The Pool in the Desert


Sara Jeannette Duncan

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First published in 1903.

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The Pool in the Desert.

I knew Anna Chichele and Judy Harbottle so well, and they figured so vividly at one time against the rather empty landscape of life in a frontier station, that my affection for one of them used to seem little more, or less, than a variant upon my affection for the other. That recollection, however, bears examination badly; Judy was much the better sort, and it is Judy’s part in it that draws me into telling the story. Conveying Judy is what I tremble at: her part was simple. Looking back — and not so very far — her part has the relief of high comedy with the proximity of tears; but looking closely, I find that it is mostly Judy, and what she did is entirely second, in my untarnished picture, to what she was. Still I do not think I can dissuade myself from putting it down.

They would, of course, inevitably have found each other sooner or later, Mrs. Harbottle and Mrs. Chichele, but it was I who actually introduced them; my palmy veranda in Rawul Pindi; where the teacups used to assemble, was the scene of it. I presided behind my samovar over the early formalities that were almost at once to drop from their friendship, like the sheath of some bursting flower. I deliberately brought them together, so the birth was not accidental, and my interest in it quite legitimately maternal. We always had tea in the veranda in Rawul Pindi, the drawing-room was painted blue, blue for thirty feet up to the whitewashed cotton ceiling; nothing of any value in the way of a human relation, I am sure, could have originated there. The veranda was spacious and open, their mutual observation had room and freedom; I watched it to and fro. I had not long to wait for my reward; the beautiful candour I expected between them was not ten minutes in coming. For the sake of it I had taken some trouble, but when I perceived it revealing I went and sat down beside Judy’s husband, Robert Harbottle, and talked about Pharaoh’s split hoof. It was only fair; and when next day I got their impressions of one another, I felt single-minded and deserving.

I knew it would be a satisfactory sort of thing to do, but perhaps it was rather more for Judy’s sake than for Anna’s that I did it. Mrs. Harbottle was only twenty-seven then and Robert a major, but he had brought her to India out of an episode too colour-flushed to tone with English hedges; their marriage had come, in short, of his divorce, and as too natural a consequence. In India it is well known that the eye becomes accustomed to primitive pigments and high lights; the aesthetic consideration, if nothing else, demanded Robert’s exchange. He was lucky to get a Piffer regiment, and the Twelfth were lucky to get him; we were all lucky, I thought, to get Judy. It was an opinion, of course, a good deal challenged, even in Rawul Pindi, where it was thought, especially in the beginning, that acquiescence was the most the Harbottles could hope for. That is not enough in India; cordiality is the common right. I could not have Judy preserving her atmosphere at our tea-parties and gymkhanas. Not that there were two minds among us about ‘the case’; it was a preposterous case, sentimentally undignified, from some points of view deplorable. I chose to reserve my point of view, from which I saw it, on Judy’s behalf, merely quixotic, preferring on Robert’s just to close my eyes. There is no doubt that his first wife was odious to a degree which it is simply pleasanter not to recount, but her malignity must almost have amounted to a sense of humour. Her detestation of her cousin Judy Thynne dated much further back than Robert’s attachment. That began in Paris, where Judy, a young widow, was developing a real vein at Julian’s. I am entirely convinced that there was nothing, as people say, ‘in it,’ Judy had not a thought at that time that was not based on Chinese white and permeated with good-fellowship; but there was a good deal of it, and no doubt the turgid imagination of the first Mrs. Harbottle dealt with it honestly enough. At all events, she saw her opportunity, and the depths of her indifference to Robert bubbled up venomously into the suit. That it was undefended was the senseless mystery; decency ordained that he and Judy should have made a fight, even in the hope that it would be a losing one. The reason it had to be a losing one — the reason so immensely criticized — was that the petitioning lady obstinately refused to bring her action against any other set of circumstances than those to which, I have no doubt, Judy contributed every indiscretion. It is hard to imagine Robert Harbottle refusing her any sort of justification that the law demands short of beating her, but her malice would accept nothing of which the account did not go for final settlement to Judy Thynne. If her husband wanted his liberty, he should have it, she declared, at that price and no other. Major Harbottle did indeed deeply long for his liberty, and his interesting friend, Mrs. Thynne, had, one can only say, the most vivid commiseration for his bondage. Whatever chance they had of winning, to win would be, for the end they had at heart, to lose, so they simply abstained, as it were, from comment upon the detestable procedure which terminated in the rule absolute. I have often wondered whether the whole business would not have been more defensible if there had been on Judy’s part any emotional spring for the leap they made. I offer my conviction that there was none, that she was only extravagantly affected by the ideals of the Quarter — it is a transporting atmosphere — and held a view of comradeship which permitted the reversal of the modern situation filled by a blameless correspondent. Robert, of course, was tremendously in love with her; but my theory is that she married him as the logical outcome of her sacrifice and by no means the smallest part of it.

It was all quite unimaginable, as so many things are, but the upshot of it brought Judy to Rawul Pindi, as I have said, where I for one thought her mistake insignificant compared with her value. It would have been great, her value, anywhere; in the middle of the Punjab it was incalculable. To explain why would be to explain British India, but I hope it will appear; and I am quite willing, remember, to take the responsibility if it does not.

Somers Chichele, Anna’s son, it is absurd to think, must have been about fifteen then, reflecting at Winchester with the other ‘men’ upon the comparative merits of tinned sardines and jam roll, and whether a packet of real Egyptians was not worth the sacrifice of either. His father was colonel of the Twelfth; his mother was still charming. It was the year before Dick Forsyth came down from the neighbourhood of Sheikhbudin with a brevet and a good deal of personal damage. I mention him because he proved Anna’s charm in the only conclusive way before the eyes of us all; and the station, I remember, was edified to observe that if Mrs. Chichele came out of the matter ‘straight’— one relapses so easily into the simple definitions of those parts — which she undoubtedly did, she owed it in no small degree to Judy Harbottle. This one feels to be hardly a legitimate reference, but it is something tangible to lay hold upon in trying to describe the web of volitions which began to weave itself between the two that afternoon on my veranda and which afterward became so strong a bond. I was delighted with the thing; its simplicity and sincerity stood out among our conventional little compromises at friendship like an ideal. She and Judy had the assurance of one another; they made upon one another the finest and often the most unconscionable demands. One met them walking at odd hours in queer places, of which I imagine they were not much aware. They would turn deliberately off the Maidan and away from the bandstand to be rid of our irrelevant bows; they did their duty by the rest of us, but the most egregious among us, the Deputy-Commissioner for selection, could see that he hardly counted. I thought I understood, but that may have been my fatuity; certainly when their husbands inquired what on earth they had been talking of, it usually transpired that they had found an infinite amount to say about nothing. It was a little worrying to hear Colonel Chichele and Major Harbottle describe their wives as ‘pals,’ but the fact could not be denied, and after all we were in the Punjab. They were pals too, but the terms were different.

People discussed it according to their lights, and girls said in pretty wonderment that Mrs. Harbottle and Mrs. Chichele were like men, they never kissed each other. I think Judy prescribed these conditions. Anna was far more a person who did as the world told her. But it was a poor negation to describe all that they never did; there was no common little convention of attachment that did not seem to be tacitly omitted between them. I hope one did not too cynically observe that they offered these to their husbands instead; the redeeming observation was their husbands’ complete satisfaction. This they maintained to the end. In the natural order of things Robert Harbottle should have paid heavily for interfering as he did in Paris between a woman and what she was entitled to live for. As a matter of fact he never paid anything at all; I doubt whether he ever knew himself a debtor. Judy kept her temperament under like a current and swam with the tides of the surface, taking refreshing dips only now and then which one traced in her eyes and her hair when she and Robert came back from leave. That sort of thing is lost in the sands of India, but it makes an oasis as it travels, and it sometimes seemed to me a curious pity that she and Anna should sit in the shade of it together, while Robert and Peter Chichele, their titular companions, blundered on in the desert. But after all, if you are born blind — and the men were both immensely liked, and the shooting was good.

Ten years later Somers joined. The Twelfth were at Peshawur. Robert Harbottle was Lieutenant-Colonel by that time and had the regiment. Distinction had incrusted, in the Indian way, upon Peter Chichele, its former colonel; he was General Commanding the District and K.C.B. So we were all still together in Peshawur. It was great luck for the Chicheles, Sir Peter’s having the district, though his father’s old regiment would have made it pleasant enough for the boy in any case. He came to us, I mean, of course, to two or three of us, with the interest that hangs about a victim of circumstances; we understood that he wasn’t a ‘born soldier.’ Anna had told me on the contrary that he was a sacrifice to family tradition made inevitable by the General’s unfortunate investments. Bellona’s bridegroom was not a role he fancied, though he would make a kind of compromise as best man; he would agree, she said, to be a war correspondent and write picturesque specials for the London halfpenny press. There was the humour of the poor boy’s despair in it, but she conveyed it, I remember, in exactly the same tone with which she had said to me years before that he wanted to drive a milk-cart. She carried quite her half of the family tradition, though she could talk of sacrifice and make her eyes wistful, contemplating for Somers the limitations of the drill-book and the camp of exercise, proclaiming and insisting upon what she would have done if she could only have chosen for him. Anna Chichele saw things that way. With more than a passable sense of all that was involved, if she could have made her son an artist in life or a commander-in-chief, if she could have given him the seeing eye or Order of the Star of India, she would not have hesitated for an instant. Judy, with her single mind, cried out, almost at sight of him, upon them both, I mean both Anna and Sir Peter. Not that the boy carried his condemnation badly, or even obviously; I venture that no one noticed it in the mess; but it was naturally plain to those of us who were under the same. He had put in his two years with a British regiment at Meerut — they nurse subalterns that way for the Indian army — and his eyes no longer played with the tinsel vision of India; they looked instead into the arid stretch beyond. This preoccupation conveyed to the Surgeon-Major’s wife the suggestion that Mr. Chichele was the victim of a hopeless attachment. Mrs. Harbottle made no such mistake; she saw simply, I imagine, the beginnings of her own hunger and thirst in him, looking back as she told us across a decade of dusty sunsets to remember them. The decade was there, close to the memory of all of us; we put, from Judy herself downward, an absurd amount of confidence in it.

She looked so well the night she met him. It was English mail day; she depended a great deal upon her letters, and I suppose somebody had written her a word that brought her that happy, still excitement that is the inner mystery of words. He went straight to her with some speech about his mother having given him leave, and for twenty minutes she patronized him on a sofa as his mother would not have dreamed of doing.

Anna Chichele, from the other side of the room, smiled on the pair.

‘I depend on you and Judy to be good to him while we are away,’ she said. She and Sir Peter were going on leave at the end of the week to Scotland, as usual, for the shooting.

Following her glance I felt incapable of the proportion she assigned me. ‘I will see after his socks with pleasure,’ I said. ‘I think, don’t you, we may leave the rest to Judy?’

Her eyes remained upon the boy, and I saw the passion rise in them, at which I turned mine elsewhere. Who can look unperturbed upon such a privacy of nature as that?

‘Poor old Judy!’ she went on. ‘She never would be bothered with him in all his dear hobble-dehoy time; she resented his claims, the unreasonable creature, used to limit me to three anecdotes a week; and now she has him on her hands, if you like. See the pretty air of deference in the way he listens to her! He has nice manners, the villain, if he is a Chichele!’

‘Oh, you have improved Sir Peter’s,’ I said kindly.

‘I do hope Judy will think him worth while. I can’t quite expect that he will be up to her, bless him, she is so much cleverer, isn’t she, than any of us? But if she will just be herself with him it will make such a difference.’

The other two crossed the room to us at that, and Judy gaily made Somers over to his mother, trailing off to find Robert in the billiard-room.

‘Well, what has Mrs. Harbottle been telling you?’ Anna asked him.

The young man’s eye followed Judy, his hand went musingly to his moustache.

‘She was telling me,’ he said, ‘that people in India were sepulchers of themselves, but that now and then one came who could roll away another’s stone.’

‘It sounds promising,’ said Lady Chichele to me.

‘It sounds cryptic,’ I laughed to Somers, but I saw that he had the key.

I can not say that I attended diligently to Mr. Chichele’s socks, but the part corresponding was freely assigned me. After his people went I saw him often. He pretended to find qualities in my tea, implied that he found them in my talk. As a matter of fact it was my inquiring attitude that he loved, the knowledge that there was no detail that he could give me about himself, his impressions and experiences, that was unlikely to interest me. I would not for the world imply that he was egotistical or complacent, absolutely the reverse, but he possessed an articulate soul which found its happiness in expression, and I liked to listen. I feel that these are complicated words to explain a very simple relation, and I pause to wonder what is left to me if I wished to describe his commerce with Mrs. Harbottle. Luckily there is an alternative; one needn’t do it. I wish I had somewhere on paper Judy’s own account of it at this period, however. It is a thing she would have enjoyed writing and more enjoyed communicating, at this period.

There was a grave reticence in his talk about her which amused me in the beginning. Mrs. Harbottle had been for ten years important enough to us all, but her serious significance, the light and the beauty in her, had plainly been reserved for the discovery of this sensitive and intelligent person not very long from Sandhurst and exactly twenty-six. I was barely allowed a familiar reference, and anything approaching a flippancy was met with penetrating silence. I was almost rebuked for lightly suggesting that she must occasionally find herself bored in Peshawur.

‘I think not anywhere,’ said Mr. Chichele; ‘Mrs. Harbottle is one of the few people who sound the privilege of living.’

This to me, who had counted Mrs. Harbottle’s yawns on so many occasions! It became presently necessary to be careful, tactful, in one’s implications about Mrs. Harbottle, and to recognize a certain distinction in the fact that one was the only person with whom Mr. Chichele discussed her at all.

The day came when we talked of Robert; it was bound to come in the progress of any understanding and affectionate colloquy which had his wife for inspiration. I was familiar, of course, with Somers’s opinion that the Colonel was an awfully good sort; that had been among the preliminaries and become understood as the base of all references. And I liked Robert Harbottle very well myself. When his adjutant called him a born leader of men, however, I felt compelled to look at the statement consideringly.

‘In a tight place,’ I said — dear me, what expressions had the freedom of our little frontier drawing-rooms! —‘I would as soon depend on him as on anybody. But as for leadership —’

‘He is such a good fellow that nobody here does justice to his soldierly qualities,’ said Mr. Chichele, ‘except Mrs. Harbottle.’

‘Has she been telling you about them?’ I inquired.

‘Well,’ he hesitated, ‘she told me about the Mulla Nulla affair. She is rather proud of that. Any woman would be.’

‘Poor dear Judy!’ I mused.

Somers said nothing, but looked at me, removing his cigarette, as if my words would be the better of explanation.

‘She has taken refuge in them — in Bob Harbottle’s soldierly qualities — ever since she married him,’ I continued.

‘Taken refuge,’ he repeated, coldly, but at my uncompromising glance his eyes fell.

‘Well?’ I said.

‘You mean —’

‘Oh, I mean what I say,’ I laughed. ‘Your cigarette has gone out — have another.’

‘I think her devotion to him splendid.’

‘Quite splendid. Have you seen the things he brought her from the Simla Art Exhibition? He said they were nice bits of colour, and she has hung them in the drawing-room, where she will have to look at them every day. Let us admire her — dear Judy.’

‘Oh,’ he said, with a fine air of detachment, ‘do you think they are so necessary, those agreements?’

‘Well,’ I replied, ‘we see that they are not indispensable. More sugar? I have only given you one lump. And we know, at all events,’ I added, unguardedly, ‘that she could never have had an illusion about him.’

The young man looked up quickly. ‘Is that story true?’ he asked.

‘There was a story, but most of us have forgotten it. Who told you?’

‘The doctor.’

‘The Surgeon-Major,’ I said, ‘has an accurate memory and a sense of proportion. As I suppose you were bound to get it from somebody, I am glad you got it from him.’

I was not prepared to go on, and saw with some relief that Somers was not either. His silence, as he smoked, seemed to me deliberate; and I had oddly enough at this moment for the first time the impression that he was a man and not a boy. Then the Harbottles themselves joined us, very cheery after a gallop from the Wazir-Bagh. We talked of old times, old friendships, good swords that were broken, names that had carried far, and Somers effaced himself in the perfect manner of the British subaltern. It was a long, pleasant gossip, and I thought Judy seemed rather glad to let her husband dictate its level, which, of course, he did. I noticed when the three rode away together that the Colonel was beginning to sit down rather solidly on his big New Zealander; and I watched the dusk come over from the foothills for a long time thinking more kindly than I had spoken of Robert Harbottle.

I have often wondered how far happiness is contributed to a temperament like Judy Harbottle’s, and how far it creates its own; but I doubt whether, on either count, she found as much in any other winter of her life except perhaps the remote ones by the Seine. Those ardent hours of hers, when everything she said was touched with the flame of her individuality, came oftener; she suddenly cleaned up her palate and began to translate in one study after another the language of the frontier country, that spoke only in stones and in shadows under the stones and in sunlight over them. There is nothing in the Academy of this year, at all events, that I would exchange for the one she gave me. She lived her physical life at a pace which carried us all along with her; she hunted and drove and danced and dined with such sincere intention as convinced us all that in hunting and driving and dancing and dining there were satisfactions that had been somehow overlooked. The Surgeon-Major’s wife said it was delightful to meet Mrs. Harbottle, she seemed to enjoy everything so thoroughly; the Surgeon-Major looked at her critically and asked her if she were quite sure she hadn’t a night temperature. He was a Scotchman. One night Colonel Harbottle, hearing her give away the last extra, charged her with renewing her youth.

‘No, Bob,’ she said, ‘only imitating it.’

Ah, that question of her youth. It was so near her — still, she told me once, she heard the beat of its flying, and the pulse in her veins answered the false signal. That was afterward, when she told the truth. She was not so happy when she indulged herself otherwise. As when she asked one to remember that she was a middle-aged woman, with middle-aged thoughts and satisfactions.

‘I am now really happiest,’ she declared, ‘when the Commissioner takes me in to dinner, when the General Commanding leads me to the dance.’

She did her best to make it an honest conviction. I offered her a recent success not crowned by the Academy, and she put it down on the table. ‘By and by,’ she said. ‘At present I am reading Pascal and Bossuet.’ Well, she was reading Pascal and Bossuet. She grieved aloud that most of our activities in India were so indomitably youthful, owing to the accident that most of us were always so young. ‘There is no dignified distraction in this country,’ she complained, ‘for respectable ladies nearing forty.’ She seemed to like to make these declarations in the presence of Somers Chichele, who would look at her with a little queer smile — a bad translation, I imagine, of what he felt.

She gave herself so generously to her seniors that somebody said Mrs. Harbottle’s girdle was hung with brass hats. It seems flippant to add that her complexion was as honest as the day, but the fact is that the year before Judy had felt compelled, like the rest of us, to repair just a little the ravages of the climate. If she had never done it one would not have looked twice at the absurdity when she said of the powder-puff in the dressing-room, ‘I have raised that thing to the level of an immorality,’ and sailed in to dance with an uncompromising expression and a face uncompromised. I have not spoken of her beauty; for one thing it was not always there, and there were people who would deny it altogether, or whose considered comment was, ‘I wouldn’t call her plain.’ They, of course, were people in whom she declined to be interested, but even for those of us who could evoke some demonstration of her vivid self her face would not always light in correspondence. When it did there was none that I liked better to look at; and I envied Somers Chichele his way to make it the pale, shining thing that would hold him lifted, in return, for hours together, with I know not what mystic power of a moon upon the tide. And he? Oh, he was dark and delicate, by nature simple, sincere, delightfully intelligent. His common title to charm was the rather sweet seriousness that rested on his upper lip, and a certain winning gratification in his attention; but he had a subtler one in his eyes, which must be always seeking and smiling over what they found; those eyes of perpetual inquiry for the exquisite which ask so little help to create it. A personality to button up in a uniform, good heavens!

As I begin to think of them together I remember how the maternal note appeared in her talk about him.

‘His youth is pathetic,’ she told me, ‘but there is nothing that he does not understand.’

‘Don’t apologize, Judy,’ I said. We were so brusque on the frontier. Besides, the matter still suffered a jocular presentment. Mrs. Harbottle and Mr. Chichele were still ‘great friends’; we could still put them next each other at our dinner-parties without the feeling that it would be ‘marked.’ There was still nothing unusual in the fact that when Mrs. Harbottle was there Mr. Chichele might be taken for granted. We were so broad-minded also, on the frontier.

It grew more obvious, the maternal note. I began positively to dread it, almost as much, I imagine, as Somers did. She took her privileges all in Anna’s name, she exercised her authority quite as Lady Chichele’s proxy. She went to the very limit. ‘Anna Chichele,’ she said actually in his presence, ‘is a fortunate woman. She has all kinds of cleverness, and she has her tall son. I have only one little talent, and I have no tall son.’ Now it was not in nature that she could have had a son as tall as Somers, nor was that desire in her eyes. All civilization implies a good deal of farce, but this was a poor refuge, a cheap device; I was glad when it fell away from her sincerity, when the day came on which she looked into my fire and said simply, ‘An attachment like ours has no terms.’

‘I wonder,’ I said.

‘For what comes and goes,’ she went on dreamily, ‘how could there be a formula?’

‘Look here, Judy,’ I said, ‘you know me very well. What if the flesh leaps with the spirit?’

She looked at me, very white. ‘Oh no,’ she said, ‘no.’

I waited, but there seemed nothing more that she could say; and in the silence the futile negative seemed to wander round the room repeating itself like an echo, ‘Oh no, no.’ I poked the fire presently to drown the sound of it. Judy sat still, with her feet crossed and her hands thrust into the pockets of her coat, staring into the coals.

‘Can you live independently, satisfied with your interests and occupations?’ she demanded at last. ‘Yes, I know you can. I can’t. I must exist more than half in other people. It is what they think and feel that matters to me, just as much as what I think and feel. The best of life is in that communication.’

‘It has always been a passion with you, Judy,’ I replied. ‘I can imagine how much you must miss —’

‘Whom?’

‘Anna Chichele,’ I said softly.

She got up and walked about the room, fixing here and there an intent regard upon things which she did not see. ‘Oh, I do,’ she said at one point, with the effect of pulling herself together. She took another turn or two, and then finding herself near the door she went out. I felt as profoundly humiliated for her as if she had staggered.

The next night was one of those that stand out so vividly, for no reason that one can identify, in one’s memory. We were dining with the Harbottles, a small party, for a tourist they had with them. Judy and I and Somers and the traveller had drifted out into the veranda, where the scent of Japanese lilies came and went on the spring wind to trouble the souls of any taken unawares. There was a brightness beyond the foothills where the moon was coming, and I remember how one tall clump swayed out against it, and seemed in passionate perfume to lay a burden on the breast. Judy moved away from it and sat clasping her knees on the edge of the veranda. Somers, when his eyes were not upon her, looked always at the lily.

Even the spirit of the globe-trotter was stirred, and he said, ‘I think you Anglo-Indians live in a kind of little paradise.’

There was an instant’s silence, and then Judy turned her face into the lamplight from the drawing-room. ‘With everything but the essentials,’ she said.

We stayed late; Mr. Chichele and ourselves were the last to go. Judy walked with us along the moonlit drive to the gate, which is so unnecessary a luxury in India that the servants always leave it open. She swung the stiff halves together.

‘Now,’ she said, ‘it is shut.’

‘And I,’ said Somers Chichele, softly and quickly, ‘am on the other side.’

Even over that depth she could flash him a smile. ‘It is the business of my life,’ she gave him in return, ‘to keep this gate shut.’ I felt as if they had forgotten us. Somers mounted and rode off without a word. We were walking in a different direction. Looking back, I saw Judy leaning immovable on the gate, while Somers turned in his saddle, apparently to repeat the form of lifting his hat. And all about them stretched the stones of Kabul valley, vague and formless in the tide of the moonlight . . .

Next day a note from Mrs. Harbottle informed me that she had gone to Bombay for a fortnight. In a postscript she wrote, ‘I shall wait for the Chicheles there, and come back with them.’ I remember reflecting that if she could not induce herself to take a passage to England in the ship that brought them, it seemed the right thing to do.

She did come back with them. I met the party at the station. I knew Somers would meet them, and it seemed to me, so imminent did disaster loom, that someone else should be there, someone to offer a covering movement or a flank support wherever it might be most needed. And among all our smiling faces disaster did come, or the cold premonition of it. We were all perfect, but Somers’s lip trembled. Deprived for a fortnight he was eager for the draft, and he was only twenty-six. His lip trembled, and there, under the flickering station-lamps, suddenly stood that of which there never could be again any denial, for those of us who saw.

Did we make, I wonder, even a pretense of disguising the consternation that sprang up among us, like an armed thing, ready to kill any further suggestion of the truth? I don’t know. Anna Chichele’s unfinished sentence dropped as if someone had given her a blow upon the mouth. Coolies were piling the luggage into a hired carriage at the edge of the platform. She walked mechanically after them, and would have stepped in with it but for the sight of her own gleaming landau drawn up within a yard or two, and the General waiting. We all got home somehow, taking it with us, and I gave Lady Chichele twenty-four hours to come to me with her face all one question and her heart all one fear. She came in twelve.

‘Have you seen it — long?’ Prepared as I was her directness was demoralizing.

‘It isn’t a mortal disease.’

‘Oh, for Heaven’s sake —’

‘Well, not with certainty, for more than a month.’

She made a little spasmodic movement with her hands, then dropped them pitifully. ‘Couldn’t you do ANYthing?’

I looked at her, and she said at once, ‘No, of course you couldn’t.’

For a moment or two I took my share of the heavy sense of it, my trivial share, which yet was an experience sufficiently exciting. ‘I am afraid it will have to be faced,’ I said.

‘What will happen?’ Anna cried. ‘Oh, what will happen?’

‘Why not the usual thing?’ Lady Chichele looked up quickly as if at a reminder. ‘The ambiguous attachment of the country,’ I went on, limping but courageous, ‘half declared, half admitted, that leads vaguely nowhere, and finally perishes as the man’s life enriches itself — the thing we have seen so often.’

‘Whatever Judy is capable of it won’t be the usual thing. You know that.’

I had to confess in silence that I did.

‘It flashed at me — the difference in her — in Bombay.’ She pressed her lips together and then went on unsteadily. ‘In her eyes, her voice. She was mannered, extravagant, elaborate. With me! All the way up I wondered and worried. But I never thought —’ She stopped; her voice simply shook itself into silence. I called a servant.

‘I am going to give you a good stiff peg,’ I said. I apologize for the ‘peg,’ but not for the whisky and soda. It is a beverage on the frontier, of which the vulgarity is lost in the value. While it was coming I tried to talk of other things, but she would only nod absently in the pauses.

‘Last night we dined with him, it was guest night at the mess, and she was there. I watched her, and she knew it. I don’t know whether she tried, but anyway, she failed. The covenant between them was written on her forehead whenever she looked at him, though that was seldom. She dared not look at him. And the little conversation that they had — you would have laughed — it was a comedy of stutters. The facile Mrs. Harbottle!’

‘You do well to be angry, naturally,’ I said; ‘but it would be fatal to let yourself go, Anna.’

‘Angry?’ Oh, I am SICK. The misery of it! The terror of it! If it were anybody but Judy! Can’t you imagine the passion of a temperament like that in a woman who has all these years been feeding on herself? I tell you she will take him from my very arms. And he will go — to I dare not imagine what catastrophe! Who can prevent it? Who can prevent it?’

‘There is you,’ I said.

Lady Chichele laughed hysterically. ‘I think you ought to say, “There are you.” I— what can I do? Do you realize that it’s JUDY? My friend — my other self? Do you think we can drag all that out of it? Do you think a tie like that can be broken by an accident — by a misfortune? With it all I ADORE Judy Harbottle. I love her, as I have always loved her, and — it’s damnable, but I don’t know whether, whatever happened, I wouldn’t go on loving her.’

‘Finish your peg,’ I said. She was sobbing.

‘Where I blame myself most,’ she went on, ‘is for not seeing in him all that makes him mature to her — that makes her forget the absurd difference between them, and take him simply and sincerely as I know she does, as the contemporary of her soul if not of her body. I saw none of that. Could I, as his mother? Would he show it to me? I thought him just a charming boy, clever, too, of course, with nice instincts and well plucked; we were always proud of that, with his delicate physique. Just a boy! I haven’t yet stopped thinking how different he looks without his curls. And I thought she would be just kind and gracious and delightful to him because he was my son.’

‘There, of course,’ I said, ‘is the only chance.’

‘Where — what?’

‘He is your son.’

‘Would you have me appeal to her? Do you know I don’t think I could?’

‘Dear me, no. Your case must present itself. It must spring upon her and grow before her out of your silence, and if you can manage it, your confidence. There is a great deal, after all, remember, to hold her in that. I can’t somehow imagine her failing you. Otherwise —’

Lady Chichele and I exchanged a glance of candid admission.

‘Otherwise she would be capable of sacrificing everything — everything. Of gathering her life into an hour. I know. And do you know if the thing were less impossible, less grotesque, I should not be so much afraid? I mean that the ABSOLUTE indefensibility of it might bring her a recklessness and a momentum which might —’

‘Send her over the verge,’ I said. ‘Well, go home and ask her to dinner.’

There was a good deal more to say, of course, than I have thought proper to put down here, but before Anna went I saw that she was keyed up to the heroic part. This was none the less to her credit because it was the only part, the dictation of a sense of expediency that despaired while it dictated. The noble thing was her capacity to take it, and, amid all that warred in her, to carry it out on the brave high lines of her inspiration. It seemed a literal inspiration, so perfectly calculated that it was hard not to think sometimes, when one saw them together, that Anna had been lulled into a simple resumption of the old relation. Then from the least thing possible — the lift of an eyelid — it flashed upon one that between these two every moment was dramatic, and one took up the word with a curious sense of detachment and futility, but with one’s heart beating like a trip-hammer with the mad excitement of it. The acute thing was the splendid sincerity of Judy Harbottle’s response. For days she was profoundly on her guard, then suddenly she seemed to become practically, vividly aware of what I must go on calling the great chance, and passionately to fling herself upon it. It was the strangest cooperation without a word or a sign to show it conscious — a playing together for stakes that could not be admitted, a thing to hang upon breathless. It was there between them — the tenable ground of what they were to each other: they occupied it with almost an equal eye upon the tide that threatened, while I from my mainland tower also made an anguished calculation of the chances. I think in spite of the menace, they found real beatitudes; so keenly did they set about the business that it brought them moments finer than any they could count in the years that were behind them, the flat and colourless years that were gone. Once or twice the wild idea even visited me that it was, after all, the projection of his mother in Somers that had so seized Judy Harbottle, and that the original was all that was needed to help the happy process of detachment. Somers himself at the time was a good deal away on escort duty: they had a clear field.

I can not tell exactly when — between Mrs. Harbottle and myself — it became a matter for reference more or less overt, I mean her defined problem, the thing that went about between her and the sun. It will be imagined that it did not come up like the weather; indeed, it was hardly ever to be envisaged and never to be held; but it was always there, and out of our joint consciousness it would sometimes leap and pass, without shape or face. It might slip between two sentences, or it might remain, a dogging shadow, for an hour. Or a week would go by while, with a strong hand, she held it out of sight altogether and talked of Anna — always of Anna. Her eyes shone with the things she told me then: she seemed to keep herself under the influence of them as if they had the power of narcotics. At the end of a time like this she turned to me in the door as she was going and stood silent, as if she could neither go nor stay. I had been able to make nothing of her that afternoon: she had seemed preoccupied with the pattern of the carpet which she traced continually with her riding crop, and finally I, too, had relapsed. She sat haggard, with the fight forever in her eyes, and the day seemed to sombre about her in her corner. When she turned in the door, I looked up with sudden prescience of a crisis.

‘Don’t jump,’ she said, ‘it was only to tell you that I have persuaded Robert to apply for furlough. Eighteen months. From the first of April. Don’t touch me.’ I suppose I made a movement towards her. Certainly I wanted to throw my arms about her; with the instinct, I suppose, to steady her in her great resolution.

‘At the end of that time, as you know, he will be retired. I had some trouble, he is so keen on the regiment, but I think — I have succeeded. You might mention it to Anna.’

‘Haven’t you?’ sprang past my lips.

‘I can’t. It would be like taking an oath to tell her, and — I can’t take an oath to go. But I mean to.’

‘There is nothing to be said,’ I brought out, feeling indeed that there was not. ‘But I congratulate you, Judy.’

‘No, there is nothing to be said. And you congratulate me, no doubt!’

She stood for a moment quivering in the isolation she made for herself; and I felt a primitive angry revolt against the delicate trafficking of souls that could end in such ravage and disaster. The price was too heavy; I would have denuded her, at the moment, of all that had led her into this, and turned her out a clod with fine shoulders like fifty other women in Peshawur. Then, perhaps, because I held myself silent and remote and she had no emotion of fear from me, she did not immediately go.

‘It will beat itself away, I suppose, like the rest of the unreasonable pain of the world,’ she said at last; and that, of course, brought me to her side. ‘Things will go back to their proportions. This,’ she touched an open rose, ‘will claim its beauty again. And life will become — perhaps — what it was before.’ Still I found nothing to say, I could only put my arm in hers and walk with her to the edge of the veranda where the syce was holding her horse. She stroked the animal’s neck. ‘Everything in me answered him,’ she informed me, with the grave intelligence of a patient who relates a symptom past. As she took the reins she turned to me again. ‘His spirit came to mine like a homing bird,’ she said, and in her smile even the pale reflection of happiness was sweet and stirring. It left me hanging in imagination over the source and the stream, a little blessed in the mere understanding.

Too much blessed for confidence, or any safe feeling that the source was bound. Rather I saw it leaping over every obstacle, flashing to its destiny. As I drove to the Club next day I decided that I would not tell Anna Chichele of Colonel Harbottle’s projected furlough. If to Judy telling her would be like taking an oath that they would go, to me it would at least be like assuming sponsorship for their intention. That would be heavy indeed. From the first of April — we were then in March. Anna would hear it soon enough from the General, would see it soon enough, almost, in the ‘Gazette’, when it would have passed into irrecoverable fact. So I went by her with locked lips, kept out of the way of those eyes of the mother that asked and asked, and would have seen clear to any depth, any hiding-place of knowledge like that. As I pulled up at the Club I saw Colonel Harbottle talking concernedly to the wife of our Second-in-Command, and was reminded that I had not heard for some days how Major Watkins was going on. So I, too, approached Mrs. Watkins in her victoria to ask. Robert Harbottle kindly forestalled her reply. ‘Hard luck, isn’t it? Watkins has been ordered home at once. Just settled into their new house, too — last of the kit came up from Calcutta yesterday, didn’t it, Mrs. Watkins? But it’s sound to go — Peshawur is the worst hole in Asia to shake off dysentery in.’

We agreed upon this and discussed the sale-list of her new furniture that Mrs. Watkins would have to send round the station, and considered the chances of a trooper — to the Watkinses with two children and not a penny but his pay it did make it easier not to have to go by a liner — and Colonel Harbottle and I were halfway to the reading-room before the significance of Major Watkins’s sick-leave flashed upon me.

‘But this,’ I cried, ‘will make a difference to your plans. You won’t —’

‘Be able to ask for that furlough Judy wants. Rather not. I’m afraid she’s disappointed — she was tremendously set on going — but it doesn’t matter tuppence to me.’

I sought out Mrs. Harbottle, at the end of the room. She looked radiant; she sat on the edge of the table and swung a light-hearted heel. She was talking to people who in themselves were a witness to high spirits, Captain the Hon. Freddy Gisborne, Mrs. Flamboys.

At sight of me her face clouded, fell suddenly into the old weary lines. It made me feel somehow a little sick; I went back to my cart and drove home.

For more than a week I did not see her except when I met her riding with Somers Chichele along the peach-bordered road that leads to the Wazir-Bagh. The trees were all in blossom and made a picture that might well catch dreaming hearts into a beatitude that would correspond. The air was full of spring and the scent of violets, those wonderful Peshawur violets that grow in great clumps, tall and double. Gracious clouds came and trailed across the frontier barrier; blue as an idyll it rose about us; the city smiled in her gardens.

She had it all in her face, poor Judy, all the spring softness and more, the morning she came, intensely controlled, to announce her defeat. I was in the drawing-room doing the flowers; I put them down to look at her. The wonderful telegram from Simla arrived — that was the wonderful part — at the same time; I remembered how the red, white, and blue turban of the telegraph peon bobbed up behind her shoulder in the veranda. I signed and laid it on the table; I suppose it seemed hardly likely that anything could be important enough to interfere at the moment with my impression of what love, unbound and victorious, could do with a face I thought I knew. Love sat there careless of the issue, full of delight. Love proclaimed that between him and Judith Harbottle it was all over — she had met him, alas, in too narrow a place — and I marvelled at the paradox with which he softened every curve and underlined every vivid note of personality in token that it had just begun. He sat there in great serenity, and though I knew that somewhere behind lurked a vanquished woman, I saw her through such a radiance that I could not be sure of seeing her at all . . .

She went back to the very first of it; she seemed herself intensely interested in the facts; and there is no use in pretending that, while she talked, the moral consideration was at all present with me either; it wasn’t. Her extremity was the thing that absorbed us; she even, in tender thoughtfulness, diagnosed it from its definite beautiful beginning.

‘It was there, in my heart, when I woke one morning, exquisite and strange, the assurance of a gift. How had it come there, while I slept? I assure you when I closed my eyes it did not exist for me . . . Yes, of course, I had seen him, but only somewhere at dinner . . . As the day went on it changed — it turned into a clear pool, into a flower. And I— think of my not understanding! I was pleased with it! For a long time, for days, I never dreamed that it could be anything but a little secret joy. Then, suddenly — oh, I had not been perceiving enough! — it was in all my veins, a tide, an efflorescence, a thing of my very life.

‘Then — it was a little late — I understood, and since —

‘I began by hating it — being furious, furious — and afraid, too. Sometimes it was like a low cloud, hovering and travelling always with me, sometimes like a beast of prey that went a little way off and sat looking at me. . . .

‘I have — done my best. But there is nothing to do, to kill, to abolish. How can I say, “I will not let you in,” when it is already there? How can I assume indifference when this thing is imposed upon every moment of my day? And it has grown so sweet — the longing — that — isn’t it strange? — I could more willingly give him up than the desire of him. That seems as impossible to part with as life itself.’

She sat reflective for a moment, and I saw her eyes slowly fill.

Don’t — don’t CRY, Judy,’ I faltered, wanting to horribly, myself.

She smiled them dry.

‘Not now. But I am giving myself, I suppose, to many tears.’

‘God help you,’ I said. What else was there to say?

‘There is no such person,’ she replied, gaily. ‘There is only a blessed devil.’

‘Then you go all the way — to the logical conclusion?’

She hardly hesitated. ‘To the logical conclusion. What poor words!’

‘May I ask — when?’

‘I should like to tell you that quite definitely, and I think I can. The English mail leaves tonight.’

‘And you have arranged to take it?’

‘We have arranged nothing. Do you know’— she smiled as if at the fresh colours of an idyll —‘we have not even come to the admission? There has been between us no word, no vision. Ah, we have gone in bonds, and dumb! Hours we have had, exquisite hours of the spirit, but never a moment of the heart, a moment confessed. It was mine to give — that moment, and he has waited — I know — wondering whether perhaps it would ever come. And today — we are going for a ride today, and I do not think we shall come back.’

‘O Judy,’ I cried, catching at her sleeve, ‘he is only a boy!’

‘There were times when I thought that conclusive. Now the misery of it has gone to sleep; don’t waken it. It pleases me to believe that the years are a convention. I never had any dignity, you know, and I seem to have missed the moral deliverance. I only want — oh, you know what I want. Why don’t you open your telegram?’

I had been folding and fingering the brown envelope as if it had been a scrap of waste paper.

‘It is probably from Mrs. Watkins about the victoria,’ I said, feeling its profound irrelevance. ‘I wired an offer to her in Bombay. However’— and I read the telegram, the little solving telegram from Army Headquarters. I turned my back on her to read it again, and then I replaced it very carefully and put it in my pocket. It was a moment to take hold of with both hands, crying on all one’s gods for steadiness.

‘How white you look!’ said Mrs. Harbottle, with concern. ‘Not bad news?’

‘On the contrary, excellent news. Judy, will you stay to lunch?’

She looked at me, hesitating. ‘Won’t it seem rather a compromise on your part? When you ought to be rousing the city —’

‘I don’t intend to rouse the city,’ I said.

‘I have given you the chance.’

‘Thank you,’ I said, grimly, ‘but the only real favour you can do me is to stay to lunch.’ It was then just on one.

‘I’ll stay,’ she said, ‘if you will promise not to make any sort of effort. I shouldn’t mind, but it would distress you.’

‘I promise absolutely,’ I said, and ironical joy rose up in me, and the telegram burned in my pocket.

She would talk of it, though I found it hard to let her go on, knowing and knowing and knowing as I did that for that day at least it could not be. There was very little about herself that she wanted to tell me; she was there confessed a woman whom joy had overcome; it was understood that we both accepted that situation. But in the details which she asked me to take charge of it was plain that she also kept a watchful eye upon fate — matters of business.

We were in the drawing-room. The little round clock in its Armritsar case marked half-past three. Judy put down her coffee cup and rose to go. As she glanced at the clock the light deepened in her eyes, and I, with her hand in mine, felt like an agent of the Destroyer — for it was half-past three — consumed myself with fear lest the blow had miscarried. Then as we stood, suddenly, the sound of hoofs at a gallop on the drive, and my husband threw himself off at the door and tore through the hall to his room; and in the certainty that overwhelmed me even Judy, for an instant, stood dim and remote.

‘Major Jim seems to be in a hurry,’ said Mrs. Harbottle, lightly. ‘I have always liked your husband. I wonder whether he will say tomorrow that he always liked me.’

‘Dear Judy, I don’t think he will be occupied with you tomorrow.’

‘Oh, surely, just a little, if I go tonight.’

‘You won’t go tonight.’

She looked at me helplessly. I felt as if I were insisting upon her abasement instead of her salvation. ‘I wish —’

‘You’re not going — you’re not! You can’t! Look!’

I pulled it out of my pocket and thrust it at her — the telegram. It came, against every regulation, from my good friend the Deputy Adjutant-General, in Simla, and it read, ‘Row Khurram 12th probably ordered front three hours’ time.’

Her face changed — how my heart leaped to see it change! — and that took command there which will command trampling, even in the women of the camp, at news like this.

‘What luck that Bob couldn’t take his furlough!’ she exclaimed, single-thoughted. ‘But you have known this for hours’— there was even something of the Colonel’s wife, authority, incisiveness. ‘Why didn’t you tell me? Ah — I see.’

I stood before her abashed, and that was ridiculous, while she measured me as if I presented in myself the woman I took her to be. ‘It wasn’t like that,’ she said. I had to defend myself. ‘Judy,’ I said, ‘if you weren’t in honour bound to Anna, how could I know that you would be in honour bound to the regiment? There was a train at three.’

‘I beg to assure you that you have overcalculated,’ said Mrs. Harbottle. Her eyes were hard and proud. ‘And I am not sure’— a deep red swept over her face, a man’s blush —‘in the light of this I am not sure that I am not in honour bound to Anna.’

We had reached the veranda, and at her signal her coachman drove quickly up. ‘You have kept me here three hours when there was the whole of Bob’s kit to see to,’ she said, as she flung herself in; ‘you might have thought of that.’

It was a more than usually tedious campaign, and Colonel Robert Harbottle was ambushed and shot in a place where one must believe pure boredom induced him to take his men. The incident was relieved, the newspapers said — and they are seldom so clever in finding relief for such incidents — by the dash and courage shown by Lieutenant Chichele, who, in one of those feats which it has lately been the fashion to criticize, carried the mortally wounded body of his Colonel out of range at conspicuous risk of depriving the Queen of another officer. I helped Judy with her silent packing; she had forgiven me long before that; and she settled almost at once into the flat in Chelsea which has since been credited with so delightful an atmosphere, went back straight into her own world. I have always kept her first letters about it, always shall. For months after, while the expedition still raged after snipers and rifle-thieves, I discussed with Lady Chichele the probable outcome of it all. I have sometimes felt ashamed of leaping as straight as I did with Anna to what we thought the inevitable. I based no calculation on all Mrs. Harbottle had gone back to, just as I had based no calculation on her ten years’ companionship in arms when I kept her from the three o’clock train. This last was a retrospection in which Anna naturally could not join me; she never knew, poor dear, how fortunate as to its moment was the campaign she deplored, and nothing to this day can have disturbed her conviction that the bond she was at such magnificent pains to strengthen, held against the strain, as long, happily, as the supreme need existed. ‘How right you were!’ she often said. ‘She did, after all, love me best, dear, wonderful Judy!’ Her distress about poor Robert Harbottle was genuine enough, but one could not be surprised at a certain ambiguity; one tear for Robert, so to speak, and two for her boy. It could hardly be, for him, a marriage after his mother’s heart. And she laid down with some emphasis that Somers was brilliantly entitled to all he was likely to get — which was natural, too . . .

I had been from the beginning so much ‘in it’ that Anna showed me, a year later, though I don’t believe she liked doing it, the letter in part of which Mrs. Harbottle shall finally excuse herself.

‘Somers will give you this,’ I read, ‘and with it take back your son. You will not find, I know, anything grotesque in the charming enthusiasm with which he has offered his life to me; you understand too well, you are too kind. And if you wonder that I can so render up a dear thing which I might keep and would once have taken, think how sweet in the desert is the pool, and how barren was the prospect from Balclutha.’

It was like her to abandon in pride a happiness that asked so much less humiliation; I don’t know why, but it was like her. And of course, when one thought of it, she had consulted all sorts of high expediencies. But I sat silent with remembrance, quieting a pang in my heart, trying not to calculate how much it had cost Judy Harbottle to take her second chance.

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