. Frost was ill. The more plausible the construction that might be put upon the situation the more likely was the civil surgeon to mention the matter to his sister; indeed, it subsequently transpired that as the civil surgeon was out, attending a case, when Frost’s urgent summons arrived, Miss Finch herself had opened the letter and had sent word to her brother to return with all haste. It seemed, therefore, that secrecy was hardly to be hoped for or expected.
Afterwards, when she dozed again peacefully, Bassett and Mr. Frost strolled out into the compound for a smoke, leaving the doctor on guard with the patient. Darkness was rolling away, a pale lemon light gleamed in the sky, and the faint breeze that comes with the Indian dawn stirred the dust-laden leaves of the trees. Rustlings began in the undergrowth, birds were awake, calling and fluttering in the foliage, a flight of green parrots shot swiftly overhead. Along the canal bank passed a dim grey procession of wild pig, returning from the night’s forage in the fields.
Frost snuffed the fresh air. “By Jove!” he said, “that’s almost as good as a drink. I must get Angie home while it’s cool. I wonder What the deuce made her rush off like that? She said something had upset her horribly after I’d gone to the club, and that she’d hardly known what she was doing. She’ll tell me all about it later—no good worrying her while she’s feeling cheap. That’s the worst of these nervous, highly-strung women, always at the mercy of moods and fancies. I suppose I oughtn’t to leave her so much to herself, but she never seemed to mind. I must be a bit more thoughtful in future.”
He stretched his arms and yawned loudly, then turned to his companion and gripped him by the hand; “I’m damned grateful to you for looking after her,” he said warmly. “What a good job you were here, instead of at the other end of the canal!”
Bassett returned the handshake and endured the gratitude with a grim sense of amusement. He wondered what Angelica’s explanation would be. Anyway, he would back her to retain her husband’s faith against any story told by Mullat now. 7Recalling the little lady’s cautious letters to himself, he felt morally convinced that Mullat held no written evidence against her.
He saw Mrs. Frost once more before he sailed for England— when, a week later, he went into the station to collect his belongings from the canal office. He had packed his boxes with the tearful help of Dilawa, to the accompaniment of alternate expressions of grief and demands for written characters from the rest of his domestic staff. He had arranged for Matilda and the puppies to go as paying guests to one of his European subordinates who had lately been transferred to a hill station. His passage had been secured by telegram without difficulty; it was an empty time of year for steamers homeward bound.
Everything finished, he lingered, looking through the open side-door at the Frosts’ luxuriant compound, his heart beset with memories of the morning when first he had beheld the slim white figure on the lawn—when the loathsome Lala had squirmed from beneath his office table, leading him so nearly to destruction.
At this moment one of the familiar scented little notes was put into his hand. Owing to the publicity inseparable from Anglo-Indian existence his temporary presence in the canal office previous to his departure for England had been made known to Mrs. Frost, and she asked him to come over that she might bid him farewell.
At first he hesitated, reluctant, yet drawn by a strong desire to know that all was well with her and to hear what had happened about Major Mullat; also, perhaps, what had become of her feeling towards himself. He no longer feared her fascinations, but memories remained, and a tender understanding of her lawless nature and her odd, erratic mind.
Of course he went, and was considerably embarrassed at being ushered into Mrs. Frost’s bedroom. She lay, a picture, propped with purple cushions, her hair a silken cloud against them, the jade necklace she had been wearing the day he first saw her cold and green upon her dead-white skin. And in striking contrast a black bedspread—squares of black satin worked with crudely coloured silks; Kali in her many incarnations, good and evil.
“So it is finished, then?” said Bassett, touching the exquisite work, conscious of a whimsical fancy that it symbolised all that had passed between himself and Angelica.
“Yes,” she answered softly, meeting his thought. “It is finished—I shall never make another.”
There was a sad little pause and her eyes filled with tears.
“So you are going home?” she asked presently.
“I start for Bombay in an hour.” With an effort to speak naturally he added, “I hope you aren’t ill?”
She turned her face from him. “No,” she said wearily, “only tired—too tired, I think, to live.”
She put out her hand in a dumb dismissal. He kissed it and, without speaking, went from the room.
So, after all, Guy Bassett left India still wondering what explanation Angelica Frost had made to her husband, and not knowing how matters stood with regard to Bill Mullat. And sometimes he felt almost inclined to question whether there was anything really to know.
Spring that year in England more nearly resembled a spiteful old woman than the traditional maiden of joyous caprice. March might have been November, snow fell in April, May was windy and wet and cold. Influenza claimed countless victims, and among them Mrs. Wakefield, who, to use the word she would herself have chosen, “expired” as she had lived, composed and punctilious, with an air of conferring a favour on Heaven, her vicar, her daughter, her nurse, and her “medical man” at her bedside.
As might have been expected her business affairs were in excellent order, her desires clearly set forth in every particular. The income, surprisingly ample, was Clara’s for life, the capital went to Winnie at Clara’s death. Guy Bassett was ignored.
This morning, as Clara sat at the dining-room table examining neat packets of papers, she was conscious of an unseemly satisfaction despite her genuine grief. Shocked at herself she sought to attribute the feeling to a welcome change in the weather—sunshine, soft breezes, and the perfume of flowers in the air. She would have preferred to trace this elation of spirits to the expected arrival of her husband from India, but strive as she would she could not feel wholly glad that he was coming, so accustomed had she grown to living without him. Indeed, their actual married life had been so comparatively short that it now seemed more dreamlike than real, and to be strictly honest could she have chosen between her mother’s return to life and her husband’s return to England there was small doubt as to what her decision would have been.
There was no avoiding the recognition that she found her financial position extremely agreeable, nor that it would have been pleasanter still could she have felt sure that Guy would cause her no trouble. It was true that he would now have no reason for not retiring, but he might still hold impossible views on the subject—views that would have to be overcome. Or he might expect her to live out of London; whereas she intended to remain on in the house that for her held sacred associations. These sacred associations rested partly on the foundation of Clara’s innate indolence; she hated the notion of change and upheaval. In any case, she decided, Guy must be made to understand that in no circumstances would she consent to a move. Had she not suffered enough in the past from his perversities?
Thus speciously she argued in her mind as she turned over receipts and memoranda and various documents—examples of Mrs. Wakefield’s sound business capacity, of shrewdness that had lain beneath that bland and imperturbable demeanour. Clara felt she had, so to speak, succeeded to the throne; in future she would be all-powerful, in a position to act precisely as she pleased.
But though Clara had inherited her mother’s possessions the mantle of Mrs. Wakefield’s dominance did not quite fit her shoulders. Guy arrived from India, considerate, affectionate, amenable as of old, save on the one point that had always held them apart. He refused to retire and live on his wife’s income; he maintained that her money, far from removing his obligation to return to India and Clara’s obligation to return with him when his furlough was over, only rendered the fulfilment of their joint duty more easy. They could now afford to be comfortable together in India and counteract definite drawbacks. Winnie could be placed with people who would guardian her conscientiously; indeed, in his opinion, the child would be none the worse for a change of surroundings and a little wholesome discipline; she was far too precocious and self-assertive for her age.
Clara was taken by surprise. She had not anticipated this attitude on the part of her husband. She realised ruefully that her influence with him was gone. Persuasions and tears were no longer effective, and though in her inmost heart she respected his firmness, it left her distraught and bewildered.
Finally Guy refused to discuss the question any further for the present. Clara could make up her mind when she liked, only she must remember that he was going back to India when his furlough was exhausted, and that he considered it her duty to go with him. Meantime he wanted to enjoy his holiday, to make the most of the rest and change. Here again the shade of Mrs. Wakefield interposed. Clara would not go to theatres; the idea shocked her sense of respect for her mother’s memory. Concerts, she said, were different; so also were picture exhibitions; but as Guy was not musical and had, so his wife asserted, a low taste in art, such recreations were not altogether attractive to him. Still, he did his best to be an agreeable companion, to fall in with her wishes and her ideas of propriety for people in deep mourning. They made expeditions to the Zoo, to the Tower, to Kew Gardens, picnicked on the river—a respectable little family trio, Winnie dressed in white with black ribbons. The child treated her father with a sort of lofty patronage that amused while it provoked him. Comparatively speaking, he saw but little of his daughter; her time seemed to be filled with dancing lessons, riding lessons, music lessons, and by a daily governess who resented interruptions; and Winnie was supposed to be delicate; too much excitement was not good for her, he was told. Personally he could perceive no symptoms of a delicate constitution. Winnie was tall for her age, but she was not overgrown, and she appeared to be neither excitable nor supersensitive; and it seemed to her father that her appetite was abnormal. Certainly her will was as robust as that of her late grandmother, and already she ruled her mother. It surprised him that the little girl took her own education and accomplishments in such a serious spirit; to him it seemed unnatural, the acme of egoism. She was even inclined to criticise her teachers, and on one occasion demanded that her music mistress should be changed because the lady’s method of instruction “got on her nerves.”
Throughout these first few weeks of his leave Bassett was negatively content. Body and brain were recuperating after the strenuous years; he found a restful pleasure in the feeling when he awoke in the morning that there was nothing he was bound to do during the day. Clara ran the establishment well; he was hampered by none of his deceased mother-in-law’s rules and regulations. If he was late for breakfast his wife did not reproach him; his creature comforts were considered, and he had been long enough out of England to value little luxuries that for a bachelor were cruelly lacking in canal bungalows.
All this time he had said nothing to Clara of the Frost episode at Gopuri. Sooner or later it might come to her knowledge, via Miss Finch, but he had made up his mind to keep silence on the matter until he was called on to explain, and then he intended to say no more than he could help. He had no clue as to how much was generally known at Isanpore, but he did not doubt that scandal had crept through the station. In India a lady could hardly leave her home at night to be followed and retrieved from another man’s bungalow without comment.
The matter did not trouble him. He seldom thought of Angelica Frost; had Clara done her part and come out to India he never would have thought of her at all. Should Miss Finch write, maliciously or otherwise, and should Clara be dissatisfied with what he chose to tell her of the circumstances, it might even help to convince her of the truth contained in the virtuous maxim that “a wife’s place was with her husband.”
Revealment came through an unexpected channel. Lady Potts and Mr. Congleton invited the Bassetts to dinner, quite quietly, of course, in the sad circumstances—“only ourselves and yourselves, a simple meal, just for a chat.”
Clara was inclined to accept. She said perhaps, if she wore a high dress and Guy a dinner jacket— Secretly she was finding the evenings dull and the prospect of a little legitimate diversion tempted her. Guy was indifferent; provided Clara wanted to go, he was willing.
Accordingly, on a delicious summer evening he waited, ready dressed, in the drawing-room for his wife to join him before sending for a four-wheeler to convey them to the house in Queen’s Gate inhabited by Lady Potts and her consort. Clara seemed to think that a four-wheeler would be more decorous than a hansom, as the evenings were so light.
The room was pretty and peaceful, fragrant with flowers; sun-blinds had kept it cool all day. As Bassett stood at the long French windows opening on to a balcony gay with blossoming plants, he thought of India parched and panting in the cruel heat, of canal bungalows that now must be veritable ovens, of the blinding light by day, the suffocation by night, the dust, and the hard, dry earth praying for rain. Strong recollections of past sufferings at this season of the year returned to his mind, and for the first time he wavered with regard to the future. If he chose he could save himself all such discomfort, could live with his wife and child in outwardly honourable ease and security; nothing need prevent him from so doing, nothing save an inner consciousness that it was not the life for a man, that his duty lay in India, in the country that claimed and compelled him, despite her exactions and the slavery of her service.
Clara came into the room; her dress, black and diaphanous, emphasised the clearness of her complexion and the vivid blue of her eyes. True, Clara was putting on flesh, but the flesh was white and flawless and firm. Guy, turning towards her, thought he had never seen her so handsome, and for the moment he felt strongly disposed to yield his independence, his ambitions, all that India signified to him, that he might live according to her pleasure and her will. Clara was not intuitive. She did not recognise surrender in her husband’s eyes, and when, with a word of admiration, he would have kissed her, she drew back, complaining that the housemaid had been annoyingly slow in answering her bell.
“I shall have to get rid of that girl,” she told him; “and it’s so difficult to get good servants just at this time of year.”
Bassett, chilled, suggested carelessly that it would seem hardly worth while to make the Change before they went out of town. “By the way,” he added, while his wife drew on her long black gloves, “have you decided where we are to go?
“I don’t see how we can do better than Sidmouth,” she replied reflectively.
His heart sank. “Why not Scotland? I could take a little rough shooting with a fellow in my service who is home just now. He suggested it when we were shooting together in the jungle a year ago.”
“Oh! Scotland is much too far—such a journey with a child! Winnie must have nice sands to play on and a mild climate. Besides, several of her nicest little friends are going to Sidmouth, and I know the parents. What on earth should I do all day in Scotland, with nobody to talk to and you always out shooting?”
Clara did not appear to expect any answer to her protest, and Bassett let it pass.
“Hadn’t we better get a cab?” he suggested.
“Haven’t you sent for one? We shall be late.”
She rang the bell with impatience.
Lady Potts dwelt in becoming state. She had a butler and a footman, and her large drawing-room was resplendent with gilt and brocade. An elderly and superior lady’s maid, wearing a palpable “front” and pince-nez, received Clara’s wrap in a terminus beyond the dining-room, where a silver-framed toilet glass had been placed for the occasion on a writing table. The stair carpet felt like a mattress beneath the feet, there was a rockery with a fountain and gold fish on the first landing, a giant palm and a huge mirror outside the drawing-room door. Everything was large and imposing, including the hostess herself, in apricot satin and amethysts and an auburn toupée. Mr. Congleton seemed the only false note in the setting, an ineffectual person who made great parade of his adoration of his wife. At dinner he sat near her, explaining that he could not endure to be separated from her even by the length of the table, and with a conscious smile Lady Potts admitted that even when she was ill and had meals in her bedroom he insisted on sharing them there. They complained that they were such dreadfully busy people, and when Bassett inquired innocently what they did, their occupations did not seem to him particularly strenuous—letters to write after breakfast, a walk in the Park with the pugs, a luncheon engagement, or friends to luncheon at home, then a round of calls and At Homes and a drive, a much-needed rest before a dinner-party, and perhaps one or two receptions—Ranelagh or Hurlingham, of course, on Saturdays and Sundays. Lady Potts explained that it all meant much thought and exertion, especially the entertaining at home. She said she did not approve of this growing fashion of inviting one’s friends to restaurants and hotels when you had a nice house and a good cook of your own. For August and September they went to Llandrindod W’lls, and after Christmas they either took a furnished house at Brighton or went abroad—to the Riviera.
Bassett listened, disgusted, to this programme. What a useless mode of life! And there were thousands of such people doing the same thing, their one idea physical comfort, the display they could make in their own set, regardless of anything that might affect anyone but themselves. Inwardly he boiled when Lady Potts asked him if English people in India were really so idle and pleasure-loving as she had been given to believe. Sometimes she thought she should like to go out there and see for herself—it was becoming quite the thing to go out to India for the winter, but “Boy” feared the heat for her, and would not consent to the venture.
“Boy” declared fatuously that “Sweetie” could not stand heat, it invariably knocked her up; she was not at all strong; and then Lady Potts languished, though declaring with playful reproach that “Boy” was so foolishly anxious about her. It was only that she had not much stamina, and that her digestion was woefully weak; but still—
Yes—but still!—the “simple meal” was a six course dinner of rich, indigestible dishes, and Lady Potts partook of them all. Bassett thought it probable that Mr. Congleton would have his meals at her bedside next day. They were still on the subject of India when peaches and strawberries came round.
“You knew Hetty Finch, I think, dear Mrs. Bassett?” said Lady Potts.
“Why, of course!” from Clara in eager, polite reproach. “It was at our house, I believe, that you first met her.”
“Dear me, yes! But my memory is so treacherous. It seems to grow worse every day. I have to write everything down. That’s one thing I really must try to remember—to write to Hetty Finch. I have owed her a letter for ages.” She turned to her husband. “Remind me, darling, will you?”
“Hetty writes most delightfully from India—all about her strange experiences and the weird things she sees and hears. She loves the Indians, but she seems to have no opinion of the ways of the English out there. They do seem to behave indiscreetly. In one of her letters, I can’t remember which, she told me about some married woman who was taken ill in another man’s house miles away in the middle of the night. Let me see—oh!—h’m——-”
Lady Potts became suddenly confused and uncomfortable; her treacherous memory for once had been faithful, though too late. She glanced from Bassett to his wife.
Clara, enjoying a peach, said placidly: “I daresay those things are often exaggerated.”
Bassett wondered if, after all, Clara had heard from Miss Finch, and had been generous enough to keep her knowledge to herself. If so, she had his grateful appreciation. He had observed Lady Potts’s discomfiture, ‘nd recognised its cause—her sudden recollection of his name in connection with Miss Finch’s gossip. It was a relief when the hostess finished her glass of port and rose from the table, saying, “Well, Mrs. Bassett and I will leave you men to your wine and smokes; only don’t be too long.” She and Mr. Congleton exchanged loving looks at the door.
Later, on joining the two women upstairs, Guy noticed that Clara was flushed and disturbed. She made a move as soon as was consistent with good manners. The moment they were the cab she turned on him with vehemence.
“Guy, what does all this mean? You heard what Lady Potts said at dinner, and then up in the drawing room, to my utter amazement, she apologised for mentioning the matter in the way she did. She said she had completely forgotten for the moment that you were the man in whose house some woman was taken ill. Naturally, she assumed that I knew all about it, and, of course, I didn’t undeceive her. It would have been too humiliating to let her see that I was ignorant of the whole thing!”
“Then Miss Finch didn’t write to you?” Guy asked quietly; he wished Clara would wait till they got home and not try to quarrel in the cab. If the dead past had to be exhumed let be done decently.
“No, Miss Finch did not Write to me! retorted Clara with some heat. “Or, at least, she wrote, but she never mentioned this scandal. That seems to me very significant! Why didn’t you tell me yourself?”
“There was no reason why should.”
Rather to his surprise, and much to his relief, Clara said no more until they got into the house. Never very quick to grasp a new idea, the suspicion that Guy had not been faithful to her seemed to stupefy her brain; she needed time to sift her thoughts, and she could not have described her own feelings as she turned up the light in the dining-room and threw her wrap over a chair. As she watched her husband mixing himself drink at the sideboard she began to realise with a dull sense of shock that she knew nothing of his life apart from her; that many things might have happened of which she was ignorant during their years of separation. Until now she had always thought of him as simply absorbed in his work, if she thought of his daily doings at all.
Just then he came forward, and the light shone on his face and figure. For the first time it occurred to her that other women might find him attractive, might look with favour on his fine proportions and firmly-modelled features, his pleasant eyes and crisp dark hair just tipped with white. It flashed inconsequently through her mind that it was early for him to be turning grey, yet how becoming it was with his sun-browned skin and dark moustache. “Well, aren’t you going to explain?” she burst out with painful petulance.
“Yes,” he said pacifically, “it’s perfectly true that a woman—Mrs. Frost, if you want to know—arrived at Gopuri one night shortly before I left India, and was taken ill there. I sent for her husband and he and Dr. Finch came and fetched her away. Why she came and what led up to it all I would rather not tell you. It isn’t altogether my secret. I admit I was partly to blame, but the whole episode is over and done with so far as I am concerned.”
“I don’t believe you!” stormed Clara. The sharp temper, sheathed as a rule in a scabbard of indolence, now slashed through her self-control. She moved rapidly backwards and forwards between the table and the fireplace, catching her breath, clenching her hands.
“I have a right to know the truth. Supposing some man had been taken ill here in my house in the middle of the night, wouldn’t you have expected me to explain? I suppose you will say that men are different from women! I don’t admit the excuse. If I can behave myself rightly, so can you.”
“I haven’t put forward the excuse,” protested Bassett, “though there is a good deal to be said for it. If you had come out to me when I asked you, if only for a time, it might have saved me a regrettable experience.”
“Oh! of course I am to blame,” she interrupted. “That has always been your attitude. From the very beginning I have been sacrificed to your unreasonable ideas and inclinations. Mercifully, I am now independent, thanks to my mother, who protected me against what might happen after she died.”
Clara paused abruptly, for of a sudden she perceived a way out of all obligation to return to India with Guy. To press for further explanation might make that way difficult. She seized her wrap and swept from the room.
Bassett sat late into the night smoking, thinking, perturbed by the scene with his wife. Perhaps he had made a mistake. It might have been wiser to tell her the whole tiresome story, but, at least, it was not too late to unfold the facts. He would do so in the morning if she still wished it. Meantime he felt the need of movement and fresh air, and he went out into the deserted street that echoed every sound and footfall. The warm quiet of the summer night was soothing; he walked for miles, not caring where he went, and let himself into the house again at dawn. Wearied in body and mind, he slept heavily in his dressing room until he was called.
When he came down Winnie was seated at the breakfast-table in a white muslin frock starched and clean, her hair, but lately released from curl-papers, bound with a black ribbon. She was rosy, alert, important, giving orders to the parlourmaid, ready to give orders to her father as well.
“Poor Mama has a headache,” she told him. “She is not coming down to breakfast. You are to go up and see her directly afterwards.”
“And what are you going to do this morning?” he inquired by way of making conversation with his daughter.
“It’s geography day. And after lessons Miss White will take me for a walk. Then I shall have dinner, and I’m going to a party in the afternoon. I have got a new frock and kid shoes. It’s a much nicer frock than Kathleen Gaffney’s—-she will be jealous when she sees me in it. Her mother hasn’t got so much money as mine; her doll hasn’t got a pram. She lives in a poky little house.”
“But isn’t she a nice little girl all the same?” he asked, reproof in his voice.
Winnie condescended to admit that her friend was a nice little girl enough, but it was clear that she looked down upon those of her contemporaries who happened to be less fortunate than herself in their possessions and surroundings.
With such desultory talk the two finished their breakfast, and then Bassett braced himself for his interview with Clara upstairs.
That interview decided the question of Mrs. Bassett’s return to the East with her husband.
The quarrel was bitter. Clara proclaimed that her faith in Guy’s honour was shaken, that she considered herself justified in refusing to sacrifice her home and her child even for a time; she would hearken to none of his protests, till he finally lost all command of his temper and said things he did not mean.
Though immediately afterwards he felt the shame and the pity of the whole scene and regretted his share in it, he knew that real reconciliation could not follow. Peace was eventually patched up on the surface of their daily lives, with Clara’s grudging acceptance of an apology for his hasty words and his own tacit acquiescence in her determination to remain at home; he made no further attempt to set forth the true facts of the scandal in which he had been concerned. Convention, combined with the link of parenthood and the tags of their old affection, held husband and wife outwardly together during the rest of Guy’s furlough—which he voluntarily curtailed. He felt that in the circumstances things might have been worse. Clara and Winnie were secure financially, and, for himself, he would be free to indulge in comforts and recreations that hitherto had been out of his reach. After all, his position would not be exceptional; numbers of men in India were condemned for various reasons to separation from their wives, most of them, moreover, without the solace of freedom from pecuniary care.
So much for the future: as to the present, he no longer felt it his duty to accompany his family to Sidmouth or anywhere else for the orthodox flight from London during August and September. Clara agreed with unflattering alacrity that he ought to pay one or two visits among his relations, and that then he had much better follow his friend to Scotland. She opined, and rightly, that he would feel bored at a seaside resort without congenial amusements; as for her self, she would arrange to “chum” with Mrs. Gaffney in “apartments” and share a holiday governess with her for the two little girls.
So time passed swiftly and not unhappily for Guy, while Clara congratulated herself on having preserved her independence without any open rupture that might have discredited her in the eyes of her friends. Also all dread of separation from Winnie was ended; it was as if she had stepped from rough ground on to a nice level path that presented no obstacles to comfortable progress. Now she would rearrange her house, spend money on desirable alterations, paper and paint afresh, engage a personal maid who could pack, dress hair, and make blouses, instead of being forced to depend on the unwilling ministrations of a housemaid.
Such projects engrossed her thoughts, provided her with pleasant anticipations and subjects for conversation and discussions with the mothers of Winnie’s little friends. Her mind, like her body, suffered, so to speak, from fatty degeneration; she seldom read anything but fashion papers and the lighter magazines, or for more solid literature periodicals devoted to theories on the upbringing of children and housekeeping on comfortable lines. In the future she saw herself exalted as a grandmother, respected by an ideal son-in-law, referred to by her married daughter on all domestic details, queen of her own immediate circle. Guy did not come into this vision; somehow it seemed to be inseparable from widowhood, though she did not directly connect it with her husband’s departure from the world.
During the summer Bassett spent a week with the Partridges, who had come to anchor on the outskirts of Cheltenham. Already they had moved from Bath to Bedford, and thence to Barnstaple, afterwards to Cheltenham, via Clifton, with the light-hearted restlessness of the Anglo-Indian, to whom such uprootings present no terrors during the first few years of retirement. But painful and costly experience had at last taught the ex-judge and his wife the truth of the adage that three moves are equivalent to a fire, and they had finally settled in a suburb of the Gloucestershire town that provided a roomy house of the bungalow type, and a manageable garden, within easy distance of shops and the club. It was also a convenient haven for sons home on leave from all parts of world with their wives and increasing families.
At the time of Guy’s visit there was a temporary lull between the departure of one set of descendants and the arrival of another, so that he had the benefit of Mrs. Partridge’s entire attention. He in his turn listened with sympathy to her denunciations of life as it had to be lived by the ordinary retired Anglo-Indian. Difficulties and drawbacks, she told him, were endless, restrictions were often absurd; for example, when you entered into negotiations for the renting of a house you probably had to promise not to keep a girls’ school, or harbour lunatics, or boil fat on the premises, which only provoked a spirit of perversity. She said she had never wanted to boil fat until she went to Clifton and was told she must not do it. She amused her guest, too, about the servants; in comparison with an Indian domestic staff she found them very trying; what with their days out and their friends, their predilection for safety pins and writing paper, their inability to wind a clock without breaking it, and their passion for beef and bacon. “They are a sort of race apart,” she assured Bassett, “and I am only just beginning to realise it. I have given up doctoring them—-they always seem to think I want to poison them; and I believe they prefer to have all the complaints peculiar to the tribe—-earache and whitlows and housemaid’s knees, and ulcerated stomachs, and so on. Anyway, I am determined they shall not drive us from our home like the unfortunate Greens. You remember the Greens at Khanabad? They retired soon after we did, and now they have had to store all their furniture, and the silver and brass, and carvings and hangings they brought home with them, and live about in hotels and boarding houses, simply because of servants!”
Bassett thought it possible that the innumerable carvings and brasses, etc., might have been partly to blame for such a state of affairs, but he did not say so. However, despite all her trials, there was certainly no lack of comfort in Mrs. Partridge’s establishment. Bassett found himself well valeted. (“They will generally look after a man,” explained his hostess, “my husband gives them more trouble than a dozen women, but they don’t seem to mind”) The food, needless to add, was abundant and good, and well cooked; and though Mrs. Partridge confessed that she kept a couple of “coolies” to work for the servants, it seemed to be well worth while. Everyone was happy, with the exception sometimes of the coolies themselves, and they were easily replaced or reduced to submission. Bassett often wondered how he himself would fare at the end of his service. He supposed he and Clara would settle down somehow, but it was not an attractive prospect—two people who had drifted apart in feeling and sympathies, who had spent the best years of their lives away from each other, ending their days together on mutual sufferance.
He said something of this to Mrs. Partridge one mellow morning as they paced the path at the back of the house. The judge had strolled off to the end of the garden, and was already helpless in the clutches of the gardener, whose grievances were endless—the weather, the birds, the mice, the contrariness of the mowing machine. As Mr. Partridge said afterwards, the man seemed to think that his master was to blame for it all.
Bassett also had a patient listener at the moment. “Sometimes I think the whole thing may have been more my fault than Clara’s,” he was telling Mrs. Partridge ruefully.
“Well, my dear, perhaps it is better you should think that than feel you have been badly treated”— Her tone of voice clearly conveyed which of the two she considered had been most to blame—“though it is difficult to see how else you could have acted. Hitherto you couldn’t have chucked your Indian appointment, and now it seems to me that your work out there the only thing left to you, at any rate for the next few years.”
He went on, “I don’t think Clara is unhappy, and that makes it all the easier. I shall be able to throw myself more wholeheartedly into my work when I get back, now that know exactly where I am. I am glad Winnie is a girl. I must have interfered over a boy’s education, and come home fairly often to see after him. As it is, I feel that Winnie belongs much more to Clara than to me, and I am sure Clara regards the child as hers entirely. She resents any comment or criticism from one where Winnie is concerned.”
“Some women are like that,” said Mrs. Partridge vaguely. She hardly knew what to say to comfort her disconsolate friend. There was nothing now to advise about; she could only listen and sympathise and agree. “One blessing is that you love India. As a matter of fact, I expect you are longing to get back into harness!”
“Well, yes—-I am,” he admitted. “Physically, I am all the better for the change and the rest, and I enjoyed myself in Scotland, though the sport was nothing to speak of. There’s no doubt about it that India is the country for the poverty-stricken sports man. I don’t think I could live at home bottled up in an office, with six weeks at the seaside, and golf for week-ends! You see, I had a taste of all that when Clara and I came home first—though minus the golf, a game I have never cottoned to with any enthusiasm, except that it takes one into the open air.”
“You’ve got India in your blood, by which I don’t mean that you’re a half-caste! People whose forebears have served India seem to be born with a sort of instinct for the country. It’s a provision of Nature. Some day you will have Winnie clamouring to go to India.”
“If so, she will go,” stated Bassett drily; “she rules her mother with a rod of iron now!”
From this they fell into one of their long gossips about India in the abstract—India in the days of the European adventurers, when one man’s personality and force of mind could dominate princes and peoples, lead armies alien in colour and religions, hold their confidence and love; India when old John Company, symbol of Great Britain’s high enterprise, laid the foundations of prosperity for the country in face of perils inconceivable; India beneath the dark cloud of the Mutiny that now seemed so remote, yet was so comparatively recent, when English courage and determined sacrifice led to peace and protection for a vast and varied population then at the mercy of internal strife and ruthless invasion. They talked of modern administration and the danger of employing Western methods of progress and education regardless of ancient Eastern outlook—of forcing new wine into old vessels, grand old vessels that yet might explode when pressure became too high.
“At times I feed glad I am out of it all,” sighed Mrs. Partridge, “much as I miss my old Indian life. All my recollections of the country are so happy, and even since we came home things seem to have changed considerably. I believe there will come some tremendous upheaval, perhaps a European war, that will test India’s loyalty, and then we shall know whether all our work and efforts and sacrifices have been in vain.
These talks were the purest pleasure to Mrs. Partridge, and she would recall countless happenings connected with what she termed her “long service” in India—-the people she had nursed and sheltered beneath her hospitable roof, the marriages she had promoted, the births at which she had assisted, the tragedies she had witnessed. Her memory was miraculous, she seemed hardly to have forgotten a single servant or animal that had been a part of her various establishments.
“My old khansamah writes to me once a year,” she told Bassett, “he is still at Khanabad, but of course he gives me no news of the station—only announces a birth or a death or a marriage in his own family and bewails the expense. I wonder what has become of poor Mr. Janvier, the missionary; his wife died not long ago. I saw it in the Pioneer Mail and wrote to Ruth at once. I had a grateful little answer, and she sent me her photograph, and said that her father was leaving Khanabad. Perhaps he came home, though I don’t think that is likely. Poor Mrs. Janvier used to say she knew he would live and die in India. I can’t imagine how he will get on without her.”
“Perhaps I shall come across him some day,” said Bassett. “If I do I will write and tell you. It was lucky Ruth had well-to-do relations at home to look after her. What is she like? Do show me the photograph—she promised to be lovely, but pretty children” sometimes grow up plain—”
Judging from the photograph, it was evident that little Ruth Janvier had been true to her promise. Even at this transition stage between childhood and girlhood there was no trace of ungainliness about the slim young figure in a riding habit. The square little face looked out of the picture with merry eyes under a mop of curls. She was perched on a window sill, her whip across her knees, her straw hat by her side.
“She was always more like a boy than a girl,” said Bassett, wishing he could keep the picture. “I remember so well the first time I saw her in your garden—that hot-weather evening when you and Mrs. Janvier were sitting outside on the chabutra. She had on a blue frock and was holding up a green parrot. I wonder if her hair is still the same gorgeous colour.”
“Probably not,” said Mrs. Partridge, “it would have grown darker, but she is a pretty creature, and I hope she will marry happily and well.”
“I expect her relations will take care of that!” Bassett handed back tne photograph reluctantly. He wished he could see the child, he wondered if she had forgotten him—if she had forgotten the dreadful moment in the cabin when he had slapped her. She had borne him no malice, generous high-spirited little creature that she was; and he remembered vividly the small disconsolate figure on the deck of the steamer waving him a fond and sad farewell. Winnie would never care for him as this wayward child had done; he would never know the wholehearted devotion of a daughter, any more than he would know the loyal allegiance of a wife. In future India must be wife and child to him—and, at least, thank God for India.
Bassett went back to London that he might prepare for his return to duty, feeling heartened by Mrs. Partridge’s enthusiasm for the country, and her shrewd understanding of his state of mind. It seemed curious that an elderly woman of no particular mental endowment should have power to lighten his outlook and help him to make the best of his path in life. Yet so it was and he blessed his friend in his heart, and with stammering tongue, as he left her standing in the doorway of a provincial villa, white-haired, homely, to all appearance nothing but an uninteresting old Anglo-Indian lady whose activities were over, whose thoughts were bound up in the past. Nevertheless, without such women, and there were many of them still, Anglo-India would fare badly; they were the cement in the strong foundation of a good and just rule, with their standards of devotion and duty, their simple upholding of virtue and sacrifice in exile.
By the beginning of the New Year Bassett was back in India. Until he arrived at Bombay he was ignorant of his ultimate destination, and the possibility that he might be re-posted to Isanpore had haunted him throughout the voyage. He shrank from the thought of the big restless station and any renewal of friendship with the Frosts. He detested the memories of Gopuri—-the melancholy old bungalow and the bridge, and Mohun Lal with his ghost story, and that terrible night when Angelica Frost had come in with the storm, and had gone out of his life, as far as her allurements were concerned, with her simple-minded husband.
His relief was unbounded when he received orders to join at the head works of a new canal that was under construction. Here a little batch of engineers formed a temporary colony, far removed from the distractions of station life; and here Bassett spent three profitable years, gaining experience, contented in mind, wholly engrossed with the claims of his profession.
The work went on steadily, with untiring progress.
The air was filled with the ceaseless din of such labour, the clanging, the hammering, the rumble of trucks, the beat of machinery, the clamour of countless coolies. Stacks of material disfigured the landscape, together with sheds and cranes, and the dull yellow earth upturned in mounds; all the inevitable exactions of a mighty undertaking that was to give water to a thirsty area and food to a hungry people.
When the work was completed it became a question with Bassett whether he should take advantage of the leave that was due to him. It ended in his going to Cashmere, where for three months he wandered and shot and was happy after his own fashion. Matilda, good soul, was dead. To his grief she had sickened and died during the first hot weather after his return, her last look for her beloved master, her last movement an effort to lick his hand. Though her two sons Jerry and Tom, now sober-minded gentlemen, were his constant companions, they had never quite taken the place of their mother in Bassett’s affections; Jerry was the most like her—sensitive, adoring, somewhat of a coward on occasions—while Tom, it must be owned, was selfish and overbearing, without fear of any description, and bullied his brother, who was his humble follower.
At the end of their holiday Bassett was posted to the place of all others that he would have chosen had he been given the option. Years back, Narganj had been the scene of just such another great undertaking as that in which he had been lately concerned. But here the stress and the toil were forgotten, the scars in the earth had healed, and peace reigned unbroken; only a number of crumbling weed-covered huts and sheds remained, with half a dozen mud-built bungalows that had sheltered the “sahibs” engaged in the works—-dwellings that now stood empty and desolate amid a wilderness of neglected gardens.
And the visible outcome of that strenuous past was a weir across the great river that now was controlled and directed by human skill to supply human needs, and, diverted from the vast volume of water, flowed a wide and stately canal. It was a grand record of mental and physical achievement, and Bassett regarded it all with mingled sensations of pride and sadness; with pride because he had helped to complete a similar record in another part of the Province far distant from this; with sadness because the pathos of the dead past touched him as he thought of the ceaseless work beneath a broiling sun, the sickness, the sacrifice, the deaths from fever or overstrain; and now the silence, the deserted bungalows, the jungle that had once been gardens.
His own habitation, which stood farther away on an artificial mound overlooking the river, was a neat, thatched bungalow, with good outhouses, a tennis court, and a garden full of fruit trees which at least afforded shade if the fruit was negligible. It had all been kept in excellent order by the various canal officers who had succeeded one another in this responsible charge since the completion of the work, and each had added some improvement—with the exception of Bassett’s immediate predecessor, who had only held temporary charge. Downall was a being of small imagination who was interested in nothing pertaining to Narganj beyond his own departure therefrom. Had Bassett been of a more gregarious disposition he might have been thrown into the depths of despondency by the other’s abuse of the place and his dismal descriptions of the solitude and monotony of the life.
“There isn’t a soul to speak to,” this person asserted while joyously preparing for his escape, “unless you can count an old missionary, who is half-mad, I am told, though I’ve never seen him, thank goodness, and a blacky-white settlement a mile or so away, people who claim descent from some big English family; in fact, the son declares he’s the real Lord Orchard!”
“It’s quite possible he is,” suggested Bassett. “Such cases are not unknown out here. Some ancestor may have done something he shouldn’t, and bolted to India to retrieve his fortunes, and got swallowed up by the country——married a native lady, and settled down on a grant of land in patriarchal fashion.”
“Well, I know nothing about such cases, not being a member of the aristocracy myself. Just wait till you see ‘Lord Orchard.’ That’s all!
“Does he call himself Lord Orchard?”
“No, he only says he is. He tried coming over here at first to jabber and smoke and play tennis, and wanted me to call on his mother and sister, but I soon sent him of with a flea in his ear in addition to the bee already in his bonnet.”
“Poor devil!” said Bassett.
Downall laughed. “You’ll be calling yourself that before you’ve been here six months. I think I should have cut my throat if I’d had to stay permanently, though it would have meant promotion. Praise the pigs, I’m off to a civilised region where there’s a club and plenty of white girls and fellows of my own sort! Perhaps you appreciate missionaries and half-castes and banishment more than I do!”
He went off rejoicing, leaving, as his successor soon discovered to his cost, the office in chaos and muddles innumerable to be rectified.
A week later Bassett received a visit from “Lord Orchard,” and was surprised to behold an extremely good-looking youth, lithe and supple of form as any wild animal in its prime, with an olive complexion and brilliant dark eyes, heavily fringed with black lashes. He wore a red-and-white check coat, with riding breeches, long yellow boots, and a flamboyant tie; yet somehow he did not look vulgar. The bright colours only added to a comeliness that was more Oriental than English.
Obviously he was nervous, and in consequence introduced himself with a good deal of bluster. Bassett, recalling with regret the bad manners of his predecessor, welcomed the young man reassuringly.
“It is kind of you to call,” he said, rising from the midday breakfast he had just begun.
Mr. Orchard’s gratification at once took the form of a rather disconcerting familiarity. Cordially he invited Mr. Bassett to continue his meal, explaining with a strong “country” accent that he himself “never stood on ceremonee,” and as to its being kind of him to call—well, he considered this Indian fashion of the newcomer first calling was all rot when neighbours were so few and far between. Then he threw himself into an easychair, crossed his long legs, and produced a cigarette-case ornamented in enamel with the picture of a ballet girl.
“There is no society at Narganj,” he went on; “no fun or frolic for ladies and gentlemen, no club. When I need change I go to Karnpur [Cawnpore]—it is only twenty-four hours’ journey—where I dance and flirt, and have a gay time for one week. My mother and sister cry ‘Shame! Shame!’ but”—with a shrug of his shoulders—“what is a man to do, h’n?”
Then he slapped his forehead theatrically, as though in sudden recollection. “By Jove! I was nearly forgetting. My mother sent message she would be very pleased if you would come to our place tomorrow and have tea. No ceremonee, mind—just all clothes and all easygoing.”
He glanced anxiously at his host, apprehensions of a snub lurking beneath his ostentatious assurance. Bassett’s first impulse was to refuse. But what excuse could he make that might not be regarded as a rebuff? He felt it would be churlish, almost cruel, to decline the invitation. Therefore with inward reluctance he accepted, and the young man’s relieved and effusive gratitude was painful.
Another unfortunate result of such consideration was that the visitor seemed in no hurry to depart. He accepted a whisky and soda, and embarked on the family history.
“I was taught in Martinière College—all very well—good teaching, good arrangement in and out, but not England. My father was defunct when I was still little, and the estate stayed in my mother’s hands till I arrived at the age of eighteen. She did not care to send me home—so far away from her. But one day I shall go, because, you see, we are fine pedigree!” His voice became boastful. “My great-grandfather son of a lord, and married a Princess of the House of Delhi. Then my father holding high office with the King of Oudh. If I go and make petition in England I shall be acclaimed Lord Orchard. My mother will be widow of late Lord Orchard; my sister, Mrs. Charles Rook, will be Honourable. My sister married Charlie Rook, a racing man, of Calcutta. He was a budmash” —hastily he collected himself—“a rascal—always carrying on. So how could she do? She divorced him, though he in his wickedness tells that he divorced her, and she came back home. Quite right, h’n? But no money, no help, only injustice and false report. She is as good as she is good-looking; you will see for yourself—and Charlie Rook is a bad fellow, damn him! Orchard beat his riding boots with his whip, and blew forth clouds of scented cigarette smoke in his indignant defence of his sister’s reputation.
Bassett, leaning back in his chair, preserved an impatient silence; he had a great deal of office work to get through, and he wished the well-meaning youth at the end of creation. But short of dismissing him “without ceremonee,” there was nothing for it but to suffer his chatter ungladly.
Presently, however, Mr. Orchard mentioned a name that lassoed Guy Bassett’s wandering attention. He sat upright.
“Janvier,” he repeated.
“Yes, the old padre at the Mission House over by the village. He was ill, dying perhaps, for weeks; my mother was sending him milk and chicken brot’. He wished for his daughter, and now she has come, all that way alone, to see after her father. Quite right, too, for he does not look after himself. These missionaries, they are very foolish people. How can they expect to keep in good healt’ when they live so badlee?”
“You say his daughter has arrived?” questioned Bassett incredulously.
“Yess, yess. Am I not telling you? She has been there for two weeks. Do you know them?”
“I remember a missionary called Janvier about ten years ago at Khanabad when I was stationed there. He had a wife and a little girl.”
“Well, then, the wife is dead,” said Mr. Orchard cheerfully; “and I suppose it is the little girl who has come. Who else? She is a big girl now”—he laughed, showing splendid white teeth—“and, oh! so prettee! Padre Janvier is a rum old cuss.”
“He can’t be so very old if he is the man I am thinking of,” said Bassett, still hardly able to believe that it could be Ruth and her father.
“Anyway, he looks old—which is bad luck, no doubt. But what else, when a man lives on nothing and gives away all his rupees? He was very sick and talking always of his child. My sister Mabel—Mrs. Charlie Rook, you know—she wrote a letter to Miss Janvier; she thot it a shame that the young lady :should be rolling in riches at home, and the old man so poor and lonelee and ill out here. She gave her fits!”
“But how did Mrs. Rook know Miss Janvier’s address?” Bassett felt as if he must be dreaming. The whole thing was so extraordinary.
“Oh! she read some letters,” explained Mr. Orchard; “they were lying about when the padre was behosh—I mean off his head—with fever and all that. It was quite easy. Then Mabel got a wire from England, ‘Coming next mail,’ and then another wire from Bombay saying train. So first I sent a cart ahead for boxes, and then I drove the twenty miles to the railway and fetched the young lady. She is very elegant, though stuck up. But, of course, as Mabel says, she has been brot up by grand relations, and perhaps——”
“Didn’t Downall do anything to help? interrupted Bassett in puzzled vexation.
“Oh! Dow’!” scoffed Orchard; and he spat Miss Janvier’s expected arrival he could hardly be “Oh contemptuously through the open door on to the floor of the veranda. “He was a useless. We did not confide, or ask his advice. Not once did he come calling on my mother and Mabel, and no visit to old Janvier.”
Bassett reflected that if Downall knew nothing of Miss Janvier’s expected arrival he could hardly be blamed for inaction in the matter. What a pity that Fate had not willed him to succeed Downall rather earlier! The Orchards might have “confided” in him, and even had he not been in time to modify or stop the mad summons, at least Ruth would have found an old friend of her own class and colour to receive her at the end of her journey, and would have been spared the twenty-mile drive with this amazing youth, excellent though his intentions. He could no longer doubt that the young lady was Ruth herself. How strange it all seemed! He wondered how she had managed to accomplish her purpose, for it seemed scarcely credible that she should have left England alone with the consent and approval of her guardians. What luck that he should be at hand to help and look after her!—-though remembering the photograph Mrs. Partridge had shown him four years ago, young as Ruth had been when it was taken, he fancied she would be well able to take care of herself. All the same Narganj was not the sort of place for a girl of Ruth’s upbringing, with no suitable companion beyond a sick father. He should not like to think of Winnie in such rough and lonely surroundings. Mercifully three months of good climate were still ahead; he imagined that Narganj would be unpleasant enough later, though the proximity of the river might soften the severity of the heat.
While these thoughts were coursing through Bassett’s mind Mr. Orchard was preparing reluctantly for departure. It was obvious that with the smallest encouragement he would have settled down for the afternoon. Once out at this time of day, he announced, he could do without his accustomed siesta, but perhaps Mr. Bassett needed a lie down? And Mr. Bassett, who never went to bed in the daytime, falsely declared that he did feel rather slack, fearing that if he pleaded an accumulation of work his visitor might suggest temporary retirement to the veranda with a book. So he lied without compunction, and with the usual success of the sinner. Mr. Orchard rode away on a handsome chestnut Arab that had been waiting beneath a tree in the compound, turning in his saddle to wave his whip and shout final farewells to his new-found friend.
Once he was safely off the premises Bassett walked down to the weir and stood looking up the river. Beyond the wide volume of water there was nothing very attractive in the landscape—flat, colourless stretches of country broken with clumps of trees; his own little domain seemed to be the pleasantest spot in the locality. He questioned one of the Government boatmen who said that Narganj Estate lay a couple of miles away to the left, behind the mango grove, and that the Mission House stood on the outskirts of the large village that was just discernible in the distance, all on the same side of the river. ‘ Bassett hesitated as to whether he should write a note recalling himself to Ruth’s memory, or simply descend upon the Mission House without warning; Finally he decided on the latter proceeding. Mr. Janvier might be worse: Ruth might be urgently in need of something.
His first sight of the Mission House as he rode up to it half an hour later filled him with dismay; a wretched little blue-washed building, without a creeper on the walls or a plant in the veranda, standing stark in a neglected compound; indeed, it might be safe to say that there had never been anything to neglect; it was just bare ground, unlovely, uninviting. A few ragged fowls were scratching in the dust, and the servants’ quarters, undesirably close and shamelessly visible, completed the unsightly picture with string bedsteads and litter indescribable outside, dirty, naked children, and two or three women combing their hair in the sun. How dispiriting for a girl straight from a luxurious home in England!
Bassett shouted once or twice without result. Then’ He boldly mounted the shallow steps of the veranda and, pushing aside one of the reed screens, stepped unto an austere apartment furnished with coarse matting, a bare table, and a few country-made chairs. The only pleasing object was an old oak bureau that looked oddly out of keeping with such inappropriate surroundings. The mellow surface and brass fittings seemed to cry aloud for tapestry and panelling, old china and Jacobean furniture.
The figure that entered from an opposite door looked equally out of tune with the setting. A tall, slim girl, dressed in butcher-blue linen, with waving auburn hair, a delicate skin powdered with freckles, wide open brown eyes. She paused in surprise at the sight of the intruder, but seemed in no way discomposed. “Perhaps you will think I am a ghost from the past,” said Bassett, “holding out his hand.” She took it, gazing at him in puzzled welcome. “Do you re member your voyage to England when you were a little girl, and a brute who slapped you when you were naughty, and Mrs. Partridge and—”
“Oh! she broke in, amazed and delighted. “Indeed remember, though it is all like a dream. You are Mr.—Mr.— She paused, distressed at her failure to find his name. “You have always stayed in my mind with memories of my mother, and India, and coming home.”
“My name Bassett—Guy Bassett.”
“Yes, yes, that was it!” Her face cleared, then clouded again with suspicion. “You haven’t been sent—-you haven’t come to take me away? Because,” she added firmly, “I am not going back—not yet, at any rate. You must quite understand that.”
“Oh! I’m not here to carry you back to Bombay and put you on board the next mail steamer,” he assured her lightly, “though probably I ought to do so. I am stationed at Narganj, and I heard only today that you were here, so came to see what I could do for you.”
“Thank you,” she said simply, with little sigh of relief, and added, to his immense satisfaction, “I am so glad you are here.”
She swung herself lightly on to the table and invited him to take one of the uncompromising chairs. He noticed her neat feet and ankles clad in tan stockings and shoes.
“And your father,” Bassett inquired, “how is he now?”
She shook her head sadly, and he saw that the tears were not far from her eyes. “He’s better than when I arrived—-” She paused, then burst out in a passion of self-condemnation: “Oh! I can’t bear to think of how he must have suffered since my mother died—and I was at home, not thinking, not caring, knowing nothing till I had a letter that opened my eyes. He is a wreck, body and mind; and it was the Orchards who saved his life, strangers, people who didn’t belong to him.” She bit her lip in a mute struggle to restrain her feelings. “I can never forgive myself.”
Bassett said nothing, and he felt that she was grateful for his silence. It was not the moment to point out that she was distorting her own ignorance of her father’s circumstances into a culpable indifference to his welfare, nor to suggest that she had perhaps acted on impulse without due consideration for those who had cared for her at home.
““Come and see him,” she said presently. Perhaps it will do him good, and then you can tell me what you think.”
Bassett followed her into the next room, and was shocked at the sight of a frail figure wrapped in a dressing-gown, seated at a table that was covered with papers. Padre Janvier looked like the skeleton of a bird. His skin was bone-white, his eyes might have been holes in his head, and his hands were claws.
“How do you do?” he said politely, and attempted to rise, but his daughter laid a detaining hand gently upon his shoulder. He smiled at her, yielding with pathetic docility, then turned to his visitor. “Perhaps you have come from the mission headquarters to inspect the work? Everything is in order. Here is my list of baptisms, my yearly report and the accounts. I have been ill and perhaps they are not quite up to date.”
Mr. Bassett has nothing to do with the mission, father,” put in Ruth, as though she were explaining to a child. He just a friend, and he used to know you and mother many years ago at Khanabad.”
“Khanabad,” he repeated vacantly. “No, I cannot remember.” His hands strayed feebly among the papers. “You will see”—pointing to document that appeared to be a list of names—“how God has supported my efforts. It is a hard fight, and the Powers of Darkness are strong; but good will triumph over evil, that is certain?” There was note of querulous anxiety in the question.
“Yes, of course,” agreed Bassett. “Don’t worry about it. Just allow yourself to feel glad that all well.”
“It is one of his bad days,” whispered Ruth, a whisper that she knew would not reach the over-wrought, ill-nourished brain, and Bassett nodded in complete understanding.
“Satan,” quavered Mr. Janvier, “Satan who blinds my poor flock to the truth, who stops their ears that they may not understand, who mocks when I fail—”
He began to cry helplessly and Ruth knelt down by his side, putting her arms about him tenderly. He clung to her, and Bassett, standing aside, regarded the little scene with infinite sympathy—the unearthly face of the prematurely broken man framed in its white hair and beard, the shrunken body and skeleton hands; the girl radiant in her youth and health and beauty, her hair shining in the shaft of sunlight that shot through the open door, her eyes soft with pity and regret.
“Where Panchoo?” walled the padre fretfully. “Where has he gone?”
Ruth looked at Bassett. “Would you call him—the old servant? He is never very far away.”
And at that moment Panchoo appeared from the back veranda, a low-caste old native, professedly Christian, slovenly, unkempt, lacking the natural dignity of the better-born Indian, yet with an honest, faithful expression more like that of a dog than of a human being. He salaamed low to the stranger and Mr. Janvier’s countenance brightened.
“Panchoo!” he murmured contentedly.
“Protector of the Poor!” was the old native’s affectionate response.
Ruth rose to her feet and fetched a bowl of some nourishment from a side table. She handed it to the servant. “He will be all right now,” she said to Bassett. “Panchoo will persuade him to take it. They will be quite happy together.”
Before he left the Mission House Bassett was in possession of the outlines of Ruth’s history from the time he had seen her last on the deck of a P. &. O. steamer at Marseilles until their meeting this afternoon at Narganj. Panchoo brought them tea in a, huge earthenware pot, a plate of thick toast, fresh goat’s milk and some passable butter, and over the rough little meal they talked as though their friendship had hardly been broken by the years.
Bassett listened to a lively sketch of the sort of upbringing considered appropriate for girls of the “county family” class by the older generation of the day—a succession of ladylike if incompetent governesses, weekly classes for dancing and drawing in the local town five miles away; companionship with cousins from the “big house”; a few parties at Christmas time, tennis in the summer; church and the village; also the great-uncle and aunt, who opposed a fringe, and anything approaching to freedom of behaviour as the girl grew older. Then apparently had come a period of “scrapes” connected with modern novels and boys, and the heedless high spirits of youth, until long skirts and the “putting up” of plaits could no longer be delayed, and with these changes had arisen a claim to independence of thought and action that horrified the old-fashioned couple in the roomy, luxurious Vicarage within the precincts of Paxton’ Park.
“Then, you know, Granny wanted me to marry my Cousin Reggie,” Ruth confided to her amused companion. “In fact, the whole family wanted it because Reggie had given them such a desperate fright about some actress in London, and they were only too relieved when he turned his attention to me! Otherwise I am sure they would have made just as much fuss about me as they did about the actress; They all seemed to think I ought to thank my stars for the chance of becoming Lady Paxton. I am very fond of Reggie, but I didn’t much want to marry him, though I might have done so if I hadn’t had that letter—” She paused with a wince at the remembrance of Mrs. Rook’s reproaches.
“I know,” said Bassett. “Young Orchard told me this morning how his sister had written. Very officious of her!”
“No, no,” she interrupted; “Mrs. Rook was perfectly right. I can’t tell you how I felt; I seemed to realise, as I had never done before, how badly father and mother had been treated—how selfish and worldly and hard-hearted we all were. Perhaps you’ll hardly believe it, but my mother was seldom mentioned at the Vicarage, my father never. I was allowed, not encouraged, to write, and Granny always read the letters; and when I think what those letters must have been like after the first year or two, when I had begun to forget;” She gazed at Bassett with tragic eyes.
“All the same,” he said parentally, “you ought not to have been allowed to come out here alone.”
“I wasn’t allowed. I just came.”
He could quite believe it; but he wondered how she had obtained the money for her passage in face of such obvious opposition. He could not resist asking her the question. “I sold my pearl necklace,” she told him a little shamefacedly. “It was my mother’s; she left it behind her when she ran away with my father. Granny gave it to me when I came out at the Hunt Ball. Just fancy, I got four hundred pounds for it. I was never so surprised in my life! So, you see, I have plenty of money in hand. I was able to manage it all quite easily, because, when I said I intended to go out to India, they sent me up to London with Granny’s maid, dreadful old Morgan, to stay with Lady Paxton, Reggie’s mother. They thought it would put ‘all this nonsense’, as they called it, out of my head.”
“Another pause, then she added with impatience: “Oh, don’t sit there looking as you thought I was a wicked, mad, ungrateful girl! I simply felt I had to come, and if you had been me you would have done the same.”
“Well, perhaps, perhaps,” said Bassett pacifically. “Anyhow, now that you are here, will you please look upon me as your uncle, or your grandfather, or whatever you like in the way of relation? The Orchards are all very well and most kind, no doubt, but they won’t quite understand you, nor you them; so will you make up your mind to apply to me in any difficulty and, may mention the word, for advice?”
“Oh, advice!” she laughed, with a mischievous gleam in her eyes. “Who was it said that time and advice are among the bad things that ought to be relegated to the moon?”
“Some young woman who was the despair of her people, I should imagine.”
She pointedly ignored this remark. “If you are bursting with advice,” she went on presently, “perhaps you can tell me what ought to be done about the poor, dear old man’s work and the villagers. He isn’t fit to attend to anything. The people come up in crowds asking for food and medicine and clothes and all sorts of things. Yesterday man brought me a sick goat, and said he was very ill too; I gave them each a dose of quinine and the goat died on the spot! I was terrified till the man walked away apparently none the worse, but he was furious about the goat. How could know that quinine kills goats?”
“I don’t suppose does,” comforted Bassett. “The animal was probably at the last gasp any case.”
“Panchoo said the native Christians ate the goat last night, so, at any rate, somebody was pleased.” She gavea little sigh. “I do hope I shall pick up the language again soon. I am sure having been out here as a child helps me to understand in a way what they are saying, but, so far, I can’t say anything myself.”
““How about food?” Bassett inquired anxiously.
“Food for the converts? Is one supposed to feed them?”
“No, food for yourself and your father. Are you getting decent meals?”
“We seem to have plenty of rice and eggs and chickens of sorts, and those angel Orchards send or bring me something every day—queer dishes, really rather nice sometimes, and fruit and odd-looking vegetables. Their kindness has been extraordinary. Yesterday Mr. Orchard brought me a tin of white bait. Oh, my! she staccatoed in kindly mimicry; “he is a verree lovelee young man! They both laughed with goodnatured understanding. “And imagine his driving goodness knows how many miles to meet me at the station—he had relays of ponies on the road. And old Mrs. Orchard was here when I arrived; she had brought over bedding and all kinds of little comforts. I don’t know how I should have managed without them.”
“Bless them!” said Bassett. “I am to call there tomorrow, by special request, to make the acquaintance of Mrs. Orchard and Mrs.Rook.”
“Oh! then, I will come too!” she exclaimed happily. “That is, if father is well enough for me to leave him. They are always entreating me to pay them visit, but I didn’t feel I could; you see, father has only been sitting up for the last few days.”
Bassett rose; it was getting late. “I will call for you on the chance, and don’t bother your head about the converts or the work just at present. We can attend to all that later.”
He rode home across the stretch of bare country now pink-washed with the glow of the setting sun, his feelings divided between pleasure in Ruth’s nearness and anxiety concerning her wellbeing in the present and in the future. She had acted recklessly, perhaps wrongly, yet with what courage, what spirit! He could understand the shock of her sudden awakening to the self-centred ease of the existence she had known for the past ten years, her passionate pity and remorse for her parents’ sufferings and sacrifices which, once suggested to her mind, had held and tormented her imagination till the call became too urgent for resistance. After all, she had only fought against what to her seemed unjust and hard-hearted opposition; though no doubt the Paxtons had regarded the girl’s wish to go to her father as nothing but a wild and unreasonable impulse not to be entertained for a moment, and it was difficult to perceive how else they could have acted. It was a desperate tangle. The money derived from the sale of the pearl necklace, probably nothing like its real value, would not last for ever, and then, should her relations refuse to forgive her, as in the case of her mother before her, what could be done? Bassett felt himself as weightily responsible for Ruth’s welfare as if she had been his own daughter or sister. Finally, he decided to write to Mrs. Partridge and beg for her advice.
Meantime Ruth was here, and tomorrow afternoon he was to drive her to the Narganj Estate. The little outing would be good for her; he hoped sincerely that it would not prove to be one of the poor padre’s “bad days.”
Narganj Estate was imposing even in its decline. Standing in an enclosure of many acres that harboured deer, wild pig, peacock and small game, and approached by a fine avenue of shisham trees, the home of the Orchards shone white in the sun like a monster wedding-cake, with its platform and pillars and crumbling stucco ornamentation—more palace than bungalow. Past splendours and present deterioration were painfully combined within and without. Guy Bassett and Ruth Janvier were ushered into a hall that ran the depth of the house; high up on the walls were frescoes of native scenes, battles, processions, wedding ceremonies, dimmed with cobwebs and dust; below them hung fly-blown mirrors cracked and discoloured in tarnished gilt frames. On the tessellated floor lay a priceless Persian carpet in cruel companionship with a dirty drugget; a century of neglect had not entirely defeated the beauty of its colours and design, and it seemed to claim pathetic kinship with the sumptuous though tattered brocade that covered a broad divan placed in the centre of the hall. Around the divan was scattered cane furniture of cheap bazaar make, and on one side stood a meat safe of such dimensions that it might well have been mistaken for a cage of a wild animal but for its contents—pans of milk, piles of boiled rice, the remains of various meals that contributed odours of spice and garlic to an atmosphere permanently reminiscent of musk and camphor and stale tobacco.
The visitors waited in cautious silence; the doors, eight in all, stood wide open, and beyond two of the heavy curtains that hid the adjoining rooms sounds of haste were audible, the opening and closing of drawers, runnings to and fro, impatient orders in Hindustani.
Mrs. Charles Rock was the first to appear, a comely creature, much older and not nearly so dark as her brother, clearly a “throwback” to the English forebears. Her appearance was not improved by a free application of powder and rouge, and she wore an unbecoming costume of magenta-coloured velvet. She was profuse in her welcome, and hunted the guests from seat to seat till she felt satisfied as to their comfort, offered cushions and footstools, assured them that tea would be coming “just now,”, wondered what her mother and Leslie could be about that they were not “ready and here.”
“Always so slow!” she complained. “In Calcutta what would they do? There I was used to such bustle and stir, and these country ways make me irate. When I say ‘Hurree, hurree,’ they get only worse here at Narganj.”
“We were rather early, I think,” said Ruth in polite excuse.
“Oh! noh. Never too early! Come when you like, stay any lengt’ of time, all the better. Ah! here is my mother at last!”
It would have been difficult to guess Mrs. Orchard’s age. With a jewelled ring in her nose and an embroidered shawl over her head, she might have passed for a middle-aged native lady, but arrayed in brown merino, with bedroom slippers, white cotton gloves and jet ornaments, her hair so clumsily dyed that it recalled a mixture of cayenne pepper and salt, her appearance was merely that of an elderly and ordinary Eurasian. Her redeeming point was her eyes, once beautiful, still large and kindly and bright; Her son had inherited his mother’s eyes. Beneath her inert placidity there lay, a keen business instinct, as was proved by her successful administration of the estate during young Orchard’s minority, and her continued supervision, which he was wise enough to welcome, of his management. However slipshod her methods, the crops were made to pay, the rents came in, and there was no lack of comfort in the household according to the peculiar manner of existence.
Mrs. Orchard was all nods and smiles, motherly towards Ruth, deferential to Mr. Bassett, artlessly proud of her handsome daughter, and of her handsome son when he entered the hall, noisy and effusive in his greeting as master of the house. He threw his sun hat aside, wiped his forehead with a pink silk handkerchief, and stretched his limbs. “Oh! my, these servants! They are such dulls. How many times have I told them the way to mark a badminton court and put up a net, but always all wrong. And now where is tea?”
“Com-ing, com-ing,” said Mrs. Orchard comfortably. “Sit down, Leslie, boy, and get cool. Look at the timepiece; there is no need for hurree.”
Leslie seated himself beside Ruth, and described a horse he had purchased that morning, “a bargain,” he declared.
“Young and sound, and so gentle. Will you ride him, Miss Janvier?”
Involuntarily Ruth’s eyes brightened. She was a good rider and loved horses. “But I didn’t bring my saddle,” she said regretfully, “though I’ve got my habit with me.”
“There is a side-saddle somewhere about, but I think too old and shabby. We’ will get a new.”
“Oh, no!” said Ruth hastily, “thank you, I couldn’t think of such a thing. I really haven’t time to ride at present. I will send for my own saddle from England.”
At this moment, to her relief, the arrival of tea diverted the over-generous young man’s attention. Such a tea! Mixed biscuits, jam, sardines, toffee and cakes, potted meat—and a pudding. It was all set out untidily on a round table that sloped, and they gathered about it with much talk and apologies from the entertainers for the meagreness of the fare. The servants, in loose cotton trousers and not over-clean coats, remained in the room waving away the flies, and were occasionally included by Mrs. Orchard in the conversation. It was a trying meal for the guests, who avoided each other’s eyes and endeavoured to struggle through the food that was heaped on their plates. Ruth at last hit upon the happy excuse, eagerly supported by Bassett, that if they ate any more they might find themselves unable to play badminton.
Then they trooped out to the court that was composed of beaten mud, and the four “young people” played a vigorous game, Mrs. Orchard people acting as umpire from a bulging basket chair, applauding the good strokes and ‘ finding excellent reasons for the bad ones.
Ruth ran and laughed with all the lightheartedness of a child. Bassett took the keenest pleasure in watching her pretty movements, in hearing her happy voice. He felt it to be a mercy that she could thus enjoy the hour, despite the difficulties that lay in her future path. If anything could carry her safely through them it would be this dauntless faculty for taking life as it came, and for extracting the best from the moment. She accepted the Orchards, with all their crudities, as she had accepted her unaccustomed surroundings at the Mission House. To her they were kind, good people, however unintentionally amusing; and instead of bewailing the discomforts of her father’s establishment she laughed and did her utmost to reduce them.
Now, when the game of badminton was over, she showed lively interest in a little tour round the premises, beginning with the tumbledown stables. Leslie Orchard’s pride in his “stud,” picketed outside for the evening meal, was justified—a creditable collection, from the shining chestnut Arab and the pair of loose-limbed walers standing a good sixteen hands, to the couple of sturdy country-breds, and the new acquisition of the morning, an iron grey with good quarters and a look of breeding.
“Now there is the mount for you, Miss Janvier!” Mr. Orchard pointed to the grey with satisfaction. “The Arab perhaps too impatient, the walers too big, the ponies sometimes bobbery, no manners, kicking and biting, but useful for getting about and in the cart. But this grey here, so steadee, and paces easy. All this week I have been trying him, and bought, thinking just right for a young ladee!”
“Oh! my—my!” exclaimed Mrs. Rook in playful reproach. “What would Miss Domingo say if she heard you at Karnpur!”
“P’ff—Miss Domingo! What about her!” cried Leslie in pleased and self-conscious disdain. He fixed his fine eyes upon Ruth, who was tickling the grey’s muzzle, with the result that the horse wrinkled up his lips and showed his teeth in an ecstatic grin.
“Look at him!” she laughed, turning her face to the little group of people; and Bassett felt with some misgiving that she was enough to banish any number of “Karnpur” young ladies from the youth’s heart and mind. He hoped young Orchard would not become a nuisance to the girl; perhaps he ought to warn her.
To his dismay, Mrs. Rook continued her banter, and included him in it with a knowing wink. “Out of sight, out of mind. With Leslie absence does not make the heart grow fonder. But what chance for him while you are here to cut him out, Mr. Bassett, h’n?”
Here Ruth rejoined the group, to the disgust of the grey, who whinnied and pawed the ground entreating her to return. “What are you talking about? she inquired, all unsuspecting.
“I am saying,” replied Mrs. Rook, with a roguish glance, “no chance for Leslie to cut out Mr. Bassett!”
Ruth looked puzzled; Bassett scowled; Mrs. Orchard chuckled, enjoying the joke; Leslie sidled up to Ruth and offered her a rose he had lately stuck in his buttonhole. Then she understood. Bassett felt he wanted to wipe out the Orchard family, but Ruth, unembarrassed, dealt with the situation adroitly. She waved away the offering with a light laugh and a stage curtsy, and allowing no time for further awkward remarks said naturally, “Now what else is there to see? It is getting late.”
She attached herself to Mrs. Orchard’s side during the inspection of the coach-house which contained Leslie’s dogcart and a venerable landau, together with the skeleton of a coach that had been driven by the Orchard great-grandfather in the days when Narganj Estate had been at the height of its glory. On they went to the swimming bath which had long been dry, and was half filled with rubbish; then to the “ladies’ quarters,” where the Princess of the House of Delhi had lived in secluded State despite her marriage to an Englishman. Now it was nothing but a sort of rabbit warren that sheltered a herd of hangers-on, probably native relations, near as well as distant,of the Orchards themselves—old peeple, children and females innumerable, who scuttled and hid and peeped as the the guests drove away, overpowered with regrets at party passed by.
Mercifully, Mrs. Rook did not keep up the joke and their departure and repeated invitations to “come” again; also laden with presents to Ruth of flowers and fruit and mysterious packages produced by Mrs. Orchard—all piled at the girl’s feet in the trap.
Ruth sighed with relief as they swung out of the compound. “Poor dears, how awful they can be!” she said leniently, “and Mrs. Rook’s idea of humour! I hadn’t the heart to squash it too firmly. Why didn’t you say you were a married man, and my uncle or my grandfather, or something to stop their stupid ideas?”
“I was so taken aback,” he apologised; “besides, you did quite the best thing; your presence of mind was admirable. I only trust you won’t have any trouble with that youth. If he becomes tiresome be sure to tell me, and I will settle him.”
“Oh! he is harmless enough,” she said carelessly. “Besides,” she teased, “how do you know I shan’t feel tempted to become Lady Orchard? He tells me he means to go home some day and get himself ‘acclaimed.’ I should then take precedence of Lady Paxton!”
Looking down at the laughing, radiant face upturned to his, Bassett suddenly felt old and desolate, as if the best portion of his life were over, as if all the rest of his years must be drab and drear. He forced himself to speak gaily. “It would be dear at the price, I should say ”; and as he said it he was thinking that after all he was not so much over thirty, sound and strong, his health unimpaired; in other circumstances the best part of his life might well have been yet to come. Only today he had received a letter from the friend with whom he had shot while on furlough, announcing his marriage to a girl of twenty—“just the right age for a fellow of thirty-four; and she can ride and play games and has taken to camp life like a duck to water”—and so on for pages.
With a mental start Bassett recognised the trend of his thoughts, and put up a determined resistance; he owed it to Ruth as well as to himself not to permit such ideas to colour his pleasure in her companionship, or to enter into his guardianship of this portion her of life. He became aware that Ruth was speaking. “Do let me drive, Mr. Bassett. I long to feel reins between my fingers again. That’s such a jolly pony of yours; doesn’t he go!”
He pulled up and they changed places. Under the girl’s light, experienced touch the pony sped forward, and her pleasure was infectious. The country lay steeped in the evening light. The mighty river to their left gleamed like rose-tinted glass; long flights of birds showed black against the sky in leisurely, homeward progress; the very atmosphere diffused happiness and peace. A little whirlwind of yellow dust was raised by the wheels of the trap and the pony’s quick hoofs; to Bassett it seemed as if they floated on golden clouds.
That was the first of many drives during the next few weeks. Padre Janvier remained much about the same, neither distinctly better nor worse, and Bassett felt that there was small hope of real recovery for the shattered mind and body. He was amazed at Ruth’s unflinching struggle to adapt herself to an unnatural mode of existence for a girl of her years and upbringing, at her persistent endeavours to cope with the language, with the claims of the converts and the work that had been dislocated by her father’s breakdown. In his efforts to support her in her self-appointed tasks, Bassett learnt more about mission achievements and failures than he could have believed was possible. Peter Paul, the native Bible teacher, who acted, so to speak, as curate to Mr. Janvier, was not much of a stand-by; even armed with a shiny Testament and a baggy umbrella, and clothed in an old suit of his chief’s, he presented but a feeble front, hampered as he was by racial instincts and inborn superstitions. He merely wept over the renegades, and trembled when an astrologer invaded the village, making mischief among the women and easily undermining the padre’s influence acquired by a holy life and rigid example. Ruth tended the sick, literally clothed the naked, bribed the wobbling little flock to attend the services conducted by Peter Paul; rewarded those children with sweets and toys who presented themselves at the school—a rough shed with a mud-plastered floor; did all in her power to “keep things going,” not altogether, perhaps, as the padre himself might have desired, but so that at least the whole fabric of his labours should not crumble to pieces.
Bassett observed with anxiety that the strain was affecting the girl’s spirits. He feared for her health, and insisted on regular recreation—long drives, an afternoon’s fishing, shooting expeditions, when he taught her to handle a gun. Sometimes she rode with him or with young Orchard, for the side saddle rescued from its retirement at Narganj Estate had proved neither so old nor so shabby that it could not be used; though, as Ruth confided to Bassett, it recalled the donkey rides of her childhood at the seaside. She brought all her troubles to Bassett, quite naturally, as her guardian and friend, sometimes with laughter, sometimes with tears of discouragement; she showed him the letters from her people in England, upbraiding, indignant letters, yet he was glad to note that the home was still open to the truant should she elect to return repentant. Mrs. Partridge had written advocating patience, while offering a refuge to Ruth if her relations proved harsh. The Orchards were unremittingly helpful and attentive; friendly little gatherings continued at Narganj Estate and at the Canal bungalow. Bassett felt that matters might have been worse; until the crisis arrived that he had feared from the first. . Leslie Orchard’s admiration for Miss Janvier developed into an unmistakable passion—not quite the fierce and fiery infatuation that might have been expected of an Oriental temperament, but a dumb and persistent devotion that was difficult to repulse. He would gaze at Ruth much in the same adoring fashion as did Jerry whenever he found himself in her company; indeed, Jerry was almost as frequent a visitor at the Mission House as Mr. Orchard; he often slunk over by himself to sit at her feet and follow her about; and his ecstasy was unbounded when she showed the smallest appreciation of his presence. In Jerry’s own interests, Bassett contemplated giving him to Ruth, for Tom made his brother’s life a burden—ate his food when he was not there to claim his portion, occupied his bed, was rude and even violent when he returned from these visits.
Tom’s behaviour was a check to a certain extent on Jerry’s infatuation for Ruth, but there was no one to discourage Mr. Orchard’s attentions so long as they remained inarticulate. Bassett could hardly adopt Tom’s methods, but in his opinion the young lady was rashly indifferent to the situation; she treated it as a joke, and in reply to a hint from Bassett, said that Mr. Orchard could take care of himself, and that it would never do to offend the family by snubbing him without very good reason. Boxes of sweets from Calcutta, flowers and fruit and suchlike small offerings, which formed excuses for frequent visits, could not possibly matter, if it gave the youth pleasure to present them. from made
They almost quarrelled badly on the subject one evening as they lingered outside the Mission House on their return from a badminton tea at Narganj Estate, when Mr. Orchard’s lovesick condition and his relatives’ sly innuendoes had been more pronounced than usual.
“So long as he behaves himself, where is the harm?” she argued. “In many ways I find him most useful. I should never have got those curtains dyed the colour I wanted if he hadn’t fussed about it in the village bazaar, and the cotton for stuffing the cushions was forthcoming directly he ordered it, though it is going into the most dreadful lumps already. And he routed out all sorts of useful odds and ends from the back of a bunniah’s shop; goodness only knows how they got there—loot from the days of the Mutiny I should imagine, judging from their age and appearance! Anyway, the bungalow looks much nicer, doesn’t it?”
“You wouldn’t let me send you things from my bungalow,” grumbled Bassett.
“Why should let you make yourself uncomfortable? Leslie Orchard’s contributions entail no sacrifice on his part, and it amuses me to get packing-cases converted into furniture, and to contrive all sorts of dodges with bazaar makeshifts. It’s like playing with a doll’s house again.”
Certainly she had achieved wonders. The premises no longer looked untidy, the veranda was gay with plants, and the interior of the bungalow was homelike and clean, and in certain degree comfortable. Ruth knew what she wanted and Bassett could not deny that young Orchard, with his influence in the village (which belonged to Narganj Estate), was better able than himself to get her requirements supplied. But it worried him to feel that her careless acceptance of the young man’s devoted services was being interpreted by the Orchards as favouring of his suit. It would be a shock to Ruth when she realised the position.
“You oughtn’t to encourage him quite so much,” he maintained. “Sooner or later he will ask you to marry him.”
“Good gracious!” laughed Ruth, “you might almost be Granny. Why don’t you take to a cap and spectacles at once?”
“Can’t you be serious?” he scolded. “It isn’t suitable for you to have this kind of youth hanging about at all hours. Don’t you understand his sister’s nods and winks, and his mother’s delight in the prospect of calling you her daughter-in-law!”
“I hadn’t noticed it particularly,” she replied perversely.
“Then you must be blind”; and, provoked beyond discretion, he added hotly, “I can hardly assume that you like it!”
The words were barely off his tongue before he regretted them sorely; he knew it to be a false and unjust insinuation, and he felt punished by the scorn in her eyes and the anger in her voice as she hit back sharply: “And I can hardly assume that you are jealous of Mr. Leslie Orchard!”
They halted simultaneously in their strolling as though confronted with a precipice, standing aghast at their danger, afraid for the moment to meet each other’s eyes. Bassett took prompt refuge behind commonplace apologies.
“Forgive me! Of course, I didn’t mean it. I spoke without thinking.”
“So did I—” she paused,” blushing, supremely embarrassed. “I’d—forgot—-”
He hastened to her rescue, smiling, purposely paternal, though the effort was hard. “You forgot I was an old married man! Well, I forgive you for the sake of the compliment. We mustn’t quarrel about Leslie Orchard, or anything else under the sun, must we?”
“Oh, no!” she sighed, obviously relieved by his attitude, “only I hate being scolded. It makes me worse and I lose my temper. I think I am becoming most disagreeable, but everything is so difficult.” Then, as though fearing his sympathy, she exclaimed abruptly, “Just look at those chickens!—scratching up all the seeds I put in this morning. Naughty!” she called to the culprits, clapping her hands, and ran to stop the mischief. The fowls fled before her, squawking and fluttering, with much play of long yellow legs.
Bassett stood and watched her. She had left her hat in the veranda, and the glow of the evening sun burnished her hair and bathed her young form in an amber light. The agony of the revelation that had come to him was almost more than he could endure. He loved her most dearly, loved her with all his heart and his soul, his body and his mind. It seemed to him, now, that he must have loved her from the moment when he had first seen her as a child in the Partridges‘ garden that hot-weather evening such years ago; as if all the time intervening had been but a prelude to this final tragedy of his life. There came upon him a misery so unfightable that he turned and walked into the bungalow, lest when Ruth should rejoin him he might be powerless to conceal it.
He went straight to the padre’s room. Mr. Janvier greeted him with childlike pleasure; Bassett’s presence had a soothing effect upon the poor wandering mind. It was one of the missionary’s bad hours. “I have been waiting for you all day,” he quavered, “come here.” He tapped the open Bible that lay on the table before him, then held up his forefinger. “Hark! do you hear the Orchestra? The terrible yet splendid strains, the.wailing of sorrow and the high notes of hope?” He beat time with his hand, his head bent as though actually listening to music. “Sorrow and sin; victory and vanquishment,” he chanted softly.
The crazy words seemed to find an answering echo in Bassett’s heart. Sorrow must be his, yet also victory over self if for Ruth’s sake he could fight the good fight with manliness and will.
That week Bassett’s work took him into the district for two or three days. On the morning of his return, as he sat at his office table, Mrs. Orchard and Mrs. Rook drove up to the Canal bungalow in the antiquated landau and sent in their visiting cards. He received the two ladies in the room where he read and rested and ate his solitary meals, a pleasant haven, though devoid of all feminine touch, no flowers, no mantel border, no table covers—just books and papers in plenty, well-mounted skins on the floor, a few bits of good old brass, photographs of Clara and Winnie and Mrs. Partridge, with those of a few other friends and two relations.
Jerry had rushed in with him under the mistaken impression that Ruth had arrived; he retired in deep disappointment, but Tom tiptoed round the visitors, growling disapproval, until he was banished to the veranda, where he revenged himself by bullying his brother. Through the transparent cane blind he could be seen standing over Jerry, who lay on his back in an abandonment of terror.
The visitors were decked for their call. Bassett received an impression of feathers and artificial flowers, tight gloves, and an air of “ceremonee,” but their faces were gloomy; indeed, Mrs. Orchard was sniffing. Mrs. Rook sniffed also, but more in anger than in sorrow.
“Here is a nice affair!” she began in high indignation.
“Such a kafuffle,” ‘wailed her mother.
“What is the matter?” inquired Bassett. He felt sorry for the elder woman; her distress was so patent, whatever its cause.
“It is Leslee and that girl,” explained Mrs. Rook. “Always talking and flirting and now refusing. It is a sin and a shame.”
“My onlee son,” whimpered Mrs. Orchard; and Bassett addressed himself to her. Mrs. Rook’s truculent attitude incensed him.
“Tell me what has happened,” he said, politely patient.
But Mrs. Rook was not to be ignored. She, so to speak, brushed her parent aside. “What has happened? What has happened? Leslee has proposed to Miss Janvier, and she has said ‘No, No!’”
“Oh! there is no ex-cuse. Attentions and presents, every day something, and always at the Mission House, and now to be treated like old shoes. All very well for jungly people who do not know the world, but I say bad conduct. In Calcutta such behaviour would bring disgrace.”
Mrs. Orchard dissolved into noisy tears. Bassett felt distracted.
“You say Mr. Orchard has proposed to Miss Janvier and that she has refused him?” he said helplessly.
“Yess, yess!” sobbed Mrs. Orchard from the depths of a large pocket-handkerchief. “And now he says he is leaving, going away, going across the ocean. How shall I eat and sleep without my boy, and he so handsome and clever? Any young lady would be proud. Miss Domingo, at Karnpur, she would have jumped, and her father in such a good position, and then this poor missionary’s girl to turn up her nose! Oh! Mr. Bassett dear, can you not persuade and make matters all right? To Leslee I say, ‘Do not goh; stay and persist.’”
“But how can I interfere?” protested Bassett.
“Who else?” demanded Mrs. Charles Rook. “That is just why we have come, my mother and myself, in all the sun and the dust. Only you can speak to Miss Janvier.”
“Leslee will go away, or perhaps throw himself down the well,” wept Mrs. Orchard. “Oh! it is too much! too much!”
Bassett temporised. “It is all very unfortunate, of course, but I think, from what I know of your son, he has more good sense than to do anything desperate, and if he goes to England it may help him to recover from his disappointment.”
Mrs. Rook rose in her wrath. “Then you refuse to remonstrate? You will not point out what hopes have been raised—what shocking behaviour?”
“I have already told you that I cannot interfere in the matter,” said Bassett decisively. He almost laughed at the notion of his persuading Ruth to accept Leslie Orchard as her husband, yet he sympathised in a measure with the distress of Mrs. Orchard, with the rage of Mrs. Rook, also with, no doubt, the despair of the rejected suitor. Ruth was much to blame; if she had listened to his warning this unpleasant situation need not have arisen. “I am quite willing,” he added, “to see Miss Janvier this morning and talk things ever with her, but I can’t undertake to suggest that she should alter her decision.”
“Then you are dog in the stable!” flamed Mrs. Rook. “You cannot marry her yourself, and so you do not wish her to marry another. Oh! no, we are not blind bats; we have only trusted too much. If you do not mind you will find yourself and this wicked girl in the divorce court!”
Bassett controlled his anger. He simply walked to the door and ordered a peon to summon Mrs. Orchard’s carriage from the back premises, where the coachman and syce were smoking and gossiping with his own servants.
“Oh! yess, we are going—we are going!” shrilled Mrs. Rook behind him, “and there will be no more calls between here and the Estate, or the Mission House. No more baskets for Miss Janvier—-a nice padre’s dotter indeed !—no more help or hospitalitee. Come, Mamma, dry your tears and bless the Almightee for Leslee’s escape.”
There came an awkward little interval as they all stood in the veranda awaiting the landau. Mrs. Rook turned her back ostentatiously upon Bassett; Mrs. Orchard gazed at him in tearful reproach, murmuring again, “My onlee son!”
As presently the pair climbed into the aged vehicle, Mrs. Rook called over her shoulder: “Please be good enough to see that Miss Janvier returns belongings and loans. She has still a resai and a degchee and two jharans” (a quilt, a cooking pot and two dusters).
“I will remember,” Bassett responded gravely, with a farewell bow.
He sighed, though he could not help smiling, as he turned back into the house. The whole incident had been pathetic, as well as absurd; he wished it could have been avoided. The Orchards had their value to Ruth, and now she was cut off from their friendship just when conditions were becoming difficult with regard to climate and supplies. The hot weather was at hand; already the mangoes were taking shape upon the trees, and the brain-fever bird was practising its horrid song; in another fortnight the temperature would be severe even in the shade... Supposing Ruth were taken ill!
Bassett finished his work and rode over to the Mission House, anxious and downhearted. To make matters worse he found Ruth in the captious mood so often engendered by a guilty conscience. He told her at once that he knew what had happened, and described as much as seemed to him judicious of the recent scene in his bungalow.
“How tiresome they are!” she cried fretfully. “Why will they interfere? Leslie himself behaved splendidly, though it was all very painful, and I liked him better than I have ever done before. I believe he will turn into a very fine man; it will be the making of him to go to England, and, at least, I shall have that much to my credit.”
“Yes, if he doesn’t get into hopeless mischief,” interposed Bassett rather unkindly, “and come back too big for his boots, despising his relations, not to mention Miss Domingo at Cawnpore.”
“You always look on the worst side of everything!” she complained.
He did not answer, and she continued in querulous protest: “I know you blame me for bringing trouble on the Orchards, that you think I did wrong in coming out to India, and that I do more harm than good all round.”
She moved across the room that he might not see the tears in her eyes; her voice was defiant, but her heart was sore. She regretted having flouted his advice, was remorseful for the sorrow at Narganj Estate, miserable because he was vexed with her. Absently she began to sort out a box of toys she had ordered from a Calcutta firm for the children of the converts; wooden dolls, penny whistles, popguns, Noah’s arks and such like; false inducements tempted parents to swell with their offspring the little gatherings invfront of the padre’s veranda when he was well enough to read and expound to them his translations from the Scriptures. Ruth and Bassett, in the centre room of the Mission bungalow, could hear him now, droning feebly, while the company murmured comments among themselves on what they could catch from their master’s lips.
As Ruth bent over the box of foolish toys Bassett did not dare follow her. He had heard the tremor in her voice, he knew how unhappy she was feeling. He ached to take her in his arms, to soothe and console her; to tell her that whatever she had done or might do she was perfect in his sight; that he would give all he possessed in the world, even to his life, if he could only make her happy.
“Ruth,” he pleaded from the background, “don’t be unjust.”
She turned to him, half crying, unstrung. “I feel such a failure; I’ve made such a mess of everything; and just when I wanted you most you were away in camp. You don’t know how I missed you; and now you are back you are angry, and—and I can’t bear it!”
The struggle to keep his head was almost too much; for Guy Bassett. He took the hands held out to him, little, capable, boyish hands, now cold and shaking, and his touch seemed to brace her nerves, to restore her self-control.
“Who is looking on the black side of now?” he queried, smiling at her tenderly. “Buck up, little girl; it will all come right! There! don’t cry——I didn’t mean to be such a brute.”
She threw back her head with a laugh that was yet half a sob; it was a signal of forgiveness and good faith—he knew that they were now better friends than ever.
Leslie Orchard held to his resolve. Possibly he was not altogether sorry to have a definite excuse for a trip to England—the ambition that had been his since the days of his schooling at Martinière College; at least, that was the impression he left upon Bassett’s mind when he presented himself at the Canal bungalow for a farewell visit. His appearance was not entirely that of a despairing suitor, though sadness lurked in his brilliant brown eyes and overshadowed his handsome face. He told his friend, tremulously, that he had been to say good-bye to Ruth Janvier.
“First I sent her a note,” he explained, as though fearing Bassett might accuse him of having forced his way into the Mission bungalow, “and she said ‘Come.‘ It is very hard to be crossed in love, and how can I ever forget! But I see I was foolish and too hopeful. It was partly my mother’s fault and Mabel’s. They kept telling me ‘faint heart never won fair lady’; ‘go in and win; propose, propose.’ And they mocked when I told them I was not good enough. This has been a lesson. Now I go to London, and there I shall soon pick up English ways, and perhaps come back Lord Orchard! Then, maybe, we shall see; I do not quite give up all hopes—h’n?”
Bassett evaded an opinion on this point, but supported the youth’s ambitions in the direction of self-improvement. He gave him a little sound and fatherly advice—information as to where he should bank and the hotel he should patronise: promised to write to him. Then he watched him ride off on his chestnut Arab, a brave figure in the strong sunlight, wishing him well, little dreaming what the years were to bring forth, or under what fateful conditions Leslie Orchard was to enter his life again.
With Leslie Orchard’s hasty departure for England, and a haughty letter from Mrs. Rook acknowledging the return of the various articles loaned to Miss Janvier, all communication ceased between the Mission House and Narganj Estate; also, of course, between Narganj Estate and the Canal bungalow. It was not long before Bassett began to suspect that the mysterious system of boycott so common in the East had been set going in the village for the embarrassment of the Janviers. Ruth’s incompetent old ayah, who was related to the head sweeper of the village, suddenly declared herself too ill to work, timing her indisposition with the receipt of her month’s wages. When punkahs were needed for the Mission House (hitherto the padre had endured the hot seasons without alleviations) the price demanded for materials was exorbitant; the same with other household requirements—supplies became limited, difficulties cropped up in every direction, and Panchoo openly avowed his conviction that for sorne sinful reason “the Narganj Estate folk” had coerced their tenants into this iniquitous behaviour. Most of the inconvenience could be remedied by orders posted to the nearest railway centre, but the situation was vexatious; and whenever duty took Bassett into the district, he suffered tortures of uneasiness lest Ruth should find herself in some awkward predicament during his absence. Mercifully his work was of a nature that necessitated more or less close attendance at headquarters. Then indications of spiritual weakness among the converts increased, though demands for material assistance did not diminish in proportion; attendance slackened at classes and meetings; the devil-priest reappeared and led the Christian community astray after false gods and secret ceremonies. In the padre’s present condition of health matters seemed likely to grow worse; and presently Peter Paul, with tears and protestations, produced a telegram summoning him to his home in the Punjab; apparently all his relations were either dying or dead.
Happily Mr. Janvier remained unconscious of this deplorable state of affairs; he swallowed Panchoo’s tactful explanations when a meagre congregation assembled on the days when the padre was well enough to address his flock. For the most part the missionary passed the hours fumbling among his papers, composing incoherent sermons and reports, and interviewing those hypocritical seekers after earthly benefits who still haunted the compound. Ruth did her best to carry on the work, but consideration for the spiritual progress of the converts seemed to her of less importance than her father’s physical welfare, and her time was chiefly occupied in keeping up his strength, humouring his whims, and in making vain efforts to combat the cruel heat that weakened his powers of resistance.
“I would take him home, or to the hills,” she said distressfully to Bassett, “only I feel sure the move would kill him.”
Days dragged by in hot, level monotony; the rains were overdue, each week seemed more unbearable than the last as the hard, dry earth cracked and shrivelled in the scorching atmosphere. Ruth’s energies began to wane, she flagged perceptibly, could not eat, confessed she was sleeping badly; and one evening when Bassett arrived at the Mission House to take her for the after-dinner drive that sometimes rested and refreshed her, though the night was scarcely cooler than the day, he found her feverish and flushed, complaining that her limbs seemed to have been converted into lead.
“Where’s the thermometer?” said Bassett.
“I’m not going to take my temperature,” she told him perversely. “There’s nothing really the matter; I’m only over-tired. Father has been worse all day; I could do nothing with him, poor dear. He was so restless, mistaking me for mother, and begging me not to die and leave him alone!” She smiled sadly. “Really I think mother has the best of it, out of this awful life. How could she have stood it all those years!”
Bassett regarded her with concealed concern. Never before had she confessed herself discouraged in the smallest degree by all she was forced to endure.
“Don’t look so solemn!” she added, with an attempt at a laugh. “He’s asleep now, and for goodness’ sake let us get out into what air there is, or I shall die—of suffocation!”
He yielded to her wish, though he felt she would have been better in bed beneath her punkah; and they drove along a cart track parallel with the river, the roll of the wheels and the beat of the pony’s hoofs deadened by the loose, thick dust. The air was stifling, insects beat against their faces; the young moon was dimmed by dusty haze, the river, the wide, flat country, the groves of trees showed grey in the ghostly glimmer; a sense of portent and pause hung over the land. From a dense mass of clouds piled high on the horizon came the low rumble of thunder; the angry sound was as sweetest music, for it meant that before morning the rains might have broken, bringing blessed relief from the overpowering heat.
Neither Ruth nor Guy spoke much. There was nothing to talk about save the heat and the hope that the clouds would fulfil their promise, the thunder its threat. Once Ruth gave an unnatural little shiver, and said she felt sure something dreadful was going to happen; and Bassett told her it was nothing but the result of atmospheric oppression—which affected everything and everyone. She would observe that even her favourite pony, usually so spirited, was trotting as though his feet were too heavy to lift with ease. All the same, he feared that Ruth was in the grip of malaria, and purposely he curtailed the drive despite her fretful objections.
That night he was roused from a restless sleep by summons from the Mission House. The messenger, a punkah boy slow of wits but fleet of foot, stammered breathlessly that he knew nothing. Panchoo had sent him—the message ran thus: “Would the sahib come quickly?”
The sahib ordered a pony to be saddled while he threw on some clothes; then he galloped swiftly through the thick, hot darkness, for the moon had long since set, his mind oppressed with apprehension. Panchoo, distraught and trembling, met him on the steps of the Mission House.
“The padre-sahib, the padre-sahib!” he gasped, and at the words Bassett was conscious of an immense relief; all the time he had been thinking only of Ruth.
A lamp shone dimly from a wall of the centre room, the oak bureau was open, papers were strewn over the floor; among the litter lay the missionary, face downwards, a dark trickle of blood creeping sluggishly over the matting.
“The sahib would not hearken to this slave,” sobbed Panchoo, beside himself with grief and terror. “He rose from his bed and walked about talking, and then he unlocked the table, seeking for something—God knows what. He fell and his head struck the table. The sahib was without understanding, and his servant was helpless; the missahib was also without sense, by reason of the fever that is upon her.”
As Bassett bent over the prostrate form he heard a high unnatural voice babbling in the next room. The sound went on without ceasing while he and Panchoo carried the padre to his bed and laid him upon it. Something that had been clutched in the limp, claw-like hand fell to the floor; Panchoo picked it up.
“See,” he said, “doubtless here was the thing the sahib sought? Maybe it belonged to the missahib when she was yet a child.” He placed an unpleasing object tenderly on a table; it was an old doll, ragged and hairless and hideous.
The hours that followed were a nightmare to Bassett. All efforts to restore the padre to consciousness failed; he sent for the canal apothecary, and while awaiting this person’s arrival he went into Ruth’s room, regardless of proprieties. Even in all his distress and anxiety he noted the lack of comfort in the girl’s sleeping-place. The dressing-table was a wash-hand stand; a common little looking-glass bridged the cavity cut for a basin; silver-backed brushes and dainty trifles rested, resigned, on a red-bordered towel that did duty for a toilet cover. The bed was the usual low wooden frame, headless and footless, laced with webbing. Ruth lay beneath a coarse cotton sheet muttering nonsense, her hair in disorder, her eyes wide open, and shining, yet blind to her surroundings. Beside the bed squatted a monkey-like creature, lean and brown, who massaged the patient’s aching limbs with all the inherited skill of the Eastern female.
Panchoo came into the room. “That is my Wife,” he explained apologetically. “She is of no account, but she will obey orders and attend to the missahib. There is nothing to be done,” he added, familiar like all natives with the symptoms of common malaria, “except to watch and give water, and wait till the sickness passes. The doctor-babu has come and waits the sahib’s pleasure.”
The doctor-babu was a stout, intelligent being with a loud voice, who, after a prolonged examination, pronounced pompously that “the poor gentleman had given up the ghost.” The truth came as a shock to Bassett; at first he could hardly believe it. Mr. Janvier might have been merely asleep; save for the cut and the discolouration on his temple there was no difference in his appearance; perhaps if any thing he looked less haggard, less shrunken. It was a melancholy ending to an ardent, selfless life, yet for his own sake, who could wish the poor padre back, with health and mind impaired, his work over, his usefulness no longer to be looked for?
The doctor-babu, inflated with importance, under took all necessary arrangements; he wrote out a death certificate with laborious ceremony; talked and gave orders as though every one were deaf. At Bassett’s request he visited Ruth—felt her pulse, took her temperature, prescribed, gave his opinion that the young lady would be “right as trivets” in a couple of days, no need for alarm, only quiet and quinine.
At dawn Bassett went back to his bungalow, leaving the apothecary in charge at the Mission House. Certain orders that he gave in his work shops resulted in the construction of a rough, strong coffin; and in the evening, as the sun set angrily behind the swollen purple clouds that yet had failed to break, he read the burial service over a shallow grave. Thus another mound was added to a desolate little cemetery at the back of the deserted bungalows. Ruth knew nothing of all this. To Bassett’s thankfulness, when the fever subsided, she slept throughout the day, only half waking at intervals to sip the iced champagne and chicken essence he had provided for her from his little store of luxuries. Sad and weary he came back from burying her father to find she had been asking for him; to find also that Panchoo’s wife, with the artless indiscretion of the native, had divulged the bare truth. White and weak and helpless, Ruth clung to him, sobbing like a child in his arms; and as he held her, soothed her, told her gently what had happened, there came a mighty clap of thunder and the sound and the smell of heavy rain stole through the open doors.
All that night it rained heavily, ceaselessly; the full clouds seemed to meet the earth, frogs croaked in the compound and hopped across the floors, insects dotted the walls to be licked up wholesale by the lizards that darted to and fro. Nature breathed again and in the morning a fine green film had begun to spread, as by a miracle, over the surface of the thirsty ground. Bassett had stayed the night at the Mission House, sleeping fitfully in a chair. Though physically refreshed by the welcome drop in the temperature, his mind was harassed with the problem of what to do about Ruth. Of course, she must go home as soon as arrangements could be concluded satisfactorily. His heart was sore at the prospect. But meantime?
A solution of the difficulty came just as the morning sun struggled through the clouds, when, for a brief space, the downpour ceased. The landau from Narganj Estate lumbered up to the Mission House, and from it descended Mrs. Orchard. Surprised and relieved, Bassett went out to meet her, and she greeted him as though nothing had ever occurred to upset their friendly relations.
“Oh! my, my! What trouble here!” she exclaimed, tears in her fine old eyes. “Mr. Janvier gone, poor man, and Ruthie ill and all. I was told by the ayah, and I said, ‘Quickly get the gharry, I will go to the child.’ Why for didn’t you let me know, Mr. Bassett, dear?”
“Well, you see—” began Bassett dubiously, as he followed the quaint, squat figure into the house. He felt he could hardly allude at this juncture to the estrangement between the establishments.
Mrs. Orchard turned round, blowing her nose. “It was all that Mabel—she is so quarrelsome. I am always one to forget and forgive, but Mabel she takes revenge. I was not for making trouble in the village, but Mabel said teach a lesson, show who is boss in this place. So masterful! Now she has gone uphill to visit the Domingos from Karnpur— they have taken a house, it is called Cosy Nook. She said too hot and too dull at Narganj—”
“Yes, yes, of course, I quite understand,” Bassett broke in amicably. “You know Miss Janvier’s room. While you are with her I will go home for a bath and some breakfast. I daresay you will stay till I come back.”
When he returned, a couple of hours later, Panchoo informed him that the “burra-mem” (the old lady) was still with the “miss-babba.” “They wept together and both are pleased,” he added, “all is well.”
Mrs. Orchard had ceased to weep when she emerged from Ruth’s room, but she certainly looked “pleased,” and said she should take Ruth back with her in the landau to Narganj Estate. “There she will be all nice and cool, and have plentee of milk and good tings and no bother.”
She nodded and smiled at Bassett, and graciously accepted a cup of tea brought as a peace-offering by the thoughtful Panchoo. Then from one of her many pockets she dragged various articles, a pair of spectacles, a bunch of keys, a lump of camphor, a box of pills, an old notebook, finally a letter—a letter from Leslie posted at Port Said; and between loud sips of the tea she read extracts aloud to her companion.... Leslie was well, though he had been very seasick, the curries were good when he found himself able to enjoy them, he had made friends on board with a Member of Parliament, who had been out to India to investigate the grievances of Bengali students—-“the man is a great talker,” wrote Leslie, “and though, thank God, I am not a Bengali or a student, he is much interested in my claim to the Orchard title, and says he will help me in the matter.” The letter concluded with strict injunctions to his mother to do all in her power for Ruth Janvier, just as if he was at home. This portion Mrs. Orchard read aloud by mistake, and was palpably relieved when Bassett pretended not to hear it.
At any rate, Leslie would have approved could he have beheld his divinity being comfortably packed into the landau by his mother. Mrs. Orchard fussed with pillows and a fan and smelling salts; she could not do enough for the invalid, and was gracious in her request to “Mr. Bassett dear” that he would regard Narganj Estate as his own house and be there as much as he pleased. Ruth was too weak to do more than obey orders with passive docility. Bassett’s heart ached to see her so white and wan, he could have wept when she tried to thank him for all he had done; in silence he just touched her hand with his lips as he left her in the carriage, and their eyes met in tender understanding.
An indescribable solitude fell upon Guy Bassett with Ruth’s departure from the Mission House. He plunged into work, but his brain felt as empty as his heart, and the thought of her final return to England, which sooner or later was inevitable, harassed him night and day. He allowed a fortnight to slip by without making mention of the subject; he shrank from it not only because to him it was painful, but because Ruth seemed to avoid it also. So far, there had been little opportunity for private conversation. Mrs. Orchard took her young guest for drives, and was invariably present, or close at hand, during his visits. Bassett began to think she had some ridiculous notion of playing watchdog over himself and Ruth in the interests of her son.
On an evening, however, they found themselves alone in one of the deep verandas. An uproar in the servants’ quarters had impelled Mrs. Orchard forth to investigate the cause, and the vast old house stood empty of sound; in the garden crickets and frogs competed in song; sunset was near, and for the hour the clouds had dispersed, leaving the sky at deep rich blue. Grasses and trees glistened with raindrops, the landscape was bathed in rainbow tints.
Bassett felt that the moment had come when Ruth’s plans must be discussed—felt also that some indefinable barrier of reserve had arisen between them. He glanced at her nervously. She lay back in a low chair, listless and silent; Jerry was leaning against her knee, and she toyed idly with his long soft ears.
Bassett began tentatively: “Have you made up your mind what you are going to do?”
For a moment she did not answer. When she spoke her voice sounded flat and indifferent. “I suppose I must go back to England.”
“What about funds?” he inquired, with artificial briskness.
“I have quite enough left to take me back.”
“Will there be any difficulty, do you think, with your people?”
“No actual difficulty. All along they have been writing that it is my duty to go back.” He noted her avoidance of the word “home.” “I shall be in disgrace, of course; I daresay I deserve it. But what does that matter—-what does anything matter!”
“You feel like that now. It is only to be expected, after all you have gone through. Later it will be different.”
Again silence; it was as if she would not take the trouble to contradict him.
“Would you like me to write for your passage?” That she might not see his face as he asked the question, he bent down and patted Jerry.
“Do you want me to go at once?”
The hardness of her tone made him look up quickly. “Don’t!” he burst out in desperation. “I can’t stand it if you speak like that!”
He rose and went to the edge of the veranda; hesitated, turned, came back. Jerry had placed his paws on Ruth’s lap, and was straining to lick her face; the girl laid her cheek on the dog’s head—she was crying.
“It’s no use pretending any more,” said Bassett, almost roughly. He came a step nearer. “My God, Ruth!” he cried. “If only I were free!”
She raised a restraining hand, calming herself with a brave effort. Now she was no longer a helpless weeping girl, but a woman valiant in adversity, ready to hear her share of the burden, ready to help the man she loved to bear his share as well. Just then she was the stronger of the two.
“But you are not free,” she said steadily. “That is what you have to remember. It is worse for you, I know. I have no one to think of; you must try to forget.”
He sat down, shaking, in the chair beside her. “And my life has been so empty!” he exclaimed in dull despair. “I don’t know how I can go on!” He covered his eyes with his hand.
“Tell me about your life,” she appealed. “You never have, and so often I have longed to ask you. Now I feel I have a right to know.”
It was true that he had never spoken to her of Clara except superficially. Now he let himself go—told her the plain story of his married life, neither blaming nor excusing his wife; but he did not attempt to conceal the fact that marital affection was dead, had died between them with that final quarrel when last he was at home on leave. It was a long and intimate converse that left Ruth and Guy with a feeling of deep understanding and trust. Their friendship at least was secure, though any fulfilment of love was denied them. There was no wild moment of passion; neither caress nor promise nor word of endearment. Guy knew well enough that though the real love of his life had come too late it would stay with him to the end; but for Ruth he did not forget that she had youth in her favour; in time she might live down this trial, perchance give her heart honestly to some other man, who he prayed might be worthy of her.
Later they reviewed the future. Ruth agreed that she ought to go home as soon as the requisite arrangements could be made; she spoke of the years to come, told him she would like to train for some useful profession: “I don’t think I could live on at the rectory now, doing nothing. I hope I shall be able to make them see that.” For Guy’s sake she spoke bravely, but in her heart she knew she should care nothing what she did or where she lived.
Mrs. Orchard, returning triumphant from victory over certain rebels of the compound, found her two guests sitting strangely silent and distrait in the veranda.
“You have got dull?” she remarked, with hospitable concern. “We will wind up the musical box, and have some ginger-wine, and then we shall feel all livelee and gay!”
Ten days later Bassett stood alone, looking over the river. Ruth had gone. Should he ever see her again? He had done all in his power to render her journey easy; had driven her the twenty miles to the railway station in the cool of an early morning after a night of rain, had travelled with her as far as the big junction where she would have to change, seen her comfortably settled, sent Dilawa with her to Bombay, had written to his agents to meet her and see her safely on board ship. Jerry had gone too—poor Jerry! who had been torn between his desire to remain with Ruth in the carriage, and his astonished despair when the train started without his beloved master. The dog’s agitation helped the two unhappy human beings through the torture of their parting.
As Bassett gazed over the swollen waters he could see nothing but a girl’s face pale and quivering, and a dog’s brown head pressed against her cheek. He walked on in restless depression; Tom, now miserable and repentant without his brother, followed close at his heels. They went past the empty bungalows and reached the little enclosure where Padre Janvier lay sleeping beneath a green tangle of grass and weeds. Bassett stood motionless beside the grave—remembering, remembering.
An expectant calm pervaded the vast Indian railway station this cold-weather evening; the mail train from Bombay was late. Family groups from outlying districts squatted amid their belongings in patient excitement; many of them had been encamped on the spot since the morning or even since the previous night. Townsfolk strutted about with an air of superiority; a few English travellers stood surrounded by luggage and servants.
Guy Bassett strolled up and down the platform; he was there to meet the incoming train, and, as he waited, his thoughts wandered back over the years that had passed since his parting with Ruth Janvier— seven long years, during which it seemed to him that nothing particular had happened. After serving his allotted time at Narganj he had gone home for six months, to find everything much the same in the comfortable Kensington house, except that Winnie had grown into a self-satisfied schoolgirl, interested in nothing beyond her own little world of teachers and schoolfellows, classes and examinations. Clara was pleasant and placid and impersonal. She treated him as a welcome guest, but as nothing further; he was free to go and come as he chose. Ruth he did not see, and he felt that perhaps it was just as well for them both. Her great-uncle had died, and she was with Lady Harriet in Switzerland for the summer. They had corresponded intermittently, and he knew that her desire to train for some independent profession had, after all, been balked. Their letters might have been read to the world, but at least it was, some consolation to Guy to hear where she was and what she was doing, and that outwardly all was well with her. Also he felt instinctively that Ruth had not changed, had not forgotten, and the conviction sustained him.
While at home he had paid a visit to the Partridges and indulged in the relief of confiding to his old friend the situation that had arisen between himself and Ruth at Narganj. Mrs. Partridge sympathised, yet shook her head and said it was all very wrong and regrettable, but she supposed it could hardly have been helped in the peculiar circumstances. She blamed Ruth for her rash behaviour in rushing out to India against the wishes of her relations, however lofty her motive, and paid no attention to Bassett’s impassioned defence of such conduct. She considered Ruth singularly fortunate in being pardoned by the Paxtons.
His leave over, Bassett had held various charges all more or less important; and now he was in an enviable position, with pay to correspond, increasing responsibility and high official prospects—everything that a man of his type and service could desire professionally.
Yet, as he awaited the arrival of the Bombay mail train, he was guiltily conscious that the present seemed irksome and the immediate future distasteful. He remembered Mrs. Partridge’s prophecy, uttered some ten years ago—he had thought of it often during the past few weeks: “Some day you will have Winnie clamouring to go to India.” Now it had come true; Winnie had “clamoured,” and to some purpose, for she and her mother were in the overdue train, any moment expected from Bombay.
Not long ago Bassett had received an agitated letter from his wife, disappointment and reluctance patent between the lines, though excuses were put bravely forth. Winnie wanted to go to India, and nowadays it was difficult to dissuade a grown-up daughter from any line of action, however inadvisable. Not that Winnie was frivolous or fast like so many of her contemporaries; indeed, quite the reverse. She was so intellectual that she could not content herself with gaieties; she needed more scope for her talents than the ordinary round of diversions available to people in their position—subscription dances, concerts, At Homes, and so on. Consequently she had grown restless and discontented, and was taking up all kinds of unconventional interests, the latest and most disturbing, in Clara’s opinion, being a sympathy with this silly idea of “India for the Indians.” She had actually joined some dreadful society devoted to this cause, and insisted on inviting Indians to the house and their English friends who were almost as objectionable! “She is bent upon going to India,” Clara had continued in this letter to her husband, “and perhaps it might be almost better to agree. Now that you have an assured position, with your headquarters in a good station, there would seem no definite reason why we should not join you, at least for this winter, except that I dread the effect on my health. I realise that you cannot get home just at present, and I feel that Winnie might be all the better for a father’s advice and influence, added to a little experience of the world. I cannot allow her to go alone, though that is her idea; so if you cable your consent I will make all necessary arrangements.
It is hard on me and I shrink from the upheaval, but things have arrived at a point when Winnie will listen to nothing I can say; her will is so strong, and I feel that the responsibility is too much for me.”
Of course he had cabled his consent; then he rented a suitable house, a spacious two-storeyed dwelling standing in a well-kept compound; engaged a staff of competent servants, made every thinkable preparation for the reception of his womenkind; nevertheless, all the thought and contrivance and anticipation had brought him no pleasure—he only felt thankful that his present appointment kept him continually on the mave, and that once Clara and Winnie were comfortably installed he could not be much at headquarters.
get Here was the train at last, gliding with dignified power into the station. Instantly turmoil arose, the platform became crowded, the din was deafening; passengers arriving and departing mingled in one clamorous concourse of turbaned figures, all shouting, gesticulating, pushing, reeking of garlic and spice and sweat.
Clara stepped from the train, a harassed matron in a dust-cloak, her head enveloped in veil, fatigued, resentful, yet comely withal. There followed her youthful double, a calm, self-contained girl, slightly contemptuous of her mother’s plaintive condition, glancing about her with interest at the struggling multitude. Bassett realised that he had a very handsome daughter, and he felt a thrill of parental pride as he guided the travellers through the crowded station to the vehicles that awaited them outside—a hired carriage-and-pair and a bullock-cart for the luggage. He was amused to see Winnie nodding and smiling at the bare-legged coolies that bore the boxes on their heads, with the result that they made a noisy demand for more baksheesh, and something akin to riot had to be quelled by his orderly. He wondered if she were equally encouraging to railway porters at home!
Clara went straight to bed, limp and exhausted, on arrival at the bungalow. An experienced ayah, engaged by Bassett regardless of wages, was in attendance, and he knew that his wife would find all she might require in the big bedroom and dressing-room prepared for her.
Winnie, on the contrary, was fresh and full of energy. She seemed to regard her male parent merely as a necessary adjunct to her novel surroundings, even second, perhaps, to the servants, who vied with each other in their anxiety to please the missahib as a natural channel to the sahib’s favour. Winnie was inclined to interpret their intentions as a subtle recognition of the sympathetic friendliness she felt towards them, which, of course, as yet, she was unable to express in words.
That night Bassett and his daughter dined alone together. It was the ordinary dinner of a well-appointed Anglo-Indian household, but the number of courses and the presence of three men-servants seemed to Winnie to savour of arrogance, accustomed as she was to a parlourmaid and a middle-class menu that, in fact, cost a good deal more. It struck Bassett as curious that he and his daughter should be practically strangers to one another; he could not but feel proud of the girl, well-grown as she was, mature for her age, with the well-shaped features of her mother and her grandmother, the flawless skin and the complacent expression. He wondered if her mother’s temper lay beneath her outward calm; at any rate, she would seem to have inherited her grandmother’s determination. He wondered, also, how he himself appeared to Winnie; probably as quite an elderly if not an actually aged person. He remembered how in his own youth he had regarded people as well stricken in years who, after all, must have been comparatively young. Yet Winnie conversed with him as though they were contemporaries, or as if she was even his senior, and showed a strong disposition to dictate to him on the subject of India’s people.
“Peoples,” corrected Bassett. He soon discovered that she did not know the difference between a Hindu and a Mohammedan, and was lamentably ignorant of Oriental social systems. She told him she had sat next an Indian gentleman at meals on board ship, a certain Mr. Kishna Sah, who was returning to his own country after his first visit to England.
“I was so pleased when I found he was my neighbour, but conversation was difficult as he knew very little English, and I can’t speak Hindustani. I wish I had taken lessons at home, but there was no time before we sailed. It was a great disappointment not to be able to talk freely to Mr. Kishna Sah, but I tried to make him understand how delighted I was to sit next to him. I was very much annoyed with an old colonel on board who offered to change places with me; he seemed to think I must object to sitting next a native, and when I told him he ought to be ashamed of such prejudices he said, ‘My good girl, in India Kishna Sah wouldn’t touch you with the tongs if he could help it!’ I don’t know what he could have meant, and I certainly wasn’t going to ask him.”
Bassett bent over his plate, his feelings divided between amusement and annoyance. He refrained from remarking that probably Mr. Kishna Sah, as well as the interfering “old colonel,” thought her a misguided and immodest young female—the Englishman’s disapproval of her behaviour and the instinct that prompts the Oriental to seclude his womenfolk being fundamentally the same.
“I know Kishna Sah well,” he said quietly; “he is a very excellent fellow, a high-born Hindu, loyal and straight and true to his traditions. I saw a good deal of him at one time—in my last station.”
“And did you ask him to dinner and all that?”
“Certainly not, any more than he would have asked me to share his meals or have invited me to visit his ladies. Whenever he called on me he was obliged to wash his hands directly he got home, and Heaven knows what he will have to pay or what penance he will have to perform in order to purify himself from the pollution of this visit of his to England! If you imagine that all India is eager to mix with us socially and adopt our habits you make a grave mistake. We protect their customs and religions—they despise ours, and in general it is they who hold aloof from us, particularly where women and food are concerned! Let me advise you to wait until you know a little more about this wonderful old country—you will never know more than a little—before you attempt to form any social or political opinions in connection with it.”
Winnie flushed and moved uneasily, perhaps recalling her advances to Mr. Kishna Sah with some doubt. To relieve her embarrassment Bassett inquired as to her other board-ship acquaintances. “There was a Mr. Orchard—” she began, with some hesitation born of the recent jolt to her self-complacency.
“What—Leslie Orchard?” he asked, interested.
“Yes, that was his name. He was nice, and— and good-looking. He knows you and said you had been very kind to him some years ago, though he had never seen you since. He is really Lord Orchard, you know,” she added, a touch of defensiveness in her voice, “only he can’t get his claim to the title acknowledged because the present holder of the title is very rich and has tremendous influence. Poor Mr. Orchard found himself blocked at every turn; he hadn’t a chance.”
“Yes, I used to know Mr. Orchard. Tell me about him. Had he been long in England? Last time I saw him he was going home for the first time.”
Winnie began to talk fast. Leslie Orchard seemed to have confided in her freely. It appeared he had been back to India two or three times since his first visit to England, but only for short periods; he liked England better; he only returned to look after his property because, since his mother’s death, he had been obliged to appoint a manager. “It must be very big place, and so interesting?”
“It’s not the kind of thing we regard as a ‘big place’ in England,” said Bassett, feeling that it was hopeless to try to convey the facts.
“But it is a large house, and he owns villages and farms and lot of land and cattle! He has great schemes for improving the estate and bettering the condition of his tenants. We used to have long talks about it. Mother was very tiresome and unreasonable; she disapproved of my friendship with Mr. Orchard, and said he was black, and that I got myself talked about among the passengers. Of course that only made me more anxious to show him that his Indian descent made no difference to me. I wouldn’t have hurt his feelings for the world. Besides, he of royal blood—he told me so himself. His great grandmother was a Princess of the House of Delhi. Isn’t that true? and his connections on the other side are irreproachable. We have no lords or princesses in our family!”
“It’s all true enough as far as it goes,” said Bassett dubiously, “but your mother was quite right.”
“Oh, you Anglo—Indians!” interrupted Winnie in contemptuous despair, “I have no patience with your narrow ideas. I told Mr. Orchard I was sure you would ask him to pay us a visit here. Now I suppose you and Mother will refuse to endorse the invitation, and what will he think! She bit her lip and looked as if she were about to weep.
“Well, well, we’ll talk about it later,” said her father hastily, “don’t distress yourself.”
She threw him a grateful little glance, and the suspicion entered his mind that her interest in Leslie Orchard had gone rather deeper than mere friendship; here was a possible complication that might cause endless vexation and trouble. He must talk to Clara tomorrow and hear what she had to say in the matter. To be the parent of a grown-up daughter was apparently not an unmixed joy. He began to understand Clara’s desperation in bringing the girl out to India in face of her own hatred of the country and her reluctance to desert her comfortable home.
Next morning, after he had broken the back of his day’s office work, he joined his wife in the veranda. She had breakfasted in her room and now was reclining in a deck chair, a piece of fancy-work in her hands—something black, with skeins of bright silks. The sight of it drove his mind back to Angelica Frost and the days at Isanpore and Gopuri—he could have snatched the useless materials from her fingers. He loathed the remembrance of that foolish interlude in his life; it had brought its own punishment, for had it not given Clara, as she thought, the right to continue their separation, and so led to his love for Ruth Janvier—to the ache and the longing that would never leave his heart?
He sat down by her side asking polite questions as to her comfort and her health. Her replies savoured of resignation to unavoidable circumstances; he felt she might have been a chance visitor, the wife of some colleague whom he was “putting up” for the time being. Clara had grown stouter, and, he thought, more like her mother than ever; her clothes looked too tight and her chin had trebled. Could she be the same being he had loved and cared for—who long ago had wept when they were parted, even for a week, missing him so sorely?
“You don’t expect me to do any housekeeping, I hope?” she said querulously; “I’ve forgotten all the Hindustani I ever knew—which wasn’t much, I’m afraid, at any time!”
“Of course not,” he assured her. “Dilawa will see to it all and the servants know their work.”
“I suppose I only recall the worst side of Indian life,” she went on, “and none of the compensations, though there was a woman on board ship who used to argue that the only reason anyone went back to India was because, thrgugh some curious provision of Providence, they only remembered the compensations and forgot all the horrors.”
“I’m afraid you hadn’t many compensations to remember,” he said rather bitterly, “married to a junior assistant in debt, and with a child to look after. It was hard lines when one comes to look back on it all.”
She glanced at him furtively as he lit a cigarette, and for the first time for many years she thought of their tender courtship and their youthful marriage with a touch of regret and a twinge of conscience. She knew in her heart that she had behaved unfairly to him. He was a good man; she had never seriously doubted him; yet nothing but concern for Winnie would have induced her to join him in India. All the same, she was glad to be with him now. Lately she had felt the need of a man’s moral support and judgment. Winnie’s development was a cruel disappointment, all her love and absorption had only produced an obstinate, headstrong girl, who flouted her mother’s wishes and convenience, and despised the sort of life for which her upbringing was intended to prepare her. Clara considered she had sacrificed herself in bringing Winnie out to India, and now she was filled with the fear that the sacrifice might prove in vain. With plaintive eyes she watched her daughter wandering about the garden, accompanied by the ayah, who could speak a little English and was full of importance, grasping a big white umbrella, her shoes clapping on the ground, her voluminous skirt swinging with her consequential movements. Winnie looked solid and handsome in a pink dress, and a sun hat, purchased in Piccadilly, of a shape usually associated with globe-trotters.
“I am wretched about Winnie,” began Clara, “she is always in mischief; not the sort of mischief that ordinary girls get into, or that one expects with young people, harmless flirtations and bills for clothes and little escapades that don’t really matter, though they have to be checked. It’s serious mischief. There was a creature called Chatterjee she was always asking to the house, and when I spoke about it she met him elsewhere. That decided me to take her out to India. I knew she wouldn’t oppose the plan, and I thought you might be able to manage her. But then on board ship she took up with a half-caste—a Mr. Orchard—and nothing I could say would stop her.”
“She told me about him last night.”
“Oh! did she?” exclaimed Clara, relieved. “Well?”
“I know the fellow. He is a good sort in his own way, or at least he was as a youth. I haven’t seen him since I was at Narganj.”
“I hope to goodness you didn’t tell her he was a good sort!” cried Clara in alarm. “She was half inclined to fall in love with him, and he was clearly crazy about her. It would never do—never. You surely couldn’t think of consenting to a marriage of that kind for your daughter!”
Clara trembled with agitation. Was Guy going to fail her again? He had failed her before; he had always been tiresome—he was capable of anything. She clutched at her heart that was fluttering painfully.
“No, no, of course not,” said Guy reassuringly. “What we’ve got to do is to distract her mind. I don’t suppose there is any harm done. She’ll forget all about him when she’s made friends with the other young people in the station and is in the thick of all the gaieties. We must see to it that she has a really good time.”
“But she doesn’t care twopence for gaieties,” argued Clara distressfully, “or for young people of her own class. She likes cranks and Socialists and what she calls intellectuals. She wanted me to give up the house in Kensington and go and live in one of those horrible garden cities that are being started! Did you ever hear such a preposterous notion?”
“She’s young,” said Bassett helplessly, beginning to feel infected with Clara’s despair.
“No, she’s not! That’s just it. She’s older than I am in her ways and ideas. I wish I hadn’t given her such a high education. She’s so clever; she’s gone too far ahead. I can’t tell you what I’ve been through this last year. The only thing to do was to come to you before it was too late. Guy, you must find some way of managing her. It will kill me if she does something to—to spoil her life.”
The words ended in a choking sob, and she put her hand to him—a plump white hand adorned with some of her late mother’s valuable rings. He took it and stroked it gently. Poor Clara! By what might be called the irony of Fate she had been driven after all to turn to him as her husband, as the father of her idol, as her rightful comforter and friend. He wondered if she realised that by her own doing she had alienated his love for her and had robbed him of a father’s affectionate influence with his child; that now all he felt for the two human beings who should have been dearest to him was a pitying sympathy, deepened by a natural sense of his obligations towards them.
He promised to do his utmost to “manage” Winnie should the necessity continue, though privately he felt doubtful of success; he had greater faith in the distractions of a big Indian station, which were more positive than the pleasures available to a girl of her class. Here she would have her own horse to ride, her place in the community, the daily attentions of men (in every sense of the word) who were serving their country in exile, would mingle with people who had a stake in the Empire, and learn the meaning of loyalty to her race and colour. Winnie had character if, so far, she lacked discrimination; it was only a question of tiding her safely along till she should have forgotten Mr. Chaterjee and his friends, Leslie Orchard and his pretensions, and all the little maggots that had burrowed in her youthful receptive brain.
On these lines he urged Clara not to neglect her social obligations. She must take Winnie to call on all the principal people in the station; she must be prepared to entertain, to give the girl every opportunity of making suitable friends. He agreed to remain at headquarters till his wife and daughter should find themselves well launched on the social tide, after which, he felt assured, with Winnie’s good looks and accomplishments and Clara’s freedom from monetary considerations, all would go smoothly.
“I’m sure I hope so,” responded his wife with a sceptical sigh, “but you don’t know Winnie!”
“And whose fault is that?” he might have asked with some justification; instead, he observed that he hoped soon to overcome this disadvantage with happy results for them all.
According to his promise Bassett remained in the station until Winnie and Clara had paid the customary calls and were already knee-deep in engagements. So far Winnie had accepted the mode of life on the score that she was “taking notes and seeing for herself.” She consented to reserve final judgment on Anglo-Indian society for the present, though she dubbed it all a waste of existence, and said she should have preferred to spend her spare time in the bazaar. She ordered her father to engage a munshi to teach her Hindustani in the mornings. He obeyed, but warily selected as her tutor a harmless patriarch who was innocent of revolutionary leanings. Despite her con tempt for the gaieties into which she was drawn, Winnie soon became popular in the Station. She could converse, she sang correctly, rode and played tennis and danced well enough, and her clothes were becoming. Already more than one admirer had attached himself to the handsome young lady just out from home, in addition to the inevitable swarm of subalterns and junior officials who escorted her for rides, besieged her for dances, wrote her endless notes concerning picnics and tennis and so forth. She did not appear to despise these pleasant attentions, and as she had made no further mention of Mr. Orchard, Bassett prepared to leave the station for rather a prolonged inspection by rail, feeling that matters on the whole were satisfactory.
Clara grumbled at his going. As of old, she could not understand that his work must be done even if it interfered with her convenience, and on the morning of his departure they came near to one of the scenes of the past. She declared she should be lost without Guy to pilot her through the intricacies of Anglo-Indian etiquette, that she should never be able to manage the servants. The fact that he was leaving Dilawa in charge of the household and taking a not very competent substitute with him on his travels gave her no comfort.
“And to make matters worse,” she complained, “I believe Winnie is corresponding with that Orchard creature. She had a mysterious letter yesterday. What on earth shall I do if he turns up here while you are away? I wish you would speak to her—if you really must go. I should feel so much more comfortable in my mind.”
“I must go; I’ve put it off too long already. But don’t you think it would be wiser to leave Winnie alone on the subject? She seems contented enough and it might only stir the whole thing up again.”
“No doubt it would be easier for you!” rejoined Clara hastily and burst into floods of tears.
The insinuation left him no choice. He sought out his daughter, and told her he wished for a little private conversation with her before he started. They repaired to his office room, where they would be safe from disturbance.
“Well, what is it?” she inquired, and took his particular chair. She was still in her riding habit, and looked neat and cool, though for the last couple of hours she had been careering across country in company with a boisterous “field” behind a “bobbery” pack.
Bassett paced up and down the room and cleared his throat nervously. “Your mother tells me she is afraid you and Orchard are writing to each other,” he began.
“Yes,” said Winnie calmly. “And why not?”
Her self-composure exasperated him. “You must drop this friendship, Winnie. It isn’t desirable and it worries your mother.”
“Does it worry you?”
“It would if I thought there was anything serious in it.”
An obstinate expression settled on the girl’s face, but for the moment she said nothing. He halted in front of her. “You must think of your mother,” he added persuasively.
“Why should I think of her? She does not think of me. She has tried to turn me out like a pattern from a machine. Until I struck out a line for myself I was never allowed a life of my own!” There was a ring of resentment in her voice that he felt might in a measure be excused, but the lack of affection and tenderness appalled him.
“She has devoted herself to you. She has thought of nothing else since you were a child,” he said warmly. “Her whole heart has been bound up in you—-”
“It is a selfish devotion,” Winnie interrupted.
“Then what do you intend to do?”
“I intend to write to Mr. Orchard and to continue my friendship with him.”
Bassett controlled his rising rage. He tried a fresh argument.
“But is it fair to Orchard—putting aside every other consideration?”
“What is there unfair in it to him?”
“You are giving him encouragement, and you can’t marry the fellow. It’s out of the question!”
“What is there to prevent me from marrying him?”
“Your mother’s disapproval and mine, to begin with. You must allow us to know best. Orchard is a very good fellow, no doubt, but he is not of our class, and he is more Indian than English; you would feel your position acutely; you might ruin your life and it would break your mother’s heart.”
“I admit,” said Winnie deliberately, “that Mr. Orchard is not of our class—he is above it. As to his being more Indian than English, that is no disadvantage in my eyes. The risk would be mine of feeling my position and ruining my life; and as to my mother’s heart—well, do you think she has one to break?”
“Where you are concerned, certainly.”
Winnie gave a hard little laugh. “She would rather I married a man I hated if she approved of him, than take my chance with a husband I loved. Which would you rather I did?”
“You are talking nonsense,” said Bassett sharply. “At any rate, I must ask you to consider our wishes for the present whether you mean to go against them in the future or not. While I am away you are to cease corresponding with Mr. Orchard, if you are doing so now, and you are not to allow him to come here. When I return we can discuss the matter further if you like, but I cannot have your mother worried during my absence. Do you understand?”
“I understand.” said Winnie civilly. She gathered up her habit skirt and walked out of the room.
Bassett felt that his daughter had defeated him and that perhaps he had done more harm than good; it might have been better had he followed his first impulse and left well alone. Even now he was uncertain as to how far matters had progressed between Winnie and Leslie Orchard. He was inclined to think that the affair was not nearly so definite as, out of sheer defiance, she would have led him to believe. He lingered in his office, feeling harassed and helpless; he could do nothing further, and there was small doubt in his mind that if Winnie wished to marry young Orchard she would do so. In view of her determined character and her so-called advanced ideas it seemed to him that she might fare worse—marry the obnoxious Mr. Chatterjee, for example. After all, he argued mentally, if she honestly cared for Orchard, much as he disliked the notion, it was possible that she might find her own way to happiness as his wife more surely than if she followed the conventional path planned out by her mother. As a youth Leslie Orchard had shown promise of right development; he possessed old Mrs. Orchard’s kindly, good-tempered, yet wise disposition; his English experience might or might not have improved him—according to Winnie’s account on the night of her arrival, he had ripened considerably; and Narganj Estate was a valuable property; judiciously managed it must mean comparative wealth to its owner as the railway drew nearer. Bassett was conscious of a sneaking sympathy with his daughter, sorry as he felt for his wife; it was a sad situation—the mother and child so hopelessly out of touch, his own position towards them both so unnatural. He no longer felt thankful that Winnie was a girl; with all his heart he wished she were a boy—safely at Sandhurst or Woolwich, anywhere under proper control.
He hardly knew what to tell Clara; in any case, a faithful report of the interview was impossible with all Winnie’s hard-hearted references to her mother. He felt a cowardly relief when the ayah met him at the door of his wife’s bedroom and whispered that the memsahib was sleeping; had cried herself to sleep, poor thing, he concluded from the ayah’s reproachful expression. She had not awoke when it was time for him to catch his train, and after a little guilty hesitation he decided not to disturb her. It would be simpler, “easier,” as Clara no doubt (and with truth) would have put it, to write and reassure her, as far as he was able, regarding Winnie.
It was with jarred nerves and a worried brain that he left the station. His work was in arrears, his time had been broken, his habits deranged, and now he welcomed the prospect of a period of freedom from domestic disturbances and perpetual interruptions. Not that he found himself altogether at peace even away from headquarters; Clara pursued him with letters demanding advice, retailing endless vexations—the ayah had been impudent; Dilawa was so interfering; she had given a dinner-party and everything had been wrong from the soup to the coffee; the cook was hopeless. Winnie was no help at all, and had gone out of her way to offend the General’s wife. Really, she felt quite worn out. What was she to do about this, that, and the other? Couldn’t he run back, only for few hours, to help her? So it went on, until he began to dread the sight of his wife’s handwriting.
Then late one evening came a telegram, not from Clara, but from the civil surgeon of the station “Your wife ill; come back.” It struck him as strange that Winnie had not wired as well, but no suspicion of the reason arose in his mind. All night he travelled, arriving dusty, weary, apprehensive, to find the household distraught and Clara prostrated with shock—with, the shock and the sorrow of Winnie’s elopement with Leslie Orchard.
As far as Winnie was concerned there was nothing to be done; Bassett felt that, though the girl’s folly might be pardoned, her infamous behaviour to her mother could not be condoned. She had left the house, ostensibly to keep some trivial engagement, and later in the day had telegraphed to her mother, from a down-country junction, the bald information that she and Leslie Orchard were on their away to Bombay, where they would be married at once before sailing for England; not a word of regret or affection was added.
Clara could not rally from the blow. She lay stricken, silent, inconsolable. Her vitality sank low, and there followed days and nights of anxious strain. A nurse was installed; the doctor was in constant attendance; Bassett hardly left his wife’s room.
Very early one morning, just as the sun was ousting the cold night mist, Clara called Guy to her side. The nurse was resting; he was on guard.
“You won’t go away? she besought him, like a child in dread of being left alone.
“Darling, of course not,” he assured her. “Why should I leave you?”
“Winnie went away,” she sighed in piteous excuse. Then she asked him, “Do you think Winnie will be happy?”
“Yes, I am sure she’ll be happy,” he soothed. “The boy has good stuff in him, I know. And she loves him, remember. That is the great thing.”
Dreamily Clara repeated: “That is the great thing.” Then she began to sob weakly. “But I lost your love. I let you go. I have lost everything—everything.”
Fervently, tenderly he lied to her, but after the first few words, she did not hear what he said. Her mind had strayed backward to the days of Winnie’s childhood, and she murmured intermittently of Winnie’s lessons, Winnie’s frocks, and was distressed about a little pair of dancing shoes that did not fit.
At last she dozed. Guy sat rigid, fearing to disturb her, his heart aching with the pity of it all. The house was very peaceful in this quiet hour of dawn, before the servants had begun the morning’s work; the orange light of sunrise came creeping through the room. Of a sudden Clara stirred. “It’s no use,” she whispered. “You see—my heart is broken.”
Then, turning on her side, she seemed to sleep; but she did not wake again.
Guy Bassett, now a senior and distinguished representative of the Indian Public Works Department, with three decorative letters to his name, drove up in a shabby station fly to the door of a villa on the outskirts of Cheltenham. He stood waiting for the door bell to be answered—stood, unmistakably a wise man from the East, bronzed and lean and sound, if no longer young, self-reliance in his bearing, quiet power in his gaze.
It was a splendid summer evening; the hills above the ancient town rose mellow and serene in the rosy sunset glow; from the garden floated scents of English flowers and the warm, damp fragrance of new-watered soil, a fragrance that, as ever, brought to Bassett’s memory the vision of an Indian compound at the closing of a long, hot-weather day, and a child with copper coloured curls, clad in blue, a gaudy little parrot perched upon her wrist.
Now the vision was dispersed by the appearance of a maid, polite and neat, in snowy cap and apron, at the villa door. With apologetic haste he turned, producing money as the cabman clambered stiffly from the box.
A heavy body brushed against his legs. The maid swooped down. “Jerry, come here, bad dog!” she scolded, and seized by the collar a very old spaniel, sightless, obese, asthmatic, that was snuffling about his ankles.
“Jerry!” he exclaimed, incredulous, yet half convinced; and at the sound of his voice the dog lifted a muzzle that was grey with age.
“He don’t hear very well, sir,” explained the maid, holding on to the collar, “and he can’t see at all. But he’s that artful; and if he strayed out on the road and got hisself run over, Miss Janvier she’d be in ever such a way!”
“Miss Janvier?” Bassett repeated, still staring at Jerry. Yes, it was Jerry without any doubt; and Ruth—was Ruth here as well?
Mrs. Partridge’s parlourmaid looked upon comers from India as lunatics “mostly,” and as such she put up with their “ways.”
“Yes, sir, Miss Janvier,” she answered, speaking with kind forbearance and very distinctly, as though, like the dog, he were deaf. “The lady as is with us on a visit just now. Will you please to come this way? Mrs. Partridge is in the garden.”
Like one in a dream he followed through the house. His heart beat madly as he stepped on to the lawn. A mist rose before his eyes; then it cleared, and he saw Ruth, in a blue dress, the sheen of the sunset on her hair, looking towards him.