E. W. SAVI
Author of "The Daughter-in-Law," "Sinners All," Etc.
"Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies."—Proverbs xxxi., 10.
G. P. Putnam's Sons New York and London The Knickerbocker Press 1919
Copyright, 1919 by E. W. Savi
The Knickerbocker Press, New York
To MY SISTER, A. B. B. IN LOVING APPRECIATION OF HER INTEREST AND HELP
I.—The Lonely Encampment
III.—The Civil Surgeon
IV.—A Point of View
V.—What Can't be Cured
VI.—The Leading Lady
VII.—An Anxious Experience
IX.—A Moment of Relaxation
XI.—A Sunday Observance
XXI.—The Real Thing
XXII.—A Desperate Resort
XXVII.—A Difficult Task
Epilogue: All's Well
THE LONELY ENCAMPMENT
An autumn evening in Bengal was rapidly drawing to a close, with a brief afterglow from a vanished sun to soften the rich hues of the tropical foliage, and garb it fittingly for approaching night. The grass beside the Government tents showed grey in the gathering dusk, while a blue haze of smoke, creeping upward, gently veiled the sheltering trees. But for the modulated chatter of servants, the stillness was eerie. The flat, low-lying fields, having yielded their corn to the harvester, were barren and without sign of life, for the cultivators had departed to their homesteads, and the roving cattle were housed.
Far in the misty distance were the huts of the peasantry grouped together, with their granaries, haystacks, and pens; their date-palms, and the inevitable tank illustrating the typical Bengal village—picturesque and insanitary; too far for noxious smells to annoy the senses, or the intermittent beating of the nocturnal "tom-tom" to affect the nerves of the Magistrate and Collector during the writing of his judgments and reports.
The spot for the encampment had been well chosen by the blue-turbaned chaukidar—the sturdy watchman of the village—who was experienced in the ways of touring officials; for even such a little matter as a site for pitching the tents of the hakim, had its influence for good or ill; and what might not be the effect of a good influence on the temper of a lawgiver?
[Footnote 1: Magistrate.]
This one, especially, instilled the fear of God and of the British, into his servants and underlings in spite of his sportsmanship and generosity, for he had a great understanding of native character and, like a wizard, could, in the twinkling of an eye, dissect the mind and betray the soul of a false witness! None could look him in the face and persist in falsehood. He was a just man, and courageous; and when roused to wrath, both fierce and fluent. But the diplomatic domestic and cautious coolie, alike, respect justice and fearlessness, determination, and a high hand.
Servants, engaged in culinary duties before open fire-places, gossiped in lowered tones of standing grievances: It was like the exactness of the Great to require a five-course dinner, served with due attention to refinement and etiquette in untoward circumstances, such as an improvised cooking-range of clay and bricks, a hurried collection of twigs, some charcoal, and every convenience conspicuous by its absence! And what a village to rely upon!—no shops; only a weekly market with nothing suitable to the wants of white men fastidious and difficult to please.
Yet, the day that sahibs condescend to study the convenience of their Indian domestics, the prestige of the British Raj will be at an end.
"Ho! Khansaman-jee!" cried an agitated voice in Hindustani. "With a little clemency, look quickly in the rubbish heap for the pepper pot. The masalchi, out of the perversity of his youthfulness, has lost that and every other ingredient for the flavouring of the soup; and now, what can I do? Of a truth, this night will the Sahib give me much abuse for that which is no fault of mine. I shall twist the idle one's ear the moment he returns with firewood from the jungle, just to stimulate his mind and teach him carefulness."
[Footnote 2: Scullion.]
The khansaman uncoiled his legs and rose from the ground where he had been peeling potatoes at his leisure with a table knife, and proceeded to do as he was bid. He was of an obliging nature and could be relied upon to perform odd jobs not strictly his duty, so long as they did not establish a precedent.
[Footnote 3: Butler.]
After some diligent searching among loose charcoal, dried twigs, kitchen rags, utensils, and vegetable parings, a rusty tin box was discovered and handed to the cook. Old Abdul grunted approval of his own intelligence, and after liberally sprinkling the soup with pepper from between a dirty finger and thumb, he wiped both, casually, in the folds of his loin-cloth.
Altogether, the task of preparing dinner in camp was no mean effort. The business of the moment was to produce a clear soup with its artistic garniture of sliced carrots and turnips; to be followed by tank fish captured that afternoon from the property of a local Hindu landowner and, in the serving, robbed of its earthly flavour by a miracle of savoury dressing. Considering the lapses of the mate-boy's memory, this was a marvel of achievement. Next, the entree of devilled goat (called by courtesy, mutton) was also a difficulty; nevertheless with a lavish addition of mango chutney, it was on its way to completion. The "chicken roast" was a tolerable certainty in a deep vessel where it baked in its own juices, stuffed with onions, cloves, and rice. But the pudding—alas! black despair, invisible owing to natural pigment, was in possession of Abdul's soul. What to do, he grumbled, but to serve, in fear and trembling, that abomination of sahibs, a "custul-bile" (boiled custard), since every possible ingredient for a respectable pudding had been left behind at the last Rest Bungalow! What the master would say, might well be imagined, for these were not the easy-going days of his bachelorhood, when such makeshifts, varied with "custul-bake," could be imposed upon him with the regularity of the calendar; for, after a successful day's shikar, with a tiger spread at full length on the grass before the tent for the benefit of an admiring semicircle of enthusiastic villagers, the quality of a meal used to be a secondary consideration.
Well—what use to repine? Even a cook must sometimes be excused, since he was not God to create something out of nothing. Peradventure, the timely indisposition of the babe within the tent would offer distraction. In the interludes of stirring the pots and declaiming against fate and the misdemeanours of the masalchi, the cook soothed his ruffled spirits with a pull at his beloved hukha.
Yes, the Sahib was married, worse luck! and lived, above all, to please his Memsahib who, to him, was the sun, moon, and stars; the light of the world. And she?—of a sort wholly unsuited to the conditions of his life; a flower plucked to wither in a furnace-blast. The rough soil of the country was no place for a delicate plant; and such was also apparent in the case of her infant. Since its arrival from the hills where it was born, it daily faded as though a blight had descended upon its vitality; and now it was stricken with a fever.
Devil take sahibs for their folly! This one had been content enough as a bachelor, hunting and shooting in his spare time, and consorting with his kind where games were played to pass the time away; what-for did he allow himself to be shackled thus during his visit to Belait? It passed understanding; for there were many Miss Babas in the country, already acclimatised, from among whom he might have selected a suitable wife; one who could at least have made herself intelligible to his servants in their own language, instead of this one who created endless confusion by non-comprehension. But no! he had been unable to stand the allurements of her person. The rounded outlines of her slender form and the bloom on her flawless cheek had enslaved him, depriving him of the power to resist. Truly she was good to look upon, as every masculine eye betrayed by its open homage.
In all the annals of the District, never had there been a more picturesque creature than this girl-wife, with her hair like ripe corn and eyes like full-blown flowers of heavenly blue. Even the servants in gazing on their wonder forgot to heed the orders she delivered through the ayah, whose linguistic powers commanded the respect of the entire establishment.
The subject of the little lady from Belait was a favourite theme of conversation when domestics congregated in the region of the kitchen to gossip and smoke, and criticism was condescending and tolerant because of her good looks, which made their inevitable appeal. But opinion was agreed that no longer was Meredith Sahib the same man. Henceforth, if they would keep their situations, they must satisfy his lady. Her little hand would point the way he must in future tread.
And he, the respected Magistrate and Collector, representative of the Government in the District—a sahib whose word had authority over thousands on the land, and before whom all delinquents trembled!
Such was the influence of beauty!
According to the words of a local poet who sang his verses in the Muktiarbad bazaar to an accompaniment of tom-tomming:
A beautiful wife is as wine in the head to her husband; as wax is in the palm of her hand. His wisdom cometh to naught in his dwelling; his will is bartered for the things in her gift. Beguiled is he by the words of her mouth, and he taketh only the way that will please her. Bereft is he of his power to govern, yet happy is he in the bonds of enslavement.
And these did he compose out of the rumours current in the market-place respecting Meredith Sahib and the Memsahib he had taken to wife. Yah, Khodah! the white race were amazingly simple!
The sound of an infant's distressed wail broke the calm of the descending gloom. Voices within the tent conferred together in agitated whispers. There was a call for hot water, and in a moment the Madrassi ayah rushed forth for the steaming kettle which was boiling for scullery needs, and carried it off without a question. The waterman, clad only in a loin-cloth, hurried round to the bath tent, and a diminutive, tin bath-tub was extracted. Apparently the child was to be immersed.
"What has happened?" called the Sahib's body servant, the bearer, who was the major-domo of the camp. But the waterman, fully appreciative of his temporary importance, refused to reply as he disappeared from view.
"Ice—ice!" the lady cried dashing through the bamboo chick and almost tearing it from its fastenings. "Give me ice quickly." She looked haggard and distracted. Dark circles ringed her eyes; her sleeves rolled above the elbows revealed rounded arms from which water dripped; her skirt was splashed; her blouse and hair were in disarray.
"There is none, huzur," said the bearer in Hindustani. "Hourly is it expected from Muktiarbad, but as yet it is not in sight."
"What is he saying?" she cried vaguely in her distress, refusing to believe that there was none, which the corroborating action of a hand had implied.
"No ice got it, Memsahib," volunteered the khansaman in his best English, learned from a teacher in the Station bazaar. "All finish—melting fast—making saw-dust one porridge."
"No ice?—my God! My child will die if I cannot have ice." She disappeared within the tent, wringing her hands, leaving the servants to hold council together on what was the best course to pursue.
"Without doubt the little one is in a fit," ventured the cook. "Such is sometimes the case when the teeth press their way through the gums."
"What folly," sneered the khansaman, "when the infant is barely three months old!"
"Without doubt it is a fit," the cook repeated, "else why the hot bath? Such is the treatment the doctor-babu ordered for the son of Amir Khan, my relative in Benares when, from fever, his eyes fixed and his limbs grew rigid."
"Thou speakest true words," said the waterman approaching the group in visible excitement. "To see the limbs twisting and the eyes strained upward turns my stomach. Assuredly it will die—and the master away!—ai ma!—what a calamity!"
"It will die, and we shall all be blamed because there was no ice," sighed the bearer feeling the weight of his responsibility.
"God send that he be even now returning," prayed the khansaman devoutly. "The sun has long set, and any moment he may be here, for who can shoot a leopard in the dark?"
"Tell Hosain to drive the hawa-ghari quickly to the Station for the doctor and the ice. If he meet not the ice cart on the road, let him borrow all they will lend him at the houses of the sahibs," said the cook. "Jhut!—lose no time. In these illnesses the life of a child is as the flicker of a candle. A breath, and it is out; and once dead, who can restore it to life again?"
[Footnote 4: Motor-car.]
Servants ran to do his bidding while he returned to his pots and pans, anxious lest the roast should burn at the bottom of the pan, and the soup boil over.
"For what dost thou concern thyself?" jeered an old watchman who stood a spectator of the scene. "All that thou cookest will be given to the sweeper's family. Who will eat of thy cooking tonight when the child is like to die?"
"Not the sweeper and his family, bhai, but we of the kitchen shall have a feast, have no fears." "It's an ill wind that blows nobody good," was the essence of the cook's philosophy, and since there was no swine-flesh in the menu, there was no reason why Mohammedans should not enjoy the repast he was cooking for the Sahib's table. It was a dispensation of Providence that had not made him at birth a Hindu like the watchman, who took pride in the exclusiveness of his caste, yet feasted on the sly, on things forbidden.
[Footnote 5: Brother.]
Inside the tent the lady and the ayah together ministered to the small sufferer lying in the warm bath. The sympathetic servant supported the light body which had relaxed its rigidity, while the mother bathed the brows and head with cold water.
"He is better, ayah, don't you think?" asked Mrs. Meredith, dependent on the woman's superior knowledge.
"Plenty better, Ma'am. Heaven is merciful."
"Or do you think he is dying? Don't lie to me."
"He not dying, oh, no! See that black round his mouth?—now fast going. This is what they call bahose."
"Thank God if it's only that. Children recover from fainting fits, don't they? Oh, ayah, I could not bear to lose my baby!" she cried in choked accents.
"Say not like that. Got is goot and the baba will live. Now take out of the water, dry, and keep head cool," said the woman whose experience in the management of infants had gained her her present post at some considerable advantage to herself.
They placed the limp form, when dried, on the cool sheets in its crib and hung upon its every breath.
"Barnes-mem saying, when bad with fever, lap plenty hot place, bed goot," the ayah remarked; "Barnes-mem," a former mistress, being a standard reference in nursery difficulties.
"Had she many children?"
"Children? My lort! Every year a child. She was plenty blest. One child for every finger, and a grand-child older than her last. Master, he shake his head and say, 'Damn-damn,' but Barnes-mem, she say, 'Let come; the Lort will provide.'"
"Were they all brought up in India?"
"In Calcutta they were born and grew up; no Darjeeling pahar; no Munsuri pahar! All living; all plenty strong."
[Footnote 6: Mountains.]
"Yet most children cannot thrive out here—English, I mean."
"English Memsahib making much fuss, like there is no Got Almighty. Everywhere there is sickness, also in pahar."
Mrs. Meredith shivered at the cold consolation. After a short interval spent in anxious suspense, a clatter of hoofs announced the return of the Sahib. Raymond Meredith galloped into the camp and flinging his reins to a saice, leaped to the ground. A messenger had met him on the road with the disturbing news of his infant's bad turn. In another moment he was beside his wife, eagerly sympathetic and anxious to comfort her.
At any other time she would have received him affectionately upon his return from a long day's outing, and he marked the change, excusing it on the plea of anxiety and distraction.
"This is very sudden, darling," he said in lowered tones, placing his arms tenderly about her. "How did it happen?"
His wife explained emotionally. "Baby was feverish when you left. You remember, perhaps, that I was worried and did not like being left alone?" she concluded resentfully, her eyes refusing to meet his.
"He seemed a bit out of sorts, but nothing to alarm one," her husband allowed in self-defence. "You know, sweetheart, you are often needlessly anxious." He would have kissed her to soften the reproach, but she turned her face aside. "Anyhow, I had to go, you know that? The leopard had done enough damage in the village and was a danger to human life. An infant had been carried off from the doorway of its dwelling the moment its mother's back was turned. I simply had to hunt and shoot the beast, or let the people think I funked it. I managed to bag it in the end, but the fellow gave us a devil of a time," he continued, warming to his subject. "Had it not been for the pluck of the chaukidar, I might never have returned at all—" He waited for some evidence of concern. "He's a fine sportsman," he went on, though disappointed at her lack of interest. "With only a stout stick in his hand, he—" his voice trailed away as he became convinced that he was talking to an inattentive mind. "Don't worry, I'll send post-haste for Dalton. He'll be here before morning."
"Anything might happen before morning," she cried brokenly.
"You mustn't be so pessimistic."
"The car was sent for the doctor when Baby was in convulsions," she said coldly. "It was terrible not having you here to advise. I have been desperate, and you—" a sob—"you were enjoying yourself in the jungles." She had not an atom of sympathy for the sport.
"Surely you are not blaming me?" he cried deprecatingly, afraid that he had injured himself for ever in her sight.
"It is not a question of blame; you have failed me, that is all."
"That's a cruel thing to say, dearest!" he cried kissing her unresponsive lips at last, in the hopes of melting her hardness. "It is only that you are in a mood to be unjust, that you say so. You know I am happiest with you."
"This is a cruel country which I shall hate to the end of my days," she returned miserably. "It is trying at every turn to rob me of my little baby."
Meredith winced almost as though he had been struck. It was not the first time that she had expressed disgust for her life in India, which gave them their living, and every time her words gained in feeling. Early in the summer he had sent her to the hills because of an episode with a snake that had unnerved her and imperilled her condition as an expectant mother. He had not forgotten that her first arrival at the Station had synchronised with an outbreak of cholera, so virulent, that half the community of Europeans among whom she was to live were demoralised. It was a crying shame that Life should be so perverse. He yearned for her to settle down and take kindly to Station ways and doings, but fate eternally intervened. Muktiarbad was a merry little station, full of friendly souls eager to accept the youthful bride as a social leader for her husband's sake, he being the most popular of men.
Meredith was aware of his own popularity and enjoyed it as a healthy-minded individual usually does when success has crowned his efforts to govern a large District with sympathy and tact. But already the young wife and mother was pining for "home," and was declaring that the India he loved was a "cruel country," which she would hate to the end of her days. How should he be able to pin her down to his side in a land she detested and feared? She was too young and uninformed to appreciate his position in the Government and her possibilities as a Bara Memsahib; and too delicately nurtured to endure the rough and tumble of life far from towns and cities, where money could not buy immunity from inconvenience and climatic ills.
He had expected, as many another husband of a very young wife, to mould her ideas to fit his own; instead, his peace of mind was being steadily whittled away.
"There is not even any ice to be had in this God-forsaken spot!" his wife's voice was saying helplessly.
"Damnation!" he swore under his breath, enraged that the servants should have supplied him at the cost of the child; for he recalled the very acceptable iced beer he had drunk in the jungles after a dangerous exploit that had exhausted his energies and reduced him to a perspiring rag of humanity, even though it was autumn.
The urgent need to find a scapegoat to suffer for this miserable muddle sent him outside with a stride and malignant intentions at heart. Never again while he toured with his family would he drink iced stimulants, however damnably hot it was in the sun.
"What can I say?" whined the bearer in indignant sympathy, cleverly averting the storm he saw ready to descend on the head of the guilty. "Such unusual heat for this time of the year, and that swine, the carter, who is now many miles distant, left the ice-box on the sunny side of the tent! Without sense is he, and possessed of a mind equal only to that of a sheep. So much shade to be had, yet of a perversity must he commit this brainless act! What can I do? Had this pair of hands not been incessantly occupied in performing urgent tasks for the comfort of the Memsahib, I might have cast eyes on the packing-case earlier, and myself have removed it to safety. But alas! how much can one poor servant do among so many who are idle and indifferent? So there it lay out of sight and the water running freely through the joins till there was one tank, and my bedding beside it, floating! Tonight I am without bedding, but what of that? With the child ill, will any one care to sleep?" He cast a triumphant eye around on a semicircle of admiring fellow-servants who were envying him his resourcefulness and powers of invention.
"Who sent ice with me into the jungles?" Meredith asked fiercely.
"Who, indeed, Image-of-God? Such an act of folly while the tender babe lay sick is not to be forgiven. Peradventure, it was the mate-boy of the cook who is of an imbecility past understanding, owing to his extreme youth. Not even the intellect of a cow has he. Urre bap! Did he not leave at the Rest Bungalow——"
"Be silent, you talk too much," said Meredith. "Go and chastise him for his interference. If I strike him I shall break every bone in his body. Never again let ice be sent anywhere with me if it is likely to run short at the camp, remember that," he said, impressing the fact on the bearer, as he knew full well that, in the native mind, very little importance is attached to a woman's needs in comparison with her lord's,—the superiority of the masculine sex being unchallenged. When ice travelled by rail some hundreds of miles three times a week to Muktiarbad, it invariably fell short when the servants were careless or assisted to make it vanish. Every silent witness of the colloquy knew that the Sahib's bearer considered an iced whisky-and-soda his perquisite at the close of a strenuous day, and would continue to have it as long as ice came from Calcutta for the alleviation of sufferers from the climate.
"Buck up, darling," said Meredith comfortingly, "you'll have the doctor here in no time. Dalton is a clever fellow and prompt. They say he will make a name for himself some day, he's such an able physician and surgeon. What he doesn't understand concerning the ills that flesh is heir to is not worth knowing, so we are jolly lucky to have him in such a potty little station as ours. What got him sent here is a mystery; usually we get fossils of the Uncovenanted service at Muktiarbad, whereas Dalton is—" "Sorry," interrupting himself as his wife put her hands to her head. "You've a headache, sweetheart, and it's not to be wondered at."
"Is there nothing you can suggest for Baby in the meantime?" she questioned.
"I shouldn't like to experiment, knowing nothing of kids—infants, I mean," he replied with irritating cheerfulness. "Had it been a horse or a dog"—he discreetly ceased and made tender love to her instead, for his darling girl was sobbing piteously. "Don't worry," he advised with masculine lack of understanding of maternal feelings, "babies are marvellous creatures; like sponges, my dear. Squeeze them dry and they swell out again. See how the youngsters swarm in the bazaars and villages. Nothing seems to kill them," he asserted ignorantly. "They get over almost any illness without a hundredth part of the care you lavish on our little scallywag. Keep his head cool and you'll see, he'll be as right as rain in the morning."
"Cool without ice!" she said witheringly.
"Cold water on the head with a dash of vinegar in it will do to carry along with till the ice comes."
Somehow he was less concerned with the child's case than his wife's. Her distress, the added reason for her abhorrence of India, cut him to the heart and made him a coward of consequences. It was the child, that insignificant atom of indefinite humanity, that had intruded itself between them and was daily usurping his place in his wife's thoughts. At first he had been fool enough to imagine that it was going to be the link that would bind them closer together, instead of which it was the wedge that was surely driving them asunder. For its sake she was ready to put the seas and continents between them, and treat him as if he were of secondary importance in her life—the being who had to provide the wherewithal on which the human idol might be suitably reared. His own personal need of her was viewed as masculine self-indulgence and lack of spirituality.
"I don't think you half realise what a wonderful thing has happened," she had once said in the midst of her baby-worship. "Here is a miracle straight from God. A man-child who, if properly cared for, will become a useful citizen of the Empire; and he is my VERY OWN—yours, too," she condescended to add with her exquisite smile.
"But where do I come in? I, who am already a useful citizen of the Empire?" he had delicately insinuated. "With due regard to nature and the multiplication table——"
She had considered him coarse and had refused to smile. The matter of a family was entirely in God's hands and not to be treated with levity. He could have added a rider to that, but refrained; she was only a little girl of nineteen lacking the logical sense in the usual, adorable, feminine way. He was not hankering considerably after a family in the plural sense when in imagination he could see an intensification of the present situation which was forcing him into the background of domestic life. The baby, waking and sleeping, and all its multifarious concerns occupied its mother's time to the exclusion of all else, and it was no wonder that the father was feeling injured and a trifle lonely.
Yet, in her childish way, she was fond of him, while unconsciously learning from him that, after all, men were truly long-suffering and unselfish creatures, patient, and forgiving.
So he possessed his soul in patience, never tired of recalling the supreme episode of their married life, when, after the birth of their son, she had embraced him with a new affection, spontaneous and sincere. She had been so utterly ill that for a day and a night her life had hung in the balance, while he, like a maniac, had paced the footpath in mist and rain, praying as he had never prayed before for her restoration. It was in Darjeeling where he had gone hurriedly on receipt of a telegram, and never should he forget the anxieties of that journey. He had been ready to register any vow under the sun that he might ensure her recovery; and when he had crept with broken nerve and sobbing breath to her bedside, she had clung to his neck with blessed demonstrativeness kissing him of her own accord on the lips. Generally, he had kissed her.
"You love me still, my precious?" he had asked fearfully. Mark the "still," for by her agony he was ready to believe he had forfeited the right to her love.
"Aren't you my baby's Daddy?" she had replied happily with shining eyes and quivering mouth. "Of course I shall love you better now than ever."
She loved him only through the child! However, Meredith did not quarrel with the process, so long as the fact was full of promise. It had always been a calm and unemotional affection, not in the least of the quality he craved, but his love and patience were equal to the demand made upon them, his mind having realised the unawakened condition of hers. "All things come to those who know how to wait," and he was learning patience, for his life was wrapped up in the person of his girl-wife. She was so infinitely lovable even when least comprehending his man's nature and holding herself aloof. Again, her charm was indescribable when, with adorable grace, she offered compensation, sorry for her uncomprehending selfishness; and he eternally rejoiced that, by the law of marriage, she was irrevocably his till death should them part, a bondage which he endeavoured to make her Eden, as it was his.
Dinner that evening was neglected as neither could eat.
Tired and hungry though Meredith had been, his appetite for food vanished under the lash of his wife's resentment. She once said: "If my baby is taken from me, I shall cut this country forever. I shall hate it with an undying hatred. Nothing will induce me to live in it again and risk a repetition of tonight. It is not fit for Europeans—and yet, the tragedy of it is, we can only know it by experience!"
"That is to say, if you had foreseen this, you would never have married me?" he put in sulkily.
Silence gave consent.
"Why shouldn't you give up, and find something to do at home?" she asked unreasonably.
"You don't know what you are talking about," he returned shortly. Give up the "Indian Civil" and his splendid prospects, liberal future pension, and the life of sport men loved? For what? A desk in a city office; most likely a mercantile job on a third of the pay, and a life to which he was as much suited as a square peg to a round hole. All this, that the babe might be spared the illnesses that mortal flesh, in infancy, is prone to, particularly in the East. It was utter nonsense! For the first five years there would be need for special care and intervals spent in a hill climate. In due time would come the change to England and English environment necessary for the proper physical and mental training of his child. This was the course usually followed by English families in India of any social standing, and one which involved submission on the part of the husband to short periods of separation from the wife in the interests of the absent children. Thousands of married couples faced these conditions; why not they?
He felt rebellious.
What was the matter with his luck that it threatened not to work? He had no fortune on which to retire, only a modest return from savings judiciously invested, while his wife would have nothing more than a trifle till the death of her parents; and they were still young. To give up the Service would, under the circumstances, be madness and folly.
Moreover, he loved the East. The climate had no grudge against his English constitution, and had been kind to him. He enjoyed the freedom of the life, India's great spaces; and the lurking risks made existence a great and continued adventure. In England it would be monotonous and flat. Though he loved the Motherland and was proud of her traditions, he was of the stuff that made empires, and his tact and understanding of the natives under his rule, made him an officer of exceptional ability and service to the Executive Government. Then there was big game shooting which he enjoyed, and all the happy freedom from narrow conventions. Give up, indeed!
Time enough to think of retiring when past middle age with shaken nerves and a growing appreciation of golf. Not while he could ride a buck-jumper, handle a hog spear or a polo stick, and shoot straight. The thrill of tracking a wild beast to its lair was something to live for, and the hazards of his life made up its charm.
The greatest of all hazards, had he realised it, had been his marriage with Joyce Wynthrop of Eagleton, Surrey.
She had put up her hair to attend the hunt ball the year he was home on furlough and staying with his widowed sister, Lady Chayne, a neighbour of the Wynthrops, and it was love at first sight, with him. He had been forced to attend the ball against his will, only to meet his fate, it would seem.
Thereafter, he had been obsessed with one ambition, and that was to win Joyce for his wife, in spite of the fact that he was fifteen years her senior and held an appointment in the East.
Touched by his devotion and influenced by the opinion of others, she had yielded, feeling that Destiny was calling to her to fulfill her obligations to Life. Marriage with a good man of irreproachable antecedents, and children to rear in godliness and wisdom, was the religion of her upbringing. It had been impressed upon her as the natural vocation of woman so that the race might continue. She had played with dolls as the proper playthings of her childhood, and was prepared to exchange them for the children God should send her in some mysterious way to which marriage was the true gateway. Raymond Meredith, good-looking, kind, eligible, and full of love for herself was obviously the "Mr. Right" of schoolgirl tradition; the man to whom it would be correct to give herself in the bonds of holy matrimony, even as her mother had long ago given herself to her father—an example of unemotional attachment and tranquil orthodoxy.
At first it had been wofully embarrassing to be made love to; and she wondered if her mother had been kissed so often and called all those silly love-names by her father before they were married?
She also resisted the strange effect on herself of those ardent kisses, and was afraid to encourage feelings she had never before experienced, believing them immodest to indulge, and something she had to subdue with a determined effort. She would die sooner than confess to them. Passion might be all right for men with whom every initiative of life lay, but unbecoming for women to acknowledge, even to themselves. In fact, Joyce Wynthrop was a product of Early Victorian views on the subject of a girl's training, and an anachronism in modern times. She had been reared in rigid ignorance of life, her reading having been heavily restricted, her associates selected, so that when the time came to hand her over to a husband, he should find her beautifully unconscious and unique.
To Meredith, her shy submission to his caresses, and her passionless response were the surest guarantee of her virginal past, and he was in no hurry to awaken the sleeping beauty to a deeper knowledge of herself.
Joyce eventually decided for her peace of mind, that love-making belonged mainly to the period of Engagement, when everything was so new. Once having attained the object of his desire—that is, the possession of a wife—her lover would settle down to normal life, and no longer regard her eyelashes with wondering admiration, or exact kisses because her mouth was shaped like Cupid's bow. Men were so disturbing, if they were all like Ray Meredith!—delightfully disturbing,—only they must not know it, or peace and tranquillity would be impossible! After marriage there would be other things to think about, such as having a home, and, if the Lord willed it, a baby all their own, presented to them in some extraordinary and mysterious fashion.
She had always adored babies and could rarely pass one in a perambulator without wanting to kiss it and know all its little history. To have a baby of her very own was a prospect so full of allurement, that she offered no coy objections when Meredith wanted the marriage fixed at the earliest possible date. Indeed, her calm was the despair of her girl friends who envied her openly. Wasn't she "terribly" in love with him? Wasn't she just "thrilled to death" with excitement at the prospect of having a husband and going all the way out to India?
Joyce did not believe there was such a thing as being "terribly in love," which was a phrase invented by cheap novelists, whose literature she had never been allowed to read. She admitted she was growing very fond of her Mr. Meredith, and preferred him to any other man. Not that her experience of men was great—nevertheless, he was a "perfect dear."
Her sister Kitty of the schoolroom, a young woman of rather decided opinions, reproached her severely for lack of enthusiasm over her very presentable lover. In her eyes, Ray Meredith was the ideal of a Cinema hero, with his clean-shaven, ascetic face, his muscular build, and adorable smile. "You should be flattered, my dear, that he condescended to choose you out of the millions of girls in the world," she remarked sagely. "You may be pretty, but hosts of girls are that. One has to be clever, and ... are you?... Why, you spelt vaccination with one 'c,' and vicinity with two only yesterday, and but for me, reading over your shoulder, you would have been disgraced for ever. I am not sure that he would not have broken it off! Then you know nothing whatever of politics—or football. Men are crazy about both, so you really are rather stupid, darling, or cold-hearted. Surely you must feel all squiggly down your back whenever Ray hugs and kisses you?"
"What do you know about it?"
"I'd be thrilled to my boots. Why, I feel like that every time they kiss in the film—really I feel an intruder, and as if I shouldn't look."
"Silly penny stories untrue to life!" Joyce said as an echo of her father's scorn, but blushing, nevertheless.
"Well, if you don't appreciate your lover, tell him to wait for me. I'll put up my hair year after next and take him like a shot."
"Of course I appreciate him, or I should not be going to marry him," said Joyce with the dignity of eighteen. "But it's folly to make so much fuss about marriage, seeing that it's the most ordinary thing in life, like being born, or dying."
"The most incomprehensible thing in life, I should imagine," retorted Kitty, wide-eyed with curiosity. "Especially when you come to think of going away for good—or bad, maybe!—with a strange man you know next to nothing of; and all at a blow, having to share the same apartments with him. Merciful Providence! I am sure the Queen never did!"
"It's supposed to be the correct thing," said Joyce rather scared. "Mother says, 'husbands and wives are one,' and 'to the pure, all things are pure'—whatever that has to do with it—so it would be illogical in the face of that to object to such a trifle as sharing a room. 'One has to tune one's mind to accept whatever comes, and to follow in the footsteps of one's parents,'" she quoted.
"How I wish you were not going right away with him, immediately," sighed Kitty enviously. "You might so easily have told me all about it. Nobody tells one anything worth knowing, just as though there was anything to be ashamed about!"
Joyce made no response for the good reason that her mind was wrestling with disquietude. However, in spite of so much that was mysterious, even alarming, she decided, as a prospective bride, to assume the dignity and reserve she had noticed in others and smile patronisingly on inquisitive sixteen.
Shortly afterwards she was married, and she accompanied her "strange man" on their journey to the Unknown, much as a confiding child trusts itself to the guardianship of a loving nurse; prepared to accept as a duty whatever path he might require her to tread.
In matters pertaining to sex, Meredith found her little more than a child; the result of her narrow upbringing by which she had been reared in ignorance of the primal facts of life and all that was common knowledge to the flapper of the day. But to his fastidious nature her unsophisticated innocence was the most captivating of any of the qualities he had met with in girls, and it became his most earnest desire to preserve it undefiled. The sweet simplicity of her mind he regarded as even more precious than her beauty. Having spent a decade in acquiring a disgust for a certain type of woman, he was inclined to over-estimate his surprising good fortune, and was content in the hope that time was on his side. Like a flower unfolding to the sun, the treasures of her womanhood would be all his one day, drawn forth by the warmth of his steady devotion.
The obstacles in his way, however, seemed to increase as circumstances combined to fret and tantalise his hopes.
* * * * *
The night wore on—the Eastern night of cloudless moonlight with the scents of the earth rising from harvested fields to mingle with the pungency of smouldering fires. Somewhere an owl persistently hooted.
Joyce recalled the superstition that the owl was a bird of ill omen and should not be allowed to perch in the neighbourhood of a sick room. Immediately she was seized with foreboding and her husband was dispatched to scare away the prophet of evil. On his return she was trembling and hysterical.
"You must let me give you something, darling," he pleaded. "You'll collapse for want of food, and how then can you look after Baby?" It was inspiration which suggested the child's need of her, for she patiently submitted and drank a glass of milk. She changed her gown for a silken kimono, and sought rest among the pillows of her bed which adjoined the crib. Then, in subdued tones, she reproached her husband for never having studied the simple diseases of childhood,—so necessary in their case, when for months together they were expected to live in camp, far from the Station, and the reach of medical aid.
"It is criminal," she cried. "If it had been a dog you would have known what to do. But your own child!" words failed her.
"The next time we come out we shall bring 'Good-eve.' I believe it gives everything you want to know and a lot besides."
"There'll never be a 'next time,'" she moaned. "Please God, when my pet is better he shall never again be taken so far from the doctor. This is the end of all camping for him."
"So I am to be deserted?"
"You are a man and able to look after yourself. Baby needs me far more than you do."
Meredith refrained from any argument, feeling the futility of words in her distraught condition. In the darkened tent he brooded over his difficulties while his eyes strayed with jealous yearning to the slim form in the gaudy kimono. Instead of isolation in a canvas chair, he might so easily have shared her pillows while comforting her lovingly in his arms! but for the time being he was out of favour and unloved!
Shortly before sunrise, Captain Dalton motored in.
THE CIVIL SURGEON
From the moment of the doctor's arrival the tension of watching was eased; the very sight of his wide shoulders in the doorway of the tent brought instantaneous relief to Joyce whose faith, as far as her child was concerned, was material rather than spiritual. Though she had felt an instinctive shrinking from the man's society on the few occasions on which they had met, her whole heart went out to welcome him with earnest supplication. He possessed the knowledge, under God, to save her child; therefore, surely, was he Superman—a being apart, to be reverenced above his fellows.
Captain Dalton of the Indian Medical Service, and Civil Surgeon of Muktiarbad, was an unfriendly being of peculiar personality, whom no one could comprehend. Ordinarily, he was repellent to intimacies; a reserved autocrat, and content to be unpopular. Though elected a member of the Club, he had little use for its privileges. Having fulfilled his duty to his neighbours by calling on them shortly after his arrival in the Station that summer, he had retired into professional and private life, and was as difficult to cultivate as the Pope of Rome. He rarely accepted invitations, and issued none. Men who called upon him received a rigid hospitality, nothing more, so that they soon ceased to visit him at all, at which he was relieved.
That he was a gifted musician became generally known when classical strains from a grand piano were wafted through the Duranta hedge which encompassed his grounds, riveting passers-by to the roadway at some sacrifice to personal dignity, that they might listen and admire. Sometimes he was heard to sing to his own accompaniment in a voice of extraordinary richness and sympathy. The evening breeze would carry the tones of his fine baritone voice farther than the Duranta hedge; and though bungalows were widely separated by private grounds of many acres, with paddocks and lanes between, his neighbours would hang out of their windows to catch every note, and afterwards at the common meeting ground of the Club, discourse on the advantage of their proximity to the singer.
All persuasions to repeat his performances in public met with obstinate discouragement, till, reluctantly, the Station left him alone. Injured feelings were nourished, and opinions concerning his conduct and manners grew harsh and unrelenting the instant his back was turned. To his face there was no failure of cordiality, for it is not politic in a small station to quarrel with one's doctor.
It was on the polo-ground, on the occasion of a slight accident which might have been more serious, that Joyce first met Captain Dalton,—a bare fortnight ago. His appointment had taken place while she had been at the hills, and at the introduction she had resented the impudent scrutiny of his eyes, not realising the fact that she had been an arresting picture with the hue of mountain roses in her cheeks, and eyes like English forget-me-nots; in beauty and colouring a rarity in that rural district of Bengal.
Perhaps the doctor wondered at the unusual combination of prettiness and simplicity, for, in his experience, good looks without vanity were something unique. Possibly he was sceptical, for a smile of satire lurked at the back of his inscrutable eyes. At any rate, he had found her an interesting study, and the jade-green orbs, reckoned his finest feature, seemed to assess her from top to toe, critically and coolly. Though he made no effort to engage her in conversation, he had lingered in her vicinity, listening to her childish prattle; and, contrary to expectations, long after the need of his services was past, he had loitered on the polo-ground till the Merediths had driven away in their car.
On looking back, Joyce had felt a sense of resentment at his quiet contempt of the ladies present. His cynical study of herself without any attempt to cultivate her society annoyed her self-esteem.
"He's positively rude!" was her indignant verdict, later. "I wonder people put up with him. And he has perfectly hateful eyes."
"The ladies think them very handsome eyes," Meredith had insinuated.
"They are very uncomfortable; like a thought-reader's. Anyhow, I shall not allow him to stare at me another time."
"There's a saying that 'a cat may look at the queen,'" he had remarked mischievously.
"It's a blessing, however, that one may choose one's friends!" she had finally stated; and her husband allowed the subject to drop, not displeased at her repugnance to the doctor whom he marked dangerous to feminine susceptibility and an unknown quantity.
Captain Dalton had called the following Sunday at noon, and was received by both husband and wife for the conventional few minutes. Being the official holiday, it was recognised as the correct day for men to pay formal visits, and by an unwritten law, at the warmest hour in the twenty-four.
Another time they had driven past each other in a lane, when Dalton gravely raised his hat in acknowledgment of her bow. Lastly, he had sat beside her at a Hindu dramatic performance held in the grounds of a local landowner, in celebration of a religious festival, and he had barely noticed her existence, being engaged with his host on the other side.
On the whole, he had not made a favourable impression on Joyce Meredith. But what did it matter, now? He had come out to their camp, many miles away from the Station, post-haste to save her child, and for that she was thankful. All memory of the doctor's bad manners was forgotten when she saw him enter the tent with her husband, a strong virile being, from his keen eyes and locked lips to his brisk tread;—God's own agent to cure her babe; a blessed healer of the sick, to whom the mysteries of the human frame were revealed; who could fight even death!
"Oh, Doctor," she cried piteously, the tears like great dewdrops on her lashes: "Baby has been so bad—I thought, once, I had lost him!"
Without formal greetings, Dalton passed to the cot, and stooping over it, began his examination of the case.
Appreciating the reproof conveyed by his silence, the little mother sat still while the examination proceeded, answering in tremulous tones the crisp, short questions hurled at her from time to time.
By and by, when a certain drug had been administered and there was nothing to be done but wait for its effects to be apparent, he abruptly turned his attention to herself. Had she eaten anything? What had she fed on for the past twenty-four hours? He covered her wrist with his hand, studied her highly nervous face for a full minute, and then ordered her away to bed.
"Take her out of this, Meredith, if you wish to avoid having two invalids on your hands. Is there another bed anywhere?"
Meredith's own occupied the dressing-tent, since he was obliged to give up sharing his wife's on account of the baby's claim to the services of an ayah.
"But, Doctor, I am not ill!" Joyce protested feebly, realising however now, that it was mentioned, that a collapse was imminent.
"You'll do as we think best," he said shortly, "or I had better get out."
"Who is to look after Baby?" she asked faintly.
"I am here for that," he said more gently.
After some futile objections, Joyce departed feeling unable to hold out a minute longer.
"How are you feeling?" her husband's anxious voice was asking. "You are as white as a lily, darling."
"I'll be all right when Baby is," she answered wearily.
In a little while Joyce was put to bed with a sleeping draught and tucked in comfortably, her husband as skilful in his ministrations as any nurse. "Won't you kiss me before I go? Love me a little bit," he pleaded wistfully.
"Go away Ray," she cried irritably. "Don't worry."
"You've made me so miserable!"
"It's nothing to what you made me!"
"I made you!"
"You—you were absent all day when Baby was so ill. It has nearly killed me."
"Dearest, don't blame me unjustly."
"Then let it drop. I am not wishing to discuss it; I am too tired."
So was he, but he had no thought of himself while yearning over her, his lovely girl, more beloved in her stubborn antagonism than ever.
Remembering the doctor's injunctions that she must sleep, he reluctantly retired to pace the grass in the dawn, a dishevelled figure in his shirt-sleeves with hands plunged into the pockets of his trousers. The cool air soothed his nerves and brought him a sense of drowsiness which he indulged in a long cane chair under the eaves of the dressing-tent. The camp was very still after the disturbances of the night, and the sun rose above the flat horizon like a ball of living gold, its searching rays awakening the sleeping servants in their shuldaris by their glare and warmth.
But Ray Meredith was worn out and slept heavily, oblivious, for the moment, of his anxieties and his surroundings, for, after all, he cultivated a broad perspective and a wide tolerance for his little girl's humours, since she was only "a kid in years and ideas."
With the sun mounting rapidly into the heavens came sounds of life from the distant village. Far away, cow-bells tinkled musically as the cattle moved lazily to pasture lands; dogs barked and children's voices, shrill and joyous, echoed over the fields.
Domestic servants at the camp were to be seen rolling up their bedding of sacking, preparatory to beginning the common round, the daily task. Not far from the temporary kitchen, the mate-boy squabbled with the village milkman over the supply of milk with its sediment of chalk, which he declared had all but killed the master's child. Let him remember that there was a doctor sahib on the spot, and what availed his protestations?
"A raw infant, too, with a new stomach. Assuredly will the police drag thee into court."
"Who said there was chalk!" almost wept the indignant guala gesticulating wildly in self-defence. "As God is my witness not a grain was in the milk. Have I no fear? Straight from the udder was it milked into the brass lota and brought to the camp. Ask of all the village if I am not an honest man paying just tribute where it is asked, and giving full measure and pure, to one and all. Would I jeopardise my freedom for malpractices? What evil accusation art thou, badmash, hurling at me?"
"We'll see who's a badmash!" the youth returned loftily. "Wait till the doctor Sahib gives evidence. Presently the Judge Sahib will say, 'O Amir, faithful one, speak concerning the sediment in the milk which thou didst show to the doctor Sahib, that the pestilential guala may receive just punishment for his wrong-doing.' But I have a tender heart for the repentant and may consent to destroy the evidence, even refrain from showing it to the Sahib, if it is made worth my while. Allot for my own portion one seer of milk, and two for the servants, free of charge, and, peradventure, my memory concerning the chalk will fail when the moment of inquiry arrives."
"Why didst not thou tell that it was perquisite thou wast wanting, for I would have given to thee without argument," sighed the guala, in visible relief. "I am a poor man, and honest, though the ways of my country-men are crooked, and I give in to thy demand that I might be spared false accusation and much humiliation. Take, brother, thy illegal dusturi; how can such as I hope to escape loot, when from the chaukidar to the sweeper all are robbing those who provide the hakim's needs? Only from the hakim himself is there straight dealing!—ai Khodar!"
[Footnote 7: Commission.]
Within the large tent the silence that reigned boded well for the child who was sleeping peacefully.
Its improved condition was the latest bulletin issued by the ayah who had snatched a moment to enjoy a cheap cigarette in the open.
"What a night!" she said in Hindustani, which she spoke almost as fluently as Tamil. "With both Sahib and Memsahib awake and watching, who could sleep? I had not the conscience to close my eyes. Nor has a morsel passed these lips, for, with the precious one at death's door, food turns to ashes in the mouth."
"Thou art indeed a faithful one, Ayah-jee," said the peon.
"It is my religion, for I am a Christian and have no caste to hold me back from any service that is required of me, Baba-jee. The child is my first thought, and to guard its life, my first care."
"For which thou art paid handsomely, is it not so?"
"That, of course! and money is a great convenience, Baba-jee."
Joyce was still sleeping from the effects of the draught, when Meredith and the doctor breakfasted together. On no account was she to be disturbed. It seemed the doctor took a malicious delight in depriving the husband of the pleasure of carrying his wife the good news concerning the child; and he saw him depart to preside at his court under the trees, without a shade of sympathy for his visible distress.
"Your wife will be all right," he said confidently, "so don't worry, but go ahead with your work. I am capable of looking after both mother and child."
"I have no doubt of it," Meredith grumbled, "but you'll send for me, won't you, if anything's wrong?"
"Most assuredly," was the reply. And the Magistrate took his seat at the camp table under a leafy mango tree, and was soon immersed in his duties to the State. Natives of all castes and creeds thronged the grass beyond the precincts of the court, and a hoarse murmur of voices soon filled the air, above which was constantly heard that of the crier naming a witness, or calling up a case.
When the ayah brought Captain Dalton the news that her mistress was showing signs of waking, he poured out and took her a cup of tea, himself, and asked how she felt. "Not very bright, I can see," he remarked, placing his fingers on her pulse.
"Have I slept long?" she asked drowsily.
"But Baby?" she cried out in alarm, sitting up in bed, giddy and confused.
"Baby's all right. Temperature normal, and sleeping like a cherub," he returned pressing her back on her pillows.
"Oh, Doctor, is that true?"
"You may think me a liar, if you like, but it isn't polite to call me one to my face," he said with a crooked, grudging smile.
"Oh, how am I to thank you!" tears suffused her eyes as she seized his hand and carried it impulsively to her lips. "You have no idea of the relief you have brought me!"
Dalton had; and by the answering gleam in his eye, showed he was rewarded for the whim which had prompted him to be the bearer of the good tidings. It amused him to play with this pretty child-wife, and sound the depths of her nature—if there were any!
"What is your age?" he asked abruptly, with a doctor's licence to question a patient as he chose.
"I was nineteen in summer."
"You have no business with a baby when you are one yourself! Now for your tea," and he held the cup while she leant on her elbow to drink its contents, a shower of honey-gold hair falling about her face.
"Is your head very bad?" he asked when she had finished.
"How did you know that it ached?" she questioned.
"I have ways of finding out. Your pulse and your flush, for example."
"Then I am ill?" she asked in alarm. If she were to be ill, who would take care of the child?
"A little ill."
"But I may get up, in spite of it?"
"Certainly not. Nor would you be of any use if you did."
"But I must take care of Baby!"
"I am doing that, already."
"You are going to take care of me, too?"
"Yes, if you are good and do all I tell you."
"I'll be so good, for I want to get well. How long will it last?"
"The fever? Who can say? However, I dare say it will be only a trifling thing."
"Where is my husband?" she asked, wondering if Ray knew, and why he had not rushed to see her. She was so accustomed to being fussed over, that she missed the excitement. No doubt he was nursing injured feelings since her ill-treatment of him last night....
"Listen, and you will hear the voices of the multitude before the Court. Mr. Meredith is trying cases and sentencing malefactors to various degrees of punishment," said the doctor.
"Won't you call him?"
"Are you sure he won't charge me with Contempt of Court?" he teased.
"If I am going to be ill, I must have him come at once. But first promise me something," she cried, clinging to his hand with feverish excitement; "I cannot bear to stay in camp after yesterday's experience. Tell him that I must go back to Muktiarbad so as to have Baby near you. He might be ill again, and what should I do then!"
"He might, certainly. Yes, I'll tell your husband, but not today. Today you will want to be taken care of, and we mustn't pile on the agony."
"On whom? It would be such a relief to me!"
"Not to your husband. I wouldn't mind betting he'd have a fit of the blues and be ill himself as a result."
"Oh, no! Ray never gets ill. He is so strong. That is why he can't understand us. Oh, Doctor, I cannot live in India!" she wailed.
"Are you very homesick?" he asked with the same grudging smile.
"I hate India! It will kill Baby—won't you explain that to my husband?"
"There is no reason why it should kill Baby."
"How can you tell?—everything is against him here!"
Dalton decided to humour her because of the deepening flush and starry eyes. The nervous fingers twined about his were hot with fever. "That's all right. Be happy, you'll go home in the spring if it depends on me."
"Oh, thank you, you are such a dear!"
Captain Dalton smiled less grudgingly. She was so perfectly ingenuous. In his critical eyes was a look of dalliance with a new problem. They were eyes that must often have studied human problems and not always to good purpose.
"I suppose the kid is your first consideration?" he asked, amused.
"He's so helpless!"
"I see," he remarked oracularly. Before he left the tent he gave her a tablet from a phial which he carried in his vest-pocket.
"Do you know," she ventured in the hurried accents of feverishness, "I did not like you a bit when I first met you."
"You are so different from what I had imagined."
"What was that?"
"You seemed an animated iceberg—forbidding and—yes, almost disagreeable. You make most people afraid of you."
"It matters very little to me what people think of me," he returned indifferently.
"Don't you ever care for friends?"
"I have no use for friends—besides, who are one's friends? I have ceased to believe in friendship," he sneered.
She studied his face gravely. "I don't like to hear you speak like that. We would be your friends if you would let us."
Dalton checked a laugh of genuine amusement, the first sound of mirth she had heard from his lips, and it was not pleasant hearing.
"You are very good," he said tolerantly, "but it wouldn't work. I wouldn't suggest the experiment, if I may advise you."
"I certainly shall not, if you are nasty," she pouted.
Dalton laughed again disagreeably and went out.
He was truly a conundrum, she decided, and difficult to know. Yet how kind he had been to her and careful of her child! for that she would always be grateful. But for him, anything might have happened! Strange fellow!—why was he so antagonistic to people when his profession made him a ministering angel to humanity? Joyce felt her head aching so violently at this stage that she abandoned the puzzle of Captain Dalton's nature and indulged in ecstasies over the thought of her baby's recovery. It made her so happy that, when her husband entered with the doctor, she flung her arms about his neck and apologised for her exhibition of bad temper. "I was horrible to you, Ray. Do forgive me," sounded very sweet in her husband's ears. What the doctor thought was of no importance to her.
Meredith mumbled transports of joy on her lips and was beside himself with anxiety that she should be feverish. He plied her with questions in his solicitude, and stood by in sulky jealousy while the doctor made his professional examination of her lungs and heart.
Joyce said "ninety-nine" many times obediently, and was like a child in her unconsciousness of self. One all-absorbing thought occupied her mind, and that was her baby's well-being.
"Isn't Captain Dalton an angel?" she cried when the examination was over and her lungs pronounced in perfect order. "I shall love him for ever after his kindness to us; only, he won't let me. He has no use, he says, for friends!"
Dalton smiled grimly as he put away his stethoscope. "Have you ever heard of the qualities that go to make a good doctor?" he asked coolly.
"Tell me," she demanded.
"An unerring judgment, nerves of steel, and a heart of stone."
"And have you managed to acquire all three?" she asked playfully.
"The petrifaction of the last-named is quite an old story," he remarked, as he passed out of the tent.
"You must not talk so much, sweetheart, with a rising temperature," Meredith cautioned, fussing over her, while, outside, the trial of a notorious criminal was suspended till the Magistrate should think fit to return. "How did Dalton find out that you had fever?" he questioned suspiciously. "Did you send for him?"
"Oh, no. He brought me news of Baby and gave me my tea. Isn't he queer? Not half so bad as people make him out to be. Oh!—and I was so overjoyed and excited that I kissed his hand. I wonder what he thought of my foolishness?" and she laughed at the joke; but her husband seemed to have lost his sense of humour, for he retired from the bedside to pace the drugget in distinct annoyance.
"Damned officious of him," he grumbled. "You were not his patient."
"I am now, so it's all right."
"You shouldn't have forgotten your dignity."
"I know it, but that's the way with me. I never remember that I have any!"
"You are a married woman and no longer a child," he continued reproachfully.
"I shall always be a silly fool, I'm afraid," she sighed. "However, he's only the doctor, and a doctor is something between an angel and an automaton."
"The devil he is!" Meredith growled, kicking a hassock to the other end of the tent.
"Come here, you big goose," she said wearily, stretching her limbs; "kiss me this instant, and go back to the malefactors. I want to sleep off this attack and get well quickly."
Meredith could not bear to see her looking ill and wanted no second bidding to demonstrate his love for her. After kissing her most tenderly, he tucked her in comfortably, and, much against his inclination, left her to the doctor's ministrations.
A POINT OF VIEW
Dalton filled the ice-bag he had brought with him and settled down to nursing with the skill of a woman; and no hands could have been gentler. Occasionally the worried husband would pay the tent a flying visit and return to listen to a pleader's lengthy oration with all the attention he could muster under the troublous circumstances. Visions of his wife's flushed face lying still on the pillow with closed eyes would haunt him with agonising fidelity to detail—especially in relation to the attentive doctor hovering near, adjusting the bag or removing it to be refilled, and administering the necessary doses of medicine. He took special notice of Dalton in his new character of nurse, and had no fault to find with his manner. He was as silent as the Sphinx and as professional as a nursing sister, and though Meredith thought it objectionable that his wife should always have to be treated in illness by a male physician—there being no lady doctor within hundreds of miles—he was obliged to take comfort in the fact that his beloved could not be in better hands.
Elsewhere, the ayah crooned lullabies to the baby who no longer needed strict watching. She fed it from the bottle and wondered, philosophically, who would be the next to be taken ill; for experience told her that it was a mild form of epidemic chill, familiar to all at the changing of the seasons.
Meals went forward with clock-like regularity, whether the sahibs were inclined for sustenance or not. The camp table in the dining-tent was laid with silver and crockery; a tight bunch of green leaves adorned a centre vase, and a gong rang at the appointed hour, while the dishes remained warm in the portable "hot case" where an open charcoal fire burned redly.
"Isn't the fever rather persistent?" Meredith asked at dinner while toying with his food.
"It's early to judge," said the doctor.
"What do you think of it?"
"Unquestionably a touch of the 'flu.'"
"It isn't enteric?" the anxious husband asked fearfully. "I have a holy horror of enteric."
"You make your mind easy, it is not going to be anything of the sort. I am afraid, however, you will have to give up all idea of Mrs. Meredith's camping for the present," he added definitely. "She and the child don't take kindly to canvas, and at this time of year we must avoid exposure to malarial conditions."
"The District is particularly free from malaria," said Meredith.
"Bengal is full of it; the many bogs and pools of stagnant water around are responsible for the anopheles mosquito."
"It's dashed inconvenient when I must put in a deuced lot of camping in the cold weather."
"Do most of it after Christmas," Dalton suggested.
"It will be just the same—they won't be able to stand it."
"Frankly, I don't think they will. Perhaps, both might be more acclimatised later on," was the diplomatic reply.
Meredith passed another night on the cane chair which he placed alongside of his wife's bed, and was conscious during periods of rest that the doctor never slept at all. He was in and out of the tent at all hours of the night looking after his patient with untiring zeal. An easy chair in the dining-tent had served as his couch, and the English newspapers entertained him during the long hours of the night.
Yet at the end of the vigil, Meredith knew Captain Dalton no better than before. He was still the silent, repellent being, with eyes of a thought-reader and a baffling smile which might have meant contempt or tolerance; he was altogether incomprehensible.
By morning, Joyce was free of fever with a temporarily lowered vitality, and showing no ill effects. All day she convalesced happily, enjoying the petting she received from the men; Captain Dalton's methods being unobtrusive, but effective; Meredith's, on the other hand, being tactlessly affectionate and blundering.
"You are a darling, Ray," she laughed, after a specially clumsy service, "but you were never born with a faculty for nursing, like Captain Dalton's. He is so capable; he never spills my mixture down my neck before I can drink it; nor does he pour out over-doses, and empty the surplus on the drugget!"
"'Comparisons are odorous,'" he returned, looking hurt.
"The tent is, if you like. It smells like a chemist's shop! Your proper place and function are in the court, and sentencing criminals to punishment."
"You want to get rid of me so that you may have the doctor all to yourself! I wonder what you find in him at all. He fairly chokes one off."
"I told you he was either an automaton or an angel; I find he is both, only he would like us to think him a bad angel."
"A man knows himself best. So you want to desert me tomorrow?" he cried reproachfully.
"Dear old thing!—you wouldn't have me stay if you knew that I should be miserable?" she coaxed, drawing down his face to be kissed.
"Miserable with the husband who adores you?"
"If you love me so much, you should be unselfish and think more of Baby."
"Must Baby always count above his Daddy?"
"Naturally he must be considered more, while he is so young and delicate."
"Where then do I come in?"
"You mustn't be jealous of your own child!" she cried reproachfully. "Think of his helplessness, his need of me!—Of course you need me, too," she said putting her palm over his mouth to stifle his eloquence on the subject of a husband's rights, "but then, there's a difference. You can manage without me, while he must not. A babe is a sacred trust to its mother."
"And when he grows older and is impressionable, there will be a mother's moral duty towards his soul to separate us. You and he at home, and I out here, alone! I know the jargon, having watched such comedies for years. Now it has come home to me. One hears that a child is a blessing from God.... I believe it is a blessing very much in disguise, for I see only the disguise at present."
"Why look so far ahead?" laughed Joyce, determined to mend his humour. "By the time he is old enough to become a 'moral' responsibility, you will probably be only too glad to get rid of me. I am such a worry as a wife."
"I wonder!" he ejaculated ruefully.
Joyce reminded him of the many week-ends he could spend at the bungalow, when they would contrive to have very happy times. "I shan't be so anxious with a doctor on the spot, so to speak; and shall be ever so much more of a wife," she promised, looking adorable in the ribbons and laces of her snowy night-dress, backed with befrilled pillows.
The prospect had compensations, he felt, but he found it hard to explain without incurring the imputation of selfishness, that, parted day after day from the light of her presence, deprived of the sight of her loveliness and the natural expression of his passion for her, he would assuredly ache unceasingly and pine himself sick. She would not understand, since she had little comprehension of the ways of mankind, so he could only sigh and capitulate.
"At least there will be many honeymoons!" he allowed, trying to hide his disappointment in satire.
"What a man you are!" she laughed. "Won't you ever get used to being married?"
Meredith returned to his files and the clamouring multitude under the trees, for the remainder of the afternoon, with the noxious odours of bare-bodied humanity, besmeared with mustard oil, assaulting his nostrils. Meanwhile Joyce cultivated the doctor with innocent feelers of friendship while he administered afternoon tea.
"I do think you are such a clever nurse," she said flatteringly, while he fed her on bread and butter. "You are like two persons in one—both doctor and nurse!"
"Necessity is a good teacher," he returned shortly. "I have never nursed any one myself; others have generally taken my orders."
"I should have imagined that you had done this all your life."
Viewed in broad daylight at close quarters, when her brain was cleared of feverish delusions, he was not at all a handsome man. Too blunt-featured and heavy in the jaws; too square in the frame and thick of neck; but his eyes, with their power of reserve, were always a splendid mystery; deep-set and provoking, yet suggestive of nothing so much as banked fires, glowing and suppressed. Frequently they dwelt on her with the same satirical amusement of the polo-field, and she would waste much of her thoughts in wondering why. It was the look of a sceptic who had no intention of expressing his unbelief, and Joyce was irritated and annoyed. But she had no fault to find with his attentions, and was invariably won to gratitude for services rendered.
She was very pretty—exceptionally so—and very simple; but, as pretty women were never simple, Dalton found entertainment in the study of her particular pose, as it seemed to him. If it were not a pose, then her husband was a short-sighted fool and he had no patience with him. The time was past for childish innocence and folly. Coquetry was very captivating, but to play with fire was dangerous, and if he mistook not, she would some day arrive at an understanding of human nature when it was too late to save her self-respect. Her beauty appealed to his artistic sense, but he had no admiration for shallow natures; hence his amused contempt.
"You remind me of nothing so much as an oyster," she laughed, picking up a dainty piece of bread and butter and putting it in her mouth.
"You are living so much in your shell. Why do you do it?"
"Why not, if it pleases me?" he asked pouring out two cups of tea.
"Think of all you lose!"
"I generally manage to take what I want," he replied with an insolent smile. "I rarely suffer from loss."
"You lose love," said she wisely.
"What do you know about it?" he questioned, fixing her with his penetrating eyes.
"I love my husband——"
"—And your baby, even more. Of course your experience is immense!"
"You are sarcastic," she said reproachfully. "I love my husband and my baby in quite different ways. You have no wife or baby, so you cannot understand. Men like you go through life without knowing any of its real joys."
"That is according to your point of view," he retorted. "In any case, marriage is a great gamble and it's best to avoid risks."
"There's a girl you and I know..." Joyce put in reminiscently, seeing in mind a pleasing vision, "and the man who gets her will be the luckiest fellow in the world."
"He certainly will."
"How do you know whom I mean?"
"You mean Miss Bright of Muktiarbad."
Joyce opened wide her blue eyes which were the colour of forget-me-nots, and stared. "Are you a thought-reader?"
"It was easy reading, for there is only one girl we mutually know who fits your description entirely, and she is Miss Honor Bright. She has been reared to live up to her name."
"And you found that out though you hardly ever speak to her?"
"It is rather wonderful, isn't it?" he asked with his crooked smile.
"Then—why—?" There were limits to curiosity, but her expressive eyes spoke the rest of her question direct to his.
"Why don't I cultivate Miss Bright? The answer is simple. I am not seeking a wife, and I have no interest in friendships."
"How rude!" she cried reproachfully.
Dalton laughed disagreeably and offered her more tea which she accepted, not knowing whether he was not after all the most churlish being she had ever met.
"I wish I could understand you, Doctor, but I never shall," she sighed hopelessly, as she endeavoured to make herself comfortable among the tumbled bed-clothes. "I give you up as a difficult riddle."
"You want your bed re-made," he returned changing the subject. "Shall I do it for you?"
"You?—I can't fancy your bed-making!"
"I'll show you that I can do that as well as most other things. But you'll have to move out."
The cane lounge had been put out of the way and was not within easy walking distance for a shaky invalid; nevertheless Joyce was determined to try. While he transferred the cushions, she rolled herself in a shawl and made a brave effort to walk across, only to be overcome by giddiness.
Dalton was in time to save her from falling and she was carried clinging in her panic to the column of his neck. "You shouldn't have attempted it," he scolded.
"But I liked the way you swung me off my feet!" she said contentedly.
"It is not one of my duties to wait hand and foot on my patients, I would have you understand," he said grimly with a lurking twinkle in his eye, wondering, the while, whether the giddiness was another pose. "It seems you like being fussed over," he remarked before laying her down among the cushions.
"I love it!" she cooed ingenuously. "It's the only reason I don't mind being sick, to have Ray fuss and carry me about."
He put her down immediately with the familiar expression of indulgent satire in his eyes. "You'll probably get plenty of fussing from everyone; but, in the case of the boys, remember to be merciful."
"What on earth do you mean?"
"There are some young fools who might, if encouraged, lose their heads, you know."
"But there'd be no excuse, for I never flirt."
"Pardon me, you flirt like an artist."
Joyce thought it was horrid of him to say so, and wondered if she should snub him for his impertinence; only she did not quite know how. He had been so kind—perhaps he was only teasing? However she was reduced to offended silence while he made her bed with skill and expedition. He was not anxious that her husband arrive and find him so employed, and was glad to restore Mrs. Meredith to her nest of pillows without interruptions from without. Her utter lack of concern, either way, was illuminating, so that he had to revise his estimate of her once again, while his smile lost its satire.
"Sure you are comfy?" he asked before leaving her.
"Yes, thank you," she answered stiffly.
"Haughtiness does not become you, dear lady. What have I done?" he asked coolly.
"You said I was a flirt!" she pouted.
"I'll take it back," he returned smiling broadly, thinking that she certainly flirted delightfully. But shallow natures always flirted just so.
"I have never been accused of that—in my life."
"It would be such a libel!" he conceded.
"Thank you," she said graciously as she shot him a forgiving glance both radiant and alluring. "Do you know, I like you tremendously, though I began by thinking you hateful."
"First impressions are often correct," he returned grimly, and retired.
By and by, when she was alone with her husband and childishly about to recount the events of the afternoon with fidelity as to detail, she was diverted by his grave distress at the coming parting. It was cruel to inflict grief, and she wished he would be more reasonable.
"Old thing!" she said affectionately, rubbing her soft cheek against his rough one; "think how much I, too, shall miss you! It won't be only on your side!"
"Will you really miss me?" he asked infatuatedly.
"All the time. I love having you about, and if I am lonely at nights, I have only to creep into your bed in the next room to be comforted. What ever shall I do when that bed lies empty?"
It was heavenly to Meredith to hear this intimate revelation from her lips, always so shy of expressing her need of him. It was a great advance in the right direction, and his skies cleared as by magic. If absence truly made the heart grow fonder, he would have no cause of complaint against this short parting. It was the greater one in the spring, the shadow of which was already darkening his horizon, that he dared not contemplate.
However, there was plenty of time yet, and no earthly good was to be gained by crossing bridges in anticipation.
The following day saw an exodus from the camp. Meredith took his wife and child to Muktiarbad station, and saw them comfortably established in the Collector's bungalow, known as the Bara Koti, then returned to his duties in the rural parts of his District, resolved to support his deprivations with cheerful resignation.
[Footnote 8: Big House.]
WHAT CAN'T BE CURED
Ray Meredith tried for the first few days to submit to his loss with fortitude, but the loneliness of the camp, after the experience of a sweet wife's companionship, was insupportable. There were no Europeans for miles around and there remained only the diversions of an occasional shikar. The tour of the previous autumn and winter months on which he had been accompanied by his girlish bride, had spoilt him for bachelor life; for though Joyce had disliked the inconveniences of camping, she had suffered them meekly, seeing that to have objected would have been both selfish and unkind. But the coming of the child had roused in her active opposition to all that might be harmful to its most precious health, and her husband was gradually discovering that he would inevitably have to accept the back seat.
For the first time in his official career, the routine of his work wearied him with its monotony and staleness. Having his meals in solitary state affected his appetite and digestion, for he took to bolting his food just to get rid of the automaton behind his chair who, no doubt, mentally criticised his every act, and treasured up the memory of his idiosyncrasies to comment upon them, later, in the kitchen.
During the day the business of hearing petitions, trying cases, and delivering judgments, occupied his mind and brought distraction, but in the evenings he could settle to nothing. Even his beloved pipe failed to bring him consolation.
When darkness closed in with dense shadows where the moonlight failed to penetrate, and the peace of a world at rest was upon the countryside, when even the birds had ceased to chirp and flutter in their nests, the air would feel charged with expectancy. A footfall without would cause Meredith to lift his head from his papers or book, wondering if there was a message for him—Joyce taken ill—or the baby? The silence bred nerves, till a chorus of jackals howling in an adjacent paddy field would break the spell and come as a welcome relief.