Chapter XIII

Andrew Meldrum’s Letter

Mrs. Ormerod, anxious to oblige the General’s wife, at once posted off to Claridge’s Hotel, where Clare was staying, and in her gushing, positive way described Nara as the very girl to suit her if she were wanting a lady’s-maid. Clare listened graciously, for a maid who was clever was exactly what she wanted, but when she heard Nara was an Eurasian she shrugged her shoulders contemptuously.

“I’d much rather have a native of pure blood. You’re prepared then for the kind of nature you’ll have to deal with, but the children of mixed parentage are always uncertain. You know as well as I do, Mrs. Ormerod, that they’re despised, both by their own people as well as by ours.”

“Well, of course that’s true, but why not engage her for the journey only?”

“Yes, it would be the safer plan.” Clare paused and went on with languid indifference: “Who are her people? Do you know who was her father? A private, I suppose.”

“I expect so. Anyhow, I know he was in the army, but no doubt Mrs. Brampton will tell you everything.”

“Oh, it’s not of the least consequence. If the girl doesn’t suit me I can get rid of her.”

“Of course,” echoed Mrs. Ormerod. “Well, you and Mrs. Brampton can talk over the matter when you meet at my house to-morrow night. Au revoir, dear,” and Mrs. Ormerod whisked her flounces and her bustle out of the room.

Clare rose from her chair and walking slowly to the window looked out into the dreary respectability of Brook Street. The light was waning and the gas-lamps were unlit. Her vacant eyes rested on the traffic, but it was doubtful if she saw anything. Then she wheeled round abruptly and paced the room for a few minutes. Finally she rang the bell for the gas to be lighted and drew a letter from her pocket.

The letter had arrived that morning, yet she had not broken the seal. She told herself impatiently that the contents would be certain to irritate her and completely spoil the day’s shopping on which her mind was bent. But irritating or not, the letter must be read, for it was from her husband.

It was hard to say whether Clare’s marriage had improved her or the reverse. When she was animated she was quite as pretty as in the days of her maidenhood, and five years had not made her look a day older. Her figure perhaps was more developed, and she no longer suggested a Dresden china shepherdess, but put her in the appropriate dress and she might have stepped out of a Watteau group. She had the full, ample bust, the symmetrically curved shoulders, and the round and slender waist which Boucher and painters of his school delighted in. The daintiness and grace of every movement somehow did not belong to the conventional idea of the married woman such as she was pictured in the ’fifties. Caps had not then ceased to be the distinguishing mark of the married state, but Clare would never consent to disfigure herself and hide her beautiful hair by following the vile fashion. When she went shopping she was invariably addressed as “Miss.”

Against these improvements had to be set a certain hardness of voice and manner. She was not quite so ready to please and be pleased. She had “moods” without any assignable cause. When her face was in repose it somehow seemed to lose its charm. Indeed, there were times when it looked as if she had gone through a tempest of passion. But such moments of self-betrayal were very rare, and if the company pleased her and she was in good form, she could be almost as fresh and as gay and as fascinating as in the old days at Simla.

Her expression now as she dragged the letter from the envelope was anything but fresh and fascinating. It was that of a long-continued strain on her nerves which was becoming almost beyond endurance. Her contracted brows, her compressed lips and dilated nostrils indicated the efforts she was making to restrain an outburst of emotion. However, she forced herself to read the letter from beginning to end without comment.

The letter was one which would have angered a much less sensitive and high-spirited woman. It began coldly.


“My patience is becoming exhausted. Why do you ignore my repeated requests to you to return home? Why do you treat me as though I were an entire stranger? What is the reason you stay in Europe when your place is by the side of your husband? You know I have repeatedly asked you to tell me what complaints you have against me, and I’ve never had a satisfactory answer. You are driving me mad with your coldness and caprice; yet I believe I could endure both if you were with me. I cannot endure your absence. You are never out of my mind, and I am constantly imagining all kinds of ugly things, quite without any foundation, I am sure. People tell me I’m looking ill, but my looks are of no importance, and I can brush aside questions on that subject, but not those relating to you. Our friends are beginning to talk about your being away so long, and I don’t know what to say. You went to Europe eighteen months ago on account of your health​—​so you said​—​but in the letters you have sent at very rare intervals you say nothing concerning yourself. I was anxious about you and asked your uncle to tell me if he thought there was anything radically wrong in your constitution, and he laughed at the idea.”

“I’ve racked my brains, Clare to discover a cause for your extraordinary conduct. I have never grumbled at your extravagance; I held my tongue when I discovered you had been betting, and I paid your losses. I don’t suppose you know this, and I sometimes think that your reason for leaving Delhi was because you could not discharge your ‘debts of honour.’ If that were so, there’s nothing to prevent you returning at once. I have never inquired what you did with the money you were constantly drawing from your settlement, and I don’t inquire now, but I imagine from what I have heard that you have not very much left. It seems to me that your only grievance is that I objected to your going out so much, but I had a right to object. I had so little of your society and companionship. You resented my remonstrances and flatly refused to obey me. I made a terrible mistake when I married you, yet I swear to you that the way you have acted has not weakened my love for you, and I am puzzled at my own feelings and at what I suppose you would call my weakness. You have been a bitter disappointment. I looked for a companion and have found a well-dressed, beautiful doll.”

“When I commenced this letter I did not intend to write so strongly, and I had thoughts of tearing it up and sending another. But it is the truth, and it is time you should know what I think. Yet though every word has been wrung from me I am willing to forget and forgive if you will return. I don’t think you realise my character. If you make me your enemy you will repent it. For God’s sake don’t turn my love into hate. I can say no more now. I await your answer.”

“Andrew Meldrum,”

“Your husband.”

When Clare reached the end of the letter she quivered with rage. The last two words, “your husband,” she interpreted as a reminder of an unpleasant fact which he chose to assume she had forgotten. As if she could ever forget it! Did not her position rankle every day of her life?

“My answer!” she burst out. “Shall I answer his letter at all? Well, I’m not sorry he’s thrown down the gauntlet. An open rupture’s better than continual nagging and chafing under restraint. What complaint have I against him? Why, if he were not so stony and unimaginative he would see at once. My complaint is that he is Andrew Meldrum and​—​I’m a well-dressed doll! What did he expect? It might have been worse. He might have married a doll who was not well-dressed.”

Her anger gradually cooled. She was not blind to the fact that her husband was justified in writing as he did. She had behaved badly; yet not so badly as her conduct on the surface appeared. When she married Meldrum it was with the intention of adapting herself to her new life. She gradually found the task impossible. Perhaps if they had not toured in Europe for their honeymoon things might have gone smoother, and eventually they might have settled down into something like a compromise. But the nature of the honeymoon gave them too much of each other’s society. Certainly Clare had too much of her husband’s. She could not get away from him, and she had to have his irritable moods as well as his amiable ones.

Continental travelling in the fifties undoubtedly tried one’s temper. Meldrum, used all his life to instant obedience, found himself continually at loggerheads with railway officials and major-domos of hotels, whose language he understood very imperfectly. He was never irritable with Clare, but she had the backwash of his irritability with others. Her experience of life had been so easy-going, she had had such little acquaintance with the despotic ways of India, and had never seen her philosophic uncle out of temper with anything, that her husband’s outbursts over what she looked upon as the veriest trifles came upon her as an unpleasant awakening. She was heartily glad in one sense to get back to India, and in another she was filled with dismal forebodings; her life promised to be so thoroughly prosaic. Meldrum, of course, had to leave her at times, but not so often as she hoped. He had made his “pile” and had taken a partner to do the active work of the business. His intention before he was married was to retire and live in Europe, but the fatal honeymoon trip had made him alter his mind. He was too used to India and Indian ways to be able to adapt himself to those of any other country.

This alteration of plans would have made no difference to Clare provided her husband had not looked after her so closely and jealously. She resented being questioned, although Meldrum was always careful to say he wished her to do as she pleased; and out of bravado, and to satisfy her craving for excitement, she plunged into betting and lost heavily, and, unfortunately, to the dandified and vicious Lawton, whom she detested. The inevitable happened when she could not pay. On Lawton’s advances being rejected, he threatened her not with blackmail, but with revenge​—​exposure of her recklessness to her husband.

She would not have cared for his threat had it not meant giving Meldrum an advantage over her, which her pride could not brook. She had not the courage to go through the ordeal, and she invented an indisposition for which the only remedy was a change of climate. Andrew Meldrum would have insisted upon going with her but for the changes which were impending in the government of Oudh, brought about by Lord Dalhousie. Meldrum’s trade with Lucknow was very large, and he did not know what would happen after the deposition of the King. So Clare went by herself to Europe.

In a fever of restlessness Clare had travelled from city to city in the endeavour to occupy her mind and keep it from dwelling on the fetters she had voluntarily put on. Though she had married Andrew Meldrum she never ceased to think of Guy Horsford. She had heard of him through friends of officers engaged in the expedition to Burma, and times out of number had bitterly reproached herself for her haste in accepting Meldrum.

The autumn of 1856 arrived. She had been away from Delhi over a year, and might not have had it in her mind to go back but for a paragraph she had happened to notice in an Indian paper she took up by chance in the dining-room of the hotel. It simply told, among other military changes, that Captain, now Colonel Horsford, had resigned his appointment in Pegu and was about to return to India. These few words concentrated her scattered ideas. If she went back to Delhi her intense longing to see Horsford once more might be gratified. There could be no harm either in seeing him or speaking to him. She was quite sure she could trust herself.

Andrew Meldrum’s angry, reproachful letter came at an inopportune moment. To be told to do a thing was enough to make her not want to do it. For a little time she hovered between submission and her passionate yearning for the man she loved. Being a woman she discovered a compromise.

“I’ll go back, but I won’t answer Andrew’s letter. He can think what he likes.”

She was about to tear the letter into fragments when she paused and locked it in her desk instead.

For the rest of the day she was absent and absorbed. She had promised to go to the Haymarket Theatre with some friends and she fulfilled her engagement, but Buckstone’s quaint humour failed to interest her, and the laughter of the audience sounded strangely in her ears. By the following evening, when the Ormerods’ guests sat down to dinner, she had forgotten the matter of the Eurasian lady’s-maid, and the conversation at the dinner table drove it further from her mind.

General Brampton, a lean, lantern-jawed, yellow-faced man, whose liver made him pessimistic, had spent three-parts of his life in India, and though he had retired from the Company’s service ten years before he never took kindly to England, and he rarely talked of anything but Indian affairs and the old days of “John Company,” in whose rule he firmly believed. He regarded the efforts made in 1853 to transfer its power to the Government in England with great misgiving, and he held that though nominally, with certain modifications, the rule was permitted to remain in the Company’s hands, it was the beginning of the end.

“Mark my words,” said he. “The severance of the old friendly relations between the great chiefs of India and the Company’s officials will lead to great distrust. Many will come to believe that the new policy of the British Government will mean new annexations. The Company has always acted in the spirit of ‘benevolent despotism,’ and this is the kind of government the natives thoroughly understand. If you tell me it means keeping things pleasant with the assistance of doles, pensions, and grants I’m not going to contradict you. Some of you new men call this kind of thing ‘bribery.’ Well, all I’ve got to say it’s the custom of the country and you can’t easily get away from it. I don’t agree with Lord Dalhousie’s forward policy, but, by gad! sir, he was right in urging the Court of Directors and the ministry to permit the King of Oudh to retain his sovereignty.”

“But, sir, Shah Wajid Ali was a dissolute, tyrannical scoundrel,” objected Major Ormerod.

“What then? The people of India were used to rulers of that kind. It was only when our men of ‘advanced opinions,’ as they’re called, came along with their schemes of reform and their ideas of governing India on European principles that Oudh began to be discontented. Why couldn’t Oudh be treated as Delhi was some fifty years ago? Bahadah Shah is still a King​—​without much power, it is true, but what does that matter? Sentiment is preserved, and that’s everything in India. Anyhow, the policy’s worked well hitherto, but how long it’s going to continue is another matter. I suppose you know what’s going on in Delhi, Major Ormerod?”

“You mean Lord Canning’s determination to dispossess the King of his Palace and to take it over on military considerations?”

“That’s just what I do mean. Lord Dalhousie wanted the same thing, but the directors were so strongly opposed that he let it alone. The Court consulted me on the subject, and I told them that if they wanted to stir up a hornets’ nest they couldn’t do better than take Lord Dalhousie’s advice. However, Lord Dalhousie gave way, and lo and behold, the first thing Lord Canning does after taking office last February is to carry into effect what his predecessor was reluctant to do. Lookers-on see most of the game, and some of the letters I’ve received from private sources are almost alarming.”

“I quite agree with you, sir,” said Ormerod. “If we escape a row in Delhi we shall be lucky, and as usual it will be the woman in the case​—​I beg your pardon, ladies,” broke off the Major, with an apologetic bow to Clare.

“Oh, please go on,” she exclaimed laughingly. “Our unfortunate sex always has had the credit of being at the bottom of every mischief. Eve set the fashion, Adam sheltered himself behind her, and I suppose human nature was made that way. But, Major, we won’t quarrel over what can’t be helped. I’m dying to know more about Delhi and the interesting woman. Who is she?”

Major Ormerod had seen too much of Clare’s moods before she was married not to recognise the note of sarcasm in her voice. It was doubtful, however, whether any of the rest did. They only detected light, harmless raillery.

“The woman, Mrs. Meldrum, is Zeenut Mehal, Bahadur Shah’s youngest and favourite wife. Perhaps you had an opportunity of seeing her when you were living in your Delhi house. A mere man, of course, would never have such a privilege.”

“I saw her once. She did not seem to me to be particularly young. She has what, I believe, is called a strong face. I should think if she set her mind upon anything she’d get it.”

“By George, madam, you’re right,” broke in the old General. “The Begum’s not one to take things meekly. She governs the old King and everybody about her. Lord Canning’s laying up trouble for himself. He not only means to take possession of the Palace but he refuses to recognise Zeenut Mehal’s wishes to make Jewan Bukht, her grandson, Bahadur Shah’s successor, in place of the eldest son. There’ll be a fine rumpus directly the old King dies. Zeenut Mehal’s preparing for it. The man who writes to me is behind the scenes, and he tells me she’s intriguing everywhere, and especially in the Deccan and Persia, to foster a hostile feeling against England. And that’s not the worst of it. It’s pretty certain she’s joined hands with Seereek Dhundoo Punth, old Bajee Rao’s adopted son​—​I believe in Cawnpore he’s known as Nana Sahib​—​who wants the pension of £80,000 a year the Company granted Bajee Rao when they deposed him. He was Peishwa of Poonah, you know.”

“I’m glad the Company stood firm over that piece of impudence. Dhundoo Punth doesn’t deserve 80,000 pence,” said Ormerod. “I don’t mean because he was the son of a poor corn-dealer of Poonah, but because I believe him to be sly and revengeful. I’ve heard he’s frightfully savage at the Company’s refusal, and if Zeenut Mehal joins her craft with his discontent they may succeed in stirring up​—​I don’t say rebellion, our hold over the sepoys is too strong for that​—​but trouble. I tell you what, sir, the man who’s most wanted in Delhi just now is Guy Horsford. He speaks half a dozen dialects and knows Delhi like a native. I’m glad to hear he’s coming to Calcutta. He’ll be within reach if he’s wanted, anyhow.”

The ladies pricked up their ears at the sound of Horsford’s name, but none of them said a word. Mrs. Brampton had her reasons for being silent; Mrs. Ormerod, remembering her compact with the General’s wife, felt that her lips were sealed, and Clare, though eager to hear more, was afraid to show undue curiosity before the Ormerods.

General Brampton could have said something in very forcible language about Horsford. Resenting Horsford’s interference, he was strongly against his wife taking charge of Nara, and was all for sending her back. Mrs. Brampton, however, convinced him that the lesser of two evils was to keep the girl and say as little as possible about her, and grumpily he acquiesced. He declared, however, that he would never willingly see her, and he gave orders that her name was never to be uttered in his presence. So when Ormerod mentioned Horsford approvingly his yellow skin took a brickdust hue, and he spluttered out:

“He’d better stop in Burma. I don’t believe in these fellows who are said to be indispensable. I’ve seen something of ’em; more conceit than work​—​that’s my experience. What’s he going to do in Calcutta?”

“It’s some post connected with re-organisation. There are less troops in India now than ever there were, thanks to the Crimea business, and some people are a good deal worried about it. Anyhow, the man who writes me says that Horsford will be in Calcutta quite six months, and then will go on to Delhi. That’s the place Lord Canning will do well to keep his eye upon. Delhi’s the hub of India.”

The General gave a grunt of acquiescence, and a convenient pause occurring, Mrs. Ormerod exchanged glances with Mrs. Brampton, and reading approval in her eyes, rose, an example which was followed by the other ladies. The gentlemen were not sorry to be left alone to their port.

“I’m very glad you gave me the signal,” whispered the General’s wife to her hostess. “I was on thorns all the while your husband was talking about Colonel Horsford, lest he should say anything which would let out the unfortunate story before Mrs. Meldrum.”

“Oh, the Major’s most discreet,” said Mrs. Ormerod complacently. “I had to tell him, of course, but he understood the position, and he promised not to say a word. It was a pity he introduced Horsford’s name, but luckily no harm was done. I saw the General was getting very angry, and was quite afraid of an outburst. Luckily the storm passed.”

“Yes, indeed,” said Mrs. Brampton, with a sigh of relief.

In the seclusion of the drawing-room Mrs. Brampton opened to Clare the matter about which she was so anxious. A load was taken off her mind when Clare asked no questions, simply saying that if the General’s wife could vouch for Nara’s efficiency and honesty she would accept the girl’s services.

“That’s most kind of you,” returned Mrs. Brampton gratefully. “But you haven’t seen the girl. Would you care to call on me and——”

“Oh, I don’t think that matters,” interrupted Clare. “She can come to me to-morrow and commence her duties. I may have to start earlier than I expected.”