"The editor of the Chronicle?" Hilda asked with diffident dignity, and very well informed to the contrary.
"Not the editor—I am sorry to say." The confession was delightfully vivid—in the plentitude of his candour it was plain that he didn't care who knew that he was sorry he was not the editor. "In journalistic parlance the sub-editor," he added. "Will you be seated, Miss Howe?" and with a tasteful silk pocket handkerchief he whisked the bottom of a chair for her.
"Then you are Mr. Molyneux Sinclair," Hilda declared. "You have been pointed out to me on several first nights. Oh, I know very well where the Chronicle seats are!"
Mr. Sinclair bowed with infinite gratification and tucked the silk handkerchief back so that only a fold was visible. "We members of the Fourth Estate are fairly well known, I'm afraid, in Calcutta," he said. "Personally, I could sometimes wish it were otherwise. But certainly not in this instance."
Hilda gave him a gay little smile. "I suppose the editor," she said, with a casual glance about the room, "is hammering out his leader for to-morrow's paper. Does he write half and do you write half, or how do you manage?"
A seriousness overspread Mr. Sinclair's countenance, which he nevertheless irradiated, as if he could not help it, with beaming eyes. "Ah, those are the secrets of the prison-house, Miss Howe. Unfortunately, it is not etiquette for me to say in what proportion I contribute the leading articles of the Chronicle. But I can tell you in confidence that if it were not for the editor's prejudices—rank prejudices—it would be a good deal larger."
"Ah, his prejudices! Why not be quite frank, Mr. Sinclair, and say that he is just a little tiny bit jealous of his staff. All editors are, you know." Miss Howe shook her head in philosophical deprecation of the peccadillo, and Mr. Sinclair cast a smiling, embarrassed glance at his smart brown leather boot. The glance was radiant with what he couldn't tell her as a sub-editor of honour about those cruel prejudices, but he gave it no other medium.
"I'm afraid you know the world, Miss Howe," he said, with a noble reserve, and that was all.
"A corner of it here and there. But you are responsible for the whole of the dramatic criticism"—Hilda charged him roundly—"the editor can't claim any of that."
An inquiring brown face under an embroidered cap appeared at the door; a brown hand thrust in a bunch of printed slips. Mr. Sinclair motioned both away, and they vanished in silence.
"That I can't deny," he said. "It would be useless if I wished to do so—my style betrays me—I must plead guilty. It is not one of my legitimate duties—if I held this position on the Times or, say, the Daily Telegraph, our London contemporaries, it would not be required of me. But in this country everything is piled upon the sub-editor. Many a night, Miss Howe, I send down the last slips of a theatre notice at midnight and am here in this chair"—Mr. Sinclair brought his open palm down upon the arm of it—"by eleven the following day!" Mr. Sinclair's chin was thrust passionately forward, moisture dimmed the velvety brightness of those eyes which, in more dramatic moments, he confessed to have inherited from a Nawab great grandfather. "But I don't complain," he said, and drew in his chin. It seemed to bring his argument to a climax over which he looked at Hilda in warm, frank expansion.
"Overworked, too, I dare say," she said, and then went on a trifle hurriedly: "Well, I must tell you, Mr. Sinclair, how kind your criticism always is, and how much I personally appreciate it. None of the little points and effects one tries to make seem to escape you, and you are always generous in the matter of space too."
Molyneux impartially slapped his leg. "I believe in it!" he exclaimed. "Honour where honour is due, Miss Howe, and the Stanhope Company has given me some very enjoyable evenings. And you'll hardly believe me, but it is a fact, I assure you; I seldom get a free hand with those notices. Suicidal to the interests of the paper as it is, the editor insists as often as not on cutting down my theatre copy!"
"Cuts it down, does he? The brute!" said Miss Howe.
"I've known him sacrifice a third of it for an indigo market report. Now, I ask you, who reads an indigo market report? Nobody. Who wants to know how Jimmy Finnigan's—how the Stanhope Company's latest novelties went off? Everybody. Of course, when he does that sort of thing, I make it warm for him next morning."
The door again opened and admitted a harassed little Babu in spectacles, bearing a sheaf of proof slips, who advanced timidly into the middle of the room and paused.
"In a few minutes, Babu," said Mr. Sinclair; "I am engaged."
"It iss the Council isspeech of the Legal Member, sir, and it iss to go at five p. m. to his house for last correction."
"Presently, Babu. Don't interrupt. As I was saying, Miss Howe, I make it warm for him till he apologises. I must say he always apologises, and I don't often ask more than that. But I was obliged to tell him the last time that if it happened again one of us would have to go."
"What did he say to that?"
"I don't exactly remember. But it had a tremendous effect—tremendous. We became good friends almost immediately."
"Quite so. We miss you when you don't come, Mr. Sinclair—last Saturday night, for example."
"I had to go to the Surprise Party. Jimmy came here with tears in his eyes that morning. 'My show is tumbling to pieces,' he said. 'Sinclair, you've got to come to-night.' Made me dine with him—wouldn't let me out of his sight. We had to send a reporter to you and Llewellyn that night."
"Mr. Sinclair, the notice made me weep."
"I know. All that about the costumes. But what can you expect? The man is as black as your hat."
"We have to buy our own costumes," said Hilda, with a glance at the floor, "and we haven't any too much, you know, to do it on."
"The toilettes in Her Second Son were simply magnificent. Not to be surpassed on the boards of the Lyceum in tasteful design or richness of material. They were ne plus ultra!" cried Mr. Sinclair. "You will remember I said so in my critique."
"I remember. If I were you I wouldn't go so far another time. There's a lot of cotton velvet and satin about it, you know, between ourselves, and Finnigan's people will be getting the laugh on us. That's one of the things I wanted to mention. Don't be quite so good to us. See? Otherwise—well, you know how Calcutta talks, and what a pretty girl Beryl Stacey is, for example. Mrs. Sinclair mightn't like it, and I don't blame her."
"As I said before, Miss Howe, you know the world."
Mr. Sinclair replied with infinite mellow humour, and as Miss Howe had risen, he rose too, pulling down his waistcoat.
"There was just one other thing," Hilda said, holding out her hand. "Next Wednesday, you know, Rosa Norton takes her benefit. Rosy's as well known here as the Ochterlony monument; she's been coming every cold weather for ten years, poor old Rosy. Don't you think you could do her a bit of an interview for Wednesday's paper? She'll write up very well—get her on variety entertainments in the Australian bush."
Mr. Molyneux Sinclair looked pained to hesitate. "Personally," he said, confidentially, "I should like it immensely, and I dare say I could get it past the editor. But we're so short-handed."
Miss Howe held up a forefinger which seemed luminous with solution. "Don't you bother," she said, "I'll do it for you; I'll write it myself. My 'prentice hand I'll try on Rosy, and you shall have the result ready to print on Tuesday morning. Will that do?"
That would do supremely. Mr. Sinclair could not conceal the admiration he felt for such a combination of talents. He did not try; he accompanied it to the door, expanding and expanding until it seemed more than ever obvious that he found the sub-editorial sphere unreasonably contracted. Hilda received his final bow from the threshold of what he called his "sanctum," and had hardly left the landing in descent when a square-headed, collarless, red-faced male in shirt-sleeves came down, descending, as it seemed, in bounds from parts above. "Damn it, Sinclair," she heard as he shot into the apartment she had left, "here's the whole council-meeting report set up and waiting three-quarters of an hour—press blocked; and the printer-Babu says he can get nothing out of you. What the devil.... If the dak's missed again, by thunder!... paid to converse with itinerant females ... seven columns ... infernal idiocy."
[Footnote 7: Country post.]
Hilda descended in safety and at leisure, reflecting with some amusement as she made her way down that Mr. Sinclair was doubtless waiting until his lady visitor was well out of earshot to make it warm for the editor.
I find myself wondering whether Calcutta would have found anything very exquisitely amusing in the satisfactions which exchanged themselves between Mr. Llewellyn Stanhope's leading lady and the Reverend Stephen Arnold, had if been aware of them, and I conclude reluctantly that it would not. Reluctantly because such imperviousness argues a lack of perception, of flair, in directions which any continental centre would recognise as vastly tickling, regrettable in a capital of such vaunted sophistication as that which sits beside the Hooghly. It may as well be shortly admitted, however, that to stir Calcutta's sense of comedy you must, for example, attempt to corner, by shortsightedness or faulty technical equipment, a civet cat in a jackal hunt, or, coming out from England to assume official duties, you must take a larger view of your dignities than the clubs are accustomed to admit. For the sex that does not hunt jackals it is easier—you have only to be a little frivolous and Calcutta will invent for you the most side-shaking nickname, as in the case of three ladies known in a viceroyalty of happy legend as the World, the Flesh and the Devil. I should be sorry to give the impression that Calcutta is therefore a place of gloom. The source of these things is perennial, and the noise of laughter is ever in the air of the Indian capital. Between the explosions, however, it is natural enough that the affairs of a priest of College street and an actress of no address at all should slip unnoticed, especially as they did not advertise it. Stephen mostly came, on afternoons when there was no rehearsal, to tea. He, Stephen, had a perception of contrasts which answered fairly well the purposes of a sense of humour, and nobody could question hers; it operated obscurely to keep them in the house.
She told him buoyantly once or twice that he had been sent to her to take the place of Duff Lindsay, who had fallen to the snare of beauty, although she mentioned herself that he took it with a difference, a vast temperamental difference which she was aware of not having yet quite sounded. The depths of his faith, of course—there she could only scan and hesitate, but this was a brink upon which she did not often find herself, away from which, indeed, he sometimes gently guided her. The atmospheres of their talk were the more bracing ones of this world, and it was here that Hilda looked when she would make him a parallel for Lindsay, and here that she found her measure of disappointment. He warmed himself and dried his wings in the opulence of her spirit, and she was not, on the whole, the poorer by any exchange they made, but she was sometimes pricked to the reflection that the freemasonry between them was all hers, and the things she said to him had still the flavour of adventure. She found herself inclined—and the experience was new—to make an effort for a reward which was problematical and had to be considered in averages, a reward put out in a thin and hesitating hand under a sacerdotal robe, with a curious, concentrated quality and a strange flavour of incense and the air of cold churches. There was also the impression—was it too fantastic—of words carried over a medium, an invisible wire which brought the soul of them and left the body by the way. Duff Lindsay, so eminently responsive and calculable, came running with open arms; in his rejoiceful eye-beam one saw almost a midwife to one's idea. But the comparison was subtly irritating, and after a time she turned from it. She awoke once in the night, moreover, to declare to the stars that she was less worried by the consideration of Arnold's sex than she would have thought it possible to be—one hardly paused to consider that he was a man at all; a reflection which would certainly not have occurred to her about poor dear Duff. With regard to Stephen Arnold, it was only, of course, another way of saying that she was less oppressed, in his company, by the consideration of her own. Perhaps it is already evident that this was her grievance with life, when the joy of if left her time to think of a grievance, the attraction of her personal curves, the reason of the hundred fetiches her body claimed of her and found her willing to perform: the fact that it meant more to her, for all her theories, that she should be looking her best when she got up in the morning than was justifiable from any point of view except the biological. She had no heroic quarrel with these conditions—her experience had not been upon that plan—but she bemoaned them with sincerity as too fundamental, too all-pervading; one came upon them at every turn, grinning in their pretty chains. It was absurd, she construed, that a world of mankind and womankind with vastly interesting possibilities should be so essentially subjected to a single end. So primitive, it was, she argued in her vivid candour, and so interfering—so horribly interfering! Personally she did not see herself one of the fugitive half of the race; she had her defences; but the necessity of using them was matter for complaint when existence might have been so delightful a boon without it, full of affinities and communities in every direction. She had not, I am convinced, any of the notions of a crusader upon this popular subject, nor may I portray her either shocked or revolted, only rather bored, being a creature whom it was unkind to hamper; and she would have explained quite in these simple terms the reason why Stephen Arnold's saving neutrality of temperament was to her a pervasive charm of his society.
She had not yet felt at liberty to tell him that she could not classify him, that she had never known any one like him before; and there was in this no doubt a vague perception that the confession showed a limitation of experience on her part for which he might be inclined to call her to account, since cultured young Oxonians with an altruistic bias, if they do not exactly abound, are still often enough to be discovered if one happens to belong to the sphere which they haunt, they and their ideals. Not that any such consideration led her to gloss or to minimise the disabilities of her own. She sat sometimes in gravest wonder, pinching her lips, and watched the studiously modified interest of his glance following her into its queer by-ways—her sphere's—full of spangles and lime-light, and the first-class hysteria of third-class rival artistry. There was a fascination in bringing him out of his remoteness near to those things, a speculation worth making as to what he might do. This remained ungratified, for he never did anything. He only let it appear by the most indefinite signs possible that he saw what she saw, peering over his paling, and she in the picturesque tangle outside found it enough.
He was there when she came back from the Chronicle office, patient under the blue umbrellas; he had brought her a book, and they had told him she would not be long in returning. He had gone so far as to order tea for her, and it was waiting with him. "Make it," she commanded; "why haven't you had some already?" and while he bent over the battered Britannia metal spout she sank into the nearest seat and let her hat make a frame for her face against the back of it. She was too tired, she said, to move, and her hands lay extended, one upon each arm of her chair, with the air of being left there to be picked up at her convenience. Arnold, over the tea-pot, agreed that walking in Calcutta was an insidious pleasure—one gathered a lassitude—and brought her cup. She looked at him for an instant as she took it.
"But I am not too tired to hear what you have on your mind," she said. "Have Kally Nath Mitter's relations prevailed over his convictions? Won't your landlord let you have your oratory on the roof after all?"
"You get these things so out of perspective," Stephen said, "that I don't think I should tell you if they were so. But they're not. Kally Nath is to be baptised to-morrow. We are certain to get our oratory."
"I am very glad," Hilda interrupted. "When one prays for so long a time together it must be better to have fresh air. It will certainly be better for Brother Colquhoun. He seems to have such a weak chest."
"It will be better for us all." Arnold seemed to reflect, across his tea-cup, how much better it would be. Then he added, "I saw Lindsay last night."
"I think it is perfectly hopeless. I think he is making way."
"Sickening! I hoped you would not speak to him again. After all—another man—it's naturally of no use!"
"I spoke as a priest!"
"Did he swear at you?"
"Oh dear no! He was rather sympathetic. And I went very far. But I could get him to see nothing—to feel nothing."
"How far did you go?"
"I told him that she was consecrated, that he proposed to commit sacrilege. He seemed to think he could make it up to her."
"If anyone else had said that to me I should have laughed—you don't suspect the irony in it," Hilda said. "Pray who is to make it up to him?"
"I suppose there is that point of view."
"I should think so, indeed! But taking it, I despair with you. I had her here the other day and tried to make the substance of her appear before him. I succeeded, too—he gave me the most uncomfortable looks—but I might as well have let it alone. The great purpose of nature," Hilda went on, putting down her cup, "reasonable beings in their normal state would never lend themselves to. So she invents these temporary insanities. And therein is nature cruel, for they might just as well be permanent. That's a platitude, I know," she added, "but it's irresistibly suggested."
Stephen looked with some fixedness at a point on the other side of the room. The platitude brought him, by some process of inversion, the vision of a drawing-room in Addison gardens, occupied by his mother and sisters, engaged with whatever may be Kensington's substitutes at the moment for the spinet and the tambour frame; and he had a disturbed sense that they might characterise such a statement differently, if, indeed, they would consent to characterise it at all. He looked at the wall as if, being a solid and steadfast object, it might correct the qualm—it was really something like that—which the wide sweep of her cynicism brought him.
"From what he told me last week I thought we shouldn't see it. He seemed determined enough, but depressed and not hopeful. I fancied she was being upheld—I thought she would easily pull through. Indeed, I wasn't sure that there was any great temptation. Somebody must be helping him."
"The Devil, no doubt," Hilda replied, concisely; "and with equal certainty, Miss Alicia Livingstone."
Arnold gave her a look of surprise. "Surely not my cousin!" he protested. "She can't understand."
"Oh, I beg of you, don't speak to her! I think she understands. I think she's only too tortuously intelligent."
Stephen kept an instant of nervous silence. "May I ask——?" he began formally.
"Oh, yes! It is almost an indecent thing to say of anyone so exquisitely self-contained, but your cousin is very much in love with Mr. Lindsay herself. It seems almost a liberty, doesn't it, to tell you such a thing about a member of your family?" she went on, at Arnold's blush; "but you asked me, you know. And she is making it her ecstatic agony to bring this precious union about. I think she is taking a kindergarten method with the girl—having her there constantly, and showing her little scented, luxurious bits of what she is so possessed to throw away. People in Alicia's condition have no sense of immorality."
"That makes it all the more painful," said Arnold; but the interest in his tone was a little remote, and his gesture, too, which was not quite a shrug, had a relegating effect upon any complication between Alicia and Lindsay. He sat for a moment without saying more, covering his eyes with his hand.
"Why should you care so much?" Hilda asked gently. "You are at the very antipodes of her sect. You can't endorse her methods—you don't trust her results."
"Oh, all that! It's of the least consequence." He spoke with a curious, governed impulse coming from beneath his shaded eyes. "It's seeing another ideal pulled down, gone under, something that held, as best it could, a ray from the source. It's another glimpse of the strength of the tide—terrible. It's a cruel hint that one lives above it in the heaven of one's own hopes, by some mere blind accident. To have set one's feeble hand to the spiritualising of the world, and to feel the possibility of that——"
"I see," said Hilda, and perhaps she did. But his words oppressed her. She got up with a movement which almost shook them off, and went to a promiscuous looking-glass to remove her hat. She was refreshed and vivified—she wanted to talk of the warm world. She let a decent interval elapse, however; she waited till he took his hand from his eyes. Even then, to make the transition easier, she said, "You ought to be lifted up to-day, if you are going to baptise Kally Nath to-morrow."
"The Brother Superior will do it. And I don't know—I don't know. The young woman he is to marry withdraws, I believe, if he comes over to us——"
"The young woman he is to marry! Oh, my dear and reverend friend! Avec ces gens la! I have had a most amusing afternoon," she went on, quickly. "I have taken off my hat, now let me remove your halo." She was safe with her conceit; Arnold would always smile at any imputation of saintship. He held himself a person of broad indulgences, and would point openly to his consumption of tea cakes. But this afternoon a miasm hung over him. Hilda saw it and bent herself, with her graphic recital, to dispel it, perceived it thicken and settle down upon him, and went bravely on to the end. Mr. Macandrew and Mr. Molyneux Sinclair lived and spoke before him. It was comedy enough, in essence, to spread over a matinee.
"And that is the sort of thing you store up and value," he said, when she had finished. "These persons will add to your knowledge of life."
"Extremely," she replied to all of it.
"I suppose they will in their measure. But personally I could wish you had not gone. Your work has no right to make such demands."
"Be reasonable," she said, flushing. "Don't talk as if personal dignity were within the reach of everybody. It's the most expensive of privileges. And nothing to be so very proud of—generally the product of somebody else's humiliations, handed down. But the humiliations must have been successful, handed down in cash. My father drove a cab and died in debt. His name was Murphy. I shall be dignified some day—some day! But you see I must make it possible myself, since nobody has done it for me."
"Well, then, I'll alter my complaint. Why should you play with your sincerity?"
"I didn't play with it," she flashed; "I abandoned it. I am an actress."
They often permitted themselves such candours; to all appearance their discussion had its usual equable quality, and I am certain that Arnold was not even aware of the tension upon his nerves. He fidgeted with the tassel of his ceinture, and she watched his moving fingers. Presently she spoke, quietly, in a different key.
"I sometimes think," she said, "of a child I knew in the other years. She had the simplest nature, the finest instincts. Her impulses, within her little limits, were noble—she was the keenest, loyalist little person; her admirations rather made a fool of her. When I look at the woman as she is now I think the uses of life are hard, my friend—they are hard."
He missed the personal note; he took what she said on its merits as an illustration.
"And yet," he replied, "they can be turned to admirable purpose."
"I wonder!" Hilda exclaimed brightly. She had turned down the leaf of that mood. "But we are not cheerful—let us be cheerful. For my part, I am rejoicing as I have not rejoiced since the first of December. Look at this!"
She opened a small black leather bag and poured money out of it, notes and currency, into her lap.
"Is it a legacy?"
"It's pay," she cried, with pleasure dimpling about her lips. "I have been paid—we have all been paid! It's so unusual—it makes me feel quite generous. Let me see. I'll give you this, and this, and this"—she counted into her open palm ten silver rupees—"all those I will give you for your mission. Prends!" and she clinked them together and held them out to him.
He had risen to go, and his face looked grey and small. Something in him had mutinied at the levity, the quick change of her mood. He could only draw into his shell; doubtless he thought that a legitimate and inoffensive proceeding.
"Thanks, no," he said, "I think not. We desire people's prayers, rather than their alms."
He went away immediately, and she glossed over his scandalous behaviour and said farewell to him as usual, in spite of the unusual look of consciousness in her eyes. Then she went to her room and deliberately loosened her garments and lay down upon her bed, first to sob like that little child she remembered, and afterwards to think, until the world came and knocked at her door and bade her come out of herself and earn money.
The compulsion which took Stephen Arnold to Crooked lane is hardly ours to examine. It must have been strong, since going up to Mrs. Sand involved certain concessions, doubtless intrinsically trifling, but of exaggerated discomfort to the mind spiritually cloistered, whatever its other latitude. Among them was a distinctly necessary apology, difficult enough to make to a lady of rank so superior and authority so voyant in the Church Militant, by a mere fighting soul without such straps and buttons as might compel recognition upon equal terms. It is impossible to know how far Stephen envisaged the visit as a duty—the priestly horizon is perhaps not wholly free from mirage—or to what extent he confessed it an indulgence. He was certainly aware of a stronger desire than he could altogether account for that Captain Filbert should not desert her post. The idea had an element of imitation oddly personal; he could not bear to reflect upon it. It may be wondered whether in any flight of venial imagination Arnold saw himself in a parallel situation with a lady. I am sure he did not. It may be considered, however, that among mirages there are unaccountable resemblances—resemblances without shape or form. He might fix his gaze, at all events, upon the supreme argument that those who were given to holy work, under any condition, in any degree, should make no rededication of themselves. This had to support him as best it could against the conviction that had Captain Filbert been Sister Anastasia, for example, of the Baker Institution, and Ensign Sand the Mother Superior of its Calcutta branch, it was improbable that he would have ventured to announce his interest in the matter by his card, or in any other way.
It was a hesitating step, therefore, that carried him up to the quarters, and a glance of some nervous distress that made him aware, as he stood bowing upon her threshold, clasping with both hands his soft felt hat to his breast, that Mrs. Sand was not displeased to see him. She hastened, indeed, to give him a chair; she said she was very glad he'd dropped in, if he didn't mind the room being so untidy—where there were children you could spend the whole day picking up. They were out at present, with Captain Sand, in the perambulator—not having more servants than they could help. A sweeper and a cook they did with; it would surprise the people in this country, who couldn't get along with less than twenty, she often said.
Mrs. Sand's tone was casual; her manner had a quality somewhat aggressively democratic. It said that under her welcome lay the right to criticise, which she would have exercised with equal freedom had her visitor been the Lord Bishop John Calcutta himself; and it made short work of the idea that she might be over-gratified to receive Holy Orders in any form. She was not unwilling, however, to show, as between Ensign and man, reasonable satisfaction; presently, in fact, she went so far as to say, still vaguely remarking upon his appearance there, that she often thought there ought to be more sociability between the different religious bodies; it would be better for the cause. There was nothing narrow, she said, about her, nor yet about Captain Sand. And then, with the distinct intimation that that would do, that she had gone far enough, she crossed her hands in her lap and waited. It became her to have it understood this visit need have no further object than an exchange of amiabilities; but there might be another, and Mrs. Sand's folded hands seemed to indicate that she would not necessarily meet it with opposition.
Stephen made successive statements of assent. He sat grasping his hat between his knees, his eyes fixed upon an infant's sock which lay upon the floor immediately in front of him, looking at Mrs. Sand as seldom and as briefly as possible, as if his glance took rather an unfair advantage, which he would spare her.
"Yes, yes," he said. "Yes, certainly," revolving his hat in his hands. And when she spoke of the fraternity that might be fostered by such visits, he looked for an instant as if he had found an opening, which seemed, however, to converge and vanish in Mrs. Sand's folded hands. He flushed to think afterwards, that it was she who was obliged to bring his resolution to a head, her scent of his embarrassment, sharpening her curiosity.
"And is there anything we Army officers can do for you, Mr. Arnold?" she inquired.
There was a hint in her voice that, whatever it was, they would have done it more willingly if she had not been obliged to ask.
"I am afraid," he said; "my mission is not quite so simple. I could wish it were. It is so easy to show our poor needs to one another; and I should have confidence——" he paused, amazed at the duplicity that grinned at him in his words. At what point more remote within the poles was he likely to show himself with a personal request?
"I have nothing to ask for myself," he went on, with concentration almost harsh. "I am here to see if you will consent to speak with me about a matter which threatens your—your community—about your possible loss of Miss Filbert."
Mrs. Sand looked blank. "The Captain isn't leavin' us, as far as I know," she said.
"Oh—is it possible that you are not aware that—that very strong efforts are being made to induce her to do so?"
Mrs. Sand looked about her as if she expected to find an explanation lying somewhere near her chair. Light came to her suddenly and brought her a conscious smile; it only lacked force to be a giggle. She glanced at her lap as she smiled; her air was deprecating and off-putting, as if she had detected in what Arnold said some suggestion of a gallant nature aimed at herself. Happily, he was not looking.
"You mean Mr. Lindsay," she exclaimed, twisting her wedding-ring and its coral guard.
"I hope—I beg—that you will not think me meddlesome or impertinent. I have the matter very much at heart. It seems to lie in my path. I must see it. Surely you perceive some way of averting the disaster in it!"
"I'm sure I don't know what you refer to." Mrs. Sand's tone was prudish and offended. "She hasn't said a word to me—she's a great one for keeping things to herself—but if Mr. Lindsay don't mean marriage with her——"
"Why, of course!" Arnold, startled, turned furiously red, but Mrs. Sand in her indignation did not reflect the tint. "Of course! Is not that," he went on after an instant's pause, "precisely what is to be lamented—and prevented?"
Mrs. Sand looked at her visitor with dry suspicion. "I suppose you are a friend of his," she said.
"I have known him for years. Pray don't misunderstand me. There is nothing against him—nothing whatever."
"Oh, I don't suppose there is, except that he is not on the Lord's side. But I don't expect any of his friends are anxious for him to marry an officer in the Salvation Army. Society people ain't fond of the Army, and never will be."
"His people—he has only distant relatives living—are all at home," Stephen said, vaguely. The situation had become slightly confused.
"Then you speak for them, I suppose."
"Indeed not, I am in no communication with them whatever. I fancy they know nothing about it. I am here entirely—entirely of my own accord. I have come to place myself at your disposition if there is anything I can do, any word I can say, to the end of preventing this catastrophe in a spiritual life so pure and devoted; to ask you at all events to let me join my prayers to yours that it shall not come about."
The squalor of the room seemed to lift before his eyes and be suffused with light. At last he had made himself plain. But Mrs. Sand was not transfigured. She seemed to sit, with her hands folded, in the midst of a calculation.
"Then he has proposed. I told her he would," she said.
"I believe he has asked her to marry him and she has refused, more than once. But he is importunate, and I hear she needs help."
"Mr. Lindsay," said Mrs. Sand, "is a very takin' young man."
"I suppose we must consider that. There is position, too, and wealth. These things count—we are all so human—even against the Divine realities into possession of which Miss Filbert must have so perfectly entered."
"I thought he must be pretty well off. Would he be one of them Government officials?"
"He is a broker."
"Oh, is he indeed?" Mrs. Sand's enlightenment was evidently doubtful. "Well, if they get married Captain Filbert'll have to resign. It's against the regulations for her to marry outside of the Army."
"But is she not vowed to her work; isn't her life turned forever into that channel? Would it not be horrible to you to see the world interfere?"
"I won't say but what I'd be sorry to see her leave us. But I wouldn't stand in her way either, and neither would Captain Sand."
"Stand in her way! In her way to material luxury, poverty of spirit, the shirking of all the high alternatives, the common moral mediocrity of the world. I would to God I could be that stumbling block! I have heard her—I have seen the light in her that may so possibly be extinguished."
"I don't deny she has a kind of platform gift, but she's losin' her voice. And she doesn't understand briskin' people up, if you know what I mean."
"She will be pulled down—she will go under!" Arnold repeated in the depths of his spirit. He stood up, fumbling with his hat. Mrs. Sand and her apartment, her children out of doors in the perambulator, and the whole organisation to which she appertained, had grown oppressive and unnecessary. He was aware of a supreme desire to put his foot again in his own world, where things were seen, were understood. He thought there might be solace in relating the affair to Brother Colquhoun.
"It's a case," said Mrs. Sand, judicially, "where I wouldn't think myself called on to say one word. Such things everyone has a right to decide for themselves. But you oughtn't to forget that a married woman"—she looked at Arnold's celibate habit as if to hold it accountable for much—"can have a great influence for good over him that she chooses. I am pretty sure Captain Filbert's already got Mr. Lindsay almost persuaded. I shouldn't be at all surprised if he joined the Army himself when she's had a good chance at him."
Arnold put on his hat with a groan and began the descent of the stairs. "Good-afternoon, then," Mrs. Sand called out to him from the top. He turned mechanically and bared his head. "I beg your pardon," he said, "Good-afternoon."
Mrs. Sand found it difficult to make up her mind upon several points touching the visit of the Reverend Stephen Arnold. Its purport, of which she could not deny her vague, appreciation, drew a cloud across a rosy prospect, and in this light his conduct showed unpardonable; on the other hand, it implied a compliment to the corps, it made the spiritual position of an officer of the Army, a junior too, a matter of moment in a wider world than might be suspected; and before this consideration Mrs. Sand expanded. She reflected liberally that salvation was not necessarily frustrated by the laying-on of hands; she had serene fancies of a republic of the redeemed. She was a prey to further hesitations regarding the expediency of mentioning the interview to Laura, and as private and confidential it ministered for two days to her satisfactions of superior officer. In the end, however, she had to sacrifice it to the girl's imperturbable silence. She chose an intimate and a private hour and shut the door carefully upon herself and her captain, but she had not at all decided, when she sat down on the edge of the bed, what complexion to give to the matter, nor had she a very definite idea, when she got up again, of what complexion she had given it. Laura, from the first word, had upset her by an intense eagerness, a determination not to lose a syllable. Captain Filbert insisted upon hearing all before she would acknowledge anything; she hung upon the sentences Mrs. Sand repeated, and joined them together as if they were parts of a puzzle; she finally had possession of the conversation much as I have already written it down. As Mrs. Sand afterward told her husband, Miss Filbert sat there growing whiter and whiter, more and more worked up, and it was impossible to take any comfort in talking to her. It seemed as if she, the Ensign, might save herself the trouble of giving an opinion one way or the other, and not a thing could she get the girl to say except that it was true enough that the gentleman wanted to marry her, and she was ashamed of having let it go so far. But she would never do it—never. She declared she would write to this Mr. Arnold and thank him, and ask him to pray for her, "and she as much as ordered me to go and do the same," concluded Mrs. Sand with an inflection which made its own comment upon such a subversion of discipline.
Stephen, under uncomfortable compulsion, sent Laura's letter—she did write—to Lindsay. "I cannot allow you to be in the dark about what I am doing in the matter," he explained; "though if I had not this necessity for writing you might reasonably complain of an intrusive and impertinent letter. But I must let you know that she has appealed to me, and that as far as I can I will help her."
Duff read both communications—Laura's to the priest was brief and very technical—between the business quarters of Ralli Brothers and the Delhi and London Bank, with his feet in the opposite seat of his office-gharry and his forehead puckered by an immediate calculation forward in rupee paper. His irritation spoiled his transaction—there was a distinct edge in the manager's manner when they parted, and it was perhaps a pardonable weakness that led him to dash in blue pencil across the page covered with Arnold's minute handwriting, "Then you have done with pasty compromises—you have gone over to the Jesuits. I congratulate you," and re-addressed the envelope to College street. The brown tide of the crowd brought him an instant messenger, and he stood in the doorway for a moment afterwards frowning upon the yellow turbans that swung along in the sunlight against the white wall opposite, across the narrow commercial road. The flame of his indignation set forth his features with definiteness and relief, consuming altogether the soft amused bien-etre which was nearly always there. His lips set themselves together, and Mrs. Sand would have been encouraged in any scheme of practical utility by the lines that came about his mouth. A brother in finance of some astuteness, who saw him scramble into his gharry, divined that with regard to a weighty matter in jute-mill shares pending, Lindsay had decided upon a coup, and made his arrangements accordingly. He also went upon his way with a fresh impression of Lindsay's undeniable good looks, as sometimes in a coin new from the mint one is struck with the beauty of a die dulled by use and familiarity.
Stephen Arnold, receiving his answer, composed himself to feel distress, but when he had read it, that emotion was somewhat lightened in him by another sentiment.
"A community admirable in many ways," he murmured, refolding the page. "Does he think he is insulting me!"
Whatever degree of influence, Jesuitical or other, Lindsay was inclined to concede to Stephen's intermediary, he was compelled to recognise without delay that Captain Filbert, in the exercise of her profession, had not neglected to acquire a knowledge of defensive operations. She retired effectively into camp; the quarters in Crooked lane became her fortified retreat, whence she issued only under escort and upon service strictly obligatory. Succour from Arnold doubtless reached her by the post; and Lindsay felt it an anomaly in military tactics that the same agency should bring back upon him with a horrid recoil the letters with which he strove to assault her position. Nor could Alicia induce any sortie to Middleton street. Her notes of invitation to quiet teas and luncheons were answered on blue-lined paper, the pen dipped in reticence and the palest ink, always with the negative of a formal excuse. They loosed the burden of her complicity from Miss Livingstone's shoulders, these notes which bore so much the atmosphere of Crooked lane, and at the same time they formed the indictment against her which was, perhaps, best calculated to weigh upon her conscience. She saw it, holding them at arm's length, in enormous characters that ever stamped and blotted out the careful, taught-looking writing, and the invariable "God bless you, yours truly," at the end. They were all there, aridly complete, the limitations of the lady to whom she was helping Lindsay to bind himself without a gleam of possibility of escape or a rift through which tiniest hope could creep to emerge smiling upon the other side. When she saw him, in fatalistic reverie, going about ten years hence attached to the body of this petrifaction, she was almost satisfied to abandon the pair, to let them take their wretched chance. But this was a climax which did not occur often; she returned, in most of her waking moments, to devising schemes by which Laura might be delivered into the hands she was so likely to encumber. The new French poet, the American novelist of the year, and a work by Mr. John Morley lay upon Alicia's table many days together for this reason. She sometimes remembered what she expected of these volumes, what plein air sensations, or what profound plunges, and did not quite like her indifference as to whether her expectations were fulfilled. She discovered herself intellectually jaded—there had been tiring excursions—and took to daily rides which carried her far out among the rice-fields, and gave her sound nights to sustain the burden of her dreaming days. She had ideas about her situation; she believed she lived outside of it. At all events, she took a line; the new Arab was typical, and there were other measures which she arranged deliberately with the idea that she was making a physical fight. Life might weigh one down with a dragging ball and chain, but one could always measure the strength of one's opinions against these things. She made it her sorry and remorseless task to separate from her impulses those that she found lacking in philosophy, hinting of the foolish woman, and to turn a cruel heel upon them. She stripped her meditations of all colour and atmosphere; she would not accept from her grief the luxury of a rag to wrap herself in. If this gave her a skeleton to live with, she had what gratification there was in observing that it was anatomically as it should be. The result that one saw from the outside was chiefly a look of delicate hardness, of tissue a little frayed, but showing a quality in the process. We may hope that some unconfessed satisfaction was derivable from her continued reception of Duff's confidences, her unflinching readiness to consult with him; granting the analytic turn we may almost suppose it. Starvation is so monotonous a misery that a gift of personal diagnosis might easily lend attraction to poisoned food as an alternative, if one may be permitted a melodramatic simile in a case which Alicia kept conventional enough. She did not even abate the usual number of Duff's invitations to dinner, when there was certainly nothing to repay her for regarding him across a gulf of flowers and silver and a tide of conversation about the season's paper-chasing except the impoverished complexion which people acquire who sit much in Bentinck street, desirous and unsatisfied.
It may very well be that she regretted her behaviour in this respect, for it was effectively after one of these parties that Surgeon-Major Livingstone, pressing upon his departing guest in the hall the usual whiskey and soda, found it necessary instead to give him another kind of support, and to put him immediately and authoritatively to bed. Lindsay was very well content to submit; he confessed to fever off and on for four and five days past, and while the world went round the pivotal staircase, as Dr. Livingstone gave him an elbow up, he was indistinctly convinced that the house of a friend was better than a shelf at the club. The next evening's meeting saw his place empty under the window of the hall in Crooked lane, noticeably for the first time in weeks of these exercises. The world shrank, for Laura, to the compass of the kerosene lamps; there was no gaze from its wider sphere against which she must key herself to indifference. When on the second and third evenings she was equally undisturbed, it was borne in upon her that either she or Mr. Arnold, or both, had prevailed, and she offered up thanks. On the fourth she reflected recurrently and anxiously that it was not after all a very glorious victory if the Devil had carried off the wounded; if Lindsay, after all the opportunities that had been his, should slip back without profit to the level from which she had striven—they had all striven—to lift him. Mrs. Sand, not satisfied to be buffeted by such speculations, sent a four-anna bit to the head bearer at the club on her own account and obtained information.
Alicia saw no immediate privilege in the complication, though the circumstances taken together did present a vulgar opportunity which Mrs. Barberry came for hours to take advantage of. There were the usual two nurses as well as Mrs. Barberry; Alicia could take the Arab further afield than ever, and she did. One can imagine her cantering fast and far with a sense of conscious possession in spite of Mrs. Barberry and the two nurses. There may be a certain solace in the definite and continuous knowledge available about a person hovering on the brink of typhoid under your own roof tree. It was as grave as that; Surgeon-Major Livingstone could not make up his mind. Alicia knew only of this uncertainty; other satisfactions were reserved for the nurses and Mrs. Barberry. She could see that her brother was anxious, he was so uniformly cheerful, so brisk and fresh and good-tempered coming from Lindsay's room in the morning, to say at breakfast that the temperature was the same, hadn't budged a point, must manage to get it down somehow in the next twenty-four hours, and forthwith to envelop himself in the newspapers. Those arbitrary and obstinate figures, which stood for apprehension to the most casual ear, stamped themselves on most things as the day wore on, and at tea-time Mrs. Barberry gave her other details, thinking her rather cold in the reception of them. But she plainly preferred to be out of it, avoiding the nurses on the stairs, refraining from so much as a glance at the boiled-milk preparations of the butler. "And you know," said Mrs. Barberry, recountant, "how these people have to be watched." To Mrs. Barberry she was really a conundrum, only to be solved on the theory of a perfectly preposterous delicacy. There was so little that was preposterous in Miss Livingstone's conduct as a rule that it is not quite fair to explain her attitude either by this exaggeration or by an equally hectic scruple about her right to take care of her guest, such a right dwindling curiously when it has been given in the highest to somebody else. These pangs and penalties may have visited her in their proportion, but they did not take the importance of motives. She rather stood aside with folded hands, and in an infinite terror of prejudicing fate, devoured her heart by way of keeping its beating normal. Perhaps, too, she had a vision of a final alternative to Lindsay's marriage, and one can imagine her forcing herself to look at it.
Remove herself as she chose, Alicia could not avoid passing Lindsay's room, for her own lay beyond it. In the seven o'clock half light of a February evening, in the middle of the week, she went along the matted upper hall on tip-toe, and stumbled over a veiled form squatted in the native way, near his door, profoundly asleep. "Ayah!" she exclaimed, but the face that looked confusedly up at her was white, whiter than common, Captain Filbert's face. Alicia drew her hand away and made an imperceptible movement in the direction of her skirts. She stood silent, stricken in the dusk with fear and wonder, but the sense that was strangest in her was plainly that of having made a criminal discovery. Laura stumbled upon her feet, and the two faced each other for an instant; words held from them equally by the authority of the sickroom door. Then Alicia beckoned as imperiously as if the other had in fact been the servant she took her for, and Laura followed to where, further on, a bedroom door stood open, which presently closed upon them both. It was a spacious room, with pale, high-hung draperies, a scent of flowers, such things as an etching of Greuze, an ivory and ebon crucifix over the bed. Captain Filbert remembered the crucifix afterward with a feeling almost intense, also some silver-backed brushes on the toilet table. Across the open window a couple of bars of sunset glowed red and gold, and a tall palm of the garden cut all its fronds sharply against the light.
"Well?" said Alicia, when the door was shut.
Captain Filbert put out a deprecating hand.
"I intended to ask if you had any objection, miss, but you had gone out. And the nurse was in the room; I couldn't get to her. There was nobody but the servants about."
"Objection to what?"
"To my being there. I came to pray for Mr. Lindsay."
"Did you make any noise?"
Miss Filbert looked professionally touched. "It was silent prayer, of course," she said.
Alicia, standing with one hand upon the toilet table, had an air of eagerness, of successful capture. The yellow sky in the window behind her made filmy lights round her hair and outlined her tall figure in the gracefulness of which there was a curious crisped effect, like a conventional pose taken easily, from habit. Laura Filbert thought she looked like a princess.
"I seem to hear of nothing but petitions," she said. "Isn't somebody praying for you?"
The blood of any saint would have risen in false testimony at such a suggestion. Laura blushed so violently that for an instant the space between them seemed full of the sound of her protest.
"I hope so, miss," she said, and looked as if for calming over Alicia's shoulder away into the after-sunset bars along the sky. The colour sank back out of her face, and the light from the window rested on it ethereally. The beautiful mystery drew her eyes to seek, and their blue seemed to deepen and dilate, as if the old splendour of the uplifted golden gates rewarded them.
"Why do you use that odious word?" Alicia explained. "You are not my maid! Don't do it again—don't dream of doing it again!"
"I—I don't know." The girl was still plainly covered with confusion at being found in the house uninvited. "I suppose I forget. Well, good evening," and she turned to the door.
"Don't go," Alicia commanded. "Don't. You never come to see me now. Sit down." She dragged a chair forward and almost pushed Laura into it. "I will sit down, too—what am I thinking of?"
Laura reflected for a moment, looking at her folded hands. "I might as well tell you," she said, "that I have not been praying that Mr. Lindsay should get better. Only that he should be given time to find salvation and die in Jesus."
"Don't—don't say those things to me. How light you are—it's wicked!" Alicia returned with vehemence, and then, as Captain Filbert stared, half comprehending, "Don't you care?" she added curiously.
It was so casual that it was cruel. The girl's eyes grew wider still during the instant she fixed them upon Alicia in the effort of complete understanding. Then her lip trembled.
"How can I care?" she cried, "how can I?" and burst into weeping. She drew her sari over her face and rocked to and fro. Her dusty bare foot protruded from her cotton skirt. She sat huddled together, her head in its coverings sunk between weak, shaking shoulders. Alicia considered her for an instant as a pitiable and degraded spectacle. Then she went over and touched her.
"You are completely worn out," she said, "and it is almost dinner time. The ayah will bring you a hot bath, and then you will come down and have some food quietly with me. My brother is dining out somewhere. I will go away for a little while and then I know you will feel better. And after dinner," she added gently, "you may come up if you like and pray again for Mr. Lindsay. I am sure he would——"
The faintest break in her own voice warned her, and she hurried out of the room.
It was a foolish thing and the Livingstones' old Karim Bux much deplored it, but the Miss-sahib had forgotten to give information that the dinner of eight commanded a fortnight ago would not take place—hence everything was ready in its sequence for this event, with a new fashion of stuffing quails and the first strawberries of the season from Dinapore. The feelings of Karim Bux in presenting these things to a woman in the dress of a coolie are not important; but Alicia, for some reason, seemed to find the trivial incident gratifying.
Under the Greek porch of No. 10, Middleton street, in the white sunlight between the shadows of the stucco pillars, stood a flagrant ticca-gharry. The driver lay extended on the top of it, asleep, the syce squatted beneath the horse's nose and fed it perfunctorily with hay from a bundle tied under the vehicle behind. A fringe of palms and ferns in pots ran between the pillars, and orchids hung from above, shutting out the garden, where heavy scents stood in the sun and mynas chattered on the drive. The air was full of ease, warm, fretillante, abandoned to the lavish energy of growing things; beyond the discoloured wall of the compound rose the tender cloud of a leafing tamarisk against the blue. A long time already the driver had slept immovably, and the horse, uncomplaining but uninterested, had dragged at the wisps of hay.
Inside there was no longer a hint of Mrs. Barberry, even a dropped handkerchief agreeably scented. The night nurse had realised herself equally superfluous and had gone, the other, a person of practical views, could hardly retain her indignation at being kept from day to day to see her patient fed and hand him books and writing materials. She had not even the duty of debarring visitors, but sat most of the time in the dressing-room, where echoes fell about her of the stories with which riotous young men, in tea and wheat and jute, hastened Mr. Lindsay's convalescence. There she tapped her energetic fat foot on the floor in vain, to express her views upon such waste of scientific training. She had Surgeon-Major Livingstone's orders, and he on this occasion had his sister's.
There was an air of relief, of tension relaxed, between the two women in the drawing-room; it was plain that Alicia had communicated these things to her visitor, in their main import. Hilda was already half-disengaged from the subject, her eye wandered as if in search for the avenue to another. By a sudden inclination Alicia began the story of Laura Filbert on her knees at Lindsay's door. She told it in a quiet, steady, colourless way, pursuing it to the end—it came with the ease of frequent private rehearsals—and then with her elbows on her knees and her chin in her palms she stopped and gazed meditatively in front of her. There was something in the gaze to which Hilda yielded an attention unexpectedly serious, something of the absolute in character and life impervious to her inquiry. Yet to analysis it was only the grey look of eyes habited to regard the future with penetration and to find nothing there.
"Have you told him?" Hilda asked after an instant's pause, during which she conceded something, she hardly knew what; she meant to find out later.
"I haven't seen him. But I will tell him, I promise you."
"I have no doubt you will! But don't promise me. I won't even witness the vow!" Hilda cried.
"What does it matter? I shall certainly tell him." The words fell definitely like pebbles. Hilda thoughtfully picked them up.
"On the whole," she said, "perhaps it would be as well. Yes, it is my advice. It is quite likely that he will be revolted. It may be curative."
Alicia turned away her head to hide the faint frown that nevertheless crept into her voice. "I don't think so," she said. "How you do juggle with things! I don't know why I talk to you about this—this matter. I am sure I ought not."
"I was going to say," pursued Hilda, indifferent to her scruple, "that I shouldn't be at all surprised if his illness leaves him quite emotionally sane. The poison has worked itself out of his blood—perhaps the passion and the poison were the same. In such a case it's all so physical. It must be."
"I wonder!" Alicia said. She said it mechanically, as the easiest comment.
"When I knew you first your speculation would have been more active, my dear. You would have looked into the possibility and disputed it. What has become of your modernity?"
It was the tenderest malice, but it obtained no concessive sign. Alicia seemed to weigh it. "I think I like theories better than illustrations," she said in defence.
"One can look at theories as one looks at the sky, but an illustration wants a careful point of view. For this one perhaps you are a little near."
"Perhaps," Alicia assented, "I am a little near." She glanced quickly down as she spoke, but when she raised her eyes they were dry and clear.
"I can see it better," Hilda went on, with immense audacity, "much better."
"Isn't it safer to feel?"
"Jamais de la vie! The nerves lie always."
They were on the edge of the vortex of the old dispute. Alicia leaned back among the cushions and regarded the other with an undecided eye.
"You are not sure," said Hilda, "that you won't ask me, at this point, to look at the pictures in that old copy of the Persian classic—I forget its lovely name—or inquire what sort of house we had last night. Well, don't be afraid of hurting my feelings. Only, you know, between us, as between more doubtful people, the door must be either open or shut. I fancy you take cold easily; perhaps you had better shut the door."
"Not for worlds," Alicia said, with promptitude. Then she added rather cleverly, "That would be my spoiling my one view of life."
Hilda smiled. "Isn't there any life where you live?" She glanced round her, at the tapestried elegance of the room, with sudden indifference. "After all," she said, "I don't know what I am doing here, in your affairs. As the world swings no one could be more remote from them or you. I belong to its winds and its highways—how have you brought me here, a tramp-actress, to your drawing-room?"
Alicia laid a detaining hand upon Miss Howe's skirt. "Don't go away," she said. Hilda sat at the other end of the sofa; there was hardly a foot between them. She went on with a curious excitement.
"My kind of life is so primitive, so simple; it is one pure pulse, you don't know. One only asks the things that minister—one goes and finds and takes them; one's feet in the straw, one's head under any roof. What difference does it make? The only thing that counts, that rules, is the chance of seeing something else, feeling something more, doing something better."
Alicia only looked at her and tightened the grasp of her fingers on the actress's skirt. Hilda made the slightest, most involuntary movement. It comprehended the shaking off of hindrance, the action of flight. Then she glanced about her again with a kind of appraisement, which ended with Alicia and embraced her. What she realised seemed to push her, I think, in some weak place of her sex, to go on intensely, almost fiercely.
"Everything here is aftermath. You are a gleaner, Alicia Livingstone. We leave it all over the world for people of taste, like you, in the glow of their illusions. I couldn't make you understand our harvest; it is of the broad sun and the sincerity of things."
"I know I must seem to you dreadfully out of it," Alicia said, wearing, as it were, across her heaviness a lighter cloud of trouble.
But the other would not be stayed; she followed by compulsion her impulse to the end. "Shall I be quite candid?" she said. "I find the atmosphere about you, dear, a trifle exhausted."
Alicia, with a face of astonishment, made a half-movement toward the window before she understood. There was some timidity in her glance at Hilda and in her mechanical smile. "Oh," she said, "I see what you mean; and I don't wonder. I am so literal—I have so little imagination."
"Don't talk of it as if it were money or fabric—something you could add up or measure," Hilda cried remorselessly. "You have none!"
As if something slipped from her Alicia threw out locked hands. "At least I had enough to know you when you came!" she cried. "I felt you, too, and it's not my fault if there isn't enough of me to—to respond properly. And I can't give you up. You seem to be the one valuable thing that I can have—the only permanent fact that is left."
Hilda had a rebound of immense discomfort. "Who said anything about giving up?" she interrupted.
"Why, you did! But I'm quite willing to believe you didn't mean it, if you say so." She turned the appeal of her face and saw a sudden pitiful consideration in Hilda's, and, as if it called them forth, two tears sprang to her eyes and fell, as she lowered her delicate head, upon her lap.
"Dear thing! I didn't indeed. If I meant anything it was that I'm overstrung. I've been horribly harried lately." She possessed herself of one of Alicia's hands and stroked it. Alicia kept her head bent for a moment and then let it fall, in sudden abandonment, upon the other woman's shoulder. Her defences crumbled so utterly that Hilda felt guilty of using absurdly heavy artillery. They sat together for a moment or two in silence with only that supervening sense of successful aggression between them, and the humiliation was Hilda's. Presently it grew heavy, embarrassing. Alicia got up and began a slow, restless pacing up and down before the alcove they sat in. Hilda watched her—it was a rhythmic progress—and when she came near with a sound of brushing silk and a faint fragrance which seemed a personal emanation, drew a long breath, as if she were an essence to be inhaled, and so, in a manner, obtained, assimilated.
"Oh, yes," Miss Livingstone said, rehabilitating herself with a smile, "I must keep you. I'll do anything you like to make myself more—worth while. I'll read for the pure idea. I think I'll take up modelling. There's rather a good man here just now."
"Yes," Hilda assented. "Read for the pure idea—take up modelling. It is most expedient, especially if you marry. Women who like those things sometimes have geniuses for sons. But for me, so far as I count—oh, my dear, do nothing more. You are already an achieved effect—a consummation of the exquisite in every way. Generations have been chosen among for you; your person holds the inheritance of all that is gracious and tender and discriminating in a hundred years. You are as rare as I am, and if there is anything you would take from me, I would make more than one exchange for the mere niceness of your fibre—the feeling you have for fine shades of morality and taste—all that makes you a lady, my dear."
"Such niminy piminy things," said Alicia, contradicting the light of satisfaction in her eyes. The sound of a step came from the room overhead, and the light died out. "And what good do they do me!" she cried in soft misery. "What good do they do me!"
"Considerably less than they ought. Why aren't you up there now? What more simple, honest opportunity do you want than a sick room in your own house?"
Alicia, with a frightened glance at the ceiling, flew to her side. "Oh, hush!" she cried. "Go on!"
"It ought to be there beside him, the charm of you. The room should be full of cool refreshing hints of what you are. Your profile should come between him and the twilight with a scent of violets."
"It sounds like a plot," Alicia murmured.
"It is a plot. Why quibble about it? If you smile at him it's a plot. If you put a rose in your hair it's a deep-laid scheme, deeper than you perceive—the scheme the universe is built on. We wouldn't have lent ourselves to the arrangement, we women, if we had been consulted; we're naturally too scrupulous, but nobody asked us. 'Without our aid He did us make,' you know."
"But—deliberately—to go so far! I couldn't, I couldn't, even if I could."
Hilda leaned back in her corner with her arms extended along the back and the end of the sofa. Her hands drooped in their vigour, her knees were crossed, and her skirts draped them in long simple lines. In her symmetry and strength and the warm cloud of her hair and the soul that sat behind the shadows of her eyes Vedder might have drawn her as a tragic symbol for the poet who sang in the King's garden of wine and death and roses.
"I would go further," she said, and looked as if some other thing charged with sweetness had come before her.
"And even if one gained, one would never trust one's success," Alicia faltered.
"Ah, if one gained one would hold," Hilda said; and while she smiled on her pupil in the arts of life, the tenderness grew in her eyes and came upon her lips. As if she knew her betrayal already complete, "I wish I had such a chance," she said.
Alicia looked at her as they might have looked, across the desert, at a mirage of the Promised Land.
"Then after all he has prevailed," she said.
Hilda laughed—the laugh was full and light and spontaneous, as if all the training of the notes of her throat came unconsciously to make it beautiful.
"How you will hold me to my metier," she said. "Hamilton Bradley has given up trying."
"Then think! Be clever. Be very clever."
Alicia dropped her head in the joined length of her hands. A turquoise on one of them made them whiter, more transparent than usual. Presently she drew her face up from her clinging fingers and searched the other woman with eyes that nevertheless refused confirmation for their astonishment.
"Well?" said Hilda.
"I can think of no one—there is no one—except—oh, it's too absurd! Not Stephen—poor dear Stephen!"
The faintest shadow drifted across Hilda's face, as if for an instant she contemplated a thing inscrutable. Then the light came back, dashed with a gravity, a gentleness.
"I admit the absurdity. Stephen—poor dear Stephen. How odd it seems," she went on, while Alicia gazed, "the announcement of it—like a thing born. But it is that—a thing born."
"I don't understand—in the least," Alicia exclaimed.
"Neither do I. I don't indeed. Sometimes I feel like a creature with its feet in a trap. The insane, insane improbability of it!" She laughed again. It was delicious to hear her.
"But—he is a priest!"
"Much more difficult. He is a saint."
Alicia glanced at the floor. The record of another lighter moment twitched itself out of a day that was forgotten.
"Are you quite certain?" she said. "You told me once that—that there had been other times."
"They are useful, those foolish episodes. They explain to one the difference." The tone of this was very even, very usual, but Alicia was aware of a suggestion in it that accused her of aggression, that almost ranged her hostile. She hurried out of that position.
"If it were possible," she said, frowning at her embarrassment. "I see nothing—nothing really—against it."
"I should think not! Can't you conceive what I could do for him?"
"And what could he do for you?" Alicia asked, with a flash of curiosity.
"I don't think I can let you ask me that."
"There are such strange things to consider! Would he withdraw from the Church? Would you retire from the stage? I don't know which seems the more impossible!"
Hilda got up.
"It would be a criminal choice, wouldn't it?" she said. "I haven't made it out. And he, you know, still dreams only of Bengali souls for redemption, never of me at all."
A servant of the house, with the air of a messenger, brought Alicia a scrap of paper. She glanced at it, and then, with hands that trembled, began folding it together.
"He has been allowed to get up and sit in a chair," she murmured, "and he wants me to come and talk to him."
"Well," said Hilda, "come."
She put her arm about Alicia and drew her out of the room to the foot of the stairs. They went in silence, saying nothing even when they parted, and Alicia, of her own accord, began to ascend. Half way up she paused and looked down. Hilda turned to meet her glance, and something of primitive puissance passed, conscious, comprehended, between the eyes of the two women.
For three days there had certainly been, with the invalid, no sign of anything but convalescence. An appetite to cry out upon, a chartered tendency to take small liberties, to make small demands; such indications offered themselves to the eye that looked for other betrayals. There had been opportunities—even the day nurse had gone and Lindsay came to tea in the drawing-room—but he seemed to prefer to talk about the pattern in the carpet, or the corpulence of the khansamah, or things in the newspapers. Alicia once, at a suggestive point, put almost a visible question into a silent glance, and Lindsay asked her for some more sugar. Surgeon-Major Livingstone, coming into his office unexpectedly one morning, found his sister in the act of replacing a volume upon its professional shelf. It was somebody on the pathology of Indian fevers. Hilda's theory lacked so little to approve it—only technical corroboration. It might also be considered that, although Laura had expressly received the freedom of the city for intercessional or any other purpose, she did not come again. They may have heard in Crooked lane that Duff was better. We may freely imagine that Mrs. Sand was informed; it looked as if the respite to disinterested anxiety afforded by his recovery had been taken advantage of. Lindsay was to be given time for more dignified repentance; they might now very well hand him over, Alicia thought, smiling, to the Archdeacon.
As a test, as something to reckon by, the revelation to Lindsay, still in prospect, of the single visit Captain Filbert did make was perhaps lacking in essentials. It would be an experiment of some intricacy, it might very probably work, out in shades. So much would infallibly have to be put down for surprise and so much reasonably for displeasure, without any prejudice to the green hope budding underneath; the key to Hilda's theory might very well be lost in contingencies. Nevertheless, Alicia postponed her story from day to day and from hour to hour. If her ideas about it—she kept them carefully in solution—could have been precipitated they might have appeared in a formula favourite with her brother, the Surgeon-Major, who often talked of giving nature a chance.
She told him finally on the morning of his first drive. They went together and alone, Alicia taking her brother's place in the carriage at a demand for him from the hospital. It was seven o'clock, and the morning wind swept soft and warm from over the river. There was a white light on all the stucco parapets, and their shadows slanted clear and delicately purple to the west. The dust slept on the broad roads of the Maidan, only a curling trace lifted itself here and there at the heel of a cart-bullock, and nothing had risen yet of the lazy tumult of the streets that knotted themselves in the city. From the river, curving past the statue of an Indian administrator, came a string of country people with baskets on their heads. The sun struck a vivid note with the red and the saffron they wore, turned them into an ornamentation, in the profuse Oriental taste, of the empty expanse. There was the completest freedom in the wide, tree-dotted spaces round which the city gathered her shops and her palaces, the fullest invitation to disburden any heaviness that might oppress, to give the wings of words to any joy that might rebel in prison. The advantage of the intimacy of the landau for purposes of observation was so obvious that one imagines Alicia must have been aware of it, though, as a matter of fact, when she told Lindsay she did not look at him at all, but beyond the trees of the Eden Gardens, where the yellow dome of the Post Office swelled against the morning sky, and so lost it.
He heard without exclamation, but stopped her now and then with a question. On what day precisely? And how long? And afterward? The yellow dome was her anchor; she turned her head a little, as the road trended the other way, to keep her eyes upon it. There was an endless going round of wheels, and trees passed them in mechanical succession; a tree, and another tree; some of them had flowers on them. When he broke the silence afterward, she started as if in apprehension, but it was only to say something that anybody might have said, about the self-sacrificing energy of the organisation to which Miss Filbert belonged. Her assent was little and meagre; nothing would help her to expand it. The Salvation Army rose before her as a mammoth skeleton, without a suggestive bone.
Presently he said in a different way, as if he uttered an unguarded thought, "I had so little to make me think she cared." There was in it that phantom of speculation and concern which a sick man finds under pressure, and it penetrated Alicia that he abandoned himself to his invalid's privileges as if he valued them. He lay extended beside her among his cushions and wraps; she tried to look at him, and got as far as the hand nearest her, ungloved and sinewy, on the plaid of the rug.
"She told me it was not for your life she had been praying—only that if you died you might be saved first." Her eyes were still on his hand, and she saw the fingers close into the palm as if by an impulse to some kind of action. Then they relaxed again, and he said, "Oh, well," and smiled at the balancings of a crow drinking at a city conduit.
That was all. Alicia made an effort, odd and impossible enough, to postpone her impressions, even her emotions. In the meantime it was something to have got it over, and she was able at a bound to talk about the commonplaces of the roadside. In her escape from this oppression, she too gathered a freshness, a convalescent pleasure in what they saw; everything had in some way the likeness of the leafing teak trees, tender and curative. In the broad early light that lay over the tanks there was a vague allurement, almost a presage, and the wide spaces of the Maidan made room for hope. She asked Lindsay presently if he would mind driving to the market; she wanted some flowers for that night. I think she wanted some flowers for that hour. Her thought broke so easily into the symbol of a rose.
They turned into Chowringhee, where the hibiscus bushes showed pink and crimson over the stucco walls, and at the gates of the pillared houses servants with brown and shining backs sat on their haunches in the sun and were shaved. Where the street ran into shops there was still a shuttered blankness, but here and there a durwan yawned and stretched himself before an open door, and a sweeper made a cloud of dust beneath a commercial verandah. The first boarding in a side street announced the appearance of Miss Hilda Howe for one night only as Lady Macbeth, under the kind patronage of His Excellency the Viceroy, with Jimmy Finnigan in the close proximity of professional jealousy, advertising five complete novelties for the same evening. It made a cheerful note which appealed to them both; it was a pictorial combination, Hilda and Jimmy Finnigan and the Viceroy; there was something of gay burlesque in the metropolitan poster against the crumbling plaster of the outer mosque wall where Mussulmans left their shoes. Talking of Hilda, they smiled; it was a way her friends had, a testimony to the difference of her. In Alicia's smile there was a satisfaction rather subtle and in a manner superior; she knew of things.
[Footnote 8: Doorkeeper.]
The life of the market, the bazaar, was all awake and moving. They rolled up though a crowd of inferior vehicles, empty for the moment and abandoned, where the leisurely crowd, with calculation under its turbans, swayed about the market-house, and the pots of a palm-dealer ran out of bounds and made a little grove before the stall of the man who sold pith helmets. The warm air held the smell of all sorts of commodities; there was a great hum of small transactions, clink of small profits. "It makes one feel immensely practical and acquisitive," Duff said, looking at the loaded baskets on the coolies' heads; and he insisted on getting out. "I am dying to buy an enormous number of desirable things very cheap. But not combs or shirt-buttons, thank you, nor any ribbons or lace—is that good lace, Miss Livingstone? Nor even a live duck—really I am difficult. We might inquire the price of the duck, though."
The sense of being contributory to his holiday satisfaction reigned in her. She abandoned herself to it with a little smile that played steadily about her lips, as if it would tell him, without her sanction, how continually she rejoiced in his regained well-being. They made their way slowly toward the flower-corner; there were so many things he wanted to stop before as they went, leaning on his stick to examine them and delighting in opportunities for making himself quite ridiculous. The country tobacco-dealer laughed too, squatting behind his basket; it was a mad sahib, but not madder than the rest, and there was no hurry. Alicia saw the pink glow of the roses beyond, where the sun struck across them over the shoulders of the crowd, and was content to reach them by degrees. They would be in their achieved sweetness a kind of climax to the hour's experience, and after that she was not entirely sure that the day would be as grey as other days.
This was the flood-time of roses and it was exquisite in the flower-corner with the soft wind picking up their fragrance and squares of limpid sunlight standing on the wet flagstones. Some of the stall-keepers had little glass cases, and in these there was room only for the Gloire de Dijons and the La Frances and the velvety Jacks, the rest over-ran the tables and the floor in anything that would hold them. The place rioted with the joy and the passion of roses, for buying and selling. There were other flowers, nasturtiums, cornbottles, mignonette, but they had a diminished, insignificant look in their tied-up bunches beside the triumph of the roses. Further on, beyond the cage of the money-changer, the country people were hoarse with crying their vegetables, in two green rows, and beyond that, where the jostling crowd divided, shone a glimpse of oranges and pomegranates. In this part there were many comers and goers, lean Mussulman table servants and fat Eurasian ladies who kept boarding-houses, Armenian women with embroidered shawls drawn over their heads, sailors of the port. They came to pass that way, through the sweetness of it, and this made a coign of vantage for the men with trays, who were very persecuting there. Lindsay and Alicia stood together beside the roses, her hands were deep in them; he perceived with pleasure that their glow was reflected in her face. "No," she exclaimed with dainty aplomb to the man who sat cross-legged in muslin draperies on the table. "These are certainly of yesterday. There is no scent left in them—and look!" she held up the bunch and shook it. A shower of pink petals and drops of water fell upon the round of her arm above the wrist, where the laces of her sleeve slipped back. Lindsay had something like a poetic appreciation of her, observing her put the bunch down tenderly, as if she would not, if she could help it, find fault with any rose. The dealer drew put another and handed it to her; a long-stemmed, wide-open, perfect thing, and it was then that her glance of delight, wandering, fell upon Laura Filbert. Lindsay looked instantly, curiously, in the same direction, and Alicia was aware that he also saw. There ensued a terse moment with a burden of silence and the strangest misgivings, in which he may have imagined that he had his part alone, but which was the heavier for her because of him. These two had seen the girl before only under circumstances that suggested projection, that made excuse, on a platform receiving the respect of attention, marching with her fellows under common conventions, common orders. Here, alone, slipping in and out among the crowd, she looked abandoned; the sight of her in her bare white feet and the travesty of her dress was a wound. Her humility screamed its violation, its debasement of her race; she woke the impulse to screen her and hurry her away as if she were a woman walking in her sleep. She had on her arm a sheaf of the War Cry. This was another indignity; she offered them right and left, and no one had a pice for her except one man, a sailor who refused the paper. When he rejoined his companions there was a hoarse laugh, and the others turned their heads to look after her.
The flower-dealer eyed his customers with contemptuous speculation, seeing what had claimed their eyes. There was nothing new, the "mem" passed every day at this hour. She did no harm and no good. He, too, looked at her as she came closer, offering her paper to Alladiah Khan, a man impatient in his religion, who refused it, mumbling in his beard. With a gesture of appeal she pressed it on him, saying something. Then Alladiah's green turban shook, his beard, dyed red in Mecca, waggled; he raised his arm, and Laura, in white astonishment, darted from under it. They seldom did that.
Alicia caught at the stall table and clung to it as Lindsay made his stride forward. She saw him twist his hand in the beard of Mecca and fling the man into the road; she was aware of a vague thankfulness that it ended there, as if she expected bloodshed. More plainly she saw the manner of Duff's coming back to the girl, and the way in which, with a look of half-frightened satisfaction, Laura gave herself up to him. He was hurrying her away without a word. Her surrender was as absolute and final as if she had been one of those desirable things he said he wanted to buy. Alicia intercepted, as it were, the indignity of being forgotten, stepping up to them. "Take her home in the carriage," she said to Duff, "and send it back for me. I shall be here a long time still—quite a long time." She stared at Captain-Filbert as she spoke, but made no answer to the "Good-morning! God bless you!" with which the girl perfunctorily addressed her. When they left her she looked down at the long-stemmed rose, the perfect one, and drove a thorn of it deep into her palm, as other creatures will sometimes hurt themselves more to suffer less. It was not in the least fantastic of her, for she was not aware that she still held it, but that was the only rose she brought away.
Hilda left the road, with a trace of its red dust on the hem of her skirt, and struck out into the Maidan. It spread before her green where the slanting sun searched through the short blades, brown and yellow in the distance, where the light lay on the top of the withered grass. It was like a great English park, with something of the village common, only the trees, for the most part, made avenues over it, running an arbitrary half-mile this way or that, with here and there a group dotted about in the open; and the brimming tank-ponds were of India and of nowhere else in the world. The sun was dipping behind the masts that showed where the straight border of the river ran, and the shadows of the pipals and the banyans were richly purple over the roads. The light struck on the stuccoed upper verandahs of the houses in Chowringhee which made behind their gardens the other border, and seemed to push them back, to underline their scattered insignificance, hinting that the Maidan at its pleasure might surge over them altogether. Calcutta, the teeming capital, lived in the streets and gullies behind that chaste frontage and quarrelled over drainage schemes; but out here cattle grazed in quiet companies, and squirrels played on the boles of the trees. Calcutta, the capital, indeed, was superimposed; one felt that always at this time, when the glow came and stood in the air among the tamarinds, and there was nothing anywhere but luminous space and indolent stillness, and the wrangling and winging of crows. What persisted, then, under the span of the sky was the old India of rich traditions, and a thinking bullock beneath the yoke, jogging through the evening to his own place where the blue haze hid the little huts on the rim of the city, the real India, and the rest was fiction and fabrication.
The grass was crisp and pleasant. Hilda deliberately sought its solace for her feet, letting their pressure linger. All day long the sun had been drawing the sweetness and the life out of it, and now the air had a sweet, warm, and grateful scent, like that of harvests. The crickets had been at it since five o'clock, and though the city rose not half a mile across the grass, it was the crickets she heard and listened to. In making private statements of things, the crickets offered a chorus of agreement and they never interrupted. Not that she had much to consider, poor girl, which lent itself to a difference of opinion. One might have thought her, to meet a situation at any point like her own, not badly equipped. She had all the arguments—which is like saying all the arms—and the most accurate understanding; but the only practical outcome of these things had been an intimate object-lesson in the small value of the intelligence, that flavoured her state with cynicism and made it more piquant. She did not altogether scorn her own intelligence at the result, because it had always admitted the existence of dominating facts that belonged to life and not to reason; it was only the absurd unexpectedness of coming across one herself. One might think round such a fact and talk round it—there were less exquisite satisfactions—but it was not to be cowed or abated, and in the end the things one said were only words.
Out there in the grassy spaces she let her thoughts flow through her veins, with her blood, warm and free. The primitive things she saw helped her to a fulness of life; the south wind brought her profound sweet presciences. A coolie woman, carrying a basket on her head, stopped and looked at her with full, glistening eyes; they smiled at each other and passed on. She found herself upon a narrow path, worn smooth by other barefooted coolie-folk; it made in its devious way toward the rich mists where the sun had gone down and Hilda followed it, breasting the glow and the colour and wide, flat expanse, as if in the India of it there breathed something exquisitely sensuous and satisfying. It struck sharp on her senses; she almost consciously thanked heaven for such a responsive set of nerves. Always and everywhere she was intensely conscious of what she saw, and of how she saw it; and it was characteristic of her that she found in that saffron February evening, spreading to a purple rim with wandering points of colour in a soldier's coat or a coachman's turban, an atmosphere and a mise en scene for her own complication. She could take a tenderly artistic view of that, more soothing a good deal than any result that came of examining it in other lights. And she did, aware, with smiling eyes, of how colourable, how dramatic it was.
Nevertheless, she had hardly closed with it; any material outcome seemed a great way off, pursuable by conjecture when there was time for that. For the present, there on the Maidan with the south wind, she took it with her head thrown up, in her glad, free fashion, as something that came in the way of life—the delightful way of life—with which it was absurd to quarrel because of a slight inconvenience or incongruity, things which helped, after all, to make existence fascinating.