Chapter XVII

Husband and Wife

Meldrum glared at them both for an instant.

“So I was not misinformed.… I flatly contradicted the man who told me that you … my wife … were in Calcutta. What’s the explanation? Do you refer me to … this gentleman?”

Andrew Meldrum’s words came from his pallid lips with a hissing of the breath. He stood rigid, his arms hanging straight, his hands clenched. Horsford had sprung from his seat almost as soon as Clare, and met Meldrum’s glaring eyes defiantly. Notwithstanding his defiance, he appreciated the embarrassing, the compromising nature of the situation, but how compromising it was he did not then realise. Clare had not told him all.

“You are entitled to an explanation, and so far as I’m able to give you one you shall have it, Mr. Meldrum,” he said quickly.

“Oh​—​you know me. So much the better. Just to clear the air​—​who are you?”

The balcony was not lighted save for the feeble illumination coming through the windows, and Horsford was in shadow.

“We’re not unacquainted to each other, Mr. Meldrum. I am Colonel Horsford. In Simla you knew me as Captain Horsford, and——”

You! Ha, I’m beginning to see daylight,” interrupted Meldrum, nodding his head slowly and mechanically.

“Stop,” cried Clare wildly. “You see nothing at all. You’re blind … as you’ve always been. I alone am answerable for everything. Colonel Horsford knew nothing of my being in Calcutta. We met accidentally half an hour ago. I refer you to Mrs. Chandos.”

Clare’s explanation sounded lame. It was true so far as Horsford was concerned, but not true in regard to Clare herself. It was the consciousness of this that made her voice ring falsely. Meldrum heard her unmoved.

“You tell me I’ve seen nothing. Then you were not caressing … your old friend … maybe your old lover, for aught I can tell … when I entered. I’m afraid I spoiled sport. I apologise. I hardly know what is the proper course for me​—​the husband​—​to take. The practice among gentlemen under similar awkward circumstances used to be to do their best to kill each other. I don’t propose to do anything so silly. What do you suggest, Colonel Horsford?”

“I suggest nothing, sir. I’m prepared to take full responsibility for any offence you may attribute to me. I’m concerned only for Mrs. Meldrum. It’s but bare justice to her to say that since I left Simla, over five years ago, I’ve had no communication with her, and when I entered this house I had not the slightest idea I should meet her. We had a perfect right to talk as old friends, and any suspicion that we are otherwise is both groundless and childish.”

“Oh, your stories agree wonderfully. I might have expected as much. I suppose there’s nothing left for me but to accept your explanations and be thankful it’s no worse. Perhaps I’d better not seek to know more. At any rate, I presume I haven’t at present abrogated my rights over Mrs. Meldrum. I’m still her husband. For the moment we won’t go beyond this. You say you are concerned for Mrs. Meldrum. Permit me to take that responsibility. You’ll have the goodness to come with me, Clare​—​at once.”

His imperious air, his sneering tones, cut Clare like the slash of a whip.

“I refuse,” she cried, her eyes blazing. “I’m not your slave, Andrew Meldrum, though you paid a high price for me. Go by yourself. Do what you like. I don’t care.”

“You mean that you prefer to remain with your paramour?”

The accusation was intolerable. Hitherto Horsford had kept a strong curb upon himself​—​indeed, it seemed to him the position was so unhappy that he could not interfere without making matters worse, but Meldrum’s offensive charge was not to be borne.

“That’s a falsehood, sir!” he cried hotly, “and​—​what is much worse​—​a gross insult to your wife.”

“Do you defend her?”

“Yes, against insults, even insults from her own husband.”

Meldrum was silent. He seemed to be taken aback by Horsford’s bold front. He stood biting his lips and evidently puzzled what to do. Before he could answer Clare interposed.

“Thank you, Colonel Horsford, but I can defend myself. I refused just now to accompany Mr. Meldrum. I’ve altered my mind, I suppose you’d like to go now. I’m quite ready.”

Clare’s words were addressed to her husband, but they were meant for Horsford, and the latter understood. She did not want the two men to quarrel.

Meldrum showed no signs of triumph at his wife’s submission. He simply shrugged his shoulders.

“I’m glad you’ve come to your senses,” said he, almost contemptuously.

Clare heard him with studied indifference.

“Would you be good enough to take me to the ante-room?” said she icily to Meldrum. “My wraps are there.”

Meldrum would have offered his arm, but Clare anticipated him by passing swiftly into the room. For an instant Horsford and Meldrum were alone. The former stepped forward hastily.

“This matter can’t end here. I shall write to you.”

“As you please. A letter to Osmonde’s hotel will find me.”

Husband and wife threaded their way between the groups. Horsford stood in the window watching them and saw Clare leave her husband and proceed alone to the ante-room.

The whole affair was the most extraordinary and most unhappy complication possible; as humiliating as it was unhappy, and not the less so because he was innocent of having done anything purposely to bring about the catastrophe. Guy Horsford had come from Burma a free man, without an embarrassment of any kind, eager to devote himself heart and soul to assist in smoothing out the difficulties of which those who could see below the surface of things in India were apprehensive, and without a moment’s notice he was plunged into an entanglement out of which there appeared to be no escape with honour.

“What does it mean? Nemesis?” he asked himself gloomily.

It was impossible to tell where Clare’s complexity of character would lead her. Rashness, uncontrollable impulses, strong feminine egotism, pertinacity​—​a formidable combination indeed, and one full of the unexpected. How much of what she had said was he to believe? She had told him distinctly Meldrum was in Delhi. Did she knowingly tell him a lie? Was it true she had been away from her husband over a year, travelling by herself? If so, was there any cause other than her “nervous breakdown,” and her inability to endure Meldrum’s society? If she spoke the truth, why had she come to Calcutta? Was she returning to her husband?

It was all puzzling, worrying, and made the more so by the revelation that Clare had never forgotten the love passages of that fateful evening in Simla. Did not her eyes speak even more than her tender reproaches?

“If I’d the slightest idea she was going to be so foolish I’d never have suggested talking in the balcony. That was my fault, I know. What’s the next step? Write my letter of explanation to Meldrum, of course, and chance his accepting it. I can think of nothing else. What to do about Clare is a much harder nut to crack. Best do nothing, I suppose. It will all simmer down. Matrimonial squabbles generally do. Anyhow, the superfluous third person always makes matters worse. Clare surely will have the sense to smooth Meldrum over. Yes, I shall let things drift so far as she’s concerned.”

An uncomfortable reflection flashed across Horsford’s mind that letting things drift had already borne disastrous consequences. The letter he had written to Clare on the eve of his departure for Burma had not made it clear that he had severed himself completely and entirely from her. It had seemed at the time brutal to say as much in so many words, but as the sequel had shown it would be wiser to have been cruel to be kind.

Horsford rapidly traversed the crowded room. He descended the broad staircase, pushed his way through the crowd of native servants, and reached the hall. A carriage was waiting at the foot of the steps, and a lady and gentleman were about to get inside. Horsford was half way down the steps before he realised that the two were Andrew Meldrum and Clare. Having no wish for a further encounter with either, Horsford would have retreated, when he heard his name screamed in shrill, feminine accents: “Sahib Horsford!”

The space in front of Government House was thronged by natives eager for sight-seeing, no matter how trivial. It was difficult to say where the cry came from; there was a commotion, the carriage started, and at the same moment a slim, white-robed figure ran from the crowd in front of the horses. Then she was seen to fall; either her foot had slipped or her scarf had caught the pole of the carriage. Guttural shrieks and yells were heard on all sides. The horses were fresh and spirited, and one reared, preventing the coachman from seeing what was going on. His whip slashed the flanks of the restive steeds, and they sprang forward.

What happened next was Horsford springing at a bound from the steps to the horses’ heads and forcing them back till they were on their haunches. Lying motionless on the ground beneath their plunging hoofs was a girl, her veil torn from her face. Half a dozen dusky forms crept forward and drew her out of danger. Horsford let go his hold of the horses and helped them. There was blood on her white sari, and she was insensible.

“A smart bit of work that, Horsford. Another second, and those thundering hoofs would have pounded her to a jelly. By Jove, what a handsome girl!”

This was from an officer who had been standing near the spot at the commencement of the incident. He had quickly followed Horsford, whom he knew, and the two Englishmen were bending over the girl.

“Is she hurt much?” whispered Horsford’s friend.

“I don’t know. The head seems to have escaped. That blood’s from a cut in the arm. Fell on a stone, perhaps. We’d better get her to the hospital, anyhow.”

A sergeant was looking on, and Horsford spoke to him. The sergeant thought he knew where to find a dhoolie, and he ran off. One of the native police came up to Horsford.

“The Sahib in the carriage wishes me to tell you,” said the man, “that he regrets the accident, and that if it is his fault in any way will you send word to him. The Sahib says that you know where he is to be found.”

Horsford, then, had been recognised by the Meldrums. He did not know whether to be pleased or sorry. He sent a brief message by the policeman to the effect that he could not tell if the girl was seriously hurt, but that he would see she was properly attended to. She would be taken to the hospital. The man went back to Meldrum, and presently the carriage rolled by. Horsford purposely kept his head bent, and did not see Clare’s drawn, pale face at the carriage window. Presently the sergeant and a couple of men arrived with the dhoolie, and the girl was carried away, still unconscious.

The carriage meanwhile was speeding on its way to Osmonde’s Hotel. Not a word passed between Clare and her husband. When the carriage stopped Meldrum alighted and held out his hand.

“No,” said she curtly. “I am not coming. I’m going on to my boarding-house. You’d perhaps like to know where it is. I’m staying at Stephenson’s.”

“Does this mean you intend to go right away from me?”

“I don’t know exactly what I intend to do. Anyhow, I don’t mean to stay at your hotel to-night.”

“And what about your explanation you were so anxious to give me a short time ago?”

“My explanation will keep. I’ll give it you to-morrow. I shall want an explanation from you.”

“From me? About what?”

“About the frankly brutal letter you sent me. That virtually decided me. I looked upon it as my dismissal. I didn’t suit you​—​you were greatly disappointed, and you told me to go.”


“Oh, I have the letter, and I shall never destroy it lest you may be tempted to deny your own words. I presume you’ll agree with me that we can hardly discuss a matter of this kind through a carriage door, and I don’t suppose you think of dragging me out by force. May I beg the loan of your carriage? If not, I can walk. It’s no distance from here to Stephenson’s.”

Meldrum bowed, and wheeling round abruptly walked away slowly and entered the hotel. He was choking, not with rage, but with grief and mortification. Rigid as his principles were, he could have found it in his heart to forgive his wife had she shown the slightest sign of remorse. But her attitude was one which he could not help thinking was intended to anger him further and raise the barriers already existing between them. He did not want to believe her guilty, but what was he to think?

Clare, left in the carriage, had not time to speculate as to what her husband’s cold acquiescence might mean, for in a couple of minutes she was at the boarding-house. So far as it was possible for her to turn the thing over in her mind she was puzzled. She was not one to understand passiveness in a man. She was inclined to attribute it either to cowardice or craft. Andrew Meldrum, she knew, was not a coward​—​therefore silence in his case meant craft.

“He’s preparing something. I’m sure of it,” she murmured. “Well, we shall see.”

She walked wearily to her room. She was sick at heart and tired in brain. The entire fabric of the castle she had built in the air was shattered. She had pictured a triumph. She had suffered defeat. The net result of all her scheming was to deepen the dislike of her husband to hatred. She had gone through a process of degradation in his eyes. No argument could do away with this fact. The effect was to harden her, to blind her to the consequences of her headstrong folly.

Yet with all her egotism Clare was helpless by herself. She felt horribly lonely. She sank on the couch and tried to picture all that had happened during that too brief half hour on the balcony. How she had looked forward to meeting Horsford, to fascinating him afresh! She believed she had made herself invincible​—​thanks to Nara and she would have conquered, but for the unlucky intrusion of her husband.

She glanced at the mirror as if to justify her thoughts. Her hair was certainly arranged in a fashion that was strangely effective. It was a mystery how it was put up; it was equally a mystery how it was to be taken down. Only Nara could do it properly. She languidly rose and rang the bell. A servant belonging to the house appeared in answer to the summons. Nara had gone out soon after the mem-sahib, and had not returned. It was now eleven o’clock. This meant that the girl had been away some three hours.

“Unpardonable,” exclaimed Clare angrily. “She may stop out altogether. I’ll have no more to do with her. Can you wait on me to-night?”

The woman hesitated and mumbled something. Like all the native servants, she had only one idea​—​the special duties for which she had been engaged.

“How ridiculous! Of course I shall pay you. Mrs. Stephenson will have no objection, I’m sure. Ah, here is Mrs. Stephenson.”

A heavy step was heard in the corridor, and the portly proprietress of the boarding-house was seen approaching.

“Have you heard about poor Nara?” she called out, before she reached Clare.

“I’ve heard nothing. I’ve been wanting her.”

“She’s met with an accident. The poor girl was knocked down and run over in front of Government House. Hasun, one of my khidmutgars, saw it all, and he’s just come in with the news. She seems to have run in front of a carriage and slipped just as the horses were starting. It was no fault of the coachman.”

Clare started. Instantly the scene was before her eyes. She saw the girl lying on the ground, and Guy Horsford bending over her. No wonder, with his gaze fixed on Nara’s beauty, Horsford had no eyes for her. A pang of jealousy shot through her​—​absurd, unreasonable, of course, but she could not help it.

“I’m afraid it was”​—​she was about to say “my husband’s carriage,” but this would mean explaining things to Mrs. Stephenson, and she was in no mood for explanations, so she substituted “the carriage that brought me home. I knew something had happened​—​that somebody had met with an accident, but I’d not the least idea it was Nara.”

“Dear me, what an extraordinary coincidence that you should have been in the very carriage. The khidmutgar says that the girl saw some one she knew, called out his name, and ran across the road to speak to him, and in her hurry stumbled and fell.”

Called out his name? Yes, Clare had heard the girl’s voice, and the words certainly sounded like “Sahib Horsford,” but she put down the resemblance to her fancy, for at the moment Guy Horsford was uppermost in her mind.

“How shocking! If I had only known, of course I should have looked after her myself. Is she much hurt?”

“The khidmutgar could not tell me. She was carried to the hospital in a dhoolie, and two English officers were looking after her.”

Clare’s heart beat violently. She was silent for a few seconds, and then with an effort said:

“And the man the girl was calling to​—​did he go as well?”

“Well, according to Hasun’s story, one of the English officers was the man. I can hardly believe it​—​you know what inveterate gossips the natives are, and what splendid liars they can be when they like.”


The word was little more than breathed. Clare felt as though a pall had suddenly descended upon her. Everything was vague save one​—​her jealous hatred of Nara. Nara’s halting story the other night of the reason why she was late instantly darted into Clare’s mind, and here was the solution of the mystery! And here also was the explanation of Horsford’s lack of warmth. The two must have become acquainted!

Mrs. Stephenson saw that Clare was terribly upset, and attributed her distress to her being personally associated with Nara’s accident, and after remarking by way of consolation that Mrs. Meldrum “had nothing to reproach herself with,” that “no doubt the story was much exaggerated,” and that the “girl was certain to be well looked after,” bade Clare good-night, and went off to talk the matter over with another of her lady boarders.

In the meantime the ayah had taken the opportunity to steal away, but this did not matter now to Clare, who returned to her room with faltering steps. She closed and bolted the door mechanically and stood for a few moments quivering from head to foot, her nerves unhinged, her brain incapable of grasping any idea clearly. Once more she caught sight of her reflection in the mirror, and a sudden revulsion of feeling seized her. In a frenzy of passion she tore the jewels from her hair and tugged at the involved tresses until they were hanging dishevelled and tangled. She felt no pain, though she had used all her strength, but she was exhausted, and threw herself on the bed, where she lay like one lifeless till morning broke.