E-text prepared by Al Haines
THE GREAT AMULET
"Love is the greatest Amulet that makes this world a garden: and 'Hope comes to all' outwears the accidents of life; and reaches with tremulous hands beyond the grave and Death."
—R. L. S.
"Four things come not back to man or woman: the sped arrow; the spoken word; the past life; and the neglected opportunity."
—Omar El Khuttub.
THE GREAT AMULET
Author of "Captain Desmond, V.C."
William Blackwood and Sons Edinburgh and London MCMXV All rights reserved
THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED TO
IN MEMORY OF DALHOUSIE DAYS.
Let thy heart see that still the same Burns early friendship's sacred flame, The affinities have strongest part In youth, to draw men heart to heart: As life draws on, and finds no rest, The individual in each breast Is tyrannous to sunder them.
AFTER FIVE YEARS
THE TENTS OF ISHMAEL
THE VALLEY OF DECISION
THE GREAT AMULET.
"The little more, and how much it is! The little less, and what worlds away." —Browning.
No one in Zermatt dreamed that a wedding had been solemnised in the English church on that September afternoon of the early eighties. Tourists and townsfolk alike had been cheated of a legitimate thrill of interest and speculation. Nor would even the most percipient have recognised as bride and bridegroom the tall dark Englishman, in a rough shooting suit, and the girl, in simple white travelling gear, who stood together, an hour later, on the outskirts of the little town, and took leave of their solitary wedding guest:—an artist cap-a-pie; velveteen coat, loosely knotted tie, and soft felt hat complete.
In this Bohemian garb Michael Maurice,—as the bride's brother,—had led his sister up the aisle, and duly surrendered her to Captain Lenox, R.A., serenely unaware, the while, of censorious side-glances bestowed upon him by the ascetic-featured chaplain, who had an air of officiating under protest, of silently asserting his own aloofness from this hole-and-corner method of procedure. But his attitude was powerless to affect the exalted emotion of that strange half-hour, wherein, by the repetition of a few simple, forcible words, a man and woman take upon themselves the hardest task on earth with a valiant assurance which is at once pathetic and sublime.
To Quita Maurice, impressionable at all times, the absence of ceremony, of those trivialities which obscure and belittle the one supreme fact, gave an added solemnity to the unadorned service: forced upon her a half-disturbing realisation that she was passing from an independence, dearer to her than life, into the keeping of a man:—a man of whom she knew little beyond the fact that he loved her with a strength and singleness of heart which is the heritage of those who reach life's summit without indulging in emotional excursions by the way.
And now all needful preliminaries were over; even to the wedding breakfast, a cheerful, casual meal of cold chicken, iced cake, and a bottle of champagne, served in Maurice's unpretentious rooms, on the pastry-cook's second floor.
The scene of their brief courtship lay behind them, dozing in the golden stillness of late September: before them a footpath climbed through a forest of pine and fir to the Eiffel Alp Hotel; and on all sides multitudinous mountains flung heroic contours outward and upward, to a galaxy of peaks, that glittered diamond-bright upon a turquoise sky. A mule, ready-saddled, champed his bit at a respectful distance from the trio: for Lenox, an indefatigable mountaineer, had insisted on taking the footpath up to the Eiffel; where they would spend ten days, before crossing into Italy, and so on to Brindisi, en route for his station in India.
The expiration of his leave, and his determination to take Quita Maurice back with him, were responsible for the brevity of their engagement, and for the absence, in both, of that brand-new aspect which proclaims a bride and bridegroom to an eternally interested world.
For this last Eldred Lenox was abundantly grateful. All the Scot in him asserted itself in a fierce reticence, an inbred sense of privacy where a man's deepest feelings were concerned: and now, as he stood battling with his impatience to be gone, he was suffering acute discomfiture from the demonstrative leave-taking in progress between Maurice and his sister. For their sakes, at least, he would fain have effaced himself: while they, as a matter of fact, were momentarily oblivious of his existence.
Artists both, of no mean quality, they had lived and worked together for five years, since the day when Michael had rented his first modest studio in the King's Road, Chelsea: and, setting aside Art, his feeling for Quita was the one serious element in a nature light and variable as a summer cloud. From his French mother he derived an elastic spirit that yielded itself to the emotion of the passing moment; and Lenox, watching him, marvelled at the sharp dividing-lines drawn between the different races of earth.
He half resented such facility of self-expression. Possibly he envied it: though no doubt he would have denied the impeachment with an oath.
Eventually it occurred to Maurice that he could not well stand in the roadway till sunset, taking leave of the sister he was so loth to lose, and, with a sigh of exasperation, he pushed her gently towards her husband.
"Voila, cherie, . . . enough of my endless adieux, or ce bon Lenox may be tempted to break the sixth commandment on my account, in addition to the eighth."
Lenox smiled tolerantly down from six feet of height upon his slim, fair brother-in-law.
"That temptation should be your own prerogative, my dear fellow, since I am taking her from you for good."
"Mon Dieu, yes. You have certainly given me a fair excuse to hate you. And I have wondered more than once, in the last three months, why one could not manage it."
"Too fatiguing for a man of your calibre!" the other answered with good-humoured bluntness. "You could never be bothered to keep it up."
"Ah, mon ami, you men who speak little speak to the point! You are altogether too discerning. But for Quita's sake, at least, we could never be otherwise than firm friends. With all my heart I wish good fortune to you both, and count the days to your return."
The two men shook hands cordially: and Lenox, beckoning the muleteer, lifted his wife into the saddle; thus averting a final demonstration. She waved her hand to a blurred vision of her brother, smiling resolutely, till his back was turned: and he departed townward;—a lonely brown figure, to which a slight stoop of the shoulders lent an added air of pathos.
Quita sat looking after him, her stillness belying the clash of emotions at her heart.
That vanishing figure on the sunlit road stood for all that she knew and loved best in the world: for Art, independence, good comradeship: for the happy, irresponsible, hand-to-mouth life of Bohemia: for the Past, dear and familiar, as a well-loved voice: while the quiet man at her side,—whose mere presence suggested latent force, and gave her a sense of protection wholly new to her,—stood for the Future; the undiscovered country, peopled with possibilities, dark and bright. And Quita Lenox, being blest, or curst, with the insight and detached spirit of the artist, saw clearly that the Great Experiment held, for her, a large element of hazard; that she had staked her all upon a turn of the wheel, with what resulting Time alone could show.
Her husband's hand on her arm brought reflection abruptly to an end.
"He is almost out of sight now," Lenox said quietly. "And I think it's time we made a start. Will you come?"
She turned to him at once, with a smile whose April quality heightened its charm.
"Of course I will; and gladly. Don't think me horrid, Eldred. I have always been frank with you, haven't I? And . . . it is a wrench leaving Michael to live and work alone."
"I quite understand that: and I value your devotion to him for selfish reasons. It proves what you may be capable of feeling . . . for me, one of these days."
The mingled dignity and humility of his tone so moved her that her only answer was an impulsive pressure of the hand resting on her arm: and they went forward for a long while without further speech, the muleteer having set off for the summit by a series of short cuts known to his kind.
Before long massed pines were above and below them; their jagged stems and branches sharply imprinted on stretches of sunlit glacier, and on the pathway in mottled patches of shadow.
Eldred Lenox walked close to his wife, one hand resting on the crupper behind her. The man's intensity of feeling did not rise readily to the surface; and a certain proud sensitiveness, the cardinal weakness of big natures, withheld him from the full expression of an emotion to which she could not adequately respond. He was content to wait, and hope; and in the meanwhile, he walked at her side wrapt in the mere joy of possession; one of the strongest, yet least recognised passions of a man's heart. From time to time he glanced at her attentively; and each glance strengthened his faith in that which had come upon him, sudden as an earthquake, and no less subversive of ancient landmarks, of confirmed prejudices and convictions in regard to the woman element in man's life.
For Quita Lenox, though far from beautiful, in the accepted sense, was undeniably good to look at. Coils of soft hair, golden in the sun, brown in the shade; eyes neither grey nor green, intensified by unusually large pupils, and by brows and lashes almost black; a straight nose, low at the root; a mouth too long, too mobile for beauty, its emotional quality safeguarded by an uncompromising chin, completed a face whose charm lay in no particular excellence of details; but in the vivid spirit,—quick to see, to feel, to understand,—that informed and harmonised a somewhat contradictory whole. An abiding sense of humour, hovering about her lips and in her eyes, kept the world sane and sweet for her, and leavened her whole outlook on life. A minor quality completed her charm. By virtue of the French blood in her veins, she imparted, even to the simplest garments, an air of distinction, of exquisite finish, to which an Englishwoman rarely attains.
At three-and-twenty Quita Lenox was very artist, though not, as yet, very woman. The complex Ego, which is the keystone of Art, had not been tested and dominated by the great simple forces, which are the keystone of life.
But her husband was in no mood to analyse her appearance, or her charm. He wanted beyond all things to know what was passing in her mind, and because his own thoughts were too passionate for utterance, he waited for her to speak. But for the first time in his knowledge of her, he waited in vain. Protracted silence on her part was a phenomenon so unusual, that at length he turned to her definitely, a shadow of misgiving in his clear Northern eyes.
"Are you thinking over it all very seriously . . . now that it is done past undoing?"
He smiled in speaking, and she met his look with her accustomed frankness.
"And if I am . . . ? Surely that service gives one food for reflection. I had not so much as looked at it since early days when curiosity impelled me to read it through; and weddings have never been in my line. As a matter of fact, I was thinking just then what unaccountable creatures we men and women are! How we ponder, and debate, and fuss over trifles, and then plunge headlong past the big turning-points of life, without a thought of the consequences lurking round the corner. Which doesn't mean that you and I need spell our consequences with a capital C, or label them tragic in advance," she added with a laugh. "For honestly, it seems to me that a rising artist, and a rising explorer, both devout worshippers of the eternal hills, may reasonably expect to possess many ideas and interests in common: and those are the bricks out of which two people build their House of Happiness, n'est-ce pas, mon ami?"
"Yes; if you choose to leave mutual trust, and mutual devotion, out on the doorstep."
"I don't choose: only, they are not the bricks, Eldred. One is the foundation-stone; and the other,—the other is a great mysterious Something, that transforms the House into an enchanted palace. But we must be content to begin with the House,—do you see?"
"Yes—I see. I am abundantly content to begin on any terms."
Something in the man's tone impelled her to lean outward a little, so that her shoulder rested lightly against the arm passed behind her.
"You are much too good to me, dear," she said softly. "I don't think one could possibly live with you and fail to love you. That is why I have dared to take the risk."
He did not answer in words, nor did he give her the kiss she half expected; but his hand deserted the crupper, and the mule pricked a velvet ear at the check in his progress. Then Quita straightened herself, as if reasserting her cherished independence.
"After all, it is more interesting, in some ways, not to have everything cut and dried from the start," she went on, striking off at a tangent, with an innate perversity incomprehensible to a mere man. "It prevents a headlong fall into the commonplace: and there is a certain excitement in looking on, so to speak, at one's own personal drama, without feeling quite sure of its developments."
Lenox knitted his brows. He could not always keep pace with her more fantastic moods.
"Quita, are you talking nonsense?" he asked with a touch of irritation.
"Well, I wish you were. I don't like that sort of attitude towards serious things; and I don't understand what you mean about looking on at one's own life. It sounds brutally detached, not to say egotistical."
"That is because you only climb mountains and handle men, mon cher, instead of trying to paint them, or translate them into verse. You are spared the artist's complication of a dual personality; of two souls imprisoned in one body; the one who enjoys, and loves, and suffers; and the one who looks on, and picks every emotion to pieces. I am afraid the one you disapprove of has had the upper hand in me so far. Perhaps it is your mission to develop the other into a healthier state of activity."
"I hope to Heaven it may be," her husband answered fervently. "The present state of things strikes me as a trifle inhuman."
"But indeed I am not inhuman! Only . . . we have still a good deal to learn about one another, Eldred, although we are man and wife. You confess to an amazing ignorance of women; while my own varied experience of men has lain chiefly among 'the sayers of words'; and one can hardly class you under that heading!"
"Good Lord, no! I should hope not."
Quita threw up her head and laughed outright.
"Really, Eldred, you are delightful!"
"Glad to hear it," Lenox replied, a shade of sarcasm in his tone. "It's the first time I have been accused of such a thing."
He quickened his pace; and she, divining a slight jar in the atmosphere, said no more. The supreme art in human intercourse is the art of punctuation, and in the long pause that ensued, silence accomplished her perfect work.
Higher up they emerged on an open space of roadway, where the pines came abruptly to an end; and the path shelved sheer from its broken railing to the Visp Valley below. Instinctively Quita drew rein and drank in every detail of the vision before her with the wordless satisfaction that is the hall-mark of the true Nature-worshipper. Lenox stood quietly at her side, his gaze riveted on her face. He had seen many mountains, giants among their kind; but never till now had he beheld the glory of them reflected in a woman's eyes. At that moment they seemed the only sentient things in a world of rock, and snow, and sunshine. It was as if the round earth, and the pillars thereof, had been made for them, and them alone.
Above the road a weather-beaten hut struck an isolated note of life, and across the valley Matterhorn towered,—solitary, superb,—his rugged head and shoulders thrust heavenward through a diaphanous scarf of cloud. Suddenly Quita Lenox fronted her husband, and his face softened to a smile that hovered in the eyes an appreciable time before it reached his lips.
"A la bonheur!" she said, smiling back at him. "We will break our journey here. You can tether 'Modestina' to that stump. I must do a rough sketch of this, and put in notes for colouring, while you sit beside me and smoke, and talk. When it's complete, I'll present it to you as a memento of to-day. Will that suit you?"
He lifted her from the saddle, in defiance of her laughing protest, and, holding her at arm's length, looked long and steadily into her eyes, as though he would reach and capture, by force of will, the elusive spirit that lived in their depths.
It was in these rare moments of revelation that Quita was troubled by a disconcerting sense of exchanging false coin for gold. She tried to free herself from his grasp; and the colour deepened in her cheeks.
"Eldred,—let me go!" she said, with something less than her wonted assurance. "It frightens me when you look right into me like that."
"Frightens you? Dearest, . . . what nonsense!" But for once he disregarded her behest.
"It's not nonsense. It makes me see too clearly the chained-up forces hidden under that surface quietness of yours. I think you might be rather terrible if they ever broke loose."
He laughed abruptly, and let her go.
"I keep them chained up, I promise you: and they are never likely to do you any harm. Now, begin upon your picture, and don't alarm yourself about nothing."
She watched him thoughtfully as he led "Modestina" away, and tethered her to a pine stump. It needed small discernment to perceive that the equitable poise of his character rested upon the noiseless conviction that he was a man, and a gentleman: and it seemed to her that she did well to feel proud of her husband.
With which satisfying conviction she settled herself upon a slab of a rock, whipped out the sketch-book, that hung permanently in a flat leather bag at her waist, and plunged headlong into her picture. For in her case, impression and expression were almost simultaneous: the most distinctive quality of her work being the rapidity and certainty with which she produced her effects.
Lenox, returning, extended his firmly-knit length of figure on the sloping ground near by, and flung aside his cap; thus revealing more clearly the rugged contour of his head, and the black hair whose obstinate ripple no amount of brushing could subdue. With leisurely deliberation he filled his pipe, and surrendered himself to the enchantment of the hour, before it slipped from him into the region of accomplished things. And it is this very evanescence, this rainbow quality of our hill-top moments, that adds such poignant intensity to their charm.
Much of their brief courtship had been spent in such wordless companionship: the man smoking beside her, with, or without, a book, while she worked; and he never wearied of watching that abiding miracle, a picture springing to life under an artist's fingers.
"You're not likely to give up this sort of thing, I suppose?" he asked suddenly; and she turned upon him with blank astonishment in her eyes.
"Give it up? . . . You might as well ask if I shall ever give up seeing, or hearing, or feeling. It is a part of me. You don't want me to give it up, do you?"
"Far from it. I was merely thinking that it seems suicidal for an artist of your quality to bury herself alive in a little Frontier station, on the edge of a desert, more than a hundred miles from anywhere."
"Rubbish! It simply means a new range of subjects for my brush. Tell me a little about it, please. I like to try and picture things in advance; and I am lamentably ignorant about this remarkable Frontier Force, to which I now have the honour to belong. Are we all on the wrong side of the Indus, always?"
"Yes, for ever and ever; except when we get away on leave."
"And then we go camping and climbing in the far hills beyond Kashmir, don't we?"
"Yes, invariably! For the rest of the time we keep 'cave' along six hundred miles of heart-breaking Border country."
"In other words, you are watch-dogs guarding the gates of an Empire?"
"That sounds far more imposing; and it's no less true. We are also actively engaged in helping the Indian Government to cultivate friendly relations with the tribes at the point of the bayonet!"
"And don't the tribes respond?"
"Yes, vigorously, to the tune of bullets and cold steel; so that we manage to keep things pretty lively between us! Since we annexed the Frontier, nearly forty years ago, the Piffers have taken part in more than thirty Border expeditions, all told, to say nothing of the Afghan War."
Quita's attention had been diverted from her picture to her husband's face.
"You get your fill of fighting at that rate," she said, "And I think you must be rather magnificent when you are fighting, Eldred."
Lenox shrugged his shoulders, and laughed.
"I'm a keen soldier, if that's what you're driving at: and I believe the world holds no finer school for character than constant active service."
"I confess I never thought of looking at war in that light! But I can well believe it, if its horrors and hardships turn out many men . . . like you."
Words and tone set the man's pulses in commotion. But he clenched his teeth upon his pipe-stem, and ignored the personal allusion.
"Well, you can see for yourself, when you get there. Taking 'em all round, I think you'll find the Piffers as fine a set of fellows as you could wish to meet anywhere; and it's hard work, and hard conditions of life, that thrash them into shape."
"And the stations, where I am to be 'buried alive' in such good company?"
"I'm afraid the stations are the least satisfactory part of the programme. There are five of them along our north-west strip of desert; all more or less hopeless to get at. We play general post among them every two or three years, to avoid stagnation and keep the men fit. Just now my battery's quartered at Dera Ghazee Khan, a God-forsaken place, right down by Scindh. I don't know how I have the cheek to think of taking you there."
"But if I refuse to be left behind . . . ?"
"Well, of course . . . in that case . . ." His eyes, looking up into hers, completed the sentence.
"I'm not a 'society woman,' remember; and setting aside your companionship, I should prefer a 'God-forsaken place' on the Indian Frontier to St. John's Wood or Upper Tooting, any day! I am prepared to find it all very interesting."
"So you may, at the start. But the interest is likely to wear thin after the first few years of it."
"Well, perhaps by that time we shall have arrived at the enchanted palace, and then nothing else will matter at all!—There now; I've done all I can to my sketch for the present. Shall we go on?"
Lenox roused himself, not without reluctance, and they went on accordingly.
Towards the summit, trees grew rare: and they found the solitary hotel perched aloft, upon an open space; a hive of restless shifting human life, set in the midst of the changeless hills.
After a short interview with the manager's wife, they found themselves alone again, in the private sitting-room engaged by Lenox. A wood fire burned merrily in the open hearth, for September evenings are chilly at that altitude; and the windows, looking westward, gave generous admittance to a flood of afternoon sunlight.
Eldred, standing on the hearth-rug, surveyed all things in an access of silent satisfaction; while Quita moved lightly to and fro, frankly interested in details.
"Oh, how I love the cleanness and emptiness of these Swiss rooms!" she exclaimed at last. "They make one feel so unspeakably wholesome and good. And we are actually going to have dinner here, you and I? Just our two selves! How strange!"
On a sudden impulse she came close to him, and standing before him, took the lapels of his coat, one in each hand.
"Eldred, . . . I don't seem able to take it in at all! Other brides have so much of external paraphernalia to emphasise the fact they have closed one chapter of life, and begun another. But except for that dreamlike half-hour in church, you and I seem merely to have come away together for an everyday outing; and there is nothing anywhere, . . . except this,"—she lifted the third finger of her left hand,—"to make me realise that we are actually . . . married."
She spoke the last word under her breath; and almost before it was out, he had caught her to himself, and kissed her fervently, again and again.
"Does that help you to realise it a little better, . . . my wife?" he whispered; and for answer she drew in a long breath that was almost a sob. He released her at once; and as she faced him, flushed and breathless, he saw that tears stood in her eyes.
"Why, . . . why did you never . . . kiss me . . . like that before?" she asked very low.
"God knows I have wanted to, a hundred times," he answered. "But I think I was afraid you might . . . hate it. Why do you ask, though? Would it have made any difference between us if I had?"
"I can't tell; . . . oh, I can't tell! Only . . . you have been so restrained, so unlike an . . . ordinary lover, that I never dreamed it could mean as much to you . . . as all that . . ." She pulled herself together with an effort. "Now I am going to take off my things," she said. "Don't come, please. I want to get away by myself."
A moment later he stood alone, between the sunlight and the firelight, gazing blankly at the door that hid her from view; and wondering whether he had advanced or retarded matters by his unpremeditated flash of self-revelation.
"A turn, and we stand in the heart of things." —Browning.
When Eldred Lenox sailed from India six months earlier, he would have scouted as impossible the suggestion that he might bring a wife back with him on his return: and his uncompromising avoidance of women, from boyhood upward, had seemed to justify him in his assurance. But Nature is inexorable. She has her own methods of accomplishing those things that are necessary to a man's salvation; and behold in three months the impossible had come to pass. The giant Mirabeau was right:—"ce bete de mot" ought by now to be struck out of our dictionaries.
Lenox knew little of half measures: and, having succumbed,—in spite of himself, in spite of inherent prejudices and convictions,—he succumbed heart and soul. That which he had unduly scorned, he now unduly exalted. Only Time and the woman could lead him into the Middle Way, which is the way of truth. For beneath the surface hardness of the Scot lurked the fire, the imaginative force, the proud sensitiveness of the Celt: a heritage from his Cornish mother, whose untimely death had left her two younger sons in the hands of a bachelor uncle, of red-hot Calvinistic views. Their father—a man of an altogether different stamp—had met his boys on rare occasions, and ardently desired to know more of them: but an Afghan knife had ended his career before he could find leisure to complete their acquaintance. The history of Anglo-India is one long chronicle of such minor tragedies.
Thus fire-eating Jock Lenox had exercised iron rule over his charges, unhampered by parental interference: had reared them in an unquestioning fear of God, and an unquestioning distrust of more than half His creatures; had impressed upon them, in season and out of season, that woman was the one fatal element in a man's life, the author of nine-tenths of its tragedy, complexity, and crime.
Yet "one touch of Nature" had annulled, in three months, the work of twenty years. So much for education!
For a while Lenox stood motionless where his wife had left him, as though life itself were suspended until her return: for despite the glory of autumn sunshine, of leaping flames upon the hearth, the room, robbed of her presence, seemed colourless, dead.
Then, as the minutes passed and she did not reappear, restlessness took possession of him; sure sign that he was very deeply moved. He crossed to the open window, but even the colossal calm of the mountains failed to quell the tumult of passion in his veins. Her last words left him anxious. There could be no peace till he had interpreted them to his full satisfaction; and the power of interpreting a woman's words could not be reckoned among his attributes.
Suddenly it occurred to him that he had pocketed two unopened envelopes before starting for church. He drew them out; rather because he needed some definite occupation, than because he felt curious as to their contents. Men of his type are rarely overburdened with correspondents.
The first was a business letter. He read it with scant attention, and returned it to his breast-pocket. The second envelope bore the handwriting of his senior subaltern, now in England on short leave. The two men were close friends; but Eldred's last letter had been written four months ago; and the envelope in his hand contained Richardson's tardy response. He broke the seal with a smile at thought of his subaltern's astonishment when he should learn the truth. The letter was longer than usual; and in glancing through it hurriedly, the name Miss Maurice caught his eye. "Great Scott!" he muttered aloud; then, with quickened interest, began upon the second page, ignoring the opening.
"Wonder if you have run across the Maurices in Zermatt," wrote Max Richardson, with no faintest prevision of the circumstances in which the thoughtless lines would be read by his friend. "Artists both of them, brother and sister; and a rather remarkable couple, I'm told. She seems to have made a hit at the Academy; and the cousins I'm staying with are very keen about her. I happened to mention that I was writing to a chap in Zermatt, and they begged me to ask if you had heard or seen anything of this Miss Maurice. There's a bit of a romance about her; that's what has pricked their interest. Seems she was engaged to Sir Roger Bennet this season. A swell in the Art patron line. Lost his heart at first sight. But evidently on closer acquaintance found her rather a handful, and too much of a Bohemian to suit his British taste! At all events there was a flare-up over something about three months ago, and Sir Roger backed out, politely but definitely. It seems that Miss Maurice was a good deal cut up. Went off to Zermatt with her brother. And now rumour has it that she is engaged, if not married, to some other chap out there, I suppose by way of a gentle intimation to Sir Roger that he hasn't broken her heart. My cousins are eaten up with curiosity to know if it's true. Women appear to be capable of that sort of thing. But it strikes a mere man as playing rather low down on a luckless devil who has done her no harm: and I don't envy him his hasty bargain, or the repenting at leisure that's bound to follow. Lord, what fools we men are! And how easily we lose our heads over a woman! All except you—the Great Invulnerable, looking down upon our folly from the superior height of a snow-peak. . . ."
Lenox read no further. The last words enraged him, like a blow between the eyes, and set the blood hammering in his temples. It would seem, at times, that Fate selects with fiendish nicety the psychological moment when her arrows will strike deepest, and stick fastest. Thus, when his thirst was at its height, Lenox found the cup dashed from his lips; and that by the hand of his best friend:—a master-stroke of Olympian comedy.
With a curse he flung the letter on to the table.
Wounded love, wounded pride, and baulked desire so clashed in him that clear thought was impossible. He only knew that he had been deliberately deceived, the most intolerable knowledge to a man incapable of deceit: and with the knowledge all the natural savage in him sprang to life. If Richardson had appeared before him in the flesh, it is doubtful whether he could have stayed his hand: the more so, since he believed that the man had written the truth: that this girl—whom it seemed that he had wooed with quite unnecessary reverence—had taken the best he could give, and utilised it as a mere salve for her wounded vanity.
He understood now why her heart had proved more difficult of access than her hand. He had believed it unawakened; had dreamed, as lovers will, of warming it into life with the fire of his own great love: and lo, he found himself forestalled by this execrable man in England. Clearly he had been a fool;—an infatuated fool! He stabbed himself with the epithet: and a vivid memory of his uncle's stock cynicisms turned the knife in the wound. All the prejudices and tenets of his youth rushed back upon him now: an avenging host, mocking at his discomfiture; narrowing his judgment; blinding him to the woman's point of view.
And while he still stood battling with himself in a vain effort to regain his shaken self-control, the bedroom door opened, and his wife came quickly towards him.
His changed aspect arrested her: and the sight of her facing him thus, with the sunlight in her eyes and on her hair, her young purity of outline emphasised by the simplicity of her dress, so stirred his senses, that, in defiance of pride, the whole heart of him went out to her, claiming her for his own. But it is at just such crises that habit reveals itself as the hand of steel in a silken glove; and before she could open her lips, Jock Lenox had stretched out a ghostly arm from his grave in Aberdeen, and shut to the door of his nephew's heart.
Quita glanced hurriedly from the discarded letter to her husband's face.
"My dear, . . . what has gone wrong? You look terrible. Have you had bad news?"
The irony of the question brought a smile to his lips.
"Yes. I have had bad news. Read it for yourself." And he pushed the letter towards her.
"Why? Who is it from?"
"A friend of mine, in England, who seems to know a good deal more about you than I do."
"What on earth do you mean?" she asked sharply.
"You know well enough what I mean. Read that letter if your memory needs refreshing."
Her first instinct was indignant refusal. Then curiosity conquered. Besides, she wanted above all things to gain time: and while she read, her husband watched her keenly, with God knows what of forlorn hope at his heart.
But a twisted truth is more formidable than a lie; and intuition warned Quita that Lenox was in no mood to appreciate the fine shades of distinction between the literal facts and Max Richardson's free translation of the same. His frankly masculine comments fired her cheeks; and at the sight Lenox could restrain himself no longer.
"By Heaven! You care for that fellow still!" he broke out hotly. "And you had the effrontery to take those solemn words on your lips this morning, with the love of . . . another man in your heart!"
Quita Lenox, whatever her failings, lacked neither spirit nor courage. She threw back her head, and faced his anger bravely.
"How dare you say such things to me? I . . . don't care for him. I—I hate him!"
"Proof conclusive. Indifference kills hatred. No doubt you wanted to convince yourself, and him, that you were indifferent; and to that end you must needs crucify the first man who comes handy. An admirable sample of feminine justice!"
"Eldred, . . . you have no right to speak like that. I won't hear you."
"I have every right; and you shall hear me. It was one thing to know that you could not give me all I wanted at the start. One hoped to set that right, in time. But to accept me because another man's defection had piqued your vanity, . . . God knows how you could dare to do it! I see now why you found me unlike an ordinary lover. No doubt that other fellow—curse him—took full advantage of his privileged position: while to me you seemed a thing so sacred that I hardly dared lay a hand on you. I might have known that a man who is fool enough to put a woman on a pedestal, is bound to pay a long price for his folly."
He was lashing himself more mercilessly than he lashed her: and in the torment of his spirit he did not pause to consider the possible effect of his words on a recklessly impulsive woman.
"Really . . . you are insufferable!" she retorted, her breath coming short and quick. "I have a little pride also; and you had better stop before you push me too far. For I tell you frankly, I don't care enough for you to stand this sort of treatment at your hands."
The counter-stroke stung like a lash. The lines about his mouth hardened, and he straightened himself sharply.
"Pity you were not more frank with me twenty-four hours ago. Then we might both have been spared this morning's ironical service. However, the thing is done now. . . ."
"Indeed, it's not done!" she flashed out defiantly. "I have no notion of being your wife on sufferance, I assure you. We are only on the threshold as yet. We need not go a step farther unless we choose. And after what you have said to me, . . . I do not choose."
For an instant the man was stunned into silence; then, in a desperate impulse, took a step towards her.
"Quita, . . . you don't realise what you are saying? Nothing can alter the fact that we are man and wife, now and always."
She motioned him from her with an imperious gesture.
"Don't touch me, please. I do realise, perfectly, that we are not free to make any more dangerous experiments. But we are at least free to live and work independently of one another. Of course I know that you can compel me to remain with you,"—her colour deepened on the words.—"But I know also that you have too much chivalry, too much pride, to force yourself upon me against my wish."
"By God, yes!" he answered from between his teeth. "And . . . what is your wish, may I ask?"
For the first time she hesitated, and lowered her eyes.
"I believe our wishes are identical," she said.
"No need to trouble about mine. You can put them out of court altogether."
His tone spurred her to instant decision.
"My wish is to go back to Zermatt at once, by the funicular; and . . . that we should not see one another again. I will accept nothing from you. I can earn my own living, as I have done till now. Thank God, Michael is too blessedly Bohemian to make a fuss, or be horrified at things. He will simply be overjoyed to get me back."
She turned from him hastily; and he stood, like a man paralysed, watching her go. On the threshold of the bedroom door she looked back.
"Don't think of writing to me, or of trying to patch up a reconciliation between us," she said on a softened note. "Mended things are never reliable. I can neither forget nor forgive what you have said to me to-day, and when you have had time to think things over, you will probably feel thankful that I had the courage to leave you."
The soft closing of the door roused him, and he sprang forward with her name on his lips. Then Pride gripped him; Pride, and the habit of self-mastery hammered into him by his redoubtable uncle. The fact that our spirits thus live and work, deathlessly, in the lives and hearts of those with whom we have come into contact, is a form of immortality too seldom recognised by man.
In the silence that followed, Lenox looked blankly round the empty room:—the room where they should have spent their first evening together. Then the irony, the finality of it all, overwhelmed him, and he sank upon the nearest chair. "What have I done? . . . My God, what have I done?" he breathed aloud. And it is characteristic of the man that, for all his grinding sense of injury, he blamed himself more bitterly than he blamed his wife.
His eye fell on the letter, which, had it contained a bombshell, could scarce have wrought more damage in so short a space of time. Tearing it across and across, he flung it into the fire, and derived a gloomy satisfaction from watching it burn. But though paper and ink were reduced to ashes, neither fire nor steel could annihilate the winged words, thoughtlessly penned, that had altered the course of two lives.
Footsteps in the bedroom brought Lenox again to his feet.
He flung the door open, expecting—he knew what.
An apathetic hotel porter was removing Quita's trunk: and nothing that had been said or done in the last half-hour had hurt him so keenly as this insignificant item:—the touch of commonplace that levels all things.
With a gesture he indicated his own portmanteau. "Take that also," he said, and strode out of the room.
At least he had the right to shield her from comment. To all appearance they must leave the place together! and he settled his account with the smiling manageress, adding simply: "Madame has had bad news."
He took a later train down the hill; deposited his trunk in a hotel bedroom; and spent his wedding-night under the stars; walking, ceaselessly, aimlessly, to deaden the ache at his heart.
Next morning he despatched half a dozen lines to Richardson disowning all knowledge of Miss Maurice's concerns: and three weeks later he sailed from Brindisi without seeing his wife again.
BOOK I.—AFTER FIVE YEARS.
"I, who am Love, burn with too fierce a fire, Even if I only pass and touch the soul, Life is not long enough to heal the wound. I pass, but my touch for ever leaves its mark. I, who am Love, burn with too fierce a fire." —Turkish Song.
Max Richardson lifted the "chick," paused on the threshold, and surveyed the empty room.
A bachelor's room, in a frontier bungalow, boasts little of beauty, less of luxury. The legend of Anglo-India—"Here to-day, and gone to-morrow"—is visible on its nail-disfigured walls, battered camp chairs and tables, supplemented by chance purchases from the "effects" of brother officers, retired, or untimely hurried out of "the day, and the dust, and the ecstasy."
To the observer for whom one hint of human revelation outweighs in value a warehouseful of inexpressive furniture, a room of this type holds one superlative interest. It is an index of character no less infallible than its owner's face. Its salient features may tell the same tale as a dozen others in the same station—the tale of a soldier going to and fro in a land of unrest. But its minor details reveal the man beneath the uniform.
There is as much individuality after all in a soldier as in any other specimen of God's handiwork; even though tradition and the War Office compel him to an external suggestion of having been turned out by the dozen.
The ramshackle room whereon Eldred Lenox had set his seal differed in one notable respect from others of its type. It contained no picture either of a woman or a horse. The dingy white wall was relieved by groups of barbarous weapons—Thibetan daggers, a pair of wicked-looking kookries, the jezail and Brown Bess of Border tribesmen, and the murderous Afghan knife, whose triangular two-foot blade has disfigured too many British uniforms.
In peaceful contrast to these trophies were one or two rough sketches of the mountain regions beyond Kashmir; desolate stretches of glacier and moraine, or groups of stately peaks, the colouring washed in with a singular sureness of touch. There were also maps, finely executed by hand, of Thibet and Central Asia. To these fresh names and markings were added, from time to time, with a thrill of satisfaction only to be gauged by the man for whom the waste places of earth are a goodly heritage, and who would sooner contribute a new name to the world's atlas than rule a kingdom. Higher up the twenty-foot walls, heads of sambhur, markor, and the lesser deer of the Himalayas showed dimly in the light of one lowered lamp. Skins of bear and leopard, and one or two costly Persian prayer-rugs, partially hid the groundwork of dusty matting, taken over with the bungalow from its former occupant, and in places revealing the stone floor beneath. The broad mantel-shelf was given over to books, a motley crowd in divers stages of dilapidation. 'The Master of Ballantrae' shouldered 'The Queen's Regulations,' one would fancy with a swaggering hint of scorn; a battered copy of the 'Pilgrim's Progress' stood resignedly between Bogle's 'Mission to Thibet' and a technical handbook on Topography, the whole row being propped into position at one end by a great brown tobacco-jar, and at the other by a bronze image of the Buddha in cross-legged meditation—a memento of Lenox's latest expedition to Thibet.
The solitary lamp, its green shade set at a rakish angle, stood upon a spacious writing-table, strewn with closely written sheets of foolscap, pens, pencils, pipes, and books of reference, half a dozen of these last being piled on the floor, close to the writer's chair. It was the table of a man who leaves his work reluctantly, leaves it in such a fashion that he can take it up again exactly where he left off, without wasting precious time upon preliminaries.
On Lenox's bare deck-lounge a bull terrier, of powerful build and uncompromising ugliness, slept soundly, nose to tail, and on one of the costly prayer-rugs his Pathan bearer slept also. The deep, even breathing of dog and man formed a murmurous duet in the twilight stillness.
All these things Max Richardson noted, with a twinkle of amusement in his blue eyes. Every detail of the room spoke to him eloquently of the man he had not seen for a year. Since his departure on furlough the battery had changed stations, marching across sixty miles of sand desert from Bunnoo to Dera Ishmael Khan, familiarly known as "Dera Dismal," a straggling station a few miles beyond the Indus.
Richardson had arrived from Bombay late that evening, just in time to change and hurry across to the station mess. To his surprise Lenox had not put in an appearance at the mess table, and Richardson, anticipating fever,—the curse of frontier life,—had left early, inquired the way to his Commandant's bungalow, and now stood on the threshold, scarcely able to believe the evidence of his senses. Strange developments must have taken place during his absence, if Lenox—the woman-hater, the confirmed recluse—were actually dining out.
He approached the snoring Pathan and roused him, not ungently, with the toe of his boot. The native sprang up, fumbled at his disarranged turban, salaamed deeply, and finally stood upright, a splendid figure of a man, six feet of him, if his peaked turban were taken into account—hard, wiry, with aquiline features, grey beard, and eyes keen as a sword-thrust; a man without knowledge of fear, cunning and implacable in hatred, but staunchly devoted to the Englishman he served, who, in his eyes, was the first of living men.
"The Captain Sahib—where is he?" Richardson demanded in the vernacular.
"At Desmond Sahib's bungalow for dinner. By eleven o'clock he returneth. Your Honour will await his coming?"
Zyarulla turned up the lamp, and proceeded to set whisky, soda-water, and a tumbler among his master's scattered papers. Brutus, at the sound of a remembered voice, tapped the cane chair vigorously with his stump of a tail, without offering to relinquish the one comfortable seat in the room. Richardson sat down beside him, caressed the strong ugly head, and lit a cigar.
The Pathan withdrew, leaving him alone with the dog and the whisky bottle, from which he helped himself liberally. Then, drawing one of the closely written sheets of paper towards him, he fell to reading it with interest and attention. It was a minute geographical record of a recent journey through tracts of mountain country hitherto unexplored, a journey which had gained Lenox the letters C.I.E. after his name. Richardson, while failing to emulate the older man's zeal for wanderings that cut him off for months together from intercourse with his kind, was yet keenly interested in their practical outcome.
The stronger light in which he now sat revealed him as a big fair man, by no means ill-featured, his soldierly figure emphasised by the gunner mess-dress of those days, with its high scarlet waistcoat and profusion of round gilt buttons, in each of which twin flames winked and sparkled. A suggestion of kindly, uncritical contentment with things in general pervaded his face and bearing. The blue eyes were rarely serious for long together; the mouth, under a neatly trimmed moustache, showed no harsh lines, no traces of past conflict. Had the great Overseer of men's destinies not seen fit to guide him to the Frontier, out of reach of demoralising influences, it is doubtful whether he would have escaped the trail of the petticoat, the snare of the grass-widow in determined search of amusement. As it was, he had passed through the critical twenties with a clean defaulter sheet; had established himself as a good soldier and a good comrade, a "friend-making, everywhere friend-finding soul," and the closest among these was the Commandant of his battery—a wholesome and pleasant state of things for both.
He was beginning to weary of geographical detail, when steps sounded in the verandah, and he was on his feet as Lenox came in.
"Hullo, Dick! Good man to wait for me! Thought I should have seen you before mess, though. What do you mean by not coming here straight?"
"None of my fault, old chap. We were delayed as usual crossing that blamed old Indus. Stuck on a sandbank for over an hour. Gives a fellow time to count up his sins and renounce the devil, eh? Expected to find you at mess, of course. I wasn't prepared for this sort of upheaval in the natural order of things!"
Lenox stooped to caress Brutus, who was urgently demanding attention.
"Upheavals belong to the natural order of things," he said quietly. "The world would come to a standstill without them. Light a fresh cheroot, and fill up."
He indicated the chair vacated by Brutus, sat down by the writing-table, and picking up a pipe proceeded to clean it out with scrupulous care. Richardson watched him the while, his face grown suddenly thoughtful. Once he leaned forward, as though he had some urgent matter to communicate, but apparently changed his mind, and spoke conversationally between puffs at his cigar.
"Zyarulla said you were at the Desmonds. Is that the cavalry Desmond, the V.C. chap, whose wife was shot by a brute of a Ghazi four years ago?"
"Yes;—a hideous affair. Yet, in the face of his second marriage, one can hardly call it a misfortune. It was one of those evils that had far better happen to a man than not—that's a fact; and there are a good many such on this amazing planet."
"Sounds a bit brutal, though, when the murder of a man's wife is in question."
"Facts are apt to be brutal; even facts relating to the holy estate of matrimony!" Lenox's tone had an edge to it, and Richardson somewhat hastily shifted to another aspect of the subject.
"You are really intimate with these Desmonds,—both of them?"
"Yes. Both of them. I dine there about once a-week, just myself and Desmond's inseparable pal, Wyndham, who is over there most days. You must call at once. She is Colonel Meredith's sister, a magnificent woman in every way."
"A miraculous one, I should say, to have dragged such an adjective out of you!"
Lenox smiled. "No. Only one of the right sort. The sort that makes fine sons. She has one already; splendid little chap. The three of 'em are off to Dalhousie early in May, and they have just persuaded me to spend my two months there instead of beyond Kashmir. Mrs Desmond has a misguided notion that I am knocking myself to bits over my work in the interior."
"Deuced sensible woman!" laughed Richardson. "It'll give me the greatest pleasure in life to shake hands with her."
"Come and do it to-morrow then. I'll go along with you."
While he talked Lenox had filled a long German pipe with a bowl of generous dimensions. Now he set a match to it, and as the first blue clouds curled upward a peculiarly aromatic fragrance filled the room.
"That stuff of yours is A1," Richardson remarked, with an appreciative sniff. "Pretty costly, I suppose?"
"Yes. My one extravagance. A special brand that I get out from home, a big batch at a time. Nothing like it for settling a man's nerves in the small hours."
"Do you still sit up over that sort of thing till the small hours?"
"Yes, most nights. What moonshine are you bothering your head about now?"
"Strikes me that sleeplessness of yours must be becoming serious. You look several degrees less fit than you did a year ago, and that's saying a good deal."
Lenox took his pipe from between his teeth, and regarded his subaltern steadily for a few seconds.
"When I need medical advice I'll send for Courtenay," he said, a hint of authority in his bantering tone. "We were discussing tobacco, and a woman; and the conjunction reminds me of an inspired German proverb I happened on the other day. 'God made man first; then He made woman; then He felt so sorry for man that He made—tobacco.' Supreme, isn't it?"
Lenox chuckled with keen appreciation over the characteristically Teuton bit of cynicism, and Richardson laughed aloud.
"Rather rough on woman, that. You might almost have originated it yourself."
"Wish I had. I'd be proud of it. Stick to tobacco, Dick, and you'll never be tempted to blow your brains out. You may take my word for it, that jar of Arcadian mixture," he specified it with his pipe-stem, "is worth all the women in creation put together."
The bitterness that of late years had so puzzled and distressed his friend sounded again in his tone, and the laughter went out of Richardson's eyes.
But Lenox, absorbed in his own reflections, noticed nothing.
"Let's hear what you've been doing with yourself at home, Dick," he said suddenly. "You're not coherent on paper. I want a few facts. You went abroad latterly, didn't you? Toboganning, and that sort of thing, I suppose?"
"Yes; went with those cousins I told you of—to Zermatt."
"Delectable spot," Lenox remarked drily, his eyes on the bowl of his pipe. "Hope you enjoyed yourself there?"
"Yes, rather so. Had a rattling good time." Then he leaned forward again, elbows on knees. "Look here, Lenox, old chap; I'm no hand at skirting round a subject, and I feel bound to tell you that I know now . . . what happened there five years ago."
Lenox started so violently that the pipe dropped from his hand. A minimum of sleep and a maximum of tobacco do not tend to steady a man's nerve.
"How the devil d'you come to do that?" he asked, picking up his fallen treasure, and readjusting its contents.
"Well, you see, I happened to be with my cousins when they found out about it. Queer what a deal of trouble some women will take just to satisfy a bit of curiosity."
"Damn their curiosity!" Lenox muttered between his teeth, adding something hastily, "You can spare me the details. Nothing stands a chance against a woman's passion for other people's affairs. Very straight of you to speak out at once. Don't allude to it again, though;—that's all."
"But, Lenox," Richardson persisted, not without misgiving, for it is ill work tampering with the reserve of a Scot, "there's just one question I want to ask you, and I think I have a right to know the truth. I remember writing a certain letter to you that autumn; a rather disparaging letter about—Miss Maurice." The name tripped him up, and he reddened. "I beg your pardon; I ought to say Mrs Lenox, though she still paints under the other name."
"Say Miss Maurice, then, by all means," Lenox answered coldly. "She is welcome to call herself what she pleases so far as I am concerned. Go on."
"I want to know when that letter reached you."
"On the afternoon of the day—I was married."
"Good Lord!" the other ejaculated blankly. "And all that I wrote of,—was it news to you?"
Lenox nodded without looking up.
"My dear fellow, for God's sake don't tell me that a thoughtless letter of mine was responsible——"
Lenox rose and went over to the mantelpiece. The full light on his face was more than he cared about just then.
"You asked for the truth," he said, in a hard, even voice, "and—you have made a clean shot at it. We separated that day. I have neither seen nor heard of her since."
A long silence followed this bald statement of the case. Max Richardson had no words in which to express the pain he felt. Brutus arose, and rubbed himself against his master's legs, as if dimly aware that sympathy of some sort was required of him, and the regular beat of the sentry's footsteps asserted itself in the stillness.
At last Richardson spoke. "Wonder you cared about shaking hands with me again after that."
Lenox came nearer, and took him by the shoulder.
"My dear good Dick," he said quietly, "don't talk rubbish; and oblige me by putting the whole affair out of your head. It's as dead as a door-nail. Has been these five years. After all, you were simply an instrument—a providential instrument," he added grimly—"in the general scheme of things." He paused for a moment; then returned to his station on the hearth-rug.
"You say she has been painting under her own name. Has she been doing much in that line lately?"
"Yes. She has made great strides. Her Academy pictures fetched high prices last year."
"I am glad of that."
The words were spoken with such grave politeness that Richardson looked up as if suspecting sarcasm. But the other's face was inscrutable. "Do you happen to know where she is at present?" he asked, after a pause.
"No. I believe she and her brother travel about Europe. They never came back to England. That's what made my cousins feel sure there was something behind."
"Yes, naturally." Then, with an abrupt return to his usual manner, he added, "Now, old chap, I'm going to send you packing, and get to work. Deuced glad to have you back again. Hodson's a slacker of the slackest. We shan't keep him up here much longer, I fancy. Border notions of work don't agree with his delicate digestion! See you again at early parade:—sharp up to time."
And as Richardson's footsteps died into silence, Eldred Lenox went slowly back to the writing-table.
The past five years had not dealt tenderly with this man of surface hardness and repressed sensibilities. The black hair at his temples was too freely powdered with silver, the lines between his brows, and about his well-formed mouth and jaw, were too deeply indented for a man of five-and-thirty. The whole rugged face of him was only saved from harshness by a humorous kindliness in the keen blue eyes, that had measured distance and faced death with an equal deliberation; and by a forehead whose breadth made the whole face vivid with intellect and power. He looked ten years older than the inwardly exultant bridegroom who had stood upon that sunlit road outside Zermatt, waiting to take possession of the woman he had won.
The attempt to relieve bitterness of spirit with the stimulant of incessant work, and the questionable sedative of tobacco strongly tinctured with opium, was already producing its insidious, inevitable result—was, in truth, threatening to undermine an iron constitution while failing conspicuously to achieve the end in view.
After sitting for twenty minutes before a blank sheet of foolscap, Lenox gave up all further effort at mental concentration. A nostalgia of vast untenanted spaces was upon him,—of those great glacier regions where a man could stand alone with God and the universe, could shake himself free from the fret of personal desire. And he had agreed to forgo this—the one real rest and refreshment life afforded him,—to "suffer gladly" the insistent trivialities of hill-station life, merely, forsooth, because a woman had asked it of him. He anathematised himself for an inconsistent weak-minded fool. But he had no intention of breaking his promise to Mrs Desmond.
Since work was out of the question, he pushed his chair back impatiently, left the table, and flung out both arms with a gesture of desperate weariness. Yet sleep was far from him, and he knew it; unless he chose to induce it by the only means ready to his hand.
And to-night he did so choose. In general he had steeled himself to resist the temptation to smoke no more than was needed to quicken and clarify thought. But the short talk with Richardson had set all his over-strained nerves on edge. His sum of sleep in the past week did not amount to twenty-four hours, and for once in a way oblivion must be purchased at any cost.
Going over to the tall tobacco-jar that supported his library, he refilled his pouch with cool deliberation, stretched himself out upon the deck-lounge, and smoked pipe after pipe, till the portion of the drug contained in each accumulated to a perceptible dose. Then the great Dream Compeller took pity upon him, deadening thought, feeling, consciousness itself, till the pipe fell from between his fingers,—and he slept.
"And, at each turn, it seemed as though Fate some huge net round both did throw To stay their feet, and dim their sight." —W. Morris.
Three weeks later, on a diamond-bright morning of early May, Eldred Lenox was in the saddle, riding at a foot's pace along a strip of a path that links the Strawberry Bank Hotel with Dalhousie's central hill. Brutus trotted soberly to heel, while Shaitan—a black Galloway, half Biluch, half Arab—tossed an impatient head, sneezed several times in succession, and generally declared his intention of taking matters into his own hands, so soon as he should reach the broader expanse of Terah Mall. But Lenox, impelled by an inbred desire to climb, was minded to push on to the higher, emptier levels of Bakrota—the great hill that towered, formidable, directly ahead of him. For the chalet-like dwellings of Dalhousie are scattered sparsely over three hills, Bakrota, Terah, Potrain; and the summit of the last and lowest is crowned by Strawberry Bank Hotel, mainly the resort of captains and subalterns from the four plains stations of the district, doing their two months of signalling, Garrison Class, or of unadulterated loafing, as the case may be.
Lenox himself came under none of these headings. The man had a trick of refusing to be classed collectively, soldier though he was; a trick of isolation, inbred, unconscious, the outcome, perhaps, of much solitary wandering, of intimate association with the uttermost hills. It was as if they had imparted to him something of their own ruggedness, their aloofness, their stoical power of endurance.
A cheery little breeze stirred the branches of horse-chestnuts and rhododendrons, tossed the silver-backed foliage of the ilex, and set the cedar boughs swaying with slow, dignified indolence. Hidden within their depths of shadow, birds and monkeys twittered and chattered; and at intervals there came to Lenox the peculiar long-drawn note with which the hill villagers call to one another across the valleys. An infectious spirit of jubilation pervaded the air. The sun himself, in these cheerful latitudes, is transformed from an instrument of torture to the golden-locked hero of Norse and Greek legend; and with every step of the ascent Lenox felt the blood course more swiftly through his veins.
Ilex and rhododendrons, clustering close to the road's edge, shut off the vast prospect on his left; till, at an abrupt turn of the road, they gave place to a watercourse, descending in a cataract of boulders to the valley below. Then the glorious company of the mountains sprang suddenly into view, lifting scarred heads to heaven, and greeting the new day with a Te Deum audible to the spirit, if not to the ear itself. To the spirit of Eldred Lenox these outward symbols of the eternal verities, fit emblems of the stern faith in which he had been reared, spoke with no uncertain voice; and their message was a message of aspiration, of conquest, of the iron self-mastery and self-restraint indispensable to both. They reminded him, also, that life held many good gifts in atonement for the one gift denied; that a man might do worse than live and work unhindered by the volcanic forces of passion.
The past five years had, after all, been years of fruitful service to the great country he loved; the three letters after his name assured him of that. And there remained much more to be done in the same direction; work that would make unstinted demands upon his energy and fortitude; work that must, in due time, force him to forget.
Arrived on the Mall, with its far-reaching view of valley and hill, and its outcrop of glittering granite, a word of encouragement set Shaitan into a smart canter that brought them speedily to the half-way corner, whence a densely shadowed road climbs upward to the great forest of Kalatope. The glimpse of sun-splashed path and red pine-stems drew Lenox aside from the open Mall; and horse and rider passed into the stretch of scented coolness at a brisk trot. The path, little more than six feet wide, was innocent of railing. But much riding in the Himalayas hardens the nerves to these tight-rope performances, which are part and parcel of life in the hills.
For a while they went steadily forward, well content; till, on rounding a sharp corner, Shaitan stopped dead, his forefeet firmly planted on the roadway, his sensitive ears thrust forward; and Lenox, who had fallen into an absorbing train of thought, found himself confronted by a sufficiently startling reality.
The path ahead of him was blocked by the unwieldy forms of five buffaloes, in charge of a naked brown wisp of humanity four feet high, armed with a no more formidable weapon than a pine branch stripped of its needles. But the crux of the situation lay in the fact that, between the fourth and fifth buffaloes an Englishwoman, in a brown habit, mounted on a restive chestnut pony, was in imminent danger of slipping off the road to certain death among the rocks and boulders below. For the chestnut had succeeded in wrenching his hindquarters outward, his heels were already over the edge, and his rider, leaning well forward, was applying whip and spur with a coolness and vigour that could not fail to excite the man's admiration.
It was a matter of seconds: Lenox could not stop to calculate possible risks. Buffaloes and herd-boy scattered right and left before his furious onset. A swinging blow from his hunting-crop sent two of the bulky beasts scrambling up the inner slope, while Brutus, who found the situation all that heart of dog could desire, sent a third crashing over the khud to the accompaniment of shrill lamentations from the terrified child in charge.
The whole thing passed in a flash; the pony, by a frantic but futile effort to right himself, had just sent a shower of loose stones rattling from under his hind feet, when Lenox, dismounting, gripped the cheek-strap with one hand, the other being occupied with his own reins.
A vigorous forward pull landed the chestnut, panting and quivering, with all four feet on terra firma. But the rider's right arm had fallen limply to her side, and Lenox, looking up, for the first time, into a face deeply shadowed by a wide-brimmed helmet, recognised . . . his wife.
Her breath was still coming In small, quick gasps; but there was no shadow of fear in her eyes; no lightest tremor about her close-set lips.
"Great God! You!" he ejaculated under his breath, and involuntarily took a backward step away from her.
At the shock of their encountering glances her cheeks flamed, and she lowered her lids.
"I suppose I may say thank you for that," she said, and her voice shook ever so little. "A minute later, I should have gone over."
He nodded, keeping his teeth close, his eyes down; and a deadweight of silence fell between them.
Small sounds became suddenly self-assertive. The rustle of squirrels along the pine-stems, the monotonous music of the cuckoo, varied by a charge of toy pistol-shots when an inexperienced monkey alighted on a dead twig. Brutus, standing squarely between them, eyed each in turn with critical speculation, his ugly head cocked very much to one side. He instinctively mistrusted all wearers of petticoats, and had found the buffalo incident very much more to his taste.
At length, in desperation, Quita made a movement as if to pass on. But Lenox laid a peremptory hand upon her bridle.
"Tell me, how do you come to be here of all impossible places on earth?"
His voice was harder than he knew, and a slight shadow passed across her face.
"Is it really necessary to explain?" she asked, coldly.
He relinquished her bridle at that.
"As you please, of course. Only—it is a little awkward our being here together; and it might be as well to come to some sort of understanding before we separate. Are you up here for the season?"
"Yes, we have been up all the winter, Michael and I, except for two months at Lahore. When the snow melted we moved to the highest cottage on Bakrota. It is beautiful up there. We came out here eighteen months ago," she went on a trifle hurriedly, grateful, now that the ice was broken, for the relief of commonplace speech. "I had heard a good deal about India, you know. I wanted to see it for myself, and if possible put a little of it on canvas."
"And you are not disappointed?"
"No, indeed. It is wonderful beyond words."
They had themselves well in hand now. Each had given the other a false impression at the start, and when two people are living at cross-purposes it is easier to move mountains than to remove that most intangible of all barriers, a false impression.
"And are you—up for the season?" Quita added, after a pause, with a natural touch of hesitancy.
"No. Two months' leave. I am free, therefore, to go elsewhere, if my presence here is in the least degree . . . annoying to you."
"Oh, but that would be a pity. You must have had a special reason for choosing Dalhousie."
"Some friends of mine were coming up, and asked me to come too. But they will quite understand if I say I should prefer to go shooting beyond Chumba."
"Don't say it, though, please. I would really rather you did not put yourself out in the smallest degree on my account. Besides," she added, achieving a rather uncertain smile, "we need not meet often, and no one—except Michael—will have any notion of . . . the truth."
"Of course not," he agreed, with glacial dignity. "I was forgetting that you had—discarded my name."
Again the blood flew to her cheeks.
"It seemed the simplest way to avoid possible complications, or unnecessary lies."
"And you flung away—my ring also?"
The question came out in spite of himself, for he had noted her ungloved left hand.
"No. Only I could not very well wear it—under the circumstances."
He stood aside now to let her pass. He himself then mounted, and followed her along the narrow path, raging against the irony of circumstance, as a man bites upon a sore tooth.
On reaching the spaciousness of Bakrota Mall, he had no choice but to ride abreast of his companion. He did so without remark, and since Quita lacked courage to spur her pony to a canter, they continued to ride thus for a time; each, under an admirable mask of composure, painfully aware of the other's presence.
Speech seemed only likely to widen the gulf between them, and at all times Lenox had a large capacity for silence.
Not so Quita. The last ten minutes had been overcrowded with conflicting emotions; her husband's mute proximity got upon her nerves, and a setting of pine and mountain put a finishing touch to an already intolerable situation. She turned upon him at length, with a small gesture of defiance,—a well-remembered tilt of her chin that pierced him like a sword-thrust.
"Don't feel bound to escort me, please. I am constantly out alone. You may have a long way to go; and we need hardly play at polite conventionalities—you and I."
He glanced at her keenly for a second.
"Thanks; I am in no hurry. But—if you would prefer it?"
"I think it would be less—uncomfortable for us both," she made answer desperately.
"In that case, of course . . ." He gathered up his reins, and lifted his hat, "At least I am glad to have been of some small service to you," he added, quietly. And before her brain or lips could formulate an answer, he had cantered off and vanished round a shoulder of the hill.
"Flower o' the clove, All the Latin I construe is 'Amo, I love'!" —Browning.
Quita drew rein and sat motionless for several seconds, looking straight before her.
"I wonder . . . I wonder very much," she mused, "exactly what one may infer from all that. Either he has superb self-control, or I have been wiped off the slate altogether. Most probably the latter."
Then she moved forward slowly, in a state of mind so complicated that, for all her skill in self-analysis, she could not unravel her own sensations. She only knew that she felt jarred through and through, and in a mood to give way to her most dare-devil impulses. But happily for her, no egregious piece of folly was ready to hand at the moment.
Her appearance in India was itself the outcome of an impulse generated by the arrival of two cheques, whose united figures took away her breath; and confirmed by the fact that Michael's relations with the inevitable woman of the moment threatened serious complications—for the woman. For Michael himself serious complications seemed out of all question. Frank Pagan though he was, he lacked, in a peculiar degree, the needful leavening of common clay. Love, as he knew it, was not inevitably based on passion. It was his imagination rather than his heart that took fire, and only under the influence of a dominant emotion did he appear to be capable of the highest achievement. Briefly, he was in love with Love, with that elixir of the heart that stirs the pulses, and quickens inspiration. The object loved stood second. But, so long as the enchantment held, so long as no new impression caught and whirled him in another direction, he honestly believed her to be supreme.
Hence complications, many and embarrassing, which went far to interpret Quita's inconsequent flittings from one continental town to another. For, although the younger by eighteen months, she was many years older in thought and character than her irresponsible brother; and in all matters of moment she took, and was expected to take, the lead.
The key to a perplexing character may often be found in the idiosyncrasies of its nearest and dearest; and this reversal of the natural order of things explained much in Quita that appeared difficile and contradictory; explained also her instant gravitation to Lenox, in whom she divined a supply of moral force, and the masculine spirit of protection, both strangely undeveloped in the brother she so devoutly loved. And if at times the uncongenial task of conscience-keeper, and general financier, coupled with complexities, arising from her own false position, had proved something of a strain upon her, Michael had never yet discovered the fact. She understood and shared enough of his Pagan spirit to accept his emotional aids to self-expression at their true value. Do what he might, she could not find it in her heart to be angry with him for long. He carried his fine crop of failings with a cheerfulness and assurance so engaging, that it seemed almost ungracious to be aware of them.
But there were moments when the woman in her rebelled, even to remonstrance, with small result; and when, at length, the arrival of two cheques coincided with Michael's announcement that a certain enamoured Countess obviously expected him to free her from the tyranny of an unloved husband, Quita had laughingly suggested India as an inviting means of escape from entanglements present and to come.
Half a night of meditation had sufficed to set her on the rock of decision. There were possibilities about India not to be named, even to her own heart. There were also empty spaces where white women would be scarce, and where Michael must learn to work without the spur of a fictitious stimulant.
Before the week was out, behold them ploughing through the Mediterranean, leaving the misguided Countess to pacify a suspicious husband. A summer in Kashmir, and a winter in a deserted Himalayan station, had confirmed Quita in the wisdom of their flight; and now her own unnamed possibility had been sprung upon her so suddenly, so strangely, that it took away her breath, and left her as yet neither glad nor sorry, but profoundly disturbed.
Arrived at her own turning, she relieved her feelings a little by getting Yorick at a canter up the twisted scrap of a path that climbed to a wooden doll's house, christened by a poetical Hindu landlord, the "Crow's Nest." Perched on an impossible-looking slope of gravel and granite, eight thousand feet above the Punjab, it seemed only to be saved from falling headlong by an eight-foot ledge of earth, which Quita spoke of proudly as her "garden," and which actually boasted two strips of border aglow with early summer flowers. Here she found her sais squatting on his heels; and springing from the saddle, dismissed Yorick without his customary lump of sugar.
On the steps of the trellised verandah she paused, nerving herself to recount her astonishing adventure in the right tone of voice, and instinctively her brain noted every detail of the view outspread before her. The golden stillness of morning rested on hill and valley like a benediction. Green cornfields, white watercourses, granite promontories, and black patches of forest—all were bathed in warmth and light without languor. The breath of the snows was still ice-cool, and exhilarating as wine; its freshness penetrated and enhanced by the faint sweet scent of Banksia roses, that clothed the rickety woodwork in a fairy garment of green and ivory-white. Each least sound was crystal clear in the rarefied air; the quarrelling of two sparrows, the high-pitched chatter from the compound behind the cottages, the crooning of ring-doves among the pines. Butterflies, like detached flowers, fluttered in and out. A faint breeze stirred the roses, so that an occasional creamy petal fell circling to the ground.
But for the first time Quita Maurice felt out of tune with it all. A disturbing element had thrust itself into her life, deranging its perspective, altering its values. She felt badly in need of common human sympathy, and the exalted calm of these high latitudes irritated rather than soothed her.
With an impatient sigh she turned to enter the house.
The glass doors of the centre room stood open, a characteristic room, half drawing-room, half studio; furnished mainly with two large easels, painting-stools, and cane chairs, yet bearing in every detail the stamp of Quita's iridescent personality. A pianette, a violin, a litter of music, and back numbers of the 'Art Journal' occupied one corner. A revolving bookcase showed an inviting array of books. Her own canvas was hidden by draperies of dull gold silk, and beside it, on a carved stool, sprays of Banksia roses and honeysuckle soared plumelike from a vase of beaten bronze.
Before the second easel Michael stood, with his back towards her, brush and palette in hand, head critically tilted, his velveteen coat sagging a little from rounded shoulders. Absorbed in his picture, he was quite unconscious of her presence. This irritated her also to an unjustifiable extent. Her vanity had suffered recent shock, and an unreasoning longing possessed her to be cared for, to be supremely needed.
"Michel!" she cried imperatively from her post in the doorway,—Michael objected strongly to the harsher pronunciation of his name; and the two seldom spoke English when alone. "Is it necessary to fire a salute before you will deign to be aware that one has come back?"
At that he turned quickly about, and treated her to a burlesque bow of apology.
"Mais non, cherie . . . a thousand pardons! But it is no fault of mine that you have the footfall of a bird!"
She laughed in spite of herself.
"Keep those sort of speeches for Miss Mayhew. She may possibly believe them. It would be all the same if I had the footfall of an elephant! Nothing short of siege-guns would distract your mind from that picture. It has bewitched you."
"Eh bien! When it is complete it will be a masterpiece," he assured her loftily.
"No doubt! But, in the meanwhile, it may interest you to know that except for a genuine miracle, I should not be here at all."
"Mon Dieu! But what happened? Tell me."
Flinging aside palette and brushes, he caught her hands in his, and it cost her an effort to preserve her lightness of tone.
"Nothing blood-curdling, since you see me without bruise or scratch. Only Yorick and I got tangled up with a herd of buffaloes on the Kajiar Road. In his fright, the little fool slipped half over the khud, and if a knight-errant had not fallen from heaven, in the nick of time, we should both be lying somewhere in the valley by now, 'spoiling a patch of Indian corn'!"
Maurice frowned. "Don't be gruesome, Quita."
"Sorry. I didn't mean to be. I was only quoting that uncannily clever Kipling boy at Lahore. Yorick and I were slithering over, just like the loathly Tertium Quid on the Mushobra Road; and there is plenty of Indian corn in the valley! I thought of it, all in a flash, and it wasn't enlivening, I assure you."
"That is enough," Maurice protested hastily. Tragedy oppressed him to the verge of annoyance. "But tell me—who was the knight-errant, that I may at least shake hands with him."
The blood tingled in Quita's cheeks, and she went quickly forward into the room.
"I doubt if you will want to do that when you know his name," she said. "It was—Captain Lenox."
"Nom de Dieu! That fellow!" Michael flung out his hands with a dramatic gesture of despair. "What is he doing here, par exemple, instead of poking about among his glaciers? Now I suppose he will not rest till he has taken you from me again."
The frank selfishness of the man's first thought was so characteristic that Quita smiled. But her smile had an edge to it.
"Set your mind at rest on that point," she said. "He is no more anxious to claim—his property, than I am to be claimed."
"Curse him! Did he dare to tell you so?"
Quita lifted her head; a spark of anger flashed in her eyes.
"You seem to forget that he is a gentleman, and—my husband." Then, recovering herself, she added more gently, "There are ways and ways of telling things, mon cher, and since I have relieved your anxiety, we need not mention him again. The subject is distasteful to me. Now, I want to see how you have got on with the masterpiece!"
She went to the easel; and Maurice, following, stood at her elbow anticipating the sweet savour of praise. For the picture was a notable bit of work, daringly simple in colouring and design, yet arresting, convincing, alive.
It represented a young girl, with the promise of womanhood on her gravely sweet lips, and in the depths of her eyes, half-sitting upon the crossed rails of the verandah. An ivory-white dress of Indian silk fell in shimmering folds to her feet. A dawn of clear amber made a tender background to the dull gold of her hair. Trailing sprays of the rose that ran riot over the house drooped towards her; and a pine branch, striking in abruptly, made an effective splash of shadow in an atmosphere palpitating with the promise of fuller light. The only intense bit of colour in the picture was the violet blue of Elsie Mayhew's eyes—eyes that looked into you and through you to some dream-world unsullied by the disconcerting realities of life, which seemed only awaiting the given moment to rush in and dispel the dream. For, as the sky gave promise of fuller light, so did the girl's spirit seem hovering on the verge of fuller knowledge.
Such at least was Quita's thought, as she stood silently appraising her brother's work; and it brought a contraction to her throat, a stinging sensation to her eyeballs.
"I congratulate you, Michel," said she softly. "You have never done anything to equal that. It is more than a portrait. It is an interpretation, or will be, when it is complete. Her hopeless little 'Button Quail' of a mother won't understand it in the least, but Colonel Mayhew will. I wonder if you know yourself how much you have put into it?"
"I know that I have put some superlative workmanship into it," he answered, looking upon the creation of his hand and brains with critical grey-green eyes, curiously out of keeping with an ill-formed and unrestrained mouth.
"Indeed you have. The thing is full of atmosphere, and your flesh tints are worthy of Perugino. You mean to give it to her?"
"Cela va sans dire. She wants it as a present for her father."
"Why not hang it first, at Home?"
"Afterwards, perhaps. If she permits."
"It is a big gift, Michel. It would fetch a high price; and we need money."
Michael shrugged his shoulders with all an artist's scorn of "the common drudge."
"Since when have you turned commercialist, petite soeur? If it is a question of starving, I can always paint another. I do not sell this one, voila tout. If it were only mine, I would have five lines of Swinburne under it for title. They express her to perfection. Listen—
'Her flower-soft lips were meek and passionate, For love upon them like a shadow sat, Patient, a foreseen vision of sweet things, A dream with eyes fast shut and plumeless wings, That know not what man's love or life shall be.'"
On the last line his voice deepened to an impassioned tone that brought an anxious crease to Quita's forehead.
"I wonder which you are most in love with," she said on a forced note of lightness. "The girl herself, or your picture of her? Do you ever treat her to such rhapsodies in the flesh? They must be a little embarrassing for a child of twenty!"
"Your 'child of twenty' is already very much a woman, and I have the right to say to her what I please."
"Not altogether, mon ami—unless——"
But Michael dismissed criticism as serenely as he dismissed consequences. The episode of the Countess was as though it had never been.
"I have no concern with 'unless.' Such uncomfortable words are wiped out of my vocabulary. They affect me like a false note in music."
Quita laughed. "No one knows that better than I do! But speaking simply as a woman, I know also that the man who opens our eyes to the passionate side of things involves himself in a big moral responsibility. And even you cannot shelve the moralities altogether."
"Dela depend. If the moralities hamper one's art, the shelf is the best place for them in my opinion."
His sister did not answer at once. Michael's confession of faith was not a matter to be lightly dismissed; for the simple reason that he lived up to it in so far as human inconsistency will allow any man to live up to his faith, however ignoble.
"I sometimes wonder whether one's art really does gain by that form of freedom," she said thoughtfully, "or only—one's consuming egotism."
But the suggestion was rank heresy, and Michael would have none of it.
"Really, Quita, you are as enlivening as a Lenten service! Upon my soul, I'd sooner you turned vegetarian than developed a conscience! But believe me, I am devoted to Miss Mayhew. She is enchanting. A wild rose, half-open, with the dew still on her petals. Metaphorically, I am at her feet. Does that satisfy you, ma belle?"
"It might, if I had not heard a good deal of it before. You are chronically devoted to one or other of us, my beloved Pagan! That's the root of the difficulty."
In atonement for directness of speech, she laid hands upon his shoulders, and smiled very tenderly into his face.