But Stephen put out his hand with a movement of slightly rigid deprecation.
"If it is not too vacillating of me," he said, "and I may be forgiven, I think I will change my mind and go. I have no business to break up your party, and besides, I shall probably not have another opportunity—I should rather like to go. To the theatre, of course, that is. Not to Bonsard's, thanks very much."
"Oh, do come on to Bonsard's," Lindsay said, and Alicia protested that he would miss the best of Lady Dolly, but Stephen was firm. Bonsard's was beyond the limit of his indulgence.
Only the Sphinx confronted them, after all, when they arrived at the theatre, the Sphinx and Lady Dolly. The older feminine presentment sent her belittling gaze over their heads and beyond them from the curtain; Lady Dolly turned a modish head to greet them from the front of the box. Lady Dolly raised her eyes but not her elbows, which were assisting her a good deal with the house in exploring and being explored, enabling Colonel John Cummins, who sat by her side, to observe how very perfect and adorable the cut of her bodice was. Since Colonel Cummins was accustomed to say in moments when his humour escaped his discretion, that there was more in a good fit than meets the eye, the role of Lady Dolly's elbows could hardly be dismissed as unimportant. Moreover, the husband attached to the elbows belonged to the Department of which Colonel John was the head, so that they rested, one may say, upon a very special plane.
Alicia disturbed it with the necessity of taking Colonel Cummins' place, which Lady Dolly accepted with admirable spirit, assuring the usurper, with the most engaging candour, that she simply ought never to be seen without turquoises. "Believe it or not as you like, but I like you better every time I see you in that necklace." Lady Dolly clasped her hands, with her fan in them, in the abandonment of her affection, and "love you better" floated back and dispersed itself among the men. Alicia smiled the necessary acknowledgment. All the women she knew made compliments to her; it was a kind of cult among them. The men had sometimes an air of envying their freedom of tongue. "Don't say that," she returned lightly, "or Herbert will never give me any diamonds." She, too, looked her approval of Lady Dolly's bodice but said nothing. It was doubtless precisely because she distained certain forms of feminine barter that she got so much for nothing.
"And where," demanded Lady Dolly, in an electric whisper, "did you find that dear, sweet little priest? Do introduce him to me—at least, bye and bye, when I've thought of something to say. Let me see, wasn't it Good Friday last week? I'll ask him if he had hot-cross buns—or do people eat those on Boxing Day? Pancakes come in somewhere, if one could only be sure!"
Stephen clung persistently to the back of the box. His senses were filled for the moment by its other occupants, the men in the fresh correctness of their evening dress, whose least gesture seemed to spring from an indefinite fulness of life, the two women in front, a kind of lustrous tableau of what it was possible to choose and to enjoy. They were grouped and shut off in a high light which seemed to proceed partly from the usual sources and partly from their own personalities; he saw them in a way which underlined their significance at every point. It seemed to Stephen that in a manner he profaned this temple of what he held to be poorest and cheapest in life, a paradox of which he was but dimly aware in his dejection. A sharp impression of his physical inferiority to the other men assailed him; his appreciation of their muscular shoulders had a rasp in it. For once the poverty of spirit to which he held failed to offer him a refuge. His eye wandered restlessly as if attempting futile reconciliations, and the thing most present with him was the worn-all-day feeling about the neck of his cassock. He fixed his attention presently in a climax of passive discomfort on the curtain, where, unconsciously, his gaze crept with a subtle interrogation in it to the wide eyeballs of the Sphinx.
The stalls gradually filled, although it was a second production in the middle of the week, and although the gallery and rupee seats under it were nearly empty. The piece accounted for both. When Duff Lindsay said at dinner that it wasn't "up to much," he spoke, I fancy, from the nearest point of view he could take to that of the Order of St. Barnabas. As a matter of fact, The Victim of Virtue was up to a very great deal, but its points were so delicate that one must have been educated rather broadly to grasp them, which is again, perhaps, a foolish contrariety of terms. At all events, they carried no appeal to the theatre-goers from the sailing ships in the river or the regiments in the fort, who turned as one man that night to Jimmy Finnigan.
Stephen was aware, in the abstract, of what he might expect. He savoured the enterprises of the London theatres weekly in the Saturday Review; he had cast a remotely observing eye upon the productions of this particular playwright through that medium for a long time. They formed a manifestation of the outer world fit enough to draw a glance of speculation from the inner; their author was an acrobat of ideas. Doubtless we are all clowns in the eyes of the angels, yet we have the habit of supposing that they sometimes look down upon us. It was thus, if the parallel is not exaggerated, that Arnold regarded the author of The Victim of Virtue. His attitude was quite taken before the orchestra ceased playing; it was made of negation rather than criticism, on the basis that he had no concern with, and no knowledge of, such things. Deliberately he gave his mind a surface which should shed promiscuous invitation, and folded his lips, as it were, against the rising of the curtain. He thought of Hilda separately, and he looked for her upon the boards with the naivete of a desire to see the woman he knew.
When finally he did see her she made before him a picture that was to remain with him always as his last impression of an art from which in all its manifestations on that night he definitely turned. From the aigrette in her hair to the paste buckle on her shoe she was mondaine. Her dress, of some indefinite, slight white material, clasped at the waist with a belt that gave the beam of turquoises and the gleam of silver, ministered as much to the capricious ideal of the moment as to the lines and curves of the person it adorned. The set was the inevitable modern drawing-room, and she sat well out on a sofa with her hands, in long black gloves, resting stiffly, palm downward, on each side of her. It was as if she pushed her body forward in an impulse to rise: her rigid arms thrust her shoulders up a little and accented the swell of her bosom. It was a vivid, a staccato attitude. It expressed a temperament, a character, fifty other things, but especially epitomised the restraints and the licenses of a world of drawing-rooms. In that first brief mute instant of disclosure she was all that she presently, by voice and movement, proclaimed herself to be, so dazzling and complete that Stephen literally blinked at the revelation. He made an effort, for a moment or two, to pursue and detect the woman who had been his friend; then the purpose of his coming gradually faded from his mind, and he stood with folded arms and absorbed eyes watching the other, the Mrs. Halliday on the sofa, setting about the fulfilment of a purple destiny.
The play proceeded and Stephen did not move—did not wince. When Mrs. Halliday, whose mate was exacting, exclaimed, "The greatest apostle of expediency was St. Paul. He preached 'wives, love your husbands,'" he even permitted himself the ghost of a smile. At one point he wished himself familiar with the plot; it was when Hamilton Bradley came jauntily on as Lord Ingleton, assuring Mrs. Halliday that immorality was really only shortsightedness. Lady Dolly, in front, repeated Lord Ingleton's phrase with ingenuous wonder. "I know it's clever," she insisted, "but what does it mean? Now that other thing—what was it?—'Subtract vice, and virtue is what is left'—that's an easy one. Write it down on your cuff for me, will you, Colonel Cummins? I shall be so sick if I forget it."
Stephen was perhaps the only person in the box quite oblivious of Lady Dolly. He looked steadily over her animated shoulders at the play, wholly involved in an effort which the author would doubtless have resented, to keep its current and direction through the floating debris of constrained sayings with which it was encumbered, to know in advance whither it was carrying its Mrs. Halliday, and how far Lord Ingleton would accompany. When Lord Ingleton paused, as it were, to beg four people to "have nothing to do with sentiment—it so often leads to conviction," and the house murmured its amusement, Arnold shifted his shoulders impatiently. "How inconsistent," Lord Ingleton reproached Mrs. Halliday a moment later, "to wear gloves on your hands and let your thoughts go candid." Arnold turned to Duff. "There's no excuse for that," he said, but Lindsay was hanging upon Hilda's rejoinder and did not hear him.
At the end of the first act, where, after introducing Mrs. Halliday to her husband's divorced first wife, Lord Ingleton is left rubbing his hands with gratification at having made two such clever women "aware of each other," Stephen found himself absolutely unwilling to discuss the piece with the rest of the party. As he left the box to walk up and down the corridor outside where it was cooler, he heard the voice of Colonel Cummins lifted in further quotation: "'To be good and charming—what a sinful superfluity!' I'm sure nobody ever called you superfluous, Lady Dolly," and was vividly aware of the advisability of taking himself and his Order out of the theatre. He had not been gratified, or even from any point appealed to. Hilda's production of Mrs. Halliday was so perfect that it failed absolutely to touch him, almost to interest him. He had no means of measuring or of valuing that kind of woman, the restless brilliant type that lives upon its emotions and tilts at the problems of its sex with a curious comfort in the joust. He was too far from the circle of her modern influence to consider her with anything but impatience if he had met her original person, and her reflection, her reproduction, seemed to him frivolous and meaningless. If he went then, however, he would go as he came, in so far as the play was concerned; the first act, relying altogether upon the jugglery of its dialogue, gave no clue to anything. He owed it to Hilda, after all, to see the piece out. It was only fair to give her a chance to make the best of it. He decided that it was worth a personal sacrifice to give it her and went back.
He was sufficiently indignant with the leading idea of the play, and sufficiently absorbed in its progress, at the end of the second act, to permit Lady Dolly to capture him before it occurred to him that he had the use of his legs. Her enthusiasm was so great that it reduced him to something like equivocation. She wanted to know if anything could be more splendid than Mr. Bradley as Lord Ingleton; she confided to Stephen that that was what she called real wickedness, the kind that did the most harm, and invited him, by inference, to a liberal judgment of stupid sinners. He sat emitting short unsmiling sentences with eyes nervously fugitive from Lady Dolly's too proximate opulence until the third act began. Then he gave place with embarrassed alacrity to Colonel Cummins, and folded his arms again at the back of the box.
Before it was finished he had the gratification of recognising at least one Hilda that he knew. The newspapers found in her interpretation the development of a soul, and one remembered, reading them, that a cliche is a valuable thing in a hurry. A phrase which spoke of a soul bruised out of life and rushing to annihilation would have been more precise. The demand upon her increased steadily as the act went on, and as she met it, there slipped into her acting some of her own potentialities of motive and of passion. She offered to the shaping circumstance rich material and abundant plasticity, and when the persecution of her destiny required her to throw herself irretrievably away, she did it with a splendid appreciation of large and definite movements that was essentially of herself.
The moment of it had a bold gruesomeness that caught the breath—a disinterment on the stage in search of letters that would prove the charge against the second year of Mrs. Halliday's married life, her letters buried with the poet. It was an advantage which only the husband of Mrs. Halliday would have claimed to bring so helpless a respondent before even the informal court at the graveyard; but it gave Hilda a magnificent opportunity of wild, mad apostrophe to the skull, holding it tenderly with both hands, while Lord Ingleton smiled appreciatively in advance of the practical benevolence which was to sustain the lady through the divorce court and in the final scene offer to her and to the prejudices of the British public the respectability of his name.
It was over with a rush at the end, leaving the audience uncertain whether, after all, enough attention had been paid to that tradition of the footlights which insists on so nice a sense of opprobrium and compensation, but convinced of its desire to applaud. Duff Lindsay turned, as the wave of clapping spent itself, to say to Stephen that he had never respected Hamilton Bradley's acting so much. He said it to Herbert Livingstone instead; the priest had disappeared.
The outgoers looked at Arnold curiously as he made his way among them in a direction which was not that of the exit. He went with hurried purpose, in the face of them all, toward the region, badly lighted and imperfectly closed, which led to the rear of the stage. He opened doors into dark closets, and one which gave upon the road, retraced his unfamiliar steps and asked a question, to which—it was so unusual from one in his habit—he received a hesitating but correct reply. A moment later he passed Mr. Llewellyn Stanhope, who stood in his path with a hostile stare and got out of it with a deferential bow, and knocked at a door upon which was pasted the name, in large red letters cut from a poster, of Miss Hilda Howe. It was a little ajar, so he entered, when she cried, "Come in!" with the less hesitation. Hilda sat on the single chair the place contained in the dress and make-up of the last scene. A Mohammedan servant, who looked up incuriously, was unlacing her shoes. Various garments hung about on nails driven into the unpainted walls, others overflowed from a packing-box in one corner. A common teak-wood dressing-table held make-up saucers and powder-puffs and some remnants of cold fowl which had not been partaken of, apparently, with the assistance of a knife, and fork. A candle stood in an empty soda-water bottle on each side of the looking-glass, and there was no other light. On the floor a pair of stays, old and soiled, sprawled with unconcern. The place looked sordid and miserable, and Hilda, sitting in the middle of it, still in the yellow wig and painted face of Mrs. Halliday, all wrong at that range, gave it a note of false artifice, violent and grievous. Stephen stood in the doorway grasping the handle, saying nothing, and an instant passed before she knew with certainty, in the wretched light, that it was he. Then she sprang up and made a step toward him as if toward victory and reward, but checked herself in time. "Is it possible?" she exclaimed. "I did not know you were in the theatre."
"Yes," he said, with moderation, "I have seen this—this damnable play."
"It has caused me," he went on, "to regret the substance of my letter this morning. I failed to realise that this was the kind of work you devote your life to. I now see that you could not escape its malign influence—that no woman could. I now think that the alternative that has been revealed to you, of remaining in Calcutta, is a chance of escape offered you by God himself. Take it. I withdraw my foolish, ignorant opposition."
"Oh," she cried, "do you really think——"
"Take it," he repeated and closed the door.
Hilda sat still for some time after the servant had finished unlacing her shoes. A little tender smile played oddly about her carmined lips. "Dear heart," she said aloud, "I was going to."
"I would simply give anything to be there," Miss Livingstone said, with a look of sincere desire.
"I should love to have you, but it isn't possible. You might meet men you knew who had been invited by particular lady friends among the company."
"Oh, well, that of course would be odious."
"Very, I should think," Hilda agreed. "You must be satisfied with a faithful report of it. I promise you that."
"You have asked Mr. Lindsay," Alicia complained.
"That's quite a different thing—and if I hadn't Llewellyn Stanhope would. Stanhope cherishes Duff as he cherishes the critic of the Chronicle. He refers to him as a pillar of the legitimate. Whenever he begs me to turn the Norwegian crank, he says, 'I'm sure Mr. Lindsay would come.'"
Miss Howe was at the top of the staircase in Middleton street, on the point of departure. It was to be the night of her last appearance for the season and her benefit, followed by a supper in her honour, at which Mr. Stanhope and his company would take leave of those whose acquaintance, as he expressed it, business and pleasure had given them during the months that were past. It was this function that Alicia, at the top of the staircase, so ardently desired to attend.
"No, I won't kiss you," Hilda said, as the other put her cool cheek forward; "I'm so divinely happy—some of it might escape."
Alicia's voice pursued her as she ran down stairs. "Remember," she said, "I don't approve. I don't at all agree either with my reverend cousin or with you. I think you ought to find some other way or let it go. Go home instead; go straight to London and insist on your chance. After six weeks you will have forgotten the name of his Order."
Hilda looked back with a smile. Her face was splendid with the dawn and promise of success. "Don't blaspheme," she cried. Alicia, leaning down, was visited by a flash of quotation. "Well," she said, "'nothing in this life becomes you like the leaving of it,'" and went back to her room to write to Laura Filbert in Plymouth. She wrote often to Miss Filbert, at Duff's request. It gratified her that she was able, without a pang, to address four pages of pleasantly colourless communication to Mr. Lindsay's fiancee. Her letters stood for a medicine surprisingly easy to take, aimed at the convalescence which she already anticipated in the future immediately beyond Duff's miserable marriage. If that event had promised fortuitously she would have faced it, one fancies, with less sanguine anticipations for herself; but the black disaster that rode on with it brought her certain aids to the spirit, certain hopes of herself. Laura's prompt replies, with their terrible margins and painstaking solecisms, came to be things Miss Livingstone looked forward to. She read them with a beating heart in the unconscious apprehension of some revelation of improvement. She was quite unaware of it, but she entertained toward the Simpsons an attitude of misgiving in this regard.
Hilda went on about her business. As usual, her business was important and imperative; nothing was lightened for her this last day. She drove about from place to place in the hot, slatternly city, putting more than her usual vigour and directness into all she did. It seemed to her that the sunlight burning on the tiles, pouring through the crowded streets, had more than ever a vivid note; and so much spoke to her, came to her, from the profuse and ingenuous life which streamed about her, that she leaned a little forward to meet it with happy eyes and tender lips that said, "I know. I see." She was living for the moment which should exhale itself somewhere about midnight, after the lights had gone out on her last appearance, living for it as a Carmelite might live for the climax of her veil and her vows if it were conceivable that beyond the cell and the grating she saw the movement and the colour and the passion of a wider life. All Hilda's splendid vitality went into her intention, of which she was altogether mistress, riding it and reining it in a straight course through the encumbered hours. It keyed her to a finer and more eager susceptibility; and the things she saw stayed with her, passing into a composite day which the years were hardly to dim for her.
She could live like that, for the purposes of a period, wrought up to immense keenness of sense and brilliancy of energy, making steadily for some point of feeling or achievement flashing gloriously on the horizon. It is already plain, perhaps, that she rejoiced in such strokes, and that life as she found it worth living was marked by a succession of them.
She had kept, even from Lindsay, what she meant to do. When she stepped from his brougham, flushed after the indubitable triumph of the evening, with her arms full of real bouquets from Chatterjee's—no eight-anna bazaar confections edged with silver tinsel—it occurred to her that this reticence was not altogether fair to so constant a friend. He was there, keen and eager as ever in all that concerned her, foremost with his congratulations on the smiling fringe of the party assembled to do her honour. It was a party of some brilliance in its way, though its way was diverse; there was no steady glow. Fillimore said of the company that it comprised all the talent, and Fillimore, editor of the Indian Sportsman and Racing Gazette, was a judge. He said it to Hagge, of the Bank of Hindustan, who could hardly have been an owner on three hundred rupees a month without conspicuous ability disconnected with his ledgers; and Hagge looked gratified. Though so promising, he was young. Lord Bobby was there from Government House. Lord Bobby always accompanied the talent, who were very kind to him. He was talking, when Hilda arrived, to the editor of the Indian Empire, who wanted to find out the date of Her Excellency's fancy-dress party for children, in order that he might make a leaderette of it; but Lord Bobby couldn't remember—had to promise to drop him a line. Gianacchi was there, trying to treat Fillimore with coldness because the Sportsman had discovered too many virtues in his Gadfly, exalted her, indeed, into a favourite for Saturday's hurdle race, a notability for which Gianacchi felt himself too modest. "They say," Fillimore had written, "that the Gadfly has been seen jumping by moonlight"—the sort of the thing to spoil any book. Fillimore was an acute and weary-looking little man with a peculiarly sweet smile and an air of cynicism which gave to his lightest word a dangerous and suspicious air. It was rumoured in official circles that he had narrowly escaped beheading, for pointing out too ironically the disabilities of a Viceroy who insisted on reviewing the troops from a cushioned carriage with the horses taken out. Fillimore seemed to think that if nature had not made such a nobleman a horseman, the Queen-Empress should not have made him Governor-General of India. Fillimore was full of prejudices. Gianacchi, however, found it impossible to treat him coldly. His smoothness of temperament stood in the way. Instead, he imparted the melodious information that the Gadfly had pecked badly twice at Tollygunge that morning, and smiled with pathetic philosophy. "Always let 'em use their noses," said Fillimore, and there seemed to be satire in it. Fillimore certainly had a flair, and when Beryl Stace presently demanded of him, "What's the dead bird going to be on Saturday, Filly?" he put it generously at her service. Among the friends of Mr. Stanhope and his company were also several gentlemen, content, for their personal effect, with the lustre they shed upon the Stock Exchange—gentlemen of high finance, who wrote their names at the end of directors' reports, but never in the visitors' book at Government House, who were little more to the Calcutta world than published receipts for so many lakhs, except when they were seen now and then driving in fleet dog-carts across the Maidan toward comfortable suburban residences where ladies were not entertained. They were extremely, curiously devoted to business; but if they allowed themselves any amusement other than company promoting it was the theatre, of which their appreciation had sometimes an odd relation to the merits of performance. This supper, on the part of Miss Beryl Stace and one or two other of Mr. Stanhope's artistes, might have been considered a return of hospitality to these gentlemen, since the suburban residences stood lavishly open to the profession.
Altogether, perhaps, there were fifty people, and an eye that looked for the sentiment, the pity of things, would have distinguished at once on about half the faces, especially those of the women, the used underlined look that spoke of the continual play of muscle and forcing of feeling. It gave them a shabbily complicated air, contrasting in a strained and sorry way even with the countenances of the brokers and bankers, where nature had laid on a smooth wash and experience had not interfered. They were all gay and enthusiastic as Miss Howe entered; they loafed forward, broad shirt-fronts lustrous, fat hands in financial pockets, with their admiration, and Fillimore put out his cigarette. Hilda came down among them from the summit of her achievement, clasping their various hands. They were all personally responsible for her success, she made them feel that, and they expanded in the conviction. She moved in a kind of tide of infectious vitality, subtly drawing from every human flavour in the room the power to hold and show something akin to it in herself, a fugitive assimilation floating in the lamplight with the odour of the flowers and the soup, to be extinguished with the occasion. They looked at her up and down the table with an odd smiling attraction; they told each other that she was in great form. Mr. Fillimore was of the opinion that she couldn't be outclassed at the Lyceum, and Mr. Hagge responded with vivacity that there were few places where she wouldn't stretch the winner's neck. The feast was not, after all, one of great bounty, Mr. Stanhope justly holding that the opportunity, the little gathering, was the thing, and it was not long before the moment of celebration arrived for which the gentlemen of the Stock Exchange, to judge from their undrained glasses, seemed to be reserving themselves. There certainly had been one tin of pate, and it circulated at that end; on the other hand, the ladies had all the fondants. So that when Mr. Llewellyn Stanhope rose with the sentiment of the evening, he found satisfaction, if not repletion, in the regards turned upon him.
Llewellyn got up with modest importance, and ran a hand through his yellow hair, not dramatically, but with the effect of collecting his ideas. He leaned a little forward; he was extremely, happily conspicuous. The attention of the two lines of faces seemed to overcome him, for an instant, with dizzy pleasure; Hilda's beside him was bent a little, waiting.
"Ladies and gentlemen," said Mr. Stanhope, looking with precision up and down the table to be still more inclusive, "we have met together to-night in honour of a lady who has given this city more pleasure in the exercise of her profession than can be said of any single performer during the last twenty years. Cast your eye back over the theatrical record of Calcutta for that space of time, and you yourselves will admit that there has been nobody that could be said to have come within a mile of her shadow, if I may use the language of metaphor. [Applause, led by Mr. Fillimore.] I would ask you to remember, at the same time, that this pleasure has been of a superior class. I freely admit that this is a great satisfaction to me personally. Far be it from me to put myself forward on this auspicious occasion, but, ladies and gentlemen, if I have one ambition more than another, it is to promote the noble cause of the unfettered drama. To this I may say I have been vowed from the cradle, by a sire who was well known in the early days of the metropolis of Sydney as a pioneer in the great movement which has made the dramatic talent of Australia what it is. To-day a magnificent theatre rises on the site forever consecrated to me by those paternal labours, but—but I can never forget it. In Miss Hilda Howe I have found a great coadjutor, and one who is willing to consecrate her royal abilities in the same line as myself, so that we have been able to maintain a high standard of production among you, prices remaining as usual. I have to thank you, as representing the public of the Indian capital, for the kind support which has been so encouraging to Miss Howe, the company, and myself personally, during the past season. Many a time ladies and gentlemen of my profession have said to me, 'Mr. Stanhope, why do you go to Calcutta? That city is a death-trap for professionals,' and now the past season proves that I was right and they were wrong; and the magnificent houses, the enthusiasm, and the appreciation that have greeted our efforts, especially on the Saturday evening performances, show plain enough that when a good thing is available, the citizens of Calcutta won't be happy till they get it. Ladies and gentlemen, I invite you to join me in drinking the health, happiness, and prosperity of Miss Hilda Howe."
"Miss Howe!" "Miss Howe!" "Miss Hilda Howe!" In the midst of a pushing back of chairs and a movement of feet, the response was quick and universal. Hilda accepted their nods and becks and waving glasses with a slow movement of her beautiful eyes and a quiet smile. In the subsidence of sound Mr. Stanhope's voice was heard again: "We can hardly expect a speech from Miss Howe, but perhaps Mr. Hamilton Bradley, whose international reputation need hardly be referred to, will kindly say a few words on her behalf."
Then, with deliberate grace, Hilda rose from her chair, a tall figure among them, looking down with a hint of compassionateness on the little man at her left. She stood for an instant without speaking, as if the flushed silence, the expectation, the warm magnetism that drew all their eyes to her were enough. Then out of something like reverie she came to the matter. She threw up her beautiful face with one of the supreme gestures which belonged to her. "I think," she said, with a little smiling bow in his direction, "that I will not trouble my friend Mr. Bradley. He has rendered me so many kind services already that I am sure I might count upon him again, but this is a thing I should like to do for myself. I would not have my thanks chilled by even the passage from my heart to his." There was something like bravado in the glance that rested lightly on Bradley with this. One would have said that parley of hearts between them was not a thing that as a rule she courted. "I can only offer you my thanks, poor things to which we can give neither life nor substance, yet I beg that you will somehow take them and remember them. It is to me, and will always be, a kind of crowning satisfaction that you were pleased to come together to-night to tell me I had done well. You know yourselves, and I know, how much too flattering your kindness is, but perhaps it will hurt nobody if to-night I take it as it is generously offered, and let it make me as happy as you intend me to be. At all events, no one could disturb me in believing that in obtaining your praise and your good wishes I have done well enough."
For a few seconds she stopped speaking, but she held them with her eyes from the mistake of supposing she had done. Lindsay, who was watching her closely and hanging with keen pleasure on the sweetness and precision of what she found to say, noted a swift constriction pass upon her face, and was ready to swear to himself in astonishment that tears were in her eyes. There was a half-tone of difference, too, in her voice when she raised it again, a firmer vibration, as if she passed, deliberate and aware, out of one phase into another.
"No," she went on, "I am not shy on this occasion; indeed, I feel that I should like to keep your eyes upon me for a long time to-night, and go on talking far past your patience or my wit. For I cannot think it likely that our ways will cross again." Here her words grew suddenly low and hurried. "If I may tresspass upon your interest so much further, I have to tell you that my connection with the stage closes with this evening's performance. To-morrow I join the Anglican Order of the Sisters of St. Paul—the Baker Institution—in Calcutta, as a novice. They have taken me without much question because—because the plague hospitals of this cheerful country"—she contrived a smile—"have made a great demand upon their body. That is all. I have nothing more to say."
It was, after all, ineffective, the denouement, or perhaps it was too effective. In any case it was received in silence, the applause that was ready falling back on itself, inconsistent and absurd. The incredulity of Llewellyn Stanhope might have been electric had it found words, but that gentleman's protests were made in violent whispers, to which Hilda, who sat playing with a faded rose, seemed to pay no attention whatever. One might have thought her more overcome than anyone, she seemed to make one or two unsuccessful efforts to raise her head. There was a moment of waiting for someone to reply: eyes were turned toward Mr. Bradley, and when it became plain that no one would, broken murmurs of talk began with a note of deprecation and many shakes of the head. The women especially looked tragically at their neighbours with very wide-open eyes. Presently a chair was drawn back, then another, and people began to filter, in slow embarrassment, toward the door. Lindsay came up with Hilda's cloak. "You won't mind my coming with you," he said; "I should like to hear the details." Beryl Stace made as if to embrace her, pouring out abusive disbelief, but Hilda waved her away with a gesture almost of irritation. Some of the others said a perfunctory word or two and went away with lingering backward looks. In a quarter of an hour Mr. Lindsay's brougham had followed the other vehicle into the lamp-lit ways of Calcutta and only the native table servants remained in somewhat resentful possession of what was left.
If Duff Lindsay had apprehended that the reception of Miss Filbert by the Simpsons would involve any strain upon the affection his friends bore him, the event must have relieved him in no small degree. He was soon made aware of its happy character and constantly kept assured. Indeed, it seemed that whenever Mrs. Simpson had nothing else to do she laid her pen to the task of telling him once again how cherished a satisfaction they found in Laura and how reluctant they would be to lose it. She wrote in that strain of facile sympathy which seems part of an Englishwoman's education, and often begged him to believe that the more she knew of their sweet and heavenly-minded guest the more keenly she realised how dreary for him must have been the pang of parting and how arid the months of separation. Mrs. Simpson herself was well acquainted with these trials of the spirit. She and her husband had been divided by those wretched thousands of miles of ocean for three years, one week, and five days, all told, during their married life; she knew what it meant. But if Duff could only see how well and blooming his beloved one was—she had gained twelve pounds already—Mrs. Simpson was sure the time of waiting would pass less heavily. For herself, it was cruel, but she smiled upon the deferred reunion of hearts: she would keep Laura till the very last day, and hoped to establish a permanent claim on her. She was just the daughter Mrs. Simpson would have liked, so unspotted, so pure, so wrapped in high ideals, and then the page would reflect something of the adoring awe in which Mrs. Simpson would have held such a daughter. It will be seen that Mrs. Simpson knew how to express herself, but there was a fine sincerity behind the mask of words; Miss Filbert had entered very completely into possession.
It had its abnormal side, the way she entered into possession. Everything about Laura Filbert had its abnormal side, none the less obvious because it was inward and invisible. Nature, of course, worked with her—one might say that nature really did it, since in the end she was practically unconscious, except for the hope that certain souls had been saved, that anything of the sort had happened. She conquered the Simpsons and their friends chiefly by the simple impossibility that they should conquer her, walking immobile among them even while she admired Mr. Simpson's cauliflowers and approved the quality of Mrs. Simpson's house linen. It must be confessed that nothing in her surroundings spoke to her more loudly or more subtly than these things. In view of what happened, poor dear Alicia Livingstone's anticipation that the Simpsons and their circle would have a radical personal effect upon Laura Filbert, became ludicrous. They had no effect at all. She took no tint, no curve. She appeared not to see that these precious things were to be had for the assimilation. Her grace remained exclusively that of holiness and continued to fail to have any relation to the common little things she did and said.
The Simpsons were more plastic. Laura had been with them hardly a week before Mrs. Simpson, with touching humility, was trying to remodel her spiritual nature upon the form so fortuitously, if the word is admissible, presented. The dear lady had never before realised, by her own statement, how terribly her religious feelings were mingled with domestic and social considerations, how firmly her spiritual edifice was based upon the things of this world. She felt that her soul was honeycombed—that was her word—with conventionality and false standards, and she made confessions like these to Laura, sitting in the girl's bedroom in the twilight. They were very soothing, these confessions. Laura would take Mrs. Simpson's thin, veined, middle-aged hand in hers and seem to charge herself for the moment with the responsibility of the elder lady's case. She did not attempt to conceal her pity or even her contempt for Mrs. Simpson's state of grace: she made short work of special services and ladies' Bible classes. The world was white with harvest, and Mrs. Simpson's chief activity was a recreation society for shop-girls. But it was something, it was everything, to be uneasy, to be unsatisfied, and they would uplift themselves in prayer, and Laura would find words of such touching supplication in which to represent the matter that the burden of her friend and hostess would at once be lessened by the weight of tears. Mrs. Simpson had never wept so much without perceived cause for grief as since Laura arrived, and this alone would testify, such was the gentle paradox of her temperament, how much she enjoyed Miss Filbert's presence.
Laura's room was a temple, for which the gardener daily gave up his choicest blooms, the tenderest interest watched upon her comings and goings, and it was the joy of both the Simpsons to make little sacrifices for her, to desert their beloved vicar on a Sunday evening, for instance, and accompany her to the firemen's halls and skating rinks lent to the publishing of the Word in the only manner from which their guest seemed to derive benefit.
With all this, the Simpsons were sometimes troubled by the impression that they could not claim to be making their angel in the house completely happy. The air, the garden, the victoria, the turbot and the whitebait, these were all that had been vaunted, and even to the modesty of the Simpsons it was evident that the intimacy they offered their guest should count for something. There were other friends, too, young friends who tried to teach her to play tennis, robust and silent young persons who threw shy, flushed glances at her in the pauses of the games, and wished supremely, without daring to hint it, that she would let fall some word about her wonderful romance—a hope ever renewed, ever to be disappointed. And physically Laura expanded before their eyes. The colour that came into her cheek gave her the look of a person painted by Bouguereau. That artist would have found in her a model whom he could have represented with sincerity. Yet something was missing to her, her friends were dimly aware. Her desirable surroundings kindled her to but a perfunctory interest in life: the electric spark was absent. Mrs. Simpson relied strategically upon the wedding preparations and hurried them on, announcing in May that it was quite time to think about various garments of which the fashion is permanent, but the issue was blank. No ripple stirred the placid waters, unless, indeed, we take that way of describing Laura's calm demand, when the decision lay between Valenciennes and Torchon for under-bodies, to hear whether Mrs. Simpson had ever known Duff Lindsay to be anxious about his eternal future. The girl continued to give forth a mere pale reflection of her circumstances, and Mrs. Simpson was forced into the deprecation that perhaps one would hardly call her a joyous Christian.
But for the Zenana Mission Society this impression of Miss Filbert might have deepened. The committee of that body was almost entirely composed of Mrs. Simpson's friends, and naturally came to learn much about her guest. The matter was vastly considered, but finally Miss Filbert was asked to speak at one of the monthly meetings the ladies held among themselves to keep the society "in touch" with the cause. Laura brought them, as one would imagine, surprisingly in touch. She made pictures for them, letting her own eyelashes close deliberately while they stared. She moved these ladies, inspired them, carried them away, and the fact that none of them found themselves able afterward to quote the most pathetic passages seemed rather to add to the enthusiasm with which they described the address. The first result was a shower of invitations to tea, occasions when Laura was easily led into monologue. Miss Filbert became a cult of the evangelistic drawing-rooms, and the same kind of forbearance was extended to her little traces of earlier social experiences as is offered, in salons of another sort, to the eccentricities of persons of genius. Very soon other applications had to be met and considered, and Mrs. Simpson freely admitted that Laura would not be justified in refusing to the Methodists and Baptists what she had given elsewhere. She reasserted her platform influence over audiences that grew constantly larger, and her world began to revolve again in that great relation to the infinities which it was her life to perceive and point out. Mrs. Simpson charged her genially with having been miserable in Plymouth until she was allowed to do good in her own way, and saw that she had beef-tea after every occasion of doing it. She became, in a way, of public character, and a lady journalist sent an account of her, with a photograph, to a well-known London fashion-paper. Perhaps the strongest effect she made was as the voice of the Purity Association, when she delivered an address, in the picturesque costume she had abandoned, attacking measures contemplated by Government for the protection of the health of the army in India. This was reported in full in the local paper, and Mr. Simpson sent a copy to Duff Lindsay, who received it, I regret to say, with an unmistakable imprecation. But Laura rejoiced. Deprived of her tambourine she nevertheless rejoiced exceedingly.
The Sister Superior had a long upper lip, which she was in the habit of drawing still further down; it gave her an air of great diplomatic caution, almost of casuistry. Her face was pale and narrow. She had eyes that desired to be very penetrating, and a flat little stooping figure with a suggestion of extreme neutrality within her voluminous draperies. She carried about with her all the virtues of a monastic order, patience was written upon her, and repression, discipline and the love of administration, written and underlined, so that the Anglican Sister whom no Pope blessed was more priestly in her personal effect than any Jesuit. It was difficult to remember that she had begun as a woman; she was now a somewhat anaemic formula making for righteousness. Sister Ann Frances, who in her turn suggested the fat capons of an age of friars more indulgent to the flesh, and whose speech was of the crispest in this world, where there was so much to do, thought poorly of the executive ability of the Sister Superior, and resented the imposition, as it were, of the long upper lip. Out of this arose the only irritations that vexed the energetic flow of duty at the Baker Institution, slight official raspings which the Sister Superior immediately laid before Heaven at great length. She did it with publicity, too, kneeling on the chunam floor of the chapel for an hour at a time explaining matters. The bureaucracy of the country was reflected in the Baker Institution: it seemed to Sister Ann Frances that her superior officer took undue advantage of her privilege of direct communication with the Supreme Authority, giving any colour she liked to the incident. And when the Sister Superior's lumbago came on in direct consequence of the cold chunam, the annoyance of Sister Ann Frances was naturally not lessened.
There were twenty or thirty of them, with their little white caps tied close under their chins, their long veils and their girdled black robes. They were the most self-sacrificing women in Asia, the most devout, the most useful. Government gave hospitals and doctors into their hands; they took the whole charge of certain schools. They differed in complexion, some of the newly arrived being delightfully fresh and pink under their starched bandeaux. But they were all official, they all walked discreetly and directly about their business, with a jangle of keys in the folds of their robes, immensely organised, immensely under orders. Hilda, when she had time, had the keenest satisfaction in contemplating them. She took the edge off the fact that she was not quite one, in aim and method, with these dear women, as they supposed her to be, with the reflection that, after all, it might be worth while to work out a solution of life in those terms, standing aside from the world—the world was troublesome—and keeping an unfaltering eye upon the pity of things, an unfaltering hand at its assuagement. It was simple and fine and indisputable, this work of throwing the clear shadow of the Cross upon the muddy sunlight of the world. It carried the boon of finality in itself. One might be stopped and put away at any moment, and nothing would be spoiled, broken, unfinished; and it absolutely barred out such considerations as were presented by Hamilton Bradley. There was a time early in her probation when she thought seriously that if it were not Stephen Arnold it should be this.
She begged to be put on hospital work and was sent for her indiscretion to teach in the Orphanage for Female Children of British Troops. The first duty of a novice was to be free of preference, to obey without a sigh of choice. On the third day, however, Sister Ann Frances, supervising, stopped at the open schoolroom door to hear the junior female orphans repeating in happy chorus after their instructress the statement that seven times nine were fifty-six. I think Hilda saw Sister Ann Frances in the door. That couldn't go on, even in the name of discipline, and Miss Howe was placed at the disposal of the chief nursing Sister at the General Hospital next day. Sister Ann Frances was inclined to defend Hilda's imperfect acquaintance with primary arithmetic.
"We all have our gifts," she said. "Miss Howe's is not the multiplication table, but neither is mine stage-acting." At which the upper lip lengthened further into an upward-curving smile, and the Sister Superior remarked cautiously that she hoped Miss Howe would develop one for making bandages, otherwise——
The depth of what was unusual in Hilda's relation with Alicia Livingstone—perhaps it has been plain that they were not quite the ordinary feminine liens—seems to me to be sounded in the tacit acceptance of Hilda's novitiate on its merits that fell between the two women. The full understanding of it was an abyss between them, across which they joined hands, looking elsewhere. Even in the surprise of Hilda's announcement Alicia had the instinct to glance away, lest her eyes should betray too many facts that bore upon the situation. It had never been discussed, but it had to be accepted and occasionally referred to; and the terms of acceptance and reference made no implication of Stephen Arnold. In her inmost privacy Alicia gazed breathless at the conception as a whole; she leaped at it, and caught it, and held it to look, with a feverish comparison of possibilities. It was not strange, perhaps, that she took a vivid personal interest in the essentials that enabled one to execute a flank movement like Hilda's nor that she should conceive the first of them to be that one must come out of a cab. She dismissed that impression with indignation as ungenerously cynical, but it always came back for redismissal. It did not interfere in the least, however, with her deliberate invitations to Stephen to come to 10, Middleton street on afternoons or evenings when Hilda was there. She was like one standing denied in the Street of Abundance; she had an avidity of the eye for even love's reflection.
That was a little later. At first there was the transformation to lament, the loss, the break.
"You look," cried Miss Livingstone, the first time Hilda arrived in the dress of the novice, a kind of understudy of the Sisters' black and white, "you look like a person in a book, full of salient points, and yet made so simple to the reader. If you go on wearing those things I shall end by understanding you perfectly."
"If you don't understand me," Hilda said, dropping into the corner of a sofa, "Cela que je m'en doute, it's because you look for too much elaboration. I am a simple creature, done with rather a broad brush—voila tout!"
Nevertheless, Miss Livingstone's was a happy impression. The neutrality of her hospital dress left Hilda in a manner exposed: one saw in a special way the significance of lines and curves; it was an astonishingly vigourous human expression.
Alicia leaned forward, her elbow on the arm of her chair, her chin tucked into her palm, and looked at it. The elbow bent itself in a light blue muslin sleeve of extreme elegance, trimmed with lace. The colour found a wistful echo in the eyes that regarded Miss Howe, who was accustomed to the look and met it with impenetrable commonplace, being made impatient by nothing in this world so much as by futility, however charming.
"Just now," Alicia said, "the shadows under your eyes are brushed too deep."
"I don't believe I sleep well in a dormitory."
"Horrible! All the little privacies of life—don't you miss them?"
"I never had them, my dear—I never had them. Life has never given me the luxury of curtains—I don't miss them. An occasional blind—a closed door—and those we got even at the Institution. The decencies are strictly conserved, believe me."
"One imagines that kind of place is always clean."
"When I have time I think of Number Three, Lal Behari's Lane, and believe myself in Paradise. The repose is there, the angels also—dear commanding things—and a perpetual incense of cheap soap. And there is some good in sleeping in a row. It reminds one that after all one is very like other women."
"It wouldn't convince me if I were you. And how did the Sisters receive you—with the harp and the psaltery?"
"That was rather," said Hilda gravely, "what I expected. On the contrary, they snubbed me—they really did. There were two of them. I said, 'Reverend ladies, please be a little kind. Convents are strange to me; I shall probably commit horrible sins without knowing it. Give me your absolution in advance—at least your blessing."
"Hilda, you didn't!"
"It is delightful to observe the Mother Abbess, or whatever she is, disguising the fact that she takes any interest in me. Such diplomacy—funny old thing."
"They must be devoured with curiosity!"
"Well, they ask no questions. One sees an everlasting finger on the lip. It's a little boring. One feels inclined to speak up and say, 'Mesdames, entendez—it isn't so bad as you think.' But then their fingers would go into their ears."
"And the rules, Hilda? I can't imagine you, somehow, under rules."
"I am attached to the rules; I think about them all day long. They make the thing simple and—possible. It is a little like living for the first time in a house all right angles after—after a life-long voyage in a small boat."
"Isn't the house rather empty?"
Alicia put out her hand and tucked an irrelevant bit of lace into Hilda's bosom. "I can tell you who is interested," she cried. "The Archdeacon—the Archdeacon and Mrs. Barberry. They both dined here last night; and you lasted from the fish to the pudding. I got so bored with you, my dear, in your new capacity."
A new ray of happiness came into the smile of the novice. "What did they say? Do tell me what they said."
"There was a difference of opinion. The Archdeacon held that with God all things were possible. He used an expression more suitable to a dinner-party, but I think that is what he meant. Mrs. Barberry thought it wouldn't last. Mrs. Barberry was very cynical. She said anyone could see that you were as emotional as ever you could be."
The eyes of the two women met and they laughed frankly. A sense of expansion came between them, in which for an instant they were silent.
"Tell me about the hospital," Alicia said presently.
"Ah, the hospital!" Hilda's face changed. There came into her eyes the moved look that always waked a thrill in Alicia Livingstone, as if she were suddenly aware that she had stepped upon ground where feet like hers passed seldom.
"There is nothing to tell you that is not—sad. Such odds and ends of life, thrown together!"
"Have you had any experiences yet?"
Hilda stared for a moment absently in front of her, and then turned her head aside to answer as if she closed her eyes on something.
"Experiences? Delightful Alicia, speaking your language, no. You are thinking of the resident surgeon, the medical student, the interesting patient. My resident surgeon is fifty years old; the medical student is a Bengali in white cotton and patent-leather shoes. I am occupied in a ward full of deck hands. For these I hold the bandage and the basin; they are hardly aware of me."
"You are sure to have them," Alicia said. "They crop up wherever you go in this world, either before you or behind you."
Hilda fixed her eyes attentively upon her companion. "Sometimes," she said, "you say things that are extremely true in their general bearing. A fortune-teller with cards gives one the same shock of surprise. Well, let me tell you, I have been promoted to temperatures. I took thirty-five to-day. Next week I am to make poultices; the week after baths and fomentations."
"What are the others like—the other novices?"
"Nearly all Eurasians, one native, a Hindu widow—the Sisters are almost demonstrative to her—and one or two local European girls; the Commissariat-Sergeant class, I should think."
"They don't sound attractive and I am glad. You will depend the more upon me."
Hilda looked thoughtfully at Miss Livingstone. "I will depend," she said, "a good deal upon you."
It was Alicia's fate to meet the Archdeacon again that evening at dinner. "And is she really throwing her heart into the work?" asked that dignitary, referring to Miss Howe.
"Oh, I think so," Alicia said; "Yes."
The labours of the Baker Institution and of the Clarke Mission were very different in scope, so much so that if they had been secular bodies working for profit there would have been hardly a point of contact between them. As it was, they made one, drawing together in affiliation for the comfort of mutual support in a heathen country where all the other Englishmen wrote reports, drilled troops, or played polo, with all the other Englishwomen in the corresponding female parts. Doubtless the little communities prayed for each other. One may imagine, not profanely, their petitions rising on either side of the heedless, multitudinous, idolatrous city, and meeting at some point in the purer air above the yellow dust-haze. I am not aware that they held any other mutual duty or privilege, but this bond was known and enabled people whose conscience pricked them in that direction to give little garden teas to which they invited Clarke Brothers and Baker Sisters, secure in doing a benevolent thing and at the same time embarrassing nobody, except, possibly, the Archdeacon, who was officially exposed to being asked as well and had no right to complain. The affiliation was thus a social convenience, since it is unlikely that without it anybody would have hit upon so ingenious a way of killing, as it were, a Baker Sister and a Clarke Brother with one stone. It is not surprising that this degree of intelligence should fail to see the profound official difference between Baker Sisters and Baker Novices. As the Sister Superior said, it did not seem to occur to people that there could be, in connection with a religious body, such words as discipline and subordination, which were certainly made ridiculous for the time being, where she and Sister Ann Frances were asked to eat ices on the same terms with Miss Hilda Howe. It must have been more than ever painful to these ladies, regarded from the official point of view, when it became plain, as it usually did, that the interest of the afternoon centred in Miss Howe, whether or not the Archdeacon happened to be present. Their displeasure was so clear, after the first occasion, that Hilda felt obliged, when the next one came, to fall back on her original talent, and ate her ice abashed and silent, speaking only when she was spoken to, and then in short words and long hesitations. Thereupon the Sisters were of opinion that, after all, poor Miss Howe could not help her unenviable note—she was perhaps more to be pitied on account of it than anything else. It came to this, that Sister Ann Frances even had an exhibitor's pride in her, and Hilda knew the sensations of a barbarian female captive in the bonds of the Christians. But she could not afford to risk being cut off from those little garden teas. All told, they were few; ladies disturbed by ideas of social duties toward missionaries being so uncommon.
She told Stephen so, frankly, one afternoon when he charged her with being so unlike herself, and he heard her explanation with a gravity which contained an element of satisfaction. "It is, of course, a pleasure to us to meet," he said, "a pleasure to us both." That was part of the satisfaction, that he could meet her candour with the same openness. He was not even afraid to mention to her the stimulus she gave him always and his difficulty in defining it, and once he told her how, after a talk with her, he had lain awake until the small hours unable to stop his excited rush of thought. He added that he was now personally and selfishly glad she had chosen as she did three months before; it made a difference to him, her being in Calcutta, a sensible and material difference. He had better hope and heart in his work. It was the last luxury he would ever have dreamed of allowing himself, a woman friend; but since life had brought it in the oddest way, the boon should be met with no grudging of gratitude. A kind of sedate cheerfulness crept into his manner which was new to him; he went about his duties with the look of a man to whom life had dictated its terms and who found them acceptable. His blood might have received some mysterious chemical complement, so much was his eye clearer, his voice firmer, and the things he found to say more decisive. Nor did any consideration of their relations disturb him. He never thought of the oxygen in the air he breathed, and he seldom thought of Hilda.
They were walking toward the Institution together the day he explained to her his gratification that she had elected to remain. Sister Ann Frances and Sister Margaret led; Arnold and Hilda came behind. He had an errand to the Sister Superior—he would go all the way. It was late in May and late in the afternoon; all the tree-tops on the Maidan were bent under the sweep of the south wind, blowing a caressing coolness from the sea. It spread fragrances about and shook down blossoms from the gold-mohur trees. One could see nothing anywhere so red and yellow as they were except the long coat of a Government messenger, a point of scarlet moving in the perspective of a dusty road. The spreading acres of turf were baked to every earth colour. Wherever a pine dropped needles and an old woman swept them up, a trail of dust ran curling along the ground like smoke. The little party was unusual in walking; glances of uncomprehending pity were cast at them from victorias and landaus that rolled past. Even the convalescent British soldiers facing each other in the clumsy drab cart drawn by humped bullocks, and marked Garrison Dispensary, stared at the black skirts so near the powder of the road. The Sisters in front walked with their heads slightly bent toward one another; they seemed to be consulting. Hilda reflected, looking at them, that they always seemed to be consulting: it was the normal attitude of that long black veil that flowed behind.
Arnold walked beside his companion, his hands loosely clasped behind him, with the air of semi-detachment that young clergymen sometimes have with their wives. Whether it was that, or the trace of custom his satisfaction carried, the casual glance might easily have taken them for a married pair.
"There is a kind of folly and stupidity in saying it," he said, "but you have done—you do—a great deal for me."
She turned her tired face upon him with a wistful, measuring look. It searched his face for an instant and came back baffled. Arnold spoke with so much kindness, so much appreciation.
"Very little," she said mechanically, looking at the fresh footprints of Sister Ann Frances and Sister Margaret.
"But I know. And can't you tell me—it would make me so very happy—that I have done something for you too—something that you value?"
Hilda's eyes lightened curiously, reverie came into them, and a smile. She answered as if she spoke to herself, "I should not know how to tell you."
Then, scenting wonder in him, she added, "You were thinking of something—in particular."
"You have sometimes made me believe," Stephen returned, "that I may account myself, under God, the accident which induced you to take up your blessed work. I was thinking of that."
"Oh," she said, "of that!" and seemed to take refuge in silence.
"Yes," Arnold said, with infinite gentleness.
"Oh, you were profoundly the cause! I might say you are, for without you I doubt whether I should have the—courage——"
"Oh, no! Oh, no! He who inspired you in the beginning will sustain you to the end. Think that. Believe that."
"Will He?" Her voice was neutral, as if it would not betray too much, but there was a listlessness that spoke louder in the bend of her head, the droop of her shoulder.
"For you perhaps," Arnold said, thoughtfully, "there is only one assurance of it—the satisfaction your vocation brings you now. That will broaden and increase," he went on, almost with buoyancy, "growing more and more your supreme good as the years go on."
"How much you give me credit for!"
"Not nearly enough—not nearly. Who is there like you?" he demanded, simply.
His words seemed a baptism. She lifted up her face after them, and the trace of them was on her eyes and lips. "I have passed two examinations, at all events," she informed him, with sudden gaiety, "and Sister Ann Frances says that in two or three months I shall probably get through the others. Sister Ann Frances thinks me more intelligent than might be expected. And if I do pass those examinations I shall be what they call a quick-time probationer. I shall have got it over in six months. Do you think," she asked, as if to please herself, "that six months will be long enough?"
"It depends. There is so much to consider."
"Yes—it depends. Sometimes I think it will be, but oftener I think it will take longer."
"I should be inclined to leave it entirely with the Sisters."
"I am so undisciplined," murmured Hilda. "I fear I shall cling to my own opinion. Now we must overtake the others and you must walk the rest of the way with Sister Ann—no, Sister Margaret, she is senior."
"I don't at all see the necessity," Stephen protested. He was wilful and wayward; he adopted a privileged air, and she scolded him. In their dispute they laughed so imprudently that Sister Ann Frances turned her draped head to look back at them. Then they quickened their steps and joined the elder ladies, and Stephen walked with Sister Margaret to the door of the Institution. She mentioned to the Sister Superior afterward that young Mr. Arnold was really a delightful conversationalist.
They talked a great deal in Plymouth about the way the time was passing in Calcutta during those last three months before Laura should return, the months of the rains. "Now," said Mrs. Simpson, early in July, "it will be pouring every day, with great patches of the Maidan under water, and rivers, my dear, rivers, in the back streets," and Laura had a reminiscence about how, exactly at that time, a green mould used to spread itself fresh every morning on the matting under her bed in Bentinck street. Later on they would agree that perhaps by this time there was a "break in the rains," and that nothing in the world was so trying as a break in the rains, the sun grilling down and drawing up steam from every puddle. In September things, they remembered, would be at their very worst and most depressing: one had hardly the energy to lift a finger in September. Mrs. Simpson looked back upon the discomfort she had endured in Bengal at this time of year with a kind of regret that it was irretrievably over; she lingered upon a severe illness which had been part of the experience. She seemed to think that with a little judicious management she might have spent more time in that climate and less in England. There was in her tone a suggestion of gentle envy of Laura, going forth to these dismal conditions with her young life in her hands, all tricked out for the sacrifice, which left Duff Lindsay and his white and gold drawing-room entirely out of consideration. Any sacrifice to Mrs. Simpson was alluring; she would be killed all day long, in a manner, for its own sake.
The victim had taken her passage early in October, and during the first week of that month Plymouth gathered itself into meetings to bid her farewell. A curiously sacred character had fastened itself upon her. It was not in the least realised that she was going out to be married to an altogether secular young broker moving in fashionable circles in one of the gayest cities in the world. One or two reverend persons, in the course of commending their young sister to the protection of the Almighty in her approaching separation from the dear friends who surrounded her in Plymouth, made references implying that her labours would continue to the glory of God, taking it as a matter of course. Miss Filbert was by this time very much impregnated with the idea that they would, she did not know precisely how, but that would open itself out. Duff had long been assimilated as part of the programme. All that money and humility could contribute should be forthcoming from him; she had a familiar dream of him as her standard-bearer, undistinguished but for ever safe.
Yet it was with qualified approval that Mrs. Simpson, amid the confusion of the Coromandel's preparations for departure at London Docks, heard the familiar strains of the Salvation Army rising aft. Laura immediately cried, "I shall have friends among the passengers," and Mrs. Simpson so fair forgot herself as to say, "Yes, if they are nice." The ladies were sitting on deck beside the pile of Laura's very superior cabin luggage. Mrs. Simpson glanced at it as if it offered a kind of corroboration of the necessity of their being nice. "There are always a few delightful Christian people, if one takes the trouble to find them out, at this end of the ship," she said, defensively. "I have never failed to find it so."
"I don't think much of Christians who are so hard to discover," Laura said, with decision, and Mrs. Simpson, rebuked, thought of the mischievous nature of class prejudices. Laura herself—had she not been drawn from what one might call distinctly the other end of the ship; and who, among those who vaunted themselves ladies and gentlemen, could compare with Laura? The idea that she had shown a want of sympathy with those dear people who were so strenuously calling down a blessing on the Coromandel somewhere behind the smoke-stacks, embittered poor Mrs. Simpson's remaining tears of farewell, and when the bell rang the signal for the last good-bye she embraced her young friend with the fervent request, "Do make friends with them, dear one—make friends with them at once;" and Laura said, "If they will make friends with me."
By the time the ship had well got her nose down the coast of Spain, Miss Filbert had created her atmosphere and moved about in it from end to end of the quarter-deck. It was a recognisable thing, her atmosphere; one never knew when it would discharge a question relating to eternity. And persons unprepared to give satisfaction upon this point—one fears there are always many on a ship bound east of Suez—found it blighting. They moved their long chairs out of the way, they turned pointedly indifferent backs, the lady who shared Miss Filbert's cabin—she belonged to a smart cavalry regiment at Mhow—went about saying things with a distinct edge. Miss Filbert exhausted all the means. She attempted to hold a meeting forward of the smoking cabin, standing for elevation on one of the ship's quoit buckets to preach, but with this the Captain was reluctantly compelled to interfere on behalf of the whist-players inside. In the evening after dinner she established herself in a sheltered corner and sang. Her recovered voice lifted itself with infinite pathetic sweetness in songs about the poverty of the world and the riches of Heaven. The notes mingled with the churning of the screw and fell in the darkness beyond the ship's lights abroad upon the sea. The other passengers listened aloof. The Coromandel was crowded, but you could have drawn a wide circle round her chair. On the morning of the fourth day out—she had not felt quite well enough for adventures before—she found her way to the second-class saloon, being no doubt fully justified of her conscience in abandoning the first to the flippancies of its preference.
In the second-class end the tone was certainly more like that of Plymouth. Laura had a grateful sense of this in coming, almost at once, upon a little group gathered together for praise and prayer, of which four or five persons of both sexes, labelled "S. A.," naturally formed the centre. They were not only praying and praising without discouragement, they had attracted several other people who had brought their chairs into near and friendly relation, and even joined sometimes in the chorus of the hymns. There was a woman in mourning who cried a good deal—her tears seemed to refresh the salvationists and inspired them to louder and more cheerful efforts. There was a man in a wide, soft felt hat with the malaria of the Terai in the hollows under his eyes; there was a Church Missionary with an air of charity and forbearance, and the bushy-eyed colonel of a native regiment, looking vigilant against ridicule, with his wife, whose round, red little face continually waxed and waned in a smile of true contentment. It was not till later that Laura came to know them all so very well, but her eye rested on them one after another with approval as she drew near. Without pausing in his chant—it happened to be one of triumph—without even looking at her, the leader indicated an empty chair. It was his own chair. "Colonel Markin, S. A.," was printed in black letters on its striped canvas back; Laura noticed that.
After it was over, the little gathering, Colonel Markin specially distinguished her. He did it delicately. "I hope you won't mind my expressin' my thanks for the help you gave us in the singin'," he said. "Such a voice I've seldom had the pleasure to join with. May I ask where you got it trained?"
He was a narrow-chested man with longish sandy hair and thin features. His eyes were large, blue, and protruding, his forehead very high and white. There was a pinkness about the root of his nose and a scanty yellow moustache upon his upper lip, while his chin was partly hidden by a beard equally scanty and even more yellow. He had extremely long white hands: one could not help observing them as they clasped his book of devotion.
Laura looked at him with profound appreciation of these details. She knew Colonel Markin by reputation—he had done a great work among the Cingalese. "It was trained," she said, casting down her eyes, "on the battlefields of our Army."
Colonel Markin attempted to straighten his shoulders and to stiffen his chin. He seemed vaguely aware of a military tradition which might make it necessary for him, as a very senior officer indeed, to say something. But the impression was transitory. Instead of using any rigour he held out his hand. Laura took it reverently, and the bones shut up, like the sticks of a fan, in her grasp. "Welcome, comrade!" he said, and there was a pause, as there should be after such an apostrophe.
"When you came among us this afternoon," Colonel Markin resumed, "I noticed you. There was something about the way you put your hand over your eyes when I addressed our Heavenly Father in prayer that spoke to me. It spoke to me and said, 'Here we have a soul that knows what salvation means—there's no doubt about that.' Then when, you raised a Hallelujah, I said to myself, 'That's got the right ring to it.' And so you're a sister in arms!"
"I was," Laura murmured.
"You was—you were. Well, well—I want to hear all about it. It is now," continued Colonel Markin, as two bells struck and a steward passed them with a bugle, "the hour for our dinner, and I suppose that you, too," he bent his head respectfully toward the other half of the ship, "partake of some meal at this time. But if you will seek us out again at the meeting between four and five I shall be at your service afterward, and pleased," he look her hand again, "pleased to see you."
Laura went back to the evening meeting, and after that missed none of these privileges. In due course she was asked to address it, and then her position became enviable from all points of view, for people who did not draw up their chairs and admire her inspirations sat at a distance and admired her clothes. Very soon, at her special request, she was allowed to resign her original place at the table and take a revolving chair at the nine o'clock breakfast, one o'clock dinner, and six o'clock tea which sustained the second saloon. Daily ascending the companion-ladder to the main-deck aft, she gradually faded from cognisance forward. There they lay back in their long cabin chairs and sipped their long drinks, and with neutral eyes and lips they let the blessing go.
In the intervals between the exercises Miss Filbert came and went in the cabin of three young Salvationists of her own sex. They could always make room for her, difficult as it may appear; she held for them an indefinite store of fascination. Laura would extend herself on a top berth beside the round-eyed Norwegian to whom it belonged, with the cropped head of the owner pillowed on her sisterly arm, and thus they passed hours, discussing conversions as medical students might discuss cases, relating, comparing. They talked a great deal about Colonel Markin. They said it was a beautiful life. More beautiful, if possible, had been the life of Mrs. Markin, who was his second wife, and who had been "promoted to glory" six months before. She had gained promotion through jungle fever, which had carried her off in three days. The first Mrs. Markin had died of drink—that was what had sent the Colonel into the Army, she, the first Mrs. Markin, having willed her property away from him. Colonel Markin had often rejoiced publicly that the lady had been of this disposition, the results to him had been so blessed. Apparently he spoke without reserve of his domestic affairs in connection with his spiritual experiences, using both the Mrs. Markins when it was desirable as "illustrations." The five had reached this degree of intimacy by the time the Coromandel was nearing Port Said, and every day the hemispheres of sea and sky they watched through the port-hole above the Norwegian girl's berth grew bluer.
From the first Colonel Markin had urged Miss Filbert's immediate return to the Army. He found her sympathetic to the idea, willing, indeed, to embrace it with open arms, but there were difficulties. Mr. Lindsay, as a difficulty, was almost inseparable to anything like a prompt step in that direction. Colonel Markin admitted it himself. He was bound to admit it, he said, but nothing, since he joined the Army, had ever been so painful to him. "I wish I could deny it," he said with frankness, "but there is no doubt that for the present your first duty is toward your gentleman, toward him who placed that ring upon your finger." There was no sarcasm in his describing Lindsay as a gentleman; he used the term in a kind of extra special sense, where a person less accustomed to polite usages might have spoken of Laura's young man. "But remember, my child," he continued, "it is only your poor vile body that is yours to dispose of. Your soul belongs to God Almighty, and no earthly husband, especially as you say he is still in his sins, is going to have the right to interfere." This may seem vague as the statement of a position, but Laura found it immensely fortifying. That and similar arguments built her up in her determination to take up what Colonel Markin called her life-work again at the earliest opportunity. She had forfeited her rank, that she accepted humbly as a proper punishment, ardently hoping it would be found sufficient. She would go back as a private, take her place in the ranks, and nothing in her married life should interfere with the things that cried out to be done in Bentinck street. Somehow she had less hope of securing Lindsay as a spiritual companion in arms since she had confided the affair to Colonel Markin. As he said, they must hope for the best, but he could not help admitting that he took a gloomy view of Lindsay.
"Once he has secured you," the Colonel said, with an appreciative glance at Laura's complexion, "what will he care about his soul? Nothing."
Their enthusiasm had ample opportunity to expand, their mutual bond to strengthen, in the close confines of life on board ship, and as if to seal it and sanctify it permanently, a conversion took place in the second saloon, owning Laura's agency. It was the maid of the lady in the cavalry regiment, a hardened heart, as two stewards and a bandmaster on board could testify. When this occurred, the time that was to elapse between Laura's marriage and her return to the ranks was shortened to one week. "And quite long enough," Colonel Markin said, "considering how much more we need you than your gentleman does, my dear sister."
It was plain to them all that Colonel Markin had very special views about his dear sister. The other dear sisters looked on with pleasurable interest, admitting the propriety of it, as Colonel Markin walked up and down the deck with Laura, examining her lovely nature, "drawing her out" on the subject of her faith and her assurance. It was natural, as he told her, that in her peculiar situation she should have doubts and difficulties. He urged her to lay bare her heart, and she laid it bare. One evening—it was heavenly moonlight on the Indian Ocean, and they were two days past Aden, on the long southeast run to Ceylon—she came and stood before him with a small packet in her hand. She was all in white, and more like an angel than Markin expected ever to see anything in this world, though as to the next his anticipations may have been extravagant.
"Now I wonder," said he, "where you are going to sit down?"
A youngster in the Police got up and pushed his chair forward, but Laura shook her head.
"I am going out there," she said, pointing to the furthermost stern, where passengers were not encouraged to sit, "and I want to consult you."
Markin got up. "If there's anything pressin' on your mind," he said, "you can't do better."
Laura said nothing until they were alone with the rushing of the screw, two Lascars, some coils of rope, and a couple of brass compasses. Then she opened the packet. "These," she said, "these are pressing on my mind."
She held out a string of pearls, a necklace of pearls and turquoises, a heavy band bracelet, studded, Delhi fashion, with gems, and one or two lesser fantasies.
"Jewelry!" said Markin. "Real or imitation?"
"So far as that goes, they are good. Mr. Lindsay gave them to me. But what have I to do with jewels, the very emblem of the folly of the world, the desire that itches in palms that crucify Him afresh daily, the price of sin?" She leaned against the masthead as she spoke. The wind blew her hair and her skirt out toward the following seas. With that look in her eyes she seemed a creature who had alighted on the ship but who could not stay.
Colonel Markin held the pearls up in the moonlight.
"They must have cost something to buy," he said.
Laura was silent.
"And so they're a trouble to you. Have you taken them to the Lord in prayer?"
"Oh, many times."
"Couldn't seem to hear any answer?"
"The only answer I could hear was, 'So long as you have them I will not speak with you.'"
"That seems pretty plain and clear. And yet," said the Colonel, fondling the turquoises, "nobody can say there's any harm in such things, especially if you don't, wear them."
"Colonel, they are my great temptation. I don't know that I wouldn't wear them. And when I wear them I can think of nothing sacred, nothing holy. When they were given to me I used—I used to get up in the night to look at them."
"Shall I lay it before the Almighty? That bracelet's got a remarkably good clasp."
"Oh no—no! I must part with them. To-night I can do it, to-night——"
"There's nobody on this ship that will give you any price for them."
"I would not think of selling them. It would be sending them from my hands to do harm to some other poor creature, weaker than I!"
"You can't return them to-night."
"I wouldn't return them. That would be the same as keeping them."
"Then what—oh, I see—" exclaimed Markin. "You want to give them to the Army! Well, in my capacity, on behalf of General Booth——"
"No," cried Laura, with sudden excitement, "not that either. I will give them to nobody. But this is what I will do!" She seized the bracelet and flung it far out into the opaline track of the vessel, and the smaller objects, before her companion could stop her, followed it. Then he caught her wrist.
"Stop!" he cried. "You've gone off your head—you've got fever. You're acting wicked with that jewelry. Stop and let us reason it out together."
She already had the turquoises, and with a jerk of her left hand she freed it and threw them after the rest. The necklace caught the handrail as it fell, and Markin made a vain spring to save it. He turned and stared at Laura, who stood fighting the greatest puissance of feeling she had known, looking at the pearls. As he stared, she kissed them twice, and then, leaning over the ship's side, let them slowly slide out of her fingers and fall, into the waves below. The moonlight gave them a divine gleam as they fell. She turned to Markin with tears in her eyes. "Now," she faltered, "I can be happy again. But not to-night."
While the Coromandel was throbbing out her regulation number of knots toward Colombo, October was passing over Bengal. It went with lethargy, the rains were too close on its heels; but at the end of the long hot days, when the resplendent sun struck down on the glossy trees and the over-lush Maidan, there often stole through Calcutta a breath of the coming respite of December. The blue smoke of the people's cooking fires began to hang again in the streets, the pungent smell of it was pleasant in the still air. The south wind turned back at the Sunder-bunds; instead of it, one met around corners a sudden crispness that stayed just long enough to be recognised and melted damply away. A week might have two or three of such promises and foretastes.
Hilda Howe, approaching the end of her probation at the Baker Institution, threw the dormitory window wide to them, went out to seek them. They brought her a new stirring of vitality, something deep within her leaped up responding to the voucher the evenings brought that presently they would bring something new and different. She vibrated to an irrepressible pulse of accord with that: it made her hand strong and her brain clear for the unimportant matters that remained within the scope of the monotonous moment. Her spirits gained an enviable lightness, she began again to see beautiful, touching things in the life that carried her on with it. She explained to Stephen Arnold that she was immensely happy at having passed the last of her nursing examinations.
"I hardly dare ask you," he said, "what you are going to do now."
He looked furtive and anxious; she saw that he did.
"I hardly dare ask myself," she answered, and was immediately conscious that for the first time in the history of their relations she had spoken to him that which was expedient.
"I hope the Sisters are not trying to influence you," he said firmly.
"Fancy!" she cried irrelevantly. "I heard the other day that Sister Ann Frances had described me as the pride of the Baker Institution!" She laughed with delight at the humour of it, and he smiled too. When she laughed he seemed nearly always now to have confidence enough to smile too.
"You might ask for another six months."
"Heavens, no! No—I shall make up my mind."
"Then you may go away," Arnold said. They were standing at the crossing of the wide red road from which they would go in different directions. She saw that the question was momentous to him. She also saw how curiously the sun sallowed him and how many more hollows he had in his face than most people. She had a pathetic impression of the figure he made, in his dusty gown and shoes. "God's wayfarer," she murmured.
"Come too," she said aloud. "Come and be a Clarke Brother where the climatic conditions suit you better. The world wants Clarke Brothers everywhere."
He looked at her and tried to smile, but his lips quivered. He opened them in an effort to speak, gave it up, and turned away silently, lifting his hat. Hilda watched him for an instant as he went. His figure took strange proportions through the tears in her eyes, and she marvelled at the lightness with which she had touched, had almost revealed, her heart's desire.
"I knew it would happen in the end," Hilda said, "and it has happened. The Archdeacon has asked me to tea."
She was speaking to Alicia Livingstone in the dormitory, changing at the same time for a "turn" at the hospital. It was six o'clock in the afternoon. Alicia's landau stood at the door of the Baker Institution. She had come to find that Miss Howe was just going on duty and could not be taken for a drive.
"When?" asked Alicia, staring out of the window at the crows in a tamarind tree.
"Last Saturday. He said he had promised some friends of his the pleasure of meeting me. They had besieged him, he said, and they were his best friends, on all his committees."
"Only ladies?" The crows, with a shriek of defiance at nothing in particular, having flown away, Miss Livingstone transferred her attention.
"Bless me, yes. What Archdeacon has dear men friends! And lesquelles pense-tu, mon Dieu!"
"Mrs. Jack Forrester, Mrs. Fitz—what you may call him up on the frontier, the Brigadier gentleman—Lady Dolly!"
"You were well chaperoned."
"And—my dear—he didn't ask a single Sister!" Hilda turned upon her a face which appeared still to glow with the stimulus of the Archdiaconal function. "And—it was wicked considering the occasion—I dropped the character. I let myself out!"
"You didn't shock the Archdeacon?"
"Not in the least. But, my dear love, did you ever permit yourself the reflection that the Venerable Gambell is a bachelor?"
"Hilda, you shall not! We all love him—you shall not lead him astray!"
"You would not think of—the altar—?"
Miss Livingstone's pale small smile fell like a snow-flake upon Hilda's mood and was swallowed up. "You are very preposterous," she said. "Go on. You always amuse one." Then as if Hilda's going on were precisely the thing she could not quite endure, she said quickly, "The Coromandel is telegraphed from Colombo to-day."