Hilda : a Story of Calcutta
Copyright© 2011 by Sara Jeannette Duncan
"Oh, her gift!" said Alicia Livingstone. "It is the lowest, isn't it—in the scale of human endowment? Mimicry."
Miss Livingstone handed her brother his tea as she spoke, but turned her eyes and her delicate chin toward Duff Lindsay with the protest. Lindsay's cup was at his lips, and his eyebrows went up over it as if they would answer before his voice was set at liberty.
"Mimicry isn't a fair word," he said. "The mimic doesn't interpret. He's a mere thief of expression. You can always see him behind his stolen mask. The actress takes a different rank. This one does, anyway."
"You're mixing her up with the apes and the monkeys," remarked Surgeon-Major Livingstone.
"Mere imitators!" cried Mrs. Barberry.
Alicia did not allow the argument to pursue her. She smiled upon their energy, and, so to speak, disappeared. It was one of her little ways, and since it left seeming conquerors on her track nobody quarrelled with it.
"I've met them in London," she said. "Oh, I remember one hot little North Kensington flat full of them, and their cigarettes—and they were always disappointing. There seemed to be, somehow, no basis—nothing to go upon."
She looked from one to the other of her party with a graceful, deprecating movement of her head, a head which people were unanimous in calling more than merely pretty and more than ordinarily refined. That was the cursory verdict, the superficial thing to see and say; it will do to go on with. From the way Lindsay looked at her as she spoke, he might have been suspected of other discoveries, possible only to the somewhat privileged in this blind world, where intimacy must lend a lens to find out anything at all.
"You found that they had no selves," he said, and the manner of his words was encouraging and provocative. His proposition was obscured to him for the instant by his desire to obtain the very last of her comment, and it might be seen that this was habitual with him. "But Miss Hilda Howe has one."
"Is she a lady?" asked Mrs. Barberry.
"I don't know. She's an individual. I prefer to rest my claim for her on that."
"Your claim to what?" trembled upon Miss Livingstone's lips, but she closed them instead and turned her head again to listen to Mrs. Barberry. The turns of Alicia's head had a way of punctuating the conversations in which she was interested, imparting elegance and relief.
"I saw her in A Woman of Honour, last cold weather," Mrs. Barberry said; "I took a dinner-party of five girls and five subalterns from the Fort, and I said, 'Never again!' Fortunately the girls were just out, and not one of them understood, but those poor boys didn't know where to look! And no more did I. So disgustingly real."
Alicia's eyes veiled themselves to rest on a ring on her finger, and a little smile, which was inconsistent with the veiling, hovered about her lips.
"I was in England last year," she said; "I—I saw A Woman of Honour in London. What could possibly be done with it by an Australian scratch company in a Calcutta theatre! Imagination halts."
"Miss Howe did something with it," observed Mr. Lindsay. "That and one or two other things carried one through last cold weather. One supported even the gaieties of Christmas week with fortitude, conscious that there was something to fall back upon. I remember I went to the State ball, and cheerfully."
"That's saying a good deal, isn't it?" commented Dr. Livingstone, vaguely aware of an ironical intention. "By Jove, yes."
"Hamilton Bradley is good, too, isn't he?" Mrs. Barberry said. "Such a magnificent head. I adore him in Shakespeare."
"He knows the conventions, and uses them with security," Lindsay replied, looking at Alicia; and she, with a little courageous air, demanded: "Is the story true?"
"The story of their relations? I suppose there are fifty. One of them is."
Mrs. Barberry frowned at Lindsay in a manner which was itself a reminiscence of amateur theatricals. "Their relations!" she murmured to Dr. Livingstone. "What awful things to talk about."
"The story I mean," Alicia explained, "is to the effect that Mr. Bradley, who is married, but unimportantly, made a heavy bet, when he met this girl, that he would subdue her absolutely through her passion for her art—I mean, of course, her affections——"
"My dear girl, we know what you mean," cried Mrs. Barberry, entering a protest, as it were, on behalf of the gentlemen.
"And precisely the reverse happened."
"One imagines it was something like that," Lindsay said.
"Oh, did she know about the bet?" cried Mrs. Barberry.
"That's as you like to believe. I fancy she knew about the man," Lindsay contributed again.
"Tables turned, eh? Dare say it served him right," remarked Dr. Livingstone. "If you really want to come to the laboratory, Mrs. Barberry, we ought to be off."
"He is going to show me a bacillus," Mrs. Barberry announced with enthusiasm. "Plague, or cholera, or something really bad. He caught it two days ago, and put it in jelly for me—wasn't it dear of him? Good-bye, you nice thing,"—Mrs. Barberry addressed Alicia—"Good-bye, Mr. Lindsay. Fancy a live bacillus from Hong Kong! I should like it better if it came from fascinating Japan, but still—good-bye."