THE POOL IN THE DESERT
By Sara Jeanette Duncan
1. A Mother in India.
2. An Impossible Ideal.
3. The Hesitation of Miss Anderson.
4. The Pool in the Desert.
1. A Mother in India
There were times when we had to go without puddings to pay John's uniform bills, and always I did the facings myself with a cloth-ball to save getting new ones. I would have polished his sword, too, if I had been allowed; I adored his sword. And once, I remember, we painted and varnished our own dog-cart, and very smart it looked, to save fifty rupees. We had nothing but our pay—John had his company when we were married, but what is that?—and life was made up of small knowing economies, much more amusing in recollection than in practise. We were sodden poor, and that is a fact, poor and conscientious, which was worse. A big fat spider of a money-lender came one day into the veranda and tempted us—we lived in a hut, but it had a veranda—and John threatened to report him to the police. Poor when everybody else had enough to live in the open-handed Indian fashion, that was what made it so hard; we were alone in our sordid little ways. When the expectation of Cecily came to us we made out to be delighted, knowing that the whole station pitied us, and when Cecily came herself, with a swamping burst of expense, we kept up the pretense splendidly. She was peevish, poor little thing, and she threatened convulsions from the beginning, but we both knew that it was abnormal not to love her a great deal, more than life, immediately and increasingly; and we applied ourselves honestly to do it, with the thermometer at a hundred and two, and the nurse leaving at the end of a fortnight because she discovered that I had only six of everything for the table. To find out a husband's virtues, you must marry a poor man. The regiment was under-officered as usual, and John had to take parade at daylight quite three times a week; but he walked up and down the veranda with Cecily constantly till two in the morning, when a little coolness came. I usually lay awake the rest of the night in fear that a scorpion would drop from the ceiling on her. Nevertheless, we were of excellent mind towards Cecily; we were in such terror, not so much of failing in our duty towards her as towards the ideal standard of mankind. We were very anxious indeed not to come short. To be found too small for one's place in nature would have been odious. We would talk about her for an hour at a time, even when John's charger was threatening glanders and I could see his mind perpetually wandering to the stable. I would say to John that she had brought a new element into our lives—she had indeed!—and John would reply, 'I know what you mean,' and go on to prophesy that she would 'bind us together.' We didn't need binding together; we were more to each other, there in the desolation of that arid frontier outpost, than most husbands and wives; but it seemed a proper and hopeful thing to believe, so we believed it. Of course, the real experience would have come, we weren't monsters; but fate curtailed the opportunity. She was just five weeks old when the doctor told us that we must either pack her home immediately or lose her, and the very next day John went down with enteric. So Cecily was sent to England with a sergeant's wife who had lost her twins, and I settled down under the direction of a native doctor, to fight for my husband's life, without ice or proper food, or sickroom comforts of any sort. Ah! Fort Samila, with the sun glaring up from the sand!—however, it is a long time ago now. I trusted the baby willingly to Mrs. Berry and to Providence, and did not fret; my capacity for worry, I suppose, was completely absorbed. Mrs. Berry's letter, describing the child's improvement on the voyage and safe arrival came, I remember, the day on which John was allowed his first solid mouthful; it had been a long siege. 'Poor little wretch!' he said when I read it aloud; and after that Cecily became an episode.
She had gone to my husband's people; it was the best arrangement. We were lucky that it was possible; so many children had to be sent to strangers and hirelings. Since an unfortunate infant must be brought into the world and set adrift, the haven of its grandmother and its Aunt Emma and its Aunt Alice certainly seemed providential. I had absolutely no cause for anxiety, as I often told people, wondering that I did not feel a little all the same. Nothing, I knew, could exceed the conscientious devotion of all three Farnham ladies to the child. She would appear upon their somewhat barren horizon as a new and interesting duty, and the small additional income she also represented would be almost nominal compensation for the care she would receive. They were excellent persons of the kind that talk about matins and vespers, and attend both. They helped little charities and gave little teas, and wrote little notes, and made deprecating allowance for the eccentricities of their titled or moneyed acquaintances. They were the subdued, smiling, unimaginatively dressed women on a small definite income that you meet at every rectory garden-party in the country, a little snobbish, a little priggish, wholly conventional, but apart from these weaknesses, sound and simple and dignified, managing their two small servants with a display of the most exact traditions, and keeping a somewhat vague and belated but constant eye upon the doings of their country as chronicled in a bi-weekly paper. They were all immensely interested in royalty, and would read paragraphs aloud to each other about how the Princess Beatrice or the Princess Maud had opened a fancy bazaar, looking remarkably well in plain grey poplin trimmed with Irish lace—an industry which, as is well known, the Royal Family has set its heart on rehabilitating. Upon which Mrs. Farnham's comment invariably would be, 'How thoughtful of them, dear!' and Alice would usually say, 'Well, if I were a princess, I should like something nicer than plain grey poplin.' Alice, being the youngest, was not always expected to think before she spoke. Alice painted in water-colours, but Emma was supposed to have the most common sense.
They took turns in writing to us with the greatest regularity about Cecily; only once, I think, did they miss the weekly mail, and that was when she threatened diphtheria and they thought we had better be kept in ignorance. The kind and affectionate terms of these letters never altered except with the facts they described—teething, creeping, measles, cheeks growing round and rosy, all were conveyed in the same smooth, pat, and proper phrases, so absolutely empty of any glimpse of the child's personality that after the first few months it was like reading about a somewhat uninteresting infant in a book. I was sure Cecily was not uninteresting, but her chroniclers were. We used to wade through the long, thin sheets and saw how much more satisfactory it would be when Cecily could write to us herself. Meanwhile we noted her weekly progress with much the feeling one would have about a far-away little bit of property that was giving no trouble and coming on exceedingly well. We would take possession of Cecily at our convenience; till then, it was gratifying to hear of our unearned increment in dear little dimples and sweet little curls.
She was nearly four when I saw her again. We were home on three months' leave; John had just got his first brevet for doing something which he does not allow me to talk about in the Black Mountain country; and we were fearfully pleased with ourselves. I remember that excitement lasted well up to Port Said. As far as the Canal, Cecily was only one of the pleasures and interests we were going home to: John's majority was the thing that really gave savour to life. But the first faint line of Europe brought my child to my horizon; and all the rest of the way she kept her place, holding out her little arms to me, beckoning me on. Her four motherless years brought compunction to my heart and tears to my eyes; she should have all the compensation that could be. I suddenly realized how ready I was—how ready!—to have her back. I rebelled fiercely against John's decision that we must not take her with us on our return to the frontier; privately, I resolved to dispute it, and, if necessary, I saw myself abducting the child—my own child. My days and nights as the ship crept on were full of a long ache to possess her; the defrauded tenderness of the last four years rose up in me and sometimes caught at my throat. I could think and talk and dream of nothing else. John indulged me as much as was reasonable, and only once betrayed by a yawn that the subject was not for him endlessly absorbing. Then I cried and he apologized. 'You know,' he said, 'it isn't exactly the same thing. I'm not her mother.' At which I dried my tears and expanded, proud and pacified. I was her mother!
Then the rainy little station and Alice, all-embracing in a damp waterproof, and the drive in the fly, and John's mother at the gate and a necessary pause while I kissed John's mother. Dear thing, she wanted to hold our hands and look into our faces and tell us how little we had changed for all our hardships; and on the way to the house she actually stopped to point out some alterations in the flower-borders. At last the drawing-room door and the smiling housemaid turning the handle and the unforgettable picture of a little girl, a little girl unlike anything we had imagined, starting bravely to trot across the room with the little speech that had been taught her. Half-way she came; I suppose our regards were too fixed, too absorbed, for there she stopped with a wail of terror at the strange faces, and ran straight back to the outstretched arms of her Aunt Emma. The most natural thing in the world, no doubt. I walked over to a chair opposite with my hand-bag and umbrella and sat down—a spectator, aloof and silent. Aunt Emma fondled and quieted the child, apologizing for her to me, coaxing her to look up, but the little figure still shook with sobs, hiding its face in the bosom that it knew. I smiled politely, like any other stranger, at Emma's deprecations, and sat impassive, looking at my alleged baby breaking her heart at the sight of her mother. It is not amusing even now to remember the anger that I felt. I did not touch her or speak to her; I simply sat observing my alien possession, in the frock I had not made and the sash I had not chosen, being coaxed and kissed and protected and petted by its Aunt Emma. Presently I asked to be taken to my room, and there I locked myself in for two atrocious hours. Just once my heart beat high, when a tiny knock came and a timid, docile little voice said that tea was ready. But I heard the rustle of a skirt, and guessed the directing angel in Aunt Emma, and responded, 'Thank you, dear, run away and say that I am coming,' with a pleasant visitor's inflection which I was able to sustain for the rest of afternoon.
'She goes to bed at seven,' said Emma.
'Oh, does she?' said I. 'A very good hour, I should think.'
'She sleeps in my room,' said Mrs. Farnham.
'We give her mutton broth very often, but seldom stock soup,' said Aunt Emma. 'Mamma thinks it is too stimulating.'
'Indeed?' said I, to all of it.
They took me up to see her in her crib, and pointed out, as she lay asleep, that though she had 'a general look' of me, her features were distinctively Farnham.
'Won't you kiss her?' asked Alice. 'You haven't kissed her yet, and she is used to so much affection.'
'I don't think I could take such an advantage of her,' I said.
They looked at each other, and Mrs. Farnham said that I was plainly worn out. I mustn't sit up to prayers.
If I had been given anything like reasonable time I might have made a fight for it, but four weeks—it took a month each way in those days—was too absurdly little; I could do nothing. But I would not stay at mamma's. It was more than I would ask of myself, that daily disappointment under the mask of gratified discovery, for long.
I spent an approving, unnatural week, in my farcical character, bridling my resentment and hiding my mortification with pretty phrases; and then I went up to town and drowned my sorrows in the summer sales. I took John with me. I may have been Cecily's mother in theory, but I was John's wife in fact.
We went back to the frontier, and the regiment saw a lot of service. That meant medals and fun for my husband, but economy and anxiety for me, though I managed to be allowed as close to the firing line as any woman.
Once the Colonel's wife and I, sitting in Fort Samila, actually heard the rifles of a punitive expedition cracking on the other side of the river—that was a bad moment. My man came in after fifteen hours' fighting, and went sound asleep, sitting before his food with his knife and fork in his hands. But service makes heavy demands besides those on your wife's nerves. We had saved two thousand rupees, I remember, against another run home, and it all went like powder, in the Mirzai expedition; and the run home diminished to a month in a boarding-house in the hills.
Meanwhile, however, we had begun to correspond with our daughter, in large round words of one syllable, behind which, of course, was plain the patient guiding hand of Aunt Emma. One could hear Aunt Emma suggesting what would be nice to say, trying to instil a little pale affection for the far-off papa and mamma. There was so little Cecily and so much Emma—of course, it could not be otherwise—that I used to take, I fear, but a perfunctory joy in these letters. When we went home again I stipulated absolutely that she was to write to us without any sort of supervision—the child was ten.
'But the spelling!' cried Aunt Emma, with lifted eyebrows.
'Her letters aren't exercises,' I was obliged to retort; 'she will do the best she can.'
We found her a docile little girl, with nice manners, a thoroughly unobjectionable child. I saw quite clearly that I could not have brought her up so well; indeed, there were moments when I fancied that Cecily, contrasting me with her aunts, wondered a little what my bringing up could have been like. With this reserve of criticism on Cecily's part, however, we got on very tolerably, largely because I found it impossible to assume any responsibility towards her, and in moments of doubt or discipline referred her to her aunts. We spent a pleasant summer with a little girl in the house whose interest in us was amusing, and whose outings it was gratifying to arrange; but when we went back, I had no desire to take her with us. I thought her very much better where she was.
Then came the period which is filled, in a subordinate degree, with Cecily's letters. I do not wish to claim more than I ought; they were not my only or even my principal interest in life. It was a long period; it lasted till she was twenty-one. John had had promotion in the meantime, and there was rather more money, but he had earned his second brevet with a bullet through one lung, and the doctors ordered our leave to be spent in South Africa. We had photographs, we knew she had grown tall and athletic and comely, and the letters were always very creditable. I had the unusual and qualified privilege of watching my daughter's development from ten to twenty-one, at a distance of four thousand miles, by means of the written word. I wrote myself as provocatively as possible; I sought for every string, but the vibration that came back across the seas to me was always other than the one I looked for, and sometimes there was none. Nevertheless, Mrs. Farnham wrote me that Cecily very much valued my communications. Once when I had described an unusual excursion in a native state, I learned that she had read my letter aloud to the sewing circle. After that I abandoned description, and confined myself to such intimate personal details as no sewing circle could find amusing. The child's own letters were simply a mirror of the ideas of the Farnham ladies; that must have been so, it was not altogether my jaundiced eye. Alice and Emma and grandmamma paraded the pages in turn. I very early gave up hope of discoveries in my daughter, though as much of the original as I could detect was satisfactorily simple and sturdy. I found little things to criticize, of course, tendencies to correct; and by return post I criticized and corrected, but the distance and the deliberation seemed to touch my maxims with a kind of arid frivolity, and sometimes I tore them up. One quick, warm-blooded scolding would have been worth a sheaf of them. My studied little phrases could only inoculate her with a dislike for me without protecting her from anything under the sun.
However, I found she didn't dislike me, when John and I went home at last to bring her out. She received me with just a hint of kindness, perhaps, but on the whole very well.
John was recalled, of course, before the end of our furlough, which knocked various things on the head; but that is the sort of thing one learned to take with philosophy in any lengthened term of Her Majesty's service. Besides, there is usually sugar for the pill; and in this case it was a Staff command bigger than anything we expected for at least five years to come. The excitement of it when it was explained to her gave Cecily a charming colour. She took a good deal of interest in the General, her papa; I think she had an idea that his distinction would alleviate the situation in India, however it might present itself. She accepted that prospective situation calmly; it had been placed before her all her life. There would always be a time when she should go and live with papa and mamma in India, and so long as she was of an age to receive the idea with rebel tears she was assured that papa and mamma would give her a pony. The pony was no longer added to the prospect; it was absorbed no doubt in the general list of attractions calculated to reconcile a young lady to a parental roof with which she had no practical acquaintance. At all events, when I feared the embarrassment and dismay of a pathetic parting with darling grandmamma and the aunties, and the sweet cat and the dear vicar and all the other objects of affection, I found an agreeable unexpected philosophy.
I may add that while I anticipated such broken-hearted farewells I was quite prepared to take them easily. Time, I imagined, had brought philosophy to me also, equally agreeable and equally unexpected.
It was a Bombay ship, full of returning Anglo-Indians. I looked up and down the long saloon tables with a sense of relief and of solace; I was again among my own people. They belonged to Bengal and to Burma, to Madras and to the Punjab, but they were all my people. I could pick out a score that I knew in fact, and there were none that in imagination I didn't know. The look of wider seas and skies, the casual experienced glance, the touch of irony and of tolerance, how well I knew it and how well I liked it! Dear old England, sitting in our wake, seemed to hold by comparison a great many soft, unsophisticated people, immensely occupied about very particular trifles. How difficult it had been, all the summer, to be interested! These of my long acquaintance belonged to my country's Executive, acute, alert, with the marks of travail on them. Gladly I went in and out of the women's cabins and listened to the argot of the men; my own ruling, administering, soldiering little lot.
Cecily looked at them askance. To her the atmosphere was alien, and I perceived that gently and privately she registered objections. She cast a disapproving eye upon the wife of a Conservator of Forests, who scanned with interest a distant funnel and laid a small wager that it belonged to the Messageries Maritimes. She looked with a straightened lip at the crisply stepping women who walked the deck in short and rather shabby skirts with their hands in their jacket-pockets talking transfers and promotions; and having got up at six to make a water-colour sketch of the sunrise, she came to me in profound indignation to say that she had met a man in his pyjamas; no doubt; poor wretch, on his way to be shaved. I was unable to convince her he was not expected to visit the barber in all his clothes.
At the end of the third day she told me that she wished these people wouldn't talk to her; she didn't like them. I had turned in the hour we left the Channel and had not left my berth since, so possibly I was not in the most amiable mood to receive a douche of cold water. 'I must try to remember, dear,' I said, 'that you have been brought up altogether in the society of pussies and vicars and elderly ladies, and of course you miss them. But you must have a little patience. I shall be up tomorrow, if this beastly sea continues to go down; and then we will try to find somebody suitable to introduce to you.'
'Thank you, mamma,' said my daughter, without a ray of suspicion. Then she added consideringly, 'Aunt Emma and Aunt Alice do seem quite elderly ladies beside you, and yet you are older than either of them aren't you? I wonder how that is.'
It was so innocent, so admirable, that I laughed at my own expense; while Cecily, doing her hair, considered me gravely. 'I wish you would tell me why you laugh, mamma,' quoth she; 'you laugh so often.'
We had not to wait after all for my good offices of the next morning. Cecily came down at ten o'clock that night quite happy and excited; she had been talking to a bishop, such a dear bishop. The bishop had been showing her his collection of photographs, and she had promised to play the harmonium for him at the eleven-o'clock service in the morning. 'Bless me!' said I, 'is it Sunday?' It seemed she had got on very well indeed with the bishop, who knew the married sister, at Tunbridge, of her very greatest friend. Cecily herself did not know the married sister, but that didn't matter—it was a link. The bishop was charming. 'Well, my love,' said I—I was teaching myself to use these forms of address for fear she would feel an unkind lack of them, but it was difficult—'I am glad that somebody from my part of the world has impressed you favourably at last. I wish we had more bishops.'
'Oh, but my bishop doesn't belong to your part of the world,' responded my daughter sleepily. 'He is travelling for his health.'
It was the most unexpected and delightful thing to be packed into one's chair next morning by Dacres Tottenham. As I emerged from the music saloon after breakfast—Cecily had stayed below to look over her hymns and consider with her bishop the possibility of an anthem—Dacres's face was the first I saw; it simply illuminated, for me, that portion of the deck. I noticed with pleasure the quick toss of the cigar overboard as he recognized and bore down upon me. We were immense friends; John liked him too. He was one of those people who make a tremendous difference; in all our three hundred passengers there could be no one like him, certainly no one whom I could be more glad to see. We plunged at once into immediate personal affairs, we would get at the heart of them later. He gave his vivid word to everything he had seen and done; we laughed and exclaimed and were silent in a concert of admirable understanding. We were still unravelling, still demanding and explaining when the ship's bell began to ring for church, and almost simultaneously Cecily advanced towards us. She had a proper Sunday hat on, with flowers under the brim, and a church-going frock; she wore gloves and clasped a prayer-book. Most of the women who filed past to the summons of the bell were going down as they were, in cotton blouses and serge skirts, in tweed caps or anything, as to a kind of family prayers. I knew exactly how they would lean against the pillars of the saloon during the psalms. This young lady would be little less than a rebuke to them. I surveyed her approach; she positively walked as if it were Sunday.
'My dear,' I said, 'how endimanchee you look! The bishop will be very pleased with you. This gentleman is Mr. Tottenham, who administers Her Majesty's pleasure in parts of India about Allahabad. My daughter, Dacres.' She was certainly looking very fresh, and her calm grey eyes had the repose in them that has never known itself to be disturbed about anything. I wondered whether she bowed so distantly also because it was Sunday, and then I remembered that Dacres was a young man, and that the Farnham ladies had probably taught her that it was right to be very distant with young men.
'It is almost eleven, mamma.'
'Yes, dear. I see you are going to church.'
'Are you not coming, mamma?'
I was well wrapped up in an extremely comfortable corner. I had 'La Duchesse Bleue' uncut in my lap, and an agreeable person to talk to. I fear that in any case I should not been inclined to attend the service, but there was something in my daughter's intonation that made me distinctly hostile to the idea. I am putting things down as they were, extenuating nothing.
'I think not, dear.'
'I've turned up two such nice seats.'
'Stay, Miss Farnham, and keep us in countenance,' said Dacres, with his charming smile. The smile displaced a look of discreet and amused observation. Dacres had an eye always for a situation, and this one was even newer to him than to me.
'No, no. She must run away and not bully her mamma,' I said. 'When she comes back we will see how much she remembers of the sermon;' and as the flat tinkle from the companion began to show signs of diminishing, Cecily, with one grieved glance, hastened down.
'You amazing lady!' said Dacres. 'A daughter—and such a tall daughter! I somehow never—'
'You knew we had one?'
'There was theory of that kind, I remember, about ten years ago. Since then—excuse me—I don't think you've mentioned her.'
'You talk as if she were a skeleton in the closet!'
'You DIDN'T talk—as if she were.'
'I think she was, in a way, poor child. But the resurrection day hasn't confounded me as I deserved. She's a very good girl.'
'If you had asked me to pick out your daughter—'
'She would have been the last you would indicate! Quite so,' I said. 'She is like her father's people. I can't help that.'
'I shouldn't think you would if you could,' Dacres remarked absently; but the sea air, perhaps, enabled me to digest his thoughtlessness with a smile.
'No,' I said, 'I am just as well pleased. I think a resemblance to me would confuse me, often.'
There was a trace of scrutiny in Dacres's glance. 'Don't you find yourself in sympathy with her?' he asked.
'My dear boy, I have seen her just twice in twenty-one years! You see, I've always stuck to John.'
'But between mother and daughter—I may be old-fashioned, but I had an idea that there was an instinct that might be depended on.'
'I am depending on it,' I said, and let my eyes follow the little blue waves that chased past the hand-rail. 'We are making very good speed, aren't we? Thirty-five knots since last night at ten. Are you in the sweep?'
'I never bet on the way out—can't afford it. Am I old-fashioned?' he insisted.
'Probably. Men are very slow in changing their philosophy about women. I fancy their idea of the maternal relation is firmest fixed of all.'
'We see it a beatitude!' he cried.
'I know,' I said wearily, 'and you never modify the view.'
Dacres contemplated the portion of the deck that lay between us. His eyes were discreetly lowered, but I saw embarrassment and speculation and a hint of criticism in them.
'Tell me more about it,' said he.
'Oh, for heaven's sake don't be sympathetic!' I exclaimed. 'Lend me a little philosophy instead. There is nothing to tell. There she is and there I am, in the most intimate relation in the world, constituted when she is twenty-one and I am forty.' Dacres started slightly at the ominous word; so little do men realize that the women they like can ever pass out of the constated years of attraction. 'I find the young lady very tolerable, very creditable, very nice. I find the relation atrocious. There you have it. I would like to break the relation into pieces,' I went on recklessly, 'and throw it into the sea. Such things should be tempered to one. I should feel it much less if she occupied another cabin, and would consent to call me Elizabeth or Jane. It is not as if I had been her mother always. One grows fastidious at forty—new intimacies are only possible then on a basis of temperament—'
I paused; it seemed to me that I was making excuses, and I had not the least desire in the world to do that.
'How awfully rough on the girl!' said Dacres Tottenham.
'That consideration has also occurred to me,' I said candidly, 'though I have perhaps been even more struck by its converse.'
'You had no earthly business to be her mother,' said my friend, with irritation.
I shrugged my shoulders—what would you have done?—and opened 'La Duchesse Bleue'.
Mrs. Morgan, wife of a judge of the High Court of Bombay, and I sat amidships on the cool side in the Suez Canal. She was outlining 'Soiled Linen' in chain-stitch on a green canvas bag; I was admiring the Egyptian sands. 'How charming,' said I, 'is this solitary desert in the endless oasis we are compelled to cross!'
'Oasis in the desert, you mean,' said Mrs. Morgan; 'I haven't noticed any, but I happened to look up this morning as I was putting on my stockings, and I saw through my port-hole the most lovely mirage.'
I had been at school with Mrs. Morgan more than twenty years agone, but she had come to the special enjoyment of the dignities of life while I still liked doing things. Mrs. Morgan was the kind of person to make one realize how distressing a medium is middle age. Contemplating her precipitous lap, to which conventional attitudes were certainly more becoming, I crossed my own knees with energy, and once more resolved to be young until I was old.
'How perfectly delightful for you to be taking Cecily out!' said Mrs. Morgan placidly.
'Isn't it?' I responded, watching the gliding sands.
'But she was born in sixty-nine—that makes her twenty-one. Quite time, I should say.'
'Oh, we couldn't put it off any longer. I mean—her father has such a horror of early debuts. He simply would not hear of her coming before.'
'Doesn't want her to marry in India, I dare say—the only one,' purred Mrs. Morgan.
'Oh, I don't know. It isn't such a bad place. I was brought out there to marry, and I married. I've found it very satisfactory.'
'You always did say exactly what you thought, Helena,' said Mrs. Morgan excusingly.
'I haven't much patience with people who bring their daughters out to give them the chance they never would have in England, and then go about devoutly hoping they won't marry in India,' I said. 'I shall be very pleased if Cecily does as well as your girls have done.'
'Mary in the Indian Civil and Jessie in the Imperial Service Troops,' sighed Mrs. Morgan complacently. 'And both, my dear, within a year. It WAS a blow.'
'Oh, it must have been!' I said civilly.
There was no use in bandying words with Emily Morgan.
'There is nothing in the world like the satisfaction and pleasure one takes in one's daughters,' Mrs. Morgan went on limpidly. 'And one can be in such CLOSE sympathy with one's girls. I have never regretted having no sons.'
'Dear me, yes. To watch oneself growing up again—call back the lovely April of one's prime, etcetera—to read every thought and anticipate every wish—there is no more golden privilege in life, dear Emily. Such a direct and natural avenue for affection, such a wide field for interest!'
I paused, lost in the volume of my admirable sentiments.
'How beautifully you talk, Helena! I wish I had the gift.'
'It doesn't mean very much,' I said truthfully.
'Oh, I think it's everything! And how companionable a girl is! I quite envy you, this season, having Cecily constantly with you and taking her about everywhere. Something quite new for you, isn't it?'
'Absolutely,' said I; 'I am looking forward to it immensely. But it is likely she will make her own friends, don't you think?' I added anxiously.
'Hardly the first season. My girls didn't. I was practically their only intimate for months. Don't be afraid; you won't be obliged to go shares in Cecily with anybody for a good long while,' added Mrs. Morgan kindly. 'I know just how you feel about THAT.'
The muddy water of the Ditch chafed up from under us against its banks with a smell that enabled me to hide the emotions Mrs. Morgan evoked behind my handkerchief. The pale desert was pictorial with the drifting, deepening purple shadows of clouds, and in the midst a blue glimmer of the Bitter Lakes, with a white sail on them. A little frantic Arab boy ran alongside keeping pace with the ship. Except for the smell, it was like a dream, we moved so quietly; on, gently on and on between the ridgy clay banks and the rows of piles. Peace was on the ship; you could hear what the Fourth in his white ducks said to the quartermaster in his blue denims; you could count the strokes of the electric bell in the wheel-house; peace was on the ship as she pushed on, an ever-venturing, double-funneled impertinence, through the sands of the ages. My eyes wandered along a plank-line in the deck till they were arrested by a petticoat I knew, when they returned of their own accord. I seemed to be always seeing that petticoat.
'I think,' resumed Mrs. Morgan, whose glance had wandered in the same direction, 'that Cecily is a very fine type of our English girls. With those dark grey eyes, a LITTLE prominent possibly, and that good colour—it's rather high now perhaps, but she will lose quite enough of it in India—and those regular features, she would make a splendid Britannia. Do you know, I fancy she must have a great deal of character. Has she?'
'Any amount. And all of it good,' I responded, with private dejection.
'No faults at all?' chaffed Mrs. Morgan.
I shook my head. 'Nothing,' I said sadly, 'that I can put my finger on. But I hope to discover a few later. The sun may bring them out.'
'Like freckles. Well, you are a lucky woman. Mine had plenty, I assure you. Untidiness was no name for Jessie, and Mary—I'm SORRY to say that Mary sometimes fibbed.'
'How lovable of her! Cecily's neatness is a painful example to me, and I don't believe she would tell a fib to save my life.'
'Tell me,' said Mrs. Morgan, as the lunch-bell rang and she gathered her occupation into her work-basket, 'who is that talking to her?'
'Oh, an old friend,' I replied easily; 'Dacres Tottenham, a dear fellow, and most benevolent. He is trying on my behalf to reconcile her to the life she'll have to lead in India.'
'She won't need much reconciling, if she's like most girls,' observed Mrs. Morgan, 'but he seems to be trying very hard.'
That was quite the way I took it—on my behalf—for several days. When people have understood you very adequately for ten years you do not expect them to boggle at any problem you may present at the end of the decade. I thought Dacres was moved by a fine sense of compassion. I thought that with his admirable perception he had put a finger on the little comedy of fruitfulness in my life that laughed so bitterly at the tragedy of the barren woman, and was attempting, by delicate manipulation, to make it easier. I really thought so. Then I observed that myself had preposterously deceived me, that it wasn't like that at all. When Mr. Tottenham joined us, Cecily and me, I saw that he listened more than he talked, with an ear specially cocked to register any small irony which might appear in my remarks to my daughter. Naturally he registered more than there were, to make up perhaps for dear Cecily's obviously not registering any. I could see, too, that he was suspicious of any flavour of kindness; finally, to avoid the strictures of his upper lip, which really, dear fellow, began to bore me, I talked exclusively about the distant sails and the Red Sea littoral. When he no longer joined us as we sat or walked together, I perceived that his hostility was fixed and his parti pris. He was brimful of compassion, but it was all for Cecily, none for the situation or for me. (She would have marvelled, placidly, why he pitied her. I am glad I can say that.) The primitive man in him rose up as Pope of nature and excommunicated me as a creature recusant to her functions. Then deliberately Dacres undertook an office of consolation; and I fell to wondering, while Mrs. Morgan spoke her convictions plainly out, how far an impulse of reparation for a misfortune with which he had nothing to do might carry a man.
I began to watch the affair with an interest which even to me seemed queer. It was not detached, but it was semi-detached, and, of course, on the side for which I seem, in this history, to be perpetually apologizing. With certain limitations it didn't matter an atom whom Cecily married. So that he was sound and decent, with reasonable prospects, her simple requirements and ours for her would be quite met. There was the ghost of a consolation in that; one needn't be anxious or exacting.
I could predict with a certain amount of confidence that in her first season she would probably receive three or four proposals, any one of which she might accept with as much propriety and satisfaction as any other one. For Cecily it was so simple; prearranged by nature like her digestion, one could not see any logical basis for difficulties. A nice upstanding sapper, a dashing Bengal Lancer—oh, I could think of half a dozen types that would answer excellently. She was the kind of young person, and that was the summing up of it, to marry a type and be typically happy. I hoped and expected that she would. But Dacres!
Dacres should exercise the greatest possible discretion. He was not a person who could throw the dice indifferently with fate. He could respond to so much, and he would inevitably, sooner or later, demand so much response! He was governed by a preposterously exacting temperament, and he wore his nerves outside. And what vision he had! How he explored the world he lived in and drew out of it all there was, all there was! I could see him in the years to come ranging alone the fields that were sweet and the horizons that lifted for him, and ever returning to pace the common dusty mortal road by the side of a purblind wife. On general principles, as a case to point at, it would be a conspicuous pity. Nor would it lack the aspect of a particular, a personal misfortune. Dacres was occupied in quite the natural normal degree with his charming self; he would pass his misery on, and who would deserve to escape it less than his mother-in-law?
I listened to Emily Morgan, who gleaned in the ship more information about Dacres Tottenham's people, pay, and prospects than I had ever acquired, and I kept an eye upon the pair which was, I flattered myself, quite maternal. I watched them without acute anxiety, deploring the threatening destiny, but hardly nearer to it than one is in the stalls to the stage. My moments of real concern for Dacres were mingled more with anger than with sorrow—it seemed inexcusable that he, with his infallible divining-rod for temperament, should be on the point of making such an ass of himself. Though I talk of the stage there was nothing at all dramatic to reward my attention, mine and Emily Morgan's. To my imagination, excited by its idea of what Dacres Tottenham's courtship ought to be, the attentions he paid to Cecily were most humdrum. He threw rings into buckets with her—she was good at that—and quoits upon the 'bull' board; he found her chair after the decks were swabbed in the morning and established her in it; he paced the deck with her at convenient times and seasons. They were humdrum, but they were constant and cumulative. Cecily took them with an even breath that perfectly matched. There was hardly anything, on her part, to note—a little discreet observation of his comings and goings, eyes scarcely lifted from her book, and later just a hint of proprietorship, as the evening she came up to me on deck, our first night in the Indian Ocean. I was lying in my long chair looking at the thick, low stars and thinking it was a long time since I had seen John.
'Dearest mamma, out here and nothing over your shoulders! You ARE imprudent. Where is your wrap? Mr. Tottenham, will you please fetch mamma's wrap for her?'
'If mamma so instructs me,' he said audaciously.
'Do as Cecily tells you,' I laughed, and he went and did it, while I by the light of a quartermaster's lantern distinctly saw my daughter blush.
Another time, when Cecily came down to undress, she bent over me as I lay in the lower berth with unusual solicitude. I had been dozing, and I jumped.
'What is it, child?' I said. 'Is the ship on fire?'
'No, mamma, the ship is not on fire. There is nothing wrong. I'm so sorry I startled you. But Mr. Tottenham has been telling me all about what you did for the soldiers the time plague broke out in the lines at Mian-Mir. I think it was splendid, mamma, and so does he.'
'Oh, Lord!' I groaned. 'Good night.'
It remained in my mind, that little thing that Dacres had taken the trouble to tell my daughter; I thought about it a good deal. It seemed to me the most serious and convincing circumstances that had yet offered itself to my consideration. Dacres was no longer content to bring solace and support to the more appealing figure of the situation; he must set to work, bless him! to improve the situation itself. He must try to induce Miss Farnham, by telling her everything he could remember to my credit, to think as well of her mother as possible, in spite of the strange and secret blows which that mother might be supposed to sit up at night to deliver to her. Cecily thought very well of me already; indeed, with private reservations as to my manners and—no, NOT my morals, I believe I exceeded her expectations of what a perfectly new and untrained mother would be likely to prove. It was my theory that she found me all she could understand me to be. The maternal virtues of the outside were certainly mine; I put them on with care every morning and wore them with patience all day. Dacres, I assured myself, must have allowed his preconception to lead him absurdly by the nose not to see that the girl was satisfied, that my impatience, my impotence, did not at all make her miserable. Evidently, however, he had created our relations differently; evidently he had set himself to their amelioration. There was portent in it; things seemed to be closing in. I bit off a quarter of an inch of wooden pen-handle in considering whether or not I should mention it in my letter to John, and decided that it would be better just perhaps to drop a hint. Though I could not expect John to receive it with any sort of perturbation. Men are different; he would probably think Tottenham well enough able to look after himself.
I had embarked on my letter, there at the end of a corner-table of the saloon, when I saw Dacres saunter through. He wore a very conscious and elaborately purposeless air; and it jumped with my mood that he had nothing less than the crisis of his life in his pocket, and was looking for me. As he advanced towards me between the long tables doubt left me and alarm assailed me. 'I'm glad to find you in a quiet corner,' said he, seating himself, and confirmed my worst anticipations.
'I'm writing to John,' I said, and again applied myself to my pen-handle. It is a trick Cecily has since done her best in vain to cure me of.
'I am going to interrupt you,' he said. 'I have not had an opportunity of talking to you for some time.'
'I like that!' I exclaimed derisively.
'And I want to tell you that I am very much charmed with Cecily.'
'Well,' I said, 'I am not going to gratify you by saying anything against her.'
'You don't deserve her, you know.'
'I won't dispute that. But, if you don't mind—I'm not sure that I'll stand being abused, dear boy.'
'I quite see it isn't any use. Though one spoke with the tongues of men and of angels—'
'And had not charity,' I continued for him. 'Precisely. I won't go on, but your quotation is very apt.'
'I so bow down before her simplicity. It makes a wide and beautiful margin for the rest of her character. She is a girl Ruskin would have loved.'
'I wonder,' said I. 'He did seem fond of the simple type, didn't he?'
'Her mind is so clear, so transparent. The motive spring of everything she says and does is so direct. Don't you find you can most completely depend upon her?'
'Oh yes,' I said; 'certainly. I nearly always know what she is going to say before she says it, and under given circumstances I can tell precisely what she will do.'
'I fancy her sense of duty is very beautifully developed.'
'It is,' I said. 'There is hardly a day when I do not come in contact with it.'
'Well, that is surely a good thing. And I find that calm poise of hers very restful.'
'I would not have believed that so many virtues could reside in one young lady,' I said, taking refuge in flippancy, 'and to think that she should be my daughter!'
'As I believe you know, that seems to me rather a cruel stroke of destiny, Mrs. Farnham.'
'Oh yes, I know! You have a constructive imagination, Dacres. You don't seem to see that the girl is protected by her limitations, like a tortoise. She lives within them quite secure and happy and content. How determined you are to be sorry for her!'
Mr. Tottenham looked at the end of this lively exchange as though he sought for a polite way of conveying to me that I rather was the limited person. He looked as if he wished he could say things. The first of them would be, I saw, that he had quite a different conception of Cecily, that it was illuminated by many trifles, nuances of feeling and expression, which he had noticed in his talks with her whenever they had skirted the subject of her adoption by her mother. He knew her, he was longing to say, better than I did; when it would have been natural to reply that one could not hope to compete in such a direction with an intelligent young man, and we should at once have been upon delicate and difficult ground. So it was as well perhaps that he kept silence until he said, as he had come prepared to say, 'Well, I want to put that beyond a doubt—her happiness—if I'm good enough. I want her, please, and I only hope that she will be half as willing to come as you are likely to be to let her go.'
It was a shock when it came, plump, like that; and I was horrified to feel how completely every other consideration was lost for the instant in the immense relief that it prefigured. To be my whole complete self again, without the feeling that a fraction of me was masquerading about in Cecily! To be freed at once, or almost, from an exacting condition and an impossible ideal! 'Oh!' I exclaimed, and my eyes positively filled. 'You ARE good, Dacres, but I couldn't let you do that.'
His undisguised stare brought me back to a sense of the proportion of things. I saw that in the combination of influences that had brought Mr. Tottenham to the point of proposing to marry my daughter consideration for me, if it had a place, would be fantastic. Inwardly I laughed at the egotism of raw nerves that had conjured it up, even for an instant, as a reason for gratitude. The situation was not so peculiar, not so interesting, as that. But I answered his stare with a smile; what I had said might very well stand.
'Do you imagine,' he said, seeing that I did not mean to amplify it, 'that I want to marry her out of any sort of GOODness?'
'Benevolence is your weakness, Dacres.'
'I see. You think one's motive is to withdraw her from a relation which ought to be the most natural in the world, but which is, in her particular and painful case, the most equivocal.'
'Well, come,' I remonstrated. 'You have dropped one or two things, you know, in the heat of your indignation, not badly calculated to give one that idea. The eloquent statement you have just made, for instance—it carries all the patness of old conviction. How often have you rehearsed it?'
I am a fairly long-suffering person, but I began to feel a little annoyed with my would-be son-in-law. If the relation were achieved it would give him no prescriptive right to bully me; and we were still in very early anticipation of that.
'Ah!' he said disarmingly. 'Don't let us quarrel. I'm sorry you think that; because it isn't likely to bring your favour to my project, and I want you friendly and helpful. Oh, confound it!' he exclaimed, with sudden temper. 'You ought to be. I don't understand this aloofness. I half suspect it's pose. You undervalue Cecily—well, you have no business to undervalue me. You know me better than anybody in the world. Now are you going to help me to marry your daughter?'
'I don't think so,' I said slowly, after a moment's silence, which he sat through like a mutinous schoolboy. 'I might tell you that I don't care a button whom you marry, but that would not be true. I do care more or less. As you say, I know you pretty well. I'd a little rather you didn't make a mess of it; and if you must I should distinctly prefer not to have the spectacle under my nose for the rest of my life. I can't hinder you, but I won't help you.'
'And what possesses you to imagine that in marrying Cecily I should make a mess of it? Shouldn't your first consideration be whether SHE would?'
'Perhaps it should, but, you see, it isn't. Cecily would be happy with anybody who made her comfortable. You would ask a good deal more than that, you know.'
Dacres, at this, took me up promptly. Life, he said, the heart of life, had particularly little to say to temperament. By the heart of life I suppose he meant married love. He explained that its roots asked other sustenance, and that it throve best of all on simple elemental goodness. So long as a man sought in women mere casual companionship, perhaps the most exquisite thing to be experienced was the stimulus of some spiritual feminine counterpart; but when he desired of one woman that she should be always and intimately with him, the background of his life, the mother of his children, he was better advised to avoid nerves and sensibilities, and try for the repose of the common—the uncommon—domestic virtues. Ah, he said, they were sweet, like lavender. (Already, I told him, he smelled the housekeeper's linen-chest.) But I did not interrupt him much; I couldn't, he was too absorbed. To temperamental pairing, he declared, the century owed its breed of decadents. I asked him if he had ever really recognized one; and he retorted that if he hadn't he didn't wish to make a beginning in his own family. In a quarter of an hour he repudiated the theories of a lifetime, a gratifying triumph for simple elemental goodness. Having denied the value of the subtler pretensions to charm in woman as you marry her, he went artlessly on to endow Cecily with as many of them as could possibly be desirable. He actually persuaded himself to say that it was lovely to see the reflections of life in her tranquil spirit; and when I looked at him incredulously he grew angry, and hinted that Cecily's sensitiveness to reflections and other things might be a trifle beyond her mother's ken. 'She responds instantly, intimately, to the beautiful everywhere,' he declared.
'Aren't the opportunities of life on board ship rather limited to demonstrate that?' I inquired. 'I know—you mean sunsets. Cecily is very fond of sunsets. She is always asking me to come and look at them.'
'I was thinking of last night's sunset,' he confessed. 'We looked at it together.'
'What did she say?' I asked idly.
'Nothing very much. That's just the point. Another girl would have raved and gushed.'
'Oh, well, Cecily never does that,' I responded. 'Nevertheless she is a very ordinary human instrument. I hope I shall have no temptation ten years hence to remind you that I warned you of her quality.'
'I wish, not in the least for my own profit, for I am well convinced already, but simply to win your cordiality and your approval—never did an unexceptional wooer receive such niggard encouragement!—I wish there were some sort of test for her quality. I would be proud to stand by it, and you would be convinced. I can't find words to describe my objection to your state of mind.'
The thing seemed to me to be a foregone conclusion. I saw it accomplished, with all its possibilities of disastrous commonplace. I saw all that I have here taken the trouble to foreshadow. So far as I was concerned, Dacres's burden would add itself to my philosophies, voila tout. I should always be a little uncomfortable about it, because it had been taken from my back; but it would not be a matter for the wringing of hands. And yet—the hatefulness of the mistake! Dacres's bold talk of a test made no suggestion. Should my invention be more fertile? I thought of something.
'You have said nothing to her yet?' I asked.
'Nothing. I don't think she suspects for a moment. She treats me as if no such fell design were possible. I'm none too confident, you know,' he added, with longer face.
'We go straight to Agra. Could you come to Agra?'
'Ideal!' he cried. 'The memory of Mumtaz! The garden of the Taj! I've always wanted to love under the same moon as Shah Jehan. How thoughtful of you!'
'You must spend a few days with us in Agra,' I continued. 'And as you say, it is the very place to shrine your happiness, if it comes to pass there.'
'Well, I am glad to have extracted a word of kindness from you at last,' said Dacres, as the stewards came to lay the table. 'But I wish,' he added regretfully, 'you could have thought of a test.'
Four days later we were in Agra. A time there was when the name would have been the key of dreams to me; now it stood for John's headquarters. I was rejoiced to think I would look again upon the Taj; and the prospect of living with it was a real enchantment; but I pondered most the kind of house that would be provided for the General Commanding the District, how many the dining-room would seat, and whether it would have a roof of thatch or of corrugated iron—I prayed against corrugated iron. I confess these my preoccupations. I was forty, and at forty the practical considerations of life hold their own even against domes of marble, world-renowned, and set about with gardens where the bulbul sings to the rose. I smiled across the years at the raptures of my first vision of the place at twenty-one, just Cecily's age. Would I now sit under Arjamand's cypresses till two o'clock in the morning to see the wonder of her tomb at a particular angle of the moon? Would I climb one of her tall white ministering minarets to see anything whatever? I very greatly feared that I would not. Alas for the aging of sentiment, of interest! Keep your touch with life and your seat in the saddle as long as you will, the world is no new toy at forty. But Cecily was twenty-one, Cecily who sat stolidly finishing her lunch while Dacres Tottenham talked about Akbar and his philosophy. 'The sort of man,' he said, 'that Carlyle might have smoked a pipe with.'
'But surely,' said Cecily reflectively, 'tobacco was not discovered in England then. Akbar came to the throne in 1526.'
'Nor Carlyle either for that matter,' I hastened to observe. 'Nevertheless, I think Mr. Tottenham's proposition must stand.'
'Thanks, Mrs. Farnham,' said Dacres. 'But imagine Miss Farnham's remembering Akbar's date! I'm sure you didn't!'
'Let us hope she doesn't know too much about him,' I cried gaily, 'or there will be nothing to tell!'
'Oh, really and truly very little!' said Cecily, 'but as soon as we heard papa would be stationed here Aunt Emma made me read up about those old Moguls and people. I think I remember the dynasty. Baber, wasn't he the first? And then Humayon, and after him Akbar, and then Jehangir, and then Shah Jehan. But I've forgotten every date but Akbar's.'
She smiled her smile of brilliant health and even spirits as she made the damaging admission, and she was so good to look at, sitting there simple and wholesome and fresh, peeling her banana with her well-shaped fingers, that we swallowed the dynasty as it were whole, and smiled back upon her. John, I may say, was extremely pleased with Cecily; he said she was a very satisfactory human accomplishment. One would have thought, positively, the way he plumed himself over his handsome daughter, that he alone was responsible for her. But John, having received his family, straightway set off with his Staff on a tour of inspection, and thereby takes himself out of this history. I sometimes think that if he had stayed—but there has never been the lightest recrimination between us about it, and I am not going to hint one now.
'Did you read,' asked Dacres, 'what he and the Court poet wrote over the entrance gate to the big mosque at Fattehpur-Sikri? It's rather nice. "The world is a looking-glass, wherein the image has come and is gone—take as thine own nothing more than what thou lookest upon."'
My daughter's thoughtful gaze was, of course, fixed upon the speaker, and in his own glance I saw a sudden ray of consciousness; but Cecily transferred her eyes to the opposite wall, deeply considering, and while Dacres and I smiled across the table, I saw that she had perceived no reason for blushing. It was a singularly narrow escape.
'No,' she said, 'I didn't; what a curious proverb for an emperor to make! He couldn't possibly have been able to see all his possessions at once.'
'If you have finished,' Dacres addressed her, 'do let me show you what your plain and immediate duty is to the garden. The garden waits for you—all the roses expectant—'
'Why, there isn't one!' cried Cecily, pinning on her hat. It was pleasing, and just a trifle pathetic, the way he hurried her out of the scope of any little dart; he would not have her even within range of amused observation. Would he continue, I wondered vaguely, as, with my elbows on the table, I tore into strips the lemon-leaf that floated in my finger-bowl—would he continue, through life, to shelter her from his other clever friends as now he attempted to shelter her from her mother? In that case he would have to domicile her, poor dear, behind the curtain, like the native ladies—a good price to pay for a protection of which, bless her heart! she would be all unaware. I had quite stopped bemoaning the affair; perhaps the comments of my husband, who treated it with broad approval and satisfaction, did something to soothe my sensibilities. At all events, I had gradually come to occupy a high fatalistic ground towards the pair. If it was written upon their foreheads that they should marry, the inscription was none of mine; and, of course, it was true, as John had indignantly stated, that Dacres might do very much worse. One's interest in Dacres Tottenham's problematical future had in no way diminished; but the young man was so positive, so full of intention, so disinclined to discussion—he had not reopened the subject since that morning in the saloon of the Caledonia—that one's feeling about it rather took the attenuated form of a shrug. I am afraid, too, that the pleasurable excitement of such an impending event had a little supervened; even at forty there is no disallowing the natural interests of one's sex. As I sat there pulling my lemon-leaf to pieces, I should not have been surprised or in the least put about if the two had returned radiant from the lawn to demand my blessing. As to the test of quality that I had obligingly invented for Dacres on the spur of the moment without his knowledge or connivance, it had some time ago faded into what he apprehended it to be—a mere idyllic opportunity, a charming background, a frame for his project, of prettier sentiment than the funnels and the hand-rails of a ship.
Mr. Tottenham had ten days to spend with us. He knew the place well; it belonged to the province to whose service he was dedicated, and he claimed with impressive authority the privilege of showing it to Cecily by degrees—the Hall of Audience today, the Jessamine Tower tomorrow, the tomb of Akbar another, and the Deserted City yet another day. We arranged the expeditions in conference, Dacres insisting only upon the order of them, which I saw was to be cumulative, with the Taj at the very end, on the night precisely of the full of the moon, with a better chance of roses. I had no special views, but Cecily contributed some; that we should do the Hall of Audience in the morning, so as not to interfere with the club tennis in the afternoon, that we should bicycle to Akbar's tomb and take a cold luncheon—if we were sure there would be no snakes—to the Deserted City, to all of which Dacres gave loyal assent. I endorsed everything; I was the encouraging chorus, only stipulating that my number should be swelled from day to day by the addition of such persons as I should approve. Cecily, for instance, wanted to invite the Bakewells because we had come out in the same ship with them; but I could not endure the Bakewells, and it seemed to me that our having made the voyage with them was the best possible reason for declining to lay eyes on them for the rest of our natural lives. 'Mamma has such strong prejudices,' Cecily remarked, as she reluctantly gave up the idea; and I waited to see whether the graceless Tottenham would unmurmuringly take down the Bakewells. How strong must be the sentiment that turns a man into a boa-constrictor without a pang of transmigration! But no, this time he was faithful to the principles of his pre-Cecilian existence. 'They are rather Boojums,' he declared. 'You would think so, too, if you knew them better. It is that kind of excellent person that makes the real burden of India.' I could have patted him on the back.
Thanks to the rest of the chorus, which proved abundantly available, I was no immediate witness to Cecily's introduction to the glorious fragments which sustain in Agra the memory of the moguls. I may as well say that I arranged with care that if anybody must be standing by when Dacres disclosed them, it should not be I. If Cecily had squinted, I should have been sorry, but I would have found in it no personal humiliation. There were other imperfections of vision, however, for which I felt responsible and ashamed; and with Dacres, though the situation, Heaven knows, was none of my seeking, I had a little the feeling of a dealer who offers a defective bibelot to a connoisseur. My charming daughter—I was fifty times congratulated upon her appearance and her manners—had many excellent qualities and capacities which she never inherited from me; but she could see no more than the bulk, no further than the perspective; she could register exactly as much as a camera.
This was a curious thing, perhaps, to displease my maternal vanity, but it did; I had really rather she squinted; and when there was anything to look at I kept out of the way. I can not tell precisely, therefore, what the incidents were that contributed to make Mr. Tottenham, on our return from these expeditions, so thoughtful, with a thoughtfulness which increased, towards the end of them, to a positive gravity. This would disappear during dinner under the influence of food and drink. He would talk nightly with new enthusiasm and fresh hope—or did I imagine it?—of the loveliness he had arranged to reveal on the following day. If again my imagination did not lead me astray, I fancied this occurred later and later in the course of the meal as the week went on; as if his state required more stimulus as time progressed. One evening, when I expected it to flag altogether, I had a whim to order champagne and observe the effect; but I am glad to say that I reproved myself, and refrained.
Cecily, meanwhile, was conducting herself in a manner which left nothing to be desired. If, as I sometimes thought, she took Dacres very much for granted, she took him calmly for granted; she seemed a prey to none of those fluttering uncertainties, those suspended judgments and elaborate indifferences which translate themselves so plainly in a young lady receiving addresses. She turned herself out very freshly and very well; she was always ready for everything, and I am sure that no glance of Dacres Tottenham's found aught but direct and decorous response. His society on these occasions gave her solid pleasure; so did the drive and the lunch; the satisfactions were apparently upon the same plane. She was aware of the plum, if I may be permitted a brusque but irresistible simile; and with her mouth open, her eyes modestly closed, and her head in a convenient position, she waited, placidly, until it should fall in. The Farnham ladies would have been delighted with the result of their labours in the sweet reason and eminent propriety of this attitude. Thinking of my idiotic sufferings when John began to fix himself upon my horizon, I pondered profoundly the power of nature in differentiation.
One evening, the last, I think, but one, I had occasion to go to my daughter's room, and found her writing in her commonplace-book. She had a commonplace-book, as well as a Where Is It? an engagement-book, an account-book, a diary, a Daily Sunshine, and others with purposes too various to remember. 'Dearest mamma,' she said, as I was departing, 'there is only one "p" in "opulence", isn't there?'
'Yes,' I replied, with my hand on the door-handle, and added curiously, for it was an odd word in Cecily's mouth, 'Why?'
She hardly hesitated. 'Oh,' she said, 'I am just writing down one or two things Mr. Tottenham said about Agra before I forget them. They seemed so true.'
'He has a descriptive touch,' I remarked.
'I think he describes beautifully. Would you like to hear what he said today?'
'I would,' I replied, sincerely.
'"Agra,"' read this astonishing young lady, '"is India's one pure idyll. Elsewhere she offers other things, foolish opulence, tawdry pageant, treachery of eunuchs and jealousies of harems, thefts of kings' jewels and barbaric retributions; but they are all actual, visualized, or part of a past that shows to the backward glance hardly more relief and vitality than a Persian painting"—I should like to see a Persian painting—"but here the immortal tombs and pleasure-houses rise out of colour delicate and subtle; the vision holds across three hundred years; the print of the court is still in the dust of the city."'
'Did you really let him go on like that?' I exclaimed. 'It has the license of a lecture!'
'I encouraged him to. Of course he didn't say it straight off. He said it naturally; he stopped now and then to cough. I didn't understand it all; but I think I have remembered every word.'
'You have a remarkable memory. I'm glad he stopped to cough. Is there any more?'
'One little bit. "Here the moguls wrought their passions into marble, and held them up with great refrains from their religion, and set them about with gardens; and here they stand in the twilight of the glory of those kings and the noonday splendour of their own."'
'How clever of you!' I exclaimed. 'How wonderfully clever of you to remember!'
'I had to ask him to repeat one or two sentences. He didn't like that. But this is nothing. I used to learn pages letter-perfect for Aunt Emma. She was very particular. I think it is worth preserving, don't you?'
'Dear Cecily,' I responded, 'you have a frugal mind.'
There was nothing else to respond. I could not tell her just how practical I thought her, or how pathetic her little book.
We drove together, after dinner, to the Taj. The moonlight lay in an empty splendour over the broad sandy road, with the acacias pricking up on each side of it and the gardens of the station bungalows stretching back into clusters of crisp shadows. It was an exquisite February night, very still. Nothing seemed abroad but two or three pariah dogs, upon vague and errant business, and the Executive Engineer going swiftly home from the club on his bicycle. Even the little shops of the bazaar were dark and empty; only here and there a light showed barred behind the carved balconies of the upper rooms, and there was hardly any tom-tomming. The last long slope of the road showed us the river curving to the left, through a silent white waste that stretched indefinitely into the moonlight on one side, and was crowned by Akbar's fort on the other. His long high line of turrets and battlements still guarded a hint of their evening rose, and dim and exquisite above them hovered the three dome-bubbles of the Pearl Mosque. It was a night of perfect illusion, and the illusion was mysterious, delicate, and faint. I sat silent as we rolled along, twenty years nearer to the original joy of things when John and I drove through the same old dream.
Dacres, too, seemed preoccupied; only Cecily was, as they say, herself. Cecily was really more than herself, she exhibited an unusual flow of spirits. She talked continually, she pointed out this and that, she asked who lived here and who lived there. At regular intervals of about four minutes she demanded if it wasn't simply too lovely. She sat straight up with her vigorous profile and her smart hat; and the silhouette of her personality sharply refused to mingle with the dust of any dynasty. She was a contrast, a protest; positively she was an indignity. 'Do lean back, dear child,' I exclaimed at last. 'You interfere with the landscape.'
She leaned back, but she went on interfering with it in terms of sincerest enthusiasm.
When we stopped at the great archway of entrance I begged to be left in the carriage. What else could one do, when the golden moment had come, but sit in the carriage and measure it? They climbed the broad stone steps together and passed under the lofty gravures into the garden, and I waited. I waited and remembered. I am not, as perhaps by this time is evident, a person of overwhelming sentiment, but I think the smile upon my lips was gentle. So plainly I could see, beyond the massive archway and across a score of years, all that they saw at that moment—Arjamand's garden, and the long straight tank of marble cleaving it full of sleeping water and the shadows of the marshaling cypresses; her wide dark garden of roses and of pomegranates, and at the end the Vision, marvellous, aerial, the soul of something—is it beauty? is it sorrow?—that great white pride of love in mourning such as only here in all the round of our little world lifts itself to the stars, the unpaintable, indescribable Taj Mahal. A gentle breath stole out with a scent of jessamine and such a memory! I closed my eyes and felt the warm luxury of a tear.
Thinking of the two in the garden, my mood was very kind, very conniving. How foolish after all were my cherry-stone theories of taste and temperament before that uncalculating thing which sways a world and builds a Taj Mahal! Was it probable that Arjamand and her Emperor had loved fastidiously, and yet how they had loved! I wandered away into consideration of the blind forces which move the world, in which comely young persons like my daughter Cecily had such a place; I speculated vaguely upon the value of the subtler gifts of sympathy and insight which seemed indeed, at that enveloping moment, to be mere flowers strewn upon the tide of deeper emotions. The garden sent me a fragrance of roses; the moon sailed higher and picked out the little kiosks set along the wall. It was a charming, charming thing to wait, there at the portal of the silvered, scented garden, for an idyll to come forth.
When they reappeared, Dacres and my daughter, they came with casual steps and cheerful voices. They might have been a couple of tourists. The moonlight fell full upon them on the platform under the arch. It showed Dacres measuring with his stick the length of the Sanskrit letters which declared the stately texts, and Cecily's expression of polite, perfunctory interest. They looked up at the height above them; they looked back at the vision behind. Then they sauntered towards the carriage, he offering a formal hand to help her down the uncertain steps, she gracefully accepting it.
'You—you have not been long,' said I. 'I hope you didn't hurry on my account.'
'Miss Farnham found the marble a little cold under foot,' replied Dacres, putting Miss Farnham in.
'You see,' explained Cecily, 'I stupidly forgot to change into thicker soles. I have only my slippers. But, mamma, how lovely it is! Do let us come again in the daytime. I am dying to make a sketch of it.'
Mr. Tottenham was to leave us on the following day. In the morning, after 'little breakfast,' as we say in India, he sought me in the room I had set aside to be particularly my own.
Again I was writing to John, but this time I waited for precisely his interruption. I had got no further than 'My dearest husband,' and my pen-handle was a fringe.
'Another fine day,' I said, as if the old, old Indian joke could give him ease, poor man!
'Yes,' said he, 'we are having lovely weather.'
He had forgotten that it was a joke. Then he lapsed into silence while I renewed my attentions to my pen.
'I say,' he said at last, with so strained a look about his mouth that it was almost a contortion, 'I haven't done it, you know.'
'No,' I responded, cheerfully, 'and you're not going to. Is that it? Well!'
'Frankly—' said he.
'Dear me, yes! Anything else between you and me would be grotesque,' I interrupted, 'after all these years.'
'I don't think it would be a success,' he said, looking at me resolutely with his clear blue eyes, in which still lay, alas! the possibility of many delusions.
'No,' I said, 'I never did, you know. But the prospect had begun to impose upon me.'
'To say how right you were would seem, under the circumstances, the most hateful form of flattery.'
'Yes,' I said, 'I think I can dispense with your verbal endorsement.' I felt a little bitter. It was, of course, better that the connoisseur should have discovered the flaw before concluding the transaction; but although I had pointed it out myself I was not entirely pleased to have the article returned.
'I am infinitely ashamed that it should have taken me all these days—day after day and each contributory—to discover what you saw so easily and so completely.'
'You forget that I am her mother,' I could not resist the temptation of saying.
'Oh, for God's sake don't jeer! Please be absolutely direct, and tell me if you have reason to believe that to the extent of a thought, of a breath—to any extent at all—she cares.'
He was, I could see, very deeply moved; he had not arrived at this point without trouble and disorder not lightly to be put on or off. Yet I did not hurry to his relief, I was still possessed by a vague feeling of offense. I reflected that any mother would be, and I quite plumed myself upon my annoyance. It was so satisfactory, when one had a daughter, to know the sensations of even any mother. Nor was it soothing to remember that the young man's whole attitude towards Cecily had been based upon criticism of me, even though he sat before me whipped with his own lash. His temerity had been stupid and obstinate; I could not regret his punishment.
I kept him waiting long enough to think all this, and then I replied, 'I have not the least means of knowing.'
I can not say what he expected, but he squared his shoulders as if he had received a blow and might receive another. Then he looked at me with a flash of the old indignation. 'You are not near enough to her for that!' he exclaimed.
'I am not near enough to her for that.'
Silence fell between us. A crow perched upon an opened venetian and cawed lustily. For years afterward I never heard a crow caw without a sense of vain, distressing experiment. Dacres got up and began to walk about the room. I very soon put a stop to that. 'I can't talk to a pendulum,' I said, but I could not persuade him to sit down again.
'Candidly,' he said at length, 'do you think she would have me?'
'I regret to say that I think she would. But you would not dream of asking her.'
'Why not? She is a dear girl,' he responded inconsequently.
'You could not possibly stand it.'
Then Mr. Tottenham delivered himself of this remarkable phrase: 'I could stand it,' he said, 'as well as you can.'
There was far from being any joy in the irony with which I regarded him and under which I saw him gather up his resolution to go; nevertheless I did nothing to make it easy for him. I refrained from imparting my private conviction that Cecily would accept the first presentable substitute that appeared, although it was strong. I made no reference to my daughter's large fund of philosophy and small balance of sentiment. I did not even—though this was reprehensible—confess the test, the test of quality in these ten days with the marble archives of the Moguls, which I had almost wantonly suggested, which he had so unconsciously accepted, so disastrously applied. I gave him quite fifteen minutes of his bad quarter of an hour, and when it was over I wrote truthfully but furiously to John....
That was ten years ago. We have since attained the shades of retirement, and our daughter is still with us when she is not with Aunt Emma and Aunt Alice—grandmamma has passed away. Mr. Tottenham's dumb departure that day in February—it was the year John got his C.B.—was followed, I am thankful to say, by none of the symptoms of unrequited affection on Cecily's part. Not for ten minutes, so far as I was aware, was she the maid forlorn. I think her self-respect was of too robust a character, thanks to the Misses Farnham. Still less, of course, had she any reproaches to serve upon her mother, although for a long time I thought I detected—or was it my guilty conscience?—a spark of shrewdness in the glance she bent upon me when the talk was of Mr. Tottenham and the probabilities of his return to Agra. So well did she sustain her experience, or so little did she feel it, that I believe the impression went abroad that Dacres had been sent disconsolate away. One astonishing conversation I had with her some six months later, which turned upon the point of a particularly desirable offer. She told me something then, without any sort of embarrassment, but quite lucidly and directly, that edified me much to hear. She said that while she was quite sure that Mr. Tottenham thought of her only as a friend—she had never had the least reason for any other impression—he had done her a service for which she could not thank him enough—in showing her what a husband might be. He had given her a standard; it might be high, but it was unalterable. She didn't know whether she could describe it, but Mr. Tottenham was different from the kind of man you seemed to meet in India. He had his own ways of looking at things, and he talked so well. He had given her an ideal, and she intended to profit by it. To know that men like Mr. Tottenham existed, and to marry any other kind would be an act of folly which she did not intend to commit. No, Major the Hon. Hugh Taverel did not come near it—very far short, indeed! He had talked to her during the whole of dinner the night before about jackal-hunting with a bobbery pack—not at all an elevated mind. Yes, he might be a very good fellow, but as a companion for life she was sure he would not be at all suitable. She would wait.
And she has waited. I never thought she would, but she has. From time to time men have wished to take her from us, but the standard has been inexorable, and none of them have reached it. When Dacres married the charming American whom he caught like a butterfly upon her Eastern tour, Cecily sent them as a wedding present an alabaster model of the Taj, and I let her do it—the gift was so exquisitely appropriate. I suppose he never looks at it without being reminded that he didn't marry Miss Farnham, and I hope that he remembers that he owes it to Miss Farnham's mother. So much I think I might claim; it is really very little considering what it stands for. Cecily is permanently with us—I believe she considers herself an intimate. I am very reasonable about lending her to her aunts, but she takes no sort of advantage of my liberality; she says she knows her duty is at home. She is growing into a firm and solid English maiden lady, with a good colour and great decision of character. That she always had.
I point out to John, when she takes our crumpets away from us, that she gets it from him. I could never take away anybody's crumpets, merely because they were indigestible, least of all my own parents'. She has acquired a distinct affection for us, by some means best known to herself; but I should have no objection to that if she would not rearrange my bonnet-strings. That is a fond liberty to which I take exception; but it is one thing to take exception and another to express it.
Our daughter is with us, permanently with us. She declares that she intends to be the prop of our declining years; she makes the statement often, and always as if it were humorous. Nevertheless I sometimes notice a spirit of inquiry, a note of investigation in her encounters with the opposite sex that suggests an expectation not yet extinct that another and perhaps a more appreciative Dacres Tottenham may flash across her field of vision—alas, how improbable! Myself I can not imagine why she should wish it; I have grown in my old age into a perfect horror of cultivated young men; but if such a person should by a miracle at any time appear, I think it is extremely improbable that I will interfere on his behalf.
2. An Impossible Ideal.
To understand how we prized him, Dora Harris and I, it is necessary to know Simla. I suppose people think of that place, if they ever do think of it, as an agreeable retreat in the wilds of the Himalayas where deodars and scandals grow, and where the Viceroy if he likes may take off his decorations and go about in flannels. I know how useless it would be to try to give a more faithful impression, and I will hold back from the attempt as far as I can. Besides, my little story is itself an explanation of Simla. Ingersoll Armour might have appeared almost anywhere else without making social history. He came and bloomed among us in the wilderness, and such and such things happened. It sounds too rude a generalization to say that Simla is a wilderness; I hasten to add that it is a waste as highly cultivated as you like, producing many things more admirable than Ingersoll Armour. Still he bloomed there conspicuously alone. Perhaps there would have been nothing to tell if we had not tried to gather him. That was wrong; Nature in Simla expects you to be content with cocked hats.
There are artists almost everywhere and people who paint even in the Himalayas, though Miss Harris and I in our superior way went yearly to the Simla Fine Arts Exhibition chiefly to amuse ourselves by scoffing. It was easy to say clever things about the poor little exhibits; and one was grateful to the show on this account, for nothing is more depressing east of Suez than the absence of provocation to say clever things. There one afternoon in May as we marched about enjoying ourselves, we came upon Ingersoll Armour, not in the flesh, but in half a dozen studies hanging in the least conspicuous corner and quite the worst light in the room.
'Eh, what?' said I, and Dora exclaimed:
'Sent out from home,' I said, ever the oracle.
'Not at all,' replied Dora. 'Look, they are Indian subjects. SIMLA subjects,' she went on, with excitement.
I turned up the catalogue. 'Ninety-seven, "Kasumti Bazaar"; ninety-eight, "Clouds on the Chor"; ninety-nine, "The House of a Friend"—Lord, what apricot blossoms! Yes, they're all Simla.'
'For goodness' sake,' said Dora, 'who painted them? You've got the catalogue!'
'"I. Armour,"' I read.
'"I. Armour,"' she repeated, and we looked at each other, saying in plain silence that to the small world of Simla I. Armour was unknown.
'Not on Government House list, I venture to believe,' said Dora. That in itself may show to what depths we sink. Yet it was a trenchant and a reasonable speculation.
'It may be a newcomer,' I suggested, but she shook her head. 'All newcomers call upon us,' she said. 'There in the middle of the Mall we escape none of them. He isn't a calling person.'
'Why do you say "he"? You are very confident with your pronouns. There's a delicacy of feeling—'
'Which exactly does not suggest a women. We are undermined by delicacy of feeling; we're not strong enough to express it with brushes. A man can make it a quality, a decorative characteristic, and so we see it. With a woman it's everything—all over the place—and of no effect. Oh, I assure you, I. Armour is a man.'
'Who shall stand against you! Let him be a man. He has taste.'
'Taste!' exclaimed Miss Harris, violently, and from the corners of her mouth I gathered that I had said one of those things which she would store up and produce to prove that I was not, for all my pretensions, a person of the truest feeling. 'He sees things.'
'There's an intensity,' I ventured.
'That's better. Yes, an intensity. A perfect passion of colour. Look at that.' She indicated a patch of hillsides perhaps six inches by four, in which the light seemed to come and go as it does in a sapphire.
We stood and gazed. It was a tremendous thing; only half a dozen studies with feeling and knowledge in them, but there in that remote fastness thrice barred against the arts a tremendous thing, a banquet for our famished eyes. What they would have said to us in London is a different matter, and how good they really were I do not find the courage to pronounce, but they had merit enough to prick our sense of beauty delightfully where we found them—oh, they were good!
'Heaven send it isn't a Tommy,' said Dora, with a falling countenance. 'There is something absolutely inaccessible about a Tommy.'
'How could it be?' I asked.
'Oh, there are some inspired ones. But it isn't—that's French technique. It's an Englishman or an American who has worked in Paris. What in the name of fortune is he doing here?'
'Oh,' I said, 'we have had them, you know. Val Prinsep came out at the time of the Prince of Wales's visit.'
'Do you remember that?'
'It's a matter of history,' I said, evasively, 'and Edwin Weeks travelled through India not so many years ago. I saw his studio in Paris afterward. Between his own canvases and Ahmedabad balconies and Delhi embroideries and Burmese Buddhas and other things he seemed to have carried off the whole place.'
'But they don't come up here ever. They come in the cold weather, and as they can get plenty of snow and ice at home, they stay down in the plains with the palm-trees.'
'Precisely; they do,' I said.
'And besides,' Dora went on, with increasing excitement, 'this isn't a master. You see, he doesn't send a single picture—only these tiny things. And there's a certain tentativeness'—Miss Harris, her parasol handle pressed against her lips, looked at me with an eagerness that was a pleasure to look at in itself.
'A certain weakness, almost a lack of confidence, in the drawing,' I said.
'What does that signify?'
'Why, immaturity, of course—not enough discipline.'
'He's a student. Not that it amounts to a defect, you know'—she was as jealous already as if she possessed the things—'only a sign to read by. I should be grateful for more signs. Why should a student come to Simla?'