Gracious

It is our fate as a nation, head and heart of a world empire, that much
of our manhood must pursue its career far away from home. And it is our
strength that these English sons of ours have taught themselves to make
it home wherever they find their work.

The fervid land of India had become home to Raymond Bethune for so many
years that it would have been difficult for him to picture his life
elsewhere. The glamour of the East, of the East that is England’s, had
entered into his blood, without, however, altering its cool northern
deliberate course; that it can be thus with our children, therein also
lies the strength of England.

Raymond Bethune, Major of Guides, loved the fierce lads to whom he was
at once father and despot, as perhaps he could have loved no troop of
honest thick-skulled English soldiers. He was content with the
comradeship of his brother officers, men who thought like himself and
fought like himself; content to spend the best years of existence
hanging between heaven and earth on the arid flanks of a Kashmir
mountain range, in forts the walls of which had been cemented by
centuries of blood; looked forward, without blenching, to the
probability of laying down his life in some obscure frontier skirmish,
unmourned and unnoticed. His duty sufficed him. He found happiness in
it that it was his duty. Such men as he are the very stones of our
Empire’s foundation.

* * * * *

Yet though he was thus intimately satisfied with his life and his life’s
task, Bethune was conscious of a strange emotion, almost a contraction
of the heart, as he followed the kitmutgar to Lady Gerardine’s
drawing-room in the palace of the Lieutenant-Governor, this October day.

The town below hung like a great rose jewel, scintillating, palpitating,
in a heat unusual for the autumn of Northern India. Out of the glare,
the colour, the movement, the noise; out of the throng of smells—spice,
scent, garlic, the indescribable breath of the East—into the dim cool
room; it was like stepping from India into England! And by the tug at
his heart-strings he might have analysed (had he been of those that
analyse) that, after all, the old home was nearest and dearest still;
might have realised that his content beneath the scorching suns, amid
the blinding snows of his adopted country, arose after all but of his
deep filial love of, and pride in, the distant English isle.

He put down his bat and looked round: not a hint of tropical colour, not
a touch of exotic fancy, of luxuriant oriental art anywhere; but the
green and white and rosebud of chintz, the spindle-legged elegance of
Chippendale, the soft note of Chelsea china, the cool greys and whites
of Wedgwood. From the very flower-bowl a fastidious hand had excluded
all but those delicate blossoms our paler sunshine nourishes. Some such
room, dignified with the consciousness of a rigid selection, reticent to
primness in its simple yet distinguished art, fragrant with the
potpourri of English gardens, fragrant too with memories of generations
of wholesome English gentlefolks, you may meet with any day in some old
manor-house of the shires. To transport the complete illusion to the
heart of India, Bethune knew well must have cost more labour and money
than if the neighbouring palaces had been ransacked for their treasures.
It was obvious, too, that the fancy here reigning supreme was that of
one who looked upon her sojourn under these splendid skies with the eyes
of an unresigned exile.

“The wife of the Lieutenant-Governor can evidently gratify every whim,”
he said to himself, bitterly enough, the while he still inhaled the
fragrance of home with an unconscious yearning.

In the distance the tinkle of a piano seemed to add a last touch to the
illusion. In India one so seldom hears a piano touched during the hot
hours. And scales, too—it was fantastic!

Suddenly the music ceased, if music it could be called. There was a
flying step without. The door was thrown open. Raymond Bethune turned
quickly, a certain hardness gathering in his eyes. Their expression
changed, however, when he beheld the newcomer. A young, very young
girl, hardly eighteen perhaps, of the plump type of immaturity;
something indeed of a cherubic babyhood still lurking in the round face,
in the buxom little figure, and in the rebellious aureole of bronze hair
rising from a very pink forehead. It was evidently the energetic
musician.

She came in, examining one finger of her right hand; and, without
looking at him, began to speak with severity:

“I told you, Mr. Simpson, I could not possibly see anybody in my
practising hours! How am I ever to keep up my poor music in this
beastly country?” Then she added, in a pettish undertone: “I have
broken my nail now!” And glancing up, accusingly, to behold a stranger:
“Oh!” she exclaimed.

Major Bethune smiled. The sight of this creature, so unmistakably fresh
from the salt brisk English shores, was as pleasant as it was
unexpected.

“Oh, it’s not Mr. Simpson!” she cried, with a quaint air of discovery.

The officer bowed. Life had taught him not to waste his energy on a
superfluous word.

“Oh!” she said again. She looked down at her nail once more, and then
sucked it childishly. Over her finger she shot a look at him. She had
very bright hazel eyes, under wide full brows. “Perhaps,” she said,
“you want to see the Runkle? I mean,” she interrupted herself, with a
little giggle—”I menu, my uncle, Sir Arthur.”

“I called to see Lady Gerardine,” he answered imperturbably. “I wrote
to her yesterday. She expects me.”

“Oh!”

Every time this ejaculation shot from the girl’s lips it was with a new
lively note of surprise and a comical rounding of small mouth and big
eyes. Then she remembered her manners; and, plunging down on a chair
herself:

“Won’t you take a seat?” she cried, with an engaging schoolgirl
familiarity.

Bowing again, he obeyed.

“Do you think Lady Gerardine will see me?”

She glanced at the clock on the cabinet beside her.

“My aunt will be here,” she replied, “in just ten minutes. She is
always down at the hour, though nobody comes till half-past.” She flung
a look of some reproach at the visitor’s inscrutable face, and passed
her handkerchief over her own hot cheeks. “I think Aunt Rosamond is
wonderful,” she went on, preparing herself, with a small sigh, to the
task of entertaining. “The Runkle—I mean my uncle—is always after her.
But I am sure there is not another Lieutenant-Governor’s wife in India
that does her duty half so well.” Here she yawned, as suddenly as a
puppy. The visitor still maintaining silence, she paused, evidently
revolving subjects of conversation in her mind, and then started briskly
upon her choice:

“Of course, you don’t know who I am.” Two deep dimples appeared in the
plump cheeks. “I am Aspasia Cuningham, and I have come to live with my
uncle and aunt in India. I wish I had not; I hate it. What is your
name?”

“Raymond Bethune.”

“Civil?” inquired Miss Aspasia, running her eye over his light-grey
suit.

“No, military. Guides. Major,” he corrected.

She nodded.

“I see—turbans and things,” commented she.

Bethune gave a dry chuckle which hardly reflected itself on his
countenance. Another silence fell; and, still scrubbing her cheeks with
an energy calculated to make even the onlooker feel hot, the girl took a
good look at him. A somewhat lantern-jawed, very thin face had he,
tanned almost to copper; brown hair, cropped close, a slight fair
moustache; and steady pale eyes beneath overhanging brows. There was
not an ounce of superfluous flesh about the long lean figure. No mistake
(thought Aspasia sagely) about his Scottish origin. She cocked her head
on one side. “He would have looked well in a kilt,” she told herself.

Presently the silence began to oppress her. He did not seem in the
least disposed to break it. His attitude was one of patient waiting;
but, second by second, the lines of his countenance grew set into deeper
sternness. Miss Cuningham coughed. She played a scale upon her knee,
stretched out all her fingers one after another, waggled them backwards
and forwards, and finally, with a pout and a frown, dashed into
exasperated speech:

“Could not I take a message?”

The man brought his attention to bear upon her, with an effort, as if
from some distant thought.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Do you not think you could give me a message fur Aunt Rosamond?”

“I am afraid not.”

“Do you want her to get the Runkle—Sir Arthur, I mean—to do anything for
you?”

“No.”

“Do you know Aunt Rosamond—Lady Gerardine?”

He hesitated. Then he said: “No,” and “No” again, with a cold
incisiveness.

“Oh!”

Miss Cuningham was nonplussed; yet was she interested, in spite of
herself. “What a rude pig!” she thought angrily, in her downright
schoolgirl vernacular. But the next moment his saturnine face softened.

“Do not let me keep you,” he said. “You want to return to your music.
You were practising very hard. I have never heard any one play scales
with such energy over here before. It quite brought me back to the
schoolroom in the old place at home.”

His expression softened still more as he spoke.

Aspasia was delighted to find him so human all at once; and, being
herself the most gregarious little soul alive, hastened to take
advantage of the opportunity.

“Oh, it does not matter now,” she said. “Thank you. It is rather hot.
I will finish my exercises later on. You see, I must keep up my
_technique_.” She stretched her fingers again, with an important air.
“But, when he’s at home, it annoys the Runkle—there it is again! I
cannot help it, really. I only began it for fun, to tease him; now it’s
irresistible, nervous I think. You remember, I told you my name is
Aspasia. A stupid sort of name. You cannot even shorten it into
anything decent. You could not call me Aspy, or Pashy, or Asia, could
you? So people have got into the way of calling me Baby. I do not
mind. It’s better than Aspasia. But uncle won’t. He is my godfather,
you see, and thinks it’s a lovely name. There’s a stupid old cousin of
ours, Lady Aspasia Something-or-other, whom he thinks the world of. So
he always will say: ’My dear Raspasia … my dear Raspasia!’ So I got
into the way of calling him: ’My dear Runkle Rarthur!’ Rather silly,
but I began it in sheer self-defence. And now—it’s really quite
wicked—everybody calls him the Runkle, all the secretaries and
things—behind his back, of course. And there’s one of them, a silly sort
of creature, Mr. Simpson—I thought it was him, just now—he’s not got
used to it yet, and he always goes purple and explodes. And the Runkle
gets mad. He has to pretend he has not noticed anything, to save his
dignity!”

Her frank young laugh rang out, one might have thought infectiously
enough. But the visitor’s eyes had wandered from her. And as now
(perceiving suddenly that he had not been listening to her) she fell
into an affronted silence, she noticed how they became fixed in the
direction of the door with a curious intensity of gaze, like that of a
hawk sighting his quarry.

One of the native servants, who kept squatting watch in the passage
without, had noiselessly pushed the door-hangings aside; a soft murmur
of muslin skirts against matting grew into the silence. Lady Gerardine
came into the room. She was looking at a card in her hand.

“Major Bethune?” she said questioningly, as she approached.

“My name must be familiar to you,” he replied gravely.

She paused a second, slightly contracting her brows; then shook her
head, with a smile.

“I am afraid—I have such a bad memory. But I am very glad to see you.”

She put out her hand graciously. He barely touched it with his fingers.

“Pray sit down,” she said, and took her own chair.

One felt the accomplished woman of the world. No awkwardness could exist
where Lady Gerardine had the direction of affairs. Sweet, cool, aloof,
the most exquisite courtesy marked her every gesture. Had the new comer
been shy he must promptly have felt reassured; for a long-looked-for
guest could not have been more easily welcomed.

“You will like some tea,” said she. “Baby, why did not you order tea?
Dear child, how hot you are!”

A faint ripple of laughter broke the composure of her countenance. Miss
Cuningham ran to the door clapping her hands.

“Tea, Abdul,” she cried. And, like the genie of the Persian fairy tale,
the servant instantly stood salaaming on the threshold.

“Oh, Aunt Rosamond, may he not have a lemon-squash? Major Bethune, I am
sure you would prefer a lemon-squash!”

Bethune sat stonily staring at his hostess from under his heavy brows.

* * * * *

So that was she—Rose of the World! Not so beautiful as he had fancied.
And yet, yes—grudgingly he had to admit it—beautiful and more. With
every instant that passed, the extraordinary quality of her personality
made itself felt upon him; and his heart hardened. This grace more
beautiful than beauty; those deep strange eyes startling with their
unexpected colour, green-hazel, in the pallor of the face under a crown
of hair, fiery gold; those long lissom limbs; the head with its wealth,
dropping a little on the long throat. Oh, aye, that was she! Even so
had she been described to him: the “flower among women!”—even so, by
lips, eloquent with the fulness of the heart (alas! what arid mountain
wind might not now be playing with the dust of what was once instinct
with such generous life!)—even so, had Harry English described her to
his only friend. Save, indeed, that by his own telling Harry English’s
bride had been rosy as a Dorset apple-blossom, as the monthly roses that
hung over the wicket-gate of the garden at home; and the wife of Sir
Arthur Gerardine had no more tint of colour in her cheeks than the waxen
petals of the white daturas that marked the Governor’s terraces with
their giant chalices.

Raymond remembered. But she—she had such a bad memory!

* * * * *

“Have you been long here?”

She seemed to take his visit quite as a matter of course.

“I arrived yesterday. I am on leave.”

“Indeed. And what regiment?”

He told her. A change, scarcely perceptible, passed over her face. She
compressed her lips and drew a breath, a trifle longer than normal,
through dilated nostrils.

Just then a procession of soft-footed, white-clad servants entered upon
them, and the tension, if tension there had been, was dispelled.

“Will you have tea, Major Bethune, or this child’s prescription?”

The ice tinkled melodiously in the fragrant yellow brew. “Baby” was
already sucking through a straw; she rolled her eyes, expressive of
rapture, towards the visitor. But he was not to be diverted.

“I will have nothing, thank you.”

He had not thought himself so sentimental. Why should he bear so deep a
grudge against this woman? How could her forgetfulness, her
indifference, now harm the dead? It was fantastic, unreasonable, and
yet he could not bring himself to break bread with her to-day. He
clasped his lean brown fingers tightly across his knees.

“I am afraid,” he said briefly, “that my presence must seem an
intrusion. But I trust you will forgive me when you understand upon
what errand I come.”

She disclaimed his apology by a wave of her hand. The emeralds upon it
shot green fire at him.

“The fact is,” he went on, doggedly making for his point, “I have been
asked to write a life of—your husband.”

He was interrupted by a commotion among the ice and bubbles of Miss
Aspasia’s long tumbler.

“Gracious,” she sputtered; “but the Runkle is not dead yet!” She choked
down, just in time, the comment: “Worse luck!” which had almost escaped
her terribly frank tongue.

Lady Gerardine was smiling again in her detached manner.

“A great many people, distinguished people, Baby, have their lives
written before they die. And they have then the advantage of correcting
the proof-sheets. I dare say your uncle will not object.”

Major Bethune allowed a pause to fall before continuing his speech.
Then he said, with almost cruel deliberation:

“I beg your pardon, Lady Gerardine. I should have said your late
husband. I refer to Harry English.”

For the life of her Baby could not have said why, but she felt as if
something had been broken by these last words—broken with a great crash.
She put down her glass and turned and stared from her aunt to Major
Bethune and back again. Lady Gerardine’s eyes were cast down, her hands
were moving among the tea-things: it would have been hard to divine if
she had even heard. The man was leaning forward, devouring her face
with unsparing gaze—a gaze that seemed to be looking for something with
brutal intensity.

After a silence, so oppressive that Aspasia could have screamed, Lady
Gerardine spoke:

“Is it necessary to ask for my permission?” she said, without lifting
her eyelids. “I did not know that people were so particular nowadays.”
She paused. And then, with a perceptible effort: “Did you know Captain
English?” she asked.

“Did I know him?” Raymond Bethune laughed out loud, unmirthfully. “You
seem to have forgotten that he and I went through that siege together.
I was with him from the day I first joined, practically till the hour of
his death.”

Rosamond Gerardine gave a faint gasp, as if breath had suddenly failed
her; then she looked up sharply and veiled her glance again.

“Ah,” she said slowly. “Through the siege—till—I had not known. I beg
your pardon.”

Once more there was the heavy silence. With round eyes Baby stared:
things were passing here to the meaning of which she had no clue, but
she felt, as it were, the stress of a tragedy in the air.

Suddenly Lady Gerardine rose.

“I am glad to have met you,” said she. He rose too, and she stretched
out her hand to him. “Write his life,” she went on. “I am sure no one
could do it better.”

As upon their first greeting, the man bowed ceremoniously, barely
touching the fingers proffered. She sighed, sank into her chair again,
then turned and smiled determinedly upon her niece with the air of one
dismissing the subject. Bethune felt well enough that he too was being
dismissed; but he took a step forward and stood looking down upon her.

“I do not think you quite understand,” he said. “I cannot do this work
without your help, Lady Gerardine.”

“My help!”

“I am exceedingly sorry to be so tiresome”—his manner betrayed a curious
mixture of patience and irritation—”but you see, that without the papers
in your possession my task would be futile. I could not possibly do the
work justice.”

“The papers in my possession!” She echoed the words as helplessly as
before.

“The papers in your possession,” he repeated. “His letters to you, the
journal he wrote during the siege, his notes, his whole correspondence—I
brought them all back and sent them to you myself—afterwards. And you,
you did receive them? You were too ill to see me, I was told, but your
friends undertook that you should have them.”

She was gazing at him, now, with wide eyes growing darker and deeper
every moment. The colour rushed up to her face, then faded away,
leaving it paler even than before. Her stricken look made him feel like
a brute; yet the sheer perversity of her attitude exasperated him. At
last:

“You want me to give you these papers?” she exclaimed, with a cry.

He sat down on the chair next her; and, like one endeavouring to make a
fractious child hear reason, began to explain his meaning to her.

“I should not presume,” he said, “to suggest that you should confide to
me writings which can concern only yourself and him. He was a reserved
man, and, though he was the best friend, the only friend I ever had, and
I perhaps his closest, I should not dream of intruding upon his private
life, now—now that he is dead. God forbid! But I want you to help, I
want you to give me every necessary extract which concerns his soldier’s
life—that life which was such an example to all Englishmen—which I feel
it should be given to England to know, as freely as it was laid down for
her. Why, there is not even a cairn of stones to mark his grave! Mark
his grave? Why, even that grave has been denied to us! But we can yet
raise a monument to him that our country may know her dead.”

His cold somewhat grating voice deepened into a note of such tenderness
that Baby wondered in her childish mind. She did not know that a man
could so love and mourn a friend. Lady Gerardine had leant back in her
chair, her hands clasping the arms. Bethune saw her revolving the
question in her mind with such pallid suffering upon her features that
he felt torn between anger and a sort of unwilling pity. Her lips moved:

“It is impossible.”

He thought he could not have heard aright.

“I beg your pardon?”

“It is impossible.”

“Lady Gerardine…!”

“You do not know what you are asking. I cannot!”

“I think it is you who do not understand. The matter is so simple;
those letters, that journal——”

“No—no.”

“You refuse?” he exclaimed. Indignation was even stronger than
surprise.

“You do not know what you are asking!” she repeated. And the cry of
passion in her voice again startled both him and Aspasia.

Bethune rose, took up his hat in silence; stood awhile, his steel-pale
eyes flaming upon the woman whom his friend had, from all the world,
chosen to make his wife.

“I trust you will think it over,” said he at length, as soon as he could
control himself sufficiently to speak.

He paused again; but Lady Gerardine made no reply. She was still fixing
him with that inexplicable gaze that seemed one of terror.

“I shall call again,” said he, well-nigh in the tone of a menace; then
bowed and turned away. At the door he halted. “But perhaps you did not
keep those papers?” he said, upon a sudden scornful thought.

Still she held her peace, and in his heart he knew that this random
shaft of his had fallen wide of the mark; that, whatever might be the
explanation of her attitude, it was not indifference.

Thoroughly dissatisfied with the result of his interview, with himself,
and the whole situation, he strode down the long corridors into the cool
echoing hall, where many pillars showed with faint barbaric tints
between aisles of gloom.

At the very threshold of the colour and sunshine without, some one
overtook him with patter of flying feet, some one nipped him by the
sleeve with determined fingers. He looked, and it was Miss Aspasia. Her
hazel eyes were rounder than ever; so was her button of a mouth. Her
hair seemed to stand out, an aureole of amazement, from her baby face.

“Don’t be angry with Aunt Rosamond. Perhaps she will change her mind.”

He wheeled round.

“Have you any idea,” he asked, “of the reason for her refusal?”

Aspasia shook her head so violently that the halo danced again. She
pursed her lips with a long drawn-out:

“No. You see,” she added quickly, arresting him, as with head bent in
thought he was once more proceeding on his way, “you see, we never speak
of Aunt’s first husband here. At least she never does. There is no
picture of him about, not a sign of anything that has ever belonged to
him. As far as she is concerned, it is just as if he had never been.”

Raymond Bethune, of the Guides, jerked his head upwards in melancholy
and bitter confirmation. In the midst of his own preoccupation and
disappointment he could not, however, help being struck with the
engaging quality of the face thrust so confidingly close to his. Those
yellow hazel eyes had depths of almost infantile candour.

“At least there is a soul that can afford to be transparent,” he said to
himself. Then aloud, following his first perplexed train of thought:
“Perhaps it is because of your uncle, of Sir Arthur?” he suggested.
“Lady Gerardine may be afraid of annoying him. Some men are jealous of
their wives’ first husbands.” He smiled, half derisively to himself,
half genially upon her.

“The Runkle!” cried Aspasia, with a giggle. “Jealous? Oh no; I don’t
think so! Why, he is the only creature who ever does speak of Captain
English in this place. Poor Runkle, he’s so awfully pleased with
himself, you know, that I don’t think he could be jealous of anything or
anybody.”

“Why then——” Bethune’s brow darkened at this confident removal of the
only hypothesis that could put Lady Gerardine’s behaviour in a
favourable light. “Do you think,” he said, regarding the girl
reflectively, “that you could use your influence in this matter?”

Again Aspasia’s head flew from side to side in violent negation.

“Oh, I could not! Aunt Rosamond, she’s a darling, she is more than good
to me; I love her, but—it would seem such horrible impertinence. I
cannot explain, Major Bethune, but I never feel as if I knew her really,
nor as if she wanted me to know her. She always seems to me to be all
outside, somehow.”

He reflected a moment; then he suddenly held out his hand to her, with
that softening of the countenance she had already noted—and noted to
approve.

“Will you? I want you to try and help me,” said he. It was worded as a
request; it was voiced, somehow, as a command.

She was preparing to twirl her curly mop, when she looked up and met his
eyes. Then—she never knew how it happened—she said quite the opposite
to what she had intended:

“I will try.”

And this was a promise. There was no mistake about it. He held her
hand for a second in a firm grasp; neither of them wotted, or cared, for
the white-clad, dusky-faced retinue that stood like so many statues
awaiting the moment to proffer their services. If a liquid eye rolled
curiously, however, it was an exception; your Hindoo has a dignified
discretion of his own.

* * * * *

“Play me something, Baby.”

Lady Gerardine was still lying back in her chair, almost as if she had
not moved. Her face had perhaps a whiter pallor than before, but there
was no other trace of emotion to be seen. Instead of obeying, Aspasia,
with her promise heavy on her heart and all the indiscreet impulsiveness
of her years, rushed over and flung herself at her aunt’s feet, rubbing
a coaxing head against her knees.

Rosamond laid her hand upon the curls. This Baby seized and kissed;
then she looked up. Lady Gerardine smiled; it was a smile indulgent but
of infinite detachment.

“It is perfectly absurd that I should call you Aunt,” began the girl.
True child as she was, she could think of no better scheme of attack
than this wheedling. “You look as young as I do.”

“Young?” echoed the Governor’s wife, wearily.

Baby was counting on her fingers: “I was, let me see, just twelve when
you married the Runkle, six years ago. So,” triumphantly, “you are
twenty-seven now. And that is, oh, quite ridiculously young for an
aunt!”

Lady Gerardine sighed.

“Dear Aunt Rosamond,” said Aspasia, suddenly, turning round to kneel and
place her elbows on her aunt’s knees while she looked earnestly into her
face, “why won’t you?”

“Why won’t I what, Baby?”

“You know. Let that poor man have those papers. Dear Aunt Rosamond, I
don’t think it’s quite fair.”

The girl was trembling at her own temerity. But now the elder woman
showed neither anger nor distress; only a marble stillness seemed to
come over the living flesh. After a pause she placed her hand gently
across Aspasia’s mouth.

“Baby, never speak of that again,” she said. And there was the most
absolute finality in her voice. Then she leaned forward and kissed her
niece. The touch of her lips struck Aspasia as deathly cold. “Now play
me something.”

Aspasia rose, baffled, not without a feeling akin to the irritation that
Major Bethune had displayed a little while before. It was like being
brought up by a smooth blank wall.

She marched to the piano, opened it, and plunged into a prelude of
Bach’s, glad to be able to work off some of her pent-up feelings. As
she played she set her pointed chin; and, while her fingers flew, her
thought wove in and out with the intricate music to a settled
resolution:

“I don’t care. Other people can be determined too. It is not fair of
Aunt Rosamond. And I’ll not give it up.”

She finished her “Bach” with a triumphant chord.

“Thank you,” said Lady Gerardine, “I like your music, Baby. It is so
intellectual.”