As the endless weeks dragged on, there were interesting, even exciting moments—when you hardly felt the ache. But other times—evenings and Sundays—it came back sharper than ever. And in the course of those weeks he had learnt a number of things not included in the school curriculum. He had learnt that it was better to clench your teeth and not cry out when your ears were tweaked or your arm twisted, or an unexpected pin stuck into the soft part of your leg. But, inside him, there burned a fire of rage and hate unsuspected by his tormentors. It was not so much the pain, as the fact that they seemed to enjoy hurting him, that he could neither understand nor forgive.
And by now he felt more than half ashamed of those early letters to his mother, pouring out his misery of loneliness and longing; of frantic threats to run away or jump off the cliff, that had so strangely failed to soften his father's heart. It seemed, he knew all about it. He had been through it himself. But Mummy did not know; so she got upset. And Mummy must not be upset, whatever happened to Roy, who was advised to 'shut his teeth and play the man' and he would feel the happier for it. That hard counsel had done more than hurt and shame him. It had steadied him at the moment when he needed it most. He had somehow managed to shut his teeth and play the man; and he was the happier for it already.
So his faith in the father who wouldn't have Mummy upset, had increased ten-fold: and the letter he had nearly torn into little bits was treasured, like a talisman, in his letter-case—Tara's parting gift.
* * * * *
It was on the Sunday of the frantic threats that he had wandered off alone and discovered the little wood on the cliff in all its autumn glory. It was a very ordinary wood of mixed trees with a group of tall pines at one end. But for Roy any wood was a place of enchantment; and this one had trees all leaning one way, with an air of crouching and hurrying that made them seem almost alive; and the moment they closed on him he was back in his old familiar world of fancy, where nothing that happened in houses mattered at all....
Strolling on, careless and content, he had reached a gap where the trees fell apart, framing blue deeps and distances of sea and sky. For some reason they looked more blue, more beautiful so framed than seen from the open shore; and there—sitting alone at the edge of all things, he had felt strangely comforted; had resolved to keep his discovery a profound secret; and to come there every Sunday for 'sanctuary'; to think stories, or write poetry—a very private joy.
And this afternoon was the loveliest of all. If only the sheltering leaves would not fall so fast!
He had been sitting a long time, pencil in hand, waiting for words to come; when suddenly there came instead the very sounds he had fled from—the talk and laughter of boys.
They seemed horribly close, right under the jutting cliff; and their laughter and volleys of chaff had the jeering note he knew too well. Presently his ear caught a high-pitched voice of defiance, that broke off and fell to whimpering—a sound that made Roy's heart beat in quick jerks. He could not catch what they were saying, nor see what they were doing. He did not want to see. He hated them all.
Listening—yet dreading to hear—he recognised the voice of Bennet Ma., known—strictly out of earshot—as Scab Major. Is any school, at any period, quite free of the type? It sounded more like a rough than an ill-natured rag; but the whimpering unseen victim seemed to have no kick in him: and Roy could only sit there wondering helplessly what people were made of who found it amusing to hurt and frighten other people, who had done them no harm....
And now the voice of Scab Major rang out distinctly: "After that exhibition, he'll jolly well salaam to the lot of us, turn about. If he's never learnt, we'll show him how."
The word salaam enlightened Roy. Yesterday there had been a buzz of curiosity over the belated arrival of a new boy—an Indian—weedy-looking and noticeably dark, with a sullen mouth and shifty eyes. Roy, though keenly interested, had not felt drawn to him; and a new self-protective shrinking had withheld him from proferring advances that might only embroil them both. He had never imagined the boy's colour would tell against him. Was that what it meant—making him salaam?
At the bare suspicion, shrinking gave place to rage. Beasts, they were! If only he could take a flying leap on to them, or roll a few stones down and scare them out of their wits. But he could not stir without giving away his secret. And while he hesitated, his eye absently followed a moving speck far off on the shining sand.
It was a boy on a bicycle—hatless, head in air, sitting very erect. There was only one boy at St Rupert's who carried his head that way and sat his bicycle just so. From the first Roy had watched him covertly, with devout admiration; longing to know him, too shy to ask his name. But so far the godlike one, surrounded by friends, had hardly seemed aware of his existence.
Swiftly he came nearer; and with a sudden leap of his pulses, Roy knew he had seen——
Springing off his bicycle, he flung himself into the little group of tormentors, hitting out vigorously right and left. Sheer surprise and the fury of his onslaught gave him the advantage; and the guilty consciences of the less aggressive were his allies....
This was not cruelty, but championship: and Roy, determined to see all, lay flat on his front—danger of discovery forgotten—grabbing the edge of the cliff, that curved inward, exulting in the triumph of the deliverer and the scattering of the foe.
Bennet Major, one of the first to break away, saw and seized the prostrate bicycle. At that Roy lost his head; leaned perilously over and shouted a warning, "Hi! Look out!"
But the Scab was off like the wind: and the rest, startled by a voice from nowhere, hurriedly followed suit.
Roy, raising himself on his hands, gave a convulsive wriggle of joy—that changed midway, into a backward jerk ... too late!
The crumbling edge was giving way under his hands, under his body. No time for terror. His jerk gave the finishing touch....
Down he went—over and over; his Sunday hat bouncing gaily on before; nothing to clutch anywhere; but by good luck, no stones——
The thought flashed through him, "I'm killed!" And five seconds later he rolled—breathless and sputtering—to the feet of the two remaining boys, who had sprung back just in time to escape the dusty avalanche.
There he lay—shaken and stupefied—his eyes and mouth full of sand; and his pockets and boots and the inside of his shirt. Nothing seemed to be broken. And he wasn't killed!
Some one was flicking the sand from his face; and he opened his eyes to find the deliverer kneeling beside him, amazed and concerned.
"I say, that was a pretty average tumble! What sort of a lark were you up to? Are you hurt?"
"Only bumped a bit," Roy panted, still out of breath. "I spec' it startled you. I'm sorry."
The bareheaded one laughed. "You startled the Scab's minions a jolly sight more. Cleared the course! And a rare good riddance—eh, Chandranath?"
To that friendly appeal the Indian boy vouchsafed a muttered assent. He stood a little apart, looking sullen, irresolute, and thoroughly uncomfortable, the marks of tears still on his face.
"Thanks veree much. I am going now," he blurted out abruptly; and Roy felt quite cross with him. Pity had evaporated. But the other boy's good-humour seemed unassailable.
"If you're not in a frantic hurry, we can go back together."
Chandranath shook his head. "I don't wish—to go back. I would rather—be by myself."
"As you please. Those cads won't bother you again."
"If they do—I will kill them."
He made that surprising announcement in a fierce whisper. It was the voice of another race.
And the English boy's answer was equally true to type. "Right you are. Give me fair warning and I'll lend a hand."
Chandranath stared blankly. "But—they are of your country," he said; and turning, walked off in the opposite direction.
"A queer fish," Roy's new friend remarked. "Quite out of water here. Awfully stupid sending him to an English school."
"Why?" asked Roy. He was sitting up and dusting himself generally.
"Oh, because——" the boy frowned pensively at the horizon. "That takes some explaining, if you don't know India."
"D'you know India?" Roy could not keep the eagerness out of his tone.
"Rather. I was born there. North-West Frontier. My name's Desmond. We all belong there. I was out till seven and a half, and I'll go back like a bird directly I'm through with Marlborough."
He spoke very quietly; but under the quietness Roy guessed there was purpose—there was fire. This boy knew exactly what he meant to do in his grown-up life—that large, vague word crowded with exciting possibilities. He stood there, straight as an arrow, looking out to sea; and straight as an arrow he would make for his target when school and college let go their hold. Something of this Roy dimly apprehended: and his interest was tinged with envy. If they all 'belonged,' were they Indians, he wondered; and decided not, because of Desmond's coppery brown hair. He wanted to understand—to hear more. He almost forgot he was at school.
"We belong too——" he ventured shyly; and Desmond turned with a kindling eye.
"Good egg! What Province?"
"Oh—miles away. Which service?"
Roy looked puzzled. "I—don't know You see—it's my mother—that belongs. My grandfather's a Minister in a big Native State out there."
There was a shadow of change in his tone. His direct look was a little embarrassing. He seemed to be considering Roy in a new light.
"I—I wouldn't have thought it," he said; and added a shade too quickly: "We don't belong—that way. We're all Anglo-Indians—Frontier Force." (Clearly a fine thing to be, thought Roy, mystified, but impressed.) "Is your father in the Political?"
More conundrums! But, warmed by Desmond's friendliness, Roy grew bolder.
"No. He hates politics. He's just—just a gentleman."
Desmond burst out laughing.
"Top hole! He couldn't do better than that. But—if your mother—he must have been in India?"
"Afterwards—they went. I've been too. He found Mother in France. He painted her. He's a rather famous painter."
"Oh, I've heard of him.—And your people are always at home. Lucky beggar!" He was silent a moment watching Roy unlace his boot. Then he asked suddenly, in a voice that tried to sound casual: "I say—have you told any of the other boys—about India—and your Mother?"
"No—why? Is there any harm?" Roy was on the defensive at once.
"Well—no. With the right sort, it wouldn't make a scrap of difference. But you can see what some of 'em are like—Bennet Ma. and his crew. Making a dead set at that poor blighter, just because he isn't their colour——"
Roy started. "Was it only because of that?" he asked with emphasis.
"'Course it was. Plain as a pike-staff. I suppose they'd bullied him into cheeking them. And they were hacking him on to his knees—forcing him to salaam." Twin sparks sprang alight in his eyes. "That sort of thing—makes me feel like a kettle on the boil. Wish I'd had a boiling kettle to empty over Bennet."
"So do I—the mean Scab! And he's pinched your bicycle."
"No fear! You bet we'll find it round the corner. He wouldn't have the spunk to go right off with it. But look here—what I mean is"—hesitant, yet resolute, he harked back to the main point—"if any of that lot came to know—about India and—your mother, well—they're proper skunks, some of them. They might say things that would make you feel like a kettle on the boil."
"If they did—I would kill them."
Roy stated the fact with quiet deliberation, and without noticing that he had repeated the very words of the vanished victim.
This time Desmond did not treat it as a joke.
"'Course you would," he agreed gravely. "And that sort of shindy's no good for the school. So I thought—better give you the tip——"
"I—see," Roy said in a low voice, without looking up. He did not see; but he began dimly to guess at a so far unknown and unsuspected state of mind.
Desmond sat silent while he shook the sand out of his boots. Then he remarked in an easier tone: "Quite sure there's no damage?"
Roy, now on his feet, found his left leg uncomfortably stiff—and said so.
"Bad luck! We must walk it off. I'll knead it first, if you like. I've seen them do it on the Border."
His unskilled manipulation hurt a good deal; but Roy, overcome with gratitude, gave no sign.
When it was over they set out for their homeward tramp, and found the bicycle, as Desmond had prophesied. He refused to ride on; and Roy limped beside him, feeling absurdly elated. The godlike one had come to earth indeed! Only the remark about his mother still rankled; but he felt shy of returning to the subject. The change in Desmond's manner had puzzled him. Roy glanced admiringly at his profile—the straight nose, the long mouth that smiled so readily, the resolute chin, a little in the air. A clear case of love at sight, schoolboy love; a passing phase of human efflorescence; yet, in passing, it will sometimes leave a mark for life. Roy, instinctively a hero-worshipper, registered a new ambition—to become Desmond's friend.
Presently, as if aware of his thought, Desmond spoke.
"I say, Sinclair, how old are you? You seem less of a kid than most of the new lot."
"I'm ten and a half," said Roy, wishing it was eleven.
"Bit late for starting. I'm twelve. Going on to Marlborough next year."
Roy felt crushed. In a year he would be gone! Still—there were three more terms: and he would go on to Marlborough too. He would insist.
"Does Scab Ma. bother you much?" Desmond asked with a friendly twinkle.
"Now and then—nothing to fuss about."
Roy's nonchalance, though plucky, was not quite convincing.
"Righto! I'll head him off. He isn't keen to knock up against me." A pause. "How about sitting down my way at meals? You don't look awfully gay at your end."
"I'm not. It would be ripping."
"Good. We'll hang together, eh? Because of India; because we both belong—in a different way. And we'll stick up for that miserable little devil Chandranath."
"Yes—we will." (The glory of that 'we.') "All the same,—I don't much like the look of him"
"No more don't I. He's the wrong 'jat.' He won't stay long—you'll see. But still—he shan't be bullied by Scabs, because he's not the same colour outside. You see that sort of thing in India too. My father's fearfully down on it, because it makes more bad blood than anything; I've heard him say that it's just the blighters who buck about the superior race who do all the damage with their inferior manners. Rather neat—eh?"
Roy glowed. "Your father must be a splendid sort. Is he a soldier?"
"Rather! He's a V.C. He got it saving a Jemadar—a Native Officer."
Roy caught his breath.
"I would awfully like to hear how——"
Desmond told him how....
It was a wonderful walk. By the end of it Roy no longer felt a lonely atom in a strange world. He had found something better than his Sanctuary—he had found a friend.
Looking back, long afterwards, he recognised that Sunday as the turning-point....
Later in the evening he poured it all out to his mother in four closely-written sheets.
But not a word about herself, or Desmond's friendly warning, which still puzzled him. He worried over it a little before he fell asleep. It was the very first hint—given, in all friendliness—that the mere fact of having an Indian mother might go against you, in some people's eyes. Not the right ones, of course; but still—in the nature of things,—he couldn't make it out. That would come later.
At the time its only effect was to deepen his private satisfaction at having hammered Joe Bradley; to quicken his attitude of championship towards his mother and towards India, till ultimately the glow of his fervent devotion fused them both into one dominant idea.
"He it is—the innermost one who awakens my being with his deep hidden touches."—TAGORE.
Lilamani read and re-read that letter curled among her cushions in the deep window-seat of the studio, a tower room with tall windows looking north, over jagged pine tops, to the open moor.
And while she read, Nevil stood at his easel, seizing and recording, the unconscious grace of her pose, the rapt stillness of her face. He was never weary of painting her—never quite satisfied with the result; always within an ace of achieving the one perfect picture that should immortalise a gleam from her inner uncaptured loveliness—the essence of personality that eternally foils the sense, while it sways the spirit. Impossible, of course. One might as well try and catch the fragrance of a rose, the bloom of an April dawn, or any other fragment of the world's unseizable beauty But there remained the joy of pursuing—and pursuing, not achieving, is the salt of life.
Something in her pose, her absorption—lips just parted, shadow of lashes on her cheek, primrose-pale sari against the green velvet curtain—had fired him, lit a spark of inspiration....
If he made a decent thing of it, Roy should have it for a companion to the Antibes pastel: her two aspects—wife of Nevil; mother of Roy. Later on, the boy would understand. His star stood higher than usual, just then. For Nevil had detested writing that letter of rebuke; had not dared show it to his wife; and Roy had taken it like a man. No more lamentations, so far. Certainly not on this occasion, judging by her rapt look, her complete absorption that gave him the chance of catching her unawares.
For, in truth, she was unaware; lost to everything but the joy of contact with her son. The pang of parting had been dulled to a hidden ache; but always the blank was there, however amply filled with other claims on heart and spirit. A larger schoolroom now: and Nevil, with his new Eastern picture on hand, making constant demands on her—as usual—in the initial stages; till the subject of the moment eclipsed everything, every one—sometimes even herself. Her early twinges of jealousy, during that phase, rarely troubled her now. As wife and mother, she better understood the dual allegiance—the twofold strain of the creative process, whether in spirit or flesh. Now she knew that, when art seemed most exclusively to claim him, his need was greater, not less, for her woman's gift of self-effacing tenderness, of personal physical service. And through deeper love, came clearer insight. She saw Nevil—the artist—as a veritable Yogi, impelled to ceaseless striving for mastery of himself, his atmosphere, his medium: saw her wifely love and service as the life-giving impetus without which he might flag and never reach the heights.
Women of wide social and intellectual activities might raise perplexed eyebrows over her secluded life, still instinct with the 'spirit of purdah.' She found the daily pattern of it woven with threads so richly varied that to cherish a hidden grief seemed base ingratitude. Yet always—at the back of things—lurked her foolish mother-anxieties, her deep unuttered longing. And letters were cold comfort. In the first few weeks she had come to dread opening them. Always the bitter cry of loneliness and longing for home. What was it Nevil had said to make so surprising a change? Craving to know, she feared to ask; and more than suspected that he blessed her for refraining.
And now came this long, exultant letter, written in the first flush of his great discovery——
And as she read on, she became aware of a new sensation. This was another kind of Roy. On the first page he was pouring out his heart in careless unformed phrases. By the end of the second, his tale had hold of him; he was enjoying—perhaps unaware—the exercise of a newly-awakened gift. And, looking up, at last, to share it with Nevil, she caught him in the act of tracing a curve of her sari in mid-air.
With a playful movement—pure Eastern—she drew it half over her face.
"Oh, Nevil—you wicked! I never guessed——"
"That was the beauty of it. I make my salaams to Roy! What's he been up to that it takes four sheets to confess?"
"Not confessing. Telling a tale. It will surprise you."
"Let's have a look."
She gave him the letter; and while he read it, she intently watched his face. "The boy'll write—I shouldn't wonder," was his verdict, handing back her treasure, with an odd half-smile in his eyes.
"And you were hoping—he would paint?" she said, answering his thought.
"Yes, but—scarcely expecting. Sons are a perverse generation. I'm glad he's tumbled on his feet and found a pal."
"Yes. It is good."
"We'll invite young Desmond here and inspect him, eh?"
He was silent a moment, considering her profile—humanly, not artistically. "Jealous, is she? The hundredth part of a fraction?"
"Just so much!" she admitted in her small voice. "But underneath—I am glad. A fine fellow. We will ask him—later."
The projected invitation proved superfluous. Roy's next letter informed them that after Christmas Desmond was coming for ten whole days. He had promised.
He kept his promise. After Christmas he came and saw—and conquered. At first they were all inclined to be secretly critical of the new element that looked as if it had come to stay. For Roy's discreetly repressed admiration was clear as print to those who could read him like an open page. And, on the whole, it was not surprising, as they were gradually persuaded to admit. There was more in Lance Desmond than mere grace and good looks, manliness and a ready humour. In him two remarkable personalities were blended with a peculiarly happy result.
They discovered, incidentally, his wonderful gift of music. "Got it off my mother," was his modest disclaimer. "She and my sister are simply top-hole. We do lots of it together."
His intelligent delight in pictures and books commended him to Nevil; but, at twelve and a half, skating, tramping, and hockey matches held the field. Sometimes—when it was skating—Tara and Chris went with them. But they made it clear, quite unaggressively, that the real point was to go alone.
Day after day, from her window, Lilamani watched them go, across the radiant sweep of snow-covered lawn; and, for the first time, where Roy was concerned, she knew the prick of jealousy,—a foretaste of the day when her love would no longer fill his life. Ashamed of her own weakness, she kept it hid—or fancied she did so; but the little stabbing ache persisted, in spite of shame and stoic resolves.
Tara and Christine also knew the horrid pang; but they knew neither shame not stoic resolves. Roy mustn't suspect, of course; but they told each other, in strictest confidence, that they hated Desmond; firmly believing they spoke the truth. So it was particularly vexatious to find that the moment he favoured them with the most casual attention, they were at his feet.
But that was their own private affair. Whether they resented, or whether they adored, the boys remained entirely unconcerned, entirely absorbed in each other. It was Desmond's opinion of them that mattered supremely to Roy; in particular—Desmond's opinion of his mother. After those first puzzling remarks and silences, Roy had held his peace; had not even shown Desmond her picture. His invitation accepted, he had simply waited, in transcendent faith, for the moment of revelation. And now he had his reward. After a prelude of mutual embarrassment, Lance had succumbed frankly to Lady Sinclair's unexpected charm and her shy irresistible overtures to friendship:—so frankly, that he was able, now, to hint at his earlier perplexity.
He had seen no Indian women, he explained, except in bazaars or in service; so he couldn't quite understand, until his own mother made things clearer to him and recommended him to go and see for himself. Now he had seen—and succumbed: and Roy's very private triumph was unalloyed. Second only to that triumph, the really important outcome of their glorious Ten Days was that, with Desmond's help, Roy fought the battle of going on to Marlborough when he was twelve—and won....
It was horrid leaving them all again; but it did make a wonderful difference knowing there was Desmond at the other end; and together they would champion that doubtfully grateful victim—Chandranath. Their zeal proved superfluous. Chandranath never reappeared at St Rupert's. Perhaps his people had arrived at Desmond's conclusion, that he was not the right "jat" for an English school. In any case, his disappearance was a relief—and Roy promptly forgot all about him.
Years later—many years later—he was to remember.
* * * * *
After St Rupert's—Marlborough:—and just at first he hated it, as he had hated St Rupert's, though in a different fashion. Here it was not so much the longing for home, as a vague yet deepening sense that, in some vital way—not yet fully understood—he was different from his fellows But once he reached the haven of Desmond's study, the good days began in earnest. He could read and dream along his own lines. He could scribble verse or prose, when he ought to have been preparing quite other things; and the results, good or bad, went straight to his mother.
Needless to say, she found them all radiant with promise; here and there a flicker of the divine spark: and, throughout the years of transition, the locked and treasured book that held them was the sheet-anchor to which she clung, till the new Roy should be forged out of the backslidings and renewals incidental to that time of stress and becoming. What matter their young imperfections, when—for her—it was as if Roy's spirit reached out across the dividing distance and touched her own. In the days when he seemed most withdrawn, that dear illusion was her secret bread.
And all the while, subconsciously, she was drawing nearer to the given moment of religious surrender that would complete the spiritual link with husband and children. As the babies grew older, she saw, with increasing clearness, the increasing difficulty of her position. Frankly, she had tried not to see it. Her free spirit, having reached the Reality that transcends all forms, shrank from returning to the dogmas, the limitations of a definite creed. In her eyes, it seemed a step backward. Belief in a personal God, above and beyond the Universe, was reckoned by her own faith a primitive conception; a stage on the way to that ultima Thule where the soul of man perceives its own inherent divinity, and the knower becomes the Known, as notes become music, as the river becomes the sea. It was this that troubled her logical mind and delayed decision.
But the final deciding factor—though he knew it not—was Roy. By reason of her own share in him, religion would probably mean more to him than to Nevil. For his sake—for the sake of Christine and Tara and the babies, fast sprouting into boys—she felt at last irresistibly constrained to accept, with certain mental reservations, the tenets of her husband's creed; and so qualify herself to share with them all its outward and visible forms, as already she shared its inward and spiritual grace.
The conviction sprang from no mere sentimental impulse. It was the unhurried work of years. So—when there arose the question of Roy's confirmation, and Tara's, at the same Easter-tide, conviction blossomed into decision, as simply and naturally as the bud of a flower opens to the sun. That is the supreme virtue of changes not imposed from without. When the given moment came—the inner resolve was there.
Quite simply she spoke of it to Nevil, one evening over the studio fire. And behold a surprise awaited her. She had rarely seen him more deeply moved. From the time of Roy's coming, he told her, he had cherished the hidden hope.
"Yet too seldom you have spoken of such things—why?" she asked, moved in her turn and amazed.
"Because from the first I made up my mind I would not have it, except in your own way and in your own time. I knew the essence of it was in you. For the rest—I preferred to wait till you were ready—Sita Devi."
"Nevil—lord of me!" She slipped to her knees beside him. "I am ready. But oh, you wicked, how could I know that all the time you were caring that much in your secret heart."
He gathered her close and said not a word.
So the great matter was settled, with no outward fuss or formalities. She would be baptized before Roy came home for the Easter holidays and his confirmation.
"But not here—not Mr Sale," she pleaded. "Let us go away quietly to London—we two. Let it be in that great Church, where first the thought was born in my heart that some day ... this might be."
He could refuse her nothing. Jeffrey might feel aggrieved when he knew. But after all—this was their own affair. Time enough afterwards to let in the world and its thronging notes of exclamation.
Roy was told when he came home. For imparting such intimate news, she craved the response of his living self. And if Nevil's satisfaction struck a deeper note, it was simply that Roy was very young and had always included her Hindu-ness in the natural order of things.
Wonderful days! Preparing the children, with Helen's help; preparing herself, in the quiet of her "House of Gods"—a tiny room above the studio—in much the same spirit as she had prepared for the great consecration of marriage, with vigil and meditation and unobtrusive fasting—noted by Nevil, though he said no word.
Crowning wonder of all, that golden Easter morning of her first Communion with Roy and Tara, with Nevil and Helen:—unfolding of heart and spirit, of leaf and blossom; dual miracle of a world new made....
END OF PHASE I.
THE VISIONARY GLEAM
"Youth is lifted on Wings of his strong hope and soaring valour; for his thoughts are above riches."—PINDAR.
Oxford on a clear, still evening of June: silver reaches of Isis and Cher; meadows pied with moon daisies and clover, and the rose madder bloom of ripe grasses; the trill of unseen birds tuning up for evensong; the passing and repassing of boats and canoes and punts, gay with cushions and summer frocks; all bathed in the level radiance that steals over earth like a presence in the last hours of a summer day....
Oxford—shrine of the oldest creeds and the newest fads—given over, for one hilarious week, to the yearly invasion of mothers and sisters and cousins, and girls that were neither; especially girls that were neither....
Two of the punts, clearly containing one party, kept close enough together for the occupants to exchange sallies of wit, or any blissful foolishness in keeping with the blissfully foolish mood of a moonlight picnic up the river in 'Commem.'
Roy Sinclair's party boasted the distinction of including one mother, Lady Despard; and one grandfather, Cuthbert Broome; and Roy himself—a slender, virile figure in flannels, and New College tie—was poling the first punt.
As in boyhood, so now, his bearing and features were Nevil incarnate. But to the shrewd eye of Broome the last seemed subtly overlaid with the spirit of the East—a brooding stillness wrought from the clash of opposing forces within. When he laughed and talked it vanished. When he fell silent, and drifted away from his surroundings, it reappeared.
It was precisely this hidden quality, so finely balanced, that intrigued the brain of the novelist, as distinct from the heart of the godfather. Which was the real Roy? Which would prove the decisive factor at the critical corners of his destiny? To what heights would it carry him—into what abyss might it plunge him—that gleam from the ancient soul of things? Would India—and his young glorification of India—be, for him, a spark of inspiration or a stone of stumbling?
Broome had not seen much of the boy, intimately, since the New Year; and he did not need spectacles to discern some inner ferment at work. Roy was more talkative and less communicative than usual; and Broome let him talk, reading between the lines. He knew to a nicety the moment when a chance question will kill confidence—or evoke it. He suspected one of those critical corners. He also suspected one of those Indian cousins of his: delightful, both of them; but still....
The question remained, which was it—the girl or the boy?
The girl, Aruna—student at Somerville College—was reclining among vast blue and pink cushions in the bows, pensively twirling a Japanese parasol, one arm flung round the shoulders of her companion—a fellow-student; fair and stolid and good-humoured. Broome summed her up mentally: "Tactless but trustworthy. Anglo-Saxon to the last button on her ready-made Shantung coat and the blunted toe of her white suede shoe."
Aruna—in plain English, Dawn—was quite arrestingly otherwise. Not beautiful, like Lilamani, nor quite so fair of skin; but what the face lacked in symmetry was redeemed by lively play of expression, piquante tilt of nose and chin, large eyes, velvet-dark like brown pansies. The modelling of the face—its breadth and roundness and upturned aspect—gave it a pansy-like air. Over her simple summer frock of carnation pink she wore a paler sari flecked with gold; and two ropes of coral beads enhanced the deeper coral of her full lower lip. Not yet eighteen, she was studying "pedagogy" for the benefit of her less adventurous sisters in Jaipur.
Clearly a factor to be reckoned with, this creature of girlish laughter and high purpose; a woman to the tips of her polished finger nails. Yet Broome had by no means decided that it was the girl——
After Desmond—Dyan Singh: each, in his turn and type, own brother to Roy's complex soul. Broome—in no insular spirit—preferred the earlier influence. But Desmond had sped like an arrow to the Border, where his eldest brother commanded their father's old regiment; and Dyan Singh—handsome and fiery, young India at its best—reigned in his stead. The two were of the same college. Dyan, twelve months younger, looked the older by a year or more. Face and form bore the Rajput stamp of virility, of a racial pride, verging on arrogance; and the Rajput insignia of breeding—noticeably small hands and feet.
He was poling the second punt with less skill and assurance than Roy. His attention was palpably distracted by a vision of Tara among the cushions in the bows; an arm linked through her mother's, as though defending her against the implication of being older than any one else, or in the least degree out of it because of that trifling detail—tacitly admitted, while hotly denied; which was Tara all over.
Certainly Lady Despard still looked amazingly young; still emanated the vital charm she had transmitted to her child. And Tara at twenty, in soft butter-coloured frock with roses in her hat, was a vision alluring enough to distract any young man from concentration on a punt pole. Vivid, eager and venturesome, singularly free from the bane of self-consciousness; not least among her graces—and rare enough to be notable—was the grace of her chivalrous affection for the older generation. In Tara's eyes, girls who patronised their mothers and tolerated their fathers were anathema. It was a trait certain to impress Roy's Rajput cousin; and Broome wondered whether Helen was alive to the disturbing possibility; whether, for all her genuine love of the East, she would acquiesce....
Only the other day, it seemed, he and she had sat together among the rocks of the dear old Cap, listening to Nevil's amazing news. She it was who had championed his choice of a bride: and Lilamani had justified her championship to the full. But then—Lilamani was one in many thousands; and this affair would be the other way about:—Tara, the apple of their eye; Tara, with her wild-flower face and her temperament of clear flame——?
How sharply they tugged at his middle-aged heart, these casual and opinionated young things, with their follies and fanaticisms, their Jacob's ladders hitched perilously to the stars; with their triumphs and failures and disillusions all ahead of them; airily impervious to proffered help and advice from those who would agonise to serve them if they could....
A jarring bump in the small of his back cut short his flagrantly Victorian musings. Dyan's punt was the offender; and Dyan himself, clutching the pole that had betrayed him, was almost pitched into the river.
His achievement was greeted by a shout of laughter, and an ironic "Played indeed!" from Cuthbert Gordon—Broome's grandson. Roy, tumbled from some starry dream of his own, flashed out imperiously: "Look alive, you blithering idiot. 'Who are you a-shoving'?"
The Rajput's face darkened; but before he could retort, Tara had risen and stepped swiftly to his side. Her fingers closed on the pole; and she smiled straight into his clouded eyes.
"Let me, please. I'm sick of lazing and fearfully keen. And I can't allow my Mother to be drownded by anyone but me. I'd be obliged to murder the other body, which would be awkward—for us both!"
"Miss Despard—there is no danger——" he muttered—impervious to humour; and—as if by chance—one of his hands half covered hers.
"Let go," she commanded, so low that no one else knew she had spoken; so sternly that Dyan's fingers unclosed as if they had touched fire.
"Now, don't fuss. Go and sit down," she added, in her lighter vein. "You've done your share. And you're jolly grateful to me, really. But too proud to own it!"
"Not too proud to obey you," he muttered.
She saw the words rather than heard them; and he turned away without daring to meet her eyes.
It all passed in a few seconds, but it left him tingling with repressed rage. He had made a fool of himself in her eyes; had probably given away his secret to the whole party. After all, what matter? He could not much longer have kept it hidden. By the touch of hands and his daring words he had practically told her....
As he settled himself, her clear voice rang out: "Wake up, Roy! I'll race you to the backwater."
They raced to the backwater; and Tara won by half a length, amid cheers from the men.
"Well, you see, I had to let you," Roy explained, as she confronted him, flushed with triumph. "Seemed a shame to cut you out. Not as if you were a giddy suffragette!"
"Qui s'excuse—s'accuse!" she retorted. "Anyway—I'm the winner."
"Right you are. The way of girls was ever so. No matter what line you take, it's safe to be the wrong one."
"Hark at the Cynic!" jeered young Cuthbert. "Were you forty on the 9th, or was it forty-five?"
Roy grinned. "Good old Cuthers! Don't exhaust yourself trying to be funny! Fish out the drinks. We've earned them, haven't we—High Tower Princess?" The last, confidentially, for Tara's ear alone.
And Dyan, seeing the smile in her eyes, felt jealousy pierce him like a red-hot wire.
The supper, provided by Roy and Dyan, was no scratch wayside meal, but an ambrosial affair:—salmon mayonnaise, ready mixed; glazed joints of chicken; strawberries and cream; lordly chocolate boxes; sparkling moselle—and syphons for the abstemious.
It was a lively meal: Roy, dropped from the clouds, the film of the East gone from his face, was simply Nevil again; even as young Cuthbert, with his large build and thatch of tawny hair, was a juvenile edition of Broome. And the older man, watching them, bandying chaff with them, renewed his youth for one careless golden hour.
The punts were ranged alongside; and they all ate together, English and Indian. No irksome caste rules on this side of the water; no hint of condescension in the friendly attitude of young Oxford. Nothing to jar the over-sensibility of young India—prone to suspect slight where no thought of it exists; too often, also, treated to exhibitions of ill-bred arrogance that undo in an hour the harmonising work of years.
Dyan sat by Tara, anticipating her lightest need; courage rising by leaps and bounds. Aruna, from her nest of cushions, exchanged lively sallies with Roy. Petted by a college full of friendly English girls, she had very soon lost what little shyness she ever possessed. Now and again, when his eyes challenged hers, she would veil them and watch him surreptitiously; one moment approving his masculine grace; the next, boldly asking herself: "Does he see how I am wearing the favourite sari—and how my coral beads make my lips look red?" And again: "Why do they make foolish talk of a gulf between East and West?"
To that profound question came no answer in words; only in hidden stirrings, that she preferred to ignore. Both brother and sister had persuaded themselves that talk of a gulf was exaggerated by unfriendly spirits. They, at all events, having built their bridge, took its stability for granted. Children of an emotional race, it sufficed to discover that they loved the cool green freshness of England, the careless kindly freedom of her life and ways; the hum of her restless, smoky, all-embracing London; her miles and miles of books and pictures. Above everything they loved Oxford, where all were brothers in spirit—with a proper sense of difference between the brothers of one's own college and the mere outsider:—Oxford, at this particular hour of this particular June evening. And at this actual moment, they loved salmon mayonnaise and crushed strawberries fully as much as any other manifestation of the delectable land.
And down in subconscious depths—untroubled by the play of surface emotions—burned their passionate, unreasoned love of India that any chance breath might rekindle to a flame.
Presently, as the sun drew down to earth, trees and meadows swam in a golden haze. Arrows of gold, stealing through alders and willows, conjured mere leaves into discs of pure green light. Clouds of pollen brightened to dust of gold. In the near haze midges flickered; and, black against the brightness, swallows wheeled and dipped, uttering thin cries in the ecstasy of their evening flight.
On the two punts in the backwater a great peace descended after the hilarity of their feast. Clouds of cigarette smoke kept midges at bay. In the deepening stillness small sounds asserted themselves—piping of gnats, the trill of happy birds, snatches of disembodied laughter and talk from other parties in other punts, somewhere out of sight....
Only Aruna did not smoke; and Emily Barnard, her fanatic devotee, retired with her to the bank, where they made a lazy pretence of "washing up." But Aruna's eyes would stray toward the recumbent figure of Roy, when she fancied Emmie was not looking. And Emmie—who could see very well without looking—wished him at the bottom of the river.
Propped on an elbow, he lay among Aruna's cushions, his senses stirred by the faint carnation scent she used, enlarging on his latest enthusiasm—Rabindranath Tagore, the first of India's poet-saints to challenge the ethics of the withdrawn life. When the mood was on, the veil of reserve swept aside, he could pour out his ardours, his protests, his theories, in an eloquent rush of words. And Aruna—absently wiping spoons and forks—listened entranced. He seemed to be addressing no one in particular; but as often as not his gaze rested on Broome, as though he were indirectly conveying to him thoughts he felt shy of airing when they were alone.
A pause in the flow of his talk left a space of silence into which the encompassing peace and radiance stole like an inflowing tide. None loved better than Roy the ghostly music of silence; but to-night his brain was filled with the music of words—not his own.
"Just listen to this," he said, without preamble. His eyes took on their far-away look; his voice dropped a tone.
"The night is night of mid-May; the breeze is the breeze of the South.
"From my heart comes out and dances the image of my Desire.
"The gleaming vision flits on.
"I try to clasp it firmly, it eludes me and leads me astray.
"I seek what I cannot get; I get what I do not seek."
To that shining fragment of truth and beauty, his audience paid the fitting tribute of silence; and his gaze—returning to earth—caught, in Tara's eyes, a reflection of his exalted mood. Dyan saw it also; and once more that red-hot wire pierced his heart.
It passed in a second; and Roy was speaking again—not to Tara, but to her mother.
"Is there any poet, East or West, who can quite so exquisitely capture the essence of a mood, hold it lightly, like a fluttering bird, and as lightly let it go?"
Lady Despard smiled approval at the simile. "In that one," she said, "he has captured more than a mood—the very essence of life.—Have you met him?"
"Yes, once—after a lecture. We had a talk—I'll never forget. There's wonderful stuff in the new volume. I know most of it by heart."
"Spare us, good Lord," muttered Cuthbert—neither prejudiced nor perverse, but British to the core. "If you start again, I'll retaliate with Job and the Psalms!"
Roy retorted with the stump of an extinct cigarette. It smote the offender between the eyebrows, leaving a caste-mark of warm ash to attest the accuracy of his aim.
"Bull's eye!" Tara scored softly; and Roy, turning on his elbow, appealed to Broome. "Jeffers, please extinguish him!" ("Jeffers" being a corruption of G.F., alias Godfather).
Broome laughed. "I had a hazy notion he was your show candidate for the Indian Civil!"
"He's supposed to be. That's the scandal of it. A mighty lot of interest he's cultivating in the people and the country he aspires to administer."
"High art and sloppy sentiment are not in the bond," Cuthbert retorted, with a wink at Dyan Singh.
That roused Lady Despard. "Insight and sympathy must be in the bond, unless England and India are to drift apart altogether. The Indian Civilian should be caught early, like the sailor, and trained on the spot. Exams make character a side issue. And one might almost say there's no other issue in the Indian services."
Cuthbert nodded. "Glorious farce, isn't it? They simply cram us like Christmas turkeys. Efficiency's the war-cry, these enlightened days."
"Too much efficiency," Dyan struck in, with a kindling eye. "Already turning our ancient cities into nightmares like Manchester and Birmingham, killing the true sense of beauty, giving us instead the poison of money and luxury worship. And what result? Just now, when the West at last begins to notice our genius of colour and design—even to learn from it—we find it slipping out of our own fingers. Nearly all the homes of the English educated are like caricatures of your villas—the worst kind. Yet there are still many on both sides who wish to make life—not so ugly, to escape a little from gross superstition of facts——"
"Hear, hear!" Broome applauded him. "But I'm afraid, my dear boy, the Time Spirit is out to make tradesmen and politicians of us all. Thank God, the soul of a race lives in its books, its philosophy and art."
"Very well then"—Roy was the speaker,—"the obvious remedy lies in getting the souls of both races into closer touch—philosophy, art, and all that—eh, Jeffers? That's what we're after—Dyan and I—on the lines of that society Dad belongs to."
Broome looked thoughtfully from one to the other. "A tall order," said he.
"A vision splendid!" said Lady Despard.
Roy leaned eagerly towards her. "You don't sneer at dreams, Aunt Helen."
"Nor do I, my son. Dreamers are our strictly unpaid torch-bearers. They light the path for us; and we murmur 'Poor fools!' with a kind of sneaking self-satisfaction, when they come a cropper."
"'Which I 'ope it won't 'appen to me!'" quoted Roy, cheered by Lady Despard's approval. "Anyway, we're keen to speed up the better understanding move—on the principle that Art unites and politics divide."
"Very pithy—and approximately true! May I be allowed to proffer a sound working maxim for youth on the war-path? 'Freedom and courage in thought—obedience in act.' When I say obedience, I don't mean slavish conformity. When I say freedom, I don't mean licence. Only the bond are free."
"Jeffers, you're a Daniel! I'll pinch that pearl of wisdom! But what about democracy—Cuthers' pet panacea? Isn't it making for disobedience in act—rebellion; and enslavement in thought—every man reared on the same catch-words, minted with the same hall-mark?"
That roused the much-enduring British Lion—in the person of Cuthbert Gordon.
"Confound you, Roy! This is a picnic, not a bally Union debate. You can't argue for nuts; and when you start spouting you're the limit. But two can play at that game!" He flourished a half-empty syphon of lemonade, threatening the handle with a very square thumb.
"Fire away, old bean." Roy opened his mouth by way of invitation. Cuthbert promptly pressed the trigger—and missed his mark.
There was a small shriek from Tara and from the girls on the bank: then the opponents proceeded to deal with one another in earnest....
Dyan soon lost interest when India was not the theme; and, as the elders fell into an undercurrent of talk, his eyes sought Tara's face. Her answering smile spurred him to a bold move; and he leaned towards her, over the edge of the boat. "Miss Despard," he said under his breath, "won't you come for a stroll in the field?—Do."
She shook her head. "I'm too lazy! We've had enough exercise. And there's the walk home."
Her refusal jarred him; but desire overruled pride. "You couldn't call it exercise. Do come."
"Truly—I'm tired," she insisted gently, looking away from him towards her mother.
It was Lady Despard's boast that she could listen to three conversations at once; but even Tara was surprised when she casually put out a hand and patted her knee. "Wise child. Better keep quiet till we start home."
The hand was not removed. Tara covered it with her own, and further maddened the discomfited Dyan by saying, with her very kindest smile: "I'm so sorry. Don't be vexed."
Vexed! The bloodless word was insult piled on injury. All the pride and passion of his race flamed in him. Without answering her smile or her plea, he drew abruptly away from her; stepped out of the punt and went for his stroll alone.
"Who knows what days I answer for to-day...? Thoughts yet unripe in me, I bend one way...." —ALICE MEYNELL.
While Broome and Lady Despard were concerned over indications of a critical corner for Roy, there was none—save perhaps Aruna—to be concerned for the dilemma of Dyan Singh, Rajput—half savage, half chivalrous gentleman; idealist in the grain; lover of England and India; and now—fiercely, consumedly—lover of Tara Despard, with her Indian name and her pearl-white English skin and the benign sunshine of England in her hair.
It is the danger-point for the young Indian overseas, unused to free intercourse with women other than his own; saddled, very often, with a girl-wife in the background—the last by no means a matter of course in these enlightened days. In Dyan Singh's case the safeguard was lacking. His mother being dead, he had held his own against a rigidly conventional grandmother, and insisted on delaying the inevitable till his education was complete. Waxing bolder still, he had demanded the same respite for Aruna; a far more serious affair. For months they had waged a battle of tongues and temper and tears, with Mataji—high-priestess of the Inside—with the family matchmaker and the family guru, whom to offend was the unforgiveable sin. Had he not power to call down upon an entire household the curse of the gods?
More than once Aruna had been goaded to the brink of surrender; till her brother grew impatient and spurned her as a weakling. Yet her ordeal had been sharper than his own. For him, mere moral suasion and threats of ostracism. For her, the immemorial methods of the Inside; forbidden by Sir Lakshman, but secretly applied, when flagrant obstinacy demanded drastic measures. So neither Dyan nor his grandfather had suspected that Aruna, for days together, had suffered the torment of Tantalus—food set before her so mercilessly peppered that a morsel would raise blisters on her lips and tongue; water steeped in salt; the touch of the 'fire-stick' applied where her skin was tenderest; not to mention the more subtle torment of jibes and threats and vile insinuations that suffused her with shame and rage. A word to the menfolk, threatened Mataji, and worse would befall. If men cared nothing for family honour, the women must vindicate it in their own fashion. For the two were doing their duty, up to their lights. Only the knowledge that Dyan was fighting her battle, as well as his own, had kept the girl unbroken in spirit, even when her body cried out for respite at any price....
All this she had confided to him when, at last, they were safe on the great ship, with miles of turbulent water between them and the ruthless dominion of dastur. That confession—with its unconscious revealing of the Rajput spirit hidden in her laughter-loving heart—had drawn them into closest union and filled Dyan with self-reproach. Small wonder if Oxford seemed to both a paradise of knowledge and of friendly freedom. Small wonder if they believed that, in one bold leap, they had bridged the gulf between East and West.
At Bramleigh Beeches, Lilamani—who knew all without telling—had welcomed them with open arms: and Lady Despard no less. It was here that Dyan met Tara, who had 'no use' for colleges—and, in the course of a few vacation visits, the damage had been done.
At first he had felt startled, even a little dismayed. English education and delayed marriage had involved no dream of a possible English wife. With the Indian Civil in view, he had hoped to meet some girl student of his own race, sufficiently advanced to remain outside purdah and to realise that a modern Indian husband might crave companionship from his wife no less than motherhood, worship, and service.
And now ... this——!
Striding across the field, in the glimmer of a moon just beginning to take colour, he alternately raged at her light rebuff, and applauded her maidenly hesitation. As a Hindu and a man of breeding, his natural instinct had been to approach her parents; but he knew enough of modern youth, by now, to realise that English parents were a side issue in these little affairs. For himself, the primitive lover flamed in him. He wanted to kneel and worship her. In the same breath, he wanted simply to possess her, would she or no....
And in saner moods, uncertainty racked him. What did they amount to, her smiles and flashes of sympathy, her kind, cousinly ways? What did Roy's cousinly kindness amount to, with Aruna? If in India they suffered from too much restriction, it dawned on him that in England trouble might arise from too much freedom. Always, by some cause, there would be suffering. The gods would see to it. But not through loss of her—he mutely implored them. Any way but that!
Everything hung on the walk home. Those two must have finished their sparring match by now....
They had. Roy was on the bank, helping Aruna pack the basket; and Cuthbert in possession of Tara—not for long.
He was called upon to punt back; and at the boat-house, where a taxi removed the elders and the picnic impedimenta, he essayed a futile manoeuvre to recapture Tara and saddle Dyan with the solid Emily. Failing, he consoled himself by keeping in touch with Aruna and Roy.
Dyan patently delayed starting, patently lagged behind. Unskilled and desperately in earnest, he could not lead up to his moment. He was laboriously framing the essential words when Tara scattered them with a light remark, rallying him on his snail's pace.
"You would go for that stroll; and you strolled so violently——!"
"Because my heart in me was raging—aching, violently!" he blurted out with such unexpected vehemence, that she started and stepped back a pace.
"Of course I knew—there must be difficulties—so I have been waiting and hoping ..." An idiotic catch in his throat brought a sudden hot wave of self-consciousness. He flung out both hands. "Tara——!"
Instinctively, she drew her own out of reach. A ghost of a shiver ran through her. "No—no. I don't ... I never have.... If I've misled you, I'm ever so sorry."
"If you are sorry—give me hope," his voice, his eyes implored her. "You come so near—then you draw back; like offering a thirsty man a cup of water he must not drink. Give me only a little time—a little chance——"
She shook her head. "Please believe me. I'm not the wavering kind. I'm keen to go on being friends—because of Roy. But, truthfully, it's no use hoping for anything more—ever."
Her patent sincerity, the sweet seriousness of her face, carried conviction. And conviction turned his ardour to bitterness.
"Why no use—ever?" he flung out, maddened by her emphasis on the word.
"I suppose—because I know my own mind."
"No. Because—I am Indian." His voice was changed and harsh. "We are all British subjects—oh yes—when convenient! But the door is opened only—so far. If we make bold to ask for the best, it is slammed in our faces."
"Dyan Singh, if I have hurt you, it was quite unintentional. You know that. But now, with intention, you are hurting me." Her dignity and gentleness, the justice of her reproof, smote him silent; and she went on: "You forget, it is the same among your own people. Aunt Lila was cast out—for always. With an English girl that could never be."
Too distraught for argument, he harked back to the personal issue. "With you there would be no need. I would live altogether like an Englishman——"
"Oh, stop!" she broke out desperately. "Don't start all over again——"
"Look alive, you two slackers," shouted Roy, from the far corner of the road. "I'm responsible for keeping the team together."
"Coming!" called Tara, and turned on Dyan a final glance of appeal. "I'm sorry from the bottom of my heart. I can't say more."—And setting the pace, she hurried forward.
For the fraction of a second, he hesitated. An overmastering impulse seized him to walk off in the opposite direction. His eager love for them all had suddenly turned to gall. But pride forbade. He would not for the world have them guess at his rebuff—not even Aruna....
* * * * *
He slept little that night; and it was not Dyan Singh of New College who awoke next morning. It was Dyan Singh, Rajput, Descendant of the Sun. Yet the foolish round of life must go on as if no vital change had come to pass.
That afternoon, he was going with Roy to a select drawing-room meeting. A certain Mr Ramji Lal had been asked to read a paper on the revival of Indian arts and crafts. Dyan had been looking forward to it keenly; but now, sore and miserable as he was—all sense of purpose and direction gone—he felt out of tune with the whole thing.
He would have been thankful to cry off. Roy, however, must not suspect the truth—Roy, who himself might be the stumbling-block. The suspicion stung like a scorpion; though it soothed a little his hurt pride of race.
Embittered and antagonistic, he listened only with half his mind to his own countryman's impassioned appeal for renewal of the true Swadeshi spirit in India; renewal of her own innate artistic culture, her faith in the creative power of thought and ideas. That spirit—said the speaker—has no war-cries, no shoutings in the market-place. It is a way of looking at life. Its true genesis and inspiration is in the home. Like flame, newly-lit, it needs cherishing. Instead, it is in danger of being stamped out by false Swadeshi—an imitation product of the West; noisy and political, crying out for more factories, more councils; caring nothing for true Indian traditions of art and life. It will not buy goods from Birmingham and Manchester; but it will create Birmingham and Manchester in India. In effect, it is the age-old argument whether the greatness of a nation comes from the dominion of men or machinery....
For all this, Dyan had cared intensely twenty-four hours ago. Now it seemed little better than a rhapsody of fine phrases—'sounding brass and tinkling cymbals.'
Could the mere word of a woman so swiftly and violently transform the mind of a man? His innate masculinity resented the idea. It succumbed, nevertheless. He was too deeply hurt in his pride and his passionate heart to think or feel sanely while the wound was still so fresh. He was scarcely stirred even by the allusion to Rajputana in Mr Ramji Lal's peroration.
"I ask you to consider, in conclusion—my dear and honoured English friends—the words of a veteran lover of India, who is also a son of England. It was his conviction—it is also mine—that 'the still living art of India, the still living chivalry of Rajputana, the still living religion of the Hindus, are the only three points on which there is any possibility of regenerating the national life of India—the India of the Hindus....'"
Very fine; doubtless very true; but what use—after all—their eternal talk? By blowing volumes of air from their lungs, did they shift the mountains of difficulty one single inch?
More talk followed; tea and attentions that would have flattered him yesterday. To-day it all passed clean over his head. They were ready enough to pamper him, like a lap-dog, these good ladies; forgetting he was a man, with a man's heart and brain, making demand for something more than carefully chosen sugar-plums.
He had never been so thankful to get away from that hospitable house, where he had imagined himself so happy....
They were out in the street again, striding back to New College: Roy—not yet alive to the change in him—full of it all; talking nineteen to the dozen. But Dyan's urgent heart spoke louder than his cousin's voice. And all the while he kept wondering consumedly—Was it Roy?
He could not bring himself to ask outright. The answer would madden him either way. And Goodness—or Badness—knew he was miserable enough: hurt, angry with Fate, with England, even with Tara—lovely and unattainable! She had spoilt everything: his relation with her, with her people, with Roy. She had quenched his zeal for their joint crusade. All the same, he would hold Roy to the India plan; since there was just a chance—and it would take him away from her. He hated himself for the thought; but jealousy, in the East, is a consuming fire....
Roy's monologue ceased abruptly. "Your innings, old chap, I think!" he said. "You're mum as a fish this afternoon. I noticed it in there—I thought you'd have lots to say to Ramji Lal."
Dyan frowned. He could not for long play at pretences with Roy.
"Those ladies did all the saying. They would not have liked it at all if I had spoken my true thought,"—he paused and added deliberately—"that we are all cracking our skulls against stone walls."
"My dear chap——!" Roy stared in frank bewilderment. "What's gone wrong? Your liver touched up? Too much salmon mayonnaise and cream?"
His light tone goaded Dyan to exasperation. "Quite likely," he retorted, a sneer lurking in his tone. "Plenty of mayonnaise and cream, for all parties. But when we make bold to ask for more satisfying things, we find 'No Indians need apply.'"
"But—my good Dyan——!"
"Well—it's true. Suppose I wish to promote that closer union we all chatter about by marrying an English girl—what then?"
Up went Roy's eyebrows. "Are you after an English wife?"
"I am submitting a case—that might easily occur." He spoke with a touch of irritation; and fearing self-betrayal, swerved from the main issue. "Would you marry an Indian girl?"
"I believe so. If I was keen. I'm not at all sure, though, if it's sound—in principle—mixing such opposite strains. And in your case—hypothetical, I suppose——?"
Dyan's grunt confessed nothing and denied nothing.
"Well—from what one hears, an English wife, out there, might make a bit of complication, if you get the 'Civil.'"
Dyan started. "I shan't go up for it. I've changed my mind."
"Good Lord! And you've been sweating all this time."
Dyan's smile was tinged with bitterness.
"Well—one lives and learns. I can make good use of my knowledge without turning myself into an imitation Englishman. An Indian wife might make equal difficulty. So—with all my zeal—I am between two grindstones. My father joined the Civil. He was keen. He did well. But—no promotion; and little friendliness, except from very few. I believe he was never happy. I believe—it killed him. I was cherishing a hope that, now, things might be better. But I am beginning to see—I may be wrong. Safer to see it in time——"
Roy looked genuinely distressed. "Poor old Dyan. Perhaps you're right. I don't know much about British India. But it does seem hard lines—and bad policy—to choke off men like you."
"Yes. They might consider that more, if they heard some of our fire-eaters. One was at me last week. He gave the British ten years to survive. Said their lot could raise a revolution to-morrow if they had money—a trifle of five millions! He was swearing the Indian princes are not loyal, in spite of talk and subscriptions; that the Army will join whichever side gives best pay. We who are loyal need some encouragement—some recognition. We are only human——!"
"Rather. But you won't go back on our little show, old chap. Just when I'm dead keen—laying my plans for India——"
He took hold of Dyan's upper arm and gave it a friendly shake.
"No, I'll stick to that. But are you sure you can work it—with your people? If you back out, I swear, by the sin of the sack of Chitor, I'll join the beastly crowd who are learning to make bombs in Berlin."
At that—the most solemn oath that can pass the lips of a Rajput—Roy looked startled. Then he laughed.
"'Commem' seems to have disagreed with you all round! But I won't be intimidated. Likewise—I won't back out. I intend opening diplomatic conversations with Jeffers to-night. Recherche dinner for two in my room. All his little weaknesses! He'd be a strong ally. Wish me luck."
Dyan wished him luck in a rather perfunctory tone, considering his vehemence of a moment earlier. All the fire seemed suddenly to have gone out of him.
They had just entered the college gate; and a few yards ahead, they caught sight of Lady Despard and Tara—the girl's hand linked through her mother's arm.
"Oh, I clean forgot," remarked Roy. "I said they could look in."
[Footnote 1: Own country.]
"It is the spirit of the quest which helps. I am the slave of this spirit of the quest."—KABIR.
Roy's recherche little dinner proved an unqualified success. With sole and chicken saute, with trifle and savoury, he mutely pleaded his cause; feeling vaguely guilty, the while, of belittling his childhood's idol, whom he increasingly admired and loved. But this India business was tremendously important, and the dear old boy would never suspect——
Roy watched him savouring the chicken and peas; discussing the decay of falling in love, its reasons and remedies; and thought, for the hundredth time, what a splendid old boy he was; so big and breezy, nothing bookish or newspapery about him. Quite a masterpiece of modelling, on Nature's part; the breadth and bulk of him; the massive head, with its thatch of tawny-grey hair that retreated up the sides of his forehead, making corners; the nose, rugged and full of character; the beard and the sea-blue eyes that gave him the sailor aspect Roy had so loved in nursery days. Now he appraised it consciously, with the artist's eye. A vigorous bust of his godfather was his acknowledged masterpiece, so far, in the modelling line, which he preferred to brush or pencil. But first and foremost, literature claimed him: poetry, essays, and the despised novel—truest and most plastic medium for interpreting man to man and race to race: the most entirely obvious medium, thought Roy, for promoting the cause he had at heart.
Though his brain was overflowing with the one subject, he was reserving it diplomatically for the more intimate atmosphere of port wine, coffee and cigars. Meantime they always had plenty to talk about, these two. Broome held the unorthodox view that he probably had quite as much to learn from the young as they from him; and at the moment, the question whether Roy should take up literature in earnest was very much to the fore.
Once or twice during a pause, he caught the shrewd blue eye watching him from under shaggy brows; but each kept his own counsel till the scout had removed all superfluities. Then Broome chose a cigar, sniffed it, and beheaded it.
"My particular weakness!" he remarked pensively, while Roy filled his glass. "What an attentive godson it is! And after this intriguing prelude—what of the main plot? India?"
Under a glance as direct as the question Roy reddened furiously. The 'dear old boy' had done more than suspect; he had seen through the whole show—the indignity of all others that youth can least abide.
At sight of his crestfallen countenance, Broome laughed outright. "Bear up, old man! Don't grudge me a fraction of the wits I live by. Weren't you trying to give me an inkling yesterday?"
Roy nodded, mollified a little. But his self-confidence wilted under the false start. "How about arm-chairs?" he remarked tentatively, very much engaged with a cigarette.
They removed their coffee-cups, and sipped once or twice in silence. "I'm waiting," said Broome, encouragement in his tone.
But Roy still hesitated. "You see——" he temporised, "I'm so fearfully keen, I feel shy of gassing about it. Might seem to you mere soppy sentiment."
Broome's sailor eyes twinkled. "You pay me the compliment, my son, of treating me as if I were a fellow-undergrad! It's only the 'teens and the twenties of this very new century that are so mortally afraid of sentiment—the main factor in human happiness. If you had not a strong sentiment for India, you would be unworthy of your mother. You want to go out there—is that the rub?"
"Yes. With Dyan."
"In what capacity?"
"A lover and a learner. Also—by way of—a budding author. I was hoping you might back me up with a few commissions for my preliminary stuff."
"You selected your godfather with unerring foresight! And preliminaries over—a book, or books, would be the end in view?"
"Yes—and other things. Whatever one can do—in a small way—to inspire a friendlier feeling all round; a clearer conviction that the destinies of England and India are humanly bound up together. I'm sure those cursed politics are responsible for most of the friction. It's art and literature, the emotional and spiritual forces that draw men together, isn't it, Jeffers? You know that——"
He leaned forward, warming to his subject; the false start forgotten; shyness dispelled....
And, once started, none was more skilful than Broome in luring him on to fuller, unconscious self-revealing. He knew very well that, on this topic, and on many others, Roy could enlarge more freely to him than to his father. Youth is made that way. In his opinion, it was all to the good that Roy should aspire to use his double heritage, for the legitimate and noble purpose of interpreting—as far as might be—East to West, and West to East: not least, because he would probably learn a good deal more than he was qualified to teach. It was in the process of qualifying himself, by closer acquaintance with India, that the lurking danger reared its head. But some outlet there must be for the Eastern spirit in him; and his early efforts pointed clearly to literary expression, if Broome knew anything of the creative gift. Himself a devotee, he agreed with Lafcadio Hearne that 'a man may do quite as great a service to his country by writing a book as by winning a battle'; and just so much of these thoughts as seemed fit he imparted to Roy, who—in response to the last—glowed visibly.
"Priceless old Jeffers! I knew I could reckon on you to back me up—and buck me up! Of course one will be hugely encouraged by the bleating of the practical crowd—Aunt Jane and Co. 'Why waste your time writing silly novels?' And if you try to explain that novels have a real function, they merely think you've got a swelled head."
"Never mind, Roy. 'The quest is a noble one and the hope great.' And we scribblers have our glorious compensations. As for Aunt Jane——" He looked very straight at her nephew—and winked deliberately.
"Oh, of course—she's the unlimited limit," Roy agreed without shame. "I suppose if Dad plays up, she'll give him hell?"
"Good measure, pressed down.—By the way—have you spoken to him yet of all this——?"
"No. Mother probably guesses. But you're the first. I made sure you'd understand——"
"You feel doubtful—about Father?"
"M-yes. I don't quite know why."
Broome was silent a moment. "After all—it's natural. Put yourself in his place, Roy.—He sees India taking a stronger hold of you each year. He knows you've a deal of your mother and grandfather in your make-up. He may very well be afraid of the magnet proving too strong at close quarters. And I suspect he's jealous—for England. He'd like to see your soul centred on Bramleigh Beeches: and I more than suspect they'd both prefer to keep you nearer home."
Roy looked distressed. "Hard lines. I hadn't got to that yet. But it wouldn't be for always. And—there's George and Jerry sprouting up."
"I gather that George and Jerry are not precisely—Roy——"
"Jeffers—you old sinner! I can't flatter myself——!"
"Don't be blatantly British, Roy! You can flatter yourself—you know as well as I do!"
"I know it's undiplomatic to contradict my elders!" countered Roy, lunging after pipe and pouch.
"Especially convenient godfathers, with press connections?"
Roy fronted him squarely, laughter lurking in his eyes. "Are you going to be convenient—that's the rub! Will you give Dad a notion I may turn out something decent when I've scraped up some crumbs of knowledge——?"
Broome leaned forward and laid a large reassuring hand on his knee. "Trust me to pull it off, old man—provided Mother approves. We couldn't press it against her wish—either of us."
"No—we couldn't." There was a new gravity in Roy's tone. "As I said, she probably knows all about it. That's her way. She understandeth one's thoughts long before." The last in a lower tone—his eyes dwelling on her portrait above the mantelpiece: the one in the studio window-seat.
And Broome thought: "With all his brains, the man's hardly astir in him yet; and the boy's still in love with her. This notion may be an unconscious outlet. A healthy one—if Nevil can be got to see it that way."
After a perceptible pause, he said quietly: "Remember, Roy, just because she's unique, she can't be taken as representative. She naturally stands for India in your eyes. But no country can produce beings of her quality by the score——"
"I suppose not." Roy reluctantly shifted his gaze. "But she does represent what's best in the Indian spirit: the spirit that people over here might take more pains to understand."
"And you are peculiarly well fitted to assist them, I admit—if Father's willing to bear the cost of your trip. It's a compact between us. The snare of your A1 dinner shall not have been laid in vain!"
They sat on together for more than an hour. Then Broome departed, leaving Roy to dream—in a blue mist of tobacco smoke—the opal-tinted ego-centric dreams of one-and-twenty.
* * * * *
And to-night one dream eclipsed them all.
For years the germ of it had lived in him like a seed in darkness—growing with him as he grew. All incidents and impressions that struck deep had served to vitalise it: that early championship of his mother; her tales of Rajputana; his friendship with Desmond and Dyan; and, not least, his father's Ramayana pictures in the long gallery at home, that had seized his imagination in very early days, when their appeal was simply to his innate sense of colour, and the reiterate wonder and beauty of his mother's face in those moving scenes from the story of Sita—India's crown of womanhood....
Then there was the vivid memory of a room in his grandfather's house; the stately old man, with his deep voice, speaking words that he only came to understand years after; and the look in his mother's eyes, as she clapped her hands without sound, in the young fashion he loved....
And Chandranath—another glimpse of India; the ugly side ...And stories from Tod's 'Rajasthan'—that grim and stirring panorama of romance and chivalry, of cruelty and cunning; orgies of slaughter and miracles of high-hearted devotion....
Barbaric; utterly foreign to life, as he had lived it, those tales of ancient India most strangely awakened in him a vague, thrilling sense of familiarity ... He knew...! Most clearly he knew the spirit that fired them all, when Akbar's legions broke, wave on wave, against the mighty rock-fortress of Chitor—far-famed capital of Mewar, thrice sacked by Islam and deserted by her royal house; so that only the ghost of her glory remains—a protest, a challenge, an inspiration....
Sometimes he dreamed it all, with amazing vividness. And in the dreams there was always the feeling that he knew ...It was a very queer, very exciting sensation. He had spoken of it to no one but his mother and Tara; except once at Marlborough, when he had been moved to try whether Lance would understand.
Priceless old Desmond! It had been killing to watch his face—interested, sceptical, faintly alarmed, when he discovered that it was not an elaborate attempt to pull his leg. By way of reassuring him, Roy had confessed it was a family failing. When things went wrong his mother nearly always knew: and sometimes she came to him, in dreams that were not exactly dreams. What harm?
Desmond, puzzled and sceptical, was not prepared to hazard an opinion. If Roy was made that way, of course he couldn't help it. And Roy, half indignant, had declared he wouldn't for worlds be made any other way....
To-night, by some freak of memory, it all came back to him through the dream-inducing haze of tobacco smoke. And there, on his writing-table, stood a full-length photograph of Lance in Punjab cavalry uniform. Soldiering on the Indian Border, fulfilling himself in his own splendid fashion, he was clearly in his element; attached to his father's old regiment, with Paul for second-in-command; proud of his strapping Sikhs and Pathans; watched over, revered and implicitly obeyed by the sons of men who had served with his father—men for whom the mere name Desmond was a talisman. For that is India's way.
And here was he, Roy, still at his old trick of scribbling poems and dreaming dreams. For a fleeting moment, Desmond was out of the picture; but when time was ripe he would be in it again. The link between them was indestructible—elemental. Poet and Warrior; the eternal complements. In the Rig Veda both are one; both Agni Kula—'born of fire'; no fulness of life for the one without the other.
The years dominated by Desmond had been supreme. They had left school together, when Roy was seventeen; and, at the time, their parting had seemed like the end of everything. Yet, very soon after, he had found himself in the thick of fresh delights—a wander-year in Italy, Greece, the Mediterranean, with the parents and Christine——
And now, here he was, nearing the end of the Oxford interlude—dominated by Dyan and India; and, not least, by Oxford herself, who counts her lovers by the million; holds them for the space of three or four years and sets her impress for life on their minds and hearts. For all his dreamings and scribblings, he had played hard and worked hard. In the course of reading for Greats, he had imbibed large draughts of the classics; had browsed widely on later literature, East and West; won the Newcastle, and filled a vellum-bound volume—his mother's gift—with verse and sketches in prose, some of which had appeared in the more exclusive weeklies. He had also picked up Hindustani from Dyan, and looked forward to tackling Sanskrit. In the Schools, he had taken a First in Mods; and, with reasonable luck, hoped for a First in the Finals. Once again, parting would be a wrench, but India glowed like a planet on the horizon; and he fully intended to make that interlude the pick of them all....
What novels he would write! Not modern impressionist stuff; not mean streets and the photographic touch. No—his adventuring soul, with its tinge of Eastern mysticism, craved colour and warmth and light;—not the mere trappings of romance, but the essence of it that imparts a deeper sense of the significance and mystery of life; that probes to the mainsprings of personality, the veiled yet vital world of spiritual adventure ... Pain and conflict; powers of evil, of doubt and indecision:—no evading these. But in any imaginative work he essayed, beauty must be the prevailing element—if only as a star in darkness. And nowadays Beauty had become almost suspect. Cleverness, cynicism, sex and sensation—all had their votaries and their vogue. Mere Beauty, like Cinderella, was left sitting among the ashes of the past; and Roy—prince or no—was her devout lover.
To the son of Nevil and Lilamani, her clear call could never seem either a puritanical snare of the flesh or a delusion of the senses; but rather, a grace of the spirit, the joy of things seen detached from self-interest: the visible proof that love, not power, is the last word of Creation. Happily for him, its outward form and inward essence had been his daily bread ever since he had first consciously looked upon his mother's face, consciously delighted in his father's pictures. They lived it, those two: and the life lived transcends argument.
At this uplifted moment—whatever might come later—he blessed them for his double heritage; for the perfect accord between them that inspired his hope of ultimate harmony between England and India, in spite of barriers and complexities and fomenters of discord; a harmony that could never arrive by veiled condescension out of servile imitation. Intimacy with Dyan and his mother had made that quite clear. Each must honestly will to understand the other; each holding fast the essence of individuality, while respecting in the other precisely those baffling qualities that strengthen their union and make it vital to the welfare of both. Instinctively he pictured them as man and woman; and on general lines the analogy seemed to hold good. He had yet to discover that analogies are often deceptive things; peculiarly so, in this case, since India is many, not one. Yet there lurked a germ of truth in his seedling idea: and he was at the age when ideas and tremendous impulses stir in the blood like sap in spring-time; an age to be a reformer, a fanatic or a sensualist.
Too often, alas, before the years bring power of adjustment, the live spark of enthusiasm is extinct....
To-night it burned in Roy with a steady flame. If only he could enthuse his father——!
He supposed he would go in any case: but he lacked the rebel instinct of modern youth. He wanted to share, to impart his hidden treasure; not to argue the bloom off it. And his father seemed tacitly to discourage rhapsodies over Indian literature and art. You couldn't say he was not keen: only the least little bit unresponsive to outbursts of keenness in his son; so that Roy never felt quite at ease on the subject. If only he could walk into the room now, while Roy's brain was seething with it all, high on the upward curve of a wave....
[Footnote 2: Ancient Hindu Scriptures.]
"You could humble at your feet the proudest heads in the world. But it is your loved ones ... whom you choose to worship. Therefore I worship you." —RABINDRANATH TAGORE.
Roy, after due consideration, decided that he would speak first to his father—the one doubtful element in the home circle. But habit and the obsession of the moment proved too strong, when his mother came to 'tuck him up,' as she had never failed to do since nursery days.
Seated on the edge of his bed, in the shaded light, she looked like some rare, pale moth in her moon-coloured sari flecked and bordered with gold; amber earrings and a rope of amber beads—his own gift; first fruits of poetic earnings. The years between had simply ripened and embellished her; rounded a little the oval of her cheek; lent an added dignity to her grace of bearing and enriched her wisdom of the heart.
It was as he supposed. She had understood his thoughts long before. He flung out his hand—a fine, nervous hand—and laid it on her knee.
"You're a miracle. I believe you know all about it."
"I believe—I do," she answered, letting her own hand rest on his; moving her fingers, now and then, in the ghost of a caress:—an endearing way she had. "You are wishing—to go out there?"
"Yes. I simply must. You understand?"
She inclined her head and, for a moment, veiled her eyes. "I am proud. But you cannot understand how difficult ... for us ... letting you go. And Dad...."
"You think he'll hate it—want to keep me here?"
"My darling—'hate' is too strong. He cares very much for all that makes friendship between England and India. But—is it wonder if he cares more for his own son? You will speak to him soon?"
"To-morrow. Unless—a word or two, first, from you——"
"No, not that!" She smiled at his old boyish faith in her. "Better to keep me outside. You see—I am India. So I am already too much in it that way."
"You are in it up to the hilt!" he declared with sudden fervour: and—his tongue unloosed—he poured out to her a measure of his pent up feeling; how they had inspired him—she and his father; how he naturally hoped they would back him up; and a good deal more that was for her private ear alone....
Her immense capacity for listening, her eloquent silence and gentle flashes of raillery, her occasional caress—all were balm to him in his electrical mood.