JAN AND HER JOB
JAN AND HER JOB
L. ALLEN HARKER
AUTHOR OF "A ROMANCE OF THE NURSERY"; "MISS ESPERANCE AND MR. WYCHERLY"; "MR. WYCHERLY'S WARDS"; "THE FFOLLIOTS OF REDMARLEY," ETC.
CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
Copyright, 1917, by Charles Scribner's Sons
Published March, 1917
F. R. P.
"Chary of praise and prodigal of counsel— Who but thou?" R. L. S.
I. JAN 1
II. JAN'S MAIL 13
III. BOMBAY 19
IV. THE BEGINNING OF THE JOB 39
V. THE CHILDREN 52
VI. THE SHADOW BEFORE 62
VII. THE HUMAN TOUCH 78
VIII. THE END OF THE DREAM 91
IX. MEG 97
X. PLANS 124
XI. THE STATE OF PETER 139
XII. "THE BEST-LAID SCHEMES" 149
XIII. THE WHEELS OF CHANCE 162
XIV. PERPLEXITIES 173
XV. WREN'S END 184
XVI. "THE BLUDGEONINGS OF CHANCE" 201
XVII. "THOUGH AN HOST SHOULD ENCAMP AGAINST ME" 212
XVIII. MEG AND CAPTAIN MIDDLETON 220
XIX. THE YOUNG IDEA 240
XX. "ONE WAY OF LOVE" 252
XXI. ANOTHER WAY OF LOVE 261
XXII. THE ENCAMPMENT 276
XXIII. TACTICS 287
XXIV. "THE WAY OF A MAN WITH A MAID" 303
XXV. A DEMONSTRATION IN FORCE 325
XXVI. IN WHICH SEVERAL PEOPLE SPEAK THEIR MINDS 339
XXVII. AUGUST, 1914 351
"But surely," said Peter, "I am your job—part of it, anyway" Frontispiece
"It would make it easier for both of us if you'd face it, my dear" 66
He washed his small sister with thoroughness and despatch, pointing out ... that he "went into all the corners" 156
William rushed out to welcome the strangers. Two ... nice children 188
JAN AND HER JOB
She was something of a puzzle to the other passengers. They couldn't quite place her. She came on board the P. and O. at Marseilles. Being Christmas week the boat was not crowded, and she had a cabin to herself on the spar deck, so there was no "stable-companion" to find out anything about her.
The sharp-eyed Australian lady, who sat opposite her at the Purser's table, decided that she was not married, or even engaged, as she wore no rings of any kind. Besides, her name, "Miss Janet Ross," figured in the dinner-list and was plainly painted on her deck-chair. At meals she sat beside the Purser, and seemed more or less under his wing. People at her table decided that she couldn't be going out as a governess or she would hardly be travelling first class, and yet she did not look of the sort who globe-trot all by themselves.
Rather tall, slender without being thin, she moved well. Her ringless hands were smooth and prettily shaped, so were her slim feet, and always singularly well-shod.
Perhaps her chief outward characteristic was that she looked delightfully fresh and clean. Her fair skin helped to this effect, and the trim suitability of her clothes accentuated it. And yet there was nothing challenging or particularly noticeable in her personality.
Her face, fresh-coloured and unlined, was rather round. Her eyes well-opened and blue-grey, long-sighted and extremely honest. Her hair, thick and naturally wavy, had been what hairdressers call "mid-brown," but was now frankly grey, especially round the temples; and the grey hair puzzled people, so that opinions differed widely regarding her age.
The five box-wallahs (gentlemen engaged in commercial pursuits are so named in the East to distinguish them from the Heaven-Born in the various services that govern India), who, with the Australian lady, sat opposite to her at table, decided that she was really young and prematurely grey. Between the courses they diligently took stock of her. The Australian lady disagreed with them. She declared Miss Ross to be middle-aged, to look younger than she was. In this the Australian lady was quite sincere. She could not conceive of any young woman neglecting the many legitimate means that existed of combating this most distressing semblance—if semblance it was—of age.
The Australian lady set her down as a well-preserved forty at least.
Mr. Frewellen, the oldest and crossest and greediest of the five box-wallahs, declared that he would lay fifteen rupees to five annas that she was under thirty; that her eyes were sad, and it was probably trouble that had turned her hair. At his time of life, he could tell a young woman when he saw one. No painted old harridan could deceive him. After all, if Miss Ross had grey hair, she had plenty of it, and it was her own. But Mr. Frewellen, who sat directly opposite her, was prejudiced in her favour, for she always let him take her roll if it was browner than his own. He also took her knife if it happened to be sharper than the one he had, and he insisted on her listening to his incessant grumbling as to the food, the service, the temperature, and the general imbecility and baseness of his fellow-creatures.
Like the Ancient Mariner, he held her with his glittering spectacles. Miss Ross trembled before his diatribes. He spoke in a loud and rumbling voice, and made derogatory remarks about the other passengers as they passed to their respective tables. She would thankfully have changed hers, but that it might have seemed ungrateful to the Purser, into whose charge she had been given by friends; and the Purser had been most kind and attentive.
The Australian lady was sure that the Purser knew more about Miss Ross than he would acknowledge—which he did. But when tackled by one passenger about another, he was discreet or otherwise in direct ratio to what he considered was the discretion of the questioner. And he was a pretty shrewd judge of character. He had infinite opportunities of so judging. A sea-voyage lays bare many secrets and shows up human nature at its starkest.
Janet Ross did not seek to make friends, but kindly people who spoke to her found her pleasant and not in the least disposed to be mysterious when questioned, though she never volunteered any information about herself. She was a good listener, and about the middle of any voyage that is a quality supplying a felt want. Mankind in general finds his own doings very interesting, and takes great pleasure in recounting the same. Even the most energetic young passenger cannot play deck-quoits all day, and mixed cricket matches are too heating to last long once Aden is left behind. A great many people found it pleasant to drop into a chair beside the quiet lady, who was always politely interested in their remarks. She looked so cool and restful in her white frock and shady hat. She did not buy a solar topee at Port Said, for though this was her first voyage she had not, it seemed, started quite unwarned.
In the middle of the Indian Ocean she suddenly found favour in the eyes of Sir Langham Sykes, and when that was the case Sir Langham proclaimed his preference to the whole ship. No one who attracted his notice could remain in obscurity. When he was not eating he was talking, generally about himself, though he was also fond of asking questions.
A short, stout man with a red face, little fierce blue eyes, a booming voice, noisy laugh and a truculent, domineering manner, Sir Langham made his presence felt wherever he was.
It was "her shape," as he called it, that first attracted his attention to Miss Ross, as he watched her walking briskly round and round the hurricane-deck for her morning constitutional.
"That woman moves well," he remarked to his neighbour; "wonder if she's goin' out to be married. Nice-looking woman and pleasant, no frills about her—sort that would be kind in illness."
And Sir Langham sighed. He couldn't take any exercise just then, for his last attack of gout had been very severe, and his left foot was still swathed and slippered.
There was a dance that night on the hurricane-deck, and Sir Langham, while watching the dancers, talked at the top of his voice with the more important lady passengers. On such occasions he claimed close intimacy with the Reigning House, and at all times of day one heard such sentences as, "And I said to the Princess Henrietta," with a full account of what he did say. And the things he declared he said, and the stories he told, certainly suggested a doubt as to whether the ladies of our Royal Family are quite as strait-laced as the ordinary public is led to believe. But then one had only Sir Langham's word for it. There was no possibility of questioning the Princess.
Presently Sir Langham got tired of trying to drown the band—it was such a noisy band—and he hobbled down the companion on to the almost deserted deck. Right up in the stern he spied Miss Ross, quite alone, sitting under an electric light absorbed in a book. Beside her was an empty chair with a comfortable leg-rest. Sir Langham never made any bones about interrupting people. It would not, to him, have seemed possible that a woman could prefer any form of literature to the charm of his conversation. So with a series of grunts he lowered himself into it, arranged his foot upon the rest, and, without asking permission, lit a cigar.
"Don't you care for dancin'?" he asked.
She closed her book. "Oh, yes," she said, "but I don't know many men on board, and there are such a lot of young people who do know one another. It's pretty to watch them; but the night is pretty, too, don't you think? The stars all seem so near compared to what they do at home."
"I've seen too many Eastern nights to take much stock in 'em now," he said in a disparaging voice. "I take it this is all new to you—first voyage, eh?"
"Yes, I've never been a long voyage before."
"Goin' to India, I suppose. You'd have started sooner if you'd been goin' for the winter to Australia. Now what are you goin' to India for?"
"To stay with my sister."
"Older than you, then, of course."
"Is she like you?"
"Not in the least. She is a beautiful person."
"Been married long?"
"Between five and six years. I'm to take her home at the end of the cold weather."
"And you haven't been out before?"
"No; this is my first visit."
"She's been home, I suppose?"
"Is her husband in the Army?"
Had Sir Langham been an observant person he would have noted that her very brief replies did not exactly encourage further questions. But his idea of conversation was either a monologue or a means of obtaining information, so he instantly demanded, "What does her husband do?"
The impulse of the moment urged her to reply, "What possible business is it of yours what he does?" But well-bred people do not yield to these impulses, so she answered quietly, "He's in the P.W.D."
"Not a bad service, not a bad service, though not equal to the I.C.S. They've had rather a scandal in it lately. Didn't you see about it in the papers just before we left?"
At that moment Sir Langham was very carefully flicking the ash from the end of his cigar, otherwise he might have observed that as he spoke his companion flushed. A wave of warm colour surged over her face and bare neck and receded again, leaving her very pale. Her hands closed over the book lying in her lap, as if glad to hold on to something, and their knuckles were white against the tan.
"Didn't you see it?" he repeated. "Some chap been found to have taken bribes over contracts in a native state. Regular rumpus there's been. Quite right, too; we sahibs must have clean hands. No dealing with brown people if you haven't clean hands—can't have rupees sticking to 'em in any Government transactions. Expect you'll hear all about it when you get out there—makes a great sensation in any service does that sort of thing. I don't remember the name of the chap—perhaps they didn't give it—do you?"
"I didn't see anything about it," she said quietly. "I was very busy just before I left, and hardly looked at a paper."
"Where is your sister?"
"Oh, got a billet there, has he? Expect you'll like Bombay; cheery place, in the cold weather, but not a patch on Calcutta, to my mind. I hear the Governor and his wife do the thing in style—hospitable, you know; got private means, as people in that position always ought to have."
"I don't suppose I shall go out at all," she said. "My sister is ill, and I've got to look after her. Directly she is strong enough to travel I shall bring her home."
"Oh, you must see something of the social life of the place while you're there. D'you know what I thought? I thought you were goin' out to get married, and"—he continued gallantly—"I thought he was a deuced lucky chap."
She smiled and shook her head. She was not looking at Sir Langham, but at the long, white, moonlit pathway of foam left in the wake of the ship.
"I say," he went on confidentially, "what's your Christian name? I'm certain they don't call you Janet. Is it Nettie, now? I bet it's Nettie!"
"My family," said Miss Ross somewhat coldly, "call me Jan."
"Nice little name," he exclaimed, "but more like a boy's. Now, I never got a pet name. I started Langham, and Langham I've stopped, and I flatter myself I've made the name known and respected."
He wanted her to look at him, and leaned towards her: "Look here, Miss Ross, I'm goin' to ask you a funny question, and it's not one you can ask most women—but you're a puzzle. You've got a face like a child, and yet you're as grey as a badger. What is your age?"
"I shall be twenty-eight in March."
She looked at him then, and her grey eyes were so full of amusement that, incredulous as he usually was as to other people's statements, he knew that she was speaking the truth.
"Then why the devil don't you do something to it?" he demanded.
She laughed. "I couldn't be bothered. And it might turn green, or something. I don't mind it. It began when I was twenty-three."
"I don't mind it either," Sir Langham declared magnanimously; "but it's misleading."
"I'm sorry," she said demurely. "I wouldn't mislead anyone for the world."
"Now, what age should you think I am? But I suppose you know—that's the worst of being a public character; when one gets nearly a column in Who's Who, everybody knows all about one. That's the penalty of celebrity."
"Do you mind people knowing your age?"
"Not I! Nor anything else about me. I've never done anything to be ashamed of. Quite the other way, I can assure you."
"How pleasant that must be," she said quietly.
Sir Langham turned and looked suspiciously at her; but her face was guileless and calm, with no trace of raillery, her eyes still fixed on the long bright track of foam.
"I suppose you, now," he muttered hoarsely, "always sleep well, go off directly you turn in—eh?"
Her quiet eyes met his; little and fierce and truculent, but behind their rather bloodshot boldness there lurked something else, and with a sudden pang of pity she knew that it was fear, and that Sir Langham dreaded the night.
"As a rule I do," she said gently; "but of course I've known what it is to be sleepless, and it's horrid."
"It's hell," said Sir Langham, "and I'm in it every night this voyage, for I've knocked off morphia and opiates—they were playing the deuce with my constitution, and I've strength of mind for anything when I fairly take hold. But it's awful. When d'you suppose natural sleep will come back?"
She knew that he did not lack physical courage, that he had fearlessly faced great dangers in many outposts of the world; but the demon of insomnia had got a hold of Sir Langham, and he dreaded the night unspeakably. At that moment there was something pathetic about the little, boastful, filibustering man.
"I think you will sleep to-night," she said confidently, "especially if you go to bed early."
She half rose as she spoke, but he put his hand on her arm and pressed her down in her chair again.
"Don't go yet," he cried. "Keep on tellin' me I'll sleep, and then perhaps I shall. You look as if you could will people to do things. You're that quiet sort. Will me, there's a good girl. Tell me again I'll sleep to-night."
It was getting late; the music had stopped and the dancers had disappeared. Miss Ross did not feel over comfortable alone with Sir Langham so far away from everybody else. Especially as she saw he was excited and nervous. Had he been drinking? she wondered. But she remembered that he had proclaimed far and wide that, because of his gout, he'd made a vow to touch no form of "alcoholic liquor" on the voyage, except on Christmas and New Year's Day. It was six days since Christmas, and already Aden was left behind. No, it was just sheer nervous excitement, and if she could do him any good....
"I feel sure you will sleep to-night," she said soothingly, "if you will do as I tell you."
"I'll do any mortal thing. I've got a deck-cabin to myself. Will you keep willin' me when you turn in?"
"Go to bed now," she said firmly. "Undress quickly, and then think about nothing ... and I'll do the rest."
"You will, you promise?"
"Yes, but you must keep your mind a perfect blank, or I can't do anything."
She stood up tall and straight. The moonlight caught her grey hair and burnished it to an aureole of silver.
With many grunts Sir Langham pulled himself out of his chair. "No smokin'-room, eh?"
"Good night," Miss Ross said firmly, and left him.
"Don't forget to ask your sister's husband about that chap in the P.W.D.," he called after her. "He's sure to know all about it. What's his name?—your brother-in-law, I mean."
But Miss Ross had disappeared.
"Now how the devil," he muttered, "am I to make my mind, my mind, a perfect blank?"
Two hours later Sir Langham's snores grievously disturbed the occupants of adjacent cabins.
In hers, Miss Ross sat by the open porthole reading and re-reading the mail that had reached her at Aden.
Bombay, December 13th.
My Dear Jan,
It was a great relief to get your cable saying definitely that you were sailing by the Carnduff. Misfortunes seem to have come upon us in such numbers of late that I dreaded lest your departure might be unavoidably delayed or prevented. I will not now enter into the painful question of my shameful treatment by Government, but you can well understand that I shall leave no stone unturned to reverse their most unfair and unjust decision, and to bring my traducers to book. Important business having reference to these matters calls me away at once, as I feel it is most essential not to lose a moment, my reputation and my whole future being at stake. I shall therefore, to my great regret, be unable to meet you on your arrival in Bombay, and, as my movements for the next few months will be rather uncertain, I may find it difficult to let you have regular news of me. I would therefore advise you to take Fay and the children home as soon as all is safely over and she is able to travel, and I will join you in England if and when I find I can get away. I know, dear Jan, that you will not mind financing Fay to this extent at present; as, owing to these wholly unexpected departmental complications, I am uncommonly hard up. I will, of course, repay you at the earliest possible opportunity.
Poor Fay is not at all well; all these worries have been very bad for her, and I have been distracted by anxiety on her behalf, as well as about my own most distressing position, and a severe attack of fever has left me weak and ailing. I thought it better to bring Fay down to Bombay, where she can get the best medical advice, and her being there will save you the long, tiresome journey to Dariawarpur. It is also most convenient for going home. She is installed in a most comfortable flat, and we brought our own servants, so I hope you will feel that I have done my best for her.
Fay will explain the whole miserable business to you, and although appearances may be against me, I trust that you will realise how misleading these may be. I cannot thank you enough for responding so promptly to our ardently expressed desire for your presence at this difficult time. It will make all the difference in the world to Fay; and, on her account, to me also.
Believe me, always yours affectionately,
Jan my dear, my dear, are you really on your way? And shall I see your face and hear your kind voice, and be able to cry against your shoulder?
I can't meet you, my precious, because I don't go out. I'm afraid. Afraid lest I should see anyone who knew us at Dariawarpur. India is so large and so small, and people from everywhere are always in Bombay, and I couldn't bear it.
Do you know, Jan, that when the very worst has happened, you get kind of numbed. You can't suffer any more. You can't be sorry or angry or shocked or indignant, or anything but just broken, and that's what I am.
After all, I've one good friend here who knew us at Dariawarpur. He's got a job at the secretariat, and he tries to help me all he can. I don't mind him somehow. He understands. He will meet you and bring you to the bungalow, so look out for him when the boat gets in. He's tall and thin and clean-shaven and yellow, with a grave, stern face and beautiful kind eyes. Peter is an angel, so be nice to him, Jan dear. It has been awful; it will go on being awful; but it will be a little more bearable when you come—for me, I mean—for you it will be horrid. All of us on your hands, and no money, and me such a crock, and presently a new baby. The children are well. It's so queer to think you haven't seen "little Fay." Come soon, Jan, come soon, to your miserable FAY.
Jan sat on her bunk under the open porthole. One after the other she held the letters open in her hand and stared at them, but she did not read. The sentences were burnt into her brain already.
Hugo Tancred's letter was dated. Fay's was not, and neither letter bore any address in Bombay. Now, Jan knew that Bombay is a large town; and that people like the Tancreds, who, if not actually in hiding, certainly did not seek to draw attention to their movements, would be hard to find. Fay had wholly omitted to mention the surname of the tall, thin, yellow man with the "grave, stern face and beautiful kind eyes." Even in the midst of her poignant anxiety Jan found herself smiling at this. It was so like Fay—so like her to give no address. And should the tall, thin gentleman fail to appear, what was Jan to do? She could hardly go about the ship asking if one "Peter" had come to fetch her.
How would she find Fay?
Would they allow her to wait at the landing-place till someone came, or were there stringent regulations compelling passengers to leave the docks with the utmost speed, as most of them would assuredly desire to do?
She knitted her brows and worried a good deal about this; then suddenly put the question from her as too trivial when there were such infinitely greater problems to solve.
Only one thing was clear. One central fact shone out, a beacon amidst the gloom of the "departmental complications" enshrouding the conduct of Hugo Tancred, the certainty that he had, for the present anyway, shifted the responsibility of his family from his own shoulders to hers. As she sat square and upright under the porthole, with the cool air from an inserted "wind-sail" ruffling her hair, she looked as though she braced herself to the burden.
She wished she knew exactly what had happened, what Hugo Tancred had actually done. For some years she had known that he was by no means scrupulous in money matters, and that very evening Sir Langham had made it clear to her that this crookedness had not stopped short at his official work. There had been a scandal, so far-reaching a scandal that it had got into the home papers.
This struck Jan as rather extraordinary, for Hugo Tancred was by no means a stupid man.
It is one thing to be pleasantly oblivious of private debts, to omit cheques in repayment of various necessaries got at the Stores by an obliging sister-in-law. One thing to muddle away in wild-cat speculations a wife's money that, but for the procrastination of an easy-going father, would have been tightly tied up—quite another to bring himself so nearly within the clutches of the law as to make it possible for the Government of India to dismiss him.
And what was he to do? What did the future hold for him?
Who would give employment to however able a man with such a career behind him?
Jan's imagination refused to take such flights. Resolutely she put the subject from her and began to consider what her own best course would be with Fay, her nephew and niece, and, very shortly, a new baby on her hands.
Jan was not a young woman to let things drift. She had kept house for a whimsical, happy-go-lucky father since she was fourteen; mothered her beautiful young sister; and, at her father's death, two years before, had with quiet decision arranged her own life, wholly avoiding the discussion and the friction which generally are the lot of an unmarried woman of five-and-twenty left without natural guardians and with a large circle of friends and relations.
It was nearly two o'clock when she undressed and went to bed, and before that she had drafted two cablegrams—one to a house-agent, the other to her bankers.
For Jan the next two days passed as in a more or less disagreeable dream. She could never afterwards recall very clearly what happened, except that Sir Langham Sykes seemed absolutely omnipresent, and made her, she felt, ridiculous before the whole ship, by proclaiming far and wide that she had bestowed upon him the healing gift of sleep.
He was so effusive, so palpably grateful, that she simply could not undeceive him by telling him that after they parted the night before she had never given him another thought.
When he was not doing this he was pursuing, with fulminations against the whole tribe of missionaries, two kindly, quiet members of the Society of Friends.
In an evil moment they had gratified his insatiable curiosity as to the object of their voyage to India, which was to visit and report upon the missionary work of their community. Once he discovered this he never let them alone, and the deck resounded with his denunciations of all Protestant missionaries as "self-seeking, oily humbugs."
They bore it with well-mannered resignation, and a common dislike for Sir Langham formed quite a bond of union between them and Jan.
There was the usual dance on New Year's Eve, the usual singing of "Auld Lang Syne" in two huge circles; and Jan would have enjoyed it all but for the heavy foreboding in her heart; for she was a simple person who responded easily to the emotions of others. Before she could slip away to bed Sir Langham cornered her again, conjuring her to "will" him to sleep and "to go on doin' it" after they parted in Bombay. He became rather maudlin, and she seized the opportunity of telling him that her best efforts would be wholly unavailing if he at all relaxed the temperate habits, so necessary for the cure of his gout, that he had acquired during the voyage. She was stern with Sir Langham, and her admonitions had considerable effect. He sought his cabin chastened and thoughtful.
The boat was due early in the morning. Jan finished most of her packing before she undressed; then, tired and excited, she could not sleep. A large cockroach scuttling about her cabin did not tend to calm her nerves. She plentifully besprinkled the floor with powdered borax, kept the electric light turned on and the fan whirring, and lay down wide-awake to wait for the dawn.
The ship was unusually noisy, but just about four o'clock came a new sound right outside her porthole—the rush alongside of the boat bearing the pilot and strange loud voices calling directions in an unknown tongue. She turned out her light (first peering fearfully under her berth to make sure no borax-braving cockroach was in ambush) and knelt on her bed to look out and watch the boat with its turbaned occupants: big brown men, who shouted to one another in a liquid language full of mystery.
For a brief space the little boat was towed alongside the great liner, then cast off, and presently—far away on the horizon—Jan saw a streak of pearly pinkish light, as though the soft blue curtain of the night had been lifted just a little; and against that luminous streak were hills.
In spite of her anxiety, in spite of her fears as to the future, Jan's heart beat fast with pleasurable excitement. She was young and strong and eager, and here at last was the real East. A little soft wind caressed her tired forehead and she drank in the blessed coolness of the early morning.
Both day and night come quickly in the East. Jan got up, had her bath, dressed, and by half-past six she was on deck. The dark-blue curtain was rolled up, and the scene set was the harbour of Bombay.
Such a gracious haven of strange multi-coloured craft, with its double coast-line of misty hills on one side, and clear-cut, high-piled buildings, domes and trees upon the other.
A gay white-and-gold launch, with its attendants in scarlet and white, came for certain passengers, who were guests of the Governor. The police launch, trim and business-like with its cheerful yellow-hatted sepoys, came for others. Jan watched these favoured persons depart in stately comfort, and went downstairs to get some breakfast. Then came the rush of departure by the tender. So many had friends to meet them, and all seemed full of pleasure in arrival. Jan was just beginning to feel rather forlorn and anxious when the Purser, fussed and over-driven as he always is at such times, came towards her, followed by a tall man wearing a pith helmet and an overcoat.
"Mr. Ledgard has come to meet you, Miss Ross, so you'll be all right."
It was amazing how easy everything became. Mr. Ledgard's servants collected Jan's cabin baggage and took it with them in the tender and, on arrival, in a tikka-gharri—the little pony-carriage which is the gondola of Bombay—and almost before she quite realised that the voyage was over she found herself seated beside Peter in a comfortable motor-car, with a cheerful little Hindu chauffeur at the steering-wheel, sliding through wide, well-watered streets, still comparatively empty because it was so early.
By mutual consent they turned to look at one another, and Jan noted that Peter Ledgard was thin and extremely yellow. That his eyes (hollow and tired-looking as are the eyes of so many officials in the East) were kind, and she thought she had never before beheld a firmer mouth or more masterful jaw.
What Peter saw evidently satisfied him as to her common sense, for he plunged in medias res at once: "How much do you know of this unfortunate affair?" he asked.
"Very little," she answered, "and that little extremely vague. Will you tell me has Hugo come to total grief or not?"
"Officially, yes. He is finished, done for—may thank his lucky stars he's not in gaol. It's well you should know this at the very beginning, for of course he won't allow it, and poor Fay—Mrs. Tancred (I'm afraid we're rather free-and-easy about Christian names in India)—doesn't know the whole facts by a very long way. From what she tells me, I fear he has made away with most of her money, too. Was any of it tied up?"
Jan shook her head. "We both got what money there was absolutely on my father's death."
"Then," said Peter, "I fear you've got the whole of them on your hands, Miss Ross."
"That's what I've come for," Jan said simply, "to take care of Fay and the children."
Peter Ledgard looked straight in front of him.
"It's a lot to put on you," he said slowly, "and I'm afraid you'll find it a bit more complicated than you expect. Will you remember that I'd like to help you all I can?"
Jan looked at the stern profile beside her and felt vaguely comforted. "I shall be most grateful for your advice," she said humbly. "I know I shall need it."
The motor stopped, and as she stepped from it in front of the tall block of buildings, Jan knew that the old easy, straightforward life was over. Unconsciously she stiffened her back and squared her shoulders, and looked very tall and straight as she stood beside Peter Ledgard in the entrance. The pretty colour he had admired when he met her had faded from her cheeks, and the face under the shady hat looked grave and older.
Peter said something to the smiling lift-man in an extremely dirty dhoti who stood salaaming in the entrance.
"I won't come up now," he said to Jan. "Please tell Mrs. Tancred I'll look in about tea-time."
As Jan entered the lift and vanished from his sight, Peter reflected, "So that's the much-talked-of Jan! Well, I'm not surprised Fay wanted her."
The lift stopped. An elderly white-clad butler stood salaaming at an open door, and Jan followed him.
A few steps through a rather narrow passage and she was in a large light room opening on to a verandah, and in the centre stood her sister Fay, with outstretched arms.
A pathetic, inarticulate, worn and faded Fay: her pretty freshness dimmed. A Fay with dark circles round her hollow eyes and all the living light gone from her abundant fair hair. It was as though her face was covered by an impalpable grey mask.
There was no doubt about it. Fay looked desperately ill. Ill in a way not to be accounted for by her condition.
Clinging together they sat down on an immense sofa, exchanging trivial question and answer as to the matters ordinary happy folk discuss when they first meet after a long absence. Jan asked for the children, who had not yet returned from their early morning walk with the ayah. Fay asked about the voyage and friends at home, and told Jan she had got dreadfully grey; then kissed her and leant against her just as she used to do when they were both children and she needed comfort.
Jan said nothing to Fay about her looks, and neither of them so much as mentioned Hugo Tancred. But Jan felt a wild desire to get away by herself and cry and cry over this sad wraith of the young sister whose serene and happy beauty had been the family pride.
And yet she was so essentially the same Fay, tender and loving and inconsequent, and full of pretty cares for Jan's comfort.
The dining-room was behind the sitting-room, with only a curtain between, and as they sat at breakfast Fay was so eager Jan should eat—she ate nothing herself—so anxious lest she should not like the Indian food, that poor Jan, with a lump in her throat that choked her at every morsel, forced down the carefully thought-out breakfast and meekly accepted everything presented by the grey-haired turbaned butler who bent over her paternally and offered every dish much as one would tempt a shy child with some amusing toy.
Presently Fay took her to see her room, large, bare and airy, with little furniture save the bed with its clean white mosquito curtains placed under the electric fan in the centre of the ceiling. Outside the window was a narrow balcony, and Jan went there at once to look out; and though her heart was so heavy she was fain to exclaim joyfully at the beauty of the view.
Right opposite, across Back Bay, lay the wooded villa-crowned slopes of Malabar Hill, flung like a garland on the bosom of a sea deeply blue and smiling, smooth as a lake, while below her lay the pageant of the street, with its ever-changing panorama of vivid life. The whole so brilliant, so various, so wholly unlike any beautiful place she had ever seen before that, artist's daughter she was, she cried eagerly to Fay, "Oh, come and look! Did you ever see anything so lovely? How Dad would have rejoiced in this!"
Fay followed slowly: "I thought you'd like it," she said, evidently pleased by Jan's enthusiasm, "that's why I gave you this room. Look, Jan! There are the children coming, those two over by the band-stand. They see us. Do wave to them."
The children were still a long way off. Jan could only see an ayah in her white draperies pushing a little go-cart with a child in it, and a small boy trotting by her side, but she waved as she was bidden.
The room had evidently at one time been used as a nursery, for inside the stone balustrade was a high trellis of wood. Jan and Fay were both tall women, but even on them the guarding trellis came right up to their shoulders. Neither of them could really lean over, though Fay tried, in her eagerness to attract the attention of the little group. Jan watched her sister's face and again felt that cruel constriction of the throat that holds back tears. Fay's tired eyes were so sad, so out of keeping with the cheerful movement of her hand, so shadowed by some knowledge she could not share.
"You mustn't stand here without a hat," she said, turning to go in. "The sun is getting hot. You must get a topee this afternoon. Peter will take you and help to choose it."
"Couldn't you come, if we took a little carriage? Does driving tire you when it's cool?" Jan asked as she followed her sister back into the room.
"I never go out," Fay said decidedly. "I never shall again ... I mean," she added, "till it's all over. I couldn't bear it just now—I might meet someone I know."
"But, Fay, it's very bad for you to be always indoors. Surely, in the early morning or the evening—you'll come out then?"
Fay shook her head. "Peter has taken me out in the motor once or twice at night—but I don't really like it. It makes me so dreadfully tired. Don't worry me about that, Jan. I get plenty of air in the verandah. It's just as pretty there as in your balcony, and we can have comfortable chairs. Let's go there now. You shall go out as much as you like. I'll send Lalkhan with you, or Ayah and the children; and Peter will take you about all he can—he promised he would. Don't think I want to be selfish and keep you here with me all the time."
The flat, weak voice, so nervous, so terrified lest her stronger sister should force her to some course of action she dreaded, went to Jan's heart.
"My dear," she said gently, "I haven't come here to rush about. I've come to be with you. We'll do exactly what you like best."
Fay clung to her again and whispered, "Later on you'll understand better—I'll be able to tell you things, and perhaps you'll understand ... though I'm not sure—you're not weak like me, you'd never go under ... you'd always fight...."
There was a pattering of small feet in the passage. Little high voices called for "Mummy," and the children came in.
Tony, a grave-eyed, pale-faced child of five, came forward instantly, with his hand held out far in front of him. Jan, who loved little children, knew in a minute that he was afraid she would kiss him; so she shook hands with gentlemanly stiffness. Little Fay, on the contrary, ran forward, held up her arms "to be taken" and her adorably pretty little face to be kissed. She was startlingly like her mother at the same age, with bobbing curls of feathery gold, beseeching blue eyes and a complexion delicately coloured as the pearly pink lining of certain shells. She was, moreover, chubby, sturdy and robust—quite unlike Tony, who looked nervous, bleached and delicate.
Tony went and leant against his mother, regarding Jan and his small sister with dubious, questioning eyes.
Presently he remarked, "I wish she hadn't come."
"Oh, Tony," Fay exclaimed reproachfully, "you must both love Auntie Jan very dearly. She has come such a long way to be good to us all."
"I wish she hadn't," Tony persisted.
"I sall love Auntie Dzan," Fay remarked, virtuously.
It was pleasant to be cuddled by this friendly baby, and Jan laid her cheek against the fluffy golden head; but all the time she was watching Tony. He reminded her of someone, and she couldn't think who. He maintained his aloof and unfriendly attitude till Ayah came to take the children to their second breakfast. Little Fay, however, refused to budge, and when the meekly salaaming ayah attempted to take her, made her strong little body stiff, and screamed vigorously, clinging so firmly to her aunt that Jan had herself to carry the obstreperous baby to the nursery, where she left her lying on the floor, still yelling with all the strength of her evidently healthy lungs.
When Jan returned, rather dishevelled—for her niece had seized a handful of her hair in the final struggle not to be put down—Fay said almost complacently, "You see, the dear little soul took a fancy to you at once. Tony is much more reserved and not nearly so friendly. He's very Scotch, is Tony."
"He does what he's told, anyway."
"Oh, not always," Fay said reassuringly, "only when he doesn't mind doing it. They've both got very strong wills."
"So have I," said Jan.
Fay sighed. "It was time you came to keep them in order. I can't."
This was evident, for Fay had not attempted to interfere with her daughter beyond saying, "I expect she's hungry, that's why she's so fretty, poor dear."
That afternoon Peter went to the flat and was shown as usual into the sitting-room.
Jan and the children were in the verandah, all with their backs to the room, and did not notice his entrance as Jan was singing nursery-rhymes. Fay sat on her knee, cuddled close as though there were no such thing as tempers in the world. Tony sat on a little chair at her side, not very near, but still near enough to manifest a more friendly spirit than in the morning. Peter waited in the background while the song went on.
I saw a ship a-sailing, a-sailing on the sea, And it was full of pretty things for Tony, Fay and me. There was sugar in the cabin and kisses in the hold——
"Whose kisses?" Tony asked suspiciously.
"Mummy's kisses, of course," said Jan.
"Why doesn't it say so, then?" Tony demanded.
"Mummy's kisses in the hold," Jan sang obediently—
The sails were made of silk and the masts were made of gold. Gold, gold, the masts were made of gold.
"What nelse?" Fay asked before Jan could start the second verse.
There were four-and-twenty sailors a-skipping on the deck, And they were little white mice with rings about their neck. The captain was a duck, with a jacket on his back, And when the ship began to sail, the captain cried, "Quack! Quack! Quack! Quack!" The captain cried, "Quack! Quack!"
"What nelse?" Fay asked again.
"There isn't any nelse, that's all."
"Adain," said Fay.
"Praps," Tony said thoughtfully, "there was some auntie's kisses in that hold ... just a few...."
"I'm sure there were," said a new voice, and Peter appeared on the verandah.
The children greeted him with effusion, and when he sat down Tony sat on his knee. He was never assailed by fears lest Peter should want to kiss him. Peter was not that sort.
"Sing nunner song," little Fay commanded.
"Not now," Jan said; "we've got a visitor and must talk to him."
"Sing nunner song," little Fay repeated firmly, just as though she had not heard.
"Not now; some other time," Jan said with equal firmness.
"Mack!" said the baby, and suited the action to the word by dealing her aunt a good hard smack on the arm.
"You mustn't do that," said Jan; "it's not kind."
"Mack, mack, mack," in crescendo with accompanying blows.
Jan caught the little hand, while Peter and Tony, interested spectators, said nothing. She held it firmly. "Listen, little Fay," she said, very gently. "If you do that again I shall take you to Ayah in the nursery. Just once again, and you go."
Jan loosed the little hand, and instantly it dealt her a resounding slap on the cheek.
It is of no avail to kick and scream and wriggle in the arms of a strong, decided young aunt. For the second time that day, a vociferously struggling baby was borne back to the nursery.
As the yells died away in the distance, Tony turned right round on Peter's knee and faced him: "She does what she says," he remarked in an awestruck whisper.
"And a jolly good thing too," answered Peter.
When Jan came back she brought her sister with her. Lalkhan brought tea, and Tony went with him quite meekly to the nursery. They heard him chattering to Lalkhan in Hindustani as they went along the passage.
Fay looked a thought less haggard than in the morning. She had slept after tiffin; the fact that her sister was actually in the bungalow had a calming effect upon her. She was quite cheerful and full of plans for Jan's amusement; plans in which, of course, she proposed to take no part herself. Jan listened in considerable dismay to arrangements which appeared to her to make enormous inroads into Peter Ledgard's leisure hours. He and his motor seemed to be quite at Fay's disposal, and Jan found the situation both bewildering and embarrassing.
"What a nuisance for him," she reflected, "to have a young woman thrust upon him in this fashion. It won't do to upset Fay, but I must tell him at the first opportunity that none of these projects hold good."
Directly tea was over Fay almost hustled them out to go and buy a topee for Jan, and suggested that, having accomplished this, they should look in at the Yacht Club for an hour, "because it was band-night," and Jan would like the Yacht Club lawn, with the sea and the boats and all the cheerful people.
As the car slid into the crowded traffic of the Esplanade Road, Peter pointed to a large building on the left, saying, "There's the Army and Navy Stores, quite close to you, you see. You can always get anything you want there. I'll give you my number ... not that it matters."
"I've belonged for years to the one at home," said Jan, "and I understand the same number will do."
She felt she really could not be beholden to this strange young man for everything, even a Stores number; and that she had better make the situation clear at once that she had come to take care of Fay and not to be an additional anxiety to him. At that moment she felt almost jealous of Peter. Fay seemed to turn to him for everything.
When they reached the shop where topees were to be got, she heard a familiar, booming voice. Had she been alone she would certainly have turned and fled, deferring her purchase till Sir Langham Sykes had concluded his, but she could hardly explain her rather complicated reasons to Peter, who told the Eurasian assistant to bring topees for her inspection.
Jan tried vainly to efface herself behind a tailor's dummy, but her back was reflected in the very mirror which also reproduced Sir Langham in the act of trying on a khaki-coloured topee. He saw her and at once hurried in her direction, exclaiming:
"Ah, Miss Ross, run to earth! You slipped off this morning without bidding me good-bye, and I've been wonderin' all day where we should meet. Now let me advise you about your topee. I'll choose it for you, then you can't go wrong. Get a large one, mind, or the back of your nice little neck will be burnt the colour of the toast they gave us on the Carnduff—shockin' toast, wasn't it? No, not that shape, idiot ... unless you're goin' to ride, are you? If so, you must have one of each—a large one, I said—what the devil's the use of that? You must wear it well on your head, mind; you can't show much of that pretty grey hair that puzzled us all so—eh, w'at?"
Jan had been white enough as she entered the shop, for she was beginning to feel quite amazingly tired; but now the face under the overshadowing topee was crimson and she was hopelessly confused and helpless in the overpowering of Sir Langham, who, when he could for a moment detach his mind from Jan, looked with considerable curiosity at Peter.
Peter stood there silent, aloof, detached; and he appeared quite cool. Jan felt the atmosphere to be almost insufferably close, and heaved a sigh of gratitude when he suddenly turned on an electric fan above her head.
"I think this will do," she said, in a faint voice to the assistant, though the crinkly green lining round the crown seemed searing her very brain.
Peter intervened, asking: "Is it comfortable? No ..." as she took it off. "I can see it isn't. It has marked your forehead already. Don't be in a hurry. They'll probably need to alter the lining. Some women have it taken out altogether. Pins keep it on all right."
Thus encouraged, she tried on others, and all the time Sir Langham held forth at the top of his voice, interrupting his announcement that he was dining at Government House that very night to swear at the assistant when he brought topees that did not fit, and giving his opinion of her appearance with the utmost frankness, till Jan found one that seemed rather less uncomfortable than the rest. Then in desperation she introduced Sir Langham to Peter.
"Your sister-in-law looks a bit tucked up," he remarked affably. "We'd better take her to the Yacht Club and give her a peg—she seems to feel the heat."
Jan cast one despairing, imploring glance at Peter, who rose to the occasion nobly.
"You're quite right," he said. "This place is infernally stuffy. Come on. They know where to send it. Good afternoon sir," and before she realised what had happened Peter seized her by the arm and swept her out of the shop and into the front seat of the car, stepped over her and himself took the steering-wheel.
While Sir Langham's voice bayed forth a mixture of expostulation and assignation at the Yacht Club later on.
"Now where shall we go?" asked Peter.
"Not the Yacht Club," Jan besought him. "He's coming there; he said so. Isn't he dreadful? Did you mind very much being taken for my brother-in-law? He has no idea who he really is, or I wouldn't have let it pass ... but I felt I could never explain ... I'm so sorry...."
Her face was white enough now.
"It would have been absurd to explain, and it's I who should apologise for the free-and-easy way I carried you off, but it was clearly a case for strong measures, or he'd have insisted on coming with us. What an awful little man! Did you have him all the voyage? No wonder you look tired.... I hope he didn't sit at your table...."
Once out of doors, the delicious breeze from the sea that springs up every evening in Bombay revived her. She forgot Sir Langham, for a few minutes she even forgot Fay and her anxieties in sheer pleasure in the prospect, as the car fell into its place in the crowded traffic of the Queen's Road.
Jan never forgot that drive. He ran her out to Chowpatty, where the road lies along the shore and the carriages of Mohammedan, Hindu and Parsee gentlemen stand in serried rows while their picturesque occupants "eat the air" in passive and contented Eastern fashion; then up to Ridge Road on Malabar Hill, where he stopped that she might get out and walk to the edge of the wooded cliff and look down at the sea and the great city lying bathed in that clear golden light only to be found at sunset in the East.
Peter enjoyed her evident appreciation of it all. She said very little, but she looked fresh and rested again, and he was conscious of a quite unusual pleasure in her mere presence as they stood together in the green garden, got and kept by such infinite pains and care, that borders the road running along the top of Malabar Hill.
Suddenly she turned. "We mustn't wait another minute," she said. "You, doubtless, want to go to the club. It has been very good of you to spend so much time with me. What makes it all so beautiful is that everywhere one sees the sea. I will tell Fay how much I have enjoyed it."
Peter's eyes met hers and held them: "Try to think of me as a friend, Miss Ross. I can see you are thoroughly capable and independent; but, believe me, India is not like England, and a white woman needs a good many things done for her here if she's to be at all comfortable. I don't want to butt in and be a nuisance; but just remember I'm there when the bell rings——"
"I am not likely to forget," said Jan.
Lights began to twinkle in the city below. The soft monotonous throb of tom-toms came beating through the ambient air like a pulse of teeming life; and when he left her at her sister's door the purple darkness of an Eastern night had curtained off the sea.
THE BEGINNING OF THE JOB
Fay was still lying on her long chair in the verandah when Jan got in. She had turned on the electric light above her head and had, seemingly, been working at some diminutive garment of nainsook and lace. She looked up at Jan's step, asking eagerly, "Well, did you like it? Did you see many people? Was the band good?"
Jan sat down beside her and explained that Peter had taken her for a drive instead. She made her laugh over her encounter with Sir Langham, and was enthusiastic about the view from Malabar Hill. Then Fay sent her to say good night to the children, who were just getting ready for bed.
As she went down the long passage towards the nursery, she heard small voices chattering in Hindustani, and as she opened the door little Fay was in the act of stepping out of all her clothes.
Tony was already clad in pink pyjamas, which made him look paler than ever.
Little Fay, naked as any shameless cherub on a Renaissance festoon, danced across the tiled floor, and, pausing directly in front of her aunt, announced:
"I sall mack Ayah as muts as I like."
The good-natured Goanese ayah salaamed and, beaming upon her charge, murmured entire acquiescence.
Jan looked down at the absurd round atom who defied her, and, trying hard not to laugh, said:
"Oh, no, you won't."
"I sall!" the baby declared even more emphatically, and, lifting up her adorable, obstinate little face to look at Jan, nodded her curly head vigorously.
"I think not," Jan remarked rather unsteadily, "because if you do, people won't like you. We can none of us go about smacking innocent folks just for the fun of it. Everybody would be shocked and horrified."
"Socked and hollified," echoed little Fay, delighted with the new words, "socked and hollified!... What nelse?"
"What usually follows is that the disagreeable little girl gets smacked herself."
"No," said Fay, but a thought doubtfully. "No," more firmly. Then with a smile that was subtly compounded of pathos and confidence, "Nobody would mack plitty little Fay ... 'cept ... plapse ... Auntie Dzan."
The stern aunt in question snatched up her niece to cover her with kisses. Ayah escaped chastisement that evening, for, arrayed in a white nighty, "plitty little Fay" sat good as gold on Jan's knee, absorbed in the interest of "This little pig went to market," told on her own toes. Even Tony, the aloof and unfriendly, consented to unbend to the extent of being interested in the dialogue of "John Smith and Minnie Bowl, can you shoe a little foal?" and actually thrust out his own bare feet that Jan might make them take part in the drama of the "twa wee doggies who went to the market," and came back "louper-scamper, louper-scamper."
At the end of every song or legend came the inevitable "What nelse?" from little Fay—and Jan only escaped after the most solemn promises had been exacted for a triple bill on the morrow.
When she had changed and went back to the sitting-room, dinner was ready. Lalkhan again bent over her with fatherly solicitude as he offered each course, and this time Jan, being really hungry, rather enjoyed his ministrations. A boy assisted at the sideboard, and another minion appeared to bring the dishes from the kitchen, for the butler and the boy never left the room for an instant.
Fay looked like a tired ghost, and Jan could see that it was a great effort to her to talk cheerfully and seem interested in the home news.
After dinner they went back to the sitting-room. Lalkhan brought coffee and Fay lit a cigarette. Jan wandered round, looking at the photographs and engravings on the walls.
"How is it," she asked, "that Mr. Ledgard seems to come in so many of these groups? Did you rent the flat from a friend of his?"
"I didn't 'rent' the flat from anybody," Fay answered. "It's Peter's own flat. He lent it to us."
Jan turned and stared at her sister. "Mr. Ledgard's flat!" she repeated. "And what is he doing?"
"He's living at the club just now. He turned out when we came. Don't look at me like that, Jan.... There was nothing else to be done."
Jan came back and sat on the edge of the big sofa. "But I understood Hugo's letter to say...."
"Whatever Hugo said in his letter was probably lies. If Peter hadn't lent us his flat, I should have had nowhere to lay my head. Who do you suppose would let us a flat here, after all that has happened, unless we paid in advance, and how could we do that without any ready money? Why, a flat like this unfurnished costs over three hundred rupees a month. I don't know what a furnished flat would be."
"But—isn't it ... taking a great deal from Mr. Ledgard?" Jan asked timidly.
Fay stretched out her hand and suddenly switched off the lights, so that they were left together on the big sofa in the soft darkness.
"Give me your hand, Jan. I shall be less afraid of you when I just feel you and can't see you."
"Why should you be afraid of me?... Dear, dear Fay, you must remember how little I really know. How can I understand?"
Fay leant against her sister and held her close. "Sometimes I feel as if I couldn't understand it all myself. But you mustn't worry about Peter's flat. We'll all go home the minute I can be moved. He doesn't mind, really ... and there was nothing else to be done."
"Does Hugo know you are here?"
Fay laughed, a sad, bitter little laugh. "It was Hugo who asked Peter to lend his flat."
"Then what about his servants? What has he done with them while you are here?"
"These are his servants."
"But Hugo said...."
"Jan, dear, it is no use quoting Hugo to me. I can tell you the sort of thing he would say.... Did he mention Peter at all?"
"Certainly not. He said you were 'installed in a most comfortable flat' and had brought your own servants."
"I brought Ayah—naturally, Peter hadn't an ayah. But why do you object to his servants? They're very good."
"But don't they think it ... a little odd?"
"Oh, you can't bother about what servants think in India. They think us all mad anyway."
There was silence for a few minutes while Jan realised the fact that, dislike it as she might, she seemed fated to be laid under considerable obligation to Mr. Peter Ledgard.
"Where is Hugo?" she asked at last.
"My dear, you appear to have heard from Hugo since I have. As to his whereabouts I haven't the remotest idea."
"Do you mean to say, Fay, that he hasn't let you know where he is?"
"He didn't come with us to the flat because he was afraid he'd be seized for debts and things. We've only been here a fortnight. He's probably on board ship somewhere—there hasn't been much time for him to let me know...."
Fay spoke plaintively, as though Jan were rather hard on Hugo in expecting him to give his wife any account of his movements.
Jan was glad it was dark. She felt bewildered and oppressed and very, very angry with her brother-in-law, who seemed to have left his entire household in the care of Peter Ledgard. Was Peter paying for their very food, she wondered? She'd put a stop to that, anyhow.
"Jan"—she felt Fay lean a little closer—"don't be down on me. You've no idea how hard it has all been. You're such a daylight person yourself."
"Hard on you, my precious! I could never feel the least little bit hard. Only it's all so puzzling. And what do you mean by a 'daylight person'?"
"You know, Jan, for three months now I've been a lot alone, and I've done a deal of thinking—more than ever in all my life before; and it seems to me that the world is divided into three kinds of people—the daylight people, and the twilight people and the night people."
Fay paused. Jan stroked her hot, thin hand, but did not speak, and the tired, whispering voice went on: "We were daylight people—Daddie was very daylight. There were never any mysteries; we all of us knew always where each of us was, and there were no secrets and no queer people coming for interviews, and it wouldn't have mattered very much if anyone had opened one of our letters. Oh, it's such an easy life in the daylight country...."
"And in the twilight country?" asked Jan.
"Ah, there it's very different. Everything is mysterious. You never know where anyone has gone, and if he's away queer people—quite horrid people—come and ask for him and won't go away, and sit in the verandah and cheek the butler and the boy and insist on seeing the 'memsahib,' and when she screws up her courage and goes to them, they ask for money, and show dirty bits of paper and threaten, and it's all awful—till somebody like Peter comes and kicks them out, and then they simply fly."
In spite of her irritation at being beholden to him, Jan began to feel grateful to Peter.
"Sometimes," Fay continued, "I think it would be easier to be a night person. They've no appearances to keep up. You see, what makes it so difficult for the twilight people is that they want to live in the daylight, and it's too strong for them. All the night people whom they know—and if you're twilight you know lots of 'em—come and drag them back. They don't care. They rather like to go right in among the daylight folk and scare and shock them, and make them uncomfortable. You can't suffer in the same way when you've gone under altogether."
"But, Fay dear," Jan interposed, "you talk as though the twilight people couldn't help it...."
"They can't—they truly can't."
"But surely there's right and wrong, straightness and crookedness, and no one need be crooked."
"People like you needn't—but everybody isn't strong like that. Hugo says every man has his price, and every woman too—Peter says so, too."
"Then Peter ought to be ashamed of himself. Do you suppose he has his price?"
"No, not in that way. He'd think it silly to be pettifogging and dishonest about money, or to go in for mad speculations run by shady companies; but he wouldn't think it extraordinary like you."
"I'm afraid my education has been neglected. A great many things seem extraordinary to me."
"You think it funny I should be living in Peter's flat, waited on by Peter's servants—but what else could I do?"
Jan smiled in the darkness. She saw where her niece had got "what nelse?"
"Isn't it just a little—unusual?" she asked gently. "Is there no money at all, Fay? What has become of all your own?"
"It's not all gone," Fay said eagerly. "I think there's nearly two thousand pounds left, but Peter made me write home—that was at Dariawarpur, before he came down here—and say no more was to be sent out, not even if I wrote myself to ask for it—and he wrote to Mr. Davidson too——"
"I know somebody wrote. Mr. Davidson was very worried ... but what can Hugo have done with eight thousand pounds in two years? Besides his pay...."
"Eight thousand pounds doesn't go far when you've dealings with money-lenders and mines in Peru—but I don't understand it—don't ask me. I believe he left me a little money—I don't know how much—at a bank in Elphinstone Circle—but I haven't liked to write and find out, lest it should be very little ... or none...."
"Mercy!" exclaimed Jan. "It surely would be better to know for certain."
"When you've lived in the twilight country as long as I have you'll not want to know anything for certain. It's only when things are wrapped up in a merciful haze of obscurity that life is tolerable at all. Do you suppose I wanted to find out that my husband was a rascal? I shut my eyes to it as long as I could, and then Truth came with all her cruel tools and pried them open. Oh, Jan, it did hurt so!"
If Fay had cried, if her voice had even broken or she had seemed deeply moved, it would have been more bearable. It was the poor thing's calm—almost indifference—that frightened Jan. For it proved that her perceptions were numbed.
Fay had been tortured till she could feel nothing acutely any more. Jan had the feeling that in some dreadful, inscrutable way her sister was shut away from her in some prison-house of the mind.
And who shall break through those strange, intangible, impenetrable walls of unshared experience?
Jan swallowed her tears and said cheerfully: "Well, it's all going to be different now. You needn't worry about anything any more. If Hugo has left no money we'll manage without. Mr. Davidson will let me have what I want ... but we must be careful, because of the children."
"And you'll try not to mind living in Peter's flat?" Fay said, rubbing her head against Jan's shoulder. "It's India, you know, and men are very kind out here—much friendlier than they are at home."
"So it seems."
"You needn't think there's anything wrong, Jan. Peter isn't in love with me now."
"Was he ever in love with you?"
"Oh, yes, a bit, once; when he first came to Dariawarpur ... lots of them were then. I really was very pretty, and I had quite a little court ... but when the bad times came and people began to look shy at Hugo—everybody was nice to me always—then Peter seemed different. There was no more philandering, he was just ... Oh, Jan, he was just such a daylight person, and might have been Daddie. I should have died without him."
"Fay, tell me—I'll never ask again—was Hugo unkind to you?"
"No, Jan, truly not unkind. He shut me away from the greater part of his life ... and there were other people ... not ladies"—Fay felt the shoulder she leant against stiffen—"but I didn't know that for quite a long time ... and he wasn't ever surly or cross or grudging. He always wanted me to have everything very nice, and I really believe he always hoped the mines and things would make lots of money.... You know, Jan, I'd rather believe in people. I daresay you think I'm weak and stupid ... but I can never understand wives who set detectives on their husbands."
"It isn't done by the best people," Jan said with a laugh that was half a sob. "Let's hope it isn't often necessary...."
Fay drew a little closer: "Oh, you are dear not to be stern and scolding...."
"It's not you I feel like scolding."
"If you scolded him, he'd agree with every word, so that you simply couldn't go on ... and then he'd go away and do just the same things over again, and fondly hope you'd never hear of it. But he was kind in lots of ways. He didn't drink——"
"I don't see anything so very creditable in that," Jan interrupted.
"Well, it's one of the things he didn't do—and we had the nicest bungalow in the station and by far the best motor—a much smarter motor than the Resident. And it was only when I discovered that Hugo had made out I was an heiress that I began to feel uncomfortable."
"Was he good to the children?"
"He hardly saw them. Children don't interest him much. He liked little Fay because she's so pretty, but I don't think he cared a great deal for Tony. Tony is queer and judging. Don't take a dislike to Tony, Jan; he needs a long time, but once you've got him he stays for ever—will you remember that?"
Again, Jan felt that cold hand laid on her heart, the hand of chill foreboding. She had noticed many times already that when Fay was off her guard she always talked as though, for her, everything were ended, and she was only waiting for something. There seemed no permanence in her relations with them all.
A shadowy white figure lifted the curtain between the two rooms and stood salaaming.
Jan started violently. She was not yet accustomed to the soundless naked feet of the servants whose presence might be betrayed by a rustle, never by a step.
It was Ayah waiting to know if Fay would like to go to bed.
"Shall I go, Jan? Are you tired?"
Jan was, desperately tired, for she had had no sleep the night before, but Fay's voice had in it a little tremor of fear that showed she dreaded the night.
"Send her to bed, poor thing. I'll look after you, brush your hair and tuck you up and all.... Fay, oughtn't you to have somebody in your room? Couldn't my cot be put in there, just to sleep?"
"Oh, Jan, would you? Don't you mind?"
"Shall I help her to move it?" Jan said, getting up.
Fay pulled her down again. "You funny Jan, you can't do that sort of thing here. The servants will do it."
She sat up, gave a rapid, eager order to Ayah, and in a few minutes Jan heard her bed being wheeled down the passage. Every room had wide double doors—like French rooms—and there was no difficulty.
Fay sank down again among her cushions with a great sigh of relief: "I don't mind now how soon I go to bed. I shan't be frightened in the long dark night any more. Oh, Jan, you are a dear daylight person!"
Jan made headway with Tony and little Fay. An aunt who carried one pick-a-back; who trotted, galloped, or curvetted to command as an animated steed; who provided spades and buckets, and herself, getting up very early, took them and the children to an adorable sandy beach, deserted save for two or three solitary horsemen; an aunt who dug holes and built castles and was indirectly the means of thrilling rides upon a real horse, when Peter was encountered as one of the mounted few taking exercise before breakfast; such an aunt could not be regarded otherwise than as an acquisition, even though she did at times exert authority and insist upon obedience.
She got it, too; especially from little Fay, who, hitherto, had obeyed nobody. Tony, less wilful and not so prone to be destructive, was secretly still unwon, though outwardly quite friendly. He waited and watched and weighed Jan in the balance of his small judgment. Tony was never in any hurry to make up his mind.
One great hold Jan had was a seemingly inexhaustible supply of rhymes, songs, and stories, and she was, moreover, of a telling disposition.
Both children had a quite unusual passion for new words. Little Fay would stop short in the midst of the angriest yells if anyone called her conduct in question by some new term of opprobrium. Ayah's vocabulary was limited, even in the vernacular, and nothing would have induced her to return railing for railing to the children, however sorely they abused her. But Jan occasionally freed her mind, and at such times her speech was terse and incisive. Moreover, she quickly perceived her power over her niece in this respect, and traded on the baby's quick ear and interest.
One day there was a tremendous uproar in the nursery just after tiffin, when poor Fay usually tried to get the sleep that would partially atone for her restless night. Jan swept down the passage and into the room, to find her niece netted in her cot, and bouncing up and down like a newly-landed trout, while Ayah wrestled with a struggling Tony, who tried to drown his sister's screams with angry cries of "Let me get at her to box her," and, failing that, vigorously boxing Ayah.
Jan closed the door behind her and stood where she was, saying in the quiet, compelling voice they had both already learned to respect: "It's time for Mummy's sleep, and how can Mummy sleep in such a pandemonium?"
Little Fay paused in the very middle of a yell and her face twinkled through the restraining net.
"Pandemolium," she echoed, joyously rolling it over on her tongue with obvious gusto.
"She kickened and fit with me," Tony cried angrily. "I must box her."
"Pandemolium?" little Fay repeated inquiringly. "What nelse?"
"Yes," said Jan, trying hard not to laugh; "that's exactly what it was ... disgraceful."
"What nelse?" little Fay persisted. She had heard disgraceful before. It lacked novelty.
"All sorts of horrid things," said Jan. "Selfish and odious and ill-bred——"
"White bled, blown bled, ill-bled," the person under the net chanted. "What nother bled?"
"There's well-bred," said Jan severely, "and that's what neither you nor Tony are at the present moment."
"There's toas' too," said the voice from under the net, ignoring the personal application. "Sall we have some?"
"Certainly not," Jan answered with great sternness. "People who riot and brawl——"
"Don't like zose words," the netted one interrupted distastefully (R's always stumped her), "naughty words."
"Not so naughty as the people who do it. Has Ayah had her dinner? No? Then poor Ayah must go and have it, and I shall stay here and tell a very soft, whispery story to people who are quiet and good, who lie in their cots and don't quarrel——"
"Or blawl" came from the net in a small determined voice. She could not let the new word pass after all.
"Exactly ... or brawl," Jan repeated in tones nothing like so firm.
"She kickened and fit me, she did," Tony mumbled moodily as he climbed into his cot: "Can't I box her nor nothing?"
"Not now," Jan said, soothingly. Ayah salaamed and hurried away. She, at all events, had cause to bless Jan, for now she got her meals with fair regularity and in peace.
In a few minutes the room was as quiet as an empty church, save for a low voice that related an interminable story about "Cockie-Lockie and Henny-Penny going to tell the King the lift's fallen," till one, at all events, of the "blawlers" was sound asleep.
The voice ceased and Tony's head appeared over the rail of his cot.
"Hush!" Jan whispered. "Sister's asleep. Just wait a few minutes till Ayah comes, then I'll take you away with me."
Faithful Ayah didn't dawdle over her food. She returned, sat down on the floor beside little Fay's cot and started her endless mending.
Jan carried Tony away with her along the passage and into the drawing-room. The verandah was too hot in the early afternoon.
"Now what shall we do?" she asked, with a sigh, as she sat down on the big sofa. "I'd like to sleep, but I suppose you won't let me."
Tony got off her knee and looked at her gravely.
"You can," he said, magnanimously, "because you brought me. I hate bed. I'll build a temple with my bricks and I won't knock it down. Not loud."
And like his aunt he did what he said.
Jan put her feet up and lay very still. For a week now she had risen early every morning to take the children out in the freshest part of the day. She seldom got any rest in the afternoon, as she saw to it that they should be quiet to let Fay sleep, and she went late to bed because the cool nights in the verandah were the pleasant time for Fay.
Tony murmured to himself, but he made little noise with his stone bricks. And presently Jan was sleeping almost as soundly as her obstreperous niece.
Tony did not repeat new words aloud as did his sister. He turned them over in his mind and treasured some simply because he liked the sound of them.
There were two that he had carried in his memory for nearly half his life; two that had for him a mysterious fascination, a vaguely agreeable significance that he couldn't at all explain. One was "Piccadilly" and the other "Coln St. Aldwyn's." He didn't even know that they were the names of places at first, but he thought they had a most beautiful sound. Gradually the fact that they were places filtered into his mind, and for Tony Piccadilly seemed particularly rural. He connected it in some way with the duck-slaying Mrs. Bond of the Baby's Opera, a book he and Mummy used to sing from before she grew too tired and sad to sing. Before she lay so many hours in her long chair, before the big man he called Daddie became so furtive and disturbing. Then Mummy used to tell him things about a place called Home, and though she never actually mentioned Piccadilly he had heard the word very often in a song that somebody sang in the drawing-room at Dariawarpur.
Theatricals had been towards and Mummy was acting, and people came to practise their songs with her, for not only did she sing herself delightfully, but she played accompaniments well for other people. The play was a singing play, and the Assistant Superintendent of Police, a small, fair young man with next to no voice and a very clear enunciation, continually practised a song that described someone as walking "down Piccadilly with a tulip or a lily in his mediaeval hand."
Tony rather liked "mediaeval" too, but not so much as Piccadilly. A flowery way, he was sure, with real grass in it like the Resident's garden. Besides, the "dilly" suggested "daffy-down dilly come up to town in a yellow petticoat and a green gown."
But not even Piccadilly could compete with Coln St. Aldwyn's in Tony's affections. There was something about that suggestive of exquisite peace and loveliness, no mosquitoes and many friendly beasts. He had only heard the word once by chance in connection with the mysterious place called Home, in some casual conversation when no one thought he was listening. He seized upon it instantly and it became a priceless possession, comforting in times of stress, soothing at all times, a sort of refuge from a real world that had lately been very puzzling for a little boy.
He was certain that at Coln St. Aldwyn's there was a mighty forest peopled by all the nicest animals. Dogs that were ever ready to extend a welcoming paw, elephants and mild clumsy buffaloes that gave good milk to the thirsty. Little grey squirrels frolicked in the branches of the trees, and the tiny birds Mummy told him about that lived in the yew hedge at Wren's End. Tony had himself been to Wren's End he was told, but he was only one at the time, and beyond a feeling that he liked the name and that it was a very green place his ideas about it were hazy.
Sometimes he wished it had been called "Wren St. Endwyn's," but after mature reflection he decided it was but a poor imitation of the real thing, so he kept the two names separate in his mind.
He had added two more names to his collection since he came to Bombay. "Mahaluxmi," the road running beside the sea, where Peter sometimes took them and Auntie Jan for a drive after tea when it was high tide; and "Taraporevala," who owned a famous book-shop in Medow Street where he had once been in a tikka-gharri with Auntie Jan to get some books for Mummy. Peter had recommended the shop, and the name instantly seized upon Tony's imagination and will remain with it evermore. He never for one moment connected it with the urbane gentleman in eyeglasses and a funny little round hat who owned the shop. For Tony "Taraporevala" will always suggest endless vistas of halls, fitted with books, shelves, and tall stacks of books, and counters laden with piles of books. It seemed amazing to find anything so vast in such a narrow street. There was something magic about it, like the name. Tony was sure that some day when he should explore the forest of Coln St. Aldwyn he would come upon a little solid door in a great rock. A little solid door studded with heavy nails and leading to a magic cave full of unimaginable treasure. This door should only open to the incantation of "Taraporevala." None of your "abracadabras" for him.
And just as Mummy had talked much of "Wren's End" in happier days, so now Auntie Jan told them endless stories about it and what they would all do there when they went home. Some day, when he knew her better, he would ask her about Coln St. Aldwyn's. He felt he didn't know her intimately enough to do so yet, but he was gradually beginning to have some faith in her. She was a well-instructed person, too, on the whole, and she answered a straight question in a straight way.
It was one of the things Tony could never condone in the big man called Daddie, that he could never answer the simplest question. He always asked another in return, and there was derision of some sort concealed in this circuitous answer. Doubtless he meant to be pleasant and amusing—Tony was just enough to admit that—but he was, so Tony felt, profoundly mistaken in the means he sought. He took liberties, too; punching liberties that knocked the breath out of a small boy's body without actually hurting much; and he never, never talked sense. Tony resented this. Like the Preacher, he felt there was a time to jest and a time to refrain from jesting, and it didn't amuse him a bit to be punched and rumpled and told he was a surly little devil if he attempted to punch back. In some vague way Tony felt that it wasn't playing the game—if it was a game. Often, too, for the past year and more, he connected the frequent disappearances of the big man with trouble for Mummy. Tony understood Hindustani as well as and better than English. His extensive vocabulary in the former would have astonished his mother's friends had they been able to translate, and he understood a good deal of the servants' talk. He felt no real affection for the big, tiresome man, though he admired him, his size, his good looks, and a way he had with grown-up people; but he decided quite dispassionately, on evidence and without any rancour, that the big man was a "budmash," for he, unlike Auntie Jan, never did anything he said he'd do. And when, before they left Dariawarpur, the big man entirely disappeared, Tony felt no sorrow, only some surprise that having said he was going he actually had gone. Auntie Jan never mentioned him, Mummy had reminded them both always to include him when they said their prayers, but latterly Mummy had been too tired to come to hear prayers. Auntie Jan came instead, and Tony, watching her face out of half-shut eyes, tried leaving out "bless Daddie" to see if anything happened. Sure enough something did; Auntie Jan looked startled. "Say 'Bless Daddie,' Tony, 'and please help him.'"
"To do what?" Tony asked. "Not to come back here?"
"I don't think he'll come back here just now," Auntie Jan said in a frightened sort of whisper, "but he needs help badly."
Tony folded his hands devoutly and said, "Bless Daddie and please help him—to stay away just now."
And low down under her breath Jan said, "Amen."
THE SHADOW BEFORE
Jan had been a week in Bombay, and her grave anxiety about Fay was in no way lessened. Rather did it increase and intensify, for not only did her bodily strength seem to ebb from her almost visibly day by day, but her mind seemed so detached and aloof from both present and future.
It was only when Jan talked about the past, about their happy girlhood and their lovable comrade-father, that Fay seemed to take hold and understand. All that had happened before his death seemed real and vital to her. But when Jan tried to interest her in plans for the future, the voyage home, the children, the baby that was due so soon, Fay looked at her with tired, lack-lustre eyes and seemed at once to become absent-minded and irrelevant.
She was ready enough to discuss the characters of the children, to impress upon Jan the fact that Tony was not unloving, only cautious and slow before he really gave his affection. That little Fay was exactly what she appeared on the surface—affectionate, quick, wilful, and already conscious of her own power through her charm.
"I defy anybody to quarrel with Fay when she is willing to make it up," her mother said. "Tony melts like wax before the warmth of her advances. She may have behaved atrociously to him five minutes before—Ayah lets her, and I am far too weak with her—but if she wants to be friends Tony forgets and condones everything. Was I very naughty to you, Jan, as a baby?"
"Not that I can remember. I think you were very biddable and good."
Jan laughed—"There you have me. I believe I was most naughty and obstreperous, and have vivid recollections of being sent to bed for various offences. You see, Mother was far too strong and wise to spoil me as little Fay is spoilt. Father tried his best, but you remember Hannah? Could you imagine Hannah submitting for one moment to the sort of treatment that baby metes out to poor, patient Ayah every single day?"
"By the way, how is Hannah?"
"Hannah is in her hardy usual. She is going strong, and has developed all sorts of latent talent as a cook. She was with me in the furnished flat I rented till the day I left (I only took it by the month), and she'll be with us again when we all get back to Wren's End."
"But I thought Wren's End was let?"
"Only till March quarter-day, and I've cabled to the agent not to entertain any other offer, as we want it ourselves."
"I like to think of the children at Wren's End," Fay said dreamily.
"Don't you like to think of yourself there, too? Would you like any other place better?"
Jan's voice sounded constrained and a little hard. People sometimes speak crossly when they are frightened, and just then Jan felt the cold, skinny hands of some unnameable terror clutching her heart. Why did Fay always exclude herself from all plans?
They were, as usual, sitting in the verandah after dinner, and Fay's eyes were fixed on the deeply blue expanse of sky. She hardly seemed to hear Jan, for she continued: "Do you remember the sketch Daddie did of me against the yew hedge? I'd like Tony to have that some day if you'd let him."
"Of course that picture is yours," Jan said, hastily. "We never divided the pictures when he died. Some were sold and we shared the money, but our pictures are at Wren's End."
"I remember that money," Fay interrupted. "Hugo was so pleased about it, and gave me a diamond chain."
"Fay, where do you keep your jewellery?"
"There isn't any to keep now. He 'realised' it all long before we left Dariawarpur."
"What do you mean, Fay? Has Hugo pawned it? All Mother's things, too?"
"I don't know what he did with it," Fay said, wearily. "He told me it wasn't safe in Dariawarpur, as there were so many robbers about that hot weather, and he took all the things in their cases to send to the bank. And I never saw them again."
Jan said nothing, but she reflected rather ruefully that when Fay married she had let her have nearly all their mother's ornaments, partly because Fay loved jewels as jewels, and Jan cared little for them except as associations. "If I'd kept more," Jan thought, "they'd have come in for little Fay. Now there's nothing except what Daddie gave me."
"Are you sorry, Jan?" Fay asked, presently. "I suppose there again you think I ought to have stood out, to have made inquiries and insisted on getting a receipt from the bank. But I knew very well they were not going to the bank. I don't think they fetched much, but Hugo looked a little less harassed after he'd got them. I've nothing left now but my wedding ring and the little enamel chain like yours, that Daddie gave us the year he had that portrait of Meg in the Salon and took us over to see it. Where is Meg? Has she come back yet?"
"Meg is still in Bremen with an odious German family, but she leaves at the end of the Christmas holidays, as the girl is going to school, and Meg will be utilised to bring her over. Then she's to have a rest for a month or two, and I daresay she'd come to Wren's End and help us with the babies when we get back."
Fay leant forward and said eagerly, "Try to get her, Jan. I'd love to think she was there to help you."
"To help us," Jan repeated firmly.
Fay sighed. "I can never think of myself as of much use any more; besides ... Oh, Jan, won't you face it? You who are so brave about facing things ... I don't believe I shall come through—this time."
Jan got up and walked restlessly about the verandah. She tried to make herself say, heard her own voice saying without any conviction, that it was nonsense; that Fay was run down and depressed and no wonder; and that she would feel quite different in a month or two. And all the time, though her voice said these preposterously banal things, her brain repeated the doctor's words after his last visit: "I wish there was a little more stamina, Miss Ross. I don't like this complete inertia. It's not natural. Can't you rouse her at all?"
"My sister has had a very trying time, you know. She seems thoroughly worn out."
"I know, I know," the doctor had said. "A bad business and cruelly hard on her; but I wish we could get her strength up a bit somehow. I don't like it—this lack of interest in everything—I don't like it." And the doctor's thin, clever face looked lined and worried as he left.
His words rang in Jan's ears, drowning her own spoken words that seemed such a hollow sham.
She went and knelt by Fay's long chair. Fay touched her cheek very gently (little Fay had the same adorable tender gestures). "It would make it easier for both of us if you'd face it, my dear," she said. "I could talk much more sensibly then and make plans, and perhaps really be of some use. But I feel a wretched hypocrite to talk of sharing in things when I know perfectly well I shan't be there."
"Don't you want to be there?" Jan asked, hoarsely.
Fay shook her head. "I know it's mean to shuffle out of it all, but I am so tired. Do you think it very horrid of me, Jan?"