When Kudah Bux was born, the festivities and rejoicings in the house of his father, Mahomed Ishak, surpassed anything of the kind that could be recalled in the village by even the oldest people. Money was given lavishly to the poor; priests, friends, relatives, and connections were entertained with extravagant hospitality: the neighbourhood was demoralized for days—nobody worked, everybody feasted and received presents, and everybody, apart from these advantages, was genuinely delighted that Mahomed Ishak should at last be the father of a son.
His three wives, despite persistent supplication to dead and living saints, and resort to various magical spells and charms, had brought him numerous daughters, but no male heir.
Finally, when hope was at an end, a fourth wife was espoused, albeit with reluctance on the part of Mahomed Ishak, now an elderly man content with his middle-aged ladies; yet all were agreed that, in face of the deplorable circumstances, the fourth marriage was unavoidable. So there came into the household a slender, frightened girl, hardly more than a child, with an oval face and wheaten-coloured skin; she had large, timid brown eyes, and the delicate grace of a fawn, and was well named “Pearl-of-the-soul.” Within a year of the marriage she bore a son, and died almost immediately afterwards. The family mourned her death, but grief was overpowered by the joyous fact that an heir was at last in existence.
Little Kudah Bux was never conscious of his loss, for his stepmothers adored him and omitted no precaution that might conduce to his present and future safety. At the time of his birth the midwife was enjoined to be careful that she announced him as a one-eyed girl, so that the jealousy of evil spirits might be averted. For the same reason he was dressed in girl’s clothes for a short period. Great care was exercised over the naming of the child; the Koran was opened haphazard, and the first letter of the first word in the third line of the page was adopted as an initial, the happy result being the appropriate name Kudah Bux, or Bakhsh to give the correct spelling, which means Gift of God. When he was old enough to vary his milk diet, the rite of salt-tasting was observed, and when he was five years old he repeated after the priest the opening chapters of the Koran, and a great feast was given to celebrate the event.
As already stated, his stepmothers adored Kudah Bux; his stepsisters were all married, and he was the pivot on which the thoughts of the household revolved. Every tenant of his father’s, every servant and dependent and connection of the family, took the liveliest interest in the welfare of the child. Mahomed Ishak grudged his son nothing; the women loaded him with silver bangles and anklets; texts from the Koran, soldered up in squares of silver threaded on twists of red cotton, were hung round his neck to preserve him from misfortune, and he possessed, even before he could walk, an extensive wardrobe of embroidered jackets and skull caps.
It all cost a great many rupees, but Mahomed Ishak was a prosperous landowner in a remote, up-country district, where prices had not risen so high as in more accessible localities. He himself was a typical Mahomedan gentleman, the well-born descendant of a virile people, who show such a curious commingling of arrogant manliness and weak self-indulgence in their character. He had retained all the tactful instincts of politeness and the observance of Oriental etiquette pertaining to the old school, and was a man esteemed by his own class, venerated by those beneath him, and respected by English officials for his good sense and high respectability. Now the crowning satisfaction to his simple, well-intentioned existence was the beloved presence of Kudah Bux, the son of his advancing years, the light of his eyes, the pride and the glory of his heart.
Seasons rolled by with the regularity and indifference of clockwork—hot and dry, wet and humid, severely cold and bright, one after the other, and Kudah Bux grew and throve into a handsome, alert little boy, conscious of his power in the household, of his father’s fond pride in him, and the adulation of his stepmothers. Seeing that he was seldom thwarted he was not often naughty, and in consequence was accredited with the character and disposition of an angel.
One day, when Kudah Bux was nearing his tenth birthday, Mahomed Ishak sat on a low wooden platform in the outer courtyard of his dwelling. He smoked peacefully, appreciating rest after the labours of the morning. At daybreak he had been out to inspect some fields, and on his return he had signed documents, concluded a bargain over the purchase of a pair of plough bullocks, accepted excuses for the nonpayment of a debt, received some overdue rents, and entertained one or two voluble neighbours who came to pay visits of ceremony.
Now he was alone, his handsome inlaid hookah and the deed box, clamped with iron, beside him—a notable though drowsy figure with a thick beard, henna-dyed to conceal the greyness, and kindly dark eyes below the folds of an immense turban from which one long end dangled down his back. From the inner courtyard beyond came the murmur of women’s talk; a pungent smell of burning fuel mingled with the strong odour from Mahomed Ishak’s hookah, that bubbled with soothing sound. Hot sunshine poured into the enclosure and through the branches of the stunted fig-tree that grew in the middle of the roofless square, casting sharp-cut shadows of spade-shaped leaves on to the roughly paved floor. The strong sunshine glinted on a cluster of polished brass vessels and illuminated long ladders of dust that rose from the ground and dispersed in the air; also it exposed heaps of rubbish that lay about—rubbish that owed its noxious presence to the Oriental horror of discarding anything.
Presently Kudah Bux came running in from the village street, a couple of boy-servants behind him. Obviously he was excited, the bearer of great news, for his long, liquid eyes—the eyes of poor little Pearl-of-the-soul—were wide open, eager; his delicate nostrils quivered, and his plastic, sensitive lips were apart, showing a row of small, even teeth, flawless and white. He was dressed in a gay chintz coat, with trousers that were tight at the ankle, and an embroidered muslin cap was set jauntily to one side of his sleek head. Gesticulating he announced that a sahib could be seen riding towards the village—doubtless the magistrate-sahib whose camp was known to be in the neighbourhood?
Should it indeed prove to be the magistrate-sahib, he would certainly call upon Mahomed Ishak either before or after his inspection of the village; and now activity prevailed where the previous moment all had been somnolent peace. The head of the house set aside his hookah, and called authoritatively to his servants, who ran hither and thither shouting orders to each other till two worm-eaten English chairs were produced from a store-hole in the background, and a folding camp table whose history was lost in past ages; these were arranged on the platform, with a strip of Persian carpet before them. A basket was hastily packed with fruit from the garden that stretched to the crops at the back of the house; there were small yellow mangoes and coarse bananas, a few limes and pomegranates; one or two cones of sugar were added, and a heap of raw rice, together with a bunch of marigolds and zinnias tied so tightly that the bouquet resembled a painted cauliflower. The whole was the voluntary tribute demanded by Eastern politeness to a distinguished guest.
Then Mahomed Ishak holding Kudah Bux by the hand, and attended by the male members of the establishment, went to the front gateway and heard that it was indeed the magistrate-sahib who approached. A crowd had already collected, children, beggars, idlers, and those whose work had not taken them into the fields or jungle, all full of the native peasant’s excited interest in happenings great or small.
The Englishman rode up on a well-shaped country mare, and the village policeman, fiercely important, endeavoured to check clamouring individuals who pressed forward to relate grievances and to present petitions in person. Polite greetings were exchanged between guest and host; the pair passed under the archway, and settled themselves in the chairs on the platform. Kudah Bux leaned against his father’s knee, and gazed with solemn curiosity at the strange figure of the visitor. He marvelled at the large pith hat that almost concealed the sunburnt countenance beneath it; surely it must be very uncomfortable, so different from his father’s beautifully folded turban, or his own round cap that had been embroidered by Akbari Begum, the youngest of his three stepmothers, and the one he liked best. The Sahib’s great riding boots, too, were extraordinary, with such thick soles and broad toes, and what a formidable whip, long-lashed, was held in the hairy brown hand! The little boy felt rather afraid as well as interested, for the women sometimes threatened, when he was wilful, that an Englishman would come and take him away and perhaps make medicine out of his brain—though it was true his father always pronounced such talk to be rubbish. To comfort himself the child recalled words that his father had spoken to him often since he was old enough to understand words that explained how the English were, on the whole, good friends to India; had they not made railways all over the country, and so improved trade and lessened the fear of famine? Canals, too, that brought life to the crops and therefore to millions of human beings. And, above all, had they not put an end to strife and robbery and oppression, such as in the old days had rendered the existence of well-conducted people well-nigh intolerable?
“No doubt,” his father would add, “if the followers of the Prophet were sufficiently numerous and powerful they would now be ruling Hindustan from north to south, from east to west, just as capably as the English, and with far more profit to themselves, but as long as the Hindu existed in such multitudes it was more desirable that peace and order should be maintained by a third party people who meant well, and endeavoured to be just in their dealings alike towards Mahomedan and Hindu. Was it not all common sense?”
And while Kudah Bux reassured himself with these reflections, the magistrate and Mahomed Ishak conversed of the crops and the weather and various matters. Then the Sahib noticed Kudah Bux, but with caution. He was too well versed in Indian views to utter compliments on the boy’s appearance, and thereby cause embarrassment as being ill-omened; just as he refrained from inquiries concerning the ladies of the establishment, beyond expressing the orthodox hope that all was “well with the house.” Anything further would have been regarded as indelicate and intrusive. He asked if Kudah Bux did well at school.
“Surely, surely!” exclaimed Mahomed Ishak, with fatuous pride in the very ordinary acquirements of his only son. “Already can he read and write a little, and has committed to memory passages of the Koran. He promises to be a learned man. It is my intention, when he is old enough, that he should become a student at the great Mahomedan College.”
A depth of fond ambition lay in the old man’s tone. Kudah Bux was to be a prodigy of wisdom, the most brilliant and accomplished of sons. No sacrifice that might further this glorious purpose could be too great, no expense too heavy.
The Sahib appeared to be vastly impressed, though he knew from experience that the present literary accomplishments of Kudah Bux were probably on a level with those of an English child of four years old, who might pick out a letter or two of the alphabet, perhaps write A and B with great labour, and be admitted to a kindergarten class as an infant scholar. And it was not very likely that the child would advance from this stage with great rapidity, seeing that Mahomed Ishak was an old-fashioned parent, living far out of the world, and blinded with pride in his son’s capabilities.
The Englishman regarded the little boy with kindly gaze, and Kudah Bux shrank back against his father’s knee, quivering with shy self-consciousness.
“And perhaps some day you will send him to England,” the Sahib said politely, with no serious thought or intention; but the careless words were destined to influence the life story of Kudah Bux in a measure that, at the moment, would have appeared incredible.
From that morning Mahomed Ishak’s mind dwelt on the magistrate’s suggestion. He dreamed of the time when Kudah Bux should be sufficiently educated to go to England that he might study for some public profession—perhaps the law, possibly for Government Service! What glory and importance would be the portion of Kudah Bux on his return to India after the successful passing of necessary examinations! How much more advantageous for him to enter into competition for public life than just to step into his father’s old shoes and continue the administration of the family property to lead a monotonous, unambitious existence, such as had sufficed for his father and his grandfather and his great-grandfather before him, but was not adequate nowadays for one who showed such remarkable intellectual promise as did Kudah Bux.
Behind the purdah Mahomed Ishak said nothing of the great scheme that brooded in his mind. Time enough to speak to the women and to Kudah Bux himself when the youth’s course of study at the famous Mahomedan College should be completed. From thence he could return to his home, having acquired a taste for English customs and a fervent desire to distinguish himself in public life. That would be the time to unfold the great proposal that Kudah Bux should be permitted to cross the ocean, burning with ambition, to spend the requisite period in such study as would enable him to qualify for independent enterprise in his own country, or to compete for an appointment under the Indian Government in whatever path he might elect to follow.
Peacefully the years passed over till Kudah Bux was of an age to go to the Mahomedan College—years that transformed the pampered little boy into a graceful youth with mild demeanour and a disposition that was astonishingly docile in view of his indulgent upbringing.
But Kudah Bux had no desire to go to college. He did not care for study, and he shrank from the new experience that held no attraction for him; he would much have preferred to stroll about the fields assisting his father in the management of the property, to dream in the shadow of the courtyard fig-tree, to idle in the women’s quarters, or to amuse himself in company with those of the village youths who had been his school companions. However, since his father so greatly desired that he should go to college, he yielded with indolent resignation.
Meanwhile, Mahomed Ishak still kept secret his great scheme for the future; a faint fear that the boy might resist the plan of sending him to England, just as at first he had protested against going to college, held the old man silent. Time enough to speak when training and study, and a knowledge of English ways and speech and spirit, should have aroused ambition and energy in the youthful brain and body.
It was rather disappointing, as time went by, that Kudah Bux did not bring home prizes, that he should remain unaccountably low in his classes; but when the young student displayed to his father pages of beautiful writing and proved himself able to disentangle the family accounts, and even carried on a conversation in English with an official visitor, it was quite obvious that favouritism prevailed at the college just as it prevailed everywhere else in the ordinary world. Clearly, it was just because Kudah Bux was so clever that his attainments went unrecognized.
Kudah Bux did not contradict this assumption, but it was evident to Mahomed Ishak that modesty and good feeling alone prevented his son from endorsing it. As for the ladies, their admiration for his achievements could hardly be expressed. What pleasure and amusement he caused them when he tried to teach them English, when he read them scraps of Persian poetry, or described his visits to the wives of the English professors. These mem-sahibs, it appeared, made a point of inviting the students to afternoon tea, and actually expected men to stand up when women entered the room, and men had not only to do this and offer the women their chairs, and allow them to walk first out of a door, but were also expected to hand cups and eatables and attend to their wants just as if the students were servants or even women themselves!
Kudah Bux was firmly persuaded that it was because he had shown a proper spirit on one of these occasions—permitting his fellow-students to do all that was expected of them at one of these gatherings while he sat in his chair till a woman brought him a cup of tea herself—that he had received an unsatisfactory report from his tutor, and was not given the prize for English translation, which he considered he had justly earned. Emphatically his stepmothers agreed with him, but of purpose he withheld this confidence from his father, who was English mad, as they all knew, and might not have viewed the situation with sufficient impartiality.
It was on the day before Kudah Bux was expected back from his final term at college that Mahomed Ishak divulged to the ladies his intention of sending Kudah Bux to England to study for some lucrative and honourable profession. Though privately horrified, they all three applauded the plan with enthusiasm. Since Mahomed Ishak, their lord, was persuaded of its wisdom and expediency, it was not for them to advance objections. Their allegiance to the head of the house was even stronger than their devotion to the male heir who was to come after him, and it was plainly their duty, whatever their feelings and opinions, to render loyal support to his wishes. And, indeed, they felt a certain pride in the idea. It would be something to boast of to their friends who dropped in for pleasant gossip and purdah hospitality; an added sense of superiority would be theirs, not only on account of the importance attached to an English education, but also because great wealth must be argued from such a scheme. The financial resources of the family would now be more than ever envied and respected.
So when the great secret had been imparted to the simple-minded trio, who yet possessed the worldly wisdom of the Oriental, the age-old outlook on life that is at once so naive and so subtle, they expressed unanimous delight and approval until Mahomed Ishak had departed to inspect his fields and they were free to talk the matter over between themselves in the inner courtyard, the little space that had been their world since they entered it as brides. The long years of their womanhood in this inner courtyard had passed unshadowed by serious trouble save for the one great disappointment shared by them all, which perhaps drew them together and welded their unity, just as their love for their lord, and, after him, for Kudah Bux, was common and unquestioned.
When their husband’s departure had left the air calm and silent, and they had turned his news over in their minds, Rahmat Begum took the mouthpiece of her hookah from her lips, sighed, and shook her head.
“Sisters,” she said, “England is very far away, and what do we know of the manners and customs of that country? The air and the water may not suit the health of our heart’s joy, the food will be strange and, maybe, indigestible, and if he should fall sick in the foreign land, who is to tend him?”
Rahmat, the senior wife, was a lean, melancholy person, always prepared for the worst. She had never altogether recovered from the bitter blow to her hopes, and the sense of shortcoming in having failed to provide an heir to the house. For years had she lived in a condition of hope and suspense—a condition followed by a period of despair, ending in unhappy resignation.
Had she been the mother of sons, the necessity for further alliance on the part of her lord would never have arisen. Not that Rahmat was jealous of her co-wives; they were all on affectionate terms since none had gained pre-eminence by bearing a son. But Rahmat had, inevitably, to share her position and authority in the establishment, and, of course, there was less money to spare for luxury and display. Had not Mahomed Ishak to bear the upkeep of two additional ladies, and to find dowries and marriage expenses for daughters as well?
Zulfan, the second wife, was of a more optimistic nature. Long ago she had ceased to reproach herself or to fret over her failure. Provided she was included in every conclave over domestic matters, and had plenty of the kind of food she preferred—such as cakes fried in clarified butter, bits of spiced meat roasted on skewers, the best rice and pulse with green vegetable sauce and fresh curds—she was content enough with existence. It seems hardly necessary to add that Zulfan was exceedingly stout.
“Why should our darling fall ill in England?” she argued cheerfully. “The English feed well, so the wife of Akil Mahomed informed me. Her husband was once bidden to a feast by the magistrate-sahib of their district, and he found the meal good, though not sufficiently spiced, and pân was not handed afterwards, so that his old stomach suffered somewhat. But there is no reason why good beef and mutton and fowls and vegetables should disagree with our beloved—such, I understand, is the customary diet of the English. It is true they also eat pig, not being forbidden by their religion; but Kudah Bux would, of course, avoid such a dish. It may be well for him to go to England. He should return full of learning, able to command riches by reason of his abilities; he should add lustre and honour and wealth to his name, and remember how great might be the advantage through him to the sons of his sisters if he were in a position to procure for his nephews honourable appointments under the Government.”
Zulfan was thinking of her two married daughters, each of whom had a large family.
But Akbari Begum, the youngest of the trio, more mentally gifted and better educated than the other two ladies, did not share Zulfan’s approval.
“It is not the food, not the water, nor the air that need be feared,” she pronounced ominously. “It is the women! Englishwomen have no shame, and some are beautiful; moreover, most of them are witches, and possess powers of evil. When they encounter a handsome youth such as our Kudah Bux, and learn that he is of good descent, with a rich man for parent, will they not ensnare him in their nets of beguilement and with spells and charms? Surely they will take his rupees and his time and his thoughts, and he will return to us changed in character, no longer our own Kudah Bux, the delight of our hearts. Dost thou not recall, sisters, the story of young Din Mahomed, whose father sent him to England?”
“Pah!” Zulfan interrupted. “Do not presume to compare that rascal with our precious Kudah Bux. The dust hath no alliance with the pure sky. Never would our child be guilty of such conduct. Assuredly will he gain far more in England than he can lose; he will acquire wisdom and experience, and if the English women make much of him, as is only to be expected, what harm will it do him?”
Rahmat sighed again.
“I would that he were safely married to a well-born girl who would be a virtuous wife.”
“What did our lord say but now?” Zulfan reminded her. ”That there would be time enough for a suitable marriage when Kudah Bux returned from England, having completed his studies. Why sigh over what cannot be remedied?”
She clapped her hands, summoning Gulab (Rose), the chief female attendant, and sent her out to buy four annas’ worth of a curly, sticky sweetmeat known as jellabies. Zulfan felt in need of support after this trying conversation, and the munching of jellabies always soothed her nerves.
There was much to do in making preparation for the arrival of Kudah Bux to-morrow morning: the collecting of ingredients for special dishes, extra delicate kababs and pillaoes, and sweetened rice coloured with saffron. The cooking of these tasty mixtures must be superintended, and such a task was tacitly allotted to Zulfan, who was an artist in culinary matters. Also there was great scouring of brass vessels, and a final overhauling of the wardrobe Kudah Bux had left in the care of his step- mothers. But all was in readiness by the time the traveller arrived at daybreak after a drive of forty miles in an ekka from the nearest railway station.
Greetings with his father over, Kudah Bux was accorded a fond and excited welcome in the inner courtyard, and soon he was lying on a pile of pillows while the stepmothers massaged his stiff muscles, and fed him with the savoury dishes prepared in his honour.
“Ai-hai! It has been a weary time, this time at college,” he told the three interested ladies. “It is true I have come home at intervals for relaxation, but while in exile was I forced to study subjects that made my head and my mind tired.” (Exclamations of pitying sympathy from the audience.) “And when I was not poring over books or figures was I forced to play senseless games in which only the English professors and a few contemptible time-servers appeared to find pleasure. Ker-liket and foot-a-ball, when one ran and ran, and fell down and hurt oneself, and became exhausted till fever resulted. What else? And then again, tennis—run, run, run, hitting a ball, and for what? To become manly, they would say; but in my judgment to become once more a child. Such doings are undignified as well as wearisome. Now, to fly kites, or to wrestle in our own fashion, or to play pachesi (draughts)—all that is amusing and of interest, or perhaps to run races if one must run at all. But I am glad to be done with it at last. If one did badly at the games, then ridicule was heaped on one’s head, and the English professors favoured those who pretended to enjoy games that were never intended to be played in this country, and showed too plainly their disapproval of a man who preferred to rest in peace, to smoke, and to read the poems of Hafiz, rather than rush about like a mad bull and stream with perspiration, wasting strength of body and mind over foolishness.”
“But our lord, thy father, had high motive in sending thee to college; he is in favour of the life for young men,” said Akbari, a note of rebuke in her pleasant voice.
“Without doubt,” the young man returned in gracious concession, “it may be well for some characters to undergo the restrictions and hardships of college life that much do I recognize. But for myself I should have been better here helping my father, even to the extent of doing manual labour such as driving the plough oxen, which is useful occupation and would answer the same purpose as those ridiculous games, as far as sweating be concerned.”
Kudah Bux yawned luxuriously.
“I am rejoiced to be in my home again, and assuredly never more will I leave it.” Complacently he regarded his companions, confident of their approbation, and, as he anticipated, they applauded his sentiments.
Yet did Rahmat, Zulfan, and Akbari exchange covert glances of apprehension, for it was clear that when Mahomed Ishak should reveal his great plan of sending Kudah Bux to study in England, the plan would not be agreeable to Kudah Bux himself. However, it was not for them to interfere or to impart the news prematurely. For the moment they could only agree with their stepson; only to agree again later with their lord if consulted by one whose word was law, whose decision must ever be final with the women he had honoured by his choice.
The strong Eastern moonlight illumined the level land. At the back of Mahomed Ishak’s dwelling young spring crops lay silver-tipped by the magic lustre. The stillness was profound, even the pariah dogs in the slumbering village were silent for the moment. Empty and austere the vast country stretched away beyond the line of cultivation.
A slender human shape, picked out sharply in the white radiance, stood motionless on one of the low mud boundaries that separated wheat and pulse and barley just rising from the ground. Kudah Bux had stolen out at midnight, driven from his bed by disquietude of mind, resentful, bewildered, unhappy, because now he was to go to England against his will, just as he had gone to college under protest some two to three years back.
Filial instinct in the youth was strong; the stronger, perhaps, because it was not a chance individual quality, but the outcome of hereditary racial custom. He could not directly defy the head of the house; he had no thought of definite resistance to the will of Mahomed Ishak, his father, but he was sharply, grievously disturbed, and disappointed.
He had looked forward to a future of comparative tranquillity, to such duties as he felt he could accomplish with credit, to marriage with a suitable maiden. Gradually, as his father grew less active, he would have assumed charge of the property, and, in his turn, have become a personage in the district, continuing the life that his forebears had led before him, harmless, reputable, true to Mahomedan notions and ideals. Instead, he was to be forced into the battle-field of competition without the armour of ambition and self-confidence, and painfully he shrank from the distasteful prospect.
In a passion of regret he gazed over the moonlit landscape. He did not want to go away; he had no desire to succeed in public life; indeed, he knew he had not the power to do so. But then he also knew that nothing would convince his father of the fact. For this, in a measure, he was himself to blame. Had he not given his father an impression of his capabilities that was not altogether correct? Against such immovable convictions Kudah Bux felt powerless to fight. He was helpless: he must obey. He was prepared to endure the inevitable, but he stood now in the fields of his father sore at heart, in dread of the future.
Time passed. As in a depressing dream he stood—hypnotized by his own misery, by the stillness, by the hard white light. A faint little breeze arose and set the sugar-cane crop rustling like paper. Then a dog howled in the village, and all the silence was shattered by an answering chorus of shrill barking. Far away, as if in response, came the wailing of jackals hunting through the night.
Kudah Bux turned wearily, and went back into the house. As he stumbled in the direction of his sleeping-place, hardly more than a cupboard according to Western views, he heard his name called softly. A figure appeared at the entrance to the women’s quarters; it was Akbari muffled like a ghost in her white wrapper. She beckoned, and readily he approached her. Always had he loved Akbari, and now his heart went out to her in grateful warmth to the stepmother with the tender face, and quick mind and kindly character. Assuredly she would understand his plight, and give him sympathy.
“Take comfort, pet,” she whispered, and explained that she had seen him go forth, had divined his trouble, had waited patiently for his return that she might endeavour to console him. They seated themselves by the doorway, their backs against the wall. Snores resounded from the alcoves of the inner courtyard where slumbered the two elder ladies. The moonlight struck slantwise into the roofless square, and cast fantastic shadows; a strong whiff of mango blossom floated through the dwelling, borne on the night breeze that wandered fitfully as though in querulous impatience for the dawn.
Kudah Bux bewailed his fate in a sobbing whisper, and Akbari gave him words of encouragement and counsel. Primarily she reminded him of his duty to his father, whose sole object in parting with his only son was the advancement of that son’s welfare.
“Therefore take comfort, O beloved, and give not thyself over to grief. Thou dost not go from us for ever. Remember ‘Voyaging is a victory,’ and time passes swiftly. Surely thou wilt reap compensation and reward in the new way of life, in learning and experience and fresh thought. Dost recall the words of the poem?
And the cultivated Akbari quoted lines composed by the last King of Delhi:
“Flowers in plenty, rich and rare,
Bloom in the garden everywhere,
Each has a hue none else may share,
Each has a fragrance all its own.”
She drew the young head down on her lap, and passed skilful, lingering fingers about the neck and forehead with such soothing touch that at last Kudah Bux slept. Then she stole to her own alcove, leaving her cotton wrapper rolled into a cushion beneath the boy’s cheek, and he lay sleeping till dawn—the hour of crow-caw, when in India all living things begin to stir. The sun struck his eyelids and he awoke with stretchings and loud yawns.
With the day came better courage. After all, if he did not succeed in England, it would but mean a return to the old conditions of peace and contentment at home, and his failure could be attributed to jealousy on the part of others, to superior influence in high quarters, and to general bad luck, After all, it might be rather a fine thing to go to England, to return with such knowledge and experience, even without success in examinations, as would greatly impress the village and extinguish the importance of the odious Mir Hasan.
Mir Hasan was the son of a rival landowner in the district; he gave himself insufferable airs and behaved offensively towards Kudah Bux because he had been to Calcutta, and was a “fail pass B.A.” Not that this distinction had brought Mir Hasan any apparent benefit beyond the claim to swagger about with a pocket handkerchief in one hand and an open umbrella in the other. Still, Kudah Bux felt at a disadvantage in his presence, and he disliked the sensation extremely.
Then Kudah Bux recalled the existence of a youth with whom he had been on friendly terms at college: one Imam Ali. This individual had gone to England some twelve months ago to study law, and twice since he had written to his friend. These letters had aroused a fleeting envy, for the moment, in the heart of Kudah Bux, for it would seem that Imam Ali was highly thought of in London. Kudah Bux knew that Imam Ali was not of good birth, that he was considered of small account among his betters, but it appeared that in England such disadvantages were ignored. Imam Ali boasted of the attentions he received from the English people, particularly the women, who received him with eagerness into their houses; of how he dressed in English fashion and smoked cigarettes, and drove in vehicles he called taxi-cabs. He went to places of amusement, and knew his way everywhere, and was generally, as he expressed it, “a gay.”
These reflections heartened Kudah Bux, and during the next few days he discussed future plans with his father almost cheerfully. Mahomed Ishak was for writing to the present magistrate for advice as to proceedings; where Kudah Bux should apply for suitable accommodation, and the best method of commencing studies for the Bar, and so forth. But Kudah Bux was more in favour of complete independence; he had no desire to be treated as a helpless schoolboy, and he mentioned Imam Ali to his father. He pointed out that Imam Ali was conversant with English ways and customs, and therefore was well qualified to assist him with practical directions. Kudah Bux had preserved Imam Ali’s address. What more simple than to write and suggest that he should join Imam Ali in whatever quarter of the town he might be living?
But, of course, there was also much to be ascertained concerning more immediate arrangements—the passage to England, dates, necessary clothing and baggage; and here the odious Mir Hasan proved of use. Not that he was directly approached for advice and assistance; such a proceeding would not have been congenial either to Kudah Bux or to his father, even had Mir Hasan been an intimate friend. “Conceal,” says the proverb, “thy tenets, thy treasure, and thy travelling,” and Orientals prefer to obtain information, as well as everything else, by diplomatic methods. It is accounted more mannerly, and is undoubtedly more satisfactory, seeing that, however direct a question in reality, the addressee will conclude that there is something more or less important behind and answer accordingly.
One morning when the weekly village fair was in progress Kudah Bux and Mir Hasan met in the bazaar. The two conversed politely in English, each desirous of impressing the other with the extent of his modern acquirements.
“Good-a-morning, Mr. Mir Hasan,” said Kudah Bux, and they shook hands as awkwardly as the average Englishman makes salaam.
“Ha-doo-doo, man!” returned Mir Hasan with patronizing cordiality. Then he glanced around with patent contempt at the little booths and stalls, at the array of rubbish spread on the ground before the squatting vendors, who were all proclaiming the excellence of their merchandise with confusing clamour.
“What a beastly hurly-burly they concoct, these shopkeepers,” he remarked disdainfully. “This an uncivilized spot, just no more than a local habitation and a name, as the memorial Shakespeare poet sings. After the excited existence of Calcutta this country life bore is a bore and not to be borne!—a play at words—he! he!”
“And after England it would be still more boorish?” suggested Kudah Bux with subtle intention and a flattering laugh at the other’s show of wit.
Mir Hasan produced a metal cigarette case of common French make that had a picture of pirouetting ballet girl on the outside. This article caused Kudah Bux bitter envy. So far he had only smoked a hookah, and he possessed neither case nor cigarettes. He declined Mir Hasan’s invitation to help himself, announcing carelessly that he smoked only cheroots and had left his silver case at home this morning.
“Ah, yes, England! commented Mir Hasan. “I am heartily sick for not going yet to London in place of waiting in this desert air. But I am of delicate disposition. Last year, when I was about to take voyage, I felt uneasy and vomited twice, so my relations and friends prayed me to stay quiet at home for a time. Peradventure I go next year. I must kick a row with my father and insist.”
Kudah Bux inquired with humble interest how, in such an event, Mir Hasan would set about making his preliminary arrangements.
Mir Hasan waved his cigarette with a superior air.
“Oh, all easy as pop! Write to Messrs. Cook, English agent at Bombay, and all is ar-range, all instructions in writing on paper, passage bought, trouble and endeavour all shifted. Even Europe menial to meet traveller at railway, and convey self and belongings to ship: you pay—they arrange. Understand?”
Kudah Bux understood. And now, being possessed of the information he required, he observed casually, that he thought of going to England himself very shortly. Mir Hasan’s astonished disgust filled Kudah Bux with an exquisite triumph.
“Without large cash you will be in the cart!” said Mir Hasan spitefully.
Kudah Bux clicked his tongue and glanced around him with significant complacence. Did not most of the land on one side of the village belong to his father?
“My parent is a man of wealth,” he said loftily, and unable to resist the impulse he narrowed his eyelids and looked sideways at Mir Hasan. “Have you ever seen a paddy- bird?” he added, and crooked his arm, the Indian schoolboy equivalent to “making a long nose.” Then he turned and went swiftly towards his home, in the comfortable assurance that he had discountenanced his old enemy, and at the same time profited by the other’s experience.
Even so it was many weeks before Kudah Bux found himself in readiness to start. The delay was due in some degree to his reluctance that any English local official should be consulted in the matter; and Mohamed Ishak’s relief and satisfaction that his son should have complied with the plans for his future deterred the old man from urging this course. Also Imam Ali’s reply had to be awaited. It was long in coming, though when the belated letter did arrive, it was entirely encouraging. Kudah Bux had only to write and say by what vessel he was sailing, and his friend could engage a room for him in the lodging-house he himself patronized, and, moreover, he would undertake to meet the traveller at the docks.
Therefore arrangements were concluded laboriously by correspondence with agents in Bombay, and the little Mussulman household in a remote district, that had scarcely been touched by modern influence, remained in ignorance that there existed in London an association whose object it was to protect, assist, and guide such youths from India who desired to pursue their studies in the ruling country.
On a close evening in August Emily Jemson looked out of her bedroom window at the top of her mother’s little house in West Brompton. The summer had been unusually hot, and the outlook was not inspiriting, though Emily realized that it might have been worse. Here at least was space, and they had what Mrs. Jemson called “a nice blow from the cemetery.” It was pleasanter, at any rate, to look upon white tombstones and monuments, with wreaths and crosses on the graves, shrubs and painted benches, and well-kept gravel walks, rather than on narrow yards with litter and confusion and cats, and lines hung with washing. Emily was gifted with a critical faculty that enabled her to perceive advantages, and she appreciated the cemetery. Strolling in it, she enjoyed the scent of flowers, the tranquillity, the freedom, and in her most discontented moods she drew relief and consolation from the surroundings.
Now, as she lingered at the window to inhale the warm evening air, to watch a little group of sable-clad people moving mournfully among the tombs, a dull depression fell upon her, and at the moment she almost wished that she herself could be lying beneath one of the withered grass mounds, free from all dissatisfaction, and the lack of purpose and pleasure in her young life. Vaguely restless, she turned to the looking-glass to pin on her hat. Her pretty face was pale, her movements languid. The summer had been trying, and the annual visit to Aunt Hitchcock at Ramsgate was not to take place this August, because mother and aunt had quarrelled; and, to increase the disappointment and annoyance of the whole business, the dispute had arisen over Emily’s late love affair.
A certain Mr. Thomas Parrot, after paying “marked attention” to Emily for the best part of a year, had suddenly and without warning married a well-to-do widow. Emily’s heart had not suffered acutely, but her pride had been lowered, and her disappointment was genuine; for Mr. Parrot was a jobmaster, a gentleman of means and position, and Emily had permitted herself to contemplate an existence of ease, if not of affluence, as his wife. And she missed the drives perched up on the high box-seat of a drag, with prancing horses in front and watchful stablemen behind.
Mrs. Jemson had not helped to make the situation more bearable, declaring that Emily had only herself to blame for her “standoffishness,” and that now, of course, there was nothing before her but the humiliating prospect of dying an old maid. At the same time, when Aunt Hitchcock agreed with mother, but added criticisms of her own on similar lines, Mrs. Jemson took offence. An acrimonious correspondence ensued, which soon became entangled with reproaches and recriminations concerning a certain teapot, and a silver brooch that somehow had been “separated” from the ear-rings that formed the set; family grievances, long since dormant, now were resuscitated under the stimulus of wounded feelings, diverting the feud into channels from which, at present, there seemed no way of return.
With a sigh Emily Jemson pinned on her hat, then brightened as she thought of her friend, Miss Flowerdale, whose acquaintance she had lately made, whose opinion she valued; and she took pains with her appearance, intending presently to visit the fancy stall over which Miss Flowerdale presided at the Earl’s Court Exhibition.
She wore a white muslin blouse and a blue serge skirt, both made by Emily herself with quick, clever fingers. She fastened a string of blue beads, purchased at Miss Flowerdale’s stall, round her neck—beads that matched the soft colour of her eyes; and presently her cheeks reflected the tint of the pink scarf she draped about her shoulders—pleasure in her own prettiness called the delicate flush to her face. She was like a china shepherdess, dainty, attractive, sweet.
Downstairs Mrs. Jemson sat in the front room of the basement, sewing, under the canary’s cage. She had an air of extreme respectability. For years she had held the honourable post of house-keeper in a large establishment till she married Jemson, the butler, whose photograph, taken after death and enlarged, hung over the mantelpiece. Her own and Jemson’s savings were invested in the little house overlooking the cemetery, and it had proved a fairly successful speculation, for the drawing-room floor had never been unlet for more than a few days since first the card inscribed with the word “Apartments” had been hung in the fan-light over the front door. “And for the last three years the “drawing-rooms” had been occupied by an old lady, the widow of a general from India, with her maid.
As Emily came down the stairs old Mrs. Taylor’s door stood open, and she caught a glimpse of the familiar figure of the lodger seated in an arm-chair by the open window in a black dress and white cap and little Shetland shawl. Old Mrs. Taylor liked Emily to go in sometimes and talk politely to her, but this evening Emily was in a hurry to get to Earl’s Court by the time appointed with Miss Flowerdale, so she slipped past the door noiselessly, not without a little feeling of pity for the quiet, lonely old lady.
Mrs. Jemson looked up from her sewing as Emily came into the sitting-room. “Where are you off to—dressed up?” she said querulously.
“I was thinking of going to Earl’s Court to have a chat with Miss Flowerdale. Will you give me sixpence, mother, for the entrance?”
“I don’t hold with that place, nor with that friend of yours neither,” said Mrs. Jemson.
“You don’t hold with my having any bit of pleasure you mean,” Emily complained. “What harm is there in the place? and I’m sure Miss Flowerdale’s a friend any girl would be proud to have. She’s a lady, she is.”
“Don’t you talk to me, and tell me I don’t know a lady when I see one! Me that’s lived with the best gentry. What would your poor dead father say if he could hear you, I should like to know? A lady—selling rubbish at a stall—not even a shop.”
Emily’s blue eyes rilled with peevish tears. “There you go, mother, always grumbling at me. I’m sure I’d marry any man as asked me, to get out of it all and have a home of my own and sixpence in my pocket.”
Mrs. Jemson looked up at the ceiling, or rather at the bottom of the canary’s cage, in horrified protest. “Well, I never!” she exclaimed, as though further words failed her.
Emily’s soft heart impelled her to her mother’s side, and she kissed Mrs. Jemson. “There, mother, don’t take on. I didn’t mean it—but I’m young, and I like Miss Flowerdale, and I don’t see where’s the harm of going to talk to her.”
“Well, then, go,” sniffed Mrs. Jemson. She fumbled in her workbox and produced a threepenny-bit, two pennies, and two half-pennies. “But don’t blame me,” she added cryptically.
She heard Emily go upstairs and out of the front door, she saw the blue serge skirt, brown shoes hurrying beneath it, pass the basement window.
“And never so much as a look down,” murmured Mrs. Jemson, returning to the muslin blinds she was hemming for old Mrs. Taylor’s bedroom. She reflected that Emily was on the whole a good girl, but spoilt—spoilt from her babyhood—her father had spoilt her, and she had never been denied anything, Mrs. Jemson was sure. Yet she was that ungrateful—all young people were alike, taking up with anybody, pleased with a new face, flattered by notice. Mrs. Jemson, though she professed not to hold with Miss Flowerdale, was not insensible to that person’s superiority. Indeed, she was rather impressed than otherwise, though she would never have admitted it, with Ada Flowerdale’s manners and speech and clothes, and evident knowledge of the world. That she should have formed a friendship with Emily was proof in itself of Emily’s exceptional characteristics and attractions.
She finished the muslin blinds and folded them carefully; then carried them upstairs, pausing on the way to knock at Mrs. Taylor’s open door.
A thin old voice said “Come in,” and Mrs. Jemson entered the drawing-room with correct deportment. She had a true regard for Mrs. Taylor as a general’s widow and a “lady born and bred”—a regard that had increased almost to respectful awe since a great field-marshal had actually paid a visit to Mrs. Taylor in person, in memory of her late husband, his friend of years ago in India; the great old soldier being one who did not forget his friends, though in fame and rank he had long since passed most of them on the road of life.
On the chiffonier in the corner stood a soap-stone model of the Taj, and a soft Indian basket of plaited coloured straw lay open on the round table at the old lady’s elbow, her knitting and her handkerchief thrown into it. There was a faint smell of sandal-wood in the air. It came from the little carved brown fan Mrs. Taylor waved to and fro.
“Good evening, Mrs. Jemson.” Mrs. Taylor always spoke with a politeness that was punctilious to those beneath her in class. She used the same voice and manner to “Mr. Billing” her bath-chair man, who took her for her daily airing in the cemetery, and to her maid Pritchard, who she always addressed by her surname.
“Good evening, madam—have you everything you want?” This was the invariable question when Mrs. Jemson entered the presence of her lodger.
“Thank you, yes, Mrs. Jemson. Where is your daughter this evening?”
Mrs. Jemson sighed significantly. “Young people will be young people, ma’am, as no doubt you know. She has gone off to Earl’s Court Exhibition to see a friend.”
“Not a young man friend, Mrs. Jemson, I hope.”
“No, no—a young lady friend.” Mrs. Taylor stiffened. “Though really I wish Emily could meet some one suitable and settle down married. Not that she hasn’t had chances, and good ones too, as you might say, but she’s never made the most of them, and let them slip through her fingers. I always tell her she’s too standoffish.”
“Surely that is better, Mrs. Jemson, than for a girl to be too free and easy with young men,” said Mrs. Taylor, reproach in her attitude. “No doubt Emily will settle suitably in time.”
“It was a pity about Mr. Parrot.” Mrs. Taylor had heard all about the faithless jobmaster, and had been deeply interested without betraying her interest further than was consistent with her dignity. “There was a man as could have given her everything a girl could expect in reason—a good business, and all his relations in comfortable circumstances—not one of them dependent on him. But she kept him hanging on without saying a Yes or a No, which a man in his position can’t be expected to put up with. I always told her she would lose him, with that widow asking him frequent to her house, and so did my sister, Maria Hitchcock. I don’t hold with girls not taking the best they can get when there’s a good chance. Looks and youth don’t last for ever, and Emily’s not one to earn her own bread when I’m gone.”
“You must hope for the best, Mrs. Jemson,” said Mrs. Taylor distantly. Then they discussed tomorrow’s meals, and Mrs. Taylor thought she would like a fresh egg for her breakfast, and a nice little “slip” for her luncheon, and for her dinner some soup and a milk pudding would do nicely.
Meanwhile Emily arrived at the exhibition, and walked a long distance over wooden floors, making much unavoidable noise with her high heels; she crossed gravel courtyards, and passed through many halls of exhibits till she came to Miss Flowerdale’s stall, that glittered with cheap jewellery and beads and hatpins and such-like attractive articles. Emily experienced a little pang of jealous annoyance to see that Miss Flowerdale was engaged in conversation with two gentlemen, evidently acquaintances, not casual customers, and she hung back in hesitation till Miss Flowerdale caught sight of her and beckoned imperiously. Then Emily joined the little group at the counter and was startled, when the two gentlemen made room for her, to see that they were both foreigners, having what appeared to Emily “black faces.”
Miss Flowerdale leant over the glass counter that protected many glittering objects, and kissed her young friend. Then, with a good deal of circumstance, introduced the two men.
“Mr. Ally,” she said, and waved her hand elegantly towards a small, spare being with a low forehead and wide-open, strained black eyes, a little creature of low Eastern birth, in whom unsuitable education and the animal were at perpetual variance. Just now, as he held out a cold, supple hand, with fingers that could bend almost as far back as they could bend forward, the animal was uppermost. The large loose eyes wandered greedily from Emily’s pink face to her soft white neck—he looked like a monkey wishing to snatch at some particularly delectable fruit.
“Mr. Bucks,” went on Miss Flowerdale, “Mr. Ally’s friend, just arrived from Injia”—and Emily turned to meet a pair of beautiful brown eyes in a wheaten-coloured face—a shy, sensitive face, with finely cut features and a pensive expression that appealed to Emily’s gentle nature, attracting her at once.
Certainly Kudah Bux was looking very distinctive with a snowy white turban folded low over his forehead, his graceful, slender form outlined by correct English clothes, a morning coat, neat dark trousers, and smart patent leather boots. He carried wash-leather gloves and a silver-mounted walking-stick, held a cigarette in a slim brown hand, and he showed white, perfect teeth, as he acknowledged the introduction. His first impulse was to salaam, but just in time he recollected Imam Ali’s instructions and instead bowed low. Then suddenly he became acutely aware of the blue of Emily’s eyes, and of the sweetness of her little face, and somehow he thought of Akbari Begum and of her feminine sympathy and kindness of character; and he wished Akbari could see this woman, the first English woman he had met who had given him the feeling that he should like to talk to her and tell her of his home and his father, and of his indulgent stepmothers—Akbari in particular. A wave of home-sickness assailed him, standing in this place full of noise and glitter and passing people, all so strange and alien and outside his experience. Only a week ago he had arrived, and since then the days had seemed like a nightmare, tearing about under Imam Ali’s directions, buying clothes, and settling awkwardly in his new quarters, the lodging- house where Imam Ali resided—a dirty, pretentious establishment situated in the region behind Earl’s Court.
“Well, my dear,” said Miss Flowerdale, addressing Emily with patronizing indulgence, “and what have you been doing with yourself?”
“Oh, nothing—as usual!” Emily proclaimed with a self-conscious titter.
“What do you think of that, Mr. Ally? Our English gentlemen must be poor creatures to let a pretty girl do nothing, eh? In all this beautiful weather with the river, and the green fields, asking for visitors to add to their attractions.”
“”Yes—indeed. We must show,” said Imam Ali with vigour. “Here is my friend with his pockets full of money all ready for fun and frolic. Is it not true, man?”
“What is that?” asked Kudah Bux in some confusion.
“You are ready to take these ladies for a treat, h’n?”
“Yess, yess,” Kudah Bux responded eagerly, looking from one to the other.
“What about the river? suggested Miss Flowerdale. “I s’pose you and your friend can handle the oars, Mr. Ally?”
“Of course!” replied Imam Ali airily. “There is only this hitch—since my journey from India, the rock of a boat causes me sickness at stomach.”
“Oh, Mr. Ally!” cried Miss Flowerdale in shocked reproof, “what an expression!”
“How do you say, then—see—seek? It is the same here with my friend. You were sick to death coming over, old cock, h’n?”
“What was?” inquired Kudah Bux puzzled and shy.
“Do you choose to travel on dry land or in water?” shouted Imam Ali, as though the other were deaf.
Kudah Bux had shared Imam Ali’s painful experience of travelling by water—the voyage was a nightmare in his memory. He was understood to confess that he preferred dry land.
“There is Hampton Court,” said Imam Ali, “we four meeting at Waterloo Station next Sunday 11 a.m.?”
“Quite a good idea,” agreed Miss Flowerdale. “What do you say to it, Emily?”
Emily bridled and blushed, and murmured that she thought it would be nice.
“So that is arranged,” said Imam Ali. “I run the show and my rich friend pays piper—ha! ha! You know,” he added slyly, “this young man is a great heir. Only son, and his father not grudging expenses. He must see life in England.”
Imam Ali proceeded to enlarge on the wealth and importance of Kudah Bux’s family—the position enjoyed by his father as a great landowner; while Kudah Bux, hardly comprehending the other’s voluble statements, gazed shyly at Emily Jemson, and felt that his money would be well spent in giving her pleasure, though he wished he knew how much the entertainment was likely to cost him.
Emily Jemson, Kudah Bux, and Imam All loitered at Miss Flowerdale’s stall till the exhibition closed. They helped her to put away her wares, and Imam Ali jokingly suggested that his friend should give each of the young ladies a present, which resulted in Miss Jemson receiving a paste pendant and Miss Flowerdale a gold tissue bag. Emily remonstrated shyly, while Miss Flowerdale accepted her bag with gracious condescension. Imam Ali, it appeared, had forgotten to bring any money with him, but he observed that it would be his turn next time, as though Kudah Bux had outwitted him and usurped a coveted privilege; so that Kudah Bux felt he had indeed the advantage of his compatriot. The four walked together as far as Emily’s door.
“I’ll come in with you a minute,” said Miss Flowerdale; and to Emily’s relief she dismissed their escort. All the way from the exhibition Emily had been wondering if it would seem “funny” to Miss Flowerdale if she did not ask them all in for refreshments—and what their reception would have been from Mrs. Jemson she feared to think! Miss Flowerdale alone was a different matter, though Mrs. Jemson might not be “best pleased” to see her. She knew her mother would not have gone to bed. Mrs. Jemson seldom retired before midnight, though what kept her up she probably could not have told herself. Sometimes she undressed and came down again in her ulster over her nightgown; and Emily was relieved to see her wearing her afternoon dress when she opened the door. Her tidiness was accounted for by the unexpected presence of Aunt Hitchcock in the sitting-room. Evidently differences were on the way to settlement. After all, perhaps the visit to Ramsgate was not hopelessly lost—but Emily was conscious of a falling off of enthusiasm for the prospect. This morning she would have been relieved and enchanted to think that Aunt Hitchcock had “come round,” and that after all she was to have the delirious distractions of the seaside. Now she felt she was not keen to go—she hoped Aunt Hitchcock and mother had not become so entirely reconciled as to wish to be together at once. She felt vaguely puzzled as to her own change of inclination and made a little mental effort to trace the cause. It was connected in some way with Miss Flowerdale, then on to Miss Flowerdale’s friend, Mr. Ally—and further to Mr. Ally’s friend, Mr. Bucks. There the connection stopped; Emily decided that she liked Mr. Bucks and would not so much mind remaining in London if Mr. Bucks remained also. They could have many pleasant little excursions, she and Mr. Bucks and Miss Flowerdale and Mr. Ally. It was a great thing to have nice friends.
All this reflection went on while Miss Flowerdale was being introduced to Aunt Hitchcock. The two became friends at once. Miss Flowerdale recognized Mrs. Hitchcock’s social importance as a widow lady who kept a boarding establishment frequented by most superior people. Mrs. Hitchcock recognized Miss Flowerdale’s smartness and aplomb, her glib speech, and exceedingly genteel manners—a real London young lady, as anyone with half an eye could see. Mrs. Hitchcock could not understand her sister’s objections to Emily’s friend—objections which had been confided to her before the arrival of the two girls.
“And have you had a pleasant evening?” inquired Mrs. Hitchcock of her niece.
“Yes, aunt, thank you,” said Emily meekly, conscious of the paste pendant; involuntarily she put up her hand to where it hung below the string of blue beads.
“I should think she did!” said Miss Flowerdale with sprightly significance.
“Where did you get that ornament, miss?” Mrs. Jemson inquired obviously suspicious.
“Aha!” exclaimed Miss Flowerdale.
“A new admirer?” asked Aunt Hitchcock with hopeful interest. Then added: “But Emily’s unlucky with young men. She puts them off so—and that don’t pay!”
“This one’s paid anyway, Mrs. Hitchcock—and he can pay!” Miss Flowerdale held up her gold tissue bag and swung it before the excited gaze of the two elder women. “Emily will be a fool if she puts him off!”
“Who may he be?” chorused Mrs. Jemson and Mrs. Hitchcock.
Miss Flowerdale assumed a knowing and important air. “I happen to know all there is to know,” she said.
Emily looked at her anxiously. She also was desirous to hear all that there was to know about her new friend, Mr. Bucks.
There was a tense little silence. Then Miss Flowerdale condescended to explain. “It’s like this—my friend, Mr. Ally, who’s an Injian gentleman and lives in Penborough Road—you know Penborough Road, no doubt, Mrs. Jemson?”
“I do, Miss Flowerdale, a most fashionable quarter, I’m sure.”
Well, another gentleman from Injia, Mr. Bucks, have just joined with Mr. Ally in his apartments, and Mr. Ally’s showing him round before his commencing studies for the law—being holiday time now for the legal gentlemen as, of course, you will know—”
The rest of the company did not know, but endeavoured by silence to conceal their ignorance.
“Not that Mr. Bucks has any need to work, as Mr. Ally said to me in confidence, his father being a swell in Injia and wealthy, owning a whole town and land and more money than he knows what to do with. Mr. Bucks, I may tell you, is the eldest and only son!”
“And he’s taken a fancy to Emily?” put in Aunt Hitchcock, leaping direct to the point.
“I leave you to guess,” replied Miss Flowerdale, “but if ever I saw love at first sight”—she shrugged her shoulders and extended her hands—“well!”
There was a breathless pause. Aunt Hitchcock planted a fat hand on each knee; there was a broad black silk space between the two.
“Now, look here, niece,” she said emphatically, “don’t let’s have no more games nor beating about bushes. Girls has got to be settled, and you’ve had more nor one lesson in the past. There was Mr. Wallock, when you had your hair down your back—he got jealous and took himself off in a huff when you carried on with that young man out of Harrod’s. Then there was Captain Jobbe, one of my boarders. I don’t deny he was old and dyed his hair, but he had a pension, and could have made a lady of you—”
“Excuse me, Maria, but Captain Jobbe was no great shakes,” Mrs. Jemson interrupted truculently. “I ask you what sort of captain? It’s my belief he’d no right to his title. He was no gentry. Don’t I know gentry when I see one?”
“Well, he paid regular,” protested Aunt Hitchcock, “and a captain’s a captain—whatever sort. Anyway, Emily led him a dance, and she cost me a good boarder, for he went and drank hisself crazy all on account of the young minx, as anyone in Ramsgate could tell you.”
“He drank long before he knew me!” said Emily aggrieved. “And I’m sure I never give him to understand—”
“Well, well, that’s neither here nor there—what I mean to say is, if a girl like you, Emily, don’t take her chances, why she loses them, which is nothing more nor common sense, knowing the men as I do!”
“You’re right, Mrs. Hitchcock!” applauded Miss Flowerdale.
“Though some prefers to keep their liberty. It depends.” She swung her new bag to and fro contemplatively.
“If you’re independent well and good. But what’s to happen to Emily when her mother’s gone? Do you think she could keep on this house and pay the rent? She’s not that sort; and there she goes chucking away chance after chance and no thought for the future. Think of Mr. Parrot.”
“Well, I’m sure I’d marry a nice man,” said Emily, full of resentment.
“Nice men don’t grow on every gooseberry-bush,” scolded Aunt Hitchcock, “nor nasty men neither; and I say a bad husband’s better nor none for any woman living.”
“No offence meant,” said Mrs. Hitchcock, observing that Miss Flowerdale looked put out, “but a married woman’s a married woman.”
“That’s what I say,” observed Mrs. Jemson, glad of an opportunity to stab Miss Flowerdale; she resented Miss Flowerdale’s condescension towards Emily, and was jealous of Emily’s partiality for the new friend.
“Well, we shall see,” she continued. “If this young man is all Miss Flowerdale knows him to be, Emily might do worse—though in my opinion she might have done a lot better in the past. But it’s no use crying over spilt milk.”
“You leave it to me,” said Miss Flowerdale. Then glasses and a bottle of sherry were produced, with mixed biscuits in a tin, and a seed cake. And presently old Mrs. Taylor’s maid, Pritchard, came down with an excuse about a hot-water bottle and joined the company, so that private affairs could no longer be discussed. Miss Pritchard and Miss Flowerdale compared boastful notes with regard to their respective relations, and the different positions each had occupied before being forced by unmerited family misfortunes to earn their own livings. The rest of the company were reluctantly impressed, and the evening passed agreeably.
Fine weather, high spirits, and Kudah Bux’s full purse rendered Sunday’s expedition to Hampton Court a complete success. As a matter of duty, the party inspected the Palace and the pictures. For pleasure they wandered in the gardens, eating sweets, laughing, and chaffing; they lunched at an inn and, with the exception of Kudah Bux, drank champagne. Imam Ali explained to the ladies that as yet it was against his friend’s principles to imbibe alcohol in any form, “though,” he added with indulgent contempt,”that will not be for long. When in England do as Englands do!” He filled up his glass and also, to the horror of Kudah Bux, devoured ham with shameless relish.
The outing was followed by others; Miss Flowerdale and Mr. Ally, Miss Jemson and Mr. Bucks visited various places of interest, Madame Tussaud’s, the Tower of London, Kew Gardens, the Zoo, and so forth. Also theatres were not neglected, and it was always Mr. Bucks who, in the words of his compatriot, “paid the piper.” Imam Ali frequently adjured Kudah Bux to keep strict account of all that it cost him, adding earnest assurances that the moment his expected remittances arrived from India, his own share of the expenses would be honourably refunded. Kudah Bux, in reply, would wave a thin brown hand and say: “All rot—do not mention it, man.” In truth, he enjoyed his importance as banker, was flattered by Imam Ali’s references to himself as a millionaire.
“We are prince and pauper,” Imam Ali would declare to the young ladies, with lordly self-depreciation; and Kudah Bux delighted to observe the effect of these words on the beautiful Miss Emily, the delicate flush that rose in her cheeks, the shy glances that set his young heart aflame, yet tied his stammering tongue.
But more than all these expensive excursions he enjoyed occasional outings alone with Emily, when Miss Flowerdale was chained to her stall and Mr. Ally was otherwise engaged. Now and then he was invited to tea at Miss Emily’s house, but, though he liked the warm, comfortable parlour and the strong, sweet tea, and the permanent odour of onions that reminded him of Zulfan’s cooking, he did not like Mrs. Jemson. She frightened him; he felt instinctively that she disapproved of his friendship with her daughter, he could hardly ever understand what she said, or what she meant, and, while he despised her, he yet feared her as a terrible old woman, who was generally angry about something.
Truth to tell, Mrs. Jemson was deeply suspicious of Emily’s “latest,” with the innate antagonism of her class towards anything out of the ordinary. It prevented her from regarding Kudah Bux’s obvious suit with favour, though, so far, she had not openly opposed it, especially as Aunt Hitchcock and Miss Flowerdale seemed to think it was the chance of Emily’s lifetime; and certainly the young man’s presents were not to be despised—flowers and fruit, boxes of sweets, and trinkets. Emily’s jewel-box by now was so full that it would hardly shut.
“All the same,” she argued in a letter to Aunt Hitchcock, “if the young man really was a prince, or a lord, or anything of the kind in his own country, as Mr. Ally declared was the case, it was not suitable that he should marry Emily.” She, Mrs. Jemson, didn’t hold with unequal matches, though she was sure Emily was good enough for any station, and Jemson had always said his great-grandmother was a duke’s daughter who ran away with the coachman and never repented it. On the other hand, if Mr. Bucks was nothing out of the way there was no object in letting things go on; she would rather, on the whole, that Emily didn’t marry at all than become the wife of a nigger, whether he had money or whether he hadn’t, and, anyway, she couldn’t abide the notion of her girl going so far away to a heathen land.
Aunt Hitchcock, as usual, was not sympathetic; her opinion was that Emily had better marry while she could and be thankful, and as for fairy tale about the duke’s daughter—that was all bunkum and nobody had ever believed it—and so on—which raised Mrs. Jemson’s ire and she returned the letter to Mrs. Hitchcock in an unstamped envelope.
What with Maria’s nastiness and the contrariness of Emily, who snapped if you said a word, poor Mrs. Jemson was far from happy; and one morning matters came to a crisis.
Mrs. Jemson had taken Mrs. Taylor’s instructions for the day, the usual polite remarks concerning the weather and the wind had been exchanged, and she was moving with genteel deliberation towards the door, when the old lady cleared her throat delicately and said:
“One moment, Mrs. Jemson—”
Mrs. Jemson returned, respectfully interrogant.
“It is not my habit,” announced Mrs. Taylor, “to meddle with other people’s concerns, but I feel that my long experience of India may entitle me to say a word. I feel it my duty to warn you, Mrs. Jemson, that you are running a grave risk in permitting your daughter to associate with young men who are not of her own race and colour.”
Mrs. Jemson’s first impulse was to resent interference from her tenant, or from anyone else for that matter, in her family affairs. Mrs. Taylor was her lodger, not her mistress. But the instinct of the upper servant kept her civil. Never in her life had she “answered back” to her “betters,” whatever the provocation. Also, following on her indignation, if not actually overcoming it, was a vague feeling of relief that Mrs. Taylor should have opened the way to discussion of a subject that was causing her much mental perturbation.
“Well, ma’am,” she began diffidently, “Mr. Bucks may be above us in station, but his being what you might call coloured, so to speak—”
“You mistake my meaning, Mrs. Jemson. Allow me to explain. By race I did not intend to imply class. I have seen the young man, to whom I conclude you refer, from my window, and I should say he came of a highly respectable Mahomedan family, quite different from the friend who often accompanies him. But that is beside the question. What I want you to understand is that in any case it is most undesirable that an English girl should marry an Oriental. The habits and customs of the East are totally opposed to our own, particularly where women are concerned. In all probability the young man is married already, and, even if he is not, and were to marry your daughter and take her to India, there would be nothing to prevent him from having three other wives in addition to Emily, according to Mahomedan law.”
“Mercy on us!” cried Mrs. Jemson, startled out of her usual self-control in the presence of gentry. She pressed her hands to her heart and gasped.
“Take my advice, Mrs. Jemson, and put a stop to this friendship. I have not spoken to you about it lightly, or without good reason. Believe me, however excellent the young man’s intentions and disposition, however comfortable his circumstances in his own country, Emily would be miserable as his wife; nothing but disaster could follow.”
Mrs. Jemson’s voice trembled as she thanked Mrs. Taylor for her kind warning and her interest in Emily’s welfare. “I’ll tell her what you say, ma’am, though girls is that difficult in these days when they gets an idea into their heads, and she do seem set on the fellow, which is more than I am myself, nor ever have been—the rascal.”
“Emily is a well-brought-up young woman, Mrs. Jemson, and, no doubt, if you exercise your authority at once, you will have no trouble with her on the point. The young man may have excellent qualities. There seems no reason to suppose that he has not, but if you value your daughter’s happiness you will not allow her to marry him.”
Mrs. Jemson descended to the basement terribly “upset,” yet rejoicing, in a way, that she had a valid reason for attacking Emily on the subject of Mr. Bucks. Emily was in the parlour making a blouse. She was singing softly to herself:
“You are—my hon—ey—honey—suckle, I am the bee,” she hummed, pausing to bite her thread.
“Stop that noise and listen to me,” commanded her mother truculently.
Emily looked up in startled defiance, her needle poised in the air.
“Go ahead, then,” she returned pertly.
“There’s to be no more goings on with that there blackamoor you’re always about with—”
Emily flushed, and her hands dropped into her lap. Before she could speak her mother continued:
“Here’s old Mrs. Taylor upstairs been warning me about his wives—”
Emily’s face paled, she gazed at her mother in horror. His wives! she repeated.
She says it’s as likely as not he’s got a wife already in Injia, and he can have as many more as he wants under the Hummydum law—”
“What nonsense, mother!” protested Emily painfully. “The old bird must be daft—you let things alone and don’t go for to make mischief—”
“He don’t come here no more, and you don’t go out with him. That’s flat. I’ve kep’ you respectable for all your flighty, discontentable ways, which would make your poor dad turn in his grave—and I ain’t going to have any more nonsense.”
Emily burst into tears, crying loudly, like a child, her knuckles in her eyes.
“It’s too bad! It’s wicked!” she wailed. “I’m never to be happy. I wish I was dead—that I do.”
“And I’d sooner see you dead than married to a blackamoor!” shouted Mrs. Jemson, her temper thoroughly aroused. She stormed on, while Emily sobbed, utterly wretched. Mr. Bucks married already—it was unthinkable! She visioned his beautiful eyes that, more eloquently than his stammering English, proclaimed his whole-hearted adoration. How could she insult him by asking him the question: “Are you married, Mr. Bucks?” Yet, unless Mrs. Taylor’s accusation—nasty, interfering old cat—were false, there was an end of all the happy meetings, the pretty presents, everything else that now made life worth living. Mr. Bucks was so different from Mr. Parrot and all the rest —none of them had kindled one spark of passion in her breast, while she could no longer deny to herself that her heart had been given unreservedly to Mr. Bucks.
She was dimly conscious of her mother’s voice arguing and scolding, though she paid no heed to the words that were chiefly variations of what had already been said. The sound rasped her nerves, and presently she started to her feet and ran from the parlour, up the stairs, and into her room. She locked the door and flung herself on her bed.
Kudah Bux was to have called for Emily that afternoon to take her to a performance at a local music-hall. It would be madness, she felt, in the present distressing circumstances to allow her mother to see him. Mother would probably frighten him away altogether. Emily recognized the timidity of Kudah Bux’s disposition, though, if anything, it only added to her affection, imbuing it with the maternal feeling that is so often an attribute of women of her class, who either regard men as children or allow themselves to be treated by them as slaves. It would be dreadful if her mother slammed the door in Mr. Buck’s face or insulted him on the doorstep; it would be equally galling if she were kept a prisoner in the house. She decided for the first time in her life to deceive her mother deliberately, and having so made up her mind, after weeping into her pillow until she could weep no more, she rose and bathed her eyes, dressed herself in her oldest clothes and most unbecoming hat, and descended to the kitchen at dinner-time.
The smell of fried liver and bacon was refreshing, and despite her depression Emily made a fairly good meal. There was silence in the kitchen save for the clatter of knives and plates until Emily rose from the table and began drawing on a pair of cotton gloves. Mrs. Jemson followed her into the parlour.
“Where are you going?” she demanded aggressively.
Emily answered humbly,
“For this once, mother, I’m going to meet Mr. Bucks, but only to tell him I can’t see him any more.”
“Writing would do it as well,” said Mrs. Jemson, surprised at Emily’s ready submission, yet quite unsuspecting. With all her contrariness Emily had never told lies. The sight of the girl’s swollen eyelids and woebegone expression softened the mother’s heart. Reluctantly she yielded—adding reminders as to prohibition for the future. There was to be no “going back.” Emily must make Mr. Bucks understand that she was forbidden to know him after to-day. Simple Mrs. Jemson! How little she realized that she was precipitating the very thing she desired to prevent. How little she understood that she was placing the means in Emily’s hands to bring about the declaration Emily longed to hear from her lover’s lips, so that Emily went forth almost as happy as she was miserable. She did not look beyond the day—nothing seemed to matter in the past or in the future if she could only hear the soft, hesitating voice telling her that he was not married, that he loved her, that he desired her as his only wife.
She hurried out and caught him at the street corner.
Had Emily been called upon to give a correct account of her interview with Kudah Bux she would have found it difficult to do so—indeed, afterwards, she never felt quite sure if she had proposed to Kudah Bux or he to her, or if either of them had actually proposed to the other. At the street corner she had told him she “wasn’t in the mood” for any entertainment, and had manoeuvred him into the cemetery, where at least there was privacy and peace, though the atmosphere was chilly and a dank mist hung over the graves. Once seated on a bench, behind a couple of clipped yew-bushes that might have come from a giant toy-box, Emily had made tremulous allusions to “wives,” which puzzled her companion and filled him with dread that he had unwittingly offended his adored one. In desperation he seized her hands, and then, with tears, Emily inquired “plump out,” as she would herself have expressed it, whether he was really a married man? They wept together; Kudah Bux protesting that he had no wife; and next moment they were promising to marry each other and none else in this world. There followed a blissful blank, not to be conveyed either in English or in Hindustani, till darkness fell, and Emily dared not stay out any longer. Then hastily, disjointedly, she told her lover of Mrs. Jemson’s disapproval and objections. Finally they decided to consult Miss Flowerdale and Imam Ali, and with that and a fervent embrace they parted, agreeing to meet next day at Miss Flowerdale’s stall; meantime the true state of affairs was to be kept from Mrs. Jemson.
Miss Flowerdale’s sympathy was keen; for her part she was all in favour of a secret marriage. “Once a thing’s done,” she remarked weightily, “it can’t be undone.” Imam Ali, though not so enthusiastic, agreed that there seemed nothing else for it, since Miss Jemson and Kudah Bux were determined not to be parted; at any rate, he was willing to be witness and to assist in the necessary formalities.
As a result, two Englishwomen and two Indians met at a neighbouring registry office one morning in due course of time, and Emily Jemson became Emily Bux, or Bakhsh as the name was entered in the marriage certificate.
Then, fortified with the knowledge that nothing could now separate them, Emily boldly took her husband back to her mother’s house, prepared to divulge the truth. Kudah Bux, unaffectedly terrified, made no secret of his mental condition;he followed timidly as Emily mounted the doorsteps and rang the bell—her mother had never allowed her a latchkey.
Mrs. Jemson’s face, when she caught sight of the “blackamoor” dodging behind her daughter, was one flame of indignation. “You keep out of this,” she vociferated, and brandished the broom she held in her hand.
“He’s got to come in, mother,” said Emily firmly. We’ve just been married.”
Poor Mrs. Jemson dropped the broom and collapsed against her own front door. She allowed herself to be supported by her heartless daughter down the kitchen stairs, and into the parlour, where she lay faint and speechless on the sofa, her eyes half closed, her breath coming in gasps. It was some time before brandy and persuasions revived her, and then she wept loudly, until, spurred by Emily, Kudah Bux came forward and knelt by his mother-in-law’s side, took her trembling red hands, and poured forth assurances that he would be a good husband, a good son, that there was nothing he would not do for either of them.
It was all very agitating, but in the end Mrs. Jemson said she supposed she must make the best of a bad job, though her heart was broken, and she could never hold up her head again as long as she lived. She only stipulated that Kudah Bux should return to his lodgings, alone for the present, until Aunt Hitchcock could be notified and prevailed upon to invite the newly married pair to her house for a week’s honeymoon; this in order that “they might all have time to turn round.” Mrs. Jemson asked them, for one thing, how could she ever face Mrs. Taylor with such awful news? As likely as not Mrs. Taylor would “move” in face of such a disgrace to the house as a secret marriage, and at a registry too, after all her warnings!
“Then we could have her rooms, mother,” Emily suggested cheerfully, “and pay you as well and better than the old cat!”
“Yess, yess,” gabbled Kudah Bux. Plenty money always coming; my father rich man.”
At any rate, as Emily pointed out, there was no call to disturb Mrs. Taylor with the news at present, since they were both willing to fall in with her mother’s proposal.
So the honeymoon was spent at Ramsgate under the welcoming wing of Aunt Hitchcock. A good deal of money was spent also, one way and another, and more again when Mr. and Mrs. Bucks settled in the drawing-room floor of Imam Ali’s lodgings, an arrangement that suited Imam Ali well enough, since he constantly had meals with his young friends, and Kudah Bux was as ready as ever with loans when their mutual landlady became extra importunate. Imam Ali appeared to have abandoned his law studies, and was now engaged in some other occupation the nature of which he did not disclose, beyond that it was in connection with some society composed of Indian nationalists who had traffic with America, and, rather to the relief of Emily, it seemed to keep him busy.
Time passed pleasantly with the young couple; Mrs. Jemson gradually permitted herself to become reconciled to the marriage, especially as there seemed no lack of means. Emily was not extravagant, but she had all she wanted; there was plenty of food; and sometimes she and Kudah Bux treated Mrs. Jemson to a theatre, where the good soul sat proudly in the dress circle without her hat, and they went and returned in cabs. Mrs. Taylor did not “move,” though she had received the news with cold disapproval, and had never since mentioned Emily or her husband.
Thus Kudah Bux spent his father’s remittances in a manner quite apart from that for which they were intended, delaying the necessary formalities that would have enrolled him as a law student, making no effort to work; and when his conscience clamoured, he yielded weakly to Imam Ali’s advice that he should “let all slide, and not worry for the present; that, also for the present, he should leave his family in ignorance of his English marriage. Still, he felt uneasy when the rare letters from his father arrived, written from right to left on coarse yellow paper, always assuming that Kudah Bux was working sedulously, trusting that the foreign air and water did not affect his health, eagerly anticipating the day when Kudah Bux should return full of honour and success.
On reading these letters Kudah Bux would find himself yearning for the sun, and the dry clean air of his native land, for warm dust beneath his bare feet, and for the long, peaceful hours in the courtyard of his home. Holding the rough paper in his hands, he fancied he smelt cardamoms and spice, camphor and musk, that he heard the bleating of goats, the cooing of doves, and the murmur of the village. It was with genuine reluctance that he wrote ambiguous replies at Imam All’s instigation, hinting that the cost of living and study in England was far higher than could be explained, or than any of them could have believed; and further financial supplies came freely.
As for Emily, she gave little thought to her husband’s home and people; India was so remote and unreal, so beyond the grasp of her imagination, that Kudah Bux’s relations, for her, might hardly have existed. He said vaguely that there was time enough to tell them of his marriage; and she had been content to leave it at that. There was money always in the bank, she was happy with her gentle, affectionate husband, glad to be free of housework and her mother’s authority, and she did not look ahead. She grew prettier, sweeter to look upon than ever. But one evening, late in the spring, Emily returned laden with parcels from an exhausting but enjoyable struggle at a sale, to find Kudah Bux distracted and dishevelled, pacing the little sitting-room, wringing his hands. Open, on the table, lay one of the yellow letters from India, letters that, seldom as they came, Emily had grown to dread because of their depressing effect on her husband. Now he rushed towards her, his face wet with tears, pouring out his trouble in a mixture of English and Hindustani—and it was some minutes before she could gather the cause of his distress. It seemed that his father was dead, had died suddenly, that some one called Akbari had written, or dictated, a letter beseeching Kudah Bux to return without delay. His grief, his helpless despair, acted as a sort of mental tonic to Emily. She first induced the unhappy youth to swallow a cup of strong tea, then she made him translate to her, slowly and carefully, the letter from Akbari, that contained disturbing allusions to financial trouble in addition to the announcement of Mahomed Ishak’s death. She soothed and consoled him as best she could, and then set herself to face the situation.
“We shall have to go to Injia,” she decided, though her heart sank as she spoke.
Kudah Bux protested in tearful agitation that, though it might be necessary for him to go, it would be best for Emily to stay in England.
“You do not understand,” he said miserably; “my home is all different, not right for you; I settle up there and quickly come back.”
But this was not Emily’s idea of wifely duty, especially when there was trouble in the air; where he went she was going too. And, perhaps as an antidote to the disturbing prospect, there flashed through her mind the unwelcome vision of a compulsory return during the absence of Kudah Bux to the little house overlooking the cemetery, should she agree to be left behind.
“I’m going with you, my dear; make up your mind to that,” she told her husband; “it’s a mercy we haven’t spent so much lately, and I’m willing and ready to make myself useful to your old grandmothers or aunts, or whatever they are—I could save them a servant, perhaps, and, being clever with my needle, though I say it as shouldn’t, I might take in dressmaking, or go out to work at people’s houses, while you look after the land and put things straight. You are not cut out for a lawyer, which is what you’ve always said yourself, and Mr. Ally too. I’d give a lot to have a talk with Ally now, sick as I got of him.”
Imam Ali’s advice was no longer available, for he was at present on his way to New York, having, as he announced, “been selected special deputy—all expenses, no stint,” to represent his mysterious Society on some mission. He had departed in the highest spirits, greatly to the regret of Miss Flowerdale, promising that all he owed his young friends should be repaid with interest on his return.
As usual Kudah Bux was as wax in his wife’s hands. He yielded helplessly to her decision, though he tried more than once to dissuade her; his limited powers of expression failed to convince her that Indian life, as lived by his people, was like nothing in her experience, that she would find it distasteful, even unbearable. Finally he succumbed to a sharp attack of Indian fever, his body, as with most Orientals of his type, a victim to his distress of mind.
Nothing daunted, Emily applied her wits to the business of taking second-class passages, and to all other necessary arrangements, with a vigour and capability that astonished herself.
When Kudah Bux was sufficiently recovered from his indisposition, she dragged him to the offices of Messrs. Cook; she sold her jewellery, which fetched little, but with loans extracted from her mother and Aunt Hitchcock, and the balance at the bank, there was enough to pay for the journey, leaving some cash in hand. Mrs. Jemson, of course, was overcome with despair; she wept and lamented, and said she could almost wish that Emily had never been born—certainly she wished with all her heart that Kudah Bux had never been born; she raked up Mrs. Taylor’s warnings about Hummydum law, and unlimited wives, and everything else, and made up her mind that her daughter would never return.
Emily remained deaf to persuasion and protests. Kudah Bux had to go back to Injia, though only for a time, and she meant going with him; so there was an end of it, once and for all.
The little Indian village where Kudah Bux was born, and where his father, Mahomed Ishak, had died, lay languid in the sultry sunset glow. All day the hot west wind had swirled round and about the huddled houses, raising “devils” in the pathways, driving clouds of dust like snowstorms over the flat country; and had clattered and tossed, without ceasing, the branches of the giant pipal-tree that served as town hall, club, and general meeting-place for the villagers when the day’s work should be over. This evening, beneath its now quiescent leaves, and on the cracked masonry platform about its mighty trunk, the gathering was more animated than usual, for something unbelievable had happened—nothing less than the sudden arrival at daybreak of young Kudah Bux, son of Mahomed Ishak, from across the black water, and with him a woman, a white woman, who, it was said, was his wife!
Those who had actually witnessed the exciting event, found themselves raised to a pinnacle of importance. Yes, it was all true, and Kudah Bux was dressed like a sahib, except for his puggaree; and the woman, who was unveiled, had no beauty. She was little, and thin, and not over young. What could be the meaning of it all? An uneasy feeling was caused by the wife of the blacksmith, who expressed the opinion that the woman had the Evil Eye; she had been seen to gaze fixedly at the potter’s little boy as she passed the group of spectators in the dim dawn light, and had not the child since sickened with fever? Further than that, young Mahomed Kamil, on whom she had also looked, was bitten by a scorpion during the day.
A murmur ran through the company that doubtless the white woman was a witch, else why, in God’s name, should Kudah Bux have chosen for wife one who, whatever her colour, was neither plump nor comely, nor yet in her first youth?
It must be that she had cast a spell upon Kudah Bux, and the spell might extend with disastrous results to the village! Someone advocated that in the interests of the community a deputation should seek audience of Kudah Bux next morning, and demand that the white woman be sent away; but after discussion this course was pronounced premature, and it was decided to wait, keeping close watch upon events for the present.
Meanwhile, in the women’s quarters behind the high mud walls of the late Mohamed Ishak’s dwelling, the ladies Rahmat, Zulfan, and Akbari were seated in a sad little group, clothed in plain white, without jewels, as became their widowhood.
Rahmat was rocking her lean body to and fro.
“It was an evil day, sisters,” she moaned, “when our beloved went from us. Did I not say so from the first?”
“Alas! alas!” from Zulfan, who had lost flesh and looked like a deflated balloon.
Akbari was silent; her handsome face was haggard, her eyes heavy with tears.
“Maybe,” continued Rahmat, “we were somewhat to blame; we should have raised more objection in the matter.”
“Even then, of what avail?” argued Zulfan, “when our dear lord, on whom be peace, had decided, how could we presume to oppose his desire? Is it not written in our Holy Book that God created our mother Eve for the solace of our father Adam, and that, therefore, it is but woman’s part to agree with her husband and refrain from disturbance of his wishes, seeing that he be on a higher plane than herself? All the same,” she added reflectively, “charms and spells might have averted the disaster had we but employed them.”
Akbari raised her head. “Of what use to talk thus, when the mischief be done?” she asked bitterly. ”Can aught restore our prosperity and our peace of mind? Our dear lord is dead, rest his soul—his death hastened perhaps, if the truth were known, by vexation at being forced to sell fields and cattle in order to supply Kudah Bux with rupees—rupees that he hath spent on this cursed white woman. And now to provide her with the luxuries she demands we shall all have to live like coolies. Already he has spoken of buying tables and chairs, and God knows what, and she asks always for tea, tea, tea, a costly beverage intended only for great occasions. She hath done naught but weep and complain since she came, and she hath wrought a change in our beloved that wrings my heart to behold. No longer is he the darling youth who went from us, but a being of another world!”
“Aree! Aree!” wailed Zulfan, “what will become of us all? And also I say this,” continued Akbari, “the woman is not of the caste that the sahibs take to wife. Do we not see the real English mems when they pass through the village with their lords and pay us the compliment of a visit, and do they resemble this misery, who knows not how to behave? Without a doubt she is of the servant caste, and naught else.”
“But be there white servants?” inquired Zulfan, her sobs checked by her interest in the subject.
“Owl, that thou art!” was Akbari’s contemptuous answer. “Do our people go to England that they may serve the sahibs there?”
Zulfan was silent, abashed; and for a space they all chewed betel nut, and spat, in troubled contemplation.
And on the other side of the mud and brick wall a forlorn figure lay limp and exhausted on a rough wooden bedstead that was laced across with hempen string, and sagged in the middle like a hammock. Akbari had spread her own wadded quilt upon it for mattress, and Rahmat’s contribution was a coarse cotton sheet that smelt of garlic; on the floor was a brass dish heaped with savoury rice, prepared with all skill by Zulfan herself, but untouched by the stranger.
All the spirit had gone out of Emily, prostrated as she was by the long journey, the heat and the dust, and the discomfort of her present surroundings. She could scarcely breathe in what, to her, was a stifling cupboard; and, to add to her miseries, Kudah Bux had insisted on hanging a cloth across the doorless aperture while he talked business with a crowd of people in the courtyard.
Almost to the last she had derided her husband’s repeated attempts to warn her of the shock that awaited her, though the voyage had been a revelation to begin with—she had proved herself a hopeless sailor—and then the long journey up country, with the heat and the flies, and the unappetizing food at the halting places! A considerably subdued Emily had stepped on to the platform of the little railway station forty miles from their ultimate destination, and had climbed into an extraordinary vehicle, like a box on wheels, that reminded her of the clumsy conveyance used by a sisterhood in London on their rounds of solicitation. The drive through the night was a horror to the English girl—the relays of kicking, fighting ponies that squealed and jibbed, or bolted madly to the accompaniment of yells from the drivers and a horde of half-naked figures that clung on like bees outside.
Hysterical, worn out, she had been guided at the hour of dawn into what seemed to her a sort of hovel, dimly lit, full of strange sounds, and bad smells, and unfamiliar objects. There were three old women, hags, with shrouded heads, who stared at her spitefully, and hung about Kudah Bux with tears and grotesque embraces. They had offered her milk that was smoky, from a brass pot, and some food that burnt her mouth—that, moreover, she was expected to eat with her fingers! They had conducted her to the “cupboard” wherein she now lay, and there was no furniture save the barbaric bedstead, and one worm-eaten chair. Not daring to undress, she had lain herself down overcome with fatigue and despair, while Kudah Bux sat somewhere near by with the old women, talking, talking—the murmur had been ceaseless and maddening—and finally she had cried herself to sleep, awaking in the evening with such a violent headache that she was utterly unable to rise.
Kudah Bux, miserable on his wife’s account, yet guiltily conscious of his own joy at being once more at home, did his best to relieve her sufferings.
The night passed like a bad dream for Emily; she was dimly aware that her husband sat by her side giving her tea that she drank thirstily, despite its unpleasant flavour, dabbing her forehead with eau-de-Cologne from her handbag; all the time she could hear her own voice as though it came from a distance, entreating him to take her back to England.
Throughout the next day she lay helpless, overcome by the heat, distracted by the noise of visitors who besieged the dwelling devoured by curiosity concerning Kudah Bux’s white wife. They collected in the courtyard and chattered; veiled ladies passed into the back premises and listened agape to the stepmothers’ grievances, gave advice, munched sweetmeats, and added to the clamour.
Kudah Bux was in despair, and, as of old, he sought counsel of Akbari that evening when the last caller had departed and Rahmat and Zulfan were resting. He squatted with her beneath the fig-tree, talking in whispers, harping on the one idea that he must take his wife back to England lest she should die; he said again and again that if she died he should die also—of grief. Akbari listened till Kudah Bux relapsed into a miserable silence, chewing the piece of betel nut she had offered him, fidgeting his feet, now freed of Oxford shoes and embroidered socks, in the dust. Then she said slowly:
“It will take time to make the plan, and the cost of the journey will be great. Who is to pay?”
“There are rents due,” suggested Kudah Bux, with shamed reluctance, “and the big field could be sold as provision for thyself and Rahmat and Zulfan. On the land and the stock that remains terms could be made with the money-lender.”
“Maybe,” was Akbari’s cautious response; and he could not see the anger in her long almond- shaped eyes as presently she bestirred herself, saying she would attend to the wife of Kudah Bux and endeavour to make her take food. “For if the woman will not eat, how is she to live, even until she can be taken back to her own country?”
She paused before she left her stepson. “As yet do not speak to Rahmat or Zulfan of returning to England,” she advised him; “leave it to me to explain, for their grief will be great, and it will be hard for them to understand the necessity.”
Gratefully Kudah Bux watched her cross the threshold of Emily’s chamber, and he sighed with regretful relief. What a comfort was Akbari! Her sympathy and her discretion were a veritable bulwark to him in this period of perplexity and distress. Perhaps she would even gain the confidence and affection of Emily, and so prevail upon his wife to make a trial of the life in India, provided she had all the alleviations it was in his power to give her though how such a miracle could be accomplished was beyond his conception, since neither woman knew the other’s language. He could hear Akbari talking now, in low, persuasive tones, but he caught no response. Worn out, he laid himself down beneath the fig- tree and fell into a heavy sleep.
And while Kudah Bux reposed beneath the fig-tree, Akbari told Rahmat and Zulfan of their stepson’s intended return to England. As she had foreseen, their dismay was acute. Zulfan collapsed in a helpless heap. Rahmat beat her flat breast. “Ohé! Ohé!” they wailed in chorus. “What will become of us? It is all the doing of the cursed Feringhee; may she rot in hell!”
Akbari put up a warning finger. “Hist! do not make a disturbance. Kudah Bux sleeps in the courtyard, at rest from his troubles for a space; the woman lies without sense on her bed, so can we take counsel together safe from interruption. Listen! Without a doubt would Kudah Bux prefer to remain in the house of his fathers and to attend to the land and the cattle, for it is the life that he knows and loves; but body and soul is he enslaved by the woman, and we ourselves are helpless beneath her power. Of a certainty is she a witch. From the hour of her coming has there not been trouble in the village, as well as beneath our roof? According to report, she caused the potter’s child to fall sick with fever, and was not young Mahomed Kamil, whom she also overlooked, at once bitten by a scorpion? Gulab, who returned but now from the market, brought news that there is further illness in the village, and the shoemaker’s wife hath died in child-birth. Therefore are the people afraid, and they will endeavour to kill the woman; then the police and the magistrate-sahib would come, and there would be much trouble—our honour in the district would be gone.”
“Could we not kill her ourselves in secret?” suggested Rahmat.
Zulfan eagerly supported the proposal. “Allah! Why not? A little of the juice from the beans of the dhatura plant in her everlasting drinks of tea, and there would be an end to all her mischief. Kudah Bux would but think she had died of her present illness, though what she can be suffering from God only knows, since she has been given every care and comfort. Yet there she lies, and weeps and complains, breaking the heart of her husband, and now would ruin our lives as well by taking him from us again. Let us end it, I say, and the sooner the better.”
“Ignorant owls, that thou art!” broke in Akbari. Can ye not wait and hear what I have to say in the matter? Kudah Bux no fool; at once would he detect that the woman had been poisoned, and his wrath would be terrible. No—not her body, but the evil power she possesses must be destroyed, so that she will bow to the orders of Kudah Bux, and no longer will he persist in deserting us. The way is simple. I have given it much consideration. We cannot, of course, beat her with the stalks of the castor-oil plant, nor can we apply some other known means to cast out an evil spirit, but we can give her to drink of water from the washer-men’s tank, which is a remedy that seldom fails, though the water from a tan-yard, were it obtainable, might be better. Gulab shall procure us the water, and I will see that the woman drinks of it. Afterwards will she become harmless and obedient, and maybe when the hath departed from her will she also pine away and die.”
Rahmat and Zulfan were full of admiration for the wisdom and foresight of Akbari; hope rose once more in their hearts; all would yet be well.
Gulab was summoned and consulted, under vow of secrecy. She entered into the scheme with enthusiasm, especially as the reward for her services in the matter was to be the big turquoise ring Akbari had always worn on her forefinger. Gulab said it would be easy enough to obtain the draught; she had only to take the big pitcher and dip it into the washer-men’s tank—by night of course, when no one was about, else might the proceeding seem strange, since no one drank from the tank, but only from the village well. All the same, she added, even if she were observed and her motive discovered, no one would raise objection, for the village was convinced that the white woman had brought misfortune and the feeling against her was strong. Gulab felt highly excited and important at the part she was to play in helping to free the community, as well as her master and her mistresses, from the evil that was in their midst.
That night Emily dreamed in her troubled sleep of the little house overlooking the Brompton Cemetery. She was back in her own little room under the roof, and from the window she saw the graves and the gravel walks, the white tombstones, and the flowers. Her mother was calling to her from downstairs, and she lingered, as usual, to look at herself in the glass. But it was not her own face that she saw reflected, it was the face of an old native woman, with gleaming, almond-shaped eyes, and a malevolent smile. She screamed and ran out on the landing, only to find, to her terror, that there was no staircase, nothing but a yawning darkness—like a pit. Was it a grave? Yes, she was in the cemetery after all, not in the house, and she had almost stepped into a newly dug grave. Again and again she screamed, and awoke trembling and sweating.
Kudah Bux was standing beside her, anxious, alarmed.
“I had a bad dream,” she told him, sobbing. “Oh, how my head aches! Oh, the heat—the heat. I am so thirsty.”
Akbari came, like a white ghost, into the dimly lit room—the lamp was merely a twist of wick floating in a saucer of cocoanut oil. The light flickered on the polished surface of a brass vessel she carried. Kudah Bux turned to her; dear Akbari, she always appeared at the right moment.
“Here, give her to drink,” whispered Akbari, and handed him the vessel. He held it to his wife’s lips, and Emily drank drank greedily, thirstily, of the polluted water from the washer-men’s tank—clutching his hands when he would have taken the bowl away.
But as she paused for breath she cried, “Oh, what horrible water! Everything tastes nasty in this awful place!” And she fell to weeping again, despairingly, hopelessly. “Take me home, Kudah Bux,” she besought him, take me home to my mother, or I shall die!”
“Yess, yess,” he soothed, “we shall go; I will take you quite soon. Beloved, do not cry!”
He attempted to caress her, but she pushed him away, and lay with her face turned from him.
Akbari disappeared, and now Kudah Bux put his own lips to the brass vessel and drank of the water. Emily was right, the water was not sweet, but at least it was cool and refreshing. Then, as his wife seemed to sleep, he laid himself down on the beaten mud floor at the foot of her bed to rest.
For a week the village had re-echoed with the wailing of mourners for the dead. By day the grievous chant had mingled with the howling of the fierce west wind, by night it had floated on the hot, still darkness; sad little processions had gone forth in a continuous stream to the burying ground. Now the cries of woe grew faint, and in the dwellings and on the pathways corpses lay untended, twisted and shrunken, just as they had fallen smitten by the scourge.
Suddenly, swiftly, cholera had swept the village, zig-zagging from house to house in a kind of hideous pattern, diamond-shaped, in circles, in figures of eight, picking off helpless victims, sparing neither old nor young. And when, in response to rumours of the outbreak, a couple of English officials rode into the village, only a small company of terror-stricken survivors remained to tell a strange and dreadful story.
The pestilence, these people asserted, had started in the house of the late Mahomed Ishak, and it was caused by the evil influence of a white woman brought by Kudah Bux, son of the said Mahomed Ishak, from across the black water. From the first it had been clear, beyond any doubt, that the foreigner possessed the Evil Eye, for minor misfortunes had followed quickly upon her arrival, and had continued to occur, until, with her diabolical powers, she had brought about this terrible visitation. Kudah Bux himself had been the first victim, and since even the scavengers could not be persuaded to enter the dwelling lest the curse of the woman should fall on them also, his body had been placed in the big field beyond the walls, and there it was buried. Others of the household had quickly sickened and died, and the evil thing had spread with the swiftness of lightning through the village, with what awful result the sahibs could perceive with their own eyes. Doubtless the witch had herself survived, but none had dared to approach the house to ascertain, though it was reported that one of the widows of Mahomed Ishak was yet living; and she, if alive, would bear witness that all they had told the sahibs was the truth. Would not the Protectors of the Poor, of their charity, enter the dwelling and either kill or remove the white devil who was the cause of all this mischief?
The spokesman of the depressed little band led the way along a lifeless thoroughfare, until he reached the house of Mahomed Ishak. Emboldened by the presence of the sahibs, he pushed open the shaky double doors that gave on to the courtyard, then he fell back into the shrinking crowd that was only restrained from flight by the overpowering curiosity common to Orientals.
The two Englishmen, one a medical officer, the other a young assistant magistrate, stepped over the threshold. The sun blazed mercilessly into the roofless square upon rags and cooking-pots, mounds of festering rubbish, a stunted fig-tree, and a lean goat that bleated despairingly in a corner; also upon a rude string bedstead, partially covered by a dirty sheet, and a female figure crouched at the foot. The woman’s clothes were rent, there was dust on her unveiled head, grey hair fell in wisps about her ghastly, shrivelled face. She was crooning to herself in a thin, broken voice:
“Flowers in plenty, rich and rare,
Bloom in the garden everywhere,
Each has a hue none else can share Each has—”
The song ceased abruptly as the singer caught sight of the strangers in the gateway; she rose, shaking her arms high in the air, her fingers outspread.
“Begone!” she screamed. “Dogs—dogs—sons of dogs, accursed Feringhees! Begone!” She spat viciously, like a wild cat.
A murmur ran through the concourse that pressed and peered nervously in the gateway.
“It is Akbari Begum,” volunteered a woman from among them. “And of a certainty is she mad!”
“Without doubt!” agreed the people agape. “It is Akbari Begum, and she hath become mad—yea! and what wonder?”
“There’s another of them on the bed,” said the medical officer. He went forward, ignoring the demented creature that mouthed and cursed and spat as he passed, and bent over a helpless human form that lay beneath the sheet on the wooden bedstead lay motionless, scarce drawing breath. When, presently, he raised his head and spoke to his English companion there was horror in his voice and eyes.
”They were right,” he said rapidly; “it’s an English girl! Quick. Go and see if there’s a cart and bullocks to be had in the village. Find some sort of conveyance, for God’s sake, and quickly. We may save her if we can only get her to the camp in time. It’s a miracle she’s alive!”
As he drew a flask of brandy from his pocket, the crazy native woman rolled on the ground at his feet.
“Allah is my witness!” she was crying, and she threw handfuls of dust on her head, and into the air. “Allah is my witness that though the Feringhee was a witch did I give her milk, and all the tea that remained, and tended her in the sickness—the sickness that was of her own bringing, for do not curses come home to roost?—and it was all for the sake of Kudah Bux, our beloved—our beloved who is dead; for was not the woman his wife, and the treasure of his heart, and did he not ever turn for help to me, even to me, Akbari, who loved him? Ohé! Ohé!”
Two years later Mrs. Jemson and Mrs. Hitchcock sat beneath the canary’s cage in the parlour of the little house overlooking the Brompton Cemetery. They were enjoying toast soaked in hot dripping, washed down with strong tea.
“I always did say,” Aunt Hitchcock maintained, with her mouth full, “that all’s well as ends well. Only to think of the luck of that contrary girl—after going off with her blackamoor to the Injies—getting sent back by the Government free of expense, and a widow! And then for Parrot to turn up again, his wife having killed herself over drink—brandy they say it was—and leaving him all her money! Well, some people, by which I don’t altogether mean Parrot, gets a deal more than they deserves rightly. That’s all!”
“Well, I’m sure,” protested Mrs. Jemson, aggrieved, “no one could so to speak consider as my girl’s got more’n she deserves. What did she do I ask you? Only stuck to her husband, black as he was, being but her duty, and no one knows but herself what she suffered for it. She don’t talk of the past, even to me, and I don’t ask no questions. But now as she’s going to marry Parrot I do think, taking it all round, as you might give her the silver teapot that should by rights have been mine, not to speak of them ear-rings which is part of the set. But, as Jemson always said—”
“Don’t talk to me of Jemson,” interrupted Aunt Hitchcock truculently; “I don’t want to hear nothing of what he said; he wasn’t one to go by. Look at his silly tale about the duke’s daughter!”
“And no duke’s daughter could have been a better girl nor my Emily!” cried Mrs. Jemson, with heated irrelevance.
“That’s a matter of opinion,” argued her sister. “And when I come to make my will, which, mind you, I don’t mean to do till I’m bound, seeing as it’s said to be unlucky and courting death—”
“Well, well,” said Mrs. Jemson in more conciliatory tones, “don’t let us quarrel, Maria. Blood’s thicker than water, as you might say; and I’m sure once I see Emily settled and happy, I shan’t think of teapots, nor ear-rings, nor anything else beside— Have another bit of toast, my dear?”
“Well, I don’t mind if I do,” said Aunt Hitchcock.
And while her mother and her aunt enjoyed their tea in the parlour, Emily was perched beside her big, red-faced betrothed, Mr. Parrot, on the box-seat of a drag, drawn by a pair of prancing bay horses. She was happy enough, and contented; her future was safe, the past lay behind her like a dim, delirious dream. Yet, though she held recollection at bay with all the force of her will, there were still times when memories haunted her, creeping like ghosts from a corner of her heart: the vision of adoring dark eyes, the echo of a gentle, stammering voice. And always across a shadowy background of pain, and terror, and death, there flitted the wraith of an old native woman with ministering touch and faithful purpose the stepmother so beloved of Kudah Bux; only Emily could not remember her name.
“A change to the country and absolute quiet is what you want,” said the doctor. “Take my advice, and get off without delay.”
Being a Cockney to the backbone, my already drooping spirits sank lower. “The country” to me only meant a round of visits to friends and relations during August and September, enjoyable enough when the weather kept good, but from which I invariably returned to my flat in London rejoicing that I could once more go to bed when I chose, get up when I felt inclined, and make no effort to be agreeable and adaptable; that I could again revel in pictures, lectures, concerts, and semi-Bohemian gatherings.
“The ‘seaside,’ I murmured.
The doctor smiled. He had known me for many years.
“You don’t want bands, and a crowd, and a pier, and acquaintances at every step,” he said. “That’s what your seaside would mean! You want rest—real rest—with plenty of new milk and fresh eggs, and no excitement whatever. Vegetation—for three weeks or a month.”
I was worn out and run down, after nursing an aged relative through a long illness. Now the old lady had been removed to a nursing home, where it seemed probable that she would enjoy bad health for many years to come, and I was free to think of myself. I knew the doctor was right. I did need a restful change, but I had not the energy left to set about seeking the sort of haven I could afford.
As it happened, there lay on my table an invitation that had arrived only yesterday. It was from an old schoolfellow who lately had broken a vow of perpetual spinsterhood to marry the elderly vicar of a small West-country parish. Judging by her rapturous accounts of her husband and her home, the experiment seemed likely to prove successful.
She was anxious that I should witness (and perhaps envy) her happiness, and had written beseeching me to pay them a visit as soon as possible.
I took up the letter and read it again, this time with attention.
“And Little Todbury is the loveliest village,” wrote Fanny; full of picturesque buildings. There is an old farm within sight of our windows that I know you will want to sketch the moment you see it. They say Oliver Cromwell slept in one of the rooms. I get all my butter and eggs and chickens from the widow who lives there....”
Here she launched off into domestic details that may be omitted.
I hesitated. Should I accept the warm-hearted invitation? Probably if I did, I should be bored with Little Todbury before three days were over. At the same time, I realized that if peace and quiet were not obtainable there, I should get them nowhere else.
Yet, supposing the vicarage breakfast was at a quarter to eight, and I was given no early morning tea? If I were expected to attend all the services in the parish church that would smell of school-children and dusty hassocks? The weather would change, and rain would fall persistently—in which case I saw myself imprisoned with Fanny in the drawing-room, helping her to make disfiguring garments for the poor, and listening to gruesome details of the village folks’ diseases.
Again I read the letter, and an idea seemed to dart like a little gleam of light from my brain across the pages ... the farm within sight of the vicarage windows, where Oliver Cromwell had slept! If only Fanny could persuade the widow to receive me as a lodger, I should be owner of my time, free to read and write or idle as I pleased, while yet within comfortable reach of Fanny, my old friend.
I seized my pen and wrote that I was really not in a fit state to inflict myself on anyone as a visitor, my nerves being on edge and my temper unbearable; but, as the doctor had ordered me into the country, would it be possible for her to get me a room in the farmhouse she had mentioned?
Therefore, one warm spring evening, a few days later, I arrived at the Manor House Farm as it was now called, for the older and more aristocratic portion of the building had long since fallen into decay. Still, the inhabited portion was delightful, with oak panelling, low ceilings, and a wide staircase. So also was the old-fashioned bit of garden in front, with stumpy lavender bushes, sweet-scented herbs, homely perennials, and turf such as only centuries can produce.
Now fowls pecked and scratched on the lawn where doubtless cavaliers and powdered dames had dallied in bygone days, and at the back of the house pigsties and rubbish heaps, sheds and barns covered what had evidently been a terraced pleasure ground.
Fanny was there to welcome me, beaming and voluble, and I felt genuinely glad to see her again. She had procured me an airy bedroom, substantially furnished, with clean chintz hangings and a monstrous four-poster bed. My landlady, Mrs. Russell, seemed ready to do all she could for my comfort, though she said very little, and was utterly unlike the bustling, buxom, farmer’s widow my imagination had pictured.
She interested me from the first—a tall, pale woman, past middle age, who must in her youth have been beautiful. She had a resolute mouth and curious eyes that conveyed an expression of patient endurance combined with tenacity of purpose. I was not surprised to hear from Fanny how successfully Mrs. Russell had conducted the business of the farm since her husband’s death.
I remarked on her appearance that night when dining at the vicarage, and inquired if Mrs. Russell had a history.
“She looks,” I said, “as if she were bearing some secret burden, or was suffering in silence from an incurable disease!”
The vicar a commonplace, kind little man, with a bald head, a beard and spectacles—admitted that Mrs. Russell had a history.
“But,” he added, “she is so reticent, so hard, that I have given up trying to help her spiritually or bodily. Poor soul, she is much to be pitied!”
I tormented my host to tell me the woman’s story, and at last, reluctantly, he did so, his wife gazing at him with such genuine admiration and respect as would have been laughable but for its pathos. How could Fanny?
However, to return to the reason of Mrs. Russell’s tragic demeanour. Margaret Russell, in her youth, had been the village beauty, and had rejected many eligible suitors for the reason that she had set her affections perversely on Russell, who owned the Manor House Farm, and was already engaged to be married to another young woman. Eventually Russell jilted his sweetheart to marry Margaret, and the girl who was to have been his wife consoled herself with another young farmer named Iles, who had been long her admirer, and whose farm, as it happened, marched with the Manor House land.
“You can see how it is,” explained the vicar, as we strolled out on to the lawn in the warm evening air. “There is the Manor House, separated from Iles’s farm by the field known as ‘Thirty Acres,’ which belongs to Iles, so that his land may be said to run up to Mrs. Russell’s very door. Of course, any friendship between the two households was hardly to be expected, but there was no open hostility until Russell met his death. One day Iles brought home from market a bull that was notoriously dangerous, and he shut the animal up in the shed that you can see at the top of the field. Russell was missing at dinner-time the following day, and later was discovered gored to death by the bull just outside the shed. The explanation generally accepted was that the door of this shed had not been properly bolted, and that the bull had escaped, with fatal results to poor Russell. But Mrs. Russell, distracted with grief, publicly accused Mrs. Iles of having unbolted the door on purpose just before Russell would be crossing ‘Thirty Acres’ on his way home to dinner. Mrs. Iles indignantly denied the charge, and a scene followed between the two women that has never been forgotten in the village. From that day Mrs. Russell relapsed into the hard, sullen reserve that struck you on seeing her for the first time.... Nothing will convince her that Mrs. Iles was not the cause of Russell’s death. My own theory is that her conscience had always reproached her for stealing Russell’s affections from the girl he was going to marry, and that the shock of his terrible death affected her brain, so that she fastened on the fantastic idea that Mrs. Iles had deliberately murdered Russell by letting the bull loose.”
“But,” I exclaimed, “imagine Mrs. Russell living on there for all these years within sight of the shed and of her enemy’s very door!”
“Yes,” said the vicar, but these country people are the most extraordinary mixture of sentiment and callousness. Mrs. Russell could quite easily have moved, for she was left comfortably off; but instead she sub-let some of the land and stayed on. I cannot help suspecting that she derives a certain amount of unnatural satisfaction from the fact that she is living in touch with the Iles, though wild horses would not make her speak to them. Except on that one point she is a most estimable woman, and I can only look upon it as a sort of obsession. I have tried my best to bring about a reconciliation, but though the Iles are willing Mrs. Russell is not.”
I smiled politely, and he went on:
“At any rate, I hope you will not allow your mind to dwell upon this sordid little story. Perhaps I have been unwise to relate it to you, since I understand you have come here for reasons of health in addition to your desire to see my wife.”
“Oh, that’s all right!” I said to reassure him; but, all the same, my mind did dwell upon Mrs. Russell and her “sordid little story.” I felt an intense pity for the lonely woman who was convinced, rightly or wrongly, that her husband had been killed by treachery. I now understood the look in her eyes; it meant a consuming, unsatisfied craving for vengeance.
As the days went by, I attempted to draw Mrs. Russell into conversation. At first she resisted my blandishments, but gradually she took to exchanging a few genteel remarks with me after breakfast, and so seemed to gain confidence, until one morning she showed me her husband’s likeness—a terrible photograph of poor Russell, clad in uncomfortable Sunday raiment, leaning on a sham balustrade, with his feet crossed and one finger supporting his chin. Later on, with a queer, hard glitter in her eyes, she told me the pitiful story I had already heard from the vicar, asserting fiercely that Ann Iles had let the bull out of the shed in the hope, which was fulfilled, that the beast would attack Russell on his way across “Thirty Acres.”
“She hated my John because he fancied me best, and she hated me worse. Well, she’s had her turn, and maybe mine’ll come yet!”
I made no attempt to argue with her, or to shake her dreadful conviction; I felt it would be useless. I listened quietly, as though I accepted her statement, and probably I was the only person who
had ever done so, for as we sat on the window-seat, looking out over “Thirty Acres,” her self-control suddenly gave way. All the pent-up rage and bitterness of years against the woman she hated, and against those who denied her belief, poured from her lips like a flood that had burst a barrier. She looked “possessed,” her language was frightful. I thought she was going mad. Then she ceased as abruptly as she had begun, and left me without another word. When I saw her next morning the storm of emotion had passed; she was again the pale, self-repressed woman who moved about quietly, and spoke in a low, level voice. Neither of us alluded to what had occurred.
But for this painful scene, and its effect on my mind, my time at Little Todbury was passing pleasantly enough. My health improved; the weather was bright and warm, and though I had to submit to expeditions with Fanny and the vicar to the inevitable ruins, the Roman camp, the wishing well, and so forth, I was rather enjoying my exile.
The day came, however, when something happened that revived all my old antipathy to the country.
Fanny and her husband had driven to a sale of work some miles distant, and I, having firmly refused to accompany them, set off for a solitary ramble with my red parasol and a novel under my arm. I strolled along by the hedge that bounded “Thirty Acres,” watching the birds that fluttered among the leaves, and the butterflies skimming over the rich grass, amused at the sheep that stamped defiance as I approached, only to flee in a panic when I waved my parasol at them.
At the top of “Thirty Acres” I came to the historic shed that was so bound up with Mrs. Russell’s tragic story. It had recently been repaired, and shone with a still strong-smelling coat of tar. I passed the erection with nervous haste, though I saw that the door was shut and bolted outside. Skirting around it, I found myself confronted with a five-barred gate that led into an adjoining and much smaller field, bordered at the farther end by row of magnificent elm-trees. It was my intention to sit and read in their pleasant shade. But the gate was padlocked; I should have to climb over it. After glancing about to make certain that no one was in sight, I pushed my book and parasol through the bars and, gathering up my skirts, proceeded to clamber over laboriously. Not until that moment had I ever realized how difficult it might be for a lady past her first youth to climb over a five-barred gate. I hung and clung, presenting, I was aware, an absurd spectacle, and finally dropped down on the other side, catching my dress on a nail and tearing it lamentably. Once over, I picked up my belongings and stepped out, feeling quite proud of my acrobatic achievement. The sun was hot, and I unfurled my parasol; but I had hardly got into the middle of the field when I heard a savage bellow, and was horrified to see a great red bull, with his head down and his tail on end, making straight for me from the line of elms.
Never shall I forget my terror, and never before or since have I run as I ran that afternoon back towards the gate I had climbed but a few moments before. Hideous recollections of Russell’s fate rushed through my mind as I ran; I remember wondering if Mrs. Russell would again blame Mrs. Iles if I was killed by this bull. I felt my knees giving way, my breath failing me; a mist blinded my eyes, and I threw out my hands in helpless despair....
Someone grasped my hands, and I found myself being hauled over the gate, then supported by strong arms in safety on the other side.
For a space I was hardly conscious; when I opened my eyes, a stout, red-faced man was gazing at me with awkward concern. I recognized Iles, who had been pointed out to me in the village by the vicar; and when I inquired furiously why he allowed such a dangerous brute to be loose in his fields, he humbly assured me that the bull had seemed perfectly harmless, and that my red parasol must have upset him.
“You be the lady as is stopping at Manor House Farm,” he said respectfully.
“Her did ought to have warned you that this ’ere gate allus be kept locked when I’ve a bull in this meadow. But there, that ’oman—she wouldn’t lift a finger to do no one a good turn.”
“I don’t suppose she knew,” I answered, in angry defence of Mrs. Russell. ”How long have you had the bull in this field?”
He admitted that he had only bought the bull the day before, but added that “had he a-known” he would have shut the bull up in the shed.
“He come along like a lamb, and there warn’t nothing against him; he’s young; he didn’t mean no harm.” And he looked affectionately at the bull that now was grazing peacefully, as though no thought of pursuing a defenceless female had ever entered his shaggy, handsome head.
“Well, the sooner you shut him up the better,” I said with what dignity I could maintain in my dishevelled condition; and Iles agreed, touching his hat. Then, seeing that I was fit to walk home alone, he slouched off towards the back of his own farm. I did not envy him the pleasure of conducting the bull to the shed!
Feeling shaken and upset, angry with Iles and the country and the bull, and because I had left my book and parasol in the next field, I walked back unsteadily to the Manor House Farm. It was abominable that one could not take a harmless country walk in moderate safety. I would go back to London for rest and security.
I burst into Mrs. Russell’s kitchen, full of my grievous adventure. She was seated at the table shelling peas, and suddenly the sight of her face arrested my excited tongue. She had turned deadly white, her lips were drawn back, and she was staring at me with unseeing eyes, her breath coming in short gasps.
“What is the matter?” I cried, hastening to her side.
She could not answer, and I tore up to my room for my brandy flask. When she revived and rose weakly from her chair, I remembered what the vicar had said as to the state of her health, and I implored her to let me send for the doctor. But she refused. “It isn’t anything new, miss. I’ve had these attacks on and off, but they’re coming more frequent. No, miss, thank you. I don’t want the doctor this time. He told me himself that he couldn’t do nothing much for me. I’m sorry I was took bad this afternoon when you’ve had such a fright and all.”
It was useless; she would not have the doctor, and, indeed, in about an hour she was so far recovered that there seemed no necessity. But next morning she did not get up, and the little servant-maid told me in a scared whisper that she was “afeared Mrs. Russell were mortal bad.” I went at once to her room, and found her evidently very ill; thereupon I sent for the doctor on my own responsibility, who, after he had seen her, told me she would not live long, and would have to remain in bed till the end.
“She has aggravated the disease by mental worry,” he said. “In fact, I’m inclined to think that worry may have begun it. I only wonder she has kept going so long. I will send somebody in to look after her.”
I volunteered to look after her myself. I knew a good deal about nursing, and I felt I should like to make the poor soul’s end as peaceful and comfortable as possible.
Fanny and the vicar tried hard to persuade me to give up the idea and come to them, but I held to my intention; and for the next few days I and the willing little servant-maid, with occasional help from good-natured neighbours and constant kindness from Fanny, did all in our power to ease the poor woman. For the most part she lay quiet and seldom spoke. Sometimes she had sharp attacks of pain, but she bore them without a cry; only her agonized eyes and the writhing of her body betrayed how terribly she suffered.
One evening she asked me suddenly if I thought she would die soon. I answered evasively, and she laughed, turning her face to the latticed window near the bed. She was looking out over “Thirty Acres” towards the Iles’s farm, and the venomous expression in her sunken eyes appalled me.
“Oh, Mrs. Russell!” I cried on an impulse, “don’t—don’t look like that!” And I tried to preach eloquently of peace and forgiveness; to persuade her to put all harsh thoughts of Ann Iles out of her mind, to try and believe that it was not Ann Iles who had caused Russell’s death; and, even if it was, to forgive—to forgive! I felt I could not let her die with such anger, probably such unjust anger in her heart.
That night I met with no success. She only smiled at me as if I had been the feeblest of teachers in a Sunday school. Next day she was so much worse that, after the doctor had looked in during the late afternoon, I redoubled my efforts, and at last she showed signs of yielding, for her face grew soft and the angry light died out of her eyes that were turned always towards “Thirty Acres.”
Just before sunset, with stiff, white lips, she whispered to me, “Send for her—send for Ann Iles.”
I rose gladly to do her bidding, but as I rose she put out her hand. “Not just yet,” she whispered. “Tell her to come in an hour; I shall be ready for her—in an hour.”
I wrote the message and sent it off by a small boy who worked about the place; and then I sat by the bedside holding the chill, damp hand in mine. She was breathing very lightly, almost imperceptibly. The moments passed, and all at once I knew that the breathing had ceased. The room had darkened, though the afterglow of sunset still lingered outside. I lit a candle and bent over the quiet form on the bed. Mrs. Russell’s sufferings were over, and on her face, beautiful now in death as it had been beautiful in her youth, was a splendid, triumphant smile. She had died, thank God! I thought, with forgiveness in her heart, though the woman she had wanted to forgive would arrive too late to hear the words.
I sent for the doctor, also for Fanny and the vicar, and afterwards I remembered about Mrs. Iles, and told them about Mrs. Russell’s message to her.
“She is long overdue,” said the vicar; are you sure she got the note? She isn’t the sort of little woman to disregard such a summons.”
I went to the kitchen and questioned the small boy I had entrusted with the note. Yes, he had given it to Mrs. Iles herself, and she had said she would be over. The vicar decided to walk up to the Iles’s farm, and find out if any mistake had been made. We went to the door together. It was now almost dark. We saw lights moving in “Thirty Acres”; shouts rose in the air.
“Something must have happened,” said the vicar uneasily. I will go and see.”
When he came back, to find Fanny and myself awaiting him in the kitchen, his short-sighted eyes were full of horror.
“Such an awful accident!” he said, and sat down heavily by the table. “Mrs. Iles has been killed by a bull!”
Fanny cried: “Oh, how shocking! How did it occur?”
I could have shaken her for saying “occur” instead of “happen.” It is so odd how trifles can effect one in the midst of an atmosphere of disaster.
“It seems that that she left the farm,” said the vicar with an effort; “she was coming here in answer to the message. There was a bull shut up in the shed, and somehow it had got out.” He shivered. “No one knows how the door could have come unfastened, it had a new bolt.”
I found my voice. Then,” I cried, and started to my feet, trembling with a strange excitement, “after all, she had not forgiven! And that was why—oh, that was why she died with such a smile of triumph on her face. I feel it!—I know it! It was she who unbolted the door—it was she who let out the bull, just as she always believed Mrs. Iles had done when Russell was crossing the field. Perhaps it was true, perhaps all the time she was right.”
“Hush! Hush!” interrupted the vicar in alarm.” Calm yourself, my dear friend. Fanny, quick! Get some water, she is overstrung, and no wonder!”
Next morning I went back to London. The vicar saw me off from the little station. He was greatly concerned over my health, and kept urging me “to take care of myself.”
I knew perfectly well what he was trying politely to convey—that my impossible theory concerning the death of Mrs. Iles was the outcome of over-wrought nerves—and I said so with ruthless candour. The good little man walked by the open window of my compartment as the train began to move, entreating me to put the unholy idea from my mind—to believe, as he did himself, that Mrs. Russell had indeed gone to her Maker free from all thought of revenge—forgiving, repentant.
I smiled and nodded, and waved my hand. I did not believe and never shall.
John Fleming, aged four, lay on the dining-room carpet screaming convulsively. The other children turned from their cakes and crackers to stare with self-righteous interest at the little boy who was being so naughty. The mothers of the other children gathered round the point of disturbance and endeavoured to discover the cause of the scene.
“Good heavens!” they said, “what has happened to the child? Hush, hush, darling! Have you got a pain? What is the matter? Where is his mother? Who brought him?”
A fat little girl who had been John Fleming’s neighbour at the tea-table stolidly volunteered the information that it was all because of a snake.
“A snake!” chorused the ladies in alarm, and glanced apprehensively about the floor.
The agitated giver of the children’s party hurried from the next room, where she had been attending to the Christmas tree.
“A snake!” she echoed. “Oh, poor little fellow! Perhaps it was one of those crackers—they are rather startling.”
Yes, it was a cracker. The fat little girl had pulled it with the little boy, and a paper snake had jumped out, whereupon John Fleming had fallen from his chair in a paroxysm of terror.
“He is old Mrs. Fleming’s grandson,” the hostess explained in concerned distress. “He came with his nurse, who is downstairs at tea with the servants. I will send for her.” She dispatched a parlourmaid and set herself to pacify her small guest, who clung to her, his sobs abating.
“Perhaps it’s because he comes from India,” suggested the mother of the fat little girl. “I have a horror of snakes myself.”
“Oh, he can’t remember India!” said Mrs. Colebrook over the curly yellow head on her shoulder. “He was sent home as an infant. I think his mother died when he was born.” She patted and rocked the still quivering little body.
Then “Nanny” arrived, anxious, alarmed; a stout woman with a dark skin and dull black eyes, their whites tinged with yellow. John was transferred to her arms.
“I will take him upstairs,” said Nanny in curious, jerky tones, which Mrs. Colebrook, who had lived in India, knew to be the typical Eurasian accent.
She led the way from the large London dining-room, and took nurse and child upstairs to the nursery, empty now save for the furniture, and some scattered toys. She bade Nanny sit in the rocking- chair by the fire.
“He will be all right soon, nurse. It was just a sudden fright—one of those paper snakes jumped out of the cracker he was pulling, and I suppose he thought it was a real one. Poor little fellow! My children love them, but probably he had never seen one before. Perhaps he was over-excited too. It’s his first party, I think?”
The child lay exhausted in his nurse’s arms, soothed by the warmth of the fire, the absence of noise, and the gentle rocking movement of the chair.
“Yess, yess, he is a nervous,” said Nanny in apology for the behaviour of her charge. Then, encouraged by the lady’s compassionate countenance, she added confidentially: “And what else, when his poor mother died so frightened?”
“Frightened?” The lady looked with combined curiosity and pity at the sensitive face of the child, now in repose, with long lashes lying on the pale cheeks. “How was she frightened?”
Nanny answered low. “It was a snake, ma’am, and I was with her when it happened—in India, at Cawnpore. It was one night in the rains, a snake fell on her—and then the child, this one here, he was born too soon and she died.”
“Dear, dear, how sad! I did not know.” Mrs. Colebrook had only lately settled in the South Kensington house with gardens at the back shared by her neighbours, John Fleming’s grandmother among them. Her two children had made friends with little John in these gardens, and at their urgent petition Mrs. Colebrook had written a polite note to old Mrs. Fleming inviting the little boy to their Christmas party.
“He is asleep now,” said Nanny. Her dull eyes rested fondly on the yellow curls. Then she looked up, and the sympathetic understanding in the lady’s face encouraged her tongue. She spoke rapidly under her breath as though utterance gave her relief.
“Always—always will he fear anyt’ing that is like a snake,” she said, “and Mrs. Fleming, his grandmother, will not believe. I said when we went to the Zoo Gardens, ‘Do not take him to the snake-house.’ But, no, no, she take him, and he was altogether ill for two weeks after. He will not go into one room in the house because of the candle-sticks on the mantelpiece that are snakes made in brass. And if he sees a worm he cries and cries and trembles. His grandmother say ‘Little coward; do not give way to him. His father never was afraid of anyt’ing.’ You see his father was her son, and he was killed fighting in some wild part, I think by Assam.”
“I see. So poor little John has no father or mother?” She spoke in pity, regarding the Eurasian nurse with interested attention. She could picture the hard old grandmother’s unsympathy with any form of fear. Had she not observed her walking in the gardens—a forbidding figure, with hooked nose, hawk’s eyes, her personality breathing of intolerance. He was to be pitied, this delicate, highly strung little child, committed by Fate to the old woman’s charge. Mrs. Colebrook divined the nurse’s antagonism to the tyranny of her mistress by the woman’s appreciation of this opportunity to voice her grievance. It was obvious that devotion to the child she had tended from his untimely birth was all that induced the half-caste woman to remain in Mrs. Fleming’s service. Probably kindred, country, inclination called her eastward, yet love for the child held her captive in uncongenial surroundings, companionship, servitude.
“It will be always the same,” Nanny went on, still in a husky whisper with jerky intonation. “Always! See, ma’am he has a mark.”
With gentle caution she unbuttoned the left sleeve of the child’s blouse and bared the little thin arm to the elbow. On the tender flesh was a curious blemish, that with a little self-persuasion might have been likened to the imprint, in miniature, of a snake—the diamond-shaped head, the undulating body, the tapering tail.
Mrs. Colebrook gazed at the mark in mingled doubt and fascination. Surely the thing was only an unusual form of mole, an odd coincidence—not the impress of the mother’s terror that had forced the babe into the world before his due time? She had an idea that science did not recognize the possibility of such outward signs of pre-natal impressions.
“What does his grandmother say to that?” she inquired.
“Oh, she laugh and say it is nothing—just a mole—nothing to do with a snake. But, all the same, I know. It is a snake-mark—what else? The fear is marked on his mind too, and it will be there always.”
The little boy, John Fleming, who had screamed at his first party, grew up. From his early schooldays he was told continually that his brains were his only asset for the future, which was true. The income of his grandmother, who educated him without stint, was derived from a pension and an annuity. Nothing had he inherited from his ill-fated parents in the way of material possessions. India, he was also told, must naturally be his ultimate goal. His claim to an Indian cadetship was clear. But there his father’s name would help him, provided he proved himself as good a man. In India his mother’s people, too, had not yet been forgotten.
But, perversely, he admitted a reluctance to enter the army. How tiresome of him, said his grandmother and her friends, when he was good at games and so clever, too! Well, what his was own idea—the Civil Service, the police, the public works—what? Desperately, realizing his position, he elected to try for the Civil Service, because, he told his grandmother, it was the best paid profession in India. Certainly a flawless and definite reason.
But to Mrs. Colebrook, whose motherly friendship had been his since the memorable day of the Christmas party, so many years ago, he revealed the true motive of his choice.
“I hate the very thought of India,” he told her in difficult, shamefaced confidence, “but I quite realize the sense of granny’s arguments, and I couldn’t go against her wishes. She has done so much for me—sent me to Oxford at a real sacrifice to herself. She gave up her carriage to be able to do it and she insured her life long ago, so that if anything should happen to her before I am launched I should have just enough to carry me on to get through my exams. I chose to try for the Civil Service, because, if I work awfully hard, I might pass high enough for the English Civil instead of the Indian. Do you see?”
It was the time of the winter vacation, and John Fleming had been dining with Mrs. Colebrook, who still lived in the South Kensington house with the gardens at the back wherein her son, now soldier, and her daughter, lately married, had played as children with John. Since then, as John passed from dame school to preparatory tuition, to Marlborough and to Oxford, he had always been welcome in Mrs. Colebrook’s house during holidays spent in London. Always had he shown her an affectionate regard that had never lessened with the years.
The two now sat by the fire in the drawing-room, a curiously contrasted couple—she with white hair and widow’s cap, he a tall, fair youth with anxious blue eyes, sensitive mouth, and long slender hands.
“But why do you so hate the idea of India, John?” she asked.
He moved restlessly, then rose and stood by the mantelpiece, looking down at her, troubled, hesitating.
“That’s the worst of it,” he said. “I can’t quite explain. It sounds so silly. But—but—I think it’s something to do with snakes.”
He laughed self-consciously, turned his back to her, and played with a china ornament by the clock.
Her thoughts flew back over the years, and in her mind she saw a little boy screaming on the dining-room floor in terror because a paper snake had jumped out of a cracker. Often since had she remembered the curious mark on the child’s arm, and the fond Eurasian “Nanny”, who, soon after the memorable Christmas party, had returned to India. Sometimes she had wondered if the boy himself knew the circumstances of his mother’s tragic end; wondered, too, if the mark still remained on his arm, and, if so, how he regarded it.
Now she said “Snakes?” with sympathetic curiosity, and he turned again towards her.
“Yes. I’ve always had such an unbearable horror of them. I can’t help it.”
“Well, they are certainly very unpleasant, as well as dangerous creatures. I can’t imagine any normal person liking them.”
“But this is more than a normal dislike, Mrs. Colebrook. I can’t even think of them without shivering. And when I have nightmare, it’s always a snake!” A shrinking shudder ran the length of his young form. “Of course the fellows at school found it out, and I can’t describe to you what I’ve endured. At Oxford there’s peace from that kind of torment—I don’t find snakes in my bed or suffer perpetual practical jokes connected with them. But last summer, playing golf, I nearly stepped on a grass snake, and I was literally sick with fright. The idea of going to a country where I may often see them, and see the very worst kind, too, nearly drives me mad; and I can hardly bring that forward as a reason for refusing to go to India! I should be ashamed to tell anybody but you. I’ve been ashamed even to tell you till now! And who would take it seriously if I did speak of it to anyone else?”
“But, John, many people pass the best part of their lives in India and often never even see a snake. I think I only saw two the whole time I was out there. They aren’t all over the place, you know, as people imagine!”
“I know. But there they are. And I should always be looking and thinking. I’m sure I should never be able to eat or sleep for the terror that I might come across one. It’s not fancy,” he added earnestly, “it’s like a disease—like the horror some people have of cats, only ten thousand times worse. It seems to be in my very being—and—” Suddenly he undid the link in his shirt cuff, and bared his forearm. “Look at that! What does it mean?”
Mrs. Colebrook leaned forward. On the boy’s white flesh, just below the bend of the elbow, was the mark she had seen so many years before, a brown mark, perhaps three inches long, recalling unmistakably the likeness of a snake.
Evidently John was ignorant of the cause of his own premature birth and his mother’s death. To tell him would increase rather than relieve his weakness, however uncertain might be the evidence concerning the true origin of such marks.
“Why should you imagine it necessarily means anything?” she murmured reassuringly. “It’s only a mole. Lots of people have them. It’s just an accident that yours should be that shape. You must fight against this unfortunate feeling, dear boy, or it may hamper your whole career.”
“I do fight against it,” he said quietly, and drew down his sleeve. “Nobody could ever realize how I fight against it.”
“Well, let us hope you will pass high enough to get into the English Civil,” she soothed, and then it will be all right, won’t it?” She gave him a comforting smile.
John Fleming did pass high enough for the English Civil. But all the same, he chose to go to India, because in the meantime he fell in love; and his desire to marry the girl he loved, the penniless daughter of a major retired from the army on account of age, forced into abeyance the secret terror of his existence. In India he could marry within a reasonable period, and give his wife a home with comparative comforts, and provision for the future; whereas in England it must be years before they could afford matrimony, and then, without interest or private means, how discouraging the prospects.
The death of his grandmother just then gave him money that he needed for his outfit and initial expenses on joining the service. He was sent to a little station far up country, miles from a railway, where he shared a thatched bungalow of six rooms with the Police Officer and the Engineer for roads and buildings. In a year’s time Amy was to come out to him, and he would be able to take the little house standing empty in the next compound, that, with judicious improvement, could be made quite habitable. He regarded the rather forlorn looking little building with affectionate sentiment whenever he passed it.
Soon he began to think Mrs. Colebrook was right—that snakes were the exception and not the rule in India. For the first six months he saw no trace of any snake, nor even heard the reptile mentioned, and he almost ceased to look fearfully under his furniture, on the bed and chairs, behind the doors, and all about the floor. The thought of Amy filled his heart to the exclusion of fear, and even the sinister mark on his arm seemed to grow fainter, less insistent, to be “only a mole,” as Mrs. Colebrook had said.
Then one midday when the hot weather had begun, and they were sitting at breakfast, a thin plaintive piping arose outside the dining-room veranda, a fascinating little minor sound, and it set all Fleming’s nerves vibrating.
“What’s that?” he looked up from the chicken cutlet on his plate and listened.
The Police Officer glanced out of the long, open door. “Only a snake charmer,” he said carelessly, and added to the servant behind his chair: “Tell him to go away and take his snakes with him.”
The man went out, and the piping ceased. The Police Officer and the Engineer began to talk about snake charmers, but Fleming sat silent, neither eating nor speaking.
“Clever humbugs,” they said. “They’ll pretend to draw a snake from any spot you like to indicate, but of course it’s hidden in their loin cloths, or in their hair, or even in their mouths....” Then they agreed that the wonderful part of the profession was the catching of the snakes in the first instance, which must entail the swiftness of the mongoose. Once caught, the reptiles could soon be rendered harmless by the drawing of their fangs, or by squeezing out the poison, or by sewing up the lips. The two men reminded each other of a servant they had engaged last year who claimed to be the son of a snake charmer, and of how curious it was that they were perpetually worried with snakes about the place until they got rid of him.
“Why, we saw eleven snakes either in or just outside the bungalow in the course of a fortnight,” the Engineer said, turning to Fleming, “which was a bit too thick. It’s an old bungalow certainly, and I daresay there are plenty of snakes in the roof, on the other side of the ceiling cloths! But even then, one doesn’t bargain for a plague of them.”
Fleming got up. “I think I felt the sun rather this morning,” he said jerkily. “I can’t eat any more breakfast. I’ll go and lie down.”
The others offered remedies and gave advice, but the young civilian barely answered, and disappeared through his bedroom door.
“If he feels the sun now what will he do later on?” was the comment on Fleming’s indisposition. “The fellows they send out nowadays seem to have no stamina—a weak, overworked lot,” etc., etc.
The two men, superior in the consciousness of their own acclimatization, could not have known that it was their conversation, not the sun, that had caused their companion to turn sick and faint, so that he fled from their presence to throw himself on his bed quivering in nerve and limb. Otherwise, a few nights later, when they were all sitting outside, smoking, on the round platform of masonry that is to be found in most old Indian compounds, they would not, being excellent fellows, have talked about snakes so persistently. As it was, they told terrible tales of the dread king cobra, the fiercest and most deadly of the serpent kind, that is said to attack without provocation, to grow to a length of thirteen feet—that will drive all other living creatures from the dense jungles it inhabits, and is forced, in consequence to devour most of its own eggs for food. They spoke of the rare little dust snake, whose bite is swifter, more instantaneous death even than that of the karait; and the policeman quoted the horrid verse that begins:
“And death is in the garden awaiting till we pass,
For the karait is in the drain-pipe, the cobra in the grass.”
The man, deeply interested in native lore, went on to recall proverbs such as “The snake-bite goes in like a needle, but comes out like a plough- share.” And he declared he himself had beheld the rare and extraordinary spectacle of two snakes, cobras, twined together, reared upright, swaying in weird enchantment. His father, he said, used to tell of spots in remote quarters of India where, when the floods were out, black cobras could be seen coiled together in multitudes upon the trees and bushes in horrible festoons and ropes, torpid, slow stirring....
Fleming shivered audibly. He feared his self-control would leave him. A little more of such talk and he might leap, yelling, from his chair and make a fool of himself. The shiver turned the attention of the other men. They hoped he was not going to have fever? Otherwise surely he couldn’t be feeling cold in this infernal heat? It must be well over a hundred even out here. Fleming said he did feel rather cheap and would go to bed. He stood up unsteadily.
“Wait a second,” said the Engineer, the bhisti has been watering the ground round the house to cool it. You’d better call for another lantern, or take this one and send it back.”
He meant that the wet ground might possibly have attracted a snake, so that it was safer to walk across to the house with a light. Fleming understood and winced. He called to a man squatting in the veranda to bring another lantern to him. Once in his room he turned up the lamps hanging on the wall, then, lantern in hand, he searched every corner, looked under every piece of furniture, raked beneath the cupboards with a stick, and passed the stick along the tops of the doors, holding it at the very end, standing well away, ready to spring aside.
When a lizard ran down the wall and dropped on to the matting with a clammy thud, though he saw what it was, he yet started and cried out involuntarily. The sound of his own voice shamed him into partial self-control. Trembling, with every nerve and muscle racked, he ceased the frenzied search, and stood still, gripping both stick and lantern. He found he was dripping with perspiration. The atmosphere felt thick and heavy, mosquitoes were shrilling all about the room, disturbed by his investigations, otherwise the silence seemed leaden. Exhausted, he had undressed and thrown himself on the bed before he realized that the punkah was not working. Then he shouted “Punkah!” two or three times, and heard the scraping of an empty packing case on the veranda floor—the punkah coolie’s seat—heard a few hoarse exclamations, and the white frill with the red border began to flap to and fro above his head. The relief of the moving air was definite, it calmed his nerves and soothed his tired body. Yet, in spite of the waving punkah and the open doors the heat seemed unendurable, the very sheets felt warm, the pillow like a poultice. He tossed from side to side in a semi-doze. Then the punkah stopped and the rope hung slack. Fleming woke and found himself staring up at the rope in the dim light. It was like a great snake swinging in mid-air. Loudly he shouted to the coolie to pull, pull, pull, and with a jerk and a flap the frill waved to and fro once more with renewed energy.
Again John Fleming dozed, but he dreamed that he was still searching his room that he might feel satisfied there was no snake, large or small, concealed within it. Round and round he groped, peering, tapping.... Then in his dreams he got into bed, only to remember with dismay that he had omitted to pass the stick along the top of the punkah. A little karait, even a cobra, might so easily drop from the ceiling cloth and find refuge along the bar or amid the thick folds of the frill. He must get up, must feel sure. But nightmare-wise, he could not move, he lay paralysed, and then distinct against the white material of the punkah-frill he noticed a dark streak that began to descend, lower, lower, till it hung directly above him, swaying, writhing, gradually falling.
With a yell he awoke as something dropped on his chest. Frenzied, he leapt from the bed, flinging off the coiling, moving thing, and ran blindly, madly out of his bedroom door, through the warm veranda into the dark, stifling night. The border of broken bricks around the house cut his feet, but he felt no pain. Insane with fear he ran, stumbling, gasping, on and on, into a patch of coarse, dry grass. Then under his foot wriggled the hard, scaly body of a cobra seeking rats for food in the darkness, and in an instant it had wound itself up the man’s bare leg and struck its fangs into the flesh just above the knee.
Afterwards the Police Officer and the “Engineer blamed themselves for “talking snakes” in that way to a nervous fellow lately out from home like poor young Fleming. But, they protested, how were they to know that the punkah rope was going to break and fall on his chest, and that, waking in a horrible funk, he would rush into the compound with bare feet and tread on a cobra in the grass? That was what had happened. He told them, when they ran out and found him, that a snake had fallen from the punkah on to his chest, and it turned out to be only the broken rope! What wicked luck, poor chap! He must have been a frightfully nervous beggar overworked, probably, getting into the Civil Service.
Fleming was buried next day, according to the obligation of the climate, and nobody noticed the odd little blemish on his arm except his Hindu bearer, who salaamed to it when unobserved. But Mrs. Colebrook, when she heard of poor John’s death from snake-bite, thought of the fatal impress and of the day when John, as a little child, had screamed on the floor at sight of a paper snake; and while she grieved sorely, she yet knew that she was not surprised.
In a dirty, dismal little dwelling mid a sordid quarter of London, lived Mrs. Perks, who was middle-aged, of enormous proportions and oily appearance, and who said she was a widow. She let the upper rooms of her house, but only to tenants requiring bed without board and the minimum of attention. By this means she paid her rent irregularly, and was able to keep a servant who she never paid at all, because, according to Mrs. Perks, the girl being “an orphan picked out of the gutter” was only too thankful for a roof over her head, food to eat, and the shreds of her mistress’ old clothes.
Martha, the little servant, was supposed to do the rooms of the lodgers, cook meals for Mrs. Perks, and carry them to the frowzy front room wherein Mrs. Perks dozed, ate, and consumed gin—sometimes with water, more often without; or if Mrs. Perks elected to remain in bed the tray was taken to the back room which was choked by an old four-poster and piles of rubbish, cardboard boxes, broken furniture, odds and ends of an uninviting description. The girl was also responsible for the marketing, and was expected to bring home bargains at night from the naphtha-lighted barrows in an adjoining street. Mrs. Perks was seldom satisfied with the bargains, and always declared that Martha was “a born idiot with no ’ead.”
It was true that Martha’s intellect, as well as her body, was starved and undeveloped. She had a pinched little oval face with large blue eyes, pathetic and soft, and a mop of flaxen curly hair, and though in fact she was eighteen years old, she looked sixteen at the most. It had never crossed her limited consciousness to try and “better herself,” so her dreary, over-driven life had dragged on without love or enjoyment, or even the solace of pleasant memories, until the night when a black kitten followed her home, craving pity and protection. Martha was returning from a marketing expedition in the wind and rain. She carried a bottle of “Old Tom,” some onions, two bloaters, and a few trimmings of meat, when she found herself followed persistently by a tiny black kitten that trotted at her heels, mewing piteously. Its fluffy fur was wet and mud-stained, its yellow eyes besought her charity; but as she neared the house she tried to drive it away because Mrs. Perks “couldn’t abide cats,” they gave her the “creeps”—and she never permitted one even to approach her presence. There was no area gate, and Martha was not entrusted with a latch-key, so if Mrs. Perks should open the door to behold a kitten on the doorstep she would probably kick it into the road and box the ears of her maid-servant. The small creature mewed, and ran, and begged so plainly for food and shelter that Martha’s tender heart urged her to take the risk. It was quite likely that Mrs. Perks would not be sober, in which case the kitten might be smuggled down into the kitchen, at least for the night.
When Martha picked it up before knocking at the door, it purred so loudly that she feared the noise might be heard from within, but by good luck one of the lodgers came out at the moment, and Martha was able to slip inside and run down the rotten staircase to the basement, the kitten concealed beneath the bloaters and onions. She laid her purchases on the grimy table, while the waif rubbed its head against her arm and sniffed with rapture at the fish. A small quantity of yesterday’s milk remained in a cracked jug, and this Martha warmed carefully with hot water, testing the temperature with her finger, and the famished kitten lapped it down to the last drop and greedily licked the saucer.
But the situation was dangerous. At any moment Mrs. Perks might descend to demand her own supper, or an explanation as to why Martha had been so long absent, or an account of how the money had been expended. If the kitten were discovered tragedy must follow. Just as Martha had put the meat and onions into a saucepan, a heavy step sounded on the staircase together with stertorous breathing. The girl looked about her in desperation. The dresser drawer was open, half filled with fragments of rag and paper. She popped the kitten into the drawer, and to her relief it nestled down among the rubbish. That was safe enough. Mrs. Perks, whose eyes were bleary and dim, would not be likely to espy a black kitten in the dresser drawer.
Presently the gas-blackened little kitchen seemed filled by a large unwieldy woman who had a face like a greasy plate, round and flat, and a figure that would have compared unfavourably with a barrel. She held a letter in her hand, a hand that at first sight recalled a boxing-glove.
“’Ere’s a nice job,” she wheezed, “my brother comin’ ’ome from Buffalo in Ameriky, and says ’e’ll look me up. Sich affection I never knowed. Wonder wot he thinks he’ll git out of me?”
She stared round the kitchen. Martha’s eyes turned to the dresser drawer with guilty fear, and her heart fluttered.
“Well,” continued Mrs. Perks, and sank on to a wooden chair that rocked beneath her weight. “Tom Sim can’t say as ever I wanted anythink off ’im. I might work my fingers to the bone, but would he ever raise his little toe to ’elp me? Never! Not though I’m ’is only blood relation in the world. ‘You’re a slut and a fool, Angelina,’ ’e used to say, ‘and I ain’t going to bother about yer.’ Then when ’e’d made a bit of money off ’e goes to Ameriky. I writes and writes, but hanswer?—not ’e. And now ’e’s comin’ back for a breath of the old country—I don’t doubt smellin’ of tin; and says e’ll look me hup.” She mimicked what she imagined to be the voice of a toff.” Let ’im come, let ’im see as I’m in comfortable circumstances too, and can give ’im as good a meal and as sound a glass of sperrits as ever ’e could give me!”
She thumped on the table and awoke the kitten, which stirred in the drawer, and to Martha’s terror stretched one little black paw out over the edge.
“There’s a mouse scrabblin’,” said Mrs. Perks, though that’s better nor cats.”
Mercifully the kitten subsided, and Mrs. Perks continued to talk about her only blood relation, a term that to Martha held a fascinating, gory flavour. The name of the place, too, that the blood relation was coming from sounded attractive. Martha thought she had heard it before in connection with some animal. Buffalo—there was a pleasing cadence about the combination of the syllables. She repeated them to herself while Mrs. Perks talked on.
“’E shall come ’ere, all the way from them outlandish parts, and see me livin’ like a lydy, with a good ’ouse and a servant, and lashions to eat and drink. And mind you, Martha, you soppy little idiot,” she added with sudden ferocity, take care the place looks as it should do, and cook a supper as’ll flabbergast ’is lordship. We’ll have pig’s fry, and tripe and onions, and gin by the ’ogshead. I don’t care what it costs my pocket; no, not if I ’as to go to the work’ouse afterwards!”
She spread the letter on the table and began to read it aloud with loose, shaking lips, peering closely at the pages with eyes that were half buried in unwholesome flesh.
“On the twentieth of January ’e’ll be in London. What a Duke!” For a moment Mrs. Perks pondered— “Why, that’ll be a Thursday, won’t it?”
Martha said “Yes,” at random.
Mrs. Perks read on— “And if you don’t ’ear nothing to the contrary in the meantime, will call not later than 8 o’clock on the twenty-fourth evening.” Mrs. Perks counted on the table with her fingers— “That’ll be the Monday following. Well, we’ll be ready. I’ll ’eap coals of good livin’ on the ’ead of my dear brother just to make plain to ’im that Angelina ain’t such a slut and a fool as he thought she were!” She rose. “Now you be quick and send up my supper this instant minute, or I’ll know the reason why.”
Martha waited, breathless, till her mistress had stumbled up the creaking staircase. Then she ran to the dresser drawer to gaze fondly at the little ball of black fur curled up among the odds and ends.
“You’re a pet,” she murmured, and caressed the soft little body. “And I’ll call yer Buffalo, my ducky, because it’s such a pretty name.”
“Buffalo” sat up, and while Mrs. Perks’s supper was being cooked he washed his face carefully. Then feeling rested and warmed and refreshed he sprang to the floor, hunted and captured imaginary mice, and ran about the kitchen with a waving plume of a tail, making funny little noises of pleasure and excitement. He wanted to follow Martha upstairs with Mrs. Perks’s supper. She shoo’ed him back into the kitchen and shut the door, and when she returned he was actually sitting in the dresser drawer awaiting her. It became, so to speak, his kennel, and Martha felt that there he was comparatively secure from the observation of Mrs. Perks.
At night he slept cuddled into the crook of Martha’s arm, purring loudly when his slumbers were not too sound, and at times kneading her with his soft paws that nevertheless contained claws like little needles. Almost miraculously his existence remained a secret from Mrs. Perks. The dresser was on the dark side of the kitchen, and he was generally asleep in the drawer when she descended to the basement, which was not often, for she disliked climbing the stairs. When Martha heard her coming, and Buffalo was not in his hiding-place, she would catch him and shut him into the airless den leading from the kitchen that was called her bedroom.
Her affection for the kitten soon grew to be a passion. All the stifled love in her gentle nature poured itself out on the little creature. She shared with him her meagre meals, and lavished caresses on him which more often than not he returned with playful bites and kicks and scratches. But he loved her dearly, and would gaze at her with yellow eyes that shone with devotion, would run up her back and sit on her shoulder and rub his head against her cheek in an ecstasy of fondness.
Martha’s life was now comparatively happy. She had companionship and love, and, in addition, the fearful excitement of concealing her pet. Sometimes he caused her much trouble and anxiety; he would go to sleep in unexpected places, when she would search for him in frenzied alarm, or he would apparently go crazy and fly all over the kitchen and even up the stairs, dancing, spitting defiance when she pursued him. Every day he improved in appearance. His coat became glossy and thick, his tail like a marabou feather, his whiskers strong and wiry. Never, thought the infatuated Martha, did any cat possess such soft ears, such velvet paws, such ivory teeth and red tongue; not to speak of his mysterious yellow eyes that gleamed like jewels in his round black face! One night she had the luck to pick up a shilling in the gutter, and with it she purchased some yards of narrow red ribbon that he might always have a fresh bow on his neck. By the time the wonderful Monday came when Mrs. Perks’s brother was expected to supper, Martha felt as if Buffalo had always been a part of her existence. She did not dare to imagine what her life would be without him.
During the whole of that important day Martha was kept busy with preparations for the feast. The girl was genuinely interested, and she worked and scoured and dusted with the inadequate materials at her disposal, while Mrs. Perks was chiefly engaged in renovating her best dress with scraps of bead trimming and cheap lace, sustaining herself with her favourite tonic, and occasionally screaming abuse and directions down the kitchen stairs. Martha felt a vague concern over the heavy expenditure Mrs. Perks deemed was necessary to the occasion. Actually she had bought a butcher-blue print dress for Martha, ready-made, for three shillings and eleven pence, that the girl might be tidy to open the door and bring up the supper. This, in addition to all the food and drink which was “of the best,” and, as it happened, all the lodging rooms were empty just now, so that no money was coming in! Certainly Martha was saved much extra work when the rooms upstairs were locked and untenanted, but at this exciting juncture she thought more of the loss to Mrs. Perks than of her own ease or convenience.
Towards evening Mrs. Perks became fidgety about the arrangements and rather incoherent in her orders. She descended heavily to the kitchen to see that the tripe and the pig’s fry were being properly prepared. Buffalo, to his astonished indignation, was imprisoned in the servant’s bedroom, and therefore Martha was free to give her undivided attention to all details. Mrs. Perks allowed herself to feel reassured that all was in excellent train for the banquet and returned to the front room on the entrance floor, where, with some effort, she laid the cloth on the table and set out a few bits of dull electro-plate which she endeavoured to polish with her skirt. When all was ready Martha washed her face and hands at the sink, combed her yellow curls, and put on the blue dress with a feeling of pride and pleasure. Then she fed the kitten, who was restless and perverse, giving him an extra allowance of food to quiet him, and put him into the dresser drawer, where he sat upright, regarding her with wide-awake interest.
Presently loud calls rang from the head of the stairs. What could have happened? Martha rushed up and found Mrs. Perks purple and breathless.
“My goodness, girl, here’s the time close upon eight and I’ve only just this second called to mind as there’s no baccy in the ’ouse. What’ll my brother think, and ’im accustomed to the best of hevery-thing! Here, take this money and run out and buy a tin of the best Bird’s Eye round the corner, and look sharp or ’e’ll be ’ere, and I’ll ’ave to open the door to ’im meself!”
Martha became as much agitated at such a dire prospect as Mrs. Perks herself.
“There’s four minutes yet, missis,” she said encouragingly. “I’ll be back in a jiffy—no call to put on me ’at. I’ll cut and run. Let me ’ave the key it’ll save time.”
Mrs. Perks yielded the door key, and Martha rushed out to the tobacconist’s shop “round the corner.” Another customer was being served, a man maddeningly deliberate over his selection. Martha’s pulses throbbed. She felt if only the tobacconist could know how precious was her time, surely he would leave his first customer and attend to her!
She fidgeted, tapped on the counter, tried to catch his eye. But the big round clock on the wall behind him recorded six, seven, eight valuable minutes already wasted! Sick with impatience, she groaned audibly. Mrs. Perks’s brother from America would arrive, there would be no servant to answer the door—Mrs. Perks would feel herself disgraced, the whole evening would be ruined; in another moment she must scream.
The exasperating customer moved to one side, feeling in his pockets. Martha dashed forward, stammered out her errand, and after a little further dreadful delay fled back to the house, her heart thumping wildly, a singing in her ears. As she fumbled at the door with the latch-key she listened, breathless, for the sound of voices within; but all was quiet, and she entered the little passage, and looked into the front room, realizing with a great relief that the guest had not yet arrived. Mrs. Perks was not there either, and as Martha turned again into the passage she heard the heavy, stumbling footsteps of her mistress climbing the kitchen stairs. Mrs. Perks appeared, steadying herself by one puffy hand pressed against the wall. She began to scold Martha thickly and unjustly for having been so long away, for having neglected the pig’s fry, for having neglected the fire, and so on. Then admonished her with evil epithets to get down into the kitchen without one moment’s delay and be ready to run up and answer the door directly a knock was heard.
Martha, dizzy from her recent haste and agitation, slipped down into the hot kitchen, to find that Mrs. Perks had pulled out the dampers and emptied the coal box into the range which, originally intended for a much larger house, now roared like a furnace. It would be lucky, thought Martha, if the chimbley didn’t take on fire, seeing as it was never swep’, nor the flues looked to. She rescued the scorching pig’s fry and the over-boiling tripe. Then, suddenly, with a horrible, nauseating heave of her heart she remembered Buffalo, remembered she had left him sitting up alert in the dresser drawer, remembered that Mrs. Perks had been down into the kitchen. She dashed at the dresser drawer. It contained only the usual waste paper and scraps of rag and rubbish no little black kitten. She ran into the bedroom. Silence. She scratched like a mouse, made little enticing noises, called, “Buff—Buff—Buffalo”; no response. A dreadful conviction frenzied her brain. Mrs. Perks had found the kitten and had killed him, strangled him, thrown his corpse into the dustbin. She hastened with a lighted candle into the area and peered into the receptacle, turned over the unsavoury contents, found nothing but the usual herring bones and greasy paper and unspeakable refuse. Back again into the kitchen, that now itself was like a veritable oven, so fiercely roared the fire, and distraught with a sickening suspicion, she jerked open the front of the range, blistering her hand, and raked and raked till live coals fell inside the fender, and the heat scorched her face.... She discovered no proof, but now it was beyond her power to reason—Mrs. Perks had killed the little cat, had put his dead body into the fire—that was why she had emptied the coal box and pulled out the dampers. Rage and despair rendered the girl reckless. She darted up the stairs and burst into the front room where Mrs. Perks sat awaiting her truant guest, a half empty tumbler before her.
“’E ain’t come,” began Mrs. Perks in a tone of doleful disappointment, and it’s my belief as ’e ain’t coming. Twas all a bit of swank—”
She was violently interrupted.
“You done it,” screamed Martha, the little servant girl, the slave, “you killed my kitten. You devil, you beast! The only thing as I ever loved in my life, the only thing alive that ever gived me love. And I fed him and minded him, and hid him from you, and you never seed or knowed all this time and now you’ve done for him. Say—say this minute, what you done to my little cat—tell me or I’ll—I’ll—”
The words choked her; also the genuine amazement on Mrs. Perks’s flabby face stilled her stuttering tongue.
“Cat? Killed? I ain’t seen no cat nor kitten, else sure enough I’d ’ave killed it! Watcher talking and screechin’ about? ’Ave yer gone stark starin’ mad? And what d’yer mean”—her wrath rising—“calling me names, you impudent young hussy, you—” She emptied the glass, and the pair stared at one another in the light of the single fishtail of gas that flared above their heads—Martha and the coarse, sodden woman, whose life had perhaps been as drear in its own way as that of her wretched little servant who stood by the table with her blue eyes blazing in her thin face, her fair hair lying in tumbled curls on her forehead, realizing dimly that after all Mrs. Perks had had no hand in Buffalo’s disappearance.
Then perhaps he had only run out into the street? though how he could have done so she did not pause to consider. She just shot into the narrow passage and opened the front door, calling the kitten with hope in her heart and voice. She even ran along the street and round the corner as far as the brightly illuminated window of the tobacconist’s shop. But though a black cat sprang out from a doorway, mewing interrogatively, it was not Buffalo.
The night air cooled Martha’s heated face and cleared her distracted brain. Though Buffalo was lost there was no reason now to feel certain he was dead. If he had strayed, he would probably come back. Cats were so clever at finding their way or she might eventually discover him curled up fast asleep in some unsuspected hiding-place. He was that venturesome now he was so well and strong.... But she had given away the secret to Mrs. Perks, and what would occur in consequence she did not dare speculate.
Unwillingly she returned to the house. The door was half open, just as she had left it in her hurry. She wondered Mrs. Perks had not shut her out. Then a clock somewhere near struck nine, and the fact that Mrs. Perks’s blood relation had not kept his promise penetrated her understanding; and amid her own distress and anxiety for her pet she felt sorry for Mrs. Perks, who had been living for the great visit, who had spent much money she could not afford, who was still sitting at the table, all her expectant pleasure damped and spoilt—all the trouble and preparation wasted.
She shut the door softly and looked with caution into the front room. Mrs. Perks was crying helplessly, her head on the table, her arms stretched out among the plates and glasses. She raised a blurred piteous countenance as Martha, hesitating, came into the room.
“’E ain’t come,” she wailed, her eyes streaming, her mouth open, “and ’e ain’t coming. ’E’s forgot ’is sister, poor Angelina. Gawd’s forgot me too!”
Martha only trusted that Mrs. Perks for her part had forgotten about the cat—that the subject might never return to her fuddled mind.
“You come to bed, missis,” she suggested persuasively.
For the moment her sympathy with Mrs. Perks overpowered her own grief. Also her sensitive soul shrank in self-blame for having unjustly accused the missis of murdering the kitten, for having abused and gone on at her just when she was feeling that upset with disappointment.
The girl’s gentle voice and touch affected Mrs. Perks to further collapse. She clasped Martha about the neck, and laid her big wet face on the bony little shoulder, with the result that Martha kept her balance with difficulty, fearing every moment that she and her weeping mistress would roll to the floor together.
“You come to bed, missis,” she repeated; “you’ll be a lot better for a good sleep. You take my word for it.”
Staggering, sobbing, groaning, Mrs. Perks rose from her chair still clinging to Martha, who guided her into the narrow passage that, being so narrow, gave convenient support from the other side. After a laborious progress they arrived at the bedroom door, and then suddenly Mrs. Perks’s humour changed. She pushed Martha away from her, and stood holding the handle of the door, quarrelsome, drunkenly vindictive.
“You and your blooming cat!” she shouted. “Wait till I catch you with cats in my kitchen. Git out of my sight—or I’ll break your dirty little ’ead—” And then followed such horrible abuse, such menacing threats, that Martha fled downstairs, her hands to her ears.
Trembling, she listened from the basement and heard Mrs. Perks’s bedroom door shut with a bang, heard heavy movements, and then a merciful silence. Evidently Mrs. Perks had managed to get into bed unaided. Mechanically Martha tidied her kitchen and put away the untouched feast. Not a mouthful could she swallow herself, but she cut up a few scraps and put them in a saucer on the floor in the despairing hope that Buffalo might emerge from some hiding-place in the night and find it ready for him. She crept upstairs and turned off the gas in the sitting-room; then before bolting the entrance door she looked out again into the street and called the kitten.
It was very cold, and a fog hung in the dismal little street. A few people shambled by, drearily. A sound of quarrelling arose further down, near the public-house. Martha’s limbs and head ached. Dully she knew she was worn out, body and spirit, that she must have rest, or, in her own vocabulary, “go silly.” She closed and bolted the door, then groped her way down into the fœtid atmosphere of the kitchen where the fire still smouldered with hot, sinister persistence. Almost delirious with fatigue and misery she threw herself on her bed, unfit even to take off her new blue dress, and sank into stupor rather than sleep.
* * * *
“Martha! Martha!” She heard sharp, agonized cries, a voice shrill with fear that came from the top of the kitchen stairs, yet she felt powerless, inanimate. Again the cry pierced her consciousness, and she became aware of a stifling smell of smoke and burning, and a noise like the rumbling of a heavy dray. In a panic the girl sprang from her bed and stumbled into the kitchen, groping her way in a sort of red darkness to the staircase. She trod on something in the doorway and there came a loud, sharp mew. She tried to call “Buffalo” but smoke filled her mouth, and she felt the kitten spring upon her, clinging and scrambling till he was safe under her arm.
Afterwards she could never clearly recall how she got up the stairs, struggling through the suffocating smoke, terrified by the crackling sound all about her. But she always remembered how Buffalo stuck his claws into her arm and how it hurt, and how all the time she could hear Mrs. Perks beating with her hands on the entrance door and screaming—screaming horribly.
Then somehow she and Mrs. Perks and the kitten were out in the bitter cold of the winter night, and Mrs. Perks, in her night-gown, slipped on the doorstep and fell, still screaming. Everywhere a crowd of people ran and shouted, and echoed the word “Fire.” Then a fire-engine dashed up, all bells and glitter and heavy rattle, scattering the crowd.
As in a dream, by the glare of the burning house, Martha saw the quick movements of the men, their set faces beneath their polished helmets, also she saw that Mrs. Perks had rolled across the pavement into the gutter and was lying motionless, no longer screaming. Next she noticed that she seemed to be surrounded by policemen, and presently she found herself walking with one of them behind the brown-hooded truck she had often seen going along the streets, after an accident, and she understood that Mrs. Perks was concealed under the hood this time, and they were all going to the hospital.
Buffalo was still under her arm—how glad she felt of that—and as she tried to keep up with the policeman she hoped Mrs. Perks was not very bad, and thought with concern how dreadful it would be if all Mrs. Perks’s possessions were destroyed by the fire—the lovely bits of “electric-plate,” the furniture upstairs and down, and all that good food which nobody hadn’t even so much as tasted. Now and then she wondered if after all, she was only dreaming, if she would soon wake up and find she had overslept herself, a crime unforgivable in a servant according to Mrs. Perks; and she thought of an occasion when she had got up in the middle of the night and done the kitchen grate, thinking it was long past six o’clock in the morning. Her limbs felt leaden, her brain vacant, by the time the little procession stopped in front of a great building; and as she stood waiting while Mrs. Perks was carried up the steps, everything grew dark.
The winter sun was shining on her face when she opened her eyes again. It came through a high window that had no curtains, and the light was reflected everywhere—everything shone, even the white cap and blue dress of the nurse who came to her side, and it seemed to Martha that the nurse’s eyes shone too—with kindness.
“Where’s Buffalo?” said Martha; and she half rose from the chair in which, propped with pillows, she had slept heavily for hours.
The nurse looked puzzled. “Is it your mother?” She had a good-natured, Irish voice. “You’ll be sent for to see her when it’s time. And your little cat’s safe in a basket, sleeping like yourself. You shall have him when you go out of this.”
Martha wondered why the nurse thought Mrs. Perks was her mother, but she felt too dazed to inquire. She lay back in restful apathy, not attempting to reason or to ask questions till some hot soup and bread sent the blood to her brain, and she inquired what was wrong with Mrs. Perks, who, she explained, was her mistress, not her mother.
“I couldn’t say what’s wrong,” was the nurse’s cautious reply. ”But you’ll be let know when you see her.”
Then, strengthened and refreshed, Martha was allowed to wash her grimy hands and face, and brush her fluffy fair hair, and soon afterwards she was summoned to the ward where Mrs. Perks lay in a bed that looked too narrow for her bulky figure. Her large face was nearly as white as the pillow, and seemed to have collapsed like a paper bag that has been inflated and allowed to subside without bursting. She stared at Martha with eyes that were sunk deep in her head, and Martha felt tongue-tied, awkward, and frightened. She could hardly believe it was really Mrs. Perks who lay there looking so different. A nurse pushed the girl into a chair at the bedside, and moved away to another patient who was groaning miserably.
“Are you feeling bad, missis?” Martha stammered, and was horrified to see the crumpled, altered face twist and twitch, and tears run from the sunken eyes. It was a different kind of crying from Mrs. Perks’s maudlin distress the previous night over the wasted feast on the supper-table. Involuntarily Martha laid her hand on the puffy fingers that closed feebly about her own, and there was silence between mistress and maid for a space.
Then Mrs. Perks began to whisper hoarsely:
“If it ’adn’t been for the cat”—Martha gave a guilty start—“we’d a bin burnt to cinders in our beds. ’Twas the cat as scrabbled and scratched till ’e got me awake in time. And to think if I’d knowed there was a cat in the ’ouse, I’d a wrung its neck—and yours too!” with a sudden flash of her old violence, which exhausted her, and she lay breathing with difficulty.
The mystery of Buffalo’s disappearance now unfolded itself slowly to Martha’s understanding. He must have run up into Mrs. Perks’s bedroom while Martha was out at the tobacconist’s, must have gone to sleep in some comfortable corner until danger awoke him, and he had the sense to arouse Mrs. Perks. How cute of Buffalo, how brave! But for him, as Mrs. Perks said, they would have been burnt to cinders in their beds! Martha glowed with pride on behalf of her pet. Now, surely, Mrs. Perks would change her opinion of cats, and for the future Buffalo would be permitted to live openly in the kitchen; there would be no constant dread of detection. Not even Mrs. Perks could be so ungrateful as to banish him after this! She became immersed in dreams of a future in which Mrs. Perks was kind and Buffalo an honoured hero.
Some one said: “Another visitor for you,” and Martha returned to reality and saw Mrs. Perks staring helplessly at a man who had followed the nurse up the ward, and now stood at the foot of the bed. Martha gazed at him too. She thought she had never seen anybody so handsome in her life; though probably most people would have considered him a person of quite ordinary appearance—rather short, clean-shaven, a roughly modelled face, but the eyes were of a clear red-brown—the eyes of a resolute, straight-living man, and the thick curly hair brushed off the forehead was of a bright brown, too.
“Why, Tom,” said Mrs. Perks weakly; and with a throb of excitement Martha realized that this was Mrs. Perks’s only blood relation! She moved aside, effacing herself, and with a little gesture of polite apology he took her chair and leaned towards his sister, who did not know that she was a dying woman.
“You never came last night, Tom,” she quavered, “and the tripe done to a turn—”
Tom Sim moved uneasily. He felt it would be brutal to tell the truth and say he had forgotten all about the promised visit till this morning—that he was enjoying himself with friends at a music hall when he should have been at his sister’s house. In all the excitement of home-coming he had “mussed up” his plans.
“I got kept,” he explained evasively, “and when I went to look you up and tell you this morning, you’d been taken off here, and well, there’s a good bit of damage done to the house. Bad luck, Angelina!”
He looked round at the girl who had given up her chair to him, as though in vague appeal for support in his embarrassment, and he was struck with her exceeding fairness, the soft blue of her eyes, the delicate outline of her little face.
“Who’s this, Angelina?” he asked, glad to leave the question of his default.
Martha blushed, and felt for the corner of her apron that she might twist it in her fingers to lessen her confusion—but she found she was standing there in her new blue dress without the familiar apron, and this caused her to feel still more self-conscious and shy. Her heart fluttered painfully.
“That’s only Martha” —each time Mrs. Perks spoke it seemed to be with more difficulty. “She’s a born idiot, and she ain’t got no ’ead, but she can cook, and if it ’adn’t been for her darned cat we’d a bin roasted to cinders in our beds.”
Martha looked at Mrs. Perks with astonished gratitude. They were the kindest words the missis had ever given her. But they were the last words Mrs. Perks ever spoke, for even as Martha smiled at her with parted lips and pleased blue eyes, the big flat face fell forward and there came a curious sound that caused the nurse to hasten forward. Mrs. Perks’s heart, diseased with drink and fatty degeneration, overtaxed with fear, and shock, and the fall into the gutter, had failed, and ceased to beat.
* * * *
Afterwards Tom Sim led the weeping Martha along echoing stone passages and down flights of stone stairs, and his voice was very kind as he tried to soothe her, his touch very gentle. He gathered that her only home was the ruined, blackened little house he had seen that morning which now was no longer habitable, and he told her she should come back with him to his lodgings where his landlady would take care of her. (How lucky that the woman was motherly and so obviously respectable, with a hardworking husband and two neatly kept children!)
They had got as far as the great hall of the hospital when Martha looked up at him and said amid her sobs: “Oh! where’s Buffalo?”
He gave a little laugh of surprise. “In America—Buffalo, New York. That’s where I live.”
Martha told him she knew that, but she called her cat Buffalo, the cat that had saved them from being burnt to cinders in their beds. He was in a basket somewhere off the hall—the nurse knew—she couldn’t, please, go away without him.
Mr. Sim deposited Martha on a bench and made inquiries. Then presently returned with the kitten mewing loudly in a basket, and for the first time in her life Martha found herself being whirled along the streets in a taxi-cab. Buffalo made such clamour in his basket that they were obliged to let him out, and he scrambled on to Martha’s shoulder, where, in a transport of joy and affection, he rubbed his head hard against her cheek, and dribbled, and kneaded, and purred with all his might.
Martha looked timidly into Mr. Sim’s brown eyes. “I thought he was the only living thing as I loved,” she said, “but somehow I must have loved the missis too.”
The man felt inclined to bend and kiss the sweet little face and say he wished she would love him also; but for years he had declared he did not believe in falling in love with a girl at first sight, and it was disconcerting to find that he was mistaken. Besides, he did not want to frighten the child so he waited.
“Why did you call the cat Buffalo?” he asked.
“Because I thought it was such a nice word,” she told him with shy confidence. “It sounded nice. I liked it.”
“Perhaps you’d like the place too,” he said lightly.
* * * *
Martha now Mrs. Sim and lives at Buffalo, New York. She has been married some years, and has a little boy with his father’s brown eyes and his mother’s flaxen hair. Though Martha actually has servant of her own she does most of the cooking herself, and her husband is quite sure that no other woman in the world could turn out such savoury dishes. She remembers Mrs. Perks tenderly whenever she prepares tripe and onions. Buffalo is a handsome black cat, growing stout and selfish. He is frankly jealous of Mr. Sim and the baby, and always expects to be helped first at meals and it must be admitted that Martha indulges and gives in to him without shame or apology.
It was at a pleasant, but rather prosaic dinner party in South Kensington that I was told this story—not at all the kind of occasion on which one would expect to hear anything out of the common. The little chronicle struck me as being so curious and complete that when I got home I put it down on paper just as I had heard it, and if it seems too improbable I can only assert that I did not “make it up,” and that I am positive the General’s wife, whose experience it was, did not invent it either.
We were all up in the drawing-room after dinner admiring the pale green wall-paper, and the white paint and the furniture; for our host and hostess had but lately retired and were as proud of their new home as if they had been a bride and bridegroom instead of old Anglo-Indians, with thirty years of married life in the Punjab behind them. Mixed up with a Maple suite were beautiful jail-made rugs and carvings, chased brass and copper work, quaint ornaments of silver, ivory, and ebony, and multitudes of photographs of friends, and bungalows, and favourite animals—reminiscences of their Indian days. In spite of these incongruities it was a pleasant, homelike jumble, and we were all enjoying ourselves, examining this accumulation of years, and talking India to repletion, when somebody picked up a little leather case from a Jeypore table and said: “What’s this?” At the same moment, in the pause that followed, the only non-Anglo-Indian present was heard to ask: “But are the natives so very occult? Do they see ghosts, and all that sort of thing?”
Our hostess, with plump figure, white hair, quick blue eyes, and skin so wonderfully delicate in spite of all the “hot weathers” she had spent in the plains, rustled from a group of contemporaries in the corner.
“If you want a proof of that,” she said, in answer to the outsider, and took the leather case from her other friend, “here you are!”
She opened it, and held up a miniature of a young woman in high-waisted muslin gown and mob cap, a picture that seemed to live and breathe and speak. Our interest was aroused, and presently we were all listening to the strange history of the miniature.
“That is my great-grandmother,” she said, and looked affectionately at the delicately tinted little portrait. “She died of cholera in India as a young woman, and it was believed that my great-grandfather, her husband, committed suicide, insane with grief at her loss. At any rate he died just about the same time, but exactly where it all happened, or in what station, there was no proof. In the old days news from India took long to travel, particulars were hard to obtain, and even when secured were often lost or forgotten. As children, we used to hear vaguely of our ill-fated ancestors in the East, and we knew that the only child, afterwards my grandfather, had been sent home as a baby about a year before the death of his parents; but after we grew up we never found any letters or written records of the tragedy, neither could we discover any clue as to what had become of the miniature that was said to have been painted of my great-grandmother before she sailed for India to be married. How that miniature was eventually found I am going to tell you—for this is the very picture itself!”
Again she held up the little gilt-framed portrait for us all to see; and then continued her story.
“Often as a girl I thought of my poor little ancestress and her sad fate, and wondered what had become of her picture; and I thought of her still more when I married and went out to India. In the course of our official wanderings I always visited the cemeteries of the stations we lived in, or passed through, in the hope of finding her name among the old monuments and gravestones. My husband used to chaff me about my graveyard mania as he called it; but still I looked, and asked questions, and read old books about the English in India, and kept up my search diligently though without success, until, at last, a curious thing happened.
“We had been transferred to a small station on my husband going into civil employ; it was miles from the railway, very lonely, very neglected, and all the more melancholy in that it had once been a large military station in the old days of John Company, as the palatial bungalows, many of them in ruins, and the empty crumbling barracks testified. There the cemetery was very crowded, but no trace did I discover of the name that, of course, I went to look for without delay.
“We settled down in our vast, and rather dilapidated bungalow, built, perhaps, a century and a half ago, for some official who must have lived in semi-native state with much pomp and display and waste of money. There was a great courtyard at the back with little rooms all round it; the servants’ quarters would have accommodated several hundred natives; there were elephant stalls, a swimming bath, and a compound of ten acres. It was impossible to keep the whole place in repair, for even in my young days the rupee had begun to depreciate in value and prices were rising, so we decided to occupy only a part of the house and just keep the lawn and a portion of the garden in good order. The rows of tumble-down out-houses and the rest of the compound had to be left to decay and jungle growth. I was not at all unhappy in that out-of-the-way spot; the few people in the station were nice, we rode a great deal, and had a big shooting party at Christmas, and I had a piano and my flowers and large, cool rooms. My bedroom opened on to a broad flight of steps that led into the garden, and just beyond the foot of the steps grew a great pipal-tree, probably hundreds of years old. Beneath the tree stood a little stone tomb without ornament or inscription, not an uncommon object in an old Indian garden, or on the roadside, or even in the depths of the jungle. From its shape we judged it to be the tomb of a Mahomedan, in all likelihood some holy man whose life and good works had long since been forgotten. Before the bungalow was built or the compound enclosed he might have been buried there, in the shade of the tree whose roots had begun to split and crack the masonry of his tombstone. I used to look out on the little monument all the time I was dressing, and I often wondered what had been the life-story of the one who lay beneath it. I little thought I was soon to know and in a most strange and unbelievable manner!
“My ayah had taken herself off on a month’s leave, and I was trying to manage without a substitute, for in such a remote quarter it would have been impossible to find a trained woman, and the expense of getting one from a large station for so short a time was not to be thought of. So I got along with the help of my husband’s old bearer though not very comfortably, and when the washer-man came to me one morning and begged that I would allow his wife to try and wait upon me I agreed with a certain amount of relief.
“‘She knows nothing about sahibs and mem-sahibs or the ways of sahibs’ houses,’ the man explained frankly, ‘but she is anxious to learn, and she is intelligent, and if she may come she will ask small wages and do all that the mem-sahib orders.’
“It did not sound encouraging, but the man was so urgent and anxious, and as I knew him to be honest and respectable I felt that, at least, there could be no harm in allowing the wife to gain a little experience as my ayah. The bearer would show her what to do; and in many ways she might be useful. So she came; a mere child according to English ideas, with a clear, nut-brown skin, large dewy eyes like the eyes of a fawn, and a little, delicate, pointed face. She seemed quick and intelligent, and soon learned how to get my bath ready, to dust the room, and to remain within call at certain hours. I disliked an ayah in my room unless I wanted her for anything, and so I bade her sit outside under the pipal-tree, where it was cool and shady, while she was on duty, where she would hear me at once when I called.
“For two or three days she obeyed. Then she came to me in great embarrassment, standing on one leg, drawing her wrapper over her face, twiddling her toes, betraying all the little native signs of nervousness that I had come to know so well. “‘What is the matter?” I asked, rather with impatience for I was tired after a long ride.
“‘Mem-sahib, is it an order that I always sit under the pipal-tree? May I not sit on the steps?’
“‘Certainly if you prefer to do so you may sit on the steps. I thought the shade of the tree would be pleasanter for you. Why do you dislike sitting under the tree?”
“She hesitated, coughed, and looked away, fidgeting. Suddenly I recollected the native superstition, that every tree forms a refuge for spirits good or bad.
“‘Is there a ghost in the tree?” I asked, in a matter-of-fact tone.
Her wrapper slid from her head. She gazed at me eagerly, and with relief.
“‘Yes, yes, mem-sahib, that is it! The ghost!’ she said quickly.
“I was interested—and forgot my fatigue after the long ride. I advised her, gravely, to follow the native plan of hanging bits of rag on the branches to propitiate the spirit. But she shook her head.
“‘Why won’t that do? I urged, feeling now a strong curiosity.
“Again she hesitated, glanced at me, and apparently gained confidence, for she burst out: ‘Because it is an English ghost, mem-sahib! and it sits on the tomb and I am afraid. My liver turns to water when I behold it!‘
“‘Oh! of course that is a different matter,’ I said judicially. ‘I know you people have a great fear of English ghosts. Is this one a man or a woman?’
“‘A sahib!’ she whispered.
“‘And what is he like?’ I spoke in a level voice for I was afraid if her shyness returned, or if she suspected I was laughing at her, I should hear no more.
“The little woman glanced furtively out of the window, as though fearing that the ghost might be there, watching her.
“‘He is not like your honour’s sahib,’ she said, ‘he is not like any sahib that I have seen. He has white hair, and it is long and tied behind his head.’ She put her two hands to the nape of her neck. ‘And his trousers are buttoned at the knee and he wears stockings, and shoes with silver ornaments on them—he is not like the sahib or any other sahib that I have seen....’
“My heart beat fast. The washer-man’s wife, a girl who had never been out of her native village, had never, till she came to me, been inside a European dwelling, was describing an Englishman in the dress of the last century! And yet she could never have seen such a costume, or even the picture of one; besides, all we Anglo-Indians know that to the uneducated native a picture conveys nothing. It seemed incredible, and even my husband, the most unimaginative being on earth, was puzzled, though he scoffed at my suggestion that the tomb under the tree might be the tomb of an Englishman whose ghost the ayah had seen. Then an idea darted into my mind, and I almost shouted: ‘What if it should be the grave I am always looking for?’
“‘Nonsense—don’t be so silly,’ he said. ‘Besides you are always looking for your great-grandmother’s grave, and you say this ghost of the ayah’s is a man!’
“‘But it might be the great-grandfather,’ I went on in excitement, unsubdued by these snubs. ‘You know he was supposed to have committed suicide when his wife died of cholera. Perhaps this was the very place where it all happened, and they buried him in the compound under the tree because they couldn’t put him in the cemetery. Depend upon it she is in the cemetery, and her gravestone, if there ever was one, has crumbled away or been destroyed somehow.’
“I stopped to breathe, and was told not to be too foolish, that even if the grave under the tree were opened, and even if the remains inside were those of my great-grandfather, how were we to prove it? The whole idea was too crazy and preposterous to be entertained for a moment.
“I said no more at the time, but I questioned the little ayah frequently as to the details of the ghostly sahib’s appearance, and I daresay she drew on her imagination to a large extent, seeing my interest in the subject. I even went so far as to sit under the tree myself, just about the hour when the ayah said she had always seen him, but no gentleman with powdered hair, knee breeches, and buckled shoes presented himself. The notion that perhaps it might indeed be my own ancestor who lay beneath the big pipal-tree, so near my bedroom doors, became almost an obsession with me at last. I yearned to open the tomb, to see if there might not be some relic that would give me a clue as to whose grave it was. Perhaps he had been buried in his clothes—there might be buttons with initials on them or something that had survived insects and decay. Finally I determined to satisfy my longing, and the next time my husband went for a flying tour of inspection I made an excuse and said I thought I would rather stay at home this time. I dare say it was very deceitful and disloyal, but I felt I had arrived at the pitch when I could no longer live in that bungalow looking out every day at the broken little tomb and not know what was inside it ... and I felt sure I should never open it with my husband’s sanction and approval!
He agreed that it was rather late for me to go into camp; the hot weather was almost upon us, the sun had begun to blaze with determined force, and the wind and dust were very unpleasant. Feeling guilty yet impatient I saw him off in the morning, and that afternoon, directly the sun had slackened a little, I called the garden coolies together and bade them break up the masonry of the tomb under the tree.
“To my anger and astonishment the men stood obstinately reluctant, and began to make absurd excuses, whereupon I called the head peon who looked doubtful and said it was a dangerous thing to do, to meddle with a grave; misfortune might fall on the lot of us. The peon’s advice, delivered with firm politeness, was to let it alone, or at least to wait till the sahib returned, for if anything terrible were to happen to the mem-sahib during the master’s absence would they not all be blamed? I perceived that they all knew about the ghost under the tree, probably they had all seen it and were as much afraid of it as was the little wife of the washer-man. But of course to wait till my husband’s return was just what I had no intention of doing—I knew he would never give his consent to the opening of the grave, but once done without his knowledge he would no doubt reproach me for my foolishness, and then dismiss the matter from his mind—supposing, of course, I found nothing that could identify the remains. On the other hand, should I discover anything of importance, and I felt a conviction that I should do so, what a triumph would be mine!
“In the meantime there stood the silent row of sulky coolies, and the disturbed peon, and I felt that it was impossible to press the point. With a few sarcastic remarks I waved them away, and then proceeded to inspect the tomb most carefully in the hopes that I might find it possible to break the masonry apart unaided. The stone-work was frightfully split and ruined. In places the roots of the pipal-tree had forced their way right through, and I could put my hand into the cracks. One corner of the little monument had fallen away altogether and left a gaping hole. I went indoors and fetched a hog-spear, with which I jabbed and dug at the crumbling stone, and in about half an hour I had broken away a large portion of the masonry. I peered into the cavity; it was hollow, and the floor seemed to be covered with rough brickwork also torn and displaced by the roots of the tree. Feverishly I began hacking away at these loose bricks. My hands were soon sore, I was wet with perspiration, my throat and tongue felt parched, but still I worked on. Now and then one of the servants passed furtively pretending not to see me; but I paid no attention to their curiosity. I only felt furiously annoyed with them for not offering to help. They looked apologetic, all the same, and I knew it was only their superstitious fear that held them back. Once the head peon came and remonstrated respectfully with me. He was sure I should tire myself unduly, such exertion might bring on an attack of fever, I might be bitten by a snake, or some poisonous insect I paused at this warning; certainly there was danger of snakes especially at this time of year. I gave one more prod as I considered the risk, and the hog-spear went through the brickwork, almost overbalancing me. I had penetrated into the actual grave at last!
“I ordered the peon to fetch a lamp, and by the time he returned with it I had made the hole large enough to look, with ease, down into the cavity beneath. The peon seemed to have no objection to holding the light, though he advised investigation with the hog-spear first, in case of reptiles. I followed the suggestion, and we waited, listening. We heard no sound of hiss or rustle, and, cautiously we lowered the lamp into the dark space below. Nothing was to be seen but a confused mass of something that looked like bits of wood and dried sticks and, seemingly, a thick heap of cobwebs. Again I widened the hole, tearing away the bricks with almost unnatural strength while the peon guarded the lamp. Then again we peered down and I disturbed the ‘cobwebs‘ gently with the point of the spear. I thought it clinked against something, and my excitement rose high. I sent the peon for a pair of tongs, feeling thankful I had kept the useless set of fire-irons somebody had given me as a wedding present, ignorant that a coal fire is practically unknown in India. The first time I lowered the tongs they closed on nothing but a wisp of something that crumbled to dust the moment it met the air. The second time a bone came up, black and brittle, which I let fall with a shudder while the peon groaned with apprehension. Then I hardened my nerves and felt about carefully till at last the tongs gripped a small metallic object and there came to the surface a little rusted tin case that had been soldered down all round—something, evidently, that the dead man had prized very greatly. I hurried with it into the house and called for a tin opener. The thing was very difficult to open—hard and unyielding—but at last I succeeded, and there, smiling up at me as fresh and bright as the day it was painted, was this little miniature!
* * * *
“The entire company gasped, and the hostess smiled round upon us in naive pleasure at our astonishment.
“Your great-grandmother of course?” said one of us.
“Of course,” she replied, “and if my washer-man’s little wife hadn’t been able to see ghosts I should never have found it.” She turned to the non-Anglo-Indian who had started the story by his question as to the occult powers of the native. “Isn’t that sufficient proof for you?” she asked.
But the General interrupted and spoilt everything.
“Why should it be the wife’s great-grand-mother?” he said teasingly, with a wink at his guests. “There’s no picture of her to corroborate the fact. It may have been the grave of a gallant killed in a duel with his lady love’s portrait on his heart, sealed up beforehand in case of the worst; it may have been some old gentleman who wished his favourite daughter’s portrait buried with him—it may have been a native who had got hold of the tin case as it was and thought it might contain a charm and was afraid to open it, and naturally it would be buried with him. But at any rate whatever it was it cured my wife of messing about in cemeteries, and apparently she laid the ghost, for though I restored the tomb with all respect not even the washer-man’s wife ever saw him again!”
“The Admiral is just the type of man your poor Uncle Henry would have appreciated,” said my poor Uncle Henry’s widow. “I find his companionship exceedingly agreeable.”
I wondered if the Admiral found my Aunt Julia’s companionship equally pleasant—for I perceived that she had destined him to succeed Uncle Henry. In any case she would probably carry out her intention; what Aunt Julia designed she seldom failed to accomplish, as her nephews and nieces were aware to their cost. For example she had determined that I should be the first of her nieces to stay with her at Bath, where she had but lately settled, and though I detested Aunt Julia and was particularly anxious to pay a visit elsewhere at the time, and so had struggled desperately to escape, here I was seated opposite to her at dinner in the stiff, handsome residence in Queen’s Square, having arrived from Paddington an hour ago.
We were occupied with a réchauffé which she called, with an ultra French accent, miroton. I remembered the dish of old, and how Uncle Henry had hated it. I also recalled with inward amusement my youngest brother’s description of a typical Aunt Julia menu: “Brown soup; hashed mutton; and a beastly pudding” (Pouding au lait!).
Over the miroton she discussed, without charity, the various old friends she had met, and the new acquaintances she had made, since her move to Bath. Only the Admiral escaped calumny.
“He often looks in as he passes,” she said with elaborate nonchalance; “he is lonely, I fancy, living in rooms by himself. If I am at the window when he goes by I always tap and beckon him in, and even occasionally open the door to him myself that he may feel confident he is not intruding. Perhaps it causes a little gossip in a place of this kind, but, as I said to the Admiral only the other day, surely we are old enough to please ourselves.”
Aunt Julia gave a side glance into the long mirror that embellished the wall to her right, and the reflection of a stout lady in a tight purple gown seemed to afford her the nicest satisfaction.
I looked forward to beholding her manoeuvres at the window the following morning, but soon after breakfast she dispatched me on various errands which kept me employed till nearly luncheon-time. On my way back to the house, laden with parcels, I experienced one of those absurd little encounters when two people dodge each other distractedly in polite endeavours to pass. My vis-à-vis was a picturesque old gentleman with fluffy, snow-white hair, a thin, beautiful nose, eyes the colour of a turquoise, and an expression so courteous and gentle as to be almost pathetic. He raised his old- fashioned hat with the most enchanting little smile of amused apology as he stood aside and allowed me to pass on. Could he by any chance be the Admiral? I felt unable to resist turning to look after him, and then I noticed that he was followed with jealous devotion by a brown spaniel, elderly, judging from gait and figure, but well preserved, well groomed, well bred like the master. If it was indeed the Admiral, there was no possibility of “Love me, love my dog,” with Aunt Julia, whose abhorrence of dogs amounted almost to a mania.
She was not at the window when I reached the front door. I found her upstairs in the spacious drawing-room, working impossible objects on a cashmere cushion-cover.
“Has the Admiral been in to see you this morning?” I inquired briskly.
She glanced at me with some suspicion. “He passed by about half an hour after you went out; but I did not attract his attention, or permit him to catch sight of me, because I observed that his odious dog was with him.”
“Perhaps it was the Admiral I met just now on his way back? A charming old gentleman with white hair, followed by a brown spaniel?”
“Yes, an objectionable animal, and yet he adores it in the most foolish way, having no one else to love, I suppose, poor fellow! He brought it in here once, and it behaved in an alarming and ill-tempered manner towards me, growling and snarling, and attempting to bite me besides leaving its hairs on the carpet. The dear Admiral was quite vexed and upset; he said he could not understand it, but he never kicked the creature, or gave it the beating it deserved, and of course common civility obliged me to be pleasant and pretend it was of no consequence. I consider that such a dangerous beast should be shot.”
She paused and stabbed a few vicious stitches into the cushion-cover. I made no reply and presently she continued in a calmer tone: “If ever the Admiral should marry, his wife would, of course, insist on his getting rid of that dog. In fact she would have to insist on a good many reforms which would be entirely for the dear man’s benefit. For one thing he smokes. Now your poor Uncle Henry never smoked; I stopped that after we were married! I suspect that the Admiral seldom goes to church; I have never seen him there. I also fear that for a man of his gouty tendencies he is too fond of rich food; I observed it at the dinner-party I gave in his honour when I had the best of everything.” (Aunt Julia could give a right good meal when she had an object in doing so!) “He has no one to check such indiscretions; and he actually mentioned to me once that, next to champagne, his favourite beverage was gin!” She cast her eyes up and shuddered.
“What did you say when he told you that?” I inquired with interest. “Did you remonstrate with him?”
“Certainly not! I made no comment. But it was, to me, an additional proof of how much the dear creature needs some one to look after him.”
“Is he badly off? How does he live?” I asked.
“He has his pension, and ever since he retired he has lived in the same rooms close here. He says they are quite comfortable, but I do not believe it. I imagine he has private means, but that his relations impose upon him. There, again, he needs protection. It would be most salutary for them, as well as beneficial for him, that they should be told a few home truths.”
What a prospect for the Admiral—who was doubtless in complete ignorance of the fate that awaited him. Probably Aunt Julia impressed him as a rich, kind-hearted widow who might perhaps be inclined to render the existence of a rather lonely old man happy and comfortable, feed him well, be kind to his poor relations, and give him an excellent home. I recalled, with concern, the kind, diffident old face and courtly manner. What possible chance would such a nature have against the masterful disposition of Aunt Julia? For a certainty she would marry him, and then proceed to stop his smoking; prohibit his favourite beverages; doom him to frequent church-going; to plain food (and miroton]; estrange him from his relations; banish his dog. Ah! with the dog lay his only chance of safety! Aunt Julia would wait till the Admiral was her husband before she dealt with such questions as food and tobacco, gin and relations, but the dog would have to go before a courtship could be conducted with any success. Should the Admiral remain firm on this point he would in all probability escape Aunt Julia’s rule and protection.
Interference was impossible; matters could only be left to take their course. All the same I had great hopes of the brown spaniel—surely the Admiral would never consent to part with his devoted companion for all the rich widows in Bath!
He came to tea the following day—the same dear old person before whom I had chasséed in the street. We laughed over our first meeting, and while Aunt Julia was entertaining a lady who had come to call he told me stories of the sea, described the treasures he had accumulated, and talked of Bess, the brown spaniel, with the warmest affection.
“I suppose you would never part with her?” I said tentatively.
At that moment Aunt Julia ceased talking, and heard my question as well as the Admiral’s reply.
“Part with Bess? with my faithful brown friend?” he retorted with spirit and energy, “not for anyone, or anything under the sun!”
Aunt Julia’s other visitor, who had a local reputation for intellect, turned and gazed earnestly at the Admiral.
“Do you believe,” she said, in a deeply serious tone, “that animals have souls?”
“I’m certain my Bess has as much mind, and heart, and soul as most human beings!” assented the Admiral stoutly, “and just as much chance of going to heaven.”
Aunt Julia turned purple, and began to tell dreadful stories about mad dogs, and dogs that had been known to devour children, and commit other atrocities; and she dilated at length on the treachery of the canine race. The Admiral neither argued nor contradicted, he listened with deference, but was obviously relieved when I succeeded in changing the subject.
Then Aunt Julia overwhelmed him with attentions, with playful flattery, with interested concern for his welfare, till the simple old gentleman was humbly gratified, and rather bewildered. When he rose to take his leave she followed him to the door.
“Now remember,” she said archly, shaking her finger at him, and putting her head on one side, “when you come to see me you must leave the dog outside. The creature detests me, and I don’t want to die of hydrophobia! ”
“My dear lady, who could detest you?” protested the Admiral gallantly. “Poor old Bess is jealous, that’s what it is—ha! ha!”
“Ha! ha!” echoed Aunt Julia consciously; and she simpered back into the room in the most complacent of moods.
* * * *
When the Admiral passed the window next morning Bess was at his heels. Aunt Julia had been peeping out, smiling and eager, but the moment she saw the dog she darted back with an angry flush on her face; and there was silence between us as we heard the Admiral’s footsteps pass by on the pavement. Then Aunt Julia sniffed and told me to put on my hat and go into the town to do some commissions for her, and I went readily.
The streets were clean and cheerful, and I dawdled outside the shops, having little desire to return to Queen’s Square sooner than was necessary.
Just as I realized that I had only time to get back for the one o’clock luncheon I saw the Admiral cross the street at the lower end. Bess was a little way behind him, and, all in a moment, a motor-car swung round the corner, and ran over the dog! I heard a piteous cry, the car stopped, a crowd collected instantly, and I saw the Admiral dash into the middle of the group of people. Sick with apprehension I stood on the pavement; the crowd parted, and the old man tottered out with a limp brown object held tenderly in his arms—poor Bess, bleeding, dusty, mangled, her faithful brown eyes half closed, her head hanging lifeless over her master’s arm.
“She is quite dead,” I heard him say sadly, in answer to a sympathetic inquirer.
He had not seen me; and I turned and ran home to warn Aunt Julia not to look out of the window.
“The dog killed?” she echoed, starting up from the cashmere cushion-cover, “You don’t say so! are you sure?”
“I saw the poor creature run over, and I heard the Admiral say she was dead.”
“I wish you would not use the feminine gender, when alluding to an animal,” said Aunt Julia, “it is most indelicate.”
All through luncheon she was silent and preoccupied, though I could see she was elated at the news; she appeared to be thinking over some plan, but what it was she did not announce till the following afternoon, when she dressed herself in her new mauve foulard, with the toque to match, and a feather boa, and stated that she was going to call on the Admiral.
“He will become morbid over the dog’s death if some one does not look after him. He must realize that the animal was not his only friend!” she said. “No, thank you, you need not accompany me. I prefer to go alone. Of course I am aware that I am doing something unconventional, but,” she concluded significantly, “under the circumstances—” and opened the front door.
Half an hour later she returned, panting and speechless, her face white, her toque crooked, her feather boa hanging over one shoulder. I followed her into the dining-room, but she waved me aside, and sank into an arm-chair, limp and exhausted.
“Aunt Julia what is the matter?” I cried in real alarm.
“It was the dog!” she said faintly.
“The dog, but the dog is dead!” I exclaimed.
“Yes, the Admiral said it was dead!” she spoke rapidly, and with growing excitement. “He told me he had buried it with his own hands in the garden last evening! and while he was telling me, actually while he was telling me the creature came out from beneath his chair and snarled! Of course I was excessively angry and asked how he dared tell such lies. He feigned to misunderstand me, and repeated that there was no dog—that the dog was dead and buried. We had a most painful scene. Naturally I was indignant at his attempt to deceive me, and he became exceedingly unpleasant, not to say rude in his manner. Never will I see him or speak to him again. He requested me to leave his rooms, he—oh!—one might almost have imagined that he suspected me—me—of not being sober!”
Aunt Julia almost shrieked at the last word and then threw herself back in the chair on the verge of hysterics. I sat silent, completely mystified. What could it all mean? The dog was dead without a doubt, and Aunt Julia must have imagined she had seen it emerge from under the Admiral’s chair. I turned to her again as she called my name in a stifled voice from behind her handkerchief.
“Tell me,” she whispered hoarsely, “what did that woman say about animals—you remember? —the day he came to tea.”
“She only asked him if he believed that animals had souls—” I began; then I stopped short, dumbfounded for the moment by the fantastic suggestion the words presented to my mind. Aunt Julia was gazing at me with horrified interrogation in her eyes. Then she rose, unsteadily, to her feet.
“Do not speak of the subject to me again,” she said, and shivered.
I obeyed her; but as the hours went by, I could see that her mind was occupied with nothing else. She would not go out, she could not settle down to the cushion-cover, constantly she approached the window and then drew back as though fearing to look out.
The following morning she remained in the dining-room after breakfast, to “look over some bills” she said; and I was sent upstairs to dust china locked away in cupboards in the drawing-room. Presently I heard her calling me in a loud, excited voice. I rushed down, and found her standing at the window. “Quick! quick!” she cried, “come here!” and pointed into the street with a shaking hand. I hastened to her side and looked out. The Admiral had just passed by, and was walking slowly along the pavement.
“There!” cried Aunt Julia, “don’t you see it?—the dog, the brown dog, following him as usual!”
I stared after the retreating figure, and felt frightened, for there was no dog, that I could see, at the heels of the Admiral!
“Don’t you see it? don’t you see it, you idiot?” demanded Aunt Julia sharply.
“No,” I said slowly, and with reluctance, “I don’t see it.”
For a moment she glared at me, and her face grew deathly pale. Then she turned away from the window.
“It is evident that I require a change,” she said abruptly. “Bath does not suit me. I shall go to Dawlish to-morrow.”
Not only did Aunt Julia go to Dawlish the following day, but eventually she remained there altogether, having all her possessions sent after her. We are forbidden to mention Bath in her presence; and I am not sorry, for though common sense reproaches me severely, I always feel creepy and uncomfortable whenever I think of the Admiral’s dog!
A May morning in the Himalayas, crystal clear, golden with sunshine. Honeysuckle, passionflower, roses, clung in a perfumed tangle to the red roof of the veranda; and opposite, across the lower hills and the deep purple valley, against the wondrous blue of the sky, the dazzling range of snow peaks looked deceptively, startlingly near. The air was charged with strong scents and gentle sound voices of the hill-people as they climbed the steep pathway with burdens on their heads and shoulders; strains of the band that practised in a remote compound.
Only within the veranda did there seem to be gloom and distress. An old ayah stood crying helplessly in the corner, and a little English boy danced before her in frenzied concern and remonstrance.
“Must not go, Ayah! Must not go!” he shrieked in Hindustani.
Then he rushed into the dining-room where his mother was breakfasting. “For Ayah a letter has come,” he wailed, still in Hindustani, “and she says to-day she must go—to-day! Mamma, give an order that she stays. Give it now, at once.”
Mrs. Dring hurried out, but she checked her words of impatience when she saw the trouble in the old woman’s faithful eyes, and the pathetic trembling of the hand that held out a flimsy piece of yellow paper scrawled across with Hindi characters.
“Mem-sahib! pardon, my son is very ill—surely he dies. They have written for me, he calls for me, his mother. I must go to him. But quickly will I return. For a certainty, mem-sahib, will I return when my son is better—or maybe dead.” She turned away.
The mem-sahib tried to smother her own annoyance and dread of the inconvenience that lay before her. “Poor Ayah!” she said, kindly, “it is very sad for you. Of course you must go. But how am I to get another ayah for Jackie-sahib while you are away—what am I to do? We have only just come up to the hills, and you will be leaving us altogether when we go to England after the rains!”
Old Ayah wept afresh. She was sorely loath to vex her dear mem-sahib and cause her worry; she could not bear the thought of leaving Jackie, the “babba” she had tended from his birth. The final parting was already too near, and every day seemed precious. Yet she must go to her only son, the son who had never given her trouble or anxiety, who had supported her so bravely, when years ago, his father, bitten by a mad dog, had died a cruel death before she herself went into service; the clever, hardworking son, who at last had risen to the honourable post of chief sweeper to a downcountry bazaar, and was such a good father, such a good husband, as well as a model son. All Old Ayah’s savings, invested in the heavy silver ornaments that she wore day and night round her neck, and wrists, and ankles, were to go to him and his children at her death as a token of her pride and affection; and now it was he who lay dying. He was calling for her, and she must go, wretched as the separation from Jackie would make her, painfully conscious as she was of the inconvenience her absence would cause her beloved mistress.
As usual, the mem-sahib was kind and good, and said she would manage all right for herself and Jackie, and Ayah was not to worry. She advanced the unhappy old woman a month’s wages, and sent her down to the railway station at the foot of the hills in her own dandy; and, if possible, enslaved Ayah’s heart to her more than ever.
Jackie saw his nurse off with howls and tears. “Must not go, Ayah! Must not go!” he bellowed to the last.
“Ayah will come back, my little one,” she answered. “Ayah will come back quickly.”
But Jackie only wept with greater violence until the dandy and its awkwardly seated burden had disappeared down the hill path, and nothing but the promise that he should carry the bearer’s lantern about when it grew dark gave him any comfort for the rest of the day.
Old Ayah was terribly missed in the little house with the red veranda roof facing the snows. Jackie felt strange and forlorn without her indulgent yet experienced care, and consequently became a trial to everybody. He bullied the other servants and was naughty and exacting; he defied his mother and screamed himself purple when she corrected him; he would not to go bed, he would not get up, he would not eat what was good for him, and he was continually in mischief. No satisfactory substitute could be found to take Ayah’s place for such a short period, and Mrs. Dring counted the days till the old woman should come back. She wrote pages to her husband in the plains, chronicling her woes, and declared that native servants really ought to be born without relations. But a month went by and still Ayah did not come back, neither did she send a line of explanation to her mistress, which caused Mrs. Dring to enlarge on the ingratitude of even the best of native servants. At the same time her experience of India, comparatively short though it was, had familiarized her with the dilatoriness of the people where letters are concerned, and in her heart she excused Ayah, for she knew that the adored son’s illness would occupy the old woman’s time and attention completely. Also that if the man died the funeral ceremonies and arrangements must be a long and engrossing business. The mem-sahib did not really doubt but that Ayah would come back the moment she was free to do so, only it was certainly very vexing that her absence should last so much longer than anyone had anticipated.
But one day Jackie ceased to be defiant and unmanageable. He played listlessly all the morning and then declared, with little whimpers of self-pity, that he felt tired and wished only to sit on his mother’s lap with his head against her shoulder. Mrs. Dring took his temperature, with the result that she put him to bed at once and sent for the doctor, who said it was impossible to tell at present if the fever were ordinary malaria or the prelude to a serious illness.
The doctor came back again late that night, also early the next morning. Jackie had not slept, his mother reported anxiously, and had cried continually for his Ayah, who was away on leave.
“Can’t you recall her?” the doctor suggested. “You must have a woman to help you if this goes on, and it would be better to have some one he knows.”
So Mrs. Dring telegraphed to Old Ayah, urging her, if possible, to come back, as the child was ill and wanted her. She also telegraphed to Major Dring to hold himself in readiness to take leave if Jackie should grow worse. Then she sat by the little boy’s bed through the long hours, fighting the fever according to the doctor’s directions, praying that the blue eyes, so unnaturally bright, might close in healing sleep, listening to the ceaseless moan of “Ayah, Ayah! come back; must not go, Ayah!”
Next morning the doctor stayed on and on—he only left the sick child for a still more urgent case—and when he had gone Mrs. Dring telegraphed the necessary summons to her husband.
The hours that followed seemed endless. Now and then she crept into the veranda to see if Ayah could by any chance be coming up the pathway. She dreaded the night-time. Her husband could not possibly be with her before sunrise. The doctor, overworked, single-handed though he was, stayed late again that evening, and when he left he looked worried and apprehensive. “If the child could only get to sleep naturally,” he said.
The mother arranged the room for the night’s vigil, set medicine ready, saw that milk and chicken essence were at hand, noted with a sick foreboding that, save for his heavy breathing, Jackie was lying unnaturally still, with eyes wide open yet glazed and unseeing. She sat by the shaded lamp alert and miserable, listening to the tick of the clock, the rustle of the fir-trees outside the window, the thick, difficult breathing that shook the fragile little form on the bed.
Of a sudden a sharp sound rang through the room: “Ayah! Ayah!”
Jackie was holding out his arms and gabbling hoarsely in Hindustani. “Ayah must not go any more. Ayah stay and sing Jackie to sleep. Why did you go? Naughty Ayah!”
Mrs. Dring flew to the bedside, but Jackie paid no heed to her. He mumbled happily in Hindustani, and pushed her hand away when she laid it on his forehead. Reluctantly she sat down again by the shaded lamp, and then, to her everlasting bewilderment, she thought she heard a low, faint sound of singing, the sound of the quaint little crooning chant with which ayahs soothe children to sleep.
Years afterwards, when Mrs. Dring was telling me this story herself, she said that she should never forget the feeling that came over her as she listened to the sound, the feeling of awe and mystery, the conviction that she was listening to something not earthly. She tried to persuade herself that it was one of the servants in the compound, or that the sound came from the public footpath below the house; but all the time she knew that someone who she could not see was there, beside Jackie’s bed, singing and soothing him to sleep; and that the voice, though so faint and thin and uncertain, was surely the voice of Old Ayah.
“Ayah!” came from her lips, involuntarily, in a loud whisper.
The singing ceased abruptly, as though startled into silence, and Jackie set up a peevish cry. His mother bent over him, and laid her fingers lightly on his forehead. Was it her fancy, or did the skin feel less dry and burning?
“Ayah must not go! Sing, Ayah, sing,” he murmured, and nestled his cheek drowsily into his pillow. “Sing!” he whimpered with impatience; and Mrs. Dring crooned as she had heard Old Ayah croon so often at Jackie’s bedtime, and then patted the small shoulder softly.
“No! No!” the child wailed, and flung out his arms. “Ayah, sing—”
Then Mrs. Dring stole back to her seat by the lamp and waited, waited breathless and expectant till the fluttering sound that was more like the echo of a voice, returned, as she had known instinctively that it would return, and hung, hovering, over the bed.
How long it went on she could never say. She thinks she may have fainted, she does not know; she can only remember opening her eyes to find the room full of the yellow dawn-light, and Jackie sleeping quietly, naturally, his breathing regular and easy, his skin moist and cool. Hardly daring to believe the happy truth, she lingered long beside the bed, then slipped quietly into the veranda. Before her rose the chain of white mountains burnished with the crimson and gold of daybreak, glowing and glistening high into the radiant sky.
She stood there, weary, and dishevelled, yet with heart and soul uplifted in thankfulness. All the dread and suspense and longing now might yield to a glad relief. The ghostly fancies of the night had rolled away like a dark cloud; she believed she must have slept—to her shame—and dreamed of that faint, crooning song, dreamed that it had soothed the sick child into life-giving rest....
The sound of hoofs on the gravel made her turn, and she saw her husband riding up the pathway. The next moment she was clinging to him. “He is better—the fever has gone—he is asleep,” she half sobbed.
Together they tiptoed into the room, and bent over the softly sleeping little figure. Then they stole into the next room, where the sound of their voices could not disturb the child, but where Mrs. Dring’s strength failed her suddenly; and just as the doctor’s voice was heard outside, she slipped from her husband’s arm to the ground a huddled, senseless heap.
Before midday a nurse from the hospital was in temporary command of the little house, for though Jackie was practically out of danger, his mother lay on her bed weak and exhausted, forbidden to move for the present, forbidden to talk. So it was not until the next morning that she was able to tell her husband of the weird lullaby that had soothed Jackie to sleep.
“I’m certain I didn’t dream it,” she added nervously.
“Dearest,” he argued, “of course you either dreamt or imagined it.”
But Mrs. Dring would not listen to reason. “Something must have happened to poor Old Ayah,” she persisted tearfully. “I believe she came back when Jackie called her, and saved his life.”
“My dear child, what nonsense!” he interrupted.
“I wish you would write,” she urged. “Do write and make inquiries about her; write to the cantonment magistrate of the place where the son lives.” She began to cry.
“Yes—yes, I’ll write, of course,” Major Dring promised hastily. “But I’m sure you needn’t worry yourself. You know what natives are time means nothing to them. She’ll turn up in a day or two.”
“But I telegraphed to her—”
“Very likely she never got it. Her relations would see to that if they wanted her to stay on. But, anyway, we’ll find out. She’s been away far too long.”
“Something must have happened to her,” Mrs. Dring repeated with tearful obstinacy. “Old Ayah would never take advantage.”
“Well, I’ve no doubt she’ll turn up the moment I’ve posted the letter,” said the Major cheerfully.
But before the promised letter of inquiry had even been written there came an answer to Mrs. Dring’s telegram, signed with the name of Old Ayah’s son. It had been sent the cheapest way—“Deferred,” which means in India that the message must take its chance of delay, and may possibly reach its destination no sooner than a letter.
“Mother not come,” was the message.
“There now,” said Major Dring, “they’re not going to let her come back at all, the rascals! and they’ve got her month’s pay into the bargain. I don’t suppose that son of hers was ever ill at all. It was just a trick.”
Mrs. Dring was looking at the telegram with thoughtful attention and troubled eyes. “I think,” she said slowly, “it means that Old Ayah never even arrived!”
Her husband scoffed and contradicted, but was obviously disturbed by the suggestion. He went off and wrote to the proper authority at the place where Old Ayah’s son was head sweeper to the bazaar, and asked that the matter might be investigated.
When the answer came, three or four days later, they were all out in the veranda. Major and Mrs. Dring, Jackie, thin and pale but hourly growing stronger, and the pleasant hospital nurse.
The postman came up the path and handed the letters to Major Dring. In anxious silence his wife watched him open them. She was afraid to ask before Jackie if there was news of Old Ayah. Since his recovery the child had not mentioned her; he was engrossed with the hospital nurse, who could draw pictures, and make things out of paper, and play all sorts of games. He found her far more interesting than Old Ayah had ever been.
Presently Major Dring got up and went into the house. A moment later he called his wife, and she joined him hurriedly.
“I’m afraid,” he said, “you were right. It seems Old Ayah never did arrive at her son’s house. The son was certainly ill, and his mother was sent for, but when she did not come they concluded she was unable to get leave, and, just like natives, never thought of writing again. They had no idea she was not still with us till they got your telegram. The cantonment magistrate says the son is well known and respected, and there’s no doubt his story is true. I’m afraid—” he hesitated significantly.
“Oh! I knew something had happened,” cried his wife in sore distress, “Oh! poor Old Ayah! She had her month’s pay with her, and all her jewellery. Of course she was murdered on the way down. You know how many cases there are like that in India—people who are never traced, never discovered. Why didn’t I think of it—I shall never forgive myself—and she came back to Jackie just to save his life she came back and sang him to sleep—” She burst into a storm of tears.
“Hush! Hush!” said the Major. “Don’t talk like that. We will do all we can to trace her.”
And he went off at once to set inquiries in train, while Mrs. Dring stood at the window staring out with wet eyes at the glittering snows. She felt a sad conviction that Old Ayah would never be seen or heard of again in the flesh or the spirit; and indeed time proved that she was right.
When anything unpleasant happens it always seems to make matters so much worse if the cause of the disaster is not perfectly clear; and mother and I feel all the more vexed and disappointed because we can’t quite understand why my uncle’s visit should have been such a fiasco. I know we did our utmost to make it a success, not only, I must confess, from instincts of hospitality, but also for the reason that Uncle Picer was a very rich old bachelor, who had lived nearly all his life in India, and had no near relations but ourselves. We always used to joke about him, and say we wished he would come home and promise to leave us all his money; and I think, in our hearts, since poor father died, mother and I had always clung to the idea that his old stepbrother would some day turn up and prove a godsend to us. So our sensations may be imagined when, last week, mother got a letter from Uncle Picer himself, saying he had arrived in England, and was coming down to see us the following evening, and would stay the night at the cottage if we could put him up.
Mother telegraphed her delight, and then we began to make preparations, feeling fluttered and excited. We ransacked the neighbourhood for a really nice fowl, but we had to pay an awful lot for it, because at this time of year chickens are so scarce and dear. However, we got one, and then mother said she was sure he would be furious if he did not have curry, so we bought a tin of curry powder at the grocer’s in the village. The man said it had been in his shop for some years, as there was no demand for such things, but he believed curry powder improved with keeping, so we felt reassured. Then we were so afraid uncle would feel the cold, after leaving such a hot climate, that we piled all the spare blankets in the house on to his bed; and when his room was ready the next morning we lit a huge fire, and shut up the doors and windows.
We all worked hard to get things ready, mother and I and Sarah, our servant, who has been with us for years. She takes the deepest interest in all our concerns, and she really behaved almost as though Uncle Picer was her relation as well as ours. Of course it was nice of her in a way, but I thought it rather unnecessary of her to order us to buy a rubber hot-water bottle for him.
“Folks from hot places feels shivery,” she asserted; as though she had lived among Anglo-Indians all her life, instead of being as ignorant of their habits and customs as we were.
Mother said she simply couldn’t buy anything more, whatever Sarah said, and I pointed out that it was quite unnecessary, since we could easily fill a beer-bottle with hot water and wrap it up in flannel. The arrangement always answers perfectly well for ourselves in the winter. Sarah was only partially convinced. And she was in such a state of agitation, good soul, between her desire to propitiate the Indian uncle and to hold to her customary economy that she was quite upset when the time of his arrival drew near; and I felt sure she would ruin the mulligatawny soup, and the curry, and the chicken, and everything else. She was not accustomed to cooking late dinner, but we thought Uncle Picer would despise our usual high tea, and we wished to do him every honour.
We were all dreadfully nervous when he arrived in the evening, and he was not at all what we expected, being a little, round, red, fat man, instead of the dried-up mahogany-coloured mummy we had imagined. I took him up to his room, and the first thing he did was to rush at the fire and drag all the coal off, filling the room with smoke, and making such a clatter, and shouting out:
“Open the window! Great Scott! Suffocation!”
I was too frightened to say anything, so I opened the window, and then left him by himself and went down to mother, and warned her to take some of the coal off the fire we had lighted in the drawing-room. At last Uncle Picer came down, and we went in to dinner. He looked very grumpy, and after one mouthful of the mulligatawny soup (mother had got a very good recipe for it out of a fashion paper), he let his spoon drop with a splash, and pushed the plate away from him. Then he asked for toast instead of bread, and Sarah was so flurried she began running to and fro between the kitchen and the dining-room, doing nothing. I don’t think Uncle Picer had any idea we kept only one servant. At last she brought in the fowl, and put it down in front of mother; and the curry, made out of cold mutton, was placed before me. It looked so nice swimming in a brown gravy and protected by a thick circle of rice. I must say the rice was rather stuck together, but then everything couldn’t be perfect.
“Now,” said mother hospitably, “which will you have; a little curry to begin with, or some chicken—a real country chicken, you know, the breast-bone not broken?”
I could hardly believe my ears when the old wretch refused both. I could have shaken him, after all the trouble we had taken. He said he never wished to see a fowl again, dead or alive, as long as he existed, and that he never touched curry in or out of India. Luckily there was some more of the cold mutton in the kitchen, so he ate that. He refused the claret mother had bought, and wanted a whisky-and-soda. Of course, we hadn’t such a thing in the house, so he drank the brandy mother keeps upstairs in case we are ill; and with the sago pudding, and the toast Sarah brought in at the very end of dinner, he didn’t do so badly. At any rate, he seemed fairly satisfied; and after dinner he talked quite amiably, and asked if he might smoke.
Of course mother smiled and said certainty, but I knew she was thinking of the fresh curtains just put up after the spring cleaning; and his huge cigar smelt so terrible that we were more than relieved when he said he would go to bed early.
Now comes the most distressing part of my story. Soon after we had all gone to bed, and I was dropping off to sleep, I was terrified to hear the most awful yell, followed by a crash, that seemed to come from the direction of Uncle Picer’s room. I sprang up and rushed out on to the landing, where I met mother looking as if she was going to faint. She clutched hold of me and gasped:
“Oh! did you hear it? He is being murdered!”
“Then we shall be the next,” I whispered. And I was so frightened that I sank down on the floor, and so did mother, holding on to me.
However, we heard no more sounds; so presently, when we felt a little better, we crept down to Sarah’s room and woke her up. We told her what we had heard, and said we were sure there was a burglar in the house, and that Uncle Picer might be lying with his throat cut. She came with us to his door, and we turned the handle carefully, but the door was locked on the inside.
Presently I took courage, and, putting my mouth to the keyhole, I called “Uncle” two or three times in a low but distinct voice. At first we heard nothing, and then, to our utter horror, there came a muffled sound like a deep groan! We all shook with fear, but we felt we must act promptly; and I argued, in a whisper, that the murderer must have escaped through the window, as we could hear no movements inside the room.
We then settled that we must send for Brown, the carpenter (whose cottage is close to ours), to come and pick the lock. So Sarah went to fetch him, while mother and I huddled together on the stairs, in an agony of fright, till they returned. Then we all crept on tiptoe to Uncle Picer’s door; and we women stood shivering with fearful anticipation while Brown noiselessly picked the lock.
It was soon done, and we pushed the door a little way open, our hearts beating fast. The room was quite dark when we entered it, and Brown was just turning to fetch a light when Sarah gave a yell.
“Blood! blood!” she screamed, and fell down on the floor in hysterics. And then, to our horror, our feet came in contact with a warm stream on the carpet.
Suddenly, from the depths of the darkness, a rough voice shouted;
“Who the devil’s there?”
“The murderer!” shrieked mother, clutching Brown round the neck, while I clung to his arm, and Sarah yelled louder than ever; in fact, we all made a frightful noise, and no wonder, when we thought our last hour had come.
In the middle of it all the room suddenly became illuminated, and there we saw Uncle Picer himself sitting up in bed with a lighted candle in his hand. Before we had time to recover ourselves he sprang up, and, seizing a chair, rushed at Brown, calling out:
“Thieves! Murder! You confounded villain!”
Poor Brown was so astonished that he simply turned and rushed out of the house. We heard the hall-door bang behind him.
Then, panting and furious, Uncle Picer turned on mother. I can see him now in the green-and-pink striped sleeping suit, and his eyes bolting out of his round, red face.
“Now, madam, explain this disgraceful scene!”
Poor mother sank down, sobbing. The room was in confusion. Brown had upset two chairs and a table in his flight; Sarah was still grovelling at our feet in hysterics, imploring Uncle Picer to knock her on the head instead of cutting her throat; and lastly, the hot-water beer-bottle lay on the floor, smashed to atoms, and the water soaking into the carpet.
Then my confused mind became clear. I stepped up to the infuriated Uncle Picer.
“Uncle,” I said, “there has been a mistake. We heard you give a yell soon after we were in bed, and we thought you were being murdered.”
“Murdered? I should think so!” he spluttered. “Your confounded hot-water bottle nearly burnt my toes off! Of course I yelled, miss, and kicked the beastly thing out of the bed, too; and you—”
“Please let me explain,” I implored, in dismay, knowing now that Sarah, in her excitement, must have forgotten to wrap the bottle up. “We listened at your door, and thought we heard a groan. I suppose you must have been snoring—”
At that he literally capered with rage.
“Snoring! I never did such a thing in my life.”
I went on:
“And we sent for Brown, the carpenter.”
“All a pack of lies! I don’t believe a word of it. You were after my diamond studs—you and your infernal young man!”
At the notion of Brown being my young man, I burst out laughing. I simply could not stop myself. And then it was all up with us. He stormed and raved, and swore he would leave by the very first train in the morning. And sure enough he did so, without speaking another word to any of us.
Certainly we shall never see a shilling of Uncle Picer’s money now. However, as I tell mother, we have managed all right without it hitherto, so I suppose there is no reason why we should not get on just as well without it in the future. But it is all very annoying; and what vexes us so much is that we can’t see what more we could have done to please him, or why his visit, which ought to have been a success, should have proved such a ghastly failure. It must all have been due to his own nasty, impossible Indian temper.
Upon the hazy horizon of the Barnard family history there hovered legends concerning a certain great-uncle Jasper Barnard, who was said to have been a reprobate character, remarkable for his daredevil deeds. He was supposed to have dissipated the family fortune, and to have fled the country in order to escape the consequences of some particularly nefarious act. It was also believed that he had amassed a fortune in India as Commander-in-Chief and adviser to a powerful native prince, though what had become of his wealth, or of himself, was a mystery to the present generation of Barnards, beyond a vague tradition that he had become entangled with a lady of the royal household, and had eventually been murdered.
That great-uncle Jasper was no myth was proved by his portrait that hung on the wall of an upper landing in the red-brick villa at Streatham inhabited by the Barnards of the day, viz., the long-widowed Mrs. Barnard, who had been a Miss Hopkins and took a pride in the fact; her two daughters, both given to good works; and an unsatisfactory son, who was a good deal younger than his well-conducted sisters—true Hopkinses in appearance and disposition.
No Barnard relations remained alive as far as was known, but Hopkinses abounded, and, as Mrs. Barnard frequently remarked, no Hopkins had ever disgraced the name, though their origin might have been less exalted than that of the Barnards. The last Barnard connection, an aged spinster, had died years ago when young Barnard was a child; she was his godmother, and had bequeathed him her most treasured possession—the portrait of his ancestor, after whom she had requested that he might be christened. All the old lady had ever heard concerning the portrait was that it had arrived from India on a John Company’s sailing ship, without explanation, and that Jasper Barnard failed to follow it as was imagined must have been his intention.
Unwillingly Mrs. Barnard had complied with the old lady’s desire that the boy should be called Jasper, and as a sort of antidote to the distasteful associations with the name she had added that of her own family; but as time went on she could not counteract young Jasper Hopkins Barnard’s physical resemblance to his profligate forbear. It was chiefly on this account that the picture hung where it did, away from the light by the boxroom door, neglected, uncleaned, and ignored, though the reason Mrs. Barnard advanced when young Jasper urged that it should be hung in the dining-room was that she could not be expected to eat her meals in company with so unpleasing an object.
Had Jasper been of a vain disposition the excuse might have rankled, for he was well aware of his likeness to the picture. He knew he possessed the same blue eyes, the bold, irregular features, and the dent in the chin of wicked old Uncle Jasper Barnard; but he recognized also that there was some excuse for his mother’s contempt of the painting. It was flat, crudely coloured, badly executed—evidently, as a casual guest who hailed from the East had pronounced, the work of an Indian artist. Moreover, it was cracked and dirty, and, save as a family curiosity, hardly worth the price of the tarnished gilt frame, or of the strips of wood with which it was boarded up at the back.
Young Jasper was “in business.” A Hopkins relation had, with reluctance, obtained for him a clerkship in a City office, and poor Mrs. Barnard was always being told that sooner or later, if the young fool didn’t look out, he would find himself booted. Apparently he was careless, unpunctual, and without respect of persons, and he had a demoralizing effect upon his fellow-clerks. All the same, to his mother’s scant comfort, no one could say he was vicious, and even with his dissatisfied employer he was a favourite. But here he was, getting on for three-and-twenty, and if ever he meant to succeed he must mend his ways.
The crash ever dreaded by Mrs. Barnard and her daughters came about from a totally unanticipated direction. Jasper fell in love, not with an actress, a shop-girl, or any undesirable female, but with the motherless daughter of the vicar of the church whereat the Barnard ladies worshipped. The clandestine attachment was discovered and denounced. The girl’s people were indignant—young Barnard, they said openly, was good enough neither socially nor financially, and he was an idler into the bargain. Mrs. Barnard declared herself equally displeased. Nancy la Touche was flighty and fast, and too young, hardly more than a schoolgirl; the whole thing was absurd. One or two uncomfortable interviews and a stiff correspondence ensued between the vicar and Mrs. Barnard, and the Barnards cancelled their sittings at the church, while Nancy and Jasper continued to meet on the sly, smuggled notes to each other, and finally—oh, horrors!—eloped!
The vicar pursued, and caught the young couple on the very threshold of a registry office, but it was too late to stop scandal; everybody knew, everybody talked; and the only thing for it was to send Nancy away in disgrace to a dragon aunt in London, and for young Barnard to be banished the country.
The young man’s employer good-naturedly suggested that as the firm had business connections with the East, and as “our Mr. Preston,” who managed a property in India (the name of which sounded to Mrs. Barnard so like the vulgar word “manure” that she hardly liked to pronounce it), could do with another assistant, young Barnard should be offered the chance. Not that he deserved it, but the life was suited to a high-spirited youth, and in all probability Jasper would do well.
To the distracted mother, whose mind had not travelled beyond Canada, the notion of India for Jasper came as a shock; it seemed to her a sort of ill-omen, and she almost wished he might rebel and refuse to go; but, perversely, of course, he jumped at the offer.
“That’s all right!” he said cheerfully, “and I’ll make my fortune, like bad old Uncle Jasper before me, and you bet I shall stick to it, and come home to marry my angel Nancy!”
“It’s to be hoped, for her own sake, that your angel won’t count upon that,” observed his eldest sister unamiably.
“Puss, puss! Miau-pht!” was Jasper’s insulting response, and he clawed the air.
* * * *
The night before he was to sail for India, Jasper sat up late. His heavy baggage was gone, his cabin box packed. He had contrived a secret meeting with Nancy in the afternoon, and they had vowed eternal fidelity, also they had concocted an ingenious scheme for the receipt of his letters to her. Now he had just written to her, telling her again and again how he meant to work for her, that no longer should anyone have occasion to call him a waster, and that he would send for her to India, or come home to marry her, the instant he was in a position to do so.
Then he sat thinking. Yes, he was glad to be going, even though it meant parting from Nancy; it would have been difficult in England to shake off old habits, to carry out new resolutions, and he had no sort of doubt but that Nancy would be true to him as he would be true to her. He wondered what India was like; he knew nothing about the country, had never thought of it till lately, and he imagined a land of palms and elephants, peacocks and snakes; he remembered old Jasper Barnard, and the whim suddenly seized him to hang his ancestor’s portrait in his room, which his mother had tearfully promised him should be kept as it was until his return.
He lighted a candle, and went stealthily along the passage, and in the silence of the sleeping household he stood and gazed at the picture that seemed to smile at him in friendly fashion from beneath the dirt that dimmed it. Cautiously he lifted it down and carried it to his room; its boarded back made it a heavy burden, and he was glad to prop it on a chair where the electric light shone full on its surface. He laughed as it occurred to him that perhaps great-uncle Jasper would like to have his face washed, and he set to work with soap and water until the highly coloured countenance and gay blue eyes stared out at him as clean and fresh as when they had been painted over a hundred years ago. Old Jasper wasn’t such a bad-looking chap after all. Young Jasper glanced involuntarily at his own reflection in the glass; yes, they were undoubtedly alike it might have been himself in fancy dress.
As he worked farther down the figure, an object came to light that had hitherto been hidden by dirt. It was a flat gold locket that hung from a fob at the waist. He wondered whose portrait the old fellow had carried about with him; perhaps that of the Indian charmer who was supposed to have been the cause of his death. How romantic! Jasper wished the locket had been sent home with the picture—then he would have given it to Nancy with his own photograph inside.
Subsequently something else was revealed down in the right-hand corner of the picture, a little symbol or sign that looked like a snake with the face of a woman beneath the distended hood; but Jasper could not decide as to what it was actually intended to represent. He hung the picture on the wall so that next morning the sun should shine on old Jasper’s face and powdered hair and on the locket and the snake!
At the end of the first three years on the Manura estate, Jasper Barnard found himself no nearer to making a fortune than when he had sailed from England. The life was congenial to a youth of his temperament; he enjoyed the riding and the sport, and “our Mr. Preston” was an ideal boss for whom no one could help working most wholeheartedly; but the climate was bad, the pay disappointing, promotion slow, and the cost of living unexpectedly heavy. So that the outlook was not altogether hopeful, and Jasper had begun to grumble and chafe.
Mr. Preston, who had gauged the young man’s adventurous nature, noted the signs of restless discouragement in his assistant. So far young Barnard had done well; he had picked up the language with ease; he was popular with the natives of all classes, and had a good grasp of his work. It would be a thousand pities if, in a mood of boredom and impatience, he should throw away his chances and embark upon some fresh venture that might only lead him to disaster. Besides, Mr. Preston had no wish to lose the services of one whom he had trained with particular care, not only for the sake of the firm, but also because he liked young Barnard sincerely. The boy was straightforward, clean-minded, clever, but he lacked ballast and perseverance both of which qualities there was no reason why he should not acquire if he would but allow himself time.
Therefore, when a representative was required to conduct a responsible piece of work away from Manura, Mr. Preston selected young Barnard for the undertaking.
“You will start to-morrow,” Mr. Preston decided, “and stay there just long enough to get an idea of the value of the land that is for sale, and whether it’s a bargain at the price. You’ll have to camp in the palace, though it’s more pigsty than palace I expect—it’s been deserted for years. The Naga Raj is now extinct.”
“Isn’t there a rest-house I could go to?” Jasper inquired, rather ruefully; he did not enjoy discomfort.
“No; nothing that a European could use. It’s all native territory, and the town is nothing to speak of. Take a servant and your camp things, and make up your mind to rough it. You will be able to get certain supplies, but you’d better fill your tiffin basket. You needn’t be there for more than a few days.”
Jasper sulked. He was not feeling fit; the heat tried his temper; there had been no letter from Nancy this week, and he did not want to leave Manura before the next mail was in.
“Old-man-Preston’s” flattering faith in his aptitude for this particular job gave him no self-satisfaction just then; altogether he was out of tune.
At dinner that night, when Mr. Preston prosed about the property he was to investigate, he could have thrown a plate at the grey head of his chief; he felt he did not care whether the land was purchasable or not. The ice had failed, the drinks were warm; Jasper was sick of India and of Manura and of Mr. Preston, and everything else. And at first he paid scant attention to the odd bits of information Mr. Preston was imparting. But presently, in spite of his ill-humour, he found himself listening.
“They were of the snake caste,” said Mr. Preston, who knew a good deal about the people of the country, their histories, customs, religious beliefs, and superstitions.
“Who were?” inquired Jasper reluctantly.
“The Rajahs of Naga. They were said to retain affinity with snakes as the descendants of the Great Serpent, and to have the power of controlling and taming the more venomous kind.”
“Rather they than me!” put in Jasper flippantly.
Mr. Preston rambled on:
“The popular beliefs about snakes are very curious and interesting. They are supposed to be long lived, and to renew their existence periodically. They are guardians of treasure, and when a rich man dies without an heir he comes back as a snake to watch over his wealth. Snake charmers have told me some very queer things as corroboration of this idea.”
Then he digressed a little on the subject of snake charmers, and told Jasper how some of them burned dried snake venom that caused clouds of smoke and rendered the reptiles harmless; how others were said to allow themselves to be bitten once a year as an inoculation, and that when the time came round they felt a sort of intoxication and could not evade the operation. One well-known snake charmer had told him that an infallible charm against snake-bite was to smoke one of the tail feathers of a peacock in a tobacco pipe. And then there was the ancient belief in Snake Women, who were snakes by day to deal death, and women by night to deal destruction, unless they were properly propitiated.
“And it is curious,” he added, “that what you might call the coat of arms of the Rajahs of Naga was a cobra with a human face under the distended hood.”
Jasper started, mentally and physically. At first he did not know why. It was like the flash of a gun that is seen in the distance before the report is heard. Then his memory discharged a vision of great-uncle Jasper’s portrait, beginning with the rubicund visage, continuing with the gleam of the flat gold locket, ending with the little symbol in the corner of the picture—a cobra, with the face of a woman beneath the outspread hood.
Puzzled, almost frightened, he rose unsteadily from the table. His limbs felt heavy, and his head ached; he thought perhaps the tepid whisky-and-soda he had just swallowed had been too strong. He muttered something about going to bed, as he had to start so early to-morrow morning, and he went to his quarters on the farther side of the bungalow. But he did not sleep well. It was a very hot night, a brain-fever bird shrieked with hideous persistence from a tree close to his bedroom veranda; there was a dog in the stables that howled as if it saw ghosts. He rose at dawn with his head still aching and pulses that throbbed, yet he was possessed by a strange eagerness to start, a feverish desire to find himself in the ruined palace of the Naga princes.
Pir Khan, Jasper’s Mahomedan servant, gazed about him with disgust.
“Sahib,” he expostulated, “how can we remain in a place like this? Where is the watchman? Where is the bazaar? How am I to obtain water and charcoal, and where is your honour to sleep? Give me but leave to go forth and seek better lodging—if, indeed, there is a town at all in this jungly neighbourhood.”
It had been a tedious journey, concluding with a drive of many miles in an ekkah, the cab of the country. Now master and man had arrived at their destination—a huge pile, half palace, half fort, built on a mound overlooking a wild tract of country; it stood silent and desolate in the hot midday sunlight, crumbling to ruins, yet impressive even in its mournful decay.
Jasper and Pir Khan had entered a vast empty hall, pillared, with an inlaid marble floor, and a wonderful ceiling; but the pillars were cracked, the slabs of marble were broken, bats hung from the ceiling; and dust was everywhere. However, at least it was cool, and the silence and the absence of glare were welcome to the Englishman, who felt that all he needed at the moment was rest.
He agreed with Pir Khan that the place as a habitation was discouraging, and he gave the man permission to seek better accommodation, though in the face of Mr. Preston’s warning such would scarcely seem obtainable. But first, he stipulated, the tiffin basket must be unpacked, the camp-bed and table and chair set up, and the bedding unrolled. After which Pir Khan could do as he liked.
Pir Khan served him a rough meal from the supplies they had brought with them, and then, to the sound of his servant’s hurried departure, Jasper laid himself down for a much-needed sleep.
When he awoke it was late afternoon; something had disturbed him. He sat up and stretched his stiff limbs, and listened. All he could hear was the soft, monotonous cooing of doves, and somewhere in the distance a thin, harsh sound, a teasing little noise, something like bagpipes badly played, that rasped his nerves. Where was Pir Khan? He called, but there came no response save the echo of his own voice in the lofty hall, and the tiresome piping, plaintive and high. His bones still ached, he was thirsty and feverish, and he drank some soda-water before setting out, with an effort, to explore the domain.
What a labyrinth of halls and chambers and holes and hovels, with a great square in the centre open to the sky! He saw lines of stables and elephant sheds, and quarters for soldiers and servants and guests; a separate building also, with slits in the walls and secluded balconies, presumably the apartments of the royal ladies. It all breathed of lost power and splendour, of long past indulgence and feasting and lavish display; and now only ruin and desolation remained. Rank weeds sprang from fissures in the walls, a few brown monkeys chattered on a broken balustrade, a little cloud of green parrots flew with shrill screams from one perching point to another. An almost ominous melancholy hung in the hot yellow haze of the dying day. Jasper felt oppressed by it to the verge of misery; and the whole time the little piping went on, now fainter, now more distinct, sometimes in one direction, again in another, till, maddened by its ceaseless plaint, he returned to the hall where he had rested, hoping to find Pir Khan awaiting him.
But Pir Khan had not come back, and he sat down on his camp-bed conscious of an unpleasant sense of solitude. Then, all at once, the piping grew louder, came near; it seemed to be just outside the doorway through which he had re-entered the hall. He sprang to his feet, and as, for a moment, he stood in puzzled hesitation, he saw something move on the floor close to the wall. From a gaping hole, where the slabs of marble had subsided, a large black cobra was slowly emerging; the thing seemed to be endless as it slithered its long length from its lair. Once it lay out on the broken floor it paused, motionless; then, as the piping shrilled higher it reared its head, and with hood distended swayed to and fro as if in response to the horrible music.
Jasper watched it, spellbound, till suddenly it shot across the room, almost touching his feet, and disappeared through the doorway. On an impulse Jasper dashed after it, and caught a glimpse on the terrace outside of a very old man, wizened and small, like a mummified monkey; he held an earthenware vessel in one hand, and in the other a small yellow gourd with a couple of reeds attached. The piping had ceased abruptly, and the next instant the figure disappeared round a piece of projecting masonry.
Jasper went forward, sure of overtaking the snake charmer, but when he turned the corner of the crumbling wall neither the old man nor the cobra were visible.
He stood staring into space; his head swam, and suddenly he felt cold. The sound of Pir Khan’s voice behind him was more than welcome, and he turned back, thankful for human companionship.
Pir Khan was in a very bad temper.
“There is a kind of bazaar,” he said contemptuously, “though it is more like a village of sweepers—jungly people, without manners; and as for accommodation that would be suitable for the sahib, or even this slave—” Words failed Pir Khan at this juncture.
However, he had purchased some charcoal and a chicken and some oil—luckily they had brought a lantern with them. Pir Khan supposed matters might be worse, and there was enough food in the tiffin basket to go on with. Now and then, as he talked, he glanced apprehensively over his shoulder.
“This place,” he told his master, “has a bad name; they say it is full of ghosts, and that no one but an old snake charmer dwells in this large building.”
Jasper felt relieved, yet half ashamed of the sensation. Then he really had seen an old man on the terrace, and not an apparition as he had been almost inclined to imagine.
“I saw him—before you returned” he told Pir Khan; but he said nothing about the cobra that had been lured from its hole by the piping. There was nothing to be gained by alarming Pir Khan.
Valiantly he endeavoured to eat the food that Pir Khan cooked under difficulties, but fever was upon him, and finally he took a large dose of quinine, and had his bed placed outside the hall beneath the portico. He threw himself down on it as he was, in his flannels, only trusting that by the morning he would be well enough to make his inspection of the land. Pir Khan, much disturbed as to the sahib’s state of health, withdrew reluctantly to a safe sleeping-place within call; and then Jasper lay wide awake, turning from side to side in his efforts to find a position that might ease the ache in his limbs and head.
There was no moon, and the darkness was oppressive; mosquitoes tormented him; his thirst was maddening. Pir Khan had left a bottle of soda-water beside his bed, and it was very soon finished. He felt afraid to draw too freely upon his supply, though he felt he could have drunk gallons without a pause. The hours dragged on, till at last he fell into a fitful sleep, harassed by dreams.
How long he had slept he did not know when he heard the faint, persistent piping of the snake charmer in the distance; it drew nearer, nearer, and he became conscious of a strong light somewhere at hand. He raised himself on his elbow, and looked through the open doors into the great hall. What on earth had happened? The hall looked different; there was furniture in it, divans, a carpet, and light blazed from a chandelier hung from the ceiling. And on the floor the old snake charmer was squatting; he was throwing something, some sort of powder, on to a brazier of live charcoal. Jasper wondered if the old rascal had helped himself to the charcoal Pir Khan had brought from the bazaar.
He lit a cigarette to keep off the mosquitoes and watched. The smoke from the brazier was so thick that he could not see clearly what the old man was about; so very cautiously he slipped off the bed and sidled into the hall. P’ff! what a smell, and what luminous fumes! Who said dried snake venom?
Now the piping began again, and presently, to his unbounded amazement, the form of a woman appeared. She seemed to rise from the smoke, a lissom, beautiful being, hung with jewels, who danced and swayed to the sound of the piping, waving her exquisite arms; and then, one by one, there rose snakes, large black cobras, that twisted about her body and limbs, their hoods distended, their forked tongues flickering in and out of their mouths; writhing, hissing, they danced danced as the woman was dancing, with a grace diabolical.
Jasper could stand it no longer; he sprang forward, and as he did so he found himself shouting: “A snake woman—a snake woman!”
In an instant the vision was gone; he was standing alone in the centre of the hall, on the bare, cracked slabs of marble; the charmer, the woman, the snakes were gone, only the bright yellow light remained, and by it he beheld a long black streak disappearing into the crevice by the wall from which he had seen the cobra escaping the evening before.
What was it Preston had said?—that snakes guarded treasure? In a frenzy he rushed to the spot, and began to tear up the broken slabs. He would kill the snake—he would find the treasure. Wildly he scraped at the stones and rubbish. Here already was something that shone in the light; a flat, round object, a locket! And it was just like the locket that great-uncle Jasper wore in his picture! Now he would know whose face was inside it. But there was no face—nothing but an oval scrap of paper. Something was written on the paper, but the writing was so faded he could hardly make it out. Only three words were legible, “Back of picture.” What could that mean? As he turned the locket about in his hands there came a rustle at his feet, the sharp sound of a hiss, and slowly from the hole in the floor rose the evil black head of a cobra—the guardian of the treasure.
Then Jasper lost his nerve; he turned and ran—ran blindly, stumbling, shouting into darkness and oblivion.
People were talking. Jasper wished they would be quiet and let him go on sleeping. He tried to call out in Hindustani: “Shut up—you!” Then he opened his eyes, and was astonished to see “Oldman Preston” standing at the foot of the bed looking at him, and beyond was the doctor who attended Manura Estate; also a stranger, a white-capped female, who came to his side and made him drink something from the spout of a sort of little teapot! He felt very queer. What did it all mean, and why was he back at Manura instead of at Naga? He began to grope about the coverlet of his bed.
“Where is the locket?” he demanded with feeble impatience. It was a question he asked perpetually during the next few days while his senses slowly returned; but he could get no one to answer it satisfactorily. They were all ready enough to explain that he had been at death’s door for the last three weeks, to tell him that now he was going to get well, and that he was on no account to worry about anything. That was all right; but he wanted to know what had become of the locket? There was no locket, they assured him, and they brought him his watch and chain, and the little box in which he kept his links and studs. Further, to convince him, they questioned Pir Khan. Pir Khan was indignant; he had seen no locket, the sahib had no locket. Was he, Pir Khan, a rascal that he should have failed to report the matter if aught belonging to the sahib had been lost or stolen?
“Look here, my boy,” said Mr. Preston, when Jasper was more than usually pertinacious on the subject of the imaginary trinket that he insisted he had found at Naga, “do remember that you must have arrived at the palace with fever on you—sickening for typhoid, the doctor says—though, of course, I had no suspicion of any such thing, or I should never have let you go. Whatever you think happened at Naga—and I must say your ravings were like the Arabian Nights!—was purely imaginary. Pir Khan says you were off your head that night, and he had no end of a business with you. The fellow behaved splendidly; how he ever got you back here alive is a marvel to us all. You will have to go home on sick leave directly you are fit to stand the voyage, and the firm will pay your passage. So just look forward to that, and to seeing your people, and give over bothering about lockets and things that never existed.”
Jasper tried to obey him; at any rate he ceased to speak of the locket, but he could not prevent himself from thinking of it. He could still see the thing, gleaming and flat, and the words on the piece of paper yet haunted his mind: “Back of picture.” Perhaps there had been a portrait behind the paper in the locket? He could believe that the vision of the woman dancing, entwined with snakes, was no more than delirious fancy, but not the locket. The locket had been real; he had seen it, and held it in his hand. Of that he felt convinced, whatever “Old-man Preston” or anyone else might say.
Some weeks later, Jasper, still more or less of an invalid, sat in his bedroom at home, in the redbrick villa at Streatham. His mother had kept her promise—everything was just as he had left it some three years ago. The morning sun shone on old Jasper Barnard’s face, and in the heart of his young descendant there was sunshine also, for this afternoon Nancy was to be there! Constancy had conquered opposition; they were to be allowed to meet as an affianced pair, though marriage must still be in the far future.
Thin and white and weak he lay back on his cushions and gazed at old Jasper’s portrait, with the locket dangling from the fob and the sinister little symbol in the corner of the picture. If only he could look inside the locket! He felt certain, if he could, that he should see the piece of paper and the scrawl in faded ink, “Back of picture.” Now he would never know what the words meant.
But as he gazed and wondered, a sudden and wild suggestion shot into his mind. He dragged himself up from his chair, and staggered across the room. With an immense effort he lifted the picture down and placed it on a chair, as he had done the night before he sailed for India; only this time he turned old Jasper’s face towards the wall. Then, with shaking hands, he searched for some tools that he knew he had left in a drawer, and one by one, the sweat bursting out on his forehead, he drew forth the rusty nails that held the strips of wood to the back of the picture. “Back of picture—back of picture!” the words raced to and fro through his brain. Should he find anything? He could hardly breathe for excitement and fatigue; but still he worked on till the strips of wood were removed, and dust flew forth in a cloud, blinding and choking him. Something fell at his feet, a long, heavy packet like a sand-bag, sewn up in brown canvas, and rotting with age.
Jasper picked it up; it seemed to be full of coarse gravel that dribbled out and fell with little sharp taps about the floor; some of it rolled under the furniture. Though dulled with dust the stones were plainly of different colours, red and blue, white and green, like blurred bits of broken glass thrown up by the sea that he used to find among the pebbles on the beach as a child. He stared at them stupidly, wonderingly.
“Good heavens, Jasper!” cried a horrified voice at the door. “What on earth are you doing? You know you ought not to exert yourself! What a horrible mess!”
His eldest sister came forward, fussy and fault-finding as usual. For a space Jasper did not answer; he was looking intently at some of the stones that remained in his hand. Then he said, provokingly:
“Keep calm! For all we can tell this horrible mess may be composed of diamonds and rubies and sapphires and emeralds. There may be some cat’s eyes among them; if so, I will give them to you. I shouldn’t be surprised if old Uncle Jasper’s fortune hasn’t been bottled up behind his picture all this time. In which case I shall never go back to India, and Nancy and I can be married just as soon as I’m able to hobble to a church! Just crawl under the bed, will you, old girl, and scrape up some of the mess?”
* * * *
Afterwards, whenever Miss Barnard related the romantic circumstance to her friends, which she never tired of doing, she always concluded the recital with the trite remark that many a true word was spoken in jest. Of course, Jasper had been joking when he said he believed that great-uncle Barnard’s fortune had been hidden all the time behind the picture; and yet, strange to relate, it had actually turned out to be true!
The doctor stopped his dog-cart in front of a little wooden gate in the roadside hedge.
“Here’s the last of them,” he said, relief in his voice.
His companion, a short, spare man, browned by Eastern sun, descended from the trap and waited while the doctor tied the reins to the gate-post. All this afternoon the two had driven about the scattered parishes to clumps of cottages, to lonely farms, now and then to superior dwellings, and once through many acres of park to where, in a great old stone house, a servant lay ill. To-morrow the doctor would start on his long-delayed holiday; the thin, brown man was his locum tenens, and to-day had been spent in explaining and introducing the cases that were to be left in the stranger’s care.
The surrounding country was bleak and high, with distant railway communication, wide, sloping fields, dense hedges, thick stone walls, and steep hills; the habitations seemed to have been placed, purposely, as far apart as possible. But it was spring-time. Primroses clustered close about the roots of giant trees, bluebells wove a coloured carpet for the copses; the plaintive, exacting bleat of lambs quavered on the clean, fresh atmosphere, and across the azure brightness of the sky marched a great army of white clouds in triumphant procession.
The Anglo-Indian looked about him, and breathed the pure air with keen enjoyment. In his thoughts he contrasted his present surroundings with the sunbaked land he had left but a few weeks back where human beings, both dark and white, might be perfectly well in the morning and dead before the day was out; where he had seen natives die by hundreds in the twenty-four hours; where he had treated, continuously, such terrible maladies as plague, small-pox, leprosy, cholera. To-day he had seen teething ailments, whooping-cough, rheumatism, “bad legs,” and worn-out, bedridden peasants dying peacefully, readily, of old age—their approaching ends discussed in their presence with cheerful interest by their friends.
How different it was! The homely complaints, the old-world cottage interiors, the remote and monotonous lives, the English landscapes, the fresh, uncertain weather. And yet, in the midst of his appreciation and relief, the doctor from India was conscious, reluctantly, of a curious little throb of nostalgia for the vast sun-soaked plains he had left; the seething bazaars, redolent of musk and spice, and Oriental humanity; the little villages flanked by clumsy mango-groves; and the great, silent spaces of the jungle.
Yet, how thankful he had been to get away. Tired, in indifferent health, weary of exile, but still having within him the incurable unrest of the seasoned Anglo-Indian, the unrest that had driven him to answer the advertisement of a country doctor and take this temporary work that he might have occupation for mind and time, the while he gained benefit from bracing air and comparative quiet.
“Old Jones had a stroke a couple of years ago,” said Dr. Rowe, pausing at the gate. “He’s a very old man, nearer ninety than eighty. He may go out at any moment now, so I just keep an eye on him.”
He pushed open the gate and led the way up a narrow, flagged path, with cabbages on either side and clumps of daffodils and wallflowers at irregular intervals. A jackdaw swung in a wicker cage by the cottage door. It made Sayne, the man from India, remember captive mynas, quail, partridges, parrots, hanging outside the bungalows of departmental clerks and subordinates. He felt vaguely annoyed that he could not shake his memory free of India, even over the veriest trifle.
Bending his head, he followed his leader through a dangerously low entrance into the dimness of a cramped little dwelling-room. The usual stuffy cottage odour met his nostrils. He saw, against the opposite wall, an oak dresser covered with a miscellaneous collection of objects—japanned trays, wooden boxes, shells, china and glass ornaments; much modern rubbish mingled, ignorantly, with some genuinely “old bits.” A deal table stood in the middle of the floor, and a shabby chair-bed was stretched beneath the window. A fire smouldered in the tiny range, and a kettle hissed drowsily. Over the high mantel-shelf that bore china dogs and gaudy biscuit-boxes hung a crude, coloured picture. Sayne, glancing at it, recognized the Taj at Agra. Good heavens! India again. Then, seeing a white-bearded patriarch dozing in a cart-wheel chair, he wondered if Jones had been a soldier in his day, and had seen service in the East!
Behind the chair, in the shadow, stood an old woman, who curtsied in respectful welcome. Her straight white hair was crowned with a man’s cloth cap, she wore a faded print gown, and a coarse apron; her shrivelled skin was the colour of tanned leather, and sunken dark eyes glinted deep in her head.
Sayne observed the old lady with interest while Dr. Rowe explained to her the situation, and made inquiries concerning the health of her husband. There was something about the woman’s wrinkled face that puzzled Sayne—something in the dull fire of the deep-set eyes and the outline of the head and shoulders that seemed to him different from the ordinary type of countrywoman. For all her evident years she retained traces of beauty in the modelling of her features, and of grace in her carriage. The snow-white hair beneath the discoloured cloth cap was abundant and of fine quality, the ears were small and well shaped, the wrists and hands slender.
Old Jones sat vacant, helpless. Mary, his wife, made respectful replies with a strong rustic accent to Dr. Rowe’s questions and remarks. The kettle sang, the spring sunshine penetrated between the flower-pots that blocked the window-sill, and shot in a golden shaft across the red-tiled floor. Close to suffocation was the atmosphere, and the two doctors were glad to escape from it as soon as possible.
“Is Mrs. Jones of gipsy origin?” asked Sayne, as presently they drove down the narrow lane.
Rowe glanced at his companion in some surprise. “Not that I know of—why? She’s much the same as all the other old bodies about the country-side white hair, a wrinkled skin, and a general air of stupidity!”
“She struck me as rather out of the common; but, of course, I haven’t much experience of English village folk,” Sayne deprecated.
“Oh! they’re a very ordinary old couple. Jones was a soldier in his youth a very long time ago now! They sell poultry and eggs and such-like at the nearest market. The old lady walks there every week, pushing a sort of go-cart full of her wares four miles each way. So far as I can gather, her power of endurance is the only uncommon thing about her. Look!” pointing over the edge with his whip “there goes a fine old cock-pheasant. The shooting hereabouts ought to be first-rate, but nobody can afford to preserve, so it’s horribly neglected.”
The talk turned on sport; Mary Jones and her husband were forgotten.
It was not until Dr. Rowe had been more than a week in enjoyment of his holiday that Sayne had occasion to remember the old couple again.
The day had been boisterous and showery; he had driven far that afternoon, and was glad as the evening drew in, sharp and chilly, to rest in a comfortable arm-chair in front of a welcome fire. But presently he was disturbed by the rush and throb of a motor-car and a violent peal at the door bell. He went into the little hall and interrupted a parley between his servant and a leather-clad, begoggled figure on the door-step.
“What is it?” he asked. “Won’t you come in?”
“Very sorry—can’t,” was the answer. “In a desperate hurry—must get on without delay. I inquired for the doctor’s house when we reached the village, because I’m sorry to say we knocked down an old woman about three miles back, just outside her cottage gate. She was a bit dazed at first, but she said she wasn’t hurt, and I don’t think she was, for she walked up to her door all right. I gave her a sovereign. Her name’s Jones. I thought it was best to let the doctor know, and here’s my card in case anything happens. Sorry about it, but we weren’t going fast, and she came out of her gate without the least warning. Good night.”
The traveller stepped into his palpitating conveyance, and was out of sight and hearing before Sayne had returned to his fireside.
So poor old Mary Jones had been bowled over by a motor-car! But according to the motorist she was unhurt. Sayne thought rather wistfully of the well-cooked dinner that was just ready, and looked at the comfortable chair with a low table beside it, on which lay a particularly interesting book together with his tobacco-pouch and pipe. Mary Jones had declared herself unhurt, had walked unaided into her cottage, and had the sovereign to console her. All the same, she was an old woman the shock might easily produce the most disastrous consequences, even without actual injury; she was alone but for the presence of her helpless old husband. Yes, he must go. After a few mouthfuls of food and a gulp of whisky-and-soda, he packed a bag with possible medical necessaries and set off on his bicycle.
A light twinkled feebly from the Jones’s cottage. The door was not quite shut, and Sayne pushed it open without knocking. There sat old Jones in the cart-wheel chair before the range, the kettle shooting at him a thin arrow of steam. The doctor looked around the close little room. On the bed under the window lay Mary Jones in her print gown and coarse apron, the cloth cap still on her white head. Her eyes were wide open, and she was muttering rapidly to herself. Sayne saw that she was delirious, but, as he laid his hand upon her wrist, he felt as though a sudden blow had been dealt to his understanding, for the words that were coming fast from her lips, were Hindustani words—Hindustani, not English! He listened to the familiar tongue, and heard the old woman babble incoherently of scented garlands and attar of roses, of marriage feasts, of spangled gossamer, of jewels and rupees, and of the beat of the tom-tom.
With an effort he gave his medical attention to the case; and soon the painful, unnatural murmur ceased, and the strained, glittering eyes closed gently.
Sayne sat beside the motionless figure, conjecturing as to what strange secret could be hidden beneath the disguise of plain old Mary Jones, described by Dr. Rowe as being “much the same as all the other old bodies about the country-side.” He examined one of the wrinkled hands; it was brown and toilworn, the nails were dirty and broken, the thin wedding-ring hung loose. Certainly the skin was dark, but not darker than that of many an old Englishwoman of sallow complexion who had suffered constant exposure to all weathers. He glanced at Jones, unheeding and tranquil in his chair, and then his gaze wandered upward to the crude picture of the Taj, all white, and blue, and green. What was the connection between this outwardly prosaic old country couple and that land of eternal mysteries—India?
The patient lay quiet, the old man snored gently; presently Sayne rose and went out into the cool twilight for a breath of air. India seemed very remote and unreal to him as he stood there in the wild spring night; the cherry-tree at the corner creaked and rustled, the smell of wet earth, and the scent of daffodils and wallflowers was blown about him. How different from the musky perfumes and scented garlands babbled of by Mary Jones in her delirium! He almost laughed at the fantastic comparison, and began to question whether the old woman had really spoken in Hindustani, or if he could by any possibility have imagined it.
A sound from within the cottage made him turn to re-enter the little room, but on the threshold he paused, aghast, for Mary Jones was standing upright in the narrow space between the couch and the table. The cloth cap had fallen from her head, her white locks straggled to her shoulders; the sunken black eyes gleamed and glittered, and she began, in a cracked nasal voice, to sing a curious minor melody that Sayne recognized instantly. He had heard it chanted so often in native processions, had caught its echo from bazaar house-tops on hot-weather nights; it had floated towards him from dusky entrances, and he had listened to it in rajahs’ palaces—the song of the nautch girl!
Then he saw that Jones was awake—that the old man had moved in his chair, and with palsied head, quivering helplessly, he was pointing a gnarled forefinger at his wife. Now she twisted and turned her old body, her feet, in their clumsy boots, shuffled on the brick floor, the wrinkled, withered hands waved and gesticulated. Mind and memory had swept back over the wide space of many years to the time of her youth when, surely, she had been no Englishwoman, no Mary Jones in print gown and coarse apron, with rustic speech and yokel apathy; but what?
All in a moment she swayed and tottered; the song ceased abruptly in a shuddering gasp, and Sayne, stepping forward, caught a lifeless body in his arms. Gently he laid it on the narrow chair-bed, and, as he listened for the heart-beats that he knew instinctively were stilled for ever, he became aware that the old man was trying to speak.
Patiently the doctor waited as thin, quavering sounds issued from that toothless mouth, till a few indistinct words were shaped with painful effort. They sounded to Sayne like “Sixty-year—little wench,” and, was it “Kashmere”? Then the head sank forward, the worn-out consciousness relapsed into senility.
For a few moments the doctor stood, seeing the little room with its eminently English contents the ornaments, the hissing kettle, the rag mat in front of the range, the rough, solid furniture. He looked at the huddled figure in the arm-chair dozing away the feeble remnant of life, and at the still form on the bed. What curious little history had he so nearly surprised? Was Mary Jones a native woman? Was it possible that in her far-off youth she had been a nautch girl?
He considered the comparative fairness of her skin—perhaps she had been brought down from Kashmere and bartered in one of the great cities of the plains? Had Jones taken her from a bazaar, married her, and brought her home as little more than a child, according to English standards? Stranger things had happened, Sayne knew, in those bygone Indian days! And had she been severed for sixty years from the old life and language to return to it in spirit at the hour of her death?
The doctor roused himself. It was necessary to summon the parish nurse. And he went out from the fusty little dwelling into the boisterous night, his imagination aflame with questions that could never now be answered.