Under the veil of her hair

If sleep came at all to Rosamond that night, it came with no refreshment
of forgetfulness, but rather with an increase of inner struggle. Hour
merged into hour until even the noisy Indian town fell into some kind of
silence; but the voices in her troubled soul ceased not their clamour.

Why should she be made to do this thing, she who had asked so little of
life; who had, indeed, deliberately fashioned life for herself so that
it should give her but one boon—quietude? Her pulses throbbed as if
with that fever which the solicitous husband had prognosticated. How
dared they?

Then, reason took the cold grey eye, the cold reproachful tone of Major
Bethune, to ask her, Had she the right to refuse? And fate seemed to
assume the kindly handsome smiling countenance of Sir Arthur, to assure
her that it must be. Who knew as well as she that it was vain to
struggle against any fiat of his? And then, once more, every fibre of
her being, every energy of her soul, started in revolt.

The tom-tom beat below in the town a mocking refrain to her anguish.
And, without the walls, the pariah dogs howled and fought, snarling, and
wrangled, growling. She slid into snatches of horrid slumber, in which
the contending elements in her soul seemed to take tangible form. But
with the dawn a change came upon her. She awoke from one of these
interludes in which she had after all glided to unconsciousness; the
tension had become relaxed; there was one clear purpose in her mind:

She would not do it!

Reason now no longer appeared under an enemy’s shape, but came like a
friend to her pillow and whispered words of soothing. They had no right
to ask it of her. No power on earth could force her to it. All that the
world had the claim to know about Harry English, his comrades, his
friend, those that had been beside him in his glorious fight against
destiny, could give to it. What concerned the man, apart from the
soldier; what concerned that inner life, had been hers alone. What
sense of justice could there be in the demand that she should break
through the deliberate seal of years, stultify the intention of a whole
existence, at the bidding of an overbearing young man, of a pragmatic
old one? Once, for a little while, life had held for her mysterious
possibilities—sweet, but no more unfolded than the bud in the narrow
sheath. Was she now to tear apart these reserves, close-folded, leaf
upon leaf, dissect the “might-have-been” till her heart’s blood ran?
No, a hundred times! And then, upon the strength of this decision, the
habitual long-cultivated calmness came floating back to her. She lay
and gazed at the shafts of light as they filtered in through the blinds
and fell in crosses and bars upon the marble floor. From their first
inroad, when they had seemed but the laying of shadow upon shadow, to
the awakening of colour in and under them, she watched them with
wide-open yet dreamy eyes.

All the night she had battled with the nightmare horror. Now, with the
dawn, came peace: not the peace of acceptance, but cessation of feeling.
She mused and pleasured her mind on the mere feast of sight, as, bit by
bit, in the familiar places, the tints of her wonderful missal-page room
returned to existence for her eye; here the turquoise-blue inlay, with
its cool stripe of black and white, there a lance of rose-crimson on the
tesselated wall, glowing like the dawn itself amid the surrounding
gloom. Across the light shafts of the garden window, there was a dance
of flickering leaf shadows. And this greenness set her mind wandering,
not in the over-luxuriant, untranquil, full-blossomed Indian garden, but
into cool dim English spaces—into some home wood where harebells grew
sparsely and the dew glittered grey on bramble-brake and hollow; where
last year’s leaves lay thick and all the air was full of the scent of
the honest, clean, wholesome soil of England.

And as she dreamed her placid waking dream, morning life in the
Governor’s palace began to stir about her. Already from the town below
the too brief hour of stillness had been some time broken. But these
outlandish sounds: the cry of the water-carriers and camel-drivers, the
jingle of cow-bells, the blast of the shepherd’s horn, the brazen gong
of the temple, had not really broken in upon her thoughts: they had
formed rather a background, vague and distant, haunting the sweetness of
her far wanderings.

Now, however, as the house itself became awake, creepingly, with
slinking feet, she called upon sleep again for fear once more of what
the day would bring her.

* * * * *

One came and bent over her, holding his breath. And she feigned
unconsciousness. And then she heard him withdraw on exaggerated tiptoe.
And next entered the ayah with her tea—Jani, the ayah, who flung wide
the windows on the garden side.

Early as it was the lilies were throwing up incense to the rising
sun-god; it gushed into the room as upon the swing of a censer. And,
turning her languid eyes, Rosamond saw how, in the fresh little breeze,
the great green banana-leaves waved to and fro across her window against
a sky of quivering silver.

When Jani returned to the bed, Rosamond handed her the empty cup with a
smile. But as Jani took it she looked at her mistress keenly; and,
after a second or two, stretched out a stealthy hand and touched the
forehead under the masses of golden hair, still heavy, from the
night-sweat. The fair brow was cool enough —there was no trace of the
ever-dreaded fever in the encircled eyes or on the smooth white face;
only the weariness of a long night-watch. But Jani shook her head to
herself as she withdrew with her tray; and, meeting Miss Aspasia at the
door, she was all for forbidding her entrance. But that young lady was
not of those who are turned from their path.

“Don’t be a goose, Jani!” cried she, briskly. “If you can see Aunt
Rosamond, why should not I?” She ducked nimbly under the white-draped
forbidding arm, as she spoke. “And she is not a bit asleep; her eyes
are as wide awake as anything.”

Too strainedly awake, one more versed in the reading of the human
countenance might well have deemed. But the last thing Aspasia sought
in life was its subtlety. Rosy and fresh from her bath, her crisp hair
crinkled into tighter curls than ever and still beaded here and there
with the spray of her energetic ablutions, as she stood in the square of
green light, wrapping her pink cambric dressing-gown tightly round her
pretty figure, she was as pleasant to look upon as an English daisy.
Lady Gerardine smiled more brightly.

“It’s a glorious morning, Aunt Rosamond. Are not you going to ride?”

“Not this morning.”

“Aren’t you well?” Aspasia sat down on the side of the bed and took her
aunt’s hands into her firm grasp. There was a conscience-stricken
anxiety in the girl’s eyes.

“Quite well; but I slept badly.”

Baby felt the beat of a slow pulse under her fingers. Relieved but still
weighted with a sense of guilt, she bent to kiss the face on the pillow.
Lady Gerardine turned her cheek with that tolerant submission to caress
that she was wont to display. Then she drew her hands away and gently
pushed Aspasia from her.

“Go and dress, you will be late. And tell your uncle that I am trying
to sleep.”

Still Aspasia hesitated. She would have liked to confess her last
night’s treachery and be forgiven. But Lady Gerardine, who was never a
very approachable person, seemed this morning more distant than ever.
And catching sight of the dancing leaves outside, the girl felt the joy
of the young day suddenly seize her spirit. She shuffled gaily across
the room in her heel-less slippers.

“I’ll tell Runkle you’re sound asleep and he must not disturb you,” she
announced with cheerful mendacity, “otherwise you’ll have him prowling
in and thrusting that thermometer down your throat.”

Lady Gerardine laughed a little, but made no protest.—That thermometer!

Then she turned her head and fell to watching the garden window again,
glad when across the open spaces she heard at last the crisp repeated
rhythm of the horses’ feet draw close and ring sharp, as the cavalcade
moved up the road by the garden walls, and drop away in the distance.

* * * * *

When Aspasia returned from her ride she found her aunt seemingly in the
same attitude; the long white hands folded, she could have sworn,
exactly as she had last seen them; the deep-dreaming eyes still gazing
out of the window.

“I declare,” cried the girl, “you lazy thing!” but there was still a
shade of uneasiness in her voice and in her glance. “Are not you
ashamed of yourself?”

“Not at all,” said Rosamond, “I’ve had a very happy time. And you?”

“Hot, hot,” said Aspasia, flinging her Panama hat across the room and
rubbing her forehead. Her cheeks had grown pale and there were moist
dark rings round her eyes.

“I have had the better part, I think,” said Lady Gerardine.

“Not you,” said Baby, as she dumped her solid weight on her favourite
corner of the bed. “It’s been delightful, delicious. I’ve never
enjoyed a ride so much.” Her bright hazel gaze misted over in
remembrance. “Oh dear,” said she, “how can you lie there! You’re quite
young, Aunt Rosamond, but I think your idea of happiness is like a
cat’s. You just like to sit still and blink and think. And even the
cats romp about—at night,” she added, parenthetically.

“Oh, I don’t even think, or care to think much,” said the other in that
indulgent half-playful manner which she reserved for her niece, to whom
she talked more as if she were five years old than eighteen. “While you
were out I let my soul swing on that great green leaf over there by the
window. Do you see it, Baby? It is beginning to catch a ray of
sunlight now and shines like a golden emerald.”

“Gracious!” cried the girl.

“I think it is partly,” said Rosamond, pursuing her own thoughts,
“because of this vivid passionate land, where every one lives so
intensely. No wonder, poor things, their ideal of complete happiness
over here is Nirwana! I am glad, Baby, that we shall soon be in our
placid England again, where people go from the cradle to the grave,
quietly as along a grey road green-hedged, from a cottage gate to a
sleeping churchyard.”

“I am glad, too, we are going to England,” cried Aspasia, catching up
one phrase of her aunt’s speech and neglecting the main idea. “I met
Major Bethune, this morning,” she said, half-bashful, half-defiant, “and
he’s going home on leave, too.”

Lady Gerardine’s eyelids drooped, just enough to veil her glance. She
lay quite still, without even a contraction of the fingers that rested
upon the sheet. Baby peeped at her in a sidelong, bird-like way, and
felt inexplicably uncomfortable. She babbled on, stumbling over her
words:

“He was riding such a brute of a horse, and sat it like a centaur—or
whatever you call the thing. You never saw such an eye as the creature
had; one of those raw chestnuts, you know, with a neck that goes up in
the air and seems to hang loose. And he sat, just with the grip of his
knees, you know. He is as thin as—as——” Simile was not Aspasia’s
strong point; she broke off. “You are not listening to a word I am
saying.” She swung her legs pettishly, in the short linen habit.

“I heard,” said Rosamond, without lifting her eyes. “I heard very well.”

“I’ll go and take a bath,” said Aspasia, sliding off the bed, and
pausing for the expected protest. Aspasia’s habit of plunging into
water four or five times a day was a matter of perpetual household
objurgation.

“Yes—I’m simply made of dust!” She moved towards the door. Still her
aunt lay, fair and white and still. It seemed to the girl, scarcely
even breathing.

“Do you know, Runkle’s new secretary has come. The famous new Indian
secretary—the pure native spring, you know,” she cried, with a childish
effort at dispelling that uncanny supineness. “He gave me an awful
fright.”

The long drooped lids flickered with a swift upward look of unseeing
pupils.

“Fright! Why?”

“Oh! I don’t know. It was fearfully silly of me. As I was coming along
your passage, just now, I saw a hand hold back the curtain for me. I
thought it was that Simpson. And as I bounced through I nearly fell
into his arms—and found it was a black man—ugh! The famous new
secretary, in fact. He stood like a stock, and I squeaked in my usual
way. And then he smiled. I don’t like Indians much, but that’s a fine
handsome fellow. Looks like a Sikh—I’m boring you. I’m off. Lord,
here’s Runkle! Runkle, I’m going to have a bath.”

She turned with gusto to fling her little glove of defiance afresh in
the new-comer’s face—and this time was not disappointed of the effect.

“My dear Aspasia!”

“Only number two!”

“It’s not that you’ve not been warned….”

The wrangle of words rose in the air, to end in the inevitable mutual
iterations: “Don’t say you’ve not been warned, my dear Aspasia,” and
“Don’t care, Runkle, I’m going to have a bath.”

“I am afraid Aunt Rosamond’s not well,” was Aspasia’s somewhat spiteful
parting shot, as she slipped out behind the door hangings.

“Not well!”

With his short quick step Sir Arthur came to the bedside.

“Would you mind,” said his wife, “getting Jani to pull the blinds again;
the light is growing too strong!”

She wanted the shadows about her, for the struggle was coming, and she
felt in her heart that she was doomed to lose. Sir Arthur attended to
the detail himself, then hurried back.

“Fever? No.” Even he could scarcely insist upon this with his stubby
finger upon that pulse, the pulse of a life that found itself just now
an infinite fatigue. “Below par! I wish, dear, you would for once pay
some attention to what I say. It is not that I have any desire to find
fault with you, my love, but how many times must I represent to you that
it is important to get the early freshness of the day in this climate,
and take your rest later?’

“Yes,” said Rosamond.

She lay waiting for the dreaded blow to fall. It was not long delayed.

“It is high time, indeed, that we should all have a change,” pursued the
Lieutenant-Governor.

He still held her hand in his and looked down complacently to see how
white it lay, in the shaded room, upon his broad palm: how slight a
thing, how delicately shaped, with taper fingers and filbert nails. The
great man had chosen her in the zenith of his life and success because
of her beauty. She had little birth to boast of, and no fortune. But
it pleased him at every turn to trace in her those points which are
popularly supposed to belong only to the patrician.

“It is high time,” said Sir Arthur, turning the passive hand to gaze at
a palm no deeper tinted than is the pale blush of mother-of-pearl, “that
we should get back to England for a while. And, by the way, that young
man, Bethune of the Guides, poor English’s friend—you know, my love—has
dear Aspasia told you? We met him this morning; he is also going to
travel home very shortly.”

“So Aspasia told me.”

“I have advised him to wait for our boat. A good plan, don’t you think?
We could be talking over that biography together—_pour passer le
temps_—eh, my dear?”

“_Pour passer le temps._”

“Yes. I informed Major—ah—Bethune, that you had some idea about
preferring to do this little matter yourself. As I said to Bethune: ’I
am willing to undertake it for her; but in this, she must be free—quite
free.’” He paused upon the generous concession. Her lips moved.

“What did you say?” he asked.

She had but repeated, in the former mechanical manner: “Quite free.”
Now, however, she altered her phrase. Through all the clamour of the
inner storm there had pierced the consciousness of his irritable
self-esteem on the verge of offence.

“Thank you,” said she.

“I am particularly anxious,” resumed Sir Arthur, squaring his fine
shoulders and inflating his deep chest, “that there should be no hitch
in this affair. It would ill become me, as I said to Bethune, me of all
men, to place any difficulty in the way of a memorial to poor English.
I am sure you understand me in this, my love!”

He bent his handsome grey head and kissed her hand with a conscious
old-world grace. The sentiment he was delicately endeavouring to convey
was truly a little difficult to put into definite language; and Sir
Arthur had too much tact to attempt it. It might be transcribed thus:
“If that excellent young man, your first husband, had not so obligingly
left the world, I should not be standing in this present satisfactory
position with regard to yourself.” And if he were grateful to Captain
English, how much more so ought she—Lady Gerardine—to be on the same
account? He was a little shocked that she should not have shown more
alacrity to do justice to the worthy fellow’s memory.

“Well, my dear,” said Sir Arthur, jocosely, after a pause, “I must not
waste much more time in this flirtation. I have a busy morning before
me. A very busy morning.” He drew a long breath, to end up with a
satisfied sigh. “And, by the way, my new secretary has come. A capable
fellow he seems! Quite extraordinarily well educated. Speaks English
perfectly. Caste business will be a bit of a nuisance, of course. Will
have to feed apart, and all that nonsense. Strange creatures, are not
they? But he’s worth it. Well, we shall see you at tiffin.”

The observation was an order, and Rosamond assented to it as such.
Short of actual illness, when the precautions surrounding her would have
been of the most minute, not to say wearisome nature, the wife of the
Lieutenant-Governor was expected to fulfil the duties of her state of
life to the last detail.

“And it’s quite settled,” added Sir Arthur, lightly, “that you intend to
supply the material Bethune requires yourself.”

She sat up in bed, with a sudden fierce movement. And, catching her head
in her hands, turned a white desperate face upon him.

“Yes, yes,” she cried, “Oh God, yes!”

Sir Arthur was amazed. So much so, indeed, that even as last night,
amazement superseded his very natural vexation.

“Why, Rosamond! Really, my love. I am afraid, my love, that Aspasia is
right, that you are not well. This is the second time in twenty-four
hours that you have answered me in this—in really, what I may call—quite
with temper, in fact. I’m afraid, dear, that you cannot be well. I
shall certainly request Saunders to look in this evening.”

Lady Gerardine fell back upon her pillow, and then, lifting the heavy
mass of her hair, swept it across her face like a sheltering wing, as
if, even in the dim room, she could not endure the gaze of human eyes
upon her. Sir Arthur, for all his science of life, could not but own to
himself that he was nonplussed. He shrugged his shoulders.
Fortunately, sensible men were not expected to understand the whims of
the charming but irresponsible sex. Rosamond was evidently not the
thing, and therefore was to be indulgently excused. In spite of which
philosophic conclusion his attitude towards his secretaries and other
subordinates that morning was marked with unwonted asperity.

“Something’s turned our seraphic old ass a trifle sour,” Mr. George
Murray remarked to his junior, with a grin.

* * * * *

Under the veil of her hair Rosamond would have called, if she could, on
all the shades of the world to come and cover her; would have gladly
sunk under them, away from the light of life and the pain of living,
somewhere where all would be dark and all quiet, where she might be
forgotten—and allowed to forget.

“Jani,” said her mistress, “bring me Captain English’s box!”

The ayah stared as if she could not have heard aright. There followed a
strange oppressive silence, in which the lapping of the waters in the
inner marble spaces seemed to take whispering voices of amazement. Then
Lady Gerardine, standing straight and impassive by her dressing-table,
her head just turned aside from the reflection of her own beauty,
repeated her order in the same hard, uninflected tone.

“Captain English’s box; bring it to me.”

Jani looked sharply up at the speaker’s face and clapped her hands
together with the wail of the children of her race when sudden trouble
comes upon them.

“Ai, ai!”

“Go,” said Lady Gerardine.

Grudgingly Jani turned to obey. She went, muttering to herself, groping
in her soul for the reason of this strange and most unexpected order—an
order so out of keeping with the whole tenor of her mistress’s life,
that it rang in her ears like a menace of calamity.

* * * * *

It was a small thing enough, a common battered tin box, to rank with
such importance. But it held tragedy: more than tragedy, a woman’s
murdered youth. Well did Jani remember the day it had come back to the
little home, up in the hills—all that was left to them of their handsome
young lord. They could not carry Rosamond back her dead; what soldier’s
widow can hope for that last tragic comfort? But the few tangible traces
he had left behind him; these were hers by right, and to her they were
brought, with scarcely less reverence than if they had been his honoured
remains—the journal he had kept for her during yonder endless months of
siege; the letters he had written her, never to post; his notes; sundry
trifling belongings, marked with that poignant personal touch which
seems to inflict the hardest pain of all.

One can kneel in uplifted resignation beside the awful grandeur of the
soul-abandoned clay. But the old pipe, burned down on one side, the
worn glove … over these trivial relics the heart breaks. Rosamond
English, in her nausea of misery, her rebellion against the unaccepted
unrealisable sorrow, could not look at them, could not touch the poor
memorials. She thrust them back into the battered box away from her
sight, and with them all the garnered treasures of her brief girlhood
and of her briefer wifehood: the simple keepsake, the dried
flowers—sprig from her wedding bouquet, bridal wreath—the letters to the
betrothed, the first letters to the wife. Things of no worth, yet full
of hideous potentialities of grief: symbols of what had been, what might
have been. “Away, away with them!” cried her sick heart, “out of my
sight for ever!”

And now she was to break open the coffin to look upon the horror of the
murdered thing that was her youth; she who had nailed it down so fast,
buried it so deep!

Jani laid the box at her mistress’s feet and loosened the cords slowly
and with protest.

“Go, leave me now,” said Rosamond, “and let no one disturb me. Leave
me!” she ordered sharply, as once more the ayah hesitated. And Jani
slunk away, dragging noiseless feet, her dim mind filled with
inarticulate foreboding.

Rosamond drew a long breath as the hangings fell. Surely, surely, if
there be anything to which one has a right, in this grinding world, it
is to be alone with one’s dead!

* * * * *

She took the key from where she had herself placed it ready to her hand
on the table: a black rusty thing amid all the jewels and costly
trinkets which it was Sir Arthur Gerardine’s pleasure to provide for the
adornment of the most beautiful of all his attributes—his wife. She
knelt down and inserted it in the lock; and then she paused, passing her
hand across her damp forehead.

Inexorable fate! She for years had walked in the company of some
creature of horror, the face of which had been mercifully veiled; she
had carried a mortal anguish cunningly lulled to sleep. Now her hand
must lift the veil…. Now no opiate would further serve her: she must
face the pain.

For a moment yet she hesitated: the last recoil of the flesh. Then the
courage which despair or resignation lends—that rise of the spirit to
meet the inevitable which seldom fails even the lowest human being at
the end—brought back strength sufficient. She turned the key, drew out
the rusty hasp, and opened the casket of her dead past.

* * * * *

The breath that rushed at her from the gaping box seized her by the
throat. The unfading scent of the faded orange blossom; the very
atmosphere of the lost presence, of the tobacco he had been wont to use,
of the Russian-leather pocket-books she had given him; a faint, faint
whisper of the English lavender her hands had been so careful to set for
him, since he loved it. And, over all, through all, some odour of the
siege: of strife, fever, bloodshed, and death—eastern, indescribable,
terrible! Her soul sickened away.

No, the past was not dead! It had but lain in wait for her all these
years. It had but gathered force to spring upon her in the fated hour.
None can escape destiny. Here was the cup she had refused to drain;
here were the tears of which she had cheated her heart; here, even, was
the intensity of her lost youth, that she might mourn the husband of her
girlhood as it had been written she must mourn.

She rose to her feet. A cry rang in her ears like the cry of an animal
hurt; and she never knew that it had come from her own lips. Through
gathering mists she saw Jani reappear and run towards her; and,
summoning all her failing energies in one supreme effort, she called out
in distinct tones:

“Close the box and let no one touch it.”

Then she fell like a mown lily, straight and long, beside it.