LEONIE OF THE JUNGLE
Author of "Desert Love"
THE MACAULAY COMPANY
Copyright, 1921, by
THE MACAULAY COMPANY
PRINTED IN THE U. S. A.
THE SPLENDID NATIVE OF INDIA,
[Transcriber's Note: The name "Madhu" appears throughout this book. The "u" in it can be correctly rendered only in Unicode, as u-macron—uppercase U+016A, lowercase U+016B.]
"And never the twain shall meet."
LEONIE OF THE JUNGLE
"To deliver thee from the strange woman!"—The Bible.
"Who found the kitten?"
"Me," quavered the childish voice.
Lady Susan Hetth tchcked with her tongue against her rather prominent teeth at the lamentable lapse in grammar, and looked crossly at Leonie, who immediately lifted up the quavering voice and wept.
Sobs too big for such a little girl shook the slender body, whilst great tears dripped from the long lashes to the tip of the upturned nose, down the chin and on the knee of the famous specialist, against which she rested.
"Stand up, Leonie, and push your hair out of your eyes!"
The thin little body tautened like an overstrung violin string, and a shock of russet hair was pushed hastily back from a pair of indefinable eyes, in which shone the light of an intense grief strange in one so young.
"Leave her to me, Lady Hetth!"
The surgeon's voice was exceedingly suave but with the substratum of steel which had served to bend other wills to his with an even greater facility than the thumb of the potter moulds clay to his fancy.
"Leonie is going to tell me everything, and then she is going to the shop to buy a big doll and forget all about it!"
"Please may I have a book instead of——"
"Leonie, that is very rude."
"Please, Lady Hetth. Go on, darling—-what kind of book."
"'Bout tigers an' snakes, oh! an' elephants. Weal animals. Dolls, you know"—she smiled as she confided the great secret—"aren't weal babies, they're just full of sawdust."
He lifted the child on to his knee, frowning at the weight, and smoothed the tangled mass of curls away from the low forehead with a touch which caused her to make a sound 'twixt sob and sigh, and to lie back against the broad shoulder.
It was a long and disjointed story, told in the inconsequent fashion of a child of seven unused to converse with her elders; and continually interrupted by the aunt, who, fretful and dying for her tea, jingled her distracting bracelets and chains, fidgeted with the Anglo-Indian odds-and-ends of her raiment, and disconcerted the child by the futile verbal proddings; which are as bad for the infant mind as the criminal attempts to force a baby to use its legs are to the infant body.
"So! and you found the dear little kitten lying quite still in the nursery this morning?"
"Do pronounce your r's, Leonie."
The child shivered in the man's arms.
"Who told you it was strangled?"
The man's hand closed for a moment on a heavy paper-weight as he looked across the room at the woman who was waggling her foot and knitting her scanty brows at the sound of the rending sobs.
"Auntie was mistaken, darling. Kitty was asleep, tired out with playing or running away from the dog next door."
Leonie shook her head. "Kitty's dead," she wailed, "lying all black and quiet, like—like my dweams!"
There was a moment's pregnant silence, during which Leonie turned round and snuffled into the great man's collar, and he frowned above the russet head as he drew a block of paper and pencil towards him.
"What dreams, darling?"
"Don' know—dweams I dweam!"
The specialist sat still for a second and then laughed, the great kind laugh of a man with a big heart who adores children.
"Let's play a game, Leonie! You tell me about the dreams, and I'll tell you about my new motor-car, and the one who tells best will get a big sweet!"
With a child's sudden change of mood Leonie sat up, swinging her black silk legs to and fro, her eyes dancing, her lips parted over the even little teeth.
"I love sweets!" said she. "You begin!"
"My car's grey!" said Sir Jonathan Cuxson. "What colour are your dreams?"
"Black!" was the unexpectedly decisive reply. "Black with lots of wed—wet wed—and gween eyes—lots and lots of eyes—and—and soft things I can't see, and—noises like kit—kit—kitty makes when she purrs!"
"Yes! and people with soft feet like the—the slippers Nannie wears at night so that I can't hear them. And—and that's all!"
She laughed like the child she ought to have been as she bit the end off a big pink fondant which had materialised out of one of a dozen little drawers in the desk, then holding up the other end to the man laughed again spontaneously and delightfully as he pushed the sweet into her mouth.
Then he put her on her feet, tilted the little white face back till the strong light shone into the opalescent, gold-flecked eyes, kissed the curly head and told her to run round the room, open the cabinet doors and look at the hidden treasures.
"May I touch them?"
"Of course, sweetheart!"
"I'm vewy sowwy you didn't win," she said in her old-fashioned way, "because you are vewy, vewy nice. And"—she continued, suddenly harking hack as a child will to a previous remark—"and it is all vewy, vewy black, with a teeny, weeny light like the night-light Nannie lights, and——!"
She stopped dead and buried her head in the middle of Sir Jonathan's waistcoat, fumbling his coat sleeves with her nervous little hands.
"Yes, darling!" said the man, without a trace of expression in his voice as he held up a finger warningly to the woman who had rustled in her chair.
"And—and sometimes there's a black woman. And I'm—I'm fwightened of her 'cause she calls me, and—and—pulls me out of bed by my head."
"How do you mean, darling? Does she catch hold of your hair? It must hurt you dreadfully!"
Leonie suddenly stood up, nervously pulling at the man's top waistcoat button as she furtively glanced first over one shoulder and then over the other.
"No! she doesn't touch me," she faltered, "and I—I don't always see her. But—but"—she laid her open palm against her forehead in a curious little gesture suggestive of the East—"but she pulls me through my forehead, and when she pulls I've—I've got to go! May I hold that elephant?"
The brain specialist looked straight into the strange eyes which smiled confidingly back into his.
"Just a moment, sweetheart," said he. "What do your little friends, and Nannie, and Auntie say when you tell them about the dreams?"
Leonie leant listlessly against the arm of the chair, and sighed as she flashed a lightning glance at her aunt who was turning over a periodical on a table by her side.
"I don't tell Nannie because I think she wouldn't weally understand, and—and——"
"Auntie," she spoke in the merest whisper, "got awful cwoss the first time I did tell her. She was going out to a dance, and I was telling her whilst she was dwessing—it was a lovely dwess all sparkles and little wosebuds—and I upset a bottle of scent over her gloves. The scent too was like my dweams, just like—like—oh! I don't know, and I haven't any!"
Once more the man intuitively bridged the gulf.
"No little friends? How's that?"
"Bimba died," she announced casually. "She liked books, too. It's vewy silly thinking dolls are babies, isn't it; that's why I love weading, it—it seems weal!"
Lady Hetth broke in hurriedly.
"We simply can't keep her away from books when she's in town. Of course when we are in the country she simply lives out of doors. It is very difficult to keep her amused. She sulks when she goes to a party and always wants to go home!"
"I don't sulk weally, Auntie, I jus'—jus' don' seem to know how to play!"
She smiled a wan little smile at the woman who had no children of her own, and moved away slowly with a backward doggy look at the man.
"Good God!" he muttered. "Will you come here, Lady Hetth!"
"When your fear cometh as a desolation."—The Bible.
Susan Hetth rose.
She had always intensely disliked her brother-in-law's old friend, failing utterly to perceive the heart of gold studded with rare gems that was hidden under a bushel of intentional brusqueness.
But as she was under an obligation to him she decided to make herself as pleasant as possible, and to obey his orders, however irksome.
Great brain specialist, great philanthropist, she had rung him up in a panic that morning after having vainly ransacked her memory for some other human being in whom she could with safety confide her fear, and from whom she could expect some meed of succour.
She knew, as everybody knew, that years ago he had given up the hours of consultation which had seen his Harley Street waiting-room filled to overflowing; that little by little, bit by bit, indeed, he had given himself up entirely to research work, travelling in every quarter of the globe in his quest for the knowledge necessary to the alleviation of the mental troubles of his fellow-beings. And that when he found it or some part of it he had hurried home, and having brought it to as near a state of perfection as possible, had flung it broad-cast to the suffering; just as he flung the immense sums of money he made among the destitute for whom he loved to work without thought of the morrow.
A genuine case of trouble he had never been known to dismiss, and Susan Hetth had heaved a sigh of relief into the receiver when he fixed an immediate appointment.
The spook of fear is not the cheeriest companion of the early cup of tea, and Nannie's words, allied to Nannie's face when she entered without knocking, had caused the silly, invertebrate woman to take immediate action for once in her life.
Not for anything would she confess it, but she wished now she had listened to Nannie when, just a year ago, she had so fervently urged a visit to the doctor the first time she had discovered the baby girl walking downstairs one step at a time in her sleep.
She remembered the way the ever-changing house-parlourmaids had furtively looked at the child when she came in to dessert; how one after the other they had given notice, declaring that although they really loved the child their nerves would not stand the ever-recurring shock of finding her sitting in some corner in the dark; or the pattering of her little feet on the stairs when she occasionally evaded the nurse and walked about the house in her sleep; and she remembered how other nurses who brought baby visitors to tea had watched the child, surreptitiously touching their foreheads and wagging their heads at each other.
But, as is the way of the supine, she had put it off and put it off until her negligence had culminated in the frightful scene of this same very early morning, when Leonie, waking in the day nursery to find her kitten dead, had screamed and shrieked hour after hour until the house-parlourmaid had rushed in and given instant notice, with the unsolicited information that the servants thought, and the neighbours said, the child was mad and ought to be sent to a home.
Then, indeed, had terror suddenly tweaked Susan Hetth's heart, the social one, the maternal one having long since atrophied through want of use; for the shadow of lunacy is about the blackest of all the shadows that can fall across a butterfly's sunny, heedless path.
Ten years ago she had lost her husband, in the year following most of her capital had gone in a mad-cat speculation, and three years later her gallant brother-in-law died, leaving her a yearly income sufficient for expenses and education if she would undertake to mother his little daughter. Since then she had led the usual abortive life of the woman who lives on the past glamour of her husband's success and a limited income, upon which she tries ineffectually to dovetail herself into a society to which she does not rightly belong. Having noticed an increasing plenitude of silver among the ash-gold of her hair, a deepening of the lines of discord between her brows, and the threads of discontent which were daily being hemstitched into her face by the sharp needles of make-believe, covetousness, and a precarious banking account, she had recently decided to try and annex, or rather try and graft herself on to a certain unsuspecting male being en secondes noces.
And that simply cannot be done if there is the slightest shadow upon one's appendages.
So she sat down in the chair with as good a grace as she could muster, and arranged her big picture hat so that the spring sun should not draw Sir Jonathan's attention to the methods she employed to combat the rapidity with which what remained of her prettiness, prematurely faded by the Indian sun, was vanishing.
For a long and trying moment he sat silently staring at her, wondering as he had always wondered what had induced his old friend to place his little girl in such inadequate, feeble hands.
To break the tension Lady Hetth clanked a silver Indian bracelet bought at Liberty's against an Egyptian chain sold by Swan & Edgar's, and the man frowned as he drew a series of cats on his blotting-paper.
"Against stupidity the very gods Themselves contend in vain!"—Schiller.
"Let me see," he said slowly. "You have been in India I believe. I wonder if you know anything about it!"
"I lived ten years in the Punjab." This information was given with the intense self-satisfaction peculiar to the feminine Anglo-Indian. "With my husband," was added after a rather damping silence, "who was knighted for certain—er—work he did in the Indian Civil Service."
"That doesn't mean that you know anything about the country, Mam. Leonie has been with you almost seven years, please correct me if I make any mistake. She is seven this month you say. She was four months old when she came over from India. Did her ayah come with her, by the way? No! Had she been good to the baby—yes! yes! I know, they always are, but these dreams indicate that the child has been badly frightened some time or another!"
"But she couldn't be frightened at four months," vacantly interrupted Susan Hetth, who could not see the trend of the conversation, or the need of the detailed interrogation. "She would be far too young!"
"Too young!" snapped Sir Jonathan. "Rubbish! Do you know why you are afraid to-day of falling from a height?"
"No," replied Susan Hetth, cordially loathing the man, his methods, and his manners.
"Because," he answered roughly, "you were frightened of falling from your mother's or your nurse's arms when you were a few months old, and the impression of height and fear made upon your baby mind is still with you, that's why!"
"The brute!" she thought, as she smiled the propitiatory smile of one who is afraid and murmured, "How very interesting!"
"Is there anything else you can tell me about your little niece? no matter how trivial a detail! Has she ever screamed for hours as she screamed this morning? Does she get angry? I mean mad angry!"
"No!" replied the aunt. "From what her nurse and daily governess tell me she seems to be remarkably sweet-tempered. You see I don't—I haven't—I don't see much of her. I'm—I've—you see I have so many friends over here!"
The man snorted.
"I must say," she continued, "I have never met a child so averse from being kissed or being made a fuss of—she hates anyone to touch her, even—even me, her mother, as you might say; but they say she is tractable, and has never been known to lose her temper, or slap, or scratch, as some children do—no! there is really nothing to tell about her—of course she walks a bit in her sleep, at least so her Nannie says!"
The specialist's hand crashed on the table. "Good God, woman!" he flung at her, "what in heaven's name are you modern women made of? How long has she been walking in her sleep? Tell me all you know at once—and remember it's your niece's brain and her future you are talking about, so try and describe this sleep-walking with as much interest and regard to detail as you would if you were talking about a new dress. Why in heaven's name didn't you send her with the nurse—the servant—instead of coming yourself—I might have learnt something about the child then!"
It seemed that Leonie while still quite a baby had walked about the night nursery in her sleep; that she had been found in the day nursery and on the lower landing, but had always gone back to bed without waking; that she muttered a lot of rubbish which the nurse could not understand, and was always very tired next day. That now that she was older she slept in a room by herself as she became unaccountably restless and wide awake if anyone slept in the room with her. No! the nurse had never noticed the hour or the date, or anything, and that was really all, and "couldn't you give the child a dose of bromide."
Which sentence served to finish the history and to bring Sir Jonathan with a bound from his chair.
"Bromide," he snarled, "bromide! Now, Lady Hetth, listen to me. There is something more than nerves and a highly strung temperament in this. Next week I want Nannie, not you, to bring the child here on a visit. I know India and her religions as far as any Englishman dare say he knows anything about that unfathomable country—yes! Mam! religions—Hinduism—Brahminism—Buddhism—why, I've passed the best part of my life trying to unravel certain physical and psychical threads knotted up in India; but the years are slipping by, and time is getting shorter and shorter, and but a tithe done out of all there is to do; but thanks be, my boy has inherited my love for this work, and will carry on here when I have crossed the threshold and found the solutions to my problems on the other side. Though I'm sure I don't know why I'm telling you all this," he finished brusquely, "we will return to India."
"Yes! India is very, very interesting!" piped Lady Hetth, rising and standing on one foot so as to rest the other suffering from an oversmall shoe.
"Very, very interesting!" she continued unctuously and with the enthusiasm she reserved as a rule for the S.P.C.K.I, which letters stand for an attempt to graft a new creed on to the tree of religion in India which was bearing fruit at a period when we were hobnobbing in caves, with a boulder or good stout club as reasons for existence.
"I'll write and tell you when to send the child and her nurse, and between us we'll manage to keep her amused. And in the meantime stop all lessons and let her do exactly as she likes, and feed her up, Mam, feed her up, her bones are simply coming through her skin."
Again he laughed a great rumbling laugh, as lifting the child from the ground he felt the little hands in his mane of white hair.
"You're nice," she decided, "vewy nice."
"Like to come and stay with me?"
"Oh, yes! if you won't—won't make me——!"
She stopped short.
"Well! what—won't make you what?"
"Nothing—Auntie pulled my dwess!"
The door closed softly.
"The kindest man, The best conditioned and unwearied spirit In doing courtesies."—Shakespeare.
They met on the threshold.
Swinging back the door to let Leonie and her aunt out, Ellen, the middle-aged maid, almost an heirloom in the family of Cuxson, bristling in starched cap and apron, let in the erstwhile plague of her life, but now as ever the light of her eyes, Jonathan Cuxson, Junior.
He took Lady Hetth's hand in a mighty and painful grip when after a moment's hesitation she introduced herself.
"Why, of course! You must be Jan! Except for being bigger you haven't changed a bit since I saw you years ago one Speech Day at Harrow!" She looked with open admiration at the very personable young man before her who loomed large in the hall with his height of six feet two and a tremendous width of shoulder. His eyes were grey, and as honest as a genuine fine day; the jaw was just saved from a shadow of brutality in its strength by a remarkably fine mouth; the ears were splendid from an intellectual point of view, and the set of the head on the neck, and the neck on the shoulders, perfect. The nose was a good nose, rather broad at the top, with those delicate sensitive nostrils which usually spell trouble for the owner.
"I don't believe you remember me!"
Happily the reply which must have been untrue or given in the negative was averted by the hilarious arrival of a puppy.
Having heard the deep voice associated in its canine mind with bits of cake and joyous roughs-and-tumbles, it had forsaken the happy though forbidden hunting ground of the upper storeys and negotiated the stairs in a series of bumps and misses.
Arrived in the hall it hurled itself blindly against Leonie's ankles, and ricocheted on to its master's boots, where it essayed a pas seul on its hind legs in its efforts to reach the strong brown hand.
"Oh!" said Leonie, as she fell on her knees with her arms outstretched to the rampaging ball of white fluff and high spirits, the which thinking it some new game squatted back on its hind legs with the front ones wide apart, gave an infantile squeak, and whizzed round three times apparently for luck, as tears welled up in the child's large eyes and trickled down the white face.
"Hello, kiddie! You're crying!" said Jan Cuxson, who like his father had a positive mania for protecting and helping those in trouble, which mania got him into an infinite and varied amount of trouble himself, and led him into unexpected boles and corners of the earth. "I'm—I'm not crying weally!" choked Leonie, "it's—it's my kitten!"
"Oh! do stop, Leonie!" said her aunt, leaning down to catch the child's hand and pull her to her feet. "She's coming to stay with you," she added, as Leonie stood quite still with that piteous jerk of the chin which comes from suppressed and overwhelming grief, as she watched the puppy play a one-sided game of bumblefoot in a corner.
"That's jolly," said the young man.
"Oh! she's coming as a case. She walks a good deal in her sleep, and as my brother-in-law, Colonel Hetth, if you remember, was such a——"
But Jan Cuxson was not listening.
He too had put his hand on the curly head and tilted it back gently so that the light shone into the sorrow-laden eyes encircled by shadows.
Then he smiled suddenly down at the mite, and she, perceiving that a ray of light had suddenly pierced the all-pervading gloom, smiled back, and catching his left hand in both of hers pressed it to her forehead.
"Good Lord!" he muttered, as a thrill ran through him at the unexpected and oriental action.
And Fate, plucking in senile fashion at the loose ends which lay nearest her old hand, knotted two tightly together with a bit of rare golden strand she kept tucked away in her bodice.
"And what shall we do when you come? Can you ride? I know of a lovely pony a little boy rides!"
Leonie shook her head mournfully, feeling unconsciously but acutely the penalty of her sex for the first time in her life.
"I can't wide astwide," she sighed, "I haven't any bweeches. Jill and Maudie Wetherbourne always wide in skirts. But I can swim," she added quickly, "an' jump in out of my depff. I learnt in the baff at the seaside!"
"Oh! come along, child, do!" broke in her aunt to her own undoing.
"Auntie jumps in too, though she says she doesn't," proceeded Leonie in a gallant effort to shore up her family's sporting reputation.
"I do not, Leonie! I can't imagine how you ever got such an idea into your head!"
But Leonie, nothing daunted, shook back her russet mop of hair and gave direct answer, to the confusion of the domestic who happily stood out of Lady Hetth's eye-range.
"But, Auntie! I've often heard Wilkins tell Nannie that you've been in off the deep end before bweakfast! Oh! do let me hold him just for ever such a little while!"
To save the expression of his face Jan Cuxson had bent and lifted the pup by the scruff of its neck, and upon the piteous appeal put it squirming and wriggling in the outstretched arms.
Great tears dripped all over the animal though Leonie stood on one foot, bit her underlip, and squeezed the puppy to suffocation in a valiant effort to restrain this appalling sign of weakness.
"Tell me what makes you cry like that?"
"My—my kitten was—was stwangled by—by someone this morning, an'—an' she was all soft an'—an' fluffy like——"
The words ended in a paroxysm of sobs muffled in the puppy's coat whereupon it ecstatically licked every visible part of the child's neck, whilst Ellen, throwing decorum to the winds, knelt down and drew the shaking little figure into her arms.
"Anybody in there!" suddenly and very gruffly asked Jan Cuxson, jerking his head in the direction of the room where the few and favoured awaited the pleasure of the specialist.
"No, Sir," replied Ellen, as she disentangled one of the puppy's claws from the lace on Leonie's sleeve. "I'm going to call my father! I don't think you understand your little girl very well!"
He spoke quite gently but his face was white with anger, that almost terrifying rage which surges over and through the mentally and physically strong at the sight, or thought, of cruelty to the small and weak.
He whistled two exceedingly sharp notes and plunged his hands into his pockets, where he scrunched up his keys and some loose change.
"The liberal soul shall be made fat."—The Bible.
"Well! well! well!"
Sir Jonathan walked over to the child and knelt down beside her as the maid rose and straightened her crumpled apron.
"Let me have the doggie, darling!"
"No!—no!—no! I—I love him. He's all soft and cuddley. I want to hold him for jus' a little, little longer!"
The child's voice was shrill with excitement as she pulled back from the encircling arms, her lips quivering, her eyes staring distractedly first at the younger man then at the dog.
"Would you like to have Jingles, kiddie?"
The change in the child's face was electrifying, and Sir Jonathan, rising with his eyes fixed upon her, touched his son's arm to draw his attention to it.
Tears like dewdrops on brown pansy petals hung heavily from the lashes, but the corners of the mouth turned up in an adorable smile, and waves of gratitude and delight swept up from chin to brow obliterating the agony of the past hours.
"For me—to keep?" she whispered, as she stood on her toes in an instinctive effort to make the body reach and unite with the mind at the highest point of this most perfect moment, whilst her little breast heaved with the repressed sobs of her fully laden heart.
"Yes! for keeps, little one!"
The three elders stood silently, the specialist watching intently the light which kindled in the child's eyes as she looked from one to the other before she bent her head over the dog she had completely surrounded with her arms.
Jan Cuxson made a movement to end a situation which was bordering on cruelty when Lady Hetth anticipated him with her customary dire tactlessness.
"There now, Leonie! Now perhaps you'll be satisfied. Give Mr. Cuxson a kiss and say thank you nicely!"
Leonie would have cheerfully put her hand in the fire to serve this wonderful being who royally distributed gifts, and live ones at that, and only hesitated for the barest fraction of a second before, her face suffused with crimson, she walked up to him.
"Of course if—if you want me to—I'll—I'll kiss you," she said heroically, unconsciously squeezing the puppy under the stress of the awful moment until it yelped, "but I'd—I'd wather——" She stopped and looked up hurriedly into the understanding face of the elder man.
He nodded as he caught her eye so that she finished all in a hopeful burst.
"But I'd wather not if you don't mind!"
Lady Hetth frowned and put out her hand, murmuring something about really having to go.
"I'll send for her and Nannie, Lady Hetth. And keep her out of doors as much as possible. Why don't you take her to the Zoo this afternoon?"
"I couldn't possibly!" came the prompt and irritable reply.
"What about me!" interrupted Jan Cuxson. "Eh! kiddie? You and I riding big, fat elephants at the Zoo!"
"You—and Jingles—and me!" said Leonie, disengaging her hand from her aunt's. "And you," she said sweetly, laying it on the elder man's coat sleeve.
Heaven had opened wide its gates and she was for pulling everybody in with her, and her eyes danced, and so did her patent shod feet on the rug.
"It's too kind of you, Jan!" broke in her aunt. "I really don't like to let you waste your time with a child!"
"Not at all, Lady Hetth! I love kids—and the Zoo. Where shall I bring her to afterwards?"
"Oh! Yes! bring her to the Ladies' Union Club where I am staying. No! you'd better take her to her Nannie as they don't allow children in the Club, thank goodness. They are staying in York Street, Baker Street, quite convenient for you."
She trailed through the door as she spoke, pouring out a cascade of vapid thanks and announcing also that she had shopping to do at Debenham and Freebody's.
She hadn't, she was going to catch an omnibus in Cavendish Square, being of those who, blindly extravagant in most things, think they economise when spoiling their clothes and temper in a penny ha'penny bus, instead of keeping both unruffled in a taxi, at two shillings.
Ellen, returning later triumphantly with a taxi, held wide the door, a wide and loving smile across her plain face.
"You come too, Sir," said Jan Cuxson. "Do you heaps of good to ride an elephant!"
"I only wish I could, boy," said the man as he laid one hand on the shoulder of the son he loved, and the other on Leonie's head. "But I've much to do in that opium case, and I'm dining out, and shall read a bit when I get back——"
"And I'm dining out too, more's the nuisance, otherwise I could help. Sure to be awfully late as it's a farewell dinner to a fellow at the hospital——"
"Well! See you in the morning! Good-bye, sweetheart, I won't forget the book, and just you make that lazy fellow show you everything!"
He bent and kissed Leonie as she lifted her face, which was an unheard-of thing for her to do, and watched her as, hugging the struggling dog, she ran down the steps and was lifted into the taxi by her companion.
With his foot on the step Jan hesitated, then turned and walked back to his father.
"I don't know why. Sir, but I do wish you'd come too," he said slowly, looking at the man he loved with a love past the comprehension of the younger generation of the present day.
He put out his hand as he spoke and gripped the elder man's hard, then ran down the steps, jumped in beside Leonie, and turned to wave hilariously with her as they sped away to the Zoo.
The brain specialist went back thoughtfully to his room, and when he had closed the door stood for a long time looking out at the little garden with its one big tree.
"I wonder, I wonder," he mused. "I'd give a good deal to get at that ayah—well! why not?—I could start for——" He looked round suddenly, then laughed as he passed his hand over his eyes. "Funny! I thought someone opened the door."
He moved to his desk and turned over his diary, showing blank page after blank page.
"Strange," he muttered. "There is nothing written down after to-day, not a single engagement. I must have entered them in some other book; very careless of me."
"And the wild beasts of the islands shall cry in their desolate homes."—The Bible.
Mrs. Henry Higgins called upon the Almighty in the vernacular of Seven Dials, sought gropingly for the members of her progeny who clutched her skirt, and fortunately kept her head.
"'Enery James—no! Gertrude Ellen—you've gotter better headpiece, jest yer slip along to the keeper an' tell 'im to look slippy and come along quick h'and quiet!"
Gertrude Ellen, puffed up with pride at the pull she had had over her brother, slipped off, as her mother continued in a raucous whisper, "Now if that young miss don't deserve a thorough good 'iding! I'd take the skin off yer if any of yer did such a fing, strite I would. Drat yer, keep stilt cawn't yer—you'll rouse the brute!"
She shook her skirts so that the half-dozen clinging children rattled like a bunch of keys, pushed her jet bonnet back from the shiny wrinkled forehead, and waited, her motherly heart aquake in spite of her drastic language.
Jan Cuxson was standing in front of the lions' cage at one end of the lion-house, talking to his old friend the keeper, under the impression that Leonie was close beside him; but she, having taken advantage of their conversation and a practically empty house, had slipped quietly away, climbed the barrier near the far window, and was also holding conversation—with a tiger from Bengal.
The animal lay outstretched with his wonderful head close to the bars, and his unblinking opalescent gold-flecked eyes staring straight into the opalescent gold-flecked eyes of the child as she stood on tip-toe so that her face was almost on a level with that of the animal.
"Poor tiger!" she was saying. "I'm vewwy sowwy for you—I'm sure you're not so vewy, vewy wicked, an' if you will bend your head I will stwoke you behind the ear same as I did Kitty."
Mrs. Henry Higgins gasped.
Holding on to one bar tightly just near the tiger's mouth so as to steady herself, Leonie stretched, and thrusting her hand inside began to rub the tiger's head quite forcibly behind the ear.
"Nice?" she inquired as the animal closed its eyes under the unexpected and unexperienced caress, then opening them lifted the beautiful head and yawned to the full capacity of the huge mouth, affording Leonie a front row view of the splendid ivories and pale pink tongue.
"Oh—h—h!" said she admiringly, standing flat and patting the nearest paw. "I do like you though you do fwighten me when you walk so softly in my dweams—oh—h—h!"
She shivered with ecstasy as the tiger rolled on its back, displaying its soft white belly as it bit its hind foot with the abandon of a baby, then turned on its side, and leaping sideways to its feet, slunk off to the far corner of the miserable den, which is all a civilised country gives a wild animal in exchange for its jungle home.
Meanwhile the Higgins brood, like hungry sparrows on a rail, were sitting open-mouthed on the lower steps provided for the benefit of those spectators who wish to revel with safety in the degrading sight of the royal beasts fed with lumps of bleeding meat pushed through the lower bar on the end of a prong.
Rendered somewhat incoherent by fear, and haste, allied to the ghastly English she had acquired in the streets and been allowed to retain in the Council School, Gertrude Ellen had found it somewhat difficult to arouse the keeper to a realisation of the impending disaster.
But when he did look over his shoulder in the direction her dirty little hand was pointing he swore a mighty oath and acted promptly.
"Keep still, Sir, for the love of heaven!" he whispered, catching hold of Jan Cuxson's arm as the latter made a step forward. "Don't let that there animal see yer, he's the blamedest, cussedest brute I've ever had to do with. Never had a civil growl from him since he came here over three years ago."
Whilst speaking the man had hurriedly discarded his boots and climbed inside the barrier, whilst Cuxson held the child quiet by her thin little shoulders.
"Damn that woman," went on the keeper, "why can't she keep still. Sure as blazes if that there tiger sees her, which don't mean if he's looking at her, he'll go nasty and have that missy's 'and off."
Mrs. Higgins, having clumped her brood into silence, was making frantic and what she imagined to be surreptitious signals of distress with her left arm, keeping her eyes glued on Leonie, who was clinging to the bars with both hands whilst calling upon the tiger to come back.
He came back, half crouched, noiselessly, stealthily, the hair of the belly almost touching the ground, for all the world like a cat about to spring upon an unsuspecting sparrow.
He came to a standstill within an inch of the bars and threw his pointed ears straight forward so that they stood out at right angles to the beautifully marked face; spasmodically twitched back the mouth without a sound issuing therefrom, and then lay down and pressed his head against the bars.
The tiny hand was stroking the silky ears, patting the head, and prodding contentedly into the thick fur of the neck when suddenly with a mighty heart-quaking roar the tiger leapt up and back, and then hurled himself at the bars.
The keeper had crept, bent double, along the inside of the barrier, and had most suddenly and surprisingly seized Leonie by the waist and wrenched her free from the bars to which she had tried to cling, holding her like a vice in his arms where she vainly kicked and struggled for freedom.
". . . that man could not be altogether cleared from injustice in dealing with beasts as he now does."—Plutarch.
The whole house was in an uproar.
The lions were trotting round and round, stopping to listen and snuff in the sawdust near the bars; the stumpy jaguar, black as ink, with a body like a steel case, was rushing up and down, rubbing its forehead fiercely as it turned; a lion and his mate were rearing themselves one after the other against the walls, half turning from the middle to fall almost backward in that peculiar movement which reminds one forcibly of great succeeding waves stopped and thrown back upon themselves by some bleak rock.
People were pushing and straining to look in at the windows, and rattling the doors which had been hurriedly locked by the keepers who had rushed to ascertain the cause of the tumult, whilst the tiger made the place resound with its terrific roars as it hurled its huge weight again and again at the bars of its cage.
"Come on, Mother," shouted the keeper above the din, "bring all those children and let's get out. They'll quieten down when we've gone. Can't you read!"
He shook Leonie slightly under the stress of his agitation as he hauled her in front of the notice which commands you to refrain from climbing the barrier.
"Of course I can wead," she replied with dignity; "I'm weading the little——"
"Well! read that!"
"But—but"—stammered Leonie, having read with difficulty—"but I knew the tiger, Mr. Keeper!"
"Oh! yes! of course! You were tiger 'unting and brought him from the Sunderbunds about four years ago; it wasn't the gentleman, of course not!"
"But weally," pleaded Leonie with the tears very near, "weally I've—I've dweamed lots about him, and—and—and——"
"Take her away, Sir—she makes me see red she does. No thank you. Sir—very much obliged, but it's part of my duty to see that people don't climb the barrier, and I kind of failed—p'raps the little girl what came and——"
They were outside by this time and the centre of an interested admiring crowd; it is only bleeding meat at three o'clock as a rule which can rouse the inhabitants of the lion house from their prison apathy.
Taking the dirty little paw Cuxson, crumpling up a note, put it into the dirty little palm and closed the fingers tightly over it. Whereupon Gertrude Ellen blushed furiously, and went to her mother with her clenched fist behind her back, where she kept it stiffly until tea-time, when she held out the bit of paper without a word, to the tune of "Lawks a mercy me!" from her mother, who immediately ordered more buns on the strength of it.
"Lor' bless yer, lovey!" said Mrs. Higgins, whose bonnet was bobbing on the nape of her neck, leaving the wisps of hair to straggle unrestrainedly in the honest grey eyes, as she knelt on the ground and tugged Leonie's short skirts into place. "Yer did give us a turn, dearie; yer might 'av 'ad yer 'and nipped orf by that there brute. Come 'ere, Lil and 'Erb—I'll 'ave yer eaten by the camuls next!"
The bow-legged twins, with their spirit of adventure quashed, rolled back to mother, and stood wide-eyed as she ran her work-worn hand through the stranger's luxuriant curls.
"Give us a kiss, lovey, an' go an' get some tea!"
For the second time that day Leonie moved to obey the same command, but this time there was no hesitation as she put her thin arms round the woman's neck and kissed her sweetly once and again.
And the woman, who sensed something amiss in the quivering little body, held her firmly, patting her gently with the same hand which dealt out indiscriminately such resounding and often well-earned smacks among her own; and Leonie sighed and leant confidingly against the stout, badly corseted figure.
"How comfy," she whispered shyly. "How soft you are. Auntie never holds me in her arms, and when Nannie does she's always full of bits of things that stick out."
And then with a little scream of delight she was away, speeding over the gravel in the wake of a lumbering great form wending its way in and out of the crowd.
"Cut along, Sir, or you'll find her 'obnobbing with the gorilla next! I've never seen such a child for downright mischievousness."
Cuxson cut along as bidden and for all he was worth, pulling Leonie up in front of the ticket office for elephant rides, and after purchasing tickets sidetracked her to a tea-table.
* * * * * * * *
"Mind you bring Jingles when you come to stay!"
"Pwomise," called back Leonie from her Nannie's arms as she opened the door to them and lifted the tired happy child from the taxi.
But she didn't because she never went.
"And make my seated heart knock at my ribs Against the use of nature. Present fears Are less than horrible imaginings."—Shakespeare.
Big Ben announced the approaching hour of midnight, throwing the sonorous notes to the soft spring wind which wafted them up to Harley Street.
Save for the light thrown by the dancing flames of a log fire, and the orange disc made on the desk by the light of a heavily shaded lamp, the room was dark; the silence broken only by the occasional crackle of the wood fire and the faint rustle as Sir Jonathan turned a page.
"Notes" was written in letters of brass across the thick book heavily bound in leather, and of which the small key to the massive Bramah lock was kept in a pocket especially made in every waistcoat Sir Jonathan possessed.
Slowly he read through the page he had just written, crossing a t, dotting an i, adding or scratching out a word of the writing which was in no way more legible than that of any other surgeon; and when he had read he ran his hand through the mass of snow-white hair, sighed, and pushed the book further back on to the desk.
It is an eerie sound that of someone speaking aloud to himself, and still more eerie when it occurs in the middle of the night when the only part of the speaker to be clearly seen is the strong white hands moving in the orange disc thrown on the desk by the heavily shaded lamp.
And it is a strange habit this talking aloud of the solitary soul.
Not a bit.
Dumb in the babel and din of chaotic midday, unresponsive to the uncongenial matter around, it will talk on subjects gay and grave, and even laugh with the silent sympathetic shades of midnight.
Nevertheless it is mighty eerie to hear it unawares.
For the twentieth time the famous specialist picked up a letter and read it from beginning to end.
"Strange, Jim, old fellow," said he as he laid it down, "strange how I think of you to-night. Seeing your little one, I suppose. But somehow to-night more than ever I feel the blank you made in my life when you left. How you'd have loved the kiddie, Jim. Strange wee soul with a shadow already on her life—a big black shadow, Jim, which I—I am going——!"
He turned his head and looked over his shoulder.
"Ugh!" he said, as he turned back to the desk and drew the book towards him.
"Leonie Hetth—age seven—walks in her sleep and dreams—dreams are evidently of India—things that walk softly and purr—a small light—and wet red which may mean blood—green eyes and a black woman who—who——"
Once more he ran his hand through his hair, but time irritably, then shook his head from side to side rubbed his hand across his eyes.
"I've been sitting up too late these last few nights over that opium case. Don't seem to be able to collect or hold my thoughts. Jim, old fellow, I wonder what made you leave Leonie in the care of that damn silly, shallow woman, and I wonder how you could ever have produced anything so highly strung and temperamental as your little daughter. I sup——"
He stopped quite suddenly and rose, standing with his head bent forward.
There was not a sound!
Feeling for the arm of his chair with his face still turned to the curtained window he sank back, only to spring upright with a bound.
Noiselessly, swiftly he crossed to the window, and pulling back the curtain an inch or two peered out into the small garden with its one tree and border of shrubs.
There was no sound and nothing moved.
"Strange!" he muttered, "I could have sworn some-one knocked."
He jerked back the curtains so that they rasped on the brass rod, letting in the almost blinding glare of the full moon which drew a nimbus from the silvery head and threw shadows which danced and gibbered by the aid of the log fire over the walls and ceiling, and in and out of the open safe.
He turned, but stopped abruptly when half-way across the room, standing stock still with his back to the window.
There was a faint distinct tapping as though slender fingers were beating a ghastly, distant drum.
It stopped—it continued—it stopped.
Then fell one little solitary rap like a drop of water falling on a metal plate, and it died away into silence.
And Sir Jonathan threw up his fine old head and laughed.
"Surely I've got India on the brain to-night, and as surely I want a good long holiday," he said, as he sat down at his desk and picked up his pen. "And I must remember to tell the gardener to clip that tree to-morrow. How Jan will laugh when I tell him that I was absolutely scared by a branch rubbing against the window."
For five long minutes he sat frowning down at the pen in his hand. Three times he commenced to write, and three times he stopped; twice he lit a cigarette and let it go out, and deeper grew the lines between the brows and round the mouth, until he shivered and turned quickly in his chair.
"That felt just like a sea-fog creeping up behind; stupid to keep the window open even in spring," he said as he picked up a log from a basket by his side and threw it deftly into the wide-open grate, leant sideways to separate two brass ornaments on a table which had jangled one against the other, and sighing turned restlessly in his chair.
"Confound those great market lorries," he muttered, looking round the room with its cabinets and shelves filled with the strange and weird, beautiful and unsightly curios he had brought back from every corner of the globe. "They shake the house enough to bring it down about one's ears."
The moon was slowly shifting as he leant back and settled himself comfortably in the high leather chair; the room was getting darker and there had fallen that intense almost palpable stillness which envelops most great cities after midnight, and against which his thoughts stood out like steel points upon a velvet curtain.
Clear and sharp as steel they shot indeed, this way and that through his mind; but hold them he could not, analyse or arrange them he could not, neither would his hand move towards the pen a few inches from the finger-tips.
"God!" he suddenly thundered, striking the arm of the chair with his fist. "The answer is just there on the tip of my tongue—before my very eyes—within reach of my fingers, and yet I cannot grasp it—ah! why! could it possibly be——"
He rose as he spoke and crossed to a massive bookcase packed to overflowing with books, switched on a light hanging near, opened the glass door and ran his hand lovingly over the leather volumes.
Then he very gently laid his hand on his left shoulder and turned with a smile lighting up his face, which abruptly went blank in astonishment.
"Upon my word," he said, "whatever made me think that Jan had come in and had put his hand upon my shoulder. Old fool that I am to-night."
For a moment he stood looking into the shadowy corners, then turned again to the case, ran his finger along a row of books until he came to one with the title "India," pulled it out and opened it under the light.
The book opened quite suddenly and wide, and his eyes fell on the first few lines. Without a movement he stood staring down at the printed words, reading to the end of the page, then he violently closed the book, thrust it back into the case, and closing the doors, pressed against them with both hands as though in an endeavour to keep back something which was trying to get out.
"No! my God! No! never! not that—not that as an end—not for that baby—and yet——"
He moved across to the desk, sank heavily like a very old man into his chair and covered his face with his hands.
Then very slowly and as though against his will he uncovered his face, and leaning forward stared across to the bookcase whilst he groped for the pen beside the book.
"And the cure," he muttered, "the remedy—I must find it—I—I——"
His heart was thudding heavily with the merest suspicion of a complete pause between the beats, his hand trembled almost imperceptibly, whilst his eyes glanced questioningly this way and that.
"I don't understand, I don't understand!" he whispered, just like a frightened child as he plucked at his collar and moved his head quickly from side to side as though trying to loosen some stranglehold about his neck.
He turned and stared unseeingly into the fire with the look of perplexity deepening on his face, then slowly he raised his eyes, first to the delicate tracings of the Adams mantelpiece, then to the varied ornaments on the shelf.
"Tish!" he said impatiently as they roved from the central figure of benign undisturbed Buddha, to a snake of brass holding a candle, and on to a blatant and grotesque dragon from China.
For a second he stared uncomprehendingly, then raised his head.
Inch by inch his eyes moved until they reached the top shelf of the overmantel and stopped. A shiver shook him as he lay back in his chair, his widespread fingers clutched at the chair arms, a tiny bead of perspiration showed upon the broad forehead.
Staring down at him, shining evilly in the moonlight, was a glistening, unwavering eye.
Just a slanting mother-o'-pearl eye in the battered head of a god or goddess of India, with features almost obliterated by the passage of centuries.
For a full minute Sir Jonathan sat staring up at the eye which stared back; then moving with a convulsive jerk, ran both hands through the mane of silvery hair as though to lift some crushing load from about his head; and turning sideways in his chair stretched out one hand between the eye above and his own as he clumsily seized the pen in the shaking fingers.
"Ah! my God!" he muttered, "the answer is still there, on the tip of my tongue, before my eyes, within reach of my fingers, and I cannot grasp it—ah!—yes——"
Slowly and with infinite pain he wrote, printing the letters in thick and crooked capitals, whilst his breath whistled through the dilated nostrils and one foot beat unceasingly against the desk.
"The answer to the problem concerning Leonie Hetth is in the third volume upon——"
His hand stopped suddenly when the fingers involuntarily spread wide apart, letting fall the pen which rolled across the book; and the silvery head turned inch by inch until the grey eyes had lifted to the one shining in the shadows.
And there commenced a desperate, a bitter struggle for a child's reason, perhaps for a child's life, as the moon gently withdrew her light.
Like the clammy wraiths of fog upon the moor, like the searching tentacles of some blind monster of the sea, fear crept upon the splendid old man in this still hour of the night.
It held his hands, it was folded about his mouth, it pounded violently upon his gallant heart, whilst the eye looked him between the eyes, so that his brain was seared as strive he might to turn away his head he kept his face turned piteously upward.
"What is it," he muttered thickly, as though his tongue clove to the roof of the mouth, "what is it that is pulling me, pressing upon me, choking me! I have no body, no—no hands—I—have—no power to move—I——"
And then he screamed, though but a whisper fell, as with a spasmodic jump of his whole body he flung himself round in his chair, and cowering low against the arm, peered into the deepening shadows.
"All round about me," he whispered, "all about me those hands are pulling, and yet—and—and——"
He laughed until his face, a white cameo against a grey velvet pall, grinned like a mask of mirthless death, as slowly he raised one clenched fist and shook it weakly until it fell back with a dull thud, useless, against the chair.
"I thought I was afraid—I—I thought I saw—I saw death behind—but I—I shall not die until—until I have written—written—what is it I am to write—ah! yes!"
Searching sideways with his left hand he groped and found the pen, then very carefully, very slowly turned towards the desk.
He drove the pen in fiercely, making a thick black mark; he pushed it until the nib stuck, spluttered, and broke as he flung out both hands as if grasping at something which evaded him.
"Gone!" he mouthed, though there was no sound of speech in the room. "Gone—gone!" and he suddenly tore at his collar and his cuffs as though to break some bond which held him, as he glanced furtively about the room.
For one long moment he sat leaning forward, staring far beyond the Indian screen upon which his eyes were fixed, and then slowly, almost imperceptibly, his head moved.
The drawn white face had the hunted look of some animal at bay, the agonised eyes moved as the head moved; slowly, slowly, inch by inch, the breath coming stertorously as the mouth tried vainly to frame some word.
The moon had gathered the last fold of her silvery raiment about her and was creeping away through the open window just as Sir Jonathan looked straight up into the eye gleaming malevolently through the gloom.
And as he looked the head moved gently so that the eye leered cunningly into the distorted face beneath; it, hovered for a fraction of time on the edge of the shelf and fell, just as the old man, with a blinding flash of understanding sweeping his face, sprang to his feet, stood upright, swayed forward, and fell back sideways, dead, across his chair, staring across the room into eternity with eyes full of knowledge and infinite horror.
"How have I hated instruction, and my heart despised reproof!"—The Bible.
The plaintive ejaculation fell on the drowsy noonday air, and the speaker fished a chocolate out of the box, offered her in heartfelt sympathy by her companion.
"Buck up, old thing!" said the latter. "These very same old exam rods were laid up in pickle for our forbears, and they survived the ordeal. The summer's here and the holidays are due, so let's grin and bear it, and what does it matter if you do mix your futures and conditionals? As long as it's French and you don't split your infinitives you're all right, the splitting, I believe, is a mortal sin in some cases, though I don't quite understand how, or exactly what it means."
Seaview House is an establishment for the finishing of young ladies, which process includes the rounding of their anatomical angles by means of dancing and physical culture, and the polishing of the facets of their intelligence by the gentle manipulation of three or four foreign governesses and professors of music, singing, drawing, etc. These latter smile suavely through the excruciating half-hours they allot to each unfinished damsel, and tear their hair in private at the memory of the daily and hourly murderous executions of the old masters at which they must perforce assist.
And as much, and even more, attention is paid to the repousse work on the outside of the platter.
The hirsute covering is brushed and burnished until the heads of the two score damsels bob about in the sun like globes of ebony, or straw, or Dutch cheese, or ginger; finger nails shine like old cut glass, just enough and not too much; figures are repressed or augmented until they look more like figures and less like sacks of barley, or wood planks. They are taught to sit down and stand up, and to cross, enter or leave a room like humans instead of colts, to pitch the voice in a low and gracious key, and to look upon slang as a luxury only to be enjoyed in the absence of those in temporary power. In fact the establishment is quite old-fashioned but infinitely charming, and has the reputation of having more old pupils to a score of years happily or advantageously married, and fewer ditto employed in a useful capacity than any other school in Eastbourne.
Which is all as it should be!
"Yes! but," continued, let's call her Annie Smith; she does not appear in the book again so that it really does not matter about her nomenclature. "I could just see Leonie from my desk and she was smiling all over her face and romping, simply romping through the French papers."
"Oh! but," sympathised, let us call her Susan Brown for the same reason that we christened Annie Smith, "she has a brain!"
Nice Susan Brown hadn't, but balanced the lack by a wealthy parentage.
"Yes! of course she has! And isn't she beautiful!"
Nice Annie Smith was as plain as a bun, but balanced her defect by a heart of gold, and found her ultimate and perfect joy in an overworked curate and seven children by him, all of whom were destined to sit round the festive board like seven plain little currantless buns on a plate.
"Yes! isn't she! She's wonderful, I think, and oh! so very different to all of us."
"I found the very word to suit her in the dictionary," rather importantly added Susan Brown, "bizarre——"
"Whatever does it mean?" inquired Annie Smith, who was destined never again to run up against the word or its meaning during the rest of her neutral life.
"Er—a kind of a—er—je ne sais quoi in the temperament—not exactly a nonconformist, you know; but just a little—well, not quite like us!"
"I see!" contentedly replied mystified Annie Smith. "But I do love her; she's such a dear. So gentle and so ready to help everybody, and so splendid at sports. What tremendous friends she and Jessica have become, haven't they, since the night of the scare? I often wonder what made her walk in her sleep like that; she's never done it since."
"Indigestion, I've always thought. Cookie was away on her holidays, if you remember, and her locum tenens, understudy, you know, made pastry like cement; I always thought, too, that Principal gave her that lovely little room right away from the rest of us on account of it—the sleep-walking, I mean. I'm sure I should have died if I'd found her standing over me in the moonlight in the middle of the night. It must be awfully jolly though having someone in India who writes to you every three months. Isn't she lucky to have been born in India, and to have had an ayah, a kind of native nurse, you know, who still worships her, and writes to her, and sends real Indian presents, and to have had a V.C. for a father—Leonie, I mean?"
Annie Smith laughed that happy laugh which is the outcome of a perfectly contented mind. "She deserves all the luck she gets, and what luck for us having her as head next term. What a favourite she is with everyone, even old Signer Valenti! Oh, dear, I wish to-morrow's exams were over; my fingers feel just like blanc-mange when I think of that nocturne."
"Never say die, Ann! Have you heard Leonie play the Moonlight?"
"No! What's it like?"
"Simply awful, just like Mam'zel when she thumps downstairs in her felt slippers."
There fell a space of drowsy silence in which the girls lay back on the grass incline, and solemnly munched chocolates with youth's delightful dissociation from anything more perplexing than the passing of the actual hour.
"No!" murmured Annie Smith, breaking the drowsy spell. "She's not like us—couldn't be with a V.C. father and India as a birthright. But isn't it all wonderfully mysterious?"
Dear unsophisticated soul, whose wanderlust was yearly arrested, or rather satisfied, with the summer holiday by the sea, and whose rector father acted as a weekly soporific to his congregation.
"I wonder who gave her that perfectly horrible charm?" she added sleepily.
"The ayah, I think," came an equally sleepy answer. "Did I tell you that I found it in the bath-room the other night? It's an eye—a cat's-eye, you know—a perfect beast of a thing; I would swear it winked at me when I dropped it on the floor. Anyway I left it there and simply flew out of the room to tell Leonie, and Jessica pinched, I beg Principal's pardon, took my bath. Ugh! and she wears it night and day—oh! look, here she comes——"
"Oh!" sighed plain Annie Smith, "isn't she beautiful!"
Unaware that anyone was watching, Leonie stopped in front of a bush of red roses. She neither touched or sniffed them; she just flung out her arms, lifted her face to the blazing sun and laughed.
The simple school frock showed the wonder of her figure, with the beautiful rounded bust, the slender waist, and the moulded limbs; the sun drew red and yellow lights out of the heavy russet hair, gold flecks out of the green eyes, and a flash of crimson from the rather full clear-cut mouth with its turned-up corners.
Her skin was like ivory with the faintest tinge of pink just on the very tip of the rather pronounced cheek-bones; her hands were small and fine, and the fingers were like pea-pods, long and slender and slightly dimpled.
And when she moved away towards the summer-house where she could see the sea, she moved not at all from her waist upwards. She held her head and shoulders as though she had carried baskets of fruit or washing upon the crown of her pate since her youth; her glorious bosom was like a bed of lotus buds in the southern wind; she moved like a deer, or a snake, or a bacchanalian dancer, as you will; but in any case in a way which in the present tense caused the Principal to mourn in secret, and in the future brought the condemnation of women and the eyes of men full upon her.
And behind the summer-house she leant against the wall.
"One more term," she said, "only one more term, and then I shall be free—free to go—free to wander—free to follow the voice which is calling, calling! Only one more little term!"
And Fate, grinning, pinched that one more little term between her knotted old thumb and finger so that it was stillborn.
"And hath gone and served other gods."—The Bible.
Shriek upon shriek tore the peaceful stillness of the night, and in one second the sleeping house was transformed from a place of rest and quiet to the semblance of a disturbed rookery.
Deathly silence followed the horrible screams of fear and the sound of the girls calling one to the other, during which mistresses extricated themselves from the encumbering bedclothes to rush on to their respective landings; elder girls peered in terror from their bedroom doors, and younger ones clung to each other or the bed-post, or the door-knob, anything in fact which would help to support their quaking little knees.
Once again the terrible screams rent the air, whipping everyone out of the stunned apathy which great fear brings to some folk, just as the Principal came out on to her landing and looked up to the second storey.
"Miss Primstinn," she called, and her voice showed no sign of the thudding of her heart.
Pushed by one of those willing hands always so eager to thrust someone else to the forefront of the battle, Miss Primstinn, clutching her courage and a drab dressing-gown in both hands, half ran, half slipped down the stairs.
"We will investigate, Miss Primstinn, and the young ladies will retire to their rooms and shut the doors."
In days long past the house had been well built after the excellent design of a wealthy old architect who had fled the place when Eastbourne had become a centre for girls' schools and summer trippers.
The full moon flooded the hall round which ran the galleries belonging to the successive storeys, each crowded with girls in various designs of night attire who hung over the oak balustrades to watch developments.
But they all leapt in unison, as though spurred into action by an electric shock, when a deep voice boomed from the shadows round a green baize door in the hall which led to the servants' quarters.
Then a distinct sigh of relief whistled softly through the entire house when the electric lights suddenly blazed and the speaker was discovered to be cook.
Cookie in an emerald green moirette petticoat and a somewhat declasse bedjacket, a tight knot of hair playing bob-cherry with her kindly right blue eye, and a rolling-pin clutched truculently in her red right hand.
Dear old Cookie who scolded and complained unceasingly, but who loved the entire school with a love which took the substantial form of delicious cakes, and buns, and jellies.
"H'I've come to h'investigate, Mum!" she called up. "Berglers or worse got into Miss Jessica's room through them dratted French windies, I'll be bound. Now just you stay where you are, Mum, an' I'll go an' see, an' if I screams then come along. And I think a policeman might come in handy, there may be one on the beat."
She waddled away to another green door always left open o' nights, and which led to the wing reserved entirely for the girls of the Upper Sixth; and where each one revelled in her own dainty separate bedroom.
"The young ladies will retire to their bedrooms and close their doors. Mademoiselle, I depend upon you!" With one hand on the banisters and one foot poised for descent, the Principal pitted her will against overwhelming curiosity and won.
Backing like a flock of sheep before the sheep-dog, they slowly retired and shut the doors, only to fling them wide open and rush to the balustrade in time to see the Principal, followed by Miss Primstinn, hurrying down the stairs to meet Cookie, who had run back into the hall shouting at the top of her voice.
"Come along, Mum! Quick! Miss Jessica's dead and Miss Gertrude dying. And where's Miss Lee-onny—fetch her someone—it's 'er friend, little Miss Jessica, wots—wots——"
The Principal, whose face looked suddenly livid and old, laid a hand on Cookie's shoulder.
"Run and fetch the doctor, Cook, please, it will be quicker than the telephone! I can trust you to keep your head. Dr. Mumford is too far away, fetch the new one at the end of the road."
"Please to send Brown, Mum, she's younger an' quicker at runnin' than me. An' I think I can 'elp you, Mum," said Cookie quietly, unconsciously responding to the strength of her mistress's character. "An' I'd like to fetch Miss Lee-onny, Mum, she's that to be depended h'on an' clear'eaded."
The Principal sighed under the sudden inrush of relief which had come to her at the mention of her favourite pupil.
She loved Leonie with a love quite separate from her affection for all the young souls in her charge, and secretly admired the strength of will which more than once had been pitted against her own; moreover, accustomed to the quiet monotonous passage of time, she suddenly realised that she needed someone young and energetic in this emergency.
And the girl she needed in her distress was kneeling on her bed with arms upraised above her head.
The dying moon was slowly withdrawing her waning silvery light from the billowing mass of tawny hair, tumbling in lavender-scented masses around the girl; lingering for a moment on the eyes staring from under the unblinking eyelids, and for a second upon the glint of even teeth showing through the lips moving in prayer.
And then she spoke, in the eerie tones of those who talk in their sleep; and the words were even those of India's most holy writ, sonorous and full of a surpassing dignity, rising and falling as she knelt motionless, her eyelids slowly closing upon the terrible staring eyes.
"The sacrifice . . ." she chanted monotonously, "with voice, hearing, mind, I make oblation. To this sacrifice . . . let the gods come well willing!"
And as the moon sank to rest there was no sound save for a little sigh as Leonie, with closed eyes and white hands clasped upon her breast, stretched herself upon the bed, then with a violent movement sat up, and wide awake stared about the room.
"Yes?" she whispered. "Yes?"
And her strange eyes, with pin-point pupils in a yellow green circle, seemed to follow something which crept slowly round the bare walls as far as the chintz window-curtain moving softly in the breeze of the coming dawn. The room was full of shadows thrown by a creeper festooned outside the wide-open window; soft whisperings brought from the distant corners of the earth by the restless ocean filled the air, as she hastily twisted her hair into two great plaits with steady hands.
Then she slipped quietly to the edge of the bed and searched with her bare feet for the crimson slippers; searched fearfully as though afraid of what they might touch whilst her eyes glanced this way and that through the shadowed room.
"Who is calling me?" she whispered. "Who wants me?"
But there was no sound save for the whispering of the distant sea.
She bent her head sideways as though to listen, rose to her feet, and standing back against the bed, looked down at the shadows which danced about the hem of her garment. A swift furtive glance over her shoulder and her hand stole to the crimson kimono hanging on the brass rail, whilst a jewelled cat's-eye winked cunningly among the embroidery of her night-robe.
"Come in," she said suddenly and sharply, "don't stand outside the door, come in."
And when there came no answer she thrust her arms swiftly into the sleeves of the crimson kimono, and running across the room flung open the door, and finding the corridor empty passed hurriedly on, leaving the door wide so that the shadows skipped freakishly about the room in tune to the rhythmical whisperings which the sea bore from the distant corners of the earth.
"Thy brother Death came, and cried, 'Wouldst thou me?' And I replied, 'No, not thee!'"—Shelley.
The electric lights gave out a kind of fictitious radiance against the dull grey of the hall windows through which the dawn was struggling.
The place was packed with girls. Some clustered near the baize door, standing nervously on tip-toe and with the intent of retiring precipitately if there should be any sign of the Principal; others hung over the stair or gallery banisters; the domestic staff stood round their own particular door, their white faces shining dully like Chinese lanterns; no one spoke or moved. In fact they might have been posing for a photographer until those above suddenly swayed and bent this way and that, and those in the hall parted to give way to Leonie.
Clad in crimson satin kimono, with feet thrust into crimson satin slippers and her hastily plaited hair hanging in two great ropes, she passed through them like a flame, emanating strength and resolve and a tremendous power of will. Although she looked neither to the right nor left as she ran swiftly and disappeared into the wing where lay her little friend, there was something very pleasing in the way the girls put out their hands to touch her as she passed; and something distinctly encouraging in the whispered remarks that followed her, and which might be summarised in the "Now it's all right," which under the high pressure of intense excitement almost burst from the lips of Annie Smith.
Like an arrow she sped to the bed, unconsciously pushing aside the women who, almost frantic with fear and quite out of their bearings, were doing their best to grapple with the problem of life or death so suddenly placed before them.
Kneeling, she turned the girl's livid little face towards her, vainly feeling for the pulse in the wrist and bruised neck; then sprang to her feet, faced the Principal and took the situation into her strong, capable young hands.
"What happened? And have you sent for the doctor?"
Her usually sweet, clear voice was like the dull sound of a cracked earthenware pot when flipped by thumb and finger.
"Yes, dear!" was the quick reply. "The doctor will be here any moment—and hot bottles and blankets are being prepared. Gertrude could not sleep and crept into Jessica's room to look for a German grammar for the examination to-morrow—to-day, and found Jessica in—in this—faint."
And the elder woman suddenly laid a hand on the girl's arm and looked up at her with the confidence she always inspired. "Help me, dear!" she whispered, with the dread of disgrace and an untimely ending to an honourable career in her old grey eyes.
And Leonie smiled, answering with the superb confidence of youth, and a slight ray of hope pierced the suffocating fog of fear, and brought Cookie from the head of the bed where she had been standing in the shade of a screen.
"Can I 'elp, Miss Lee-onny?"
"Cookie, dear—you and Miss Primstinn, Miss Leanto and—yes, and Ellen—none of the girls—and quickly—there's not a moment to lose."
"The doctor's coming, Mum," said a voice from the half-open door.
"The doctor is coming, dear," repeated the Principal.
Leonie answered with a strange authority in her words.
"We will not wait for the doctor!" She passed the tips of her fingers slowly across her forehead and down her cheek to the back of her neck, as was her habit when trying to solve some problem. "No, we will not wait, because—because I know!"
Ten minutes later the door opened to let in a young man, who stood for a moment outlined against a sea of faces, and then turned and shut the door most decisively and locked it.
"Who thought of that, I wonder," he said to himself, as he watched the four women kneeling round Jessica stretched out upon the floor.
They were going through the movements used in resuscitating the drowned, and he, too, knelt at a nod by the side of the fat old woman in an emerald green moirette petticoat and a somewhat declasse bedjacket, who was breathing heavily through the unaccustomed exercise.
"Let us be—a bit, Sir!" she panted. "She don't some'ow feel—quite—as dead—like! Give us a—a chance. One—two—three—four. It's the—reg'lar—as does—it. Miss Lee—onny's orders—Sir—bless er——"
She jerked her head in the direction of Leonie, and the doctor looked.
Behind her friend's head she knelt, her plaited hair twining like snakes to the ground, her eyes closed, her mouth slightly open, and the fingers of both hands pressing the temples of the child upon the floor, whilst to and fro, lifeless, dull, swung the great cat's-eye from a gold chain about the neck.
"Good God!" muttered the young doctor who, having travelled the world as ship's surgeon, knew that the scalpel and soda-cum-gentian do not constitute the whole of the art of healing.
As he looked a great bead of perspiration dropped from Leonie's forehead, between the taut arms, on to her knees; and a sudden shiver shook her from head to foot, and he heaved his overcoat into a chair, and edged very quietly until he knelt between her and Cookie.
"It's 'orrible, Sir!" the latter whispered, as she glanced at the pupil she loved most.
And it was.
By now the perspiration was pouring in streams from the girl's face, whilst the slim body shook and shook like a young tree in a storm; her teeth chattered like castanets, her closed eyes were sunk in purple black orbits, the cheeks were drawn and grey, and the nostrils were dilating like those of a far-spent horse.
"For Gawd's sake stop 'er. Sir—she's a-killing of 'erself."
The doctor shook his head, took out a brandy flask and a metal box from a leather case beside him on the floor. He held up the ready-filled glass syringe to the light and sent a squirt of what looked like water through the gleaming needle.
"If the young lady shows signs of life I want you to get this brandy down her throat at once, and begin to massage her heart."
"Massige! that's same as kneading dough, ain't it, Sir!"
"That's it! Miss—Miss—oh! Leonie will want the most attention, she is only just alive. I will give her another two minutes, and if nothing has happened by then I'll stop her, though it'll be an awful risk!"
"What's she a-doin' of, Sir?"
"She's forcing her own life, her vitality into her friend; she's practically raising the dead!"
He had just raised his hand to touch Leonie, praying to heaven for the girl's reason, when she suddenly flung back her head.
Up through the house-top, to the stars, the heavens, rushed the terrible cry, wailing as wails the wolf who has lost its mate, insisting as insists one who has staked his all on one final throw, imploring as implores the mother in the last dire throes of childbirth.
What the language was, what the words meant, to whom the prayer was addressed, no one knew.
But at the third terrible appeal to God, or Fate, or Death, or Life, and even as those who listened outside and those who ceased their labours in the room stuffed their ears with their fingers and sobbed, little Jessica opened her eyes, and smiled just as Leonie, flinging up her arms, crashed face downwards on the floor.
"The fix'd events of Fate's remote decrees."—Pope.
Vultures drowsed in the shade thrown by the crumbling, sun-cracked, heat-stricken mud walls and houses which lined the meandering unpaved streets, or rather passages, of a certain village in northern India; crows were packed everywhere, taking no notice for the nonce of the feast of filth and garbage spread invitingly around them, and in which sprawled the disgusting, distorted bodies of somnolent water buffaloes; inside the houses hags, matrons, maidens, and little maids slept through the terrific heat of the noonday hours; in the distance the Himalayas, supreme and distressing, like a ridge across eternity, lay behind the turrets and minarets of the town which, thanks to the Indian atmosphere and the long distance, shone white, fretted, and—well, exactly as you can see it any day in paint at the Academy or in Bond Street.
Perfectly motionless upon the high khaki-coloured wall, which entirely surrounds the village, with dust upon his aged feet and raiment and once white turban, oblivious of the heat, the flies, and everything that slept, sat a man with age written upon every gnarled joint, and in every crack and fissure of the parchment-like skin.
So old, and yet with life, and hope, and youth eternal in the dark hawk eye which gazed unseeingly through the outer world straight towards the mountains.
And the old body made no sign of life, even when the vultures without sound soared majestically heavenwards, whilst the crows rose in shrieking disordered squads, and a kite whistling melodiously swooped from nowhere downwards across his head to the filth of the streets.
Neither did he turn his head or his eyes when a coal-black stallion, guided only by the pressure of its rider's knees, came to a stand directly beneath him in the shadow of the wall, having scrambled and slithered, jumping like a deer, climbing like a goat down the rock-strewn road which leads to the village from the great house at its rear; one of those abominable roads allotted to the calloused native foot, honoured for the first time in this instance by the passage of the prince's son and heir.
An arresting picture the rider and his horse made as the man bent low in the saddle and salaamed, then raised his turbaned head and sat motionless, gazing at the holy man.
Minutes passed before, with arms filled with offerings and garlands of marigolds and jasmin swinging from his wrists, he slid from the saddle to the ground, and took his way up the narrow tortuous path which Fate had marked out for him through all time.
High caste, high born, as slender and delicate and as pressed with life as a budding branch in spring, Madhu Krishnaghar stood beside the priest in the incongruous setting of the mud walls.
A coat of fine white linen with broad orange waistband came to just below the knees; white trousers fastened tight about the ankle fitted almost like a stocking from ankle to knee; the slender, narrow feet were shod in native slippers, the white turban with its regulation folds outlined the pale bronze face with the sign of the man's religion traced between the eyebrows; diamond solitaires sparkled in the ears, and one necklace of great pearls hung about his neck.
"Usual large gentle eye, hawk nose, mobile mouth and small-boned oval face" would doubtlessly have been the flippant comment of any occidental passer-by; "meet 'em everywhere, gambling at the street corner, or squatting in the bazaar, or riding elephants."
Yes! but—is not India's future history writ large upon that small-boned oval face for those who, having the vision, read as they walk warily.
For those who run hastily past life's signposts cannot and will not see that, like the fresh green grass which hides the dug pit, those gentle luminous eyes draw attention from the subtle cruelty of the mouth, through which gleam the pitiless perfect teeth.
Glorying in his bull-neck and massive chin, and blinded by his insular, inherited upbringing, the European will exclaim "Pah!" at sight of the thin cheek and delicate oval face, failing utterly to notice the set of the ears on the head; just as, muscle bound through worship at the shrine of Sport, he will mistake the eastern courtesy and poetry of movement for obsequiousness and humility, ignoring the terrible root from which these delicate flowers spring; the root of patience; with its tentacles ever twining and twisting through the eastern mind, causing the very old to die placidly with a smile on their shrivelled lips, and the young to envisage plague, pestilence, and famine with a mere lifting of the shoulder. Patience! the card which India does not hold up her sleeve in the game of life she is playing; the dull-coloured drab little bit of cardboard which she throws on the table openly, but which we ignore amongst the highly coloured, bejewelled pictures she places before us, smiling with the tender luminous eyes so that we shall forget the subtle cruelty of the mouth.
Placing his offerings at the holy man's feet, and laying the garlands gently about the bowed shoulders, Madhu Krishnaghar, the son of princes, stooped and lifting the hem of the dust-covered garment, laid it against his forehead, then quietly sat down a pace removed from the ancient who took no notice whatever of his proceedings.
And time passed, linking one hour of noon to its neighbour and the next, until the hags, matrons, maidens, and little maids awoke to the freshness of the evening and the monotony of its tasks.
Kites called, crows screamed, men gambled in the shadows of the evening and the upstanding, distorted, disgusting water buffalo; while the two men, master and pupil in the religion of death, sat hour after hour without movement, staring at the mountains, the dwelling-place of Siva the terrible, and the birthplace of Kali his bride.
Far into the night they sat, until the last quarter of the moon had sunk to rest, when, with one single movement, the old man sprang to his feet, flung out his arms, and bent in utter humility and cast dust upon his once white turban.
His voice was but a shrill cracked whisper when he called upon his god from the crumbling top of the sunbaked, moon-drenched wall, and turning, lifted his travel-stained mantle and laid it on the young shoulders beside him.
An hour had passed, and more, before the holy man's tale, which ran back through the past seventeen years, was finished. And when it had been told the high caste youth trembled in the ecstasy of his religion, amazed at the enlightenment thrown upon his own enigmatical life, uplifted at the task before him. Yea! he trembled in the ecstasy of his religion, forgetting that love and passion and life ran just as riotously in his supple perfect body.
He leapt to his feet, smiting his forehead with clenched hand.
"Give me a sign, O Kali! Show me that thou art pleased!"
And he rent his garments in joy, showing the bronze breast with the blood-red marks of his terrible religion traced upon it; then thrusting his fingers in his ears sank to the ground and buried his head between his knees.
A black kid, the happiest of all good omens, bleating with hunger, tripped and stumbled from a courtyard; yet even as it found its mother and buried its little head in the warmth of the soft side, there had come across the plains a weird, long-drawn-out sound, fraught with disaster to those who believe in signs.
Long and shrill it sounded and ceased; and once again—to be lost in peals of indecent, discordant laughter.
Uncontrolled, uncontrollable, loathesome sound which tears India's nights to shreds.
The jackals had found at dawn.
"A continual dripping in a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike."—The Bible.
In the late spring Leonie stood at a cottage window watching the rush of the incoming water as she listened to her aunt's ceaseless lament, idly wondering if both would reach high tide together, and if there would be any chance of slipping out for a swim before bedtime.
She loved her aunt with the protective love of the very strong for the very weak, and smilingly found excuses for the daily tirade against fate, or ill-luck, or whatever it is weak people blame for the hopeless knots they tie in their own particular bit of string by their haphazard bursts of energy, or apathetic resignation to every little stumbling-block they find in their path.
Daily, almost hourly, through the splendid North Devon winter the aunt had wailed, and bemoaned, and fretted, driving the girl out on the tramp for hours in the wind, and the wet, and the sun, only to return hurriedly at the thought of the weak, hapless, helpless woman in the cottage at Lee.
Susan Hetth complained about everything, from the lack of society to the smallness of her income, plus a few scathing comments upon her niece's weather-browned face and the hopeless outlook for her matrimonial future.
Her own bid in the matrimonial market en secondes noces had failed, and though Hope had not taken it lying down, the passage of the years had not been lightened by what seemed to be a daily addition of silver threads to the jaded ash gold of her hair, and the necessity of a still more flagrant distribution upon her face of the substances she employed to camouflage the passage of old Time.
Ah, me! that moment before the stimulating advent of the early cup of tea, when divested of our motley we see ourselves in the mirror as, thanks be, others do not, and laying eager hands upon that offspring of charity, the boudoir cap, wonder if it has been in hobnailed boots that the old Father has tramped across our face during the night hours, dragging his scythe behind him.
Leonie's school-days had ended abruptly.
Nothing definite had or could have been said, but it was not likely that the parents would see exactly eye to eye with their daughters, who wrote reams and whispered volumes of the delightful mystery which surrounded the girl who next term would be head of the school.
Long and excited had been the conclaves with the Principal, persuasive or threatening the arguments used, according to the parental temperament, and the upshot of it all was that Leonie had been asked to go; and proud, hurt Leonie had left, with a valiant smile on her lovely mouth, and a strange little questioning look that had only quite lately crept into the beautiful eyes, and which neither the outpourings of Jessica's love, a demonstration of affection from the entire school in the shape of numerous and weird presents, or the broken-hearted kiss of both the Principal and Cookie had been able to eradicate.
The girl felt that she had left under a cloud, which a slight attack of what the doctor had diagnosed as brain fever had not served to line with silver.
He had insisted upon complete change and rest, and had called twice a day when Leonie was really ill, and four times when she was convalescent; so upon fair Devon had they decided, Leonie cajoling and smiling until she had obtained a year's lease, at an absurdly low rent, of the little cottage on the left of Lee harbour as you face the sea.
It is a place of charm if you are willing to do most of the work yourself with the aid of a daily help.
It is certainly rather like a band-box with the lid on, and the ocean at high tide is only prevented by the harbour wall from invading your front garden, which is the size of a handkerchief.
But if you sit at the window you can feel the spray on your face, and if you lie a-bed the tang of the air sweeping across the Atlantic will get you out at the double; and the smell of the pines, and the hum of the bees in summer, and the rush of the storm, and the crash of the waves in winter, are of God's own fashioning.
What with shopping expeditions to that crime in brick and mortar called Ilfracombe, visits here and visits there, croquet, bridge, and picnics, the summer and early autumn months had not dragged unduly for Susan Hetth.