Chapter III

The World Forgetting, by the World Forgot

The buggy entered the Mall, the principal thoroughfare in Simla. It was a quarter past ten. Brilliant pencils of light shot from the slits of the shutters and tatties of the bungalows; a polka, thumped on a piano very much out of tune, mingled with women’s laughter and the deeper tones of men. Buggies and dhoolies, with here and there a clumsy country cart from the hills drawn by oxen, and an occasional horseman, made up the traffic in the centre of the road. Groups of natives were staring vaguely, or grunting and gesticulating according to their mood. Simla was in full wakefulness after slumbering through the heat of the day.

The buggy slackened its pace​—​due more to the inclination of the horse than to any intention on the part of its master​—​on approaching a bungalow standing some distance from the road and half hidden by great clumps of rhododendron.

“I guess Clare will be expecting me,” thought Horsford. “Shall I call? My only other place of refuge is the club. I’m not in the mood to be bored by Deputy Commissioner Dobson’s prosy tales, or that young fool Blackley’s inane chatter​—​they generally take possession of the smoking-room at this time.”

There was whist and vingt-et-un, of course, but he was not inclined for those either. A chat with Clare, if she were alone, would be pleasant. He would like to tell her of his adventure of that night. If he succeeded in rescuing Nara from her vile associations he would need a woman’s help and counsel as to the future of the girl. He wondered if he could talk freely to Clare on the subject. Dr. Stanhope, Clare’s uncle, was broad-minded enough, but a young lady who had been in India scarcely six months might have narrow ideas on the subject of Eurasians and Nautch girls.

But the point was, should he call? The horse settled the matter. Horsford was driving with a loose rein and the animal stopped of its own accord, a sign that it had taken the buggy to Dr. Stanhope’s bungalow pretty regularly. Horsford threw the reins to the syce, jumped out, and entered the compound. As he threaded his way round the thickets voices struck upon his ear.

“I’m not a man to take ‘no’ for an answer, Miss Stanhope,” some one was saying. The voice, hard, almost rasping, was that of Andrew Meldrum, one of the richest merchants in India. He dealt in everything​—​indigo, cotton, rice, shawls, muslins, and half a hundred other commodities. He had branches in Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, and Delhi.

Then followed a musical little laugh. Horsford knew this also. The laugh was not so mellow and spontaneous as it usually was.

A tall, square-shouldered man was in the act of raising his straw hat to a girl in white muslin standing within the verandah.

Au revoir,” said he, and the harsh voice softened.

“Good-night, Mr. Meldrum,” called out the girl gaily. “Beware of the goojurs (robbers). I’m told they’ve been seen on the Meerut road.”

“Oh, I’m always prepared for gentry of that kind, whether goojurs or Delhi budmash (roughs).”

As he turned Horsford’s step was heard on the hard sand.

“Good evening, Captain Horsford,” said he a little stiffly.

“Oh, good evening. How are you?”

Not another word was said. Meldrum with his grim, hatchet face, and yellow, dried complexion, which made his five and fifty years appear almost three score and ten, went on towards the road. He looked back before he passed the thicket, and paused for an instant, his cold, flinty eyes gleaming beneath his straight, grey brows. Until that moment he could not say he had been jealous of Guy Horsford, but much had happened during the last two hours. Andrew Meldrum, who had been proof against the blandishments and simperings of maidens and widows, had proposed marriage to Clare Stanhope! She had not accepted him, but she had not said no. This uncertainty did not surprise the merchant. He expected something of the kind, and it made no difference in his resolve. He was not one to be easily turned from anything upon which he had set his mind.

“The doctor is out, Captain Horsford,” he heard Clare say in her clear, penetrating tones.

The words relieved Meldrum’s fears. Guy Horsford had not called to see Clare​—​that was something. Nor did Clare appear eager to ask the officer in. She remained standing near a slender support of the bungalow, a graceful, dainty little figure, and Horsford had stopped quite a couple of yards from her.

Crushing the doubts that had leaped up and set his nerves quivering for an instant, Andrew Meldrum strode on, with his somewhat ungainly, bow-legged step. Until the last five years he had for nearly a quarter of a century passed sixteen hours every day, during the indigo season, in the saddle, riding about his fields, looking after the crops, and seeing that the ryots and the overseers stuck to their work. His industry had had its reward in the vast fortune he had amassed, but this was all that could be said about it.

“The doctor is out,” repeated Horsford. “And what of that? I didn’t promise to call on him.”

“You didn’t promise to call on any one. Or, if you did, you’re very unpunctual. Do you know it’s half past ten?”

“Certainly. Aren’t you glad to see me?”

They were like two masters of fence making the salute before engaging. It was all done laughingly, and with ease and grace, according to the rules.

“Glad? I don’t know. That all depends upon yourself.”

The girl threw up her chin with an air of sauciness quite in keeping with her piquant beauty. The perfect contour of the small, scarlet, upper lip was presented defiantly, as if daring him to kiss it. He was not to be provoked. Perhaps he meant to provoke her.

“I warn you I’m not in a mood to be what you call nice,” said he.

“No? I’d like to see you out of temper, Captain Horsford​—​just once. I wonder if I could really send you into a passion.”

“I’ll quote your own words​—​I don’t know; it all depends upon yourself.”

Horsford did not attempt to approach her. He stood straight and erect, waiting for the invitation to enter. He knew it would come.

“Why do you stand there?” she asked with sudden petulance. “Why don’t you come in? You’re not afraid, are you?”

“Afraid? Of you, Clare? Again​—​I don’t know.”

He came close to her. She raised her head, not saucily as before, but with a suggestion of entreaty as a naughty child fears punishment. Horsford was tall, just under six feet; Clare was five feet three; he had to bend to meet her eyes. The soft, rippling hair, chestnut, with a shade of gold in certain lights, was arranged with the neatness which is one of the weapons a little woman skilfully wields to subjugate man. Big women, somehow, are either not so dependent on neatness, or do not see its importance.

Clare might have been a Dresden china shepherdess in her daintiness; in the harmonious lines of her shoulders, in her round, full​—​not too full​—​throat, in the delicately shaped bust. The sweep of the chin to the ear was exquisite, and so also were the curves of the chin itself, and the dimple which sprang into life on the right cheek whenever she smiled. Her complexion was pure white and pink; how long it would remain so in the dry air and scorching heat of India was doubtful. But just now she was at her best and freshest.

So they remained for a brief space looking eye into eye. Horsford had never seen Clare in what might be called a serious mood. She was all surface, so he had often thought, and he had never attempted to fathom the depth of her nature. She was always gay and sparkling, but there was meaning, and often wit, mingled with her frivolity, and her great charm was that she never varied. She had always a bright smile, always seemed to be in high spirits, and men were made to feel in some subtle way that she desired to please them. But she always kept a level head. Scores of her admirers would have given anything if she had permitted them to lay their hearts at her feet. Flirtation somehow protected her. Directly any would-be Don Juan began to sentimentalise she laughed, and before her raillery the lady-killer was powerless. Perhaps this was why she and Horsford were such good friends. Guy Horsford scorned​—​or pretended to scorn​—​love and sentiment as much as she did.

It might have been the effect of the mellow moonlight, mingled with the ruddy glare of a crimson shaded lamp in the prettily furnished drawing-room, the long, French windows of which were open, but to Horsford’s fancy the hazel eyes seemed shot with orange tinted gleams which made them strangely fascinating, strangely mystical. He hardly knew if he liked or disliked her eyes under this new aspect, but he was not in tune just then for a deliberate analysis of a woman’s nature by the light of its outward manifestations, and least of all of Clare’s nature. Nor was he in the mind for anything deliberate. His impulses, set going by the romantic episode in the Rajah’s palace, were in rebellion, and their tumult had been increased by the rencontre with Andrew Meldrum. It was puzzling that the unimportant fact of the merchant’s visit to Clare Stanhope should make any difference in his feelings towards her, but so it was.

“I’m going to accept your invitation, Clare,” said he, abruptly, breaking a silence which had become embarrassing to both. “Just to show I’m not afraid, you know.”

The words were intended to be uttered jestingly, but the tone was soft and tender, much more so than Horsford suspected. Clare made no reply, but wheeled round swiftly and crossed the verandah, Horsford following close behind. They entered together through the open French window, and Clare, turning, closed the inside shutters.

“Look at the lamp,” she cried. “Why are those silly winged things so anxious to commit suicide?”

“I expect they find it pleasant to die for love of the object that lures them to their destruction,” rejoined Horsford, shrugging his shoulders. “Many a man has done the same thing.”

A little high-pitched, almost hysterical, laugh was Clare’s reply. A note in the laugh reminded Horsford of past experience. Such a laugh he had once called “wicked.”

The duel continued. The etiquette of the salute had been complied with, but neither combatant was eager to come to close quarters. Horsford walked about the room restlessly. Clare fidgeted with the flowers in the vases, moved the music on the piano, arranged the tiresome antimacassars, without which, at that date, no room was considered furnished. The exalted strain felt by both when they were looking into each other’s eyes had relaxed. It needed fresh stimulus to bring it back to its former high pitch.

“I’m so sorry I was late,” said Horsford, apropos of nothing. “The fact is I had an adventure at the Rajah’s and—— But perhaps I should have been in the way had I come earlier.”

“Why? I don’t understand you.”

“I might have interrupted your tête-à-tête with Meldrum.”

Their swords had crossed at last. Horsford’s thrust was swiftly parried.

“I wish you had. I gave you every chance. I knew he would be here at half past nine. He sent me a note to that effect this morning. That was why I asked you to come.”

Clare’s colour heightened. The scarlet of her cheeks was dazzling. The sudden sharpening of her voice and the way she flung her words at Horsford betrayed the strain on her nerves.

“I see,” rejoined Horsford, savagely reckless. “Why didn’t you tell me how useful I might have made myself, and I would have made it a point to be punctual.”

“It doesn’t matter. Why should it? As for telling you beforehand that I expected Mr. Meldrum, and that I wanted you to​—​to—— Oh, how stupid men are!”

“Possibly because they can’t see into a woman’s mind, and guess her motive before she knows it herself. It seems to me that everything a woman does, she does without thinking, and she finds out her reasons afterwards.”

“Guy, sometimes I positively hate you.”

There was a little catch in her voice that went straight to his heart. Guy Horsford could on occasion be as foolish as any man where a woman was concerned. The next moment he had capitulated; he was by her side, his arm round her waist, anxious to be friends again. Yet it could hardly be said that they had quarrelled.

“I’m awfully sorry if I’ve said anything to hurt you,” he pleaded penitently. “Do forgive me.”

“What is there to forgive? You’ve a perfect right to your opinion. I’m nothing to you.”

“Nothing? How do you know that?” Horsford cried quickly.

Her head was averted. At his words she involuntarily turned her face towards him. Her eyes no longer sparkled, but shone with a soft, subdued light, and then the lids drooped as if she feared her gaze had betrayed some secret. He was dimly conscious that she was closer, whether from any action on his part or hers it was hard to say. But it did not matter. The purple mist of passion enveloped both without a moment’s warning. Some strange power within them had annihilated space, time, and everything but their two selves. They were the sole inhabitants of their self-created world.

“Don’t​—​don’t! You frighten​—​me,” panted the girl. He had kissed her with sudden fierceness.

She seemed but a doll in his arms. He felt that it would be a positive pleasure to crush the symmetrical little form. He lifted her from her feet and held her half a dozen inches from the ground while he kissed her again and again. She struggled, but she was helpless.

“It isn’t fair,” she cried. “You’re cruel​—​horribly cruel. Put me down. I insist upon it.”

He obeyed slowly and reluctantly. She sank gasping on a settee; he dropped into the vacant space by her side. The days of flirtation were over​—​both felt that. They had sounded a new note in the never dying gamut of love. What would be the end of it?

The glamour, the delirium of passion passed. The world of reality asserted its domination relentlessly. The faint, sickly scent of the flowers, the hot, close air, the buzz of self-immolating winged life, the monotonous tick of the French clock​—​all was accentuated.

Horsford flung open the window. He stood for some few minutes inhaling the cool, fresh air from the mountains. It was hard to say what definite thought, if he had any thought at all, was in his mind. Perhaps, could his feelings have been analysed, those of the gambler who unexpectedly had been tempted to stake his all approached the nearest. Had he won or lost? That was the problem he could not solve. He started. The pressure of soft fingers on his arms set his nerves thrilling once more.

“What are you thinking about?” Clare whispered.

She had stolen to him so gently and he was so absorbed he had not heard the rustle of her flounced muslin. She insinuated her left hand under his arm and with the right hand above intertwined her fingers as though to signify that she had captured him and henceforth he was her prisoner. The conviction that the woman after all was the conqueror caused a sudden revulsion of feeling.

“Did Meldrum ask you to-night to be his wife?” he broke out abruptly.

“Why do you talk of Mr. Meldrum​—​now?” she asked with piquant petulance. “Tell me about yourself, Guy, and what you and the rest did at the Rajah’s dinner? You spoke about an adventure. What was it?”

“You shall know presently. First give me an answer to my question about Meldrum.”

“How tiresome you are,” she cried, with a little moue. “Can’t you see that there’s only one man in the world who interests me, and that’s Guy Horsford?”

Her power over him was evident. His manner softened. He kissed her eyelids and said laughingly:

“Of course. That goes without saying. But I don’t want to be in the dark about Meldrum. I’d like to know how to meet him.”

“Well then​—​he did put the question to me. But what of it?” she rejoined, her clasped fingers tightening their pressure on his arm. “Do you suppose, you silly boy, I haven’t had offers of marriage?”

“I don’t doubt it, but​—​your answer to this particular one?”

“I believe you’re going to be cross,” she cried, dropping her head on his shoulder coaxingly. “You mustn’t. Nobody’s ever cross with me.”

“Why should they be? But I’ve a right to know about Meldrum. Come, tell me.”

A note of masterfulness crept into his voice. Clare gave a little shiver. She did not like Horsford’s persistency. It annoyed her, but she did not intend to show her annoyance. She was very desirous of pleasing the man whose kisses were fresh on her lips​—​more desirous than ever​—​but her way of pleasing was by avoiding all subjects that were unpleasant, and just now the name of Andrew Meldrum was particularly objectionable. She would have wriggled out of answering Guy’s question, but she felt there was no way.

“I didn’t say either yes or no.”

Horsford’s brows contracted slightly.

“That’s a pity. Meldrum will be sure to assume you meant yes.”

“Nonsense. I didn’t encourage him even to think it.”

You’re talking nonsense now. I know that if a woman gave me such an answer I should understand what she meant. And so, I bet, will Meldrum. I hate the man, but I can’t deny that he has the quality of not knowing when he’s beaten. You must write and say with firmness and decision——”

“My dear boy, I don’t know what firmness and decision mean. And I do so hate writing unpleasant letters. I’m sure to be most aggravating.”

“I dare say. That can’t be helped. It’s very evident that if you don’t write and settle the matter he’ll be continually pestering you, and I won’t have it​—​you’re mine, Clare​—​yes,” he repeated, something of his old fierceness creeping into his voice, “you’re mine​—​mine!”

“As if I should ever forget that!” she cried, her eyes suddenly blazing. She was silent for a few seconds and then gave a little sigh. “I believe you’re going to be a dreadful tyrant, like some of those terrible old Moghul Delhi kings. I suppose you must be obeyed. Yes, I’ll write to Mr. Meldrum. And now please be nice, and tell me about your adventure.”

The French clock struck the hour of midnight. Its sharp, imperative clang jarred upon both.

“The doctor said he would return soon after twelve,” she whispered. “No, don’t shut the window. The room’s fearfully hot. Let us sit down comfortably. Stay​—​you’ll have a ‘peg,’ won’t you? How dreadfully inhospitable of me not to think of it before. You poor fellow!”

Clare flitted to a sideboard and returned with a liqueur glass of brandy. They resumed their seats on the settee and Horsford slowly sipped the spirit.