A marigold lay in the path, an orange-coloured scrap with a broken stem, dropped from some coolie's necklace. Hilda picked it up and drew in the crude, warm pungency of its smell. She closed her eyes and drifted on the odour, forgetting her speculations, losing her feet. All India and all her passion was in that violent, penetrating fragrance; it brought her, as she gave her senses up to it, a kind of dual perception of being near the core, the throbbing centre of the world's meaning.
Her awakened glance fell upon Duff Lindsay. He hastened to meet her, in his friendly way; and she was glad of the few yards that lay between them, and gave transit to her senses from that other plane. They encountered each other in full recognition of the happiness of the accident, and he turned back with her as a matter of course. It was a kind of fruition of all that light and colour and passive delight that they should meet and take a path together, he at least was aware. Hilda asked him if he was quite all right now, and he said "Absolutely" with a shade of emphasis. She charged him with having been a remarkable case, and he piled up illustrations of what he felt able to do in his convalescence. There was something in the way he insisted upon his restoration which made her hasten to take her privilege of intimacy.
"And I hear I may congratulate you," she said. "You have got what you wanted."
"Someone has told you," he retorted, "who is not friendly to it."
"On the contrary, someone who has given it the most cordial support—Alicia Livingstone."
He mused upon this for an instant, as if it presented Alicia for the first time under such an aspect.
"She has been immensely kind," he asserted, "but she wasn't at first. At first she was hostile, like you, only that her hostility was different, just as she is different. She had to be converted," he went on hopefully, "but it was less difficult than I imagined. I think she takes a kind of pride in conquering her prejudices, and being true to the real breadth of her nature."
"I am sure she would like her nature to be broad. She might very well be content that it is charming. And what is the difference between her hostility and mine?"
"The main difference," Lindsay said, with a gay half round upon her, "is that hers has sweetly vanished, while yours"—he made a dramatic gesture—"walks between us."
"I know. I tried to stiffen her. I appealed to the worst in her on your behalf. But it wasn't any use. She succumbed, as you say, to her nobler instincts."
Hilda stabbed a great crisp fallen teak leaf with her parasol, and spent the grimness of this in twirling it.
"One can so easily get an affair of one's own out of all proportion—" Duff said. "And I should be sorry—do you really want me to talk about this?"
"Don't be stupid. Of course."
He took her permission with plain avidity.
"Well, it grew plain to Miss Livingstone, as it will to everybody else who knows or cares," he said; "I mean chiefly Laura's tremendous desirability. Her beauty would go for something anywhere, but I don't want to insist on that. What marks her even more is the wonderful purity and transparency of her mind; one doesn't find it often now, women's souls are so clouded with knowledge. I think that sort of thing appeals especially to me because my own design isn't in the least esoteric. I'm only a man. Then she was so ludicrously out of her element. A creature like that should be surrounded by the softest refinement in her daily life. That was my chance. I could offer her her place. It's not much to counterbalance what she is, but it helps, roughly speaking, to equalise matters."
Hilda looked at him with sudden critical interest, missing an emanation from him. It was his enthusiasm. A cheerfulness had come upon him instead. Also what he said had something categorical in it, something crisp and arranged. He himself received benefit from the consideration of it, and she was aware that if this result followed, her own "conversion" was of very secondary importance.
"So!" she said meditatively, as they walked.
"After it happens, when it is an accomplished fact, it will be so plainly right that nobody will think twice about it," Duff went on in an encouraged voice. "It's odd how one's ideas materialise. I want her drawing-room to be white and gold, with big yellow silk cushions."
"When its it to happen?"
"Beginning of next cold weather—in not quite a year."
"Ah! then there will be time. Time to get the white and gold furniture. It wouldn't be my taste quite. Is it Alicia's?"
"It's our own at present, Laura's and mine. We have talked it over together. And I don't think she would ask Miss Livingstone. In matters of taste women are rather rivals, aren't they?"
"Oh, Lord!" Hilda exclaimed, and bit her lip. "Where is Miss Filbert now?"
"At No. 10, Middleton street."
"With the Livingstones?"
"Is it so astonishing? Miss Livingstone has been most practical in her kindness. I have gone back, of course, to my perch at the club, and Laura is to stay with them until she sails."
"In the Sutlej, next Wednesday. She's got three months' leave. She really hasn't been well, and her superior officer is an accommodating old sort. She resigns at home, and I'm sending her to some dear old friends of mine. She hasn't any particular people of her own. She's got a notion of taking lessons of some kind—perfectly unnecessary, but if it amuses her—during the summer. And of course she will have to get her outfit together."
"And in December," said Hilda, "she comes out and marries you."
"Not a Calcutta wedding. I meet her in Madras and we come up together."
"Ideal," said Hilda; "and is Calcutta much scandalised?"
"Calcutta doesn't know. If I had had my way in the beginning I fancy I would have trumpeted it. But now I suppose it's wiser—why should one offer her up at their dinner-tables?"
"Especially when they would make so little of her," said Hilda absently.
The coolie-track had led them into the widest part of the Maidan, where it slopes to the south, and the huts of Bowanipore. There was nothing about them but a spreading mellowness and the baked turf under-foot. The cloudy yellow twilight disclosed that a man little way off was a man and not a horse but did hardly more. "I'm tired," Hilda said suddenly, "let us sit down," and sank comfortably on the fragrant grass. Lindsay dropped beside her and they sat for a moment in silence. A cricket chirped noisily a few inches from them. Hilda put out her hand in that direction and it ceased. Sounds wandered across from the encircling city, evening sounds, softened in their vagrancy, and lights came out, topaz points in the level glow.
"She is making a tremendous sacrifice," Lindsay went on; "I seem to see its proportions more clearly now."
Hilda glanced at him with infinite kindness. "You are an awfully good sort, Duff," she said, "I wish you were out of Asia."
"Oh, a magnificent sort." The irony was contemplative, as if he examined himself to see.
"You can make her life delightful to her. The sacrifice will not endure, you know."
"One can try. It will be worth doing." He said it as if it were a maxim, and Hilda, perceiving this, had no answer ready. As they sat without speaking, the heart of the after-glow drew away across the river and left something chill and empty in the spaces about them. Things grew hard of outline, the Maidan became an unlimited expanse of commonplace, grey and unyielding; the lines of gas-lamps on the roads came very near. "What a difference it makes!" Lindsay exclaimed, looking after the vanished light, "and how suddenly it goes!"
Hilda turned concerned eyes upon him, and then looked with keen sadness far into the changed landscape. "Ah, well, my dear," she said with apparent irrelevance, "we must take hold of life with both hands." She made a movement to rise, and he, jumping to his feet, helped her. As if the moment had some special significance, something to be underlined, he kept her hand while he said, "You will always represent something in mine. I can depend upon you—I shall know that you are there."
"Yes," she said, sincerely, "Yes, indeed;" and it seemed to her that he looked thin and intense as he stood beside her—unless it was only another effect of atmosphere. "After all," she said, as they turned to walk back again across the withered grass, "your fever has taken a good deal out of you."
Finally the days of Laura Filbert's sojourn under the Livingstones' roof followed each other into the past that is not much pondered. Alicia at one time valued the impression that life in Calcutta disappeared entirely into this kind of history, that one's memory there was a rubbish heap of which one naturally did not trouble to stir up the dust. It gave a soothing wistulness to discontent to think this, which a discerning glance might often have seen about her lips and eyebrows as she lay back among her carriage cushions under the flattery of the south wind in the course of her evening drive. She had ceased latterly, however, to note particularly that or any impression. Such things require range and atmosphere, and she seemed to have no more command over these; her outlook was blocked by crowding, narrowing facts. There was certainly no room for perceptions creditable to one's intellect or one's taste. Also it may be doubted whether Alicia would have tried the days of her hospitality to Captain Filbert by her general standard of worthlessness. She turned away from them more actively than from the rest, but it was because they bristled, naturally enough, with dilemmas and distresses which she made a literal effort to forget. As a matter of fact, there were not very many days, and they were largely filled with millinery. Even the dilemmas and distresses, when they asserted themselves, were more or less overswept, as if for the sake of decency, by billows of spotted muslin, with which Celine, who felt the romance of the situation, made herself marvellously clever. Celine, indeed, was worth in this exigency many times her wages. Alicia hastened to "lend" her to the fullest extent, and she spent hours with Miss Filbert contriving and arranging, a kind of conductor of her mistress's beneficence. It became plain that Laura preferred the conductor to the source, and they stitched together while she, with careful reserves, watched for the casual sidelights upon modes and manners that came from the lips of the maid. At other times she occupied herself with her Bible—she had adopted, as will be guessed, the grateful theory of Mrs. Sand, that she had only changed the sphere of her ministrations. She had several times felt, seated beside Celine, how grateful she ought to be that her spiritual paths for the future would be paths of such pleasantness, though Celine herself seemed to stand rather far from their border, probably because she was a Catholic. Mrs. Sand came occasionally to upbuild her, and after that Laura had always a fresh remembrance of how much she had done in giving so generous a friend as Duff Lindsay to the Army in Calcutta. It was reasonable enough that there should be a falling off in Mr. Lindsay's attendance just now in Laura's absence, but when they were united, Mrs. Sand hoped there would be very few evening services when she, the Ensign, would miss their bright faces. Lindsay himself came every afternoon, and Laura made his tea for him with precision, and pressed upon him, solicitously, everything there was to eat. He found her submissive and wishful to be pleasant. She sat up straight and said it was much hotter than they had it this time of year up-country but nothing at all to complain of yet. He also discovered her to be practical; she showed him the bills for the muslins, and explained one or two bargains. She seemed to wish to make it clear to him that it need not be, after all, so very expensive to take a wife. In the course of a few days one of the costumes was completed, and when he came she had it on, appearing before him for the first time in secular dress. The stays insisted a little cruelly on the lines of her figure, and the tight bodice betrayed her narrow-chested. Above its frills her throat protruded unusually, with a curve outward like that of some wading birds, and her arms, in their unaccustomed sleeves, hung straight at her sides. She had put on a hat that matched: it was the kind of pretty, disorderly hat with waving flowers that demands the shadow of short hair along the forehead, and she had not thought of that way of making it becoming. Among these accessories the significance of her face retreated to a point vague and distant; its lightly-pencilled lines seemed half erased. She made no demand upon him for admiration on this occasion, she seemed sufficiently satisfied with herself; but after a time, when they were sitting together on the sofa, and he still pursued the lines of her garment with questioning eyes, she recalled him to the conventionalities of the situation.
"You needn't be afraid of mussing it," she said.
The ship she took her departure in sailed from its jetty in the river at six o'clock in the morning. Preparations for her comfort had been completed over night; indeed, she slept on board, and Duff had only the duty and the sentiment of actual parting in the morning. He found her in a sequestered corner of the fresh-swabbed quarter-deck. She wore her Army clothes—she had come on board in one of the muslins—and she was softly crying. From the jetty on the other side of the ship arose, amid tramping feet and shouted orders and the creaking of the luggage-crane, the overruling sound of a hymn. Ensign Sand and a company had come apparently to pay the last rites to a fellow-officer whom they should no more meet on earth, bearing her heavenly commission.
"Farewell, faithful friend, we must now bid adieu To those joys and pleasures we've tasted with you. We've laboured together, united in heart, But now we must close, and soon we must part."
They had said good-bye to her and God bless you, all of them, but they evidently meant to sing the ship out of port. Lindsay sat down beside the victim of the demonstration and quietly took her hand. There was a consciousness newly guilty in his discomfort, which he owed perhaps to a ghost of futility that seemed to pace up and down before him, between the ranks of the steamer-chairs. Nevertheless, as she presently turned a calmed face to him with her pale apology, he had the sensation of a rebound toward the ideal that had finally perished in the spotted muslin, and when a little later he watched the long backward trail of smoke as the steamer moved down the clear morning river, he remembered that it was a satisfaction to have prevailed.
The Sutlej had gone far on her tranquil course by the evening of a dinner in Middleton street, at which the guests, it was understood, were to proceed later to a party given at Government House by his Excellency the Viceroy. Alicia, when she included Duff in her invitations, felt an assurance that the steamer must by that time have reached Aden, and rose almost with buoyancy to the illusion you can make, if you like, with the geographical mile. She could hardly have left him out in any case—he could almost have demanded an explanation—since it was one of those parties which she gave every now and then, undiscouraged, with the focus of Hilda Howe. It had to be every now and then, because Calcutta society was so little adapted to appreciate meeting talented actresses—there were so many people whom Alicia had to consider as to whether they would "mind." Hilda marvelled at the sanguine persistence of Miss Livingstone's efforts in this direction, the results were so fragmentary, so dislocated and indecisive, but she also rejoiced. She took life, as may have appeared, at a broad and generous level, it quite comprehended the salient points of a Calcutta dinner party; and it was seldom that she failed, metaphorically speaking, to carry away a bone from the feast. If you found this reprehensible, she would have told you she had observed that they do it in Japan, where manners are the best in the world.
Doubtless Hilda would have dwelt longer upon such a dinner-party than I, with no consolatory bone to gnaw in private, find myself inclined to do. To me it is depressing, and a little cruel, to be compelled to betray the inadequacy of the personal element at Alicia's banquets, especially in connection with the conspicuous excellence of the cooking. A poverty of cuisine would have provoked no contrast, and one irony the less would have been offered up to the gods that season. The limitations of her resources were, of course, arbitrary, that is plain in the fact that she asked such a person as the Head of the Department of Education, with no better reason than that he had laid almost the whole of Shelley under critical notes for the benefit of Calcutta University, and the necessary item, his wife, who did even less harm by making exquisite lampshades. There was a civilian who had written a few years before an article in the Nineteenth Century about the aboriginal tribes of Madras, and the lady attached to him, who had been at one time the daughter of a Lieutenant-Governor. The Barberrys were there because Mrs. Barberry loved meeting anybody that was clever, admired brains beyond anything; and an Aide-de-Camp who had to be asked because Mrs. Barberry was, and Captain Salter Symmes, who took leading male parts in Mr. Pinero's plays when they were produced in Simla, and was invariably considered up there to have done them better than any professional they have at home, though he was even more successful as a contortionist when the entertainment happened to be a burlesque. Taking Hilda and Lindsay and Stephen Arnold as a basis, Alicia had built up her party, with the contortionist, as it were, at the apex, on his head. The Livingstones had family connection with a leading London publishing firm, and Alicia may possibly have reflected, as she surveyed her completed work, how much better than capering captains she could have done in Chelsea, though it cannot be admitted likely that she would harbour, at that particular instant, so ungracious a thought. And indeed it was a creditable party; it would almost unanimously call itself, next day, a delightful one. Miss Howe made the most agreeable excitement—you might almost have heard the heart-beats of the wife of the literary and on one occasion current civilian, as she just escaped being introduced, and so availed herself of the dinner's opportunity for intimate observation without letting herself in a particle—most clever. Mrs. Barberry, of course, rushed upon the spear, as she always did, and made a gushing little speech, with every eye upon her, in the middle of the room, without a thought of consequences. The Aide-de-Camp was also empresse, one would have thought that he was acting himself, the way he bowed and picked up Hilda's fan—a grace lingered in it from the minuet he had danced the week before, in ruffles and patches, with the daughter of the Commander-in-Chief. Duff got out of the way to enable the newly-introduced Head of the Department of Education to inform Miss Howe that he never went to the theatre in Calcutta himself, it was much too badly ventilated; and Stephen Arnold, arriving late, shot like an embarrassed arrow through the company to Alicia's side, and was still engaged there in grieved explanation when dinner was announced.
There were pink water-lilies, and Stephen said grace—those were the pictorial features. Half of the people had taken their seats when he began; there was a hasty scramble, and a decorous, half-checked smile. Hilda, at the first word of the brief formula, blushed hotly; then she stood while he spoke, with bowed head and clasped hands, like a reverently inclining statue. Her long lashes brushed her cheek; she drew a kind of isolation from the way her manner underlined the office. The civilian's wife, with a side-glance, settled it off-hand that she was absurdly affected; and, indeed, to an acuter intelligence it might have looked as if she took, with the artistry of habit, a cue that was not offered.
That was the one instant, however, in which the civilian's wife, observing the actress, was gratified; and it was so brief that she complained afterward that Miss Howe was disappointing. She certainly went out of her way to be normal. Since it was her daily business to personate exceptional individuals, it seemed to be her pleasure that night to be like everybody else. She did it on opulent lines; there was a richness in her agreement that the going was as hard as iron on the Ellenborough course, and a soft ingenuousness in her inquiries about punkahs and the brain-fever bird that might have aroused suspicion, but after a brief struggle to respond to the unusualness she ought to have represented, Alicia's guests gratefully accepted her on their own terms instead. She expanded in the light and the glow and the circumstance; she looked with warm pleasure at the orchids the men wore and the jewelled necks of the women. The social essence of Alicia's little dinner-party passed into her, and she moved her head like the civilian's wife. She felt the champagne investing her chatter and the chatter of the Head of the Department of Education with the most satisfying qualities, which were only very slightly dashed when she glanced over the brim of her glass at Stephen, sitting at the turn of the oval, giving a gravely humble but perfunctory attention to Mrs. Barberry and drinking water. The occasion grew before her into a gorgeous flower, living, pulsating, and in the heart of its light and colour the petals closed over her secret, over him, the unconscious priest with the sloping shoulders, thinking of abstinence and listening to Mrs. Barberry.
It transpired, when the men came up, that there was no unanimity about going to Government House. The Livingstones craved the necessity of absence, if anyone would supply it by staying on; it would be a boon, they said, and cited the advancement of the season. "One gets to bed so much earlier," Surgeon-Major Livingstone urged, at which Alicia raised her eyebrows and everybody laughed. Lindsay elected to gratify them, with the proclaimed purpose of seeing how long Livingstone could be kept up, and the civilian pair agreed, apparently from an inert tendency to remain seated. The Aide-de-Camp had, of course, to go; duty called him; and he declared a sense of slighted hospitality that anybody should remain behind. "Besides," he cried, with ingenuous privilege, "who's goin' to chaperone Miss Howe?"
Hilda stood in the midst. Tall in violet velvet, she had a flush that made her magnificent; her eyes were deep and soft. It was patent that she was out of proportion to the other women, body and soul; there was altogether too much of her; and it was only the men, when Captain Corby spoke, who looked silently responsive.
"We're coming away so early," said Mrs. Barberry, buttoning her glove. Hilda had begun to smile, and, indeed, the situation had its humour, but there was also behind her eyes an appreciation of another sort. "Don't," she said to Alicia, in the low, quick reach of her prompting tone, as if the other had mistaken her cue, but the moment hardly permitted retreat, and Alicia turned an unflinching, graceful front to the lady in the Department of Education. "Then I think I must ask you," she said.
The educational husband was standing so near Hilda that she got the very dregs of the glance of consternation his little wife gave him as she replied, a trifle red and stiff, that she was sure she would be delighted.
"Nobody suggests me!" exclaimed Captain Corby, resentfully. They were gathered in the hall, the carriages were driving to the open door, the Barberrys' glistening brougham whisking them off, and then the battered vehicle in Hilda's hire. It had an air of ludicrous forlornity, with its damaged paint and its tied-up harness. Hilda, when its door closed upon the purple vision of her, might have been a modern Cinderella in mid-stage of backward transformation.
"I could chaperone you all!" she cried gaily back at them as she passed down the steps; and in the relief of the general exclamation it seemed reasonable enough that Stephen Arnold should lean into the gharry to see that she was quite comfortable. The unusual thing, which nobody else heard, was that he said to her then with shamed discomfort, "It doesn't matter—it doesn't matter," and that Hilda, driving away, found herself without a voice to answer the good-nights they chorussed after her.
Arnold begged a seat in Captain Corby's dog-cart, and Hilda, with her purple train in her lap, heard the wheels following all the way. She re-encountered the lady to whom she had been entrusted, whose name it occurs to me was Winstick, in the cloak-room. They were late; there was hardly anybody else but the attendants; and Mrs. Winstick smiled freely and said she loved the colour of Hilda's dress; also that she would give worlds for an invisible hair-pin—oh, thank you!—and that it was simply ducky of her Excellency to have pink powder as well as white put out. She did hope Miss Howe would enjoy the evening—they would meet again later on; she must not forget to look at the chunam pillars in the ball-room—perfectly lovely. So she vanished; but Hilda went with certainty into the corridor to find Arnold pacing up and down the red strip of carpet, with his hands clasped behind him and his head thrust forward, waiting for her.
They dropped together into the crowd and walked among well-dressed woman, men in civilian black and men in uniform, up and down the pillared spaces of the ball-room. People had not been asked to dance, and they seemed to walk about chiefly for observation. There was, of course, the opportunity of talking and of listening to the band which discoursed in a corner behind palms, but the distraction which is the social Nemesis of bureaucracy was in the air, visibly increasing in the neighbourhoods of the Viceroy and the Commander-in-Chief, and made the commonplaces people uttered to each other disjointed and fragmentary, while it was plain that few were aware whether music was being rendered or not. Anyone sensitive to pervading mental currents in gatherings of this sort would have found the relief of concentration and directness only near the buffet that ran along one side of the room, where the natural instinct played, without impediment, upon soup and sandwiches.
They did not look much at Hilda, even on the arm of her liveried priest. She was a strange vessel, sailing in from beyond their ken, and her pilot was almost as novel, yet they were incurious. Their interests were not in any way diffused: they had one straight line and it led upward, pausing at the personalities clerked above them, with an ultimate point in the head of a department. The Head of the Department was the only person unaware, when addressed, of a travelling eye in search over his shoulder of somebody with whom it would be more advantageous to converse. Yet there were a few people apparently not altogether indifferent to the presence of Miss Howe. She saw them here and there, and when Arnold said, "It must seem odd to you, but I know hardly anybody here. We attempt no social duties," she singled out this one and that, whom Alicia had asked to meet her, and mentioned them to him with a warm pleasure in implying one of the advantages of belonging to the world rather than to the cloister. Stephen knew their names and their dignities. He received what she said with suitably impressed eyebrow and nods of considerate assent. Hilda carried him along, as it were, in their direction. She was full that night of a triumphant sense of her own vitality, her success and value as a human unit. There was that in her blood which assured her of a welcome; it had logic in it, with the basis of her rarity, her force, her distinction among other women. She pressed forward to human fellowship with a smile on her lips, as a delightful matter of course, going toward the people who were not indifferent to the fact that she was there, who could not be entirely, since they had some sort of knowledge of her.
In no case did they ignore her, but they were so cheerfully engaged in conversation that they were usually quite oblivious of her. She encountered this animated absorption two or three times, then, turning, she found that the absorbed ones had changed their places—were no longer in her path. One lady put herself at a safe distance and then bowed with much cordiality. It was extraordinary in a group of five how many glistening backs would be presented, quite without offence, to her approach. Mrs. Winstick had hidden behind the Superintendent of Stamps and Stationery, to whom she was explaining, between spoonfuls of strawberry ice her terrible situation. And from the lips of another lady, whose face she knew, she heard after she had passed, "Don't you think it's rather an omnium gatherum?"
It was like Hilda Howe to note at that moment, with serious interest, how the little world about them had the same negative attitude for the missionary priest beside her, presenting it with a hardly perceptible difference. Within its limits there was plainly no room for him either. His acquaintances—he had a few—bowed with the kind of respect which implies distance, and in the wandering eyes of the others it was plain that he did not exist. She saw, too, with a very delicate pleasure, that he carried himself in his grave humility untouched and unconscious. Expecting nothing, he was unaware that he received nothing. It was odd, and in its way charming, that she who saw and knew drew from their mutual grievance a sense of pitiful protection for him, the unconscious one. For herself, the tide that bore her on was too deep to let these things hurt her; she looked down and saw the soreness and humiliation of them pictorially, at the bottom, gliding smoothly over. They brought no stereotype to her smile, no dissonance to what she found to say. When at last she and Arnold sat down together her standpoint was still superior, and she herself was so aloof from it all that she could talk about it without bitterness, divorcing the personal pang from a social manifestation of some dramatic value. In offering up her egotism that way she really only made more subtle sacrifices to it, but one could hardly expect such a consideration, just then, to give her pause. She anointed his eyelids, she made him see, and he was relieved to find in her light comment that she took the typical Mrs. Winstick less seriously than he had supposed when they drove away from the Livingstones'. It could not occur to him to correct the impression he had then by the sound of his own voice uttering sympathy.
"But I know now what a wave feels like dashing against a cliff," she said. "Fancy my thinking I could impose myself! That is the wave's reflection."
"It goes back into the sea, which is its own; and there," said the priest, whom nature had somehow cheated by the false promise of high moralities out of an inheritance of beauty, "and there, I think, is depth and change and mystery, with joy in the obedience of the tides and a full beating upon many shores——"
"Ah, my sea! I hear it calling always, even," she said half-reflectively, "when I am talking to you. But sometimes I think I am not a wave at all, only a shell, to be stranded and left, always with the calling in my ears"—she seemed to have dropped altogether into reverie, and then looked up suddenly, laughing, because he could not understand.
"After all," she said practically, "what has that to do with it? One doesn't blame these people. They are stupid—that's all. They want the obvious. The leading lady of Mr. Llewellyn Stanhope—without the smallest diamond—who does song and dance on Saturday nights—what can you expect. If I were famous they would be pleased enough to see me. It is one of the rewards of the fame." She was silent for a moment, and then she added, "They are very poor."
"Those rewards! I have sometimes thought," Arnold said, "that you were not devoured by thirst for them."
"When we are together, you and I," she answered simply, "I never am."
He took it at its face value. They had had some delightful conversations. If her words awakened anything in him it was the remembrance of these. The solace of her companionship presented itself to him again, and her statement gave their mutual confidence another seal; that was all. They sat where they were for half an hour, and something like antagonism and displeasure toward the secretaries' wives settled upon them, for which Hilda, interrupting a glance or two from the ladies purring past, drew suspicion. "I am going now," she said. "It—it isn't quite suitable here," and there was just enough suggestion in the point of her fan to make him think of his frock. "It is an unpardonable truth that if we stay any longer I shall make people talk about you."
He turned astonished eyes upon her, eyes in which she remembered afterward there was absolutely nothing but a literal and pained apprehension of what she said. "You are a good woman," he exclaimed. "How could such a thing be possible?"
The faintest embarrassment, the merest suggestion of distress, came into her face and concentrated in her eyes, which she fixed upon him as if she would bring his words to the last analysis and answer him as she would answer a tribunal.
"A good woman?" she repeated. "I don't know—isn't that a refinement of virtue? No, standing on my sex, I make no claim, but as people go I am good. Yes, I am good."
"In my eyes you are splendid," he replied, content, and gave her his arm. They went together through the reception-rooms, and the appreciation of her grew in him. If in the bright and silken distance he had not seen his Bishop it might have glowed into a cordiality of speech with his distinctive individual stamp on it. But he saw his Bishop, his ceinture tightened on him, and he uttered only the trite saying about the folly of counting on the sensibility of swine.
"Yes," she laughed into her good-night to him, "but I'm not sure that it isn't better to be the pig than the pearl."
"Not long ago," said Hilda, "I had a chat with him. We sat on the grass in the middle of the Maidan, and there was nothing to interfere with my impressions?"
"What were your impressions? No!" Alicia cried. "No! Don't tell me. It is all so peaceful now, and simple, and straightforward. You think such extraordinary things. He comes here quite often, to talk about her. He is coming this afternoon. So I have impressions too—and they are just as good."
"All right." Hilda crossed her knees more comfortably. "What did you say the Surgeon-Major paid for those Teheran tiles?"
"Something absurd—I've forgotten. He writes to her regularly, diary letters, by every mail."
"Do you tell him what to put into them?"
"Hilda, sometimes—you're positively coarse."
"I dare say, my dear. You didn't come out of a cab, and you never are. I like being coarse, I feel nearer to nature then, but I don't say that as an excuse. I like the smell of warm kitchens and the talk of bus-drivers, and bread and herrings for my tea—all the low satisfactions appeal to me. Beer, too, and hand-organs."
"I don't know when to believe you. He talks about her quite freely, and—and so do I. She is really interesting in her way."
"And in perspective."
"Don't be odiously smart. He and Stephen"—her glance was tentative—"have made it up."
"He admits now that Stephen was justified, from his point of view. But of course that is easy enough when you have come off best."
"Hilda, what do you think?"
"Oh, I think it's damnable—you have always known what I think. Have you seen him lately—I mean your cousin?"
"He lunched with us yesterday. He was more enthusiastic than ever about you."
"I wish you could tell me that he hadn't mentioned my name. I don't want his enthusiasm. The pit gives one that."
"Hilda, tell me; what is your idea of—of what it ought to be? What is the principal part of it? Not enthusiasm—adoration?"
"Goodness, no! Something quite different and quite simple—too simple to explain. Besides, it is a thing that requires the completest ignorance to discuss comfortably. Do you want me to vivisect my soul? You yourself, can you talk about what most possesses you?"
"Oh," protested Alicia, "I wasn't thinking about myself," and at the same moment the door opened and Hilda said, "Ah, Mr. Lindsay!"
There was a hint of the unexpected in Duff's response to Miss Howe's greeting, and a suggestion in the way he sat down that this made a difference, and that it would be necessary to find other things to say. He found them with facility, while Hilda decided that she would finish her tea before she went. Alicia, busy with the urn, seemed satisfied to abandon them to each other, to take a decorative place in the conversation, interrupting it with brief inquiries about cream and sugar. Alicia waited; it was her way; she sank almost palpably into the tapestries until some reviving circumstance should bring her out again, a process which was quite compatible with her little laughs and comments. She waited, offering repose, and unconscious even of that. You know Hilda Howe as a creature of bold reflections. Looking at Alicia Livingstone behind the tea-pot, the conviction visited her that a sex three-quarters of this fibre explained the monastic clergy.
"It is reported that you have performed the wonderful, the impossible," Lindsay said; "that Llewellyn Stanhope goes home solvent."
"I don't know how he can help it now. But I have to be very firm with him. He's on his knees to me to do Ibsen. I tell him I will if he'll combine with Jimmy Finnigan and bring the Surprise Party on between the acts. The only way it would go, in this capital."
"Oh, do produce Ibsen," Alicia exclaimed. "I've never seen one of his plays—doesn't it sound terrible?"
"If people will elect to live upon a coral strand—oh, I should like to, for you and Duff here, but Ibsen is the very last man to deliver to a scratch company. He must have equal merit, or there's no meaning. You see, he makes none of the vulgar appeals. It would be a tame travesty—nobody could redeem it alone. You must keep to the old situations, the reliable old dodges, when you play in any part of Asia."
"I never shall cease to regret that I didn't see you in The Reproach of Galilee" Duff said; "everyone who knows the least bit about it said you were marvellous in that."
"Marvellous," said Alicia.
Hilda gazed straight before her for an instant without speaking. The others looked at her absent eyes. "A bazaar trick or two helped me," she said, and glanced with vivacity at any other subject that might be hanging on the wall or visible out of the window.
"And are you really invincible about not putting it on again in Calcutta?" Duff asked.
"Not in Calcutta, or anywhere. The rest hate it—nobody has a chance but me," Hilda said, and got up.
"Oh, I don't know," Alicia began, but Miss Howe was already half way out of the discussion in the direction of the door. There was often a brusqueness in her comings and goings, but she usually left a flavour of herself behind. One turned with facility to talk about her, this being the easiest way of applying the stimulus that came of talking to her. It was more conspicuous than either of these two realised that they accepted her retreat without a word, that there was even between them a consciousness of satisfaction that she had gone.
"This morning's mail," said Alicia, smiling brightly at him, "brought you a letter, I know." It was extraordinary how detached she was from her vital personal concern in him. It seemed relegated to some background of her nature while she occupied herself with the play of circumstances or was lost in her observation of him.
"How kind of you to think of it," Lindsay said. "This was the first by which I could possibly hear from England."
"Ah, well, now you will have no more anxiety. Letters from on board ship are always difficult to write and unsatisfactory," Alicia said. Miss Filbert's had been postcards, with a wide unoccupied margin at the bottom.
"The Sutlej seems to have arrived on the 3rd; that's a day later, isn't it, than we made out she would be?"
Alicia consulted her memory and found she couldn't be sure. Lindsay was vexed by a similar uncertainty, but they agreed that the date was early in the month.
"Did they get comfortably through the Canal? I remember being tied up there for forty-eight hours once."
"I don't think she says, so I fancy it must have been all right. The voyage is bound to do her good. I've asked the Simpsons to watch particularly for any sign of malaria later, though. One can't possibly know what she may have imported from that slum in Bentinck street."
"And what was it like after Gibraltar?" Alicia asked, with a barely perceptible glance at the envelope edges showing over his breast pocket.
"I'll look," and he sorted one out. It was pink and glossy, with a diagonal water-stripe. Lindsay drew out the single sheet it contained, and she could see that every line was ruled and faintly pencilled. "Let me see," said he. "To begin at the beginning: 'We arrived home on the 3rd'—you see it was the 3rd—'making very slow progress the last day on account of a fog in the Channel'—ah, a fog in the Channel!—'which was a great disappointment to some on board who were impatient to meet their loved ones. One lady had not seen her family of five for seven years. She said she would like to get out and swim, and you could not wonder. She was my s—stable companion.'".
"Quaint!" said Alicia.
"She has picked up the expression on board, 'So—so she told me this.' Oh, yes. 'Now that it is all over I have written the voyage down among my mercies in spite of three days' sickness, when you could keep nothing on'—What are these two words, Miss Livingstone? I can't quite make them out."
"Oh, quite so. Thanks!—'in the Bay of Biscay.' You see, it was rough after Gib. 'Everybody was'—Yes. 'The captain read Church of England prayers on Sunday mornings, in which I had no objection to join, and we had mangoes every day for a week after leaving Ceylon.'"
"Miss Filbert was so fond of mangoes," Alicia said.
"Was she? 'The passengers got up two dances, and quite a number of gentlemen invited me, but I declined with thanks, though I would not say it is wrong in itself.'" Lindsay seemed to waver; her glance went near enough to him to show her that his face had a red tinge of embarrassment. He looked at the letter uncertainly, on the point of folding it up.
"You see she hasn't danced for so long," Alicia put in quickly; "she would naturally hesitate about beginning again with anybody but you. I shouldn't wonder," she added gently, "if she never does, with anybody else."
"I know it's an idea some women have," he replied, gratefully attributing it to her of whom they spoke. "I think it's rather—nice."
"And her impressions of the Simpsons—and Plymouth?"
"She goes on to that." He re-consulted the letter. "'Mr. and Mrs. Simpson met me as expected and welcomed me very affably.' She has got hold of a wrong impression there, I fancy; the Simpsons couldn't be 'affable.' 'They seem very kind and pleasant for such stylish people, and their house is lovely, with electric light in the parlour and hot and cold water throughout. They seem very earnest people and have family prayers regularly, but I have not yet been asked to lead. Four servants come in to prayers. Mr. and Mrs. Simpson are deeply interested in the work of the Army, though I think Plymouth, as a whole, is more taken up with the C. M. S.; but we cannot have all things.' Dear me, yes! I remember those evangelical teas and the disappointment that I could not speak more definitely about the work among the Sontalis."
"Fancy her having caught the spirit of the place already!" exclaimed Alicia. He went on: "'Mr. and Mrs. Simpson have a beautiful garden and grow most of their own vegetables. We sit in it a great deal and I think of all that has passed. I hope ever that it has been for the best and pray for you always. Oh, that your feet may be set in the right path and that we may walk hand in hand upon the way to Zion!'"
Lindsay lowered his voice and read the last sentences rapidly, as if the propulsion of the first part of the letter sent him through them. Then he stopped abruptly, and Alicia looked up.
"That's all, only," he added with an awkward smile, "the usual formula."
"'God bless you'?" she asked, and he nodded.
"It has a more genuine ring than most formulas," she observed.
"Yes, hasn't it? May I have another cup?" He restored the pink sheet to its pink envelope and both to his breast pocket while she poured out the other cup, but Miss Filbert was still present with them. They went on talking about her, and entirely in the tone of congratulation—the suitability of the Simpsons, the suitability of Plymouth, the probability that she would entirely recover, in its balmy atmosphere, her divine singing voice. Plymouth certainly was in no sense a tonic, but Miss Filbert didn't need a tonic; she was too much inclined to be strung up as it was. What she wanted was the soothing, quieting influence of just Plymouth's meetings and just Plymouth's teas. The charms that so sweetly and definitely characterised her would expand there; it was a delightful flowery environment for them, and she couldn't fail to improve in health. Devonshire's visitors got tremendously well fed, with fish items of especial excellence.
Nobody could have been more impressed with Hilda's influence upon Mr. Llewellyn Stanhope's commercial probity than Mr. Llewellyn Stanhope himself. He was a prey to all noble feelings; they ruled his life and spoiled his bargains; and gratitude, when it had a chance, which was certainly seldom in connection with leading ladies, dominated him entirely. He sat in the bar of the Great Eastern Hotel with tears in his eyes, talking about what Miss Howe had done for him, and gave unnecessary backsheesh to coolies who brought him small bills—so long, that is, as they were the small bills of this season. When they had reference to the liabilities of a former and less prosperous year he waved them away with a bitter levity which belonged to the same period. His view of his obligations was strictly chronological, and in taking it he counted, like the poet, only happy hours. The bad debt and the bad season went consistently together to oblivion; the sun of to-day's remarkable receipts could not be expected to penetrate backwards. He had only one fault to find with Miss Howe—she had no artistic conscience, none whatever, and he found this with the utmost leniency, basking in the consciousness that it made his own more conspicuous. She was altogether in the grand style, if you understood Mr. Stanhope, but nothing would induce her to do herself justice before Calcutta; she seemed to have taken the measure of the place and to be as indifferent! Try to ring in anything worth doing and she was off with the bit between her teeth, and you simply had to put up with it. The second lead had a great deal more ambition, and a very good little woman in her way, too, but of course not half the talent. He was obliged to confess that Miss Howe wasn't game for risks, especially after doing her Rosalind the night the circus opened to a twenty-five rupee house. It was monstrous. She seemed to think that nothing mattered so much as that everybody should be paid on the first of the month. There was one other grievance, which Llewellyn mentioned only in confidence with a lowered voice. That was Bradley. Hilda wasn't lifting a finger to keep Bradley. Result was, Bradley was crooking his elbow a great deal too often lately and going off every way. He, Llewellyn, had put it to her if that was the way to treat a man the Daily Telegraph had spoken about as it had spoken about Hamilton Bradley. Where was she—where was he—going to find another? No, he didn't say marry Bradley; there were difficulties, and after all that might be the very way to lose him. But a woman had an influence, and that influence could never be more fittingly exercised than in the cause of dramatic art, based on Mr. Stanhope's combinations. Mr. Stanhope expressed himself more vaguely, but it came to that.
Perhaps if you pursued Llewellyn, pushed him, as it were, along the track of what he had to put up with, you would have come upon the further fact that as a woman of business Miss Howe had no parallel for procrastination. Next season was imminent in his arrangements, as Christmas numbers are imminent to publishers at midsummer, and here she was shying at a contract as if they had months for consideration. It wasn't, either, as if she complained of anything in the terms—that would be easy enough fixed—but she said herself that it was a bigger salary than he, Llewellyn, would ever be able to pay unless she went round with the hat. Nor had she any objection to the tour—a fascinating one—including the Pacific Slope and Honolulu. It stumped him, Llewellyn, to know what she did object to and why she couldn't bark it out at once, seeing she must understand perfectly well it was no use his going to Bradley without first settling with her.
Hilda, alone in her own apartment—it was difficult to keep Llewellyn Stanhope away from even that door in his pursuit of her signature—considered the vagary life had become for her, it was so whimsical, and the mystery of her secret which was so solely hers. Alicia knew, of course; but that was much as if she had written it down on a sheet of perfect notepaper and locked it up in a drawer. Alicia did not speculate about it, and the whole soul of it was tangled now in a speculation. There had been a time filled with the knowledge and the joy of this new depth in her, like a buoyant sea, and she had been content to float in it, imagining desirable things. Stanhope's waiting contract made a limit to the time—a limit she brought up against without distress or shock, but with a kind of recognising thrill in contact at last with the necessity for action, decision, a climax of high heart-beats. She saw with surprise that she had lived with her passion these weeks and months half consciously expecting that a crucial moment would dissolve it, like a person aware that he dreams and will presently awake. She had not faced till now any exigency of her case. But the crucial moment had leapt upon her, pointing out the subjection of her life, and she, undefended, sought only how to accomplish her bonds.
Certainly she saw no solution that did not seem monstrous; yet every pulse in her demanded a solution; there was no questioning the imperious need. She had the fullest, clearest view of the situation, and she looked at it without flinching and without compromise. Above all, she had true vision of Stephen Arnold, glorifying nowhere, extenuating nothing. It was almost cruel to be the victim of such circumstance and be denied the soft uses of illusion; but if that note of sympathy had been offered to Hilda she would doubtless have retorted that it was precisely because she saw him that she loved him. His figure, in its poverty and austerity, was always with her; she made with the fabric of her nature a kind of shrine for it, enclosing, encompassing, and her possession of him, by her knowledge, was deep and warm and protecting. I think the very fulness of it brought her a kind of content with which, but for Llewellyn and his contract, she would have been willing to go on indefinitely. It made him hers in a primary and essential way, beside which any mere acknowledgment or vow seemed chiefly decorative, like the capital of a pillar firmly rooted. There may be an appearance that she took a good deal for granted; but if there is, I fear that in the baldness of this history it has not been evident how much and how variously Arnold depended on her, in how many places her colour and her vitality patched out the monkish garment of his soul—this with her enthusiasm and her cognisance. It may be remembered, too, that there was in the very tenderness of her contemplation of the priest in her path an imperious tinge born of the way men had so invariably melted there. Certainly they had been men and not priests; but the little flickering doubt that sometimes leaped from this source through the glow of her imagination she quenched very easily with the reflection that such a superficies was after all a sophistry, and that only its rudiments were facts. She proposed, calmly and lovingly, to deal with the facts.
She told herself that she would not be greedy about the conditions under which she should prevail; but her world had always, always shaped itself answering her hand, and if she cast her eyes upon the ground now, and left the future, even to-morrow, undevisaged, it was because she would not find any concessions among its features if she could help it. It was a trick she played upon her own consciousness; she would not look; but she could see without looking. She saw that which explained itself to be best, fittest, most reasonable, and thus she sometimes wandered with Arnold anticipatively, on afternoons when there was no matinee, through the perfumed orange orchards of Los Angeles, on the Pacific slope.
She would not search to-morrow; but she took toward it one of those steps of vague intention, at the end of which we beckon to possibilities. She wrote to Stephen and asked him to come to see her then. She had not spoken to him since the night of the Viceroy's party, when she put her Bohemian head out of the ticca-gharry to wish him good-night, and he walked home alone under the stars, trying to remember a line of Horace, a chaste one, about woman's beauty. She sent the note by post. There was no answer but that was as usual; there never was an answer unless something prevented him; he always came, and ten minutes before the time. Hilda sat under the blue umbrellas when the hour arrived, devising with full heart-beats what she would say, creating fifty different forms of what he would say, while the hands slipped round the clock past the moment that should have brought his step to the door. Hilda noted it and compared her watch. A bowl of roses stood on a little table near a window; she got up and went to it, bending over and rearranging the flowers. The light fell on her and on the roses; it was a beautiful attitude, and when at a footfall she looked up expectantly it was more beautiful. But it was only another boarder—a Mr. Gonzalves, with a highly-varnished complexion, who took off his hat elaborately as he passed the open door. Hilda became conscious of her use of the roses and abandoned them. Presently she sat down on a Bentwood rocking-chair and swayed to and fro, aware of an ebbing of confidence. Half an hour later she was still sitting there. Her face had changed, something had faded in it; her gaze at the floor was profoundly speculative, and when she glanced at the empty door it was with timidity. Arnold had not come and did not come.
The evening passed without explanation, and next morning the post brought no letter. It was simplest to suppose that her own had not reached him, and Hilda wrote again. The second letter she sent by hand, with a separate sheet of paper addressed for signature. The messenger brought back the sheet of paper with strange initials, "J. L. for S. A.," and there was no reply. There remained the possibility of absence from Calcutta, of illness. That he should have gone away was most unlikely, that he had fallen ill was only too probable. Hilda looked from her bedroom window across the varying expanse of parapeted flat roofs and mosque bubbles that lay between her and College street, and curbed the impulse in her feet that would have resulted in the curious spectacle of Llewellyn Stanhope's leading lady calling in person at a monastic gate to express a kind of solicitude against which precisely it was barred. A situation, after all, could be too pictorial, looked at from the point of view of the Order, a consideration which flashed with grateful humour across her anxiety. Alicia would have known; but both the Livingstones had gone for a short sea change to Ceylon with Duff Lindsay and some touring people from Surrey. They were most anxious, Hilda remembered, that Arnold should accompany them. Could he in the end have gone? There was, of course, the accredited fount and source of all information, the Brother Superior; but with what propriety could Hilda Howe apply for it? Llewellyn might write for her: but it was glaringly impossible that the situation should lay itself so far open to Llewellyn. Looking in vain for resources she came upon an expedient. She found a sheet of cheap notepaper, and made it a little greasy. On it she wrote with red ink in the cramped hand of the bazaar Kerani:
[Footnote 9: Hired writer.]
"Sir:—Will you please to inform to me if Mr. Arnold has gone mofussil or England as I have some small business with him. Yours obedient servant,
"It can't be forgery," she reflected, "since there isn't a Wun Sing," and added an artistic postscript, "Boots and shoes verry much cheap for cash." She made up the envelope to match and addressed it, with consistent illiteracy, to the head of the mission. The son of the Chinese basketmaker, who dwelt almost next door, spoke neither English nor Hindustani, but showed an easy comprehension of her promise of backsheesh when he should return with an answer. She had a joyful anticipation, while she waited, of the terms in which she should tell Arnold how she passed, disguised as a Chinese shoemaker, before the receptive and courteous consciousness of his spiritual senior; of how she penetrated, in the suggestion of a pig-tail and an unpaid bill, within the last portals that might be expected to receive her in the form under which, for example, certain black and yellow posters were presenting her to the Calcutta public at that moment. She saw his scruples go swiftly down before her laughter and the argument of her tender anxiety, which she was quite prepared to learn foolish and unnecessary. There was even an adventurous instant in which she leaped at actual personation, and she looked in rapture at the vivid risk of the thing before she abandoned it as involving too much. She sent no receipt-form this time—that was not the practice of the bazaar—and when, hours after, her messenger returned with weariness, and dejection written upon him in the characters of a perfunctory Chinese smile, she could only gather from his negative head and hands that no answer had been given him, and that her expedient had failed.
Hilda stared at her dilemma. Its properties were curiously simple. His world and hers, with the same orbit, had no point of contact. Once swinging round their eastern centre, they had come close enough for these two, leaning very far out, to join hands. When they loosed it seemed they lost.
The more she gazed at it the more it looked a preposterous thing that in a city vibrant with human communication by all the methods which make it easy, it should be possible for one individual thus to drop suddenly and completely from the knowledge of another—a mediaeval thing. Their isolation as Europeans of course accounted for it; there was no medium in the brown population that hummed in the city streets. Hilda could not even bribe a servant without knowing how to speak to him. She ravaged the newspapers; they never were more bare of reference to consecrated labours. The nearest approach to one was a paragraph chronicling a social evening given by the Wesleyans in Sudder street, with an exhibition of the cinematograph. In a moment of defiance and determination she sent a telegram studiously colourless. "Unable find you wish communicate please inform. A. Murphy." He had never forgotten the incongruity she was born to: in occasional scrupulous moments he addressed her by it; he would recognise and understand. There was no reply.
The enigma pressed upon her days, she lived in the heaviness of it, waiting. His silence added itself up, brought her a kind of shame for the exertions she had made. She turned with obstinacy from the further schemes her ingenuity presented. Out of the sum of her unsuccessful efforts grew a reproach of Arnold; every one of them increased it. His behaviour she could forgive, arbitrarily putting against it twenty potential explanations, but not the futility of what she had done. Her resentment of that undermined all the fairness of her logic, and even triumphed over the sword of her suspense. She never quite gave up the struggle, but in effect she passed the week that intervened pinioned in her unreason—bands that vanished as she looked at them, only to tie her thrice in another place.
Life became a permanent interrogation-point. Waiting under it, with a perpetual upward gaze, perhaps she grew a little dizzy. The sun of March had been increasing, and the air that Saturday afternoon had begun to melt and glow and hang in the streets with a kind of inertia, like a curtain that had to be parted to be penetrated. Hilda came into the house and faced the stairs with an inclination to leave her body on the ground floor and mount in spirit only. When she glanced in at the drawing-room door and saw Arnold sitting under the blue umbrellas, a little paler, a thought more serene than usual, she swept into the room as if a tide carried her, and sank down upon a foot-stool close to him, as if it had dropped her there. He had risen at her appearance. He was all himself but rather more the priest; his face of greeting had exactly its usual asking intelligence, but to her the fact that he was normal was lost in the fact that he was near. He held out his hand, but she only sought his face speechless, hugging her knees.
"You are overcome by the sun," he said. "Lie down for a moment," and again he offered her a hand to help her to rise. She shook her head but took his hand, enclosing it in both of hers with a sort of happy deliberation, and drew herself up by it, while her eyes, shining like dark surfaces of some glorious consciousness within, never left his face. So she stood beside him with her head bowed, still dumb. It was her supreme moment; life never again brought her anything like it. It was not that she confessed so much as that she asserted, she made a glowing thing plain, cried out to him, still standing silent, the deep-lying meaning of the tangle of their lives. She was shaken by a pure delight, as if she unclosed her hand to show him a strange jewel in her palm, hers and his for the looking. The intensity of her consciousness swept round him and enclosed him, she knew this profoundly, and had no thought of the insulation he had in his robe. The instant passed; he stood outside it definitely enough, yet some vibration in it touched him, for there was surprise in his involuntary backward step.
"You must have thought me curiously rude," he said, as if he felt about for an explanation, "but your letters were only given to me an hour ago. We have all been in retreat, you know."
"In retreat!" Hilda exclaimed. "Ah, yes. How foolish I have been! In retreat," she repeated, softly, flicking a trace of dust from his sleeve. "Of course."
"It was held in St. Paul's College," Stephen went on, "by Father Neede. Shall we sit down? And of course at such times no communications reach us, no letters or papers."
"No letters or papers," Hilda said, looking at him softly, as it were, through the film of the words. They sat down, he on the sofa, she on a chair very near it. There was another placed at a more usual distance, but she seemed incapable of taking the step or two toward it, away from him. Stephen gave himself to the grateful sense of her proximity. He had come to sun himself again in the warmth of her fellowship; he was stirred by her emphasis of their separation and reunion. "And what, please," he asked, "have you been doing? Account to me for the time?"
"While you have been praying and fasting? Wondering what you were at, and waiting for you to finish. Waiting," she said, and clasped her knees with her intent look again, swaying a little to and fro in her content, as if that which she waited for had already come, full and very desirable.
"Have you been reading——?"
"Oh, I have been reading nothing? You shall never go into retreat again," she went on, with a sudden change of expression. "It is well enough for you, but I am not good at fasting. And I have an indulgence," she added, unaware of her soft, bright audacity, "that will cover both our cases."
His face uttered aloud his reflection that she was extravagant, that it was a pity, but that what was not due to her profession might be ascribed to the simple, clear impulse of her temperament—that temperament which he had found to be a well of rare sincerity.
"I am not to go any more into retreat?" he said, in grave interrogation; but the hint of rebuke in his voice was not in his heart, and she knew it.
"No!" she cried. "You shall not be hidden away like that. You shall not go alive into the tomb and leave me at the door. Because I cannot bear it."
She leaned toward him, and her hand fell lightly on his knee. It was a claiming touch, and there was something in the unfolded sweetness of her face that was not ambiguous. Arnold received the intelligence. It came in a vague, grey, monitory form, a cloud, a portent, a chill menace; but it came, and he paled under it. He seemed to lean upon his own hands, pressed one on each side of him to the seat of the sofa for support, and he looked in fixed silence at the shapely white thing on his knee. His face seemed to wither, new lines came upon it as the impression grew in him, and the glamour faded out of hers as she was sharply reminded, looking at him, that he had not traversed the waste with her, that she had kept her vigils alone. Yet it was all said and done, and there was no repentance in her. She only gathered herself together, and fell back, as it were, upon her magnificent position. As she drew her hand away, he dropped his face into the cover of his own, leaning his elbow on his knee, and there was a pulsing silence. The instant prolonged itself.
"Are you praying?" Hilda asked, with much gentleness, almost a child-like note; and he shook his head. There was another instant's pause, and she spoke again.
"Are you so grieved, then," she said, "that this has come upon us?"
Again he held his eyes away from her, clasping his hands and looking at the thing nearest to him, while at last blood from the heart of the natural man in him came up and stained his face, his forehead under the thin ruffling of colourless hair, his neck above the white band that was his badge of difference from other men.
"I—fear—I hardly understand," he said. The words fell cramped and singly, and his lip twitched. "It—it is impossible to think——"
His eyes went in her direction, but lacked courage to go all the way. He looked as if he dared not lift his head.
One would not say that Hilda hesitated, for there was no failing in the wings of her high confidence, but she looked at him in a brave silence. Her glance had tender investigation in it; she stood on the brink of her words just long enough to ask whether they would hurt him. Seeing that they would, she nevertheless plunged, but with infinite compassion and consideration. She spoke like an agent of Fate, conscious and grieved.
"I understand," she said simply. "Sometimes, you know, we are quicker. And you in your cell, how should you find out? That is why I must tell you, because, though I am a woman, you are a priest. Partly for that reason I may speak, partly because I love you, Stephen Arnold, better and more ardently than you can ever love me, or anybody, I think, except, perhaps, your God. And I am tired of keeping silence."
She was so direct, so unimpassioned, that half his distress turned to astonishment, and he faced her as if a calm and reasoned hand had been laid upon the confusion in him. Meeting his gaze, she unbarred a flood-gate of happy tenderness in her eyes.
"Love!" he gasped in it, "I have nothing to do with that."
"Oh," she said, "you have everything to do with it."
Something leaped in him without asking his permission, assuring him that he was a man, until then a placid theory with an unconscious basis. It was therefore a blow to his saintship, or it would have been, but he warded it off, flushed and trembling. It was as if he had been ambuscaded. He had to hold himself from the ignominy of flight; he rose to cut his way out, making an effort to strike with precision.
"Some perversity has seized you," he said. The muscles about his mouth quivered, giving him a curious aspect. "You mean nothing of what you say."
"Do you believe that?"
"I—I cannot think anything else. It is the only way I can—I can—make excuse."
"Ah, don't excuse me!" she murmured, with an astonishing little gay petulance.
"You cannot have thought"—in spite of himself he made a step toward the door.
"Oh, I did think—I do think. And you must not go." She, too, stood up and stayed him. "Let us at least see clearly." There was a persuading note in her voice; one would have thought, indeed, that she was dealing with a patient, or a child. "Tell me," she clasped her hands behind her back and looked at him in marvellous, simple candour, "do I really announce this to you? Was there not in yourself anywhere—deep down—any knowledge of it?"
"I did not guess—I did not dream!"
"And—now?" she asked.
A heavenly current drifted from her, the words rose and fell on it with the most dazing suggestion in their soft hesitancy. It must have been by an instinct of her art that her hand went up to the cross on Arnold's breast and closed over it, so that he should see only her. The familiar vision of her stood close, looking things intolerably new and different. Again came out of it that sudden liberty, that unpremeditated rush and shock in him. He paled with indignation, with the startled resentment of a woman wooed and hostile. His face at last expressed something definite—it was anger. He stepped back and caught at his hat. "I am sorry," he said, "I am sorry. I thought you infinitely above and beyond all that."
Hilda smiled and turned away. If he choose, it was his opportunity to go, but he stood regarding her, twirling his hat. She sat down, clasping her knees, and looked at the floor. There was a square of sunlight on the carpet, and motes were rising in it.
"Ah well, so did I," she said meditatively, without raising her eyes. Then she leaned back in the chair and looked at him, in her level simple way.
"It was a foolish theory," she said, "and—now—I can't understand it at all. I am amazed to find that it even holds good with you."
It was so much in the tone of their usual discussions that Arnold was conscious of a lively relief. The instinct of flight died down in him, he looked at her with something like inquiry.
"It will always be to me curious," she went on, "that you could have thought your part in me so limited, so poor. That is enough to say. I find it hard to understand, anybody would, that you could take so much pleasure in me and not—so much more." She opened her lips again, but kept back the words. "Yes," she added, "that is enough to say."
But for her colourless face and the tenseness about her lips it might have been thought that she definitely abandoned what she had learned she could not have. There was a note of acquiescence and regret in her voice, of calm reason above all; and this sense reached him, induced him to listen, as he generally listened, for anything she might find that would explain the situation. His fingers went from habit, as a man might play with his watch-chain, to the symbol of his faith; her eyes followed them, and rested mutely on the cross. There was a profundity of feeling in them, wistful, acknowledging, deeply speculative. "You could not forget that?" she said, and shook her head as if she answered herself. He looked into her upturned face and saw that her eyes were swimming.
"Never!" he said, "Never," but he walked to the nearest chair and sat down. He seemed suddenly aware that he need not go away, and his head, as it rose in the twilight against the window, was grave and calm. Without a word a great tenderness filled the space between them; an interpreting compassion went to and fro. Suddenly a new light dawned in Hilda's eyes; she leaned forward and met his in an absorption which caught them out of themselves into some space where souls wander, and perhaps embrace. The moment died away, neither of them could have measured it, and when it had finally ebbed—they were conscious of every subsiding throb—a silence came instead, like a margin for the beauty of it. After a time the woman spoke. "Once before," she began, but he put up his hand and she stopped. Then, as if she would no longer be restrained, "That is all I want," she whispered. "That is enough."
For a time they said very little, looking back upon their divine moment; the shadows gathered in the corners of the room and made quiet conversation which was almost audible in the pauses. Then Hilda began to speak, steadily, calmly. You, too, would have forgotten her folly in what she found to say, as Arnold did; you, too, would have drawn faith and courage from her face. One would not be irreverent, but if this woman were convicted of the unforgivable sin she could explain it and obtain justification rather than pardon.
"Then I may stay?" she said at the end.
"I am satisfied—if a way can be found."
"I will find a way," she replied.
After which he went back through the city streets to his disciples in new humility and profounder joy, knowing that virtue had gone out of him. She in her room where she lodged also considered the miracle, twice wonderful in that it asked no faith of her.
It is difficult to be precise about such a thing, but I should think that Hilda gave herself to the marvellous aspect of what had come and gone between them for several hours after Arnold left her. It was not for some time, at all events, that she arrived at the consideration—the process was naturally downward—that the soul of the marvel lay in the exact moment of its happening. Nothing could have been more heaven-sent than her precious perception, exactly then, that before the shining gift of Arnold's spiritual sympathy, all her desire for a lesser thing from him must creep away abashed for ever. Even when the lesser thing, by infinitely gradual expansion, again became the greater, it remained permanently leavened and lifted in her by the strange and lovely incident that had taken, for the moment, such command of her and of him. She would not question it or reason about it, perhaps with an instinct to avert its destruction; she simply drew it deeply into her content. Only its sweet deception did not stay with her, and she let that go with open hands. She wanted, more than ever, the whole of Stephen Arnold, all that was so openly the Mission's and all that was so evidently God's. It will be seen that she felt in no way compelled to advise him of this, her backsliding. I doubt whether such a perversion of her magnificent course of action ever occurred to her. It was magnificent, for it entailed a high disregarding stroke; it implied a sublime confidence of what the end would be, a capacity to wait and endure. She smiled buoyantly, in the intervals of arranging it, at the idea that Stephen Arnold stood beyond her ultimate possession.
There were difficulties, but the moment was favourable to her, more favourable than it would have been the year before, or any year but this. Before ten days had passed she was able to write to Arnold describing her plan, and she was put to it to keep the glow of success out of her letter. She kept it out, that, and everything but a calm and humble statement—any Clarke Brother might have dictated it—of what she proposed to do. Perhaps the intention was less obvious than the desire that he should approve it.
The messenger waited long by the entrance to the Mission House for an answer, exchanging, sitting on his feet, the profane talk of the bazaar with the gatekeeper of the Christians. Stephen was in chapel. There was no service; he had half an hour to rest in and he rested there. He was speculating, in the grateful dimness, about the dogma—he had never quite accepted it, though Colquhoun had—of the intercessory power of the souls of saints. A converted Brahmin, an old man, had died the day before. Arnold luxuriated in the humility of thinking that he would be glad of any good word dear old Nourendra Lal could say for him. The chapel was deliciously refined. The scent of fresh-cut flowers floated upon the continual presence of the incense; a lily outlined its head against the tall carved altar-piece the Brothers had brought from Damascus. The seven brass lamps that hung from the rafters above the altar rails were also Damascene, carved and pierced so that the light in them was a still thing like a prayer; and the place breathed vague meanings which did not ask understanding. It was a refuge from the riot and squalor of the whitewashed streets with a double value and a treble charm, I. H. S. among plaster gods, a sanctuary in the bazaar. Stephen sat in it motionless, with his lean limbs crossed in front of him, until the half hour was up; then he bent his knee before the altar and went out to meet a servant at the door with Hilda's letter. The chapel opened upon an upper verandah; he crossed it to get a better light and stood to read with his back half turned upon the comers and goers.
It was her first communication since they parted, and in spite of its colourlessness, it seemed to lay strong, eager hands upon him, turning his shoulder that way, upon the world, bending his head over the page. He had not dwelt much upon their strange experience in the days that followed. It had retreated for him behind the veil of tender mystery with which he shrouded, even from his own eyes, the things that lay between his soul and God. The space from that day to this had been more than usually full of ministry; its pure uses had fallen like snow, blotting and deadening the sudden wonder that blossomed then. Latterly he had hardly thought of it.
So far was he removed, so deeply drawn again within his familiar activities, that he regarded Hilda's letter for an instant with a lip of censure, as if, for some reason, it should not have been admitted. It was, in a manner, her physical presence, the words expanded into her, through it she walked back into his life, with an interrogation. Standing there by the pillar he became gradually aware of the weight of the interrogation.
A passing Brother cast at him the sweet smile of the cloister. Arnold stopped him and transferred an immediate duty, which the other accepted with a slightly exaggerated happiness. They might have been girls together, with their apologies and protestations. The other Brother went on in a little glow of pleasure, Arnold turned back into the chapel, carrying, it seemed to him, a woman's life in his hand.
He took his seat and folded his arms almost eagerly; there was a light of concentration in his eye and a line of compression about his lips which had not marked his meditation upon Nourendra Lal. The vigour in his face suggested that he found a kind of athletic luxury in what he had to think about. Brother Colquhoun, with his flat hat clasped before his breast, passed down the aisle. Stephen looked up with a trace of impatience. Presently he rose hurriedly, as if he remembered something, and went and knelt before one of several paintings that hung upon the chapel walls. They were old copies of great works, discoloured and damaged. They had sailed round the Cape to India when the century was young, and a lady friend of the Mission had bought them at the sale of the effects of a ruined Begum. Arnold was one of those who could separate them from their incongruous history and consecrate them over again. He often found them helpful when he sought to lift his spirit, and in any special matter a special comfort. He bent for ten minutes before a Crucifixion, and then hastened back to his place. Only one reflection corrected the vigourous satisfaction with which he thought out Hilda's proposition. That disturbed him in the middle of it, and took the somewhat irrelevant form of a speculation as to whether the events of their last meeting should have had any place in his Thursday confession. He was able to find almost at once a conscientious negative for it, and it did not recur again.
He got up reluctantly when the Mission bell sounded, and indeed he had come to the end of a very absorbing interest. His decision was final against Hilda's scheme. His worn experience cried out at the sacrifice in it without the illumination—which it would certainly lack—of religious faith. She confessed to the lack, and that was all she had to say about her motive, which, of course, placed him at an immense disadvantage in considering it. But the question then descended to another plane, became merely a doubt as to the most useful employment of energy, and that doubt nobody could entertain long, nobody of reasonable breadth of view, who had ever seen her expressing the ideals of the stage. Arnold did his best to ward off all consideration which he could suspect of a personal origin, but his inveterate self-sacrifice slipped in and counted, naturally enough, under another guise, counted against her staying.
He went to his room and wrote to Hilda at once, the kindest, simplest of letters, but conveying a definitely negative note. He would have been perhaps more guarded, but it was so plainly his last word to her; Llewellyn Stanhope was proclaiming the departure of his people in ten days' time upon every blank wall. So he gave himself a little latitude, he let in an undercurrent of gentle reminiscence, of serious assurance as to the difference she had made. And when he had finally bade her begone to the light and fulness of her own life and fastened up his letter, he deliberately lifted it to his lips, and placed a trembling, awkward kiss upon it, like the kiss of an old man, perfunctory, yet bearing a tender intention.
The Livingstones and Duff Lindsay had come back, the people from Surrey having been sped upon their way to the Far East. Stephen remembered with more than his usual relish an engagement to dine that evening in Middleton street. He involuntarily glanced at his watch. It was half-past one. The afternoon looked arid, stretching between. Consulting his tablets, he found that he had nothing that was really of any consequence to do. There were items, but they were unimportant, transferable. He had dismissed Hilda Howe, but a glow from the world she helped to illumine showed seductively at the end of his day. He made an errand involving a long walk, and came back at an hour which left nothing but evensong between him and eight o'clock.
He was suddenly aware, as he talked to her later, of a keener edge to his appreciation of the charm of Alicia Livingstone. Her voyage, he assured her, had done her all the good in the world. Her delicate bloom had certainly been enhanced by it, and the graceful spring of her neck and her waist seemed to have its counterpart in a freshened poise of the agreeable things she found to say. It was delightful the way she declared herself quite a different being and the pleasure with which she moved, dragging fascinating skirts behind her, about the room. She made more of an impression upon him on the aesthetic side than she had ever done before; she seemed more highly vitalised, her fineness had greater relief and her charm more freedom. Lindsay was there, and Arnold glanced from one to the other of them, first with a start, then with a smile, at the recollection of Hilda's conception of their relations. If this were a type and instance of hopeless love he had certainly misread all the songs and sayings. He kept the idea in his mind and went on regarding her in the light of it with a pondering smile, turning it over and finding a lively pleasure in his curious acumen in such an unwonted direction. It was a very flower of emotional naivete, though a moment later he cast it from him as a weed, grown in idleness; and indeed it might have abashed him to say what concern it had in the mind of the Order of St. Barnabas. It was gratifying, nevertheless, to have his observation confirmed by the way in which Alicia leaned across him toward Lindsay with occasional references to Laura Filbert, apparently full of light-heartedness, references which Duff received in the square-shouldered, matter-of-course fashion of his countrymen approaching their nuptials in any quarter of the globe. It was gratifying, and yet it enhanced in Stephen this evening the indrawing of his under-lip, a plaintive twist of expression which spoke upon the faces of quite half the Order of patience under privation.
The atmosphere was one of congratulation; the week's Gazette had transformed Surgeon-Major Livingstone into Surgeon-Lieutenant-Colonel. The officer thus promoted, in a particularly lustrous shirt bosom—he had them laundried in England and sent out with the mails—made a serious social effort to correspond, and succeeded in producing more than one story of the Principal Medical Officer with her Majesty's forces in India which none of them heard before. They were all delighted at Herbert's step, he was just the kind of person to get a step, and to get it rather early; a sense of the propriety of it mingled with the general gratification. There was a feeling of ease among them, too, of the indefeasibly won, which the event is apt to bring even when the surgeon-lieutenant-colonelcy is most strikingly deserved. With no strain imaginable one could see the relaxation.
"We can't do much in celebration," Lindsay was saying, "but I've got a box at the theatre, if you'll come. Our people had some pomfret and oysters over on ice from Bombay this morning, and I've sent my share to Bonsard to see what he can do with it for supper. Jack Cummins and Lady Dolly are coming. By the way, what do you think the totalizator paid Lady Dolly on Saturday—six thousand!"
"Rippin'," Herbert agreed. "We'll all come—at least—I don't know. What do you say, Arnold?"
"Of course Stephen will come," Alicia urged. "Why not?" It was putting him and his gown at once beyond the operation of vulgar prejudice, intimating that they quite knew him for what he was.
"What's the piece?" Herbert inquired.
"Oh, the piece isn't up to much, I'm afraid, only that Hilda Howe is worth seeing in almost anything."
"Thanks," Stephen put in, "but I think, thanks very much, I would rather not."
"I remember," Alicia said, "you were with us the night she played in The Reproach of Galilee. I don't wonder that you do not wish to disturb that impression."
Stephen fixed his eyes upon a small pyramid of crystallized cherries immediately in front of him and appeared to consider, austerely, what form his reply should take. There was an instant's perceptible pause, and then he merely bowed toward Alicia as if vaguely to acknowledge the kindness of her recollection. "I think," he said again, "that I will not accompany you to-night, if you will be good enough to excuse me."
"You must excuse us both," Alicia said, definitely, "I should much rather stay at home and talk to Stephen."
At this they all cried out, but Miss Livingstone would not change her mind. "I haven't seen him for three weeks," she said, with gentle effrontery, making nothing of his presence, "and he's much more improving than either of you. I also shall choose the better part."
"How you can call it that, with Hilda in the balance——" Duff protested.
"But then you've invited Lady Dolly. After winning six thousand there will be no holding Lady Dolly. She'll be capable of cat-calls! How I should love," Alicia went on, "to have Hilda meet her. She would be a mine to Hilda."
"For pity's sake," cried her brother, "stop asking Hilda and people who are a mine to Hilda! It's too perceptible, the way she digs in them."
"You dear old thing, you're quite clever to-night! What difference does it make? They never know—they never dream! I wish I could dig." Alicia looked pensively at the olive between her finger and thumb.
"Thank heaven you can't," Duff said warmly. It was a little odd, the personal note. Alicia's eyes remained upon the olive.
"It's all she lives for."
"Well," Duff declared, "I can imagine higher ends."
"You're not abusing Hilda!" Alicia said, addressing the olive.
"Not at all. Only vindicating you."
It did single them out, this fencing. Herbert and Arnold sat as spectators, pushed, in a manner, aside.
"I suppose she will be off soon," Livingstone said.
"Oh, dreadfully soon. On the 15th. I had a note from her to-day."
"Did she say she was going?" Stephen asked quickly.
"She mentioned the company—she is the company, surely."
"Oh, undoubtedly. May I—might I ask for a little more soda-water, Alicia?" He made the request so formally that she glanced at him with surprise.
"Please do—but isn't it very odious, by itself, that way? I suppose we shouldn't leave out Hamilton Bradley—he certainly counts."
"For how much?" inquired her brother. "He's going to pieces."
"Hilda can pull him together again," Lindsay said incautiously.
"Has she an influence for good—over him?" Stephen inquired and cleared his throat. He caught a glance exchanged and frowned.
"Oh, yes," Duff said, "I fancy it is for good. For good, certainly. The odd part of it is that he began by having an influence over her which she declares improved her acting. So that was for good, too, as it turned out. I think she makes too much of him. To my mind, he speaks like a bit of consecrated stage tradition and looks like a bit of consecrated stage furniture—he, and his thin nose, and his thin lips, and his thin eyebrows. Personally, I'm sick of his eyebrows."
"They'll end by marrying," said Surgeon-Lieutenant-Colonel Livingstone.
"Herbert! How little you know her!"
"It's possible enough," Duff said, "especially if she finds him in any way necessary to her production of herself. Hilda has knocked about too much to have many illusions. One is pretty sure she would place that first."
"You are saying a thing which is monstrous!" cried Alicia.
Unperturbed, her brother supported his conviction. "She'll have to marry him to get rid of him," he said. "Fancy the opportunities of worrying her the brute will have in those endless ocean voyages!"
"Oh, if you think Hilda could be worried into anything!" Miss Livingstone exclaimed derisively. "If the man were irritating, do you suppose she wouldn't arrange—wouldn't find means—?"
"She would have him put in irons, no doubt," Herbert retorted, "or locked up with the other sad dogs, in charge of the ship's butcher."
The three laughed immoderately, and Stephen, looking up, came in at the end with a smile. Alicia pronounced her brother too absurd, and unfitted by nature to know anything about creatures like Hilda Howe. "A mere man to begin with," she said. "You haven't the ghost of a temperament, Herbert, you know you haven't."
"He's got a lovely bedside manner," Lindsay remarked, "and that's the next thing to it."
"Rubbish! I don't want to hurry you," Alicia glanced at the watch on her wrist, "but unless you and Herbert want to miss half the first act you had better be off. Stephen and I will have our coffee comfortably in the drawing-room and find what excuses we can for you."