Chapter XVI

In the Balcony

The dinner hour at the boarding-house was seven o’clock. At half-past eight Clare went to her room to dress for a concert at which she had promised to sing. She summoned Nara, but with no result. Then one of the servants of the house told her that nothing had been seen of the ayah for some time. She had gone out about five o’clock, but had not returned. Clare was inclined to fly into a passion, but there was no one at hand upon whom she could vent her temper, and she thought better of it. She dressed herself with the assistance of an ayah of another lady boarder.

The concert was got up by a colonel’s wife, an excellent pianist, in aid of some charity, and it was supported almost entirely by the officers and their wives and relatives. A barrier slight but distinct enough existed between the military and civil sections, although they were continually associated. Eurasians, in spite of there being many in Calcutta who were very wealthy, were considered quite impossible. This ostracism even extended to any Englishwoman who elected to marry an Indo-Briton. The doors of all the higher circles were closed against her, however rich, or whatever might be the attainments of the man of her choice.

The preponderance of the military element at the concert gave Clare hopes of hearing news of Horsford. At all events, she intended to make inquiries. These inquiries sent her home from the concert in a flutter of joyful expectation. She had heard that Horsford was in Calcutta, and that he was certain to be at the Governor-General’s reception the following week. The thought that she was about to see him engrossed her completely, and drove every other idea out of her head. She had quite forgotten Nara and her strange absence, and she rang the bell mechanically. The girl came into the room so pale and so agitated that Clare, in spite of her absorption, did not fail to notice her altered appearance.

“What have you been doing? You were not here when I came up to dress after dinner. You knew I was going out, and yet you must choose to suit your own convenience, and leave me to shift for myself. I can’t put up with that kind of thing. Where did you go?”

“To buy the sari and other things you said I was to wear,” Nara answered. She seemed to be very weak, and grasped the back of a chair to steady herself.

“That was at five o’clock. It’s now nearly midnight. What time did you come in?”

“About an hour ago.”

Clare frowned. She expected Nara to name a much earlier hour, and hoped for the satisfaction of finding her out in a falsehood. The girl’s frank admission rather took the wind out of Clare’s sails, but she had another tack to go upon​—​the reason of Nara’s stopping out so late. She put the question.

“I heard bad news in the bazaar​—​about​—​about a friend. He is in great danger, and I wanted to warn him. I have been walking about trying to find him, but could not; then rude men, seeing me alone, spoke to me. I was frightened, and I ran home.”

“It serves you right for being so silly as to stop out so late. Calcutta swarms with bad characters. You ought to know that better than I do. Take my hair down and brush it.”

Nara pulled herself together, but the brushing of Clare’s luxuriant hair was done languidly and in a perfunctory fashion. She was relieved that Clare did not further question her. Her story was perfectly true. She had walked up and down in front of Government House until, as might be expected, she was spoken to. She reached the boarding-house exhausted and trembling.

The days went on. The nerves both of Clare and Nara were so highly strung that it was wonderful they did not quarrel. Never was their antagonism so pronounced. Clare at times was at such a pitch of tension that she was strongly tempted to pay the girl a month’s wages and tell her to go. Nara’s very presence irritated her. But her skill in dressing hair​—​that had to be thought of. She must be retained until the reception at Government House. After that was over the sooner she went the better.

As for Nara, the listlessness and languor, indicative of the Eastern strain in her nature, so manifest after her arrival in Calcutta, had disappeared. The realisation of many a dream was at hand. She had now something to live for.

“The Sahib is in danger. I must warn him,” she repeated to herself over and over again, as though to keep her mission in mind. As if she could ever forget it! But it was very difficult to fulfil. Not only did Clare refuse her permission to go out save for a very short time, taunting her with wanting to meet the admirer who had kept her out so late on the night of the concert, but when she stole out while Clare was visiting she had to be constantly on the watch lest she should meet the “Begum.”

On the day of the reception at Government House Clare was a little more amiable, possibly because she wanted Nara to be in a good humour on account of the all-important business of the toilette.

“Do you remember, Nara, the first time you did my hair?” she asked, in dulcet tones.

“Yes, I do.”

“I want it arranged in the same way for to-night​—​with the rope of pearls, you know, and the diamonds at the sides.”

“I understand.”

Clare took her seat in front of the toilette glass, and Nara began. She did not take particular pains, and perhaps for that very reason was all the more successful. There was an air of abandon, an absence of effort which added to the effect. Clare was highly pleased, and certainly she never looked more handsome and attractive.

“I’ll see how she goes on. Perhaps I won’t get rid of her just yet,” was her thought.

After the reception, which was confined to the officers in or passing through Calcutta, there was to be a soirée with music, and perhaps dancing. It all depended upon Lady Canning. She had the reputation of being exceedingly amiable, and every one was sure there would be no rigid formality.

The proceedings were well advanced when Clare entered the crowded room. A military band was playing some lively Offenbach airs; some of the guests were promenading, groups were talking, the inevitable “wall-flowers” were not absent. Clare had come with a lady who was a personal friend of Lady Canning’s, and the introduction to her hostess over, she was at liberty to look about her.

When Clare entered the room she saw with much satisfaction people turning their heads to look at her. The whisperings which followed did not go unnoticed. Clare knew she was being criticised, and she was quite indifferent whether the criticisms were favourable or the reverse. The women were probably severely condemnatory, but this condemnation was a compliment. It was the opinion of the men that mattered. One rapid glance round told her that she had their admiration.

A knot of officers were in deep conversation in one corner. The centre of the group was a man to whom the others paid great deference. The officer on his right had his back turned towards Clare, and something said to him caused him to turn towards the speaker and reply. Clare saw his profile, and her heart beat violently. It was like Guy Horsford’s and yet unlike. The face was certainly thinner, the features more clearly cut than Guy’s were five years before. Suddenly he threw his head back slightly with a quick movement Clare remembered well when he wished to be emphatic. The little trick of manner revealed his personality at once.

The tell-tale blood rushed to her cheeks. The lady who had accompanied her was speaking, but Clare did not hear a word. The consciousness that the man who for over five years had never been for long absent from her thoughts was in sight of her eyes was overwhelming. She had mentally rehearsed the scene of their first meeting many times. She intended to be very calm and cool; she was certain she would be quite mistress of her emotions. Now that the moment had arrived she felt as helpless as a child.

One of her grievances against Horsford, and the one that angered her most, was the blow his desertion​—​as she called it​—​had inflicted on her vanity. This grievance was sometimes palliated by the thought that possibly it was a sense of her fascinations which had kept him away. She had tried to comfort herself by fancying that he was afraid of being tempted. For she had tempted him once, impelled by some power she could not resist​—​a power that had found her at her weakest. The punishment she meant to inflict was that he should be again fascinated, only to be disappointed. She had longed to see him make love to her​—​she had longed to laugh in his face. This was only one of her many moods. She had others which were tender and forgiving.

But now everything was forgotten in the one supreme fact that he was within sight, almost within hearing. All thought of the mask of indifference she intended to put on, of the piece of clever acting she meant to essay was gone. An inexplicable fear seized her. Something seemed to say that it were safer and better not to meet him. It was so easy to invent an excuse​—​a sudden headache would be enough. Yet the very idea of showing the white feather concerning the man over whom she had once triumphed and whom she had dreamed of bringing to his knees was sufficient to awake her rebellious spirit. She roused herself, and her elastic nervous system answered to the call.

“Who is the officer in the centre of the group over yonder?” said she.

It was marvellous how she had conquered her emotions. She spoke to her friend in the tone of one who had no interest in putting the question beyond idle curiosity.

“That is the commander-in-chief, General Anson,” said the lady. “He and my husband are old comrades.”

“You know him very well then?”

“Oh yes. He is a very charming man. I hope his responsibilities just now won’t prove too heavy for him. Great changes are taking place everywhere in India, and some people talk very gloomily about the future. I don’t know why, for all seems very much the same to me.”

“Of course. You needn’t go far at any time for dismal prophets. They date from Jeremiah. I like General Anson’s face exceedingly.”

“When I see an opportunity I’ll try to introduce you. Just now he appears to be much absorbed. No doubt he is interested in what has been going on in Burma. The man to the right, Colonel Horsford, went through the whole of the campaign and has just come from Pegu.”

“Colonel Horsford? I knew a little of a Captain Horsford in Simla years ago. Would that be the same?”

“Most likely. You may have a chance of satisfying yourself. It’s always pleasant to renew old acquaintances.”

“Yes​—​of course. Thank you very much, dear Mrs. Chandos.”

Clare could hardly trust herself to speak. Outwardly quite composed, for the rosy colour had fled under the tenseness of her nerves, inwardly she was a prey to conflicting emotions. Once more the monitor of her conscience spoke to her, but she steeled herself against its warnings.

“Ah, now is our chance,” said Mrs. Chandos. “Lady Canning has broken up the conference. We’ll saunter by and then we can stop as if accidentally. I shall be glad to exchange a few words with the General. I haven’t had the opportunity of talking to him yet.”

Mrs. Chandos was as good as her word. She carried out her little plan successfully; General Anson received Clare with the amiable deference a man, no matter what his rank may be, always shows towards a pretty woman, and they chatted about Simla, Mrs. Chandos having mentioned that Mrs. Meldrum, or rather her husband, had a bungalow there.

“I’m going to start for the hills shortly,” said the General pleasantly. “Perhaps I shall have the pleasure of meeting you.”

Clare smiled, and said she hoped so. Then Mrs. Chandos intervened, and Clare turned her eyes carelessly and let them fall on Horsford’s bronzed face. She purposely showed no sign of recognition. She wanted him to speak first. Her dissimulation was perfect. While she was staring blankly at him, she was quite conscious he knew her and was struggling to appear at ease. It gave her a sense of triumph to know that she apparently was unmoved and that he was in some confusion.

But she was mistaken as to the cause. He did not know she was married, and to hear her introduced as Mrs. Meldrum to General Anson came upon him with the effect of a cold douche. Though in the old days at Simla he had a sense of rivalry in regard to Andrew Meldrum, he never imagined Clare had thought seriously about the merchant.

“Clare!” she heard him say.

The sound of his deep, sonorous voice was almost too much for her self-possession. It brought back so much that was tender and human. All her intended artifices vanished. She put out her hand without a word, her eyes humid, a faint rose-tint suffusing her face even to her neck. It was rare that Clare showed such emotion.

“I’m glad to see you looking so well,” he went on after a pause.

“Thank you​—​Colonel Horsford. You see, I’ve heard of your advancement. I’m sure it’s well deserved. May I congratulate you? Meanwhile,” she added, with a touch of her old raillery, “it isn’t necessary to hold my hand for ever.”

She could not resist the thrust. It was accompanied by a swift glance, at once reproachful and indulgent.

“I beg your pardon​—​Mrs. Meldrum.”

Horsford did not mean this as a counter-thrust. Clare, however, so interpreted it. The “Mrs. Meldrum” sent a disagreeable little shiver over her body.

Suddenly he discovered they were by themselves. The group of talkers had broken up, Mrs. Chandos had gone off with General Anson, and there was no one near to whom they were known. But in a crowded room anything like an exchange of confidences was impossible.

“Shall we move from here?” said Horsford presently. “I fancy we’re rather in the way. Let us go into the balcony. The noise of the band is rather distracting, don’t you think so?”

She bowed and took his proffered arm without a word. They threaded their way between the groups towards the long, door-like windows opening into the balcony, which looked cool and refreshing enough, transformed as it had been into a bower of foliage and flowers.

While traversing the room Clare had had time to collect herself. It was too bad of Guy, she thought, to irritate her before they had been together five minutes. They sat down on a seat just large enough for both, and half shielded from the gaze of any one in the room who might pass the open window.

“You don’t look a day older, Clare,” said he, breaking a silence which promised to become embarrassing.

“Nor you. Perhaps a little thinner.”

“Very likely. I’ve been doing a deal of hard work the last five years, but hard work suits me.”

“Oh, you’re not any the worse for being thinner. The alert, wiry man is always the best.”

If Clare had intended to express her liking for Guy Horsford she could not have gone nearer the mark, for he answered to the description. His active life away from enervating Delhi had vastly improved him. He had not an ounce of superfluous flesh. He suggested a finely trained horse, ready for endurance as well as speed.

Another pause, again to be broken by Horsford.

“You congratulated me just now​—​may I be allowed to congratulate you?”

“On what?”

“On your marriage, of course. Or perhaps I ought rather to congratulate Mr. Meldrum.”

“You needn’t. He’s not here to reply for himself, and I’m not in a position to do it for him.”

She spoke tartly, and Horsford gave a side glance at her. There was no necessity for her to tell him in so many words that her marriage was a failure. He could see it in her face, he could hear it in her voice. He would have dropped the subject, but it was hardly possible. Neither Clare’s marriage nor her husband could be ignored.

Mr. Meldrum, then, is not in Calcutta?” he went on.

“No. Why do you ask?”

“I thought I saw him yesterday in the Maidan.”

“It’s quite impossible!” exclaimed Clare hastily. “Mr. Meldrum’s in Delhi. He’s not very well.”

Horsford was puzzled. An uncomfortable suspicion crept into his mind​—​a suspicion which pained him and which he could not easily dismiss. Scandals were so common in Delhi. Meldrum ill in Delhi, his wife in Calcutta​—​what did it mean?

Clare must have read Horsford’s thoughts. She went on to say:

“I’ve just come from England. I had a nervous breakdown over a year ago, and I had to leave Delhi. The climate was killing me.”

“The change has done you good?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she answered hastily. “Perhaps. Of course I’ve been free from worry​—​still, at times I’ve felt very lonely.”

“You’ve been travelling by yourself, then?”

“Good Heavens, Guy, do you think I could endure travelling a whole year and more with my husband? It would drive me mad!”

She could no longer command herself. The presence of Guy Horsford had been too much for her overwrought nerves. All idea of triumphing over him, of fascinating him, even, had vanished. What she wanted now was sympathy, tenderness. What she had had from him was cold questioning about her husband and her marriage!

A dozen impulses crowded upon her. She could have flown into a passion or burst into tears with equal facility. Perhaps the most galling of her thoughts was the precipitancy with which she had accepted Andrew Meldrum. If she had only waited! Fate had with cruel kindness thrown her into Horsford’s path. She believed he still loved her. She thought she read love in his eyes, in the vibration of his voice when the old word of familiarity, “Clare,” came from his lips. And to think that by her own act she was fettered! How small their differences seemed now. How childish her jealousy of a miserable dancing-girl​—​a girl too who belonged to the class most despised in India, the Eurasians! She had never troubled about the girl since. She did not know what had become of her and did not care. Oh, it was intolerable!

“Guy​—​why did you leave me without a word? You were cruel​—​cruel!”

The words burst from her without premeditation, and left her panting​—​hysterical. Horsford was dumbfounded, but whatever his feelings were towards her the moment was not one for weakness.

“Is it worth while to revive what’s dead? You must think of me what you will. We’ve each chosen our own path. Let us continue in it. It’s better and wiser​—​you must know that as well as I do.”

“Yes, for you, no doubt. But what about me? You’re a man and free. I’m a woman and a slave.”

“Clare​—​Clare, you’re talking downright nonsense.”

Horsford tried to introduce a note of sternness, but with not much success. His voice was not without pity​—​even tenderness.

“Oh, I dare say,” she retorted. “Women, according to some men, talk nothing else. Perhaps it’s because they’re such fools. Women ought never to be judged by what they say, but by what they do. I was horribly silly to be offended with you. I was not myself. You ought to have known that and made allowances. You had no business to take me seriously.”

“And if I were to admit that,” he returned very slowly, “what good would it do​—​now?”

“No good at all, I suppose. I wonder you don’t say that what I did​—​marrying a man for whom I didn’t care a bit​—​was my own fault​—​and that what followed might have been expected.”

“What followed! Surely​—​surely, Clare, you haven’t left your husband?”

Horsford spoke with concern, almost with agitation.

“I understand what you mean,” she exclaimed bitterly, “but you’re wrong. I’ve told you already why I went away, but it wasn’t quite the truth that it was on account of my health. India suits me admirably, but I couldn’t endure my husband, and I left him. I went to England by myself and I returned by myself.”

“But​—​but does he allow you to do this without remonstrance?” asked Horsford, a little staggered.

“Oh, there have been remonstrances enough, I promise you. Of course he’s always urging me to return. I have a letter from him​—​it reached me just before I left England, and I haven’t answered it​—​which I should like to show you some day. I——”

“Pray do nothing of the kind,” interrupted Horsford hastily. “You’ve given me too many confidences already.”

“And why shouldn’t I? Who has a better right to my confidence than you?”

Guy Horsford was silent. Her eyes flashed a look upon him, eloquent with meaning, and then dropped instantly.

“If you’d come to me when I asked you​—​if you’d only sent me a line!”

“You had my letter. I wrote it immediately I had yours. I had but an hour before starting for Calcutta to join Godwin’s force.”

“Yes, to escape from me. That was why you went to Burma. It was rather cowardly, wasn’t it?”

The injustice of this accusation stung Horsford to the quick.

“You’re wrong, Clare. You’ve no right to say such a thing. My application to join the Burma expedition was made before I went to Simla, and weeks before our meeting at your uncle’s bungalow,” he cried angrily. “When I went down for a few weeks’ holiday at Simla, how on earth could I tell I was to meet my fate there in the shape of yourself? You ought to know that a man in the army can’t be transferred from one regiment to another in five minutes. It means the unwinding of any amount of red tape.”

Something either in Horsford’s reproachful words or in his voice moved her. Tears suddenly started in her eyes.

“Forgive me, Guy. Yes, I was unjust to you. Forget my silliness.”

She insinuated her arm beneath his coaxingly, and inclined her head towards his shoulder.

At that moment the window was darkened. A man was entering the balcony. One more step, and his eyes were fixed upon them. With a little gasp of terror Clare sprang to her feet, and white and trembling faced the intruder​—​Andrew Meldrum!