Chapter XII

Nara’s Rebellion

“I really don’t know what’s to be done with you, Nara. It’s terrible, after so much money’s been spent upon your education, to find that you’re incapable of doing anything to earn your own living. In the face of Mrs. Granger’s letter I can’t see I’m called upon to help you any further. Of course I can’t turn you out of doors, but​—​well, I’m in despair. I daren’t ask the General to assist me. He was always strongly opposed to my recognising you as my niece. He says you ought to have been sent back to India.”

Aunt Lavinia, whose ample form time had increased, and whose chin was weightier and more pendulous than ever, sank back in a hard and uninviting armchair, upholstered in red and grey striped satin, highly suggestive of sugar-sticks, and folding her fat hands twisted her diamond rings and stared helplessly first at the French clock under a glass case on the mantelpiece, then at the crystal lustres at each corner, and finally allowed her eyes to rest on two sepulchral vases modelled out of cannel coal, their only claim to distinction being that they were bought at the ’51 Exhibition and considered great curiosities.

Mrs. Brampton had seen very little of Nara during the last five years. The girl spent the summer vacation at the school, as the General and his wife generally went on the Continent​—​to Boulogne preferably on account of its cheapness​—​leaving the servants on board wages, the best rooms denuded of carpets and curtains, the crystal chandeliers and the furniture swathed in brown holland, and every blind save those in the attics drawn down.

Nara was allowed to pass part of the Christmas holidays in Portman Square, but she was always glad to get back to the school, comfortless though it was. The haughty condescension of Mrs. Brampton, the ostracism of the General​—​only by accident did she ever see him, and he invariably ignored her​—​the sense that she was an interloper, wounded her proud spirit beyond measure, but with the patience and resignation which belong to one phase of the Eastern nature she showed no resentment. At her aunt’s solemn parties she was introduced to no one, and she moved about like a ghost. People wondering who she was made guesses at her nationality, and thinking she could speak no English did not attempt to talk to her. Her passiveness, her indifference to naggings and snubs, were put down to sullenness. Mrs. Brampton did not understand her, and never tried to do so. Aunt Sophia was dead, or things might have been different.

The girl was now standing in the centre of the room, waiting for Aunt Lavinia to resume. The lady was in no hurry. She was pondering over the shock she had received that day in the sudden appearance of Nara, who had descended upon her from Brighton without any warning. Nara’s explanation was that she felt she could stay no longer in the school, and so she had left. She thought the simple reason she gave would be quite sufficient, and looked quite astonished when Aunt Lavinia began to scold and upbraid her with such violence that most girls would have burst into tears. But not Nara. She stood mutely until Mrs. Brampton relapsed into a lamentation over the responsibility cast upon her.

Yet Aunt Lavinia ought not to have been surprised. Mrs. Granger had written a week before to ask her to take the girl away, as she did not find her of the least use. The lady’s chief complaint was that in spite of Nara having been at the school five years she could not take even a very juvenile class, and had not the slightest aptitude for teaching. Mrs. Granger also hinted that she was a cause of embarrassment in regard to her attractiveness, so much so that orders had to be issued that she was not to accompany the pupils when they took exercise on account of the way gentlemen looked at her. More than once the young ladies had been followed, and the governesses in consequence had had the greatest possible trouble in maintaining discipline.

“It’s only what I expected,” moaned Mrs. Brampton, when she read about this enormity. “I told poor Sophia I mistrusted the girl’s sleepy eyes.”

The reason of Nara’s sudden rebellion was that she had had a visit from Mrs. Mowatt, and what the old lady said to her had unsettled her mind. Nara regarded Mrs. Mowatt as Horsford’s close friend, and of course she eagerly inquired about him. Horsford had indeed written to Mrs. Mowatt for news of his protégée, and before the lady replied she determined to call at the school. All, however, that Mrs. Mowatt could tell Nara about Horsford was that he was still in India​—​to good Mrs. Mowatt Burma was India​—​and that she was to send him word whether she found Nara well and happy. She added that Horsford mentioned that he contemplated coming to Calcutta, where he would probably remain some time.

This was enough for the imaginative, emotional girl. She pondered over what Mrs. Mowatt had told her. She never slept that night. The one craving of her soul must be satisfied, but how it was to be done​—​how she was to reach the land of her birth, where was the man she hungered for​—​she did not know nor did she trouble. She felt sure she would find a way. The next morning she was missing, and she presented herself to her aunt, indifferent to remonstrances and upbraidings.

“So far as I can see all you can do is to dress hair​—​Mrs. Granger says something about that in her letter​—​also that you’re skilful in embroidering and other fancy-work. These seem really to be the qualifications for a lady’s maid. Is it your intention to seek a post of that kind?” inquired Mrs. Brampton sarcastically, having apparently derived inspiration from the sepulchral vases.

“I don’t know. I’ve not thought about it.”

“Exactly. You haven’t thought. I doubt if you ever do think. Mrs. Granger also adds that she surprised you one night performing an outrageous dance for the edification of the young ladies sleeping in the same room. Do you contemplate going on the stage?”

Nara remembered that night well. It was intensely hot; the windows were made to open only a little way at the top, and no one could sleep. A sudden desire to revive memories of her young days, curiosity to satisfy herself that she had not forgotten her dancing, seized her. While she was circling, waving her arms, gliding and pausing and keeping time to the wild melody she was humming, the girls looking on, their eyes strained with wonder and almost with fear, the door slowly opened, and in marched Mrs. Granger, accompanied by the head governess, horror written in their eyes. For a week the culprit was not permitted to associate with the rest of the girls.

“Well, you don’t give me any answer?” went on Aunt Lavinia acidly. “Is the theatre your aim?”

“No​—​no​—​no. I want nothing except to go back to my own country,” cried Nara, for the first time a little agitated.

“Oh, well, it would be the best thing, no doubt, but——” Mrs. Brampton stopped. There came a tap at the door, and a servant entered, bearing a salver with a card.

Mrs. Ormerod,” said Mrs. Brampton, looking at the card. “Oh, yes, I am at home. I’ll see her here, Parsons. You’d better go, Nara. I’ll talk with you later on.”

Mrs. Ormerod, a little woman, thin and energetic, excessively flounced and bustled and ringleted, was shown in and greeted the General’s wife effusively.

“Dear Mrs. Brampton, how well you’re looking! I’m so glad, because I want you and the General to dine with us to-morrow night. I do hope neither you nor General Brampton is engaged. The notice is shockingly short, but I couldn’t help myself. Mrs. Meldrum’s returning to India this week, and to-morrow’s the only evening she has to spare. I do so want you to meet her. She’s tremendously rich​—​married Andrew Meldrum, who made a big fortune in indigo or cotton or something. They were married before I left Simla. I was at the wedding​—​everything most recherché. She was one of the prettiest girls in Simla, and excepting that her figure’s more set and she’s a little stouter I don’t see much difference. Now you must come. I positively won’t take any refusal.”

“I don’t remember that I’ve any engagement,” rejoined Mrs. Brampton, in her slow, impressive way, when she had a chance to speak. “No, I don’t think I have. Of course I can’t answer for the General.”

“Oh, you must persuade him. I’m sure he’ll put off anything, if it’s not very important, to oblige you. It was so fortunate my meeting with Clare Meldrum. I was in the Row this afternoon and saw a lady in a landau looking very hard at me, and I recognised her at once. She’s in England for a visit, and would have extended her stay, but her husband’s lying ill at Delhi, and she’s anxious to get back to nurse him. I was very glad to hear her say this, because I don’t think the marriage was a particularly happy one. Indeed, there were rumours of a separation. To tell the truth, they weren’t well matched; she must be at least five-and-twenty years younger than her husband.”

“I hope there was no​—​ahem​—​scandal,” said Mrs. Brampton, wrinkling her brows.

“Oh, dear no, not the slightest. I should never think of inviting you to meet her, dear Mrs. Brampton, had there been anything of that kind.”

“I’m very glad. I was constantly hearing of such dreadful things when I was in India. The deception one met with was shocking​—​women passing themselves off as respectable when all the while they were anything but what they ought to be. I had to be most particular, and I’m glad to say I was never deceived.”

This opening was enough for Mrs. Ormerod, who revelled in searching for skeletons in the family cupboard and in rattling their bones. Mrs. Brampton’s horror of meeting with people tainted with scandal did not extend to hearing about them, and she was greatly entertained by Mrs. Ormerod’s vivacious narratives.

Suddenly came a deadly thrust. Mrs. Brampton had always been affable towards Mrs. Ormerod, but in a superior, condescending way befitting the proper attitude of a general’s wife towards the wife of a mere major, notwithstanding that the latter had inherited a small fortune and had sold out of the army in consequence. The conversation, gave the Major’s lady the opportunity of paying off old scores, and she was too sharp and too spiteful to let the chance slip.

“Talking of scandals, what has become of your niece​—​poor Captain Folliott’s daughter? Guy Horsford shipped her to England for you to take care of, didn’t he?”

Mrs. Brampton reddened with anger. How dare a major’s wife talk so coarsely? It was true Nara was her niece. Though the girl’s mother was a native woman the relationship could not be denied. But to speak of her as being “shipped” as though she were a bale of bandanas or a case of curry-powder! It was annoying enough to be aunt to an Eurasian, but to have the fact known in Simla and be gossiped about​—​Captain Horsford must have been terribly indiscreet​—​was inexpressibly galling.

“I beg your pardon, Mrs. Ormerod,” said she freezingly, “but there is no scandal connected with my brother or my brother’s child.”

“I’m very glad indeed to hear it. The reputation of Nautch girls is so questionable that it’s quite refreshing to come across an exception to the general rule. Of course you would know the true story of Captain Folliott and the girl he fell in love with, so it’s very clear that rumour as usual has been fathering falsehoods.”

Mrs. Brampton’s fat seemed suddenly to turn to jelly. She shook from head to foot. What was the rumour Mrs. Ormerod alluded to with unmistakable satisfaction? Mrs. Brampton really knew nothing about Nara beyond what Captain Horsford had written. The Resident, it is true, replied to her letter, but it was little more than a formal acknowledgment. He could learn nothing about Captain Folliott’s private affairs, but he promised to make further inquiries. However, he never wrote again, and Mrs. Brampton tried to make the best of the matter. Mrs. Ormerod’s allusion to Nautch girls was an ugly coincidence, taken in connection with Nara’s escapade in the bedroom. It sent her hot and cold.

“Falsehoods,” she repeated, but not in the confident tone in which she had uttered the word “scandal.” “Yes, no doubt. I should like to hear the nature of the rumour you refer to, so that I may give it an emphatic denial.”

“There’s nothing really very bad​—​that is, to those who know what things in India are like. And I don’t think it can be said that the rumour’s been widely circulated. The truth is the matter was hushed up​—​for some reason concerning Captain Horsford, I believe. It’s a pity the story wasn’t told openly. People are always ready to imagine things, aren’t they? I happen to be acquainted with the details because the Major told me​—​under a bond of secrecy, of course. But really here in England I don’t see why the same secrecy should be observed. I think if you don’t know the version of the affair that’s been whispered about in Simla, that it would be a kindness to tell you. But mind, I don’t vouch for its truth.”

Mrs. Brampton resigned herself with the air of a martyr to listen to Mrs. Ormerod’s narrative, which was nothing more than a résumé of the story of the episode at the Rajah of Dakhur’s Palace, the disappearance of the dancing-girl, the suspicion that Horsford was the abductor, and that the girl herself was Jack Folliott’s daughter.

“All this is news to me. I think Captain Horsford behaved shamefully in not telling me everything,” said Mrs. Brampton, much agitated. “He wrote that the girl’s mother was connected with the Royal family of Delhi. Is that true or false?”

“Oh, it’s very likely to be the case. I’ve no doubt there are any number of so-called princes and princesses in Delhi. I doubt if the old Kings knew what morality was. It’s dreadful to think of, and all we in England can do is to shut our eyes.”

Mrs. Brampton was quite willing to be blind, but she could not shut out the unpleasant fact that she had been brought into personal contact with the manners and customs and the lax morality of India. She would have contradicted Mrs. Ormerod if she could, but in her heart she quite agreed with the Major’s wife. In view of what Mrs. Brampton had just heard Nara’s dancing freak at the school became of very serious import. It was certainly confirmatory of Mrs. Ormerod’s story. The horrible thought darted into Mrs. Brampton’s mind that if some of Nara’s early instincts and training could be revived after lying dormant for some five years there was no reason why others should not burst out. Those dreamy eyes​—​oh, they were not given to the girl for nothing.

One point Mrs. Ormerod had left unsettled. Indeed she had not alluded to it. Yet it was of the utmost importance from Mrs. Brampton’s point of view. She hardly liked to discuss such a shocking thing as marital relations unsanctified by the Church, but it had to be done.

“Married? Of course not,” exclaimed Mrs. Ormerod, with a contemptuous sniff. “Captain Folliott would not have been such a fool. Why should he be? As for the girl, who no doubt was infatuated, what did she care about our marriage service?”

Mrs. Brampton’s heart fell. She had not a word to say in opposition to this obvious truth.

“But,” she faltered, “I expressly mentioned the matter in my second letter to the Resident in reply to his formal acknowledgment of my first.”

“And what did he say?”

“I’ve never had any answer. He promised to make further inquiries, but I’ve not had a line from him since.”

Mrs. Ormerod shrugged her shoulders.

“No doubt he knew your views on such matters, and did not want to distress you. There’s only one place where a Church of England marriage could take place in Delhi, and that is old Colonel Skinner’s church​—​St. James’, you know. Of course a register of some kind is kept, and the Resident could have consulted it. I dare say he did and found no record. Not likely he would. I doubt if any clergyman would have solemnised such a ridiculous union. The girl, you know, was a common dancer.”

“A common dancer!” repeated Mrs. Brampton, aghast.

“So George told me. I can’t think there was any marriage according to our religion. And as for hers​—​well, that was impossible unless Captain Folliott became a Mahommedan.”

“Oh, Mrs. Ormerod——” gasped Mrs. Brampton faintly. “Don’t!”

Mrs. Ormerod was satisfied. She had taken down the General’s wife sufficiently, and was now prepared to extend her sympathy.

“Captain Horsford’s to blame for all this trouble. He had no right whatever to meddle in a matter which didn’t concern him. At all events, having found the girl he ought not to have shifted his responsibility on to your shoulders, and especially without a word of explanation as to the true state of the case. I call it disgraceful. He might have given you the chance of saying what you would do.”

“Exactly,” moaned Mrs. Brampton. “Do you suppose for one moment that I should have received the girl into my house if I’d known what you now tell me? Under the shocking circumstances I can’t see that she’s any relative of mine.”

“You’re quite right. At all events, she hasn’t the slightest claim on you.”

“I feel strongly inclined to write to Captain Horsford and tell him my mind. Where is he now?”

“In Pegu. He went with General Godwin to Rangoon, and after the capitulation of the Burmese he obtained some post in connection with the administration of Pegu. No doubt a letter would reach him, but would it do much good? How old is the girl?”

“She must be seventeen, I should think.”

“Still at school?”

“Well, no,” returned Mrs. Brampton, with an apologetic cough. “At this moment she’s in the house. She only arrived this afternoon, quite unexpectedly. So far as I can make out, there was an upset between her and Mrs. Granger, and she took herself off. Practically she ran away.”

“Dear, dear! I’m afraid there’s trouble in store for you, Mrs. Brampton. What sort of girl is she?”

“You can see her if you like. I should be only too grateful if you could suggest any way out of the difficulty. She herself wants to go back to India, but I can hardly send her at random, so to speak.”

“I dare say she’d tumble on her feet. Headstrong girls generally manage to pull through their difficulties.”

“I don’t know that she’s headstrong. She’s quiet and apparently submissive, but that, I think, must be slyness. However, you shall see her.”

Mrs. Brampton rang the bell, gave her instructions to Parsons, and in a minute or so Nara entered.

Nara, as Aunt Lavinia said, was seventeen. All the angularities, the disproportions of twelve had disappeared. The change was marvellous, both in figure and face. The soft harmony of budding womanhood marked the first, a mystic beauty lurked in the curves of the second. That beauty was elusive. It flashed upon one in the rare moments of animation, it vanished as quickly, leaving behind the suggestion of coldness, but a coldness which one felt instinctively was but a mask.

The complexion was of the pallor of her early days, but the olive tinge was not so pronounced. It was clear, with an even creaminess of tint, broken only by the scarlet of the lips. The mouth was less mobile, it was not so ready to pout, not so eager to smile. The restraint imposed upon her by artificial and uncongenial surroundings for the last five years, the continual repression of her natural impulses, the stifling of her cravings for liberty and independence, had given firmness to the upper lip. Maybe the same causes had accentuated the bold contour of the chin.

The slight irregularity of the characteristic eyebrows was the same, the eyes themselves had not altered, save to become more expressive, more luminous when she chose to make them so. The long, dark, sweeping lashes had the old habit of drooping unexpectedly, provoking to the male gazer, but irresistibly fascinating.

Most of the girls at Lanfear House said this drooping of the eyelashes meant craft, but then the girls were not particularly drawn towards Nara. Though she was among them she was not of them. As an under-teacher she was a hopeless failure. Her orders were treated with contempt. But after her weird, fantastic dance the girls altered in their demeanour. They shunned her, not because of dislike, but because of a strange fear with which she had inspired them. She had never lost her soft, Indian pronunciation of certain words; she still retained little tricks of manner, fascinating and indescribable. Even if she had not suggested the East in her face, one would never have taken her to be English.

After she entered the room she stood in perfect ease and grace of attitude, awaiting what her aunt had to say. Mrs. Brampton did not introduce her to Mrs. Ormerod, but went on to examine her as to her capabilities, carefully avoiding, however, all reference to her dancing accomplishments, and when the good lady had come to the end of her questions Nara was dismissed.

“Well, what do you think of her?” said Mrs. Brampton.

“She’s very handsome​—​strikingly so. You’ll have to be very careful where men are concerned,” was Mrs. Ormerod’s opinion.

“That’s just what troubles me. Edgar will be home next week. His term at Addiscombe’s over, and he’ll stay with us until he’s commissioned. I wouldn’t have the girl in the house while he’s here on any account.”

“Certainly not. She’s just the girl a lad would go mad over. Besides, the position of cousins is a dangerous sort of relationship. It permits a certain amount of familiarity which——”

“Edgar doesn’t know she’s his cousin,” hastily interposed Mrs. Brampton, reddening slightly. “I never meant that they should meet. I had planned out her career, and when she was in a position to earn her own living I intended to renounce any claim she might have upon me Now that I know more about her I’m the more convinced of my prudence in not acknowledging her before the world.”

“Does she know that you’re her aunt?”

“Yes​—​thanks to Captain Horsford’s unpardonable presumption. This makes it all the more imperative that she and my boy shouldn’t meet. Now, can you suggest anything? Of course she must take a situation. What do you think she’s fit for?”

“Upon my word, I don’t know. She doesn’t seem to have learned very much. You tell me she can only play the piano a little, and I expect her singing’s shrill and harsh, like that of most of the girls of India. She owned she was very backward in her French, and she couldn’t answer the simple questions in arithmetic and English history you put to her. She’s not qualified in the least to be a private governess, and what other occupation is there for girls? Even if she were better educated, I’m sure she’d have a difficulty in obtaining a post. It would be positively dangerous to engage her where there are grown-up sons. A mother is bound to be very careful about the young women she has to live in the house.”

“Of course​—​of course. You heard what she said about her needlework, and her skill in dressing hair? Well now, I’ve been thinking that she might go as lady’s-maid. Her manners are quiet and respectful, and as for her good looks, well, they’re no detriment, in a menial capacity.”

“You’ve no objection, then, to her going out to service?”

Mrs. Brampton winced, but soon recovered herself.

“Not under the circumstances. I can’t bring myself to think the girl’s any relative of mine. She knows my sentiments perfectly well, and if there’s no way of getting her back to India, why she must take whatever situation may be open to her in England. Have her in the house I will not.”

“I wonder if Mrs. Meldrum could be persuaded into engaging her?” said Mrs. Ormerod, after a pause.

“Oh, I should be so thankful if she could,” exclaimed Mrs. Brampton, with a sigh of relief.

“Clare’s return to India was unexpected. She mayn’t have engaged any maid. This girl​—​what did you call her?”

“Nara​—​Captain Horsford wrote some rubbish about her being descended from Jahanara, one of the princesses of Delhi two hundred years or so ago. Whether this is true or no doesn’t matter now. What does matter, dear Mrs. Ormerod, is that Nara must only be known as my protégée. On no account should Mrs. Meldrum be told Captain Horsford’s story.”

“You may trust me​—​implicitly. I quite understand your delicate and painful position. But won’t it be necessary to caution Nara herself?”

“Oh, I’ll do that,” rejoined Mrs. Brampton quickly. “Between ourselves, I don’t think the girl’s anxious to own her English relations. The influence of her mother’s race is far too strong.”

“Very well. I shall be meeting Mrs. Meldrum to-night, and I’ll sound her on the subject.”

“Thank you​—​thank you. You can’t think how grateful I shall be if you can settle the affair satisfactorily. When I see a favourable opportunity of talking to the General about the little matter you mentioned some time ago you may be sure I shall not miss it.”

Mrs. Ormerod went away quite satisfied with her afternoon’s work. She had been severely snubbed by the General’s wife some weeks before, when she had asked her to persuade the General to say a good word for her brother, a subaltern who had been waiting in vain for promotion, but now that she had the lady under her thumb she already saw “the little matter” would present no further difficulty.