Hilda : a Story of Calcutta
Miss Howe pushed the portière aside with a curved hand and gracefully separated fingers; it was a staccato movement, and her body followed it after an instant's poise of hesitation, head thrust a little forward, eyes inquiring, and a tentative smile, although she knew precisely who was there. You would have been aware at once that she was an actress. She entered the room with a little stride, and then crossed it quickly, the train of her morning gown—it cried out of luxury with the cheapest voice—taking folds of great audacity, as she bent her face in its loose mass of hair over Laura Filbert, sitting on the edge of a bamboo sofa, and said—
"You poor thing! Oh, you poor thing!"
She took Laura's hand as she spoke, and tried to keep it; but the hand was neutral, and she let it go. "It is a hand," she said to herself, in one of those quick reflections that so often visited her ready-made, "that turns the merely inquiring mind away. Nothing but passion could hold it."
Miss Filbert made the conventional effort to rise, but it came to nothing, or to a mere embarrassed accent of their greeting. Then her voice showed this feeling to be merely superficial, made nothing of it, pushed it to one side.
"I suppose you cannot see the foolishness of your pity," she said. "Oh, Miss Howe, I am happier than you are—much happier." Her bare feet, as she spoke, nestled into the coarse Mirzapore rug on the floor, and her eye lingered approvingly upon an Owari vase three foot high, and thick with the gilded landscape of Japan which stood near it, in the cheap magnificence of the squalid room.
Hilda smiled. Her smile acquiesced in the world she had found, acquiesced with the gladness of an explorer in Laura Filbert as a feature of it.
"Don't be too sure," she cried; "I am very happy. It is such a pleasure to see you."
Her gaze embraced Miss Filbert as a person and Miss Filbert as a pictorial fact; but that was because she could not help it. Her eyes were really engaged only with the latter Miss Filbert.
"Much happier than you are," Laura repeated, slowly moving her head from side to side, as if to negative contradiction in advance. She smiled too; it was as if she had remembered a former habit, from politeness.
"Of course you are—of course!" Miss Howe acknowledged. The words were mellow and vibrant; her voice seemed to dwell upon them with a kind of rich affection. Her face covered itself with serious sweetness. "I can imagine the beatitudes you feel—by your clothes."
The girl drew her feet under her, and her hand went up to the only semi-conventional item of her attire. It was a brooch that exclaimed in silver letters, "Glory to His Name!" "It is the dress of the Army in this country," she said; "I would not change it for the wardrobe of any queen."
"That's just what I mean." Miss Howe leaned back in her chair with her head among its cushions, and sent her words fluently across the room, straight and level with the glance from between her half-closed eyelids. A fine sensuous appreciation of the indolence it was possible to enjoy in the East clung about her. "To live on a plane that lifts you up like that—so that you can defy all criticism and all convention, and go about the streets like a mark of exclamation at the selfishness of the world—there must be something very consummate in it or you couldn't go on. At least I couldn't."
"I suppose I do look odd to you." Her voice took a curious soft, uplifted note. "I wear three garments only—the garments of my sisters who plant the young shoots in the rice-fields, and carry bricks for the building of rich men's houses, and gather the dung of the roadways to burn for fuel. If the Army is to conquer India it must march bare-footed and bare-headed all the way. All the way," Laura repeated, with a tremor of musical sadness. Her eyes were fixed in soft appeal upon the other woman's.
"And if the sun beats down upon my uncovered head, I think, 'it struck more fiercely upon Calvary'; and if the way is sharp to my unshod feet, I say, 'At least I have no cross to bear.'" The last words seemed almost a chant, and her voice glided from them into singing——
"The blessed Saviour died for me,
On the cross! On the cross!
He bore my sins at Calvary,
On the rugged cross!"
She sang softly, her body thrust a little forward in a tender swaying—
"Behold His hands and feet and side,
The crown of thorns, the crimson tide.
'Forgive them, Father!' loud he cried,
On the rugged cross!"
"Oh, thank you!" Miss Howe exclaimed. Then she murmured again, "That's just what I mean."
A blankness came over the girl's face as a light cloud will cross the moon. She regarded Hilda from behind it with penetrant anxiety. "Did you really enjoy that hymn?" she asked.
"Indeed I did."
"Then, dear Miss Howe, I think you cannot be very far from the kingdom."
"I? Oh, I have my part in a kingdom." Her voice caressed the idea. "And the curious thing is that we are all aristocrats who belong to it. Not the vulgar kind, you understand—but no, you don't understand. You'll have to take my word for it." Miss Howe's eyes sought a red hibiscus flower that looked in at the window half drowned in sunlight, and the smile in them deepened. The flower admitted so naïvely that it had no business to be there.
"Is it the Kingdom of God and His righteousness?" Laura Filbert's clear glance was disturbed by a ray of curiosity, but the inflexible quality of her tone more than counterbalanced this.
"There's nothing about it in the Bible, if that's what you mean. And yet I think the men who wrote 'The time of the singing of birds has come, ' and 'I will lift mine eyes unto the hills, ' must have belonged to it." She paused, with an odd look of discomfiture. "But one shouldn't talk about things like that—it takes the bloom off. Don't you feel that way about your privileges now and then? Don't they look rather dusty and battered to you after a day's exposure in Bow Bazaar?"
There came a light crunch of wheels on the red kunker drive outside and a switch past the bunch of sword ferns that grew beside the door. The muffled crescendo of steps on the stair and the sound of an inquiry penetrated from beyond the portière, and without further preliminary Duff Lindsay came into the room.
"Do I interrupt a rehearsal?" he asked; but there was nothing in the way he walked across the room to Hilda Howe to suggest that the idea abashed him. For her part, she rose and made one short step to meet him, and then received him, as it were, with both hands and all her heart.
"How ridiculous you are!" she cried. "Of course not. And let me tell you it is very nice of you to come this very first day, when one was dying to be welcomed. Miss Filbert came too, and we have been talking about our respective walks in life. Let me introduce you. Miss Filbert—Captain Filbert, of the Salvation Army—Mr. Duff Lindsay of Calcutta."
She watched with interest the gravity with which they bowed, and differentiated it; his the simple formality of his class, Laura's a repressed hostility to such an epitome of the world as he looked, although any Bond street tailor would have impeached his waistcoat, and one shabby glove had manifestly never been on. Yet Miss Filbert's first words seemed to show a slight unbending. "Won't you sit there?" she said, indicating the sofa corner she had been occupying. "You get the glare from the window where you are." It was virtually a command, delivered with a complete air of dignity and authority; and Lindsay, in some confusion, found himself obeying. "Oh, thank you, thank you," he said. "One doesn't really mind in the least. Do you—do you object to it? Shall I close the shutters?"
"If you do," said Miss Howe delightedly, "we shall not be able to see."
"Neither we should," he assented; "the others are closed already. Very badly built, these Calcutta houses, aren't they? Have you been long in India, Miss—Captain Filbert?"
"I served a year up-country and then fell ill and had to go home on furlough. The native food didn't suit me. I am stationed in Calcutta now, but I have only just come."
"Pleasant time of the year to arrive," Mr. Lindsay remarked.
"Yes; but we are not particular about that. We love all the times and the seasons, since every one brings its appointed opportunity. Last year, in Mugridabad, there were more souls saved in June than in any other month."
"Really?" asked Mr. Lindsay; but he was not looking at her with those speculations. The light had come back upon her face.
"I will say good-bye now," said Captain Filbert. "I have a meeting at half-past five. Shall we have a word of prayer before I go?"
She plainly looked for immediate acquiescence; but Miss Howe said, "Another time, dear."
"Oh, why not?" exclaimed Duff Lindsay. Hilda put the semblance of a rebuke into her glance at him, and said, "Certainly not."
"Oh," Captain Filbert cried, "don't think you can escape that way! I will pray for you long and late to-night, and ask my lieutenant to do so too. Don't harden your heart, Miss Howe—the Lord is waiting to be compassionate."
The two were silent, and Laura walked toward the door. Just where the sun slanted into the room and made leaf-patterns on the floor, she turned and stood for an instant in the full tide of it; and it set all the loose tendrils of her pale yellow hair in a little flame, and gave the folds of the flesh-coloured sari that fell over her shoulder the texture of draperies so often depicted as celestial. The sun sought into her face, revealing nothing but great purity of line and a clear pallor, except where below the wide, light-blue eyes two ethereal shadows brushed themselves. Under the intentness of their gaze she made as if she would pass out without speaking; and the tender curves of her limbs, as she wavered, could not have been matched out of mediæval stained glass. But her courage, or her conviction, came back to her at the door, and she raised her hand and pointed at Hilda.
"She's got a soul worth saving."
Then the portière fell behind her, and nothing was said in the room until the pad of her bare feet had ceased upon the stair.
"She came out in the Bengal with us," Hilda told him—this is not a special instance of it, but she could always gratify Duff Lindsay in advance—"and she was desperately seedy, poor girl. I looked after her a little, but it was mistaken kindness, for now she's got me on her mind. And as the two hundred and eighty million benighted souls of India are her continual concern, I seem a superfluity. To think of being the two hundred and eighty-first millionth oppresses one."
Lindsay listened with a look of accustomed happiness.
"You weren't at that end of the ship!" he demanded.
"Of course I was—we all were. And some of us, little Miss Stace, for instance—thankful enough at the prospect of cold meat and sardines for tea every night for a whole month. And after Suez ices for dinner on Sundays. It was luxury."
Lindsay was pulling an aggrieved moustache. "I don't call it fair or friendly," he said, "when you know how easily it could have been arranged. Your own sense of the fitness of things should have told you that the second-class saloon was no place for you. For you!"
Plainly she did not intend to argue the point. She poised her chin in her hand and looked away over his head, and he could not help seeing, as he had seen before, that her eyes were beautiful. But this had been so long acknowledged between them that she could hardly have been conscious that she was insisting on it afresh. Then, by the time he might have thought her launched upon a different meditation, her mind swept back to his protest, like a whimsical bird.
"I didn't want to extract anything from the mercantile community of Calcutta in advance," she said. "It would be most unbusinesslike. Stanhope has been equal to bringing us out; but I quite see myself, as leading lady, taking round the hat before the end of the season. Then I think," she said with defiance, "that I shall avoid you."
"And pray why?"
"Because you would put too much in. According to your last letters you are getting beastly rich. You would take all the tragedy out of the situation, and my experience would vanish in your cheque."
"I don't know why my feelings should always be cuffed out of the way of your experiences," Lindsay said. She retorted, "Oh, yes, you do;" and they regarded each other through an instant's silence with visible good fellowship.
"A reasonably strong company this time?" Lindsay asked.
"Thank you. 'Company' is gratifying. For a month we have been a 'troupe'—in the first-class end. Fairish. Bad to middling. Fifteen of us, and when we are not doing Hamlet and Ophelia we can please with the latest thing in rainbow chiffon done on mirrors with a thousand candle-power. Bradley and I will have to do most of the serious work. But I have improved—oh, a lot. You wouldn't know my Lady Whippleton."
It was a fervid announcement, but it carried an implication which appeared to prevent Lindsay's kindling.
"Then Bradley is here too?" he remarked.
"Oh, yes," she said; and an instinct sheathed itself in her face. "But it is much better than it was, really. He is hardly ever troublesome now. He understands. And he teaches me a great deal more than I can tell you. You know," she asserted, with the effect of taking an independent view, "as an artist he has my unqualified respect."
"You have a fine disregard for the fact that artists are men when they are not women;" Duff said. "I don't believe their behaviour is a bit more affected by their artistry than it would be by a knowledge of the higher mathematics."
She turned indignant eyes on him. "Fancy your saying that! Fancy your having the impertinence to offer me so absurd a sophistry! At what Calcutta dinner-table did you pick it up?" she said derisively. "Well, it shows that one can't trust one's best friend loose among the conventions!"
He had decided that it would be a trifle edged to say that such matters were not often discussed at Calcutta dinner-tables, when she added, with apparent inconsistency and real dejection, "It is a hideous bore."
Lindsay saw his point admitted, and even in the way she brushed it aside he felt that she was generous. Yet something in him—perhaps the primitive hunting instinct, perhaps a more sophisticated Scotch impulse to explore the very roots of every matter, tempted him to say, "He gives up a good deal, doesn't he, for his present gratification?"
"He gives up everything! That is the disgusting part of it. Leander Morris offered him—but why should I tell you? It's humiliating enough in the very back of one's mind."
"He is a clever fellow, no doubt."
"Not too clever to act with me! Oh, we go beautifully—we melt, we run together. He has given me some essential things, and now I can give them back to him. I begin to think that is what keeps him now. It must be awfully satisfying to generate artistic life in—in anybody, and watch it grow."
"Doubtless," said Lindsay, with his eyes on the carpet; and her eyebrows twitched together, but she said nothing. Although she knew his very moderate power of analysis, he seemed to look, with his eyes on the carpet, straight into the subject, to perceive it with a cynical clearness, and as Hilda watched him a little hardness came about her mouth. "Well," he said, visibly detaching himself from the matter, "it's a satisfaction to have you back. I have been doing nothing, literally, since you went away, but making money and playing tennis. Existence, as I look back upon it, is connoted by a varying margin of profit and a vast sward."
She looked at him with eyes in which sympathy stood remotely, considering the advisability of returning. "It's a pity you can't act," she said; "then you could come away and let it all go."
Lindsay smiled at her across the gulf he saw fixed. "How simple life is to you!" he said. "But any way, I couldn't act."
"Oh, no, you couldn't, you couldn't! You are too intensely absorbent, you are too rigidly individual. The flame in you would never consent, even for an instant, to be the flame in anybody else—any of those people who, for the purpose of the stage, are called imaginary. Never!"
It seemed a punishment, but all Lindsay said was: "I wish you would go on. You can't think how gratifying it is—after the tennis."
"If I went on I have an idea that I might be disagreeable."
"Oh, then stop. We can't quarrel yet—I've hardly seen you. Are you comfortable here? Would you like some French novels?"
"Yes, thank you. Yes, please!" She grew before him into a light and conventional person, apparently on her guard against freedom of speech. He moved a blind and ineffectual hand about to find the spring she had detached herself from, and after failing for a quarter of an hour he got up to go.
"I shan't bother you again before Saturday," he said. "I know what a week it will be at the theatre. Remember you are to give the man his orders about the brougham. I can get on perfectly with the cart. Good-bye! Calcutta is waiting for you."
"Calcutta is never impatient," said Miss Howe. "It is waiting with yawns and much whiskey and soda." She gave him a stately inclination with her hand, and he overcame the temptation to lay his own on his heart in a burlesque of it. At the door he remembered something, and turned. He stood looking back precisely where Laura Filbert had stood, but the sun was gone. "You might tell me more about your friend of the altruistic army," he said.
"You saw, you heard, you know."
"Oh," cried she, disregardingly, "you can discover her for yourself, at the Army Headquarters in Bentinck street—you man!"
Lindsay closed the door behind him without replying, and half-way down the stairs her voice appealed to him over the bannisters.
"You might as well forget that. I didn't particularly mean it."
"I know you didn't," he returned. "You woman! But you yourself—you're not going to play with your heavenly visitant?"
Hilda leaned upon the bannisters, her arms dropping over from the elbows. "I suppose I may look at her," she said; and her smile glowed down upon him.
"Do you think it really rewards attention—the type, I mean?"
"How you will talk of types! Didn't you see that she was unique? You may come back, if you like, for a quarter of an hour, and we will discuss her."
Lindsay looked at his watch. "I would come back for a quarter of an hour to discuss anything or nothing," he replied, "but there isn't time. I am dining with the Archdeacon. I must go to church."
"Why not be original and dine with the Archdeacon without going to church? Why not say on arrival: 'My dear Archdeacon, your sermon and your mutton the same evening—c'est trop! I cannot so impose upon your generosity. I have come for the mutton!'"
Thus was Captain Laura Filbert superseded, as doubtless often before, by an orthodox consideration. Duff Lindsay drove away in his cart; and still, for an appreciable number of seconds, Miss Howe stood leaning over the bannisters, her eyes fixed full of speculation on the place where he had stood. She was thinking of a scene—a dinner with an Archdeacon—and of the permanent satisfaction to be got from it; and she renounced almost with a palpable sigh the idea of the Archdeacon's asking her.