|In the pleasant orchard-closes
“God bless all our gains,” say we;
But “may God bless all our losses,”
Better suits with our degree.
—The Lost Bower.
THIS is the history of a failure; but the woman who failed said that it might be an instructive tale to put into print for the benefit of the younger generation. The younger generation does not want instruction, being perfectly willing to instruct if any one will listen to it. None the less, here begins the story where every right-minded story should begin, that is to say at Simla, where all things begin and many come to an evil end.The mistake was due to a very clever woman making a blunder and not retrieving it. Men are licensed to stumble, but a clever woman’s mistake is outside the regular course of Nature and Providence; since all good people know that a woman is the only infallible thing in this world, except Government Paper of the ’79 issue, bearing interest at four and a half per cent. Yet, we have to remember that six consecutive days of rehearsing the leading part of The Fallen Angel, at the New Gaiety Theatre where the plaster is not yet properly dry, might have brought about an unhingement of spirits which, again, might have led to eccentricities.
Mrs. Hauksbee came to “The Foundry” to tiffin with Mrs. Mallowe, her one bosom friend, for she was in no sense “a woman’s woman.” And it was a woman’s tiffin, the door shut to all the world; and they both talked chiffons, which is French for Mysteries.
‘I’ve enjoyed an interval of sanity,’ Mrs. Hauksbee announced, after tiffin was over and the two were comfortably settled in the little writing-room that opened out of Mrs. Mallowe’s bedroom.
‘My dear girl, what has he done?’ said Mrs. Mallowe, sweetly. It is noticeable that ladies of a certain age call each other “dear girl,” just as commissioners of twenty-eight years’ standing address their equals in the Civil List as “my boy.”
‘There’s no he in the case. Who am I that an imaginary man should be always credited to me? Am I an Apache?’
‘No, dear, but somebody’s scalp is generally drying at your wigwam-door. Soaking, rather.’
This was an allusion to the Hawley Boy, who was in the habit of riding all across Simla in the Rains, to call on Mrs. Hauksbee. That lady laughed.
‘For my sins, the Aide at Tyrconnel last night told me off to The Mussuck. Hsh! Don’t laugh. One of my most devoted admirers. When the duff came—some one really ought to teach them to make pudding at Tyrconnel—The Mussuck was at liberty to attend to me.’
‘Sweet soul! I know his appetite,’ said Mrs. Mallowe. ‘Did he, oh, did he, begin his wooing?’
‘By a special mercy of Providence, no. He explained his importance as a Pillar of the Empire. I didn’t laugh.’
‘Lucy, I don’t believe you.’
‘Ask Captain Sangar; he was on the other side. Well, as I was saying, The Mussuck dilated.’
‘I think I can see him doing it,’ said Mrs. Mallowe, pensively, scratching her fox-terrier’s ears.
‘I was properly impressed. Most properly. I yawned openly. “Strict supervision, and play them off one against the other,” said The Mussuck, shoveling down his ice by tureenfuls, I assure you. “That, Mrs. Hauksbee, is the secret of our Government.”’
Mrs. Mallowe laughed long and merrily. ‘And what did you say?’
‘Did you ever know me at loss for an answer yet? I said: “So I have observed in my dealings with you.” The Mussuck swelled with pride. He is coming to call on me tomorrow. The Hawley Boy is coming too.’
‘“Strict supervision and play them off one against the other.” That, Mrs. Hauksbee, is the secret of our Government.’ And I dare say if we could get to The Mussuck’s heart, we should find that he considers himself a man of the world.’
‘As he is of the other two things. I like The Mussuck, and I won’t have you call him names. He amuses me.’
‘He has reformed you, too, by what appears. Explain the interval of sanity, and hit Tim on the nose with the paper-cutter, please. That dog is too fond of sugar. Do you take milk in yours?’
‘No, thanks. Folly, I’m wearied of this life. It’s hollow.’
‘Turn religious, then. I always said that Rome would be your fate.’
‘Only exchanging half a dozen attachés in red for one and in black, and if I fasted, the wrinkles would come, and never, never go. Has it ever struck you, dear, that I’m getting old?’
‘Thanks for your courtesy. I’ll return it. Ye-es we are both not exactly—how shall I put it?’
‘What we have been. “I feel it in my bones,” as Mrs. Crossley says. Polly, I’ve wasted my life.’
‘Never mind how. I feel it. I want to be a Power before I die.’
‘Be a Power then. You’ve wits enough for anything—and beauty?’
Mrs. Hauksbee pointed a teaspoon straight at her hostess. ‘Polly, if you heap compliments on me like this, I shall cease to believe that you’re a woman. Tell me how I am to be a Power.’
‘Inform The Mussuck that he is the most fascinating and slimmest man in Asia, and he’ll tell you anything and everything you please.’
‘Bother The Mussuck! I mean an intellectual Power—not a gas-power. Polly, I’m going to start a salon.’
Mrs. Mallowe turned lazily on the sofa and rested her head on her hand. ‘Hear the words of the Preacher, the son of Baruch,’ she said.
‘Will you talk sensibly?’
‘I will, dear, for I see that you are going to make a mistake.’
‘I never made a mistake in my life at least, never one that I couldn’t explain away afterward.’
‘Going to make a mistake,’ went on Mrs. Mallowe, composedly. ‘It is impossible to start a salon in Simla. A bar would be much more to the point.’
‘Perhaps, but why? It seems so easy’
‘Just what makes it so difficult. How many clever women are there in Simla?’
‘Myself and yourself,’ said Mrs. Hauksbee, without a moment’s hesitation.
‘Modest woman! Mrs. Feardon would thank you for that. And how many clever men?’
‘Oh—er—hundreds,’ said Mrs. Hauksbee, vaguely.
‘What a fatal blunder! Not one. They are all bespoke of the Government. Take my husband, for instance. Jack was a clever man, though I say so who shouldn’t. Government has eaten him up. All his ideas and powers of conversation—he really used to be a good talker, even to his wife, in the old days—are taken from him by this -this kitchen-sink of a Government. That’s the case with every man up here who is at work. I don’t suppose a Russian convict under the knout is able to amuse the rest of his gang; and all our men-folk here are gilded convicts.’
‘But there are scores—’
‘I know what you’re going to say. Scores of idle men up on leave. I admit it, but they are all of two objectionable sets, The Civilian who’d be delightful if he had the military man’s knowledge of the world and style, and the military man who’d be adorable if he had the Civilian’s culture.’
‘I know what you’re going to say. Scores of idle men up on leave. I admit it, but they are all of two objectionable sets. The Civilian who’d be delightful if he had the military man’s knowledge of the world and style, and the military man who’d be adorable if he had the Civilian’s culture.’
‘Detestable word! Have Civilians culchaw? I never studied the breed deeply.’
‘Don’t make fun of Jack’s Service. Yes. They’re like the teapoys in the Lakka Bazar good material but not polished. They can’t help themselves, poor dears. A Civilian only begins to be tolerable after he has knocked about the world for fifteen years.’
‘And a military man?’
‘When he has had the same amount of service. The young of both species are horrible. You would have scores of them in your salon.’
‘I would not!’ said Mrs. Hauksbee fiercely. ‘I would tell the bearer to darwaza band them. I’d put their own colonels and commissioners at the door to turn them away. I’d give them to the Topsham Girl to play with.’
‘The Topsham Girl would be grateful for the gift. But to go back to the salon. Allowing that you had gathered all your men and women together, what would you do with them? Make them talk? They would all with one accord begin to flirt. Your salon would become a glorified Peliti’s—a “Scandal Point” by lamplight.’
‘There’s a certain amount of wisdom in that view.’
‘There’s all the wisdom in the world in it. Surely, twelve Simla seasons ought to have taught you that you can’t focus anything in India; and a salon, to be any good at all, must be permanent. In two seasons your roomful would be scattered all over Asia. We are only little bits of dirt on the hillsides—here one day and blown down the khud the next. We have lost the art of talking—at least our men have. We have no cohesion——’
‘George Eliot in the flesh,’ interpolated Mrs. Hauksbee wickedly.
‘And collectively, my dear scoffer, we, men and women alike, have no influence. Come into the verandah and look at the Mall!’
The two looked down on the now rapidly filling road, for all Simla was abroad to steal a stroll between a shower and a fog.
‘How do you propose to fix that river? Look! There’s The Mussuck—head of goodness knows what. He is a power in the land, though he does eat like a costermonger. There’s Colonel Blone, and General Grucher, and Sir Dugald Delane, and Sir Henry Haughton, and Mr. Jellalatty. All Heads of Departments, and all powerful.’
‘And all my fervent admirers,’ said Mrs. Hauksbee piously. ‘Sir Henry Haughton raves about me. But go on.’
‘One by one, these men are worth something. Collectively, they’re just a mob of Anglo-Indians. Who cares for what Anglo-Indians say? Your salon won’t weld the Departments together and make you mistress of India, dear. And these creatures won’t talk administrative “shop” in a crowd—at your salon—because they are so afraid of the men in the lower ranks overhearing it. They have forgotten what of Literature and Art they ever knew, and the women——’
‘Can’t talk about anything except the last Gymkhana, or the sins of their last nurse. I was calling on Mrs. Derwills this morning.’
‘You admit that? They can talk to the subalterns though, and the subalterns can talk to them. Your salon would suit their views admirably, if you respected the religious prejudices of the country and provided plenty of kala juggahs.’
‘Plenty of kala juggahs. Oh my poor little idea! Kala juggahs in a salon! But who made you so awfully clever?’
‘Perhaps I’ve tried myself; or perhaps I know a woman who has. I have preached and expounded the whole matter and the conclusion thereof——’
“You needn’t go on. “Is Vanity.” Polly, I thank you. These vermin’—Mrs. Hauksbee waved her hand from the verandah to two men in the crowd below who had raised their hats to her—‘these vermin shall not rejoice in a new Scandal Point or an extra Peliti’s. I will abandon the notion of a salon. It did seem so tempting, though. But what shall I do? I must do something.’
‘Why? Are not Abana and Pharpar——’
‘Jack has made you nearly as bad as himself! I want to, of course. I’m tired of everything and everybody, from a moonlight picnic at Seepee to the blandishments of The Mussuck.’
‘Yes—that comes, too, sooner or later. Have you nerve enough to make your bow yet?’
Mrs. Hauksbee’s mouth shut grimly. Then she laughed. ‘I think I see myself doing it. Big pink placards on the Mall: “Mrs. Hauksbee! Positively her last appearance on any stage! This is to give notice!” No more dances; no more rides; no more luncheons; no more theatricals with supper to follow; no more sparring with one’s dearest, dearest friend; no more fencing with an inconvenient man who hasn’t wit enough to clothe what he’s pleased to call his sentiments in passable speech; no more parading of The Mussuck while Mrs. Tarkass calls all round Simla, spreading horrible stories about me! No more of anything that is thoroughly wearying, abominable, and detestable, but, all the same, makes life worth the having. Yes! I see it all! Don’t interrupt, Polly, I’m inspired. A mauve and white striped “cloud” round my excellent shoulders, a seat in the fifth row of the Gaiety, and both horses sold. Delightful vision! A comfortable arm-chair, situated in three different draughts, at every ball-room; and nice, large, sensible shoes for all the couples to stumble over as they go into the verandah! Then at supper. Can’t you imagine the scene? The greedy mob gone away. Reluctant subaltern, pink all over like a newly-powdered baby,—they really ought to tan subalterns before they are exported, Polly,—sent back by the hostess to do his duty. Slouches up to me across the room, tugging at a glove two sizes too large for him,—I hate a man who wears gloves like overcoats—and trying to look as if he’d thought of it from the first. “May I ah-have the pleasure ’f takin’ you ’nt’ supper?” Then I get up with a hungry smile. Just like this.’
‘Lucy, how can you be so absurd?’
‘And sweep out on his arm. So! After supper I shall go away early, you know, because I shall be afraid of catching cold. No one will look for my ’rickshaw. Mine, so please you! I shall stand, always with that mauve and white ‘cloud’ over my head, while the wet soaks into my dear, old, venerable feet, and Tom swears and shouts for the Memsahib’s gharri. Then home to bed at half-past eleven! Truly excellent life—helped out by the visits of the Padri, just fresh from burying somebody down below there.’ She pointed through the pines toward the Cemetery, and continued with vigorous dramatic gesture:—
‘Listen! I see it all down,—down even to the stays! Such stays! Six-eight a pair, Polly, with red flannel—or list,—is it? that they put into the tops of those fearful things. I can draw you a picture of them.’
‘Lucy, for Heaven’s sake, don’t go waving your arms about in that idiotic manner! Recollect every one can see you from the Mall.’
‘Let them see! They’ll think I am rehearsing for The Fallen Angel. Look! There’s The Mussuck. How badly he rides. There!’
She blew a kiss to the venerable Indian administrator with infinite grace.
‘Now,’ she continued, ‘he’ll be chaffed about that at the Club in the delicate manner those brutes of men affect, and the Hawley Boy will tell me all about it softening—the details for fear of shocking me. That boy is too good to live, Polly. I’ve serious thoughts of recommending him to throw up his commission and go into the Church. In his present frame of mind he would obey me. Happy, happy child!’
‘Never again,’ said Mrs. Mallowe, with an affectation of indignation, ‘shall you tiffin here! “Lucindy your behaviour is scand’lus.”’
‘All your fault,’ retorted Mrs. Hauksbee, ‘for suggesting such a thing as my abdication. No! Jamais! nevaire! I will act, dance, ride, frivol, talk scandal, dine out, and appropriate the legitimate captives of any woman I choose, until I d-r-r-rop, or a better woman than I puts me to shame before all Simla,—and it’s dust and ashes in my mouth while I’m doing it!’
She swept into the drawing-room. Mrs. Mallowe followed and put an arm round her waist.
‘I’m not!’ said Mrs. Hauksbee defiantly, rummaging for her handkerchief. ‘I’ve been dining out the last ten nights, and rehearsing in the afternoon. You’d be tired yourself. It’s only because I’m tired.’
Mrs. Mallowe did not offer Mrs. Hauksbee any pity or ask her to lie down, but gave her another cup of tea, and went on with the talk.
‘I’ve been through that too, dear,’ she said.
‘I remember,’ said Mrs. Hauksbee, a gleam of fun on her face. ‘In ’84, wasn’t it? You went out a great deal less next season.’
Mrs. Mallowe smiled in a superior and Sphinx-like fashion.
‘I became an Influence,’ said she.
‘Good gracious, child, you didn’t join the Theosophists and kiss Buddha’s big toe, did you? I tried to get into their set once, but they cast me out for a sceptic without a chance of improving my poor little mind, too.’
‘No, I didn’t Theosophilander. Jack says’
‘Never mind Jack. What a husband says is known before. What did you do?’
‘I made a lasting impression.’
‘So have I for four months. But that didn’t console me in the least. I hated the man. Will you stop smiling in that inscrutable way and tell me what you mean?’
Mrs. Mallowe told.
. . . . .
‘And—you—mean—to—say that it is absolutely Platonic on both sides?’‘Absolutely, or I should never have taken it up.’
‘And his last promotion was due to you?’
Mrs. Mallowe nodded.
“And you warned him against the Topsham Girl?’
‘And told him of Sir Dugald Delane’s private memo about him?’
A third nod.
‘What a question to ask a woman! Because it amused me at first. I am proud of my property now. If I live, he shall continue to be successful. Yes, I will put him upon the straight road to Knighthood, and everything else that a man values. The rest depends upon himself.’
‘Polly, you are a most extraordinary woman.’
‘Not in the least. I’m concentrated, that’s all. You diffuse yourself, dear; and though all Simla knows your skill in managing a team——’
‘Can’t you choose a prettier word?’
‘Team, of half-a-dozen, from The Mussuck to the Hawley Boy, you gain nothing by it. Not even amusement.’
‘Try my recipe. Take a man, not a boy, mind, but an almost mature, unattached man, and be his guide, philosopher, and friend. You’ll find it the most interesting occupation that you ever embarked on. It can be done—you needn’t look like that—because I’ve done it.’
‘There’s an element of risk about it that makes the notion attractive. I’ll get such a man and say to him, ‘Now, understand that there must be no flirtation. Do exactly what I tell you, profit by my instruction and counsels, and all will yet be well.’ Is that the idea?’
‘More or less,’ said Mrs. Mallowe, with an unfathomable smile. ‘But be sure he understands.’
What a lot of raw dust!
My dollie’s had an accident
And out came all the sawdust!
So Mrs. Hauksbee, in ‘The Foundry’ which overlooks Simla Mall, sat at the feet of Mrs. Mallowe and gathered wisdom. The end of the Conference was the Great Idea upon which Mrs. Hauksbee so plumed herself.
‘I warn you,’ said Mrs. Mallowe, beginning to repent of her suggestion, ‘that the matter is not half so easy as it looks. Any woman—even the Topsham Girl—can catch a man, but very, very few know how to manage him when caught.’
‘My child,’ was the answer, ‘I’ve been a female St. Simon Stylites looking down upon men for these these years past. Ask The Mussuck whether I can manage them.’
Mrs. Hauksbee departed humming, ‘I’ll go to him and say to him in manner most ironical.’ Mrs. Mallowe laughed to herself. Then she grew suddenly sober. ‘I wonder whether I’ve done well in advising that amusement? Lucy’s a clever woman, but a thought too careless.’
A week later the two met at a Monday Pop. ‘Well?’ said Mrs. Mallowe.
‘I’ve caught him!’ said Mrs. Hauksbee: her eyes were dancing with merriment.
‘Who is it, mad woman? I’m sorry I ever spoke to you about it.’
‘Look between the pillars. In the third row; fourth from the end. You can see his face now. Look!’
‘Otis Yeere! Of all the improbable and impossible people! I don’t believe you.’
‘Hsh! Wait till Mrs. Tarkass begins murdering Milton Wellings; and I’ll tell you all about it. S-s-ss! That woman’s voice always reminds me of an Underground train coming into Earl’s Court with the brakes on. Now listen. It is really Otis Yeere.’
‘So I see, but does it follow that he is your property!’
‘He is! By right of trove. I found him, lonely and unbefriended, the very next night after our talk, at the Dugald Delanes’ burra-khana. I liked his eyes, and I talked to him. Next day he called. Next day we went for a ride together, and to-day he’s tied to my ’richshaw-wheels hand and foot. You’ll see when the concert’s over. He doesn’t know I’m here yet.’
‘Thank goodness you haven’t chosen a boy. What are you going to do with him, assuming that you’ve got him?’
‘Assuming, indeed! Does a woman—do I—ever make a mistake in that sort of thing? First,’—Mrs. Hauksbee ticked off the items ostentatiously on her little gloved fingers,—‘First, my dear, I shall dress him properly. At present his raiment is a disgrace, and he wears a dress-shirt like a crumpled sheet of the Pioneer. Secondly, after I have made him presentable, I shall form his manners—his morals are above reproach.’
‘You seem to have discovered a great deal about him considering the shortness of your acquaintance.’
‘Surely you ought to know that the first proof a man gives of his interest in a woman is by talking to her about his own sweet self. If the woman listens without yawning, he begins to like her. If she flatters the animal’s vanity, he ends by adoring her.’
‘In some cases.’
‘Never mind the exceptions. I know which one you are thinking of. Thirdly, and lastly, after he is polished and made pretty, I shall, as you said, be his guide, philosopher, and friend, and he shall become a success—as great a success as your friend. I always wondered how that man got on. Did The Mussuck come to you with the Civil List and, dropping on one knee—no, two knees, à la Gibbon—hand it to you and say, “Adorable angel, choose your friend’s appointment”?’
‘Lucy, your long experiences of the Military Department have demoralised you. One doesn’t do that sort of thing on the Civil Side.’
‘No disrespect meant to Jack’s Service, my dear. I only asked for information. Give me three months, and see what changes I shall work in my prey.’
‘Go your own way since you must. But I’m sorry that I was weak enough to suggest the amusement.’
‘“I am all discretion, and may be trusted to an in-fin-ite extent,’” quoted Mrs. Hauksbee from The Fallen Angel; and the conversation ceased with Mrs. Tarkass’s last, long-drawn war-whoop.
Her bitterest enemies—and she had many—could hardly accuse Mrs. Hauksbee of wasting her time. Otis Yeere was one of those wandering ‘dumb’ characters, foredoomed through life to be nobody’s property. Ten years in Her Majesty’s Bengal Civil Service, spent, for the most part, in undesirable Districts, had given him little to be proud of, and nothing to bring confidence. Old enough to have lost the first fine careless rapture that showers on the immature ’Stunt imaginary Commissionerships and Stars, and sends him into the collar with coltish earnestness and abandon; too young to be yet able to look back upon the progress he had made, and thank Providence that under the conditions of the day he had come even so far, he stood upon the dead-centre of his career. And when a man stands still he feels the slightest impulse from without. Fortune had ruled that Otis Yeere should be, for the first part of his service, one of the rank and file who are ground up in the wheels of the Administration; losing heart and soul, and mind and strength, in the process. Until steam replaces manual power in the working of the Empire, there must always be this percentage—must always be the men who are used up, expended, in the mere mechanical routine. For these promotion is far off and the mill-grind of every day very instant. The Secretariats know them only by name; they are not the picked men of the Districts with Divisions and Collectorates awaiting them. They are simply the rank and file—the food for fever—sharing with the ryot and the plough-bullock the honour of being the plinth on which the State rests. The older ones have lost their aspirations; the younger are putting theirs aside with a sigh. Both learn to endure patiently until the end of the day. Twelve years in the rank and file, men say, will sap the hearts of the bravest and dull the wits of the most keen.
Out of this life Otis Yeere had fled for a few months; drifting, in the hope of a little masculine society, into Simla. When his leave was over he would return to his swampy, sour-green, under-manned Bengal district; to the native Assistant, the native Doctor, the native Magistrate, the steaming, sweltering Station, the ill-kempt City, and the undisguised insolence of the Municipality that babbled away the lives of men. Life was cheap, however. The soil spawned humanity, as it bred frogs in the Rains, and the gap of the sickness of one season was filled to overflowing by the fecundity of the next. Otis was unfeignedly thankful to lay down his work for a little while and escape from the seething, whining, weakly hive, impotent to help itself, but strong in its power to cripple, thwart, and annoy the sunken-eyed man who, by official irony, was said to be ‘in charge’ of it.
. . . . .
‘I knew there were women-dowdies in Bengal. They come up here sometimes. But I didn’t know that there were men-dowds, too.’Then, for the first time, it occurred to Otis Yeere that his clothes wore rather the mark of the ages. It will be seen that his friendship with Mrs. Hauksbee had made great strides.
As that lady truthfully says, a man is never so happy as when he is talking about himself. From Otis Yeere’s lips Mrs. Hauksbee, before long, learned everything that she wished to know about the subject of her experiment: learned what manner of life he had led in what she vaguely called ‘those awful cholera districts’; learned, too, but this knowledge came later, what manner of life he had purposed to lead and what dreams he had dreamed in the year of grace ’77, before the reality had knocked the heart out of him. Very pleasant are the shady bridle-paths round Prospect Hill for the telling of such confidences.
‘Not yet,’ said Mrs. Hauksbee to Mrs. Maliowe. ‘Not yet. I must wait until the man is properly dressed, at least. Great heavens, is it possible that he doesn’t know what an honour it is to be taken up by Me!’
Mrs. Hauksbee did not reckon false modesty as one of her failings.
‘Always with Mrs. Hauksbee!’ murmured Mrs. Mallowe, with her sweetest smile, to Otis. “Oh you men, you men! Here are our Punjabis growling because you’ve monopolised the nicest woman in Simla. They’ll tear you to pieces on the Mall, some day, Mr. Yeere.”
Mrs. Mallowe rattled downhill, having satisfied herself, by a glance through the fringe of her sunshade, of the effect of her words.
The shot went home. Of a surety Otis Yeere was somebody in this bewildering whirl of Simla—had monopolised the nicest woman in it, and the Punjabis were growling. The notion justified a mild glow of vanity. He had never looked upon his acquaintance with Mrs. Hauksbee as a matter for general interest.
The knowledge of envy was a pleasant feeling to the man of no account. It was intensified later in the day when a luncher at the Club said spitefully, ‘Well, for a debilitated Ditcher, Yeere, you are going it. Hasn’t any kind friend told you that she’s the most dangerous woman in Simla?’
Yeere chuckled and passed out. When, oh, when would his new clothes be ready? He descended into the Mall to inquire; and Mrs. Hauksbee, coming over the Church Ridge in her ’rickshaw, looked down upon him approvingly. ‘He’s learning to carry himself as if he were a man, instead of a piece of furniture, and,’—she screwed up her eyes to see the better through the sunlight ‘he is a man when he holds himself like that. O blessed Conceit, what should we be without you?’
With the new clothes came a new stock of self-confidence. Otis Yeere discovered that he could enter a room without breaking into a gentle perspiration—could cross one, even to talk to Mrs. Hauksbee, as though rooms were meant to be crossed. He was for the first time in nine years proud of himself, and contented with his life, satisfied with his new clothes, and rejoicing in the friendship of Mrs. Hauksbee.
‘Conceit is what the poor fellow wants,’ she said in confidence to Mrs. Mallowe. ‘I believe they must use Civilians to plough the fields with in Lower Bengal. You see I have to begin from the very beginning—haven’t I? But you’ll admit, won’t you, dear, that he is immensely improved since I took him in hand. Only give me a little more time and he won’t know himself.’
Indeed, Yeere was rapidly beginning to forget what he had been. One of his own rank and file put the matter brutally when he asked Yeere, in reference to nothing, ‘And who has been making you a Member of Council, lately? You carry the side of half-a-dozen of ’em.’
‘I—I’m awf’ly sorry. I didn’t mean it, you know,’ said Yeere apologetically.
‘There’ll be no holding you,’ continued the old stager grimly. ‘Climb down, Otis climb down, and get all that beastly affectation knocked out of you with fever! Three thousand a month wouldn’t support it.’
Yeere repeated the incident to Mrs. Hauksbee. He had come to look upon her as his Mother Confessor.
‘And you apologised!’ she said. ‘Oh, shame! I hate a man who apologises. Never apologise for what your friend called “side.” Never! It’s a man’s business to be insolent and overbearing until he meets with a stronger. Now, you bad boy, listen to me.’
Simply and straightforwardly, as the ’rickshaw loitered round Jakko, Mrs. Hauksbee preached to Otis Yeere the Great Gospel of Conceit, illustrating it with living pictures encountered during their Sunday afternoon stroll.
‘Good gracious!’—she ended with the personal argument,—‘you’ll apologise next for being my attaché!’
‘Never!’ said Otis Yeere. ‘That’s another thing altogether. I shall always be——’
‘What’s coming?’ thought Mrs. Hauksbee.
‘Proud of that,’ said Otis.
‘Safe for the present,’ she said to herself.
‘But I’m afraid I have grown conceited. Like Jeshurun, you know. When he waxed fat, then he kicked. It’s the having no worry on one’s mind and the Hill air, I suppose.’
‘Hill air, indeed!’ said Mrs. Hauksbee to herself. ‘He’d have been hiding in the Club till the last day of his leave, if I hadn’t discovered him.’ And aloud——
“Why shouldn’t you be? You have every right to.’
‘Oh, hundreds of things. I’m not going to waste this lovely afternoon by explaining; but I know you have. What was that heap of manuscript you showed me about the grammar of the aboriginal—what’s their names?’
‘Gullals. A piece of nonsense. I’ve far too much work to do to bother over Gullals now. You should see my District. Come down with your husband some day and I’ll show you round. Such a lovely place in the Rains! A sheet of water with the railway-embankment and the snakes sticking out, and, in the summer, green flies and green squash. The people would die of fear if you shook a dogwhip at ’em. But they know you’re forbidden to do that, so they conspire to make your life a burden to you. My District’s worked by some man at Darjiling, on the strength of a native pleader’s false reports. Oh, it’s a heavenly place!’ Otis Yeere laughed bitterly.
‘There’s not the least necessity that you should stay in it. Why do you?’
‘Because I must. How’m I to get out of it?’
‘How! In a hundred and fifty ways. If there weren’t so many people on the road I’d like to box your ears. Ask, my dear boy, ask! Look! There is young Hexarly with six years’ service and half your talents. He asked for what he wanted, and he got it. See, down by the Convent! There’s McArthurson, who has come to his present position by asking—sheer, downright asking—after he had pushed himself out of the rank and file. One man is as good as another in your service—believe me. I’ve seen Simla for more seasons than I care to think about. Do you suppose men are chosen for appointments because of their special fitness beforehand? You have all passed a high test—what do you call it?—in the beginning, and, except for the few who have gone altogether to the bad, you can all work hard. Asking does the rest. Call it cheek, call it insolence, call it anything you like, but ask! Men argue—yes, I know what men say—that a man, by the mere audacity of his request, must have some good in him. A weak man doesn’t say: “Give me this and that.” He whines: “Why haven’t I been given this and that?” If you were in the Army, I should say learn to spin plates or play a tambourine with your toes. As it is—ask! You belong to a Service that ought to be able to command the Channel Fleet, or set a leg at twenty minutes’ notice, and yet you hesitate over asking to escape from a squashy green district where you admit you are not master. Drop the Bengal Government altogether. Even Darjiling is a little out-of-the-way hole. I was there once, and the rents were extortionate. Assert yourself. Get the Government of India to take you over. Try to get on the Frontier, where every man has a grand chance if he can trust himself. Go somewhere! Do something! You have twice the wits and three times the presence of the men up here, and, and’—Mrs. Hauksbee paused for breath; then continued—‘and in any way you look at it, you ought to. You who could go so far!’
‘I don’t know,’ said Yeere, rather taken aback by the unexpected eloquence. ‘I haven’t such a good opinion of myself.’
It was not strictly Platonic, but it was Policy. Mrs. Hauksbee laid her hand lightly upon the ungloved paw that rested on the turned-back ’rickshaw hood, and, looking the man full in the face, said tenderly, almost too tenderly, ‘I believe in you if you mistrust yourself. Is that enough, my friend?’
‘It is enough,’ answered Otis very solemnly.
He was silent for a long time, redreaming the dreams that he had dreamed eight years ago, but through them all ran, as sheet-lightning through golden cloud, the light of Mrs. Hauksbee’s violet eyes.
Curious and impenetrable are the mazes of Simla life—the only existence in this desolate land worth the living. Gradually it went abroad among men and women, in the pauses between dance, play, and Gymkhana, that Otis Yeere, the man with the newly-lit light of self-confidence in his eyes, had ‘done something decent’ in the wilds whence he came. He had brought an erring Municipality to reason, appropriated the funds on his own responsibility, and saved the lives of hundreds. He knew more about the Gullals than any living man. Had a vast knowledge of the aboriginal tribes; was, in spite of his juniority, the greatest authority on the aboriginal Gullals. No one quite knew who or what the Gullals were till The Mussuck, who had been calling on Mrs. Hauksbee, and prided himself upon picking people’s brains, explained they were a tribe of ferocious hillmen, somewhere near Sikkim, whose friendship even the Great Indian Empire would find it worth her while to secure. Now we know that Otis Yeere had showed Mrs. Hauksbee his MS. notes of six years’ standing on these same Gullals. He had told her, too, how, sick and shaken with the fever their negligence had bred, crippled by the loss of his pet clerk, and savagely angry at the desolation in his charge, he had once damned the collective eyes of his “intelligent local board” for a set of haramzadas. Which act of “brutal and tyrannous oppression” won him a Reprimand Royal from the Bengal Government; but in the anecdote as amended for Northern consumption we find no record of this. Hence we are forced to conclude that Mrs. Hauksbee edited his reminiscences before sowing them in idle ears, ready, as she well knew, to exaggerate good or evil. And Otis Yeere bore himself as befitted the hero of many tales.
‘You can talk to me when you don’t fall into a brown study. Talk now, and talk your brightest and best,’ said Mrs. Hauksbee.
Otis needed no spur. Look to a man who has the counsel of a woman of or above the world to back him. So long as he keeps his head, he can meet both sexes on equal ground—an advantage never intended by Providence, who fashioned Man on one day and Woman on another, in sign that neither should know more than a very little of the other’s life. Such a man goes far, or, the counsel being withdrawn, collapses suddenly while his world seeks the reason.
Generalled by Mrs. Hauksbee, who, again, had all Mrs. Mallowe’s wisdom at her disposal, proud of himself and, in the end, believing in himself because he was believed in, Otis Yeere stood ready for any fortune that might befall, certain that it would be good. He would fight for his own hand, and intended that this second struggle should lead to better issue than the first helpless surrender of the bewildered ’Stunt.
What might have happened it is impossible to say. This lamentable thing befell, bred directly by a statement of Mrs. Hauksbee that she would spend the next season in Darjiling.
‘Are you certain of that?’ said Otis Yeere.
‘Quite. We’re writing about a house now.’
Otis Yeere “stopped dead,” as Mrs. Hauksbee put it in discussing the relapse with Mrs. Mallowe.
‘He has behaved,’ she said angrily, ‘just like Captain Kerrington’s pony—only Otis is a donkey—at the last Gymkhana. Planted his forefeet and refused to go on another step. Polly, my man’s going to disappoint me. What shall I do?’
As a rule, Mrs. Mallowe does not approve of staring, but on this occasion she opened her eyes to the utmost. ‘You have managed cleverly so far,’ she said. ‘Speak to him, and ask him what he means.’
‘I will—at to-night’s dance.’
‘No—o, not at a dance,’ said Mrs. Mallowe cautiously. ‘Men are never themselves quite at dances. Better wait till to-morrow morning.’
‘Nonsense. If he’s going to ’vert in this insane way there isn’t a day to lose. Are you going? No? Then sit up for me, there’s a dear. I shan’t stay longer than supper under any circumstances.’
Mrs. Mallowe waited through the evening, looking long and earnestly into the fire, and sometimes smiling to herself.
. . . . .
‘Oh! oh! oh! The man’s an idiot! A raving, positive idiot! I’m sorry I ever saw him!’Mrs. Hauksbee burst into Mrs. Mallowe’s house, at midnight, almost in tears.
‘What in the world has happened?’ said Mrs. Mallowe, but her eyes showed that she had guessed an answer.
‘Happened! Everything has happened! He was there. I went to him and said, “Now, what does this nonsense mean?” Don’t laugh, dear, I can’t bear it. But you know what I mean I said. Then it was a square, and I sat it out with him and wanted an explanation, and he said—Oh! I haven’t patience with such idiots! You know what I said about going to Darjiling next year? It doesn’t matter to me where I go. I’d have changed the Station and lost the rent to have saved this. He said, in so many words, that he wasn’t going to try to work up any more, because—because he would be shifted into a province away from Darjiling, and his own District, where these creatures are, is within a day’s journey——’
‘Ah—hh!’ said Mrs. Mallowe, in a tone of one who has successfully tracked an obscure word through a large dictionary.
‘Did you ever hear of anything so mad—so absurd? And he had the ball at his feet. He had only to kick it! I would have made him anything! Anything in the wide world. He could have gone to the world’s end. I would have helped him. I made him, didn’t I, Polly? Didn’t I create that man? Doesn’t he owe everything to me? And to reward me, just when everything was nicely arranged, by this lunacy that spoilt everything!’
‘Very few men understand your devotion thoroughly.’
‘Oh, Polly, don’t laugh at me! I give men up from this hour. I could have killed him then and there. What right had this man—this Thing I had picked out of his filthy paddy—fields to make love to me?’
‘He did that, did he?’
‘He did. I don’t remember half he said, I was so angry. Oh, but such a funny thing happened! I can’t help laughing at it now, though I felt nearly ready to cry with rage. He raved and I stormed—I’m afraid we must have made an awful noise in our kala juggah. Protect my character, dear, if it’s all over Simla by to-morrow—and then he bobbed forward in the middle of this insanity—I firmly believe the man’s demented—and kissed me.’
‘Morals above reproach,’ purred Mrs. Mallowe.
‘So they were—so they are! It was the most absurd kiss. I don’t believe he’d ever kissed a woman in his life before. I threw my head back, and it was a sort of slidy, pecking dab, just on the end of the chin—here.’ Mrs. Hauksbee tapped her masculine little chin with her fan. ‘Then, of course, I was furiously angry, and told him that he was no gentleman, and I was sorry I’d ever met him, and so on. He was crushed so easily then I couldn’t be very angry. Then I came away straight to you.’
‘Was this before or after supper?’
‘Oh! before—oceans before. Isn’t it perfectly disgusting?’
‘Let me think. I withhold judgment till tomorrow. Morning brings counsel.’
But morning brought only a servant with a dainty bouquet of Annandale roses for Mrs. Hauksbee to wear at the dance at Viceregal Lodge that night.
‘He doesn’t seem to be very penitent,’ said Mrs. Mallowe. ‘What’s the billet-doux in the centre?’
Mrs. Hauksbee opened the neatly-folded note,—another accomplishment that she had taught Otis,—read it, and groaned tragically.
‘Last wreck of a feeble intellect! Poetry! Is it his own, do you think? Oh, that I ever built my hopes on such a maudlin idiot!’
‘No. It’s a quotation from Mrs. Browning, and in view of the facts of the case, as Jack says, uncommonly well chosen. Listen:—
|Sweet, thou hast trod on a heart,
Pass! There’s a world full of men;
And women as fair as thou art
Must do such things now and then.Thou only hast stepped unaware—
Malice not one can impute;
And why should a heart have been there,
In the way of a fair woman’s foot?
‘I didn’t—I didn’t—I didn’t!’ said Mrs. Hauksbee angrily, her eyes filling with tears; ‘there was no malice at all. Oh, it’s too vexatious!’
‘You’ve misunderstood the compliment,’ said Mrs. Mallowe. ‘He clears you completely and—ahem—I should think by this, that he has cleared completely too. My experience of men is that when they begin to quote poetry they are going to flit. Like swans singing before they die, you know.’
‘Polly, you take my sorrows in a most unfeeling way.’
‘Do I? Is it so terrible? If he’s hurt your vanity, I should say that you’ve done a certain amount of damage to his heart.’
‘Oh, you can never tell about a man!’ said Mrs. Hauksbee.