No Tara waiting now. No point of safety, except a very prosaic dak bungalow and good old Azim, who would fuss like the devil if rain came on and he got a wetting.
Ah—here it was, at last! Buckets of it. Lashing his face, running down his neck, saturating him below his flapping burberry. Buffeted mercilessly, he broke into a trot. Thunder and lightning were less virulent now; and he found himself actually enjoying it all.
Tired——? Not a bit. The miasma of depression seemed blown clean away by the horseplay of the elements. He had been within an ace of taking unwarranted liberties with Nature. Now she retaliated by taking liberties with him; and her buffeting proved a finer restorative than all the drugs in creation. Electricity, her 'fierce angel of the air,' set every nerve tingling. A queer sensation: but it was life. And he had been feeling more than half dead....
Azim Khan, however—being innocent of 'nerves'—took quite another view of the matter.
Arrived at the point of safety, Roy found a log fire burning; and a brazier alight under a contrivance like a huge cane hen-coop, for drying his clothes. Vainly protesting, he was made to change every garment; was installed by the fire, with steaming brandy-and-water at his elbow, and lemons and sugar—and letters ... quite a little pile of them.
"Belaiti dak, Hazur," Azim Khan superfluously informed him, with an air of personal pride in the whole bundobast—including the timely arrival of the English mail.
There were parcels also—a biggish one, from his father; another from Jeffers, obviously a book. And suddenly it dawned on him—this must be the tenth of June. Yesterday was his twenty-sixth birthday; and he had never thought of it; never realised the date! But they had thought of it weeks ahead: while he—graceless and ungrateful—had deemed himself half forgotten.
He ran the envelopes through his fingers—Tiny, Tara. (His heart jerked. Was it congratulations? He had never felt he could write of it to her.) Aruna; a black-edged one from Thea; and—his heart jerked in quite another fashion—Rose!
Amazing! What did it mean? She wasn't—going back on things...?
Curiosity—sharpened by a prick of fear—impelled him to open her letter first. And the moment he had read the opening line, compunction smote him.
"Roy—my Dear, I couldn't help remembering the ninth. So I feel I must write and wish you 'many happy returns' of it—happier than this one—with all my heart. I have worried over you a good deal. For I'm sure you must have been ill. Do go home soon and be properly taken care of, by your own people. I'm going in the autumn with my friend, Mrs Hilton. Some day you will surely find a wife worthier of you than I would have been. When your good day comes, let me know and I'll do the same by you. Good luck to you always.—ROSE."
Roy slipped the note into his pocket and sat staring at the fire, deeply moved. A vision of her—too alluring for comfort—was flashed upon his brain. She was confoundedly attractive. She had no end of good points: but ... with a very big B....
His gaze rested absently on the parcel from his father. What the deuce could it be? To the imaginative, an unopened parcel never quite loses its intriguing air of mystery. The shape suggested a picture. His mother...?
With a luxury of deliberation he cut the strings; removed wrapper after wrapper to the last layer of tissue....
Then he drew a great breath—and sat spellbound; gazing—endlessly gazing—at Tara's face:—the wild roses in her cheeks faded a little; the glory of her hair undimmed; the familiar way it rippled back from her low, wide brow; a hint of hidden pain about the sensitive lips and in the hyacinth blue of her eyes. Only his father could have wrought a vision so appealingly alive. And the effect on Roy was instantaneous ... overwhelming....
Tara—dearest and loveliest! Of course it was her—always had been, down in the uttermost depths. The treasure he had been far to seek had blossomed beside him since the beginning of things: and he, with his eyes always on the horizon, had missed the one incomparable flower at his feet....
Had he missed it? Had there ever been a chance? What, precisely, had she meant by her young, vehement refusal of him? And—if it were not the dreaded reason—was there still hope? Would she ever understand ... ever forgive ... the inglorious episode of Rose? If, at heart, he could plead the excuse of Adam, he could not plead it to her.
Reverently he took that miracle of a picture between his hands and set it on the broad mantelpiece, that distance might quicken the illusion of life.
Then the spell was on him again. Her sweetness and light seemed to illumine the unbeautiful room. Of a truth he knew, now, what it meant to love and be in love with every faculty of soul and body; knew it for a miracle of renewal, the elixir of life. And—the light of that knowledge revealed how secondary a part of it was the craving with which he had craved possession of Rose. Steeped in poetry as he was, there stole into his mind a fragment of Tagore—'She who had ever remained in the depths of my being, in the twilight of gleams and glimpses ... I have roamed from country to country, keeping her in the core of my heart.'
All the jangle of jarred nerves and shaken faith; all the confusion of shattered hopes and ideals would resolve itself into coherence at last—if only ... if only——!
And dropping suddenly from the clouds, he remembered his letters ... her letter.
A sealed envelope had fallen unheeded from his father's parcel: but it was hers he seized—and half hesitated to open. What if she were announcing her own engagement to some infernal fellow at home? There must be scores and scores of them....
His hand was not quite steady as he unfolded the two sheets that bore his father's crest and the home stamp, 'Bramleigh Beeches.'
"My Dear Roy (he read),
"Many happy returns of June the Ninth. It was one of our great days—wasn't it?—once upon a time. All your best and dearest wishes we are wishing for you—over here. And of course I've heard your tremendous news; though you never wrote and told me—why? You say she is beautiful. I hope she is a lot more besides. You would need a lot more, Roy, unless you've changed very much from the boy I used to know.
"It is cruel having to write—in the same breath—about Lance. From the splendid boy he was, one can guess the man he became. To me it seems almost like half of you gone. And I'm sure it must seem so to you—my poor Roy. I don't wonder you felt bad about the way of it; but it was the essence of him—that kind of thing. A verse of Charles Sorley keeps on in my head ever since I heard it:—
'Surely we knew it long before; Knew all along that he was made For a swift radiant morning; for A sacrificing swift night shade.'
"I can't write all I feel about it. Besides, I'm hoping your pain may be eased a little now; and I don't want to wake it up again.
"But not even these two big things—not even your Birthday—are my reallest reason for writing this particular letter to my Bracelet-Bound Brother. Do you remember? Have you kept it, Roy? Does it still mean anything to you? It does to me—though I've never mentioned it and never asked any service of you. But—I'm going to, now. Not for myself. Don't be afraid! It's for Uncle Nevil—and I ask it in Aunt Lilamani's name.
"Roy, when I came home, the change in him made me miserable. He's never really got over losing her. And you've been sort of lost too—for the time being. I can see how he's wearing his heart out with wanting you: though I don't suppose he has ever said so. And you—out there, probably thinking he doesn't miss you a mite. I know you—and your ways. Also I know him—which is my ragged shred of excuse for rushing in where an angel would probably think better of it!
"He has been an angel to me ever since I got back; and it seems to cheer him up when I run round here. So I do—pretty often. But I'm not Roy! And perhaps you'll forgive my bold demand, when I tell you Aunt Jane's looming—positively looming! She's becoming a perfect ogre of sisterly solicitude. As he won't go to London, she's threatening to cheer him up by making the dear Beeches her headquarters after the season! And he—poor darling—with not enough spirit in him to kick against the pricks. If you were coming, he would have an excuse. Alone—he's helpless in her conscientious talons!
"If that won't bring you, nothing will—not even my bracelet command.
"I know the journey in June will be a nightmare. And you won't like leaving Indian friends or Miss Arden. But think—here he is alone, wanting what only you can give him. And the bangle I sent you That Day—if you've kept it—gives me the right to say 'Come—quickly.' It may be a wrench. But I promise you won't regret it. Wire, if you can.
"Always your loving TARA."
By the time he had finished reading that so characteristic and endearing letter his plans were cut and dried. Her irresistible appeal—and the no less irresistible urge within him—left no room for the deliberations of his sensitive complex nature. It flung open all the floodgates of memory; set every nerve aching for Home—and Tara, late discovered; but not too late, he passionately prayed....
The nightmare journey had no terrors for him now. In every sense he was 'hers to command.'
He drew out his old, old letter-case—her gift—and opened it. There lay the bracelet, folded inside her quaint, childish note; the 'ribbin' from her 'petticote' and the gleaming strands of her hair. The sight of it brought tears of which he felt not the least ashamed.
It also brought a vision of himself standing before his mother, demurring at possible obligations involved in their 'game of play.' And across the years came back to him her very words, her very look and tone: 'Remember, Roy, it is for always. If she shall ask from you any service, you must not refuse—ever.... By keeping the bracelet you are bound ...'
Wire? Of course he would.
Before the day was out his message was speeding to her: "Engagement off. Coming first possible boat. Yours to command—ROY."
[Footnote 40: English mail.]
"Did you not know that people hide their love, Like a flower that seems too precious to be picked?" —WU-TI.
Sanctuary—at last! The garden of his dreams—of the world before the deluge—in the quiet—coloured end of a July evening; the garden vitally inwoven with his fate—since it was responsible for the coming of Joe Bradley and his 'beaky mother.'
Such gardens bear more than trees and flowers and fruit. Human lives and characters are growth of their soil. With the wholesale demolishing of boundaries and hedges, their influence may wane; and it is an influence—like the unobtrusive influence of the gentleman—that human nature, especially English nature, can ill afford to fling away.
Roy, poet and fighter—with the lure of the desert and the horizon in his blood—knew himself, also, for a spiritual product of this particular garden—of the vast lawn (not quite so vast as he remembered), the rose-beds and the beeches in the full glory of their incomparable leafage; all steeped in the delicate clarity of rain-washed air—the very aura of England, as dust was the aura of Jaipur.
Dinner was over. They were sitting out on the lawn, he and his father; a small table beside them, with glass coffee-machine and chocolates in a silver dish; the smoke of their cigars hovering, drifting, unstirred by any breeze. No Terry at his feet. The faithful creature—vision of abject misery—had been carried off to eat his heart out in quarantine. Tangled among tree-tops hung the ghost of a moon, almost full. Somewhere, in the far quiet of the shrubberies, a nightingale was communing with its own heart in liquid undertones; and in Roy's heart there dwelt an iridescence of peace and pain and longing shot through with hope——
That very morning, at an unearthly hour, he had landed in England, after an absence of three and a half years: and precisely what that means in the way of complex emotions, only they know who have been there. The purgatorial journey had eclipsed expectation. Between recurrent fever and sea-sickness, there had been days when it seemed doubtful if he would ever reach Home at all. But a wiry constitution and the will to live had triumphed: and, in spite of the early hour, his father had not failed to be on the quay.
The first sight of him had given Roy a shock for which—in spite of Tara's letter—he was unprepared. This was not the father he remembered—humorous, unruffled, perennially young; but a man so changed and tired-looking that he seemed almost a stranger, with his empty coat-sleeve and hair touched with silver at the temples.
The actual moment of meeting had been difficult; the joy of it so deeply tinged with pain that they had clung desperately to surface commonplaces, because they were Englishmen, and could not relieve the inner stress by falling on one another's necks.
And there had been a secret pang (for which Roy sharply reproached himself) that Tara was not there too. Idiotic to expect it, when he knew Sir James had gone to Scotland for fishing. But to be idiotic is the lover's privilege; and his not phenomenal gift of patience had been unduly strained by the letter awaiting him at Port Said.
They were coming back to-night; but he would not see her till to-morrow....
In his pocket reposed a brief Tara-like note, bidding her 'faithful Knight of the Bracelet' welcome Home. Vainly he delved between the lines of her sisterly affection. Nothing could still the doubt that consumed him, but contact with her hands, her eyes.
For that, and other reasons, the difficult meeting had been followed by a difficult day. They had wandered through the house and garden, very carefully veiling their emotions. They had lounged and smoked in the studio, looking through his father's latest pictures. They had talked of the family. Jeffers would be down to-morrow night, for the week-end; Tiny on Tuesday with the precious Baby; Jerry, distinctly coming round, and eager to see Roy. Even Aunt Jane sounded a shade keen. And he, undeserving, had scarcely expected them to 'turn a hair.' Then they discussed the Indian situation; and Roy—forgetting to be shy—raged at finding how little those at Home had been allowed to realise, to understand.
Not a question, so far, about his rapid on-and-off engagement, for which mercy he was duly grateful. And of her, who dwelt in the foreground and background of their thoughts—not a word.
It would take a little time, Roy supposed, to build their bridge across the chasm of three and a half eventful years. You couldn't hustle a lapsed intimacy. To-morrow things would go better, especially if....
Yet, throughout, he had been touched inexpressibly by his father's unobtrusive tokens of pleasure and affection: and now—sitting together with their cigars, in the last of the daylight—things felt easier.
"Dad," he said suddenly, turning his eyes from the garden to the man beside him, who was also its spiritual product. "If I seem a bit stupefied, it's because I'm still walking and talking in a dream; terrified I may wake up and find it's not true! I can't, in a twinkling, adjust the beautiful, incredible sameness of all this, with the staggering changes inside me."
His father's smile had its friendly, understanding quality.
"No hurry, Boy. All your deep roots are here. Change as much as you please, you still remain—her son."
"Yes—that's it. The place is full of her," Roy said very low; and at present they could not trust themselves to say more.
It had not escaped Sir Nevil's notice that the boy had avoided the drawing-room, and had not once been under the twin beeches, his favourite summer retreat. No hammock was slung there now.
After a considerable gap, Roy remarked carelessly: "I suppose they must have got home by now?"
"About an hour ago, to be exact," said Sir Nevil; and Roy's involuntary start moved him to add: "You're not running round there to-night, old man. They'll be tired. So are you. And it's only fair I should have first innings. I've waited a long time for it, Roy."
"Dads!" Roy looked at once penitent and reproachful—an engaging trick of schoolroom days, when he felt a scolding in the air. "You never said—you never gave me an idea."
"You never sounded as if the idea would be acceptable."
"Didn't I? Letters are the devil," murmured Roy—all penitence now. "And if it hadn't been for Tara——" He stopped awkwardly. Their eyes met, and they smiled. "Did you know ... she wrote? And that's why I'm here?"
"Well done, Tara! I didn't know. I had dim suspicions. I also had a dim hope that—my picture might tempt you——"
"Oh, it would have—letter or no. It's an inspired thing."—He had already written at length on that score.—"You were mightily clever—the two of you!"
His father twinkled. "That as may be. We had the trifling advantage of knowing our Roy!"
They sat on till all the light had ebbed from the sky and the moon had come into her own. It was still early; but time is the least ingredient of such a day; and Sir Nevil rose on the stroke of ten.
"You look fagged out, old boy. And the sooner you're asleep—the sooner it will be to-morrow! A pet axiom of yours. D'you remember?"
Did he not remember?
They went upstairs together; the great house seemed oppressively empty and silent. On the threshold of Roy's room they said good-night. There was an instant of palpable awkwardness; then Roy—overcoming it—leaned forward and kissed the patch of white hair on his father's temple.
"God bless you," Sir Nevil said rather huskily. "You ought to sleep sound in there. Don't dream."
"But I love to dream," said Roy; and his father laughed.
"You're not so staggeringly changed inside! As sure as a gun, you'll be late for breakfast!"
And he did dream. The moment his lids fell—she was there with him, under the beeches, their sanctuary—she who all day had hovered on the confines of his spirit, like a light, felt not seen. There were no words between them, nor any need of words; only the ineffable peace of understanding, of reunion....
Dream—or visitation—who could say? To him it seemed that only afterwards sleep came—the dreamless sleep of renewal....
* * * * *
He woke egregiously early: such an awakening as he had not known for months on end. And out there in the garden it was a miracle of a morning: divinely clear, with the mellow clearness of England; massed trees, brooding darkly; the lawn all silver-grey with dew; everywhere blurred outlines and tender shadows; pure balm to eye and spirit after the hard brilliance and contrasts of the East.
Madness to get up; yet impossible to lie there waiting. He tried it, for what seemed an endless age: then succumbed to the inevitable.
While he was dressing, clouds drifted across the blue. A spurt of rain whipped his open casement; threatening him in playful mood. But before he had crept down and let himself out through one of the drawing-room windows, the sky was clear again, with the tremulous radiance of happiness struck sharp on months of sorrow and stress.
Striding, hatless, across the drenched lawn, and resisting the pull of his beech-wood, he pressed on and up to the open moor; craving its sweeps of space and colour unbosomed to the friendly sky that seemed so much nearer earth than the passionate blue vault of India.
It was five years since he had seen heather in bloom—or was it five decades? The sight of it recalled that other July day, when he had tramped the length of the ridge with his head full of dreams and the ache of parting in his heart.
To him, that far-off being seemed almost another Roy in another life. Only—as his father had feelingly reminded him—the first Roy and the last were alike informed by the spirit of one woman; visible then, invisible now; yet sensibly present in every haunt she had made her own. The house was full of her; the wood was full of her. But the pangs of reminder he had so dreaded resolved themselves, rather, into a sense of indescribable, ethereal reunion. He asked nothing better than that his life and work should be fulfilled with her always: her and Tara—if she so decreed....
Thought of Tara revived impatience, and drew his steps homeward again.
Strolling back through the wood, he came suddenly upon the open space where he had found the Golden Tusks, and lingered there a little—remembering the storm and the terror and the fight; Tara and her bracelet; and the deep unrealised significance of that childish impulse, inspired by her, whose was the source of all their inspirations. And now—seventeen years afterwards, the bracelet had drawn him back to them both; saved him, perhaps, from the unforgiveable sin of throwing up the game.
On he walked, along the same mossy path, almost in a dream. He had found the Tusks. His High-Tower Princess was waiting—his 'Star far-seen.'
Again, as on that day—he came unexpectedly in view of their tree: and—wonder of wonders (or was it the most natural thing on earth?), there was Tara herself, approaching it by another path that linked the wood with the grounds of the black-and-white house, which was part of the estate.
Instantly he stepped back a pace and stood still, that he might realise her before she became aware of him:—her remembered loveliness, her new dearness.
Loveliness was the quintessence of her. With his innate feeling for words, he had never—even accidentally—applied it to Rose. Had she, too, felt impatient? Was she coming over to breakfast for a 'surprise'?
At this distance, she looked not a day older than on that critical occasion, when he had realised her for the first time; only more fragile—a shade too fragile. It hurt him. He felt responsible. And again, to-day—very clever of her—she was wearing a delphinium blue frock; a shady hat that drooped half over her face. No pink rose, however—and he was thankful. Roses had still a too baleful association. He doubted if he could ever tolerate a Marechal Niel again—as much on account of Lance, as on account of the other.
Tara was wearing his flower—sweet-peas, palest pink and lavender. And, at sight of her, every shred of doubt seemed burnt up in the clear flame of his love for her:—no heady confusion of heart and senses, but a rarefied intensity of both, touched with a coal from the altar of creative life. The knowledge was like a light hand reining in his impatience. Poet, no less than lover, he wanted to go slowly through the golden mist....
But the moment he stirred, she heard him; saw him....
No imperious gesture, as before; but a lightning gleam of recognition, of welcome and—something more——?
He hurried now....
Next instant, they were together, hands locked, eyes deep in eyes. The surface sense of strangeness between them, the undersense of intimate nearness—thrilling as it was—made speech astonishingly difficult.
"Tara," he said, just above his breath.
Her sensitive lips parted, trembled—and closed again.
"Tara!" he repeated, dizzily incredulous, where a moment earlier he had been arrogantly certain. "Is it true ... what your eyes are telling me? Can you forgive ... my madness out there? Half across the world you called to me; and I've come home to you ... with every atom of me ... I'm loving you; and I'm still ... bracelet-bound...."
This time her lips trembled into a smile. "And it's not one of the Prayer-book affinities!" she reminded him, a gleam of that other Tara in her eyes.
"No, thank God—it's not! But you haven't answered me, you know...."
"Roy, what a story! When you know I really said it first!" Her eyes were saying it again now; and he, bereft of words, mutely held out his arms.
If she paused an instant, it was because she felt even dizzier than he. But the power of his longing drew her like a physical force—and, as his lips claimed hers, the terror of love and its truth caught her and swept her from known shores into uncharted seas....
This was a Roy she scarcely knew. But her heart knew; every pulse of her awakened womanhood knew....
Presently it became possible to think. Very gently she pushed him back a little.
"O-oh—I never knew ... you were ... like that! And you've crushed my poor sweet-peas to smithereens! Now—behave! Let me look at you ... properly, and see what India's done to you. Give me a chance!"
He gave her a chance, still keeping hold of her—to make sure she was real.
"High-Tower Princess, are we truly US? Or is it a 'bewitchery'?" he asked, only half in joke. "Will you go turning into a butterfly presently——?"
"Promise I won't!" Her low laugh was not quite steady. "We're US—truly. And we've got to Farthest-End, where your dreams come true. D'you remember—I always said they couldn't. They were too crazy. So I don't deserve——"
"It's I that don't deserve," he broke out with sudden passion. "And to find you under our very own tree! Have you forgotten—that day? Of course you went to the 'tipmost top; and I didn't. It's queer—isn't it?—how bits of life get printed so sharply on your brain; and great spaces, on either side, utterly blotted out. That day's one of my bits. Is it so clear—to you?"
"To me——?" She could scarcely believe he did not know.... Unashamedly, she wanted him to know. But part of him was strange to her—thrillingly strange: which made things not quite so simple.
"Roy," she went on, after a luminous pause, twisting the top button of his coat. "I'm going to tell you a secret. A big one. For me that Day was ... the beginning of everything.—Hush—listen!"—Her fingers just touched his lips. "I'm feeling—rather shy. And if you don't keep quiet, I can't tell. Of course I always ... loved you, next to Atholl. But after that ... after the fight, I simply ... adored you. And ... and ... it's never left off since...."
"Tara! My loveliest!" he cried, between ecstasy and dismay; and gathering her close again, he kissed her softly, repeatedly, murmuring broken endearments. "And there was I...!"
"Yes. There were you ... with your poems and Aunt Lila and your dreams about India—always with your head among the stars..."
"In plain English, a spoilt boy—as you once told me—wrapped up in myself."
"No, you weren't. I won't have it!" she contradicted him in her old imperious way. "You were wrapped up in all kinds of wonderful things. So you just ... didn't see me. You looked clean over my head. Of course it often made me unhappy. But—it made me love you more. That's the way we women are. It's not the men who run after us; it's the other kind...! I expect you looked clean over poor Aruna's head. And if I asked her, privately, she'd confess that was partly why ... and the other girl too ... if ..."
"Darling—don't!" he pleaded. "I'm ashamed, beyond words. I'll tell you every atom of it truthfully ... my Tara. But this is our moment. I want more—about you.—Sit. It's full early. Then we'll go in (of course you're coming to breakfast) and give Dad the surprise of his life.... Bother your old hat! It gets in the way. And I want to see your hair."
With a shyness new to him—and to Tara, poignantly dear—he drew out her pins; discarded the offending hat, and took her head between his hands, lightly caressing the thick coils that shaded from true gold to warm delicate tones of brown.
Then he set her on the mossy seat near the trunk; and flung himself down before her in the old way, propped on his elbows—rapt, lost in love; divinely without self-consciousness.
"I'm not looking over your head now," he said, his eyes deep in hers:—deep and deeper, till the wild-rose flush invaded the delicate hollows of her temples; and leaning forward she laid a hand across those too eloquent eyes.
"Don't blind me altogether—darling. When people have been shut away from the sun a long time——"
"But, Tara—why were you...?" He removed the hand and kept hold of it. "I begged you to come. I wanted you. Why did you...?"
She shook her head, smiling half wistfully. "That's a bit of my old Roy! But you're man enough to know—now, without telling. And I was woman enough to know—then. At least, by instinct, I knew...."
"Then it wasn't because ... because—I'm half ... Rajput?"
"Roy!" But for all her surprise and reproach, intuition told him the idea was not altogether new to her. "What made you think—of that?"
"Well—because it partly ... broke things off—out there. That startled me. And when Dad's miracle of a picture woke me up with a vengeance ... it terrified me. I began wondering.... Beloved, are you quite sure about Aunt Helen ... Sir James...?"
She paused—a mere breathing-space; her free hand caressed his hair. (This time, he did not shift his head.) "I'm utterly sure about Mother. You see ... she knows ... we've talked about it. We're like sisters, almost. As for Father ... well, we're less intimate. I did fancy he seemed the wee-est bit relieved when ... your news came...." The pain in his eyes checked her. "My blessed one, I won't have you daring to worry about it. I'm feeling simply beyond myself with happiness and pride. Mother will be overjoyed. She realises ... a little ... what I've been through. Of course—in our talks, she has told me frankly what tragedies often come from mixing such 'mighty opposites.' But she said all of you were quite exceptional. And she knows about such things. And she's the point. She can always square Father if—there's any need. So just be quiet—inside!"
"But ... that day," he persisted, Roy-like, "you didn't think of it——?"
"Faithfully, I didn't. I only felt your heart was too full up with Aunt Lila and India to have room enough for me. And I wanted all the room—or nothing. Vaguely, I knew it was her dream. But my wicked pride insisted it should be your dream. It wasn't till long after, that Mother told me how—from the very first—Aunt Lila had planned and prayed, because she knew marriage might be your one big difficulty; and she could only speak of it to Mummy. It was their great link; the idea behind everything—the lessons and all. So you see, all the time, she was sort of creating me ... for you. And the bitter disappointment it must have been to her! If I'd had a glimmering ... of all that—I don't believe I could have held out against you——"
"Then I wish to heaven you'd had a glimmering—because of her and because of us. Look at all the good years we've wasted——"
"We've not—we've not!" she protested vehemently. "If it had happened then, it wouldn't have come within miles—of this. You simply hadn't it in you, Roy, to give me ... all I can feel you giving me now. As for me—well, that's for you to find out! Of course, the minute I'd done it, I was miserable: furious with myself. For I couldn't stop ... loving you. My heart had no shame, in spite of my important pride. Only ... after she went—and Mother told me all—something in me seemed to know her free spirit would be near you—and bring you back to me ... somehow: till ... your news came. And—look! The Bracelet! I hesitated a long time. If you hadn't been engaged, I'm not sure if I would have ventured. But I did—and you're here. It's all been her doing, Roy, first and last. Don't let's spoil any of it with regrets."
He could only bow his head upon her hand in mute adoration. The courage, the crystal-clear wisdom of her—his eager Tara, who could never wait five minutes for the particular sweet or the particular tale she craved. Yet she had waited five years for him—and counted it a little thing. Of a truth his mother had builded better than she knew.
"You see," Tara added softly. "There wouldn't have been ... the deeps. And it takes the deeps to make you realise the heights——"
* * * * *
Lost in one another—in the wonder of mutual self-revealing—they were lost, no less, to impertinent trivialities of place and time; till the very trivial pang of hunger reminded Roy that he had been wandering for hours without food.
"Tara—it's a come down—but I'm fairly starving!" he cried suddenly—and consulted his watch. "Nine o'clock. The wretch I am! Dad's final remark was, 'Sure as a gun, you'll be late for breakfast.' And it seemed impossible. But sure as guns we will be! Put on the precious hat. We must jolly well run for it."
And taking hands, like a pair of children, they ran....
CHAPTER THE LAST.
"Who shall allot the praise, and guess What part is yours—what part is ours?" —ALICE MEYNELL.
"Perhaps a dreamer's day will come ... when judgment will be pronounced on all the wise men, who always prophesied evil—and were always right."—JOHAN BOJER.
Two hours later Roy and his father sat together in the cushioned window seat of the studio, smoking industriously; not troubling to say much—though there was much to be said—because the mist of constraint that brooded between them yesterday had been blown clean away by Roy's news.
If it had not given Sir Nevil 'the surprise of his life,' it had given him the deepest, most abiding gratification he had known since his inner light had gone out, with the passing of her who had been his inspiration and his all. Dear though his children were to him, they had remained secondary, always. Roy came nearest—as his heir, and as the one in whom her spirit most clearly lived again. Since she went, he had longed for the boy; but remembering her plea on that summer day of decision—her mountain-top of philosophy, 'to take by leaving, to hold by letting go'—he had studiously refrained from pressing Roy's return. Now, at a word from Tara, he had sped home in the hot season; and—hard on the heels of a mysteriously broken engagement—had claimed her at sight.
Yesterday their sense of strangeness had made silence feel uncomfortable. Now that they slipped back into the old intimacy, it felt companionable. Yet neither was thinking directly of the other. Each was thinking of the woman he loved.
By chance their eyes encountered in a friendly smile, and Roy spoke.
"Daddums—you've come alive! I believe you're almost as happy over it—as I am?"
"You're not far out. You see"—his eyes grew graver—"I'm feeling ... Mother's share, too. Did you ever realise...?"
"Partly. Not all—till just now. Tara told me."
There was a pause. Then Sir Nevil looked full at his son.
"Roy—I've got something to tell you—to show you ... if you can detach your mind for an hour——?"
"Why, of course. What is it—where?"
He looked round the room. Instinctively, he knew it concerned his mother.
"Not here. Upstairs—in her House of Gods." He saw Roy flinch. "If I can bear it, old boy, you can. And there's a reason—you'll understand."
The little room above the studio had been sacred to Lilamani ever since her home-coming as a bride of eighteen; sacred to her prayers and meditations; to the sandalwood casket that held her 'private god'; for the Indian wife has always one god chosen for special worship—not to be named to any one, even her husband. And although a Christian Lilamani had discontinued that form of devotion, the tiny blue image of the Baby-god, Krishna, had been a sacred treasure always, shown, on rare occasions only, to Roy. To enter that room was to enter her soul. And Roy, shrinking apart, felt himself unworthy—because of Rose.
On the threshold there met him the faint scent of sandalwood that pervaded her. For there, in an alcove, stood Krishna's casket. In larger boxes, lined with sandalwood, her many-tinted silks and saris lay lovingly folded. Another casket held her jewels, and arranged on a row of shelves stood her dainty array of shoes—gold and silver and pale brocades: an intimate touch that pierced his heart.
Near the Krishna alcove, hung a portrait he had not seen: a thing of fragile, almost unearthly beauty, painted when her husband came home—and realised....
An aching lump in Roy's throat cut like a knife; but his father's remark put him on his mettle. And, the next instant, he saw....
"Dad!" he breathed, in awed amazement.
For there, on the small round table stood a model in dull red clay: unmistakably, unbelievably—the rock fortress of Chitor: the walls scarped and bastioned; Khumba Rana's tower; and the City itself—no ruin, but a miniature presentment of Chitor, as she might have been in her day of ancient glory, as Roy had been dimly aware of her in the course of his own amazing ride. Temples, palaces, huddled houses—not detailed, but skilfully suggested—stirred the old thrill in his veins, the old certainty that he knew....
"Well——?" asked Sir Nevil, whose eyes had not left his face.
"Well!" echoed Roy, emerging from his trance of wonder. "I'm dumfounded. A few mistakes, here and there; but—as a whole ... Dad—how in the world ... could you know?"
"I don't know. I hoped you would. I ... saw it clearly, just like that——"
"How? In a dream?"
"I suppose so. I couldn't swear, in a court of law, that I was awake. It happened—one evening, as I lay there, on her couch—remembering ... going back over things. And suddenly, out of the darkness, blossomed—that. Asleep or awake, my mind was alert enough to seize and hold the impression, without a glimmer of surprise ... till I came to, or woke up—which you will. Then my normal, sceptical self didn't know what to make of it. I've always dismissed that sort of thing as mere brain-trickery. But—a vivid, personal experience makes it ... not so easy. Of course, from reading and a few old photographs, I knew it was Chitor: and my chief concern was to record the vision in its first freshness. For three days I worked at it: only emerging now and then to snatch a meal. I began with those and that——"
He indicated a set of rough sketches and an impression in oils; a ghost of a city full of suggested beauty and mystery. "No joke, trying to model with one hand; but you wouldn't believe ... the swiftness ... the sureness ... as if my fingers knew...."
Roy could believe. Occasionally his own fingers behaved so.
"When it was done, I put it in here," his father went on, masking, with studied quietness, his elation at the effect on Roy. "I've shown it to no one—not even Aunt Helen. I couldn't write of it. I felt it would sound crazy——"
"Not to me," said Roy.
"Well, I couldn't tell that. And I've been waiting—for you."
"Since the third of March, this year."
Roy drew an audible breath. It was the anniversary of her passing. "All that time! How could you——? Why didn't you——?"
"Well—you know. You were obviously submerged—your novel, Udaipur, Lance.... You wouldn't have forgone all that ... if I know you, for a mere father. But you're here, at last, thank God. And—I want to know. You've seen Chitor, as it is to-day...."
"I've seen more than that," said Roy. "I can tell you, now. I couldn't—before. Let's sit."
And sitting there, on her couch, in her House of Gods, he told the story of his moonlit ride and its culmination; told it in low tones, in swift vivid phrases that came of themselves....
Throughout the telling—and for many minutes afterwards—his father sat motionless; his head on his hand, half shielding his face from view....
"I've only spoken of it to Grandfather," Roy said at last. "And with all my heart, I wish he could see ... that."
Sir Nevil looked up now, and the subdued exaltation in his eyes was wholly new to Roy.
"I've gone a good way beyond wishing," he said. "But again—I was waiting for you. I want to go out there, Roy—with you two, when you're married—and see it all for myself. With care, one could take the thing along, to verify and improve it on the spot. Then—what do you say?—you and I might achieve a larger reproduction—for Grandfather: a gift to Rajputana—my source of inspiration; a tribute ... to her memory, who still lights our lives ... with the inextinguishable lamp of her spirit——"
The last words—almost inaudible—were a revelation to Roy; an illumining glimpse of the true self, that a man hides very carefully from his fellows; and shows—at supreme moments only—to 'a woman when he loves her.'
Shy of their mutual emotion, he laid a hand on his father's arm.
"You can count on me, Dad," he said in the same low tone. "Who knows—one day it might inspire the Rajputs to rebuild their Queen of Cities, in white marble, that she may rise again, immortal through the ages...."
When they stood up to leave the shrine their eyes met in a steadfast look; and there was the same thought behind it. She had given them to each other in a new way; in a fashion all her own.
* * * * *
For that brief space, Roy had almost forgotten Tara. Now the wonder of her flashed back on him like a dazzle of sunlight after the dim sanctity of cathedral aisles.
And down in the studio it was possible to discuss practical issues of his father's inspiration—or rather his mother's; for they both felt it as such.
Roy would marry Tara in September; and in November they three would go out together. There were bad days coming out there; but, as Roy had once said, every man and woman of goodwill—British or Indian—would count in the scale, were it only a grain here, a grain there. The insignificance of the human unit—a mere fragment of star-dust on sidereal shores—is off-set by the incalculable significance of the individual in the history of man's efforts to be more than man. In that faith these two could not be found wanting; debtors as they were to the genius, devotion, and high courage of one fragile woman, who had lived little more than half her allotted span.
They at least would not give up hope of the lasting unity vital to both races, because political errors and poisonous influences and tragic events had roused a mutual spirit of bitterness difficult to quell....
Conceivably, it might touch the imagination of their India—Rajputana (Roy was chary, now, of the all-embracing word), that an Englishman should so love an Indian woman as to immortalise her memory in a form peculiar to the East. For a Christian Lilamani, neither temple, nor tomb, but the vision of a waste city rebuilded—the city whose name was written on her heart. In their uplifted moment, it seemed not quite unthinkable.
"And it's India's imagination we have most of us signally failed to touch—if not done a good deal to quench," said Roy, his eyes brooding on a bank of purple-grey cloud, his own imagination astir....
It was his turn now to catch a flitting inspiration on the wing.
Would it be utterly impossible——? Could they spend a wander-year in Rajputana—the cities, the desert, the Aravallis: his father painting—he writing? The result—a combined book, dedicated to her memory; an attempt to achieve something in the nature of interpretation—his arrogant dream of Oxford days; a vindication of his young faith in the arts as the true medium of mutual understanding. In any case, it would be a unique achievement. And they would feel they had contributed their mite of goodwill, had followed 'the gleam.'...
"Besides—out there, other chances might crop up. Thea, Grandfather, Dyan.... And Tara would be in in it all, heart and soul," he concluded—remembering, with a twinge, a certain talk with Rose. "And it would do you all the good on earth—which isn't the least of its virtues, in my eyes!"
The look on his father's face was reward enough—for the moment.
"Well done, Roy," said Sir Nevil very quietly. "That year in Rajputana shall be my wedding present—to you two——"
* * * * *
Later on the 'inspired plan' was expounded to Tara—with amplifications. She had merely run home—escorted, of course, through the perils of the wood—to impart her great news and bring her mother back to lunch, which Roy persistently called 'tiffin.' Food disposed of, they stepped straight out of the house into a world of their own—the world of their 'Game-without-an-End'; the rose garden, the wood, the regal splendours of the moor, gleaming and glooming under shadows of drifting cloud: on and on, in a golden haze of content, talking, endlessly talking....
The reserve and infrequency of their letters had left whole tracts, outer and inner, unexplored. Here, thought Roy—in his mother's beautiful phrase—was 'the comrade of body and spirit' that his subconsciousness had been seeking all along: while he looked over the heads of one and another, lured by the far, yet emotionally susceptible to the near. Once—unbidden—the thought intruded: "How different! How unutterably different!"
Reading aloud to Tara would seem pure waste of her; except when it came to the novel, of which he had told her next to nothing, so far....
And Tara carried her happiness proudly, like a banner. The deliciousness of being loved; the intoxication of it, after the last spark of hope had been quenched by that excruciating engagement! Her volcanic heart held a capacity for happiness as tremendous as her capacity for daring and suffering. But the first had so long eluded her, that now she dared scarcely let herself go.
She listened half incredulous, wholly entranced, while Roy drew rapid word-pictures of the cities they would see together—Udaipur, Chitor, Ajmir; and, not least, Komulmir, the hill fortress crowned with the 'cloud-palace' of Prithvi Raj and that distant Tara, her namesake. Together, they would seek out the little shrine—Roy knew all about it—near the Temple of the Mother of the Gods, that held the mingled ashes of those great lovers who were pleasant in their lives and in death were not divided....
* * * * *
It was much later on, in the evening, when they sat alone near the twin beeches, under a new-lighted moon, that Roy at last managed to speak of Rose. In the dimness it was easier, though difficult at best. But all day he had been aware of Tara longing to hear; unable to ask; too sensitive on his account; too proud on her own.
Sir James and Lady Despard were dining, to honour the event: and if Sir James had needed 'squaring' no one heard of it. Jeffers had arrived, large and genial—his thatch of hair thinned a little and white as driven snow. Healths had been drunk. It was long since the Beeches had known so hilarious a meal. Yet the graceless pair had made haste to escape, and blessed Lady Despard for remaining with the men.
Tara was leaning back in a low chair; Roy on a floor cushion, very close; a hand slipped behind her, his cheek against her arm; yet, in a deeper sense, she wanted him closer still. Surely he knew....
He did know.
"Tara—my loveliest—shall I tell you?" he asked suddenly. "Are you badly wanting to hear?"
"Craving to," she confessed. "It's like a bit of blank space inside me. And I don't want blank spaces—about you. It's the house swept and garnished that attracts the seven devils. And one of my devils is jealousy! I've hated her so, poor thing. I can't hate her more, whatever you tell——"
"Try hating her less," suggested Roy.
"Try and make me!" she challenged him. "Are you—half afraid? Were you ... fearfully smitten?"
"Wonderful Tara! 'Smitten' is the very word." He looked up at her moonlit face, its appealing charm, its mingling of delicacy and strength. "I would never dream of saying I was 'smitten'—with you."
For reward, her lips caressed his hair. "What a Roy you are—with your words! Tell me—tell from the beginning."
And from the beginning he told her: first in broken, spasmodic sentences, with breaks and jars; then more fluently, more unreservedly, as he felt her leaning closer—more and more understanding; more and more forgiving, where understanding faltered, where gaps came—on account of Lance, and of pain that went too deep for words. She had endured her own share of that. She knew....
When all had been said, it was she who could not speak; and he gathered her to him, kissing with a passion of tenderness her wet lashes, her trembling lips——
At last: "Beloved—has the blank space gone?" he asked. "Are you content now?"
"Content! I'm lifted to the skies."
"To the tipmost top of them?" he queried in her ear; and mutely she clung to him, returning his kisses, with the confidence of a child, with the intensity of a woman....
* * * * *
All too soon it was over—their one mere day: the walk back through the wood—never more enchanted than on a night of full moon: Tara, dropped from the skies, lost to everything but the sound of Roy's voice in the darkness, deep and soft, like the voice of her own heart heard in a dream. It seemed incredible that there would be to-morrow—and to-morrow—and to-morrow, world without end....
Back in the garden, Jeffers—a miracle of tact—wandered away to commune with an idea, leaving father and son alone together.
Sir Nevil offered Roy a cigarette, and they sat down in two of the six empty chairs near the beeches and smoked steadily without exchanging a remark.
But this time they were thinking of one woman. For at parting Tara had said again, "It's all been her doing—first and last." And Roy—with every faculty sensitised to catch ethereal vibrations above and below the human octave—divined that identical thought in his father's silence. Her doing indeed! None of them—not even his father—knew it better than himself.
And now, while he sat there utterly still in the midst of stillness—no stir in the tree-tops, no movement anywhere but the restless glow of Broome's cigar—the inexpressible sense of her stole in upon him, flooding his spirit like a distillation from the summer night. Moment by moment the impression deepened and glowed within him. Never, since that morning at Chitor, had it so uplifted and fulfilled him....
Surely, now, his father could feel it too? Deliberately he set himself to transmit, if might be, the thrill of her nearness—the intimacy, the intensity of it.
Then, craving certainty, he put out a hand and touched his father's knee.
"Dad," the word was a mere breath. "Can you feel...? She is here."
His father's hand closed sharply on his own.
For one measureless moment they sat so. Then the sense of her presence faded as a light dies out. The garden was empty. The restless red planet was moving towards them.
On a mutual impulse they rose. Once again, as in her shrine, they exchanged a steadfast look. And Roy had his answer.
He slipped a possessive hand through his father's arm; and without a word, they walked back into the house....
Parkstone, February 1920.
Parkstone, March 27, 1921.