"You've every right to feel proud. You nearly knocked me over!"
A mischievous smile crept into her eyes. "I am afraid ... I was very rude!"
"That's one way of putting it!" His grave tenderness warmed her like sunshine. He leaned nearer; his hand grasped the arm of her long chair. "You were a very wonderful Aruna last night. And—you are going to be more wonderful still. Working with Dyan, you are going to help make my dream come true—of India finding herself again by her own genius, along her own lines——"
He had struck the right note. Her face lit up as he had hoped to see it. "Oh, Roy—can I really——? Will Dyan help? Will he let me——"
"Of course he will. And I'll be helping too—in my own fashion. We'll never lose touch, Aruna; though India's your destiny and England's mine. Never say again you have no true country. Like me, you have two countries—one very dear; one supreme. I'm afraid there are terrible days coming out here. And in those days every one of you who honestly loves England—every one of us who honestly loves India—will count in the scale ..."
He paused; and she drew a deep breath. "Oh—how you see things! It is you who are wonderful, Roy. I can think and feel the big things in my heart. But for doing them—I am, after all, only a woman...."
"An Indian woman," he emphasised, his eyes on hers. "I know—and you know—what that means. You have not yet bartered away your magical influence for a mess of pottage. Because of one Indian woman—supreme for me; and now ... because of another, they all have a special claim on my heart. If India has not gone too far down the wrong road, it is by the true Swadeshi spirit of her women she may yet be saved. They, at any rate, don't reckon progress by counting factory chimneys or seats on councils. And every seed—good or bad—is sown first in the home. Get at the women, Aruna—the home ones—and tell them that. It's not only my dream; it was—my mother's. You don't know how she loved and believed in you all. I think she never quite understood the other kind. The longer she lived among them, the more she craved for all of you to remain true women—in the full sense, not the narrow one——"
He had never yet spoken so frankly and freely of that dear lost mother; and Aruna knew it for the highest compliment he could pay her. Truly his generous heart was giving her all that his jealous household gods would permit....
Thea—stepping softly through the inner room—caught a sentence or two; caught a glimpse of Roy's finely-cut profile; of Aruna's eyes intent on his face; and she smiled very tenderly to herself. It was so exactly like Roy; and such constancy of devotion went straight to her mother-heart. So too—with a sharper pang—did the love hunger in Aruna's eyes.
The puzzle of these increasing race complications——! The tragedy and the pity of it...!
* * * * *
Lance travelled North that night with a mind at ease. Roy had assured him that the moment his ankle permitted he would leave Jaipur and 'give the bee in his bonnet an airing' elsewhere. That assurance proved easier to give than to act upon, when the moment came. The Jaipur Residency had come to seem almost like home. And the magnet of home drew all that was Eastern in Roy. It was the British blood in his veins that drove him afield. Though India was his objective, England was the impelling force. His true home seemed hundreds of miles away, in more senses than one. His union with Rajputana—set with the seal of that sacred and beautiful experience at Chitor—seemed, in his present mood, the more vital of the two.
And there was Lance up in the Punjab—a magnet as strong as any, when the masculine element prevailed. Yet again, some inner irresistible impulse obliged him to break away from them all. It was one of those inevitable moments when the dual forces within pulled two ways; when he felt envious exceedingly of Lance Desmond's sane and single-minded attitude towards men and things. One couldn't picture Lance a prey to the ignominious sensation that half of him wanted to go one way and half of him another way. At this juncture, half of himself felt a confounded fool for not going back to the Punjab and enjoying a friendly sociable cold weather among his father's people. The other half felt impelled to probe deeper into the complexities of changing India, to confirm and impart his belief that the destinies of England and India were one and indivisible. After all, India stood where she did to-day by virtue of what England had made her. He refused to believe that even the insidious disintegrating process of democracy could dissolve—in a brief fever of unrest—links forged and welded in the course of a hundred years.
In that case, argued his practical half, why this absurd inner sense of responsibility for great issues over which he could have no shadow of control? What was the earthly use of it—this large window in his soul, opening on to the world's complexities and conflicts; not allowing him to say comfortably, 'They are not.' His opal-tinted dreams of interpreting East to West had suffered a change of complexion since Oxford days. His large vague aspirations of service had narrowed down, inevitably, to a few definite personal issues. Action involves limitation—as the picture involves the frame. Dreams must descend to earth—or remain unfruitful. It might be a little, or a great matter, that he had managed to set two human fragments of changing India on the right path—so far as he could discern it. The fruits of that modest beginning only the years could reveal....
Then there was this precious novel simmering at the back of things; his increasing desire to get away alone with the ghostly company that haunted his brain. As the mother-to-be feels the new life mysteriously moving within her, so he began to feel within him the first stirrings of his own creative power. Already his poems and essays had raised expectations and secured attention for other things he wanted to say. And there seemed no end to them. He had hardly yet begun his mental adventures. Pressing forward, through sense, to the limitless regions of mind and spirit, new vistas would open, new paths lure him on....
That first bewildering, intoxicating sense of power is good—while it lasts; none the less, because, in the nature of things, it is foredoomed to disillusion—greater or less, according to the authenticity of the god within.
Whatever the outcome for Roy, that passing exaltation eased appreciably the pang of parting from them all. And it was responsible for a happy inspiration. Rummaging among his papers, on the eve of departure, he came upon the sketch of India that he had written in Delhi and refrained from sending to Aruna. Intrinsically it was hers; inspired by her. Also—intrinsically it was good: and straightway he decided she should have it for a parting gift.
Beautifully copied out, and tied up with carnation-pink ribbons, he reserved it for their last few moments together. She was still such a child in some ways. The small surprise of his gift might ease the pang of parting. It was a woman's thought. But the woman-strain of tenderness was strong in Roy, as in all true artists.
She was standing near the fire in her own sitting-room, wearing the pink dress and sari, her arm still in a sling. Last words, those desperate inanities—buffers between the heart and its own emotion—are difficult things to bring off in any case; peculiarly difficult for these two, with that unreal, yet intensely actual, bond between them; and Roy felt more than grateful to the inspiration that gave him something definite to say.
Instantly her eyes were on it—wondering ... guessing....
"It's a little thing I wrote in Delhi," he said simply. "I couldn't send it to Jeffers. It seemed—to belong to you. So I thought——" He proffered it, feeling absurdly shy of it—and of her.
"Oh—but it is too much!" Holding it with her sling hand, she opened it with the other and devoured it eagerly under his watching eyes. By the changes that flitted across her face, by the tremor of her lips and her hands, as she pressed it to her heart, he knew he could have given her no dearer treasure than that fragment of himself. And because he knew it, he felt tongue-tied; tempted beyond measure to kiss her once again.
If she divined his thought, she kept her lashes lowered and gave no sign.
He hoped she knew....
But before either could break the spell of silence that held them, Thea returned; and their moment—their idyll—was over....
END OF PHASE III.
DUST OF THE ACTUAL
"It's no use trying to keep out of things. The moment they want to put you in—you're in. The moment you're born, you're done for."—HUGH WALPOLE.
The middle of March found Roy back in the Punjab, sharing a ramshackle bungalow with Lance and two of his brother officers; good fellows, both, in their diametrically opposite fashions; but superfluous—from Roy's point of view. When he wanted a quiet 'confab' with Lance, one or both were sure to come strolling in and hang round, jerking out aimless remarks. When he wanted a still quieter 'confab' with his maturing novel, their voices and footsteps echoed too clearly in the verandahs and the scantily furnished rooms. But did he venture to grumble at these minor drawbacks, Lance would declare he was demoralised by floating loose in an Earthly Paradise and becoming a mere appendage to a pencil.
There was a measure of truth in the last. As a matter of fact, after two months of uninterrupted work at Udaipur, Roy had unwarily hinted at a risk of becoming embedded in his too congenial surroundings;—and that careless admission had sealed his fate.
Lance Desmond, with his pointed phrase, had virtually dug him out of his chosen retreat; had written temptingly of the 'last of the polo,' of prime pig-sticking at Kapurthala, of the big Gymkhana that was to wind up the season:—a rare chance for Roy to exhibit his horsemanship. And again, in more serious mood, he had written of increasing anxiety over his Sikhs with that 'infernal agitation business' on the increase, and an unbridled native press shouting sedition from the house-tops. A nice state of chaos India was coming to! He hoped to goodness they wouldn't be swindled out of their leave; but Roy had better 'roll up' soon, so as to be on the spot, in case of ructions; not packed away in cotton-wool down there.
A few letters in this vein had effectually rent the veil of illusion that shielded Roy from aggressive actualities. In Udaipur there had been no hysterical press; no sedition flaunting on the house-tops. One hadn't arrived at the twentieth century, even. Except for a flourishing hospital, a few hideous modern interiors, and a Resident—who was very good friends with Vinx—one stepped straight back into the leisurely, colourful, frankly brutal life of the middle ages. And Roy had fallen a willing victim to the charms of Udaipur:—her white palaces, white temples, and white landing-stages, flanked with marble elephants, embosomed in wooded hills, and reflected in the blue untroubled depths of the Pichola Lake. Immersed in his novel, he had not known a dull or lonely hour in that enchanted backwater of Rajasthan.
His large vague plans for getting in touch with the thoughtful elements of Calcutta and Bombay had yielded to the stronger magnetism of beauty and art. Like his father, he hated politics; and Westernised India is nothing if not political. It was a true instinct that warned him to keep clear of that muddy stream, and render his mite of service to India in the exercise of his individual gift. That would be in accord with one of his mother's wise and tender sayings: (his memory was jewelled with them) "Look always first at your own gifts. They are sign-posts, pointing the road to your true line of service." Could he but immortalise the measure of her spirit that was in him, that were true service to India—and more than India. There are men created for action. There are men created to inspire action. And the world has equal need of both.
He had things to say on paper that would take him all his time; and Udaipur had metaphorically opened her arms to him. The Resident and his wife had been more than kind. He had his books; his cool, lofty rooms in the Guest House; his own private boat on the Lake; and freedom to go his own unfettered way at all hours of the day or night. There the simmering novel had begun to move with a life of its own; and while that state of being endured, nothing else mattered much in earth or heaven.
For seven weeks he had worked at it without interruption; and for seven weeks he had been happy: companioned by the vivid creatures of his brain; and, better still, by a quickened undersense of his mother's vital share in the 'blossom and fruit of his life.' The danger of becoming embedded had been no myth: and at the back of his brain there had lurked a superstitious reluctance to break the spell.
But Lance was Lance: no one like him. Moreover, he had known well enough that anticipation of breakers ahead was no fanciful nightmare; but a sane corrective to the ostrich policy of those who had sown the evil seed and were trying to say of the fruit—'It is not.' Letters from Dyan, and spasmodic devouring of newspapers, kept him alive to the sinister activities of the larger world outside. News from Bombay grew steadily more disquieting:—strikes and riots, fomented by agitators, who lied shamelessly about the nature of the new Bills—; hostile crowds and insults to Englishwomen. Dyan more than hinted that if the threatened outbreak were not resolutely crushed at the start, it might prove a far-reaching affair; and Roy had not the slightest desire to find himself 'packed away in cotton-wool,' miles from the scene of action. Clearly Lance wanted him. He might be useful on the spot. And that settled the matter.
Impossible to leave so much loveliness, such large drafts of peace and leisure, without a pang; but—the wrench over—he was well content to find himself established in this ramshackle bachelor bungalow, back again with Lance and his music—very much in evidence just now—and the two superfluous good fellows, whom he liked well enough in homoeopathic doses. Especially he liked Jack Meredith, cousin of the Desmonds;—a large and simple soul, gravely absorbed in pursuing balls and tent-pegs and 'pig'; impervious to feminine lures; equally impervious to the caustic wit of his diametrical opposite, Captain James Barnard, who eased his private envy by christening him 'Don Juan.' For Meredith fatally attracted women; and Barnard—cultured, cynical, Cambridge—was as fatally susceptible to them as a trout to a May-fly; but, for some unfathomable reason they would not; and in Anglo-India a man could not hide his failures under a bushel. Lance classified him comprehensively as 'one of the War lot'; liked him, and was sorry for him, although—perhaps because—he was 'no soldier.'
Roy also liked him; and enjoyed verbal fencing-bouts with him when the mood was on. Still he would have preferred, beyond measure, the Kohat arrangement, with the Colonel for an unobtrusive third.
But the Colonel, these days, had a bungalow to himself; a bungalow in process of being furnished by no means on bachelor lines. For the unbelievable had come to pass——! And the whole affair had been carried through in his own inimitable fashion, without so much as a tell-tale ripple on the surface of things. Quite unobtrusively, at Kohat, he had made friends with the General's daughter—a dark-haired slip of a girl, with the blood of distinguished Frontier soldiers in her veins. Quite unobtrusively—during Christmas week—he had laid his heart and the Regiment at her feet. Quite unobtrusively, he proposed to marry her in April, when the leave season opened, and carry her off to Kashmir.
"That's the way it goes with some people," said Lance, the first time he spoke of it; and Roy fancied he detected a wistful note in his voice.
"That's the way it'll go with you, old man," he had retorted. "I'm the one that will have to look out for squalls!"
Lance had merely smiled and said nothing:—the reception he usually accorded to personal remarks. And, at the moment, Roy thought no more of the matter.
Their first good week of polo and riding and generally fooling round together had quickened his old allegiance to Lance, his newer allegiance to the brotherhood of action. He possessed no more enviable talent than his many-sided zest for life.
Lance himself seemed in an unusually social mood. So of course Roy must submit to being bowled round in the new dog-cart and introduced to special friends, in cantonments and Lahore, including the Deputy Commissioner's wife and good-looking eldest daughter; the best dancer in the station and an extra special friend, he gathered from Lance's best offhand manner.
Roy found her more than good-looking; beautiful, almost, with her twofold grace of carriage and feature and her low-toned harmony of colouring:—ivory-white skin, ash-blond hair and hazel eyes, clear as a Highland river; the pupils abnormally large, the short thick lashes very black, like a smudge round her lids. She was tall, in fine, and carried her beauty like a brimming chalice; very completely mistress of herself; and very completely detached from her florid, effusive, worldly-wise mother. Unquestionably, a young woman to be reckoned with.
But Roy did not feel disposed, just then, to reckon seriously with any young woman, however alluring. The memory of Aruna—the exquisite remoteness from everyday life of their whole relation—did not easily fade. And the creatures of his brain were still clamant, in spite of broken threads and drastic change of surroundings. Lance had presented him with a spacious writing-table; and most days he would stick to it for hours, sooner than drive out in pursuit of tennis or afternoon dancing in Lahore.
He was sitting at it now; flinging down a dramatic episode, roughly, rapidly, as it came. The polished surface was strewn with an untidy array of papers; the only ornaments a bit of old brass-work and two ivory elephants; a photograph of his father and a large one of his mother taken from the portrait at Jaipur. The table was set almost at right angles to his open door, and the chick rolled up. He had a weakness for being able to 'see out,' if it was only the corner of a barren 'compound' and a few dusty oleanders. He had forgotten the others; forgotten the time. All he asked, while the spate lasted, was to be left alone....
He almost jumped when the latch clicked behind him and Lance strolled in, faultlessly attired in the latest suit from home; a golden-brown tie and a silk handkerchief, the same shade, emerging from his breast pocket. By nature, Lance was no dandy; but Roy had not failed to note that he was apt to be scrupulously well turned out on certain occasions. And, at sight of him, he promptly 'remembered he had forgotten' the very particular nature of to-day's occasion: the marriage of Miss Gladys Elton—step-sister of Rose—to a rising civilian some eighteen years older than his bride. It was an open secret, in the station, that the wedding was Mrs Elton's private and personal triumph, that she, not her unassuming daughter, was the acknowledged heroine of the day.
"Not ready yet—you unmitigated slacker?" Lance exclaimed with an impatient frown. "Buck up. Time we were moving."
"Awfully sorry. I clean forgot." Roy's tone was not conspicuously penitent.
"Tell us another! The whole Mess was talking of it at tiffin."
"I'm afraid I'd forgotten all about tiffin."
It was so patently the truth that Lance looked mollified. "You and your confounded novel! Now then—double. I don't want to be glaringly late."
Roy looked pathetic. "But I'm simply up to the eyes. The truth is, I can't be bothered. I'll turn up for the dancing at the Hall."
"And I'm to make your giddy excuses?"
"If any one happens to notice my absence, you can say something pretty——"
He was interrupted by the appearance of Barnard at the verandah door. "Dog-cart's ready and waiting, Major. What's the hitch?"
"Sinclair's discovered he's too busy to come!"
"What—the favoured one? The fair Rose won't relish that touching mark of attention. On whom she smiles, from him she expects gold, frankincense, and myrrh——"
"Drop it, Barnard," Desmond cut in imperatively; and Roy remarked almost in the same breath, "Thanks for the tip. I'll write to Bombay for the best brand of all three against another occasion."
"But this is the occasion! Copy—my dear chap, copy! Anglo-India in excelsis and 'Oh 'Ell' in all her glory!"
It may be mentioned that Mrs Elton's name was Olive; that she saw soldiers as trees walking. And subalterns retaliated—strictly behind her back.
But Roy remained unmoved. "If you two are in such a fluster over your precious wedding, I vote you get out—and let me get on."
Barnard asked nothing better. Miss Arden was his May-fly of the moment. "Come along, Major," he cried, and vanished forthwith.
As Lance moved away, Roy remarked casually: "Be a good chap and ask Miss Arden, with my best salaams, to save me a dance or two, in case I'm late turning up!"
Lance gave him a straight look. "Not I. My pockets will be bulging with your apologies. You can get some one else to do your commissions in the other line."
Sheer astonishment silenced Roy; and Desmond, from the threshold, added more seriously, "Don't let the women here give you a swelled head, Roy. They'll do their damnedest between them."
When he had gone, Roy sat staring idly at the patch of sunlight outside his door. What the devil did Lance mean by it? Moods were not in his line. To make a half-joking request, and find Lance taking it seriously, wasn't in the natural order of things. And the way he jumped on Barnard, too. Could there possibly have been a rebuff in that quarter? He couldn't picture any girl in her senses refusing Lance. Besides, they seemed on quite friendly terms. Nothing beyond that—so far as Roy could see. He would very much like to feel sure. But, for all their intimacy, he knew precisely how far one could go with Lance: and one couldn't go as far as that.
As for the remark about a swelled head, Lance must have been rotting. He wasn't troubling about women or girls—except for tennis and dancing; and Miss Arden was a superlative performer; in fact, rather superlative all round. As a new experience, she seemed distinctly worth cultivating, so long as that process did not seriously hamper the novel,—that was unashamedly his first consideration, at the moment.
He loved every phase of the work; from the initial thrill of inception to the nice balance of a phrase and the very look of his favourite words. His childish love of them for their own sake still prevailed. For him, they were still live things, possessing a character and charm all their own.
And now, the house being blessedly empty, his pencil sped off again on its wild career. The men and women he had loved into life were thronging his brain. Everything else was forgotten—Lance and Miss Arden and the wedding and the afternoon dancing at the Hall....
"Which is the more perilous, to meet the temptings of Eve, or to pique her?"—GEORGE MEREDITH.
Of course he reached the Lawrence Hall egregiously late, to find the afternoon dancing, that Lahore prescribes three times a week, in full swing.
The lofty pillared Hall—an aristocrat among Station Clubs—was more crowded than usual. Half the polished floor was uncovered; the rest carpeted and furnished, for lookers-on. Here Mrs Elton still diffused her exuberant air of patronage; sailing majestically from group to group of her recent guests, and looking more than life size in lavender satin besprinkled with old lace.
Roy hurried past, lest she discover him; and, from the security of an arched alcove, scanned the more interesting half of the Hall. There went little Mrs Hunter-Ranyard, a fluffy pussy-cat person, with soft eyes and soft manners—and claws. She was one of those disconnected wives whom he was beginning to recognise as a feature of the country: unobtrusively owned by a dyspeptic-looking Divisional Judge; hospitable and lively, and an infallible authority on other people's private affairs. Like too many modern Anglo-Indians, she prided herself on keeping airily apart from the country of her exile. Natives gave her 'the creeps.' Useless to argue. Her retort was unvarying and unanswerable. "East is East—and I'm not. It's a country of horrors, under a thin layer of tinsel. Don't talk to me——!" Lance Desmond had achieved fame among the subalterns by christening her the Banter-Wrangle; but he liked her well enough, on the whole, to hope she would never find him out.
She whirled past now, on the arm of Talbot Hayes, senior Assistant Commissioner; an exceedingly superior person who shared her views about 'the country.' Catching Roy's eye, she feigned exaggerated surprise and fluttered a friendly hand.
His response was automatic. He had just discovered Miss Arden—with Lance, of course—looking supreme in a moon-coloured gown with a dull gold sash carelessly knotted on one side. Her graceful hat was of gold tissue, unadorned. Near the edge of the brim lay one yellow rose; and a rope of amber beads hung well below her waist.
Roy—son of Lilamani—had an artist's eye for details of dress, for harmony of tone and line, which this girl probably achieved by mere feminine instinct. The fool he was, to have come so late. When they stopped, he would catch her and plead for an extra, at least.
Meantime, a pity to waste this one; and there was poor little Miss Delawny sitting out, as usual, in her skimpy pink frock and black hat, trying so hard not to look forlorn that he felt sorry for her. She was tacitly barred by most of the men because she was 'cafe au lait';—a delicate allusion to the precise amount of Indian blood in her veins.
He had not, so far, come across many specimens of these pathetic half-and-halfs, who seemed to inhabit a racial No-Man's-Land. But Lahore was full of them; minor officials in the Railway and the Post Office; living, more or less, in a substratum of their own kind. He gathered that they were regarded as a 'problem' by the thoughtful few, and simply turned down by the rest. He felt an acute sympathy for them: also—in hidden depths—a vague distaste. Most of those he had encountered were so obviously of no particular caste, in either country's estimate of the word, that he had never associated them with himself. He saw himself, rather, as of double caste; a fusion of the best in both races. The writer of that wonderful letter had said he was different; and presumably she knew. Whether the average Anglo-Indian would see any difference, he had not the remotest idea; and, so far, he had scarcely given the matter a thought.
Here, however, it was thrust upon his attention; nor had he failed to notice that Lance never mentioned the Jaipur cousins except when they were alone:—whether by chance or design, he did not choose to ask. And if either of the other fellows had noticed his mother's photograph, or felt a glimmer of curiosity, no word had been said.
After all, what concern was it of these chance-met folk? He was nothing to them; and to him they were mainly a pleasant change from the absorbing business of his novel and the problems of India in transition.
And the poor little girl in the skimpy frock was an unconscious fragment of that problem. Too pathetic to see how she tried not to look round hopefully whenever masculine footsteps came her way. Why shouldn't he give her a pleasant surprise?
She succeeded, this time, in not looking round; so the surprise came off to his satisfaction. She was nervous and unpractised, and he constantly found her feet where they had no business to be. But sooner than hurt her feelings, he piloted her twice round the room before stopping; and found himself next to Mrs Hunter-Ranyard, who 'snuggled up' to him (the phrase was Barnard's) and proffered consolation after her kind.
"Bad boy! You missed the cream of the afternoon, but you're not quite too late. I'm free for the next."
Roy, fairly cornered, could only bow and smile his acceptance. And after his arduous prelude, Mrs Ranyard's dancing was an effortless delight—if only she would not spoil it by her unceasing ripple of talk. His lack of response troubled her no whit. She was bubbling over with caustic comment on Mrs Elton's latest adventure in matrimony.
"She's a mighty hunter, before the Lord! She marked down poor Hilton last cold weather," cooed the silken voice in Roy's inattentive ear. "Of course you know he's one of our coming men! And I've a shrewd idea he was intended for Rose. But in Miss Rose the matchmaker has met her match! She's clever—that girl; and she's reduced the tactics of non-resistance to a fine art. I don't believe she ever stands up to her mother. She smiles and smiles—and goes her own way. She likes playing with soldiers; partly because they're good company; partly, I'll swear, because she knows it keeps her mother on tenter-hooks. But when it comes to business, she'll choose as shrewdly——"
Roy stopped dancing and confronted her, half laughing, half irate. "If you're keen on talking—let's talk. I can't do both." He stated the fact politely, but with decision. "And—frankly, I hate hearing a girl pulled to pieces, just because she's charming and good-looking and——"
"Oh, my dear boy," she interrupted unfailingly—sweet solicitude in her lifted gaze. "Did I trample on your chivalrous toes? Or is it——?"
"No, it isn't." He resented the barefaced implication. "Naturally—I admire her——"
"Oh, naturally! You can't help yourselves, any of you! She's 'sooner caught than the pestilence, and the taker runs presently mad.' No use looking daggers! It's a fact. I don't say she flirts outrageously—like I do! She simply expects homage—and gets it. She expects men to fall in love with her—and they topple over like ninepins. Sometimes—when I'm feeling magnanimous—I catch a ninepin as it falls! Look at her now, with that R.E. boy—plainly in the toils!"
Roy declined to look. If she was trying to put him off Miss Arden, she was on the wrong tack. Besides—he wanted to dance.
"One more turn?" he suggested, nipping a fresh outbreak in the bud. "But, please—no talking."
She laughed and shook her fan at him. "Epicure!" But after all, it was an indirect compliment to her dancing: and for the space of two minutes, she held her peace.
Throughout the brief pause, she rippled on, with negligible interludes; but not till they re-entered the Hall did she revert to the theme that had so exasperated Roy. There she espied Desmond, standing under an archway, staring straight before him, apparently lost in thought.
She indicated him, discreetly, with her fan. "The Happy Warrior (that's my private name for him) seems to have something on his mind. Can he have proposed—at last? I confess I'm curious. But of course you know all about it, Mr Sinclair. Don't tell me!"
"I won't!" said Roy gravely. "You probably know more than I do."
"But I thought you were such intimate friends? How superbly masculine!"
"Oh, he is! He's so firmly planted on his feet that he tacitly invites one to tilt at him! I confess I've already tried my hand—and failed. So it soothes my vanity to observe that even the Rose of Sharon isn't visibly upsetting his balance. Frankly, I'm more than a little intrigued over that affair. It seems to have reached a certain point and stuck there. At one time—I thought——"
Her thought remained unuttered. Roy was patently not attending. Miss Arden and the 'R.E. boy' had just entered the Hall.
"Don't let me keep you," she added sweetly. "It's evident she's the next!"
Roy collected himself with a jerk. "You're wiser than I am! I've not asked her yet."
"Then you can save yourself the trouble and go on dancing with me! She's always booked up ahead——"
Her blue eyes challenged him laughingly; but he caught the undernote of rivalry. For half a second the scales hung even between courtesy and inclination; then, from the tail of his eye, he saw Hayes bearing down upon the other pair. That decided him. He had conceived an unreasoning dislike of Talbot Hayes.
"I'm awfully sorry," he said politely. "But—I sent word I was coming in for the dancing; and——"
"Oh, go along then and get your fingers burnt, as you deserve. But never say I didn't try and save them!"
Roy laughed. "They aren't in any danger, thanks very much!"
Just as he reached Miss Arden, the R.E. boy left her, and Lance, forsaking his pillar, strolled casually to her side.
She greeted Roy with a faint lift of her brows.
"Was I unspeakable——? I apologise," he said impulsively; and her smile absolved him.
"You were wiser than you knew. You escaped an infliction. It was insufferably dull. We all smiled and smiled, till there were 'miles and miles of smiles'; and we were all bored to extinction! Ask Major Desmond!"
She acknowledged his presence with a sidelong glance. He returned it with a quick look that told Roy he had been touched on the raw.
"As I spent most of the time talking to you—and as you've just recorded your sensations, I'd rather be excused," he said with a touch of stiffness. "Your innings, I suppose, old man?" And, with a friendly nod, he moved away.
Roy, watching him go, felt almost angry with the girl, and impetuously spoke his thought.
"Poor old Desmond! What did you give him a knock for? He couldn't be dull, if he tried."
"N-no," she agreed, without removing her eyes from his retreating figure. "But sometimes—he can be aggressive."
"I've never noticed it."
"How long have you known him?"
"A trifle of fifteen years."
"Quite a romantic friendship?"
Roy nodded. He did not choose to discuss his feeling for Lance with this cool, compelling young woman. Yet her very coolness goaded him to add: "I suppose men see more clearly than women that—he's one in a thousand."
"I'm—not so sure——"
"Yet you snub him as if he was a tin-pot 'sub.'"
His resentment would out; but the smile in her eyes disarmed him.
"Was it as bad as that? What a pair you are! Don't worry. We know each other's little ways by now."
It was scarcely convincing; but Lance would not thank him for interfering; and the band had struck up. No sign of a partner. It seemed the luck was 'in'.
"Did Desmond give you my message?" he asked.
"Only—that I hoped you'd be magnanimous.... Is there a chance——?"
Her eyes rested deliberately on his; and the last spark of resentment flickered out. "More than you deserve! But this one does happen to be free...."
"Well, we won't waste any of it," said he:—and they danced without a break, without a word, till the perfect accord of their circling and swaying ceased with the last notes of the valse.
That was the real thing, thought Roy, but felt too shy for compliments; and they merely exchanged a smile. He had felt the pleasure was mutual. Now he knew it.
Out through the portico they passed into the cool green gardens, freshly watered, exhaling a smell of moist earth and the fragrance of unnumbered roses—a very whiff of Home: bushes, standards, ramblers; and everywhere—flaunting its supremacy—the Marechal Niel; sprawling over hedges, scrambling up evergreens and falling again, in cascades of moon-yellow blossoms and glossy leaves.
Roy, keenly alive to the exquisite mingling of scent and colour and evening lights—was still more alive to the silent girl at his side, who seemed to radiate both the lure and the subtle antagonism of sex—in itself an inverted form of fascination.
They had strolled half round the empty bandstand before she remarked, in her cool, low-pitched voice: "You really are a flagrantly casual person, Mr Sinclair. I sometimes wonder—is it quite spontaneous? Or—do you find it effective?"
Roy frankly turned and stared at her. "Effective? What a question?"
Her smile puzzled and disconcerted him.
"Well, you've answered it with your usual pristine frankness! I see—it was not intentional."
"Why should it be?"
"Oh, if you don't know—I don't! I merely wondered—You did say definitely you would come to the reception. So of course—I expected you. Then you never turned up. And—naturally——!"
A ghost of a shrug completed the sentence.
"I'm awfully sorry. I didn't flatter myself you'd notice——" Roy said simply. There were moments when she made him feel vexatiously young. "You see—it was my novel—got me by the hair. And when that happens, I'm rather apt to let things slide. Anyway, you got the better man. And if you found him dull, I'd have been nowhere."
She was silent a moment. Then: "I think—if you don't mind—we'll leave Major Desmond out of it," she said; adding, with a distinct change of tone: "What's the hidden charm in that common little Miss Delawny? I saw you dancing with her again to-day."
The subtle flattery of the question might have taken effect, had it not followed on her perplexing remark about Lance. As it was, he resented it.
"Why not? She's quite a nice little person."
"I daresay. But we've plenty of nice girls in our own set."
"Oh, plenty. But I rather bar set mania. I've a catholic taste in human beings!"
"And I've an ultra fastidious one!" Look and tone gave her statement a delicately personal flavour. "Besides, out here ... there are limits——"
"And I must respect them, on penalty of your displeasure?" His tone was airily defiant. "Well—make me out a list of irreproachables, and I'll work them off in rotation—between whiles!"
The implication of that last subtly made amends: and she had a taste for the minor subtleties of intercourse.
"I shall do nothing of the kind! You're perfectly graceless this evening! I suspect all that scribbling goes to your head sometimes. Sitting on Olympian heights, controlling destinies! I suppose we earthworms down below all look pretty much alike? To discriminate between mere partners—is human. To embrace them indiscriminately—divine!"
Roy laughed. "Oh, if it came to embracing——"
"Even an Olympian might be a shade less catholic?" she queried with one of her looks, that stirred in Roy sensations far removed from Olympian. Random talk did not flourish in Miss Arden's company: delicately, insistently she steered it back to the focal point of interest—herself and the man of the moment.
From the circular drive they wandered on, unheeding; and when they re-entered the Hall a fresh dance had begun. Under the arch they paused. Miss Arden's glance scanned the room and reverted to Roy. The last ten minutes had appreciably advanced their intimacy.
"Shall we?" he asked, returning her look with interest. "Is the luck in again?"
Her eyes assented. He slipped an arm round her—and once more they danced....
Roy had been Olympian indeed had he not perceived the delicate flattery implied in his apparent luck. Lance had not given his message. Yet two dances were available. The inference was not without its insidious effect on a man temperamentally incapable of conceit.
The valse was nearly half over, when the least little drag on his arm so surprised him that he stopped almost opposite the main archway;—and caught sight of Lance, evidently looking for some one.
"Oh—there he is!" Miss Arden's low tone was almost flurried—for her.
"D'you want him?"
"Well—I suppose he wants me. This was his dance."
"Good Lord! What a mean shame," Roy flashed out. "Why on earth didn't you tell me? Wouldn't for the world...."
Her colour rose under his heated protest. "I never hang about for unpunctual partners. If they don't turn up in time—it's their loss."
Roy, intent on Lance, was scarcely listening. "He's seen us now. Come along. Let's explain."
It was Miss Arden who did the explaining in a manner all her own.
"Well—what became of you?" she asked, smiling in response to Desmond's look of interrogation. "As you didn't appear, I concluded you'd either forgotten or been caught in a rubber."
"Bad shots,—both," Desmond retorted with a direct look.
"I'm awfully sorry ... I hadn't a notion——" Roy began—and checked himself, perceiving that he could not say much without implicating his partner.
This time Desmond's smile had quite another quality. "You're very welcome. Carry on. Don't mind me. It's half over."
"A model of generosity!" Miss Arden applauded him. "I'm free for the next—if you'd care to have it instead."
"Thanks very much; but I'm not," Desmond answered serenely.
"The great little Banter-Wrangle—is it? You could plead a misunderstanding and bribe Mr Sinclair to save the situation!"
"Hard luck on Sinclair. But it's not Mrs Ranyard. I'm sorry——"
"Don't apologise. If you're satisfied, I am."
For all her careless tone, Roy had never seen her so nearly put out of countenance. Desmond said nothing; and for a moment—the briefest—there fell an awkward silence. Then with an air of marked graciousness she turned to Roy.
"We are generously permitted to go on, with a clear conscience!"
But for Roy the charm was broken. Her cavalier treatment of Lance annoyed him; and beneath the surface play of looks and words he had detected the flash of steel. It was some satisfaction that Lance had given as good as he received. But he felt troubled and curious. And he was likely to remain so. Lance, he very well knew, would say precisely nothing.
The girl, as if divining his thoughts, combated them with the delicately pointed weapons of her kind—and prevailed.
Again they wandered in the darkening garden and returned to find the Boston in full swing. Again Miss Arden's glance travelled casually round the room. And Roy saw her start; just enough to swear by....
Desmond was dancing with Miss Delawny——!
The frivolous comment on Roy's lips was checked by the look in his partner's eyes. Impossible not to wonder if Lance had actually been engaged; or if——?
In any case—a knock for Miss Arden's vanity. A shade too severe, perhaps; yet sympathy for her was tinged with exultation that Lance had held his own. Mrs Ranyard was right. Here was a man set firmly on his feet....
Miss Arden's voice drew his wandering attention back to herself. "We may as well finish this. Or are you also—engaged?"
Her light stress on the word held a significance he did not miss.
"To you—if you will!" he answered gallantly, hand on heart. "More than I deserve—as you said; but still——"
"It's just possible for a woman to be magnanimous!" she capped him, smiling. "And it's just possible for a man to be—the other thing! Remember that—when you get back to your eternal scribbling!"
An hour later he rode homeward with a fine confusion of sensations and impressions, doubts and desires seething in his brain. Miss Arden was delightful, but a trifle unsettling. She must not be allowed to distract him from the work he loved.
"Shall I cool desire By looking at those lovely eyes of hers, That passionate love prefers To his own brand, for setting hearts on fire." —EDMUND GOSSE.
But neither the work he loved, nor his budding intimacy with Miss Arden, deterred him from accepting a week-end invitation from the Maharajah of Kapurthala—the friendly, hospitable ruler of a neighbouring Sikh State. The Colonel was going, and Lance, and half a dozen other good sportsmen. They set out on Thursday, the military holiday, in a state of high good-humour with themselves and their host; to return on Sunday evening, renewed in body and mind by the pursuit of pig and the spirit of Shikar, that keeps a man sane and virile, and tempers the insidious effect, on the white races, of life and work in the climate of India. It draws men away from the rather cramping station atmosphere. It sets their feet in a large room. And in this case it did not fail to dispel the light cloud that had hovered between Lance and Roy since the day of the wedding.
In the friendly rivalries of sport, it was possible to forget woman complications; even to feel it a trifle derogatory that one should be so ignominiously at the mercy of the thing. Thus Roy, indulging in a spasmodic declaration of independence; glorying in the virile excitement of pig-sticking, and the triumph of getting first spear.
But returning on Saturday, from a day after snipe and teal, he found himself instinctively allotting the pick of his 'bag' to Miss Arden; just a complimentary attention; the sort of thing she would appreciate. Having refused a ride with her because of this outing, it seemed the least he could do.
Apparently the same strikingly original idea had occurred to Lance; and by the merest fluke they found one another out. To Roy's relief, Lance greeted the embarrassing discovery with a gust of laughter.
"I say—this won't do. You give over. It's too much of a joke. Besides—cheek on your part."
Though he spoke lightly, the hint of command in his tone promptly put Roy on the defensive.
"Rot! Why shouldn't I? But—the two of them...! A bit overwhelming!" And suddenly he remembered his declaration of independence. "After all—why should either of us? Can't we let be, just for four days? Look here, Lance. You give over too. Don't send yours. And I won't send mine."
Lance—having considered that inspired proposal—turned a speculative eye on Roy.
"Lord, what a kid you are, still!"
"Well, I mean it. Out here, we're clear of all that. Over there, the women call the tune—we dance. Sport's the God-given antidote! Though it won't be so much longer—the way things are going. We shall soon have 'em after pig and on the polo ground——"
"God forbid!" It came out with such fervour that Roy laughed.
"He doesn't—that's the trouble! He gives us all the rope we want. And the women may be trusted to take every available inch. I'm not sure there isn't a grain of wisdom in the Eastern plan; keeping them, so to speak, in a separate compartment. Once you open a chink, they flow in and swamp everything."
Up went Lance's eyebrows. "That—from you?" And Roy made haste to add: "I wasn't thinking of mothers and sisters; but the kind you play round with ... before you marry. They've a big pull out here. Very good fun of course. And if a man's keen on marrying——"
"Aren't you keen?" Lance cut in with a quick look.
"N-no. Not just yet, anyway. It's a plunge. And I'm too full up with other things.—But what about the birds?"
"Oh, we'll let be—as you sagely suggest!"
And they did.
More pig-sticking next morning, with two tuskers for trophies; and thereafter, they travelled reluctantly back to harness, by an afternoon train, feeling—without exception—healthier, happier men.
None of them, perhaps, was more conscious of that inner renewal than Lance and Roy. The incident of the game seemed in some way to have cleared the air between them; and throughout the return journey, both were in the maddest spirits, keeping the whole carriage in an uproar. Afterwards, driving homeward, Roy registered a resolve to spend more of his time on masculine society and the novel; less of it dancing and fooling about in Lahore....
* * * * *
A vision of his table, with its inviting disarray, and the picture of his mother for presiding genius, gave his heart a lift. He promised himself a week of uninterrupted evenings, alone with Terry and his thronging thoughts; when the whole house was still and the reading-lamp made a magic circle of light in the surrounding gloom....
Meantime, there were letters: one from his father, one from Jeffers; and beneath them a too familiar envelope.
At sight of it, he felt a faint tug inside him; as it were a whispered reminder that, away at Kapurthala, he had been about as free as a bird with a string round its leg. He resented the aptness of that degrading simile. It was a new sensation; and he did not relish it. The few women he intimately loved had counted for so much in his life that he scarcely realised his abysmal ignorance of the power that is in woman—the mere opposite of man; the implicit challenge, the potent lure. Partly from temperament, partly from principle, he had kept more or less clear of 'all that'. Now, weaponless, he had rashly entered the lists.
He opened Miss Arden's note feeling antagonistic. But its friendliness disarmed him. She hoped they had enjoyed themselves immensely and slain enough creatures to satisfy their primitive instincts. And her mother hoped Mr Sinclair would dine with them on Wednesday evening: quite a small affair.
His first impulse was to refuse; but her allusion to the slain creatures touched up his conscience. To cap the omission by refusing her invitation might annoy her. No sense in that. So he decided to accept; and sat down to enjoy his home letters at leisure.
Lance, it transpired, had not been asked. He and Barnard were the favoured ones,—and, on the appointed evening, they drove in together. Roy had been writing nearly all day. He had reached a point in his chapter at which a break was distracting. Yet here he was, driving Barnard to Lahore, cursing his luck, and—yes—trying to ignore a flutter of anticipation in the region of his heart....
As far as mere lust of the eye went—and it went a good way with Roy—he had his reward the moment he entered Mrs Elton's overloaded drawing-room. Rose Arden excelled herself in evening dress. The carriage of her head, the curve of her throat, and the admirable line from ear to shoulder made a picture supremely satisfying to his artist's eye.
Her negligible bodice was a filmy affair—ivory white with glints of gold. Her gauzy gold wedding-sash, swathed round her hips, fell in a fringed knot below her knee. Filmy sleeves floated from her shoulders, leaving the arms bare and unadorned, except for one gold bangle, high up—the latest note from Home. For the rest, her rope of amber beads and long earrings only a few tones lighter than her astonishing hazel eyes.
Face to face with her beauty, and her discreetly veiled pleasure at sight of him, he could not be ungracious enough to curse his luck. But his satisfaction cooled at sight of Talbot Hayes by the mantelpiece, inclining his polished angularity to catch some confidential tit-bit from little Mrs Hunter-Ranyard. Of course that fellow would take her in. He, Roy, had no official position now; and without it one was negligible in Anglo-India. Besides, Mrs Elton openly favoured Talbot Hayes. Failing Rose, there were two more prospective brides at Home—twins; and Hayes was fatally endowed with all the surface symptoms of the 'coming man': the supple alertness and self-assurance; the instinct for the right thing; and—supreme asset in these days—a studious detachment from the people and the country. In consequence, needless to say, he remained obstinately sceptical as regards the rising storm.
Very early, Roy had put out feelers to discover how much he understood or cared; and Hayes had blandly assured him: "Bengal may bluster and the D.C. may pessimise, but you can take it from me, there will be no serious upheaval in the North. If ever these people are fools enough to manoeuvre us out of India, so much the worse for them; so much the better for us. It's a beastly country."
Nevertheless Roy observed that he appeared to extract out of the beastly country every available ounce of enjoyment. In affable moments, he could even manage to forget his career—and unbend. He was unbending now.
A few paces off, the dyspeptic Judge was discussing 'the situation' with his host—a large unwieldy man, so nervous of his own bulk and unready wit that only the discerning few discovered the sensitive, friendly spirit very completely hidden under a bushel. Roy, who had liked him at sight, felt vaguely sorry for him. He seemed a fish out of water in his own home; overwhelmed by the florid, assured personality of his wife.
They were the last, of course; nearly five minutes late. Trust Roy. Only four other guests; Dr Ethel Wemyss, M.B., lively and clever and new to the country; Major and Mrs Garten of the Sikhs, with a stolid good-humoured daughter, who unfailingly wore the same frock and the same disarming smile.
The Deputy Commissioner's wife permitted herself few military intimates. But she had come in touch with Mrs Garten over a dhobi's chit and a recipe for pumelo gin. Both women were consumedly Anglo-Indian. All their values were social;—pay, promotion, prestige. All their lamentations pitched in the same key:—everything dearer, servants 'impossible,' hospitality extinct, with every one saving and scraping to get Home. Both were deeply versed in bazaar prices and the sins of native servants. Hence, in due course, a friendship (according to Mrs Ranyard) 'broad based on jharrons and charcoal and kerosene'!
The two were lifting up their voices in unison over the mysterious shortage of kerosene (that arch-sinner Mool Chand said none was coming into the country) when dinner was announced; and Talbot Hayes—inevitably—offered his arm to Miss Arden.
Roy, consigned to Dr Wemyss, could only pray heaven for the next best thing—Miss Arden on his left. Instead, amazedly, he found himself promoted to a seat beside her mother, who still further amazed him by treating him to a much larger share of her attention than the law of the dinner-table prescribed. Her talk, in the main, was local and personal; and Roy simply let it flow; his eyes flagrantly straying down the table towards Miss Arden and Hayes, who seemed very intimate this evening.
Suddenly he found himself talking about Home. It began with gardens. Mrs Elton had a passion for them, as her malis knew to their cost; and the other day a friend had told her that somebody said Mr Sinclair had a lovely place at Home, with a wonderful old garden——?
Mr Sinclair admitted as much, with masculine brevity.
Undeterred, she drew out the sentimental stop:—the charm of a real old English garden! Out here, one only used the word by courtesy. Laborites, of course, were specially favoured; but do what one would, it was never quite the same thing—was it...?
Not quite, Roy agreed amicably—and wondered what the joke was down there. He supposed Miss Arden must have had some say in the geography of the table....
Her mother, meantime, had tacked sail and was probing him, indirectly, about his reasons for remaining in India. Was he going in for politics, or the life of a country gentleman in his beautiful home? Her remarks implied that she took him for the eldest son. And Roy, who had not been attending, realised with a jar that, in vulgar parlance, he was being discreetly pumped. Whereat, politely but decisively, he sheered off and stuck to his partner till the meal was over.
The men seemed to linger interminably over their wine and cigars. But he managed to engage the D.C. on the one subject that put shyness to flight—the problems of changing India. With more than twenty years of work and observation behind him, he saw the widening gulf between rulers and ruled as an almost equal disaster for both. He knew, none better, all that had been achieved, in his own Province alone, for the peasant and the loyal landowner. He had made many friends among the Indians of his district; and from these he had received repeated warnings of widespread, organised rebellion. Yet he was helpless; tied hand and foot in yards of red tape....
It was not the first time that Roy had enjoyed a talk with him; a sense of doors opening on to larger spaces. But this evening restlessness nagged at him; and at the first hint of a move he was on his feet, determined to forestall Hayes.
He succeeded; and Miss Arden welcomed him with the lift of her brows that he was growing to watch for when they met. It seemed to imply a certain intimacy.
"Very brown and vigorous, you're looking. Was it—great fun?"
"It was topping," he answered with simple fervour. "Rare sport. Everything in style."
"And no leisure to miss partners left lamenting? I hope our stars shone the brighter, glorified by distance?"
Her eyes challenged him with smiling deliberation. His own met them full; and a little tingling shock ran through him, as at the touch of an electric needle.
"Some stars are dazzling enough at close quarters," he said boldly.
"But surely—'distance lends enchantment'——?"
"It depends a good deal on the view!"
At that moment, up came Hayes, with his ineffable air of giving a cachet to any one he honoured with his favour. And Miss Arden hailed him, as if they had not met for a week.
Thus encouraged, of course he clung like a limpet; and reverted to some subject they had been discussing, tacitly isolating Roy.
For a few exasperating moments, he stood his ground, counting on bridge to remove the limpet. But when Hayes refused a pressing invitation to join Mrs Ranyard's table, Roy gave it up, and deliberately walked away.
Only Mr Elton remained sitting near the fireplace. His look of undisguised pleasure, at Roy's approach, atoned for a good deal; and they renewed their talk where it had broken off. Roy almost forgot he was speaking to a senior official; freely expressed his own thoughts; and even ventured to comment on the strange detachment of Anglo-Indians, in general, from a land full of such vast and varied interests, lying at their very doors.
"Perhaps—I misjudge them," he added with the unfailing touch of modesty that was not least among his charms. "But to me it sometimes seems as if a curtain hung between their eyes and India. And—it's catching. In some subtle way this little concentrated world, within a world, seems to draw one's receptiveness away from it all. Is that very sweeping, sir?"
A smile dawned in Mr Elton's rather mournful eyes. "In a sense—it's painfully true. But the fact is—Anglo-Indian life can't be fairly judged from the outside. It has to be lived before its insidiousness can be suspected." He moistened his lips and caressed his chin with a large, sensitive hand. "Happily—there are a good many exceptions."
"If I wasn't talking to one of them, sir—I wouldn't have ventured!" said Roy; and the friendly smile deepened.
"All the same," Elton went on, "there are those who assert that it is half the secret of our success; that India conquered the conquerors, who lived with her and so lost their virility. Yet in our earlier days, when the personal touch was a reality, we did achieve a better relation all round. Of course the present state of affairs is the inevitable fruit of our whole system. By the Anglicising process, we have spread all over India a vast layer of minor officials some six million persons deep! Consider, my dear young man, the significance of those figures. We reduce the European staff. We increase the drudgery of their office work—and we wonder why the Sahib and the peasant are no longer personal friends——!"
Stirred by his subject, and warmed by Roy's intelligent interest, the man's nervous tricks disappeared. He spoke eagerly, earnestly, as to an equal in experience; a compliment Roy would have been quicker to appreciate had not half his attention been centred on that exasperating pair, who had retired to a cushioned alcove and looked like remaining there for good.
What the devil had the girl invited him for? If she wished to disillusion him, she was succeeding to admiration. If she fancied he was one of her infernal ninepins, she was very much mistaken. And all the while he found himself growing steadily more distracted, more insistently conscious of her....
Voices and laughter heralded an influx of bridge players; Mrs Ranyard, with Barnard, Miss Garten, and Dr Wemyss. A table of three women and one man did not suit the little lady's taste.
"We're a very scratch lot. And we want fresh blood!" she announced carnivorously, as the pair in the alcove rose and came forward.
The two men rose also, but went on with their talk. They knew it was not their blood Mrs Ranyard was seeking. Roy kept his back turned and studiously refrained from hoping....
"If you two have quite finished breaking up the Empire...?" said Miss Arden's voice at his elbow. She had approached so quietly that he started. Worse still, he knew she had seen. "I was terrified of being caught,"—she turned affectionately to her stepfather—"so I flung Mr Hayes to the wolves—and fled. You're sanctuary!"
Her fingers caressed his sleeve. Words and touch waked a smile in his mournful eyes. They seemed to understand one another, these two. To Roy she had never seemed more charming; and his own abrupt volte-face was unsteadying, to say the least of it.
"Hayes would prove a tough mouthful—even for wolves," Elton remarked pensively.
"He would! He's so securely lacquered over with—well—we won't be unkind. But—strictly between ourselves, Pater—wouldn't you love to swop him for Mr Sinclair, these days?"
"My dear!" Elton reproached her, nervously shifting his large hands. "Hayes is a model—of efficiency! But—well, well—if Mr Sinclair will forgive flattery to his face—I should say he has many fine qualities for an Indian career, should he be inclined that way——"
"Thank you, sir. I'd no notion——" Roy murmured, overwhelmed, as Elton—seeing Miss Garten stranded—moved dutifully to her rescue.
Miss Arden glanced again at Roy. "Are you inclining that way?"
The question took him aback.
"Me? No. Of course I'd love it—for some things."
"You're well out of it, in my opinion. It'll soon be no country for a white man. He's already little more than a futile superfluity——"
"On the contrary," Roy struck in warmly, "the Englishman—of the rightest sort, is more than ever needed in India to-day."
Her slight shrug conceded the point. "I never argue! And if you start on that subject—I'm nowhere! You can save it all up for the Pater. He's rather a dear—don't you think?"
Her smile had its caressing quality. "That's the last adjective any one else would apply to him! But it's true. There's a fine streak in him—very carefully hidden away. People don't see it, because he's shy and clumsy and hasn't an ounce of push. But he understands the natives. Loves them. Goodness knows why. And he's got the right touch. I could tell you a tale——"
"Do!" he urged. "Tales are my pet weakness."
She subsided into the empty chair and looked up invitingly. "Sit," she commanded—and he obeyed.
He was neither saying nor doing the things he had meant to say or do. But the mere beauty of her enthralled him; the alluring grace of her pose, leaning forward a little, bare arms resting on her knees. No vivid colour anywhere except her lips. Those lips, thought Roy, were responsible for a good deal. Their flexible softness discounted more than a little the deliberation of her eyes; and to-night, her charming attitude to Elton appreciably quickened his interest in her and her tale.
"It happened out in the district. I heard it from a friend." She leaned nearer and spoke in a confidential undertone. "He got news that some neighbouring town was in a ferment. Only a handful of Europeans there; an American mission; and no troops. So the 'mish' people begged him to come in and politely wave his official wand. You must be very polite to badmashes these days, if you're a mere Sahib; or you hear of it from some little Tin God sitting safe in his office, hundreds of miles away. Well, off he went—a twenty-mile drive; found the mission in a flutter—I don't blame them—armed with rifles and revolvers; expecting-every-moment-to-be-their-next sort of thing; and the town in an uproar. Some religious tamasha. He talked like a father to the headmen; and assured the 'mish' people it would be all right.
"They begged him to stay and see them through. So he said he would sleep at the dak bungalow. 'All alone?' they asked. 'No one to guard you?' 'Quite unnecessary,' he said:—and they were simply amazed!
"It was rather hot; so he had his bed put in the garden. Then he sent for the leading men and said: 'I hear there's a disturbance going on. I don't intimate you have anything to do with it. But you are responsible; and I expect you to keep the people in hand. I'm sleeping here to-night. If there is trouble, you can report to me. But it is for you to keep order in your own town.'
"They salaamed and departed. No one came near him. And he drove off next morning, leaving those Americans, with their rifles and revolvers, more amazed than ever! I was told it made a great impression on the natives, his sleeping alone in the garden, without so much as a sentry. And the cream of it is," she added—her eyes on Elton's unheroic figure—"the man who could do that is terrified of walking across a ballroom or saying polite things to a woman!"
Distinctly, to-night, she was in a new vein, more attractive to Roy than all her feminine crafts and lures. Sitting, friendly and at ease over the fire, they discussed human idiosyncrasies—a pet subject with him.
Then, suddenly, she looked him in the eyes;—and he was aware of her again, in the old disturbing way.
Yet she was merely remarking, with a small sigh, "You can't think how refreshing it is to get a little real talk sometimes with a cultivated man who is neither a soldier nor a civilian. Even in a big station, we're so boxed in with 'shop' and personalities. The men are luckier. They can escape now and then; shake off the women as one shakes off burrs——!"
Another glance here; half sceptical, wholly captivating.
"It's easier said than done," admitted Roy, recalling his own partial failure.
"Charming of you to confess it! Dare I confess that I've found the Hall and the tennis rather flat these few days—without imperilling your phenomenal modesty?"
"I think you dare." It was he who looked full at her now. "My modesty badly needs bucking up—this evening."
Her feigned surprise was delicately done. "What a shame! Who's been snubbing you? Our clever M.B.?"
"Not at all. You've got the initials wrong."
"Did it hurt your feelings—as much as all that?" She dropped the flimsy pretence and her eyes proffered apology.
"Well—you invited me."
"And mother invited Mr Hayes! The fact is—he's been rather in evidence these few days. And one can't flick him off like an ordinary mortal. He's a 'coming man'!" She folded hands and lips and looked deliciously demure. "All the same—it was unkind. You were so unhappy at dinner. I could feel it all that way off. Be magnanimous and come for a ride to-morrow—do."
And Roy—the detached, the disillusioned—accepted with alacrity.
[Footnote 19: Washerman.]
[Footnote 20: Dusters.]
[Footnote 21: Gardener.]
[Footnote 22: Bad characters.]
"For every power, a man pays toll in a corresponding weakness; and probably the artist pays heaviest of all."—M.P. WILLCOCKS.
It was the morning of the great Gymkhana, to be followed by the Bachelors' Ball. For Lahore's unfailing social energy was not yet spent; though Depot troops had gone to the Hills, and the leave season was open, releasing a fortunate few; leaving the rest to fretful or stoical endurance of the stealthy, stoking-up process of a Punjab hot-weather. And the true inwardness of those three words must be burned into body and brain, season after season, to be even remotely understood.
Already earth and air were full of whispered warnings. Roses and sweet-peas were fading. Social life was virtually suspended between twelve and two, the 'calling hours' of the cold weather; and at sunset the tree-crickets shrilled louder than ever—careless heralds of doom. Human tempers were shorter; and even the night did not now bring unfailing relief.
Roy had been sleeping badly again; partly the heat, partly the clash of sensations within him. This morning, after hours of tossing and dozing and dreaming—not the right kind of dreams at all,—he was up and out before sunrise, forsaking the bed that betrayed him for the saddle that never failed to bring a measure of respite from the fever of body and mind that was stultifying, insidiously, his reason and his will.
Still immersed in his novel, he had come up to Lahore heart-free, purpose-free; vaguely aware that virtue had gone out of him; looking forward to a few weeks of careless enjoyment, between spells of work; and above all, to the 'high old time' he and Lance would have together beyond Kashmir. Women and marriage were simply not in the picture. His attitude to that inevitable event was, on his own confession—'not yet.' Possibly, when he got Home, he might discover it was Tara, after all. It would need some courage to propose again. For the memory of that juvenile fiasco still pricked his sensitive pride. A touch of the Rajput came out there. Letters from Serbia seemed to dawdle unconscionably by the way. But, in leisurely course, he had received an answer to his screed about Dyan and the quest; a letter alive with all he loved best in her—enthusiasm, humour, vivid sympathy, deepened and enlarged by experiences that could not yet be told. But Tara was far and Miss Arden was near; and, in the mysterious workings of sex magnetism, mere propinquity too often prevails.
And all the others seemed farther still. They wrote regularly, affectionately. Yet their letters—especially his father's—seemed to tell precious little of the things he really wanted to know. Perhaps his own had been more reserved than he realised. There had been so much at Jaipur and Delhi that he could not very well enlarge upon. No use worrying the dear old man; and she, who had linked them, unfailingly, was now seldom mentioned between them.
So there grew up in Roy a disconsolate feeling that none of them cared very much whether he came Home or not. Jerry—after three years in a German prison—was a nervous wreck; still undergoing treatment; humanly lost, for the time being. Tiny was absorbed in her husband and an even Tinier baby, called Nevil Le Roy, after himself. Tara was not yet home; but coming before long, because Aunt Helen had broken down, between war work and the shock of Atholl's death.
A queer thing—separation, mused Roy, as Suraj slowed down to a walk and the glare of morning flamed along the sky. There were they—and here was he: close relations, in effect; almost strangers in fact. There was more between him and them than several hundred miles of sea. There was the bottomless gulf of the War; the gulf of his bitter grief and the slow climb up from the depths to Pisgah heights of revelation. Impossible to communicate—even had he willed—those inner, vital experiences at Chitor and Jaipur. And he had certainly neither will nor power to enlarge on his present turmoil of heart and mind.
Since his ride with Rose Arden, after the dinner-party, things seemed to have taken a new turn. Their relation was no longer tentative. She seemed tacitly to regard him as her chosen cavalier; and he, as tacitly, fell in with the arrangement. No denying he felt flattered a little; subjugated increasingly by a spell he could neither analyse nor resist, because he had known nothing quite like it before. He was, in truth, paying the penalty for those rare and beautiful years of early manhood inspired by worship of his mother. For every virtue, every gift, the gods exact a price. And he was paying it now. Deep down within him, something tugged against that potent spell. Yet increasingly it prevailed and lured him from his work. The vivid beings of his brain were fading into bloodless unrealities; in which state he could do nothing with them. Yet Broome's encouragement, and his father's critical appreciation of fragments lately sent Home, had fired him to fulfil—more than fulfil—their expectations. And now—here he was tripped up again by his all-too-human capacity for emotion—as at Jaipur.
The comparison jerked him. The two experiences, like the two women, had almost nothing in common. The charm of Aruna—with its Eastern mingling of the sensuous and spiritual—was a charm he intimately understood. It combined a touch of the earth with a rarefied touch of the stars. In Rose Arden, so far, he had discovered no touch of the stars. She suggested, rather, a day in early summer, when warmth and fragrance and colour permeate soul and body; keeping them delectably in thrall; wooing the brain from irksome queries—why, whence, whither?
By now, the sheer fascination of her had entered in and saturated his being to a degree that he vaguely resented. Always one face, one voice, intruding on him unsought. No respite from thought of her, from desire of her; the exquisite intolerable ache, at times, when she was present with him; the still more intolerable ache when she was not.
The fluidity of his own dual nature, and recoil from the Aruna temptation, inclined him peculiarly to idealise the clear-eyed, self-poised Western qualities so diversely personified in Lance and this compelling girl. Yet emphatically he did not love her. He knew the great reality too well to delude himself on that score. Were these the authentic signs of falling 'in love'? If so—in spite of rapturous moments—it was a confoundedly uncomfortable state of being....
Where was she leading him—this beautiful, distracting girl, who said so little, yet whose smiles and silences implied so much? There was no forwardness or free-and-easiness about her; yet instinctively he recognised her as the active agent in the whole affair. Twice, lately, he had resolved not to go near her again; and both times he had failed ignominiously—he who prided himself on control of unruly emotions...!
Had Lance, he wondered, made the same resolve and managed to keep it—being Lance? Or was the Gymkhana momentarily the stronger magnet of the two? He and Paul, with a Major in the Monmouths, were chief organisers; and much practice was afoot at tent-pegging, bare-back horsemanship, and the like. For a week Lance had scarcely been into Lahore. When Roy pressed him, he said it was getting too hot for afternoon dancing. But as he still affected far more violent forms of exercise, that excuse was not particularly convincing.
By way of retort, he had rallied Roy on overdoing the tame-cat touch and neglecting the important novel. And Roy—wincing at the truth of that friendly flick—had replied no less truthfully: "Well, if it hangs fire, old chap, you're the sinner. You dug me out of Paradise by twitting me with becoming an appendage to a pencil! Another month at Udaipur would have nearly pulled me through it—in the rough, at least."
It was lightly spoken; but Lance had set his lips in a fashion Roy knew well; and said no more.
Altogether, he seemed to have retired into a shell out of which he refused to be drawn. They were friendly as ever, but distinctly less intimate; and Roy felt vaguely responsible, yet powerless to put things straight. For intimacy—in its essence a mutual impulse—cannot be induced to order. If one spoke of Miss Arden, or doings in Lahore, Lance would respond without enthusiasm, and unobtrusively change the subject. Roy could only infer that his interest in the girl had never gone very deep and had now fizzled out altogether. But he would have given a good deal to feel sure that the fizzling out had no connection with his own appearance on the scene. It bothered him to remember that, at first, in an odd, repressed fashion Lance had seemed unmistakably keen. But if he would persist in playing the Trappist monk, what the devil was a fellow to do?
Even over the Gymkhana programme, there had been an undercurrent of friction. Lance—in his new vein—had wanted to keep the women out of it; while Roy—in his new vein—couldn't keep at least one of them out, if he tried. In particular, both were keen about the Cockade Tournament: a glorified version of fencing on horseback: the wire masks adorned with a small coloured feather for plume. He was victor whose fencing-stick detached his opponent's feather. The prize—Bachelor's Purse—had been well subscribed for and supplemented by Gymkhana funds. So, on all accounts, it was a popular event. There were twenty-two names down; and Roy, in a romantic impulse, had proposed making a real joust of it; each knight to wear a lady's favour; a Queen of Beauty and Love to be chosen for the prize-giving, as in the days of chivalry.
Lance had rather hotly objected; and a few inveterate bachelors had backed him up. But the bulk of men are sentimental at heart; none more than the soldier. So Roy's idea had caught on, and the matter was settled. There was little doubt who would be chosen for prize-giver; and scarcely less doubt whose favour Roy would wear.
Desmond's flash of annoyance had been brief; but he had stipulated that favours should not be compulsory. If they were, he for one would 'scratch.' This time he had a larger backing; and, amid a good deal of chaff and laughter, had carried his point.
That open clash between them—slight though it was—had jarred Roy a good deal. Lance, characteristically, had ignored the whole thing.
But not even the inner jar could blunt Roy's keen anticipation of the whole affair. Miss Arden was his partner in one of the few mixed events. He was to wear her favour for the Tournament—a Marechal Mel rose; and, infatuated as he was, he saw it for a guarantee of victory....
In view of that intoxicating possibility, nothing else mattered inordinately, at the moment: though there reposed in his pocket a letter from Dyan—with a Delhi post-mark—giving a detailed account of serious trouble caused by the recent hartal: all shops closed; tram-cars and gharris held up by threatening crowds; helpless passengers forced to proceed on foot in the blazing heat and dust; troops and police violently assaulted; till a few rounds of buckshot cooled the ardour of ignorant masses, doubtless worked up to concert pitch by wandering agitators of the Chandranath persuasion.
"There were certain Swamis," he concluded, "trying to keep things peaceful. But they ought to know resistance cannot be passive or peaceful; and excitement without understanding is a fire difficult to quench. I believe this explosion was premature; but there is lots more gunpowder lying about, only waiting for the match. I am taking Aruna into the Hills for a pilgrimage. It is possible Grandfather may come too; we are hoping to start soon after the fifteenth, if things keep quiet. Write to me, Roy, telling all you know. Lahore is a hotbed for trouble; Amritsar, worse; but I hope your authorities are keeping well on their guard."
From all Roy heard, there seemed good reason to believe they were;—in so far as a Home policy of Government by concession would permit. But well he knew that—in the East—if the ruling power discards action for argument, and uses the sceptre for a walking-stick—things happen to men and women and children on the spot. He also knew that, to England's great good fortune, there were usually men on the spot who could be relied on, in an emergency, to think and act and dare in accordance with the high tradition of their race.
He hoped devoutly it might not come to that; but at the core of hope lurked a flicker of fear....
[Footnote 23: Abstention as sign of mourning.]
"Her best is bettered with a more delight."—SHAKSPERE.
The great Gymkhana was almost over. The last event—bare-back feats of horsemanship—had been an exciting affair; a close contest between Lance and Roy and an Indian Cavalry officer. But it was Roy who had carried the day, by his daring and dexterity in the test of swooping down and snatching a handkerchief from the ground at full gallop. The ovation he received went to his head like champagne. But praise from Lance went to his heart; for Lance, like himself, had been 'dead keen' on this particular event. He had carried off a tent-pegging cup, however; and appropriately won the V.C. race. So Roy considered he had a right to his triumph; especially as the handkerchief in question had been proffered by Miss Arden. It was reposing in his breast pocket now; and he had a good mind not to part with it. He was feeling in the mood to dare, simply for the excitement of the thing. He and she had won the Gretna Green race—hands down. He further intended—for her honour and his own glory—to come off victor in the Cockade Tournament, in spite of the fact that fencing on horseback was one of Lance's specialities. He had taught Roy in Mesopotamia, during those barren, plague-ridden stretches of time when the war seemed hung up indefinitely and it took every ounce of surplus optimism to keep going at all.
Roy's hope was that some other man might knock Lance out; or—as teams would be decided by lot—that luck might cast them together. For the ache of compunction was rather pronounced this afternoon; perhaps because the good fellow's aloofness from the grand shamianah was also rather pronounced, considering....
He seemed always to be either out in the open, directing events, or very much engaged in the refreshment tent—an earthly Paradise, on this blazing day of early April, to scores of dusty, thirsty, indefatigable men.
Between events, as now, the place was thronged. Every moment, fresh arrivals shouting for 'drinks.' Every moment the swish of a syphon, the popping of corks; ginger-beer and lemonade for Indian officers, seated just outside, and permitted by caste rules to refresh themselves 'English-fashion,' provided they drank from the pure source of the bottle. Not a Sikh or Rajput of them all would have sullied his caste-purity by drinking from the tumbler used by some admired Sahib, for whom on service he would cheerfully lay down his life. Within the tent were a few—very few—more advanced beings, who had discarded all irksome restrictions and would sooner be shot than address a white man as 'Sahib.' Such is India in transition; a welter of incongruities, of shifting perilous uncertainties, of subterranean ferment beneath a surface that still appears very much as it has always been.
Roy—observant and interested as usual—saw, in the brilliant gathering, all the outward and visible signs of security, stability, power. Let those signs be shaken never so little, thought he—and the heavens would fall. But, in spite of grave news from Delhi—that might prove a prelude to eruption—not a ripple stirred on the face of the waters. The grand shamianah was thronged with lively groups of women and men in the lightest of light attire. A British band was enlivening the interlude with musical comedy airs. Stewards were striding about looking important, issuing orders for the next event. And around them all—as close as boundary flags and police would allow—thronged the solid mass of onlookers: soldiers, sepoys, and sowars from every regiment in cantonments; minor officials with their families; ponies and saises and dogs without number; all wedged in by a sea of brown faces and bobbing turbans, thousands of them twenty or thirty deep.
Roy's eyes, travelling from that vast outer ring to the crowded tent, suddenly saw the whole scene as typical of Anglo-Indian life: the little concentrated world of British men and women, pursuing their own ends, magnificently unmindful of alien eyes—watching, speculating, misunderstanding at every turn; the whole heterogeneous mass drawn and held together by the love of hazard and sport, the spirit of competition without strife that is the corner-stone of British character and the British Empire.
He had just been talking to a C.I.D. man, who had things to say about subterranean rumblings that might have startled those laughing, chaffing groups of men and women. Too vividly his imagination pictured the scenes at Delhi, while his eyes scanned the formidable depths of alien humanity hemming them in, outnumbering them by thousands to one. What if all those friendly faces became suddenly hostile—if the laughter and high-pitched talk changed to the roar of an angry crowd...?
He shook off the nightmare feeling, rating himself for a coward. Yet he knew it was not fantastical, not even improbable; though most of the people around him, till they saw with their own eyes, and heard with their own ears, would not believe....
But thoughts so unsettling were out of place, in the midst of a Gymkhana with the grand climax imminent. So—having washed the dust out of his throat—he sauntered across to the other tent to snatch a few words with Miss Arden and secure his rose. It had been given to one of the 'kits,' who would put it in water and produce it on demand. For the affair of the favours was to be a private affair. Miss Arden, however, in choosing a Marechal Niel, tacitly avowed him her knight. Lance would know. All their set would know. He supposed she realised that. She was not an accidental kind of person. And she had a natural gift for flattery of the delicate, indirect order.
No easy matter to get near her again, once you left her side. As usual, she was surrounded by men; easily the Queen of Beauty and of Love. In honour of that high compliment, she wore her loveliest race gown; soft shades of blue and green skilfully blended; and a close-fitting hat bewitchingly framed her face. Nearing the tent, Roy felt a sudden twinge of apprehension. Where were they drifting to—he and she? Was he prepared to bid her good-bye in a week or ten days, and possibly not set eyes on her again? Would she let him go without a pang, and start afresh with some chance-met fellow in Simla? The idea was detestable; and yet...?
Half irritably he dismissed the intrusive thought. The glamour of her so dazzled him that he could see nothing else clearly.
Perhaps that was why he failed to escape Mrs Hunter-Ranyard, who skilfully annexed him in passing, and rained compliments on his embarrassed head. Fine horsemanship was common enough in India; but anything more superb——! Wide blue eyes and extravagant gesture expressively filled the blank.
"My heart was in my mouth! That handkerchief trick is so thrilling. You all looked as if you must have your brains knocked out the next moment——"