Loud and deep

For thirty-six hours the unconsciousness for which she had longed
cradled Rosamond, and when she came to herself it was slowly and with
dimness. Three times, indeed, did day and night slip by her in her
darkened and silent room before she even began to wonder how it was she
should be left in such peace. But upon the fourth dawn, as the sun set
to work to paint once more the jewel glories of her walls, memory came
back upon her like a torrent.

She sat up, wildly crying:

“Jani, the box! What have they done with the box?”

The ayah’s arms were round her in a second. Jani whispered and soothed
her mistress as, long ago, she had soothed her nursling. Safe was the
mem sahib’s box; no one should lay finger on it but herself. But the
mem sahib must be good and sleep, for Jani was by her. And Rosamond let
her head rest gratefully upon the wasted bosom that once had held such
loving bounties for her, and from thence slid back upon her pillows into
forgetfulness again. She was weary still, with a great and blessed
weariness.

* * * * *

Dr. Saunders paid brief daily visits. In Sir Arthur’s opinion he was
inclined to make culpably light of the whole affair—to allow those
unimportant fever cases in the compound to weigh against the
indisposition of the Lieutenant-Governor’s wife.

It is a notable fact that the medical man treats the feminine syncope as
not calling for much notice. And though the excellent Scot conceded
that there might be some shock caused by the fall, to account for the
prolonged unconsciousness, he declined to admit to Sir Arthur there was
ground for anxiety or to recommend any treatment but quiet—absolute
quiet. The preliminary symptom of irritability towards himself which Sir
Arthur commented upon as extraordinary and alarming, Dr. Saunders in so
many words declined, as a waste of time, even to discuss.

Nevertheless, as days succeeded each other and the patient’s languor,
not to say apathy, continued unabated, Dr. Saunders abruptly changed his
tactics and informed his Excellency that he had better lose no time in
sending his wife home.

“Pack her off,” he said brusquely.

“Pack her off!” The choice of words was as unfitting as the idea they
embodied was distasteful.

“I thought,” said Sir Arthur, loftily, “that you were aware, Dr.
Saunders, of my intention of progressing homewards next month.”

“Well, I should pack off Lady Gerardine by the next boat,” said the
doctor, no whit abashed. “There’s a good deal of sickness about, and I
should not like to take the responsibility of keeping her on here in
this condition. She’s in a queer low state—damn queer low state, Sir
Arthur.”

Sir Arthur puffed an angry breath down his nostrils and fixed a
withering gaze on the other’s dry, impassive countenance.

What sort of a physician was this who, having charge of the precious
health of such a distinguished household, could allow one of its most
important members to get into a damn queer low state and then brazenly
announce the fact? Sir Arthur, a spot of red anger burning upon each
cheekbone, gave Dr. Saunders clearly to understand how grossly he had
failed in his post of trust, and announced his own intention of
procuring higher opinion without delay. Whereat the doctor shrugged his
shoulders and drove off in his little trap at break-neck speed, as
philosophically as ever.

The higher medical opinion was procured. And though it was enveloped in
phraseology better suited to the patient’s distinguished station, it was
substantially the same as the first—with the single difference that it
seemed to take a more serious view of the case. Lady Gerardine was once
more ordered home with the least possible delay, this time under
penalties so obscurely hinted at as to seem far more alarming than the
most explicit statement.

Sir Arthur’s irritable anxiety caught fire again. He hastened the
departure with as much energy as he had hitherto displayed in
repudiating the idea. Truth to tell, no prescription could have well
been less pleasing to him. Precluded himself by public business from
leaving before his allotted time, not only would his stately “progress”
home be sorely shorn of its chief adornment, but the visit of his
distinguished relative, Lady Aspasia Melbury, would have to be
unceremoniously postponed. Moreover, it was never part of his views of
the marital state to allow his beautiful wife to remove herself more
than a day’s journey from his personal influence. Scornfully as he
would have repudiated any suggestion of jealousy (and indeed, as Aspasia
had asserted, he was perhaps too vain a man to entertain so unflattering
a guest in the complacency of his thoughts), he had, whether from long
residence in the East or natural disposition, an almost oriental manner
of regarding the wife as an appanage to the man’s estate—a satellite,
pleasing and brilliant enough, but yet a mere satellite in the greater
luminary’s orbit of glory. And therefore, while feverishly speeding the
necessary preparations, he could not but let it be seen that he was
disappointed, not to say hurt, that there should be any necessity for
them.

Lady Gerardine showed herself as gently indifferent to reproach as she
had been to solicitude. But the physician’s wisdom was so far justified
that, from the moment she was told of his decision, she roused herself
and began to take some interest in life again.

“Home,” she said, “England! Oh, I am glad!”

And, by-and-by, when she was alone with Aspasia, she began, to the
girl’s delight, to discuss plans with quite an eagerness in her weak
voice.

They were in a long cool room, one of the bygone zenana apartments
preserved practically untouched, which opened upon the one side into the
garden through the arches of a colonnade, and was secluded even from
that quiet spot by marvellous stone lacework screens, each different
down to the smallest detail of design, yet all in harmony. However the
small dusky Eastern beauties may have rebelled in their day against
these exquisite prison walls; the present Northern mistress of the
whilom palace found pleasure in their very seclusion, their apartness;
and, according to her wont, she feasted her soul lazily on their
artistic perfections.

She was stretched on a highly painted Indian couch which had been
converted into a sofa, and let her eyes wander from the carving of the
window screens themselves to their even lovelier reflections, cut in
grey shadow on the white marble of the pavement. From the inner rooms
the waters of the baths played murmurous accompaniment to her thought
and her interrupted speech. Aspasia, squatting on the rug at the foot
of the couch, listened, commented, and suggested.

The latter had not yet quite overcome her horrified sense of guilt in
connection with Lady Gerardine’s singular breakdown. Without being able
to piece together any reasonable explanation of late events, she felt
instinctively that here was more than met the eye; that there was in the
web of her aunt’s life, so to speak, an under-warp of unknown colour and
unexpected strength; that behind the placid surface there lay secret
depths; and that her own trifling treachery had unwittingly set forces
in motion with incalculable possibilities. She had gone about, these
days, with a solemn look—a living presentment of childish anxiety. The
scared shadow was still on her pretty face as she now sat in attendance.

“Home in six weeks…” said Rosamond, dreamily. “We shall still find
violets amid the dark-green leaves, Baby, and brown and yellow
chrysanthemums on the top of their frost-bitten stalks.”

“And is it not jolly,” said Aspasia, hugging her knees, “to think that
we can go and paddle about in the wet as much as ever we like, without
any one after us! And isn’t it delightful to be going off just our two
selves. Oh! Aunt Rosamond, you gave me an awful fright, you know; but
really it was rather well done of you, to faint off like that. You see,
the doctor says, whatever they do, now, they’re not to contradict you.
If ever I get an illness I hope it will be that sort. It is worth
anything to be leaving Runkle behind.”

Rosamond did not answer, unless a small secret smile in her pillows
could be called an answer.

“I don’t suppose,” proceeded Baby, emboldened, “that you have ever been
free from the dear Runkle for more than three days at a time since you
married him.”

The phrase being a mere statement of fact, it was again left without
response.

“And really,” pursued Aspasia, warming to her subject, “the way he
pounced upon us last summer up in the hills was enough to ruin the
nerves of a camel. No sooner gone than he was back. Positively one
would rather have had him at home the whole time!”

Force of comparison evidently could no further go. Lady Gerardine gave
one of her rare laughs. Baby’s face was all wrathful gravity.

Poor Sir Arthur! Disciplinarian as he was, he failed to inspire his
immediate circle with anything like average respect. It was a study in
morals to watch the rapidity with which the first awe of some newly
joined member of his English staff, the flattered reverential
fascination produced by early intercourse with the great man, gave way
to the snigger, the jeer, the grudging submission. But, serene in his
own consciousness of power and his own heaven-born gift of applying it,
Sir Arthur laid down the law smilingly and inflexibly; and the native
world about him, at least, bowed to his rule with impassive face and
supple back. And, if there were any symptoms of that mutiny which his
niece declared a long continuance of his rule must inevitably foster, it
is quite certain that he would have refused to believe in it until the
rebel’s knife was actually at his throat.

“Ah,” cried he, coming in upon them at the sound of his wife’s laugh,
“that’s better! I thought we should soon have you on the right road
when Sir James took you in hand.”

Sir James’s harmless ammonia mixture, orange-scented, differed as little
from Dr. Saunders’ sedative drops as the pith of his flowery advice from
the latter’s blunt statement. But Dr. Saunders was in deep disgrace,
and would probably remain so until the Governor’s next colic.

Lady Gerardine’s face had instantly fallen back to its usual expression
of indifference.

“I hope you weren’t listening,” cried Aspasia, pertly, “we were just
saying what a bore you are.”

Sir Arthur laughed again, very guilelessly, and stooped to pinch her
little pink ear.

“I have wired to Sir James to have his opinion upon the best resort for
you in England, until my arrival, dear. His answer has just come.”

He spread out the flimsy sheet and ran his short trim finger along the
lines: “’Decidedly Brighton, Margate, or Eastbourne.’ It is evident he
thinks you require bracing.”

“I have quite decided where I am going,” answered Lady Gerardine,
turning her head on her cushion to look at him.

“Eh?” cried Sir Arthur, scarce able to believe his ears.

“I have been unable to talk business, hitherto,” proceeded his wife,
gently. “But I wanted to tell you I have decided: I go to Saltwoods.”

“To Saltwoods?” His eyes were fixed, protruding, in displeased
amazement.

To Saltwoods, that paltry little Dorsetshire manor-house which, by the
recent demise of Captain English’s mother, had devolved upon his young
widow! The Old Ancient House, as it was invariably called throughout
the countryside, set in such preposterous isolation that the letting of
it on any terms had ever remained an impossibility—the legacy was by no
means acceptable to Sir Arthur. The various sums that he had already
had to disburse for its upkeep and repairs had been a very just
grievance with him; and one of the many matters of business he had
resolved to accomplish on his return to England was the sale, at any
loss, of this inconvenient estate.

“I mean to go there,” said Lady Gerardine in the same tone of delicate
deliberation, but sitting up among her cushions and pushing the hair
from her forehead with the gesture that he had already learned to regard
with some dismay as indicative of “her nervous moments.” “Old Mary, the
housekeeper, can easily get in a couple of country girls, and that will
do for me and Aspasia very well.”

“Preposterous! Now that’s what I call perfectly idiotic! I don’t want
to find fault with you, my dear girl, and of course you’ve been ill and
all that. But it’s quite evident you are not yet in a state to see
things in their right light. ’A case of sudden neurasthenia upon a
highly sensitive organisation,’ as Sir James says.”

This was certainly a more suitable definition of her ladyship’s malady
than the “damn queer low state” of Dr. Saunders; and Sir Arthur rolled
it with some complacency upon his tongue.

“There, there, we won’t discuss the matter any more just now. Rely upon
me to arrange all that is necessary in the most suitable and
satisfactory manner.” He drew a carved stool to the head of the couch,
and possessed himself of her hand in his affectionate way. “There,
there, she must not be worried!”

Across the fatigue of Lady Gerardine’s countenance came an expression
that was almost a faint amusement, tempered with pity. Aspasia
watching, very demure, mouse-still, from her lowly post, found the
situation one of interest.

“You are always kind,” said Rosamond then; “but I shall be better at
Saltwoods than anywhere. You forget that I have work to do.”

“Work?” echoed Sir Arthur. He drew back to contemplate her uneasily;
positively this sounded like wandering.

“It was your wish,” she continued (could there lurk in that soft voice
an undertone of resentment?), “that I should … look over”—she
hesitated as if she could not pronounce her dead husband’s name and
remodelled her phrase—”that I should assist Major Bethune with his
book.”

“Ah!”

Sir Arthur remembered. But the proposition was none the less absurd.
That Lady Gerardine, too delicate to be able to remain with him—with
him, Sir Arthur, the Lieutenant-Governor, at a moment when a hostess was
eminently needed at Government House—should be taking into her
calculations the claims of so unimportant a personality as that of poor
dead and gone English, was, for all his consciously punctilious chivalry
towards his predecessor’s shade, a piece of irritating feminine
perversity that positively stank in Sir Arthur’s nostrils. He snorted.
For a moment, indeed, he was really angry. And the sharpness of his
first exclamation brought the blood racing to Aspasia’s cheeks. She
hesitated on the point of interference. But the invalid’s unruffled
demeanour made no demand upon assistance. Suddenly realising himself
the unfitness of his tone towards a neurasthenic patient of highly
sensitive organisation, Sir Arthur dropped from loud indignation to his
usual indulgent pitch:

“See, my love, how perverse you are. First, when it seemed a mere
matter of justice to poor English’s memory and could have been
accomplished with a very trifling expenditure of trouble, you were
opposed to the matter. And now, when, as Sir James says, it is so
important for you to have absolute rest, to put even your ordinary
correspondence on one side, you tell me, childishly, that it is my wish
you should _work_! I hope, I hope,” said Sir Arthur, appealing to
space, “that I am not an unreasonable man.”

“I was wrong,” said Lady Gerardine; “I do not intend to do it because it
was your wish, but because it is now mine.”

Once again Sir Arthur paused for want of the phrase that would lit his
sense of the extraordinary attitude of his wife and yet not induce any
recurrence of the dreaded symptoms. Then a brilliant solution of the
difficulty flashed across his mind.

“I will write and inform Major Bethune of the necessary postponement of
the whole affair. And now, not a word more.”

Lady Gerardine smiled, but it was with lips that were growing pale.

“I have myself written to Major Bethune,” said she. “It is all settled.
He will be travelling by our boat and will come to me at Saltwoods as
soon as I am ready for him.”

She sank a fraction deeper among her cushions as she spoke, and a blue
shade gathered about her mouth and nostrils. Aspasia scrambled to her
feet in time to arrest the storm that was threatening in clouds upon her
uncle’s brow.

“For Heaven’s sake,” she cried, “hold your tongue and go away, Runkle.
You’ll kill her!” She dived for the smelling-salts and shrieked for
Jani. “Good gracious,” she rated him, holding the bottle with pink,
shaky fingers to the waxen nostrils, “after all the doctors said, and
everything!”

Sir Arthur retired, remarkably crestfallen, to his study. How was a man
to exercise the proper marital control upon the marble-white obstinacy
of a fainting woman?

Neurasthenic shock was a very fine diagnosis. But it was a question,
after all—he lit his cheroot—whether a “damn queer state” did not more
aptly picture the actual condition of affairs.

* * * * *

The receipt of a letter from Lady Aspasia Melbury was the first drop of
balm in his Excellency’s unwontedly distasteful cup. She pooh-poohed
his old-fashioned suggestion that the hostess’s enforced absence
necessitated a postponement of her visit—announced her arrival at the
prescribed time, and her conviction that she and her cousin would get on
“like a house on fire.” Such being the great lady’s opinion, the great
man was delighted; and, before many further hours had gone by, the
younger and less important Aspasia, with hardly suppressed giggles,
heard him hold forth at the dinner table to the following effect:

“What my wife requires really is absolute country quiet. I have
arranged that she should pass her first weeks in England at her own
little place in Dorsetshire, a charming old manor-house. She naturally
does not wish to see much society till my return; and, anyhow, there is
a small piece of work which she is undertaking at my suggestion.” Here
he whispered audibly to the General—his guest of the evening: “Poor
English, you know—a little biography we are getting up about him. He
was killed, you remember, in that Baroghil expedition.”

“Umph, yes; I remember, Inziri Pass—seven years ago, nasty business,”
grumbled the General, as he guzzled his soup; and Aspasia’s eyes danced
and her cheeks grew pink with suppressed laughter. Young Simpson thought
she was laughing at him, and became abjectly wretched for the evening.

* * * * *

Having re-established his supremacy to his own satisfaction, Sir Arthur
took an enormous interest in the protocol of his wife’s departure. As
he himself intended to accompany her to Bombay—he was to meet Lady
Aspasia at an intermediate town on her May north—all the pomp and
circumstance in which his soul delighted was to grace the occasion: the
escorts, the salutes, the special trains, and so forth. Finding that
Major Bethune was bound by the same boat, he annexed him to his
“progress,” with a condescension peculiarly his own. “He is engaged in
some literary work, at my request. A very good kind of fellow; very
intelligent, too,” he explained.

And so Raymond Bethune found himself one of the Lieutenant-Governor’s
brilliant retinue that autumn evening of the departure. “A silent,
unemotional man,” Sir Arthur might have added to his description, had
he, in his own sublime content, ever thought of examining the
impressions of others.

Yet, under his impassive exterior, Raymond Bethune was conscious of a
keener interest than he had felt these many years. But it was not in
the smartness of the Lieutenant-Governor’s escort, in the gorgeousness
of his equipages or the general splendour of the magnate himself that he
found food for speculation; it was in the personality of Sir Arthur’s
wife—a repellent yet fascinating enigma. His thoughts perpetually
worked round it without being able to solve it.

In another manner, a sweet, vague stirring of his being—totally new
experience this!—the girlish presence of Aspasia filled his mind also to
an unacknowledged degree. He felt as if his life had been caught up out
of its own vastly different course and suddenly intertwined with that of
these two women; the one whose every action, every word, was mysterious
to him; and the other, clear to the eye as running water, child-heart,
child-soul, impulse elemental, nature itself from her spontaneous laugh
to her frank impertinence.

“Do you know,” whispered Aspasia to him, as they stood side by side
under the great colonnade waiting for their turn to descend to the
carriage, “I have been hating myself ever since I was such a beast about
poor Aunt Rosamond. I think it has half killed her, this business.
Even the Runkle wants her to give it up while she’s so ill.”

The man’s eyes had been lost in a musing contemplation of the rosy
pointed face surrounded by diaphanous folds of grey gauze. A dainty
figure was Aspasia in her soft greys—the sort of travelling companion a
man might gladly take with him through the arid and dusty journey of
life. But at these words his singular light gaze kindled.

“Surely,” said he, “you do not connect Lady Gerardine’s illness with
anything that you or I have done? That would be absurd, in the
circumstances”—he threw a scornful glance about him—”too absurd a
proposition to be entertained for a moment.” (“This sensibility in a
woman who has consoled herself so quickly and to such good purpose!” he
added to himself.)

“Oh,” said Aspasia back, in a brisk angry whisper, “you don’t
understand, and neither do I. But I feel, and you don’t … and I think
you are perfectly hateful!”

She had caught his look, followed his thought, and was indignant.

* * * * *

And now out into the divine Indian evening they set. The travellers,
with their crowd of attendants, moved of necessity slowly, for Lady
Gerardine went upon her husband’s arm, in the languor of the
semi-invalid. Through the frowning gateway, down the stairway they
passed, to halt again before the last flight of steps, Rosamond drew
herself away from Sir Arthur’s support, leaned up against the rough
stone slabs of the wall, and laid a slender gloved hand absently in one
of five prints that mark it.

“Do you see those?” cried Baby turning, all her ill-humour forgotten in
her desire to impart a thrilling piece of information to Major Bethune
as he walked behind her. “Do you see those funny marks? Those are
supposed to be made by the hands of the queens, when they came down to
be burned. Ugh! I say, Aunt Rosamond, are not you rather glad you are
not an ancient Indian princess, and that Runkle is not an old rajah, and
that you’ve not got to look forward to frizzle on his pyre?”

“You forget,” came Rosamond’s dreamy voice in reply, “I should not have
been alive to grace Sir Arthur’s pyre. My ashes would have mingled with
other ashes long, long before…. Oh, I’m not so sure,” she went on,
again fitting a delicate hand into the sinister prints, “I am not sure
that it was not a kind law in the end.”

“Gracious!” cried the irrepressible Aspasia, with a shriek and a laugh.
And then she whispered, all bubbling mischief, into Bethune’s ear: “The
poor Runkle, he is not as bad as all that, after all!”

Then, at sight of his face, she suddenly fell grave; and the two stood
looking at each other. Bethune had first been startled by Lady
Gerardine’s look and accents even more than by the words themselves.
The next moment, however, he mentally shrugged the shoulder of contempt.

Whom did she think to take in by her affectation of sensibility, this
languid, self-centred creature in the midst of her chosen luxury?

Thus, when his eyes met Aspasia’s, they were sad with the scorn of
things, sad for the sordid trickeries of the soul of her on whom the
love of his dead friend had been lavished.

Sir Arthur, with touching unconsciousness of the interlude, was once
again affectionately sustaining his wife. Then, as the procession moved
on once more, Baby, troubled and discomfited—she could have hardly
explained why—moved childishly close to Raymond Bethune, and shivered a
little.

“I am glad to be getting away from this haunted place and this uncanny
country,” she whispered again. “I feel sure I should have ended by
making one of these dreadful natives stick a knife into me. I am always
plunging in upon their feelings and offending their castes, and all the
rest of it. Just look at Saif-u-din’s face—Runkle’s new secretary—I
never saw such a glare as he threw upon us all just now. I suppose he
thought we were making fun of their precious suttee!” Aspasia’s idea of
native distinctions was still of the vaguest.

Bethune turned the keen gaze of the conscious dominator upon the man
that Aspasia had indicated with her little indiscreet finger. The
red-turbaned, artistically draped figure, with the noble dusky head and
the fan-shaped raven beard, was striding in their wake with a serene
dignity that looked as if nothing could ever ruffle it. Had he been
ruffled? Had the glare existed merely in Aspasia’s imagination? While
recognising a Pathan (whose contempt for the Hindoo probably exceeded
Baby’s own), Bethune knew that it was quite possible the irritable pride
of the mountain man had taken fire at some real or fancied slight; but
the betrayal could have been no more than a flash.

The Major of Guides smiled to himself. He knew his native: the man who
will never give you more than an accidental peep of the bared blade in
the velvet sheath—no, not till he means to strike! About this fellow, a
splendid specimen of the noblest race, a creature cut out of steel and
bronze, there was, he thought, a more than usual sinister hint of the
wild nature under all the exquisite manner and the perfect
self-restraint; and he found himself regarding him with the complacent
eye of the connoisseur. The artistic lion-tamer likes his lions savage.

As he looked he wondered once and again how one so evidently a son of
the warlike Pathans could have sought the pacific calling of secretary.

Sir Arthur was taking his new toy down to Bombay with him, where there
were, he had been informed, certain documents which might be of value to
the “monumental work.” And so it came to pass that Bethune and Muhammed
Saif-u-din, destined to share one of the subordinate vehicles, found
themselves presently standing side by side at the foot of the steps.

Whether because of the interest he must have seen he had inspired in the
officer, or whether he was simply drawn towards him by his racial
military instincts, Raymond could not determine, but, as they halted,
well-nigh shoulder to shoulder, the Pathan suddenly wheeled round,
looked him full in the face in his turn, then smiled. It was a frank
smile, showing a flash of splendid teeth; and it lit up the fierce,
proud features in a way that was at once bright and sad.

“It would be curious,” reflected Bethune, “to know what sort of a soul
dwells in that envelope, which might become the greatest gentleman on
earth. I’ll warrant the fellow has many a bloody page in his story that
a man might scarce look upon, and yet he has got a smile to stir you
like a woman’s.”

The first horses of the escort began to move with much crisp action, for
Sir Arthur was at last installed in his state chariot. Through the
great glass windows he might be seen and admired of all beholders,
feeling his wife’s pulse with an air of profound concern; while she,
submissive, her patient smile upon her lips, was gazing up into his face
with gentle abstracted eyes.

“A model couple!” sneered Bethune to himself. And, turning impatiently
aside to devote his attention to the more pleasing subject of the
oriental, he found the latter just in the act of dropping his glance
from the same spectacle, and thought to notice a flicker as of kindred
scorn pass across the statuesque composure of the dark face.

“For ever will the East and the West be as poles apart,” cogitated the
soldier, even as M. Châtelard had done; “upon no point do they in their
heart more despise us than in our subserviency to our women. I am not
sure,” he pursued to himself, cynically, as the splendid presence of
Saif-u-din settled itself with dignity upon the seat beside him; “I am
not sure but that the orientals knew what they were about when they made
their laws concerning the false and mischievous sex.”

Loud and deep rang the great guns of the salute: their Excellencies had
started. Rosamond Gerardine was bound for England. In a waggon, at the
tail of all the other equipages, sat Jani, withered and sad-faced, wrapt
in her thoughts as closely as in her dusky chuddah. She would not talk
with the bearers or even lament her coming exile. She held on tightly
with one thin brown hand to a much-battered military tin case, which she
herself had laid on the seat beside her. No one else would she permit to
touch it. The other servants mocked her about it, vowing it was full of
her hoardings and that they would rob her of it. At that she would
menace them fiercely with her monkey paw. Strange, sad, inscrutable
little Parca keeping guard on the fate of lives!

Bombay, a very dream-city, was fading—ever more dreamlike, enwrapped in
pale-tinted sunset mists—into the distance.

The salt breeze was in their faces; in their ears was the rushing of the
waters from the sides of the ship as she cut her way through. Already
the something of England that the sea must always bring her children,
the surroundings of an English ship especially, was about them! They
seemed to have come from the land of languor and secret doings into open
life, into simple action, into a busy, wholesome stir.

Beneath them pulsed the great heart of the ship, white foam pointing her
way as she forged ahead. Behind her stretched the furrow of her course,
two long lines, ever wider divergent till they lost themselves to the
eye. And now, by some fantastic mirage effect, the great oriental port,
with its glimmering minarets and cupolas, showed as if caught up into
the sky itself. Let but this iron heart labour on a little while
longer, let but this eager prow cut its way a little deeper towards the
sunset, and the East would have vanished altogether…. The travellers
would not even see the first glimmer of her evening lights hung a jewel
necklace on the horizon, so swiftly had the sea laid hold of them.

Homeward bound! The step from pier to steamer had already severed the
link of their strange affinity with the East. Its mystery had fallen
from them. Already this was England. Rosamond Gerardine and Aspasia,
side by side, watched the shores retreat, fade, sink, and vanish.

“Good-bye, India!” said Aspasia, her head sentimentally inclined,
dropping at last the little handkerchief with which she had been
frantically signalling long after there was any possibility of the
vessel being descried from the land otherwise than as a black spot;
“Good-bye, India, and hey for home!”

Lady Gerardine fixed the fading vision with wide, abstracted eyes.

“God grant,” she said, under her breath, more to herself than to the
girl beside her, “that I may never see those shores again!”

“Amen!” said Aspasia, cheerfully.

Rosamond laid her hand upon Aspasia’s wrist as they leaned against the
railings and pressed it with a grasp that almost hurt.

“An accursed land!” she went on, this time in a low, intense voice. It
was as if she flung anathema to the retreating shores. “Cruel, cruel,
treacherous! Oh, God, what has it not already cost us English! Is there
a home among us that has not paid its blood tribute to that relentless
monster? Listen, child. I was as young as you when I last beheld its
shores—thus—from the sea. It was in the dawn (it is fit it should now
be dusk), and we stood together as I stand beside you to-day. And I saw
it grow out of the sky, even with the dawn, a city of rose, of pearl,
beyond words beautiful—unimaginable, it seemed to me, in promise! He
said to me: ’Look, there is the first love of my life; is she not fair?
And I am bringing to her my other love … and you two are all that I
will have of life.’ And then he laughed and said: ’It would be strange
if I wanted more, with two such loves.’ And, again: ’Not even for you
could I be false to her.’”

Aspasia, mystified, turned her bright gaze full upon her aunt’s face.
In the pupils of Rosamond’s eyes there was enkindled a sullen fire.

“He came back to her,” she went on; “and she—that land—lay smiling in
the sunrise to receive him. Oh, how she can smile and look beautiful,
and smell fragrant, and caress, with the dagger hidden under the velvet,
the snake in the rose, and the sudden grave yawning! I’ve never been
home since,” she said, with a sudden change of tone, bringing her glance
back from the misty horizon, to fix it upon Aspasia with so piteous and
haggard a look that the girl lost her composure. “And now I am coming
home alone, and he remains there.” She made an outward sweep with her
left hand towards the north. “I am coming home alone. The other has
kept him. She has kept him. I am alone: he is left behind.”

“Who?” cried the bewildered Baby, who had utterly failed to seize the
thread of her aunt’s strange discourse. And, upon her usual
impulsiveness springing to a conclusion of mingled amazement and
derision: “Who—Runkle?” she exclaimed.

No sooner had the foolish cry escaped her lips than she could have
bitten out her tongue for vexation.

A change came over Lady Gerardine’s face, colder and greyer than even
the rapid tropic evening that was closing upon the scene. The light
went out in her eyes, to be replaced by a distant contempt. The
features that had quivered with passion became set into their wonted
mask of repose; it was as if a veil had dropped between them, as if a
cold wind drove them apart.

“I was not speaking of your uncle,” said Rosamond, at length, very
gently. Then she suggested that as it was growing late they should take
possession of their cabin.

And Aspasia, as she meekly acquiesced, trembled upon tears at the
thought of her blundering. For one moment this jealously centred heart
had been about to open itself to her; for one moment this distant
enfolded being had turned to her as woman to woman; impelled by God
knows what sudden necessity of complaint, of another’s sympathy, of
another’s understanding, the lonely soul had called upon hers. And she,
Aspasia—Baby, well did they name her so—had not been able to seize the
precious moment! The sound of her own foolish laugh still rang in her
ears, while the unconscious contempt in Rosamond’s gaze scorched her
cheeks.

* * * * *

From the very first day, fate, in the shape of an imperiously intimate
Aspasia, drew Raymond Bethune, the saturnine lonely man, into the narrow
circle of Lady Gerardine’s ’board-ship existence. In her double quality
of great lady and semi-invalid, the Lieutenant-Governor’s wife was to be
withdrawn from the familiar intercourse which life on a liner imposes on
most travellers. It had been Sir Arthur’s care to see that she was
provided with an almost royal accommodation, which, as everything in
this world is comparative, chiefly consisted in the possession of a
small sitting-room over and above the usual sleeping-cabin.

Into these sacred precincts Miss Cuningham hustled Bethune
unceremoniously, as the first dusk closed round their travelling home on
the waste of waters.

“Steward! … Oh, isn’t it too bad, Major Bethune! I’ve been ringing
like mad, and poor old Jani’s bewildered out of her wits; and
Gibbons—that’s our English fool of a maid—she’s taken to groaning
already. There’s not a creature to do anything for us, and that idiot
there says he’s nothing to say to the cabins!”

Her arms full of flowers, she stood close to him; and the fragrance of
the roses and carnations came to him in little gushes with her panting
breath. Her rosy face, in the uncertain light, had taken to itself an
ethereal charm very different from its usual clear and positive outline.
Hardly had this realisation of her personality come to him than, under
the hands of the ship’s servant she had so contemptuously indicated, the
flood of the electric light leaped upon them. And behold, she appeared
to him yet fairer—youth triumphant, defying even that cruel glare to
find a blemish in bloom or contour.

“What do you want?” he asked, with the softening of his hard face which
so few were ever privileged to see.

“A vase for our flowers—a big bowl. I hate messy little dabs; and I
don’t want them to die an hour before they can help it. Oh, a really
big bowl, at once!”

Her residence in an Indian governor’s palace had been short, but
sufficient to give Miss Aspasia the habit of command.

Raymond Bethune gave his dry chuckle as he set to work to fulfil her
behest.

“I’ve captured a salad bowl,” cried he, almost jovially, when he
returned; “and the head steward is in despair!”

“Tell him to steal the cook’s pudding-basins,” said Aspasia, and swept
him back with her to the minute sitting-room.

Here sat Lady Gerardine, still wrapped in her cloak but bareheaded,
under the shaded light. Leaning back among her cushions, her feet
crossed on a footstool, she seemed to have taken full possession of her
quarters. The narrow commonplace surroundings had already received her
special personal imprint. The flowers, the cushions, a few books, a
great cut-glass scent bottle—the very disorder even of a litter of rich
trifles that had not yet found their place, removed the trivial
impression of steamer upholstery. She received him without surprise, if
without any mark of welcome; and Aspasia chattered, ordered, laughed,
kept him employed and amused. Now and again Lady Gerardine smiled
vaguely at her niece’s outbursts. Bethune could not feel himself an
intruder. And certainly it was better than his fourth share of a
bachelor’s cabin, better than the crowded saloon and smoking-rooms, with
their pervading glare and odour of high polish.

Through the open port-hole came the sound of the rushing, swirling
waters, punctuated by the slap of some sudden wave against the flank of
the ship. A wind had arisen, and now and again gusts, cold and briny,
rushed in upon the warm inner atmosphere of flowers.

Lady Gerardine held a large bouquet of Niphetos roses, and her pale long
fingers were busy unrolling the bonds that braced them in artificial
deportment. Their petals, thought the man, were no whiter than her
cheeks.

Presently Aspasia plunged her healthy pink hands down among the languid
blossoms and began pulling out the wires.

“I shouldn’t, if I were you,” said Rosamond; and then she held up a
spray. “See, the poor flower, all stained, all fallen apart, all
broken. Never draw away the secret supports, Baby. It is better to
hold one’s head up, even with the iron in one’s heart, and pretend it is
not there.”

Bethune looked at her, a little startled. In some scarcely tangible way
the words seemed aimed at him; but he saw that for her, at that moment,
he did not exist.

For the first time a pang of real misgiving shot through him. He seemed
to behold her with new eyes. She struck him as very frail. Could it be
true, or did he but imagine it, that that lovely head, once so defiantly
uplifted against him, now drooped?

Feeling the fixity of his gaze upon her, she glanced up and then smiled.
Strange being! Was he, then, so easily forgiven? His heart gave a
sudden leap.

The memory of this first evening was one which haunted him all his life
with a curious intimate sweetness.

* * * * *

Time passed as time will pass on board ship; vague hours resembling each
other, dropping to dreamy length of days; days that yet lapse quickly
and moreover work a sure but subtle change. No traveller that lands
after a long sea journey is the same as he who started. Sometimes,
indeed, he will look back upon his former self as upon another, with
surprise.

So it was with Raymond Bethune; and if he came to view himself with
surprise, still more inexplicable to him was the new Lady Gerardine as
he learned to regard her. According to his presentiment, these two
women—she to whose puzzling personality he had vowed antipathy, and she
whose fresh young presence made dangerously strong demands upon his
sympathy—soon began to absorb all the energies of his thoughts. To a man
who had hitherto known no other emotion, outside a very ordinary type of
home affection, than friendship for another man; whose life, with the
exception of one brief period of glamorous hero-worship, had been
devoted to duty in its sternest, most virile form, this mental
pre-occupation over two women, both comparative strangers, was at first
a matter for self-mockery. It was afterwards one of self-conflict.
Whoso, however, has reached the point of actually combating an idea is
already and obviously its victim, and the final stage of abandonment to
the obsession cannot be very distant.

Looking back upon his memories, in later days, it was singular to him
how completely the girl and the woman divided his most vivid impressions
of that journey. If the vision of Aspasia, fresh as the spray, rosy as
the dawn, coming to meet him of a morning, brisk and free, across the
deck, her young figure outlined against sparkling sea and translucent
sky, was a memory all pleasant and all sweet, the picture of that other,
slow moving and pallid, so enwrapped in inexplicable mourning, so
immeasurably indifferent to himself, was bitten into the tablets of his
mind as with burning acid, fixed in lines of pain.

It is never flattering for a man to realise that he is of no consequence
to a woman with whom he is brought into daily intercourse. And to feel
that, though his acts have had a distinct influence upon her life, his
personality has failed to make the smallest impression, is a situation
certain to pique the most unassuming. In the end Bethune began to wish
that Lady Gerardine had retained even her original attitude of
resentment. Now and again, indeed, he would find her eye fixed upon
him, but at the same time would know unmistakably that her thought was
not with him. Sometimes her attitude of inexplicable sorrow seemed
harder to bear than her first evidences of heartlessness.

One day Aspasia had suddenly attacked her aunt upon the subject of her
black garb, crying, with her noted heedlessness:

“I declare, any one would think you were in mourning.”

Lady Gerardine shifted her distant gaze from the far horizon to
Aspasia’s countenance, and her lips moved but made no sound. In her
heart she was saying:

“How else should I clothe myself, when I am travelling with my dead?”

Almost as if he read her thought, Bethune sneered as he looked at her,
and with difficulty restrained the taunt that rose to his tongue. “Lady
Gerardine wears belated weeds!”

Her attitude of hopeless melancholy, her raiment of mourning, irritated
him bitterly. Yet, while he looked at her in harshness, he marked the
admirable white throat, rising like a flower stem from the dense black
of her dress, and found himself wondering whether any shimmer of colour
would have become her half so well.

Towards the end of their journey together he was once summoned to speak
with her alone. It was about the forthcoming book. Nothing could be
more brief, more businesslike than her words, more unemotional than her
manner. She asked for his instructions; she discussed, criticised,
concurred. It was obvious that, when she chose, her brain could act
with quite remarkable clearness. It was also obvious that she had
completely capitulated to his wishes; and yet never was victory more
savourless.

At the conclusion of this conversation she settled with him that, when
she had accomplished her part of the task, she would send for him. And
as he withdrew, he felt himself dismissed from her thoughts, except as a
mere instrument in what now seemed more her undertaking than his own.
At heart he found it increasingly difficult to accept the position with
good grace.

After this, during the few days of ship life together left to them, Lady
Gerardine seldom admitted him to her company; and thus Raymond was the
more thrown with Aspasia. The girl, unconventional by temperament and
somewhat set apart by her position of “Governor’s niece,” unhesitatingly
profited by a situation which afforded her unmixed amusement. She was
not in love as yet with the Major of Guides. Indeed, she had other and
higher ambitions. Aspasia’s dream-pictures of herself were ever of a
wonderful artist of world-wide celebrity, surrounded by a sea of
clapping hands, graciously curtseying her thanks from the side of a
Steinway grand…. But Bethune interested her, and there was something
piquantly pleasant in being able to awaken that gleam in his cold, light
eye, in noticing that the lines of his impassive face relaxed into
softness for her alone.

One afternoon, as they sat on deck—the great ship cutting the blue
waters of the Adriatic, between the fading of a glorious red and orange
sunset and the rising of a thin sickle moon, Aspasia wrapped against the
chilly salt airs in some of her aunt’s sables, out of which richness the
hardy, wild-flower prettiness of her face rose in emphatic contrast—she
told him the story of her short life.

She spoke of her musical career, of the bright student days at Vienna;
the hard work of them, the anguish, the struggle, the joy. Then of the
death of her mother, and the falling of all her high hopes under the
crushing will of Sir Arthur, her appointed guardian.

“When mother went,” said Aspasia, “everything went.” As she spoke two
tears leaped out of her eyes, and hung poised on the short, thick
eyelashes. “The Runkle thinks it’s a disgrace for a lady to do anything
in life. ’And, besides,’ he says, ’she can’t, and she’d better not
attempt it.’ But wait till I’m twenty-one,” cried the girl,
vindictively, “and I’ll show him what his ’dear Raspasia’s’ got in her!”

She smiled in her young consciousness of power, and the big tears,
detaching themselves, ran into her dimples. Raymond, looking at her
with all the experience of his hard life behind him, and all the
disillusion of his five-and-thirty years, felt so sudden a movement at
once of pity and tenderness that he had to stiffen himself in his seat
not to catch her in his arms and kiss her on those wet dimples as he
would have kissed a child.

“Oh, you’ll do great things,” said he, in the tone in which one praises
the little one’s sand castle on the beach, or tin soldier strategy.
“And may I come with a great big laurel crown, tied with gold ribbons,
when you give your first concert in the Albert Hall?”

“Albert Hall,” mocked she, “the very place for a piano recital!” Then
she let her eyes roam out across the heaving space. Once more she saw
herself the centre of an applauding multitude; but, in the foremost
rank, there was the lean, brown face, and it was moved to enthusiasm,
too. And, somehow, from that evening forth, the dream-visions of her
future glory were never to be quite complete without it.

* * * * *

A mist-enwrapped, rain-swept shore, parting the dim grey sea and sky in
twain, was their first glimpse of England after years of exile.

“Ugh,” said Aspasia, shivering, “isn’t it just like England to go and be
damp and horrid for us!”

Lady Gerardine, looking out with eager straining gaze towards the
weeping land, turned with one of her sudden, unexpected movements of
passion upon the girl.

“I’m glad it’s raining,” she said. “I’m glad it’s cold, and bleak, and
grey. I’m glad to feel the raindrops beating on nay face. I’m sick of
hard blue skies and fierce sunshine…. And the trees at Saltwoods will
be all bent one way by the blowing of the wet sea wind. It’s England,
it’s home; and, oh, I’m glad to be home!”