Chapter XIV

Farewell to the West

Mrs. Brampton was delighted that the troublesome business had been accomplished so easily. The next morning she told Nara that she had obtained a situation for her to wait upon a “very nice lady” who was returning to India. The girl did not fail to note the satisfaction with which the announcement was made. Of course Aunt Lavinia would be glad to get rid of her, but for this she cared nothing. To think she was going back to India was everything, and her eyes sparkled. In spite of her desire to shift a disagreeable burden from her shoulders, Mrs. Brampton was not pleased at Nara’s evident delight, but she considered it politic to say nothing. In talking over the matter afterwards with the General she characterised Nara’s demeanour as “base ingratitude.”

All the morning was spent in buying what was necessary for the girl’s outfit, and in the afternoon came the farewell, accompanied by many solemn admonitions.

“Recollect, Nara,” said the lady impressively, “all now depends upon yourself. I’ve tried to do my duty by you, and should have continued to do so, as far as it laid in my power, supposing you’d elected to remain in England, but as you’ve chosen your path I’m no longer responsible for anything you may do. You’ll have a good, kind mistress, and you must try to please her. If you’re well behaved you’ll probably be with her many years, and your future will be quite safe.”

Her future? Nara had thought of this many times and with hopelessness. England to her was so black and drear, so prim and artificial. She pined for her own land, for its warmth, its gorgeous colours, its picturesqueness and poetry, and​—​she pined for the handsome Englishman who had risked his life to rescue her from shame and cruelty. She had often tried to picture his face, she had treasured the remembrance of his kindly smile and cheery voice. She had gazed furtively at the men she had seen in England, but there was never one, she thought, who looked so brave and kind as Sahib Horsford. To serve him as his slave was the wish of her heart. That would be happiness.

At last the final word was said, and Nara was seated in a stuffy, noisy, jolting “growler,” its floor strewn with ill-smelling, soddened straw. To her the cab was typical of London as she always seemed to have seen it​—​sordid, mean, comfortless, ugly, depressing. The air outside was murky; a cold drizzle was falling. The bumping of the cab on the uneven granite cubes of the roadway and the deafening rattle, were intolerable, but filled with exultation at the thought that it was for the last time she did not heed her surroundings. The only time she was disturbed was in Oxford Street, when the traffic was blocked by a flock of bewildered sheep and a herd of irritated cattle. The yells of the drovers armed with spiked goads, the bleating, the bellowing, the barking of dogs, and the growls of angry coachmen, carmen, and cabdrivers did not trouble her; it was the delay she could not endure.

But all came to an end; the cab reached Brook Street and drew up in front of the sedate hotel, and in another five minutes Nara was face to face with the lady whom for some time to come she was to look upon as her mistress. The first glance on both sides was one of indifference. In the second curiosity was aroused, to be followed by a feeling of antagonism, so slight and so subtle that neither could say she was conscious of it.

Clare’s reasons for hostility​—​if her feelings could be so crystallised​—​were fairly easy to define. She expected the average Eurasian fairer, possibly, than the pure-blooded native, and with the subdued, furtive look characteristic of the halfbreed girl, as though she acknowledged she had no place on the earth and deprecated her existence. There was none of this serf-like aspect about Nara. Immediately her eyes fell on the dainty figure, full of grace despite the uncompromising corset, the inartistic flounces, the hideous bustle, she involuntarily drew herself up with a pride of demeanour as pronounced as that of the fair Englishwoman.

Clare was seated at a writing-table when Nara entered. Quite a minute went over before she spoke, her somewhat hard, bluish-grey eyes meanwhile scrutinising the girl closely.

Mrs. Brampton did not tell me your name. What is it?”


An Englishwoman who had never been in India would probably have asked “Nara​—​what?” Not so Clare; she had never troubled about the names of natives, and to her it did not matter whether a man or a woman was called by one or half a dozen.

“You’d better go to my rooms,” said she. “You’ll find Fifine, my French maid, there. She knows you’re coming, and she’ll instruct you in your duties. I’m told you haven’t had much experience.”

“No——” Then suddenly remembering her aunt’s admonitions, she added hastily the word “Ma’am.”

“That doesn’t matter so long as you’re willing to learn. You can go.”

Nara glided from the room. She easily found her way to Mrs. Meldrum’s apartments, a suite of three, one of which was fitted up as a boudoir. Fifine was the usual lady’s-maid, cringing or pert, as circumstances demanded. As she had refused to accompany her mistress to India there was no question of being supplanted by Nara, and she received the girl with affable condescension. Mademoiselle was prepared to patronise the “black girl”; and she was taken back when the “black” proved to be a shade fairer than herself. Her English was somewhat imperfect, and Nara’s French was not much better, but they got on fairly well.

Clare was going to the opera that night. A state function of some kind was on; it would be the last night of pleasuring she would have in England, and she intended to leave an impression behind that would dwell in the memories of her many admirers. On the whole she had had in London what nowadays would be called a “good time”; her husband’s wealth had procured her an entrée into some of the best and most exclusive Anglo-Indian families, and the men were only too glad to beau about so charming and fascinating a lady. The fact that she was married added to the attraction. To-night was to be a “send-off,” again to quote the language of to-day.

The toilette was a most elaborate process. Clare was inclined to be more fastidious and more difficult to please than usual. She and Fifine had long, anxious conferences over the selection of a dress, and almost got to high words. At last the important matter was settled, arid then came another matter of even greater gravity​—​the dressing of the hair. Dressing hair was the one accomplishment in which Fifine did not shine. She was deft in dressmaking and millinery, for her youth had been passed with a Parisian modiste, and she was skilful in the art of “making up” the face, but her attempts with hair were not effective, and especially so to-night. Clare wanted a string of pearls interwoven into her tawny tresses, the whole to be surmounted by a comb ornamented with diamonds. The lady declared angrily that Fifine had made her look like a May Queen that danced round a Jack-in-the-Green.

Meanwhile Nara had done nothing but look on from a distant corner. She was supposed to be deriving benefit from watching Fifine’s proceedings. After the French maid’s third failure with the hair Clare turned sharply to Nara.

Mrs. Brampton said something about your being clever at hairdressing. See what you can do. This doesn’t seem to be one of Fifine’s good days.”

Mademoiselle tossed her head, and flinging the brush and comb on the toilet table she bounced out of the room.

“Impudent creature!” exclaimed the indignant mistress. “She presumes because she’s leaving. I do believe she’s made me look a fright on purpose. You heard me tell Fifine what I wanted, didn’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Come here, then; take down my hair and do your best with it.”

Nara emerged from the shadow into the light of the wax candles each side of the toilet glass. The toilet table was strewn with sparkling gems. If Clare had one passion it was for jewellery, and especially for diamonds. After she accepted Andrew Meldrum he was continually bringing her presents. Some were modern trinkets from Paris; others were of Indian work, many of them exceedingly rare and valuable. Nara gasped for breath, partly because she, too, loved the glitter of gems, and partly because the sight of the delicate and intricate settings sent her memory back to the time when Sundra Bai used to adorn her in preparation for the dance. Whatever timidity she might have felt at her first essay in her new vocation disappeared in this vivid revival of the past.

The hair of the Indian dancing-girl is always elaborately arranged, sometimes one way, sometimes another. Nara, owing to her European father, was looked down upon by the other girls, and put to wait upon them. In this way she became expert in the art of hairdressing, and her fingers had never lost their dexterity. To handle Clare’s soft, luxuriant, golden tresses was a supreme pleasure. They lent themselves to manipulation beneath her deft touch much readier than the harsh, black locks of the girls of India. As the gradual building of the edifice went on Clare watched the progress in the glass and her dissatisfied expression gradually softened into complacency. Nara had arranged her hair to set off her beauty to the best advantage. The design was quaint and unorthodox. It was bound to attract, and that, with Clare, was everything. But the triumph was the cunning intermingling of the jewels. Though Clare had her eyes fixed on the girl’s nimble ringers she could not completely follow their movements. The effect of the whole was novel and effective. While handling the pearls and diamonds Nara, in her delight at the gems, forgot her feeling of antagonism towards Clare. As for Clare, she was loud in her praise.

“You will suit me splendidly, Nara,” she exclaimed. “You mustn’t leave me when we get to India; but perhaps you won’t want to do so. Please fasten this bracelet.”

Nara took as much interest in adorning the beautiful woman as though she were adorning herself. She lingered lovingly over the Indian jewels, and made suggestions as to the best way of wearing them to show off their qualities. Clare was charmed. When she surveyed herself in the long glass she decided she had never looked better.

Her last evening in London was a brilliant success. The other women of the party were put in the shade, and she came back to the hotel feeling that in Nara she had become possessed of a treasure.

The next day was occupied in shopping and packing, and in the morning Clare called at the offices of the P. & O. Company and booked two passages. That evening she and Nara went down to Southampton and put up at an hotel for a day and then went on board the steamer.

A week passed over, and Mrs. Brampton and Mrs. Ormerod met to compare notes. The first subject was that of Nara and Clare Meldrum. The General’s wife warmly thanked the wife of the Major for her timely help, and expressed a hope that she had seen the last of her poor brother’s superfluous daughter.

“I don’t suppose she’ll ever return to England. She was quite out of place here. Clare is certain to keep her in her service, the girl speaking, as you told me she did, both Hindustani and English. I only wish I’d had an ayah of that sort when I was in Simla. I was robbed wholesale through not knowing the language thoroughly. By the way, I had a letter from Mary Chowden yesterday, written just before the steamer started from Southampton. She’s going back to India. You remember Colonel Chowden, of course?”

“Yes, he fought under my husband at Mooltan.”

“Well, Mary’s his daughter. We’re very old friends. She told me in her letter that she’d met Clare Meldrum on board and introduced herself. Clare told her she was going on to Calcutta. What’s she doing that for? I don’t understand it.”

“Perhaps Miss Chowden made a mistake,” suggested Mrs. Brampton.

“Not she. I never knew a sharper girl. Of course it’s no affair of mine. All I can say is that the thing’s very puzzling. Mr. Meldrum being so ill as Clare made out, one would think she would go to Delhi the nearest way. I know that in Simla Clare was an outrageous flirt, and it was whispered that Guy Horsford, who never took much notice of girls, was quite smitten. But that’s five years ago and​—​since then Clare’s married.”

The two ladies exchanged significant glances. Nowadays one would have said a process of telepathy was going on.

“Didn’t your husband say that Colonel Horsford had obtained a post at Calcutta?” asked Mrs. Brampton after a pause.

“Certainly, and it’s that which strikes me as so curious.”

Again an exchange of glances.

“Surely there can’t be any connection between the two things​—​I mean that Mrs. Meldrum and Colonel Horsford should both be going to Calcutta.”

“Oh, I don’t think that for a moment,” returned Mrs. Ormerod, with such promptitude that those who knew her best, had they heard her, would have said at once that this was what she had been thinking, and not only for a moment but ever since she had read Mary Chowden’s letter.

“Still​—​one never knows,” she continued. “It was always a mystery why Clare and her husband did not get on well together. The reason never oozed out, and the secrecy both observed was in itself suspicious. I shall write to Mary and ask her whether she’s heard anything. As I said before, it’s no affair of mine, but one likes to know.”

Mrs. Brampton quite coincided in these views, and then the ladies fell to discussing other matters of more immediate interest.