Chapter XIX

The Heart of a Woman

The visitor had her back towards Horsford when he entered the room, and she remained motionless, though she must have heard the door open. She did not even turn when he approached her. Of course it was Clare. He could not mistake the symmetrical shoulders, the lithe figure, the erect carriage of the head. The defiance, the self-assertion suggested by her attitude were in striking contrast to the gentle girl of the East. It was inevitable that he should at that moment think of Nara. The tender affection written in the girl’s eyes, in every accent of her soft, liquid voice, was fresh in his memory.

He came to a dead stop when within a pace or so of the statuesque figure, and waited silently. Quite thirty seconds went by, and she jerked herself round impatiently.

He was amazed at the change he could see in her. She was unusually pale​—​her lips indeed were white​—​there were symptoms of dark curves beneath the eyes, and the eyes themselves shone with a hard, metallic light.

“Why don’t you speak to me, Guy?” she cried huskily. “Can’t you see​—​don’t you know that you’re the only one in the world I can appeal to? I came to ask your help​—​of course you were not to blame for being out, but waiting for you to return got on my nerves. I’ve been here an hour, and it has been an eternity. I thought it would never come to an end, and now​—​you​—​you say nothing. Oh​—​oh.…”

She suddenly broke down. Her highly strung nervous system reached the last point of tension. She burst into a passionate fit of hysterical sobbing. Horsford was terribly pained, but in Clare’s excited state to ask for an explanation was, he knew, useless. He led her gently to the couch and persuaded her to sit quietly for a time.

Clare was not a woman to be soothed in a moment​—​Horsford could see this plainly enough, and he did not express any pity or sympathy. He rang the bell and went into the corridor and waited until a servant came. Then he ordered a bottle of champagne. He did not return until the wine was brought, and he took it into the room himself.

The storm was subsiding. Clare’s lips were quivering, her eyes were red and swollen, but the hysterical sobbing had ceased. She looked at him wildly, despairingly, almost dazed. It was doubtful whether she had been conscious of his absence. Horsford took no notice of her but opened the champagne. There was something prosaic and worldly in the sound of the popping cork which acted as a counter-irritant to her exalted feelings. At first she refused the wine, but Horsford peremptorily ordered her to drink it, and she obeyed almost meekly. As it happened Horsford had done the right thing. Her shattered condition was due not only to her harassed mind and to her uncontrolled emotions, but also to the fact that since seven o’clock the previous evening she had eaten nothing.

“Thank you,” Horsford heard her say in a faint voice.

“Now let’s talk quietly,” said he. “What’s amiss?”

“I’ve left my husband for ever. I won’t go back​—​not that he’s ever likely to ask me. I fancy I’ve made that impossible. At all events I want it to be so. I’ve told him the truth.”

Horsford could make no reply. He was staggered. For a moment he thought Clare had taken leave of her senses. But there was no sign of derangement in those clear, steady eyes. Her excitement had passed. Evidently she had come with the intention of confessing to him what she had done, and the accomplishment of her task had been accompanied by a reaction which left her with the abnormal composure of despair.

“And how much of the truth does that mean?” Horsford asked slowly.

“All​—​your share as well as mine. There was nothing else to be done. Andrew called on me this morning, and began by telling me he had had your letter and that he did not believe what you said in it about our meeting here being accidental.”

“But it was,” cried Horsford vehemently. “Did you not tell him so?”

“Yes. I said you were innocent​—​that we hadn’t heard from each other for five years​—​that you hadn’t the slightest idea I was in Calcutta when you threw up your appointment in Pegu​—​that you didn’t even know I was married. Oh, I fought for you, Guy. I did you justice. I returned good for evil.”

“Evil?” faltered Horsford. “What have I done to you that was evil?”

She looked at him steadily, with an ironic light in her eyes.

“You … left me.”

“And was that why you married Meldrum? You needn’t have done so.”

“I thought it best. You gave me no hope in the letter you wrote from Delhi that you would ever see me again​—​that you wanted to see me again.”

“The chances were against our meeting. No one knew how the Burmese war was going to turn out. There were not many casualties, it is true, but there was plenty of fever. Apparently you had cast me off, and I was anxious you should be free.”

“Free? How could I ever be free? What is it that chains us? Thought​—​memory​—​regret​—​disappointment.”

Horsford made no answer. He felt that Clare in a way was right.

“We needn’t go into the old story. It doesn’t matter who was to blame. The world would say I was the sinner. The world can say what it likes. It may have plenty to talk about soon,” she went on.

Horsford still remained silent. Clare’s recklessness, her persistency in recalling the past and ignoring their separation, which he had always regarded as one they had mutually agreed to, appalled him. Argument, reason, commonsense were powerless against her femininity.

“Yes, I told him everything,” she went on in a dogged, impassive manner. “It was the only thing to do. I did not want him to be under a false impression. And I felt I could no longer go on acting the lie against which I’ve been struggling for the last five years. He wanted to know why I had come to Calcutta. A good many people​—​you yourself, Guy, though you didn’t say it in so many words​—​have wondered why. I said that it was in order to meet you.”

“Me? That was a lie,” burst out Guy furiously. “How could you say such a thing? God in Heaven, that you——”

“No, no. You mustn’t say a word until you’ve heard all,” she implored, holding her hand against his lips. “Haven’t I told you I did you justice? As God is my judge, Guy, I am speaking the truth. Accidentally I read in an Indian paper I saw in London that you were leaving Pegu for an appointment in Calcutta, and I could not resist the temptation of coming to see you.”

“You confessed all this to your husband?” demanded Horsford chokingly.

“Yes. But I also said that you knew nothing of my intention.”

“And did he believe you?”


“Of course not. No man in his senses would,” cried Horsford, in a bitter tone.

Clare’s incredible folly unnerved him. He walked up and down the room overwhelmed. Never in his life had he imagined that he would come to hate a woman, and one so beautiful and fascinating as Clare. The next moment he reproached himself for having used the word “hate” even mentally. How could he hate one who looked so dejected, so lonely and helpless as Clare looked at that moment? Pity was the proper feeling. But neither pity nor hate would aid him to solve the difficulty of the future? What was in Clare’s mind in paying him this embarrassing visit after her fatal confession to her husband?

He stopped in front of her abruptly.

“What do you intend to do now that you’re alone?” he asked.

“That’s a question, Guy, you ought to be able to answer,” said she, in a low voice, and with her eyes cast down.

“I’d rather have the answer from your lips, Clare.”

“How cruel you are! You were cruel when you left me. You are cruel now. You want to humiliate me as you humiliated me five years ago.”

“Humiliate you?” he cried hastily. “What madness! When did I humiliate you?”

“When you compelled me to write to Delhi begging you to return to me. Don’t think I regret the letter, for it told you what was in my heart, but it was a humiliation all the same. What happened afterwards? Five years of wretchedness for me, a life of freedom, of activity for you.”

“But it was your own choice that you married Meldrum. I was not to blame for that.”

“How like the reasoning of a man! He helps to place a woman in circumstances from which there’s but one way of escape for her, and she alone is in fault! At the time I felt I could do nothing else but marry. Fear drove me into it.”

Horsford was silent. There was force in her reasoning.

“You ask me what I intend to do now that I’m alone,” she went on. “I don’t know. I seem enveloped in darkness. I want you to guide me. Whom can I come to but you?”

Not a word could Horsford say. He was as much in darkness as she. Clare approached him almost timidly, clasped his arm with both hands, and looked up into his eyes.

“I’ve left my husband because of you, Guy. Isn’t that claim sufficient? Am I to suffer by myself?”

“No,” he returned quickly. “That’s the last thing I wish. I’m not reproaching you. I’ve not the ghost of a right to do that​—​but why did you make that terrible confession?”

“Oh, it was inevitable,” she answered, with perfect composure. “Not only because of last night, but because it was my answer to my husband’s letter I told you about. I’ve brought it with me. I want you to read it.”

“I’d rather not. How can it concern me?”

“It does. You must.”

Agitatedly she drew the letter from her pocket and thrust it into his hand. When he had mastered the contents he could see how they must have galled Clare’s proud spirit. To be called a well-dressed doll and by her husband! The offence was unforgivable.

“Meldrum ought never to have written that,” said he slowly.

“I’m glad he did. Can’t you see it gave me a cause of quarrel? What do I care now for his insults? Everything has happened for the best. Haven’t I met you, Guy?”

“Yes, you’ve met me,” he repeated, drawing a long breath. “And the devil is with us, too. I’m off to Delhi this evening.”

“Delhi? Then I’ll go with you! Delhi of all places! Meldrum’s home is there. What a triumph for me!”

“My God, Clare, you’re mad! Scandal won’t affect me​—​it slips off a man’s back pretty easily, but it sticks to a woman, whatever part of the world she may be in. I can’t prevent you going to Delhi by yourself, but with me​—​for Heaven’s sake think twice!”

“Think? Haven’t I been thinking for the last five years? I’m not blind to my own nature. I’m lost if I haven’t the companionship of a man who’s congenial to me. I’m not going back to my husband, that’s certain, and if you cast me off​—​Guy——”

She suddenly altered her tone, and her manner with it. The first was hard, the second aggressive. She continued:

“When we separated our difference​—​I can hardly call it a quarrel​—​was over a dancing-girl. You preached about saving her from a horrible life. What about my life, Guy? What will you do to save me?”

“The dancing-girl was but a child.”

“That isn’t the point. If you thought it right to save a girl from shame how much more anxious you ought to be to save a woman​—​and one who——”

Her voice quivered, and she turned her head away.

“You mean, I suppose, that you’ve cut yourself adrift, and that you’ve now nothing to live upon.”

“I don’t mean anything of the kind. The balance of my settlement isn’t so small as Andrew’s letter might lead you to imagine. Lawton and his friends would have robbed me​—​you know how easily cheating can be done over horse-racing​—​and I took precautions. I purposely withdrew a large sum from the bank and invested it in English securities. Andrew chose to pay my debts, but I dare say he was thinking more of his own credit than mine. I’ve enough to live upon. That’s nothing. Can’t you realise what my position is?”

“It was your own doing,” said Horsford gloomily.

“Put it that way, if you like. It’s too late to trouble about fixing one’s responsibility. I know what awaits me. I didn’t travel alone for a year without discovering what men think of women who are ‘unattached.’ They’re prey to be pursued. I could take care of myself then​—​you were ever in my mind, Guy. But if you discard me​—​I suppose you have a right​—​I can’t say what may happen.”

“You don’t mean this for a threat, do you, Clare?” said Horsford, after a pause.

“No. I’m simply telling you what I’m sure will follow. Of course, I’ve come across well-dressed men of charming manners who were scoundrels all the same. They abound in foreign hotels. I’ve learned to tell that kind of man at a glance. But there are others, rich, generous, well-meaning and​—​foolish. Do you suppose I couldn’t have made them fall in love with me had I chosen? But they didn’t interest me, and I looked upon them with indifference, not because of my husband, but because of you. And if you leave me I shall go straight to rack and ruin. I know myself too well.”

A long silence followed. Clare’s eyes, wild, dilated, like those of a prisoner awaiting the verdict of the jury, were fixed on Horsford. At last he spoke.

“You shall have your way, Clare,” said he very quietly. “As you said, it’s too late to talk about fixing responsibility. For the future I answer for you. Just now, at all events, we’d better be practical.” He looked at his watch. “It’s three o’clock. At six I start for Raniganj. If you can catch the same train well and good. If not come by the first train to-morrow, and you will find I’ve made arrangements at Raniganj to travel by dâk to Delhi.”

“Won’t you wait for me at Raniganj?” she pleaded.

“No. I want you to understand clearly that whatever happens the first thing is my duty. I must obey orders, and those orders are to reach Delhi with all possible despatch. Nothing​—​not even you, Clare​—​must stand in the way.”

“You misjudge me, Guy, if you think I’m going to be a burden. I only want to be near you​—​to talk with you when we can​—​to know that we’re friends. I’ll do anything you ask me. It shall be as you say. I’ll follow you to-morrow. Good-bye. You’ll be glad to get rid of me.”

She lifted her eyes imploringly. He read the meaning of the yearning look. He kissed her, and the kiss would have been a cold one but that she flung her arms about his neck. He could feel her throbbing.

“I love you, dear,” she whispered brokenly. “I’ve always loved you. I shall love you to the end, whatever that end may be.”

She clung to him convulsively, and then tore herself away.

“Whatever that end may be,” repeated Horsford to himself mechanically when he was alone.

He stood for a few seconds in a kind of reverie, and then, shrugging his shoulders as one who meant to take things philosophically and make the best of them, he summoned his servant, and for the next half-hour busied himself in the work of packing.

Again Horsford was at the hospital and was taken direct to the doctor’s room​—​Dr. Pentreath had given orders to that effect.

“I’m glad you’ve come, Colonel Horsford,” said the bluff doctor. “I want to speak straight to you. I don’t know how you regard that interesting protégée of yours​—​it’s no affair of mine, and all I’m concerned about is the girl as a patient. It’s my duty to do the best I can for her. She’s horribly harassed in her mind and quite likely as not to do something desperate. Her brain isn’t working normally, and won’t while she’s thinking about you. It’s no use beating about the bush​—​the poor child’s madly in love with you, and the less she sees of you the better. I’ll have a talk with her and explain that you’ve been ordered off to Delhi.”

“It would be at once the truth and the best thing to do. Look here, doctor, I’m going to ask a favour of you. I want you to keep Nara here in some capacity, it doesn’t matter what​—​I think you’ll find her useful. I don’t want you to pay her​—​that is to say, out of the funds of the hospital. I’ll arrange that with you and subscribe something to the funds besides. You understand the interest I take in her, don’t you?”

“Oh, certainly,” said the doctor drily. It seemed to him quite natural. The beauty of the girl was a sufficient reason.

“Then it’s settled, I take it. Her appointment will only be temporary. I expect to be back in Calcutta in May, and then I will consider what’s to be done.”

“There’s no harm in the notion,” said the doctor; “at the same time if it doesn’t work out to your satisfaction, don’t blame me.”

“I won’t. I’m sure you’ll do your best.”

There was nothing more to be said, and Horsford hurried away, by no means easy in his mind. He had voluntarily loaded himself with fetters from which he could not possibly get free. The position was as false as it was bound to be embarrassing and compromising. The worst of it was that he could give no explanation, and if he could no one would believe him. There was no man in the train that steamed out of Calcutta that evening so silent and absorbed as Colonel Guy Horsford.

Meanwhile the doctor had fulfilled his promise. He gave Nara Horsford’s message. She listened quietly, and then shook her head.

“No​—​no. I won’t stay unless the Sahib tells me with his own lips. Why doesn’t he come to see me? He said he would. Let him tell me himself.”

“Quite impossible, my dear. Colonel Horsford was obliged to leave Calcutta, and by this time he is on his way to Delhi.”

“To Delhi? Oh——”

A look of fright was in her eyes. The exclamation came from her lips in a long-drawn sigh.

“So you see,” went on the doctor, “you must please him by your obedience, and wait patiently for his return in two months’ time. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” he heard her say in a sad whisper.

“I’ve done the best I could for Horsford,” thought the doctor. “At the same time, I hate working in the dark. I’ll bet there’s a lot more in this affair that Colonel Horsford’s kept to himself. I’d like to know what it is.”

The good doctor was not destined to have his curiosity satisfied; on the contrary it was to be further excited. Early the next morning the nurse knocked at his door and came in, looking very agitated.

“If you please, sir, a most extraordinary thing’s happened​—​but it was no fault of mine​—​I was not on night duty​—​I——”

“Well?” said the doctor sharply.

“The girl​—​the ayah you gave me instructions about last night​—​is gone.”

“Gone? Gone where?”

“I don’t know, sir. She must have escaped by the window in the night. The night nurse says she was called to the Nightingale Ward, and the girl must have taken the opportunity to slip out. Nurse says she was only away five minutes, and when she came back it did not occur to her to look at the bed, and so nothing was known until I went in this morning as usual.”

News indeed, but not surprising. It only confirmed the doctor’s conviction that Horsford had not told him all. But he had no time to think the matter out, for at that moment a card was brought to him by the hall porter. Mrs. Meldrum had called.

“I must see this lady. About the girl, nurse, if she’s really gone I don’t know that we can do anything, but I’ll look into the matter presently.”

The nurse departed and Clare was ushered into the room. She was looking her best. Whatever might be in store for her, she felt at that moment in an exaltation of spirits to which she had long been a stranger. She had not carried out her dream of fascinating Guy Horsford a second time​—​of bringing him to her feet; but she was free from the hateful fetters imposed upon her by her marriage with Meldrum. Not, indeed, legally free, but for this she cared little. Before a woman’s will and a woman’s heart the law was powerless. She never thought of Guy Horsford’s position. It did not matter how she had compromised him and herself. She was blind to the consequences of her wilfulness. If she reflected at all on the situation it was with a sense of relief that the heart-burnings, the bitterness, the regrets, the folly​—​regrets that seemed vain, and folly which appeared irremediable​—​of the last five years were gone. She had no longer any fear about Horsford, she had bound him to her by a link stronger than that of love​—​the link of honour.

So it was natural that the freshness, the gaiety of her young days should dawn once more, and the sharpness that of late had crept into her voice begin to soften. It was with quite her old charm of manner and gracious smile that she made known her errand to Dr. Pentreath.

“It is curious that you should come at this moment, Mrs. Meldrum,” said the doctor. “A strange discovery has just been made. The girl has disappeared. I’m unable to tell you more than that at present. The nurse who had her in charge thinks she made her escape by the window, and it may be so. The sill is but some ten feet from the ground. But I haven’t had time to make inquiries. However, if you like to wait while I do so, I may be able to tell you more.”

“I’m afraid I can’t stay. My train starts in half an hour. I’m going to Delhi. I thought I would like to know how the poor girl was going on. It so happens that she came from England with me, but I only engaged her for the voyage, and she was virtually out of my service when the accident happened, but of course that would make no difference. I want to do what is right.”

“Certainly. I may say that I’ve had a message to a similar effect from Mr. Meldrum, but no doubt you’re aware of that.”

Mr. Meldrum​—​oh yes——”

Clare was confused for a moment or two, and then recovering herself, said:

“Have you any idea why she left the hospital?”

“Not the slightest. I suppose you can’t throw any light upon the mystery, Mrs. Meldrum?”

“Well, I had my suspicions she had a sweetheart in Calcutta. Indeed, I was obliged to reprimand her on that account. She was so neglectful. It may be he was a soldier and was going away. By the way, it was Colonel Horsford who rescued her, wasn’t it?”

“Yes. Do you know him?”

“Very well indeed. We were old friends in Simla five years ago.”

“Then I dare say you’ve heard of the strange romance of the pretty dancing-girl in which he was concerned.”

“I believe there was some talk of the kind. What of it?”

Clare’s voice had suddenly become harsh. She had never expected such a test of her powers of self-possession as this. Her object in calling at the hospital was simply to observe the conventionalities. It was, of course, bound to be known that the injured girl was her ayah, and what would people say if she made no inquiries? True, a pang of jealousy had seized her when she thought how Horsford might admire Nara, but as he had gone to Delhi there was nothing to trouble about. The unsuspecting doctor went on.

“Well, it turns out that your ayah is the heroine of his romance. She’s the daughter of an old comrade of his who was killed at Moodkee. The story’s too long to tell in all its details​—​indeed I shouldn’t have mentioned it but for the fact that you and Colonel Horsford are old friends​—​but the gist is that he managed to get the girl to England. How she came back you, of course, Mrs. Meldrum, know better than I do.”

Clare hardly paid attention to what Pentreath was saying. A hundred confused thoughts were agitating her. The room had suddenly become suffocating. She rose, declined the suggestion that she should wait until inquiries were made about Nara’s strange disappearance, and with difficulty maintained her self-command while the doctor escorted her down the staircase.

She hurried back to the boarding-house and shut herself in her own room. All the emotional struggles she had gone through since that fateful night in Simla were nothing in comparison to this which now convulsed her whole being. It seemed to her that the perfidy of Guy Horsford was made evident. No doubt he had kept up a correspondence with Nara during the last five years, and it followed that it was an arranged thing she should meet him at Calcutta. Nara’s absence on the night of the concert and her constant desire to get out were now accounted for. It was also clear why Horsford refused to travel with her (Clare) to Delhi. Of course he wanted her rival for his companion and the girl had run away from the hospital to join him!

Clare remained in her room the entire day, surrendering herself to the bitterest pangs a woman can suffer. All her sacrifices had been in vain. But for Guy Horsford she might have endured her life with Andrew Meldrum. She could have done pretty much as she liked had she chosen to humour him. But from the first she had thwarted and irritated her husband. And it had all come to this​—​she was a woman scorned, duped, made a thing of nought to be flung aside for a girl of mixed blood, doubtful parentage, and belonging to a shameful calling!

The train for Raniganj steamed out of Calcutta that evening, but Clare was not a passenger, and it was whispered in the boarding-house that Mrs. Meldrum had altered her plans. She was not going to Delhi.

Dr. Pentreath could make nothing of the puzzle of Nara’s disappearance. It looked, however, as if Nurse Barton’s theory of the manner of her escape was well-founded. A portion of the girl’s sari was found on the earth immediately below the window; no doubt it had been torn when she let herself down. The doctor could do little more in the matter beyond reporting it to the Calcutta police. He was sure they would not trouble, as there was no suspicion of foul play, and no doubt the incident would be soon forgotten.

Before this period was reached, however, it was destined to cause the doctor a little more embarrassment. During the day a letter arrived from Andrew Meldrum, enclosing a cheque for two hundred rupees for the use of the girl when she was discharged from the hospital.

“Confound it! I don’t suppose I shall ever see her again. I can’t keep this money. I’d better return it personally and thank him. I suppose Meldrum hasn’t gone with his wife to Delhi​—​or maybe she’s made him miss the train.”

The doctor went to Osmonde’s hotel and asked for Meldrum. The manager’s answer was that the merchant had set out for Madras about two hours before.

“Madras? You mean Delhi?” said he to the manager.

“Indeed I don’t. All his luggage was labelled Madras, and I know for a fact that he booked his passage yesterday.”

“Well, what about Mrs. Meldrum? She’s gone to Delhi, hasn’t she?”

Mrs. Meldrum? I know nothing about any Mrs. Meldrum. If Mr. Meldrum is married his wife has certainly not been staying here.”


The doctor thought it discreet to ask no more questions. He went away with a solemn shake of the head.