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Hilda - A Story of Calcutta
by Sara Jeannette Duncan
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"Ah!", said Hilda.

"He leaves for Madras to-morrow. The thing is to take place there, you know."

"Then nothing but shipwreck can save him."

"Nothing but—what a horrible idea! Don't you think they may be happy? I really think they may."

"There is not one of the elements that give people, when they commit the paramount stupidity of marrying, reason to hope that they may not be miserable. Not one. If he were a strong man I should pity him less. But he's not. He's immensely dependent on his tastes, his friends, his circumstances."

Alicia looked at Hilda; her glance betrayed an attention caught upon an accidental phrase. She did not repeat it, she turned it over in her mind.

"You are thinking," Hilda said accusingly. "What are you thinking about?"

"Oh, nothing. I saw Stephen yesterday, I thought him looking rather wretched."

A shadow of grave consideration winged itself across Hilda's eyes.

"He works so much too hard," she said. "It is an appalling waste. But he will offer himself up."

Alicia looked unsatisfied. "He brought Mr. Lappe to tea," Miss Howe said.

The shadow went. "Should you think Brother Lappe," she demanded, "specially fitted for the cure of souls? Never, never, could I allow the process of my regeneration to come through Brother Lappe. He has such a little nose, and such wide pink cheeks, and such fat, sloping shoulders. Dear succulent Brother Lappe!"

A Sister passed through the dormitory on a visit of inspection. Alicia bowed sweetly and the Sister inclined herself briefly with a cloistered smile. As she disappeared, Hilda threw a black skirt over her head, making a veil of it flowing backward, and rendered the visit, the noiseless measured, step, the little deprecating movements of inquiry, the benevolent recognition of a visitor from a world where people carried parasols and wore spotted muslins. She even effaced herself at the door on the track of the other to make it perfect, and came tack in the happy expansion of an artistic effort to find Alicia's regard penetrated with the light of a new conviction.

"Hilda," she said, "I should like to know what this last year has really been to you."

"It has been very valuable," Miss Howe replied. Then she turned quickly away to hang up the black petticoat, and stood like that, shaking out its folds, so that Alicia might not see anything curious in her face as she heard her own words and understood what they meant.

A probationer came rapidly along the dormitory to where Hilda stood. She had the olive cheeks and the liquid eyes of the country; her lips were parted in a smile.

"Miss Howe," she said in the quick, clicking syllables of her race, "Sister Margaret wishes you to come immediately to the surgical ward. A case has come in, and Miss Gonsalvez is there, but Sister Margaret will not be bothered with Miss Gonsalvez. She says you are due by right in five minutes"—the messenger's smile broadened irresponsibly, and she put a fondling touch upon Hilda's apron string—"so will you please to make haste?"

"What's the case?" asked Hilda, "I hope it isn't another ship's-hold accident." But Alicia, a shade paler than before, put up her hand. "Wait till I'm gone," she said, and went quickly. The girl had opened her lips, however, but to say that she didn't know, she had only been seized to take the message, though it must be something serious, since they had sent for both the resident surgeons.



CHAPTER XXX.

Doctor Livingstone's concern was personal, that was plain in the way he stood looking at the floor of the corridor with his hands in his pockets, before Hilda reached him. Regret was written all over the lines of his pausing figure, with the compressed irritation which saved that feeling, in the Englishman's way, from being too obvious.

"This is a bad business, Miss Howe."

"I've just come over—I haven't heard. Who is it?"

"It's my cousin, poor chap—Arnold, the padre. He's been badly knifed in the bazaar."

The news passed over her and left her looking with a curious face at chance. It was lifted a little, with composed lips, and eyes which refused to be taken by surprise. There was inquiry in them, also a defence, a retreat. Chance looking back saw an invincible silent readiness and a pallor which might be that of any woman. But the doctor was also looking, so she said, "That is very sad," and moved near enough to the wall to put her hand against it. She was not faint, but the wall was a fact on which one could, for the moment, rely.

"They've got the man—one of those Cabuli moneylenders. The police had no trouble with him. He said it was the order of Allah—the brute. Stray case of fanaticism, I suppose. It seems Arnold was walking along as usual, without a notion, and the fellow sprang on him and in two seconds the thing was done. Hadn't a chance, poor beggar."

"Where is it?"

"Root of the left lung. About five inches deep. The artery pretty well cut through, I fancy."

"Then——"

"Oh no—we can't do anything. The haemorrhage must be tremendous. But he may live through the night. Are you going to Sister Margaret?"

His nod took it for granted and he went on. Hilda walked slowly forward, her head bent, with absorbed, uncertain steps. A bar of evening sunlight came before her, she looked up and stepped outside the open door. She was handling this thing that had happened, taking possession of it. It lay in her mind in the midst of a suddenly stricken and tenderly saddened consciousness. It lay there passively; it did not rise and grapple with her, it was a thing that had happened—in Bura Bazaar. The pity of it assailed her. Tears came into her eyes, and an infinite grieved solicitude gathered about her heart. "So?" she said to herself, thinking that he was young and loved his work, and that now his hand would be stayed from the use it had found. One of the ugly outrages of life, leaving nothing on the mouth but that brief acceptance. It came to her with a note of the profound and of the supreme. "So," she said, and pressed her lips till they stopped trembling, and went into the hospital.

She asked a question or two, in search of Sister Margaret and the new case. It was "located," an assistant surgeon told her, in Private Ward Number 2. She went more and more slowly toward Private Ward Number 2.

The door was open. She stood in it for an instant with eyes nerved to receive the tragedy. The room seemed curiously empty of any such thing. A door opposite was also open, with an arched verandah outside; the low sun streamed through this upon the floor with its usual tranquillity. Beyond the arches, netted to keep the crows away, it made pictures with the tops of the trees. There was the small iron bed with the confused outline under the bedclothes, very quiet, and the Sister—the whitewashed wall rose sharp behind her black draperies—sitting with a book in her hands. Some scraps of lint were on the floor beside the bed and hardly anything else, except the silence, which had almost a presence, and a faint smell of carbolic acid, and a certain feeling of impotence and abandonment and waiting which seemed to be in the air. Arnold moved on the pillow and saw her standing in the door. The bars of the bed's foot were in the way. He tried to lift his head to surmount the obstruction, and the Sister perceived her too.

"I think absolutely still was our order, wasn't it, Mr. Arnold?" she said, with her little pink smile. "And I'm afraid Miss Howe isn't in time to be of much use to us, is she?" It was the bedside pleasantry that expected no reply, that indeed forbade one.

"I'm sorry," Hilda said. As she moved into the room she detached her eyes from Arnold's, feeling as she did so that it was like tearing something.

"There was so little to do," Sister Margaret said. "Surgeon-Major Wills saw at once where the mischief lay. Nothing disagreeable was necessary, was it, Mr. Arnold? Perfect quiet, perfect rest—that's an easy prescription to take." She had rather prominent, very blue eyes, and an aquiline nose and a small firm mouth, and her pink cheeks were beginning to be a little pendulous with age. Hilda gazed at her silently, noting about her authority and her flowing draperies something classical. Was she like one of the Fates? She approached the bed to do something to the pillow—Hilda had an impulse to push her away with the cry, "It is not time yet—Atropos!"

"I must go now for an hour or so," the Sister went on. "That poor creature in Number 6 needs me; they daren't give her any more morphia. You don't need it—happy boy!" she said to Stephen, and at the look he sent her for answer she turned rather quickly to the door. Dear Sister, she was none of the Fates. She was obliged to give directions to Hilda, standing in the door with her back turned. Happily for a deserved reputation for self-command they were few. It was chief and absolute that no one should be admitted. A bulletin had been put up at the hospital door for the information of inquiries; later on, when the doctor came again, there would be another.

She went away and they were left alone. The sun on the floor had vanished; a yellowness stood in its place with a grey background, the background gaining, coming on. Always his eyes were upon her, she had given hers back to him and he seemed satisfied. She moved closer to the bed and stood beside him. Since there was nothing to do there was nothing to say. Stephen put out his hand and touched a fold of her dress.

The room filled itself with something that had not been there before. In obedience to it Hilda knelt down beside the bed and pressed her forehead against the hand upon the covering, the hand that had so little more to do. Then Arnold spoke.

"You dear woman!" he said. "You dear woman!"

She kept her head bowed like that and did not answer. It was his happiest moment. One might say he had lived for this. Her tears fell upon his hand, a kind of baptism for his heart. He spoke again.

"We must bear this," he panted. "It is—less cruel—than it seems. You don't know how much it is for the best."

She lifted her wet face. "You mustn't talk," she faltered.

"What difference—" he did not finish the sentence. His words were too few to waste. He paused and made another effort.

"If this had not happened I would have been—counted—among the unfaithful," he said. "I know now. I would have abandoned—my post. And gladly—without regret—for you."

"Ah!" Hilda cried with a vivid note of pain, "I am sorry! I am sorry!"

She gazed with a face of real tragedy at the form of her captive, delivered to her in the bonds of death. A fresh pang visited her with the thought that in the mystery of the ordering of things she might have had to do with the forging of those shackles.

"My God is a jealous God," Arnold said. "He has delivered me—into His own hands—for the honour of His name. I acknowledge—I am content."

"No, indeed no! It was a wicked, horrible chance! Don't charge your God with it."

His smile was very sweet, but it paid the least possible attention. "You did love me," he said. He spoke as if he were already dead.

"I did indeed," Hilda replied, and bent her shamed head upon her hands again in the confession. It is not strange that he heard only the affirmation in it.

He stroked her hair. "It is good to know that," he said, "very good. I should have married you." He went on with sudden boldness and a new note of strength in his voice. "Think of that! You would have been mine—to protect and work for. We should have gone together to England—where I could easily have got a curacy—easily."

Hilda looked-up. "Would you like to marry me now?" she asked eagerly, but he shook his head. "You don't understand," he said. "It is the dear sin God has turned my back upon."

Then it came to her that he had asked for no caress. He was going unassoiled to his God, with the divine indifference of the dying. Only his imagination looked backward and forward. And she thought, "It is a little light flame that I have lit with my own taper that has gone out, and presently the grave will extinguish that." She sat quiet and sombre in the growing darkness and presently Arnold slept.

He slept through the bringing of a lamp, the arrival of flowers, subdued knocks of inquirers who would not be stayed by the bulletin—the visit of Surgeon-Major Wills, who felt his pulse without wakening him. "Holding out wonderfully," the doctor said. "Don't rouse him for the soup. He'll go out in about six hours without any pain. May not wake at all."

The door opened again to admit the probationer come to relieve Miss Howe. Hilda beckoned her into the corridor. "You can go back," she said; "I will take your turn."

"But the Sister Superior—you know how particular about the rules—"

"Say nothing about it. Go to bed. I am not coming."

"Then, Miss Howe, I shall be obliged to report it."

"Report and be—report, if you like. There is nothing for you to do here to-night," and Hilda softly closed the door. There was a whispered expostulation when Sister Margaret came back, but Miss Howe said, "It is arranged," and with a little silent nod of appreciation the Sister settled into her chair, her finger marking a place in her Church Service. Hilda sat nearer to the bed, her elbow on the table, shading her eyes from the lamp, and watched.

"Is it not odd?" whispered Sister Margaret, as the night wore on. "He has refused to be confessed before he goes. He will not see the Brother Superior—or any of them. Strange, is it not?"

Together they watched the quick, short breathing. It seemed strangely impossible to sleep against such odds. They saw the lines of the face grow sharper and whiter, the dark eye-sockets sink to a curious roundness, a greyness gather about the mouth. There were times when they looked at each other in the last surmise. Yet the feeble pulse persisted—persisted.

"I believe now," said Sister Margaret, "that he may go on like this until the morning. I am going to take half an hour's nap. Rouse me at once if he wakes," and she took an attitude of casual repose, turning the prayer-book open on her knee for readier use, open at "Prayers for the Dying."

The jackals had wailed themselves out, and there was a long, dark period when nothing but the sudden cry of a night bird in the hospital garden came between Hilda and the very vivid perception she had at that hour of the value and significance of the earthly lot. She lifted her head and listened to that; it seemed a comment. Then a harsh quarrelling of dogs—Christian dogs—arose in the distance and died away, and again there was night and silence. Suddenly the long singing drone of a steamer's signal came across the city from the river, once, twice, thrice; and presently the sparrows began their twittering in the bushes near the verandah, an unexpected unanimous bird talk that died as suddenly and as irrelevantly away. A conservancy cart lumbered past, creaking, the far shrill whistle of an awakening factory cut the air from Howrah, the first solitary foot smote through the dawn upon the nearest pavement. The light showed grey beyond the scanty curtains. A noise of something being moved reverberated in the hospital below, and Arnold opened his eyes. They made him in a manner himself again, and he fixed them upon Hilda as if they could never alter. She leaned nearer him and made a sign of inquiry toward the sleeping Sister, with the farewells, the commendations of poor mortality speeding itself forth, lying upon her lap. Arnold comprehended, and she was amazed to see the mask of his face change itself with a faint smile as he shook his head. He made a little movement; she saw what he wanted and took his hand in hers. The smile was still in his eyes as he looked at her and then at the cheated Sister.

So in the end he trusted the new wings of his mortal love to bear his soul to its immortality. They carried their burden buoyantly, it was such a little way. The lamp was still holding its own against the paleness from the windows when the meaning finally went out of his clasp of Hilda's hand, without a struggle to stay, and she saw that in an instant when she was not looking he had closed his eyes, upon the world. She sat on beside him for a long time after that, watching tenderly, and would not withdraw her hand—it seemed an abandonment.

* * * * *

Three hours later Miss Howe, passing out of the hospital gate, was overtaken by Duff Lindsay, riding, with a look of singular animation and vigour. He flung himself off his horse to speak to her, and as he approached he drew from his inner coat-pocket the brown envelope of a telegram.

"Good-morning," he said. "You do look fagged. I have a—curious—piece of news."

"Alicia told me that you were starting early this morning for Madras!"

"I should have been but for this."

"Read it to me," Hilda said, "I'm tired."

"Oh, do you very much mind? I would rather——"

She took the missive; it was dated the day before, Colombo, and read:

"Do not expect me. Was married this morning to Colonel Markin. S. A. We may not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. Glory be to God.

"Laura Markin."

She raised her eyes to his with the gravest, saddest irony.

"Then you—you also are delivered," she said. But he said, "What?" without special heed; and I doubt whether he ever took the trouble to understand.

"One hopes he isn't a brute," Lindsay went on with most impersonal solicitude, "and can support her. I suppose there isn't any way one could do anything for her. I heard a story only yesterday about a girl changing her mind on the way out. By Jove, I didn't suppose it would happen to me!"

"If you are hurt anywhere," Hilda said, absently, "it is only your vanity, I fancy."

"Ah, my vanity is very sore." He paused for an instant, wondering to find so little expansion in her. "I came to ask after Arnold," he said. "How is he?"

"He is dead. He died at half-past five this morning."

She left him with even less than her usual circumstance, and turned in at the gate of the Baker Institution. It happened to be the last day of her probation.

* * * * *

There has never been any difficulty in explaining Lindsay's marriage with Alicia Livingstone even to himself. The reasons for it, indeed, were so many and so obvious that he wondered often why they had not struck him before. But it is worth noting, perhaps, that the immediate precipitating cause arose in one evening service at the Cathedral, where it had its birth in the very individual charm of the nape of Alicia's neck, as she knelt upon her hassock in the fitting and graceful act of the responses. His instincts in these matters seem to have had a generous range, considering the tenets he was born to, but it was to him then a delightful reflection, often since repeated, that in the sheltered garden of delicate perfumes where this sweet person took her spiritual pleasure there was no rank vegetation.

It is much to Miss Hilda Howe's credit that amid the overwhelming distractions of her most successful London season she never quite abandons these two to the social joys that circle round the Ochterlony Monument and the arid scenic consolations of the Maidan. Her own experience there is one of the things, I fancy, that make her fond of saying that the stage is the merest cardboard presentation, and that one day she means to leave it, to coax back to her bosom the life which is her heritage in the wider, simpler ways of the world. She never mentions that experience more directly or less ardently. But I fear the promise I have quoted is one that she makes too often.

THE END

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