Chapter XI

An Unwelcome Responsibility

“We shall have to do something for her, Sophia,” said the wife of the General.

“I suppose so,” sighed the wife of the Commissioner. “The question is, what? She’ll have to live somewhere, of course, but really, Lavinia, I’ve no room I can spare at present.”

“Nor I,” said Mrs. General Brampton sharply. “I’m much worse off than you in that respect. As you know, we’ve only taken our house for the season while the Exhibition’s on, and it’s hardly large enough for our wants as it is. When our term is over, we’re going to Harrogate. The General intends to take a course of the waters for his gout. To have a child tacked on to us is out of the question. I’m sure the General wouldn’t countenance such a preposterous thing for a moment.”

Mrs. Commissioner Spicer pursed up her lips and gave a little sniff. There was too much of her sister’s husband, the General, in the conversation to please her, but she dared not express her opinion openly. Mrs. Commissioner Spicer was quite aware that her brother-in-law, “the General,” was somebody. People understood perfectly well the rank of a general, but they were not so clear about the rank of a commissioner, and those who knew what a commissioner was in India were very doubtful whether he was anything at all in England. Certainly in India the wife of Commissioner Spicer occupied a lower social position than that of the wife of General Brampton, and the habit of deferring to her sister Lavinia could not be shaken off by Sophia, though they were no longer bound by the fetters of Anglo-Indian etiquette.

The two ladies differed as much in their personal appearance as in their social status. Mrs. General Brampton was a massive person with a pendulous double chin which wagged when she was particularly emphatic. Mrs. Commissioner Spicer, on the other hand, was thin, angular, and faded. Notwithstanding these unprepossessing characteristics and her querulous voice she had a better nature than her sister, who was as selfish as she was pompous. Aunt Sophia lived in Bayswater, a quarter of suburban London much favoured at that time by Anglo-Indians. Aunt Lavinia had called on purpose to assist in Nara’s reception, and she was sitting in state.

“Still, something must be done,” went on Mrs. Spicer, in a tone of resignation. “In half an hour the child will be here, and we can’t turn her out.”

“Of course not. Who is suggesting such a thing? You must find a corner for her somewhere, Sophia, until we can settle upon some plan. The thing has come so suddenly upon me, I’ve had no time to consult the General.”

“She’ll have to be sent to boarding-school, I imagine,” hazarded Mrs. Spicer, with a furtive glance to see how her sister would take this daring proposition.

“That’s an easy way out of the difficulty, but who’s to find the money?” retorted Mrs. Brampton. “Poor Jack left nothing behind him but his debts. He was always extravagant and reckless even at Addiscombe. This marriage of his, sprung as a surprise upon us, is a frightful humiliation.”

“I wonder if Jack really married the girl?” said the Commissioner’s wife after a pause.

“I dare say he did. He was fool enough for anything when a woman was concerned,” retorted the General’s lady sharply. “A marriage with a native adds to the disgrace.”

“It also adds to our responsibility,” sighed Mrs. Spicer.

“That’s the worst of it. No one thinks much of the irregular connections young men form in India, but a marriage is a very different matter. If Jack really went through any kind of ceremony, I doubt if it’s binding. We should be perfectly within our rights, I think, in declining to have anything to do with the girl. I suppose we must give her house-room, but really, that’s all we are bound to do.”

“Captain Horsford speaks very highly of her mother. He says she was a descendant of royalty. Her ancestors were the Kings of Delhi.”

“That may be, Sophia, but if you’ve heard, as I have, the shocking stories of what used to go on in the Palace of Delhi you’d say such a descent was no particular honour. What weighs with me is that if we don’t recognise the girl something may be said that may damage us with the Company. Edgar will shortly be leaving Addiscombe and I don’t want anything to mar his prospects. Mrs. Mowatt is certain to write to her son an account of the affair, and we must try to make the best of a bad business.”

Ever since the days of Peter Folliott, who laid the foundation of the fortunes of the Folliott family, the East India Company could always boast of a Folliott high up in office either as a company official or in the army. The Folliott boys were educated to believe fat appointments would drop into their mouths through “influence.” The Folliott girls expected rich husbands by the same means, and as soon as they were old enough were carted off to India to secure matrimonial prizes.

“I quite agree with you on that point. I have Honoria as well to think of, and my own view of this disagreeable matter is that we should keep it as quiet as possible. Nobody need know that Jack married a native woman and had a daughter. If it can be managed I should suggest that the girl be sent to boarding-school and put in the way of earning her own living, and when she’s old enough we can wash our hands of her. I’ve no doubt I can persuade Harry to contribute something yearly towards the expenses.”

Mrs. Brampton frowned, as she always did when any question of parting with money was mentioned. But she quite agreed with her sister’s notion of hushing up the matter.

“It was a very silly thing of Captain Horsford to meddle with the matter. The girl must have relations on her mother’s side. Why couldn’t he have left her in their charge?”

“He said something in his letter about them ill-using her.”

“Silly sentiment, depend upon it. His story is very vague. It’s all because of his promise to look after Jack’s child. According to his own story he lost sight of her for six years and he doesn’t explain how he found her. Who’s to say he hasn’t been imposed upon? The native girls are very much alike. I was always making mistakes when I was in India.”

Mrs. Spicer could only murmur that she was sure that Captain Horsford had satisfied himself on the question of identity before taking the grave step of sending the girl to England. In writing to Mrs. Brampton, Guy Horsford had been very reticent on many important points. For very good reasons he had not said a word about Nara having been a dancing-girl; indeed, he had given Mrs. Mowatt strict instructions not only to be silent on the subject but to warn the girl to keep her past in the dark.

The sound of cab wheels was heard. Aunt Sophia went to the window with a not unnatural curiosity; Aunt Lavinia, who regarded curiosity and every other weakness of human nature as “unladylike,” remained in her easy-chair by the fire, which in the wet and inclement June of 1851 was not unacceptable.

Aunt Sophia’s heart fell when she saw through the murky air the pile of luggage on the top of the cab. Responsibility thrust upon her, whether she would or not, seemed to be written in those trunks of various sizes.

“It’s too bad of Lavinia to put everything on me,” murmured the angular lady. “She has much more money than I have, and as for her house being small, that’s a mere excuse. But Lavinia was always clever in sliding out of anything that was disagreeable.”

The cabman had opened the door, a girl dressed in black sprang out lightly, followed by portly Mrs. Mowatt leaning heavily on the cabman’s arm. Aunt Sophia turned from the window and approached her sister, who was sitting bolt upright with a severe, semi-military carriage of the shoulders.

“Well,” said Mrs. Brampton, “and what’s the child like?”

“Well, she’s much fairer than I expected and taller than most Indian girls of her age. But poor Jack was very tall, you know.”

The servant ushered in Mrs. Mowatt and Nara, whose hand was in that of the kindly lady to whom the girl had become much attached, especially after the death of Azeena, who had been seized with cholera during the voyage. Mrs. Mowatt had written from Southampton to Mrs. Brampton, and as the letter contained all that was necessary to explain her errand she had but to introduce Nara to her aunts and the trust would be at an end.

Mrs. Brampton received her visitors with the cold condescension a general’s wife would naturally bestow upon the relative of a bank official. Her sister was a little more cordial. Mrs. Mowatt’s shrewd eyes read the characters of the two ladies in an instant, and her heart went out in pity to the girl. She felt that a hard time was in store for the lonely child.

Many a time Nara had tried to fancy what her aunts would be like. Mrs. Mowatt was the only English woman she had known intimately and she believed all other English women would be as nice and as kind. But Aunt Lavinia’s double chin and Aunt Sophia’s pale eyes and yellow complexion chilled and repressed her. Her slender fingers instinctively tightened their grasp on Mrs. Mowatt’s hand as Aunt Lavinia surveyed her critically through large, gold-rimmed eye-glasses. Aunt Sophia was the first to speak.

“How do you do, my dear?” was her greeting in rather a high-pitched voice.

“Quite well, thank you​—​aunt.”

Mrs. Mowatt, during the long voyage, had carefully tutored the girl in English generally and especially in the phrases which she thought would be useful. One of these phrases was the reply to Aunt Sophia’s greeting, and Nara pronounced the words very correctly, though the “aunt” came out with an effort, partly because she was nervous and partly because an inclination to burst into tears had unexpectedly seized her. But experience had taught her to restrain her emotions, and neither of her aunts suspected the tumult that set her heart fluttering. The twitching at the corners of her mouth ceased, and with her big eyes fixed on Aunt Lavinia she advanced towards that lady and stood patiently while undergoing the ordeal of a cold kiss.

“I am your Aunt Lavinia,” said the General’s wife condescendingly.

“Yes, aunt.”

“And that’s your Aunt Sophia.”

“Yes, aunt.”

Nara’s tone and manner seemed to indicate that she was neither impressed by nor grateful for the information. Aunt Sophia’s kiss, however, was a little warmer than that of her sister, and perhaps had the girl been alone with the Commissioner’s wife the barriers of restraint might have been broken down. As it was, Aunt Sophia thought she was sullen, Aunt Lavinia that she was obstinate, and maybe sly and treacherous, and the lady decided that her superfluous niece was likely to be an endless source of trouble.

“And haven’t you anything to tell us about your voyage, or​—​about your father?” asked Mrs. Brampton, after an embarrassing silence.

Nara could have given her aunt plenty of information about her voyage, and though she was only five years old when she last saw her father she remembered him perfectly well, and might have described him had not Mrs. Brampton’s patronising manner paralysed her; but she could think of nothing to say. All she could do was to murmur a faint “No.”

“Where’s the locket with the portrait of your father in it?” said the lady sharply and with a view to springing a mine upon the girl.

Nara shrank back, her hands pressed on her throat.

“No, no!” she cried wildly. “I will not give it to you. It is mine. You shall not take it from me.”

Mrs. Brampton frowned. All her suspicions were aroused. She regarded the portrait as crucial evidence of Nara’s identity. Of course Horsford, in his letter, had laid much stress upon its importance.

“I don’t want to take it, but unless you let me see the picture I shall look upon you as an impostor and deal with you accordingly. I suppose your refusal means you haven’t any locket in your possession?”

“Oh, Mrs. Brampton,” broke in Mrs. Mowatt warmly, “you’re unjust. Nara has shown the locket to me.”

“Permit me to deal with my own affairs in my own way, madam,” retorted Mrs. Brampton loftily. “You may have seen the locket, but I presume you have never seen the late Captain Folliott.”

Mrs. Mowatt made no reply but turned to Nara. It was doubtful if the latter understood all that Aunt Lavinia said to her. She was too agitated, too anxious to guard her treasure. Mrs. Mowatt did her best to explain and at last the girl with some difficulty drew the locket from beneath the bosom of her dress. But she would not give it up; she would only allow Mrs. Brampton to look at it while it was lying in her hand.

One glance was enough for Mrs. Brampton. For the first time she showed something like natural emotion. The miniature was the work of a clever French artist who had settled in Calcutta. It had been painted soon after Jack Folliott’s arrival in India. It was life-like, and represented Jack exactly as his sister had last seen him. In rather a shaky voice she called to her sister, who was holding a conference with Davis, the parlour-maid, at the door, and the sisters talked together in whispers, Nara’s eyes fixed on them both. An evident look of relief stole over her face when she was permitted to replace the locket in its hiding-place.

The production of the miniature had done one thing: it had convinced her aunts that she must be permitted to stay.

“You’d better go with Davis,” said Mrs. Spicer. “I dare say you’d like to wash your face and brush your hair. Say good-bye to Mrs. Mowatt, and thank her for all her kindness.”

The girl was glad to get away from the glare of the gold-rimmed glasses, which had gone back to their customary resting-place on the bridge of Mrs. Brampton’s nose, and she turned hastily to Mrs. Mowatt. At first it looked as if the leave-taking between her and the child would be a formal affair. Nara was timidly putting out her hand, when forgetting the presence of her aunts she suddenly resorted to the ways of her race, and dropping upon one knee she lifted the hem of Mrs. Mowatt’s skirt and kissed it. Aunt Lavinia exchanged a horrified glance with Aunt Sophia, of which Mrs. Mowatt was quite oblivious. She only saw the sad, pleading face upturned to hers, and bending down she raised the supple form and kissed her in tender, motherly fashion. The embrace was too much for the child. Her self-control broke down and she burst into a fit of passionate weeping.

“Take Nara with you. I will be your servant ​—​your slave. I love not your England. It is cold and dark​—​and​—​and I do not like these ladies. You said they would be like my dear father. They are not. Let me go back to my own country​—​to my own dress. I want to see Sahib Horsford again. He was kind​—​he​—​he——”

Her words ended in a convulsive sob. Mrs. Mowatt soothed her as best she could and was thankful that they were not sufficiently near Nara’s formidable aunts for the latter to distinguish what the distracted girl was saying. At last Nara’s tempest of grief died away; she relapsed into her patient self-control and Davis, who had been standing at the door all the time, marched her off. Mrs. Mowatt would have taken her departure, but she was not allowed to escape without Aunt Lavinia’s putting her through a species of cross-examination.

Mrs. General Brampton was exceedingly pertinacious on the subject of Nara’s mother. Who was she? What was she? Where was she married to Jack Folliott? How came Captain Horsford to have Nara in his charge? Who had the custody of the girl before Horsford appeared upon the scene?​—​and a dozen other questions equally searching and equally awkward to answer.

Mrs. Mowatt adroitly sheltered herself behind Horsford. She knew nothing of Nara’s relations. She did not even know her story. Captain Horsford had asked her to see the girl to England and deliver her to her aunts, and she had kept her promise. Mrs. Brampton’s ingenuity in the way of pumping was of no avail, and at last the badgered visitor was permitted to go her way.

“What do you think, Sophia?” said the General’s wife, relaxing her military-like attitude when she and her sister were alone.

“What is your opinion, Lavinia?” returned the Commissioner’s wife cautiously.

“Why, that the woman knows more than she chooses to say. She must,” added the lady with conviction. “I feel strongly tempted to write to the Resident at Delhi and ask him to make inquiries.”

“That’s an excellent idea, but it will be more than six months before we can possibly expect an answer, and what’s to do done in the meantime with the girl?”

“She must be sent to boarding-school, unless you can see your way to take charge of her.”

“Indeed, I can’t! There’s so much uncertainty about her origin that I don’t think it’s right for Honoria to associate with the girl until we know more about her than we do at present. She must go to boarding-school and the Commissioner and the General must find the money between them.”

Mrs. Brampton sighed, but she could not see any other way out of the difficulty, and she raised no objection.

“What is your opinion of the girl,” asked Aunt Sophia presently.

“I don’t like her eyes, I mistrust a girl with long, sweeping lashes and pallid complexion. Of course the Indian blood accounts for both in Nara’s case, but that doesn’t alter my opinion. Girls like Nara look sleepy, but don’t be deceived; they’re wide enough awake where men are concerned. However, there it is, we must make the best of things, and we must look out a suitable school for her as soon as possible.”

Mrs. Brampton rose, arranged the enormous brooch on her shawl in front of the mirror, declared that she must go, as she had several calls to make, and took her departure with an air of having settled the unpleasant business to the satisfaction of everybody concerned.

A week went slowly by. Aunt Lavinia busied herself in finding a “suitable” school for Nara, a matter more difficult than it appeared at first sight. Directly it was made known that the girl was an East Indian, and had only recently come to England, the terms were at once raised. Mrs. Spicer could, had she chosen, have sent her to the “select seminary for young ladies” where her own daughter was being educated but for fear of “caste contamination.” Mrs. Brampton at once vetoed such a suggestion.

As for Nara the first week in England was one of purgatory. It was not that any one in the house was unkind to her, but all was so strange, so utterly outside her experience and even her comprehension, and what was worse than all, she knew perfectly well she was not wanted. She understood much more English than she could speak, and words were let fall the meaning of which was quite plain to her though not intended to be so.

A succession of grey, rainy days added to her depression. She missed the Indian sun, the cloudless skies of the East, the glowing colours of the bazaars and streets, the excitement of the dance. Never once did she show her real, warm-hearted, impulsive nature to her aunts. They regarded her as a shy, sullen, disagreeable, discontented girl.

In Aunt Sophia’s house everything was done by clockwork. The breakfast, the luncheon, the dinner might have been arranged on the slot principle, so punctually and mechanically did they make their appearance. It was the same in other ways. Aunt Sophia believed in long, objectless walks, taken as some people take medicine, as a kind of self-imposed duty. They were very dreary to Nara, these walks, especially when Aunt Sophia accompanied her. With Davis they were not so bad. Davis was fond of Kensington Gardens, where there was comparative freedom, and the strolls here were the only breaks in the monotony of the girl’s first experience of life in England.

Meanwhile none of the schools suggested by Aunt Sophia were approved of by Aunt Lavinia. They were to her mind too expensive, and one day she descended upon her sister full of bustling importance. Nara, peeping furtively over the stair-rail of the first landing, saw her sail into the dining-room, her stiff silk dress rustling ominously.

The ladies had a long talk. Aunt Lavinia had found at Brighton just the establishment, the proprietress of which was quite willing to enter into negotiations for the future. The idea was that as soon as Nara was qualified she was to become a sort of pupil-teacher or under-governess, with a view to reduce expenses, and to train her in the path she was to follow.

“That’s an excellent notion,” exclaimed Mrs. Spicer. “The child’s wonderfully sharp​—​almost too sharp. It’s amazing how she’s picked up English. The worst of it is she doesn’t know good from bad, and she’s getting to talk just like Davis, whose ideas of grammar are anything but correct. No doubt what she needs is that her energies should be turned into the right channel.”

“Quite so. We must put that before her in plain language. There ought to be no mistake. We’d better have her down at once, and lose no time in letting her know her position.”

Aunt Sophia agreed, and was very much relieved when her sister undertook to explain everything to Nara. Accordingly the girl was summoned, and after submitting to a peck, in the shape of a kiss, stood to endure the next ordeal, feeling very much like a criminal awaiting the sentence of the judge.

“We want to give you a start in life, Nara,” said Mrs. Brampton, with a crushing use of the big, gold-framed eye-glasses, “and after that you must depend upon yourself. You mustn’t suppose that you can come to me whenever you want money simply because I happen to be your aunt. I have my own responsibilities and my own expenses, which are very heavy, so that I trust you won’t delude yourself with the impression that you can claim anything from me simply because your father was my brother. The first thing you’ll have to do is to imagine that you’re an English girl. You must forget all about India, and you must try to adapt yourself to our ways. Fortunately, your East Indian origin isn’t very prominent in your face, and you might belong to any Southern nationality. I don’t see why you should not pass for a native of the South of France. If you learned the language thoroughly it might help you in after-life. But we’ll talk of that later on. You’re intelligent enough to know what I mean. You may go now and think over what I’ve said.”

The preliminaries settled, Nara’s departure was hastened. She had led so nomadic a life that the spirit of restlessness was in her blood, and anything in the way of a change was welcome. There was nobody in the prim Bayswater house from whom she would part with regret excepting Davis, the parlour-maid. Nara had not the slightest idea that, regarded from Aunt Sophia’s point of view, Davis was vulgar and “common.” She only knew that the servant was honest, good-humoured, and good-natured, and she clung to the Cockney-bred girl as she had clung to Azeena.

In spite of Nara making a friend of Davis the latter knew little more about her than did anybody else. Nara had borne in mind Mrs. Mowatt’s repeated cautions to keep her experience as a dancing-girl to herself, and she only once betrayed what had been her calling. This happened one evening when she was about to go to bed​—​she slept in Davis’s room​—​and a German band was playing some sentimental air of the Fatherland. There may have been in the melody a phrase which suggested recollections of Azeena’s saringhee and the song she used to croon, but whatever it was the impulse to dance was irresistible, and she suddenly glided into the most difficult, the most complicated, and the most fascinating of her dances.

Davis stared spell-bound as the slim, graceful figure circled noiselessly round the room, waving her arms and twisting her lithe body. A delicate rose-tint suffused the olive skin, the lips parted, and in the half-light the effect was ethereal, fairy-like.

“My goodness, Miss Nara,” said the admiring Davis, “wherever did you learn to dance ? If it don’t beat anything I’ve ever seen at a pantermime. Lor, if I could turn about and do steps like that I wouldn’t stand no more of Missus’s everlasting nagging. I’d go on the stage, I would.”

The music stopped and Nara stopped too; the spell was broken. For a few minutes she had in imagination gone back to India. She crept to Davis panting. She was out of practice, and the arduous exercise had tried her severely.

“You mustn’t tell any one,” she whispered imploringly.

“Tell what, Miss?”

“That I danced. The Sahib might hear of it, and he would be angry.”

“Sahib​—​what Sahib?” asked the puzzled Davis.

Nara shook her head and put her forefinger on her lips. Davis understood that she was to keep the matter a secret, but this did not prevent her putting a few questions concerning the Sahib. But nothing was to be extracted from Nara.

Aunt Lavinia completed her work by taking Nara down to Brighton and handing her over to the care of Mrs. Granger, who kept an extremely genteel seminary for young ladies, “the daughters of gentlemen only accepted,” to quote the prospectus. Mrs. Brampton had driven a hard bargain as to the terms on which Nara was to be admitted. But the proprietress was only too glad to have the patronage of a General’s wife, and she agreed to take the girl at reduced fees on the understanding that she was to be made use of in every way possible.

And so for five years it was destined that Nara’s experience of England, of English life and manners, should be confined to the narrow, the artificial world of a boarding-school for young ladies. What a “genteel” boarding-school in the fifties was like perhaps some of the grandmothers of the present generation may remember.