Were ever two beings quite so perfectly in tune——?
Could he possibly leave her? Could he face the final wrench?
When at last she stooped to kiss him, the faint clear whiff of sandalwood waked a hundred memories; and he held her close a long time, her cheek against his hair.
"Bad boy! Let me go," she pleaded; and, with phenomenal obedience, he unclasped his hands.
"See if you can go now!"
It was his old childish game. The moment she stirred, his hands were locked again.
"Son of my heart—I must!"
"One more kiss then—for luck!"
So she kissed him, for luck, and left him to his midnight browsings....
* * * * *
Next morning she sat among her cushions in the studio, ostensibly reading a long letter from her father. Actually, her mind was intent on Nevil, who stood at his easel absorbed in fragmentary studies for a new picture—flying draperies; a man's face cleverly fore-shortened.
Though nearing fifty, he looked more like five-and-thirty; his face singularly free of lines; his fair hair scarcely showing the intrusion of grey. To her he seemed perennially young; and dearer than ever—if that could be—as the years mellowed and deepened the love on which they had boldly staked everything that counted most for them both. Yet, for all her skill in divination, she could not tell precisely how he would take the things Roy had to say; nor whether Roy himself would say them in just the right way. With Nevil, so much depended on that.
Till this morning, she had scarcely realised how unobtrusively she had been, as it were, their connecting link in all difficult or delicate matters, where their natures were not quite in tune. But now, Roy being a man, they must come to terms in their own fashion....
At the first far-off sound of his step on the stairs, she rose and came over to the easel, and stood there a few moments—fascinated always by the swift sure strokes.
"Good—eh?" he asked, smiling into her serious eyes.
She nodded. "Quite evident—you are in the mood!" Her fingers lightly caressed the back of his hand. "I will come back later. Such a tray of vases waiting for me in the drawing-room!"
As Roy entered, she passed him and they exchanged a smile. Her eyes, mutely blessing him, besought him not to let his eager tongue run away with itself. Then she went out, leaving them together—the two who were her world.
Down in the drawing-room, roses and sweet-peas, cut by Christine—her fairy daughter—lay ready to hand. Between them they filled the lofty room with fragrance and harmonies of delicate colour. Then Christine flew to her beloved piano; and Lilamani wandered away to her no less beloved rose-garden. Body and mind were restless. She could settle to nothing till she knew what had passed between Nevil and Roy. His boyish confidences and adorations of the night before had filled her cup to overflowing. She felt glad and proud that her first-born should have set his heart on the high project of trying to promote deeper sympathy between his father's great country and her own people, in this time of dangerous antagonism and unrest.
But beneath her pride and gladness, stirred a fear lest the scales she had tried to hold even, should be inclining to tilt the wrong way. For duty to his father's house was paramount. Too strong a leaning towards India—no matter for what high purpose—would still be a tilt the wrong way. She had seen the same fear lurking in Nevil's heart also; and now, unerringly, she divined the cause of that hidden trouble which baffled Roy. Nevil feared that—if Roy went to India—history might repeat itself. She admitted the danger was real; and she knew his fear implied no reflection on herself or her country. Best of all, she knew that—because of his chivalrous loyalty that had never failed her—he would not speak of it, even to his son.
Clearly then, if Roy insisted on going to India, and if a word of warning must be spoken to ease Nevil's mind, only one person in the world could speak it—herself. For all her sensitive shrinking she could not, at this critical turning-point, stand outside. She was "in it"—as Roy dramatically assured her—up to the hilt....
Time passed—and he did not come. Troubled, she wandered back towards the house; caught sight of him, lonely and abstracted, pacing the lawn: saw him stop near the great twin beeches—that embowered a hammock, chairs and rugs—and disappear inside. Then she knew her moment had come....
She found him prone in the hammock: not even smoking: staring up into the cool green dome, fretted with graceful convolutions of trunk and branches. One lightly clenched hand hung over the edge. Attitude and abstraction alike suggested a listless dejection that sharply caught at her heart.
He started at sight of her. "Blessed little Mummy—no hiding from you!"
He flung out his left hand. She took it and laid it against her cheek: a form of caress all her own.
"Were you wishing to hide? I was waiting among the roses, to show you the new sweet-peas."
"And I never came. Proper beast I am! And sprawling here——" He swung his long legs over the side and stood up, tall and straight—taller than Nevil—smiling down at her. "I wasn't exactly hiding. I was shirking—a little bit. But now you've found me, you won't escape!"
Pressing down the edge of the hammock, he half lifted her into it and settled her among the cushions, deftly tucking in her silks and muslins.
"Comfy?" he asked, surveying her, with Nevil's own smile in his eyes.
"Comfy," she sighed, wishing discreet warnings at the bottom of the sea. Just to be foolish with him—the bliss of it! To chime in with his moods, his enthusiasms, his nonsense—she asked nothing better of life, when he came home. "Very clever, Sonling. But no,"—she lifted a finger—"that won't do. You are twenty-one. Too big for the small name now. So far away up there!"
"If I shot up as high as a lamp-post, my heart would still be down there—at your feet."
He said it lightly—that was the Englishman. But he said it—that was the Rajput. And she knew not which she loved the best. Strange to love two such opposites with equal fervour.
She blew him a kiss from her finger-tips. "Very well. We will not be unkind to the small name and throw him on the rubbish-heap. But now sit, please—Sonling. You have been talking—you and Dad? Not any decision? Is he not wishing you should—work for India?"
"Mummy, I don't know." He secured a chair and sat down facing her. "He insists that I'm officially free to kick over the traces, that he's not the kind of father who 'thunders vetos from the family hearthrug!'"
Lilamani smiled very tenderly at that so characteristic touch; but she said nothing. And Roy went on: "All the same, I gathered that he's distinctly not keen on my going out there. So—what the devil am I to do? He rubbed it in that I'm full young, and no hurry—but I feel there's something else at the back of his mind."
He paused—and she could hesitate no longer.
"Yes, Roy—there is something else——"
"Then why can't he speak out?"
"Not to be so impatient," she rebuked him gently. "It is because he so beautifully remains—my lover, he cannot put in words—any thought that might give——" She flung out an appealing hand. "Oh, Roy—can you not guess the trouble? He is afraid—for your marriage——"
"My marriage!" It was clear he did not yet grasp the truth. "Really, Mummy, that's a trifle previous. I'm not even thinking of marriage."
"No, Stupid One! But out there you might come to think of it! No man can tell when Kama, godling of the arrows, will throw magic dust in his eyes. You might meet other cousins—like Aruna, and there would come trouble, because"—she faced him steadily and he saw the veiled blush creep into her cheeks—"that kind of marriage—for you—must not be."
Now he understood; and, for all her high resolve, she thrilled at the swift flash of anger in his eyes.
"Who says—it must not be?" he demanded with a touch of heat. "Aunt Jane—confound her! When I do marry, it will be to please myself—not her!"
"Oh, hush, Roy—and listen! You run away too fast. It is not Aunt Jane—it is I who am saying must not, because I know—the difficult thought in Dad's heart. And I know it is right——"
"Why is it right?" He was up in arms again. Obstinate—but how lovable!—"Why mayn't I have the same luck as he had—if it comes my way? I've never met a girl or woman that could hold a candle to you for all-round loveliness. And it's the East that gives you—inside and out—a quality, a bloom—unseizable—like moonlight——"
"But, my darling! You make me blush!" She drew her sari across her face, hiding, under a veil of lightness, her joy at his outspoken praise.
"Well, you made me say it. And I'm not sentimentalising. I'm telling a home truth!"
His vehemence was guarantee of that. Very gently he drew back the sari and looked deep into her eyes.
"Why should we only tell the ugly ones, like Aunt Jane? Anyway, I've told you my truest one now—and I'm not ashamed of it."
"No need. It is a jewel I will treasure in my heart."
She dropped the veil of lightness, giving him sincerity for sincerity as he deserved. "But—Ancient one, have you seen so many girls and women in your long life——?"
"I've seen a pretty good mixture of all sorts—Oxford, London, and round here," he insisted unabashed. "And I've had my wits about me. Of course they're most of them jolly and straight. Good fellows in fact; talking our slang; playing our games. No harm, of course. But it kills the charm of contrast—the supreme charm. They understand that in India better than we do here."
The truth of that last Lilamani could not deny. Too clearly she saw in the violent upheaval of Western womanhood the hidden germs of tragedy, for women themselves, for the race.
"You are right, Roy," she said, smiling into his serious face. "From our—from Hindu point of view, greatest richness of life come from greatest possible difference between men and women. And most of all it is so in Rajputana. But over here...." She sighed, a small shivering sigh. The puzzle and pain of it went too deep with her. "All this screaming and snatching and scratching for wrong kind of things hurts my heart; because—I am woman and they are women—desecrating that in us which is a symbol of God. Nature made women for ministering to Life and Love. Are they not believing, or not caring, that by struggling to imitate man (while saying with their lips how they despise him!) they are losing their own secret, beautiful differences, so important for happiness—for the race. But marriage in the West seems more for convenience of lovers than for the race——"
"Yet your son, though he is of the West—must not consider his own inclination or convenience——"
"My son," she interposed, gently inflexible, "because he is also of the East, must consider this matter of the race; must try and think it with his father's mind."
"All the same—making such a point of it seems like an insult—to you——"
"No, Roy. Not to say that——" The flash in her eyes, that was almost anger, startled and impressed him more than any spoken word. "No thought that ever came in your father's mind could be—like insult to me. Oh, my dear, have you not sense to know that for an old English family like his, with roots down deep in English soil and history, it is not good that mixture of race should come twice over in two generations. To you—our kind of marriage appears a simple affair. You see only how close we are now, in love and understanding. You cannot imagine all the difficulties that went before. We know them—and we are proud, because they became like dust under our feet. Only to you—Dilkusha, I could tell ... a little, if you wish—for helping you to understand."
"Please tell," he said, and his hand closed on hers.
So, leaning back among her cushions—speaking very simply in the low voice that was music to his ears—she told....
* * * * *
The telling—fragmentary, yet vivid—lasted less than half an hour. But in that half-hour Roy gleaned a jewel of memory that the years would not dim. The very words would remain....
For Lilamani—wandering backward in fancy through the Garden of Remembrance—revealed more than she realised of the man she loved and of her own passionate spirit, compact of fire and dew, the sublimated essence of the Eastern woman at her best.
Yet in spite of that revealing—or rather because of it—rebellion stirred afresh. And, as if divining his thoughts, she impulsively raised her hand. "Now, Roy, you must promise. Only so, I can speak to Dad and rest his mind."
Seizing her hand, he kissed it fervently.
"Darling—after all that, a mere promise would be a fatuous superfluity. If you say 'No Indian wife,' that's enough for me. I suppose I must rest content with the high privilege of possessing an Indian mother."
Her radiant surprise was a beautiful thing to see. Leaning forward, she took his head in her hands and kissed him between his eyebrows where the caste-mark should be.
"Must it be October—so soon?" she asked.
He told her of Dyan, and she sighed. "Poor Dyan! I wonder? It is so difficult—even with the best kind—this mixing of English education and Indian life. I hope it will make no harm for those two——"
Then they started, almost like lovers; for the drooping branches rustled and Tara stood before them—a very vision of June; in her straight frock of Delphinium blue; one shell-pink rose in her hat and its counterpart in her waist-belt. Canvas shoes and tennis-racquet betrayed her fell design on Roy.
"Am I despritly superfluous?" she queried, smiling from one to the other.
"Quite too despritly," Roy assured her with emphasis.
She wrinkled her nose at him, so far as its delicate aquiline would permit. "Speak for yourself, spoilt boy!"
But she favoured him with her left hand, which he retained, while she stooped over the hammock and kissed Lilamani on both cheeks. Then she stood up and gently disengaged her hand.
"Christine's to blame. She guessed you were here. I came over in hopes of tennis. It's just perfect. Not too hot."
"Still more perfect in here, lazing with Mummy," said graceless Roy.
"I disown you, I am ashamed!" Lilamani rebuked him only half in jest. "No more lazing now. I have done with you. Only you have to get me out of this."
They got her out, between them; fussed over her and laughed at her; and then went off together for Roy's racquet.
She stood in the silvery sunlight watching them till they disappeared round the corner of the house. Not surprising that Nevil said—"No hurry!" If he would only wait...! He was still too young, too much in love with India—with herself. Yet, had he already begun inditing sonnets, even to the most acceptable eyebrow, her perverse heart would doubtless have known the prick of jealousy—as in Desmond's day.
Instead she suddenly knew the first insidious prick of middle age; felt dazed, for a mere moment, by the careless radiance of their youth; to them an unconsidered thing: but to those who feel it relentlessly slipping through their fingers ...
Her small fine hands clenched in unconscious response to her thought. She was nearing forty. In her own land she would be reckoned almost an old woman. But some magic in the air and way of life in this cool green England seemed to keep age at bay: and there remained within a flame-like youth of the spirit—not so easy, even for the Arch-Thief to steal away....
"The bow saith to the arrow, 'Thy freedom is mine.'" —RABINDRANATH TAGORE.
And while Lilamani reasoned with the son—whose twofold nature they had themselves bestowed and inspired—Nevil was pacing his shrine of all the harmonies, heart and brain disturbed, as they had not been for years.
Out of the troubled waters of family friction and delicate adjustments, this adventurous pair had slid into a haven of peace and mutual understanding. And now behold, fresh portent of trouble arising from the dual strain in Roy—the focal point of their life and love.
Turning in his stride, his eye encountered a head and shoulders portrait of his father, Sir George Sinclair: an honest, bluff, unimaginative face: yet suddenly, arrestingly, it commanded his attention. Checking his walk, he stood regarding it: and his heart went out to the kindly old man in a quite unusual wave of sympathetic understanding. He saw himself—the "damned unsatisfactory son," Bohemian and dilettante, frankly at odds with the Sinclair tradition—now standing, more or less, in that father's shoes; his heart centred on the old place and on the boy for whom he held it in trust; and the irony of it twisted his lips into a rueful smile. By his own over-concentration on Roy, and his secret dread of the Indian obsession, he could gauge what his own father must have suffered in an aggravated form, blind as he was to any point of view save his own. And there was Roy—like himself in the twenties, but how much more purposeful!—drawn irresistibly by the lure of the horizon; a lure bristling with dangers the more insidious because they sprang from the blood in his veins.
Yet a word of warning, spoken at the wrong moment, in the wrong tone, might be disastrously misunderstood; and the distracting sense of being purely responsible for his own trouble, stung him to renewed irritation. All capacity for work had been dispelled by that vexatiously engaging son of his, with his heart in India and his head among the stars....
Weary of pacing, he took out his pipe and sat down in the window-seat to fill it. He was interrupted by the sound of an unmistakable footstep; and the response of his whole being justified to admiration Lilamani's assurance that his hidden trouble implied no lightest reflection on herself. Lilamani and irritation simply could not co-exist within him; and he was on his feet when she opened the door.
She did not come forward at once. Pushing it shut with both hands, she stood so—a hovering question in her eyes. It recalled, with a tender pang, the earlier days of worshipful aloofness, when only by special invitation would she intimately approach her lord.
That she might guess his thought he held out his arms. "Come along—English wife!"
It had been their private password. But her small teeth imprisoned her lip.
"No—King of me—Indian wife: making too much trouble again!"
"Lilamani! How dare you! Come here."
His attempt at sternness took effect. In one swift rush—sari blown backward—she came: and he, smitten with self-reproach, folded her close; while she clung to him in mute passionate response.
"Beloved," she whispered. "Not to worry any more in your secret heart. I told—he understands."
"Roy——? My darling! But what——?" His incoherence was a shameless admission of relief. "You couldn't—you haven't told him——?"
"Nevil, I have told him all. I saw lately this trouble in your thoughts: and to-day it came in my mind that only I could speak—could give command that—one kind of marriage must not be."
He drew her closer, and she suppressed a small sigh.
"Wasn't the boy angry?"
"Only at first—on account of me. He is—so very darling, so worshipping—his foolish little Mother."
"A weakness he shares with his father," Nevil assured her: and in that whispered confession she had her reward. For after twenty-three years of marriage, the note of loverly extravagance is as rare as the note of the cuckoo in July.
"Sit, little woman." He drew her down to the window-seat, keeping an arm round her. "The relief it is to feel I can talk it all over with you freely. Where the dickens would we be, Roy and I, without our interpreter? And she does it all unbeknownst; like a Brownie. I have been worrying lately. The boy's clean gone on his blessed idea. No reasoning with him; and the modern father doesn't venture to command! It's as much as his place is worth! Yet we see the hidden dangers clearer than he can. Wouldn't it be wiser to apply the curb discreetly before he slips off into an atmosphere where all the influences will tug one way?"
It was the sane masculine wisdom of the West. But hers—that was feminine and of the East—went deeper.
"Perhaps it is mother-weakness," she said, leaning against him and looking away at a purple cloud that hung low over the moor. "But it seems to me, by putting on the curb, you keep only his body from those influences. They would tug all the stronger in his soul. Not healthy and alive with joy of action, but cramped up and aching, like your legs when there is no room to stretch them. Then there would come impatience, turning his heart more to India, more away from you. Father had that kind of thwarting when young—so I know. Dearest one, am I too foolish?"
"You are my Wisest of Wise.—Is there more?"
"Yes. It is this. Perhaps, through being young and eager, he will make mistakes; wander too far. But even if he should wander to farthest end, all influence will not tug one way. He will carry in his heart the star of you and the star of me. These will shine brighter if he knows how we longed—for ourselves—to keep him here; yet, for himself, we let him go. I have remembered always one line of poetry you showed me at Como. 'To take by leaving, To hold by letting go.' That is true truth for many things. But for parents truest of all."
High counsel indeed! Good to hear; hard to act upon. Nevil Sinclair—knowing they would act upon it—let out an involuntary sigh and tightened his hold of the gentle, adoring woman, whose spirit towered so far above his own.
"Lilamani—you've won," he said, after a perceptible pause. "You deserve to win—and Roy will bless you. It's the high privilege of Mothers, I suppose, to conjure the moon out of heaven for their sons."
"Sometimes, by doing so, they nearly break their hearts," she answered very low.
He stooped and kissed her. "Keep yours intact—for me. I shall need it." Her fingers closed convulsively on his—"England will seem sort of empty—without Roy. Is he dead keen on going this autumn?"
"Yes—I am afraid. A little because of young impatience. A little because he is troubled over Dyan; and he has much influence. There are so many now in India dragged two ways."
Nevil sighed again. "Bless the boy! It's an undeniable risk. And what the family will say to our Midsummer madness, God knows! Jane can be trusted to make the deuce of a row. And we can't even smooth matters by telling her of our private precaution——"
"No—not one little word."
Lilamani sat upright, a gleam of primitive hate in her eyes.
Nevil smiled, in spite of secret dismay. "You implacable little sinner! Can't you ever forgive her like a Christian?"
"No—not ever." The tense quiet of her tone carried conviction. "Not only far-off things, I can never forget—nearly killing me and—and Roy. But because she is always stabbing at me with sharp words and ugly thoughts. She cannot ever forgive that I am here—that I make you happy, which she could not believe. She is angry to be put in the wrong by mere Hindu wife——" She paused in her vehement rush of speech: saw the look in Nevil's face that recalled an earlier day; and anger vanished like a light blown out. "King of me—I am sorry. Only—it is true. And she is Christian born. But I—down in my deepest places I am still—Rajputni. Just the same as after twenty-three years of English wife, I am still in my heart—like the 'Queen who stood erect!'"
On the word she rose and confronted him, smiling into his troubled eyes; grace of girlhood and dignity of womanhood adorably mingled in her pose.
"Who was she?" Nevil asked, willingly lured from thoughts of Jane.
"Careless one! Have you forgotten the story of my Wonder-Woman—how a King, loving his Queen with all his soul, bowed himself in ecstasy, and 'took the dust off her feet' in presence of other wives who, from jealousy, cried: 'Shameless one, lift up the hands of the King to your head.' But the Queen stood erect, smiling gladly. 'Not so: for both feet and head are my Lord's. Can I have aught that is mine?'"
The swiftness of transition, the laughing tenderness of her eyes so moved him—and so potent in her was the magical essence of womanhood—that he, Sir Nevil Sinclair, Baronet, of Bramleigh Beeches, came near to taking the dust of her feet in very deed.
"Qui n'accepte pas le regret, n'accepte pas la vie."
Nevil's fears were justified to the full. Lady Roscoe was one of those exasperating people of whom one can predict, almost to a word, a look, what their attitude will be on any given occasion. So Nevil, who shirked a "scene"—above all when conducted by Jane—put off telling her the unwelcome news as long as he dared, without running the dire risk of its reaching her "round the corner."
Meantime he was fortified and cheered by a letter from Cuthbert Broome—a shrewd, practical letter amounting to a sober confession of faith in Roy the embryo writer, as in Roy the budding man.
"I don't minimise the risk," he concluded, with his accustomed frankness (no relation to the engaging candour that dances a war-dance on other people's toes), "but, on broad lines, I hereby record my conviction that the son of you two and the grandson of Sir Lakshman Singh can be trusted to go far—to keep his head as well as his feet, even in slippery places. He is eager for knowledge, for work along his own lines. If you dam up this strong current, it may find other outlets, possibly less desirable. I came on a jewel the other day. As it's distinctly applicable, I pass it on.
"'The sole wisdom for man or boy who is haunted with the hovering of unseen wings, with the scent of unseen roses, and the subtle enticement of melodies unheard, is work. If he follow any of these, they vanish. If he work, they will come unsought ..."
"Well, when Roy goes out, I undertake to provide him with work that will keep his brain alert and his pen busy. That's my proposed contribution to his start in life; and—though I say it!—not to be despised. Tell him I'll bear down upon the Beeches the first available week-end, and talk both your heads off!—Yours ever, C.B."
"After that," was Nevil's heroic conclusion, "Jane can say what she damn well pleases."
He broke the news to her forthwith—by post; the usual expedient of those who shirk "scenes." He furthermore took the precaution to add that the matter was finally settled.
She replied next morning—by wire. "Cannot understand. Coming down at once."
And, in record time, on the wings of her new travelling car—she came.
As head of the Sinclair clan—in years and worldly wisdom at least—she could do no less. From her point of view, it was Nevil's clear duty to discourage the Indian strain in the boy, as far as that sentimental, headstrong wife of his would permit. But Nevil's sense of duty needed constant galvanising, lest it die of inanition. It was her sacred mission in life to galvanise it, especially in the matter of Roy; and no one should ever say she shirked a disagreeable obligation. It may safely be added that no one ever did!
Nevil—who would have given a good deal to be elsewhere—awaited her in the library: and at the first shock of their encountering glances, he stiffened all through. He was apt to be restive under advice, and rebellious under dictation; facts none knew better than Jane, who throve on advice and dictation—given, not received! She still affected the neat hard coat and skirt and the neat hard summer hat that had so distressed the awakening beauty-sense of nine-year-old Roy: only, in place of the fierce wing there uprose in majesty a severely wired bow. Jane was so unvarying, outside and in; a worse failing, almost, in the eyes of this hopelessly artistic household, than her talent for pouncing, or advising or making up other people's minds.
But to-day, as she glanced round the familiar room, her sigh—half anger, half bitterness of heart—was genuine. She did care intensely, in her own way, for the brother whom she hectored without mercy. And he too cared—in his own way—more than he chose to reveal. But their love was a dumb thing, rooted in ancestral mysteries. Their surface clash of temperament was more loquacious.
"I suppose we're fairly safe from interruption?" she asked, with ominous emphasis; and Nevil gravely indicated the largest leather chair.
"I believe the others are out," he said, half sitting on the edge of the writing-table and proceeding to light a cigarette. "But, upon my soul, I don't know why you put yourself out to come down all this way when I told you plainly everything was fixed up."
"You thought I'd swallow that—and keep my mouth shut?" she retorted, bristling visibly. "I'm no fool, Nevil, if you are. I told you how it would be, when you went out in '99. You wouldn't listen then. Perhaps you'll at least have the sense to listen now?"
Nevil shrugged. "As you've come all this way for the satisfaction of airing your views—I've not much choice in the matter."
And the latitude, thus casually given, she took in full measure. For twenty minutes, by the clock, she aired her views in a stream of vigorous colloquial English, lapsing into ready-made phrases of melodrama, common to the normally inexpressive, in moments of excitement....
To the familiar tuning-up process, Nevil listened unmoved. But his anger rose with her rising eloquence:—the unwilling anger of a cool man, more formidable than mere temper.
Such fine distinctions, however, were unknown to Jane. If you were in a temper, you were in a temper. That was flat. And she rather wanted to rouse Nevil's. Heated opposition would stiffen her own....
"India of all countries in the world!" she culminated—a desperate note invading her wrath. "The one place where he should not be allowed to sow his wild oats—if the modern anaemic young man has enough red blood in his veins—for that sort of thing. And it's your obvious duty to be quite frank with him on the subject. If you had an ounce of common-sense in your make-up, you'd see it for yourself. But I always say the clever people are the biggest fools. And Roy's in the same boat—being your son. No ballast. All in the clouds. That's the fruits of Lil's fancy education. And you can't say I didn't warn you. What he needs is discipline—a tight hand. Why not one of the Services? If he gets bitten with India—at his age, it's quite on the cards that he may go turning Hindu—or even repeat your folly——"
She paused, simply for lack of breath—and became suddenly alive to the set stillness of her brother's face.
"My folly—as you are pleased to call it," he said with concentrated scorn, "has incidentally made our name famous, and cleared the old place of mortgage. For that reason alone, you might have the grace to refrain from insulting my wife."
She flung up her head, like a horse at a touch of the curb.
"Oh, if it's an insult to speak the simple truth, I'm quite out of it. I never could call spades agricultural instruments: and I can't start new habits at my time of life. I don't deny you've made a good thing out of your pictures. But no one in their senses could call your marriage an act of wisdom."
Nevil winced visibly. "I married for the only defensible reason," he said, in a low controlled voice. "And events have more than justified me."
"Possibly—so far as you're concerned. But you can't get over the fact that—even if Roy marries the best blood of England—his son may revert to type. Dr Simons tells me——"
"Will you hold your tongue!" Nevil blazed out, in a white fury. "I'll thank you not to discuss my affairs—or Roy's—with your damned Doctor. And the subject's barred between us—as you're very well aware."
She blenched at the force and fire of his unexpected onslaught, never dreaming how deeply her thrust had gone home.
"Goodness knows it's as painful for me as it is for you——"
"I didn't say it was painful. I said it was barred."
"Well, you goad me into it, with your unspeakable folly; too much under Lil's thumb to check Roy, even for his own good. For heaven's sake, Nevil, put your foot down firmly, for once, and reverse your crazy decision."
He gave her a long, direct look. "Sorry to disappoint, after all the trouble you've taken," he said in a level tone, "but I've already told you the matter's settled. My foot is down on that as firmly as even you could wish."
"You mean it?" she gasped, too incredulous for wrath.
"I mean it."
"Yet you see the danger?"
"I see the danger."
The fact that he would not condescend to lie to her eased a little her bitter sense of defeat.
She rose awkwardly—all of a piece.
"Then I have no more to say. I wash my hands of you all. Until you come to your senses, I don't cross this threshold again."
In spite of the threadbare phrases, genuine pain vibrated in her tone.
"Don't rant, old thing. You know you'll never keep it up," Nevil urged more gently than he had spoken yet.
But anger still dominated pain.
"When I say a thing, I mean it," she retorted stiffly, "as you will find to your cost." Without troubling to answer, he lunged for the door handle; but she waved him aside. "All humbug—playing at politeness—when you've spurned my advice."
"As you please." He stood back for her to pass. "Sorry it's upset you so. But we'll see you here again—when you've got over it."
"The boy would have got over it in no time," she flung back at him from the threshold. "Mark my words, disaster will come of it. Then perhaps you'll admit I was right."
He felt no call to argue that point. She was gone.... And she had carefully refrained from slamming the door. Somehow that trifling act of restraint impressed him with a sense of finality oddly lacking in her dramatic asseveration.
He stood a few moments staring at the polished oak panels. Then he turned back and sat down in the chair she had occupied; and all the inner tension of the last hour went suddenly, completely to pieces....
It was the penalty of his artist nature, this sharp nervous reaction from strain; and with it came crowding back all the insidious doubts and anxieties that even Lilamani's wisdom had not entirely charmed away. He felt torn at the moment between anger with Roy for causing all this pother; and anger with Jane, who, for all her lack of tenderness and tact, was right—up to a point. It was just Family Herald heroics about "not crossing the threshold." At least—rather to his surprise—he found himself half hoping it was. Roy and Lilamani could frankly detest her—and there an end. Nevil—in spite of unforgiveable interludes—was liable to be tripped up by the fact that, after all, she was his sister; and her aggression was proof that, in her own queer fashion, she loved him. Half the trouble was that the love of each for the other took precisely the form that other could least appreciate or understand: no uncommon dilemma in family life. At all events, he had achieved his declaration of independence. And he had not failed to evoke the "deuce of a row."
With a sigh of smothered exasperation, he leaned forward and hid his face in his hands....
The door opened softly. He started and looked up. It was Roy—in flannels and blazer, his dark hair slightly ruffled: considered dispassionately (and Nevil believed he so considered him) a singularly individual and attractive figure of youth.
At the look in his father's face, he hesitated, wrinkling his brows in a way that recalled his mother.
"Anything wrong, Daddums? I'm fearfully sorry. I came for a book. Is it"—still further hesitation—"Aunt Jane?"
"Why? Have you seen her?" Nevil asked sharply.
"Yes. Was it a meteoric visitation? As I came up the path, she was getting into her car.—And she cut me dead!" He seemed more amused than impressed. Then the truth dawned on him. "Dad—have you been telling her? Is she 'as frantic as a skit'?"
Their favourite Hardy quotation moved Nevil to a smile. "She's angry—naturally—because she wasn't consulted," he said (a happy idea). "And—well, she doesn't understand."
"'Course she doesn't. Can she ever?" retorted impertinent youth. "She lacks the supreme faculty—imagination." Which was disrespectful, but unanswerable.
Nevil had long ago recognised the futility of rebuke in the matter of "Aunt Jane"; and it was a relief to find the boy took it that way. So he smiled, merely—or fancied he did. But Roy was quick-sighted; and his first impression had dismayed him.
No hesitation now. He came forward and laid a hand on his father's shoulder. "Dads, don't get worrying over me—out there," he said with shy tenderness that was balm after the lacerating scene Nevil had just passed through. "That'll be all right. Mother explained—beautifully."
But louder than Roy's comfortable assurance sounded within him the parting threat of Jane: "Disaster will come of it. Then perhaps you'll admit I was right." It shook the foundations of courage. He simply could not stand up to the conjunction of disaster—and Roy. With an effort he freed himself of the insidious thing,—and just then, to his immense surprise, Roy stooped and kissed the top of his head.
"Confound Aunt Jane! She's been bludgeoning you. And you are worrying. You mustn't—I tell you. Bad for your work. Look here"—a portentous pause. "Shall I chuck it—for the present, anyhow?"
The parental attitude of the modern child has its touching aspect. Nevil looked up to see if Roy were chaffing; and there smote him the queer illusion (rarer now, but not extinct) of looking into his own eyes.
Roy had spoken on impulse—a noble impulse. But he patently meant what he said, this boy stigmatised by Jane as "all in the clouds," and needing a "tight hand." Here was one of those "whimsical and perilous moments of daily life" that pass in a breath; light as thistledown, heavy with complex issues. To Nevil it seemed as if the gods, with ironical gesture, handed him the wish of his heart, saying: "It is yours—if you are fool enough to take it." Stress of thought so warred in him that he came to himself with a fear of having hurt the boy by ungracious silence.
The pause, in fact, had been so brief that Roy had only just become aware that his cherished dream was actually trembling in the balance—when Nevil stood up and faced him, flatly defying Jane and Olympian irony.
"My dear old boy, you shall not chuck it," he said with smiling decision. "I've never believed in the older generation being a drag on the wheel. And now it's my turn, I must play up. What's life worth without a spice of risk? I took my own—a big one—family or no——"
He broke off—and Roy filled the gap. "You mean—marrying Mother?"
"Yes—just that," he admitted frankly. "The greatest bit of luck in my life. She shared the risk—a bigger one for her. And I'm damned if we'll cheat you of yours. There's a hidden key somewhere that most of us have to find. Yours may be in India—who knows?"
He spoke rapidly, as if anxious to convince himself no less than the boy. And he had his reward.
"Dad—you're simply stunning—you two," Roy said quietly, but with clear conviction.
At that moment the purring of the gong vibrated through the house, and he slipped a hand through his father's arm. "That reminds me—I'm starving hungry! If they're still out, let's be bold, and propitiate the teapot on our own!"
Lady Roscoe was, after all, a benefactor in her own despite. Her meteoric visitation had drawn these two closer together than they had been since schoolroom days.
"Ce que nous quittons c'est une partie de nous meme. II faut mourir a une vie, pour entrer dans une autre."—ANATOLE FRANCE.
After all, human perversity decreed it should be Roy himself who shrank most acutely from the wrench of parting, when it loomed near enough to bring him down from Pisgah heights to the dust of the actual.
Dyan was overjoyed, of course, and untroubled by qualms. Towards the end of July, he and Aruna came for a brief visit. His excuses for its brevity struck Roy as a trifle 'thin'; but Dyan kept his secret and paid Tara Despard the compliment of taking her answer as final.
It was during his visit that Roy suffered the first incipient qualms; the first sharp contact with practical details:—date of sailing, details of outfit, the need for engaging a passage betimes. As regards his destination, matters were simplified by the fact that the new Resident of Jaipur, Colonel Vincent Leigh, C.S.I., D.S.O., very considerately happened to be the husband of Desmond's delightful sister Thea. The schoolboy link between Lance and Roy had created a lasting friendship between their respective families; and it was General Sir Theo Desmond—now retired—who had invited Roy, in the name of his 'Twin,' to start with an unlimited visit to the Leighs; the sort of casual elastic visit that no one would dream of proposing outside India,—unless it were Ireland, of an earlier, happier day. The prospect was a secret consolation to Roy. It was also a secret jar to find he needed every ounce of consolation available.
Very carefully he hid his ignominious frame of mind—even from his mother; though she probably suspected it and would not fail to understand. What, precisely, would life be worth without that dear, daily intimacy—life uncoloured by the rainbow-tinted charm of her gentle, passionate, humorous, delicately-poised personality? Relations of such rare quality exact their own pitiless price; and the woman influence would always be, for Roy—as for most men of genuine gifts and high purpose—his danger point or salvation. The dim and distant prospect of parting was thinkable—though perturbing. But all this talk of steamers and outfits startlingly illumined the fact that in October he was actually going—to the other end of the earth.
* * * * *
With Dyan's departure, realisation pounced upon his heart and brain. Vaguely, and quite unjustly, he felt as if his cousin were in some way to blame; and for the moment, he was not sorry to be rid of him. Partings over, he went off for a lone prowl—hatless, as usual—to quiet his jangling sensations and tell that inner, irresolute Roy not to be a treble-distilled fool....
Nothing like the open moor to clear away cobwebs. The sweeps of heady colour and blue distances could be trusted to revive the winged impulse that lured him irresistibly away from the tangible and assured. Is there no hidden link—he wondered—between the wander-instinct of the home-loving Scot and the vast spaces of moor and sky that lie about him in his infancy...?
But first he must traverse the enchanted green gloom of his beech-wood, memory-haunted at every turn. Under his favourite tree, a wooden cross, carved by Tara and himself, marked the grave of Prince, dead these three years of sheer old age. And at sight of it there sprang to memory that unforgotten day of May,—the fight with Joe; Tara's bracelet, still treasured in his letter-case, even as Tara treasured the "broidered bodice," in a lavender-scented sachet, set apart from mere blouses and scarves....
And again that troublesome voice within urged—"What an utter fool you are—running away from them all."
To him had fallen the privilege of knowing family life at its best—the finest and happiest on earth; and he could not escape the price exacted, when the call comes to act and decide and suffer alone. Associations that grow up with us are more or less taken for granted while their roots lie deep in the heart. Only when the threat of parting disturbs the delicate fibres, their depth and tenacity are revealed. And so it was with Roy. Hurrying through his wood of knightly adventures he felt besieged, in spirit, by the many loves that had hitherto simply been a part of his life; yet to-day pressed urgently, individually, upon his consciousness, his heart....
And over against them was the counter-pull of deep ancestral stirrings; large vague forces of the outer world; the sense of ferment everywhere; of storm-clouds on the greater horizon, big with dramas that might rock the spheres....
All these challenging forces seemed to dwarf his juvenile agitations; even to arraign his own beautiful surroundings as almost too peaceful, too perfect. Life could not be altogether made up of goodness and sweetness and poetry and philosophy. Somewhere—remote, unseen, implacable—there must lurk strong things, big things, perhaps inimical things, waiting to pounce on him, to be tackled and overcome. Anyhow there could be no question, after all his vapourings, of playing the fool and backing out——
He was on the ridge now; clear space all about him, heather underfoot; his stride keeping pace with the march of his thoughts. Risks...? Of course there were risks. He recognised that more frankly now; and the talk with his mother had revealed a big one that had not so much as occurred to him. For Broome was right. Concentration on her had, in a sense, delayed his emotional development; had kept him—for all his artistry and his First in Greats—very much a boy at heart. Certainly, Aruna's grace and gaiety had struck him more consciously during this last visit. No denying, the Eastern element had its perilous fascination. And the Eastern element was barred. As for Tara—sister and friend and High Tower Princess in one—she was as much a part of home as his mother and Christine. He had simply not seen her yet as a budding woman. He had, in fact, been too deeply absorbed in Oxford and writing and his dream, and the general deliciousness of life, to challenge the future definitely, except in the matter of going to India, somewhen, somehow....
Lost in the swirl of his thoughts and the exhilaration of light and colour, he forgot all about tea-time....
It was after five when, at last, he swung round the yew hedge on to the long lawn; and there, at the far end, was Tara, evidently sent out to find him. She was wearing her delphinium frock and the big blue hat with its single La France rose. She walked pensively, her head bowed; and, in that moment, by some trick of sense or spirit, he saw her vividly, as she was. He saw the grace of her young slenderness, the wild-flower colouring, the delicate aquiline of her nose that revealed breeding and character; the mouth that even in repose seemed to quiver with sensibility. And he thought: "Good Lord! How lovely she is!"
Of course he had known it always—at the back of his mind. The odd thing was, he had never thought it, in so many words, before. And from the thought sprang an inspiration. If only she could come out with them—for a time, at least. So imbued was he with a sense of their brother and sister relation, that the idea seemed as natural as if it had concerned Christine. He had certainly been aware, the last year or so, of a gossamer veil dropped between them. He attributed this to mere grown-up-ness; but it made him feel appreciably shy at thought of broaching his brilliant idea.
She raised her head at that point; saw him, and waved a commanding hand. Impelled by eagerness, he condescended to hurry.
"Casual demon—what have you been up to?" she greeted him with mock severity.
"Prowling on the ridge. It was gorgeous up there," he answered, noticing in detail the curve of her eyelid and thick dark lashes.
"Well, tea's half cold and most of it eaten; and Aunt Lila seemed wondering a little. So I offered to go and unearth you."
"How could you tell?"
A dimple dipped in one cheek. "I couldn't! I was going to the wood, on chance. Come along."
"No hurry. If tea's half cold, it can wait a bit longer." He drew a breath, nerving himself; then: "Tara—I've got a proposal to make."
"Roy!" Her lips quivered, just perceptibly, and were still.
"Well, it's this. Wouldn't it be splendid if you came along out—with us three?"
"Roy!" It was a changed intonation. "That's not a subject for a practical joke."
"But I'm in earnest. High Tower Princess, wouldn't you love to come?"
"Of course I would." Was it his fancy, or did the blood stir ever so little in her cheeks? "But it's utterly, crazily impossible. The sort of thing only you would suggest. So please let be—and come along in."
"Not till you promise. I'm dead set on this. And I'm going to have it out with you."
"Well, you won't have me out with you—if you talk till midnight."
Her smile had its delicious tremulous quality. "Were you twenty-one last birthday—or twelve? If you think you'll be lonely, ask for Christine. She's your sister—I'm not!"
The emphasis and faint inflection of the last words had their intended effect. Roy's face fell. "O-oh, I see. But you've always been my sort of sister. Thea would understand. And nowadays girls do all sorts of things."
"Yes—they do!" Tara agreed demurely. "They scratch faces and burn down beautiful harmless houses. But they don't happen to belong to mother. Roy—it's what I said—crazily—utterly—— If it wasn't, d'you suppose I'd say No?"
Then Roy knew he was beaten. Also he knew she was right and that he had been an impulsive fool—depressing convictions both. For a moment he stood nonplussed while Tara fingered a long chain he had given her, and absently studied a daisy-plant that had dared to invade the oldest, loveliest lawn in that part of the country.
But Roy was little used to being thwarted—by home elements, at least: and when an idea seized him he could be pertinacious, even to the point of folly. He was determined Tara should come with him. And Tara wanted to come. Add her permanent dearness and her newly-found loveliness, and there sprang from the conjunction a second inspiration, even bolder than the first.
"Tara—dear," he ventured, in a changed tone that halted between tenderness and appeal. "I'm going to say—something tremendous."
She deserted the daisy and faced him, blue eyes wide; her tell-tale lower lip drawn in.
"Would it be—quite so 'crazily—utterly'—if ... well, if we were engaged?"
The tremendous word was out; and the effect on her was unmistakable. Colour stirred visibly in her face. She straightened herself with an air that seemed physically to increase the distance between them.
"Really, Roy—have you quite lost your senses to-day?"
He looked—and felt—crestfallen. "But, Tara," he urged, "it's such a supreme idea. Wouldn't you—think of it, ever? We'd fit like a pair of gloves. Mummy would love it—extravagantly. And we've been kind of—caring all these years. At least"—sudden doubt assailed him—"I suppose you do care still—a little bit?"
"Silly boy! Of course I—care ... a lot."
That was more like the Tara he knew. "Very well. Why accuse me of incipient lunacy? I care, too. Always have done. Think how topping it would be, you and I together, exploring all the wonderland of our Game and Mummy's tales—Udaipur, Amber, Chitor, perhaps the shrine of the real Tara——"
Still demurely distant, she thought "how topping it would be"; and the thought kept her silent so long that he grew impatient.
"High Tower Princess—do give over. Your grown-up airs are awfully sweet—but not to the point. You are coming? It'll spoil everything now, if you don't."
She shook her head with a small wise smile that seemed to push him away from her, gently yet inexorably; to make him feel little more than a schoolboy confronted by a woman; very young in her new shyness and dignity, but still—a woman.
"No, Roy—I'm not coming. It's—dear of you to want me. But I can't—for lots of reasons. So please understand, once for all. And don't fuss."
"But you said—you cared," Roy murmured blankly.
"Of course I do. Only—there's caring—and caring ... since you make me say it. You must know that by now. Anyway, I know we simply can't get married just because we're very fond of each other and it would please 'Mummy' and be convenient for India."
Roy sighed portentously. He found himself feeling younger and younger with every smiling, reasonable word she uttered. It was all so unlike his eager, fiery Tara that perplexity tempered a little his genuine dismay.
"I s'pose you're right," he grudgingly admitted. "But I'm fearfully disappointed."
"You are now. You won't be afterwards. It's not marrying time for you—yet. You've lots of big things to do first. Go out to India and do them. Then—when the time really comes, you'll understand—and you'll be grateful to me—for understanding now. There, what a lecture! But the point is—we can't: and I won't be badgered about it. I'm going back to tea; and if you don't come, I'll have to tell Aunt Lila—why?"
He sighed. "I'll probably tell her myself to-night. Would you mind?"
"N-no, she'll understand."
"Bet she won't."
"She will. You're not the only person the darling understands, though you are her spoilt boy."
She swung round on that impetuous little speech, more like her normal self; and her going was so swift that Roy had some ado to keep pace with her. He had still more ado to unravel his own tangle of thought and emotion. A few clear points emerged from a chaos of sensations, like mountain peaks out of a mist. He knew she was all of a sudden distractingly lovely; that her charm and obstinacy combined had thoroughly churned him up; that all the same, she was right about his unreadiness for marrying now; that he hoped she didn't utterly despise him; that he hated the idea of leaving her more than ever....
Her pace, perhaps intentionally, made talk difficult; and he still had a lot to say.
"Tara—why are you sprinting like this?" he broke out, reproachfully. "Are you angry with me?"
She vouchsafed him a small smile.
"Not yet. But I soon will be, if you don't take care. And I'm dangerous in a temper!"
"Don't I know that? I once had a scratch that didn't heal for a month. But do walk slower. You're not chucking me—for good—eh?"
She slowed down a little, perforce; needing her breath for this new and hopelessly intractable Roy.
"Really, I've never known you ask so many foolish questions in one hour before. You must have drunk some potion up on the moor! Have you forgotten you're my Bracelet-bound Brother?"
"But that doesn't bar—the other thing. It's not one of the Prayer-book affinities! I say, Tara—you might promise to think it over. If you can't do that much, I won't believe you care a bean about me, for all you say——"
Her blue eyes flashed at that—genuine fire; and she stood still again, confronting him.
"Roy—be quiet! You make me furious. I want to slap you. First you suggest a perfectly crazy plan; then you worry me into a temper by behaving like a spoilt boy, who won't take 'No' for an answer."
Roy straightened himself sharply. "I'm not spoilt—and I'm not a boy. I'm a man."
"Well then, try and behave like one."
The moment her impulsive retort was spoken, she saw how sharply she had hurt him, and, with a swift softening of her expressive face, she flung out a hand. He held it hard. And suddenly she leaned nearer; her lips tremulous; her eyes melting into a half smile.
"Roy—darling," she murmured, barely above her breath. "You are really—a little bit of all three. That's part of your deliciousness and troublesomeness. And it's not your fault—the spoiling. We've all helped. I've been as bad as the others. But this time—please believe—I simply, utterly can't—even for you."
Words went from him. He could only cling to her hand.
But with a deft movement she freed herself—and fled round the corner of the house; leaving him in a state of confusion worse confounded, to seek his mother and the outraged teapot—alone.
He found her, companioned by the ruins of tea, in the depths of her great arm-chair; eyes and fingers intent on a square of elaborate embroidery; thoughts astray with her unpunctual son.
Bramleigh Beeches drawing-room—as recreated by Sir Nevil Sinclair for his Indian bride—was a setting worthy of its mistress: lofty and spacious, light filled by three tall French windows, long gold curtains shot through with bronze; gold and cream colour the prevailing tone; ivory, brass, and bronze the prevailing incidentals, mainly Indian; and flowers in profusion—roses, lilies, sweet-peas. Yet, in the midst of it all, the spirit of Lilamani Sinclair was restless, lacking the son, of whom, too soon, both she and her home would be bereft——
At the sound of his step she looked up.
"Wicked one! What came to you?"
Impossible to hide from her the disarray of his emotions. So he spoke the simple truth.
"Tara came to me——! I'd been prowling on the moor, and forgetting the time. I met her on the lawn——"
"Yes—where is she?—And you——?"
He caught the note of apprehension. Next moment he was kneeling by her chair, confessing all.
"Mummy, I've just asked her—to marry me. And she simply ... won't hear of it. I thought it would be so lovely, going out together—that it would please you so——"
The smile in her eyes recalled Tara's own. "Did you say it that way—to her, my darling?"
"No—not exactly. Naturally I did mention you—and India. She admits she's fond of me. Yet she got quite angry. I can't make her out."
A faintly aggrieved note in his voice, implied expectation of sympathy. To his inexpressible surprise she said pensively, as if to herself: "Such a wise Tara!"
"Well, I don't see where the wisdom comes in," he muttered a trifle disconcerted.
"Not yet, son of my heart. Some day perhaps when your eyes are not too dazzled from the many-coloured sparkle of youth—of yourself—you will see—many surprises. You are not yet ready for a wife, Roy. Your heart is reaching out to far-away things. That—she has been woman enough to guess."
"Perhaps, I'm not so sure. She seemed—not a bit like herself, part of the time." He looked pensively at a slim vase overflowing with sprays of blush rambler, that, for some reason, evoked a tantalising vision of the girl who had so suddenly blossomed into a woman; and his shy, lurking thought found utterance: "I've been wondering, Mummy, is it ... can she be—in love with somebody else? Do you think she is?"
Lilamani shook her head at him. "That is a man's question! Hard to tell. At this kind of age, when girls have so much character—like my Tara—they have a natural instinct for hiding the thoughts of their hearts." She dropped her needlework now and lightly took his head between her hands, looking deep into his eyes. "Do you think you are yet—in love with her, Roy? Honest answer."
The touch of her hands stirred him all through. The question in her eyes probed deep.
"Honest answer, Mummy—I'm blest if I know," he said slowly. "I don't think I've ever been so near it before; beyond thrills at dances ... and all that. She somehow churned me up just now and made me want her tremendously. But I truly hadn't thought of it—that way, before. And—I did feel it might ease you and Dad about ... the other thing, if I went out fixed up."
She drew his head to her and kissed him, then let her hands fall in her lap. "Wonderful Sonling! Indeed it would ease me and please me—if coming from the true motive. Only remember, so long as you are thinking first of me, you can be sure That Other has not yet arrived."
"But I shall always think first of you," he declared, catching at her hands. "There's no one like you. There never will be."
"No—not like, but different—in clearness and nearness. Love is one big impulse, but many forms. Like white light made from many colours. No rival for me, That Other; but daughter-in-law—best gift a son can bring to his father's house. Just now there is room inside you only for one big thing—India."
"But I am India."
"Sublimated essence of it, according to Jeffers."
"Jeffers says many foolish things!" But she did not disguise her pleasure.
"I've noticed occasional flashes of wisdom!—But, I say, Motherling, what price tea?"
"Tea?" She feigned exaggerated surprise. "I thought you were much too far in the clouds!"
"On the contrary. I'm simply famished!"
And forthwith he fell upon a plate of sugar cakes; while she rang for the fresh teapot, so often in requisition for 'Mr Roy.'
"Comfort, content, delight, the ages' slow-bought gain, They shrivelled in a night. Only ourselves remain To face the naked days in silent fortitude. Through perils and dismays renewed and re-renewed." —KIPLING.
Nevil was up in town on business; not returning till next day. The papers were seething with rumours; but the majority of everyday people, immersed in their all-important affairs, continued cheerfully to hope against hope. Sir Nevil Sinclair was not of these; but he kept his worst qualms to himself. Neither his wife nor his son were keen newspaper readers; which, in his opinion, was just as well.
Certainly it did not occur to Lilamani that any trouble in Europe could invade the sanctities of her home, or affect the shining destiny of Roy. That he was destined to shine, her mother's heart knew beyond all doubt. And round that knowledge, like an aura, glimmered a dreamlike hope that perhaps his shining might some day, in some way, strengthen the bond between Nevil's people and her own. For the problem of India's changing relation to England lay intimately near her heart. Her poetic brain saw England always as "husband of India"; while misguided or malicious meddlers—who would "make the Mother a widow"—were fancifully incorporated in the person of Jane. And, in this matter of India, Roy had triumphed over Jane:—surely good omens, for bigger things:—for at heart she was still susceptible to omens; more so than she cared to admit. Crazy mother-arrogance, Nevil would say. But she seemed to feel the spirit of his grandfather at work in Roy; and well she knew that the old man's wisdom would guide and temper his young zeal. Beyond that, no human eyes could see; only the too-human heart of a mother could dream and hope....
Long ago her father had told her that nations had always been renewed by individuals; that India—aristocratic to the deeps of her Brahmin-ridden soul—would never acknowledge the crowd's unstable sway. For her it must always be the man—ruler, soldier, or saint.
Not that she had breathed a word of her 'arrogance' to Nevil, or even to Roy. Nor had she shown to either a certain letter from a distinguished Indian woman; pure Indian by birth; also by birth a Christian; her sympathy with East and West as evenly poised as Lilamani's own. The letter lived in a slim blue bag, lovingly embroidered. Lilamani—foolish and fanciful—wore it like a talisman, next her heart; and at night slipped it under her pillow with her gold watch and wisp of scented lawn.
To-night, being alone, and her mind very full of Roy, she drew it out and re-read it for the hundredth time; lingering, as always, on its arresting finale.
"I have seen much and grieved more over the problem of the Eurasian, as multiplied in our beloved country—the fruit, most often, of promiscuous unions between low-caste types on both sides, with sense of stigma added to drag them lower still. But where the crossing is of highest caste—as with you and your 'Nevil'—I can see no stigma; perhaps even spiritual gain to your children. For I love both countries with my whole heart. And to my love God has given the vision that India may some day be saved by the son of just such a union as your own. He will have the strength of his handicap; the soul of the East; the forceful mind and character of the West. He will bring to the task of uniting them such twofold love and understanding that the world must needs take infection. What if the ultimate meaning of British occupation of India be just this—that the successor of Buddha should be a man born of high-caste, high-minded British and Indian parents; a fusion of the finest that East and West can give. That vision may inspire you in your first flush of happy motherhood. So I feel impelled to pass it on ..."
Such a vision—whether fantasy or prophecy—could not fail to stir Lilamani Sinclair's Eastern heart to its depths. But she shrank from sceptical comment; and sceptical Nevil would surely be. As for Roy, intuition warned her it was too heady an idea to implant in his ardent brain. So she treasured it secretly, and read it at intervals, and prayed that, some day, it might be fulfilled—if not through her, then through some other Lilamani, who should find courage to link her life with England. Above all, she prayed he who should achieve India's renewal might spring from Rajasthan....
In the midst of her thinking and praying, she fell sound asleep—to dream of Roy tossed out of reach on the waves of some large vague upheaval. The 'how' and 'why' of it all eluded her. Only the vivid impression remained....
* * * * *
And before the week was out, an upheaval, actual and terrible, burst upon a startled, unheeding world; a world lulled into a false sense of security; and too strenuously engaged in rushing headlong round a centrifugal point called 'progress,' to concern itself with a mythical peril across the North Sea.
But at the first clear note of danger, devotees of pleasure and progress and the franchise were transformed, as by magic, into a crowd of bewildered, curious and resentful human beings, who had suddenly lost their bearings; who snatched at newspapers; confided in perfect strangers; protested that a European War was unspeakable, unthinkable, and all the while could speak and think of nothing else....
It was the nightmare terror of earthquake, when the solid ground underfoot turns traitor. And it shook even the stoutest nerves in the opening weeks of the Great War, destined to shatter their dear and familiar world for months, years, decades perhaps....
But underlying all the froth and fume of the earlier restlessness, of the later fear and futility, the strong, kindly, imperturbable heart of the land still beat, sanely—if inconspicuously—in the home life of her cottages and her great country houses. Twentieth-century England could not be called degenerate while she counted among her hidden treasures homes of such charm and culture and mutual confidence as those that produced the Grenfells, the Charltons, a Lord Elcho, an Edward Tennant and a Charles Sorley—to pick a few names at random from that galaxy of 'golden boys' who ungrudgingly gave their lives—for what?
The answer to that staggering question is not yet. But the splendour of their gift remains: a splendour no after-failure can tarnish or dim ...
To the inmates of Bramleigh Beeches—Nevil excepted—the crash came with startling abruptness; dwarfing all personal problems, heart-searchings and high decisions. Even Lady Roscoe forgot Family Herald heroics, and 'crossed the threshold' without comment from Nevil or herself. The weightiest matters became suddenly trivial beside the tremendous questions that hovered in every mind and on every tongue: 'Can We hold Them?' 'Can They invade Us?' 'Can it be true—this whispered horror, that rumoured disaster?' And the test question—most tremendous of all, for the mere unit—'Where do I come in?'
Nevil came in automatically through years of casual connection with the Artists' Rifles. He was a Colonel by now; and would join up as a matter of course—to his wife's secret amazement and far from secret pride. Without an ounce of the soldier in him, he acted on instinct like most Englishmen; not troubling to analyse motives; simply in the spirit of Noblesse oblige; or, in the more casual modern equivalent—'one just does.'
Roy—poet and dreamer—became electrically alive to his double heritage of the soldier spirit. From age to age the primeval link between poet and warrior is reaffirmed in time of war: and the Rajput in him recognised only one way of fighting worthy the name—the triune conjunction of man and horse and sword. Disillusion, strange and terrible, awaited him on that score: and as for India—what need of his young activities, when the whole Empire was being welded into one resistant mass by the triple hammer-strokes of a common danger, a common enemy, a common aim?
It was perhaps this sense of a clear call in an age of intellectual ferment, of sex problems and political friction, that sent so many unlikely types of manhood straight as arrows to that universal target—the Front. The War offered a high and practical outlet for their dumb idealism; to their realism, it offered the 'terrific verities of fatigue, suffering, bodily danger—beloved life and staggering death.'
For Roy, Cavalry was a matter of course. In the saddle, even Jane could find no fault with him; little guessing that, in his genius for horsemanship, he was Rajput to the marrow. His compact, nervous make, strong thigh and light hand, marked him as the inevitable centaur; and he had already gained a measure of distinction in the cavalry arm of the Officers' Training Corps. But a great wish to keep in touch with his father led him to fall in with Sir Nevil's suggestion that he should start in the Artists' Rifles and apply for a transfer later on—when one could see more clearly how this terrific business was likely to develop. George and Jerry—aged fifteen and sixteen and a half—raged at their own futile juvenility—which, in happier circumstances, nothing would have induced them to admit. Jerry—a gay and reckless being—had fell designs on the Flying Corps, the very first moment he could 'wangle it.' George—the truest Sinclair of them all—sagely voted for the Navy, because it took you young. But no one heeded them very much. They were all too absorbed in newspapers and their own immediate plans.
And Lilamani, also, found her niche, when the King's stirring proclamation announced the coming of Indian troops. There was to be a camp on the estate. Later on, there would be convalescents. Meantime, there was wholesale need of 'comforts' to occupy her and Helen and Christine.
Tara's soaring ambition would carry her farther afield. Her spirit of flame—that rose instinctively to tragic issues and heroic demands—could be at peace nowhere but in the splendid, terrible, unorganised thick of it all. Without making any ado, she proposed to get there in the shortest possible time; and, in the shortest possible time, by sheer concentration and hard work, she achieved her desire. Before Roy left England, before her best-loved brother—a man of brilliant promise—had finished learning to fly, she was driving her car in Belgium, besieged in Antwerp, doing and enduring terrible things ...
After Tara, Nevil—for the Artists' Rifles were early in the field. After Nevil, Roy—his exchange effected—very slim and soldierly in cavalry uniform; his grey-blue eyes, with the lurking gleam in them, more than ever noticeable in his sunburnt face.
The last day, the last hour were at once sad and glad beyond belief; so that Lilamani's coward heart was thankful for urgent trifles that helped to divert attention from the waiting shadow. Even to-day, as always, dress and sari were instinctively chosen to express her mood:—the mother-of-pearl mood; iridescence of glad and sad: glad to give; yet aching to keep. Daughter of Rajputs though she was, she had her moment of very human shrinking when the sharp actuality of parting was upon them; when he held her so close and long that she felt as if the tightened cord round her heart must snap—and there an end....
But, by some miracle, some power not her own, courage held; though, when he released her, she was half blinded with tears.
Her last words—entirely like herself though they were—surprised him.
"Son of my heart—live for ever," she whispered, laying light hands on his breast. "And when you go into the battle, always keep strongly in your mind that They must not win, because no sacred or beautiful thing would be left clean from their touch. And when you go into the battle always remember—Chitor."
"It is you I shall always remember—looking like this," he answered under his breath. But he never forgot her injunctions; and through years of fighting, he obeyed them to the letter....
* * * * *
That was in April, after Neuve Chapelle, when even optimists admitted that the War might last a year.
At Christmas time he came home on short leave—a changed Roy; his skin browner; his sensitive lips more closely set under the shadow line of his moustache; the fibre of body and spirit hardened, without loss of fineness or flexibility. Livelier on the surface, he was graver, more reticent, underneath—even with her. By the look in his eyes she knew he had seen things that could never be put into words. Some of them she too had seen, through his mind; so close was the spiritual link between them. In that respect at least, he was beautifully, unaffectedly the same....
Nevil was home too, for that wonderful Christmas; and Tara, changed also, in her own vivid way; frank and friendly with Roy; though the grown-up veil between them was seldom lifted now. For the War held them both in its unrelaxing grip; satisfied, in terrible and tremendous fashion, the hidden desire—not uncommon in young things, though concealed like a vice—to suffer for others. Everything else, for the time being, seemed a side issue. Personal affairs could wait....
When it came to letting Nevil and Roy go again, after their brief, beautiful interlude together, Lilamani discovered how those fifteen months of ceaseless anxiety and ceaseless service had shaken her nerve. Gladness of giving could now scarce hold its own against dread of losing; till she felt as if her heart must break under the strain. It did not break, however. It endured—as the hearts of a million mothers and wives have endured in all ages—to breaking-point ... and beyond. The immensity of the whole world's anguish at once crushed and upheld her, making her individual pain seem almost a little thing——
They left her. And the War went on—disastrously, gloriously, stubbornly, inconclusively; would go on, it seemed, to the end of Time. One came to feel as if life free from the shadow of War had never been. As if it would never be again——
END OF PHASE II.
"No receipt openeth the heart, but a true friend."—FRANCIS BACON.
As early as 1819 there had been a Desmond in India; a soldier-administrator of mark, in his day. During the Sikh Wars there had been a Desmond in the Punjab; and at the time of the Great Mutiny there was a Punjab Cavalry Desmond at Kohat; a notable fighter, with a flowing beard and an easy-going uniform that would not commend itself to the modern military eye. In the year of the second Afghan War, there was yet another Desmond at Kohat; one that earned the cross 'For Valour,' married the daughter of Sir John Meredith, and rose to high distinction. Later still, in the year of grace 1918, his two sons were stationed there, in the self-same Punjab Cavalry Regiment. There was also by now, a certain bungalow in Kohat known as 'Desmond's bungalow,' occupied at present by Colonel Paul Desmond, now in Command.
That is no uncommon story in India. She has laid her spell on certain families; and they have followed one another through the generations, as homing birds follow in line across the sunset sky. And their name becomes a legend that passes from father to son; because India does not forget. There is perhaps nothing quite like it in the tale of any other land. It makes for continuity; for a fine tradition of service and devotion; a tradition that will not be broken till agitators and theorists make an end of Britain in India. But that day is not yet; and the best elements of both races still believe it will never be.
Certainly neither Paul nor Lance Desmond, riding home together from kit inspection, on a morning of early September, entertained the dimmest idea of a break with the family tradition. Lance, at seven-and-twenty—spare and soldierly, alive to the finger-tips—was his father in replica, even to the V.C. after his name, which he had 'snaffled out of the War,' together with a Croix de Guerre and a brevet-Majority. Though Cavalry had been at a discount in France, Mesopotamia and Palestine had given the Regiment its chance—with fever and dysentery and all the plagues of Egypt thrown in to keep things going.
It was in the process of filling up his woeful gaps that Colonel Desmond had applied for Roy Sinclair, and so fulfilled the desire of his brother's heart: also, incidentally, Roy's craving to serve with Indian Cavalry. To that end, his knowledge of the language, his horsemanship, his daring and resource in scout work, had stood him in good stead. Paul—who scarcely knew him at the time—very soon discovered that he had secured an asset for the Regiment—the great Fetish, that claimed his paramount allegiance, and began to look like claiming it for life.
"He's just John over again," Lady Desmond would say, referring to a brother who had served the great Fetish from subaltern to Colonel and left his name on a cross in Kohat cemetery.
Certainly, in form and feature, Paul was very much a Meredith:—the coppery tone of his hair, the straight nose and steadfast grey-blue eyes, the height and breadth and suggestion of power in reserve. It was one of the most serious problems of his life to keep his big frame under weight for polo, without impairing his immense capacity for work. Apart from this important detail, he was singularly unaware of his striking personal appearance, except when others chaffed him about his look of Lord Kitchener, and were usually snubbed for their pains; though, at heart, he was inordinately proud of the fact. He had only one quarrel with the hero of his boyhood;—the decree that officially extinguished the Frontier Force; though the spirit of it survives, and will survive, for decades to come. Like his brother, he had 'snaffled' a few decorations out of the War: but to be in Command of the Regiment, with Lance in charge of his pet squadron, was better than all.
The strong bond of affection between these two—first and last of a family of six—was enhanced by their very unlikeness. Lance had the elan of a torrent; Paul the stillness and depth of a mountain lake. Lance was a rapier; Paul a claymore—slow to smite, formidable when roused. Both were natural leaders of men; both, it need hardly be added, 'Piffers' in the grain. They had only returned in March from active service, with the Regiment very much the worse for wear; heartily sorry to be out of the biggest show on record; yet heartily glad to be back in India, a sadly changing India though it was.
Two urgent questions were troubling the mind of Lance as they rode at a foot's pace up the slope leading to the Blue Bungalow. Would the board of doctors, at that moment 'sitting' on Roy, give him another chance? Would the impending reliefs condemn them to a 'down-country' station? For they had only been posted to Kohat till these came out.
To one of those questions Colonel Desmond already knew the answer.
"I had a line from the General this morning," he remarked, after studying his brother's profile and shrewdly gauging his thoughts.
True enough—his start betrayed him. "The General?—Reliefs?"
"Yes." A pause. "We're for—Lahore Cantonments."
"I've made that inspired remark already. You needn't flatter yourself it's original!"
"I'm not in the mood to flatter myself or any one else. I'm in a towering rage. And if dear old Roy is to be turned down into the bargain——!" Words failed him. He had his father's genius for making friends; and among them all Roy Sinclair reigned supreme.
"I'm afraid he will be if I know anything of medical boards."
"Why the devil——?" Lance flashed out. "It's not as if A1 officers were tumbling over each other in the service. If Roy was a Tommy they'd jolly soon think of something better than leave and futile tonics."
Colonel Desmond smiled at the characteristic outburst.
"Certainly their tinkering isn't up to much. But I'm afraid there's more wrong with Roy than mere doctoring can touch. Still—he doesn't seem keen on going Home."
Lance shook his head. "Naturally—poor old chap. Feels he can't face things, yet. It's not only the delights of Mespot that have knocked him off his centre. It's losing—that jewel of a mother." His eyes darkened with feeling. "You can't wonder. If anything was to happen——" He broke off abruptly.
Paul Desmond set his teeth and was silent. In the deep of his heart, the Regiment had one rival—and Lady Desmond knew it....
They found the bungalow empty. No sign of Roy.
"Getting round 'em," suggested Paul optimistically, and passed on into his dufter.
Lance lit a cigar, flung himself into a verandah chair and picked up the 'Civil and Military.' He had just scanned the war telegrams when Roy came up at a round trot.
Lance sat forward and discarded the paper. An exchange of glances sufficed. Roy's determination to 'bluff the board' had failed.
He looked sallow in spite of sunburn; tired and disheartened; no lurking smile in his eyes. He fondled the velvet nose of his beloved Suraj—a graceful creature, half Arab, half Waler; and absently acknowledged the frantic jubilations of his Irish terrier puppy, christened by Lance the Holy Terror—Terry for short. Then he mounted the steps, subsided into the other chair and dropped his cap and whip on the ground.
"Damn the doctors," said Lance, questions being superfluous.
That so characteristic form of sympathy moved Roy to a rueful smile. "Obstinate devils. I bluffed 'em all I knew. Overdid it, perhaps. Anyway they weren't impressed. They've dispensed with my valuable services. Anaemia, mild neurasthenia, cardiac symptoms—and a few other pusillanimous ailments. Wonder they didn't throw in housemaid's knee! Oh, confound 'em all!" He converted a sigh into a prolonged yawn. "Let's make merry over a peg, Lance. Doctors are exhausting to argue with. And Cuthers always said I couldn't argue for nuts! Now then—how about pegs?"
"A bit demoralising—at midday," Lance murmured without conviction.
"Well, I am demoralised; dead—damned—done for. I'm about to be honoured with a blooming medical certificate to that effect. As a soldier, I'm extinct—from this time forth for evermore. You see before you the wraith of a Might-Have-Been. After that gold-medal exhibition of inanity, kindly produce said pegs!"
Lance Desmond listened with a grave smile, and a sharp contraction of heart, to the absurdities of this first-best friend, who for three years had shared with him the high and horrible and ludicrous vicissitudes of war. He knew only too well that trick of talking at random to drown some inner stress. With every word of nonsense he uttered, Roy was implicitly confessing how acutely he felt the blow; and to parade his own bitter disappointment seemed an egotistical superfluity. So he merely remarked with due gravity: "I admit you've made out an overwhelming case for 'said pegs'!" And he shouted his orders accordingly.
They filled their tumblers in silence, avoiding each other's eyes. Every moment emphasised increasingly all that the detested verdict implied. No more polo together. No more sharing of books and jokes and enthusiasms and violent antipathies, to which both were prone. No more 'shoots' in the Hills beyond Kashmir.
From the first of these they had lately returned—sick leave, in Roy's case; and the programme was to be repeated next April, if they could 'wangle' first leave. Each knew the other was thinking of these things. But they seemed entirely occupied in quenching their thirst, and their disappointment, in deep draughts of sizzling ice-cool whisky-and-soda. Moreover—ignominious, but true—when the tumblers were emptied, things did begin to look a shade less blue. It became more possible to discuss plans. And Desmond was feeling distinctly anxious on that score.
"You won't be shunted instanter," he remarked; and Roy smiled at the relief in his tone.
"Next month, I suppose. We must make the most of these few weeks, old man."
"And then—what?... Home?"
Roy did not answer at once. He was lying back again, staring out at the respectable imitation of a lawn, at rose beds, carpeted with over-blown mignonette, and a lone untidy tamarisk that flung a spiky shadow on the grass. And the eye of his mind was picturing the loveliest lawn of his acquaintance, with its noble twin beeches and a hammock slung between—an empty casket; the jewel gone. It was picturing the drawing-room; the restful simplicity of its cream and gold: but no dear and lovely figure, in gold-flecked sari, lost in the great arm-chair. Her window-seat in the studio—empty. No one in a 'mother-o'-pearl mood' to come and tuck him up and exchange confidences, the last thing. His father, also invalided out; his left coat sleeve half empty, where the forearm had been removed.
"N—no," he said at last, still staring at the unblinking sunshine. "Not Home. Not yet—anyway."
Then, having confessed, he turned and looked straight into the eyes of his friend—the hazel-grey eyes he had so admired, as a small boy, because of the way they darkened with anger or strong feeling. And he admired them still. "A coward—am I? It's not a flattering conclusion. But I suppose it's the cold truth."
"It hasn't struck me that way." Desmond frankly returned his look.
"That's a mercy. But—if one's name happened to be Lance Desmond, one would go—anyhow."
"I doubt it. The place must be simply alive—with memories. We Anglo-Indians, jogged from pillar to post, know precious little about homes like yours. A man—can't judge——"