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Rose of the World By
Egerton Castle and Agnes Castle
ROSE OF THE WORLD
It is our fate as a nation, head and heart of a world empire, that much of our manhood must pursue its career far away from home. And it is our strength that these English sons of ours have taught themselves to make it home wherever they find their work.
The fervid land of India had become home to Raymond Bethune for so many years that it would have been difficult for him to picture his life elsewhere. The glamour of the East, of the East that is England's, had entered into his blood, without, however, altering its cool northern deliberate course; that it can be thus with our children, therein also lies the strength of England.
Raymond Bethune, Major of Guides, loved the fierce lads to whom he was at once father and despot, as perhaps he could have loved no troop of honest thick-skulled English soldiers. He was content with the comradeship of his brother officers, men who thought like himself and fought like himself; content to spend the best years of existence hanging between heaven and earth on the arid flanks of a Kashmir mountain range, in forts the walls of which had been cemented by centuries of blood; looked forward, without blenching, to the probability of laying down his life in some obscure frontier skirmish, unmourned and unnoticed. His duty sufficed him. He found happiness in it that it was his duty. Such men as he are the very stones of our Empire's foundation.
* * * * *
Yet though he was thus intimately satisfied with his life and his life's task, Bethune was conscious of a strange emotion, almost a contraction of the heart, as he followed the kitmutgar to Lady Gerardine's drawing-room in the palace of the Lieutenant-Governor, this October day.
The town below hung like a great rose jewel, scintillating, palpitating, in a heat unusual for the autumn of Northern India. Out of the glare, the colour, the movement, the noise; out of the throng of smells—spice, scent, garlic, the indescribable breath of the East—into the dim cool room; it was like stepping from India into England! And by the tug at his heart-strings he might have analysed (had he been of those that analyse) that, after all, the old home was nearest and dearest still; might have realised that his content beneath the scorching suns, amid the blinding snows of his adopted country, arose after all but of his deep filial love of, and pride in, the distant English isle.
He put down his bat and looked round: not a hint of tropical colour, not a touch of exotic fancy, of luxuriant oriental art anywhere; but the green and white and rosebud of chintz, the spindle-legged elegance of Chippendale, the soft note of Chelsea china, the cool greys and whites of Wedgwood. From the very flower-bowl a fastidious hand had excluded all but those delicate blossoms our paler sunshine nourishes. Some such room, dignified with the consciousness of a rigid selection, reticent to primness in its simple yet distinguished art, fragrant with the potpourri of English gardens, fragrant too with memories of generations of wholesome English gentlefolks, you may meet with any day in some old manor-house of the shires. To transport the complete illusion to the heart of India, Bethune knew well must have cost more labour and money than if the neighbouring palaces had been ransacked for their treasures. It was obvious, too, that the fancy here reigning supreme was that of one who looked upon her sojourn under these splendid skies with the eyes of an unresigned exile.
"The wife of the Lieutenant-Governor can evidently gratify every whim," he said to himself, bitterly enough, the while he still inhaled the fragrance of home with an unconscious yearning.
In the distance the tinkle of a piano seemed to add a last touch to the illusion. In India one so seldom hears a piano touched during the hot hours. And scales, too—it was fantastic!
Suddenly the music ceased, if music it could be called. There was a flying step without. The door was thrown open. Raymond Bethune turned quickly, a certain hardness gathering in his eyes. Their expression changed, however, when he beheld the newcomer. A young, very young girl, hardly eighteen perhaps, of the plump type of immaturity; something indeed of a cherubic babyhood still lurking in the round face, in the buxom little figure, and in the rebellious aureole of bronze hair rising from a very pink forehead. It was evidently the energetic musician.
She came in, examining one finger of her right hand; and, without looking at him, began to speak with severity:
"I told you, Mr. Simpson, I could not possibly see anybody in my practising hours! How am I ever to keep up my poor music in this beastly country?" Then she added, in a pettish undertone: "I have broken my nail now!" And glancing up, accusingly, to behold a stranger: "Oh!" she exclaimed.
Major Bethune smiled. The sight of this creature, so unmistakably fresh from the salt brisk English shores, was as pleasant as it was unexpected.
"Oh, it's not Mr. Simpson!" she cried, with a quaint air of discovery.
The officer bowed. Life had taught him not to waste his energy on a superfluous word.
"Oh!" she said again. She looked down at her nail once more, and then sucked it childishly. Over her finger she shot a look at him. She had very bright hazel eyes, under wide full brows. "Perhaps," she said, "you want to see the Runkle? I mean," she interrupted herself, with a little giggle—"I menu, my uncle, Sir Arthur."
"I called to see Lady Gerardine," he answered imperturbably. "I wrote to her yesterday. She expects me."
Every time this ejaculation shot from the girl's lips it was with a new lively note of surprise and a comical rounding of small mouth and big eyes. Then she remembered her manners; and, plunging down on a chair herself:
"Won't you take a seat?" she cried, with an engaging schoolgirl familiarity.
Bowing again, he obeyed.
"Do you think Lady Gerardine will see me?"
She glanced at the clock on the cabinet beside her.
"My aunt will be here," she replied, "in just ten minutes. She is always down at the hour, though nobody comes till half-past." She flung a look of some reproach at the visitor's inscrutable face, and passed her handkerchief over her own hot cheeks. "I think Aunt Rosamond is wonderful," she went on, preparing herself, with a small sigh, to the task of entertaining. "The Runkle—I mean my uncle—is always after her. But I am sure there is not another Lieutenant-Governor's wife in India that does her duty half so well." Here she yawned, as suddenly as a puppy. The visitor still maintaining silence, she paused, evidently revolving subjects of conversation in her mind, and then started briskly upon her choice:
"Of course, you don't know who I am." Two deep dimples appeared in the plump cheeks. "I am Aspasia Cuningham, and I have come to live with my uncle and aunt in India. I wish I had not; I hate it. What is your name?"
"Civil?" inquired Miss Aspasia, running her eye over his light-grey suit.
"No, military. Guides. Major," he corrected.
"I see—turbans and things," commented she.
Bethune gave a dry chuckle which hardly reflected itself on his countenance. Another silence fell; and, still scrubbing her cheeks with an energy calculated to make even the onlooker feel hot, the girl took a good look at him. A somewhat lantern-jawed, very thin face had he, tanned almost to copper; brown hair, cropped close, a slight fair moustache; and steady pale eyes beneath overhanging brows. There was not an ounce of superfluous flesh about the long lean figure. No mistake (thought Aspasia sagely) about his Scottish origin. She cocked her head on one side. "He would have looked well in a kilt," she told herself.
Presently the silence began to oppress her. He did not seem in the least disposed to break it. His attitude was one of patient waiting; but, second by second, the lines of his countenance grew set into deeper sternness. Miss Cuningham coughed. She played a scale upon her knee, stretched out all her fingers one after another, waggled them backwards and forwards, and finally, with a pout and a frown, dashed into exasperated speech:
"Could not I take a message?"
The man brought his attention to bear upon her, with an effort, as if from some distant thought.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Do you not think you could give me a message fur Aunt Rosamond?"
"I am afraid not."
"Do you want her to get the Runkle—Sir Arthur, I mean—to do anything for you?"
"Do you know Aunt Rosamond—Lady Gerardine?"
He hesitated. Then he said: "No," and "No" again, with a cold incisiveness.
Miss Cuningham was nonplussed; yet was she interested, in spite of herself. "What a rude pig!" she thought angrily, in her downright schoolgirl vernacular. But the next moment his saturnine face softened.
"Do not let me keep you," he said. "You want to return to your music. You were practising very hard. I have never heard any one play scales with such energy over here before. It quite brought me back to the schoolroom in the old place at home."
His expression softened still more as he spoke.
Aspasia was delighted to find him so human all at once; and, being herself the most gregarious little soul alive, hastened to take advantage of the opportunity.
"Oh, it does not matter now," she said. "Thank you. It is rather hot. I will finish my exercises later on. You see, I must keep up my technique." She stretched her fingers again, with an important air. "But, when he's at home, it annoys the Runkle—there it is again! I cannot help it, really. I only began it for fun, to tease him; now it's irresistible, nervous I think. You remember, I told you my name is Aspasia. A stupid sort of name. You cannot even shorten it into anything decent. You could not call me Aspy, or Pashy, or Asia, could you? So people have got into the way of calling me Baby. I do not mind. It's better than Aspasia. But uncle won't. He is my godfather, you see, and thinks it's a lovely name. There's a stupid old cousin of ours, Lady Aspasia Something-or-other, whom he thinks the world of. So he always will say: 'My dear Raspasia ... my dear Raspasia!' So I got into the way of calling him: 'My dear Runkle Rarthur!' Rather silly, but I began it in sheer self-defence. And now—it's really quite wicked—everybody calls him the Runkle, all the secretaries and things—behind his back, of course. And there's one of them, a silly sort of creature, Mr. Simpson—I thought it was him, just now—he's not got used to it yet, and he always goes purple and explodes. And the Runkle gets mad. He has to pretend he has not noticed anything, to save his dignity!"
Her frank young laugh rang out, one might have thought infectiously enough. But the visitor's eyes had wandered from her. And as now (perceiving suddenly that he had not been listening to her) she fell into an affronted silence, she noticed how they became fixed in the direction of the door with a curious intensity of gaze, like that of a hawk sighting his quarry.
One of the native servants, who kept squatting watch in the passage without, had noiselessly pushed the door-hangings aside; a soft murmur of muslin skirts against matting grew into the silence. Lady Gerardine came into the room. She was looking at a card in her hand.
"Major Bethune?" she said questioningly, as she approached.
"My name must be familiar to you," he replied gravely.
She paused a second, slightly contracting her brows; then shook her head, with a smile.
"I am afraid—I have such a bad memory. But I am very glad to see you."
She put out her hand graciously. He barely touched it with his fingers.
"Pray sit down," she said, and took her own chair.
One felt the accomplished woman of the world. No awkwardness could exist where Lady Gerardine had the direction of affairs. Sweet, cool, aloof, the most exquisite courtesy marked her every gesture. Had the new comer been shy he must promptly have felt reassured; for a long-looked-for guest could not have been more easily welcomed.
"You will like some tea," said she. "Baby, why did not you order tea? Dear child, how hot you are!"
A faint ripple of laughter broke the composure of her countenance. Miss Cuningham ran to the door clapping her hands.
"Tea, Abdul," she cried. And, like the genie of the Persian fairy tale, the servant instantly stood salaaming on the threshold.
"Oh, Aunt Rosamond, may he not have a lemon-squash? Major Bethune, I am sure you would prefer a lemon-squash!"
Bethune sat stonily staring at his hostess from under his heavy brows.
* * * * *
So that was she—Rose of the World! Not so beautiful as he had fancied. And yet, yes—grudgingly he had to admit it—beautiful and more. With every instant that passed, the extraordinary quality of her personality made itself felt upon him; and his heart hardened. This grace more beautiful than beauty; those deep strange eyes startling with their unexpected colour, green-hazel, in the pallor of the face under a crown of hair, fiery gold; those long lissom limbs; the head with its wealth, dropping a little on the long throat. Oh, aye, that was she! Even so had she been described to him: the "flower among women!"—even so, by lips, eloquent with the fulness of the heart (alas! what arid mountain wind might not now be playing with the dust of what was once instinct with such generous life!)—even so, had Harry English described her to his only friend. Save, indeed, that by his own telling Harry English's bride had been rosy as a Dorset apple-blossom, as the monthly roses that hung over the wicket-gate of the garden at home; and the wife of Sir Arthur Gerardine had no more tint of colour in her cheeks than the waxen petals of the white daturas that marked the Governor's terraces with their giant chalices.
Raymond remembered. But she—she had such a bad memory!
* * * * *
"Have you been long here?"
She seemed to take his visit quite as a matter of course.
"I arrived yesterday. I am on leave."
"Indeed. And what regiment?"
He told her. A change, scarcely perceptible, passed over her face. She compressed her lips and drew a breath, a trifle longer than normal, through dilated nostrils.
Just then a procession of soft-footed, white-clad servants entered upon them, and the tension, if tension there had been, was dispelled.
"Will you have tea, Major Bethune, or this child's prescription?"
The ice tinkled melodiously in the fragrant yellow brew. "Baby" was already sucking through a straw; she rolled her eyes, expressive of rapture, towards the visitor. But he was not to be diverted.
"I will have nothing, thank you."
He had not thought himself so sentimental. Why should he bear so deep a grudge against this woman? How could her forgetfulness, her indifference, now harm the dead? It was fantastic, unreasonable, and yet he could not bring himself to break bread with her to-day. He clasped his lean brown fingers tightly across his knees.
"I am afraid," he said briefly, "that my presence must seem an intrusion. But I trust you will forgive me when you understand upon what errand I come."
She disclaimed his apology by a wave of her hand. The emeralds upon it shot green fire at him.
"The fact is," he went on, doggedly making for his point, "I have been asked to write a life of—your husband."
He was interrupted by a commotion among the ice and bubbles of Miss Aspasia's long tumbler.
"Gracious," she sputtered; "but the Runkle is not dead yet!" She choked down, just in time, the comment: "Worse luck!" which had almost escaped her terribly frank tongue.
Lady Gerardine was smiling again in her detached manner.
"A great many people, distinguished people, Baby, have their lives written before they die. And they have then the advantage of correcting the proof-sheets. I dare say your uncle will not object."
Major Bethune allowed a pause to fall before continuing his speech. Then he said, with almost cruel deliberation:
"I beg your pardon, Lady Gerardine. I should have said your late husband. I refer to Harry English."
For the life of her Baby could not have said why, but she felt as if something had been broken by these last words—broken with a great crash. She put down her glass and turned and stared from her aunt to Major Bethune and back again. Lady Gerardine's eyes were cast down, her hands were moving among the tea-things: it would have been hard to divine if she had even heard. The man was leaning forward, devouring her face with unsparing gaze—a gaze that seemed to be looking for something with brutal intensity.
After a silence, so oppressive that Aspasia could have screamed, Lady Gerardine spoke:
"Is it necessary to ask for my permission?" she said, without lifting her eyelids. "I did not know that people were so particular nowadays." She paused. And then, with a perceptible effort: "Did you know Captain English?" she asked.
"Did I know him?" Raymond Bethune laughed out loud, unmirthfully. "You seem to have forgotten that he and I went through that siege together. I was with him from the day I first joined, practically till the hour of his death."
Rosamond Gerardine gave a faint gasp, as if breath had suddenly failed her; then she looked up sharply and veiled her glance again.
"Ah," she said slowly. "Through the siege—till—I had not known. I beg your pardon."
Once more there was the heavy silence. With round eyes Baby stared: things were passing here to the meaning of which she had no clue, but she felt, as it were, the stress of a tragedy in the air.
Suddenly Lady Gerardine rose.
"I am glad to have met you," said she. He rose too, and she stretched out her hand to him. "Write his life," she went on. "I am sure no one could do it better."
As upon their first greeting, the man bowed ceremoniously, barely touching the fingers proffered. She sighed, sank into her chair again, then turned and smiled determinedly upon her niece with the air of one dismissing the subject. Bethune felt well enough that he too was being dismissed; but he took a step forward and stood looking down upon her.
"I do not think you quite understand," he said. "I cannot do this work without your help, Lady Gerardine."
"I am exceedingly sorry to be so tiresome"—his manner betrayed a curious mixture of patience and irritation—"but you see, that without the papers in your possession my task would be futile. I could not possibly do the work justice."
"The papers in my possession!" She echoed the words as helplessly as before.
"The papers in your possession," he repeated. "His letters to you, the journal he wrote during the siege, his notes, his whole correspondence—I brought them all back and sent them to you myself—afterwards. And you, you did receive them? You were too ill to see me, I was told, but your friends undertook that you should have them."
She was gazing at him, now, with wide eyes growing darker and deeper every moment. The colour rushed up to her face, then faded away, leaving it paler even than before. Her stricken look made him feel like a brute; yet the sheer perversity of her attitude exasperated him. At last:
"You want me to give you these papers?" she exclaimed, with a cry.
He sat down on the chair next her; and, like one endeavouring to make a fractious child hear reason, began to explain his meaning to her.
"I should not presume," he said, "to suggest that you should confide to me writings which can concern only yourself and him. He was a reserved man, and, though he was the best friend, the only friend I ever had, and I perhaps his closest, I should not dream of intruding upon his private life, now—now that he is dead. God forbid! But I want you to help, I want you to give me every necessary extract which concerns his soldier's life—that life which was such an example to all Englishmen—which I feel it should be given to England to know, as freely as it was laid down for her. Why, there is not even a cairn of stones to mark his grave! Mark his grave? Why, even that grave has been denied to us! But we can yet raise a monument to him that our country may know her dead."
His cold somewhat grating voice deepened into a note of such tenderness that Baby wondered in her childish mind. She did not know that a man could so love and mourn a friend. Lady Gerardine had leant back in her chair, her hands clasping the arms. Bethune saw her revolving the question in her mind with such pallid suffering upon her features that he felt torn between anger and a sort of unwilling pity. Her lips moved:
"It is impossible."
He thought he could not have heard aright.
"I beg your pardon?"
"It is impossible."
"You do not know what you are asking. I cannot!"
"I think it is you who do not understand. The matter is so simple; those letters, that journal——"
"You refuse?" he exclaimed. Indignation was even stronger than surprise.
"You do not know what you are asking!" she repeated. And the cry of passion in her voice again startled both him and Aspasia.
Bethune rose, took up his hat in silence; stood awhile, his steel-pale eyes flaming upon the woman whom his friend had, from all the world, chosen to make his wife.
"I trust you will think it over," said he at length, as soon as he could control himself sufficiently to speak.
He paused again; but Lady Gerardine made no reply. She was still fixing him with that inexplicable gaze that seemed one of terror.
"I shall call again," said he, well-nigh in the tone of a menace; then bowed and turned away. At the door he halted. "But perhaps you did not keep those papers?" he said, upon a sudden scornful thought.
Still she held her peace, and in his heart he knew that this random shaft of his had fallen wide of the mark; that, whatever might be the explanation of her attitude, it was not indifference.
Thoroughly dissatisfied with the result of his interview, with himself, and the whole situation, he strode down the long corridors into the cool echoing hall, where many pillars showed with faint barbaric tints between aisles of gloom.
At the very threshold of the colour and sunshine without, some one overtook him with patter of flying feet, some one nipped him by the sleeve with determined fingers. He looked, and it was Miss Aspasia. Her hazel eyes were rounder than ever; so was her button of a mouth. Her hair seemed to stand out, an aureole of amazement, from her baby face.
"Don't be angry with Aunt Rosamond. Perhaps she will change her mind."
He wheeled round.
"Have you any idea," he asked, "of the reason for her refusal?"
Aspasia shook her head so violently that the halo danced again. She pursed her lips with a long drawn-out:
"No. You see," she added quickly, arresting him, as with head bent in thought he was once more proceeding on his way, "you see, we never speak of Aunt's first husband here. At least she never does. There is no picture of him about, not a sign of anything that has ever belonged to him. As far as she is concerned, it is just as if he had never been."
Raymond Bethune, of the Guides, jerked his head upwards in melancholy and bitter confirmation. In the midst of his own preoccupation and disappointment he could not, however, help being struck with the engaging quality of the face thrust so confidingly close to his. Those yellow hazel eyes had depths of almost infantile candour.
"At least there is a soul that can afford to be transparent," he said to himself. Then aloud, following his first perplexed train of thought: "Perhaps it is because of your uncle, of Sir Arthur?" he suggested. "Lady Gerardine may be afraid of annoying him. Some men are jealous of their wives' first husbands." He smiled, half derisively to himself, half genially upon her.
"The Runkle!" cried Aspasia, with a giggle. "Jealous? Oh no; I don't think so! Why, he is the only creature who ever does speak of Captain English in this place. Poor Runkle, he's so awfully pleased with himself, you know, that I don't think he could be jealous of anything or anybody."
"Why then——" Bethune's brow darkened at this confident removal of the only hypothesis that could put Lady Gerardine's behaviour in a favourable light. "Do you think," he said, regarding the girl reflectively, "that you could use your influence in this matter?"
Again Aspasia's head flew from side to side in violent negation.
"Oh, I could not! Aunt Rosamond, she's a darling, she is more than good to me; I love her, but—it would seem such horrible impertinence. I cannot explain, Major Bethune, but I never feel as if I knew her really, nor as if she wanted me to know her. She always seems to me to be all outside, somehow."
He reflected a moment; then he suddenly held out his hand to her, with that softening of the countenance she had already noted—and noted to approve.
"Will you? I want you to try and help me," said he. It was worded as a request; it was voiced, somehow, as a command.
She was preparing to twirl her curly mop, when she looked up and met his eyes. Then—she never knew how it happened—she said quite the opposite to what she had intended:
"I will try."
And this was a promise. There was no mistake about it. He held her hand for a second in a firm grasp; neither of them wotted, or cared, for the white-clad, dusky-faced retinue that stood like so many statues awaiting the moment to proffer their services. If a liquid eye rolled curiously, however, it was an exception; your Hindoo has a dignified discretion of his own.
* * * * *
"Play me something, Baby."
Lady Gerardine was still lying back in her chair, almost as if she had not moved. Her face had perhaps a whiter pallor than before, but there was no other trace of emotion to be seen. Instead of obeying, Aspasia, with her promise heavy on her heart and all the indiscreet impulsiveness of her years, rushed over and flung herself at her aunt's feet, rubbing a coaxing head against her knees.
Rosamond laid her hand upon the curls. This Baby seized and kissed; then she looked up. Lady Gerardine smiled; it was a smile indulgent but of infinite detachment.
"It is perfectly absurd that I should call you Aunt," began the girl. True child as she was, she could think of no better scheme of attack than this wheedling. "You look as young as I do."
"Young?" echoed the Governor's wife, wearily.
Baby was counting on her fingers: "I was, let me see, just twelve when you married the Runkle, six years ago. So," triumphantly, "you are twenty-seven now. And that is, oh, quite ridiculously young for an aunt!"
Lady Gerardine sighed.
"Dear Aunt Rosamond," said Aspasia, suddenly, turning round to kneel and place her elbows on her aunt's knees while she looked earnestly into her face, "why won't you?"
"Why won't I what, Baby?"
"You know. Let that poor man have those papers. Dear Aunt Rosamond, I don't think it's quite fair."
The girl was trembling at her own temerity. But now the elder woman showed neither anger nor distress; only a marble stillness seemed to come over the living flesh. After a pause she placed her hand gently across Aspasia's mouth.
"Baby, never speak of that again," she said. And there was the most absolute finality in her voice. Then she leaned forward and kissed her niece. The touch of her lips struck Aspasia as deathly cold. "Now play me something."
Aspasia rose, baffled, not without a feeling akin to the irritation that Major Bethune had displayed a little while before. It was like being brought up by a smooth blank wall.
She marched to the piano, opened it, and plunged into a prelude of Bach's, glad to be able to work off some of her pent-up feelings. As she played she set her pointed chin; and, while her fingers flew, her thought wove in and out with the intricate music to a settled resolution:
"I don't care. Other people can be determined too. It is not fair of Aunt Rosamond. And I'll not give it up."
She finished her "Bach" with a triumphant chord.
"Thank you," said Lady Gerardine, "I like your music, Baby. It is so intellectual."
Sir Arthur Gerardine was stretched in a bamboo chair on the white terrace overlooking the garden, taking his ease luxuriously. He had had his shampoo after his ride, he had had tea, and had started his second cheroot. It was growing delightfully cool. He had the conviction of leaving a well-spent day behind him; and now, an immaculately conscienced, immaculately attired English gentleman of importance, felt himself entitled to his virtuous relaxation.
He was perilously near the sixties, but young-looking for his age in spite of his oriental experience; handsome still, with a smile that, upon first acquaintance, was found irresistibly fascinating; a genial easy manner—a way with him, in fact, that seemed to promise the utmost good-fellowship. It was only after experience that people felt the steel behind the velvet glove.
"Uncle Arthur," Aspasia one day averred in an irrepressible burst of frankness, "is the sort of man the more you know him, the less you like him."
No one would have been more surprised than Sir Arthur himself had he been told that he was a tyrant. Yet very soon those who were brought into contact with him discovered what a domineering spirit dwelt behind that sweet smile; how, without ever departing from a form of speech and manner that, with his own family was almost always caressing, with the rest of the world affable, no human being had ever been able to move him from the prosecution of his own purpose. Such a character, combined with a mighty intellect, would have been an enormous power for good. Unfortunately, it was upon the slightest premises and with limited reasoning faculties that Sir Arthur formed his unalterable views of life.
One of the problems that had most puzzled Aspasia, since unexpected family misfortunes had driven her to seek a home with the Lieutenant-Governor (her uncle and guardian), was whether her beautiful new aunt did not really hate Sir Arthur; and, "if she didn't," as the child phrased it, "how she could?" But not even Baby's shrewd young eyes could discover a flaw in the serenity with which Lady Gerardine listened to her husband's theories, or the grace with which she lent herself to the fulfilment of his wishes.
She now sat beside him with a half smile, her hands busied with some delicate work: a lovely picture of cool placidity.
Sir Arthur turned and gazed upon her with such an eye of condescending and complacent affection as that with which the Grand Turk may regard his last favourite.
"Well, dear," he pursued, "I have finally rejected the Rajah's request."
She shot a look at him as if she would have added something; but upon the second thought dropped her long lids and resumed her embroidery, while Aspasia, in her usual pose at her aunt's feet, broke into shrill protest:
"You never did? Why, Runkle, and everybody said the poor man was quite right! Only last night I heard General Staveley tell Aunt Rosamond that it was a mere case of justice, not to say one of expediency."
The Lieutenant-Governor's self-satisfaction waxed visibly to swelling point.
"Ha! I dare say," he commented. "Indeed, I flatter myself, my dear Aspasia, that there is not another man in India that would have dared to take the responsibility. Aha, Rosamond, firmness! I was firm. Very firm. Discontented, disloyal set! I won't give them an inch more than the measure."
"Oh Lor!" ejaculated Baby.
Lady Gerardine's eyelashes flickered a second.
"Quiet!" she said, giving her niece a tap upon the shoulder.
Baby subsided, growling to herself like a tiger cub:
"That nice prince...! If Runkle does not start a new mutiny——!"
Sir Arthur surveyed his womankind a second with that singularly sweet smile of his. They were his womankind, part of his personal belongings; and therefore it never even dawned upon him that they could be anything but superlative of their degree; much less that they could form an independent opinion really unfavourable to himself. His niece's petulance affected him not otherwise than as an agreeable émoustillage in moments of relaxation such as these, as well as an opportunity for the display of his own indulgent wit and wisdom. He had a pride in her smart tongue as well as in her pretty looks; and Aspasia's most earnest attempts produced no more effect upon her distinguished relative than would the gambols of a kitten. Thus he now beamed upon her. In his early years of London society and successes, he had been noted for that beautiful smile. "The ass with the seraphic smile," a light-hearted St. James's comrade had dubbed him, little guessing that his country would, in the future, consider so well of "the ass" as to confide some of the gravest interests of the Empire to his charge. In spite of which (all unknown to its distinguished wearer) the nickname stuck.
"I have given orders, my love," said the great man, once more addressing his wife, "for the cutting down of the group of banyan trees at the end of the garden. I know you and Aspasia rather liked that little jungle, but it was really a nasty bit. Now I propose to have the place concreted and a summer-house erected—something in a pretty artistic style, say Early English—or a Norwegian hut, perhaps, where you can sit without fear of snakes."
Again Baby felt a warning hand pressed upon her shoulder, and was fain, with crimson cheeks of wrath, to compress her lips in silence, while Lady Gerardine drew a strand of silk through her needle and made a pretty little speech of thanks to her husband for his thoughtfulness.
"Why don't you carry the concrete down the garden walks," observed Miss Cuningham presently, with withering sarcasm, "and set up a rockery, with shells and things?"
Sir Arthur ignored the sally.
"You will be glad to hear, Rosamond," he proceeded presently, "that I have been successful in a matter to which I attach great importance. I have found, I think, the exact person I have wanted so long: the native secretary, you know. All these young Civil Service fellows, with their translations, are no use to me. And my work was positively at a standstill."
Irrepressible Aspasia sniffed. A faint look of weariness crossed Lady Gerardine's well-trained countenance: this book of Sir Arthur's—a history of the Provinces confided to his charge, beginning from the earliest possible date and to be carried down to the triumphant conclusion of his own rule—this great work which was (as he was fond of saying) to be the monument of his career in India, was a subject which the Lieutenant-Governor's circle had learned to dread.
"Monument, indeed; it will be all our monuments!" had cried Aspasia one day, and Lady Gerardine had not rebuked.
The quaintest part about the matter, perhaps, was that, while Sir Arthur employed some half-dozen experts in obtaining material for him, and spent a fair part of his time in discussion of the matter provided, not one line of the folios which already filled his nest of drawers, some of which had been actually passed for press, had been either conceived or penned by the official author. And the guileless phrase, which often dropped from his lips: "I must really go; Macdonald (or it might be Gray, or Captain Smith) is waiting to read out to me the last chapter of my book," had ceased even to provoke a smile.
"It has always been my aim to get at the spirit of the people," said Sir Arthur, "to draw water from the source that springs in the soil of the land itself." He looked sideways for a second, reflecting. "Ah, not a bad phrase that; I must suggest it to Macdonald."
"And what's the name of the particular native spring?" inquired the pert Miss Cuningham.
"His name"—Sir Arthur drew a letter from his pocket—"is Muhammed Saif-u-din, if it makes you much the wiser, my dear Aspasia. It seems he's quite a remarkable individual. Curiously enough, a Pathan. Pathans, a real fighting lot, don't as a rule take to the pen. Yes, quite a remarkable individual. The son of a Subadar—who thought it fine to let his son have an English education. Thought it no doubt a form of loyalty that would pay. However it may have been, the fellow's as poor as a rat in spite of his learning—proud as Lucifer, of course. Drop of princely blood in him, it appears." The Lieutenant-Governor smiled pityingly. "They generally have, if you believe them—ha! Read his letter, my dear," he went on, drawing a sheet from his pocket-book and tossing it in her lap; "it may amuse you to note the grandiloquence of the native style."
Lady Gerardine turned over the sheet with a languid finger. It was scored with beautifully regular copperplate writing, which presented certainly no difficulty to the decipherer. Baby, whose young interest was more easily aroused, craned her neck to see also, and read aloud the opening phrase in a mock declamatory style:
Huzur,—By your Honour's Gracious Permission, your devoted servant Muhammed Saif-u-din. Will your Magnificence so condescend to my nothingness as to permit your Heaven-illumined eyes to rest upon this unworthy document....
"Oh, Runkle, that's even finer than your phrase. Hadn't you better pass it on to Macdonald? You must let him have a finger in your pie—your Monumental Pie!"
Sir Arthur smiled with his benevolent air.
He drew a second letter from his pocket.
"Another agreeable piece of news," said he; "Lady Aspasia is quite ready to give us ten days or a fortnight after her visit to Calcutta."
"Lady Aspasia!" cried Baby; "do you mean the horrid woman that went and had a name like that to make me a laughing-stock all my life?"
"Lady Aspasia, your own cousin, and the most agreeable woman I have ever met," rebuked Sir Arthur. "With one exception, of course," added the gallant gentleman, bowing towards his wife. "You ought to be very proud, dear child," he went on, addressing his recalcitrant niece, "not only of your connection with a noble house, but also to bear a name which is perhaps unique. Had we had a daughter, Rosamond, my love, I could not have allowed her to be christened otherwise. Dear me," he went on, now throwing his remarks into space and inflating his chest with the breath of sentimental reminiscence, "dear Aspasia, what a fine creature she was; and how much in love with her I used to be in my salad days. You're not jealous, dear," he cried suddenly, struck by his wife's abstraction.
"Jealous?" she echoed with a start. Her gaze was really pathetic, as she raised it to his face; and Sir Arthur, satisfied that she had undoubtedly felt a little hurt by his reminiscence, smiled sympathetically and once more considerately selected another topic.
"By the way," he said, knocking the ash off his cheroot with a squat nail pared and polished to the last possible point of symmetry, "I met quite an interesting fellow just now. He tells me he has already called on you. Bethune his name is—Major Bethune, of the Guides. I asked him to dine to-night. I knew you would like me to show him some attention. You must know all about him, my love; he went through all that unfortunate business with your poor husband. I knew," repeated the Lieutenant-Governor, with a most intimate smile of self-approbation, "I knew that you would like me to show him some attention."
Baby, leaning against her aunt's pliant form, felt it suddenly stiffen into rigidity. But the needle poised in Lady Gerardine's fingers did not tremble; it hovered for a hardly perceptible moment, then resumed its languid course. Sir Arthur, after waiting for the expected tribute, threw down the stump of his cigar and looked round in surprise.
"I always wish to do the right thing about any friend of poor English," he insisted. "And Bethune was flattered, of course, immensely flattered at my asking him. I knew it would please you, my dear Rosamond."
Lady Gerardine finished the lilac petal, cut her silk, folded her work, and, then only, raised her eyes.
"Thank you," she said gently; "you are always kindness itself."
Those eyes of hers were so dark and encircled in her pale face that the affectionate husband was solicitously moved.
"You look tired, my love," he said, hoisting himself out of his lounge to approach her. "I trust you have not got a chill; I think we had better all adjourn. You must lie down an hour before dinner."
Lady Gerardine rose and stood, looking out across the still garden falling in terraces to the river edge, beyond the flaming masses of poinsettia, the heavy-headed babul, and the starred wide-flung hibiscus, towards the far-off hills, mauve and amethyst hued against a sky of translucent sapphire.
"I must go and say good-bye to my banyan trees," she said, almost as if speaking to herself.
Sir Arthur was horrified at the mere suggestion. Down into the lower garden, at the moment when the mists were rising! He would not hear of such a thing. And she was not looking well. He took her face by the chin and turned it to the sunset light. Even in that warm glow it showed wan; and the lids she dropped between her eyes and his gaze were bruised and shadowed, faintly purple like the petals of wood violets.
"I'll have to ask Saunders to look at you," said the Governor. "I hope and trust that you have not been so foolish as to throw off your vests again!" He slipped two fingers under the lace of her diaphanous blouse to satisfy himself. "I cannot afford to have you ill, dear," he wound up caressingly. "Now, I'll just tell Jani to measure you a couple of grains of quinine before you lie down."
Benevolent, consequential, he hurried indoors. Rosamond stood yet a moment, looking at the sky. Baby, a thousand shades of exasperation and scorn upon her expressive countenance, now melted all into tenderness.
"If ever there was a woman killed by kindness," she exclaimed, "it is you, poor Aunt Rosamond!" And flinging her arms round the still figure: "Oh, darling," she whispered, with the wail of an ever-renewed complaint, "why do you always, always give in?"
Lady Gerardine gently disengaged herself, bringing her eyes back from the distant loveliness with a perceptible effort.
"Oh, Baby," she said, in a tone of melancholy mockery, "when you have lived as long as I have, you will see how much simpler it is."
She trailed away, obediently, to seek quinine and couch. Aspasia kicked over the work-basket as a relief, summoning a couple of supple Hindoos to repair the damage; and, feeling that the balance of things was slightly re-established, she took her way also into the palace to select her attire for the evening.
In spite of her ruffled sensations, she was smiling to herself as she went, and the dimples were very deep in the pink cheeks. Something was singing in her heart—a soft, pleasant little song: that it was good not to have lived long yet, and to have everything still before one; and that she was glad that the man with the light eyes and brown face was not going to drift out of her life. She hoped he would not be angry with her for not having succeeded yet.
The chief guest of the Lieutenant-Governor this evening was one Dr. Châtelard, a French savant of world-wide reputation, author of "La Psychologie Féminine des Races." Scientist—he had begun his career as a doctor, had specialised in nervous complaints, narrowed his circle again to les néuroses des femmes; and, after establishing a school of his own, had gradually (though scarcely past the middle life) retired from active practice and confined himself to studying, teaching, and writing. The first volume of his "Psychologie"—under the distinctive heading "La femme Latine"—had created a sensation not only in the scientific world, where the author's really valuable contributions to observation and treatment could not fail to be recognised, but also among that self-same irresponsible yet charming class which formed the subject-matter of his investigation. Here, indeed, the physician's light turn of wit, the palpitating examples he cited, with a discreet use of asterisks, set up a great flutter. Madame la Marquise was charmed when she recognised, or believed to recognise, cette chère Comtesse in a singularly eccentric case. Friends hunted for each other eagerly through the delicately veiled pages. Now and again a fair whilom patient would plume herself upon the belief that no other identity but her own could fit that of Madame D——, cette exquise sensitive. (M. Châtelard clung to style while he revolutionised science.) It is no wonder, perhaps, that the book should have had a greater vogue than the last scandalous novel. A second volume, "L'Orientale," was in course of conception. Indeed, it was the occasion of that tour in the East which brought M. Châtelard to India and, incidentally, under Sir Arthur Gerardine's roof.
Sir Arthur was in his element. To condescend, to demonstrate, to instruct, was to the Governor as the breath of his nostrils; he prided himself upon the Attic character of his French; he was justly conscious that, judged even by the Parisian standard, the urbanity of his manners was beyond criticism. And to have the opportunity of displaying to the intelligent foreigner the splendours of a quasi-regal position, filled to the utmost capacity; the working of a superior mind (not unleavened by sparks of English wit that again need, certes, fear no comparison with French esprit); a cosmopolitan savoir-faire; the nicest sense of official dignity; the brilliant jargon of a brother writer; and last, but not least perhaps, a young wife of quite extraordinary beauty ... it would have been difficult to contrive a situation fraught with more satisfaction! The presence of a minor personality, such as that of Major Bethune, was no disturbing factor. Apart from the circumstance that Sir Arthur was large-minded enough to appreciate the admiration even of the humblest, there was a subtle thread of pleasure in the thought that "poor English's" friend should see and marvel at the good fortune that had fallen to the lot of "poor English's" widow; while the little halo of pathos and romance surrounding the memory of the fallen hero cast a reflected light upon his distinguished successor, which any temperament so sympathetic as that of the gifted Dr. Châtelard might easily be made to feel. A few well-chosen whispered words of sentiment, over the second glass of claret at dessert—and there would be a pretty paragraph for the Frenchman's next letter to the Figaro. For it was well known that the series of brilliant weekly articles appearing in that paper, under the title "Les Impressions d'un Globe-trotteur," emanated from the traveller's facile pen.
Matters had progressed according to programme. M. Châtelard, a pleasant tubby man with a bald head, a cropped pointed beard drawing upon greyness, a twinkling observant eye, a sparkling readiness of repartee, and an appreciative palate, fell duly under the charm of the genial Lieutenant-Governor. The latter figured, indeed, that same night in his manuscript as the most amiable representative of John Bull abroad that the globe-trotteur had yet had the good fortune to meet.
"Almost French," wrote the sagacious correspondent, "in charm of manner, in quickness of insight—thorough Anglo-Saxon, however, in the deepness of his policy, the solidity of his judgment, the unflinching decision with which he watches over the true interests of his Old England in this land of her ever-rebellious adopted sons.Bien Anglo-Saxon, too, in his ceaseless devotion to duty and stern acceptance of danger and responsibility. But he has received his recompense. These provinces of his are a model for all other colonies, and from one end to the other the name of Sir Gerardine is enough to make, etc., etc."
In very deed Sir Arthur had never been more brilliant, more convincing.
* * * * *
Coffee was served upon the terrace. Even the Governor could find no objection to this al-fresco adjournment upon such a night. A purple-blue sky throbbed with stars. Upon the one side the lights of the town gleamed, red and orange, far below, and its myriad night clamour seemed to emphasise the apartness of the uplifted palace; upon the other stretched the great flat, fertile, empty lands, still half-flooded, gleaming in the moonlight, widely still save for the occasional far-off cry of some prowling savage animal.
Étrange situation! (Wrote M. Châtelard, in his well-known assertive rhetoric). Nous étions là, élevés au-dessus de la plaine, dans cet antique palais converti en résidence moderne, mais tout imprégné des souvenirs de l'Orientalisme le plus prononcé. A nos pieds grouillait la ville Indoue, intouchable, inchangeable, telle qu'elle avait été avant que le pied du maître étranger y eut pénétré. Appuyé centre la balustrade, de la terrasse je laissais plonger mon regard à travers les ténèbres jusque dans la vallée où luisaient, mystérieuses, innombrables, les lumières de la cité et me disais en moi-même: Nous voici donc, petit comité de la race conquérante qui n'a pourtant pas conquis; de la civilisation Européenne la plus éclairée qui n'a rien su changer dans le fonds des choses là-bas! Oui, là-bas, l'Orient va toujours son chemin sinistre et secret, inviolable par l'étranger; et toujours il en sera ainsi; toujours ces deux races, destinées à être conjointes sans être unies, traverseront les siècles comme deux courants puissants qui cheminent côte à côte sans jamais mélanger leurs ondes!
While Sir Arthur and his guest exchanged the treasures of their minds with mutual satisfaction, Bethune sought to isolate Miss Cuningham, under the pretext of showing her from a particular corner of the terrace the tents of a new Engineer camp. Baby was nothing loth. Her innocent cherub face looked confidingly forth upon him. Her light hair was spangled by the moon rays.
"Well?" said he, as soon as they were out of earshot.
The spangled mop began to fly.
He drew his brows together: "Did you try?"
"Did I try! Of course, at once—yesterday. Did I not promise?" The girl was reproachful. "She forbade me ever to speak of it again."
Raymond Bethune folded his arms, leaned them upon the balustrade, and turned a set profile towards the low hanging moon.
"Then I must try again," he said, after a pause.
Aspasia wished him to succeed; but something relentless in his looks filled her with a sort of fear of him, of pity for her aunt. He seemed as indifferent to human emotion, as immutable, she thought, as one of the stone gods that, cross-legged and long-eyed, in unfathomable inner self-satisfaction, had gazed forth from their niches in the temple walls below for unknown centuries upon the passing mortal throng.
Suddenly he turned and left her. Sir Arthur was now pacing the terrace with the globe-trotter, lucidly laying down the law of India, as interpreted by his own sagacity, his smouldering cigar making ruby circles in the night with every wave of an authoritative hand.
The second secretary, Mr. Simpson to wit, was sitting by Lady Gerardine's side, effusively receiving each indifferent phrase that dropped from her lips. As Major Bethune advanced towards them the young civilian rose and drew away, with a crab-like movement, in the direction of the abandoned Baby.
Lady Gerardine clasped her hands together on her knees; the contraction of her heart, at this man's approach, painted her face ashen even in the pallid light. He took a seat—not Mr. Simpson's lowly stool, but one that placed him on a level with her; and then there came a little pause between them like the tension of the elements before the break of the storm. She had successfully avoided him the whole evening; but now she felt that further evasion was useless; and she waited, collecting her forces for the final resistance.
He went straight to the point:
"I hope you have reconsidered yesterday's decision. Perhaps you do not understand that this is a question of duty with me, of conscience."
He was trying to speak gently.
"You have no responsibility in the matter," she answered.
"I cannot accept that point of view," he said, flashing into icy anger.
She did not reply in words, but rose with a swift haughty movement, unmistakably showing her resolve of closing the discussion once and for ever. But in an instant he was before her, barring her way.
"Major Bethune," she exclaimed, "this is persecution!"
The blood rushed to her cheeks, her eyes flashed. For an instant she was roused to superlative beauty. Stronger became his conviction that here must be more than mere heartless caprice. Something of her emotion gained him.
"If you would only give me a reason!" he cried.
"It is impossible," she answered quickly. "Is it a thing to be asked for so easily, this raking up of the past? The past! Is it not dead? My God—it is dead! What if I for one will keep it so?"
"That is no reason," he said cuttingly; "it is hardly an excuse."
She passed by him with long swift steps and a rush of silken draperies. And thus, once more baffled, Baby found him, stonily reflecting. She stopped, promptly discarding her meek admirer.
"You had better give it up," said Aspasia.
"I was never more determined not to give it up."
Baby looked exceedingly sympathetic, fluffy, and engaging: something like a sweet little night-owl, with her round wide eyes and her pursed-up mouth. He suddenly caught one of her hands and held its soft palm closely between his own lean ones:
"Miss Cuningham," he said in an urgent whisper, "I know you can help me."
She stared at him. It would almost seem as if this strange being could read her vacillating thought. He saw her hesitate and bent to look into her eyes, while the pressure of his hand grew closer.
"And if you can help me, you must. Remember your promise."
"Well, then," the girl became suddenly breathless, as if she had been running. She looked round over her shoulder: "I know it's beastly mean of me, but, there—you have only to make Uncle Arthur take it up...."
"Ah!" The teeth shone out in his dark face. "I understand. Thank you."