Chapter VI

The Eternal Question

For the next five minutes the one topic of conversation was Clare Stanhope. The presence of the attractive belle of Simla had brought every member of the club to the verandah, and tongues wagged at considerable length concerning her charms and her prospects.

“Gad, I’ll bet the doctor’ll find her a handful before long,” chuckled red-faced Colonel Chowden. “I’m told her relatives packed her off to India because she was too much for them. The sooner she’s married the better.”

“For the doctor​—​yes. But what about her husband?” said Ormerod.

Then they fell to discussing two questions of absorbing interest, one which makes the whole world akin​—​the mystery of woman in general​—​and the other appealing to Europeans in India only​—​the native woman. It was hard to say which at the moment was the more important. The competition of the West with the East had of late years been gradually increasing. India had become the marriage market for the dowerless girl of Britain with rich and influential relatives and connections in the East India Company. The white woman was beginning to assert herself, and the olive-skinned maidens were retiring before the advance of their aggressive rivals.

Old associations and habits die hard. Some of the grey-headed members of the Simla Club had as youngsters fought in the Pindaree War and against Holkar, and the memories of two septuagenarians went back as far as Assaye. Their opinions on the eternal feminine were those expressed by an old Calcutta journalist, whose illuminating words may appropriately be quoted.

“Nearly all the unmarried Europeans​—​and few were married in those days​—​lived,” he writes, “in acknowledged concubinage with native women.”

In 1810 a work called The East Indian Vade Mecum was published by Captain T. Williamson. The object was to provide a compendium of information valuable to persons about to settle in India, and was dedicated to the Honourable Court of Directors of the East India Company, as designed particularly to be a guide to young gentlemen in their service. In this work concubinage is regarded as a matter of ordinary necessity, and advice is given as to the female establishment a young man should set up, its proper cost, etc.

The impossibility of marriage with English women is shown by the declaration that an English lady could not be landed in India “under respectable circumstances throughout for less than £500,” and the connections recommended are justified by the statement that “the number of European women to be found in Bengal and its dependencies cannot amount to two hundred and fifty; while the European male inhabitants of respectability, including military officers, may be taken at about four thousand.”

“What’s the good of a youngster making up to an English girl?” growled old Colonel Chowden. “Of course she’s sent out to be married, and in that respect dashed if I see much difference between her and the Hindu. Everybody knows that the native girls have no choice or voice in their marriage. The parents fix up matters, and brides and bridegrooms don’t set eyes on each other till the wedding day. The marvel is that these leaps in the dark rarely turn out badly. It’s the other way about. By Jove, the Hindu wench is the most faithful and obedient of wives. That’s more than you can say of some of the flaunters who come out here and sell themselves to the highest bidder.”

“And why shouldn’t they? It’s perfectly well understood what brings them. The more the merrier, I say. We get some decent society, and if there’s a scandal now and again, what does it matter? It makes conversation, anyhow,” said Lawton, a simpering sub, who rather fancied himself as a lady-killer.

“Conversation!” snorted Ormerod. “Is that the end of the business?”

A silence fell on the group. Ormerod’s words had given them something to think about. Social questions did not attract much attention in India in the fifties but they existed all the same, and now and again the sex problem forced its way to the front, was discussed in whispers, and put out of sight as quickly as possible.

“Scandals can’t be avoided,” said an elderly magistrate. “The rich men the English girls hope to capture are not very numerous. The girl has to put up with what she can get. Perhaps no one suitable comes along, and while she’s waiting she forgets what she was sent to India for and falls in love with the wrong man. Sometimes she makes the still greater blunder of falling in love with the wrong man after she’s married. All this is very interesting, but it’s only part of the question we started with. The point is what are the poor devils with empty pockets to do? The English girls, of course, are out of their reach. What then? I should say the man of the old days was better off with his left-handed arrangement which was then accepted by everybody. What has he to do now?”

“Won’t you tell us, Mr. Roberts?” said the ingenuous Anson, when the magistrate paused.

Every one listened intently for the reply.

“Humph! You want to know, do you? Very good, then I’ll tell you, but don’t forget that I’m not sitting as a magistrate bound to utter moral platitudes, and leaving the bedrock of things alone. The young man of to-day must either live economically and comfortably with the woman who will be faithful to him and worship him as if he were her god, or he must waste his substance on a dancing-girl. In the one case he ruins his character​—​in the opinion of Mrs. Grundy, do you understand? in the other he ruins himself, body, purse, and prospects. Now——”

But the dinner-gong sounded, and perhaps it was just as well.

While the members of the Simla Club were discussing sociology in its most engrossing aspect Clare Stanhope, from whom the question sprang, was racing up the hilly road to her uncle’s bungalow, her nerves by no means soothed by her interview with Ormerod. Guy Horsford’s disappearance still puzzled and worried her. She had derived no comfort from the information that the dancing-girl was in the Rajah’s zenana.

“What do I care about the girl?” she asked herself furiously. “Guy angered me by treating the affair with so much importance and putting me in the background. Of course I was silly to fly out at him, but it was his fault. He showed dreadfully bad taste in talking of the girl at all to me. Up to that point we were the best of friends and——”

She paused. A dreamy look stole into her eyes. Friendship hardly expressed the situation. If love ever had possession of her it was during those stolen moments which she would never think of without a thrill. Everything was so new. The Clare Stanhope who smiled and enticed numberless admirers, while at the same time she kept them at bay, was not the Clare Stanhope who returned Guy Horsford’s passionate kisses. Then a fresh mood seized her​—​she was filled with remorse. She reproached Guy, she reproached herself.

“Why couldn’t he see I didn’t mean what I said? I was right to be angry, but I felt sure he would call this morning to make it up. Oh, he’s heartless​—​cold and heartless!” were the words that hammered themselves on her brain.

It was a bitter lesson for Clare, who had always boasted that she could bring men to their knees by a frown or a pout, when Guy Horsford did not present himself for forgiveness the next morning as she confidently expected. She had not hitherto realised that there was a gulf between idle flirtation and serious passion, although the confines of that gulf are sometimes extremely narrow. On ne badine pas avec l’amour was a truth of which she had not been conscious until now.

“I ought not to have let him go without saying good-night,” she murmured.

Despondency succeeded to rage by the time she had reached home. She flung the reins languidly to the syce, and entered the bungalow with dragging feet. Then a gleam of hope seized her. Perhaps Guy had written. She sent her ayah to inquire. The woman came back with a letter. Clare seized it with feverish haste, and the next instant dashed it on the table. She recognised the writing. It was not Guy Horsford’s but Andrew Meldrum’s.

“That man! I hate him.”

She sank into a chair, feeling that she was nearing a crisis in her life which she had not the courage to meet. Yet it must be met. Guy Horsford, the man she loved, was gone​—​sent away by herself. That was the galling part of the business. Could she humble herself sufficiently to write and beg him to come back? Scarcely in her present mood. Besides, had she not suffered severely enough from being too precipitate? She would not make a second mistake of that kind.

“He shall have time. It will take him a few days to reach Delhi. He may not write at once, and the mail will have to bring his letter. I’ll give him a fortnight,” she thought.

A fortnight? It seemed an eternity. How could she endure it? She sat for five or six minutes staring blankly at Meldrum’s letter on the table. Then with an impatient gesture she seized it and tore open the envelope. She read the contents without showing the least sign of emotion. Yet it was a letter which should have stirred her pulses, fond as she was of money and of what money could buy. She had only to write the word “yes” and she would become the wife of the richest man in India.

There was no hesitation in Andrew Meldrum’s offer of marriage. He was as business-like in this as in everything else. He even named the sum he proposed to settle upon her, and the amount did not err on the side of niggardliness. He wound up by saying that he proposed to call that night for her reply, and this was the only part of the letter which quickened her heart-beats.

“I can’t see him​—​I won’t see him. I​—​I would say no, but​—​but I dare not. I must give Guy a chance. Yes, I must,” she cried hurriedly.

It was easy to feign illness, and indeed in this excuse there was as much reality as pretence. She hurriedly scribbled a note, thanking Meldrum for his letter. She promised to give him an answer very speedily, but that at present she was suffering from a distracting headache which had quite prostrated her. She read over what she had written and it seemed to her that to a man like Meldrum it looked more of an encouragement than the reverse. But short of a decided negative it must serve. There was no time for deliberation. Meldrum might call before the next hour was spent. So she folded up and sealed her letter and sent it by a messenger whom she could trust.

Three days went by, Meldrum pertinaciously calling every morning and Clare maintaining the fiction of indisposition. But the pretence could not be kept up for long, especially as her uncle knew there was nothing the matter with her.

“What’s the idea, Clare?” said he. “How long are you going to keep poor Meldrum kicking his heels waiting your pleasure? He’s bent on making you his wife. Why don’t you say yes and have done with it? You’ll send every girl and widow mad with envy when your engagement is announced.”

“So you’ve settled that I am to be engaged. I suppose I’m not allowed to decide for myself?” returned Clare sharply.

“Of course you are​—​the trouble is that you won’t decide. The man is continually tackling me to know what is the matter. I’ve exhausted the usual excuse​—​a slight cold​—​and I’ve fallen back on nerves, and now I look at you, little girl, I begin to think that I’ve hit upon your complaint. What’s upset you?”

Clare’s face certainly looked a little drawn, and the pretty nose was slightly sharper than it was wont to be.

“Oh, I’m worried. I don’t know what to say to Mr. Meldrum.”

“H’m! You might do worse than accept him. Meldrum’s a man who’ll go mad over any woman he fancies. You’ll be able to do exactly what you like, excepting one thing.”

“And what’s that?” she asked, with sudden curiosity.

“Flirt. I can’t fancy him as a complaisant husband. He’s passed his life hitherto with his mind fixed on making money, and he’ll spend the rest of his days in worshipping his wife. Both occupations want a little imagination and self-deception to make them pleasant, and I fancy the first is easier than the second,” said the doctor, shrugging his shoulders and running his fingers through his iron-grey hair.

“Oh, uncle, what a thing to say! That’s the worst of being a doctor; it’s so difficult to keep secrets from you. Aren’t the secrets of men and women often the stories of their lives?”

“That’s confoundedly true, though I shouldn’t have expected such wisdom from your pretty lips. But we’re wandering from the point.”

“I’m afraid I interrupted your interesting analysis​—​or is diagnosis the proper word?​—​of Mr. Meldrum’s character. Please go on,” said Clare languidly. “You were saying he was seeking marriage as a rival to his god Mammon.”

“That isn’t quite the way to put it. The rival he seeks is love. Love and marriage are not always synonymous.”

“So I’ve heard,” returned Clare, yawning slightly.

“At the same time I’m inclined to think most men are satisfied if their wives are clever enough to make them fancy they are the same thing.”

Clare made no reply. She had been fanning herself slowly, and she now half closed the fan and appeared to be interested in its elaborate ornamentation.

“The odd thing is that some of the happiest marriages are those which don’t begin in violent love. Andrew Meldrum will want understanding. He’s not a demonstrative man, but don’t imagine because he says so little he doesn’t feel deeply. If he’s once deceived where he’s placed his faith he’ll never forgive. But so long as his suspicions are not excited he’ll be as blind as a bat. He’s given me a hint as to his intentions​—​but perhaps he’s already told you?”

“About retiring from business and returning to England? Yes.”

“Well, that’s an inducement for you to marry him, isn’t it?”

Again Clare was silent, and again her fan absorbed her attention.

“No, I don’t think it is,” at last she said slowly. “I like India. I like the romance​—​the natural life where everything’s made pleasant for one​—​even the climate. Here at Simla it’s lovely. No, I’m not anxious to go back to England. I said good-bye to all my friends when I left, and I expect if I went back they’d all be different. I don’t believe in trying to restore old friendships.”

“Humph!” grunted the doctor. “I wish I knew what you did believe in, Clare​—​apart from flirtation. Anyhow, what am I to say when Meldrum next questions me? I’m almost certain to see him to-morrow at the club.”

“Oh, that I’m still suffering from nerves.”

“Now you know that’s not the answer I want to my question. Meldrum was at me about the marriage settlement the last time I saw him, and he’s certain to return to the subject. Shall I say you’ll write to him definitely, say before the week’s out?”

“No​—​please don’t. Give me a fortnight to think it over.”

“You’ve had three days already. Time enough one would think, unless——”

“Well, unless?”

“Unless there’s some one else in the field and you can’t decide between the two. I’ve heard of such things.”

“And so have I. But really I’m not so hesitating as you seem to suppose. Tell Mr. Meldrum that in a fortnight I will let him know. In the meantime, uncle dear, don’t give me away. I​—​I really couldn’t stand the strain of an interview just yet.”

“Very well; then you’ll have to be my patient in reality. You must have a tonic. A good dinner wouldn’t hurt you. Pluck up your courage and come down.”

But Clare shook her head, and Dr. Stanhope, reading her mood, ceased to persuade her.

“Who’s the other man, I wonder?” he muttered, as he sauntered into the dining-room.