Hilda : a Story of Calcutta
Copyright© 2011 by Sara Jeannette Duncan
The labours of the Baker Institution and of the Clarke Mission were very different in scope, so much so that if they had been secular bodies working for profit there would have been hardly a point of contact between them. As it was, they made one, drawing together in affiliation for the comfort of mutual support in a heathen country where all the other Englishmen wrote reports, drilled troops, or played polo, with all the other Englishwomen in the corresponding female parts. Doubtless the little communities prayed for each other. One may imagine, not profanely, their petitions rising on either side of the heedless, multitudinous, idolatrous city, and meeting at some point in the purer air above the yellow dust-haze. I am not aware that they held any other mutual duty or privilege, but this bond was known and enabled people whose conscience pricked them in that direction to give little garden teas to which they invited Clarke Brothers and Baker Sisters, secure in doing a benevolent thing and at the same time embarrassing nobody, except, possibly, the Archdeacon, who was officially exposed to being asked as well and had no right to complain. The affiliation was thus a social convenience, since it is unlikely that without it anybody would have hit upon so ingenious a way of killing, as it were, a Baker Sister and a Clarke Brother with one stone. It is not surprising that this degree of intelligence should fail to see the profound official difference between Baker Sisters and Baker Novices. As the Sister Superior said, it did not seem to occur to people that there could be, in connection with a religious body, such words as discipline and subordination, which were certainly made ridiculous for the time being, where she and Sister Ann Frances were asked to eat ices on the same terms with Miss Hilda Howe. It must have been more than ever painful to these ladies, regarded from the official point of view, when it became plain, as it usually did, that the interest of the afternoon centred in Miss Howe, whether or not the Archdeacon happened to be present. Their displeasure was so clear, after the first occasion, that Hilda felt obliged, when the next one came, to fall back on her original talent, and ate her ice abashed and silent, speaking only when she was spoken to, and then in short words and long hesitations. Thereupon the Sisters were of opinion that, after all, poor Miss Howe could not help her unenviable note—she was perhaps more to be pitied on account of it than anything else. It came to this, that Sister Ann Frances even had an exhibitor's pride in her, and Hilda knew the sensations of a barbarian female captive in the bonds of the Christians. But she could not afford to risk being cut off from those little garden teas. All told, they were few; ladies disturbed by ideas of social duties toward missionaries being so uncommon.
She told Stephen so, frankly, one afternoon when he charged her with being so unlike herself, and he heard her explanation with a gravity which contained an element of satisfaction. "It is, of course, a pleasure to us to meet," he said, "a pleasure to us both." That was part of the satisfaction, that he could meet her candour with the same openness. He was not even afraid to mention to her the stimulus she gave him always and his difficulty in defining it, and once he told her how, after a talk with her, he had lain awake until the small hours unable to stop his excited rush of thought. He added that he was now personally and selfishly glad she had chosen as she did three months before; it made a difference to him, her being in Calcutta, a sensible and material difference. He had better hope and heart in his work. It was the last luxury he would ever have dreamed of allowing himself, a woman friend; but since life had brought it in the oddest way, the boon should be met with no grudging of gratitude. A kind of sedate cheerfulness crept into his manner which was new to him; he went about his duties with the look of a man to whom life had dictated its terms and who found them acceptable. His blood might have received some mysterious chemical complement, so much was his eye clearer, his voice firmer, and the things he found to say more decisive. Nor did any consideration of their relations disturb him. He never thought of the oxygen in the air he breathed, and he seldom thought of Hilda.
They were walking toward the Institution together the day he explained to her his gratification that she had elected to remain. Sister Ann Frances and Sister Margaret led; Arnold and Hilda came behind. He had an errand to the Sister Superior—he would go all the way. It was late in May and late in the afternoon; all the tree-tops on the Maidan were bent under the sweep of the south wind, blowing a caressing coolness from the sea. It spread fragrances about and shook down blossoms from the gold-mohur trees. One could see nothing anywhere so red and yellow as they were except the long coat of a Government messenger, a point of scarlet moving in the perspective of a dusty road. The spreading acres of turf were baked to every earth colour. Wherever a pine dropped needles and an old woman swept them up, a trail of dust ran curling along the ground like smoke. The little party was unusual in walking; glances of uncomprehending pity were cast at them from victorias and landaus that rolled past. Even the convalescent British soldiers facing each other in the clumsy drab cart drawn by humped bullocks, and marked Garrison Dispensary, stared at the black skirts so near the powder of the road. The Sisters in front walked with their heads slightly bent toward one another; they seemed to be consulting. Hilda reflected, looking at them, that they always seemed to be consulting: it was the