Hilda : a Story of Calcutta
Copyright© 2011 by Sara Jeannette Duncan
Under the Greek porch of No. 10, Middleton street, in the white sunlight between the shadows of the stucco pillars, stood a flagrant ticca-gharry. The driver lay extended on the top of it, asleep, the syce squatted beneath the horse's nose and fed it perfunctorily with hay from a bundle tied under the vehicle behind. A fringe of palms and ferns in pots ran between the pillars, and orchids hung from above, shutting out the garden, where heavy scents stood in the sun and mynas chattered on the drive. The air was full of ease, warm, fretillante, abandoned to the lavish energy of growing things; beyond the discoloured wall of the compound rose the tender cloud of a leafing tamarisk against the blue. A long time already the driver had slept immovably, and the horse, uncomplaining but uninterested, had dragged at the wisps of hay.
Inside there was no longer a hint of Mrs. Barberry, even a dropped handkerchief agreeably scented. The night nurse had realised herself equally superfluous and had gone, the other, a person of practical views, could hardly retain her indignation at being kept from day to day to see her patient fed and hand him books and writing materials. She had not even the duty of debarring visitors, but sat most of the time in the dressing-room, where echoes fell about her of the stories with which riotous young men, in tea and wheat and jute, hastened Mr. Lindsay's convalescence. There she tapped her energetic fat foot on the floor in vain, to express her views upon such waste of scientific training. She had Surgeon-Major Livingstone's orders, and he on this occasion had his sister's.
There was an air of relief, of tension relaxed, between the two women in the drawing-room; it was plain that Alicia had communicated these things to her visitor, in their main import. Hilda was already half-disengaged from the subject, her eye wandered as if in search for the avenue to another. By a sudden inclination Alicia began the story of Laura Filbert on her knees at Lindsay's door. She told it in a quiet, steady, colourless way, pursuing it to the end—it came with the ease of frequent private rehearsals—and then with her elbows on her knees and her chin in her palms she stopped and gazed meditatively in front of her. There was something in the gaze to which Hilda yielded an attention unexpectedly serious, something of the absolute in character and life impervious to her inquiry. Yet to analysis it was only the grey look of eyes habited to regard the future with penetration and to find nothing there.
"Have you told him?" Hilda asked after an instant's pause, during which she conceded something, she hardly knew what; she meant to find out later.
"I haven't seen him. But I will tell him, I promise you."
"I have no doubt you will! But don't promise me. I won't even witness the vow!" Hilda cried.
"What does it matter? I shall certainly tell him." The words fell definitely like pebbles. Hilda thoughtfully picked them up.
"On the whole," she said, "perhaps it would be as well. Yes, it is my advice. It is quite likely that he will be revolted. It may be curative."
Alicia turned away her head to hide the faint frown that nevertheless crept into her voice. "I don't think so," she said. "How you do juggle with things! I don't know why I talk to you about this—this matter. I am sure I ought not."
"I was going to say," pursued Hilda, indifferent to her scruple, "that I shouldn't be at all surprised if his illness leaves him quite emotionally sane. The poison has worked itself out of his blood—perhaps the passion and the poison were the same. In such a case it's all so physical. It must be."
"I wonder!" Alicia said. She said it mechanically, as the easiest comment.
"When I knew you first your speculation would have been more active, my dear. You would have looked into the possibility and disputed it. What has become of your modernity?"
It was the tenderest malice, but it obtained no concessive sign. Alicia seemed to weigh it. "I think I like theories better than illustrations," she said in defence.
"One can look at theories as one looks at the sky, but an illustration wants a careful point of view. For this one perhaps you are a little near."
"Perhaps," Alicia assented, "I am a little near." She glanced quickly down as she spoke, but when she raised her eyes they were dry and clear.
"I can see it better," Hilda went on, with immense audacity, "much better."
"Isn't it safer to feel?"
"Jamais de la vie! The nerves lie always."
They were on the edge of the vortex of the old dispute. Alicia leaned back among the cushions and regarded the other with an undecided eye.
"You are not sure," said Hilda, "that you won't ask me, at this point, to look at the pictures in that old copy of the Persian classic—I forget its lovely name—or inquire what sort of house we had last night. Well, don't be afraid of hurting my feelings. Only, you know, between us, as between more doubtful people, the door must be either open or shut. I fancy you take cold easily; perhaps you had better shut the door."
"Not for worlds," Alicia said, with promptitude. Then she added rather cleverly, "That would be my spoiling my one view of life."
Hilda smiled. "Isn't there any life where you live?" She glanced round her, at the tapestried elegance of the room, with sudden indifference. "After all," she said, "I don't know what I am doing here, in your affairs. As the world swings no one could be more remote from them or you. I belong to its winds and its highways—how have you brought me here, a tramp-actress, to your drawing-room?"
Alicia laid a detaining hand upon Miss Howe's skirt. "Don't go away," she said. Hilda sat at the other end of the sofa; there was hardly a foot between them. She went on with a curious excitement.
"My kind of life is so primitive, so simple; it is one pure pulse, you don't know. One only asks the things that minister—one goes and finds and takes them; one's feet in the straw, one's head under any roof. What difference does it make? The only thing that counts, that rules, is the chance of seeing something else, feeling something more, doing something better."
Alicia only looked at her and tightened the grasp of her fingers on the actress's skirt. Hilda made the slightest, most involuntary movement. It comprehended the shaking off of hindrance, the action of flight. Then she glanced about her again with a kind of appraisement, which ended with Alicia and embraced her. What she realised seemed to push her, I think, in some weak place of her sex, to go on intensely, almost fiercely.
"Everything here is aftermath. You are a gleaner, Alicia Livingstone. We leave it all over the world for people of taste, like you, in the glow of their illusions. I couldn't make you understand our harvest; it is of the broad sun and the sincerity of things."
"I know I must seem to you dreadfully out of it," Alicia said, wearing, as it were, across her heaviness a lighter cloud of trouble.
But the other would not be stayed; she followed by compulsion her impulse to the end. "Shall I be quite candid?" she said. "I find the atmosphere about you, dear, a trifle exhausted."
Alicia, with a face of astonishment, made a half-movement toward the window before she understood. There was some timidity in her glance at Hilda and in her mechanical smile. "Oh," she said, "I see what you mean; and I don't wonder. I am so literal—I have so little imagination."
"Don't talk of it as if it were money or fabric—something you could add up or measure," Hilda cried remorselessly. "You have none!"
As if something slipped from her Alicia threw out locked hands. "At least I had enough to know you when you came!" she cried. "I felt you, too, and it's not my fault if there isn't enough of me to—to respond properly. And I can't give you up. You seem to be the one valuable thing that I can have—the only permanent fact that is left."
Hilda had a rebound of immense discomfort. "Who said anything about giving up?" she interrupted.
"Why, you did! But I'm quite willing to believe you didn't mean it, if you say so." She turned the appeal of her face and saw a sudden pitiful consideration in Hilda's, and, as if it called them forth, two tears sprang to her eyes and fell, as she lowered her delicate head, upon her lap.
"Dear thing! I didn't indeed. If I meant anything it was that I'm overstrung. I've been horribly harried lately." She possessed herself of one of Alicia's hands and stroked it. Alicia kept her head bent for a moment and then let it fall, in sudden abandonment, upon the other woman's shoulder. Her defences crumbled so utterly that Hilda felt guilty of using absurdly heavy artillery. They sat together for a moment or two in silence with only that supervening sense of successful aggression between them, and the humiliation was Hilda's. Presently it grew heavy, embarrassing. Alicia got up and began a slow, restless pacing up and down before the alcove they sat in. Hilda watched her—it was a rhythmic progress—and when she came near with a sound of brushing silk and a faint fragrance which seemed a personal emanation, drew a long breath, as if she were an essence to be inhaled, and so, in a manner, obtained, assimilated.