By VICTORIA CROSS
NEW YORK MITCHELL KENNERLEY
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BY VICTORIA CROSS
LIFE'S SHOP WINDOW ANNA LOMBARD SIX WOMEN SIX CHAPTERS OF A MAN'S LIFE THE WOMAN WHO DIDN'T TO-MORROW? PAULA A GIRL OF THE KLONDIKE THE RELIGION OF EVELYN HASTINGS LIFE OF MY HEART
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DEDICATED TO H.M.G. AND E.F.C. AND OUR MEMORIES OF THE EAST.
Listless and despondent, feeling that he hated everything in life, Hamilton walked slowly down the street. The air was heavy, and the sun beat down furiously on the yellow cotton awnings stretched over his head. Clouds of dust rose in the roadway as the white bullocks shuffled along, drawing their creaking wooden carts, and swarms of flies buzzed noisily in the yellow, dusty sunshine. Hamilton went on aimlessly; he was hot, he was tired, his eyes and head ached, he was thirsty; but all these disagreeable sensations were nothing beside the intense mental nausea that filled him, a nausea of life. It rose up in and pervaded him, uncontrollable as a physical malady. In vain he called upon his philosophy; he had practised it so long that it was worn out. Like an old mantle from the shoulders, it fell from him in rags, and he was glad. He felt he hated his philosophy only less than he hated life—hated, yet desired as the man hates a mistress he covets, and has never yet possessed. "Never had anything, never done anything, never felt anything decent yet," he mused.
He was an exceptionally handsome and attractive individual, and though in reality forty years of age, he had the figure, the look, and air of twenty-eight. Masses of black hair, without a white thread, waved above a beautifully-cut and modelled face, of which the clear bronze skin, with its warm colour in the cheeks, was not the least striking feature. He was about six feet or a little over in height, and had a wonderfully lithe, well-knit figure, and a carriage full of grace and dignity. A bright, charming smile that came easily to his face, and an air of absolute unconsciousness of his own good looks, completed the armoury of weapons Venus had endowed him with for breaking hearts. But Hamilton neglected his vocation: he broke none. He got up early, and slaved away at his duties for the Indian Civil Government in his office all day, and went to bed dead tired at night, with nothing but a dreary consciousness of duty done and more duty waiting for him the following day, as a sleeping companion.
Hamilton's life had been ruined by an early and an unsuccessful marriage. At twenty, when full of the early, divine fires of life, he had married a girl of his own age and rank, dazzled by the beauty she then, in his eyes, possessed, and in that amazing blindness to character that make women view men with wondering contempt. His blindness, however, ended with the ceremony. On his wedding-night the woman, who, it must be admitted, had acted her part of loving submissiveness, of gentle devotion, admirably, mocked at him and his genuine, ardent passion.
How well he had always remembered her words to him as they stood face to face in the chilly whiteness of an English bridal chamber in midwinter! "It's no use, dear, I don't want any of this sort of thing. It seems to me coarse and stupid, and I don't want the bother of a dozen babies. I married because I wanted the position of a married woman, and a nice presentable man to go about with in society. Besides, things were not satisfactory at home, and I wanted a man to keep me, and all that. But I don't see why you should get into such a state of mind about it. I will keep house, and be perfectly good and amiable, and we can go about together, of course; only I want to keep my own room."
And how well he remembered her as she stood there, shattering his life with her cold, light words—a tall, slim girl, in her white dinner dress! She had been very fair then, with a quantity of soft flaxen hair, which shortly after she had taken to dyeing—a thing he had always hated. She had a small, heart-shaped face, so light in colour as to suggest anaemia, with a high, thin nose, of which the nostrils were excessively pinched together, a short upper lip, and a thick, quite colourless mouth, small when closed, when she laughed opening wide far back to her throat, showing, as it seemed, an infinite quantity of long, narrow, white, wolf-like teeth.
How hideous she had suddenly appeared to him in those moments, seen through the dark waves of passion she rolled back upon him! In the hot, rosy glow she had deliberately conjured up before his eyes of love and love returned he had thought her beautiful. Now, as she took the veil from her mean, base mind, it fell also from her beauty, and he saw her ugly, as she really was, body and soul. Stunned and amazed, loathing his own folly, his own blindness, condemning these more than he did her cruelty, Hamilton had listened in silence while she revealed herself. When the first shock was over, he had set himself to talk and reason with her. Naturally intensely kind and sympathetic, it was easy for him to see another's view, to put himself in another's place. He blamed himself at once, more than her, for the position he now found himself in. And patiently he tried to understand it, to find the clue, if possible, to remedy it. He reasoned long and gently with her, but she, knowing well the generous nature she had to deal with, yielded not an inch. Hamilton was not the man to use force or violence. The passions of the body, divested of their soul, were nothing to him. On that night she struck down within him all desire for or interest in her. He left her at last, and withdrew to another room, where he sat through the remaining hours of the night, looking into the face of his future.
Shortly after, he had left for India, the corpse of dead passion within his breast. He made a confident of no one, told no one of his secret burden, remitted half his pay regularly to his wife with that obedience to custom and duty as the world sees it, with that quiet dutifulness that is so astounding to the onlooker, but characteristic of so many Englishmen, and threw himself into his work, avoiding women and personal relations with them.
Such a life as this invariably calls down the anger of Venus, and Hamilton had worn out by now the patience of the goddess.
The tragedy of Euripides' Hippolytus is called a myth, but that same tragedy is played out over and over again, year by year, in all time, and is as true now as it was then. The slighted goddess takes her revenge at last. As he walked on, the sound of some tom-toms dulled by distance came to his ears. He hesitated at a crossing where a side alley led down towards the bazaar, then without thought or intention walked down the turning, the music growing louder as he advanced.
It came from a house some way lower down, before the open door of which hung a large white sheet with scarlet letters on it. Hamilton glanced up and read on it, "Dancing girls from the Deccan. Admission, six annas. Walk in." He stared dully at it till the red letters danced in the fierce, torrid sunlight, and the flies, finding him standing motionless, came thickly round his face. A puff of hot wind blew down the street, bringing the dust: it lifted a corner of the sheet and turned it back from the doorway. Within looked cool and dark. The entry was a square of darkness. He was tired of the sun, the heat, the noise, the dust and the flies. With no thought other than seeking for shelter, he stepped behind the sheet and was in the darkness; a turnstile barred his way: on the top of it he laid down his six annas, his eyes too full of the yellow glare of the outside to see whom he paid: he felt the turnstile yield, and stumbled on in the obscurity. A hand pushed him between two curtains. Then he found himself in a low square room, and could see about him again by the subdued light of oil lamps fixed against the wall. At one end was the small stage, its scarlet curtain now down; in front a row of tin lamps, primitive footlights, and the rest of the room was filled with rows of empty chairs. Mechanically and without interest, Hamilton went forward and seated himself in the first of these rows. The tom-toms had ceased: there was quiet, an interval of rest presumably for the dancers. It was far cooler than outside, and Hamilton breathed a sigh of relief as he sank into his seat. The dimness of the light, the quiet, the coolness all pleased him: he had not known till he sat down how tired he was. He might have sat there a quarter of an hour, his mind in that state of hopeless blank that supervenes on overmuch unsatisfactory thinking, when suddenly the tom-toms started up again with a terrific rattle, and the scarlet curtain was somewhat spasmodically jerked up, displaying a semicircle of girls seated on European chairs facing the tin lamps. Two of the seven were African girls, with the woolly hair and jet black skin of their race; they were seated one at each end of the semicircle, dressed in short scarlet skirts, standing out from their waist in English ballet-girl fashion, the upper part of their bodies bare, except for the masses of coloured glass necklaces covering their breast from throat to waist. The next pair of girls seemed to represent Spanish dancers, and were in ankle-long black and yellow dresses, little yellow caps with bells depending from them sat in amongst their masses of black hair, and they held languidly to their sides their tambourines and castenets. Next on the chairs sat two strictly Eastern dancers in transparent pale green gauzy clothing held into waist and each ankle by jeweled bands. Their pale ivory bodies shone through the filmy green muslin as the moon shines clearly in green water, and the jewels blazed like stars with red and blue fires at each movement of their limbs. Their heads were crowned simply with white clematis, and the glory of their straight-featured Circassian faces, together with the unrivalled contours of softly moulded throat and breast and perfect limbs, veiled only so much as a light mist may veil, would have taken the breath away of the most inveterate frequenter of the Alhambra and Empire in dull old England. Hamilton drew in his breath with a little start as he first saw the semicircle, but it was not on the Circassians that his eyes were fixed, but on the very centre figure of that beautiful half-moon. Set in the centre, she seemed to be considered the pearl amongst them, as indeed she was. The mist that enveloped her was not pale green as the veils of the other two, but white, and the beautiful perfect form that it enclosed was of a warmer, brighter tint than theirs.
The white films of the drapery fell from the base of her throat, leaving her arms quite bare, but softly clinging to breast and flanks, till a gold band resting on her hips confined it closely, and depressed in the centre, was fastened by a single enormous ruby, the one spot of blood-red colour upon her. Beneath the sloping belt of gold fell her loose Turkish trousers of gleaming white, transparent tissue, clasped at the ankles by bands of gold. On her feet were little Turkish slippers, on her brow—nothing, but the crown of her radiant youth and beauty. Hamilton, gazing at it across the footlights, thought he had never seen, either pictured or in the flesh, a face so beautiful, so full of the beauty, the goodness, the power and wonder of life.
The sight thrilled him. Like the power of electricity, its power began to run along his veins, heating them, stirring them, calling upon nerve and muscle and sense to wake up. He looked, and life itself seemed to stream into him through his eyes. The girl's face was a well-rounded oval, supported on the round, perfect column of her throat; the eyes seemed pools of blackness that had caught all the splendour and the radiance of a thousand Eastern nights. The fires of many stars, the whole brilliance of the purple nights of Asia were mirrored in them. Above them rose the dark, arching span of the eyebrows on the soft warm-tinted forehead, cut in one line of severest beauty with the delicate nose. Beneath, the curling lips were like the flowers of the pomegranate, a living, vivid scarlet, and the rounded chin had the contour and bloom of the nectarine.
She smiled faintly as she met the fixed gaze of Hamilton's eyes across the footlights—such an innocent, merry little smile it seemed, not the mechanical contortions one buys with pieces of silver. Hamilton's blood seemed to catch light at it and flame all over his body. He sat upright in his seat: gone were his fatigue, his thirst, his eye-ache. His frame felt no more discomfort: his whole soul rushed to his eyes, and sat there watching. In some men their physical constitution is so closely knitted to the mental, that the slightest shock to either instantly vibrates through the other and works its effect equally on both. Hamilton was of this order, and his body responded, instantly now, to the joy and interest born suddenly in his mind.
A moment after the curtain was rolled up, a huge negro, dressed in a fancy dress of scarlet, and with a high cap of the same colour on his head, came on from the side. In his hand he carried a small dog-whip, and as he cracked it all the girls stood up. Hamilton sickened as he looked at him: an indefinable feeling of horror came over him as this man stalked about the stage. He pointed with his whip to the two African girls at the end of the semicircle, and they came forward, while the rest sat down. A horrid uneasy feeling of discomfort grew up in Hamilton, similar to that which a lover of animals feels, when called upon to witness performing dogs, and all the fear and anxiety pent up in their fast-beating little hearts is communicated to himself. He watched the girls' faces keenly as the negro went round and placed himself behind the middle chair of the semicircle, while the two Africans danced. Hamilton hardly noticed their dance, a curious barbaric performance that would have been alarming to the British matron, but was neither new nor interesting to Hamilton. He kept his eyes fixed on the white-clothed girl in the centre, and the sinister figure behind her chair. She seemed calm and indifferent, and when the negro put his hand on her shoulder looked up and listened to his words without fear or repulsion. Hamilton, keenly alive, with every sense alert, sat in his chair, a prey to the new and delightful feeling, not known for years, of interest.
Yes, he was interested, and the energetic sense of loathing for the negro proved it. The music, loud and strident—an ordinary Italian piano-organ having been introduced amongst the Oriental instruments—banged on, and then abruptly came to a stop when the negro cracked his whip. The two African women resumed their chairs, there was some applause, and a good many small coins fell on the stage from the hands of the audience. The second pair of girls rose, came forward and commenced to dance, the organ playing some appropriate Spanish airs. After these, the two Indian girls who gave the usual dance de ventre to a lively Italian air on the organ. Then, at last, she rose from her chair and approached the footlights. The organ ceased playing, only the Indian music continued: wild sensual music, imitating at intervals the cries of passion.
To this accompaniment the girl danced.
Had any British matrons been present we must hope they would have walked out, yet, to the eye of the artist, there was nothing coarse or offending, simply a most beautiful harmony of motion. The girl's beauty, her grace and youth, and the slight lissomness of all her body lent to the dance a poetry, a refinement it would not have possessed with another exponent.
Moreover, though there was a certain ardour in her looks and gestures, in the way she yielded her limbs and body to the influence of the music, yet there was also a gay innocence, a bright naive irresponsibility in it that contrasted strongly with the sinister intention underlying all the movements of the other two Indian dancers. At the end of the dance Hamilton took a rupee from his pocket and threw it across the tin lamps towards her feet. She picked it up smiling, though she left the other coins which fell on the stage untouched, and went back to her chair.
After her dance, the great negro came forward and did a turn of his own. Hamilton looked away. What was this man to the little circle? he wondered. He could not keep his mind off that one query? Were they his slaves? willing or unwilling? did they constitute his harem? or were they paid, independent workers? His mind was made up to get speech with this one girl, at least, that evening. This delightful feeling of interest, this pleasure, even this keen disgust, all were so welcome to him in the dreary mental state of indifference that had become his habit, that he welcomed them eagerly, and could not let them go. Beyond this there was rising within him, suddenly and overwhelmingly, the force of Life, indignant at the long repression it had been subjected to. Man may be a civilized being, accustomed to the artificial restraints and laws he has laid upon himself, but there remains within him still that primitive nature that knows nothing, and never will learn anything of those laws, and which leaps up suddenly after years of its prison-life in overpowering revolt, and says, "Joy is my birthright. I will have it!"
This moment is the crisis of most lives. It was with Hamilton now, and it seemed suddenly to him that twenty years of fidelity to an unloved, unloving woman was enough. The debt contracted at the altar twenty years before had been paid off. The promise, given under a misunderstanding to one who had wilfully deceived him, was wiped out. It was a marvel to him in those moments how it had held him so long.
Hamilton had one of those keen, brilliant minds that make their decisions quickly, and rarely regret them. He took his resolution now. That prisoner in revolt within him should be free; he would strike off the fetters he had worn too long and vainly. He was before the open book of Life, at that page where he had stood so long. With a firm decisive hand he would take the new page, and turn it over. That last page, on which his wife's name was written large, was completely done with, closed.
The old joyous spirit, the keen eagerness for love and joy and life, the Pagan's gay rejoicing in it, that had been such a marked feature of his disposition before his marriage, came back to him, rushed through him, refilled him.
His marriage, with its disillusionment, had crushed it out of him for a time, and, with that same decisiveness that marked him now, he had turned over the pages of youthful dreams and joys and loves, and opened the next page of work, of strenuous endeavour, of a hard, rigid observance of fidelity to the vows he had taken. And for a time work and its rewards, effort and its returns, a hard, practical life in the world amongst men, had held him. That now was no longer to be all to him.
His life, and such joy as it might hold for him, was to be his own again. The joy of the decisions filled him, elated him. He felt as if his mind had sudden wings, and could lift him with it to the roof.
Such a decision, when it comes, seems to oneself, as it seemed to Hamilton now, a sudden thing. It has the force and shock of a revelation, but it is not really sudden. The great rebellion nearly all natures—certainly some, and these usually the greatest and best—feel at the absence of joy in their lives had been gradually growing within him, gathering a little strength each day. It is only the climax of such feelings that is sudden—the awakening of the mind to their presence. The growth has been going on day by day, week by week, unmeasured, unreckoned with.
Immediately the curtain fell, Hamilton left his seat and went up to a door, reached by a few steps, on the level of the footlights, and at the left side of them. No one hindered him. The rest of the audience were going out. He pushed the door, which yielded readily, and he passed through. A narrow, white-washed, lath-and-plaster passage opened before him, at the end of which he saw a tin lamp burning against the wall and heard voices.
The passage led into a three-cornered room, where he found some of the dancers and an old woman who was huddled up on a straw mat in the corner. The negro was not there. The girls stood about idly; some were changing their clothes. They did not seem to heed his presence, except the one he was seeking, who came straight towards him. As she moved across the dirty, littered room, her limbs under their transparent covering moved, and her head was carried with the air of an empress. "Will the Sahib come with me?" she said in a low, soft tone. She raised her eyes to his face. They were wide, enquiring, like the deer's brought face to face with the hunter in the green thickets.
The other girls glanced towards him, and some smiles were exchanged, but no one approached him. They seemed to understand he was there only for the star of the troupe. Hamilton looked down into those glorious midnight eyes fixed upon him, and a faint colour came into his cheek.
"I will come wherever you lead," he answered in Hindustani. These surroundings were horrible, but the shade of them did not seem to dim her charm.
The scent in the air was disagreeable. Tawdry spangles and false jewels lay about on the tumble-down settees. From behind little doors that opened from the walls round came the sound of men's voices.
"Let the Sahib come this way, then," she answered, and turned towards one of the small doors in the wall. This took them into another tiny, musty-smelling passage that wound about like the run of a rabbit warren, only wide enough for one to pass along at a time, and the strips of lath were so low overhead that Hamilton bent his neck involuntarily to avoid them.
At a door in the side of this she stopped and pushed it open; the little run way wound on beyond in the darkness.
Hamilton followed her into the sloping-roofed, lath-and-plaster pent-house that had been run up between the back of the stage and the wall of the building. Native lamps were hooked into the wall, and their light showed the garish ugliness of it all—the hastily whitewashed walls, the scraps of ragged, dirty, scarlet cloth hung here and there over a bulge or stain in the plaster: the boarded floor, uneven and cracked: the bed against the wall, not too clean looking, its dingy curtains not quite concealing the dingier pillows; the broken chair on which a basin stood, placed on two grey-looking towels; another chair with the back rails knocked out leaning against the wall.
He threw his gaze round it in a moment's rapid survey, then he pressed to the rickety, uneven door and shot the bolt.
The girl stood in the middle of the room, an exquisitely lovely figure. She regarded him with wide, innocent eyes. Hamilton felt all the blood alight in his veins; it seemed to him he could hear his pulses beating. Never in his life before had joy and passion met within him to stir him as they did now, but in natures where there is a strong, deep strain of intellectuality the body never quite conquers the mind, the light of the intellect never quite goes down, however strong the sea, however high the waves of animal passion on which it rides; and now Hamilton felt the great appeal to his brain as well as to his senses that the girl's beauty made.
He went up to her. She looked at him with an intense admiration, almost worship in her eyes. A man at such moments looks, as Nature intended he should, his very best, and Hamilton's face, of a noble and splendid type, lighted now by the keenest animation, held her gaze.
"Tell me," he said in a low tone, for footsteps passed on the creaking boards, and gibbering voices and laughter could be heard outside, "tell me, what is that man to you? Do you belong to him, all of you?"
"That...? He is not a man, he is a ... nothing," replied the girl, looking up with calm, glorious eyes. "He can do no harm ... nor good."
Hamilton drew a quick breath.
"You dance like this every evening, and then choose someone in the audience in this way?" he questioned, slipping his hand round her neck and looking down at her, a half-amused sadness coming into his eyes.
The girl shook her head with a quick negation.
"No, I have only been here a few days—a week, I think. Did you notice that old woman as we came through here? I belong to her; she taught me to dance. She brought me here, and I dance for the Nothing, but I have never taken any one like this before. The other girls do, every night, but each night the Nothing said to me, 'No one here to-night, good enough. Wait till an English Sahib comes.'"
Hamilton listened with a paling cheek; his breath came and went faintly; he hardly seemed to draw it; he put his next question very gently, watching her open brow and proud, fearless eyes.
"Do you know nothing of men at all, then?"
"Nothing, Sahib, nothing," she answered, falling on her knees suddenly at his feet, and raising her hands towards him. "This will be my bridal night with the Sahib. The Nothing told me to please you, to do all you told me. What shall I do? how shall I please you?"
Hamilton looked down upon her: his brain seemed whirling; the pulses along his veins beat heavily; new worlds, new vistas of life seemed opening before him as he looked at her, so beautiful in her first youth, in her unclouded innocence, full, it is true, of Oriental passion, with a certain Oriental absence of shame, but untouched, able to be his, and his only.
Before he could speak again, or collect his thoughts that the girl's words had scattered, her soft voice went on:
"Surely the Sahib is a god, not a man. I have seen the men across the footlights: there were none like the Sahib. I said to my mother, 'I do not like men, I do not want them; what shall I do?' And my mother said, 'There is no hurry, my child; we will wait till a rich Sahib comes.' But you are not a man, you must be a god, you are so beautiful; and I am the slave of the Sahib, for ever and ever."
She looked up at him, great lights seemed to have been lighted in the midnight pools of her eyes, the curved lips parted a little, showing the perfect, even teeth; the rounded, warm-hued cheeks glowed; the lids of her eyes lifted as those of a person looking out into a new world.
Hamilton stood looking at her, and two great seas of conflicting emotions swept into his brain, and under their tumult he remained irresolute. Mere instincts and nature, the common impulse of the male to take his pleasure whenever offered, prompted him to draw her to his breast and let her learn the great joy of life in his arms; but some higher feeling held him back: the knowledge that the first way in which a woman learns these things colours her whole after estimation of them, restrained him.
Here he saw, suddenly, there was new ground for Love to build himself a habitation upon. Should it be but a rude shanty, loosely constructed of Desire? Was it not rather such a fair and lovely site that it was worthy a perfect temple, built and finished with delicate care?
This flower of wonderful bloom he had found by chance in such a poor, rough garden, was it not better to carry it gently to some sheltered spot, to transplant and keep it for his own, rather than just tear at it with a careless touch in passing by?
Hamilton had the brain of the artist and the poet; things touched him less by their reality than by that strange halo imagination throws round them.
The sound of some shuffling steps in the passage outside, a lurch as of some drunken and unsteady figure, some whispered words, and then a burst of ribald laughter just outside the door, decided him. No: her wedding night should not be here. Keen in his sympathy with women, Hamilton knew how often that night recurs to a woman's thoughts, and should its memories always bring back to her this loathsome shed, these hideous sounds?
A repulsion so great filled him that it swept back his desire for the moment. A great eagerness to get her away unharmed, unsoiled from such a place, filled him. Already she seemed to be part of himself, to be a possession he must guard. His heart was empty and hungry: by means of her beauty and this strange unexpected innocence she had so suddenly revealed to him, she had leapt into it, made it her own. He sat down on the mean, dingy bed, and drew her warm, supple body into his arms: she stood within their circle submissively, quivering with pleasure. His touch was very gentle and reverent, for he was a man who knew the value of essentials; his brain was keen enough to go down to them and judge of them, undeterred and unhindered and undeceived by externals, by fictitious emblems. He saw here that he was in the presence of a tender, youthful, unformed mind of complete innocence, and the abhorrent surroundings affected that essential not at all.
A married woman in his own rank, with her dozen lovers and her knowledge of evil, high in the favour of the world, could never have had from him the same reverence that he gave to this dancing-girl of the Deccan, who in the world's eyes was but a creature put under his feet for him to trample on.
"Would you like to leave all these people and come to live only with me? dance only for me?" he said softly, looking into those great wondering eyes fixed in awe upon his face.
"Would you like to have a house to yourself, and a garden full of flowers, and stay there with me alone?"
The girl clasped her hands joyously, smile after smile rippled over the brilliant face.
"Oh, Sahib, it would be paradise! If I can stay with the Sahib, I shall be happy anywhere. I am the slave of the Sahib. If he but use me as the mat before his door to walk upon, I shall be content."
Hamilton shivered. He drew her a little closer. "Hush! I do not like to hear you say those things. You shall come to me and sleep in my arms, but not to-night. Love is a very great thing: it will be a great thing with us, and it must not be thought of lightly, do you see? Will you stay here and think of me only till I come again? Think of your bridal night with me, dream of me till I come back for you?"
"The Sahib's will is my law; but even if I wished, I could think of nothing else but him till I see him again," she responded, her eyes fixed upon his face. Hamilton gazed upon her. She made such a lovely picture standing there: he thought he had never seen beauty so perfect, so exquisitely fresh. The soft transparent tunic did not conceal it, only lightly veiled its bloom. Her breasts, rounded and firm, stood out as a statue's. They seemed to express the vigour of her buoyant youth: they had never known artificial support, and needed none. The waist was naturally slight, the hips also, the straight supple limbs and round arms were the most richly-modelled parts, perhaps, of the whole perfect form.
Hamilton slipped his arm down to her yielding waist and drew her closer. Then he bent his head and kissed the wonderfully-carved and glowing mouth. With a little cry of joy the girl threw both arms about his neck and kissed him back with a wealth of fervour in her lips, pressing her soft bosom against his in all the natural, unrestrained ardour of a first and new-found love.
"Sahib, Sahib! do not leave me long. Come and take me away soon! I am all yours! No other shall see me till you come again."
Hamilton was satisfied. He raised his head, his whole ardent nature aflame.
"Dear little girl, let us go then to the old woman, and perhaps I can pay her enough to make her take you away from here, and keep you safe till I can come for you."
"Come, Sahib, come!" she answered, joyfully drawing out of his arms and running across the room; she unbolted the door and pulled it open, nearly causing the old woman who was crouched just outside, and apparently leaning against it, to roll into the room.
"Saidie, Saidie! you have no respect for me," she grumbled, getting on her feet with some difficulty. Hamilton came up, and helped to balance her as she stood.
"Your Saidie pleases me very much," he said, drawing out a pocket-book. "I want to take her away from here altogether. How much do you ask for her?"
The old woman's beady-black eyes twinkled and gleamed, and fixed on the pocket-book.
"It is not possible, Sahib," she said in a grumbling tone, "for me to part with her and her services. A girl like that with her beauty, her dancing, her singing! She will earn gold every night. Let the Sahib come here each evening if he will and take his turn with the rest. For a girl like that to go to one man alone is waste and folly."
The colour mounted to Hamilton's face. His brows contracted.
"What I have to say is this," he answered sternly and briefly, "I want this girl, and if you take her with you to some place of safety for to-night, I will come to-morrow or the next day and give you 2000 rupees for her—no more and no less. I have spoken."
"Two thousand rupees!" replied shrilly the old woman, "for Saidie, the star of the dancers, and not yet fifteen! No, Sahib, no! a Parsee will give more than that for a half hour with her."
Hamilton caught the old creature by her skinny arm:
"You waste your words talking to me," he said. "I am a police magistrate, and I can have your whole place here closed, and all of you put in prison, if I choose. The girl is willing to come with me, and I will take her and pay you well for her. You have her ready for me to-morrow night, or you go to prison—which you please." The old woman shivered at the word magistrate, and fell trembling on her knees.
"Let the Sahib have mercy! That great black brute will kill me if the police come here. I take Saidie to my house, the Sahib comes there when he will. He pays, he has her. It is all finished."
She spread out her thin black hands in a shaking gesture of finality, and then fell forward and kissed Hamilton's boots after the complimentary but embarrassing manner of natives. Hamilton drew back a little. He was angered that Saidie should be witness, auditor of all this. She stood silent, passive, gazing at the hot, angry colour mounting to his face. He bent forward and dragged the old woman up by her arms.
"Take this for yourself now," he said, putting a hundred-rupee note into her hand, "and make no more difficulty. Take every care of Saidie, and you will have your two thousand rupees very shortly."
The old woman seized the note, and began to mumble blessings on Hamilton, which he cut short: "Give me the name of your street and the house where you live, that I may find you easily," he said, and noted down the directions she gave him. Then he turned to the girl and put his arm round her neck.
"Dear Saidie! I trust to you. Remember it is your innocence, your virtue, I love more than your beauty. Do not dance nor let anyone see you till I come again."
He kissed her on the lips as she promised him. The soft, warm form thrilled against him as their lips met. Then with a mental wrench he turned and went out of the room and quickly down the dark passage.
At the end his way was barred by the immense form of the negro.
"Something for me, master; do not forget me! I keep the pretty things here for the gentlemen to see."
Hamilton drew back with loathing. Then he reflected—it was better, perhaps, to keep all smooth.
He dived into his pockets and found a roll of small notes, which he pushed into the negro's hand. The man bowed and let him pass, and Hamilton went on out into the street.
It was evening now. The calm, lovely golden light of an Indian evening fell all around him as he walked rapidly back to his bungalow. As he entered it, how different he felt from the man who had left it that morning! How light his footstep, how bright and keen the tone of his voice! It quite surprised himself as he called out to his butler that he was ready for dinner. Then he bounded up to his room humming. His very muscles were of quite a different texture seemingly now from an hour or two ago! How the blood flew about joyously in his body! Dear Venus! she makes us pay generally, but who can cavil at the glorious gifts she gives? As soon as his dinner was disposed of, and all his other servants had retired from the room, Hamilton called his butler, Pir Bakhs, to him, and held a long conference with that intelligent and trustworthy individual. Hamilton was one of those men that by reason of his strikingly good looks, his charm of manner, his consideration for others, and his complete control over himself that never allowed him to be betrayed into an unjust word or action was greatly liked by every one, and simply worshipped by his servants and all those in any way in a position dependent on him.
When to-night Pir Bakhs was honoured by his confidence, the servant's whole will and all his keen energies rose with delight to serve his master. After he had listened in silence to Hamilton's wishes, he proceeded to make himself master of the whole scheme, detail by detail.
"The Sahib wishes a very beautiful bungalow far out, away from the city? I know of one house across the desert; my cousin was butler there. The Sahib went away to England, and the bungalow is to be let furnished. Have I the Sahib's permission to go down to bazaar, see my cousin to-night? I make all arrangements. I go to-morrow morning; I get cook and all other servants. I stay there and make all ready for the Sahib to-morrow evening."
Hamilton smiled at the man's eagerness to serve him. He knew well that secretly in his heart his Mahommedan butler had always deplored the severely monastic style in which he had lived, the absence of women in his master's bungalow, the emptiness of his arms that should have had to bear his master's children, and that he now was ready to welcome heartily his master's reformation.
"Could you really do all that, Pir Bakhs?" he asked; "and can you assure me that the house is a good one, and has the compound been well kept up?"
"The house is about the same as this, but not quite so large. It is in the oasis of Deira, across the desert. The Sahib knows how well the palms grow there. My cousin tells me the compound is very large; the Sahib there kept four malis; very fine garden, many English roses there."
[Footnote 1: Gardeners.]
"English roses I do not care for, Pir Bakhs," returned Hamilton with a melancholy smile. "The roses of the East are far fairer to me."
The butler bowed with his hand to his forehead. He took his master's speech as a gracious compliment to his country.
"Everything grow there," he answered, spreading out his hands: "pomegranates, bamboo, mangoes, bananas, sago palm, cocoanut palm, magnolia—everything. I go to-morrow, I engage malis; I have all ready for the Sahib."
"Very well, I trust you with it all. I shall keep on this house just as it is, and leave most of the servants here. You and your wives must come out with me, and you engage any other necessary servants and hire any extra furniture you want."
"The Sahib is very good to his servant," returned the butler, his face lighting up joyfully. "When will the Sahib shed the light of his countenance on the bungalow?"
"I will try to run out to see it, to-morrow, after office hours," replied Hamilton, "if you will have all ready by then. I shall look over it, and return to dine here as usual. Then about ten or later, I will come over and bring your new mistress out with me. You must have a good supper waiting for us. Take over all the linen and plate you may want, but see that enough is left in this house so that I can entertain the English Sahibs here if I want to, and let my riding camel be well fed early. I shall use him for coming and going. That's all, I think."
The butler bowed, and retired radiant with joyous importance, and Hamilton sat on alone by the table thinking. The blood ran at high tide along his veins, his eyes glowed, looking into space. Life, he thought, what a joyous thing it was when it stretched out its hands full of gifts!
The following afternoon, directly his work at the office was finished, he went out to the oasis in the desert to look at his new possession, his bungalow in the palms.
The moment he saw it peeping out from amongst them, and surrounded by roses, he expressed himself satisfied, and named the place Saied-i-stan, or the place of happiness.
The butler met him there; he was bursting with self-importance.
"You leave everything to me, Sahib—everything. I know all the Sahib wants. He shall have all. Let him come, ten o'clock, nine o'clock, no matter when; all quite ready. I am here. I have everything waiting for the Sahib."
Hamilton smiled and praised him, and went back to the station; took a pretence of dinner and a hurried cup of coffee, and then went down into the bazaar with the precious bit of paper containing the directions to Saidie's dwelling-place in his breast pocket.
He found the house at last, and, going in at the doorless entrance, climbed patiently the wooden stairs that ran straight up from it in complete darkness. On the topmost landing—a frail wooden structure that creaked beneath his feet—he paused, and rapped twice on the door opposite him.
His heart beat rapidly as he stood there; the blood seemed flying through it. All the strength of his vigorous body seemed gathering itself together within him, all the fire of his keen, hungry brain leapt up, and waiting there in the dark on the narrow landing he knew the joy of life.
The door was opened. In a moment his eye swept round the interior of the high windowless room. The floor was bare, with mats here and there, and in the centre stood a flat pan of charcoal, glowing under a closed and steaming cooking-pot. At one end a coarse chick, suspended from a wooden bar, dropped its long lines to the floor, and behind this, on some cushions, sat Saidie with another of the dancing-girls.
The old woman who had opened the door, salaamed, touching the floor with her forehead as Hamilton walked in, and then securely shut and fastened the door behind him. Saidie rose and looked through the shimmering lines of the chick at him as he entered.
Very handsome the tall commanding figure looked in the mean, bare room: the long neck and well-modelled head, with its black, close-cut hair, stood out a noble relief against the colourless wall, and the clear brown skin, with the warm tint of quick blood in it that showed above the English collar, arrested the girl's eyes with a keen thrill of joy. Looking at him, she felt rushing through her the passionate delight that self-surrender to such a man would be. Without waiting to be summoned, she parted the lines of the chick, came out from them, and fell on her knees at his feet.
The heat in the shut-up room was very great, and she was wearing only a straight white muslin tunic, through which all the soft beauty of her form could be seen, as an English face is seen through a veil. Her hair was looped back from her brows and tied simply with a piece of green ribbon, as an English girl's might have been, and flowed in its thick, black glossy waves to her waist.
Hamilton bent over her and raised her in his arms, feeling in that moment, though the whole universe were reeling and rocking round him to its ruin, he would care nothing while he pressed that soft breast to his.
The old woman sat down cross-legged by the charcoal, and began to fan it.
The other girl behind the chick looked out curiously, but her eyes never noted the strength and beauty of Hamilton's figure, nor the bright glow in the oval cheek: she looked to see if he wore rings on his fingers, and tried to catch sight of the links in his cuffs to see if they were silver or gold.
Saidie had the divine gift of passion: all the fire of the gods in her veins. Zenobie had none, and Saidie's joy now was something she could not understand.
"Have you come to take me away, now at once?" Saidie murmured in a soft, passionate whisper close to his ear, and the accent of joy and delight went quivering down through the deepest recesses of the man's being.
"Yes: are you ready to come with me?" Needless question! put only for the supreme pleasure of listening to its answer.
"Oh, more than ready," whispered the soft voice back. "How shall the slave explain her longing to her lord?"
Zenobie had come round the chick, while they stood by the door, and drawn forward the one little low wooden stool that they possessed. She came up now, and pulled at Saidie's sleeve.
"Let the Sahib be seated," she said reprovingly, and Saidie let her arms slip from his neck and drew him forward to the stool by the charcoal pan.
With some difficulty Hamilton drew up his long legs and seated himself cautiously on the small seat; Saidie and Zenobie sat cross-legged on the ground close to his feet. The old woman ceased to fan the fire; the bright red glow of the coals fell softly on the strong, noble beauty of the man's face, and Saidie, looking up to it, sat speechless, her bosom heaving, her lips parted, her dark eyes full of mysterious fires, melting, swimming, behind their veil of lashes.
Zenobie watched her with curiosity: what did she feel for this infidel who wore no rings and only silver in his cuffs?
Hamilton, as soon as he was seated, drew out his pocket-book—old and worn, for he spent little on himself—and opened it.
The old woman sat up. Zenobie's eyes gleamed: the business was going to commence. Only Saidie did not stir nor move her eyes from his face.
"Two thousand rupees was the price agreed upon; here it is," he said, taking out a thick bundle of notes that occupied the whole inside of the poor, limp pocket-book; and as the old woman stretched out a skinny claw for them and began to slowly count them, he turned his gaze away, on to the upturned face of the girl watching him with sensual adoration.
The old woman counted through the notes, and then securely tied them into the end of her chudda.
"The sum is the due sum, well counted," she said, looking up; "and when will my lord take his slave?"
"To-night," Hamilton replied briefly, but not without a swift enquiring glance into the girl's eyes. Though he had bought and paid for her, he could not get out of the Western knack of considering that the girl's desires had to be consulted.
The old woman raised her hands in affected horror.
"To-night! But she is not well clothed, she is not bathed and anointed; the bridal robes are not prepared. My lord, it cannot be!"
Hamilton looked at Saidie; she crept to his side and put her head on his breast.
"Yes, to-night, take me to-night," she murmured eagerly; he smiled, and put his arm around her.
"The bridal clothes are of no consequence," he answered decisively. "My camel waits below. I will take her to-night."
"She has no shoes," objected the old woman. "She cannot descend the stairs."
"I will carry her down," replied Hamilton, and, springing up from the little stool, he stooped over the lovely form at his feet, raising her into his arms, close to his breast. Saidie clung to his neck with a little cry of pleasure, her bare, warm-tinted feet hung over his arm.
The old woman gasped: Zenobie laughed. The Englishman looked so big, so immensely strong. The weight of Saidie, tall and well-developed as she was, seemed as nothing to him.
"Zenobie, will you hold the lamp at the doorway, that he may see his way?" Saidie cried out, slipping off a thin gold circlet she wore on her arm, and letting it drop into the other's hands.
"Farewell, Zenobie; may you be always as happy as I am now."
Zenobie caught the bracelet and ran to the wall, unhooked the lamp that hung there, and came to the door.
"Farewell, my mother," Saidie said, as they turned to it.
"Farewell, my daughter; be submissive to the Sahib, and obey him in all things."
The door was opened, and by the dim, uncertain light of Zenobie's lamp, Hamilton, clasping his warm, living burden, went slowly and heavily down the bending stairs, feeling the life brimming in every vein.
Outside, in the tranquil splendour of the starry Eastern night, knelt the camel, peacefully awaiting its lord, and as Hamilton approached it with his burden, it turned its head and large, liquid eyes upon him with a gurgle of pleasure.
"The camel loves Hamilton Sahib," murmured the girl, as he set her on the soft red cloth laid over the animal's back, which formed the only saddle. He took his own place in front of her.
"Hold to my belt firmly," he told her, gathering into his hand the light rein. "Are you ready for him to rise?"
He felt her little, soft hands glide in between his belt and waist.
"Yes, I am quite ready," she answered, and at a word of encouragement, the great beast rose with its slow, stately swing to its feet, and Hamilton guided it towards the Meidan. The soft, hot air stirred against their faces as they moved through the night.
Nothing could present a more lovely picture than the bungalow that evening. A low, white house, looking in the moonlight as if built of marble, surrounded by masses of palms which threw a delicate tracery of shadow upon it and drooped their beautiful, fan-like, feathery branches over it, between it and the jewelled sky.
A light verandah ran around the lower of the two stories, completely covered by the white, star-like bloom of the jessamine that poured forth floods of fragrance like incense on the hot, still air, and a giant pink magnolia rioted over the wide porch of lattice-work. Within it was brightly lighted, and a warm glow from shaded lamps came out from each window, stealing softly through the veil of scented jessamine and falling on the masses of pink roses surrounding the house.
The deep peace, the sweet scent in the silence, the kiss of the moonlight and the starlight on the sleeping flowers, the exquisite form of the shadows on the white wall, filled Hamilton with pleasure: each sense seemed subtly ministered to; he felt as if invisible spirits round him were feeding him with ambrosia.
He turned round to Saidie as the camel slowly and majestically entered the compound gate, and saw her clearly framed in the soft silver light; all this wondrous beauty round them seemed to be to her beauty but as the harmonies that in an opera float round the central air. And she smiled as he turned upon her.
"How do you like your new house, Saidie?" he said, half laughing as he leant back to her.
"Surely it is Paradise, Sahib," she murmured back in awestruck tones.
Within the door waited the servants to welcome them in a double line, and as Saidie entered, they fell flat with their faces on the floor. She passed through the prostrate row saluting them, and on to the foot of the stairs. The ayah that the butler had engaged rose and followed her mistress upstairs, where she was ushered into her bath and dressing-room; while the butler, swelling with importance and joyous pride, led Hamilton to the large room he had prepared as a bedroom on the first floor. As they went in Hamilton gave a murmur of approval very dear to the man's heart, as he heard it, standing respectfully by the door.
The room was large, and two windows, draped with curtains, stood open to the soft night.
The bed in the centre of the room was one of the wide Indian charpais which are unrivalled for comfort, and glimmered softly white beneath its filmy mosquito curtains in the lamplight shed by four handsome rose-shaded lamps. Small tables stood everywhere, bearing vases of fresh flowers, roses, and stephanotis; a rich, deep rose-coloured carpet spread all over the floor, with only a small border of chetai visible round the walls; and two easy-chairs of the same colour and numerous smaller ones piled up with cushions completed the equipment of the room. The air was full of scent, and the scheme of colour in the room perfect. Nothing but rose and white was allowed to meet the eye. The flowers were selected with this view, and the great bowls of roses all blushed the same glorious tint through the snowy whiteness of the stephanotis.
The room suggested, in its softly-lighted glow of pink and white, a bridal chamber.
Hamilton turned to his servant with a pleased smile on his handsome, animated face.
"You are an artist, Pir Bakhs, and a sort of magician, to do all this in twelve hours."
Pir Bakhs bowed and salaamed by the door, his well-formed polished face wreathed in many smiles.
Downstairs the girl was already waiting for her lord, bathed, and with her long hair shaken out and brushed after the dust of the desert ride, and looped back from her forehead by a fresh green ribbon. She did not sit down, but stood waiting.
This room showed the same care as the upper one, and the table was laid out with Hamilton's plate and glass and four beautiful epergnes held the flowers.
Natives are artists, particularly in colour arrangements; the whole colour scheme here was white and green, and any table in Belgravia would have had hard work to equal this one. Saidie stood looking at it, and the servants, already ranged by the sideboard, stood with their eyes on the ground, yet conscious of her wonderful beauty, and pleased by it in the same way that they would have felt pride and pleasure in the beauty and good condition of a new horse or camel acquired by their master.
After a few minutes Hamilton came down. He had put on his evening clothes as they had been laid out for him by the bearer, and looked radiant as he entered.
Saidie gave a little cry as she saw him. His present dress, well cut and close-fitting, showed his splendid figure to greater advantage than the loose suit she had seen him in hitherto. His long neck carried his fine, spirited head erect, and the masses of thick, black hair, with just the least wave in it, shone in the lamplight. His well-cut face, with its gay animation and charming, debonair, unaffected expression, made a kingly and perfect picture to the girl's dazzled eyes.
As they took their places and their soup was served, she could not detach her gaze from his face.
He laughed as he looked at her.
"Come, you must be hungry. Take your soup while it's hot; don't waste your time looking at me."
"Sahib, I cannot help looking at you. You are so wonderful to me! Please give me leave to. I do not want any soup."
Hamilton, who by this time had finished his own, leant back in his chair and laughed again, looking at her with eyes blazing with mirth and passion. This innocent, genuine admiration was very pleasing to him in its flattery; this worship offered to himself, rather than his gifts, was something new to him, and the girl's beauty sent all the fires of life in quick streams through his frame as he looked on it. He was alive for the first time in his existence, and filled with a surprised happiness as great as the girl's. He was as virgin to joy as she was to love. "You are the dearest little girl I ever knew," he said; "but if you won't take soup, you must eat fish. Yes, I positively refuse you my permission to look at me till you have finished that whole plate."
Saidie dropped her eyes to her fish very submissively at this, while Hamilton himself filled her glass.
"Have you ever tasted wine?" he asked. "This is champagne; drink it, and tell me what you think of it."
"All my people are Mahommedans; we do not drink wine," Saidie replied, taking up the glass and sipping from it.
"Perhaps you won't like it," he suggested, watching her.
"If the Sahib gives it to me I shall like it," replied Saidie, smiling at him over the delicate golden glass: it threw its light upwards into her great gleaming eyes, and Hamilton kissed the little hand that put the glass gently down on the table again.
Next after the fish came game and joints, course after course, more food in that one meal than Saidie was accustomed to see for many people for a week. Her own appetite was soon satisfied, and she sat for the most part gazing at Hamilton, with her hands tightly locked together in her lap: such a nervous delight filled her, such a strange joy in knowing herself to be alive, to be possessed of a beautiful body that by reason of its beauty was worthy the caresses of a man like this; such a pure rapture animated every fibre, to realise that it was in her power to give pleasure to him. With such feelings as these no faintest hint of humiliation or degradation could mingle. Saidie felt only that superb and joyous pride that Nature originally intended the female to have in her surrender to the male.
Her very breath seemed to flutter softly with joyous trepidation and excitement as it passed over her lips. That she was to be his, held in his arms, admitted to his embrace, seemed to her to be the crown of her life, an honour given by special divine favour.
So must Rhea Sylvia have felt praying before her Vestal altar when Mars first appeared to her startled eyes.
And Hamilton, with his keen, sensitive temperament, saw into her mind clearly, and was fully aware of all this fervent adoration, this intense passionate worship springing within her; and an immense tenderness and reverence grew up within him, enclosing all his passion as the crystal vessel encloses the crimson wine.
That she would not in her present state have shrunk or flinched from a knife, if only his hand held it while it wounded her, he knew quite well, and this wonderful voluntary self-sacrifice which is the soul of all female passion appealed to him as a very holy thing.
He knew that constantly this adoring love was poured out by women for men, that almost every virgin heart beats with this same worship as the first pain of love enters it, but ah! for how short a time! How quickly the man tears open those eyes that would so willingly be closed to his vileness! how soon come the infidelity, the lies and the meanness, the trickery and the treachery! How assiduously the man teaches the woman who loves him that there is nothing in him worthy of adoration, not even admiration, not even decent respect! How little confidence, how little credence she soon gives to his word that was once so sacred to her! How in her heart, though her lips say nothing, is that once rapturous worship changed into a measureless contempt!
Men persistently teach women that they must not expect the best from them, but the lowest. And the women cry in pain as they see the white mantle of their love trampled upon and dragged in the mire of lies and falseness, and they take it back from the base hands and burn it in the fires kindled in their outraged hearts. Something of this flashed through Hamilton's brain as he met the adoring trust and love in the girl's eyes, and an unspoken vow formed itself within him that he would not deceive and betray it, that his lips should not lie to her, that to the end he would be to her as she now saw him in the glamour of those first hours.
When he had tempted her to every sweet and bon-bon on the table, and made her drink all the wine he thought good for her, he sent the servants away, and they remained alone together in the dining-room with their coffee before them. He put his arm round her, and drawing her out of her own chair, took her on to his knees and pressed her head down on his shoulder.
"Are you not tired with that long ride on the camel?" he asked.
"No, Sahib, I am not tired."
The soft weight of her body pressed upon him; her lids drooped over her eyes as her head leaned against his neck.
"I think you are tired and very sleepy," he repeated, pinching the glowing arm in its transparent muslin sleeve.
"If the Sahib says so, I must be," responded Saidie quite simply.
"Come, then, and sleep," he said in her ear, and they went upstairs.
Saidie gave a little cry of delight as they entered together the rose-filled room, and beyond its soft shaded lights she saw the great flashing planets in the dark sky.
"This is a different and a better home for love than we had last night," said Hamilton softly, as he closed the door.
A great peace reigned all round them. Within and without the bungalow there was no sound. The lights burned steadily and subdued, the sweet scent of the flowers hung in the air like a silent benediction upon them.
He put his arm round her, and felt her tremble excessively as his hand unfastened the clasp of her tunic. He stopped, surprised.
"Why do you tremble so? Are you afraid of me?" he asked, looking down upon her, all the tenderness and strength of a great passion in his eyes.
"No, no," she returned passionately, "I tremble because great waves of happiness rush over me at your touch. I cannot tell you what I feel, Sahib; the love and happiness within me is breaking me into fragments."
"Then you must break in my arms," he murmured back softly, drawing her into his embrace, "so that I shall not lose even one of them."
* * * * *
In the morning a flood of sunlight rushing into the room through the open windows, bringing with it the gay chatter of birds, roused the lovers. Hamilton opened his eyes first, and, lifting his head from the pillow, looked down upon Saidie still asleep beside him. In the rich mellow light of the room her loveliness glowed under his eyes like a jewel held in the sun. He hardly drew his breath, looking down upon her. Her heavy hair, full of deep purplish shades, and with the wave in it not unusual in the Asiatic, was pushed off the pale, pure bronze of the forehead, on which were drawn so perfectly the long-sweeping Oriental brows. The nose, delicately straight, with its proud high-arched nostrils, and the tiny upper lip, led the eye on to the finely-carved Eastern mouth, of which the lips now were softly, firmly folded in repose. How exquisitely Nature had fashioned those lips, putting more elaborate work in those lines and curves of that one feature than in the whole of an ordinary English face. Hamilton hung over her, filled with a passion of tenderness, watching the gentle breath move softly the warm column of bronze throat and raise the soft, full breast.
Passion, in its highest phase, is indeed the supreme gift of the gods. In giving it to a mortal for once they forget their envy: for once they raise him to their level; for that once they grant him divinity.
Hamilton now marvelled at himself. The whole fruit of his forty years of life—all that accomplished work, success, wealth, rewarded worth, satisfied ambition, all the pleasures his youth, his health and strength, and powers had always brought him, crushed together—could not equal this: the charm and ecstasy with which he gazed down on this warm beauty of the flesh beside him.
And yet he knew that it was not really in that flesh, not even in that beauty, that lay the delight. It was in himself, in his own intense desire, and the gratification of it, that the joy had birth; and if the gods give not this desire, no matter what else they give, it is useless.
The girl might have been as lovely, Hamilton himself, and all the circumstances the same, yet waking thus he might have been but the ordinary poor, cold, clay-like mortal a man usually is. But the great desire for this beauty that had flamed up within him, now in its possession, gave him that fervour and fire, those wings to his soul, that seemed to make him divine. It was for him one of those moments for which men live a life-time, as he indeed had done, but they repay him when they come. To some, they come never. To these life must indeed be dark.
Suddenly the girl opened her eyes; the fire in his bent upon her seemed to electrify and thrill her into life, and with a little murmur of delight she stretched up her rounded arms to him.
At breakfast Hamilton regretted he should have to leave her all day; what would she do?
"You must not think of it, Sahib," she answered. "Have I not the garden? I shall be quite happy. I shall sing all day long to the flowers about my lord, and count the minutes till he comes back."
The office did not attract Hamilton at all that day, yet he felt it was better to attend there as usual, to make no break in his usual routine.
Scandal there was sure to be, sooner or later, about his desert-bungalow, but at least it was better not to give to the scandal-mongers the power to say he had neglected his duties. Yet he lingered over his departure, and took her many times into his arms to kiss her before he went, keeping his impatient Arab waiting at the door. He would not use the camel again this morning, but left it resting in its corner of the compound beneath the palms.
After Hamilton had gone, Saidie stepped through the long window into the verandah, full of green light, completely shaded as it was by the giant convolvulus that spread all over it. The chetai crushed softly under her feet, and she went on slowly to the end where it opened to the compound. Here she stood for a moment gazing into the wilderness of beauty of mingled sun and shade before her.
Against the dazzling blue of the sky the branches of the palms stood out in gleaming gold, throwing their light shade over the masses of crimson and white and yellow roses that rioted together beneath. Groves of the feathery bamboo drooped their delicate stems in the fervent, sweet-scented heat, over the white, thick-lipped lilies, from one to other of which passed languidly on velvet wings great purple butterflies.
The pomegranate trees made a fine parade of their small, exquisite scarlet flowers, and pushed them upwards into the sparkling sunlight through the veils of white starry blossoms of the jessamine that climbed over and trailed from every tree in the compound.
The girl went forward dreaming. How completely, superbly happy she was! And she had nothing but the gifts of Nature, such as she, the kindly one, gives to the gay bird swinging on the bough, the butterfly on the flower, the deer springing on the hills: health and youth, beauty and love.
These only were hers; nothing that man ordinarily strives for—neither wealth nor fame, fine houses, costly garments, jewels, slaves, power; none of these were hers. Over her body hung simply a muslin tunic worth a few annas; of the garden in which she stood not a flower belonged to her, no weight of jewels lay on her happy heart. She had no name; she was only a dancing-girl from the Deccan. With the animals she shared that wonderful kingdom of joy that they possess: their food and mate secured, their vigorous health bounding in their limbs, their beauty radiant in their perfect bodies.
Are they not the Lords of Creation in the sense that they are lords of joy? Man is the slave of the earth, doomed by his own vile lusts to bondage of the most dismal kind. All of those gifts that Nature gives, and from which alone can be drawn happiness, he tramples beneath his feet, putting his neck under the yoke of ceaseless toil, striving for things which in the end bring neither peace nor joy.
All within the compound under the reign of Nature rejoiced. The parroquets swung on the trees, and the butterflies floated from the marble whiteness of the lily's cloisters to the deep, warm recesses of the rose, and the dancing-girl walked singing through the sparkling, scented air thinking of her lord.
Hamilton, speeding down the dusty, burning road to his office in the native city, felt a strange bounding of his heart as his thoughts clung to the low, white bungalow amongst the palms outside the station, and all that it held for him.
He went through his work that day with a wonderful energy, born of the new life within him. Nothing fatigued, nothing worried him. The court-house air did not oppress him. He heard the pleadings and made his decisions with ease and promptitude. His patience, gentleness, his clearness and force of brain were wonderful. The whole electricity of his body was satisfied: the man was perfectly well and perfectly happy. Who cannot work under such conditions? In the evening his horse was brought round, and with a wild leaping of the heart he swung himself into the saddle. The animal felt instantly the elation of his master, and at once broke into a canter; as this was not checked, he threw up his lovely head, and as Hamilton turned across the plain, let himself go in a long gallop towards where the palms glowed living gold against the rose-hued sky.
Hamilton had hardly passed through the white chick into the interior of the house before he heard the sound of bare feet upon the matting, and through the soft magnolia-scented, pinky gloom of the room, shaded from the sunset light, Saidie came and fell at his knees, taking his dusty hands and kissing them.
Hamilton lifted her up, and held her a little from him, that he might feast his eyes on the delicate beautiful carving of the lips, and on the great velvet eyes, soft, round throat, and breasts swelling so warmly lovely under the transparent gauze.
Then he crushed her up in his arms close to his breast, and carried her to their own room with the golden and green chicks all round it, where the servants did not come without a summons. The garland she had twisted on her head smelt sweetly of roses, and the masses of her silky hair of sandal-wood; her soft lips, that knew so well instinctively the art of kissing, were on his; the warm, tender arms clasped his neck. All the way that he carried her she murmured little words of passion in his ear.
After dinner the servants carried chairs for them into the verandah, with a small table laden with drinks and sweetmeats, that they might sit and watch the moon rising behind the palms in the compound, and see the hot silver light pour slowly through their exquisite branches and foliage.
"How did you amuse yourself all day?" he asked her as she sat on his knee, his arm round the flexible, supple waist pulsating under the silky web of her tunic.
"I was so happy. I had so much to do, so much to think of," she answered, gazing back into his eyes bent upon her, and eagerly drawing in their fire. "I wandered in the compound and made garland after garland, then I sang to my rabab and practised my dancing. In the heat I went in and slept on my lord's bed dreaming of him—ah! how I dreamt of him!" She broke off sighing, and those sighs fanned the blazing fires in the man's veins.
"You were quite contented, then, with your day?"
"How could I not be contented when I had my lord to think about, his love of last night, his love of the coming night?"
Hamilton sighed and smiled at the same time.
"English wives need more than that to make them content," he answered.
"English wives," repeated Saidie, with her laugh like the sound of a golden bell; "what do they know of love?"
"Not much certainly, I think," replied Hamilton.
For a moment the vision of a thin blonde face, with its expression of sour discontent, rose before him. What had he not given that woman—what had she not demanded? Extravagant clothes to deck out her tall lean body, a carriage to drive her here and there, a mansion to live in, all the money he could gain by constant work—these things she demanded because she was his wife, and he had given them, and yet she was always discontented, simply because she was one of those women who do not know desire nor the delight of it. This one had nothing but that divine gift, and it made all her life joy.
"Dance for me now in the cool," murmured Hamilton in the little fine curved ear with the rose-bud just over it.
Saidie slipped off his knee, and fastening the little gilt link at her neck more securely, drew her soft filmy garment more closely to her, and commenced to dance before him in the screened verandah, with the hot moonlight, filtered through the delicate tracery; of innumerable leaves falling on her smooth, warm-tinted body.
To please him, to please him, her lord, her owner, her king: it was the one passion in her thoughts, and it flowed through every limb and muscle, glowed in her eyes, quivered on her parted lips, and made each movement a miracle of sweet sinuous grace.
The soft, hot night passed minute by minute, the scents of a thousand flowers mingled together in the still violet air. Some white night-moths came and fluttered round the exquisite form on whose rounded contours the light played so softly, and Hamilton lay back in his chair, silent, absorbed, hardly drawing his breath through his lungs, shaken by the nervous beating of his heart. Motionless he lay there, almost breathless, for the wine of life was in all his veins, mounting to his head, intoxicating him.
"I am very tired; may I stop now?" came at last in a low murmur from the curved lips so sweetly smiling at him, and the whole soft body drooped like a flower with fatigue. Hamilton opened his arms wide. She saw how the fresh colour glowed in the handsome cheek, how his splendid neck swelled as the red deer's in November, how the dark eyes blazed upon her.
"Come to me," he commanded, and she flew to his arms as the love-bird flies upward to her mate in the pomegranate tree.
For three months Hamilton and Saidie lived in the white bungalow in the palms, and drank of the wine of life together, and were happy in the overwhelming intoxication it gives.
For three months Saidie lived there, never going beyond the precincts of the house and the palace of flowers that was the compound.
Why should she leave them? What had she to gain by going out into the dusty way? What had she to seek? Her garden of Eden, her Paradise, was here. She was too wise to go beyond its limits.
Pedlars and merchants of all sorts brought their best and richest wares to her, and Hamilton sat by her in the verandah, commanding her to buy all that pleased her, though she protested she needed nothing.
Jewels for her neck, and gold anklets and bracelets, and robes and sweetmeats were laid out before her. Only the best of the bazaar was brought, and of this again only the best was chosen. And when Hamilton was not there she walked from room to room singing, clothed in purple silken gauze, with his jewels blazing on her breast, his kisses still burning on her lips. Then she would take her rabab and play to the listening flowers, or practise her dancing, the source of his pleasure, or lie in the noonday heat on the edge of the bubbling spring that rose up in the moss under the boughain-villia and look towards the East and dream of his home-coming. What did she want more?
Hamilton now lived the enchanted life of one who is wholly absorbed in a secret passion. He was wise—more wise than men generally are—and made no effort to parade his treasure. This wonderful exotic, this flower of happiness, that bloomed so vividly in the dark, secluded recesses of his heart, how did he know that the destructive heat and light of publicity might not fade and sear its marvellous petals? He told no one of his life; took no one out into the desert with him, to the bungalow among the palms.
He was away a great deal. His work and certain social duties claimed a large part of his day, and during all that time he had to leave her alone with her flowers, but this gave him no anxiety. It was not a dangerous experiment, as it always is to leave a European woman alone. He knew that Saidie, the Oriental, would spend the whole time dreaming of him, longing for him, singing to the flowers of him, talking to her women-attendants of him, filling the whole garden and house with his image till the longed-for moment of his return.
And to Hamilton, full of unspoiled life and vigour, this security, this certainty of her complete fidelity was a wondrous charm.
Unlike a man of jaded passions, who requires his love to be constantly stimulated by the fear of imminent loss, Hamilton, full of unused strength, and thirsty after the joy of life, now that the cup was offered him, drank of it naturally and with ecstasy, needing no salt and bitter olives of jealousy between the draughts.
For years he had longed for love and happiness: at last he had found both, and with simple, uncavilling thankfulness he clasped them to his breast and held them there, content.
Saturday and Sunday were their great days. Hamilton left the office at two on Saturday afternoon, and was back at the bungalow by five.
They went to bed early that night, and rose on the Sunday morning with the first glimmer of dawn. Everything would be prepared overnight for a day's excursion and picnic in the desert, which Saidie particularly delighted in.
The great brown camel, fat and sleek like all Hamilton's animals, and with an enormous weight of rich hair on his supple neck, would be kneeling waiting for them below in the dewy compound, while the early tender light stole softly through the palms; and they would mount and go swinging out through the great open spaces of the desert, full of delicate white light, towards the sister-oasis of Dirampir, where masses of cocoanut palms grew round a set of springs, and waved their branches joyfully as they drew in the salt nourishment of the air from the amethystine sea not fifty miles distant.
Into the shelter of these palms they would come as the first great golden wave of light from the climbing sun broke over the desert, and, descending from the camel, walk about in the groves by the spring, and select a place for boiling their kettle and having their breakfast. The long ride in the keen air of the morning gave them great appetites, and they enjoyed it in the whole joyous beauty of the scene round them. The palm branches over them grew gold against the laughing blue of the sky, a thousand shafts of sunlight pierced through the fan-like tracery, the golden orioles at play darted, chasing each other from bough to bough, the spring bubbled its cool musical notes beside them, and the sense of the blighting heat of the ravening desert round them seemed to accentuate the beauty of the peace and shade in the oasis.
Saidie enjoyed these days beyond everything, and would sit singing at the foot of a palm, weaving a garland of white clematis for Hamilton's handsome head as it rested on her lap.
No English people ever came to the oasis; as a matter of fact, the English generally do avoid the best and most beautiful spots in or near an Indian station; but the place was greatly beloved by the natives who came there to doze and dream, play, sing, and weave garlands in the usual harmless manner in which a native takes his pleasure. Looking at them standing or sitting in their harmonious groups against a background of golden light and delicate shade, Hamilton often thought how well this scene compared with that of the Britisher taking a holiday—Hampstead Heath, for instance, with its noisy drunkenness, its spirit of hateful spite, its ill-used animals, its loathsome language. The Oriental endeavours to enjoy himself, and his method is generally peaceful and poetic: the singing of songs, the weaving of garlands, and the letting alone of others. The Briton's idea of enjoying himself is extremely simple; it consists solely in annoying his neighbours.
To see a handsome English Sahib here was to the habitual frequenters of the oasis something rather remarkable, but these people are early taught the custody of the eyes and to mind their own business. Therefore Hamilton and Saidie were not troubled by offensive stares, or in any other way. All there were free, gathered to enjoy themselves, each man in his own way; and the natives in their gay colours added to the beauty, without disturbing the peace of the scene, much as the bright-plumaged birds that flitted from tree to tree absorbed in their own affairs.
How Hamilton enjoyed those long, calm, golden hours—the golden hours of Asia, so full of the enchantment of rich light and colour, soft beauty before the eyes, sweet scent of the jessamine in the nostrils, the warbling of birds, and Saidie's love songs in his ears!
Not till the glorious rose of the sunset diffused itself softly in the luminous sky, and all the desert round them grew pink, and the shadows of the palms long in the oasis, and the great planets above them burst blazing into view into the still rose-hued sky, did they rise from the side of the spring and begin to think of their homeward ride. And what a delight it was that night ride home through the majestic silence of the desert, where their own hearts' beating and the soft footfall of the camel were the only sounds! the wild flash of planet and star, and sometimes the soft glimmer of the rising moon, their only light! Eros, the god of passion, seated with them on the camel, their only companion!
To Saidie, cradled in his arms, looking upwards to his face above her, its beauty distinct in the soft light, feeling his heart beating against her side, it seemed as if her happiness was too great for the human frame to bear, as if it must dissolve, melt into nothingness, against his breast, and her spirit pass into the great desert solitudes, dispersed, almost annihilated, in the agony and ecstasy of love.
Week after week passed lightly by in their brilliant setting, the hours on their winged feet danced by, and these two lived independent of all the world, wrapped up in their own intimate joy.
One morning, just as he was about to leave the bungalow, he heard Saidie's voice calling him back. He turned and saw her smiling face hanging over the stair-rail above him. He remounted the stairs, and she drew him into their room. Her face was radiant, her eyes blazed with light as she looked at him.
"I have something to tell you, Sahib! I could not let you go without saying it. Only think! is not Allah good to me? I am to be the mother of the Sahib's child," and she fell on her knees, kissing his hands in a passion of joy. Hamilton stood for the moment silent. He was startled, unprepared for her words, unused to the wild joy with which the Oriental woman hails a coming life.
Her message carried a certain shock to him: it augured change; and his happiness had been so perfect, so absolute, what would change, any change, even if wrought by the divine Hand itself, mean to him but loss?
Saidie, terrified at his silence, looked up at him wildly.
"What have I done? Is not my lord pleased?" Her accent was one of the acutest fear.
Hamilton bent down and raised her to his breast.
"Dearest one, light of my soul, how could I not be pleased?" and he kissed her many times on the lips, and on the soft upper arm that pressed his throat, and on her neck, till even she was satisfied.
"Come and sit with me for a moment that I may tell you all," she said. Hamilton sat beside her on the bed, and she told him many things that an Englishwoman would never say, nor would it enter into her mind to conceive them.
Hamilton was greatly moved as he sat listening. The wonderful imagery, the vivid language in which she clothed her pure joyous thoughts appealed to his own poetic, artistic habit of mind.
On his way across the desert to the city, Hamilton pondered deeply over the news and the girl's unaffected joy. Since all those whispered confidences poured into his ear while they sat side by side on the bed, the throb of jealousy he had first felt at her words had passed away. Saidie had made it so clear to him that her joy was not so great at being the mother of a child as that she was to be the mother of his child, and similarly Hamilton felt in all his being a curious thrill at the thought that his child was hers, that this new life was created in and of her life that had become so infinitely dear to him.
He was glad now that his wife had refused to have a child. The bitter pain he had felt then, those years ago, how little he had thought it was to be the parent of this present joy. Now the woman he loved as he had loved no other would be the one to bear his child. Still the thought of the suffering the mother would go through depressed his sensitive mind, and the idea of the risk to her life that came suddenly into his brain made him turn white to the lips as he rode in the hot sunlight. Such intense happiness as he had known for the last three months can turn a brave man into a coward. For a moment he faced the horrid thought that had come to him—Saidie dead! And the whole brilliant plain, laughing sky, and dancing sunlight and waving palms became black to him. To go back to that dreary existence of nothingness of his former life, after once having known the delight that this bright, eager, ardent love, these delicate little clinging hands had made for him, would be impossible.
"No," he murmured to himself, "if she goes, then it's a snuff out for me too. I have never cared for life except as she has made it for me."
And the cloud rolled off him a little as he met the idea of his own death. Besides, Saidie had declared so positively that she could come to no harm, that it would all be pure delight, that pain and suffering could not exist for her in such a matter since she would be all joy in making him this gift, that gradually he grew calmer as he thought over her words.
"But I didn't want any change," he burst out a little later, talking to the still golden air round him. "Confound it! I was perfectly happy. How impossible it is to keep anything as it is in this world! All our actions drag in upon us their consequences so fast! There is no getting away from this horrible change, no enjoying one's happiness peacefully when one has obtained it."
When he arrived at his office in the city he found that a far heavier cloud had arisen on his horizon than that created by Saidie's words. The English mail was in, and a long thin envelope, impressed with a much-hated handwriting, faced him on the top of the pile of his correspondence as he entered.
He picked it up and opened it.
"DEAR FRANK,—You often used to invite me to come to India, and I have really at last made up my mind to. I am coming out by next month's boat to stay with you for a time. I have been very much run down in health lately, and my doctor says a sea-voyage and six months in India will be first-rate for me. I hope you have a nice comfortable house and good servants. —Yours affectionately, JANE."
Hamilton stared at the letter savagely as he put it down before him on the table, a sort of grim smile breaking slowly over his face. He felt convinced that in some way his wife had learned of his new-found happiness, and that had given birth to her sudden desire to visit India after twenty years of persistent refusal to do so. He sat motionless for a long time, then stretched out his hand for an English telegraph form and wrote on it—
"Regret unable to receive you now. Defer visit. FRANK."
He did not for one moment think that his wife would obey his injunction, or that his wire would have the least effect on her; but he wished to have a good ground to stand on when she arrived, and he declined to receive her. His teeth set for a moment as he thought of the interview.
"This is a sort of wind-up day of my happiness," he muttered, as he took his place at the office table. "Well, I suppose no one could expect such pleasure as I have had these last three months to continue; but, whatever happens, Saidie and I will stick together." He sat musing for a moment, staring with unseeing eyes at the pile of work in front of him.
"Saidie, my Saidie! I shall never part from her; therefore I can never part from my happiness." He smiled a little at the play on the words, and then commenced his day's labours.
That evening, when he returned, Saidie noticed at once the depression in his usually gay, bright manner. When they were alone at dinner she laid her hand on his.
"What has darkened the light of my lord's countenance?" she asked softly.
Hamilton drew from his pocket his wife's letter, and laid it beside her plate.
"Can you read that, Saidie? If so, you will know all about it."
The girl leaned one elbow on the table and bent over the letter, studying it. She had been trying hard to improve herself in the language, of which she knew already something, and with Oriental quickness, had acquired much in the past three months. She made out the sense now easily enough.
"This lady is a wife of yours?" she said quickly, with a swift upward glance at him, when she had finished reading the letter.
Hamilton laughed a little.
"She was my wife till I saw you, Saidie. No one is my wife now, nor ever will be, but you."
A soft glow of supreme pleasure and pride lighted up Saidie's great lustrous eyes. She bent her head and put her soft lips to his hand.
"Have you forbidden this wife to come to you?" she asked after a minute.
"Yes, I have; but she will come all the same. English wives think it foolish to obey their husbands."
He laughed sardonically, and Saidie looked bewildered and horrified.
* * * * *
A month later, a long, lean woman sat in a deck chair on board an Indian liner as it crossed the enchanted waters of the Indian Ocean. Enchanted, for surely it is some magician's touch that makes these waters such a rich and glorious blue! How they roll so gently, full of majestic beauty, crested with sunlight, under the ships they carry so lightly! How the gold light leaps over them, how the azure sky above laughs down to their tranquil mirror! how the gleaming flying-fish rise in their glinting cloud, whirl over them, and then softly disappear into their mysterious embrace!
The long, lean woman saw none of the magic round her. Her dull, boiled-looking eyes gazed through the soft sunlight without seeing it. In her lap lay a thin foreign letter and a telegram, together with a copy of "Anna Lombard" that she was reading with the strongest disapproval. She picked up the letter and glanced through it again, though she knew it nearly by heart, especially one passage:
"Your husband is leading such a life here! He has built a wonderful white marble palace in the desert for an Egyptian dancing-girl. They say it's a sort of Antony and Cleopatra over again, and she goes about loaded with jewels and golden chains. I don't know if you are getting your allowance regularly, but I should think your husband is pretty well ruining himself. I never saw a man so changed. He used to be so melancholy, but now he is as bright as possible, and looks so well and handsome. I hear the woman is expecting a child, and they are both as pleased as they can be. I hear all about it, as our cook's cousin is sister to the ayah your husband hired for the woman, and my ayah gets it all from our cook. I really should, my dear, come out and look into the matter, as after a time he will probably want to stop sending home his pay."
The thin sheet fell into the woman's lap again, and she seemed to ponder deeply. Then she read Hamilton telegram again—
"Regret unable to receive you now. Defer visit," and a disagreeable laugh broke from her thick, colourless lips.